Photo included


Thursday, Nov. 6
Antananarivo, Madagascar

Madagascar’s capital city, “Tana,” is marked by a beautiful lake surrounded by purple-flowered trees. This time of year, the trees’ flowers are in full bloom, and the vibrant petals are just starting to fall, scattering across the sidewalk as though a flower girl claimed it as her wedding aisle.

Unfortunately, the place smells like a public toilet.

“The putrid lake,” an Australian who lives in the city called it. An American study abroad student told me the city’s sewage is pumped into the water — an assertion I never bothered to verify with locals.

But I knew nothing of that when I walked around the lake for the first — and last — time, drawn in from afar by its deceiving beauty. When I realized the smell wasn’t isolated to one section of the perimeter, I figured it was due to all the squatters on the property, those who sent their children toward me to beg as I strolled by.

The beautiful, albeit putrid, lake in Tana.

The beautiful, albeit putrid, lake in Tana.

The odor was so strong that I couldn’t help but imagine that what dripped on me now and then, presumably from the trees since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, was urine. And so, my walk ruined by such stupid thoughts, I turned away from the lake as soon as I came upon a street I recognized.

My guidebook, a Bradt this time, warned I might not like Tana once I got a closer look. That proved true for the lake. But the rest of the city, aside from the hoards of street beggers, suits me.

The culture here feels partly African, partly Asian. Sure, Madagascar is in Africa; the island, about the size of Texas (shout out!), is off the southeastern coast of the continent. But it was originally settled by immigrants from Indonesia — Africans arrived later from the mainland — so the country has a distinct Asian flavor.

View outside my hotel.

View outside my hotel.

The hostel where I’m staying, which hosts nearly as many prostitutes as clients, is in the middle of a never-ending staircase that descends into the city’s main drag. The stairs are always crowded with locals going up and down and vendors lined up along the sides, so entering the busy world of Madagascar’s capital is easy: I just step outside the hotel lobby.

The first time I ventured out, I couldn’t put my finger on what made the place so different from western and central Africa. Of course, lots of things were different — the people, the food, the weather. But something was odd, and it wasn’t until hours later that it hit me: I could hear myself think!

Had I been in a place this crowded in west Africa, the noise would have been nearly unbearable, with eight stereos blasting upbeat African music, a religious tout making announcements through a bullhorn, groups of people having animated conversations at the tops of their lungs.

Here, perhaps because of the Asian influence, locals walk quietly in the streets and talk at normal decibels; even the come-ons from men are more like a whisper in my ear rather than a blunt, loud invitation to bed. It’s a lovely change, one I imagine will help me voyage here without the migraines I suffered elsewhere in Africa.

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Monday, Nov. 3
Johannesburg, South Africa

I stood in the arrival gate of the Johannesburg airport feeling a bit sheepish.

A friend of a friend had offered to pick me up, but I had no idea what she looked like. I had told her how to find me: I’d have my light brown hair in a ponytail, I had written in an e-mail, and I’d be wearing a large blue backpack and carrying a small red one.

But no one approached me after I passed into the waiting area, and I realized as I rummaged through my bags that I didn’t even have her number. What were you thinking? I mumbled to myself.

That’s when I heard it: “Lexi?” A woman with large blond hair — she could have been Texan — came toward me.

“Marilyn?” I asked.

“Oh, no, I’m her mother,” the woman replied. “Marilyn is over there, looking for you.”

Lexi and the kids!

Lexi and the kids!

So I united with my escorts, natives of Jo-Burg. I had just one evening in the city while I waited for an early morning flight to Madagascar, and Marilyn and her husband Julian helped me see it from the perspective of a local. After lunch with their three kids and Marilyn’s parents, the couple gave me a driving tour of the city, including a quick stop in Soweto, a former African township.

The parts of Jo-Burg I saw were spread out like a suburb, and trees with beautiful purple flowers lined many of the streets. It was modern and westernized, certainly not the Africa most Americans imagine.

What struck me most was the security. Everyone says Jo-Burg is unsafe, which is partly why, as a solo female traveler, I spent most of my time in Cape Town instead. But I didn’t expect the presence of crime — or, more accurately, the effort to stop it — to be so visible.

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Saturday, Nov. 1
(Happy Birthday, Dad, my biggest supporter!)
Cape Town, South Africa

So why, I asked, are many of the people in South Africa wealthy, their lifestyles modern, while much of the rest of Africa is poor and primitive?

The South African man looked at me, taking a few seconds to respond. “I’d never thought of it,” he replied.

Indeed, South Africa is a brilliant anomaly on this continent. (Why? I wasn’t there long enough to understand it entirely, but it has to do with the way the country was colonized; Europeans stayed there, while colonizers took from other countries and left.) In Cape Town, I enjoyed hot showers, washing machines and all the European and American food I could eat in three days. I also added the city to my list of Places I’d Like to Live.

Cape Town is absolutely beautiful, with ocean on one side of the city, mountains on the other. It’s paradise for the active tourist, with cycling, diving, hiking… The list goes on and on.

But the city also is interesting for another reason, one completely unrelated to the normal tourist traps: its recent history of apartheid. I knew little about the problems the country has faced, so I soaked up all I could about the struggle for equality. The city still seems to be in transition.

And yet for everything I learned about the racial tension there, I actually found it refreshing to be in an African country and see people of all colors hitting the bars together. (My hostel was on the main bar strip, so that was my reference point.)

A few highlights of my short visit:

Nelson Mandelas prison cell.

Nelson Mandela's prison cell.

* I took a ferry to Robben Island, which holds the former prison where Nelson Mandela, who would go on to lead his country, was locked up for decades. Part of the reason the tour was so fascinating was because the tour guide was an ex-political prisoner, and he shared details about his experience there. We got to check out the cell that served as Mandela’s home.

 * Below, you’ll see a view of Table Mountain from the waterfront, where I caught the ferry. Beautiful, right? Two days after taking this photo, I climbed the mountain, visited the restaurant on the top, then caught a cable car for the descent. 

View of Table Mountain from near the waterfront.

View of Table Mountain from near the waterfront.

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Friday, Oct. 31
Cape Town, South Africa

I’m about to make my first-ever endorsement.

No, not for a presidential candidate. For footwear.

Chacos. Theyre always up for the same travels as me!

My travelling companions: Chacos. They're always up for the same travels as me. (Oh, new slogan!)

The pair of Chaco sandals I bought for this trip have proven to be the most durable shoes I’ve ever owned. I’ve worn them swimming (yes, in the water) in the Senegal River, hiking down cliffs in Mali and trekking through mud in a Cameroonian village.

The rainy season in that village was too much for my flip flops, which now fall apart whenever I wear them. And during my last visit to Cameroon, the mud so ate through my clogs that I left them there when I returned to the States. But not my Chacos! They are still serving me, ready to keep at it in Madagascar.

The shoes have left their mark — literally. Since week two of this trip, the tan lines on my feet have told the world about my sandal devotion:

My Chaco-ed feet at a beach in Kribi, Cameroon.

My Chaco-ed feet at a beach in Kribi, Cameroon.

To be completely honest, the sandals’ durability isn’t the only reason I wear them. I don’t have a whole lot of choice, since I’m carrying just those sandals, running sneakers and the flimsy, now-gutted flip-flops.

Still, I’ve turned into a walking advertisement (pun intended)! Maybe the company will sponsor my next backpacking trip…

Tuesday, Oct. 28
Douala, Cameroon

Douala airport officials are known for demanding bribes from foreigners trying to leave the country.

But two South African men I met in the airport while waiting for my flight told me a story that trumps all the rest.

The men joined me in a small air-conditioned lounge attached to the airport’s lone restaurant, where I was killing time before my 2 a.m. flight to South Africa. We were the only three people there, and we chatted while I ate a plate of spaghetti, one of the few items on the menu. We quickly realized that all three of us were going to South Africa, albeit on different flights.

“I hope we get home tonight,” said the man who had told me his name was Abdul. He started to laugh. “God willing, we’ll get home tonight.” Then he turned to me and added, “They kept us here in the airport for a week, you know.”

I almost choked on my noodles. “What?”

“They wouldn’t let us leave,” Abdul said with an accent that sounded both South African and Indian. “We slept in this airport for a week.”

“What do you mean, they wouldn’t let you leave?” I asked, my eyes growing wide.

Abdul began recounting the tale, which had started two weeks prior when he and his friend Mahesh were on their way to the Central African Republic. The trip was for business; Abdul was a diamond cutter who planned to buy stones in the CAR, and Mahesh was going along as his partner. They had no plans to visit Cameroon and stopped in the airport only to change planes.

But when airport officials, while inspecting the men’s travel documents, noticed they had an invitation from a diamond company, the officials insisted they pay a fee in order to board their plane to the CAR. Not a small bribe: 4,000 Euros.

At this point in the story, Abdul paused to put his head in his hands, and then he began to laugh, as though he still couldn’t believe the absurdity of what happened next.

He and Mahesh refused to pay the bribe, he said, and the uniformed men wouldn’t let them leave. They missed their plane that day, as well as the next five flights that left the Douala airport for the CAR that week.

By now I had started laughing, too. This was just too ridiculous. I pictured them in the bare-bones Douala airport, with its lone pathetic restaurant, dirty floors, unbearable heat and hard, uncomfortable chairs. I thought of that Tom Hanks movie, the one where the main character is stuck in the airport for what, months? A year? Even spending that much time in the airport in the film, with all its amenities, would be preferable to spending a week in the Douala airport.

“Where did you sleep?” I asked, giggling.

“Over there,” Mahesh pointed through the glass. “There is one cushioned chair in this airport. I’d sleep on the chair and him on the floor until he started to get angry, then we’d switch.”

Now I was really cracking up, and since it was obvious the story amused me, the guys continued with more details. They clearly enjoyed relaying the ridiculous tale, probably because it was the first time they had talked about it with anyone other than each other. They hadn’t been able to communicate with most people in the airport because they didn’t speak French.

“Oh, everyone in this airport knows us!” Mahesh said theatrically. “The police, they kiss our cheeks! The women who clean the floor, they say hello! Let me tell you, before this fiasco I would have done anything to make love to a woman who spoke French, just to hear her speak to me in the language. But now, after this trip, if anyone, anyone speaks French to me, I will throttle them!”

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Sunday, Oct. 26
Limbe, Cameroon

The man working behind me at the Internet cafe confused me.

He looked African and he spoke Pidgin, one of the local languages here, with the owner of the shop. But when he conversed in English — we were in one of Cameroon’s two English-speaking provinces — he sounded American.

I wanted to know his story. And I didn’t have to look hard for a reason to talk to him; the two of us were the only clients working in a small, unventilated room designated for laptops when the power went out in the cafe. We sat there together in the dark, both of our computers glowing with battery power but no Internet connection.

“Guess that’s it for my work,” I said. And then, “So, where are you from?”

He was Cameroonian, he explained, born in the English-speaking northwest province, but went to high school in Scotland and university in the States, in Maine. Now as he spoke I could detect a bit of a Scottish accent.

But wait… backtrack. “Maine?!” I exclaimed. “I went to Colby!” I knew he would be familiar with my alma mater since he had spent time in the state. He had graduated, he told me, from the University of Maine.

And so I had found another Mainer. Mathew and I left the pitch-black cafe together, feeling our way along the walls to find the door, and crossed the street for a drink at a bar. Even without electricity, it was open for business.

There we reminisced about New England and talked about my experiences in Cameroon. It was odd, conversing with someone who sounded American, who understood American culture, who didn’t invite me for a beer solely because of the color of my skin, but who also understood the nuances of Cameroon. He had a unique perspective of his country and was happy to share it with me.

When I told him about the news story I’m writing on polygamy, he responded with tales of growing up in a two-wife household, explaining that even two women didn’t satisfy his father. The man also had two girlfriends outside the home.

Lexi and Mathews eldest daughter.

Lexi and Mathew's eldest daughter.

Mathew and I parted ways that night, but met up again in the morning so I could meet his wife and daughters and explore his side of town. It was one of my last days in Cameroon, and we spent it well.

First we drove to took to one of Limbe’s beautiful black-sand beaches to complete a fun errand, collecting rocks for a friend of Mathew who was building a garden. He had requested stones from Limbe specifically for two reasons: they’re a beautiful dark color because of a long-ago volcanic eruption, and they’re wonderfully smooth from the pounding of the waves.

Mathew (right) and his cousin collect stones on a Limbe beach

Mathew (right) and his cousin collect stones on a Limbe beach.

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Saturday, Oct. 25
Kribi, Cameroon

Good data gives us journalists a buzz. A high. A feeling of glee!

So I was on cloud nine this week when I found statistics to go with the story I’m writing about polygamy in Cameroon.

Not just any statistics, but numbers that support the exact point I’m making with the story, data that shows polygamy here is dwindling.

Since, as some of the expats I’ve met here in Kribi say, Africa is 400 years behind the rest of the world, I didn’t expect such data to exist.

The average reader may skim over this line in the story: “Eleven percent of men had at least two wives in 2004, down from 26 percent in the early 1990s.” But to me that phrase elicits a feeling of accomplishment, a fist pump in the air — POW! — because my story, which originated from anecdotal evidence, now is backed by statistics!

I went a bit overboard in the office of Cameroon’s National Institute of Statistics, photocopying everything I could get find on polygamy so I could dissect the French literature on my own time.

Amongst the other data I found interesting:

* More than half of Cameroonian women marry before age 18. Nearly 90 percent marry before age 25. (2004)

* Men are, on average, nearly 12 years older than their wife (or wives). For 29 percent of couples, the husband is at least 15 years older than his spouse. (1991)

* Level of education affects whether a man is polygamous: 28 percent of those with little to no education are polygamous, 11 percent of those who completed primary school are polygamous and 6 percent of those who finished secondary school are polygamous. (2004)

Now I’m cuddling with that data in a beach-resort town called Kribi, no doubt one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

Prices here have been driven up by tourism, but knowing now that everything is negotiable in Africa, I convinced the woman at one hotel reception to let me pay half price (CFA 15,000, or about $32 per night) for a room with a broken air conditioner. A fan is all that’s really necessary this time of year anyhow.

I’ll leave you with the same image I woke up to early this morning, a photo I took while still standing in my room. Kribi. Is. Heaven.

View from my room in Kribi.

View from my room in Kribi.

Friday, Oct. 17
Yaounde, Cameroon

(Click here to see an updated map showing where I’ve been and where I am now.)

Eating grilled fish in Cameroon is an art, and I haven’t quite mastered it yet.

But it’s so tasty that I continue to struggle, taking the yummy fish as a meal every chance I get.

Cameroonian fish mamas, or cooks, start grilling early, setting up on the side of the road in the early afternoon. They work from the same location each day, usually next to a bar so clients have a place to sit and can order a drink, too.

Fish mama Rose grills her goodies.

Fish mama Rose grills her goodies.

I love choosing the fish I’ll consume while it’s still on the grill, the skin slowly browning. I usually pick a small one, which, for the equivalent of less than 2 bucks, is a steal for me but on the expensive side for the average Cameroonian family. I often find myself eating amongst men, who tend to have more disposible income than women, and no doubt have left their wives at home to feed the children.

The fish is served whole, still too hot to eat when the fish mama lifts it from the grill to the plate. So I start with the side, usually fried plantains, if I bothered to order one. The fish is all I really came for.

Some Americans lose their appetite when they look down at their plate and an entire fish stares back at them. But I’ve come to enjoy this moment, for it means I’m about to chow down.

I dig in with my right hand — no utensils necessary — and the flesh falls easily from the bone. The skin, seasoned with spices, is the best part. There’s always hot red pepper sauce on the side, too, but I avoid it at all costs, not wanting my lips to burn for the rest of the evening. I order a cold Coke, and it comes in a glass bottle, which makes it that much more enjoyable.

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Monday, Oct. 6
Fongo-Ndeng, Cameroon

I waited until all the members of the Ndi Wamba family arrived home, many dragging after a long day in the fields, to summon everyone into Father’s salon.

It was already dark, so Regine lit a weak kerosene lamp and placed it on the table in front of me. Once everyone had taken a seat, I leaned forward in mine and raised my voice. Children and mothers alike stared at me with anticipation.

The reason I had returned to the village, I explained, was because I had brought with me a big gift.

Friends at home in America had heard about the difficulties of the Ndi Wamba family, I said, how there’s not much money for school since Father died. They think it’s important that every child get an education. And so they have sent money to pay for both school fees and books for all the students this year.

The room was silent. This was where I expected everyone to break into cheers, to clap and laugh and hoot with thanks. But they just stared. Perhaps I hadn’t explained it well in French? Perhaps they didn’t understand? I wasn’t sure, so I continued to speak.

“Because of this great gift,” I said, “I’ve brought with me sheets of paper and pens so every student can write a thank you note to the person who paid their tuition. Because this gift of school, this is a great gift. And we should thank the people who sent it, right?”

Ah! There it was! The cheering and hollering and hooting and clapping! The message had gotten through. Mamas agreed out loud that it was important to give thanks. The kids smiled at one another with wide eyes.

I started right away, handing out a piece of paper to each child with the name of the person who had paid for them. Each student wanted to know who their sponsor was, how I knew them. “That’s my aunt and uncle,” I told one child. “A colleague from work,” I said to another. “A friend of my parents.” And — this solicited a cheer from the crowd — “My grandmother!”

The kids work on thank you letters to those who paid their tuition.

Kids work on thank you letters to those who paid their tuition.

For more than an hour they wrote by the light of kerosene lamps, helping one another with words they didn’t know how to spell. For those who weren’t sure where to begin, I suggested explaining why they liked school or what job they hoped to find when they graduate.

Some kids wrote rough drafts, then copied the letters, without mistakes, onto fresh sheets of paper. Others read their letters out loud to the mothers, who watched the group from one corner of the room.

Thirteen-year-old Janvier, who finished first with my help, caused a commotion when he read his note aloud. “He says he wants to be a lawyer!” his mother, Justine, cried, laughing as she announced this news. She hadn’t known about her youngest son’s aspiration, for not many children here in the village are asked what they want to be when they grow up.

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Sunday, Oct. 5
Fongo-Ndeng, Cameroon

As Maurice and I drove the route to the village, we talked about how his family would react when I told them readers of this blog had donated enough money to send all the children to school this year.

“What about books?” Maurice asked, turning his head a bit to his right so I could hear him as he drove.

“Those are covered, too,” I responded.

“Oh, Alexi,” he said, smiling broadly. “Oh, they are going to be happy!”

My friend had borrowed a motorcycle for the 45-minute drive to the village. Maurice, 20, lives in Dschang, the city, where he goes to school. But when I visited his family six years ago, he still lived in the village on the Ndi Wamba compound.

Despite our age gap, Maurice and I became fast friends during my first visit. He had the same optimistic attitude as his mother, Katherine, and he had a way of making everything fun. The two of us were always laughing.

Maurice was immensely proud that I returned to Cameroon, partly, I think, because it validated our friendship. When he saw me for the first time three weeks ago, he held my hand (close friends here, even men, hold hands regularly) all the way to his house.

Maurices moto gets stuck in the mud on our way to the village. I hopped off to take this shot.

Maurice's moto gets stuck in the mud on our way to the village. I hopped off to take this shot.

I couldn’t help but tell Maurice about the surprise I was about to deliver to his family. I needed someone to share in my excitement!

We arrived in Fongo-Ndeng in the early morning, when just a few children lingered on the compound. Even though it was Sunday, most everyone had departed for the fields to cultivate.

Maurice raided his mother’s kitchen for the village food he missed — macabo mush! — and then we sat together on the stoop in front of Father’s house.

“Wanna climb the mountain?” I asked, looking in the direction of the huge green mass that loomed behind the compound. From there, the mountain God watches over people below, the villagers say.

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