I’m smooth to the airport because I’ve driven there so many times, but old habits die hard as I sleep nearly straight through the flight. This is a shame because Cameroon is an unpopular destination and Air France not exactly a shabby airline: the 80 free seats on the flight leave everyone with enough room to feel like they’re in first class.
On the ground in the third world is another story, as luxury ceases and temperature increases immediately upon disembarkment. The temperature I can handle: ~90 degrees is a nice intermediary between France and the ~100 we’ll see for India and Pakistan. Not so nice is what replaces luxury. Imagine every small interaction with authority that can provide a small sense of comfort with those in charge: an understanding smile from the woman in customs when one member of your 6-person party isn’t carrying her yellow fever proof of vaccination card, customs understanding that gee, maye they should let you into their country to give away computers, and police along the road smiling politely to the well-meaning foreigners as they diligently work to eliminate crime. Instead, replace these incidences and more with power-hungry, nepotistically appointed, wholly unnecessary bureaucrats concerned only with how large a chunk of the corruption pie they can sink their teeth into. Needless to say, 6 foreigners with more than a dozen large, suspicious bags doesn’t provide for the easiest of interactions. Just to make things more fun, we’re also harassed by volunteers to help (for a small fee, of course) whose performances are of low average quality. The best one of them can pull is kissing the window of our van; if you expect a donation, at least bring a decent performance.
Oh yeah: the van. In Ghana, we laughed from the spacious, shock-absorbed safety of our American-made 15-person behemoth at the skinny Toyotas we witnessed boucing down the road, 15-person in name only and replete with luggage precariously stacked on the roof and religious stickers on the windows. Our van for the trip is of the latter variety, down to the large “god who filled me up will not let me down” sticker complete with a soaring eagle on the window next to my seat. Who knew god worked at a gas station?
I sleep in the car more out of sweaty stuffed discomfort than actual tiredness, missing our first police checkpoint but getting to ignore the fact I’m stuffed into a vehicle of laughable functionality. Stops at a computer store to buy a hardcore voltage transformer that weighs probably 10 pounds, a grocery shop featuring fresh-baked bread in the shape of a very large hand, and a bathroom of such stench that it makes me yearn for an overused porta-potty liven up the hour-odd drive to Batibo.
Batibo is a small town near the base of the second-largest mountain in Africa, the name of which I of course forget. It’s home to Gilbert, Dr. Godlove Fonjweng’s (organizer of Cameroon leg of trip, dean in the college at Penn, accompanying us through the Cameroon leg) brother-in-law. The dinner Dr. Fonjweng’s sister prepares for us makes the trip worthwhile already. It involves that necessary travel food judgment call of whether to play it on the safe side and eat only granola and food you witness being prepared properly or to have more of a cultural experience by eating most any random food put in front of you, setting aside your dietary qualms to nibble away at that chunk of fish head that someone identifies as some native word but someone else says might be barracuda that you really hope isn’t barracuda because you vaguely remember reading something about barracuda often being poisonous...
There are distinct advantages to being in a former French colony: wine and cheese. Even after independence, foodstuffs seem to tend to keep flowing from the motherland. A Bordeaux and a cabernet, even though I’m not quite sure what these are and can’t tell them apart, both nicely compliment the meal. And add another to the list of beers I’ve tried: some Cameroonian beer tastes like Pabst Blue Ribbon with sugar added.
“Get off my high horse” dinner conversation involves an ongoing student strike. The college where one of Dr. Fonjweng’s relatives who’s eating dinner with us teaches microbiology is attempting to deal with student’s demands for better living conditions, microphones in large classrooms, and an amalgamation of other things. Police involvement led to a confrontation in which blanks were suppose to have been fired, but some of the pigs apparently felt it would be wise to fire real bullets instead and 2 students ended up dead. Gilbert, a barrister (lawyer), was representing the father of one of the children, but the illiterate dad signed an agreement with the government that put “a few pieces of silver in his hand” in exchange for not working with Gilbert or anyone else to pursue suit. I’m feeling actually a little good about being an American for once, but Professor Gangulee quickly puts that notion to rest with a story from my newfound alma mater. Apparently some hardworking, happy grad student ended up dead in the Schuylkill River a few years ago with the official investigation being suicide. Professor Gangulee’s theory is that he was picked up and murdered by the FBI because of stellar performance on a research project. I’m fairly ok writing this off as an out-there conspiracy theory, but it brings up many reasons not to be proud to be an American post-9/11. But I’ll save political rants for another day and fall asleep instead.