Lucia has something to say

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Rachel-Leah Syndrome

I’m about to go off on a Biblical rant, so if this is offensive to you, leave now. Shoo! Don’t turn around. You might turn into a pillar of salt.

I grew up in a religious family and went to Christian school. There’s one story in the Bible I have hated as far back as I can remember.

Jacob goes to a well and finds Rachel there with her sheep. He kisses her, and she runs home to tell her father that there’s this guy at the well who is his nephew (and maybe that he kissed her too, who knows?) So Jacob hangs around and finds out there are two sisters, Leah, the older, who’s weak of eye (whatever that means...I’ve always, thought that maybe she wasn’t so cute, but she was smart) and Rachel who’s a hottie.

Jacob falls in love with the hottie and tells her father he’ll work 7 years for her. After all his work, the father slips Leah in in place of Rachel, and Jacob doesn’t discover until morning (Puh-leeze!) that he spent the night with Leah instead of Rachel. Jacob asks why the trick. Father says its their custom to marry off the older daughter first. Jacob makes a deal and gets Rachel too. But, she doesn’t have kids, Leah does, yadda, yadda, yadda.

I began calling this Rachel-Leah syndrome years ago. For me, it’s when smart men fall for hot women that aren’t their equals in any way. They’re men who belong with smarter women, but they’ve thought with their dick instead of their brains, and wind up with Rachel instead of Leah. Which leaves the Leahs looking at these men wondering what the hell happened that they wound up with those Rachels.

So, I’ve read a little into the story. Don’t like it? Wipe me down with a moist towelette.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Answering Some Questions

Maggie asked if the women accept their position in society, the “order of things,” or whether they question it. The way I understand it, Tuareg society is matrilineal but not matriarchal. I don’t have a real understanding of what this means. My sense is that the women don’t question things much. There’s a separateness between men and women, and I’m not sure what role Islam plays in that.

What bothered me much more was that the Tuaregs have slaves, Bella tribespeople from other parts of the country that have been in their families for decades or more. The Tuareg women don’t cook or make fires or do much work. The slaves do it. So, the women will be sitting around while slaves do all the work–chopping wood, cooking, milking cows, etc.

The thing is, if you ask them if they have slaves, they’ll say no. If you ask them if so-and-so belongs to their family, they’ll say yes. If you ask if they’re paid, they’ll say no. If you ask if they can leave, they’ll say no. There isn’t any question that these are slaves. If you think there’s no slavery left in the world, think again.

I think as a foreigner, I gained status as an honorary man. I was with all men. In my last post, that’s my driver Oumar on the far left, my host Aboubacrine next to him and in the picture with the girl, and my translator Mohamed with the flashlight.

And the goat...I’d gladly give the leftovers to you, Jen! A lot of the reason eating goat (which I can’t really tell you how it smelled or it tasted, since I blocked it out) is nearly impossible because I eat vegetarian mostly. But I have such a strong sense of cultural acceptance and correctness that I try to eat whatever is put in front of me, knowing that whomever is serving it has probably made a real financial sacrifice to do so. People (except in India) do not understand not eating meat. It causes a lot of confusion. Tuareg food is cooked with some wonderful spices, crushed right before using. They’re the same as those used in Middle Eastern food. The bread is called roti, the same name as Indian bread, but it’s different.

All of you reading this are really extraordinary. Often when I’m writing, I wonder why people read this. I think no one is going to relate to or be interested in this odd life I have on the road. I started blogging between a trip to Madagascar and this trip to Africa, so the travel stories started after I was already writing. I don’t have a desire to go back and talk about dozens of trips before (although something may pop out now and again), but I am motivated to come back and tell stories about trips I’m taking now.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Rice and Goat and Milk

The village of Gargando is at the edge of the Sahara desert. I brought a gift of three large cans of mixed vegetables, the awful ones with little cubes of carrots and peas. There are not vegetables in the Tuaregs' diet. Vegetables don't grow there. Most meals are rice, goat meat, butter, and milk. There's no way this can be healthy.

Men eat together. And women eat after. I ate with the men. Here we're eating in the dark (note the flashlight). Dinner is usually rice on a large round platter with goat meat. Everyone eats, usually with their hands, but I got a spoon, from the platter or bowls or whatever is there. You eat what's directly in front of you, so it's easy to see how much anyone's eaten by the hole they've left. I usually pushed some food around so it looked like I'd eaten. Goat, well, it's hard for me to choke even a little down.

I was writing a report at work today about this trip and thinking what an odd experience it is to be with turbaned Tuaregs, to sleep outside on a sand dune under a mosquito net, and to be in this place that is so foreign and yet so intriguing.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Circuitous Route

So I was thinking about how I got to this job, the one that takes me to all these places. I really meandered here.

I taught kindergarten, which I really liked, but I got tired of parents calling me at home. Parental involvement is great. Parental meddling isn’t. I think a lot of people who are really great teachers leave the field for all sorts of reasons–the salary, the curriculum limitations, the parents.

From the classroom I went to history museums, where I worked creating programs for kids and became a museum educator. I wrote exhibit scripts. I developed museum interactives. For several years I dressed in a white blouse and long black skirt and taught school to 4th graders as if it was 1904. Recitations. Strictness. An imposing teacher.

I’ve lived a lot of places. Oak Park, Illinois. Lawrence, Kansas. Oakland, California. Otavalo, Ecuador. Bloomington, Illinois. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Kirksville, Missouri (aka Bumfuck, Misery, where we still have a house). And now I’m here, in Madison, Wisconsin.

I became the director of national fair trade organizations. I organized conferences. I did media interviews. And then I ended up here, doing fair trade international development with a job that includes travel to Africa, Asia and Latin America to visit artisans and small farmers to strategize with them how to grow their organizations and make them stronger. I still remember when the job description crossed my desk, and I knew this was what I wanted to do. I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve never had a job I didn’t like. And only once or twice I haven’t got jobs I applied for.

Many of us have paths that are winding and indirect. When we start out, we don’t really know where life will take us. Through my childhood, I thought I’d be a stock car driver. Through my teens, I thought I’d be a writer. After college, I thought I’d be a teacher. You can move in a direction, but you never really know where it’ll take you. I mean, who’d a thunk I’d turn into a blogger?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Tea in Mali

All day long, Malians offer strong tea.

It’s made in a small pot on a charcoal burner like this one and served in three small glasses from a tray.

When the tea is ready, they hold the pot about a foot above the glass and pour. The tea goes from the glass back into the pot, and this is repeated over and over again. From pot to glass and back again. When the tea is ready, it is offered, with a nice foamy top from the repeated pourings, to be swigged down so the shared glasses are emptied and ready to be filled for others.

When the first pot is done, the tea is made again with the same leaves, but this time some sugar is added. The tea is poured, back and forth, back and forth, and again makes the rounds. In the third brewing, even more sugar is added. It’s the last and the sweetest.

The first strong cup is said to be bitter like death. The second is the blend of bitter and sweet in life. The third is sweet like love.

Speaking of love (How's that for a bad transition?), what I love about reading your blogs is that they make me think about all sorts of things I wouldn't normally think about in a crushes...and Thai Chicken Soup with Lemongrass...and carved pumpkins...and James Taylor...and life choices...and practical jokes...and the Jayhawks...and days at home spent in pajamas.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Think about this. You live in a small village in Africa or Asia or Latin America. You have never seen airplanes anywhere but flying high overhead. What would you know about airplanes?

I once heard a story about a small plane landing in the Ecuadorian Amazon. The plane landed, and at the end of the runway spun around 365 degrees. The passengers, who had never flown before, thought this was normal.

And this week I was reading Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Mali. Her friend Monique worried about a trip to the U.S. because she wasn’t sure she could hang on for so many hours. She was surprised to learn that you don’t fly outside the plane, like you would ride a motorcycle, but you fly on the inside, like a car. She also, never having seen a plane take off and land, believed the plane shot up like a rocket and then dropped back to earth like a rock.

Today was the last day for my two interns. I wish I could keep them on projects. They were great. Both from the University of Wisconsin. One had worked in the Kibera slum in Nairobi and spoke Swahili. The other is from Peru and did some work in Lima when he went home to visit his family. I'm sad to see them go.

Monday, October 23, 2006


Like many people, I a) wasn’t sure if Timbuktu was a real place or a mythical one, and b) had no idea what country it was in. So, let's establish right off that yes, it's an actual city, and it's in central Mali which is in western Africa. It feels like northern Mali, because it's as far north as you can go before you're in the Sahara desert, where no one really lives, although there are nomads with cattle and salt miners passing through.

Timbuktu has achieved a remote and mysterious glamour, but here's the thing. There's really nothing there but sand streets and mud brick houses. That’s it. It’s monochrome tan. One travel guide described it as disheveled, which about sums it up.

A co-worker read an article in National Geographic twenty years ago that said in another 20 years, only one of two things would be true. One was that there was something to see there, and the other was that it would be difficult to get to. Sure enough. The first one is gone, and it’s still difficult to get there.

We got to the other side of the Niger on the ferry and sloshed off. Within a few kilometers, we had a flat tire. (Nothing new there.) Then we headed into Timbuktu. And there we were. In nowheresville. Sand blows into everything. Every crack in a house. Into the food. The wind picks up and threatens rain.

It’s too stuffy to sleep inside, so the mattress was dragged onto the roof. A mosquito net is rigged up over it. And the sky is packed with stars. I looked up at the stars and fell into a very sound sleep.

It is in Timbuktu that I learn the phrase, “if it pleases Allah.” I am told this phrase follows every plan, and, my translator says with a smile, that Allah usually isn’t pleased by meetings happening on time or people showing up when they’re supposed to. It's a convenient excuse.

Timbuktu is just a stop on the way. My destination was a smaller village several hours outside of Timbuktu. I headed there for work, to meet with an artisans association in the Tuareg village of Gargando. I'll write about Gargando sometime soon.

Traveling to Timbuktu

It's no surprise that people use Timbuktu as a euphemism for the end of the world. It's hard to get to. You can either take a leisurely float down the muddy Niger River for a couple of days, or, as I did, get a 4x4 and a driver, and travel through scrubby desert on a sand track. The track is there, but where it's too bumpy to get through, the drivers use an alternate route, which is sometimes a track and sometimes wherever they think it's best to go. There is an airport in Timbuktu, but flights seem available only certain times of year, if at all.

Nearing Timbuktu, the track ends at the sandy shores of the Niger River. Here there's a four-car ferry. I met this guy from (that's his truck getting on the ferry) while waiting for the ferry. He and his girlfriend had this specially equipped Land Cruiser (pop-up camper on the top, tools for winching the car out of the river, etc.) and had left from London in February. They are planning to travel for 3 years. They're in Ghana right now if his website is up to date.

The ferry drifts while the cars get on. When its pointed somewhat in the right direction, the car leaves the shore, sloshes through the water, and if things go well, up the ferry ramp. An overloaded truck tried to get on, but couldn't make it. His being stuck in the sand and water was a cause for chuckling when the ferry pulled away. Although it was made for four cars, they managed to get five on. Border Crossing guy's car was so close to the one I was in that we had a nice chat on the 35 minute ride. I couldn't get out. There wasn't room for the doors to open.

More on Timbuktu in my next post...

Friday, October 20, 2006

Wicked Spanish

I’m starting to think ahead. My next six months, if all goes well, will take me to Bangladesh, Nepal, Argentina, Rwanda, Guatemala, and Belgium. Last time I planned to go to Nepal, the entire royal family was shot. It didn’t seem like a good time. I didn’t go. So, one never knows.

In preparation, I pulled out my all time favorite Spanish travel book–Wicked Spanish for the Traveler by Howard Tomb. It includes useful phrases that I'd like to share with you should you ever travel in Latin America.

I never knew chicken wire had so many uses.
No sabía que la tela metálica tenía tantos usos.

What seems to be the problem officer? Would these green papers ($) help?
Cuál es el problema, oficial? Servirían también estos papelitos verdes?

I’d prefer a room without scorpions.
Preferirían una habitación sin alacranes.

When did the brakes go out?
Cuándo se fueron los frenos?

What lies motionless under the spicy chocolate sauce?
Qué yace immóvil dentro el mole?

Have you got any cold beer?
Tiene cerveza fria?

Thursday, October 19, 2006


They say that the image of elephants wandering across grass plains with Mt Kilimanjaro in the background is familiar to even armchair travelers. Here it is–the classic shot from Amboseli National Park in Kenya.

I had been to Amboseli once before, about four years ago. But I had forgotten how many animals are there, many grazing together. Zebra. Elephants. Wildebeest. Gazelles. Ostriches. Warthogs. Lions. Giraffes. Hyenas. Jackals. Hippo. Last time I was there an elephant passed within feet of the jeep, and I was surprised at how much they smell. This time, the highlight was four female lions. Two crossed in front of the van. Two in back. It’s hard to see lions at all, so to see them up close was great.

I woke up at the lodge to clattering and banging on the roof. Baboons. Baboons on the roof. Really, who wakes up to baboons on the roof? I didn’t go out. I think baboons are nasty, and I had visions of a cranky one landing on my head.

Last week, I had physical jet lag. This week, I think I have emotional jet lag. Think about having a really big adventure, and then being back in the office. Yup, emotional jet lag.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Snippet, a Fragment, and a Shard

A Snippet: I have a photo tucked in a box of my brother on the top of a car after winning a demolition derby. He climbed out of the window. And stood on top of the car. In a tux. And in the mud pit of stopped cars with wisps of radiator steam, he is frozen in time.

A Fragment: In Mali, I went down the hall to take a much needed shower. And turned the skeleton key. Refreshed, I found I could not get out of the bathroom. I jiggled the key. I turned. And turned and turned and turned. I yoohooed. Nothing. Nobody. I had a mini-breakdown leaning against the door. I came up with a plan. I’d climb through the window, toss myself onto the dusty street, and then come into the driveway of the hotel. I whipped the window open, and there were bars. The only way out was the door. Determination. Set. In. And in a frustrating half hour, I freed myself from the prison bathroom to meet the evil man I wrote about a few days ago. Maybe karma was trying to keeping me safe and locked in the bathroom away from him.

A Shard: I’m reading The Butterfly Hunter, about people with jobs way off the beaten path, and there’s a chapter about this woman living here in Wisconsin. She’s a big, burly, tattooed grandmother who competes at lumberjack competitions. Oh, yeah. Love it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Little Girl Dream

If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up at 7 or 10 or even 14, I would have told you a stock car driver. My big childhood family outings were to watch the Cubs lose at sunny Wrigley Field and to go to the races. I loved the speed, the deafening loudness of the laps. I wanted to be the first woman stock car driver. A Petty blue car. The number 11. My own pit crew. A girl playing with the big boys.

I’m glad I wasn’t afraid to tell anybody that I dreamed of growing up wild.

While I was traveling, I read Maggie's poem Pink Little Girl and a few beautiful lines have stuck with me...

Quiet little girls
With pink and proper dress
Grow up wild and tattooed...

Read it! It’s great.

I'll come back to blogging about safari and Timbuktu soon. Meanwhile, I'm booking my next trip. Here to Toyko to Bangkok to Dhaka to Kathmandu and back again.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Kibera Slum

A couple of things came together today that made me think about the Kibera slum in Nairobi that I visited a couple of weeks ago. First, I watched The Constant Gardener last night and part of it was filmed in Kibera, which I can scarcely imagine given the crime and logistics. Second, I listened to an online radio clip "Slum Tours: Insight or Voyeurism?" There are now organized tours to slums in Mumbai, India, (where I have been) and favelas in Brazil (where I haven't). In most cases, a good portion of the income from the tours goes to social programs for people living in the slums (which it should).

Kibera is the largest slum in Nairobi. There are about 700,000 people living in crowded corrugated tin or mud houses. Some have small businesses selling fruit and vegetables, or charcoal, or repairing shoes, or showing videos at set times, so people can go see them like they would a movie in a theater. Others work in service positions--as cooks and gardeners and house cleaners. Even more are unemployed.

It's hard to imagine anyone living here. The streets are narrow and it's dirty. There's trash everywhere. Waste water runs in narrow troughs at the side of the road. The lack of sanitation and the lack of potable water makes for a conditions that are difficult to imagine.

Why do people have to live like this?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Quirky Clothing

Take a good look at the pattern on this woman's dress. Yep, it's scissors. I saw all sort of interesting everyday objects incorporated into fabric patterns. Giant razor blades. Bright CDs. Forks and spoons. Combs.

Another peculiar phenomenon was leaving labels visible. A man's reading glasses still had the label in a lower corner when he's using them. A man in line at immigration at the airport still had a big label stitched onto the sleeve of his suit. Someone put their shirt carefully over the back of the chair so the label showed.

I am sorely missing the 7 cent avocados I was eating in Kenya. Yes, a mere 5 Kenyan shillings--or 7 cents each.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Plaited Hair

As per Meno's request, here's the hair. Hope you can see the sand (and why I looked bald!)

A Day Turned Sour

We sat around in the tent all day. Talking business. Doing nothing. The first wife, who wore bright clothes, played a card game with the kids. Don't they notice the cards have pictures of Asian pinup girls? The second wife wore all black. Why is she wearing black? Can't she wear color like the first wife? While the first wife has a life of leisure, the second does the work. The second wife braided my hair, tight to my head, parting it with a wire and working in sand. Why am I not thinking about how much damage this is doing to my hair and how hard it will be to get all the sand off my scalp? Do I know I'll have to get the breakage cut off as soon as I get back? My head becomes the center of attention for half the afternoon. It's made clear to me that I should pay the second wife to show gratitude. I look in a hand mirror and pay her. It feels like dirty money. We drink tea from small cups. It was entirely too much lounging around, but that was my day.

At night, we returned for dinner. And everything went sour. It was awful. First the guy laid into me about looking, but not buying crafts. Then he started rambling about how I could get him a visa to visit the U.S. to sell crafts. Like I could get him a visa. I tried to explain that it doesn't work that way. After that, he flat out yelled at me for not eating enough. He said he had bought a goat for 60,000 francs and killed it and now I wasn't eating. Hey, I hardly eat any meat. And I didn't tell him to kill the damn goat. If it were up to me, I wouldn't eat ANY goat. And then, he said a woman who lives in my city said my luggage had been too full to carry copy books from the U.S. for his kids to go to school. I don't even know what kind of copy books he was talking about. He needed 73 of them for all of their subjects. Yeah, right, he needed 73. He carefully figured the cost out on paper, to prove how much he'd need so the kids could go to school next week. Resist the urge to give him any money. He's a creep.

Throughout the evening, my mind was screaming, escape, escape! My level of discomfort was unnerving. This is not cultural, this guy is out of line. And, damn it, in the end I wound up giving him money.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Jet Lag

Thanks to jet lag, I've been up since the wee hours of the morning, reading blogs, working, thinking about life, and enjoying my cutie patootie Corgi, who I just picked up last night.

My life on the road seems unusual by some standards. I'm an itinerant NGO worker, in transit, moving.

When I was traveling, I read The Cruelest Journey, Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu in parallel with my own trip to Timbuktu. Why do I travel? I fear a stagnant life. I love new experiences. The author of this book says, "I want the world to always be offering me the new, the grace of the unfamiliar." That sums it up for me. When I'm traveling, I am offered hundreds, myriads of new experiences.

In Mali, the Tuaregs I was with said we must stop in a small town to see an elder, an advisor, who gives them counsel. He said to me, "You must have something to learn here with so long a journey." There is something to learn everywhere--of generosity and poverty, of the many ways one can live life, of things taken for granted, of the familiar and unfamiliar. Of life.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Barbing and Beauty Saloons

I was endlessly amused in Cameroon with signs for barber shops and beauty salons. Each sign had paintings of heads, and the owners chose names that cracked me up. The barber shops use the word "barbing" and beauty salon is most often "beauty saloon." Here are a few of my favorites:

All My Life Barbing Studio
Ask God Why Beauty Saloon
Milli Vanilli Barbing Complex
Mrs. Ho's Beauty Saloon

I could add too, a name I saw in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya: Death Row Boyz Cutz.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Back from Africa

I've been back from Africa for just a couple of hours. Yesterday, I was on a safari game drive in Kenya in the morning watching zebras and elephants, and now I'm here. I'll have more travel stories soon from Mali, Cameroon, and Kenya. I travel frequently for work and play. For some of my favorite places, click here. Lots of times when I travel, I'd like to be able to say I'm Canadian. There's just too much political baggage (which I did not choose and am not responsible for) traveling as a US citizen. I expect my next trips to be to Bangladesh, Nepal, and Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America.

It will take a few days to untopsy-turvy my world--to get over jet lag, to adjust to it now being Fall (the trees have started to change and all my summer clothes are still thrown around the bedroom from when I left), to see the miracle of electricity and water (hot!) working every day, to eat on a normal schedule, and to get things back in order. I'm happy happy happy to have clean clothes. I planned to take six shirts. I left two in the dryer. One got a hole right away. Another was filthy after the first wear, which means for about two weeks, I've been switching back and forth between two shirts.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Another Road Story

Another day, another road story–this time from Kenya. The trip out to the village to visit the wood carvers went smoothly. Three hours outside Nairobi. By mid-day, we were headed back.

A few miles down the road, we stopped at a Sikh temple for vegetarian Indian food for lunch. The food was free, but a donation to the temple was expected. I’ve never before been in a Sikh temple, so didn’t know what to expect. One of the things I noticed was that there were dozens of sinks for washing hands. We loaded the food from a buffet on big divided metal trays. One “rule”was to clean your plate, to not waste food and to eat everything you take. (The Sikh Clean Plate Club?) We stopped in the prayer room to take a look around when leaving (covered our heads and washed our hands first), and then paid the requisite donation.

On the road again, I was hoping for a glimpse of a giraffe, since I had seen one on this road before. I did see some big monkeys, but no giraffe today.

Rolling along, our driver said, “Small problem,” and pulled over by the side of the road. After standing around and various people tinkering with the car, it was decided that it was too dangerous for us all to be standing on the side of the road, and we were sent to climb into a semi cab to ride to a nearby gas station. This was my second new experience of the day. I have never before been in a semi cab. There’s a lot of space in there, and, damn, it’s really high up off the road.

After learning that the problem was the fuel pump, a tow truck was located and sent out. But, the tow truck ran out of gas (in only one mile!), leaving both our Land Cruiser and the truck out on the highway. About this time, the cell phone battery of the woman who was with me died, so we lost contact with the people still on the road.

I’m not sure how all this was resolved. We waited about 3 hours at the fuel station, eating ice cream and drinking soda. We speculated that perhaps we had done something incorrectly at the temple that was causing us afternoon craziness. Our car eventually ended up at the filling station. And the group I was with sent someone from Nairobi to pick us up. Hours and hours with nothing to do but hang out, and laugh, and wait.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Vatican Express

Cameroon. Bamenda to Douala. Six plus hours on the bus. The Vatican Express Toyota Coaster leaves when the seats are sold. Peeking in the window, I can’t figure out which seat is mine. A bench seat for two on one side, a single seat on the other, and a fold-down seat in the aisle. Four across. After boarding, I know why I couldn’t see my seat. They sell five seats across. My seat is on the edge of the bench and partly on the fold-down. My limbs fold in and under. Shoulders overlap. Everyone is hip-to-hip. The luggage is on top. Three small black and white African goats are loaded on the top. One makes a run for it at the bus station, and protests loudly when he’s tossed to the roof.

The bus strains uphill out of Bamenda. The passengers by the windows have the option of letting air in or not. A boy with a yellow Superman shirt and big brown eyes sits in front of me. A hawker steps on the bus to sell a homemade concoction called Dental Pro. He speaks Pidgeon English, but I catch something about the medicinal value of plants. Dental Pro looks like a small glass bottle of water. One he swings in my face has an ant in it. His long speech convinces some riders that this will take care of any and all dental problems, and they give him the equivalent of $2 for five treatments before he hops off the bus.

When the bus stops, vendors push what they’re selling through the windows. The first stop brings carrots in plastic bags. The guy in front of me sits back. My knee is squarely in his kidney. I can’t move. Women in their Sunday best walk along the road. Another stop brings straw baskets and peanuts. Guava. Pineapple. The bus fills with fruits and vegetables. My right side cramps. I think the fold-down seat is lower than the bench. I am wedged in. There is nowhere to move. Someone opens a window, and the exhaust drifts in. The bus pulls uphill and flies downhill, past palms and banana trees. The green lushness of the rainy season.

A man passes with a wheelbarrow he’s using as a rolling grill. The clouds bring light rain. I glance at my watch. We left at 9:30. It is now noon. We ease over speed bumps in every small town. After three hours, a passenger tells the driver he wants to get out. After some back and forth, the driver says, “Why you confuse me?” The passenger hops out the window. He’s in my row. Relief. I hope that we will now be four across. This is not to be. Another man boards. I do get to slide onto the bench seat.

A mother behind me sings to her daughter, “Baby Jesus, Baby Jesus, Where are you? Where are you? Sleeping in a manger, ...” Her daughter sings “Where are you?” over and over and over again. We stop and the goats are unloaded from the roof. We stop again at a restaurant in a small town. The driver says we have fifteen minutes. The guy sitting next to me says, “We want to get to Douala. Eat on the bus!” I sit in front of a big speaker blaring African pop. There are hanging nests with bright yellow birds the size of robins nearby. We head off again. A flurry of pineapple, baked potatoes, meat grilled on sticks, and plantains come toward the bus at a government control stop. No one is interested. We have just eaten. Trash is dropped out of the bus window. Plastic bags. Corn husks. The idea is to keep the bus clean.

We sail by small deteriorating wood houses. Their roofs are corrugated tin. Rocks hold the roofs in place during a storm. Laundry hangs in the front. A girl grimaces as her mother yanks her hair to plait it for the week.

Young men hold bowls up to the bus. They have taken on small road repairs themselves, and want payment from drivers for their work. We pass a small van that the tire has just flown off. The passengers are all OK, milling around. The mother behind me tutors the girl in English. She talks, and the girl parrots. “I’m hungry.” “I want to eat.” “I want to eat rice.”

It’s getting hotter as we approach the capital. We pass by plantations of guarded bananas and pineapples. These neat rows belong to multi-national corporations and are not for sale. They are masked by a single row of eucalyptus trees.

We pass lumber yards and grilled meat stands, and arrive where all the buses stop. We unfold our cramped bodies and take our luggage as it comes down from the top of the bus. A driver named Elvis totes us in the spacious luxury of an old taxi to the airport.