John and Nan's Page

Getting to Cameroon: A Heart-warming Family Tale of Hassles, Inconveniences, Discomfort, and Corruption

We thought the visas would never come. John made several calls to the Cameroonian embassy – the visa processor was out of the office; his voicemail was full; the office was closed for a day; then he says, “I must have sent them to you already. Goodbye.” Click.  I’m nervous – we can’t go without visas. Should we try to contact Leah? I try to think positive thoughts – there must be a “Plan B”, we just don’t know what it is right now. I find lots of Internet services where we can get emergency replacement passports – it will cost about $800 for 3 replacement passports, at the “emergency” rates. And that still won’t give us our Cameroon visas, so we could only get as far as Paris. I call Hank for suggestions. Will Colin Powell have to get personally involved in our travel plans? Meanwhile, Thursday a notice arrived about a certified letter for John Thompson from Highline C.C. with a zip code near Seattle. We don’t know what this can possibly be. We’re pre-occupied with visa/passport replacement strategies and don’t manage to get the certified letter until Monday morning. Wonder of wonders – the letter is our passports, with visas. No letter of explanation about why they arrive in an envelope from a community college in Des Moines (?!?), Washington.


BEFORE: Bambolo gift items
At Leah’s suggestion, I called the Bambolo children in New York (Rosalie) and Washington State (Ezekiel) to ask if there was anything they want to send to their parents – we can take some gifts with us for them. I leave a message on Ezekiel’s answering machine and never hear from him. I have several conversations with Rosalie. Friday, 5 days before leaving, we receive a HUGE box of gift items for the Bambolos. What to do? Call mom and see if she has a “disposable” suitcase we can leave in Africa. We get an old suitcase from my dad, circa early 1960’s.


BEFORE: Nan worries about water and health
I think about how much water I drink. I realize it will be very hot and I’ll drink even more water than usual. I don’t want to get sick, not even for a day. I hear a horror story from Jo when she cuts my hair – she tells me about a health fiasco she suffered in Spain. I fell like I might be paranoid, but I ask John to go to REI & let’s buy a water filter pump. It’s expensive but I get peace of mind. We can leave it with Leah if she thinks it’s useful. While there I buy whistles for John, Erin, and myself – African cell phones for us if we need to find each other. What was I thinking? It was an impulsive consumer moment.


I wake up early, excited that today is the travel day. I still haven’t written the information I wanted to leave for Anne-Marie. A few days ago I asked Erin if it was OK for me to call and give her a wake-up call to go to the airport. I talked to her briefly and ask about her exam from Tuesday night. She says it was fine and then she and Benjy went to see “Two Towers” at a midnight movie, since it was the big opening day hoopla.

It’s raining in Saint Louis and we think “big yuck” about dragging all the suitcases to the MetroLink station. Just deal with it – there will be other inconveniences. We say goodbye to ‘Nica – hope she doesn’t punish us when we return.

We wait in line a long time to check our bags. There’s a man, soldier maybe, at the ticket counter next to us. He has a wife and 3 children, starting a big trip to somewhere. I don’t hear the destination, but hear a comment about 18 hours of flying. He has only 15 minutes left to check his luggage and he wants to argue with a supervisor about an extra charge for their luggage weight. He seems to prefer the idea of arguing more than the idea of catching their flight.

Our “disposable” suitcase is starting to disintegrate! Stitching at the seams was apparently rotted. We have 2 luggage straps around it, but it looks like it needs to be taped all around like mailing a package. Or else the Bambolo gifts will explode out of it. Our number comes up to be searched before our luggage is accepted. We get to see the new airport security in action. We’re taken to a separate area and all the luggage is opened and searched, not too strenuously. When luggage is declared “Clear”, we get to have our boarding passes.

Erin calls us – her flight is delayed about an hour. John and I go to the gate and board our flight to Chicago, where we should meet Erin. We’re delayed on the ground about 45 minutes. I get a little nervous. We get to Chicago and find the gate for our flight to Paris. I turn my phone back on and check messages. There’s a message from Erin about a second flight delay. Her flight from Atlanta is expected to arrive 7 minutes before “final” boarding for the Paris flight. I talk to the counter agent and she tells me the next flight to Paris is the following day. I get a LOT nervous. John goes to the gate for Erin’s flight and explains the problem. That ticket agent calls the ticket agent at the gate for the Paris flight. So now they both know about it, but nobody can do anything to solve the problem. I try to think positive thoughts and board the Paris flight when they tell me to. Ten minutes later, when Erin’s flight should be arriving, I try to call her, hoping they’ve gotten the OK to turn their cell phones back on. No answer from Erin. I try to call John – his phone’s not on. I’m still trying to think positive thoughts. I’m VERY HAPPY to see Erin when she and John walk onto the Paris flight.

Erin is sitting in the row behind John and me. It feels weird to be this close to her, but not really able to visit. At Roger’s suggestion, I ordered special meals – I picked “Heart Healthy.” It turns out to be salmon – John is mighty cranky and Erin is not delighted.
I find it very hard to sleep because of the combination of excitement, the time difference, and the wacky malaria medication. It seems like a very long flight and I feel very confined.

Sometime in the early morning, about an hour from Paris, we see several places with odd lighting patterns. We think maybe we’re over Scotland. There’s darkness, darkness, darkness, then lights like crop circles, then darkness, darkness, crop circle lights, etc.

Breakfast is NOT Heart Healthy, apparently – so I’m out of the doghouse with John and Erin. Breakfast includes croissants – French food on American Airlines, yippee!

As landing time approaches, we’re talking about how confined and cramped we feel – fantasizing about all the room available in First Class and wondering what the price difference is. When we disembark we notice that “Business Class” is what we consider First Class normally, with big recliner-type seats. First Class is truly deluxe – seats completely recline to a bed configuration like a twin bed. We envy.

The Paris airport is a little confusing. We know we have to get boarding passes, but we’re puzzled about where to go to do that. When we figure it out, that ticket agent is a young woman who speaks English to us and apologizes that her English is less than perfect. We tell her she is speaking very well and that her English is MUCH better than our French. When we get our boarding passes, I say “Merci”, self-consciously.

We stand in line a very long time, queued-up near the station that will process us for our flight to Douala.I notice French police officers with dogs, just standing/observing/on duty at the point where passengers come from the general airport area and through security into the departing flights area. The dogs seem quite casual and undisciplined – more like pets than like working/security dogs in America.
Standing in line, I try to guess the nationality of other people waiting. Some people that I think are German are carrying a Cameroon travel book that’s a very portable size. I couldn’t find anything like that – just large travel books on West Africa that included Cameroon with other countries. Those travel books were too big for me to want to carry on this trip. So I wrote some notes at home before we left. Now I envy the maybe-German people and their portable Cameroon book.

While waiting in line, John goes off to buy a snack and spends Euro currency for the first time.

Seating on the Paris to Douala flight is ridiculously cramped – it makes American Airlines like downright spacious!

French food! There’s slaw salad with raisins and a slice of foie gras on top.

I’m very fidgety and want all this plane travel to be over. I say I don’t ever want to do this again – I have much less enthusiasm for going to Venice now. I’m assuming time will dull my memories of how painfully tedious the long plane flights are.


DOUALA – Arrival
We arrive and immediately it’s like “Yesterday Land.” Stairs are rolled to the plane, not an electric jetway like in America and Paris. This is my first direct experience of technology lag.

We arrive around 6:30 pm, but it’s already dark. It’s HOT! The terminal is old – not air conditioned and it looks like it never will be air conditioned – there are big louvers in the walls for ventilation. It sort of reminds me of my movie images of Mexico and South America. There are no escalators for changing levels – we carry luggage up and down stairs several times. We hand over our Yellow Fever cards and a lady just puts a small slip of paper in the document – not stapled or attached in any way.  Very low-tech. Then passports are inspected in another line. Now we’re really here!

We walk through some doors in the baggage area. Mon Dieu! We don’t know if Erin’s luggage will arrive, since her flight connection was so late in Chicago for the Paris flight. But all of the luggage is here. The “Disposable” suitcase is very dilapidated. If we have to open it for customs, I don’t think it will close again. What will we do with all the Bambolo gifts?

There are men in blue jumpsuits who seem to be a type of airport official porter. They approach John and offer to get us and our luggage through customs for 50 Euros. John said he didn’t want to pay 50, so they counter-offer for 20 Euros. This is my first direct experience that money can solve a lot of problems here, but you can’t always anticipate what the appropriate amount might be. We don’t see Leah; I’m a little dazed and confused; definitely HOT like a steam bath; sweating mightily; a little concerned about what to do if we don’t see Leah.  There’s no pre-arranged Plan B for us, but I know the name of the hotel. We try to tell the porters the hotel name, but that we need to meet our daughter first. We don’t have sufficient French and the porters don’t have sufficient English. The porters want to take us to some van transportation for the Akwa Palace hotel. We’re reluctant to commit. We want to go outside and see if we find Leah. The porter is very reluctant to do that – says there’s no security outside. Mon Dieu again – is he telling us it’s dangerous? We’re following the porters with the luggage toward the door. We walk right past Customs without a glance. Immediately after we get outside we see Leah and she walks toward us - big hugs all around. She seems skinny, but not sick-skinny. Leah’s friends Sandy and YaYa are also there and we meet them quickly.

It’s extremely noisy, crowded, and chaotic. The porters want to get rid of our luggage. Men are swarming around us, presumably wanting money for real or imaginary services. We all clatter down a stairway toward the car – porters, luggage, Leah, Sandy, YaYa, us, the swarm of men. It’s kind of laughable, cramming the luggage and people into the car. There is mild arguing between YaYa and the parking attendant over the price. Sandy says, ”They’re so ‘BOY’, they just argue about things all the time.” We leave the airport and Leah says “Welcome to Africa.”

Mon Dieu the driving! I was completely unprepared for the experience of being in a car in Cameroon. There’s a sub-optimum road surface, no roadside lighting, no traffic lights, no traffic lanes, no speed limits, lots of cars and mopeds driving literally wherever they feel like it. There appear to be no rules, except to keep moving as fast as possible. I can’t figure out how they are gauging who has the right of way, but everyone is driving everywhere. There seems to be a vague general agreement to drive on the right side of the road, but even that isn’t a strict rule. If you need to/want to drive in the left lane for awhile, just do it.

After a short scary ride to the hotel, we do in fact find ourselves in an accident just as we arrive. Maybe it’s my fault, but I am trying to be careful and I am aware of the traffic anarchy by the time I’ve spent 10 minutes in Cameroon. But maybe what I do is unexpected. I’m carefully opening the left rear door to get out. My hand is still holding the door and it’s about 1/3 of the way open. Mon Dieu – a moped hits the edge of the door, pulling it out of my hand and sort of wrenching it open. The moped passenger sorts of hops off/rolls off. He turns around and notices us – a bunch of white folks with YaYa. It becomes dramatic. Passenger now falls to the ground and a large crowd of people forms almost instantly. I try to close the door and realize it’s definitely damaged. I can close if, but when YaYa opens it from the outside, it won’t close again. I feel disoriented, guilty, and responsible in some way. Do people never get of the left side of vehicles? Is the passenger from the moped really hurt badly? I’m sure he hurt his knee when he hit in on the car door, but is all the injury talk real or is he trying to capitalize on the accident? Will money solve this problem? Should we offer money to the moped passenger? Obviously we’ll pay to get YaYa’s car repaired. All of this is happening in the space of 3 minutes as we arrive at the hotel. We stumble out of the car, get our bags, and go into the hotel. Sandy and YaYa will figure out what to do to solve the problem. Welcome to Africa. Leah takes us up to our rooms. The elevator isn’t working correctly – first the elevator goes up to the 4th floor, then comes down to the 3rd floor. Leah says, “C’est Afrique.” Leah goes out to help settle things with Sandy and YaYa. Solution = YaYa parks the car someplace to help defuse the situation. The moped driver comes into the hotel lobby to discuss the accident with YaYa and hotel security gets involved in mediation. Hotel security says, “Your moped is not damaged. His car is damaged. It was an accident. Please leave.” No money changes hands. What about the injured moped passenger?

We spend a brief amount of time at the hotel, then go across the street to eat at a Greek restaurant that Leah enjoys when she’s in Douala. We eat and visit. Then Sandy and YaYa leave. We all go back to “the parent’s room”. Everybody’s tired, but we’re so happy to see Leah and touch her and be with her. We’re asking her dozens of questions – sometimes even before she can finish her answer we’re eager to ask something else.

We’re on the verge of physical collapse, and Leah and Erin retire to their room.

Nan Moore


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