Thursday, Sept. 25
Fongo-Ndeng, Cameroon

Sometimes when I rest in bed at night, I think about the places where I’ve seen the brightest stars. I go through the list in my head, imagining myself laying in each spot — usually in my sleeping bag — and looking up at the sky.

There’s Maine, while hiking in the mountains. The Florida Everglades, where we canoed across shallow waters. And New Zealand, over the lagoon next to a house where I once lived.

But Fongo-Ndeng always takes the cake. I remember, during my last visit here, leaving my room with my headlamp, making my way out into the dirt yard, and turning off the light so I could better see the sky.

My Fongo-Ndeng family thought this was odd. I even startled Mama Suzanne once when she found me standing in yard, alone, in the dark. Didn’t I have the same stars at home? they wondered.

Of course. But with no light pollution, no lights at all other than weak kerosene lamps, the constellations here look much brighter.

During this visit, I had to wait a bit to see them. The rainy season up in the mountains brings a whole lot of rain, and clouds always blocked my view at night. It wasn’t until I had already spent four nights in the village that I finally got a good view.

Such a good view, in fact, that I stopped short. I had been crossing the compound with Janvier, one of the younger kids, and he must have heard me mutter “Oh my God” under my breath.

Until then, I always thought I knew what the Milky Way looked like, that I had seen it before. But this Milky Way was far brighter than any I had previously witnessed, a bright band thrown across the sky.

It was Janvier who pointed out why it was so bright. “When there’s no moon, you can see it like that,” he said.

Indeed, the moon was so low in the sky it was entirely hidden by a nearby mountain.

“What do you call it in French?” I asked, pointing to the Milky Way. “Or in your language?”

“That’s the path left by the moon when it travels from one side of the sky to the other,” Janvier responded.

We stood there for a few moments in silence, and then Janvier continued crossing the yard to his mother’s house, leaving me alone to watch for shooting stars.

I can count on one hand the number of times during this journey when I’ve seen something so beautiful or awe-inducing or simply wonderful that I’ve lamented lacking a friend at my side. Sure, I’m traveling alone, but I often find myself with new-found friends, ones that appreciate the same nuances as me. And when I’m truly solo, I usually feel satisfied knowing that some fabulous experience exists only in my memory.

But that Milky Way made me long for companionship. For just a moment, I wished I had someone to share it with.