Transit (Friday, 2010 July 2)

July 6, 2010

So then the next morning, a few hours after taking my second dose of Cipro, and still feeling a little ill-at-ease intestinally, I decided to set off for my post. One of the Organization drivers took me to the gare routière ("bus station", but literally/Cameroonianly "station for things that go on roads") and helped me pick out a bus to Bafoussam, which is the first stop on the way from training to my post. Well, actually, instead of finding a bus, we found someone that I could trust, the host mother of another trainee (Carmen), who was going to Bafoussam to touch her salary. She shepherded me a bit onto the bus and then we were off.

The transit system is a bit different here, but I think it would be inaccurate to denigrate it with such comments as "if you can call it a system". It is systematic. It’s a hard sell to someone who is used to the regularity, consistency, and let’s say courtesy of our American system, but it’s no more or less self-consistent than the methods you’re used to. Which are:

  • within locale, you’re probably going to take moto taxi, unless you’re walking. Organization volunteers/trainees are required to wear motorcycle helmets or else we may get the boot. Back in the States, Igor gave me a ride on his motorcycle one morning, and I’m glad he did, because scary as that was, it was great prep for this.
  • to go to nearby locales, you’re probably going to get into a "regular" car taxi. You generally have to know their routes and even where they stop, but you can also flag them down and if they’re going as far as you want, they’ll wave you in. There’s some overlap between distances you can take motos and cars. We have been instructed to take only the yellow taxis, which are reputable, and not any other random car that stops wherever.
  • big hops are "busses" generally, which range in size from vans to big coach busses. These you have to find in bigger cities. Well-known "travel agencies" (perhaps more properly called "bus companies") exist, often two or more in the same location, and will apparently pick fights over passengers. Sometimes they will preemptively cart off your baggage in a bid to make you theirs — which is fine if you have a lot of baggage. We have been advised in these situations to "speak rapidly in American English", which apparently overloads their cervical cortex. Yesterday I saw a bus labelled: "Fred Express". Also: "Linda Travels". Well, good for her. So do I, in a manner of speaking.
  • there are also: a couple of rail lines, which you need to take if you’re going to the Extreme North. Allegedly that journey is measured in days. Also: a few airlines and scattered non-international airports if that’s your sort of thing. They’re allegedly a little pricier than we can afford as volunteers.

So, we took a bus to Bafoussam. At Bafoussam I had an assignment to open a bank account. From there I took a car to Batié. I met Jean-Claude at the Carrefour Batié ("Batié Intersection", although strictly speaking there are two intersections within "city limits").

One of the rules of transport here is that there’s always room for one more. I lucked out in the bus to Bafoussam, which nominally had seating for four abreast and didn’t tend to exceed it. In the car to Batié, though, we sat four in the back (with a kid in someone’s lap), and three in the front. I cannot say whether this pays off in terms of petrol burned and wear-and-tear on the car, but it sure is a pain sometimes.

Another rule is that buses are roving markets. Whenever a bus stops in a relatively populated area, often the street peddlers (carrying food, water, etc.) will swarm the bus and hawk their wares tempestuously. Sometimes they even open the door and climb in to hawk more effectively. Back home I guess I would find this rude and presumptuous and try not to encourage it, but there are lines of politesse that aren’t crossed — everyone leaves once the bus is in motion again, sometimes people will run alongside the bus to finish a transaction, and if you say no, they move on. In some ways I think the whole concept is kind of neat — think about it as airline food, except it’s fresh, there’s a competetive market for it, and there’s a certain amount of variety. Way better than the crap they serve in Port Authority, that’s for sure.

But there are pitfalls too; I witnessed my travel companion pick out some items from a couple different vendors and then have to try to sort out how much she owed who. Also, if you have a fairly large bill (2,000 CFA for a purchase of only a few hundred) the trick is to ask them to give you your change ("ramboursez-moi d’abord") before you give them the money. Otherwise, they may just take the money and run; since you are in a bus there’s very little you can do. But wouldn’t someone who does that trigger "jungle justice", a.k.a. the brutal mob justice that apparently happens here when a thief is discovered? Look, don’t ask me. I’m still kind of surprised that they’ll both let you take the food AND advance you the difference before you pay them. But I guess just like in the states, trust is given to the customer rather than the vendor.

Aside: I really wish I had said a much bigger thank you to Carmen’s host mom than I did! She was awesome. We talked a little about different things — different regions of Cameroon mostly, since she said she was "from the South" but born and raised in the Central region, and that didn’t make any sense to me. Apparently you are considered "from" the region your father is "from", whatever that means, and you can be "from the North" even if you’ve never been there. The only way that mkes sense to me is that there are cultural differences between regions, namely foods and languages, and I can see how being "from the South" might be a significant point of distinction in a country like this one.

I managed to arrive in Bafoussam and found my own moto to the bank I wanted to go to, and even opened a checking account (or at least, I think that’s what "Compte Courant" means). I consider this a major accomplishment because I was without host and struggling with my French. I was fortunate in that I was a day late, so some other trainee had already done this with the same dude and already knew what was up. Hopefully I can ask that other trainee what the fuck the dude was saying at the start of the conversation — something about the minimum balance and sending me messages by cell phone or email. Well, whatever; I’m sure it wasn’t important.

I’m really tired so I’m gonna stop here. There’s a ton of stuff to say about the visit itself, which is still ongoing, so hopefully I’ll continue where I left off tomorrow.

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