Friday, May 3, 2013

Notes from the Peanut Gallery

D'abord, let me thank everyone who responded to my last post, either by comment, email, or Facebook.  I was overwhelmed by the kindness of people who immediately reached out with love and support.  It was incredibly encouraging, especially as blogging sometimes feels like unspooling the thread of your thoughts into the faceless void of the Internet-- so thanks, those who picked up that thread and gave it a tug.  I was also interested to see that I seem to have touched a chord in more than one fellow PCV.  I'm glad to know I'm not alone, and would love to continue the dialogue my frustrated ranting has opened.  If we're all beating our heads against the same walls (and have been doing so for 50 years...), it would seem some re-evaluation of what we're doing and the way we're doing it might be in order.

On a lighter note: two things happened in the last few days that made me happy.  The first was the long anticipated arrival of The Rains.  Not to keep hammering this dry season business, but seriously, I was starting to feel like Simeon awaiting the consolation of Israel, or something-- Lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for after 87 years of waiting mine eyes have finally seen thy salvation. (Or, in this case, a solid torrential flash flood, which seemed pretty Messianic yesterday afternoon when it arrived.)  Thunder had been grumbling petulantly in the distance all day, but the last three times it threatened to rain, it was just a fake-out, so I didn't have my hopes up.  I had walked out into the square in front of the mosque next to my house, hoping to catch Idi, my all-purpose handyman, on a matter of my screen door latch.  Suddenly, and with no warning, the heavens were rent asunder (and yes, this dramatic language is fully justified; it was a dramatic business) and water bucketed-- poured-- thundered-- language gapes uselessly to describe the action of the water that was released as some celestial floodgates swept open.

The square had been buzzing with its usual mix of children selling beignets, other children harrassing their working friends, the men who perpetually lounge outside the mosque, the men who lounge around the moto stand, the men who lounge around Idi's boutique-and-abattoir, and probably some more men lounging somewhere.  Men in village lounge quite a bit.  Suddenly, though, even dignified elders were hiking their boubous to their knees and making tracks.  Cameroonians, like cats, seem to hate getting wet, and there was much shrieking and shoving as the knots of people scattered around the square all tried to shove into the same small sheltered overhangs.  The square turned into a pond before our eyes, the sheer force of the rain after so many dry months totally overwhelming the ground's capacity to absorb that much water.  One child clowned around for a moment under the deluge before losing his footing entirely and faceplanting into the swelling stream; this brought a bigger laugh than any of his previous antics, and he ran off, unharmed and grinning.

In ten minutes it was over, and by this morning the roads were once again dry.  They tell me in village it will be a few weeks still before the rain becomes regular.  Still, to feel the downpour drenching my skin beneath my clothes was a primal sort of release, and I am happier for it.

My second happy moment was this morning, hitching a ride on the peanut truck to my market town of Guider, there to catch the bus to the regional capital, Garoua.  The peanut truck leaves once a week from Douroum, which gave me an excuse to spend the night with my postmate, Becca, and our friend Maimouna. This morning I woke before dawn, dressed in the dark, and slipped out to make the early departure of the truck.  Even with my care, I almost missed it.  The truck, a beat-up Renault, was fully loaded with enormous sacks of peanuts which were in turn covered with two tiered rows of villagers; the whole thing was lumbering into motion when I jogged up. "Guider?" The driver hooked a thumb towards the back irritably. "Climb up, if you're coming!" he shouted back.

As always in Cameroon, there seemed to be no possible room to fit another person; and yet, as always, everyone shifted imperceptibly in turn, and a spot opened above the back right set of tires. I ran around the truck, passed up my backpack, then putting my hands flat against the side of the truck, mounted with one leg onto the enormous tire.  Hands appeared to take my wrists, and between my upward momentum and a judicious heave on the part of the wiry arms that held mine, I popped up on top of the mound of bagged peanuts.  I settled myself the right way around, facing out with my legs dangling over the side a good eight feet in the air.  Someone handed me my backpack, which I strapped on to my front, and with a fug of deisel fumes we slowly lurched on our way.

For a few moments I chatted with the man to my left, a potato seller who knew me by sight from the weekly market in Mandama.  It had not been a good season for potatoes-- he shook his head-- but he did all right.  People in Mandama knew him.  They trusted him to sell them good produce, not to fill the bottom of the bag with half-rotten potatoes like some farmers would.  Having exhausted the conversational possibilities of root vegetables, we settled into companionable silence. 

Rolling through the bush al fresco affords all sorts of advantages over conventional travel.  The press of bodies, usually accompanied by heat and odor, is mitigated by the cool morning breeze.  Instead of falling into the usual half-dazed stupor that envelops me in an overpacked bush taxi, I felt alive and alert to the world we were passing through.  To the east, the last strains of dawn echoed faintly, like violin strings bowed at a distance.  I watched attentively as we rolled through hamlets: here two men were holding a cow down while a third prepared a knife for halal slaughter; there a child squatted behind an acacia to take his morning toilet, doubtlessly spreading cholera or typhoid or some other water-borne illness.  I watched as a baby goat landed feet first in a pile of ash, and sneezed; later we startled a bird out of a tree, and it winged swiftly away in a flash of sapphire wings and forked tail.

The ride was over soon enough, and I made my way to the bus station in Guider, where my early arrival allowed me time to savor a cup of chai, the hot, sweet, milky tea children sell, before boarding for Garoua.  It was a pleasant morning, and a pleasant change from the normal stress and chaos of travelling in country.  I do believe I'll be buying my ticket for the peanut gallery from now on.

A boy expertly pours chai (no relation to chai as we think of it, just tea) from one glass to another to cool it before handing it over to his customer.

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