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Route Taxis and Fake French

Wednesday, August 17th, 2005

In Cameroon (and Trinidad and many other countries I’m sure), the way to get around the city is by taxi. These aren’t the metered taxis you might first think of. These taxis follow a set route and you pay a rate for that distance and only for your own seat. This means two things: if you are going a long distance, like from Makepe to Bonanjo for example, you will have to take two taxis; and unless you are with four friends, you will be sharing the taxi with strangers.

The other thing that makes taking taxis challenging is that street addresses aren’t used here. Locations are given by landmarks, many of which are common parlance, that the taxi driver should recognize. When I want to go from Makepe, where I live, to Bonanjo, where Yonkua lives, I walk out to the side of the road where the cars are going in the right direction. I flag a taxi or one beeps at me, and I say, “ecole publique, deux cents.” Ecole Publique is the first drop-off point on my way into the city and it costs me 200 cfa (about $.50) to get there. I say this before I get into the taxi. If the taxi man isn’t on that route, he drives away; if he is going there, he gives a friendly beep on the horn and pulls over.

When I am let off at ecole publique, I walk around the corner where the cars are going in the right direction and I say, “bonanjo, ancienne poste, deux cents.” This car will drop me in front of Yonkua’s house, which is near an old post office. I have done this by myself and what I am most proud of is my fake French. As long as no one actually tries to engage me in conversation, I can fake the accent and attitude well enough to be ignored in the taxi. Of course, there have been the couple of times where someone tries to be conversational and I have to admit that I don’t understand what they’re saying to me.

But the most traumatic experience was the first time I had to get back to Makepe by myself. I had my fake French at the ready and I got to ecole publique without a problem. Except the taxi driver stopped at a spot I didn’t recognize and I had to admit I didn’t know where to stand for Makepe. That was easily solved and I confidently stepped up to a car and said, “Makepe.” Then the driver said (in French), “Where in Makepe?” I had no idea what to say, no one had told me there was more to say than just Makepe. The driver drove off in frustration and I was near tears.

I calmed myself down and decided I should call William. I had his cell number memorized, but I needed a phone. I knew what to do: I approached one of the many stands that sell phone cards for phones because they also sell time on the cell phone they have at the stand. It costs 200 CFA to make a call. I called William and got him on the third or fourth try. I choked out that I didn’t know where in Makepe to direct the taxi and he told me, very calmly, “lycée,” as though it wasn’t pivotal information in my life at the moment. Of course, once I knew it, getting home was as boring as it’s supposed to be.

Elle est là.

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2005

I arrived in Douala on Friday afternoon with my six bags that had cost me a fortune in euros to get out of France. It turns out that Air France charges for each overweight kilogram depending on how far you are going. I ended up spending virtually all of my initial stake money. A hard lesson learned . . .

William, his sister Yonkua, her husband and her friend Mannette came to meet me at the airport. My bags were inspected at customs and we pushed and shoved our way outside to get into Yonkua and Patrice’s SUV. William was on the phone a lot the first few days telling people that I had arrived.

We confirmed an apartment that weekend and started furnishing it right away. All of our furniture is locally made–the living and dining room set, armoire, TV stand, bed. William had bought a cooktop with no oven, so we had to buy a cupboard/shelf for the kitchen that holds the stove and our gas supply. I think it must be like being at the cottage 24/7.

We slept on the mattress on the floor until our bed arrived the following weekend. William had already obtained some basics so we could limp along as we filled in the gaps. Yonkua fed us almost everyday (and continues to do so whenever we come into the city).

We live in a suburb called Makepe (Ma-ka-pay) in a group of 12 flats. We’re in the first level, second door on the right. We have two bathrooms, two bedrooms, a kitchen and living/dining room–but no hot water. Lots of room for company, but it ain’t the Hilton. For washing dishes I boil the water and when I have to have a warm water wash, I mix hot and cold in the bucket and use the dipper. (It grows on you.)

I am developing a new appreciation for all the modern conveniences we take for granted and I miss Toronto a lot. The language barrier is starting to make me frustrated because I can’t understand regular conversations and I can’t understand what people say to me half the time. My motivation to learn French is increasing everyday.

Paris . . . but only for one night

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2005

I spent one night in Paris before I boarded a plane for Douala at about 10h30 the next morning. This normally boring experience was improved because I made a new friend on the flight over from Toronto. Susan and I started talking very soon after we sat next to each other on the plane. She is a teacher from Kingston, Ontario who is in France on a cycling tour. Of course, that led to lots of conversation, including my cycling tour in Vietnam.

When we got to Paris, Susan helped me find the place to board all but one of my bags, and then I accompanied her into the city where she had a room reserved at a hotel. Paris immediately had a new fan when we were able to take a train directly from the airport into the city. It was 8 euros (which we could pay with a credit card) and it dropped us off about 6 blocks from our hotel. The only difficulty was getting a heavy bag up and down the steps of the Metro–no escalators. I was able to get a room for the night, take a nap and then spend an evening in Paris!

Of course, almost everything was closed, but because we were together we felt comfortable walking around the city at night. Even what we thought was an uninspired choice of a chicken salad for dinner turned out to be exactly the right thing to eat. And it was delicious! I felt like I was living a French stereotype about simple food and bread being ambrosia.

We walked along the Seine and saw how Parisiennes use the space along the river to relax, socialize–even have a casual wine and cheese reception. At the Louvre, we saw the beautiful glass dome and admired the sheer size and beauty of the building. The Eiffel Tower was too far away to walk, but it was easy to see in the distance, twinkling and flashing like unending fireworks. We also saw the Arche de Triomphe (sp?), which is in a straight sightline from the Louvre.

Susan a full day the next day and she hadn’t taken a nap, so we headed back to our hotel, consulting our map the whole way. The streets were very small and definitely not laid out like our Toronto grid–more like a spider’s web. And just like London (England), two or three of them would have the same/similar name all in the same area.

I know I haven’t even begun to see Paris in all its glory, but without meeting Susan I wouldn’t have seen anything at all–except the inside of a hotel near the airport. Instead, I was a guest writer in her travel diary and we both had an amazing evening. Definitely an unexpected travel bonus!

Susan and Deborah in Paris

Susan by the Seine