12.24.2013

Aller Retour upon the Abong Mbang Express

I apologize in advance for the length of this post. Consider this a disclaimer for length.

I moved to the East for a challenge. I knew the road leading to Lomié was bad before coming here, but during my initial move, I thought it wasn’t too awful. Oh, how wrong I was. Please take a seat and listen to what my most recent trip upon the Abong Mbang Express had to offer.

I was living on $5 for quite a few days and I realized it was high time to get my butt over to Bertoua to do some banking. Thinking that I was the Queen of the road, I figured I could leave Lomié Monday and return on Tuesday – this is called an aller retour­, round trip. I went to the gare in Lomié and bought my ticket for the only bus on Monday, which happened to leave at 3:30am, as they always do. I bribed the ticket seller $1 to save me the stick-shift seat up front with the driver, and then I headed home and got to bed early so I didn’t sleep through my alarm.

The next morning, power was out. I stumbled around my still unfamiliar house, made some oatmeal and coffee, and tried to gather my things. I walked the short distance to the bus station in fear of being bitten by a green mamba snake, which have indeed been spotted outside of my house. After far too many missteps due to both uneven ground, mistaken green mamba sightings, and for being far too distracted by looking up at the brilliant stars, I finally arrived at the bus station promptly at 3:25am to find myself to be only the third person to arrive. I sat and waited. And then I waited some more. At about 4:00am more people began to show up along with the bus driver and the ticket seller. At about 4:15am my name was called out and I hopped in the front seat, smashed for the next several hours between the bus driver (who was thankfully not hung-over or drunk as far as I could tell) and a mama.

The bus finally started moving. The lights were turned off, but the Hindi Bollywood music and Ricky Martin CDs were turned on…loud. Despite this, all the Cameroonians managed to fall asleep. Unfortunately the same could not be said for me. This was not only due to the blaring music, but also to poor road conditions. With every pothole in the already unpaved road, our minibus moaned, creaked, and made a sound that seemed as if a very important piece was dislodged. We made a stop every 30 minutes or so for the driver to ask hitchhikers where they wanted to go. If their destination suited him, they climbed on in our already over-packed minibus.

The sun began to rise and paint the horizon brilliant shades of pink and purple that no painter's pallet could create. I peaked behind me at the other dozing passengers and noticed that our what should be 11-seater bus was holding 20. A new row of passengers was added behind the driver and were forced to face backwards, there was an additional person added to each row, there was one guy who literally had to lay across all the passengers in row 3, and an additional passenger had to ride with his torso outside of the side window due to the lack of space. This is not to mention the handful of chickens that also joined us for the journey. At one point, a guy was riding on top of the van.

Just as I marveled at this incomprehensible feat, and after patting myself for making the smart decision to buy myself the front seat (no extra passengers can be added to the front!), I noticed the driver stick his head out of his window and yell something to the passenger who rode with his torso out of the side window. The car came to a halt and several passengers climbed out. After a few minutes, we discovered we had a tire problem.

With this revelation, everyone fumbled their way out of the bus – except me. I sat in my seat, enjoying the extra space and I tore open the crackers and peanuts I brought for the ride. After 45 minutes, I began to get restless…and I realized I really needed to pee. I got out and walked up and down the road looking for somewhere to pee in private and found no such location. The other passengers were conversing, feeding their children, or in the case of many of the men, drinking whiskey sachets. I walked over to one of the nearby passengers and asked where I could pee – she merely pointed me to the direction of one of the huts. I walked over and asked the man who lived in the hut if he had a latrine. He laughed at me and said no and instead pointed to the forest – good enough for me. I walked a minute into the forest and did my business, hoping that none of the leaves I used to clean myself were poisonous.

I walked back and joined some of the other women. We waited and watched the men change the tire. As we waited, the villagers went about their daily lives, probably quite accustomed to vehicle problems along this road. I noticed one lady leading her son by the hand. Her child, whose age is impossible to guess – perhaps 2? – was likely the most malnourished child I have seen thus far. He was the poster child for Kwashiorkor malnutrition. His hair was discolored, he had edema all over his body, with particularly swollen joints, and his empty belly puffed out like an old man’s. The mother plopped the kid down and began to bathe him with cold water. He cried out for a second, and resigned to the fact that crying consumed energy he did not have. While malnutrition is common in the Northern regions because of the lack of food, malnutrition in the East makes no sense given that food is abundant. The East is the most underdeveloped and poorest health region in Cameroon, facts that are absurd when you notice the abundance of food and natural resources that surround you. After another 30 minutes or so our van was repaired, which put an end to the agony of watching the little boy. Soon again, we were off.

On the Road to the Big Mud Pit
With the sun now risen, there are certain things you can’t help but notice along the road. One being the Baka pygmies. The Baka are a pygmy group that live in East Cameroon, Central African Republic, and the Congo. They are physically distinctive from other Cameroonians, not just by their short stature, and also by the large rattan woven sacs they all port on their backs to and from their fields – sacs, which I might add, are about as tall as they are. When taking the road to or from Abong Mbang, you can’t help but noticed that when you drive by, the majority of the older Baka walking along the road, jump off and into the forest and sometimes try to hide themselves – perhaps in fear of the quickly moving vehicle, or perhaps in utter shock at the new way of life that is even more quickly encroaching on and threatening their traditional, and might I argue less complicated and better, way of life.

Deforestation is another phenomenon characteristic of the Abong Mbang voyage. Huge logging trucks, called boubillers, are every present along the road. Some carry the center sections of four very large, hundred-year-old trees, while others carry merely one giant section of a perhaps thousand-year-old tree. As you increase the distance from Lomié, the deforestation is more obvious, particularly since you are leaving the area of the forest protected by UNESCO. With every boubiller we pass, I can’t help but to think of the empty plot of land left behind, the stories that tree could tell of the forest which was previously unpenetrated.

And on we drive – past the halfway point of Mindarou where the road improves. As we speed up and down the dirt paths, I look out the window and see grade A protected animals for sale, such as pangolins, monkeys, and lievres, all hung up by their tales on tall sticks for passersbys to judge whether they are worth breaking the law to purchase. I noticed the corruption of the gendarmes at every checkpoint – each demanding his share of the driver’s cash. The fact that Cameroon is one of the most corrupt countries in the world is never more obvious than at checkpoints. I noticed a 1 year old child in one village being feed whiskey sachets by its older siblings. On and on this journey goes until…

Abong Mbang. The city seems to pop out of nowhere just when you think all hope is lost. At 11:00am, we pulled into the bus station. I got out and purchased my ticket for the next bus to leave for Bertoua, which would leave when all the tickets are purchased. I bought an omelet and waited in the bus for 2 hours for the seats to be bought. Drunk men outside the window ask me to be their wives and I tell them about my fictional PCV husband  who lives in another region of Cameroon. At 1:00pm, the bus finally takes off, this time with a driver whose sobriety might be questioned. 2 hours later, I arrive in Bertoua. Perhaps I’m a bit grungier and certainly more exhausted, but after the 13 hour drive, I am thankfully to have arrived in one piece.

So you think that trip was the hellish journey I was talking about? Oh, how you are wrong! That trip was a piece of cake compared to the return voyage to Lomié! I quickly banked in Bertoua, went out for delicious carp and grilled baton de manioc, and was chased back to the case by the approaching storm.

Did I say storm? Yes. I didn’t give the storm a second thought that night, but the next morning, I cursed that storm all day. I woke up at 5:00am and went to get an omelet for breakfast. I headed over to the agence de voyage and rented a seat in a car leaving for Abong Mbang. I was given the stick shift seat, but unfortunately in cars there is no leg space. I was left to straddle the stick shift the entire trip as my butt heated up from the engine beneath me and as the driver constantly made grunts at how my legs were blocking his ability to change gears. We arrived in Abong Mbang with no problems 2 hours later. I got out and bought a ticket for Lomié – it so happened that I bought the last ticket for the next bus leaving for Lomié.

I ran over and reencounter the same  drunk fellows who once again asked me to be their wives as I shoved my bags in their faces to put on top of the bus. After declining their not-tempting offers, I climbed into the back seat of the van between a three woman and a baby. I wasn’t thrilled about sitting next to a baby, but I was determined to remain positive. My positivity began to crack just a tad when the mother decided to give her 1-year-old child a sucker, which he didn’t know how to eat, and instead ended up sticking it to my arm for the next 30 minutes until the mother took it for herself.

30 minutes into the voyage and my arm was as sticky as it could be and the road dust already began to coat my body in blood red dirt. I took heed from the other woman on the bus and unwrapped my foulard headscarf and wrapped it around my face. I dozed off, hoping that would take my mind off the suffocating dust. 2.5 hours later we got to Mindarou. We all climbed out for a pit stop. Most passengers in the car were traveling to Lomie for the first time, and exclaimed at the better-than-expected road conditions. I reassured them that the road was going to change for the worse…and quickly at that. I followed the other woman, who I assumed were going to pee. We lined up along a wall on the side of the road and relieved ourselves. It was after this moment that I texted my mom “I literally whip it out and pee in public all over Cameroon now”. I have officially lost all sense of modesty and shame. I bonded with the kind Northern Fulbe woman when her child accidentally took a pee on my foot.

Shortly we were back on the road. I watched the faces of the passengers as we left Mindarou and as the forest began denser. Several passengers pointed out at particularly large or odd-looking trees. Many exclaimed out loud at the beauty. The road, however, was awful. The nights rain made everything muddy and made all the potholes smalls lakes. About one hour from Mindarou at 12:00 we approached a long line of boubillers. This meant only one thing – we were stuck.
The bus stopped and the driver got out and walked a distance. When he turned he told us there was a large mudslide/mudpit where one minivan was stuck and where nobody could get around. And that wasn’t to mention that in front of us was nearly 10 boubillers who would surely only worsen the path.

Everyone got out and walked to the scene of the crime. We were all dusty, disheveled and tired. While walking we looked like refugees who had little time to prepare to leave their village. When we reached the mudpit, the scene looked grave. The minibus was tipped over in the mud and the other side was far too deep for any vehicle to traverse. The men hiked up their pants and headed to work pulling out the cruiser as us woman found seats on a giant fallen tree to watch the progression. It wasn’t even at this point that I lost all hope. Instead I sat on the log and listened to the birds and insects around me. Most amazing of all was that the area could’ve been a butterfly house. All around me were butterflies of all sizes and colors which would fly up and land on my shoulders and legs. I was engulfed by 10 or so butterflies at any given time. It was beautiful. Amidst such a mess, there was such beauty.

After about two hours, I began to get tired. I went back to the van and climbed in with the mother and her child and with an older woman who couldn’t walk. I tried to sleep but the baby next to me became restless and the mother was sleeping. To prevent his crying, I climbed out of the van and played peek-a-boo through the back window for two hours as the line of cars, cruisers and more boubillers grew larger. Chinese workers arrived, Belgians arrived. Half the world’s continents were represented at this mud pit, yet nobody could seem to fix the problem.
Peek-a-boo buddy

Out of nowhere, villagers from a nearby village began to show up with a wide assortment of bush meat to sell to us starving passengers. Woman carried lievre, monkey, and tiger-cat in sauces in pots on their heads to make a profit on us unfortunate souls. In addition to the a forest worth of bush meat, the nearby villages brought bags upon bags of sachets, which ended up being a big hit among the stranded passengers who figured if they were going to be sleeping on the road tonight, they might as well get wasted.

While I was starving and thirsty (my water had run out), I refused to eat the bush meat for several health and personal reasons. Passangers from our cruiser walked back and forth from the van to give updates. Each person said the situation was grave and that we were likely going to be sleeping on the road tonight. As 5:00pm rolled around, I resigned to the fact this was likely the truth. I rolled my headscarf up in a ball and created a pillow as the sun began to set behind the tall trees.

As I tried to doze off, the two mothers sitting next to me began giving their children whiskey and vodka sachets. Each child drank a total of 1 whiskey sachet (about 1-2 shots worth) and 1 vodka sachet (again, 1-2 shots worth). The infants quickly became drunk. At first the scene was sickly amusing. While I was repulsed by the fact these children just took shots of alcohol at the age of 1, it was funny to see them reaching for more sachets asking for more, seeing them bob around drunk in their mothers’ laps, and laughing at nothing at all. But after some time, the scene became disturbing. I wouldn’t know how disturbing until later at night. After much screeching, yelling, and eventually cheering, the stuck cruiser was dislodged from the mud. That solved one problem, but now the problem was that nobody else could get through.

Each boubiller progressed through the intraversable mud, only to get stuck and to have the previously traveled vehicle tow it out. And so this continued, with all 10 boubillers in front of us, until it was our turn. As all the passengers watched from the sidelines, myself, the old woman, and the young woman and her son braced ourselves as our cruiser moved forward. The driver floored the gas in hopes it wouldn’t get stuck, but it quickly surrendered in the muddy depths of the pit. The men gathered around the cruiser and began digging it out. After about 1 hour of digging, the driver was able to move us a bit, nearly tipping the entire cruiser over in the process. We got stuck again a few feet away and the men began to dig us out with their machetes again. 30 more minutes of this and a group of 20 men pushed our cruiser out of the mud. After another near-fatal tip-over, the bus was out! I expected the driver to stop, but he didn’t.
Pushing the van out of the mud

We get driving down the road fast. I asked why we weren’t stopping for the other passengers to re-board, and the driver said that there was another mud pit ahead and he wanted to get the van in line. About 2km away, we again came to a halt. The driver got out and walked ahead to help the stuck vehicles. When the fellow passengers caught up on foot, they were exhausted, but once again took seats to watch the fiasco happen in the mud. While the mud pit wasn’t as bad, the cruiser could not get out because it was broken and nobody could tow it out. We waited and waited. I fell asleep, trying to get some rest because I was sure that if we were spending the night in the rainforest, I wouldn’t sleep too well with people constantly reaching in the window to grab at me.

The scene sounded like a construction site. Large lights light up the night and the mud pit so that the work could continue throughout the night. Boubillers continued to try to tow the van out. At about 8:00pm, our driver ran back to the car and floored the gas. The few of us that were in the van grasped on for our lives as he sped toward the mud pit. We plunged in and I was sure we would get through. We nearly did…before we got stuck. Again, men got to work for 1 hour using their machetes to hack our way out and using their hands to push the van. We finally dislodged at 9:00pm and reloaded with passengers. At this point, I had had awful diarrhea on the side of the road (like I said, I lost all sense of modesty and shame long ago) and was beginning to feel nauseous. Everyone got in the vehicle covered in mud, dust, and sweat. The van began moving and I began praying that the rest of the road would be passable.

Thankfully it was, but barely. At midnight, our van rolled into Lomié. I disembarked, collected my bags, and headed home. After taking a cold shower, I climbed into bed with chills, a high fever, and a host of other symptoms, which I would find out two days later was yet another bout of malaria. It was merely the cherry on top of the most awful 24 hours I have spent to date in Cameroon.

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