Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Disco Inferno

In one day, Guy, Elvis and two of Elvis’ friends, Patrick and Fredi, I did a rather grueling circuit across the southwest of Cameroon. As well as seeing the boats loaded for Nigeria in Idenau, we also stopped at a place where the 2000 eruption of mount Cameroon destroyed a large swath of farmland and roads, and visited a ~50 person fishing village named Dibunscha. These destinations were reached after the long drive from Douala to Buea to Limbe, so in short, it was a long day of travel.
However, it was also my last night in Cameroon and Guy was set on making it a good one. So after checking into a hotel in Buea, which turned out to be another Hotel Sans Eau, we were going out to the local disco. We’d be joined by his friends Lucy and Jeannine. I was a little self conscious, knowing we were going to a disco. I had no idea how developed or fancy things could get, after all, we were in a pretty small town in the middle of Africa, but I didn’t like the idea of going to a club in my backpacker clothes. When I travel, I take lightweight, compact, fast-drying clothes and chant in my head a little mantra a la The Fresh Prince in Parents Just Don’t Understand: “You see the world to learn, not for a fashion show.”
There wasn’t enough time for me to procure any nicer threads, so in my hiking boots, zip-off pants, and nicest REI buttondown, I was heading to a disco.
We spent a couple hours in Jeannine’s apartment before leaving, listening to more Cameroonian music. There was so much of it that I liked, though Guy and his friends seemed to be set on a genre that all had a very similar beat, almost akin to the Bo Diddley Beat, and with vocals that sounded like aggressive shouting, similar to Dancehall Reggae. It was beginning to sound all the same to me. I longed for some Makossa, and to get to some air conditioning if it was to be had, or a beer at the very least.
On the way out that night, I was introduced to Guy’s girlfriend, Olivie. I’d heard she existed, but found it hard to believe, the way Guy followed every woman with a significant backside, crotch first. He’d often make the shape of an hourglass with his hands, but his eyes out and say “I liiiike!” Every town we visited, he was busy collecting phone numbers and attempting to make plans later in the night which never came to fruition. But I had to respect the guy’s persistence and unflagging enthusiasm.
Olivie was incredibly cute and friendly, though one of the first things she said to me was “Guy doesn’t want to go with me anymore!” It seemed a crime, and I offered my condolences. So Olivie walked off, and we got in a cab to go find Elvis.

Elvis and the boys in Idenau

Elvis was posted at a bar with the other guys, and two new girls. Both college age, far younger than any of the men present.
“You know what I love, Adam?” Elvis asked. I knew the answer. “Women! They make me so happy! Even if I can’t fuck!” Elvis made a gesture with his fist and forearm. I assumed he meant because he was married, but I was pretty certain that it hadn’t held him back in the past. I concurred, of course, and we slapped hands, did the Cameroon handshake, and Elvis carried on in a torrent of belly laughter.
Together, with the two new girls, the whole posse headed down the road to a bar. ”Here you will see how the African woman dance!” Elvis shouted.
We approached a bar with a sign that read Zanzibar and had a chalkboard propped up in the dirt parking lot which said in French that there were people from Cote d’Ivoire present that night. Walking in, there were 6 lone men at tables and one hefty woman in a white tank top lip synching to an African song on a stage illuminated by one bare bulb.
Beers were procured, and Guy took me outside.
“Oh Adam, I wish I could be you!”
“Why is that?”
“I have big problems tonight. I want to, you know, with Jeannine or maybe Lucy, but because you wished Olivie could be with me, now she will be here!”
I had no intent to salt his game… I was just offering my condolences! Guy said he was worried about having to balance the conversations, and was worried if one of the other girls tried to kiss him in front of Olivie. I told him that I would help keep the other girls chatting so that it wouldn’t happen. It’s tough juggling language, conversational niceties, and some other guy’s fraternization!
It turned out that the dancing at Zanzibar was to be watched rather than participated in. Our group made up the bulk of the audience, and the women lip synching got progressively more suggestive as the night went on. One woman in a white Chinglish tanktop and short, high-waisted white shorts was the clearly most skilled dancer. Over the course of her songs, she abandoned the mic and incorporated some kind of combination of typical African dance as well as some incredibly suggestive moves like a stipper would perform.
The crowd went wild, with the women in our crowd doing the majority of the whooping and hollering, and of course, endless enthusiasm from Elvis.
“Oh my god! Man, can you believe this?! I love it! Look buttocks!! I love buttocks!!”
The dancer took to the floor of the stage and thrust her hips as if there were an invisible man below her. Jeannine jumped up and tucked a small bill in her shorts. Elvis and I did the handshake.
Everyone seemed to ignore it when, after her last song, the dancer caught a heel on the tattered red carpet on the stage and completely landed on her ass.
When Olivie arrived, she sat next to me and we chatted. I remember looking over as the big-bellied waitress, dressed in tight pink jeans with the belt undone to give her some breathing room, and a missed belt loop in back laughed when she received an ass-grab from one of Elvis’ friends. Seeing my shock, Olivie asked, “Not like your country?” No, not at all.
Guy seemed to spend the evening nervously loping around the room, avoiding all of the girls, and sucking on a small box of wine.
As it turned out, the performance at Zanzibar was a bit like a striptease, though without the stripping, and the girl in white came over to tell me she loved me before standing upright and immediately slamming my forehead so hard with her pubic bone that I saw stars and my glasses were knocked someplace behind me. After a short and incredibly rough performance, she returned to her friends and left me to pick up my pieces. I felt like a truck hit me and just kept going.
But apparently Zanzibar was just a bar and after that we were to go to Jupiter, the local dance club. Outside, the scene was just an African version of the same thing one might see at a western disco. Men looking tough, women looking sexy, moto taxis swarming around, tables with beers on them visible in the outdoor courtyard.
Guy’s nerves and consumtion of his box of wine had put him in a state I hadn’t seen before. At the door, the ladies were ushered through without cover; it was Thursday night, ladies night. Guy argued that since he had brought a handful of hot girls he shouldn’t have to pay eihter. My impression being that Guy hasn’t really refined the art of negotiation, the response wasn’t what he wanted. And when he tried to just walk in, he was forcefully pushed to the ground by the bouncer. I made myself scarce. I didn’t need to be the one Blanche (white) in the club that was associated with the one clown getting beaten by the doorman.
In the end, the girls smoothed things over and I happily handed over the 12,000 CFA ($24) required to get us both in. Not a lot of money to me, but a ton of money to someone in Cameroon.

Guy sleeping off his hangover the next day

Stepping through the hallway, the first thing I noticed was the heat. I was sweating in the night air outside, but a wet heat was radiating down the hallway. People moved past, exiting the club, completely drenched.
Inside was nothing like I ever expected. It was a club like any other, although less deced out in terms of decorations, televisions, and lighting gear than most I have seen. The bar offered less than 5 choices for hard alchohol, though it appeared that most people had empty hands. Who could afford a 2000 CFA drink after such a cover charge? The crowd was one black blob, all moving in unison. As we joined it, suddenly it was as if everything I’d experienced in Cameron suddenly made sense.
The enthusiasm and dance moves that I had seen Guy perform or on the music videos on TV were exactly what everyone was doing. Guy and Elvis’s incessant and blatant sexuality was everywhere: the grinding was more carnal than I have ever experienced and strangers danced with strangers in ways that would make most people blush. That community that I had seen in the taxis and on the streets continued in the club. While it seems back home in Seattle, people rarely dance with strangers, anything was fair game in Buea.
I thought that I’d sweat with the Africans in the cars and buses, but that was just the warm up. In this room where the temperature must have been a heavily saturated 100 degrees, the crowd was one enormous wet mass, all sliding against each other, throbbing to the beat.
The music that was getting to me in Jeannine’s apartment suddenly made sense. It all had that same beat because it was club music. The tunes were expertly DJed, never missing a beat as they segued from one tune to the next. The crowd whooped and sang along with every song and bumped hips or did a pelvis thrust in time with the moves that the performers did on the music videos.
One of the bits of Pidgin I had picked up was what I thought a little poem that Elvis taught me, but turned out to be the lyrics to one of the songs. I got a great reaction from the crowd when the one Blanche was able to sing along
“Boby na ma ting!
Boby na ma chop!”
“Breasts are my thing, breasts are my food!” All the girls played a game of grab-tit to the beat of the music.
And finally the fashion. Perhaps it is just because things different to us look cooler, but looking around the disco that night, I could nto get over the fashion. Every person looked straight out of some music video, some film, some… something. And it was just the little flourishes that did it: a newsboy hat here, a wide collar, a cloth tied around a waist, a pair of sunglasses, a sweater vest, a turtleneck, a gold chain. Everyone looked different, individual. No copycat goombahs with the open collar button down shirt and the same haircut. Everyone looked impeccable, and the tiny handful of name brands visible were all certainly fakes.
As we carried on toward sunrise, I wondered whether my clothes, which I wished I could have replaced for that night, looked potentially interesting and different to them. Maybe because I was different, I looked cool. It was hard for me to believe, but the feeling I got from the people at the club that night was that it didn’t matter. I was one of them for a little while, sweating, sliding, laughing with one big mass of humanity.

Relaxing the last morning in Buea

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