Cameroon Update

I’ve pulled all the posts from my time in Cameroon off the blog. That time in my life was a furious storm, and I’m working out the kinks so it will become readable to a wider audience. I’m separating the dirt from the gold. I will not lie about how I felt. Things that were murky are better understood with distance, and some things I believed then have not carried over to the present. Something will emerge from this, but I’m not sure what yet.


Beaches, Steroids and Thieves Pt. 2

(Part 1 is here)

I zoned out in the van again, sitting next to one of the Dutch men, and tried not to think about how I spent the last hour.  My ankles were swollen still, but the pain had gone down and would continue to do so until the next day. (One of the Dutch doctors later explained to me that the French doctor in Kribi had given me a heavy dose of a powerful steroid, dextro-something.)  After the hospital, we picked up the last of our stuff from the hotel and I denied the owner once more, no, I won’t kiss you goodbye, won’t take you to America, and headed out again.  We drove straight through to Douala, 2 or 3 hours from Kribi, and were told we would need to stay another two nights since the place for the washer wouldn’t reopen until Monday.  Instead of stay above the hospital/convent like we did when I first arrived in Cameroon, mom and I opted for a hotel where we wouldn’t be surrounded by nights full of the sounds of birth and death. The Baptist center had a room with a spiral staircase and a swimming pool outside. My ankles were working again and we walked with the Dutch to dinner in town. We found a place in town with pizza and beer, a worldwide favorite.

The next day for lunch, mom and I decided to go back and have another pizza, in case it doesn’t come around for the next 6 weeks in Cameroon. It was Sunday, and before we left, mom was going to take her camera. The guard at the door advised against it, because Sunday’s are the days when the thieves come out on the streets and steal from anyone who isn’t in church. We went back to the room to drop off the camera and only brought a little bit of money for a meal and groceries. We ate and went out onto the street to walk the block or two to the store. We passed a man standing against a wall who came up with his hands out, asking for my mom to give him something. She said no and kept walking, so he persisted, blocking her from moving forward, saying “give me something” in a more aggressive way. I was walking behind her, because sometimes I need to keep an eye on her, and she stopped again. The man’s arm shot out and grabbed my mother’s neck, ripping off her necklace and dashing.

(Quick aside: I am pretty familiar with this necklace and it’s sentimentality for my mother. It’s a charm that belonged to my grandmother, who I knew for a very short period. She died when I was 6 and I wish often she had lived longer. Apparently our attitudes are startlingly similar–she was quick witted and cynical, smart as hell, and wonderful to know if she let you. I have some blurry and loving memories of her, but I wish we could talk today. She would have been a good grandmother.)

I had done a quick analysis: the boy was in shorts, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap. He had nothing up his sleeves, in his pockets, or his hands. He was wearing sandals.

As I said, sometimes I need to watch things from behind in case something like this happens. The thief snatched the necklace clean off her neck and turned backwards to run. I braced myself and as he came toward me I grabbed him until my grip slipped, slowing him down but not stopping him. I dropped my leftover pizza and broke into a sprint after him, hearing my mother shout from the sidewalk “That was my mother’s, you asshole! And she’s dead!” I eyed the street and breaks between cars through my peripherals without breaking stride and continued the pursuit. I’m not sure why I chased after him, but something kicked in inside me related to my mother, family, dotted red ankles from the jellyfish, and adrenaline. The thief, about my age, was quick, but I shouted and pointed as I ran through the boulevard, attracting the attention of the standing security guards/cab wavers in front of restaurants. By the time he reached the other side of the street and I closed the distance, he was surrounded by larger men and handed over the necklace without much force. I reached him a second later and was grabbed forcefully around my arms by two guards who dragged me back across the road. They turned over the necklace and I gave it back to my mother and we were walked back to the hotel. At some point during the chase, the thief’s hat flew off into the street, and whoever retrieved the leftover pizza I had packaged up at the restaurant handed me the hat with it. It’s beige with an American flag.

Later, she would worry that the thief could have turned around and decked me, but I pointed out that we were crossing four lanes of suicidal Cameroon traffic and even a thief wouldn’t have risked the time it would take to punch me. I also explained that if we had a weapon, he would have used it in the first place, since mom was carrying a purse strapped from shoulder to opposite hip–hard to take without being handed over, which is why he took the necklace.  I like to believe I’m ready for crazy things to happen, and I reacted quickly to this one, but I think I just had enough bullshit happen to me on my vacation that I just decided I wasn’t going to let this happen.  Back in the hotel, we watched Terminator 3 on the only channel in English.

I’ve spared you the smaller details of why I had a frustrating weekend, but I know you trust me when I say it’s been a little wild. It’s good to be back at the convent, back to a different kind of work and frustration: not a dangerous one and with a working shower.

Beaches, Steroids and Thieves Pt. 1

(Part 2 is here)

I collapsed, stiff-legged and delirious after 7 hours in a van with three nuns, my mom, and a sweaty driver. Being in between the driver–a large man who doesn’t wear deodorant–and one of the large sisters, same thing also she’s fully habited–in 90 degree African heat and humidity, I was fried in every sense when I fell from the van to the concrete.  Somehow we managed to load two enormous washing machines and everyone’s suitcases into the van with us, removing seats and cramming to the front of the car where we were less than even slightly comfortable, and driving from Douala to Bafut. Also the van has no air conditioning.

Simply to be in this van going the direction we were headed was a relief to me. I was ready to get the hell away from the weekend and my disastrous vacation in south Cameroon.  Thursday morning, we crammed (we’re always cramming into cars. At least 7 to a taxi when we go into town) into the convent van and the rented van, my mom and I, 3 sisters and 9 Dutch doctors. We made the drive to Kribi without much excitement, just lots of time in the car and a few stops in questionable areas for lunch, and were dropped off at our designated hotels. I was with my mom, you can usually assume that about this trip, and we were the only ones staying at a different hotel. I was excited to meet more travelers, maybe my age and maybe they spoke english, but no…I never have much luck with this wish. We were almost the only tenants of Hotel Costa Blanca, only one couple was there and some parents with babies. The hotel owner was insistent, especially after my 2nd or 3rd whiskey, on becoming my husband and was prepared to say anything to me as long as I would agree.  Well, if you’ve known me in a whiskey situation (sorry) you can imagine the mixture of annoyance I felt at this. I might have made him cry.  But this is not what I came to Kribi for, dammit. I came to sit on the beach in my new bathing suit and get tan enough to prove I wasn’t in the Midwest all winter.  So the day it didn’t rain and we weren’t stuck in a near monsoon at bank in town, teaching the tellers the Lattice multiplication method, I went down to the beach early intent on staying until it was time to check out.

It was nice, being on the Atlantic with a book, a notebook, and nobody around. I went in and out of the water, fell asleep and woke up, paged through some poetry, etc. As the afternoon went on and the checkout time got closer I thought I’d take one more venture out to sea. I walked out into the water only as far as my waist. Something wrap around both my ankles, digging tiny barns into my skin. I gasped and tried to back away, but my legs started to seize and burn with such intensity as the angelhair tentacles of whatever I was tied in reached up and grabbed my hip. I jumped back and clamored onto shore, dragging my dead legs out with me. I couldn’t think for several seconds, I couldn’t even see the pain was so immediate.  I shook it off and yelled back to my mother, who was watching me flail curiously, to get someone for help.  She ran back to the hotel and was followed out by some of the maids and one of the owners. I dragged myself into the shade and fought against the threshold of a blackout. The maids only spoke French, and right away began taking handfuls of sand and rubbing at my ankles aggressively, as if I was not a living creature that was already in an enormous amount of pain. Sand being rubbed vigorously onto a fresh burn? It hurts. My mom spoke her broken French to the maids who said that this happens in this part of the water, but no, never before at this hotel, they didn’t really know what they were doing. Another maid came out with a bucket of ice water and three lemon halves. As if rubbing sand wasn’t bad enough, guess what came next. At one point, the beach vendors who roam figures anatomically carved with large genitals, crouched down and began fingering my ankles and the burns. Someone called a doctor, who also only spoke French, and I was taken to the hospital.

At the hospital, I guess the French woman explained that I needed a shot, but this was in French, and left to get the supplies. I wondered what she was telling me. She came back with a syringe 5 inches long and about an inch in diameter. She pointed to my arm and I showed my veins. She filled the syringe with a ludicrous amount of amber liquid and held onto my elbow.  I watched her tap the syringe once, but I could clearly see a large air bubble inside, and when she stuck the needle in, my eyes never left it as it wiggled in the edge of the needle.  The liquid poured into my blood, and it was fine until two thirds had entered me, then I started to itch a little. The little itch turned into a panicked surge of burning itching that flooded down my entire body and I screamed for the first time that day, clawing towards the woman who smiled calmly and held my arm a little tighter. I think I said “What the fuck is this!? What do you think you’re giving me?! What the fuck?!?” She removed the needle when the last liquid rushed into my arm and I writhed from the burning in every cell of my body. The pain gradually slowed and quit, and again I felt the edge of a blackout behind my eyes, but I fought. I was taken from the hospital and put back into the van so we could make it to Douala in time for the sisters to buy a washing machine.