If you ask anyone, Shaun and I have been talking about grad school nonstop for the last few weeks.  After finishing our applications in October (we had lots of free time!) we were quite anxious to hear where we received acceptance offers.  At the end of the day, we did quite well – thank you, Peace Corps!  We had lots of offers on the table, became quite terrified after looking at graduate school loans and their interest rates, and have finally made a decision.

(Drum roll, please!)

 

Shaun received a full tuition scholarship to study International Health Policy and Management at Brandeis University!  The one year program boasts great faculty and high job placement rates.  With the majority of students being international students, it will be a great experience living and building a network in Boston.  I, Mollie, received an offer to become a Shriver Peaceworker Fellow through the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.  The fellowship covers all tuition expenses and an internship.  I’ll be earning my Masters in Public Policy from UMBC and interning with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

We are so excited to both be attending graduate school without having to make a tuition payment!  While we understand it is somewhat unconventional of a choice to split up for 9 months, we couldn’t justify turning down the offers.  If you know us, you know our savings account is always on the smaller side, so having someone offer to pay for our graduate degree was an amazing thing.  And, not only will we save money on the tuition, but also the interest that we would have had to pay back if we had needed loans to pay for tuition!  We are feeling quite grateful.

We’re looking forward to exploring the east coast, watching the Boston marathon, hosting visitors now that the east coast is far more accessible than Cameroon, and studying in a program that we are passionate about.  In the meantime, we’ll be making lots of to-do lists of what we need to get done to adjust back into ‘real’ life again!

Last Saturday was International Women’s Day.  Each year, on March 8, women get a chance to celebrate who they are and the greatness in being female.  In Cameroon, that means the women get to party!  While most PCVs in the country feel like the women deserve far more than one day of recognition, it is still fun to go out and fête with them.

To celebrate this year, we invited some of our friends, both Cameroonian and American, over for waffles.  Having a waffle iron in the Peace Corps is a pretty great party trick!  In the afternoon, we were invited over to one of our work partner’s house for dinner.  Justin lives in a smaller neighborhood of Nkongsamba called Poola, and he raises animals such as pigs, ducks, rats, and cane rats for a living.  We were all invited over for a dinner of cane rat, a local specialty.  I wouldn’t say the cane rat tastes like chicken necessarily, but it was served in a great tomato-based sauce, on the bone, with good tasting meat.  There were plenty of sides to go around…bread, baton de manioc, grilled fish, and other traditional dishes.  We finished off dinner with chocolate and vanilla cupcakes that Shaun and I had made during the day.  It was a really fun night with some great friends.

After dinner, we all went to the club, of course!  Here, for a party or big day such as women’s day, it is a great excuse to go out.  We met up with a few more of our friends and neighbors and headed to their night club of choice.  While I am not sure we will be looking for another reason to stay out dancing till 3am in the sweatiest, hottest, club I have ever been in, it was fun celebrating with our friends.  Rest assured, we all slept in until midday the following Sunday and ‘recovered’ with a classic spaghetti omelet!

Cameroon, and many other countries, around the world have a long way to go for women’s rights, equality, and recognition for the role of the female.  We wait for a day when our friends and neighbors here have the same rights as their male counterparts, but in the meantime, we will support, encourage, and of course, go out and celebrate with the women we love.

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Hanging out with one of our favorite sandwich vendors in Poola; he runs the
‘Subway’ of Nkongsamba!

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The crew at dinner.

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Us with our hosts, Justin & Florence.

February 15th 2014 marked the re-emergence of Guinness as the official promoter of the Race of Hope in Buea, Cameroon. Guinness was the original creator of the race back in 1973 and managed the contest for many years before being forced to relinquish the rights to the government of Cameroon. It was a very welcomed homecoming for Guinness to be returning to the event they founded.

Most participants agreed that this year the race was better than ever and we had 10 Peace Corps volunteers who chose to participate. While the American runners did not match our Cameroonian counterparts in our speed up the mountain, we still had fun all the same. It is indeed a grueling endurance completion, but we had 3 PCVs who were able to summit before the time limit and complete the full course. While sadly I was not among them as I was turned around at 8,000 feet due to a leg injury. Our best finisher overall placed 12th in the female category and set a record time for a Peace Corps volunteer. Meanwhile, I slowly proceeded back to the stadium having spent almost 7 hours to cover only 18 of the 26 mile course.

While the racers were battling up the mountain, Mollie and other volunteers were busy at the stadium below managing the Peace Corps booth which was providing free HIV testing and promoting awareness among the spectators who had gathered to watch the finish. Almost 40 volunteers turned out to help spread the word, which was very good as the crowd was estimated to be well over 20,000 people who had come out to watch the race this year. The last volunteer arrived back at the stadium safely just before 6pm almost 11 hours after we had started the race. In spite of the struggles we endured it was an experience we all relished and one none of us will soon forget. As is customary at the end of the race once all of the participants have arrived back down the mountain in one piece, we all went out for beers to celebrate. Only this year, instead of the usual pilsner, we were drinking Guinness.

I may still be a little tired from the run, but I have already began training again for my next adventure. While I don’t expect I will ever run Mt. Cameroon again, I do hope to participate in one last race here before we leave. More details on that to come…

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Running to Upper Farms; where the pavement meets the trail head.

P1050598At the finish with fellow athletes and friends from Nkongsamba.

You know, we really had had a pretty easy trip. We got a free, comfortable, ride with the gendarmes, the rain stopped before we got out of the car, we ate decently, and enjoyed American snacks, saw lots of animals, and saw an elephant. What could go wrong, right?

The last full day we had in the park was going to be our longest walking day. We had to walk from the second observation point back to our first campsite, about 4 hours walking. We (the 5 of us) thought that the plan was to stop at the middle observation point for lunch, a rest, and animal watching before continuing to the campsite to set up shop for the last night. Well, we were wrong. We set off walking in the morning and bypassed the trail to the middle observation point — we weren’t lost, our guide just had other plans. Apparently, he thought we were going back to the first campsite to spend the day there. Ca va – we can adapt to a change of plans.

We got to the campsite at about 1pm and made some lunch. By the time we were halfway through lunch the campsite was swarming, and I mean swarming, with bees. We were literally camping in the middle of a beehive. And, to make matters worse, all of the bees wanted all the sugar and sweat that had been collecting on our clothes for the last 5 days and would not leave us alone. Slowly, but surely, we started to get stung. At that point, Shaun, I and the eco-guard took off for a walk to escape the bees (and hopefully see an animal) while the others headed to the river to wash their clothes and try to get rid of them.

About 25 minutes into our walk, thunder claps. Great. We have to turn around and head back to the hive, I mean campsite. When we get back there the boys are wrapping our tent in their two tarps to protect from the oncoming rain. Even though the tent is now covered and mostly waterproof, 5 people in a 2 person tent is a tight fight. As the rain starts to fall we pull all of our bags, and us, into the tent to wait out the rain storm. Between eating the peanut snack packs we brought and sweating to death we tried to devise a plan for what to do at night if the rain didn’t stop.

Our best option was to have the boys make their usual tarp tent and have us sleep in ours, while giving our bags to the porters to keep in their proven waterproof tent overnight. When the rain passed, we dodged the bees and constructed the boys’ tent and crossed our fingers it wouldn’t rain. After a spaghetti dinner we headed to bed and crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.

About midnight the thunder woke us up, damn it! We crawled into the makeshift, yet well-engineered and mostly waterproof, tent and curled up. Five of us. It rained hard the rest of the night and stopped by the early morning. Around 7, after breakfast as we were starting to tear down camp to meet the car at 9 it started to rain. We all agreed to walk out and try to meet the car, as we had plans to drive to another camp about 2 hours away that is on the river between the Congo and Cameroon. We walked for an hour to the rendez-vous point and of course, no car. Soaked, walking between bushes, rain pouring down, and just praying that some of the clothes in our bag would stay dry, we continued to walk down the road to where the car was going to meet us. Along the way the guide stopped us as he smelled a gorilla. No one had the energy to pull out a camera at this point. We stood still, looking around, nothing. As we walked back up the road Ricky had the luck to look over his shoulder and saw a gorilla walk across the trail where we were just waiting to see him. Ricky and the guide both saw it; when he told me just saw a gorilla I thought he was playing a trick my Dad used to do when we were kids. Even though we all didn’t get to see the gorilla, we’re glad someone did!

Hours passed, no car, still raining. You think I would be exaggerating, but this is Cameroon and things are always late. At 1230, when the car was 3.5hours late we decided we needed to stop, try and eat something and try and warm up. Thankfully our porters were fire-starting experts. As we stood around the fire we discussed our options, about how the car may never come if there is a downed logging truck on the road meaning we would have to walk abother 25k to the WWF office, or camping on the side of the road another night and trying to find a different car into town in the morning. As we stood there, wet and frustrated, the car finally showed up, and most importantly, it had the beers we had preordered in the back! We loaded in and were on our way to the camp that was on the river which creates the natural border between Cameroon and the Congo.

As we drove along the park road we had to stop multiple times for someone, thankfully not us, to get out and cut and remove downed trees. All of the boys were impressed with one of the guy’s form – he was quite the expert with a machete. With about 20km to go until we reached the camp we came across a huge downed tree. There was no way a machete would be able to cut up that tree, it called for a chainsaw. Our trip the Congo border ended there, and we had to turn back around due to the blocked road.

We arrived, wet and cold, back at the first tourist camp we stayed at in Mambele. The guy who worked there helped us build a big fire as we created clotheslines from twine we had to hang all of our stuff to dry overnight. We treated ourselves to the beers that we had planned to have at the other lodge and a dinner of spaghetti mixed with a can of raviolis.

After sleeping with a roof over our heads in a dry bed, we packed up our stuff and were ready for the WWF car to pick us up to go back to the office to finalize everything before our gendarme escort met us at noon to go back to Yokadouma. At around 1030 the car had still not showed up and we figured we better start walking to the WWF office. Thankfully, the gendarmes had arrived early and when we were not at the office to meet them they came looking for us and found us on the road, so we did get a ride in afterall. After a little negotiating on reimbursements to account for the change in plans from the downed tree we piled into the truck and took off for Yokadouma.

To thank the gendarmes for their help we all went out for dinner and a few beers once we got to Yokadouma. A few beers turned into a few more, granted there were 8 of us at this point, and it ended up being a really fun night out. I say it was a ‘work’ event, as we were clearly sharing American and Cameroonian culture!

With only one more bus ride left to get back to Bertoua we thought we were finally out of the woods. However, it seems we got the oldest prison bus that the bus agence owned. Within the first 20 minutes, after stopping for gas to leave town, the car was already overheating and needing more oil. We were constantly pulling over to add some combination of water/oil. Another hour later and our back tire goes flat, thankfully there are two spares on the roof. Within the next two hours, that spare blows a hole and we put the last spare on the back wheel. Not even 3 minutes later the bus pulls over again as that tire is too small (I think that was the problem?) and next thing I know the driver is taking off on a moto into town. Ummm, so, how are all 35 passengers going to get back? Thankfully we were only about 7km from Batouri, a larger town in the East. The driver went and got a third spare tire to put on to take us into Batouri. We had a longer lunch break, where many Cameroonians had a beer, and finally piled back into the bus for the 2.5 hours left of the journey. We all know beer makes you have to pee, so I wont even tell you how many more times we had to stop to let people off and back on the bus. Eventually, we made it. All 5 alive and mostly well back in Bertoua.

We walked anywhere from 30-40miles. Saw lots of animals, ate lots of spaghetti, rice and sardines. Drank river water. Showered avoiding crocodiles. Found a few ticks on ourselves/each other. Had a few bee stings. Saw an elephant, saw a gorilla. Experience the Congo Basin, one of the largest tropical rainforests in the world. It was one hell of a trip.

Our days spent in Lobéké had a very similar rhythm to them. We would wake up around 5am, and cook and eat breakfast before heading out to an observation tower to do some animal scouting. Around mid-morning we would pack up camp and head on to the next observation point/campsite. From there, we would set up camp and head back out to the observation tower to look for animals till dusk. When we returned to camp we’d shower in the river to wash off the day’s sweat and grime and eat dinner and head to bed. While each day definitely had their own experiences and stories to tell, the trip fell into its own rythym.

The forest was a lot more dense, lush, and thicker than we had expected. Naively, I thought we would be able to look out and maybe see animals in the distance. This was definitely not the case as there were way more trees, vines, and bushes all over. As we hiked the three hours from our first campsite to the next observation point on the first day, we passed a gorilla that was probably 10m away from us. Even though he was hidden in the jungle we definitely heard him. There was a loud, almost barking-like, sound followed by thrashing of bushes and branches as he ran away. We all just stopped and stared at each other, not really sure if we should be the ones who should run away! Even though we didn’t get to see the gorilla, we were far closer to one than would be considered safe at any zoo.

To get to the observation tower and camping area, we had to cross our first, of a few, small rivers. With our shoes strapped to our backpacks, we slopped through the mud to the bank. The mud was like quick sand- squishing and sucking you down as you tried to step up. With mud up to our knees, we crossed through the river and snuck around a group of buffalo grazing. There were buffalo at most locations where were animal spotting, with lots of antelope and deer to keep them company.

As we continued onto the third, and final, campsite the monkeys leaped and jumped in the canopy above our heads. With their calls to warn of our arrival, the noise of their jumps and calls amplified. It was always fun to stop and watch the various kinds of monkeys in the trees above — it is amazing how far they could jump with their eyes closed and a baby hanging onto one of the monkey’s belly.

The third morning we headed to the observation tower to watch the sunrise. With a pink sky behind the trees, it seemed that the skyline was the sight to see for the day. In the distance, an elephant made its appearance out of the tree line. While he was further away than the elephants you see at the zoo, he made a quick appearance walking along the tree line. It’s official, there are still jungle elephants in Cameroon!

That night our campsite was along the Lobéké river. Even though we couldn’t shower in the river for fear of crocodiles eating us, we were able to fish. To shower, one person stood on a downed log with their headlamp to spot crocs while another rinsed and splashed on the shoreline trying to get all the soap off. We opted in filling up water bottles and showering with those on the shower. We set a new record for only using 3 liters of water — how’s a 3L shower for water conservation?!

To celebrate seeing an elephant, our porters, guide and eco-guard went fishing for dinner. It was a nice change from our usual spaghetti and sardine or rice and sardine dinners and breakfasts. After spending a few afternoon hours at the lookout tower we returned to camp to a fresh dinner of grilled fish and rice! No complaints there! We all hung out around the campfire and shared a few sachets of Cameroonian liquor.

The next day we stayed put in hopes to see the elephant again. We hiked around the clearing overlooked by the observation tower, which took about 3 hours. As we gained a greater understanding of where the term ‘jungle gym’ comes from, we were right on the gorilla’s trail. Our guide attempted to call the gorilla, which in turn only attracted a pack of buffaloes. We held still until they charged away from us across the river. En route back to the campsite, our guide snatched the walking stick out of Ben’s hand and used it to kill a green mamba snake; green mambas are incredibly poisonous. We weren’t quite sure what he was doing until he flung the snake corpse up into the trees to clear the path for us to walk on.

From there, we returned on the same route to arrive back at the first campsite for our last night in the park. We crossed the rivers again, saw lots more monkeys, antelope and buffalo, and birds. Stay tuned tomorrow our adventure of getting out of the jungle!

8 days ago we and three other PCVs set off for a week in Lobéké National Park. Lobéké is a tropical forest ran, and mostly managed, by the World Wildlife Fund. Lobéké is located in southeast corner of Cameroon, sharing a border with the Congo and Central African Republic, about 4 days of travel away from our home in Nkongsamba.

The transport to and from the park has to be one of the largest limiting factors for tourists. From Bertoua, the capital of the East region, you have to take a bus to Yokadouma, about 8 to 9 hours away on an unpaved, dusty, road. And by bus we mean an old Soviet-era ‘prison’ bus with no windows that may break down at any moment. After spending the night in Yokadouma, you continue another 8 hours onto Mambele, which is the closest village to the park, continuing on the same dusty road. Given the current war/unrest in the CAR, we stopped by and chatted with the commander of the gendarmes before we set out from Bertoua. (I failed to mention to my parents that we were headed to the border of Cameroon and the CAR, oops). He assured us that we would be safe while in the park, but, wanted to make sure we were safe on our travels there and back as the road runs in close proximity of the border with the CAR. To ensure our safety, he ordered gendarmes to drive us between Yokadouma and Mambele. After lots of confusion, Cameroonian protocol and a democratic vote amongst ourselves to figure out what to do, we finally arrived in Mambele at 12am, not at all what we had originally planned, but we made it. What should have been another 8 hour trip in Cameroonian public transport turned into a 5 hour drive in an air-conditioned truck.

We were dropped off at the WWF tourist camp in Mambele; the camp had lots of little furnished huts and a big open area to stay in. After a quick night of sleep we headed to the WWF office to finalize our trip and get going.

Previous PCV groups that had gone before us told us that we could rent tents from the WWF office before heading into the park. Well, that may have been the case but it’s not any more. Thankfully Shaun and I had borrowed a tent from a friend, and the other three scrounged the WWF office for plastic and tarps to create a shelter with. I cannot tell you how critical these ‘scraps’ came to be! We chatted about our week’s agenda, arranged our porters and guide, made campsite plans, food rations, and costs, and finally headed into the park in the afternoon.

About 10 minutes after we got into the car we realized our required eco-guard was in full rainproof clothes. A few minutes later it started pouring. Absolutely pouring. As the car bounced around the downed trees and jungle roads we all looked around and wondered what we got ourselves into, but hey, no turning back now, right?

Thankfully, the rain subsided and we unloaded out of the WWF truck, put our packs on, and hiked further into the forest for about an hour. We arrived at our first campsite and set up before dark. As the boys tried to pitch their two-tarp tent, we collected leaves to try to make a rain fly for our tent. Note: don’t head into a rainforest without appropriate waterproof tenting, this is a lesson we learned. The rain held off for the night, and we woke up to a misty forest floor to start off our next 5 days in the Congo Basin.