trapping tourists in Oku

“That’s extortion!”  Kay said.

And she was right… but if you want to see anything in Cameroon, you kind of have to let go of any possible principle you might have and accept to pay bribes for the most mundane things.  Like putting foot in Oku.

It’s a good thing that who you are with makes all the difference to how you feel about your experiences.  It was a great day thanks for this group of lovely NW folks regardless of the “incident”.

We began the day early from Bamenda, first Cornelia, Kay and I.  Then we picked up Myra and Florian in Ndop before making the long ascent towards Oku.  I had been on this road back in December when we did the Ring Road trip.  Though now in the rainy season, the scenery was even more lush and green.  The road also had more potholes, but that just contributes to the “African massage” and the building up of a much stronger stomach. Mine was upside down for most of the morning’s journey.

a view from the road

This part of Cameroon, I would say, is one of the prettiest.  I’m biased though because I love mountains and hills.  I also think that the small villages along the way, with their mud construction and thatched roofs make for a beautiful setting.  Our goal that day, besides the lengthy Sunday drive, was to get a peek of the lake with rests up in the mountains.

We stopped midway up to let the car radiator cool down, all of us except for the driver thinking that smoke coming out of the hood wasn’t a good sign!  It gave us a chance to look around a bit and take in the views.  Kay got a few nice snapshots of some kids passing by.

nice place for a piggy hangout

We’d been told that we really should go pay our respects to the Fon by going up to his palace and bringing a gift.  I was extremely suspicious of this request by the locals – we’ve had this misadventure before.  Once in the main village we purchased a box of wine – also apparently called palace water.  We then took a stroll out towards some of the handicrafts shops, mainly to stretch our legs after the bumpy 2+ hour drive.

We came to the same shops I had been to in December – they seemed not to have changed much at all.  Filled floor to ceiling with woodcarvings of all kinds, there is a definite beauty to the work they do here.  Most of the pieces are so enormous; one can’t even imagine how anyone could take them home.  Some are borderline inappropriate for children – it just adds to the charm.

Some carvings - some as tall as me!

no comment - at least none that will not embarrass me later

Oku is also home to one of the largest and best-known honey production.  There are several beehives visible from the main road, and most shops carry the products as well.

one of Oku's many beehives

By this time, it was part lunch and we were antsy.  Our goal was still seeing the lake, and we had passed it on the way to the village but hadn’t stopped.  So we were anxious to do the right cultural protocol, pay our respects to the Fon and head back out.

the Sunday drive gang waiting on the tire change

This is a difficulty.  While we want to be good visitors and observe the requested customs, we are also bound to be taken advantage of.  And in this case, it was just that.  We drove to the Fon’s palace (where we also got a flat tire! One more slight road misadventure).  We looked in his gift shop, spoke a few words to the Fon himself – a former teacher and school principal.  He thanked us for the palace water.  We told him how beautiful the place was.  And then made our way to sign the book… which was nothing of the sort.  The Fon’s agent asked us for cold hard cash:  10,000 FCFA ($20) per person because we were tourists, but he’s bring it down to 5,000 FCFA because we were volunteers.  That was for seeing the lake and for walking around.  We argued.  We said we’d skip seeing the lake altogether since the “entrance fee” was more than we could afford.  He said we needed to pay him regardless of whether we saw the lake at all.  Just for physically having set foot in their community.

or should that be "tourist extortion centre"?

And if you are a tourist in Cameroon, let me assure you, this isn’t unusual.  And it makes it that much harder to mentally accept wanting to get to know this country any better than on the surface.

But what is there to do when you do want to see more than the inside of a stinky cab in the city or the grabby and shady parts of the market?  You swallow your principles and values, and you offer up something. In this case, Kay, who saw the incoming dark skies of rain that could make our return trip a muddy mess, put a final offer on the table of 10,000 FCFA for all five of us.  And then we said we’d go.

And we did… back on the road, the radiator still smoking and small prayers for no more tire punctures, we headed back to the lake.  The misty fog was rolling back in and the peek-a-boo view revealed itself for a quick moment.  It is a peaceful place from the top of the mountain looking down at the lake.  We’ve been told it is a magnetic lake and that aircrafts cannot fly overhead.  Perhaps the helicopters don’t want to pay the Fon for the privilege either.

We lunched in the car on the return, bouncing all about, bits of bread, avocado and cheese flying.  But the rain never caught up to us!

We had a beautiful day (I got a hellish sunburn though) and the beauty of the countryside remains a spectacular sight.  So if you don’t mind the hassle… it’s a great place to explore!

and finally... Oku lake!

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~ by Caroline Spira on August 29, 2011.

2 Responses to “trapping tourists in Oku”

  1. Gorgeous!

    I have to ask, though, is it not stressful even to think about going on adventures like this when things can get so tricky?

    Or is it truly just a test of mettle, with no expectation of harm if you argue or don’t comply with such demands? Is it really more like a game? Or can it be serious “business?”

    • To be honest there is not much choice. How do we know when to be culturally appropriate and then to be big bad foreigners? Where do we get to draw the line between our values and the demands of others? When should we chose to insult people instead of accepting that it is their culture to extort money from others? Is that even cultural? Can we even truly argue?

      It’s a pain. And it makes me that much more reluctant to want to travel here.

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