Now I can certainly get behind a week on the beach with a smoothie in one hand and a good book in the other. In fact, that’s exactly how I spent last year’s spring break: lounging on the black sand beaches of Limbé, eating fresh seafood and camping on the beach underneath the stars. This year though, an opportunity with a bit more adventure presented itself; so I spent Spring Break 2013 trekking 40 kilometers in and out of a valley, eating freshly caught river catfish and camping riverside in a national park. On the last Monday in March, five of us PCVs headed out for a three-day camping trip with a Cameroonian guide. We had packed food for more than three days, a hammock, a couple boxes of Cameroon’s finest wine, playing cards, books, journals and of course, our ever-trusty headlamps. With our prepared packs and a whole lot of zeal, we thought, “What could go wrong?”
As it turns out, lots of things – well, not necessarily wrong, but contrary to what we had imagined and expected. Here are some examples of what we imagined and what we actually received:
Mbéré National Park
What we imagined: While we not expecting a Cumberland Gap-type National Park with marked trails and picnic areas, we were imagining some semblance of trails.
What we got: During the first hours of our hike, we had trails thanks to the many farmers and cow-herders that have, over time, created them. However, as we ventured further into the valley, the trail became less apparent. As we approached our campsite in the heart of the valley, at the end of our hike, there was no trail at all. Instead we pushed ourselves through dried brush being sure to guard our eyes against any fling-back branches. We were in the definition of the African bush.
What we imagined: Elephants, black panthers, antelope, monkeys, etc. Mbéré National Park is said to have a lot of elephants. In fact, last year, the army was sent to the area to dissuade the poachers who had been encroaching on the heavily populated area. We had also heard of black panthers and while we weren’t truly eager to cross their path, we were thrilled with the romance of entering such wilderness complete with African safari favorites.
What we got: A lot of birds, a snake, elephant excrement and a plethora of mosquitos. An ornithologist would have had a field day just as the anopheles mosquitos had a field day with us.
What we imagined: Our guide was a middle-aged man who was the brother of the Lamido of Djohong. We chose him after learning that he has been leading a group of French archeologists and Cameroonian archeology students into the valley every summer for many years. Because of this, he had a supply of tents, something we needed. His respectable position in the community and his experience leading foreigners into the park led us to believe that he would be a great guide. And we couldn’t beat the price at $10 a day! Additionally, we expected the friendly, congenial and laissez-faire attitude that many Cameroonians have.
What we got: A man who vacillated between a kind companion and a borderline misogynist. Our guide was very knowledgeable of the area and therefore we felt very safe with him. However, after the first two hours of the hike, his patience with us started to waver. He wanted to increase the pace (this is the first time I’ve encountered a Cameroonian that walks faster than an American). During a pit stop at a watering hole at the hour three mark, we asked him how much longer until we arrived at our camping site (we were told it would be a 3 hour hike). He responded without any hint of joking, that it would probably take 13 more hours because of the women (it ended up taking another four hours, fyi). That was the first of many, many backhanded comments that were made against my friend and me. Insult my ability or skill, but do not insult my sex. This obviously did not make for the most encouraging environment. Later that night though, we broke the proverbial bread by sharing catfish that he had caught for dinner. In sharing his meal and conversation and over subsequent card games, we saw his kind side, which had been shadowed earlier in the day.
What we imagined: We expected a three-hour hike with moderate difficultly and pockets of advanced difficulty (during the steep descents/ascents). Since French archeologists and Cameroonian students were able to complete the hike, we thought we would have no problems doing so.
What we got: As I mentioned above, our three-hour hike turned into a seven-hour hike, however, the difficulty of the hike mirrored our expectations. As a very goal-oriented person, not knowing where the finish line was (geographically or time-wise) was very frustrating. When we finally arrived at our campsite with blistered feet and drenched in sweat, we learned that the group of archeologists he brings into the valley normally stop and camp at the first watering hole that we stopped at (at the hour 3 mark). They also use porters, so unlike us, they do not have heavy packs to carry. I am glad that we continued to our campsite further in the valley because the site was beautiful. We were camped in the woods, near what could be described as a babbling-brook (but on a much larger scale). So while our goal was unknown for most of the trek, it was well worth it.
Despite all of this, I am still here, albeit with more than a few mosquito bites and the giardia box checked on my “tropical diseases” bingo card. While there were many moments of near agony, I do not regret choosing this spring break. In fact, I think it just put the PCV-skills we’ve been honing to the test – just as in our villages and professional lives, we had to take each unexpected aspect and strenuous incline with the same patience and flexibility.