15 April 2009

the joys (and otherwise) of cameroonian transportation

This is one of those posts that really would have benefited from pictures, so y’all will have to use your imaginations for this one. Developing country transportation is a surefire source of aggravation, terror, and hilarity, and Cameroon’s system gave us plenty of all three.

Train. Unless you’re up for days in a bus on awful roads—and you really don’t want that, as I will explain below—the overnight train from Ngaoundéré to Yaoundé is the only way to get from Cameroon’s North to the rest of the country. Here’s that map again to refresh your memory:

If all goes according to plan—which it usually doesn’t—the trip is supposed to take about 16 hours, lasting from 6 pm until 10 the following morning. The freight trains that use the same tracks are notorious for derailing, which means delays for the passenger trains. That didn’t happen to us, but our train did grind to a halt around 4 a.m. because, we were told, the engine gave out. I went back to sleep, hoping that when I woke up things would be moving again… but well after 7 am we were still sitting in the same place, waiting for a replacement engine. We finally rolled into Yaoundé around 2:30 in the afternoon—which really isn’t all that bad, considering that trips of up to 30 hours are not unheard of. Throughout the ordeal, I marveled to myself that this is Cameroon’s Amtrak, their most sophisticated form of ground transportation, the aorta linking North and South. Yikes.

Taxi. In the North, “taxis” consist mostly of jumping on the back of a motorcycle, so we didn’t get in any bona fide yellow cabs until we reached Yaoundé. Unless you want to pay through the nose for a depo (a taxi all to yourself), you have to share a cab with other passengers, which means finding a driver who is headed roughly in the direction you want to go. A majority of the time, what happened was as follows: the driver would slow down and pull over, we would shout where we wanted to go, the driver would give us a look like it was the stupidest thing he had ever heard, and then he would speed away.

Another difference from developed-country taxis is that there is no presumption that the driver knows where your destination is, and he usually will not admit it up front if he doesn’t. On a Sunday morning in Yaoundé, after dropping in on a depressingly un-African Mass, Kate and I got in a taxi and requested the Musée Afhemi. Lonely Planet told us that the museum was located in a residential neighborhood, but it didn’t provide a precise street address. Once we were in the right area, the cabbie pulled over and described what we were looking for to a guy on the street whom he seemed to know. The man’s face lit up in recognition as he told us that there were white people “like this” while pounding a first into his open palm—a Cameroonian gesture meaning “a lot.” White people “like this”—it must be the local tourist attraction! The driver brought us to the house, we paid him, and he drove away. The whole thing felt slightly dubious, but Lonely Planet did say the museum was in an old residence, so we rang the bell. A blonde coed answered the door and, after a moment of utter bewilderment, explained that the house was full of study-abroad students from Pennsylvania. At that point Kate and I gave up on the Musée Afhemi and went for a beer at the local watering hole.

A couple of our cabbies, however, deserve a gold star. In addition to our post-mugging rescuer in Douala, a cabbie from the Anglophone town of Kumbo deserves mention. Kumbo was the jumping-off point for our mountain bike tour, and one of the Peace Corps volunteers from a neighboring village came up to lend us her bike and helmet. We met her and David, a Kumbo-based PCV and good friend of Kate’s, at the local restaurant/bar. After a meal and a few rounds of Cameroonian beer, we crammed the bike and ourselves into a taxi with a hatchback for the ride back to David’s house. In the darkness and in our beer-addled state, the helmet got left behind. The following morning, David and I started asking around among the cabbies in the central square to see if anyone had heard about the stupid foreigners who left a bike helmet in a taxi. Within two minutes, we heard a honking from behind us, as our cabbie from the previous night pulled up, helmet perched on his dashboard. David slipped him some CFA and we were ready to go.

Bus. Of all modes of transportation in Cameroon, I found the buses to be the most terrifying. The bus companies predictably cram in more people than the vehicles are designed to hold. There are almost never seatbelts, and the drivers speed along over rutted or dirt roads like madmen. (Hilariously, the inside of buses in the Anglophone region usually list rules such as “No Fighting” and “No Vomiting.”)

To make matters worse, there is a widely held Cameroonian superstition that wind blowing in one’s face causes illness, so most Cameroonian passengers will insist on closing the windows no matter how suffocating things get inside. Kate and other PCVs make a point of grabbing a seat with control over a window, and usually they can negotiate a small crack with the other passengers to let some air in. During our ride from Yaoundé to Bamenda, we sat behind a woman who had a baby and seemed especially perturbed about the whole window situation. During a rest stop she asked us, in all seriousness, “Could you please switch seats with me? I don’t want to lose my baby.”

Scariest of all, for me, was the prospect of our night bus ride from Bamenda to Limbe. Kate informed me that night bus drivers occasionally turn the headlights off—a misguided attempt to save gas?—and that as a result of such behavior, one bus in the North had rear-ended a flatbed truck, decapitating the first few rows of passengers. This was right after she booked us two seats in the second row of the bus. Thanks for that, Kate, thanks a lot. As it turned out, our night bus trip was one of the tamest I experienced. The driver had the headlights on the whole time, as far as I could tell, and there actually were (gasp!) seatbelts. I know seatbelts don’t offer much protection against decapitation, but I slept soundly.

1 comment:

andy said...

I am a friend of Kate's from Haiti and just wanted to say I have so enjoyed readign your blog these last few weeks! Thanks,