Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A journey in Sub-Saharan Africa - November 2016

I recently had an invitation to collaborate with technologists in Cameroon, so took the opportunity to explore a bit of that country and to then jump off for a safari in Kenya and Tanzania and visit the partner of a friend from here in the states in the Arusha area.

Professional Journey in Cameroon
For a description of the professional part of the journey, I posted a bit on LinkedIn.

My Flickr from the whole trip
Rick's Cameroon (with a real camera)
Rick's Kenya (with a real camera)
Rick's Tanzania (with a real camera)

A few non-professional observations about Cameroon


The country is probably the least developed I have visited, followed by Bhutan - and not counting our visit to the runway in Bangui, Central African Republic. While Cameroon has a bit more western influence than Bhutan as evidenced by a couple of French grocery stores and ample French imports, Bhutan has a much more deliberately developed tourism industry that is also quite environmentally progressive, along with a stable supply of electricity for those who can afford it. If I weren't surrounded by mobile phones and people discussing digital entrepreneurship, I would think I was in 1960 in the cities of Cameroon and 1890 in the country. The country is not set up for tourism at all. This is a shame, because it could be a perfect destination for ecotourism. There are very few roads, and we only experienced one that was of modern standard on the drive from Douala to Kribi on the coast.


Cameroonians are pristine in the way they present themselves. I was dressed business casual during our trip and felt significantly under dressed most of the time, while being significantly more dressed up than is typical of Silicon Valley. People have custom-tailored clothes made of local waxed-cotton batik and each person really expresses herself or himself in clothing. Colors and a cacophony of patterns rule the day. It is not unusual to see a man dressed in head-to-toe batik suiting. Women also make modern and traditional shapes out of these batiks and combine them with more western attire. I bought a couple bolts of fabric and had a skirt made while in Yaoundé. It became a bit of a goose chase, as we ended up flying out earlier than it was ready, so a friend picked it up and sent it to Douala by bus. Then, we were barely able to retrieve it in Douala before leaving, as it came on a later bus than expected - after two trips to the bus station.


We attended a Presbyterian church during our stay. The music presentation was significantly more robust and lively than what we have here at home - with a choir in the loft above and another one in the front of the church. Hymns were sung from shared songbooks with lyrics, but no printed music. Some of the hymns we knew, and others we did not, but definitely had roots in French classical music. Based on my comparison with Baptist services in Ivory Coast as a child, the Presbyterians are still on the reserved end of worship style - even in their cultural context. The sermon was in French on Luke 8 where Jesus healed the man with demons and cast them into a herd of pigs. The preacher was energetic, but call and response somewhat limited. I again admired the colorful and attentive dress of the parishioners as they processed out of the church row by row. After the service, the elder women formed a very colorful prayer circle outside the church. Cameroon appears to be primarily Christian and primarily Protestant, but with a significant populations of Muslims - probably about 1/3. Cameroonian Christians and Muslims seem to be quite well integrated and united. However, in the capital, there is a Muslim neighborhood, primarily comprised of migrants from other African countries that is much less integrated.


Cameroonians, on average, don't have much money - so time becomes a currency and something to spend or lavish on others. We found people were extremely generous with their time - taking ample time away from their business and other concerns to assist us in discovering their country. I also found that people were extremely optimistic about time - how long travel distances would take to cover, how much traffic would impact things, etc. We often found ourselves starting adventures much later in the day than we anticipated and to our fast-paced Silicon Valley minds, everything just moved slowly. Many times things that seemed like they should be simple transactions required inquiring with lots of individuals by phone or in person. Planning was something that happened in real time - we often felt like we were in a JIT compiler. In addition to being optimistic about time, I also found Cameroonians are generally more optimistic than I would expect about lots of things.


Cameroon is a veritable fruit basket, with a lot of plenty and ability to cultivate any number of crops. Meals typically involved "casava" or manioc root, fish, chicken or meat, fried plantains and sometimes dishes made with spinach or other greens the most unique thing we tried was pureed spinach with peanuts. The raw peanuts gave it an acrid taste. For breakfast, people typically had beignets and red beans and tropical fruits. It's clear a number of the dishes that we associate with the south have their roots in West Africa. Due to the relatively high nutrition levels, Cameroonians are of significant stature. Most of the women were my height or taller.


I was shocked at the numbers of people with Albinism we saw during our stay in Cameroon - much higher than I've observed in other places we've traveled. In subsequent research, it appears that rates are about 4x what we see in North America. I also learned that Albinos are subject to superstition and violence, particularly in Tanzania.


Both of our attempts at outdoorsy things resulted in interesting stories. Like many developing nations, it seems that there is an aspect of "why walk, when I can drive"? But, I do so like to walk. So, we looked for a couple opportunities during our week.

The first attempt was successful, walking to a hill-top hotel in the capital one afternoon with Laura, a Peace Corps worker. That was lovely. The second and third attempts in nature was where things got interesting.

The day we arrived in Douala, we took at car out to Buea, at the base of Mt. Cameroon. See the section above about time. :) Essentially, we arrived in Douala 1 hour late at 9:00 am due to a late flight. Then, the van that picked us up at the airport had a flat tire. Then, after arriving at our hotel, we met up with our host in the city, Georges. Then, we ate lunch. Then, we started driving toward Buea. Traffic was bad. We made a grocery stop, picked up a friend, Lionel, in a hotel on the outskirts of Buea, but couldn't find him right away, so 30 minutes later resumed our journey. Then, we encountered road construction, so the drive to Buea was another two hours. This put us at the base of Mt. Cameroon around 3:45 pm. Then, the mountain was covered with clouds, so Lionel did not want to walk. But, I insisted we should enjoy the forest regardless. Apparently, I'm a bit naive. We pulled over in the village at the bottom of the mountain and inquired with a lady running a fruit stand who then made a call. A young man appeared who could take us up the mountain (I didn't know we needed an escort!). Then, we had to stop at the village chief's home and request permission to walk the trails. We answered questions about where we were from, why we wanted to go on the mountain, how long we wanted to walk for, etc. and eventually received permission. We started our walk around 4:00 pm and came down in the waning twilight with Lionel and our guide, Emmanuel. It was a really nice walk, but there were a lot of logistics involved and we ended up shelling out 30,000XAF to Emmanuel and the chief - or around $50 USD.

After our meetings were complete, we headed down to a beach town called Kribi. The idea was that we would overnight in Kribi and then take a day trip to hike in a national forest called Campo Ma'an the next day. We stopped at the department of forestry the afternoon we arrived in Kribi to seek permission to enter the park, but were told we had to sign in from the town of Campo. We decided instead of heading down to Campo we would enjoy a nice lunch by the sea and leave early the next morning for Campo. Our intent was to leave at 6:00 am, drive for a couple hours, hike for a couple hours and return for lunch. We got up at 5:00 and were in the hallway at 6:00 along with Lionel, our guide. However, our driver, Martin, and car were nowhere to be found. We waited until 8:00, and then Martin arrived. Even though we were starting later than anticipated, we still had plenty of day ahead. The first 30km of road was great - well paved down to the new port being constructed in Kribi. After that, we entered the dirt road, which was more mud than dirt due to being in the tail end of the monsoon. The car rolled through deep mud puddles and over dodgy bridges. Three hours later, we passed a sign saying the town of Campo was 40km ahead. I asked Lionel if he was SURE that we could still get there, hike and return within the confines of the day. He said yes, so we continued. Six hours later, we arrived in Campo and found a ranger. He got in the car with us and took us to talk to the custodian, who was having lunch. But, he called ahead to the park office and someone said they would sign us in. So, we headed down to the park office, which was 1km away. As we made the last turn, we crossed a bridge and headed into another mud hole. This time, we got stuck! As much as we tried to go back and forth, we just got more stuck and the car covered in mud. Some villagers came and got us out after 30 minutes. We backed on to the bridge and they started washing our car off with river water. They found some damage to the plastic under the vehicle, so another villager crawled under and chicken-wired our underside back together. While this was happening, I approached Lionel and the ranger, who were having an animated conversation. I was told that after we signed in, there would be another 25km to get to where we could hike. It was 2:30 pm and would be completely dark at 6:00 pm. I said "absolutely not!", and we decided to head back. The ranger insisted it would be faster to take a logging road instead of the highway, even though it was 50km longer. He led us out on a dirt bike and we arrived back in Kribi around 6:00 and started the 200km drive back to Douala after that. We got to Douala around 8:30 and had dinner at the hotel before crashing. This was yet another example of the eternal optimism around time :).

On Safari - Kenya and Tanzania

On Sunday, November 20, we flew to Nairobi via Bangui, Central African Republic. Bangui has been a site for refugees from the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo, and there is a UN camp right off the tarmac.

We only spent the late evening in Nairobi, enjoying a relatively luxurious stay at the Sarova Panafric Hotel, which is highly recommended.

Monday, November 21

We drove from Nairobi to Lake Nakuru passing through the Rift Valley and enjoying the rainbows as the rain clouds cleared. We saw zebras, impalas and baboons all along the highway. We made a brief stop at a chapel built in 1942 by Italian POWs in Kenya. We enjoyed lunch at our hotel and then set out for an afternoon game drive.

We saw the following on our drive around Lake Nakuru: superb starling, long-crested eagle, zebra, Grant's gazelle, Thompson gazelle, impala, cape buffalo, waterbuck, lion, white rhino, black and white colobus monkey, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, flamingoes, baboons, giraffes, warthogs, and Egyptian geese.

Tuesday, November 22

Tuesday was a transit day, where we drove into Masai Mara and stayed at Lenchata Tourist Camp. 

Wednesday, November 23

We woke up at 3:30 am to go hot-air ballooning on the Mara, followed by a champagne breakfast and a Loo with a View.

We had a very long game drive that followed and saw the following: ostrich, black-backed jackal, spotted hyena, banded mongoose, secretary bird, bee-eaters, bateleur, nile crocodile, elephants, lions, hippos, wildebeast, eland, gazelle, impala, Coke's hartebeast, topi, waterbuck, giraffe, zebra, warthog, cape buffalo, african hare, vultures, cranes, bustards, white-bellied kingfisher, souther ground hornbill, maraibou stork, lappet faced vulture, comorant, African harrier hawk, lilca breasted roller, red billed oxpecker, cattle egrets.

The interesting story from today is that two days prior, 5000 wildebeasts tried to cross the Mara river at their usual spot. However, the leader spotted some greener grass downstream from the typical exit point and led the heard that direction. Unfortunately, there was a steep cliff and 14m deep water at that point, and 1000 wildebeasts drowned. Their carcasses were floating in the river and every carnivorous bird from hundreds of miles around and all the crocodiles were enjoying a Thanksgiving feast!

Thursday, November 24

We had a 12 hour drive and somewhat difficult border crossing, but finally made it to Serengetti. I'm not sure why they don't set up immigration in the adjoining parks, but made us go all the way around. We did enjoy the views of the lusher coffee growing regions below the parks.

We also saw hundreds of elephants in the game reserve portion of Masai Mara, including a line of 14 that passed right by our vehicle!

There was a HUGE rain just as we were entering Serengetti with Ozzie, our new guide. He did spot a leopard in the grass, which Rick saw and I didn't. Then, I spotted a dikdik. We bedded down in Serengetti Wilderness Camp, which was significantly nicer than Lenchata.

Friday, November 25

We did an all-day game drive in Serengetti. It was a predator kind of day. We found a couple leopards in trees, 2 cheetahs under trees, and one chasing a gazelle that had 4 cubs! It was also a giraffe kind of day - we saw many dozens of them - males and females and caught some eating.

Saturday, November 26

Another game drive passed in the Serengetti today. We found lions in a tree, a leopard with a hyena in a tree, caught zebras having sex and another big rain. In the evening, we arrived on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater and Rhino Lodge - also highly recommended. We had to pay the park fees, as wire transfer did not happen between our Kenyan tour company and the Tanzanian tour company. It was $454 for 24 hours in Ngorongoro, and pretty much cleaned out our available cash!

Sunday, November 27

We had our game drive in Ngonrongoro and saw a couple new things: reed buck and black rhino.

We found a huge pride of lions after we followed a feeding couple back to their den. We witnessed lion sex and a group of cubs hidden behind the obvious part of the den - thanks to a ranger studying the wildlife that called our guide.

Following our drive, we headed down to Arusha for the remainder of our stay.

Monday, November 28

We met, Philipo - the fiance of a former cycling team mate, Emilie. Emilie was back in the states closing up her belongings and readying to move to Tanzania. Philipo picked us up at 8:30 at the Outpost Lodge, and we started a 25km walk to some waterfalls, across the city, through the outskirts and into villages high on Mt. Meru. We picked up 4 village boys who wanted to practice English and become guides. They escorted us across the creek crossings. One of the boys, Omega, knew quite a bit of Spanish and French also. We arrived back completely exhausted, but happy to have spent time in nature and on our feet.

Tuesday, November 29

Philipo met us again at 10:00. We made a town journey - to Masai Market, Arusha Natural History museum, the central market, where I paid an American price for some spices. We rode in a collective out to the Cultural Heritage museum, which is the largest collection of African art in the world. After lunch there, we headed back to town. We could not find a collective with space, but fortunately, an older German couple stopped and offered us a ride. Philipo headed home, and we headed for the airport, and the 30 hour journey home.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Berlin, May 2016

Photo album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/itinerantrick/albums/72157666677511654

I had the opportunity to travel to Berlin for business in May 2016. Of course, this meant a great opportunity for ItinerantRick to travel along and see the sights with me.

We arrived late in the evening on Thursday, May 26 and checked into the Radisson Blu hotel. Due to being travel-weary, we headed to the hotel restaurant for a late dinner. I enjoyed my first taste of Spargel season with 250g of white asparagus, black forest ham and boiled potatoes. A nice salad rounded out the meal. After dinner, we decided to stroll the 1 mile down to the Brandenberg gate from the hotel and caught some great photos of it in the twilight.

We got up super-early on Friday to do some sightseeing. First up was the Pergamon Museum, which has the Ishtar Gate and a bunch of early near-east artifacts. We spent a couple hours touring the museum and the collection. After that, we headed for our tour at the Parliament building called the Reichstag. It has a transparent dome on top that you can tour by pre-arrangement. The dome symbolizes government transparency since the unification. Following that, we went through the holocaust memorial and had currywurst for lunch at a restaurant near by. The last part of the afternoon was spent at the National Museum, which featured German impressionists and some more well-known impressionists.

Friday evening, I made my appearance at the IATA Hackathon to present the LinkedIn APIs for developers to use. I stayed until around 9:00 pm answering questions and then Rick came by and we walked for a late dinner at a local rotisserie - Rotisserie Weingrün. The most memorable part of that meal was the smoked ribs we ordered.

Saturday, I was at the hackathon until noon and Rick went to see the Topography of Terrors and the memorial at the Berlin Wall where many died trying to cross.

In the afternoon, we hightailed our way to the Eastside Gallery to view the section of the Berlin Wall that's been turned into an art gallery. The murals were really cool, though they put up some fencing around them that made photography difficult. While waiting for the train back, we heard some great local hip hop pouring out of a building near the station.

We had an early dinner at a local place near the hotel, Emmas, known for "schnitzel the size of your head". That was certainly the case, and we shared a single portion! Best schnitzel ever. I spent the closing hours of the evening at the hackathon working with the developers.

Sunday, I spent the entire day at the hackathon, but Rick spent more time walking around town. We were able to share lunch at a local Biergarten - Zum NuSSbaum. After the finalists were announced, we headed out and across town where we enjoyed dinner at the oldest Biergarten in Berlin - Praeter Garten. It was threatening to rain, so we secured a seat under the canopy. That was a good call, as a heavy shower cleared out the place mid-meal. I enjoyed a schwartzbier for my beverage.

Monday, we got to see some sights all day. We spent the early morning at the DDR museum, the church across from our hotel and in the local park. Then, we went up into the Fernsethurm or Telespargel to enjoy lunch with a 360 view. We got a time lapse video of our meal with a huge thunderstorm rolling in.

After a brief rest, we decided to be super-touristy and took a boat along the river and enjoyed a gelato while we were waiting.

Tuesday, we had a nice walk through the center of town before packing up and heading for the airport. It was a fast and furious trip, but we certainly enjoyed our first visit to Berlin.