Zen by Yaoundé

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Photo: I. Jack Gaines

We live in Cameroon. And it sucks. But it’s good.

I’m on an interminable bus ride, trying to meditate. Make productive use of the time, I figure. Turn a frustration, or at the very least a waste of time, into something useful, beneficial even. I try to take in the verdant landscape, the subtle grace and strength of the mama we zip past with a huge sack on her back, the simple elegance of the mud brick homes. I will achieve zen by Yaoundé. I outline the entire article I will write about this, turning a bus ride, a necessary evil, into a meditation that will make all more peaceful and productive.

We stop and are surrounded in seconds. It’s the third or fourth stop of the day. “Sheeps! Sheeps!” a woman screams through the windows, previously closed against dust, now shoved open, arms and sometimes half-bodies pressing in on us, dangling bags of plantain chips, peanuts, cut fruit, things I can’t name. I breathe, undisturbed. Shake my head, “Non, merci.”

A sway-backed girl is watching through the window, her mouth undulating vigorously around a sucker, obviously one of many from the shape of her teeth and the pinky-orange scum clinging to their surface. She waves her wares and we shake our heads no. Still she stays. Then, like a hit and run, her hand is through the window, swiping down my husband’s arm, and gone again. She stands, staring at us, giggling. I am indignant at the rudeness.

Deranging is my favorite frenglish word. It captures so exactly what it means: harassment stemming from a basic lack of regard and respect for another person. The shouting and lip smacking and hissing I generally can ignore, but breaching the barrier of physical touch still gets my Irish up, and I don’t mean potatoes.

I give her a dirty look, grumble, “How rude,” and breathe. I will be unmoved. The bus sits. We’ll be going soon though, I’m certain. The sway-backed girl giggles and drags her friend over, pointing as though we are the first volunteers ever to appear on a bus through this town. As though our fair skin somehow makes us a spectacle.

Landscape. Subtle grace. Elegance. Breathe.

Giggling, she weaves her hand through the window and swipes her fingers down his arm again, quickly as though snatching away something precious, something she knows she shouldn’t take.

“Notice: Our volunteers may be cute, but they will bite! Please do not put hands inside the enclosure.”

I can feel my temper flood up in me like water in a glass. “Touche pas!” I shout.

She and her friend giggle hysterically, and still the bus sits.

“It’s not rudeness,” I can hear our training director saying, “they just want to know you.” No, it is rudeness. We’re not zoo animals.

Determined not to be bothered anymore, I glower at the back of the seat in front of me.

A boy walks up to see what the commotion is, waves his wares at us, then looks me in the eye and addresses my husband. “I’ll trade you, this one for yours,” he gestures at the sway-backed girl. Deux, deux cents.

I try to murder him with only my gaze and my mind. He doesn’t even shift his weight back from the window.

The sway-backed girl somehow extends her bust and hips even further from her waist. Still, the bus sits.

“It’s a bad trade,” my husband says.

The girls giggle maniacally.

“No, it’s good,” the boy says, “I like her.”

“Bad for me,” my husband clarifies.

“No, one for one,” the boy explains the math. “It’s good.” The sway-backed girl twirls her sucker, like there’s only the details to work out now, like there’s some possibility of me getting off the bus and she taking my place.

Finally, the bus inches forward.

“No, she’s too good for you,” my husband calls as we pull away. In what sounds to me like flawless French.

The woman seated in front of us laughs and nods.

He is relaxed, laughing, unperturbed, and throws an arm easily across my hunched shoulders. “That was fun,” he says, giving me a squeeze. There are so many reasons why I love him.

“I hate this place,” I mutter, beginning to consider the possibility as the little town fades into the horizon and memory, that I might have over-reacted.

At this rate, I will not reach enlightenment on a bus.

He smiles and everything shifts a little toward its proper place. “Nah,” he assures me, “it’s good.”

I breathe and somehow, it is.


 I served in Peace Corps Cameroon from 2011-2013. Zen by Yaounde was first published during my service on 2/21/12. Happy Peace Corps week!

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