Saturday, January 12, 2013

Allez, allez, allez!

Having spent a week and a half away from post for Christmas and New Year's (I intended to go home between the two, but withdrawing my salary from the bank took days more than was expected, and then my friend Shane invited me to a fete in his village for the coronation of a new chief, and then two friends were playing truant as well, so between one thing and another I consigned my compost to getting moldy in my absence and moved into the Garoua Peace Corps case somewhat indefinitely), I'm not sure quite how to approach blogging about it. A blow-by-blow seems boring, and a little overwhelming from my end; so instead I think it might be best to highlight things that stood out over the next few posts.

For the first subject: transportation in Cameroon. Having spent considerable time in transit from one volunteer's post to the next, I had some time to reflect on the subject over the last few weeks. 

Method the first: the moto. Motos are rapidly becoming my favorite way to get around.  Ensconced behind the driver, letting your thoughts expand to meet the horizon, enjoying the rush of wind in your face and the warmth of the sun on your arms: it's a much more enjoyable way to experience the savannah than being packed into a bush taxi like clowns in training.  In a city like Garoua, they're the only way to get around, and as it costs more to ride solo, you quickly become accustomed to sliding two or even three behind the driver, settling everyone's weight and adjusting helmets before signaling to the driver with a grunted "C'est bon" that he can pull into traffic.

As with most things in life, however, there are occasional downsides.  The taller and more heavily-laden the passengers, the greater the chance that someone will end up perched behind the seat on a metal luggage rack, which can be a harrowing and painful experience.  My friend Grant and I split a moto to the town of Ngong the day before New Year's, where we were to spend the night with another PCV, Bryant, before all heading to nearby Lagdo for the festivities.  Grant and I had spent the previous several days in Garoua and Gaschiga, and had been sharing motos with no problem, generally having space to comfortably turn and carry on a conversation while navigating the packed streets around the Grand Marche.  Now, however, we were burdened with backpacks and bulky market bags.  As we were coming in from the regional capital, it was contingent upon us to bring anything deemed necessary for a successful New Year's party but unavailable in village (namely, guacamole fixings and champagne).  Grant settled behind me and the driver took off-- but this time, all was not bon, and the three of us spent the next hour taking it in turns to squirm and shift our weight, trying to ease forward enough to give Grant some relief. The driver and I edged closer and closer to the handlebars, but apparently not enough, for after we flew over a particularly large hump in the road and landed hard, Grant leaned forward and announced that he thought he might have just joined the club.  “Joining the club” is Peace Corps slang for losing control of one’s bowels, an act that would be disgusting, humiliating, and ostracizing at home, but which is fairly common—even a perverse source of pride—in a country where typhoid, dysentery, amoebas, and worms are as common as a runny nose on a playground.  Still, it’s not something you want to hear from someone with whom you are in full body contact, so it was perhaps lucky for me that between the wind and the combined layers of helmet padding, I had no idea what Grant was shouting.  Assuming he was commenting on the landscape, or perhaps pointing out the magnificent sunset that had begun to bleed across the sky before us, I responded to the news that my friend might be sitting in his own filth with a thumbs up and a bellowed, “Great!”

(Spoiler alert: as it turned out, Grant had not joined the club, so we were both spared the sure-to-be-awkward clean up and recovery… for now.)

Method the second: cars. Whether you’re taking a bus or a bush taxi, you can be certain that one seat is intended for at least 1.65 bottoms.   This sounds horribly uncomfortable, but while I won’t say I relish the prospect, it ain’t so bad.  The body, it turns out, is pretty malleable, and once everyone has been slotted into place and sat on the appropriate laps, you find yourself relaxing into the framework of  human Tetrus. 

The one downside is luggage.

Amazing amounts of furniture, personal belongings, agricultural produce, and live animals can be strapped onto the top of a vehicle; where development has not proceeded sufficiently to bring overpasses, the sky (and not physics or the center of gravity) really is the limit.  However, leery of being the lone whitey on the bus, I tend to be overly cautious and keep my bags out of the car-top Jenga tower and on my lap.

Which is not a problem. Until I spend a week and a half being lured down the road to financial ruin by the glitz and glamour of my regional capital (apples! Oats! Chew toys for my neighbor’s teething baby! Fabric of all prints and patterns, including totally incomprehensible ones! These things must be mine!).  Overloaded market bag between my feet, backpack on my lap, moto helmet on my backpack, shoulder bag on my helmet: it was all I could do to hold a book aloft at an angle above my head, as though I were tendering the back row a view, or invoking the blessing of the Eucharist on my David Sedaris short stories.

The kid beside me, onto whose lap my water bottle kept rolling, tried to strike up a conversation.  This was the penultimate leg of my journey around the North, most nights of which had involved cramming three Volunteers to a bed.  I was exhausted, and really didn’t feel like explaining myself, my life story, and the U.S. government, yet again.  I kept my answers to a laconic minimum.  Yes, I lived in Cameroon.  No, I was not a teacher.  I worked in a health center.

He frowned at the book, Me Talk Pretty One Day.  “So… that’s a book for doctors?”

I should explain that leisure reading as a concept does not exist here. I thought about trying to explain the book, a collection of essays about the author’s life in New York and France—you don’t learn anything, see, but it’s fun—and gave up before I started.  “Yep,” I lied. “For doctors.”

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