Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sensing The Familiar

Mt Cameroon in the background as one drives up the road to Buea

Sensing the Familiar Again

When one is away from their habitual environment for an extended period of time, their return is marked by a heightened sensitivity. An awareness of what is normally familiar besets the senses temporarily. Somewhat like the rapid blinking of a sleeper abruptly awakened to bright light shining in his eyes.


“Ladies and gentleman, the captain has switched on the seat belt signs in preparation for landing. Please return to your seats.”  The warning is repeated in French and Belgium. Shortly thereafter the plane shivers and gives a mild thud as the wheels make contact with solid pavement. At last it comes to a standstill in front of the airport gate.

“Click, click, click, click, click…” a tremendous chorus of metallic clicks erupt simultaneously as 300+ passengers unbuckle their safety belts, rising in unison, scrambling to grab their luggage from the overhead bins. Their efforts are marked by the intensity and impatience that seven hours cooped up in an area smaller than a toilet does to human nature.

My head and neck are bent at an awkward angle, (imagine a giraffe in an igloo), as I stand in the rippling chaos of the airplane’s aisle. A rather large, sweaty, African man dressed impeccably in suit and tie is seated behind Bill and I. He begins to push his weight forward. The wall of human bodies impedes his motion. People are packed on all sides – in front, behind, both sides. No one is moving more than a few inches – if they’re lucky.

“I want to pass,” the man makes an attempt to part the masses in the aisle. Unlike Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, he is unsuccessful in creating a clear channel. He is not discouraged. “My bag is over there.” He points in the direction of the opposite aisle. Twenty bodies or so, along with luggage and babies and children and three middle airline seats, stand between him and his carry-on. I raise an eyebrow. The chances of getting over there are slim at best.

He eyes Bill. “I want to pass.”

We shake our heads barely finding standing room ourselves.

He pushes again. No one budges.

With an air of surprise at such disregard for his obvious need to cross the aisle he speaks again. “Is it not correct to pass?”

“There’s no room,” we reply.

“So… it’s not possible?”

“Not right now.”

“Is it not correct?”

We echo our previous explanation as I sway from the pushing of a person to my right reaching to gather her luggage and then duck as another carry-on case slides over my head.

He continues to try to push forward, angling for a position closer to his goal. The wall of human flesh doesn’t yield. I lose my balance momentarily and almost end up in the lap of some passenger seated to my left.

Finally, the queue of people begins to shift. Everyone stumbles forward dragging and carrying his or her belongings. I’m not sure how long it took the man in the suit to reach his case. We left him wiping his brow, dripping with perspiration, and still trying to make it across the aisle.

Exit Plane; Enter Douala Airport. Take a deep breath. No mistaking the familiar atmosphere of tropical Cameroon. Dampness rolls over and envelops us as we advance in the warm, humid air. Tendrils of hair cling to my forehead and nape. My shirt takes on a new affinity for my body and plasters itself to me, hugging me a sticky, wet embrace. The airport is not a sauna but it’s a close second. The temperatures rise as herds of passengers pile into the custom’s section. I am officially hot for the first time in a while.

The aromas that permeate the atmosphere seep through my clothes and saturate my olfactory receptors. The perfume of Africa. A unique cocktail of the continent containing traces of diesel fumes, sweaty body odour, smoke from smouldering trash, and mildew.

I wait in the luggage collection area now. I’ve learned to brace myself, planting my feet in a wide stance, straddling my carry-on, holding onto my backpack, watching the carrousel for our suitcases. Today I’m struck (quite literally) by the sudden shrinkage (to near zero) of personal space. Passengers bump and clamour over me as they crowd around. A luggage handler runs over the corner of my bag as he manoeuvres a cart away. Another passenger nearly succeeds in toppling me in his enthusiastic lunge forward to collect a suitcase. Physical contact, warm bodies sharing the same space – I can feel I’m back in Africa.

Sights. Smells. Taste (skipping that one for now). Touch…. it remains for me to note the sounds. We’re in a singularly thick traffic jam in Bona-Beri, one of the suburbs of Douala. I think we’ve moved a few inches in the past half hour.

Africa is alive, not stagnant. Not sedate. Lots of people. Lots of communication. All the time…
I pick out French, Pidgin, and English words. There’s probably a spattering of Arabic and a few other languages but mostly I just absorb the multilingual nature of the voices that float through the air. The sounds echo off the cars, lorries, motorcycles, and pedestrians that are all around. The funky white light in the rear window of our taxi blinks – each blink associated with a soft click. The windshield wipers thump gently and rhythmically in front. There is a continuous serenade of voices outside – a concert of loud and louder voices all struggling to be heard above the traffic noises. Vehicle horns of all varieties, high-pitched beeps, musical rings, deep nasal blares, some are single others are a string of staccato notes.

On top of human and vehicular noises, a crescendo of tinny pop music blankets the symphony that rises and falls in volume as our car passes each roadside disco. Metallic rattles - I lose track of where they emanate from – add their fringe effects. Steel bits that should be solidly attached clinging desperately to their larger counterpart, welded repeatedly to keep things functioning long past retirement age.  The acoustics are punctuated by the police whistles from officers who give a semblance of directing traffic; except, how do you direct traffic when no one can actually move? Mobile phones ring and jingle in a variety of tones.

Sitting back, listening as a whole, it’s a giant dissonant composition. Perhaps something like a modern symphony  - undulating, rippling in harsh tones that stop and start abruptly. A current of opposing musical forces, each vying to be heard above the other. A grasping, reaching, struggling, dancing of notes. Fluid, organic chaos that gasps each breath, never ceasing even as night descends over the city.

At last our taxi bumps awkwardly into the front yard of the health centre. The dog barks. Things are familiar again.