Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Second-Class Citizens

The train that slowly wends its way once a day between Ngaoundéré and Yaoundé has four levels of comfort available for the passenger, depending on the size of his wallet and his capacity for the physical proximity of strangers.

For those who prefer to travel in the lap of luxury, there are two-person sleeper cars, or wagons-lits.  I have never been inside one of these spacious chambers, but tantalizing glimpses suggest that each room has its own sink, not to mention space for luggage.

The next step down—the upper end of what Peace Corps will typically pay if a volunteer is traveling on official business—is the four-person wagon-lit.  Two sets of fold-down bunks fit snugly in a small room, with space above to precariously shove bags.  These sleeper cars are not at all uncomfortable; the beds are small, but nevertheless beds, and the passenger receives astonishingly good treatment for a country where customer service is an unknown entity.  A perky, uniformed stewardess comes around, slides the door open, and takes orders for dinner to be delivered to the car on a silver tray.  The braised fish and plantains are, expectations of train food to the contrary, delicious.  Soap and toilet paper are provided in every car.  By Cameroonian standards, this is staying at the Ritz Carlton on rails.

For those too parsimonious to spring for a wagon-lit, first class is the next alternative.  In first class there are no beds, only seats.  Sleeping sitting up is of course less comfortable, and the lights are kept on all night.  The legroom, though, is sufficient, and snacks can be bought at every stop off the heads of women and children who stroll up and down the platform calling their wares: Manioc! Bananas! Pineapples!  At several thousand francs cheaper than buying a bed, first class is my ticket of choice for un-reimbursed personal travel.  Volunteer opinions differ, but I am not alone in defending first class. 

No one, however, would advocate choosing second class, the lowest rung on the ladder of comfort and cost.  I had heard enough anecdotal evidence to prejudice me against it—cattle car, some call it, one of the nicer names I’ve heard; others recount horror stories of standing for 16 hours.   I am all for new experiences and cultural immersion, but could have happily completed my service without ever traveling second class.

Until two days ago, when I tried to buy a last-minute ticket to head to Yaoundé and was informed by the stony-faced Camrail employee at the ticket window that the train was completely sold out—unless, of course, I wanted second class.  Second class never sells out, because tickets don’t correspond to single seats.  Tickets correspond to a right to be on the train; how you fit yourself in is up to you.  Women sleep in the aisles, children get shoved under their parents’ seats, pugnacious adolescents quarrel to stretch out in the luggage racks, old men perch on cargo.  Once all the space to slump on the floor is crammed full, unlucky shmucks who get on at a later stop than Ngaoundéré do indeed end up standing until Yaoundé.  The cars quickly reek of urine, sweat, and fermented manioc; moving around is next to impossible.  It is like being shipped to the Gulag, or Hell; and like Stalin or Satan, Camrail can always find room for a few more damned souls.

And thus I found myself shoehorned into a tiny 4-person banquette from 6:00 Saturday evening until noon on Sunday.  The hard plastic benches faced each other, forcing my seatmates and me to zipper our knees in between each other’s legs.  Getting a book out of the bag at my feet required a coordinated three-person shift.

The four of us quickly developed camaraderie, as one does when forced into such situations.  At the first long stop, the portly gendarme across from me leaned out of the window to buy mets de pistache, a Cameroonian snack made of crushed melon seeds and dried fish wrapped in banana leaves, boiled, and then smoked.  He hauled himself back in and fell heavily into his seat, then wordlessly distributed the pistache to the four of us.  I expressed surprise and thanks, commenting that I didn’t often eat pistache; it’s not particularly popular in the North.  At the next stop, my seatmate—a long-faced man with small, even teeth, traveling to Douala with three young nieces—writhed out the window, and dropped a second met de pistache in my lap.  “To make up for the ones you’re not eating up North,” he murmured with a shy smile.

Second class passengers do get second-class treatment; for once, even my white skin bought me no favors.  An hour after the train pulled out of the station, I thought to go while away some of the evening chatting with another PCV traveling to Yaoundé on first class.  I made my tortuous way over and around the crush of bodies to the door that slid between the second class cars at the end of the train and the first class cars in the middle.  As I reached for the handle, a gendarme stopped me. 

“Second class passengers aren’t allowed into first class,” he told me officiously.   I explained that I wasn’t planning on trying to sneak into a seat I hadn’t paid for, I just wanted to talk to my friend—he could see her, I pointed out.  She was the other white girl, two rows back.

He repeated his interdiction, staring straight ahead.  I tried again, keeping my tone light; he could watch us through the door if he wanted, and if I seemed like I was staying too long he could come fetch me back.  I would pinky promise not to go anywhere beyond the third row.  He didn’t crack a smile.  I kept at him—more out of boredom than a real burning desire to chat with the other PCV—and finally he conceded slightly.  “You can write a note,” he told me grudgingly, “and I’ll deliver it to your friend.  But you stay here.”

In first class and wagon-lit, uniformed conductors in peaked caps come around once to punch tickets—a standard practice.  In second class, there were multiple ticket checks, and several national ID card checks, carried out not by train conductors but by armed police.  Every few hours I was shaken roughly awake for one check or the other, and around 2:00 in the morning a few passengers in the next car over got hauled off the train.

By the time we reached Yaoundé, I was exhausted and cramped.  My legs were aching, and I was ready for a hot shower, an actual bed, and a good meal.  Still, I’m glad I had the experience.  I understand a little better how Cameroonians who are not wealthy expect to travel and to be treated.  I’m glad I could rely, like Blanche DuBois, on the kindness of strangers.  If nothing else, any other form of transportation I take from hereon out will seem infinitely more manageable, because at least I’m not being shipped to the Eastern Front in a cattle car of plantains and peed-on people.

Just don’t expect me to be buying a ticket for second class again any time soon.

A friend and fellow PCV, Dale Wahl, escaped second class by using the fifth, unofficial option: paying off the conductor for a seat in the cafe car.

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