Saturday, March 7, 2015

road trip cameroon

so before my trip i casually said to my colleague Gaston, over Skype how i've been looking at this forest block for years in a satellite image, but i've never actually seen it, you know? What do you say we go there and do some reconnaissance. sounds good he says, it only takes a day to get there...ah the last time an african told me something is a day away!
i suggested we leave at 6am, always better to be on the early side. at 9:30, i was still waiting. i call gaston "i wanted to print some maps before we go"
i printed a bunch, i brought them to you
"but they are too nice to bring to the field"
he ended up taking 2 hours to re-create the same maps i made -he could have just used my files, but no, he started from scratch, and what's worse, the black and white printer doesn't really convey all the sublte hues of greens and blues. he basically brought a grey map in the form of eastern Cameroon. nice one. 
we finally hit the road with emmanuel, the driver, whom i want to call manu, but he insists: emma. kinda girly but ok. we have congolese music blasting (my buddy fally!) and are in search for supplies. many, many bottles of water, but i really have my eyes set on the fresh baguettes, avocados, peanuts, and pineapples. i could survive on that. every time i see a stand, or someone with what i want on their head emma and gaston say, no, not here, just a bit further. finally we are out of yaoundé and i'm seeing my opportunity fade. i better see some pineapples! don't worry, says emma, we will pick some up in hawaii. 
yup, lo and behold an hour away mountains, and mountains, and mountains of pineapples. 5 for a buck, ladies coming from all sides and throwing them into our car. in the next town i am told, "too late for peanuts," until a guy comes cruising along with a big basket on his head. it's 500 francs for one dented ammunition casing full of peanuts. yesss!
in the next dusty town gaston says it's our last chance for a restaurant. already this town is without power and only one bar of cell phone network. we buy some beef from a guy grilling it over a warm fire. he hands over a slice and a toothpick to taste and we nod, ok, we'll take it. he tears off a piece of dark paper that was formerly a cement bag and wraps it up with some plantains to go. to my dismay the yellow powder he pointed to which i said "yeah, go for it!" is suuuuuuper spicy. the only beverages available to wash it down are 65cl bottles of fanta. 
i ask emma how much further and he says, so it takes 9 hours to get about halfway there, and since we only left at 10, well...he trails off. you're not supposed to ride in the dark so using simple math it seems we have spent a whole day on our voyage but are only 1/3 of the way...
later on the tarmac ends and the road turns into a mars red dust bowl, kicked up by 18 wheelers hauling giant, gargantuan loads of massive tree trunks, meters in diameter, hundreds of years worth of natural, brown wood, spray painted with codes and company names. the trucks keep coming, and coming. 
the front..
and the rear

all the vegetation lining the road is the same bright red, along with all the houses, the kids, their soccer balls. "and this is where the cameroon forest goes!" screams gaston. it's just like the movie i watched on the plane, i can't imagine what it's like inside of these huts with no window panes, with african print curtains as doors. dust probably covering everything. the houses are mostly crooked drab huts, with well appointed gravestones centered in their front yards, presumbaly the patriarch. they are covered with bright clean blue and white tiles and free of red dust, either maintained by their owners, or the goats who sit on them contently, probably enjoying a cool surface. close your windows! we resort to the a/c. our vehicle slowly turns from white to red. the houses that are just a few meters further from the road seem spared, why aren't the houses built further away? or maybe they were here before the road. who knows. every once in a while there is a truck broken down, or worse flipped over in a ditch, spilling its contents into palmy forests, somehow just managing to avoid the villages. except when it's the onion truck, then people are all scurrying to scoop up errant vegetables as we run them over plop plop plop. 

not a scene from interstellar

 we finally arrive to some town that resembles all the others, and check into a hotel, which is really just some relic house way past its heyday with a bunch of guys scurrying around. it was probably grand back in the day, but the picture frames are all dusty and broken and crooked, the oulets hang awkwardly out of holes in the walls and the screen windows look like someone punched their giant fist through them. there's a restaurant, but no one serving food, and the beer is lukewarm. there's a generator though, i delicately plug my computer into a dismembered socket and see sparks fly. there's actually water in the shower, though it's kinda brown. i show gaston how to toss the frisbee and as we are playing i see a fluffy white dog standing delicately atop his dog house, he looks like a polar bear balancing on the last piece of arctic ice. i go over and he wags his tail eagerly. the stench of piss and shit overwhelms me and i hop back from sea of termites and fire ants all around the tree which he is tightly chained to, the leash actually stuck in the ridge of the roof of his house holding him at an awkward angle. his food and water bowls are as dry, flipped over and haven't seen any contents in days. i look closer and notice his nose is basically rotting flesh, covered in flies and bugs, it's almost falling off. this animal is being tortured and he will haunt me for the rest of my life. every time i approach he gets all excited and wants to come and get pet, but i'm worried he has rabies, or maybe flesh eating disease and i'm scared to get close. i toss over some biscuits and he paws them and devours them with a rage. i ask one of the employees sitting under a tree if he ever eats or gets water, and why they are torturing him and i get the usual laugh, haha, white girl, it's just a dog. it's actually the same laugh i got when i asked if they serve breakfast (i was merely pointing at the yellowed sign that read breakfast: 7-10am). at night all the dogs of the village howl together like wolves in a sort of trance and i dream about letting the fluffy boy go. in the morning i make an attempt, his chain is literally drilled into the tree and he's too fucking stupid and affectionate for me to get close without him trying to nuzzle and snuggle his nasty wound towards my waist and i back away with tears in my eyes. i actually hope that he dies quickly and painlessly, though my biscuits ironically probably gave him more days to suffer.    
as we load up the truck we notice it has a flat. the driver replaces the tire and we need to bring the flat one to get fixed. this gives us a chance to go into town and get some coffee, and some nice guys cook up an omelette served with avocados and onions and mayo. gaston asks me if i have food allergies and i say no, and he says, "because the last guy i took out here spent a week on the toilet."
oh, that kind of food allergies! well i have a stomach of steel, mostly. gaston says good, because that meat from yesterday made me quite sick. that's a good sign... 
i am drinking my instant coffee with condensed milk when this man comes by and i'm like, he looks old, yet,, he's just really small! gaston introduces me to another gaston, a ba'aka pygmie who works for WWF. mini-gaston! i exclaim before i instantly regret it and wince at my words. he asks for a ride to his village and we're all sure, just meet us over there at the truck. he rubs his chin and says, i need to go to the coiffeur, but i will be fast, don't leave without me! 20 minutes later the spare is repaired and we are driving up and down the little main street, calling out, gaston! gaston! and honking. we go to every hairdresser - this town has 400m of a mainstreet and about 20 places to get your haircut. we pull up to every one and emma yells out, hey, have you seen petit gaston? he's really small! little ba'aka guy, can't miss him! and the person would respond, oh, that little man? he was just here but we were full so he went there...finally i say listen guys, we are so behind, sorry but we can't wait for petit gaston anymore and we drive away when suddenly petit gaston comes running, his little legs moving so fast i am making the giddeegiddeegideegidee sound in my head and he jumps in. i forgot a sweater! he says. it's 35 degrees and he ran back to his house to get a wool sweater. 
we continue along, going over a cool river ferry with some fun people who enjoy having their picture taken. we get to gaston's village and yup, it's ba'aka. cool leafy huts and tiny people. some guy comes over from the road and photobombs our session and pretends he's the ba'aka's best friend, but he's actually a gold miner, coming to ask them to take him into the forest. we talk about it later and yeah, everyone comes and exploits the poor ba'aka, known for their excellent forest and hunting skills, while their forests and wildlife disappear... 
we carry on through more villages and smouldering fields which used to be forest, and trucks with logs. we start our work, getting out occasionally to walk into the forest or a field and take some GPS coordinates and photos. we find a place that is selling plantains and he haggle with a bunch of shirtless guys. we go to put it on the roof of the truck and emma lets out a howl. put his back out or something...shit. he can barely walk but he drives us to the nearest clinic - 30km of bumpy roads away. we get to this desolate building and it's all ebola posters, and a few scary ones about genital herpes, and an official price list for operations. 60,000 CFA for a hernia, 80,000 if it's complicated. 
the end is the worst part
i'm thinking they'll give emma a massage or crack his back or something, but no, they give him an injection. the doctor is a young handsome fellow wearing a WWF shirt. i elbow Gaston, joking, turning the tables for once, hey, is the young doctor single? gaston says, "that man has a job, he certainly got captured by a cameroonian woman long ago." i say, winking, polygamy, right? emma winces in pain - i have two wives! gaston nods in dismay "and you have twice the problems, my friend." i later find out that all of emma's 8 kids are from the one wife. the other "does not give birth, she just helps with care." interesting. i think of all the guys who blow me kisses from the side of the road (which i theatrically catch and land on my cheek) they are just losers who only like me because i have a job!
we are soon back on the road, after visiting a chicken coop set up by a peace corps volunteer some 5 years back. they all talk animatedly about her, she was so dynamic! she did wonderful things! i think, now that's a pretty badass legacy to have...will people remember me? 
occasionally pass these police checkpoints, with a gendarme sleeping under a tree, while his wooden board with nails on it stops all cars coming through. they amble over and shake our hand, trade pleasantries with emma. this one guy looks right at me, "ashley's replacement???" you know ashley? she was my neighbor! and he goes on and on...sacrée ashley...
they guys notice i have become quiet, i've stopped saying eeeeeee! every time i see a baby goat or pig, i no longer take pictures of gaston, mouth breathing while cluthing his worn paperback entitled "everything is negotiable in life."
are you sick?? do you need to stop?
no, i'm just thinking...     

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some years ago one of my team happened to have three wives. When he came home drunk (twice a week), two of them usually hold the guy while the third gave him a correction. Probably he can't remember as it occured weekly.