Tonight was Hans’ birthday. I took a taxi to Bakweri town and dropped at the Pala Pala field next to his family’s compound. The quarter was filled with activity. Women and children gathered around a gushing standpipe, its brass spigots brightly polished by a thousand hands, filling their containers. While they toiled, most of the men were grouped around TV’s in bars up an down the block watching the football match on cable. To the southeast a blood red winter moon hung low in the sky. Off to the north the typically dark silhouette of Mt. Cameroon was lit with a path of bright orange flame from its base to the summit. I stopped dead in the street and gaped at it. Observing closely, it was possible to discern grey billows of smoke and licks of fire spreading through the tinder-dry brush.
I joined Hans and Big J at the Dr.’s place, known variously as the “Blue Bar”, where it was rounds of Tuborg on me for the occasion. Hans’ elder brother (actually his cousin, I later found out, but who’s counting?) had just returned the day before from his post at the United Nations in New York City and had treated him to a new mobile phone, which he was in dire need of. At the sight of it, a slim black Motorola model, I confessed to Hans that I was a bit jealous, palming my comparatively bulky, unfashionable Nokia that the Peace Corps had purchased at a group discount. He responded with his characteristic belly laugh and a slap on my back saying, “Oh, Bill—are you sure? You want to trade?”
I asked Hans about the fires on Mt. Cameroon. He told me, “that is the path up the mountain, for the race.” They were clearing the bush in anticipation of the big footrace in February, which draws competitors from all over the world. If I looked closely, he said, I could see Hut 1, Hut 2 and the path up to the summit. He was right. For the first time I could make out the standard route up Mt. Cameroon, emblazoned in a fiery track straight up the face of the peak. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was preternatural, suspended in midair against the night sky. Studying it, I was reminded of tracing similar routes along icy couloirs, ridges, buttresses and headwalls up peaks in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Peru and elsewhere. Here instead of hazards like avalanche, rock fall, and crevasses, however, the alpinist must be wary of bush fire, wild elephants and gendarmes armed to the teeth.
Tomorrow morning, Hans said, he would slaughter two goats for un grande fête to be held in his cousin’s sprawling compound. “Bill,” he asked, “do you have barbeque in America?” I laughed a little and told him that BBQ ranks near the top with baseball, apple pie and pickup trucks on the list of definitive Americana. “Oh, so how do you prepare goat?” came his reply. The three of us settled back at our outdoor table under the surreal glow of the moon and the fiery mountain and toasted Hans on his 29th.
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