Sunday, February 24, 2008

Trade Up For A Thicker Skin

For a long time, Cameroon felt like an endless string of frustrations with tiny moments of pleasure. I tend to expect a certain degree of freedom in my travels. At the very least, I hope to lose track of time, allowing days and hours to become inconsequential, my awakening in the morning or movement from one place to another based solely on my own whims and bounded only by train or plane schedules. I expect to be able to move freely within a country or a city, seeing what interests me. If I see something interesting in how a woman prepares food at her sidewalk stall, I might sit and watch for half an hour. I have also been fortunate enough to visit places in the past where the locals were either ambivalent or enthusiastic photo subjects. And so far, Cameroon moved counter to all of my expectations.
With Guy, I moved on his schedule. He would tell me he’d wake me at 8 and would wake me at 7. After we’d grab a meal, he would just lead me places, introduce me to people, or do things without being able to explain what we were doing. It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to see his friend Jeannine’s apartment, or that I wasn’t excited for the opportunity, but I was simply taken there for durations that long outlasted my comprehension of French, and I knew that asking what we would do next or even making a suggestion might not receive a response. I had to learn to just go with the flow and take advantage of the moments that actually interested me. I had to act quickly to catch the things that interested me, and I did my best to point out to Guy the beauty and fascination that could be found in things that were surely mundane to him having lived in Cameroon his entire life.
Some moments happened so quickly that a camera couldn’t even capture them. A boy running across the street, his sandals so full of Kumba’s dirt that each of his steps left little clouds of dust to fade in the setting sunlight. A goat standing proudly atop a bus tearing past us down the road. A lizard standing guard over a roadside table offering pineapples and papaya. A dog chasing a hen. A man kicking back inside an enormous tire, with sunglasses on and his hands laced behind his head, just too cool to be contended with.
Sometimes I could point out to Guy the humor or intrigue in things he took for granted. The shoe sellers who put one on their head to draw attention to their wares. The boys selling bags of water, chanting “l’eau, l’eau, l’eau!”. How children write in the dirt on cars “lavez moi”, wash me, just like they do in America.
The most frustrating thing of all was the lack of freedom for me to photograph whatever I wanted. I fully recognize that I have no right to go poking my camera lens at anyone in the world. If someone doesn’t want me to, that is definitely their prerogative. I have just been spoiled by so many people in so many countries who just don’t care, are flattered for the attention, or are amazed at the concept of a digital camera. For some reason, a significant percentage of Cameroonians hate a camera and anything that comes with it, but it was never easy to predict who.
One afternoon, Guy and I passed a shop with hundreds of mirrors set up for sale outside it. I showed Guy how we could align ourselves with them and take a cool self portrait. We stood, just so, smiled, and—
“Hey! No!” the shop owner shouted.
“One can’t take a photo of the mirrors?” Guy asked in French.
“No, na ma bizness!” no, that is my business, the man shouted back in Pidgin. It just didn’t seem to make sense that we couldn’t take a photo of his wares which were already on display for the whole world to see. And as we stepped away, discouraged, the woman selling short phone calls on her mobile phone in front of the mirror shop waved us over and asked me to take a photo of her on her phone. There just wasn’t any predicting the reaction, and when it was negative, it was ugly.
I was feeling particularly down the day we were to travel to Kumba. We’d spent the first half of the day visiting people and places in Buya that didn’t interest me in the least and in the afternoon we finally went through the arduous process of finding a mini bus that would take us to Kumba.
I don’t quantify a lot of things when I travel. I don’t want to know how hot it is – I just know it is damn hot. I don’t want to know how long the bus ride is – it’s going to be long and painful. And the ride to Kumba was just that. There were 16 people crammed into the four-row bus, and I was sitting on the gap between the misaligned jumper seat and the main bench. We didn’t have seatbelts, but didn’t need them: we were packed in so tightly that I am certain if the bus had flipped, we’d still be stuck in there, our collective tension keeping us in place. I was squeezed in next to an incredibly large and sweaty man who spoke with a booming voice right into my ear because he was talking with the man sitting behind me. We were jostled for hours, along the road that was nearly all loose red dirt and “under construction”. The ride was everything I might expect: long, hot, painful, sweaty, dirty, loud.

Kumba has a bit of a dirt problem

When we arrived in Kumba, red with dirt, Guy was clearly beat. But strangely I felt energized. When we found Hotel Kanton, I was excited because it looked just like all of the hotels we stayed in on the road in China. The shower was cold, but it was about the most sensational shower I have ever received. I had earned that cold shower. And after that cold shower, I bounded into Guy’s room and told him to get his shoes on because we were going to take Kumba by storm.
That right there is one of the reasons I choose trips like this. At home a cold shower would piss me off, but when something as simple as a cold shower could make my day and could give me a new lease on life, I know that I have been granted some perspective that is so easy to lose in our lives of comfort back home.
That evening, as the darkness confined Kumba’s significant dust problem to the headlights of passing cars and motorcycles, I led us through the town with renewed energy. And when we sat down for some Gi-Gi Co-Cos just a few feet from the dirt road, I just soaked up that filth and revelled in it. I breathed in that red dirt as if it were clean Seattle air. I was riding on some much-welcomed perspective that night.

Over time, there were breakthroughs on my feeling of a lack of freedom in Cameroon. I noticed that when strangers would chat with us, Guy would sometimes claim to be a French tourist. Somehow this granted him a little more leeway, being fluent, feigning ignorance, and being black. I bought Guy some sunglasses at a market, and he began to look even more the part. He sometimes took to carrying my day bag, to complete the look. Guy began to take leads from me when I was interested in something, learning about things he had probably seen a million times without thinking about. He joined me in feigning ignorance at what a clutch looked like in order to get a closer look at an auto shop, and asked questions on how a sandal is made from an old tire.
Guy even began to take a hand at my camera, learning a new skill for himself and offering more protection from the fury of any angry photography subjects.

Transmission Boy

Guy and I had another trying day of travel, heading from Kumba his mother’s home in Nkongsamba. The day started with arriving at a bus station at sunrise. After being directed to another station, we waited there for a couple hours, in the intensifying heat, only to team up with a local woman who suggested we might make faster progress on a train. The three of us went to a train station and waited another few hours in the heat, dodging surly station police, only to slowly realize that the train was never going to come.
The news of the train never coming was continually being relayed by the motorcycle drivers waiting outside the train station. We didn’t believe them because they had an obvious interest in lying to us. I remember one of these drivers had orange eyelashes yet black hair, which Guy immediately pointed out. I cringed, thinking this was probably something the boy was a bit self-conscious of, looking so different from other people. As the hours passed, we finally took the motorcycle drivers’ advice and Guy and I boarded one driver’s bike together, my backpack and camera bag in tow.
I was a little concerned about travelling down those hellish dirt roads with such a burdened bike. I at least had the foresight to grab my respirator mask from my pack before we left and Guy bought one as we left the station. Rather than hop on the main road, the driver drove straight for the jungle across from the train station. There emerged a thin yellow footpath completely surrounded by green on all sides. When bikes or farmers came from the opposite direction, we slowed and leaned into the greenery to let them pass, the branches whipping my bare legs.
We emerged from the jungle and rode a sealed road for a while, only to be stopped by a cop holding a long piece of twine attached to a nail board. As it turned out, the driver had blown past the same cop earlier in the day, and was now having to pay for his transgression. Meanwhile another driver argued with the cops declaring that he would not sign a ticket declaring him a “suspect“ when he didn’t feel he had done anything suspicious. While we cooked in the sun for over an hour, waiting for the inevitable bribes to be handed over, I saw a weakly-inflated ball roll into my field of vision. Two children wanted to engage me in a couple minutes of football while we waited.
Fines paid and back on the road, the driver apparently decided that roads were not the best place for him to be. At the next rail crossing, the driver turned alongside the tracks and began to drive on the chunky gravel alongside them. For a few miles, we tore along the tracks on a trail no wider than 8 inches, sharp gravel below us, metal rail ties to our left, and sharp metal stakes protruding from the ground every few feet on our right. Guy’s repeated cries of “doucement!” to travel gently were rarely heeded. And when the rails ended, we dove right into a loose dirt road that suddenly explained the orange eyelashes of the motorcycle driver. I closed my eyes and thanked my foresight for the dust mask for many gruelling miles. And when we finally got to the next town, we had to trudge in the heat for another couple hours before finally finding a jam-packed mini bus with a motorcycle strapped to the top, among the other luggage, and marked with a sticker reading “Deliver Me” on the back.
The bus did deliver us, after another few gruelling hours of dirt roads though miles upon miles of banana farms. When we finally arrived at Guy’s mother’s house, painted orange ourselves, and began to be eaten by mosquitoes while we consumed a coconut, Guy passionately relayed the day’s stories to his family.
Jamais! Jamais Kumba a Nkongsamba!” he declared, vowing never to make the journey again.
I had to lead by example again, showing the stamina to shake the whole thing off, and amazed that I could handle what someone raised in these conditions could not. But then again, I only learned how to handle that by experiencing it on multiple occasions. I explained that I had endured 8,000 kilometres of that in China as an example, and that I wasn’t so tough before that trip.
We cleaned up and met up with Guy’s friends in town that night and put back a few beers, singing and dancing on the sidewalk. Guy was visibly tired, and I was too, but I think he got the concept and maybe over time he too could shake off a day like that. In any case, his next trip to Nkongsamba by train or bus will be a welcome relief, and I won't be quite as impatient the next time a Mariners game slows my evening commute. That night, the shower sure was refreshing and the beer sure was tasty…

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