John and Nan's Page

John's African Journal

Death and Taxies - The Outbound Journey and Douala Pt 1
The Spider Queen in the Kingdom of the Ants - Limbe
The Thompson-Moore Family Enters the Forest - Yabassi
Back to the City - Douala Pt 2
Death Ride 2002 - Bamenda
Saying Farewell to Leah - Douala Pt 3
France, New York (New York?) and the Voyage of the Damned
Random Thoughts on Cameroon

 

 

Death and Taxies - The Outbound Journey and Douala Pt 1

As we got off the plane in Cameroon, the humidity hit us like a hot kiss at the end of a wet fist (bad metaphor courtesy of Firesign Theater). The first indication we weren't in Kansas any more was when the plane touched down and the passengers started applauding. Then the pilot announced that our gate wasn't ready and we were going to disembark via the stairs. This would prove to be an omen. We clambered down the roll-up stairs, past men wearing steel helmets and carrying assault rifles, and entered the terminal.

It had been an exhausting and stressful trip so far. We almost missed Erin at the Chicago connection. She was supposed to get there with hours to spare but her plane was delayed. It pulled up to the gate as we were completing our boarding. She made it by the slightest of margins. The food on the plane was god-awful. Nan had requested special meals because a friend told her they came out early (Note to Roger, unfortunately, she requested "heart-healthy". Good idea, bad execution). We got salmon mush, lettuce with lemon juice, and a dry whole wheat roll. Prisoners on Devils Island ate better than we did, and this was our last meal before Africa. The people next to us got steak and brownies.

The terminal in Douala was basically a big roof. The walls were just louvers, so we could tell right away we weren't going to be in air conditioning any time soon. We were swarmed by men in the baggage area in the airport, demanding money for services not rendered.

We entrusted our bags to a couple of guys in jump suits who looked official and wanted $50 to get our bags past customs. I offered $20 and we walked right past the customs agent. The porters were distraught that we were walking out the airport door because "there's no security outside." Leah and her friends Sandy and Yaya were waiting for us and ushered us to a car. It was so good to see her after a year and a half! She looks beautiful!

We squeezed into a tiny car while I was surrounded by men who were clutching and grabbing at me, demanding money. After much yelling and arm-waving over the parking fee, Yaya gave us a wild drive through dark streets swarming with tiny cars, scooters, unlit bicycles, and pedestrians. As we were getting out in front of the hotel, a scooter collided with Nan's car door as she tried to exit. A crowd of shouting, gesticulating men formed around Yaya. We fled into the hotel while Leah, Sandy, and Yaya sorted things out.

The hotel is one of the finer in Douala, meaning it has toilets, hot showers, and AIR CONDITIONING! There are coconut palms growing in the yard behind our room. We caught up a little with Leah then went across the street to a Greek restaurant where we had good pizza and mousaka. We come back to the hotel, where I lay down for the first time in what must be over 24 hours. Sleep overcame me before Leah and Erin went back to their room.

We got a solid night's sleep, and then Leah and I walked down the street to a bakery. The bakery, Zepol, is one of the best things about Cameroon so far. There are all sorts of beautiful pastries and breads glistening like jewels behind the glass. We bought some excellent croissants, beef pastries called pillis, little quiches, pain du chocolat, and beignets. So far the "Cameroonian Diet" has not been low-fat. There is also a little food market where you can buy drinks and packaged food. There is no negotiating price in shops or bakeries, the prices are all posted. It's too hot in Cameroon for coffee, so I caffinated with Coke. I don't see diet soda in Cameroon. Fat people are few and far between.

There were uniformed guards with machine guns sitting outside the bakery door. It wasn't clear what they were guarding. There was a bank next door, but they were sitting on the bakery side of the sidewalk, not the bank side. The good stuff in Cameroon is always guarded by guys with machine guns.

We took another wild ride, this time in a taxi, to a market where we strolled around fending off vendors who were all desperate to get us into their stalls. This was where the bargaining started. Leah bought some wall hangings but couldn't get "Cameroonian" prices, even from the vendors she knew, because her American family was with her and "They brought many dollars from America!"

We walked to the home of a young Indian couple, Seema and Saurav. They fed us a wonderful lunch and had their driver take us to Marche Congo, the neighborhood where Leah and her friends stay while they're in Douala. We hung out in a tailor shop while Leah ordered skirts custom made for Nan and Erin.

This neighborhood has to be seen to be believed. The poverty and living conditions take your breath away. The people were either carting piles of incomprehensible stuff around or hanging out in doorways. Cameroonians in the street seem to only have two speeds, full blast or dead stop. Most of the people I saw were either loitering in the shade or performing backbreaking labor. The folks in what Leah affectionately calls the "ghetto," left us strictly alone except for the occasional glower or friendly greeting, which was consistent with the way they interacted with each other. In areas like the hotel or the tourist market, we were constantly swarmed by vendors and beggars. It's understandable why Leah prefers to be in Marche Congo when she's in Douala.

We returned to the hotel for an air-conditioned nap and exchanged some Euros for CFAs (Communaute Financiere Africaine) francs. Then back to Marche Congo to meet some of Leah's friends and have supper in a restaurant she frequents there.

The restaurant was too hot for Nan, so we got carry out. That meant they wrapped our plates in plastic grocery bags and Leah promised to bring the plates back in the morning. I thought nothing could equal the experience of riding in a Cameroonian taxi for sheer terror until I rode in a Cameroonian taxi with a plate of hot food in my lap. When we got back to the hotel, we sat on the floor of the hotel room and ate Spaghetti and rice with our fingers. Leah was very happy to see her family eating African style.

The next morning, Leah and I took the dishes back to the restaurant and made another bakery run. We had breakfast in the hotel room, then checked out and waited in the lobby for our driver to show up. Leah had made prior arrangements for a taxi to take us to Limbe by the sea for two days. The driver got there, we loaded up the car, fended off the mendicants, and headed for Limbe.

Driving in Cameroon deserves a few more words. The streets are not identified and there are no stop signs and few working traffic signals. Traffic patterns in the cities resemble trails of ants. Drivers go pretty much wherever they want at any speed they want. If the best way to turn a corner means going through a gas station, the gas station becomes part of the street.

Streets in the cities are complicated ballets of sheet metal and human flesh with cars, scooters, and pedestrians weaving around each other with inches between them. Getting through an intersection requires bulling your way in front of other cars and expecting them to yield to you rather than hit you head on. Honk, careen. Honk, swerve. Scooters and pedestrians are not a factor to the drivers and fit in between the cars wherever they can. If anyone makes the slightest misjudgment, someone dies or is injured. I've been in taxis moving at 40 mph that have come within inches of hitting a pedestrian and neither the driver nor pedestrian seem to notice.

We passed miles of markets and dwellings before we got to open country. Everything I've seen in Cameroon is rusting, crumbling, rotting, peeling, or mildewing. The climate is hard on materials. Paint starts to peel as soon as it's applied. New construction takes so long the concrete and scaffolding start to decay before the project is completed. Some construction projects are abandoned for years. The only difference between an abandoned project and an active project is that the active one might have one guy working on it.

We passed people selling all sorts of merchandise. Inside the city there were swarms of kids selling packets of tissue paper. Leah says they seem to sell batches of random stuff, today tissues, tomorrow they may all be selling can openers.

Outside the city there were areas dedicated to the manufacture of furniture, big, beautiful beds and overstuffed chairs. One area was devoted to meat, with animal parts hanging in the sun. Another was devoted to weaving. Our driver pulled into an area Leah called a car park to get his spare tire fixed (he'd had a flat on the way to pick us up). We stood around while a guy with bare feet and a cell phone used a crowbar to get the tire off the rim. There was a small market there. I'm not sure the people knew what to make of us white folks hanging out. Eventually, the tire was fixed and we were back on the road.

Our driver stopped again at a roadside vendor to buy a piece of cardboard to tape over his taxi numbers. Leah thought this was so the gendarmes couldn't see the numbers as we passed. The gendarmes were out in force as the Christmas season is approaching and they were seeking graft to pay their bills. We were stopped several times, but our driver's papers were in order so we were allowed to proceed.

 

The Spider Queen in the Kingdom of the Ants - Limbe

We arrived at our hotel in Limbe. Leah had made reservations, but true to Cameroonian form, they'd given our room away the night before. After some haggling, they gave us a suite in a sort of annex. Not a bad place if you ignored the ants that were everywhere. There were uniformed men with machine guns guarding the parking lot of the hotel at night.

Nan and the girls went to a zoo of sorts the afternoon of our arrival in Limbe while I tried to catch up on my sleep. I'd been up since 3 am, too wound up to sleep. They returned with fresh bread, cheese, and bananas for supper. It was too hot and humid in Limbe to spend any time inside except in the air conditioned bedroom, which though it had a window A/C unit, was largely open to the elements since the windows all had louvers and they didn't close completely.

We ate on the porch, partially because of the heat, but mainly to keep the crumbs outside. There were ants everywhere. This is the dry season, so ants are a fact of life here. We had to pick ants out of our bread the next morning in the nice "tourist" restaurant that's part of the hotel. They even got into the little refrigerator in the suite. One of the bathrooms was so infested we just closed it off and used the other one. Ants in the restaurant. Ants in the grocery store. Ants everywhere. We left our food trash on the porch and tossed our banana peels in the yard to biodegrade. Any twinges of guilt over littering were eliminated when three spaniel-sized goats came by and ate everything the next morning.

We spent the day at Limbe touring the botanical garden and buying food in town. We hung out on the porch, journaled, watched the lizards chase each other around the patio, and had deep conversations. We watched bats the size of hawks zooming around in the trees, then went to bed in air conditioning, the last time for a while.

The next morning, while packing for the trip to Yabassi, Erin discovered that a couple of hundred baby spiders had hatched in her pack. Much yelling and smushing of spiders was required before she was ready to hit the road.

 

The Thompson-Moore Family Enters the Forest - Yabassi

Our driver was only about 40 minutes late, punctual by Cameroonian standards. This was the same driver who brought us to Limbe and he'd driven from Douala that morning to pick us up. The drive back to Douala was beautiful. I didn't appreciate it as much the other day because I was so sleep deprived. Things took a turn for the interesting when we were flagged down by a group of gendarmes and transportation officials who shoved a tire shredder between the wheels of the taxi and started shouting at our driver.

Because the driver came empty from Douala, our names were not on his manifest. It seems he should have gone to the police station in Limbe and had our names added. They want us to return to Limbe and do this before they will let us go. Leah suggests just paying an immediate "fine" and writing our names on the manifest. More shouting and arm waving in both French and English. If they just add our names to the driver's manifest, they won't be on the carbon copy at the police office, and if something happens to us on the way back to Douala, no one will know we were in the taxi. Leah gets out and makes an impassioned plea to the officials. Her family is here from America, she's trying to get us to her home in Yabassi. We are already very late! Suddenly the officials are all smiles. "You are guests? We love guests in our country! You may go now." The driver also slips them 1,000 francs (about $1.50).

As we approached Douala, traffic started to build up. Our driver and several others left the road and headed cross-country over a sort of roadside park and took a short cut through a neighborhood to bypass the traffic bottleneck.

We got to Leah's favorite internet cafe where she left us to run errands. She needed to:

My job was to drop some film off for Leah at a Kodak place and go to a store for cheese and toilet paper. Leah got us set up at the internet cafe and headed out. I left Erin and Nan struggling with the French keyboard and went to run my errands.

When I got back, Erin and Nan had managed to get to Erin's Hotmail account and we tacked a "We're alive!" line on to Erin's message right before our 1-hour session timed out. We paid for another session and sent a longer message to everyone whose e-mail address we could remember off the top of our heads. We couldn't remember any family member's addresses! Merde! Never leave home without e-mail addresses.

We finished everything we wanted to do on the internet and Leah still wasn't back yet. There were empty seats in the cafe, so we decided to pop 500 francs (74 cents) for another session just to stay in the air conditioning.

Then Leah returned. Surprise! Things are not going according to plan!

There has been a miscommunication with the driver Leah had arranged. He's already left for Yabassi. Leah spent over an hour haggling for a new driver. She finally found a driver willing to take us to Yabassi. His taxi is the most rickety vehicle we've been in so far. As we get in the taxi there's a shouting match between our new driver and someone we don't know. Our driver gave him some money and he left. Leah told us later he was someone from the car park who'd helped her find the taxi. He was arguing with our driver over his commission.

Leah had the driver stop at her bank and the bakery where she bought bread and pilli, the little beef pastries. We headed north out of Douala, stopping once more at a roadside market where Leah bought vegetables. These are things we won't be able to get in Yabassi. We had to forget about the fan and extra mattress.  We'd get by somehow.

The road north is paved but is in much worse shape than the road to Limbe. In some places the potholes comprise more of the road than the pavement. I remember driving down into potholes and noticing that the pavement shards are at eye level. On the outskirts of Douala we were flagged down by gendarmes but were allowed to proceed without delay, though the driver got a ticket for something. We made about another 15 miles before all hell broke loose.

We're stopped at a roadblock where a gendarme is checking papers. He's the only man in uniform but he has several people who seem to be acting as his assistants. He checks our driver's papers and sees that his driving license is expired. He wants to impound the taxi. Leah gets out and starts arguing with him. He won't budge. He says this is not our fault and that he will find a car for us.

This is the middle of nowhere. None of us think this is going to end well. Leah begins to berate the gendarme. "I live in Yabassi! My family came all the way from America to visit me there. They are suffering. I will have them come over and sit with you so you will see their suffering! You must give them cold beer!"

There was much laughter at this. We got out of the car and the gendarme tried to explain the situation to us in broken English (his English was a lot better than my French). A few minutes later, a small car, empty except for the driver, pulled up to the roadblock. The gendarme had him pull over and asked him if he would take us to Yabassi. The driver said he would. We crammed our bags in the new car. The gendarme ordered the 1st driver to give us all our money back. The driver was reluctant and didn't move for a few moments. The gendarme repeated his order more forcefully. The driver started pleading with Leah for her to intercede. Leah said she'd done and said all she could. The driver gave her all the money back. Leah slipped him 5,000 francs because she felt sorry for him and we left, leaving him to decide the fate of his taxi with the gendarme.

I wasn't sure how the new driver felt about having his car commandeered by the gendarme, but Leah explained to us that he was actually operating an illegal taxi and was looking for passengers anyway, so he was happy with the arrangement. His car was in better shape than the cab we started out with, so it all worked out for the best for everyone except the Douala taxi driver.

The drive to Yabassi from Douala is about 50 miles. We made our last stop at the market about 3 pm and reached Yabassi just as it was getting dark, about 6:30. We left the paved road shortly after our adventure with the gendarme and started on the 25 miles of unpaved road. How they get to Yabassi in the rainy season is a mystery to me. The potholes were no better, no worse than forest service roads I've driven on in the US, but we would have needed to constantly get out and push if it had been wet.

The countryside was spectacular, all kinds of exotic hardwoods towering over a huge variety of palms. We saw three groups of Toucans taking dust baths in the middle of the road. They'd fly away when we got within 20 feet. At one point we drove over a column of army ants 2 or 3 inches thick. Leah says they're not dangerous but can be annoying. If they get on you and start biting, you can't just brush them off. The head stays attached and you have to pull it off. It's very painful.

Occasionally, we passed small houses in the forest. We met several trucks and vans headed back to Douala. They were crammed full of people and goods. Some people were perched on top, hanging on for dear life. Leah said many more people than usual were traveling to be with family for the holidays. We slowed down to pass a car surrounded by locals. One of the local adults noticed us in the car and asked, in French, "What are those white people doing?" One of his companions responded, "Looking for children."

We entered Yabassi just as it got dark. Yabassi is actually three villages arbitrarily lumped together into a single municipality. Each section is separated by about a mile of forest. One part has the hospital, main schools and the administrative offices such as the post office, courthouse, and gendarme's office. That's where Leah lives. One section has the main market. The other section is mainly homes and a couple of small stores.

After the driver dropped us off on a dark gravel road, Leah ran ahead to her house to turn on the lights and make sure all was well there. She came back to fetch us, then went to the home of the Bambolos to, as Erin put it, "fetch a fan and several small children." The entire town has been without water for weeks. All the water comes from the river or small streams. The water (and just about everything else) is typically carried on the heads of small children, if you are lucky enough to have access to them. The Bambolos loaned Leah their grandnephew Yannick and grandniece Vivian for the duration of our visit to haul water for us. They came back with Leah to get her buckets and headed for the nearest stream, about 300 yards away. After dark. Without flashlights. The next morning they told Leah they saw a crocodile in the moonlight and had to wait for it to leave before they could fill our buckets.

Leah's house is a solidly built concrete structure with a large living room, two bedrooms, a small kitchen and a bath. The windows have glass louvers, screens, and strong bars. This is the only house I saw in Yabassi with screens. None of the plumbing in her house is hooked up except the bidet, so even when the water is turned on, she has to flush the toilet, wash clothes, dishes, and take baths out of a bucket. After we got our gear settled, Leah put a couple of drops of bleach in a bucket and explained to us how to take "bucket baths." We sluiced the road dust off and got ready for bed. Nan and I got to sleep in Leah's bed under mosquito netting. Leah and Erin slept on the floor of the living room. Thanks to the Bambolos, we had a fan in each room, which is the only reason we could sleep in the heat and humidity.

The Bambolo family lives in two dorm rooms on the campus of Leah's school. The reason they were able to loan us their only fan was because the campus has been without power for several days due to a squabble over money between the school administrator and the power company. They are forced to live in darkness and stifling heat until things get worked out.

Papa Ezekial and Mama Anne Bambolo are a couple who have befriended Leah. They were born in Cameroon but moved to Liberia when they were young. M. Bambolo was successful there and became vice-principal of a large Baptist school. They raised three boys and a girl in Liberia but were forced to flee for their lives in 1991 when civil war broke out and rebel forces occupied their school and threatened their children. They hid in the jungle for seven months, living on roots, "eating nothing out of a pot," as M. Bambolo said, until they were rescued. They lost everything and had to return to Cameroon. When their children grew up, they were brought to America and sponsored by church families. They settled in America, got married, and are raising children there.

M. Bambolo is an English teacher in Leah's school. Mme. Bambolo makes cookies to sell in the market. She also speaks English. Even though they are Cameroonian and have been here 8 years, they're sort of outsiders in Yabassi and have befriended the two previous Peace Corps volunteers. They have been very supportive of Leah and Mme. Bambolo cooks for her often, out of generosity, not for pay.

The morning after our arrival, the Bambolo children started bringing over more water. They haul enough to fill a 40-gallon barrel. Leah is making us a salad with greens she bought on the way here when Mme. and M. Bambolo drop by with cookies and fish. Mme. is also using Leah's power to grind food for the Christmas dinner she's preparing for us. M. Bambolo has caught the fish for us and Mme. Bambolo has braised them. We invite them to eat with us but Mme. says she made them for us and that there is more at home for them.

After they leave, we sit on the floor and I am confronted with one of the Top Five Things I Was Afraid I'd Be Asked To Eat In Africa, a whole fish, head, fins, and all. Nan, Erin, and I sort of get deer in the headlights looks. Nan gamely says she'll eat some. I say I'll try a bite. Erin says she's sorry but she doesn't think she can do it. Leah shows us how to take a bite. Nan has a bite. I try one. It's very good. Not fishy, and well seasoned. Erin tries a bite. She takes more bites. Pretty soon the only thing left is bones and heads.

Leah said she doesn't eat the heads but that many Cameroonians consider them a delicacy. The Bambolo children came by a few minutes later, hauling mattresses for the girls, and Leah gave them the fish heads as a treat.

After lunch we went out for a stroll to the post office and boutique. Nan and the girls went out to get beans and beignets earlier but this was my first time out in daylight. We were greeted effusively by everyone we met. There weren't any packages for Leah, but the postmaster invited us in to greet us in his air conditioned office.

We moved on to the boutique where the locals hang out to drink and socialize. Here we had the opposite of the airport experience. We were swarmed by people shaking our hands, giving us hugs, and offering us beer and soda. We sat and chatted for a while. There is a small Anglophone (English speaking) population in the village and several came over to sit with us.

One man introduced himself as the water engineer. It was mid-afternoon Christmas Eve and he was already hammered. He was obnoxious in a friendly way. He kept inviting us over to his house so his children could dance for us and he said he would dress us in traditional clothes and take our pictures. We humored him and the other locals tried to get him to leave. "Your wife is calling you!" but he won't take the hint. We met some more folks and headed home for the night to talk and watch the lizards run around on the walls of Leah's living room.

Christmas morning. No beans and beignets, so I make omelets. Since I'm not familiar with the pan or stove, (it's a propane two burner) they come out more like scrambled eggs. They are appreciated, though. We spent some time looking at Leah's pictures then I lay down for a few minutes.

My sleep patterns were still out of whack. I got two good nights of sleep in Limbe but couldn't sleep in Yabassi, I think because of the bleach in the bath water. My skin was itching all night.

The Bambolos were coming over at noon for Christmas dinner. Mme. Bambolo had prepared Cameroonian food for us. Pistache, (ground cucumber seeds and pork) fried plantain chips, miendo, (cassava wrapped in banana leaves), meatballs, rice, and spaghetti. Everything tasted wonderful although the Pistache had a bit of an unusual flavor.

The only meat you can buy in Yabassi on a regular basis is chicken, fish, and bush meat. Some people have goats but they're kept for personal consumption. Bush meat is whatever meat you can find in the bush. Leah has drawn the line at eating monkey, she says seeing it in the pot looks too much like someone cooking a child, but she's eaten just about every other form of bush meat she's been offered. Some of the varieties we've heard mentioned since we got here are python, viper, crocodile, bush rat, groundhog, porcupine, wild boar, bush cat, antelope, wild dog, and hawk. The elephants around Yabassi have all been eaten.

Leah wanted Mme. Bambolo to make us porcupine meatballs with authentic porcupine, but the only bush meat available when she was shopping was monkey, so she used pork. We ate until we were full and, after socializing for a while, walked the Bambolos back to their home. We took the opportunity to take a tour of Leah's school on the way.

The school is a major anomaly in Yabassi. It's huge, 20 or 30 large concrete buildings in a place where every sack of cement, hinge, and doorknob has to be humped over 50 miles of all but impassible road. All of the classrooms have unscreened, unglazed windows and are only furnished with desks and chalkboards. Everything is open to the elements and the whole place looks like it's been abandoned. It's hard to believe it's only been two weeks since the students were there.

There is a kitchen that's never been used in 20 years and restrooms that don't work because there's no water. The students use the bushes. The school was apparently built in Yabassi for political reasons and has never accommodated anywhere near the number of students intended. Half of the dormitories are unused and are falling apart. It looks like nothing's been maintained since it was built.

We walked the Bambolos back to the dorm they live in. Imagine a family of four in two dorm rooms for eight years. They spend a lot of time outside since the dorm windows are unscreened and unglazed also. Mme. Bambolo does a lot of her cooking outside over an open fire.

We looked at pictures of their children in America and M. Bambolo showed us a chilling magazine article about their experiences in Liberia. The cover had a picture of a pile of sculls with a bible propped in front of them. M. Bambolo said they were the sculls of his teachers and that he had piled them there.

That evening Leah and I went to the boutique to see how the folks celebrated Christmas. She went to the beach last year with some of her Peace Corps buddies, so she'd never been in Yabassi for the holiday. The place was rocking out. There were about 100 people listening and dancing to extremely loud and distorted music. It was too loud for us so we sat on the benches in front of the bar where the old folks sit.

The previous night, an old man had tried to buy us drinks. Leah knew he couldn't afford it, so she asked him to give us a papaya the next time he saw us. When we got to the bar Christmas night, he was waiting for us to give us a papaya. We bought him a beer. For the remainder of our stay in Yabassi, every time we saw him, he would give us a papaya and we would buy him a beer.

There are two interesting things about drinking in Cameroon. First, toddlers come to the bar with their parents and are given frequent belts of their parent's beer. This may be why Cameroon is one of the largest consumers of beer per capita in the world.  They start young. Second, bottle opening is highly ritualized due to fear of poisoning. If one of your party isn't at the table when the drinks are brought out, the attendant will leave their bottle unopened until the person returns, then make a special trip to the table just to open it. If you are drinking with a friend and you leave the table, your friend will take a drink from your bottle to show you it wasn't poisoned while you were gone.

Nan and Erin stayed home to iron fly eggs out of the clothes Leah had washed on her bathroom floor. In some parts of the country, flies will lay their eggs in damp clothes. If you're wearing the clothes when the eggs hatch, the larvae burrow under your skin to develop. Eventually a painful boil forms under your skin and a worm erupts out. Leah hasn't had this happen but her friend Saurav had to deal with it.

Both Nan and Erin had stomach problems shortly before we got back from the bar. Thirty minutes after we got back, I was making a mad dash for the bathroom. Diarrhea had come to Yabassi.

And that's all I want to say about that.

The day after The Attack of the Colons, I mostly just hung around the house while the girls ran some errands. My diet this day consisted of: 1 bite of bread, 1 bite of cheese, 5 little gherkin pickles, 3/4 of a papaya, and 3 Fanta orange drinks.

In the late afternoon, the Bambolos dropped by for some conversation. After talking for a while, we decided to take a short walk through the forest. We walked a short trail between the school and one of the neighborhoods. Leah told us a chimpanzee lived there when she arrived in Yabassi but someone ate him. We stopped at a house where we were introduced to twins. Leah was asked to name after they were born, so she named them Maurice and Anita after my father and his sister.

We dropped by the boutique for a drink and to say farewell to some of Leah's friends. The boutique represents the only entertainment in the village other than listening to the radio, chatting with friends, staring into space, and working. Some of the employees at the boutique work every day, "Monday to Monday" as one of them said.

Leah is the equivalent of a rock star in the village. Every one seems to know her and the gendarmes and local officials all greet her by name. Everywhere we go in the village, people come up to us to pay their respects. She says she can hardly wait to be anonymous again. Even in cities like Douala, she stands out. I have not seen any Europeans outside of the hotels and restaurants in Douala except in cars. When you go anywhere, all eyes are on you. I saw a man stare so hard at us in wide-eyed surprise, he tripped over a rock and almost fell.

Another man exclaimed in shock when he looked into a van we were in and saw it was full of white people. We always hear "blanche" (white) on the street. Leah has learned the word for white in 9 different dialects. People who approach you are almost always friendly, but some just stand back and glare. Of course, they glare at each other, too, but you know the hostility is there. It's reflected in a lot of the popular music and the widely held beliefs that Aids was invented by whites to use against blacks or that Aids is all just a lie of the White Man.

The morning we were to leave Yabassi, we got up and started looking for the transportation Leah had arranged. The driver of the bush taxi was supposed to check in with her the night before but hadn't. That might mean his taxi broke down or he'd changed his mind about giving us a ride. Or, we just may have not been in sight when he got to town. He didn't know where Leah lived and had no way to get a message to us unless he found someone to carry it. Leah had made backup arrangements with another driver the night before, but he was nowhere to be found either.

There are always people gathered in front of the boutique, looking for a ride to Douala or one of the farms or tiny villages alongside the road. I hung around for a little while, making conversation in broken French and trading beer for papayas. It's 8 am and people have been drinking since sun up. Power may be out, water may be out, the phone may be out, but the beer is almost always available in Yabassi.

The first driver and Leah showed up about the same time and the driver had to start fending off other people who wanted rides. Leah had rented the entire bush taxi. The four of us, and our luggage, fit comfortably. The taxi, which is a small mini-van, normally carries 19! The bush taxi is named Air Force One.

We had an uneventful if bumpy ride back to Douala. We encountered the gendarme who impounded our taxi on the way up and I thanked him for finding a better vehicle for us and asked if I could take his picture. He said yes and went to get his beret.

There is no such thing as candid photography in Cameroon. The minute you get a camera out, people start posing. If you take a picture on a city street, kids will come running up and demand money because you took their picture. The gendarme wanted me to walk a little ways down the road and have Leah take our picture together as we walked back toward the camera. We did that and then I took a close up of him because I figured the walking shot wouldn't turn out well on the digital camera. He gave Leah his phone number and asked for a copy of the photo.

No one tried to buy Leah or Erin while we were in Yabassi, but Leah did receive an anonymous letter from someone declaring their undying love and devotion. She says this has happened several times. Many men have more than one wife. The man who made her bed frame has a wife and two girlfriends in the village.

 

Back to the City - Douala Pt 2

I never thought I'd be happy to see Douala again, but I was. I've never fantasized about sex, food, money, or material possessions the way I fantasized about the shower at the Hotel Akwa Palace. We checked into our rooms, then went across the street where we had lunch at the Greek restaurant, the same place we ate our first night in Cameroon. This time our dining pleasure was tempered by the knowledge that the appetizer plate and three small pizzas we ordered cost 2/3 of what a teacher in Cameroon makes in a month. We couldn't finish everything we ordered so we asked for a box. When we left the restaurant, we were set upon by a couple of street kids begging for money. I gave them the leftover pizza and they started squabbling over it.

We stopped at a bookstore so Nan and Erin could buy some new notebooks. They were both doing so much journaling they'd run out of room in the notebooks they brought with them. Then we went back to the hotel for the long awaited shower. It was everything I wanted it to be. Then I lay down to get a rest while Nan and the girls went to the market and the tailors.

We had invitations to go back to Seema and Saurav's for supper that night, so we grabbed a taxi and headed over to their place in the evening. We had a lovely dinner and conversation and got a ride back to the hotel from Saurav, as he had to return to the office for a while. I asked him how long it took him to get used to driving in Douala. He said "No problem. I've driven in Calcutta!"

That night was a bad one for me. Every time I'd lie down, I'd start to hiccup. I spent the night sitting in a chair or on the porcelain throne. I was completely worthless the next morning and spent the whole day in bed while Nan and the girls went shopping again and bought me yogurt to keep me alive. We went down to the hotel restaurant for supper, and in a quest for familiar food, I ordered a hot dog. It was a foot long dog somehow drilled into a baguette. They must have some sort of foot long baguette drill in the kitchen. It was good, but I could only eat half of it.

When we got back to the room, we turned on the little TV and started to watch the first Lord of the Rings movie on the hotel movie channel. Leah and Erin crashed when the hobbits got to Bree.

 

Death Ride 2002 - Bamenda

We got up at 5 am the next morning to get ready to leave for Bamenda. We took a taxi to a car park outside the city where we bought tickets on a bus. The process for catching a bus involves buying tickets and then waiting around 'til the bus fills up. We waited for two hours. You sit or stand around smelling fish, exhaust fumes, and garbage while flies buzz around you like vendors and vendors buzz around you like flies. The vendors are selling an amazingly random selection of goods from the top of their heads. The total inventory is as varied as Walgreen's. They hiss and make kissing sounds with their lips to attract attention.

I am now eating only to keep my strength up, not from hunger. I haven't had any appetite since the Attack of the Colons on Christmas evening. The Cameroonian Diet is in effect.

After sitting in the bus for two hours, we finally got started. The bus was a small shuttle with seats for 17 passengers. By adding fold up seats to the isle and then cramming 5 people in a bench that can only hold 4, the capacity is increased to 30. This is the posted capacity. Leah was smart enough to buy an extra seat so we had the back bench to ourselves. The fifth person to sit on one of the other benches was actually sitting on the laps of their neighbors until the bus bounced them around enough to mash them together.

When the bus got rolling, the foul odors were left behind and the trip became enjoyable. The road was lined with houses and it seems like Cameroonians do everything in their front yard. It was like a 7-hour drive through a life-sized terrarium. We saw people braiding hair, sweeping, washing, cooking, urinating, napping, playing games, hanging clothes on bushes, selling, buying, staring into space, blowing their noses the old fashioned way, and doing incomprehensible things to all sorts of vegetable matter.

We were stopped at checkpoints every 30 minutes or so and the driver would have to get out and show his papers. We never had any flaps with the gendarmes, though. Apparently they don't hassle bus or bush taxi drivers as much as regular city taxi drivers.

After the first hour, we entered one of the most productive agricultural areas in the country. At each checkpoint, people of all ages would run up to the bus and hold their wares in front of our faces and shout at us. The vendors would walk around the bus until the driver got back and then chase it as it pulled back on the road.

The produce changed as we traveled north and was incredibly varied. Pardon me while I wax alliterative.

We were badgered with bananas.

We were koecrced (sic) with kola nuts.

We were lavished with leeks.

We were tempted with tomatoes.

We were mesmerized by melons.

We were offered oranges and olives.

We were coaxed with celery, coconuts, cassava, carrots, corn, and cabbages.

We were propositioned with peanuts, papayas, parsley, peppers, pineapples, passion fruit, and plantains.

We were also offered mysterious stuff wrapped in leaves, and meat on a stick. I took a look at the pile of entrails and other unidentifiable animal parts sizzling on an old piece of sheet metal perched on a fire smoldering in a 50 gallon fuel drum, and said no thanks to the free sample the guy was waving in my face.

Leah told us there would be one bathroom break, but said it would be primitive. At one location the driver stopped at a full-fledged market and several people got out and stretched their legs and lit cigarettes. I got out, had a quick pipe, and took in the sights. There were hundreds of people milling about, bumping into each other and yelling. It was crowded and I was a center of attention because I was the only white guy in sight. When I got back on the bus I said to Leah, "There's still a rest stop coming up, right?" I was thinking we'd stop on a relatively deserted stretch of road. Nope, that was it. You're just supposed to "go over to the side somewhere." It's a good thing she warned us not to drink much water before we left that morning.

Lunch was whatever you brought with you or purchased from the vendors along the way. We bought some mandarin oranges, boiled peanuts, and roasted corn. The peanuts weren't boiled as long as they boil them in the US south, so I liked them better then the US variety. The corn was very different. It looked normal but was very dry and tasted more like popcorn than sweet corn. I liked it also but it would have been exhausting to eat more than one ear, too much chewing required. The produce in Cameroon is as good as the meat is bad. Everything was fresh from the fields and gardens and had incredibly vivid flavors.

We barreled along the paved two-lane road. A blowout and we're all dead. The bus will join the rusting vehicular detritus scattered alongside the roads between the towns and cities. The countryside was becoming mountainous and large, grassy areas of savanna broke up the forest.  We got to Bamenda about 4 pm and took a taxi to the hotel. The air was cool and comparatively dry. The hotel was a little bizarre. The beds were worn out mattresses and box springs sitting on the floor. The air conditioner in our room didn't work and the toilet seat was sitting on the floor next to the toilet. We asked to change rooms and were quickly moved two doors down where the only problem was that we couldn't lock the balcony door. We decided to quit while we were ahead and the bellman moved the TV from our old room, since the new room didn't have one.

This is the best hotel in Bamenda.

After we decompressed for a little while, we took a taxi to a restaurant where the local PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) hang out. Leah said it had both Cameroonian and American items on the menu and that the food was good. The place was pretty crowded and we were seated at the only table left that would accommodate 4. Unfortunately, the table was only 5 feet away from a huge TV blaring ESPN across the room so loudly we had trouble hearing each other. The menu had a good assortment of items including a double-cheeseburger "Whooper". As attractive as a cheeseburger sounded, every time I see meat on a menu, I think of hunks of raw meat covered with flies and hanging in the sun. So I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich. It was more toasted than grilled and was just what my abused stomach needed.

We were all sweaty and dusty from the long bus trip and were looking forward to getting clean, so the girls went to their room for showers and Nan hopped into ours. While she was still in the shower, Leah and Erin came over to see if they could use our shower. Theirs had a major leak and sprayed water all over the room. When Nan was done with her shower she had so many complaints about it (awkward ergonomics, backed-up drain, discolored water) that the rest of us just sponged off in the sink and went to bed, where we spent an uncomfortable night because of party noise in the halls and hideously uncomfortable mattresses.

This is the best hotel in Bamenda.

We told the girls to sleep as late as they wanted but Nan and I were up and about by 7 am. Nan went down to the front desk and asked if they knew anyone who could help us tour some of the local attractions, particularly the Fon Palace at Bafut. The clerk said they could call us a guide. About 8:45 we got a call from the desk that the guide was there. Nan and I went down to the lobby and said "Bafut" until one of the guys standing around the desk came over to us. It turned out he was from the local ministry of tourism and had several itinerary options for us to chose from. The one-day option had every place we wanted to see and a couple of other things that looked interesting, so we opted for it. He said he would arrange transportation and accompany us all day. He would find the transportation and meet us back in the lobby at 9:30. We went back upstairs, breakfasted on bus fruit with the girls, and got ready to go.

We met our guide, Joseph, in the lobby at the appointed time. He said the taxi driver was washing his car for us. This is common practice since Bamenda is very dusty during the dry season. When the driver was done, we left for Bafut to see the Fon's palace.

Fons are regional leaders sort of like kings. The Fon of Bafut has five wives and "around 150" children. Don't ask me how five wives can have 150 children, I was too bemused by the other things the Fon's third wife was telling us at the time to ask this question. She was showing us the Sacrificial Sticks and Stones of Adultery set up in the Square of Sacrifice. The sacrificial sticks are forked poles men and women were sacrificed on in the Good Old Days before colonization. They use goats now. The Stones of Adultery are large rocks adulterers were executed on in the Good Old Days before colonization. The men got a slightly larger rock than the women. The execution was incremental. Each day a body part was cut off, cooked, and force-fed back to the adulterer. If they were still alive after seven days, they were killed outright. Today, adulterers are just banished. From what Leah has learned of the concept of fidelity since she started teaching Aids education in Cameroon, it sounds like the entire region would be depopulated if this practice were actually followed.

We were shown around the compound by the queen/third wife (the terms were used interchangeably) and then were escorted through a couple of small museums by one of the Fon's male aids, since Cameroonian women aren't allowed in that part of the compound.

The first museum was a building about the size of a double garage with stuff piled all over and hanging from the rafters. There was war booty consisting of swords and ancient bolt-action rifles taken from the Germans in the late 1800s. There were ceremonial objects such as masks, old thrones, and animal skins. There were curiosities, such as a couple of old gramophones given to the Fon after he signed treaties. My favorite item was "the first shoe to come to Bafut" (it was made in India). 

The second museum was all statues. There were two statues meant to represent a German soldier and his wife. The Bafuts carved them after they drove the Germans off the first time, so they would remember what they looked like if they came back. They came back.

After the Fon's palace, we went to a small botanical garden. As we were leaving the garden, a tire on the taxi blew. True to form, the spare had a leak too, so we cooled our heels in the shade of a little country store while the driver rolled his tire down the road to get it fixed somewhere and Joseph went along to expedite the process. We'd driven by hundreds of these stores but it was the first time we'd been in one. The inventory seemed to consist only of warm beer, warm soda, rice, canned tomato paste, and cigarettes. After 20 minutes or so, Joseph came back with another taxi and we proceeded with the tour.

Joseph led us to a brass workshop where craftsmen use the lost wax method to turn old plumbing fixtures into art objects. They demonstrated the entire process and we were able to buy some nice pieces.

Next we went to a handicraft shop where we scouted out prices of souvenirs. This is a tourist place, so the prices were all marked. We took note of the prices of items we were interested in so we would know what the price ceiling should be when we haggled over these things in the actual markets (we wound up paying only about half price in the market). The shop had a restaurant attached and Leah had recommended this place as a good place to eat. As we were wandering around the shop, I was slapped in the face by a heavenly aroma. It was beef, frying with leeks and onions. It was the first time I experienced appetite since Christmas day. I hadn't been counting calories since we got to Africa, but I would estimate I was eating less than 500 calories per day. After getting a whiff of the food at that restaurant, I was ready to eat for pleasure again. To heck with the meat hanging in the sun and swarming with flies. I was hungry

Bamenda sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains. The restaurant balcony is perched on a mountainside with an excellent view of the city. We could see and hear a group of neighborhood boys who were sitting on a rocky outcropping about a half mile away. They were drinking palm wine, beating complex rhythms on plastic containers, and singing and dancing. There was a cool breeze, the food was great, and the drinks were cold. Sitting there and listening to the Bamenda Boy's Chorus and Palm Wine Appreciation Society was a highlight of the trip for me.

While we were at the restaurant, Erin noticed several paintings she liked. Joseph said he could take us to the artist's studio. The artist, Spee, wasn't there when we arrived, but the person minding the place said he was right down the street and went to fetch him.

Spee was a real character. He had been at a family gathering and was about three sheets to the wind when he arrived at his studio. He talked about his paintings and quoted us a couple of prices. The prices were reasonable but we were cash-poor at that point because a fourth of our funds were tied up in travelers checks, so Erin bought a couple of cards from him and he felt inspired to sing an R&B song for us. We got his snail and e-mail addresses and left for the hotel. We stopped at a bakery for bread and cheese, said goodbye to Joseph, and had cheese and avocado sandwiches on the hotel balcony. I was dirty enough to fight through a shower and spent another bad night while the music from the disco rumbled and drunken men engaged in shouted arguments beneath our balcony.

This is the best hotel in Bamenda.

The next morning we went back to the Dreamland restaurant for breakfast and bumped into Sean, a Peace Corps volunteer Leah knows who is stationed in Bamenda. He and his friend Tate invited the girls to celebrate New Years with them that night. They made tentative arrangements to hook up later then we went back to the hotel where Joseph was waiting to show us a couple of videos about the area. Leah was going to meet Ruth, a friend of hers who also teaches in Yabassi but was home in Bamenda for the holidays. She is the sister of the Yabassi water engineer Timo, the enthusiastic drunk Erin calls the Friendly Inebriated Man in her journal. Nan, Erin, and I walked down the road to a little video shop to watch the videos and Leah waited at the hotel for Ruth. On the way, we saw the second best hotel in Bamenda. We were very happy to be staying in the best hotel in Bamenda.

The videos were of an interminable Death Celebration, where hundreds of people were singing, dancing, and firing guns on the first anniversary of the death of a notable person. The other video was a copy of someone's home movie of scenic sights in the area. When Leah and Ruth got there, we said farewell to Joseph and walked to the main market.

We had fun at the market, got lots of trade goods to bring home, and then took a taxi to Spee's gallery. We'd decided to see if he was willing to accept some of our traveler's checks if he could exchange them for CFAs. That wasn't possible, so we decided to cut into our cash reserves and buy one of the paintings for Erin.

We hopped a taxi and took Ruth to the Handicraft restaurant we had enjoyed the previous day. The Bamenda Boy's Chorus and Palm Wine Appreciation Society was present on their rock, but mute, perhaps saving their energy for the New Years celebration later that night. We had another good meal then split up. Nan, Ruth, and Leah went back to the hotel, and Erin and I decided to walk the mile or so back to the brass workshop. We got lucky. I found it in the maze of streets, we bought some more items at the price negotiated by "the woman from Yabassi" (Leah) when we were there the previous day, and taxied back to the hotel. Later, Joseph stopped by to say farewell and gave us some mementos of Bamenda.

Sean dropped by to invite the girls out to celebrate New Years. They took off and Nan and I stayed home to figure out how we were going to pack all the souvenirs. I took a shower with no hot water. 

Have I mentioned yet that this is the best hotel in Bamenda?

Nan and I dropped off to a restless sleep before midnight. The girls got back around 2 am and stopped by to check in. They had a good time drinking warm Guinness and dancing. True to Cameroonian form, midnight passed without anyone noticing and they did the countdown ten minutes late.

The next morning we were up at seven to go to the car park and catch a bus back to Douala. The previous night, Sean had told us that New Years day was a bad day to travel because people are still drinking and many of them are driving. We decided to take a large bus so we'd be in the biggest thing on the road. We would also be guaranteed individual seats, though they would be tight. At the car park, we were told the bus to Douala would be leaving at 9 am, whether it was full or not. The bus pulled out at 10:35.

The bus ride was a living hell for the girls. They were already queasy from all the Guinness the night before and the motion of the bus as it navigated the winding mountain roads was torture. Leah took some Dramamine but Erin lost her Guinness residue in a plastic bag. Me, I was just happy to have transportation to Douala. When we passed through the intersection of one of the larger mountain towns, a mob of people started running toward the bus, shouting "Douala! Douala! Douala!" The driver kept going a couple of hundred feet until only the most determined were still chasing us. The driver let some on to fill up the few remaining empty seats. One guy finished the ride in the stair well. Leah said that if the driver had stopped back at the intersection where all the people were, they would have pushed aboard and filled the isles. It would have taken at least an hour to sort out their payment. After the new passengers were settled in, Leah told us they were saying that there were no cars for rent on the road today.

The markets and roadside stands that had been swarming with people the day we traveled to Bamenda were largely deserted. Most people were sitting quietly in their homes or yards or talking in small groups in the shade. The rolling produce market of the trip up was closed. We finally pulled into the car park on the outskirts of Douala and pried ourselves out of the bus. None of us had stood up for over seven hours We crammed into a taxi, which immediately pulled into a service station to put air in the tires. One of the guys hanging out there was pointing to one of the tires and asking the driver how far he was taking us. The driver said, "Akwa Palace", and the other guy said, "You should make it". Leah asked us if we wanted to get out and get another taxi. I wanted to risk it because we wouldn't be moving at speeds much greater than 10 mph. We pulled out to the street, drove about a half mile, and the tire blew.

Three hot, sweaty, tired, angry Americans and one Woman From Yabassi got out of the taxi. The driver wanted us to wait while he changed the tire. Leah and I reamed him out bilingually while Nan and Erin fumed. Leah hailed another taxi and we started to shift our gear. Some random guy ran across the street and tried to prevent us from putting our stuff in the new taxi, so now there were three guys, the first driver, the new driver, and the random guy all yelling and shouting while we put our stuff in the new taxi. Eventually, the new driver gave the first driver some money out of what we gave him and we finished the trip to our hotel. It was interesting to see how 13 days in Cameroon have changed our standards. The Akwa Palace seemed like, well, a palace. We checked in, went across the street to the Mediterranean restaurant for some tremendous Spaghetti Bolognese, went to another neighboring restaurant for ice cream, took long, luxurious showers, and collapsed into bed.

 

Saying Farewell to Leah - Douala Pt 3

Day 14, our last day on the continent. We made a Zepol bakery run again, then hopped a taxi to Marche Congo to pick up the clothes Leah was having made for us. Since it was post-holiday, the market wasn't crowded and we did a walk through. We went to the shop owned by Yaya, Leah's friend who picked us up at the airport the night we arrived, and chatted with him for a while. Then we meandered around, buying fabric, hats, a booboo for me, and meeting some of Leah's other friends and acquaintances. We went back to the hotel for a fashion show and made lunch out of baguettes, avocado, and La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow cheese).

We chilled the rest of the day in the room, and then went back to the Mediterranean for a last meal with Leah. We took the hotel van to the airport and said an emotional but hurried goodbye to her in the midst of a crowd of sweaty, pushy people and plunged into a maelstrom of irritable airport officials who didn't have any patience with our lack of French. The friendliness of these people seemed to diminish in proportion to the likelihood of them getting any money from us. We're now sitting, exhausted and emotionally drained in what we can only hope is the Air France gate. There are no signs, we just kept walking past areas that had names that were not Air France until we got to the end of the concourse and found a bunch of people sitting in chairs. There was a guy sitting behind a little refreshment bar. We asked, "Is this the Air France area?" He just waved toward the chairs and said, "Wait there."

So, we're waiting, listening to some asshole's blaring personal DVD player. Waiting to leave this (many expletives deleted) country. I'll be counting the days until Leah can come home.

 

France, New York (New York?) and the Voyage of the Damned

Paris is now my favorite place to be. Though we were exhausted by the flight from Cameroon, we couldn't sit still. We checked into a pristine little hotel just off the Bastille traffic circle and spent two days walking around the streets and taking in some if the major attractions such as the Catacombs and Notre-Dame.

We ate croque-monsieur, croque-madame, and croque-avec-tout. That's grilled ham and cheese, grilled ham and cheese with a fried egg on top, and grilled ham and cheese with a fried egg and tomato on top. We couldn't resist McDonalds and had a Royal Cheese avec pomme frites (quarter pounder with fries).  We dipped the fries in mayonnaise sauce.

It snowed our second day in Paris, accumulating about three inches. It was picture-postcard perfect and a lot of fun to walk around in. As charming as this was on Saturday, we should have realized this meant disaster for our travel plans the next day.

We got to the Paris airport around 7:30 am the next morning in order to catch a 10:40 am flight. The place was swamped with people. The previous day's snow had caused the cancellation of over forty flights. Everyone who tried to fly the previous day plus everyone scheduled to fly today was milling around and the lines were huge and confusing. Airline employees were desperately trying to make order out of chaos, but they weren't having much luck. Every employee would give you a different answer about which line to get in. After fighting the mob for three hours, we were checked in and through the security inspection. Our plane was only delayed 40 minutes and we were feeling good. Our problems were just beginning.

We didn't board the plane until after one. Then the plane idled on the ground for over three hours, while we waited for the bags to be loaded. At that point, the purser got on the intercom and said that we couldn't fly to Dallas as scheduled because the crew's maximum shift length (15 hours) would be exceeded by the time we got there. So, we would fly to New York, change crews, and continue on to Dallas, where we would go through customs and be given new connecting flights to St. Louis and Atlanta. The flight to New York was uneventful although we were fed the tasteless "Heart Healthy" pap again. Ugh! The only thing worse than airline food is low calorie airline food.

In New York, it seemed to take forever to change crews. Then we waited in queue several hours to get de-iced. At this point, we'd been on the plane for seventeen hours and the passengers were about to mutiny. At 11 pm, the airline gave up, debarked us through customs, and gave us vouchers for hotel rooms.

We were on a Boeing 777 and every seat was full. By the time we got through customs and received our new connecting flight info, it was after midnight and there were 245 people and their luggage fighting for space on a 12-passenger shuttle to the hotel.

We needed to be back at the airport by 7 am the next morning to check in for our first standby opportunity. We figured that by the time we, and the rest of the people, got checked into the hotel, we'd only get a couple of hours sleep and then have to fight the crowd again for the shuttle in the morning. We decided to spend the night in the airport and made ourselves as comfortable as we could on the cold tile floor next to the check-in area.

We got a few hours rest and went to the food court for coffee and rolls at 4 am.  Then we got in line to check our bags and went to the gate to see what we could do to make sure we were on the 9:12 am flight.  If we missed that one, there wouldn't be another opportunity to fly to St. Louis until 5 pm, meaning Erin would miss another connection to Atlanta and would have to spend another night on the road. We finally got a break.  All three of us made it on the 9:12 flight.

It's good to be home.

 

Random Thoughts on Cameroon

Cats, Dogs, Pigs, & Cows

Cameroonians were bemused by our attraction to cats. Cats are not particularly cultivated as pets, they're just a means to control the rodent population and are also occasionally eaten. When the Cameroonians saw us going gaga over a cat and squeaking "kitty kitty," it sort of looked to them like someone enthusing over pigeons and saying "pidgy pidgy" in a high-pitched voice would look to us in St. Louis.

There are apparently only two dogs in Cameroon, the Francophone dog and the Anglophone dog. My theory is that some sort of Ministry of Domestic Animals moves them around to different areas to create the illusion that there is more than one of each.

In the French-speaking regions around Douala and Yabassi, the Francophone dog is a light-brown, medium-sized shorthaired dog with pointed ears. It looks sort of like what I think a wild dog looks like. In the English-speaking region, the Anglophone dog is different, kind of like a shaggy German Shepard. The Anglophones are also in charge of the Cameroonian pig, although the Ministry apparently doesn't move the pig around as much, since we only saw it once.

There are enough cows to cause traffic jams in the smaller towns.

Garbage/Hygiene

Based on my experience, there are only three clean places in Cameroon, Leah's bank, a Kodak shop in Douala, and the home of Seema and Saurav. Every other place we saw ranged from slightly dingy to unbelievably filthy. On New Years day in Douala, the streets were relatively empty and rats were swarming, repeat, swarming outside the closed supermarket around the corner from our hotel. I had a staring contest with a cockroach perched on the top of the seat in front of me on the bus ride back from Bamenda. Even the best hotels were grungy. Plumbing was rusty and fixtures were dull and cracked, the walls were smeared with greasy fingerprints, the "clean" sheets were a dingy gray and thin as tissue paper.

When a Cameroonian is finished with something, it's dropped on the ground wherever they're standing. Unless someone comes along and thinks they can use it or sell it, the trash just lays there until it's buried by newer trash. In the cities, when a garbage pile gets four or five feet deep and twenty or thirty feet across, a crew might come around and shovel it into a truck. There are a lot more piles of garbage than trucks in Cameroon. I stood on the balcony of our hotel in Douala one night and watched people picking stuff OUT of a garbage truck.

In the country, the garbage just accumulates. If it's biodegradable, no problem unless you're easily offended. If it's not, solar radiation and erosion are the only remedies. Doing something about this problem will require a major societal change. No government, not even a rich one, could keep up with it otherwise.

Skin Power

I know "why they hate us". We're all rich. I mean filthy rich, and famous. I mean Bill Gates rich and Mick Jagger famous. If you'd ever like to see what it's like to be a billionaire or a rock star, go to Cameroon for two weeks with $1,500 and a Visa card. You will be able to buy whatever you see, eat only in the best restaurants, stay in the finest hotels, and attract an entourage wherever you go. When we would hail a taxi, the drivers sometimes kicked out the passengers they already had aboard in order to pick us up. We always got the best seats in any vehicles we rode in and any establishment we went into. People fawned all over us wherever we went. People have asked Leah to marry them, to take them back to the States with her. They've offered her their children.

Leah and the other PCVs call this "peau power" (skin power). It's primarily an economic thing. Cameroonian taxi drivers preferred us to Cameroonian passengers because frequently Europeans and Americans don't understand the true cost of things and sometimes grotesquely overpay for goods and services. Once, in a fit of good humor, I gave a particularly friendly and familiar taxi driver 1000 CFAs for a ride that should have cost 750, the equivalent of a 37-cent tip. Leah gently chided me for doing it because it will make it harder for the next PCV to pay the appropriate price without getting an argument from the driver. When we were at the artist's studio trying to decide about buying a painting, we were discussing a $100 extravagance. To Leah's Cameroonian colleague who was with us at the time, we were talking about spending the equivalent of two months salary on a painting.

The resentment of the ordinary third-world citizen is inevitable and understandable.

Another consequence of being "rich" is that you're never quite sure of the motivations of those who are befriending you. This means that the only people who are beyond suspicion are people who are at least as well off as you are. It can make one uncomfortably cynical, but if you aren't discriminating, you'll be stripped to the bone by the unscrupulous. It's made it hard for Leah to tell who her true friends are.

Can't cut it in the States? Come to Cameroon and be a big fish in a small pond. Live like a king (a Cameroonian king, anyway). Have your pick of beautiful men or woman who will cater to your every desire for a chance to come to America.

It's not a racial thing. It's pure economics. White skin = $.

And novelty. In the English speaking areas, every time any children spotted us, we would hear cries of "White man! White man!" in the tones you'd expect to hear American children shout "Giraffe! Giraffe! " if they saw one walking down the street.

Travel/Mass Transit

Travel between cities is so difficult and dangerous, it's not worth doing unless you have to. Buses and taxies leave whenever they want and are prone to mechanical problems. The 50 mile trip to Yabassi has taken Leah as few as three hours or as many as ten, depending on road conditions, the season, and mechanical vagaries. That's after you've managed to get on a vehicle in the first place. Every morning in Yabassi, the intersection is crowded with people hoping to find transportation to another village or town. As M. Bambolo said to us when we were talking about this, "In Cameroon, you get up early to wait."

If a vehicle crashes, it's just pushed out of the way, stripped of anything useful, and left to rust. The roadsides between the cities are strewn with the wreckage of cataclysmic accidents. Tate, the PCV we met in Bamenda, broke his neck in a bush taxi accident during training and had to be medevaced to the States. I can't believe he came back.

Travel in the cities, on the other hand, is amazingly easy. A ride anywhere in the city costs 150 CFA per passenger. That's about 22 cents per trip. You can catch a cab anywhere in minutes. Cabs will cram three in the back seat and two in the front with the driver. You stand on the curb with your finger pointed down at the street and if a cab has an empty seat, it will pull up. You tell the driver where you're going and if he's not going in that direction, he'll just drive off. Otherwise, you get in and hang on. If he has extra spaces left, he'll keep stopping to try to fill the remaining spaces. By the way, the use of the pronoun "he" is deliberate. We saw no female taxi or bus drivers in Cameroon.

Taxi drivers are highly motivated to get you where you're going as fast as possible, hence the wild rides. I was surprised to discover that, in only 13 days, I could go from "Oh CRAP we're gonna DIE!" every ten seconds, to "I wonder why he didn't make that left turn? Those oncoming cars would have slowed down for us." Speeds in the city usually don't get much above 10 or 15 mph because of traffic volume and road conditions, so an accident is usually a matter of dented fender instead of injuries unless you're a pedestrian or on a scooter.

In a country where everyone smokes and pisses wherever they please, I was surprised that I never once saw anyone smoking in a taxi or a bus. This may be due more to the possibility of a vehicle turning into a Molotov cocktail at a moment's notice than politeness.

 

 

Home | About Us | Contact Us