Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Thank God for REI

Allow me to set the scene: a steamy evening after a day of rain in dirty, mosquito-dense Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon-- known to some as the armpit of Africa.  I was snuggled into the front seat of a taxi beside a ponderous momma in a formless pink kaba, the window beside me rolled all the way down to let some air (albeit muggy air) circulate.  In the back seat sat two of my closest friends from training a year ago, Brian and Bryant.  It was nearing the end of a long two weeks of preparing to train the incoming stage, and we were all tired.  We had dined sumptuously on roasted chicken in basil sauce (them), a tower of sauteed vegetables and spicy piment (me) and fresh tropical fruit smoothies (all the above), and were headed back to our transit house for the night.  

About halfway to our destination, traffic snarled into an impenetrable jam-- hardly unusual in Yaounde, where traffic lights are but suggestions, and taxis often turn off their engines in anticipation of the wait to cross an intersection.  We sat at the bottom of a hill, breathing in unfiltered exhaust and watching the red brakelights that formed an unmoving, hypnotic pattern above us.  In the back seat, Brian and Bryant were once again talking about video games, a conversation to which I was unable to contribute, so I gazed out instead at the wet, broken pavement.  The evening was still young, and the sidewalk was full with foot traffic and mommas squatted at grills, hawking plantains and African prunes. 

A youngish man, not badly dressed, shuffled up to the open window.  He communicated nonverbally with ten fingers bunched at his lips, then spread open beseechingly: the universal sign language of begging.  I shook my head, avoiding his eyes, and when he didn't leave, I glanced up.  "I'm sorry," I said firmly. "I have nothing for you."

He continued to hover, and I began to feel trapped in the immobile taxi, all too aware of how open the window was and how close he was to me.  "Please leave," I warned, then more sharply: "Degages-toi!" Disengage yourself; go away.  He inched closer to the taxi, and Brian-- similarly uneasy-- reached his arm out of the window from the backseat, trying to ward him off.

He was now looming into the window, filling the entire frame, and my stomach fell.  Time started doing strange things, every second stretching itself across moments.  I suddenly knew before he moved that he was going to lunge, and flashed through several possibilities-- rolling up the window?  No time, he'd be in the car before I could fumble my way to the manual roller.  Opening the door into him?  Same problem.  All I could do was instinctively tighten my grip on my bag, a canvas REI tote foolishly slung over my right shoulder-- the one closest to the door.  

Like a coiled spring released, he sprung, snatching the bag from my lap.  Had I not kept it hooked onto myself and presciently grabbed the handles he might have swept it cleanly out the window and booked it down the street-- but my anticipatory instinct meant he hauled me halfway out along with the bag, clocking my head against the top of the door in the process.  The bag is REI's reusable tote, which turns out to be of better quality than anything sold in Cameroon, as evidenced by the amount of strain to which it was submitted without ripping.  We began a game of tug-of-war, sawing my right bicep back and forth over the window frame.  I yelled the entire time, a guttural bellow ripped from our primate past, with no distinct aim other than drawing attention or scaring my aggressor away.

Meanwhile, Brian had scrambled his way to the door handle and flung the door open and into the thief, who danced sideways with the force of the blow, allowing me some slack to reel the bag closer.  One point, Team White Man.  I should explain that Brian, who introduced me to both the P90X and Insanity high-intensity interval training systems, works out daily.  He can hold a plank position for five and a half minutes (to my minute and a half).  His pectorals and triceps are not so much defined as explicated in multiple volumes, with an annotated bibliography and concordance.  

All this to say, my assailant was either driven by desperation or mad tenacity, because he still did not let go.  I thought when the bag didn't pop out of the taxi, and I resisted, he would drop it and run.  He didn't.  I thought when I started my full-throated scream-- which did draw the attention of quite a number of bystanders, not that they did anything but sit back and watch the show-- he would run.  He didn't.  I certainly thought that when Brian got out of the taxi and this punk saw how sticky the situation was soon to become, he would do a quick cost-benefit analysis, cut his losses, and get out of dodge.

He didn't.

He and Brian locked eyes, and for what felt like ages (although again, unruly time; it was probably less than seconds) they simply stared at each other.  Then Brian moved towards him, fists clenched, and he finally dropped the tote and scampered.  The crowd of bystanders infuriatingly parted to let him pass-- having seen the entire debacle, knowing exactly what he had been trying to do.  Brian got back in the taxi, we rolled up the window and locked the passenger doors, and thankfully the gridlock loosened up enough to let us ease up the hill.  The driver was clucking indignantly.  "Quel villageoise!" he scoffed-- what a peasant-- a label that amused me in its unfounded prejudice.  A villager would never have this kind of audacity; he couldn't get away with it in a place where everyone knows everyone and trust is so essential.  It is exactly the urban anonymity of Yaounde that allows crime to thrive.  

But all was well.  The canvas tote had twisted in our grapple, keeping everything in it contained inside, so I had miraculously lost nothing.  The momma beside me patted my knee with no-nonsense Cameroonian sympathy: "Don't cry. You're fine."  And she was right, I was.  My underarm was ripped and bruised, my right temple was going to have a goose-egg in the morning-- but my belongings and my person were intact.

Thanks, REI. 

Brian and Bryant (not on the evening in question) enjoying real coffee in a real coffeeshop in Bryant's vacation dreamland post, Dschang. There are also paddleboats, and cloudy mountains, and a pool. I am moving immediately.

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