Pidgin for: Traveling sucks in Cameroon.
I’ve made brief references to the horrors of traveling here, but let’s get into it. Let’s get our hands dirty. The following manual will teach you, loyal reader, how to travel from the nearest banking city of Bamenda, to Wum. Esoteric knowledge abounds!
If you want to go to Wum, the first thing you need to do is find a taxi willing to go eight miles out of the city. Usually this means taxi hopping. Throw in a lot of stuff to carry or a sweaty traffic jam and these forty-five minutes can easily put you into that aggravated, just-below-boiling state familiar to travelers everywhere. Then the fun begins.
Once you get to the “Wum park”, there are two travel options: Corollas, and prison buses. In case the nomenclature didn’t tip you, Corollas are by far the better option, but they aren’t always available (side note: 94% of all cars in Cameroon are Corollas).
In a Corolla, there will typically be four passengers in the back seat, two in the front seat, and then a seventh wedged in between the driver and the stick shift. This person is called the “petite chauffeur”. Don’t be this person. Usually a baby or a child or three, plus the driver, will push the total number of humans in the car into the double digits.
Note that children do not count as a seat up to age twelve or so. Yes. Age twelve. They are definitely big enough, at that point, to make your ass more uncomfortable than it would have been otherwise, but they do not effect the number of paying adults. It’s like ridiculous carry-on luggage at the airport, except a thousand times worse. Frequently, when a mother has multiple babies, you will be asked to hold her damp, wailing, vomit-prone demon spawn for the whole trip. Amateur move! Don’t fall into this trap!
All of the luggage gets thrown into the back, which can be a spectacle to behold. We’re talking the trunk of a Corolla here. People will put in multiple 100lb bags of rice, a few duffel bags, a goat, a cage of chickens, several cones of plantains, a mattress, four table chairs, and a bed frame. The trunk is almost always open. Every driver has a few dozen yards of rubber straps tied to various points on the back of his car; these will be used to clamp the trunk down, and hold the cargo from spilling out of the back. You know how sometimes someone’s ass will just like balloon out of her in flagrant disregard of her other physical proportions? Cars here look like the worst case of that you’ve ever seen. No matter how much is in (our bulging out of) the trunk, they can make more fit. Somehow, against all spatial understanding, they can always make more fit…
…of course, if you happen to be transporting something fragile…
So, sometimes you aren’t as lucky as all that. Sometimes the fleet of Corollas has already been dispatched, and you’re stuck taking a prison bus. Woe is you! These are small buses which have been specially outfitted by Cameroonians for comfort and ergonomics… ha! Just kidding. So the buses were manufactured with three seats per row, but when they arrived in Cameroon the agencies installed a fourth seat that folds down into the aisle to fit more passengers. Wall-to-wall bodies. As you glumly trot over from the empty Corolla stable to the prison bus agency, try your hardest not to think about what would happen if your rickety, jerry-rigged, clanker of a prison bus caught on fire. For the love of God, think of anything except that. OK, are you not thinking about it yet? Good.
Oh yeah, also, it’s a “prison bus”, so literally everything inside is metal and pointy and uncushioned and instantly painful as soon as you touch it.
You might think that your first order of business would be buying a ticket. You’d be wrong. Seats vary wildly in their comfort range, from “awful” to “illegal in Guantanamo Bay”, so it can get pretty cutthroat. One time, the folding seat was missing its cushion, leaving only a rusted iron rim with a paint bucket underneath. Claim your seat immediately! Take what’s yours! No mercy!
There are a few things to consider with seat selection. First, the front row next to the driver is prime real estate. You might have to fight someone for it even if you put your bag down first, but it’s worth it. Avoid the row behind the driver, however! With so much leg room it’s very tempting, but they like to suspend a board in that leg space and seat another row of passengers facing the back of the bus, so your legs are kind of zippered in and someone is breathing on to your face. It’s a gamble you don’t want to take.
Next, avoid the folding chairs and the next seat over. The backs on the folding seats are very short, resulting in debilitating spinal collapse, and because they overfill the rows, any person next to a folding chair must rest his or her crack on the metal hinge connecting said chair to the rest of the seats, with a cheek suspended on either side. One word: potholes.
The final thing you want to take into account is getting a window seat. 80 degrees is unbearably cold for most Cameroonians, and somehow the wind coming in from an open window makes it “difficult for them to breathe”… I haven’t gotten a good answer yet, it doesn’t matter. What it means for you is that if you don’t want to add “bathing in a fetid human swamp” to the list of unpleasant things you’re going to deal with on this journey, get control of the window! The downside is that you will have to fight with Cameroonians the entire trip: “Please, can somebody stop that horrible fresh air from coming in! I’m dying here!”
Quick aside, I am struggling to include all the gory details. Seriously, I might miss some. It is overwhelming how many factors conspire to make you miserable. I can’t make this up.
In case you haven’t picked up on the way things go here yet, the four seats (including the folding chair) accommodate five persons. You can usually count on one spare baby, child, or mesh cage of chickens per row, but you won’t always get so lucky. One time I saw a woman try to add four unpaid children to her row, and two to the row behind her. It can get messy, and contrary to what you might think from UNICEF ads, there are some legendary asses in this country.
“How do all those asses fit on one seat,” you might reasonably inquire. Africa magic. Also, staggering. One ass will press against the back of the chair, and the next one will squeeze forward so the two pelvic bones aren’t in direct contact. You will frequently find yourself underneath someone else’s ass, or, if it’s a big mama, somehow sucked into it a little. If you got that window seat, this leads to a weird phenomenon in which one side of you is bruised and battered from getting slammed against the wall, and the other side is wet and sticky from being partially submerged in another human’s flesh folds. Sometimes the people on the ends need to sit sideways, with their hips on the seats and their asses on the walls. Usually one or two people per row also need to lean forward the whole ride so there’s enough shoulder space.
So, you got “your” seat (subjective term), you’ve waited two and a half hours for all thirty-one seats to fill up (buses don’t leave at a particular time, they leave when they’re full), and the cargo on top of the bus literally doubles its height and damn near matches its weight but you’re trying really hard not to think about fires and you’re pretty sure it’s time to get going. Not so fast, tiger! Hold tight for at least one savage, screaming argument about who’s going to sit where. It happens every time, without fail. I told you, some of the seats really suck.
Fifteen humid minutes later, the bus is finally moving… No! Wait! What!? Why did it stop moving!? Ah, the driver had to go yell at his friend. Five minutes pass. The bus moves again. Two minutes pass… uhm, why are we stopping again? It is too damn hot for this, the bus needs to be moving at all times, for real what is happening? Oh, the driver needed to go yell at his other friend. Ten minutes pass. OK, here we go… no. Not again. I can’t do it again I mean ARE YOU SERIOUS IT’S BEEN A HALF HOUR AND WE HAVEN’T GONE MORE THAN TWO MILES I’M SOAKING IN SWEAT AND I’M ALREADY EXPERIENCING A DEEP PELVIC ACHE THIS IS SERIOUSLY NOT FUCKING COOL!
This time it’s the Gendarmes checkpoint. This is the moment when everyone realizes that they forgot to stow their IDs in a convenient location and all thirty-one sardines clumsily and painfully try to reach their wallets at the same time. Invariably, one person won’t have valid documentation, and he will always be sitting in the back row. It’s kind of amazing. Everyone will have to get out so he can get out, and the whole bus will wait fifteen minutes while he negotiates the bribe he’s going to pay the inspecting officer before you can continue. Then this will happen two more times at the Police and Road Safety checkpoints. Also the driver has thirteen more friends to stop and greet.
Now, things are certainly worse on the prison buses, but don’t mistake me, the Corolla is a far cry from delightful. At the end of the day, you still have fifty miles on the most bombed-out goat path in the history of civilization. You know potholes, right? Potholes are what happen on those cute little Vermont roads which people won’t pave because they fancy their town “quaint”. We don’t have potholes, we have meteoric craters. Minefields of them. They add bone-shattering texture to the surrounding boulders and loose rocks and riverbeds. Oh yeah, and you’re traveling in a car with 800.000 miles, minimum. There are no shocks.
Something is going to hurt, plain and simple… probably multiple things. Let me rephrase. If only one thing hurts, you’re having a great fucking day. Maybe a mama’s planetary ass is compressing your femoral artery, choking out all blood flow to your left leg. Maybe the metal bar on the seat in front of you is burying into your flesh and chipping away at your kneecaps. More than likely your hips are being slowly, excruciatingly dislocated by the multiple pressures imposed on them. Your spine is twisted into a three-dimensional chiropractic holocaust and your head is bleeding, yes, bleeding, after the driver misjudged a crater and jumped you into one of the angular metal support beams which traverse the roof. I estimate that these frequent, devastating cranial collisions have cost me some 40% of my what was I talking about?
When you’re sitting there trying to decide whether you want to try and jockey for a little more leg room, or a less cataclysmic spinal twist, keep in mind the following rule: no matter how bad it is, it can always get worse. Any space you make could be filled immediately by a hunk of compacted flesh just waiting to spill out into a narrow new cavity, and you might actually concede precious territory. There’s no way to guarantee that you will be the one to profit from the adjustment, and let’s be honest, there’s only about a half a centimeter of adjustment room to begin with. Maybe 5% of these adjustments pay off. Maybe. After that, a coin toss will tell you whether it stays the same or gets worse. Usually you squirm just to take your mind off how much pain you’re in.
One advantage to the Corolla is that it’s comparatively light and agile, and you only suffer for about two and a half hours. A trip in a prison bus is a three and a half hour minimum, but I’ve seen six hours more than once. Either way, you’re almost there. Your body is bent, twisted, bruised, and sweaty, your skeletal structure is permanently rearranged, and consistent deprivation of blood and oxygen has instigated mild muscular dystrophy in your legs, but it’s the home stretch…
WILD CARD, BITCHES! EVERY TIME!
Maybe it’s a flat tire or an overheated engine. Sometimes a self-absorbed-bottom-feeding-non-human-mouth-breather will request to get off the bus less than a mile away from home, forcing everyone to get out for her, and forcing the driver to climb on top of the bus to untie all the cargo to find her bags. For some reason people actually put up with this. One time someone did this at the bottom of a huge hill, and fifteen minutes later, after all the cargo was tied back down, it became apparent that the bus couldn’t take the hill without momentum. The driver actually turned the bus around and climbed the hill in reverse, which worked for some reason I still would like a mechanic to explain to me. I really wish I was kidding.
When you finally dismount, your numb, dead legs usually fail you immediately and you have to cling to the bus for support. Numerous motorcycle drivers will belligerently impose their assistance on you. Your eyes are soulless and your mouth is slack. Everything hurts… Welcome home!
Quick shout-out to my friends in even more remote places than me. You know who you are. Whenever I’m about to break, I think of you… if that’s any consolation. There are a couple PCVs who endure the same road as me, pass right through Wum, and then enjoy another four to seven hours of ROADS THAT ARE SOMEHOW EVEN WORSE. Pray for them.
…I meant this to be short. I guess the description should parallel the experience.
UPDATE: I knew I would forget something… another PCV just reminded me of the odors! Oh my! Rancid BO is the the most common offender, but the cars are really old, so sometimes you’ll be treated to a trickle of gas fumes filtering through the vents, killing you slowly.