Sunday, September 8, 2013

Journey Mercies

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.” 1 John 4:18

I’m still working on the ‘perfect love’ part…

Do you pray for ‘journey mercies’ before going on a long trip? Perhaps you ask the Lord to grant you “safe travels” when you embark upon your 2000-mile road trip across the United States for the family summer holiday? Living in Cameroon has brought new meaning to these types of prayers. One breathes a heartfelt thanks to God upon arriving back home -- alive and in one piece. When I request prayers for a safe journey at staff worship in the morning, I mean it. “Travel Safe” is not just a superficial formality.

“Why is my stomach in knots, you’re the one driving?” I remark to Bill, my husband, when we arrive at the hotel. He’s been the one dealing with the intricacies of manoeuvring a large, Nissan Terano through the crowded streets of Yaounde and onward to Douala for the last six hours. I’ve just been a non-participant passenger – watching the scenes flash by through our cracked windshield. So why do I feel like I’ve just been through a war zone, running for my life, dodging bullets of humans, motorcycles, and swerving vehicles?

We descended the mountain of Cameroon a few days ago, headed to Yaounde, the capitol of the country located in the Western region. Our vehicle had two new front tires and a ‘clean bill of health’ from the mechanic who’d serviced the SUV a few days ago. Other than the need to release a bit of air from the tyres that were inflated to 50 psi instead of the recommended 30 psi, everything seemed to be in working order. Only the familiar clanks and whines remained.

But, now on the open road, picking up speed, the poor vehicle began to shake. “The balance must be off on it,” my husband lamented as his hands took on a peculiar tremor. Ashia! “Maybe the mechanic balanced it with the tires at the wrong PSI and now with the proper inflation it’s destroyed the balance.” The quiver was noticeable but manageable, maximising at 90 kmh. We kept on.

Carcass of Former Minivan
As we neared Bonaberi, a suburb of Douala, our accountant in the front seat called out, “look, there it is.” A crumpled, shattered carcass of a minivan lay sadly off to our right. Yesterday, 17 inhabitants of Buea boarded this particular bus early in the morning intending to conduct their business in the big city of Douala. A very large lorry, overtaking another tractor-trailer truck, rammed head-on to the minivan. There was no contest. Small van lost. Hardly anything remained of the vehicle. All 17 people died. Now the twisted, splintered metal casing with bits of cushion stuffing and shards of clothing are all that remain as a memorial to those that perished yesterday.

Onward we continue with a sad nod to the wreckage. Douala traffic is congested as usual, but Bill manages to navigate the organic lanes of flowing cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians without too much angst. He’s had practise. We are only stopped once by a gendarme who, after a few minutes inspection of all the vehicle’s stickers, registration papers, and our own licenses and ID cards, waves us on. I’m relieved. They’re not always as amiable.

Taxi loaded with plastic jugs. View through our windshield.
Finally, we are through Douala on the open road from to Yaounde. I try to settle into reading. I ignore all the little triangular posts that proclaim ’10 mort ici’ or ‘7 ici mort. A little white, man symbolises the dead on each of these signs. We pass other silent testaments to vehicle accidents. Crispy metal shards, iron bars twisted into grim skeletons, the remains of recent automobiles. I can’t help notice the front of a large lorry askew in the grass next to the road. It’s just the front part – it reminds me of the head of a decapitated insect.

“Something just fell down by my feet, can you see what is it?” The clutch had begun making a strange noise some kilometres ago but otherwise the gears were apparently working.

I reach under the dashboard, avoiding the large shoes of my husband as they hovered over the pedals, and search along the dusty rubber mat. “It’s a bolt.” I hold up the sturdy brass bolt for Bill to see. To put things mildly, he’s not amused. I’ll refrain from including his real response.

“I think it goes here,” I say as I crane my neck and look under the dash at the pedals. Bill has pulled the vehicle over so we can see if the bolt can be replaced. I yank on the pedals a bit. “I don’t think they’re going to fall off at least,” I proclaim. I try to screw the bolt back into a small opening I spy above me. I have no idea if it’s in the proper place though.


Yaounde Traffic at the Roundabout
Yaounde, at last. It’s dark. It’s raining. We’ve been driving 6+ hours. I am impressed as Bill pushes forward in a sea of honking taxis, motorcycles weaving on all sides of us, and pedestrians taking up any tiny remaining free space. Somehow he switches lanes (oh wait, what lanes?!) as we thread our way through the round-about and onward to our destination. I am extremely thankful when our friend comes in her car to lead us the rest of the way to her house.

We have a one day respite in Yaounde. We are eternally grateful when our friend recommends her driver to help us with our vehicle’s disintegration woes. A very enthusiastic, smiling Cameroonian driver coordinates the repair of our Terano. Bolt replaced. Clutch adjusted. Wheels re-balanced.

Hills of Yaounde
Saturday afternoon we leave the U.S. embassy hoping to get back to Buea that night. Though slow, the traffic is moving and we manage to snake our way across the city in less than an hour.  We pass large lorries carrying enormous logs. Some of the logs are so big the trailer can only accommodate one log. We pass an overturned logging truck. Someone forgot to balance that one. Ouch! The driver stands outside his cab, scratching his head while a few colleagues collect around the fallen truck to figure out what to do. I wonder how many times this happens to the drivers. I’d hate to be a truck driver in Cameroon.

Logging Truck
“Looks like it burned. How did it burn though?” I am a bit puzzled. A large passenger bus is charred down to its metal spars and sits along the edge of the road. But, unlike Hollywood would have you believe, vehicles don’t typically explode into a consuming ball of fire upon impact. I still don’t know how an entire bus was burnt to a crisp. It wasn’t there a day ago though.

Tree fallen across the road
As we continue to drive along the road, the clouds get darker and darker. Ominous thunder rolls across the sky. The raindrops, heavy and thick, soon follow. Suddenly, there is a large tree fallen across the road. It is blocking all lanes of traffic. Since we are only the third car to pull to a stop in front of the leafy roadblock I assume it occurred only a few minutes ago. “Oh good, there’s a bus. Surely, they’ll have enough people to manoeuvre enough of the tree to allow at least one lane to pass,” I comment. And sure enough, in short order, several young men are hacking away at the branches with their machetes and clearing enough of the branches for one lane. I make a mental note to consider adding machete to our list of emergency supplies for the SUV, next to the reflective triangle, wheel jack, and fire extinguisher.

Pathway made through leafy roadblock
“If people would just think,” my husband grumbles when we begin to inch forward toward the gap in the branches. Every other car is making a dash for the same one-car opening. Someone rams into our rear bumper. Another ‘not good’ moment. Eventually, we make it through. A gendarme appears from nowhere and valiantly tries to direct the traffic; holding off oncoming vehicles to allow a fair turn for the opposite side to pass. I can appreciate the gesture. He stands in the rain with a towel over his head blowing his whistle.

“There’s the lights of Douala. Can you see?” My husband points out the distant horizon of dense, flickering lights that make up the outskirts of the city. “I wonder how the traffic will be?”

The traffic is not good. Not one bit. We cram and scrape and inch forward at an incredibly slow pace. The doors on the taxis begin to fly open and passengers scramble out. They hop onto motorcycles that can still thread their way through the maze of trucks and cars now at a standstill. Pedestrians pass us by on all sides. “Might as well turn off the care, save fuel,” I comment to Bill.

“I’m going to have a sore jaw tomorrow.” Bill rubs the muscles of his lower jaw line, “been clenching my teeth too long.”

I nod miserably. It’s been over an hour. We’ve made little progress. The night is getting later and later. Soon it will be too late to make the drive up the mountain. Lonely stretches of road where vehicles don’t always have headlights (or any lights for that matter) are not an attractive option. The noise outside as the engine becomes silent, is a clamour of voices and motorcycles. Everyone is shouting directions or complaining about another driver’s position. It’s a congested tangle of metal and flesh. My stomach twists into a clenched fist and lurches anxiously every time someone slaps a hand on our car as he or she passes in front – both on foot and on motorcycle.

“I don’t think we’re going to make it home tonight,” my husband states. It’s true. “We don’t even know what Bonaberi will be like. At this rate it will be midnight before we make it home.”

I agree. He perseveres until we make it to a hotel that we’re familiar with. I breathe a sigh as we finally pull into the gated parking area of the hotel. I can only imagine Bill’s relief.

“We’ll try again first thing in the morning.” Bill carries one bag. I carry the other overnight bag. We check into the hotel.

On the road passing a local gas station
In the morning I look out the hotel window. Six o’clock in the morning. The traffic is moving. We head up the mountain and finally pull through the front gates of our place. On the way up we even spy a rainbow. The rainbow and its pot of gold didn’t end at the health centre – oh well.  I’m thankful for the chance to be home and not in the car anymore.

“Thank you, God.” I breathe the words with a very sincere gratefulness.  

“Faith means living with uncertainty - feeling your way through life, letting your heart guide you like a lantern in the dark.”     ~Dan Millman

Rainbow with Mt Cameroon faintly visible in the background