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.