Cameroon – Sarah Sawyer (2009)

Sarah Sawyer is a doctoral student in environmental policy, and management at UC Berkeley. Sarah spent the month of January in Cameroon where she examined human-landscape interactions and their impacts on endangered species and on the sustainability of critical ecosystems, thanks to a $1500 from Sara’s Wish Foundation.

Here are Sarah’s travel safety tips:

Cameroon is a challenging country to visit, but also exciting, beautiful, and very rewarding. It helps to speak both English and French, but you can generally get by with only English. Before leaving for Cameroon, make sure to register with the embassy to get travel updates and advisories. Also, be sure to get travel insurance, which includes evacuation insurance, before traveling. Malaria is prevalent in Cameroon, so begin taking prophylaxis before you start your trip. Be sure to leave a tentative itinerary with contact people at home, but make sure they recognize that travel in Africa is unpredictable and unstructured so your plans will frequently change. Before you leave, throw away all notions of timeliness, stress, and efficiency, and try to relax into a mental state of “whatever happens happens”. Everything takes longer than expected in Cameroon, but if you embrace and enjoy this waiting time, you’ll discover things you would have otherwise missed.

When visiting the Southwest province, it is best to fly into Douala International Airport. Air France is perhaps the best carrier into Douala, although Royal Air Maroc would suffice in a bind. Ethiopian Air is also a great airline, depending on where you’re coming from. Upon arrival into the airport, getting baggage can be a bit chaotic, so I recommend immediately finding one porter or security guard to be your aid. Finding one person to support you in getting your baggage will help ensure that (1) you do not get harassed by other porters asking for more money upon exit, (2) you pass through customs smoothly, and (3) you find a reliable taxi upon exit. Give your porter a nice tip at the end. Customs officers will ask for bribes, but do not give in to them if you know that you have not done anything illegal. As soon as you can, I recommend purchasing a SIM card for your cell phone. They are cheap, and you can fill them as you go. Make sure that your cell phone is a quad-band, and has been “unlocked” for use in other countries before you leave the states, and then put in a Cameroonian SIM card upon arrival. Program emergency contacts, reliable taxi driver phone numbers, and numbers of any other people you come across who are friendly and helpful. You never know when you’ll want to be back in touch with these people. From Douala, you can get to any number of cities by bus. The buses leave from bus stations, and are usually reliably late but trustworthy. I do not recommend the small bush-taxi buses, which often cram too many people, too much cargo, and drive too fast in unsafe conditions. Go for the larger buses, for which you can reserve a seat, and which tend to follow the regulations of the road more closely.

Limbe is a beautiful but quiet city on the coast, which I recommend to anyone visiting the country. Accommodations can be found relatively inexpensively, as long as you go to one of the hotels not directly on the beach. Hotels like the Victoria Guest House, set back off the beach, are clean and well run, and can have rooms for half the price of those on the beach. Average hotel room costs run between about $10 and $40 per night, depending on if you want air conditioning or not. You will rarely find a hotel that has hot water, but you likely won’t want it. The area is very hot, and very humid, but I find that a room with only a fan is manageable. Make sure to bring cool clothes, lots of sun protection, and stay hydrated. Limbe is a relatively safe city, but make sure that if you are traveling after dark you travel in groups and keep the carrying of valuables to a minimum. When you arrive in the country, you can get the police to certify a copy of your passport front page and visa for about 5 dollars, so that you can avoid carrying around your passport. I recommend always carrying a certified copy of your passport, and leaving the original in a safe location. It is always useful to send a local friend or colleague to the police station for you, as foreign faces always inspire artificially high prices. From Limbe, you can visit Mount Cameroon, Buea, and many of the beautiful forested landscapes of Cameroon.

If you plan to travel into the bush, be sure to take appropriate precautions before you leave. First, buy treatment for amoebic dysentery, giardia, muscle pain, fever, and malaria. Medicine is inexpensive in the area, and it’s good to keep a supply of these on hand, to begin treating ailments before you can get back to a hospital. Any local pharmacy will be able to give you good instructions. Try to travel in the dry season (November through April), as bacterial and water-borne diseases tend to be worse in the rainy season (May through October). If you can afford to hire a private vehicle and driver, that is the best option, as you can get the help and expertise of a local driver. If not, go with larger bus companies, and travel with companions. When you reach destinations, try to employ local assistants with a good mastery of English (most people speak Pidgin English, but it can be very challenging to try to communicate with others without help of a good translator), to help introduce you to local people, food, and practices. Palm wine and Kola nuts are always a good way to show people that you have an open heart and are looking to learn and grow from local encounters. Be sure to wear shoes at all times, wash your hands regularly, and boil or treat all water. Diseases are rampant in this area, and it’s much more fun if you can avoid them all-together.

The people in the Southwest province sometimes have a gruff exterior, but keep your mind, eyes, and ears open, and you’ll find that many of them are kind, helpful, and excited to exchange ideas and knowledge with visitors. Notions of truth are not the same in Cameroon, so be careful of being overly trusting, but don’t be afraid to open up and engage with others. Try not to be on the roads after dark, travel with friends instead of alone, and always be aware of your surroundings, but don’t let fear keep you from getting the full experience. Cameroon is relatively safe and welcoming. Always bring some extra money, in case of emergency. Enjoy your time and experiences. Good luck, and safe travels.