Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sardines and Latrines

Having spent almost two weeks in the field doing HIV and AIDS awareness work with my NGO, there is much to tell, but I’ll begin by describing two lighter aspects of the trip that left very strong impressions on me (quite literally in one case, as I’m sure I was dented in several places after the car ride there). Those who know me well will not be surprised at the second part of this blog’s title, as they must surely also believe that latrines are a fascinating, though oft-neglected topic. Here goes…

After spending a beautiful weekend at the beach in Kribi, I won’t deny that I wasn’t looking forward to heading out to the ‘bush’ as the locals call it. My stomach had been giving me grief the past couple of days before we set out, and after spending almost 10 hours over that weekend on buses and in cars, I was weary of travel. However, I managed to pick up my spirits the night before, and optimistically set my alarm for 6am. At this hour, I’m usually one of the first awake, and thought I’d have plenty of time to finish packing before we had to leave. I was wrong. You can imagine my surprise the next morning when I was awoken with a powerful knock on my door at approximately 5:30. Ugh. As I’d stayed up late packing the night before, and had difficulty sleeping, I lied there under my mosquito net in a state of shock for several seconds before reacting to this unexpected call. My boss was probably still in her pyjamas anyways, right? Wrong again. Not only was she dressed, she was basically ready to go. I flew around my room in a state of panic. Had I packed my malaria pills? Where was my toothbrush? As the type of obsessive-compulsive individual who likes to write a decent list before traveling, and checks several times to make sure key items are present, I was not feeling sufficiently prepared for this turn of events. Even in the car on the way down the mountain, I had a minor panic-attack when that OCD voice in the back of my brain convinced me that I had forgotten the malaria pills. Luckily, I hadn’t.

After a brief pit stop to gather supplies from the office, we sped along to Mile 17 for the first leg of our journey; a bus trip to Limbe. Having not eaten anything for breakfast, my eyes scanned the crowd for signs of some sort of doughball vendor, but I was out of luck. No such person was to be found. Luckily I had brought some bread from Douala, and Martin and I nibbled contentedly on our roomy back bench. Four persons to a seat intended for three is standard for Cameroon, but the door had slammed with one place to spare. Had I only known what was ahead, I would have savoured that leg room even more. One taxi later, and I found myself wedged in the back of a small car carrying not five, not six, but twelve people. It’s a good thing that these drivers don’t operate carnival rides, because ‘maximum capacity’ is probably not a term they would comprehend. Three adults plus the driver took up the front seat, one carrying a child on her lap. I was in the middle of the back bench, with my boss seated to my right, and a woman with another child to my right. You may be thinking that this arrangement was not so bad as the front, but I doubt that was the case. The padding on the back of the chair had long disappeared, and my boss’s generous proportions claimed a substantial portion of the small space allotted us. The doors had slammed shut with great difficulty and I was convinced that I had attained a new record for most persons in a car. I would remember to tell everyone at home about this one. That was before I glanced out the window to my left and saw a pair of feet dangling from the roof. A quick scan behind and to the right revealed two more. In Cameroon, it isn’t a carpool until it overflows.Naturally it would stall.
It wasn’t long before I began to feel the heat. In the chilly morning air I had dressed myself in four layers; a tank top, a long sleeved shirt, a sweat-wicking (haha) shirt, and a raincoat; which immediately transformed from a garment designed to keep water out, to saran wrap, designed to cook my body within its quality seam-sealed encasing. I was like a marshmallow, and was convinced that once the crusty exteriors were removed, I would emerge a melted glob of white goo, all form lost after the toasted portion was stripped away. Movement was impossible, and I was stuck in this self-created torture until the next stop about an hour later. For the remainder of the trip, I tried to shut my eyes and have an out of body experience, but this was a skill in which I was lacking practice, and I remained a miserable marshmallow-sardine until I gingerly extracted myself from this metal prison over two hours later.

Alright, onto a more amusing, yet equally uncomfortable topic. I couldn’t resist…A gathering back in Calgary before I departed sparked a conversation about toilets around the world, and after my trip into the field, I finally have something to contribute. No pun intended.

Firstly, I have to clarify that everyone pees pretty much anywhere in the bush, so ‘toilets’ are really only for number two. Moving along, the two main contenders for most, erm, interesting toilets I’ve ever encountered were found in the villages in Bokosso and Boviongo. Eating local food wherever I went, I got well acquainted with them both, and feel strangely compelled to describe them to you.

In Bokosso, the toilet facilities are located on the side of the hill where the Chief’s palace rests, overlooking the village below. Clearly the architect had considered the aesthetic value of such a location, as he placed two small windows on the back of the structure, despite the fact that the roof is open 4 inches above them. The building itself has two compartments, the right the subject of my description. Here goes - open the tin metal door (lock hanging off the side – go figure) and you will find a flat concrete floor with a hole about 6 inches across. That is all.

Boviongo is another story: If you can find the toilet, (two houses down, and through the bush) you will see a small shack made of wood, the door nonexistent. Inside, more wooden slats are placed over the floor, their quality raising serious questions for the user over the disgrace of death by falling through the floor of an outhouse. Two holes are present, and I would imagine the following dialogue might be appropriate:

“Hey John, I’ll meet you at the toilet!”
“Are you bringing the toilet paper this time, or am I?”

Alright, I’ll stop now.

1 comment:

Luigi said...

The worst toilet I have ever had the lack of pleasure to use was in a small village called Flores in Guatemala. As gross as it was, I do have to admit that it had a functioning door, toilet paper, and, yes, A TOILET BOWL.

You win.