Sunday, December 18, 2005

A Final Semi-Solo Adventure

Dear all,

A train ride to Ngaoundere (city) and Idool (village), in the arid Muslim North of Cameroun, was a totally sun-drenched, laid-back, dairy-loaded, hyphenated experience. Even the train ride, long and late as usual, was pleasant. Here are some reflections...

1. Train rides are hopelessly romantic...even if the toilet is a glorified hole to the ground whizzing below, the outside door won't stay shut, and you nearly fall from your unprotected upper bunk is so nice to weave through the country on a thread or two of metal. Even the regularly unsettling travel moments felt surreal and distant. ...At every screeching stop, children crowded the high windows to sell honey, bananas, papaya, and sticks of manioc; ordinarily this would make me feel bad, but now I could just reach out, buy honey and fruit at obscenely low prices, and lay back in my bed (out of sight, out of mind) to enjoy the purchases. The sleeper cabin was a refuge, a small and closed and comfortable world that permitted us to let in and out experiences, as we pleased. So it is more of a Train Trick than a Train Truth; if it's not a bush taxi you're traveling in in Cameroun, it feels like a different country entirely.

2. Over-specialization and poor communication make for inefficient work. I do like and support the division of labor in pin-making and other important industries, but for train security and customer service - not so much! ...The light switch in our cabin was particularly hard to find, so we asked the cabin security guard to help us. He did not know. We asked the passing stewardess, but she could not help. Finally, the train technician was summoned to demonstrate the very complicated switching "on/off" motion - a flick of the button - when all we needed was to be shown its location! ...When I noticed that the strap on my bed was missing, and that I might fall off and break my head, I again asked security and stewardess for a replacement. 'Twas to no avail. If only the train parts supplier was there, they explained, he might be able to help.

3. The snorer always falls asleep first. Just as true for sleeper cars, as it is in marriage and at slumber parties.

4. Don't check your watch. We covered 885 km in 19 hours - just about 47 km/hr. This is the same speed that I calculated, kilometer marker after kilometer marker, as I watched the land pass by from the window. 77 s/km, on average. Damn snorer, I couldn't sleep...

What a bright little paradise! The streets of Ngaoundere are sun-drenched and serene - all the buildings are low so that you can see the pink and blue sunset over the dusty market paths, and the clean and artful public squares with soft outdoor lights and burning wood stoves, are softly luminous in the night... For moments of rest from the blazing sun, I slipped into our neat little auberge for a nap or a shower. After hours, the most popular hang-out spot was a dairy bar - serving many times more yoghurt and warm milk than beer to its loyal customers.

Mornings were spent between the crowded and friendly corner breakfast joint (a true Pamela's equivalent, for you Pittsburghers) and the colorful and aromatic market, where piles of colorful spices and fruits wafted tempting scents throughout the stalls. Everything was good and cheap: hand-made jewelry, fuzzy horse-hair slippers, grapefruits and avocadoes, fresh yoghurt, cloth and sewing, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. So my major activity was ducking - into our simple auberge for a nap, between tight-fitted and randomly-numbered market stalls in search of a lost tailor's store #634, and under the curtains of warm and worn concrete dwellings at the side of the road, which opened into food courtyards. Women in the corner of the courtyard worked and chatted in their cave-like kitchen - under a huge draped tarp, the uneven ground was covered with stools, knealing bodies, and steaming pots of food. At the other corner, men ordered and were served huge tin platters of cous-cous and sauce, and sat cross-legged on the ground to eat. Being neither meat-eater nor male excluded me from most of these establishments, but I enjoyed finding them and inquiring after a veggie meal nonetheless - if only to catch a glimpse of the scene!

In the afternoons and evenings, it was safe to explore the central part of town. The public squares hosted good restaurants, alongside prayer areas (concrete slab or sand pit floor) and street entertainers. One unforgettable night, the biggest spectacle was that of a white girl screaming hysterically and running for her life, away from a fast-slithering king cobra and his hungry venom... The snake catcher was demonstrating his craft, and, despite the comforting explanations of his potion-filled amulet and its taming (temporarily de-venomizing) powers, I was slightly disbelieving and very, VERY frightened! He snatched the snake from only a foot or so away from my sandaled toes, and I must admit that it was not just a good demonstration - but a great advertisement - for his work. I wish him great success, so that he never has to do that to another poor person.

Does Idool have its name because it looks like 'ideal', and this is the ideal place to be? Or could it be because it sounds like 'idol', and I nearly idolize the chief of the village? Perhaps, by some very thoughtful and correct person, it was named for both of these reasons...

If I ever become the chief of a village - or really, if I ever get to live in a village - I will do it just like in Idool. We will all live in gorgeous round huts (boukarous), with big backyards and flowered front walkways; we will take our cattle on meandering two-week-long treks following the greening of the pastures (at night, sleeping in makeshift huts in the fields - isn't it romantic!); our small community of 2 000 will be the largest producer of milk in all of Cameroun; all of our children, all of them well-behaving, will attend school; we will eat cool yoghurt for breakfast, drink warm sugared milk for dessert, and pluck avocadoes and mangoes off of the trees on the way to work; and we will watch Jackie Chan movies and Ethiopian love music videos until late at night, discussing their genius plots and profound messages in devout seriousness.

Only one change to make - I would let the women out of their kitchens.

Aside from that issue of female oppression, which is huge but somehow not disruptive to the societies I've seen here in the North...this culture just WORKS. I don't know if it's the geography and climate, the dairy industry, or the predominantly Muslim religion in the North that makes it what it is: simply, functional. A city like Ngaoundere, in its calm and comfortable serenity, is immediately different from jostled and conflicted Yaounde. Not everybody in Ngaoundere is well-off, but they seem at least at peace with their surroundings. People on the streets are hardly ever menacing or begging; public spaces are respected and valued, well-kept and inviting; and the leisure culture seems to be fairly relaxed and innocent - dairy bars preferred over alcohol bars, sociable morning breakfasts with strangers, and friendly evening gatherings of old men in the parks. The streets are clean. The motorcycle drivers go slowly if you ask them to. Everybody in town, even the competing art dealers, are helpful when I inquire after the home/gallery of "Issek the Artist". And the Internet connection is not bad.

But what is good in Ngaoundere, is stunning in Idool. Not only does this small village produce more milk that any other region in the country, but they also put the proceeds from their sales to really good projects. The local school is totally well-run, and every school-age child in the village - yes, even the girls! - attend daily classes. The boukarou huts are built in an ingenious fashion, to maintain constant temperature and to protect from fire. (The huts have peaked thatched roofs on the exterior and flat wooden ceilings inside. The in-between space is filled with charcoal and soot, so that if the top ever catches on fire, the flames will not be able to eat through the middle to reach the dwelling area. The thick roof and concrete also floors regulate temperature.) Most villages have a helter-skelter design, clawing to rocky hills as if the houses have tumbled down the side and simply latched onto their random resting spots. ...Not surprisingly, Idool is different. All of the homes are arranged in quads - each house has a square plot of land, and every four plots share a corner to make up one large square. These composite squares are then constructed in a grid pattern, with wide streets running along all of their sides. The streets, though carved from dirt, are swept clean every morning and lined with enormous eucalyptus trees - so it looks like a desert, but not dusty, paradise. This layout does not define neighborhoods or other socioeconomic divisions; families just request a particular plot of land from the chief and, when it is granted, build their house. All of the families' farms and grazing fields are located on the periphery, so that the inhabited area is concentrated and efficient, and the village feels much smaller than it is. A man-made lake just outside of Idool has an odd shape; at first I was confused, but soon realized that it was made in the exact shape of Cameroun! Very whimsical, I think. A little farther away, after a good 20 minutes' walk, one comes across a magnificent waterfall. Somewhere between the lake and the waterfall, the chief's brother showed me where they plan to build a low-key and integrated tourist hut and museum, which will hopefully bring some money and attention to their community. Inspired, and with their blessings, I too chose a spot for my hut one day.

Unpredictable. Nail-biting. Leg-biting. ...What can I say? Never take a bush taxi when you're in a rush to get someplace.

Our train was to leave the Ngaoundere station promptly at 6:20 pm, and we were still stuck on the road near Idool, waiting for the promised bush taxi to come hurtling by, at 1:00 pm. We had already been waiting for two hours. (Cameroun runs on a slow clock until you are late, and then everything important becomes painfully on-time.) Finally the wretched vehicle came, and Tafor and I squeezed into seats that hadn't really been saved for us - my row for four was housing five or six people, and below me I felt a feathery warm thing brushing against my legs. Later, getting off the bus at one of the prayer breaks, I peered under the seats and into the dark underworld of the bush taxi: our van-size car, holding over 20 people, was also shuttling four live goats and six squawking chickens. Aaaah! Later on, after yet another prayer break, I was biting my nails and fretting about our train, when...something else bit me. A goat. A hungry goat was gnawing at my shin. I gave a little yelp, then consoled myself with the thought that it was certainly better than a king cobra bite. The optimism did not last long, however - because I looked out of the window and saw, to my horror, that we were being overtaken by a herd of cattle! (I acknowledge that the cattle herders have some remarkable efficiencies, but this was just not fair!!!) Three checkpoints followed, all run by different branches of the police and situated within 2 minutes of each other. We bumbled into Ngaoundere two hours after predicted, at a calculated and painful 9 km/hour... It was 3:29 pm, and the Western Union office with all of my train ticket money closed at 3:30.

Despite a Jackie Chan-inspired leap from the taxi that landed me right on a motorcycle seat, and the wild chase (pointing ahead, "Take me to the Western Union near the Mobil station, where the women sell doughnuts!") and windy hair-blowing that ensued, I arrived at 3:32 pm to find only locked doors. But an ATM (a blessed working one) saved the day, and after some final market pick-ups, I rolled up dusty-bitten-and-tired to meet Tafor at the train station. Nevermind that our reserved seats had been given to crash victims and that no spots were left on the train - that could stop not us now! I cleaned off my face a bit, solicited the help of a train conductor, strolled up to the ticket counter, gave my best story ever (plane leaving for the States tomorrow morning...desperately need to go home...kind and honorable sir, i know that you have the good heart and strong power to help us...), and bought two tickets for Yaounde. We boarded the train at 6:15 pm, and it actually left not more that five minutes later.

It was wonderful to come home to my sisters' smiling faces and a luxuriously clean-tiled shower, neither of which I had seen in a long time. I had done a lot of traveling lately... The next morning I got new braids put in and, in my great new do, spent the afternoon on the couch with a migraine and my first and only bout of stomach pains. By the next night, as I greeted my family from the airplane, I felt entirely better.




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