Dust tans and travel woes

It’s been a while since my last post, but for good reason: it’s been a busy month. In the last few weeks I have been traveling a lot, have picked up a number of side projects, and participated in an impressively well-organized multi-day health fair in and around the village of Messok (pics below). For an idea of the other projects I am currently working on check out the page entitled ‘Projects’.

I am currently writing from the Peace Corps case (pronounced ‘cause’) in the regional capitol of Bertoua. [Peace Corps has a number of houses throughout the country for the purpose of housing PCVs passing through the region or attending meetings or other work-related trips. Each case is equipped with comfortable beds, clean bathrooms, libraries, and internet. I can’t express how helpful these are to have, and I have to hand it to the PC Cameroon country directors for organizing and maintaining them. Not all PC countries have such a network of houses, so we are pretty lucky in this regard.] In the last few days I have been to Yaoundé, Bertoua, and Batouri on my way to an engagement party for PCV Jessica and her Cameroonian fiancé Jupiter in Batouri. The party was a great time (thanks to wonderful host Janelle), and it was really cool to meet up for the first time with the other PCVs in the East region. There are only 8 of us here out of ~180 volunteers in the country, despite the fact that the East is by far the largest region, encompassing about 1/5 of the country. It is also the least developed, which makes getting around a more difficult and a much longer process, but engenders a sense of unity among the volunteers here. Every Cameroon PCV has a travel woe story, but I have to admit that up until now I’ve been fairly spoiled. Travel in Cameroon, you see, is just not like most other places. And in the East, it is an entirely different beast. A giant, hairy, dirty, mean jungle beast.

My first taste of this was about a month ago, when I was supposed to come to Bertoua for the quarterly regional meeting, At about 6pm on a Saturday I bought a ticket for the voyage the next morning, where I was told to be at the station at 3:30am for departure to Abong-Mbang. There is only one road in either direction from Lomié – to the south, where you will find a few other tiny villages on the way to Congo, or to the north, where after 125km the network of paved roads begins at Abong-Mbang and you will find 95% of the population and 99.999% of the infrastructure of Cameroon. Needless to say the bus only goes in one direction – to the north, and it only leaves once a day – at 3:30am. When I arrived at 3:30am that Sunday there was no bus, only a handful of other sleepy passengers. And so I did what I was becoming accustomed to doing. I waited.

After about an hour I noticed people starting to trickle off and leave. Then I noticed that the man working the ticket counter (and ostensibly the man with all the information) was now nowhere to be found. But other people stayed, and not wanting to miss my one chance to get to Bertoua that day, I waited with them. After another hour or so had passed, an overloaded bush taxi pulled up to the station and 8 or 10 people piled out of the 5-passenger sedan. [All Cameroonian travel vehicles resemble clown cars, as any empty space is seen as an opportunity to fill it – with another person or two, or chickens, or plantains, or whatever.]

After the chauffeur had finished unloading the top of the car – which was stacked with bags as high as the car itself – I asked him if he had seen any sign of the bus from Abong-Mbang. He chuckled a bit and said he had seen it, but it was a ways back and that they had slid off the side of the road. The people in it, he said, had spent the night in the trapped bus, presumably trying to sleep crammed together like sweaty sardines. [This, I would later find out, is not uncommon during the heavy rainy reason, during October and November.] So after 2½ hours of waiting, I decided that I would check back later. When I checked back later in the afternoon, the bus was just arriving. The chauffeur, understandably, was exhausted and in a sour mood after having spent the last 34-odd hours in the bus, and would not be going back to Abong-Mbang that day. Considering how bad the roads were, there was no way I would make the 9am meeting in Bertoua even if the bus did indeed leave at 3:30am on Monday morning – which it never actually does.

This time, I was actually able to get out of town. I left Lomié at about 5am last Tuesday morning, after a violent thunderstorm had knocked out power and the cell phone network. Deciding it was a good time to be leaving town, there were an unusually large number of people waiting to take the bus that day. There are a few types of buses common in the East; the large Greyhound-style buses that go between Yaounde and other cities; ‘coasters’, which are a bit smaller and usually have about 21 passenger seats; and affectionately-named prison buses, which are smaller than coasters and have a grate in between the driver and the passengers (hence the name). The buses that go between Lomié and Abong-Mbang are coasters. In each row there are four seats, but Melo Voyages (the lone bus agency in Lomié) insists that there is actually room for five. On Tuesday, due to the large number of passengers, they put six – which is enough room for one cheek and a little more, but not an entire rear end. Children also do not count as passengers, no matter how old or large they are. So in my row that day there were actually ten people, 6 adults and four kids. On my left knee were two people – a woman with a baby on here lap, and on my right knee was the 5 or 6 year old son of another passenger. [It is also common to be handed a child or a chicken to hold onto for the duration of a trip, because as Cameroonians are fond of saying, Nous sommes ensemble (“We are together”).] Aside from the two times we had to get out to push the bus through the mud and the one time the gendarmes made use all get out, show our IDs, and take down all the baggage from the top of the bus in search of illegal bushmeat, I spent an uninterrupted ten hours like that. Which made the five-hour trip from Abong-Mbang to Yaoundé later that day a breeze. I have to admit, though, that there is a certain sense of togetherness that comes from trips like that. Misery loves company, after all. And nous sommes ensemble.

On each of the past three days I have also been in a bus for between 4 and 8 hours, so while I technically should have gone back to Lomié today, I’m taking the day to recoup and stretch my legs, whether PC likes it or not. Tomorrow is going to be another long day, after all. I just hope it doesn’t rain tonight, otherwise I may spend all night tomorrow crammed in a coaster like a sweaty sardine, with God knows who on my lap.

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