Saturday, February 18, 2012

Cameroon 2012: Aim Here, Hike There

Imagine yourself as having a finely tuned sense of direction, always knowing where you are geographically and being able to picture a location on a map very easily, kind of like the gift of an internal GPS.

That's me.

The area of Cameroon we were in was so isolated, so remote, so complex... the twists and turns of the trails so confusing and confounding that my internal GPS threw its hands in the air and completely cried uncle.

I'm still not sure I know where we really were...

...Or what it would have really taken for me to cry uncle too.

Feb 18, 2012 -- Hike from Njilap to Mengi, aka "This Is The Hike That Never Ends!!"
(and, subsequently, the pictureless post that never ends!)

As a photographer, I'm used to bringing my camera with me in spite of the added weight of the gear.  It's a small inconvenience for the ability to capture moments and experiences in photos.  Today, though, the decision wasn't a matter of inconvenience, it was a matter of being able to complete the hike.  The ten pounds of camera gear would slow me down, and given the pace we usually kept, there'd be little opportunity to use it anyway.  My priorities that day were the 2 bottles of water I'd have to carry, beef jerky, a sweat rag, and a strengthened spirit.

Captain Smith advised us to wear long pants for the hike, as we'd be trekking through the jungle and the low-lying vegetation and thorns would likely cut and scrape our legs as we hiked.  We did not need to offer an invitation for infection to set in.

Long pants...  I was dumbfounded.  Long pants, in Cameroon?  Yes, my prayers for rain had been answered once more, but the last thing I considered packing when preparing to travel to Africa was pants.

I am Canadian.  I can't imagine African weather being cold to me, in any season, under any condition.  Nor can I imagine wearing pants on a hike.  I'm known for jogging in capris in the dead of winter in Canada.

So capris it was.  It was the only option aside from sarongs, and the kind of hiking we were expecting today simply didn't call for a sarong, you know?  It would be the third day I would wear my capris without washing them, but Joshua had gone through worse in Ghana and he turned out just fine (we took longer to recover!).  There was probably no point to putting on clean clothes anyway.  We'd had no running water in Njilap, and hadn't showered since leaving Lewoh.

I had felt conflicted about adding the weight of my camera gear to my large hiking bag, since a porter would be responsible to carry that increased weight.  Peace came from envisioning a strong, fit man easily carrying this bag, used to carrying heavy weights in this kind of environment and terrain.

Walking outside to find a group of children awaiting to carry our large hiking bags made me stop dead in my tracks.

This backpack was made for an adult to carry, both in size and in weight, and here these kids were, willing to help because they knew we were helping provide schools to their communities, and because they'd earn a dollar or two...  for an hour or two of heavy duty hiking.

As we all stood outside nearly speechless, one child took someone's hockey bag, plopped it on his head, and started up the hill seemingly effortlessly.  Months of helping carry sand bags back and forth from the river to the school, perhaps?

The child with my back pack was struggling to balance the weight of it on his body.  I'm not sure he weighed more than the bag itself.  The waist belt, even fully tightened, slipped past his hips and rested loosely on his thighs.  The only saving grace was that the chest straps helped keep the shoulder straps in place.  He never complained, and quickly joined the other children, but it still wasn't well with my spirit.  The contrast between the hard work these children were willing to do, and the avoidance of hard work so many kids struggled with back home was tough to see.

In ways, as hard as it was to see children laboring so hard for every aspect of their lives, I felt just as much heartbreak over what our own kids are missing due to their sheltered and slothful lifestyles.  Our children all too often choose the path of least resistance.  At what cost?

Where is the balance in it all?

The last thing to do before beginning the hike was to embark upon another "NCA" -- Nature Call Adventure.  Joined by my trusty latrine partner in crime, Wendy, we set out to take care of business.  Before we had a chance to do that, however, we discovered, in graphic and gruesome fashion, that previous NCA participants had experienced some issues hitting their target in the sole latrine stall in the neighborhood.

I was familiar with the "Cook This, Not That" Kitchen Survival Guide books on making better lifestyle choices, but before I had a chance to stop the trainwreck of thoughts (brainwreck?), I began to wonder how well an "Aim Here, Not There" African Latrine Survival Guide would sell.  You never know, there may be a niche for such a thing -- wait, there was!  We could simply target the perfect candidate in our midst, for starters.  Uhm, speaking of targets...  I can only assume that this anonymous squatter knew to aim for the hole in the floor beneath him or her.  How, then, does it end up at least a foot high up on the wall behind them?  Does gravity do weird things in Cameroon, or...?

When it became our turn, all we could think of was "don't back up.... don't back up... don't lose your balance...  stay away from the wall..."  Not the easiest feat while enclosed in a 3 foot by 3 foot space with your pants around your ankles.  By this point, thankfully, we were well experienced and we succeeded without incident.

These are all the things no one warns you about when it comes to mission trips.  Consider yourself warned.  You're welcome. 

We started up the same trail we had hiked the day before.  This time, we would hike past the school and continue much further until we reached Menji.

To this day, I don't know how I ever got the impression that this hike would last roughly one and a half hours.  I was convinced that we'd hike the 45 minute to the school, continue another 45 minutes or so, and soon reach Menji.  I was mentally prepared for exactly that, even though really, each day, my mind was prepared for something incredibly intangible.  There were always so many conflicting opinions and reports on how long each hike would take, that we all took them with a grain of salt, following only Captain Smith's lead, and packing the exact amount of water he told us to.  I never truly had any idea what to expect in terms of challenge, hike, terrain, time, difficulty level, and my ability to push through the physical demands each day brought.

This day would be no different.

Once past the school, we kept hiking through the valley jungle, on well worn footpaths and tiny trails.  The path was tricky and very uneven, at times less a path and more a pile of treacherous rocks, usually at a downhill incline.  Some stretches of rock strewn paths were steep enough to warrant needing to brace ourselves with our hands as we squatted down to the next footing, and the next, and the next, being careful not to lose our footing on the slippery rocks, damp from the previous night's rain.

Through streams, heavy vegetation, steep descents and the humidity of the jungle, we hiked well past the school before stopping for bananas offered by a generous villager.  As much as the reprieve from the hike was welcomed, I knew from the previous hikes that it would make starting again all the harder.  There was little opportunity to stretch properly and really rest, but at the same time, it may have been easier for me to just keep hiking and keep up the momentum.

Once we had finished our bananas and drank some of our water, we continued our trek.  It was easier to lose track of time and get distracted from how hard the hike was when we engaged into a conversation with a fellow hiker, so for a while, Captain Smith and I chatted while hiking.  Wendy and I had a good laugh when he asked her if she was more comfortable with him going ahead of her on steep descents, or behind him.  She said she preferred for him to go in front in case she fell and needed a good place to land.  We laughed, and I told them that I'd rather he go behind me, so that should I fall, he'd not get injured and could help me get back up!  As incredibly muscular as he was, there would have been no soft landing either way! :D

The descent into the valley was probably beautiful, but I must admit that I did not see much of it.  Since we were in a heavily forested area, we couldn't see very far ahead or enjoy a panoramic view of the valley from where we hiked, but even if that hadn't been an issue, our eyes would have still been glued to the ground ahead of each of our steps.  One missed step, and our mission could have ended up being a medical rescue effort.

From time to time, we'd be blessed with brief flat trails winding through the jungle in a gentle descent; a sweet albeit short reprieve in between tougher stretches.

There was something missing on this hike -- fear.  I don't always notice its absence, since I simply know that I don't have fears.  I would notice its presence more as it would be a shock to me.  I think that had I been afraid to trek through the remote, wet jungles of Cameroon in difficult terrain, with bugs, and questionable plants and wildlife all around, including those infamous snakes, or simply harboring the fear of something "bad" happening, it would have caused constant hesitation and slowed me down considerably.  Over and over again, I witnessed the gift of a strong mind, and how it could counteract a weaker body by strengthening it through self-control.

I ended up with an extra portion of protein when I swallowed an unidentified flying insect.  At least I hope it was an insect.  Something about adding 6 legs sounds so much better than 8...  for the record, it wasn't very palatable and burned the whole way down.

Though I had managed to keep my balance the previous day on the muddy slopes leading into Njilap, I took my first real jungle tumble that morning when my foot slid on a wet rock and my knee ferociously kissed the ground without warning, sending me tumbling to the ground in the process.  Since we were hiking in close proximity to one another and in single file, I stood up nearly as quickly as I had fallen, and without hesitation, kept on trekking.  I quipped that provided I didn't hear a bone crack in two, I was good to go.

Even though I had fallen, all the core strength training had turned out to be such an advantage for these hikes, the balance and strength coming in handy in the uneven terrain.  Now, if only I had trained in holding my balance while crouched in a latrine with my pants around my ankles, trying to aim while avoiding topping over under the watchful eyes of spiders the size of dinner plates...

About half an hour later, I noticed my knee stinging a bit, and saw that I had scraped it in that fall. The sweat on my skin stung as the saltiness irritated the wound.  I poured a bit of my drinking water onto my knee to rinse off the sweat, and after a few minutes, couldn't feel the sting anymore.  When a torny branch scraped up my leg as I passed by, I did the same, soaking my sock a bit in the process.  Thankfully I had worn my running socks, which wicked away the moisture.

My hands kept slipping from my walking stick from the humidity, so I decided to wrap my sweat rag around the top of the walking stick to create a hand grip.  This was so much more comfortable, and probably spared me from getting a few blisters on my hands.

The pace I had kept since we had left Njilap was beginning to slow, and I looked at my watch to see how close we might be to reaching our destination.  Surely we had passed the school 45 minutes ago, if not more...

Imagine my shock to discover that we had been hiking for nearly 3 hours.  It was at this point that I realized that the "wakka wakka stroll" was really a "wakka wakka that never ends."  Wakka wakka was the Cameroon Pidgin English word for walk/hike/trek, and it was used in many a dry humored remark about the physical demands of our hikes.

Three hours...  time in Africa is so nebulous, so hard to grasp firmly.  I was amazed and baffled to learn that we hadn't reached Menji yet.  Where exactly was this place?

I knew I had plenty of steam to keep going, but with my legs getting tired, it would only get harder from this point forward.  I knew better than to push for an idea of how far from Menji we really were.  My intuition told me it'd be better not to know.  (Apparently, my intuition hadn't lost its touch...)

God provided another distraction in order to push through the exhaustion.  I struck up a conversation with Kristen, who was hiking behind me at the time.  I shared with her that as much as the mission and purpose of this trip for me was fully humanitarian in nature, it was also fully personal:  a celebration of all the hard work that made it possible to take part in this, as well as the affirmation of how far I'd come.  There'd be no finish line, no glamorous bling, no fanfare...  just a profound sense of gratitude and victory.  Last but not least, perhaps it was just what I needed to help me reach my next milestones on the road to health.

We talked about my weight loss journey, the gym, the personal training and coaching Tia had provided, how I started running, etc.  She's really into fitness, so it was fun to connect over common ground and point out which somewhat more obscure muscles were taking a beating in that hike.  I shared how it felt to be the only overweight member of this team in the midst of this physically demanding environment, how I felt like a marathon runner showing up for a world class event in sweat pants and Sketchers, but that I didn't want to let that slow me down from what I was capable of.  My body might be weak, but through God, my spirit knows no limit.

When talking to Kristen about my weight loss to date and my end goal, we realized that my end goal was to   have lost the equivalent of her current weight.  I told her that someday soon, I'd email her and say "There... I did it... I finally lost you!"  :D

The conversation with Kristen made a difference -- it not only helped distract me from the fatigue, but it also helped me refocus and remember how hard I had fought for this, and how determined I was to finish it well.

I wasn't the only one getting tired.  Even Michael, who I was convinced had Go Go Gadget Springs in his knees which made him bounce down the trail effortlessly, was easier to keep up with.  We were beginning to move along in the same tired pace.  Three hours and thirty minutes after leaving Njilap, Amanda asked how long before we stopped.  We were probably all wondering the same thing, each of us getting an ever growing case of "Are We There Yet".

The Cameroonian guide grimaced and said something like "wakka wakka an hour".  Thinking he was serious, she nearly broke down.  As he started to laugh, they rounded a corner only to have her discover that we had reached our first pit stop:  Lekeng.  He had known this stop was just up ahead.

The kids who were carrying our packs were waiting for us in Lekeng.  They claim they had been waiting for us in Lekeng for about two hours when we finally showed up, which meant that they had somehow managed to trek to Lekeng from Njilap in roughly an hour and a half.  In flip flops or bare feet, no less, carrying loads half the size of shopping carts and weighing nearly the equivalent of their body weight!

It brought forward memories of working with the child slaves in Ghana, but the only difference was that these children were free to do this if they chose, and they would be paid.

We walked over an incredible wooden bridge as we entered Lekeng.  The boards were built seemingly haphazardly over a stream and rock crevace, creating a walkway perched on and around huge boulders.  So beautiful, and so amazing to think the effort it took to bridge the gap between the jungle and this small village.  There ain't no Home Depot in this town -- in fact, we only saw 2-3 people in the entire village, aside from our team.

We rested at an empty local market for a bit before continuing.  I stretched out for a few minutes on a bamboo pole table that would normally display local wares and harvests, but the only thing that would be on display today was a sweaty, dirty, stinky and well worn Canadian mamma, with not so much "wakka wakka" left in her.  Wonder what price I would have fetched?

I tried to stretch, and managed as much as possible, but I would have needed at least a good twenty minutes of stretching as well as some help.  As much as I wasn't sure how much stamina I had left in me, I wanted to get going and finish this hike so that we could put it behind us.  Within moments, we were moving again.

Well, I was attempting to move, but my body had completely seized up -- this rusty nut just couldn't bolt anymore.

I broke a walking stick at some point, and Darren or Michael helped me find another one.  We checked on the progress of the school in Lekeng before turning on the trail that would lead us to Mengi.  The trail was wider than the one we had trekked on to this point, it was more like a small road, which eventually turned into a typical Cameroonian dirt road.  Most of the hike we had done to this point was downhill, but we were now paying for it.  The rest of the way to Mengi was uphill, and the hills were brutal.

At one point, I started looking around for hidden video cameras and film crews, convinced that we had somehow inadvertantly landed on the set of a new TV show pilot -- one where two shows battle it out for victory by pushing the contestants through a hybrid of Survivor Vs. Biggest Loser on speed -- I totally would not have been surprised to have seen Bob and Jillian jumping out of the jungle, screaming at us and chasing us to pick up the pace so we'd run up every vertical dirt surface in sight.  Perhaps we could market such a show, along with the Aim Here, Not There book, and outfit an entire community in Cameroon with school supplies from the proceeds.  Any takers?

Clearly, my mind was going on overdrive, and I needed to shut out everything around me and simply focus on putting one foot in front of the other.

By the time I reached Menji, it took a while to register that we had made it, and that this was the end of the hike.  I looked down at my watch and stared for a few minutes, trying to comprehend how I had just managed to hike 4 hours and 45 minutes through the jungles of Cameroon.

I didn't.  Not through my own doing, at least.  God had provided all that I needed.