Saturday, February 23, 2008

If You’ll Be My Bodyguard, I Can Be Your Long Lost Pal

I first met Guy at the family’s home in Douala. He was younger-looking and soft-spoken, with a faint mustache. Guy tilted back in his chair and loped around the house with a bit of an egotistical air, so I assumed he was a teenager. When word got around that I’d been robbed at the airport and near Limbe, phone calls were made and friends and family were called upon to ensure that I was protected from further troubles while I was in Cameroon.
This was never explained to me, I just started seeing the pattern. Over the first few days, I was given a local’s phone number and met them when I got to town, and handed off from one person to the next as other commitments came up.
Guy showed up again as I was leaving for Buya and when I thought he was seeing me off to the bus to the next town, he got in and rode along. From that point on, we were partners.
At first I thought this was great; I was in no hurry to be taken advantage of again, and I was a bit nervous based on my initial experiences in Cameroon. Guy spoke enough English and I spoke enough French to get the point across, and it was nice to let someone else do the negotiations with cab and bus drivers, to ask directions, and to explain the things I was seeing in the marketplace.
Within a day, though, the presence of my partner started to eat at me. I had learned a valuable lesson on my motorcycle trip across China: it can be fun to have someone do all the question-asking and negotiating for you, but a big part of the fun is the adrenaline rush of not knowing whether I’d gotten on the correct bus, or the moment where the few words I know in the local language suddenly click and I am able to string together enough to communicate myself perfectly. It was nice to have the protection, but I also felt I was being robbed of part of the experience.
Another lesson I learned on the China trip is that it is fun to travel with companions. Traveling alone, it is difficult to share the humor and internal commentary on the things I see every day. With my companions in China, we made up names and phrases to describe the things we saw, and the inside jokes still rattle around in my head and bring a smile to my face from time to time. Sitting at dinner our second day together, I looked across the table at Guy and we suddenly ran out of things to talk about. We’d hit the boundaries of our shared language and experience and suddenly my partner seemed even more of a burden. Over the course of the day, my frustration had increased as I noticed that Guy tended to mumble whenever he had something critical to explain or ask of me. It was probably due to a lack of confidence in the language, and a habit he just wasn’t aware of. In any case, continually asking him to speak up or use different French words was quickly getting on my nerves.
I was wondering how long this would last, and knowing that Guy was out of work until April, I had surmised that he intended to travel with me for the rest of my trip. I would be footing the bills for all of his hotels, transportation, food, mobile phone minutes, and so on. And Cameroon is anything but an inexpensive country to visit. Hotels firmly at the low end of third world standards can still cost $30 or more per person per night, mosquitoes or cockroaches included. So I was paying a high cost for my protection in Cameroon. In the past, I’d chosen my own travel partners; this one chose me, and there would be no easy way of declining his assistance.
I turned to my camera and started reviewing the photos I’d taken over the previous days. After a couple minutes, Guy slid over beside me and watched the slide show as well. When I got to a photo of some food I had eaten during a few hours alone in Douala, he started cracking up.
“You know what that is?” Guy asked me in French.
“Yeah, suya! I love suya!” Suya is meat slowly barbequed over a fire, chopped into small chunks, spiced with cumin and chili pepper powder and served with slices of onion. Apparently the idea of taking a photo of the man who prepared my food was too much for Guy. He laughed hysterically.

Suya for sale in Douala

“Suya, suya!”
“I love it! Maybe we can have it tomorrow!” I suggested. This sent Guy off even further.
“Papa Suya!” he exclaimed, pointing at me and giving me a new nickname.
“Papa Suya!” I hollered back.
Wik-wik-wik, Papa Suya!” Guy said, imitating scratching the name across a turntable.
The chorus from Run DMC’s song, Papa Crazy appeared in my head, and I started freestyling, changing the lyrics to describe Papa Suya and how much he loved suya. It’s a simple song and I was able to span some English and some French in the process. When I rhymed suya with Buea, a rhyme that was dying to be made, it sent us both into laughing fits.
Later that night, we both ordered some drinks. I grabbed a “33” Export beer, the pride of Cameroon, and he ordered a Guiness Stout and a Coke. I know this is going to sound like blasphemy, and it is in a way, but in Cameroon Coke and Guinness are mixed together. I’d never heard of such a thing. Guy gave me a sip. The tastes actually seemed to be made for each other, though still not what I would really want to do to a Guinness.
“It’s good…” I said in French, before explaining that my friends back home would think this was crazy.
“I love it!” Guy crooned, imitating my love declaration for suya.
“What’s it called?”
“Gi-Gi Co-Co!” Pronounced with a hard G and a long E, just like Guy’s name.
“Papa Gi-Gi Co-Co!” I declared.
So, names declared and applied to each other, Papa Suya and Papa Gi-Gi Co-Co had our first inside jokes together. Maybe we would find a bond between us after all.

Guy, Jeannine, and Lucy, Buya's "Top Model"

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Blogger Amanda said...

You're my hero. I certainly hope you're up to writing a book some day with all of these stories because these words are gold

March 1, 2008 at 11:31 AM  

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