17 January 2006

"vin blanc"

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a description of the "trip from hell" - 12 hours travel time between Boston and Dallas (1800 miles, usually a 3-4 hour flight). This trip included many hours of waiting in various airports, crammed uncomfortably in small planes, etc. And the only thing I could find to eat in the airport, one of them, was an apple and maybe some bread. And I had to fight to be allowed to fly that night at all, rather than being bumped to the next day (victory of calling on your cell phone to the 1800 number while standing in a shoving, angry line with your fellow passengers!) But to stay an extra week in Boston with my dear ones – all worth it.

My perspective has changed.

Allow me to describe a not atypical (but nothing is "typical" here – I've become very "laissez-faire") Cameroonian voyage, 2 weeks ago, en
route from Mvangan to Ebolowa for New Year's. Usually, there is an "agence de voyage" with vans that travel between Mvangan and the provincial capital (Ebolowa). That day, the vans were broken, so the passengers were transferred to a "klando" (non-registered, or personal) car. Toyota, early 90s, station wagon – but the back part was used for bags, so the interior is about the size of a Toyota Corolla. Twelve people inside (to be fair, including a few children). Two on top. Dirt road, 60 miles. How long did the trip take? Six and a half hours. We had two flat tires, the second one about 20 miles from Ebolowa and close to dark. The driver hopped on a passing moto to go get a new tire "in the nearest town" – where, a friendly neighbor woman told us, there were no tires. He would have to travel to Ebolowa and back.

Meanwhile, in a not atypical show of Cameroonian hospital, the neighbor took me and another woman from the car (by the by, a member of the President's personal guard) where we chatted for awhile and then were served dinner. Bringing out the plates: bush meat, plantain pilé, and "vin blanc". The woman asked me if I knew what "vin blanc" was here. Since this is often the name for palm wine, I acquiesced. She said "I prepared it with spinach." Not knowing what the bush meat was (I'll eat pretty much anything BUT monkey, the most common type in the South) and not wanting to be rude and ask, I helped myself to the plantain and the spinach and "vin blanc."

It so happens, however, that "vin blanc" here meant grubs. Not exactly sure what genus, but something grub-like with a definite exoskeleton and a soft inside. And the only thing I've eaten here that has brought me to the brink of being quite violently ill. I tried, I really did, after all – what is this but the royal road to acculturation? And after 7 pm, waiting for the driver for over an hour, in a village with no electricity and running quickly out of the water in my Nalgene (damn me for not bringing iodine tabs!), I expected to have to stay the night. My gracious hostess noticed my discomfort, laughed, and called one of the children to bring me fish. She and my fellow traveller finished my "vin blanc" with relish. While I crunched slowly on the fish bones, and we sat and talked awhile longer, the driver came back. With the help of some other passengers, he instated the new tire. We piled back into the car. We go a few hundred meters. The headlight (which was working, somewhat to my surprise) falls off. The driver gets out, puts it back on, and we continue. The headlight and (and the tires) stay on! Victory!

This is as a good a time as any to mention that it's dry season. You may not be aware of this, but the full meaning is that it hasn't really rained (except a few times, briefly) in two months. It's hot here. It's a (red) dirt road. The air – our clothes – the car – the bags – everything, everyone is coated in layers upon layers of dirt and dust. The windows have also been open for the entire trip. My lungs have begun to close, and every time we get out of the car I lapse into a hacking cough (and two weeks later, my allergies have improved to the point that I can – almost- sleep through the night without waking up in coughing fits. But not quite. As the PC/Cam medical manual says, if you haven't had allergies or asthma before, you'll develop them here. Dry season. And if you've had asthma before – well – it's back. Welcome back. I write this as I'm preparing to travel to Ebolowa, again, armed with a bandanna I'm determined to wear as a gas mask).

When we approach the first gendarme checkpoint, near the paved road (which feels like salvation, every time we get there – no matter how broken down the car is, from the paved road, you can get another car or a taxi into Ebolowa), the driver suddenly pulls over. The 2 (3 by now) on top jump off, and a few passengers in back get out. We drive through. The gendarme tries to extort (is it a bribe? Is it our driver not wanting to pay?) money, the driver refuses, and we wait awhile as his papers are taken away. Finally, the papers are restored and we drive through, picking up our renegade (it's against the law to have that many people in a car, but it's done as a matter of course) passengers. We continue. It's almost 9 pm by this time; Lindsey (whom I'm visiting in Ebolowa) often goes to bed early, and she doesn't know for sure that I'm coming. There is no cell phone reception until right when we get into the city limits, very near her house. I had my phone in hand, staring, staring at the bars until – Victory! I had service. And I texted her, and she was home, waiting. When I finally stumbled into her door, shrugged off my bags and collapsed on the couch, home, in the company of my two closest PCVs, to celebrate a wonderful, wonderful New Year's weekend, it was all, all worth it.

Happy New Year!!!

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