On February 16 I ran, hiked, and skipped up an incredibly steep volcano with only 650 other idiots attempting the “Race of Hope” in Buea, Cameroon. In a country in which “making sport” is a very popular weekend pastime, with thousands of people donning full track suits and sweating it out under the soggy, humid rays of an intense African sun, there are relative few that sign up for the country’s most famous race. Among these strong and dexterous athletes was a small number of “foreigners.” 5 other Americans and I started out with our Cameroonian comrades from the stadium in downtown Buea, ran 4 miles up to the trailhead (where most people who hike Mount Cameroon begin their trek), then slogged up the treacherous mountain, laden with slippery volcanic rocks and locals wondering what on earth we were thinking in taking on this race- since we obviously couldn’t win. When we rolled back down the mountain and into the stadium and across the finish line some 9 hours later, my running partner and I were smiling, covered in volcanic dust, and eager to sit down and give our wasted quads a rest.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I left Yaoundé on Thursday in a giant Suburban with three other Americans and a fantastic driver named Tata. We drove safely down a notoriously deadly stretch of road toward Douala, Cameroon’s largest city and its big, sadly-inefficient port. (Check out this funny video about the “Highway of Death.”) Two of the four of us were former Peace Corps volunteers, so a “pit stop” meant a nice stretch of tall grass, but it was probably cleaner than any actual toilet we would have chanced upon. We stopped in Douala for a satisfying Lebanese lunch at a restaurant called Aladdin. (I’ve been out to eat so little here, this was a real treat for me.) That evening Greg, his wife Deb, and Katy and I all went for a walk before the sun set. Just a stone’s throw from the hotel we happened upon a giant banana plantation, a subsidiary of Del-Monte. I loved trekking the quiet dirt roads lined with banana trees holding their jewel-like blue plastic bags. The bags protect the banana-fruit from bugs and help it to ripen faster, I think. Apparently the locals don’t eat these bananas because they taste terribly bland, and compared to the bananas on the street here, American-supermarket bananas taste like paper.
We passed several people on our way through the banana-field and no one stopped us. But man, do Cameroonians hate me taking pictures of anything connected to a factory or business. White-girl+big camera=spy, of course. I felt like Mike Teavee intending to take Willy Wonka’s secret recipe and sell it to Slugworth, but really just intended to put it on my blog. The banana-processing center was very interesting- we witnessed a man bathing in the creek running next to the warehouse, a conveyor belt dumping “undesirable” bananas into a taxi filled to the brim to be used as animal-feed, and crates and crates of bananas loaded into ancient refrigerated trucks.
The next evening, the night before the race, Katy and I ran a quick 5K through the fields again. I tucked away an ominous feeling while under the oppression of the giant volcano that looked like a distant cloud, high above the horizon. Looking at the peak of the mountain and thinking it to be my goal for the next day, I was sufficiently intimidated.
The day before the race. Goals: ensure our registration forms were received, get the required “medical check”, pick up our race shirts and numbers. Time we completed our goal: 9:30 pm. Turns out I was the only American registered.
Our medical check was a hilarious blood pressure station, in which it turns out we all have hypertension, followed by a short interview with someone behind an upturned table-as-screen. I was asked if I had run a marathon before, if I’d had a heart attack, and if I was feeling pain in my chest, abdomen or limbs. Since I answered well to each of the questions, in the final section titled “Conclusion” I scored a check next to “Fit” and was given the green light by a young man with a dingy lab coat worn unbuttoned over his athletic wear. Several of my friends, a little older than myself, had the pleasure of lifting their shirts for a “hernia check.” Wes said that they instructed him to lift his shirt and “firm up his abdominals.” He obeyed their instructions but was met with the man’s insisting him to “No, FIRM up your abdominals!”
The tv crew asked Katy, Deb and I to get our blood pressure taken again, so they could film it. Horrifyingly, the camera came to me, zoomed in on the machine taking my blood pressure and recorded for all of Cameroon to see my numbers shoot the roof as my heart started beating faster, realizing they would soon turn the camera on my face. When they asked me how I felt about the race tomorrow, I answered a pithy, “I’m okay.” And that was it. What? No matter. My housekeeper and her entire family saw this clip on tv (they watched it on her husband, our gardener’s, cell-phone) and she wrote me the following text that evening: “Madame, my whole family saw you on CRTV and words can not express the feeling of joy I have for you. We are all praying for you tomorrow during the race.”
We returned to the stadium to hand in our medical forms and were told that someone would bring our numbers to us that afternoon, not to worry. Feeling excited with our success-in-registering, we took a picture under the winner’s banner.
Having accomplished all we could towards actually registering the four of us, we headed to the city’s cooking school, where the U.S. Embassy’s chefs trained, a place called O.S.C. It serves traditional Cameroonian food which means the menu is like this:
chicken or fish,
with corn fufu (grits, but finely ground then steamed into a hard ball) or plantains,
and a side of jamma-jamma or ndolé ( both stews of a bitter green leaf mixed with peanut paste and reminiscent to me of the detested collard greens my great-grandmother made).
I had chicken, corn fufu (Deb’s favorite, not mine, but I swallowed it for “carb’s sake”) and jamma-jamma, which tastes good if I think of it as creamed spinach. Not exactly a spaghetti dinner, but hey, a marathon up and down Mount Cameroon isn’t exactly the New York Marathon.
In Part Two of this post, I’ll get to the actual Race of Hope. I promise.