Thursday 19th September 2013
I’ve been thinking about the best way to write about this Cameroon experience. If the last forty eight hours is anything to go by I won’t be able to give a blow-by-blow account of the journey. On this occasion though, I’m going to try because if what’s happened so far is anything to go by then it’s certainly going to be an interesting time.
It began with my alarm going off at 3.30 a.m. I was up and fully alert after only three and a half hours sleep and was more than ready for the taxi when it arrived at 4.15.
I didn’t even resent as usual security intrusions, and the flight from Birmingham to Paris took off and landed on time.
I met a couple of guys as I was getting off the plane who were also going to Cameroon who, being seasoned travellers from Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport, sped me through the complex maze of shuttle and cattle-grid queues. They deposited me at gate L42 before setting off to do their scrutiny of the shopping bazaar.
I was impressed by the considerate lounging facilities provided for passengers who needed to spend the night in the airport, and by the level of occupancy, there were quite a few.
Boarding was efficient, and I never got to hear why take-off was delayed for 40 minutes because I was too busy talking to a fellow traveller who was going home to Cameroon for a 10 day visit.
Although both of us had had very little sleep we fared no better on the flight as I did numerology analysis on all her immediate family’s birth dates. I also did analysis of their personal year numbers to help her understand what part of the 9 year cycle each of her family members was in and what it meant for them.
It began with a discussion about the angst her youngest son was causing her, and ended with her saying she would approach the situation differently in the future. She said she never expected that such a chance meeting as this could have made such a difference. I smiled.
There must have been some further slippage of time during the flight because by the time we arrived in Douala we had lost our landing slot and had to circle for 15 minutes. We were an hour and a half late landing.
Although the contrast between CDG and Douala was so marked in terms of the fabric of the buildings, the biggest difference was in the speed and efficiency of immigration and customs.
The first part of the process was showing my yellow fever vaccination certificate. The official gave it such a cursory glance that I later realised that the certificate could have belonged to anyone. All she was checking was that I had one, not that it related to me in any way, because she didn’t even check my name against the certificate.
Everything else was smooth – but slow. Once I was through to baggage collection my only worry was whether the person who was to meet me would have waited. I tried several times to phone while I waited for my cases to come off the conveyor belt, but couldn’t get through.
I fended off offers of help from a number of young men, and even had a chat to one of the officials who spoke slow and deliberate English. I could understand very little of what was being said around me, and was even more concerned that my escort would be there.
I needn’t have worried. As I emerged into the early evening heat I saw my name held high by one of the people in the long line of those waiting for passengers to emerge. It was only when I was up close that I recognised him as Fred, the coordinator of the organisation I was going to.
He rushed over to me and hugged me like a long lost sister. I hugged him hard as all my pent up anxiety dissipated.
‘Can you hold my bags a while?’ I asked, ‘there’s something I have to do.’
In the time he was formulating his ‘why’ question, I’d made my way down the little slope, knelt down and kissed the ground.
‘It’s taken 500 years but I’ve come home,’ I said to my ancestors. ‘You called, I’ve answered, I’m here.’
Fred hugged me again as though he thoroughly approved of what I’d done, even though he couldn’t hear what I’d said.
There was something about the insistence of young men trying to hustle me into taxis or wanting to help with my bags (for a fee) that reminded me of the airport in Guyana.
Fred suggested I changed my Euros into local dollars at the airport as this would be more difficult in Kumbo, and found me someone who was happy to do the transaction there and then. Interesting someone who’s very keen to go to Barbados, and took my details when I told her I’d be going there in November.
It wasn’t long before we were in our taxi and I began to experience the craziness that passes for driving in Douala. I was also fascinated by the number of motorbikes, especially the ones with the built in parasols.
Fred was in the process of explaining the different project under the umbrella of the organisation when we became aware that the taxi driver had been pulled over by a couple of police men. I couldn’t understand what was being said but gradually became aware that it had to do with the taxi driver using his mobile phone while driving.
Following a heated exchange he was asked to step outside the car, and the exchanges became even more intense, with much gesticulation and very raised voices. All this with traffic passing so close to our car it felt like layers of paint was being shaved off with some encounters.
After about 15 minutes when nothing was being resolved Fred also went outside. I wound the windows down slightly to better hear and see what was happening. A lot of anger was being expressed by the taxi driver, but his heated words met mostly with icy stoicism from one officer and some heated reprimand by the other.
After about ten minutes of this Fred seem to step in as conciliator and in another 10-15 minutes he came back into the car and made a call to the bus company to reserve our seat on coach. A couple of minutes later the taxi driver got back behind the wheel and drove off.
Fred explained that there is a law against using mobile phones while driving, especially in the city. The taxi driver had been observed by the police using his. He claimed that he had simply answered it to tell the person calling that he couldn’t talk. They wouldn’t accept this and wanted his details so that he could be prosecuted. He refused and they refused to let him go.
In the impasse Fred, being aware of our need catch the coach, had managed to persuade the police to be a little lenient by pointing out that the taxi driver was a young man who had done wrong but was willing to admit it.
That was the problem though, he was not willing to admit that he’d done wrong, but somehow the matter had been resolved by a passage of money from the taxi driver to the police.
After getting through very heavy traffic and some extremely dodgy roads we arrived at the bus station on the other side of Douala at about 9 p.m. When our cases were unloaded it was Fred’s turn to feel the wrath of the taxi drivers tongue.
Apparently he was demanding double the fare originally agreed for the journey. When Fred refused he’d become abusive and threatening. Fred enlisted the help of a number of other men from the station and I observed very heated discussions between them and the taxi driver in one corner of mud covered station.
Eventually the taxi driver left and Fred took me to one of the food booths to get something to eat. Over the spaghetti omelette and chips he explained that the men at the station had threatened to block the taxi driver’s car in if he didn’t accept the payment offered my Fred. Pointing out that his journey took longer than envisaged because of his altercation with the police, which had nothing to do with Fred.
It was now nearly 10 p.m. the time the coach was scheduled to leave and I was exhausted.
‘Shouldn’t we be getting on the coach now?’ I asked Fred in a worried voice, as he didn’t seem in a rush.
‘Oh don’t worry, they won’t go without us. They’re always late.’ He answered unconcerned.
Still a little jittery, I suggested taking our seats anyway. Besides, the loud music from the juke box at one of food booths was beginning to get to me, as was the mud underfoot.
Fred acquiesced, and had even brought pillows for us to be comfortable on the 6 hour overnight journey to Bamenda. It was now 10.15 p.m. and I was settled and could have drifted off to sleep while waiting for the late departure
At 10.35 I noticed most of the passengers getting off the coach. I asked one of them what was happening, but couldn’t understand his answer. When there was only me and one other person still on the coach Fred re-appeared to tell me that a fault had been discovered on the coach and we were going to have to get on a replacement.
I couldn’t believe it. Fred tried to pacify me with the fact that it was better to be on a bus that worked than one that might not get us to our destination.
By the time all the bags had been removed from one coach and loaded on to another, and all the passengers settled in again, it was 11.15 p.m. I figured there was still opportunity to get some sleep on the six hour drive. That was before I realised that there would be night club volume music played throughout the whole journey, beginning with club anthems and moving through reggae, soca, rock, pop and easy listening.
I was exhausted by the time we got to Bamenda at 5.15 a.m. I was very stiff because I hadn’t stood up throughout the journey. I’d passed on the opportunity to take a quick pee on the side of the road during the ‘toilet’ stops.
We left Barmenda by taxi at 5.40 a.m. for the three hour drive to Kumbo. I thought Fred was joking when he asked if I’d ever driven in a taxi with eight people. Alas, he wasn’t. For most of the journey there were eight of us in a car designed for 5. Four in front and four in the back. I’ve never been so close to stranger for such a long time. Even on the tube in London it wouldn’t be for more than a few stops.
And there was little prospect of sleep as the music blared, and we took constant roller coaster rides through the numerous potholes in the road. Despite this, the country side as the sun came up was beautiful. We passed through villages coming to life, children going to school, vendors setting out their wares, and construction working thinking about beginning work.
During this leg of the journey I had a couple of very vivid images in the brief moments I drifted into sleep, hunched over Fred shoulder.
The first was of a sheer steel mountain. I was near the foot of it having made my some slight progress up it. I was staring up and thinking it was impossible to climb when I noticed a small hand hold to my left. I reached for it thinking I could at least get that far. The image disappeared as we hit yet another pot hole.
The second was of a man’s face. A round dark skinned face with a full short-cropped beard. He had closed cropped hair on the top of a wide forehead. It was very vivid before fading.
We arrived in Kumbo at 8.22 a.m. to glorious sunshine. I deposited my bags at the volunteer house. One of the first things I noticed was a tomb at the front of the house. I later discovered it was the land lady/housekeeper’s uncle and he had been responsible for building the compound on which the house stood. He’d died a few months after it was completed.
I went to SEREP’s head quarters for some breakfast as my room wasn’t ready. (The housemates didn’t realise I was coming today).
After a breakfast of spaghetti and fish one of the office staff was tasked with taking me around the market to get in a few supplies. That’s an experience that deserves its own blog.
I managed to send emails from the office. The connection was very slow, but that may have been because there was an IT class being taught. If the speed continues to be that slow it will scupper my plans for video blogging as these would take an age to upload.
By 2.30 p.m. after a quick getting to know you chat with the other four housemates (all girls – two English, two Germans) I was in bed listening to the most amazing lightning and thunder storm. I thought I’d be kept awake for ages – but there is no such thing as too much noise – just not enough fatigue. And there was enough fatigue for me to sleep through what I was later told was a four hour storm.
It’s my birthday tomorrow.