Monday, May 31, 2010

Traveling Blahs

Bientôt, I'll be in Cameroon for two years. I've seen and experienced so much over the past two years that it now takes a lot for me to freak out about something - mice, bugs, obnoxiousness, strange animals being held on the road for sale - you name it, I've probably seen it. The one thing, however, that still gets my blood pressure up through the roof is traveling in Cameroon. The bush taxi and bus rides somehow still make me want to punch people in the faces. What are the problems exactly? On a recent trip home from Yaoundé, I decided to document this.

Overcrowding: In Cameroon, the number of passengers is always the suggested number plus 1. A row for 4 people, there will be 5. That's not too much of a problem until when you get two or three largely built Bamiléké mamas that are twice as big as me in there. On top of that, when the weather is hot, everyone is sweating on top of each other. Imagine the comfort.



State of Vehicle: Being crowded in a plush vehicle may not be so bad, but when the buses or cars have been mended in all the ways imaginable, and the seats are paper thin, the metal bars are digging into whatever body part is now twisted to be in contact, having that one extra person makes all the difference. I have to give it to the Cameroonian mechanics though, they make the most impossible cars run.

Window Closing: I don't live in a very hot region of Cameroon and the weather for the most part are pretty mild. However, there are still hot days and usually when there are 8 people in a small car, the body heat increases the temperature. The same applies in all vehicles. The easiest way to resolve this problem is simply let the windows open in a moving vehicle. However, Cameroonians have some serious issue against opened windows. There have been times when a baby is dripping in sweat and the mother is wiping it off with cloth, yet the window is STILL closed. They tell me it's the dust. But that logic makes no sense on a paved road. 

The Medicine Man: On bigger buses, there are also men who are medicine sellers that are giving their speech about the miracle drugs that they are selling. This can go on forever - hours upon hours. Think infomercial, but forced upon you while you are sitting in the aforementioned conditions. I learned my lesson the hard way by sitting in the front of the bus once. Now I always sit toward the back of the bus, and when the medicine man starts yapping, I turn up the iPod and do my best to ignore it.

The Waiting: This, above all else, is what drives me mad every time. When you need to be somewhere at a certain time, this aspect of Cameroonian travel is extremely frustrating. With the exception of a few bus companies, most of the time, the system is "first come first serve" and "we go when it's full". If I need a car to Bafoussam from my village, I simply wait by the side of the road until a taxi comes by. If I'm lucky, there could be a taxi there already, but I have waited up to an hour for a taxi to come by. The trip to Bafoussam only takes 45 minutes. Longer travel works the same, you get to the bus station whenever and it's all luck. The bus leaves when there are enough passenger to fill all the seats - filled in their definition, meaning when all the rows of 4 people are filled with 5 passengers each. Depending on the time of the day and the day of the week, this can take HOURS. I'd love to see a study on the amount of time an average Cameroonian spend just waiting. What a waste of productivity.

 Important to always having reading materials to pass the waiting!

The Stopping:  Taxis stop often to let people off and picking people up, that's understandable. But when it's a bus full of people, and when nearing destination, everyone wants to get off at a place more convenient for them, you have the situation of the bus stopping every 5 minutes. Or, people want to stop to buy food, go to the bathroom, etc. All of these stops add to the travel time.

Every time the bus stops, vendors crowd to the window

For two years, I've told myself that at least traveling here is cheap. Yes, I may have to put up with these conditions, but an one-way ticket to Yaoundé, that's a 5 hour trip, only costs $5. This has eased putting up with Cameroonian travel until a few weeks ago when I was planning summer travel in the US with my sister. I was booking bus tickets with MegaBus and realized that if you book well in advance, it's possible to have tickets for $1 - that's 500 CFA!

This fact blew my mind. Yes, there are certain stipulations to this fare and tickets get more expensive as the time gets closer. However, the fact that this option is available at all is incredible. The three bus tickets I booked for my East Coast travel this summer didn't exceed $5 each and that guarantees me a bus that leaves on time, a whole seat to myself in an air-conditioned bus that won't stop all the time, and get this - Wifi Internet connection on the bus!!! This is blowing my mind and I am an American, imagine letting a Cameroonian experience this. Wild.

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