Story Problems

Train Odyssey: 2016

With two of my cluster mates writing about the train (read Terry’s post here and and Phoebe’s here), a unique characteristic of being posted in the Adamawa, I, too, wanted to join the club; however, as I’ve often noticed, my life seems much less poetic than others.

Having chipped my tooth the previous week (due to eating a rock-attention to detail has never been my strong suit, especially when it comes to cleaning rice), I needed to go the dentist (which is located in Yaoundé and does not qualify for a med evac trip to Morocco, as another volunteer, who will remain unnamed, told me, raising my hopes only to have them crushed by the fact that dentists do exist in Cameroon) and so I had my friend reserve a ticket for me from Ngaoundal to Yaoundé.

The day of, I woke up early (which I always do here) and followed my normal routine of running, eating breakfast (a much sadder affair since Ngatt’s egg stock-out and Ngaoundere’s recent lack of oatmeal), and going to work; however, today I left early in order to prepare for the journey. At 15:00, I said farewell to Metis and locked up, this is where things get exciting (or very boring depending on your point of view):

15:05 Catch a car heading to Ngaoundal. This is strange. It usually takes an hour to find a car and then two tries after that.

16:10 Arrive in Ngaoundal. (Even more suspicious, I travel with more than enough time for things to go wrong and then resolve themselves, and now? I had approximately six hours to kill before catching the train.) Since the volunteer was out of town, you head to Santa Barbara, one of the nicest restaurants in town, and more importantly the producer of the best kossam (yogurt) of the Adamawa.

16:20-19:00 Order kossam, tea and chai while reading one of the books you brought. When you finish reading it, you decide to head to the station since you have to pick your ticket up at 20:00.

19:15-20:20 Of course you arrive early, but luckily all those years procrastinating school work has taught you how to kill time. You open your pocket sudoku book and begin to sudoku. Continuing even as you stand in line.

When you arrive at the window, the man asks “wagons-lits?” You nod yes, only to have him tell you they are finished. “Mais j’ai fait une reservation,” you respond. (This is much more like the traveling in Cameroon you know and love.)

He opens the book. You stand on your tippy-toes peering down. And there it. Your beautiful name. Capitalized and written in the reservation book:


“Ca! C’est moi!” You point triumphantly. The man looks concerned. He tells you to wait a minute and leaves the office. (In a land of Djika’s and Dandjoma’s, I guess it would make since that Djessika is a masculine-sounding name.)

While you are waiting, you ponder your options: a) go the next night in wagon-lit (inshallah) or b) go second class. It’s a difficult dilemma. You’d definitely have to reschedule the dentist if you go the next night, but second class is a living and breathing version of Sartre’s No Exit: if hell is other people, then how about a fourteen plus hour train ride down, overnight, overbooked and without the guarantee of a seat?

The guy suddenly appears behind me. “There are only two beds left and they are in a men’s room.” (Generally they try and put all males or all females in a room.)

“That doesn’t bother me at all,” I reply. “I’m American.” I could feel the secondary honorary male status exuding from me as I purchased the ticket.

20:40-10:30 Excitement over. You go back to your sudoku. At 10:30 you realize the train isn’t coming. So you ask one of the guards. He tells you the train is an hour behind. “Could be worse,” you think and go back to your sudoku.

10:35-11:45 More sudoku. Eventually you hear the horn, announcing the arrival of the train. You pack up and prepare to board.

(Total sudoku count: 22)

12:00 Board train. Fortunately the men you are with do not seem to mind that you are a woman. Go to sleep.

??:?? Train stops. “Not a good sign,” you think turning over.

??:?? The horn announcing the departure of the train starts. And does not stop. “Qui a decidé de s’asseoir sur le klaxon?” Pleased you can think nonsensical thoughts while half asleep in French you go back to sleep.

??:?? Your bunkmate opens the door. You realize that a) you have stopped again b) it is daylight. You check the time, 5:30, morning time. Fortunately the train starts moving again.

5:30-7:00 You try to sleep more but give up.

7:00-8:00 Wait for the breakfast lady who never shows up. “That’s Chantal Biya’s (the First Lady) village” one of my bunkmates tells me. “That’s nice,” you think, as the train comes to a screeching halt.

Your other bunkmates comes back. “It’s a derailment,” he says, “I’m taking a car.” “How much?” I ask. “3000 CFA, arrive in Yaoundé by noon.”

And so another dilemma poses itself: to wait in the air conditioned train for an unknown amount of time (usually just a couple hours) or to take the car?

Your stomach decides this one. It wants the train breakfast: omelet, croissant, baguette, jam, butter, vache qui rire, tea, and fruit. (Oh my!)

8:10 You wish your bunkmate good luck and continue to wait for breakfast. In the meantime you chat with your other bunkmate, who you discover is a urologist and had been visiting the Norwegian hospital up in Ngaoundere.

9:30 Hungry, you take matters into your own hands. You walk to the restaurant car.

9:40 Discover breakfast is finished, but be offered cake instead. Accept cake and munch it in melancholy.

10:00-12:00 Read.

12:00 Realize if you had taken a car you would have been in Yaoundé by now. Text three volunteer on what they would do in your situation, receive mixed results. Decide to ask the train guard what he thinks. When he tells you that you’ll be in Yaoundé by 16:00 at the latest decide it is not worth taking a car. Besides all the cars are gone. You ask about food and he tells you the free sardine sandwiches are coming (yay!). Meanwhile your bunkmate, Makon (“like Akon, but with an M) has gone to village to explore. You go back and wait.

13:00 The horn sounds. The most joyful sound in the world. You call Akon-but-an-M and tell him to hurry. He says he’ll be there in twenty. You re-open your book and begin reading, enjoying the lightness of the feeling that arrives when you once again have hope (or was it just the lack of food?).

13:50 A woman walks by muttering, “the train should have left by now, is this a joke?” You glance at your watch. She makes a good point. The train has not moved an inch. And you still have not been given your promised free sardine sandwich. Starving you decide you must find food and you head to the dining car.

On the way you run into the same guard. “On ne part pas?” you ask. “Non.” He looks very forlorn. “Alors, je cherche les ailments.” But he then once again tells you that the sandwich is coming. Defeated you go back to your room and curl in a ball, wondering if you might actually never leave and will have to live the rest of your life in this train. A scene from Atlas Shrugged comes to your mind, the train, broken and unable to move forward, is stuck somewhere in the Southwest and then, a wagon train comes along and offers a ride to the passengers. The guy leading the wagons says something like “You can’t trust mechanical trains these days, horses are much more reliable.” I would have gladly taken a wagon train at this point.

At some point, you look up and spy a girl selling hard-boiled eggs outside. “FOOD!” You leap up and run, jumping out of the train to catch her. “Food!” you think again, lovingly, as you take a bite.

14:30 HOOONKK HOOONK!!! “Ha.” You won’t fall for this joyful sound again. But. Then the train slowly lurches forward. It’s a miracle.

15:00 The free sardine sandwiches are handed out. Blissfully you accept it and manage to not eat it all in one bite. You also realize your bunkmate has not come back. “Man,” you think, “your day could have been much worse-you could have been left stranded in Chantal Biya’s village with your luggage on the train.” You decide that you will talk to the station guards when the train arrives to see if they can take care of his stuff.

15:10-16:30 Sandwich eaten, you take out your i-pod. It has been long day, one that calls for Kanye.

Suddenly, you are awakened from your doze by your bunkmate entering. “Tu es là! J’ai peur que tu as manqué le train!” He laughs in response and tells you he found a friend and they had been chatting in the dining car. He also tells you that the train will arrive before 19:00.

16:45-18:00 More Kanye. And then, you recognize a building that turns into twenty and then into twenty hundred more: Yaoundé! HOONKK HOOONKK!! The train announces its arrival. HOOONK HOONKK! The train continues its gleeful honks, triumphant at finally reaching the capital. Both you and your bunkmate stare out the window admiring the beauty of the city, you thought you’d never reach. He points out the hospital where he works, conveniently located next to two other hospitals (not sure the logic behind this). And then, you pull up to the station.


After quickly departing, (no post-train security this time, a perk due to the tardiness of the train) you depot a cab (pay for the whole cab-more expensive (2000 CFA), but faster and since I also just saved a total of 3000 CFA, 6 USD, by staying on the train, I deserved a treat) and head to the transit house where hot showers and internet await.

On the way there, you lean out of the open window, allowing the last remnants of the day’s ordeal to fly away with the breeze.

Motion. It’s a beautiful feeling.



One thought on “Train Odyssey: 2016

  1. Pingback: 366 Days of Summer: An Interview with myself | An Artichoke Abroad

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s