The Less Traveled Cameroon

When I arrived at the train station in Yaounde it looked as if a soccer game had just ended. The second class entrance was like a refugee camp with people carrying bundles wrapped in old sheets and broken cardboard boxes tied with twine. I was trying to keep up with a guy who had grabbed my two bags before I was even out of the taxi. Pushing and shoving my way up the stairs to the first class waiting area, I noticed the majority of passengers were African. I was taking the night train to Nagoundere, the starting point for travel in the north of Cameroon. Other than flying to the far north directly, or traveling three days on dirt roads, the overnight train from Yaounde was the best option. I wanted the whole experience.
One of the few positive things France taught their colonies was how to make delicious French breads and pastries. So while I was stuck in Yaounde waiting for the train to Nagoundere, my raison d’etre was to hunt down some croissants and croque monsieurs. I found two bakeries, Boulangerie Calfatas and the Acropolis. Yes Greek owned but French style. I found out later that the Greeks had come to Africa at the end of the 19th century, working with and for the European colonials. I devoured several croque monsieurs and cream pastries but aside from these treats, I was not charmed by Yaounde.
A congested, chaotic, mini-metropolis with broken sidewalks, unfinished roads, streets with no name, and non descript buildings going up or falling down. Everywhere you walked there was mud, garbage and traffic jams. So I had no regrets when I finally boarded the night train for Nagoundere. My roommate for the trip was an educated, Christian school teacher with two children and a husband who worked for UNICEF. This was not a typical Cameroonian family. Both children had iPods and her husband was paid in American dollars. We shared stories but a good part of the time she spent reading her Bible. The Christians in this country are extremely religious. The train ride lasted for nineteen hours. We stopped at every village, even if there were three huts and each time the train came to a stop, we were thrown out of our seats. Finally twelve hours into the journey the brakes gave out which explained why we had been roughed up since the beginning of the trip. The train sat in the middle of a dry savannah-like landscape for several hours waiting for a new engine car coming from Nagoundere, only two hours away. Chatting with most of the people in the compartments near me, I met a guy from Morocco who was traveling around West African with suitcases full of clothing for sale. Back in New York when I was a kid we called them schmata salesmen but this was regarded as a respectable job in Africa .
Arriving in Nagoundere the train emptied out quickly, people running in all directions to find transport to their next destination. It had just rained, creating large pools of water and lots of mud. Traveling light, I had left most of my possessions in Douala. I ran across the station, dodging mud puddles, carrying two shoulder bags, concerned I would miss my bus. Of course we sat for over an hour and a half until they loaded and tied all the boxes and suitcases on top of the bus. After everyone climbed over everyone else to get into the bus and the driver appeared to be ready to leave, the bus stopped and all the men on the bus got off. I forgot prayers were said five times a day. After a rough hot dusty ride of three hours, we arrived in Garoua late afternoon. Without much electricity in town, all I saw was a rundown bus station. By the time part of the baggage was unloaded and everyone had prayed again and bought food from market stalls it was dark. My Moroccan schmata salesman and his friend were staying overnight in town, and taking the morning bus, advising me to do the same. We took a taxi to the Tourist Motel, as per my guide book, “a comfortable hotel with a swimming pool”.
As per every pool outside of the two big cities of Yaoude and Douala,they were either empty or filled with green algae. This one was empty; the usual excuse, they were cleaning the pool. After arguing with the manager about a $60 per night price in a godforsaken remote town, I gave up and paid. My room was huge with ugly green carpet and a noisy air conditioner. The restaurant food was bad and expensive. The air was stale, the furniture retro 1950’s and the lighting reminiscent of a seedy hotel. I had no problem in Cameroon eating lightly or not at all. To entertain myself I chatted up a exotic young woman with a new born in her lap. She was sitting with an older heavy set woman who was her mother. As the story goes, she had immigrated to France with her husband and returned each year to see her family. The émigré returns and spends too much money to show her family how well her life is in the new country. I have no idea if her life was better in France but she was ordering huge amounts of food and finally a bottle of expensive French wine which, after offering me a glass, I convinced her to send back as it tasted like vinegar. I finally ordered a melted cheese sandwich, I had eaten nothing all day. It was as bad as I had expected.
Garoua did not look much more inviting in the morning. By ten in the morning it was already hot but the sky was grey from all the dust. Again we waited almost two hours until the bus loaded and finally left. I had teamed up with the Moroccan and his friend and together we bought five seats so we had the entire back of the bus. I am sure everyone was jealous. It was a long, bumpy, dusty, hot, exhausting ride of 212km. But as the bus entered Maroua I knew I had finally found a place in Cameroon that I actually liked.

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