There was a five hour layover in Paris and I hadn’t slept for
twenty four hours. The flight to Douala, Cameroon was delayed because of the air traffic controllers strike. As I wandered by the gate to see who was on the flight, I noticed several groups of less than typical people waiting to board. Besides the 80% of returning Cameroonians, I chatted with two elf like middle-aged Brits who had been convinced by a friend working for one of the oil companies that Cameroon was a destination holiday. They were anticipating an amazing experience visiting the Waza national park in the far north so I refrained from telling them that there were very few animals left in this wilderness. Many of them had been killed and sold for bush meat (a thriving illegal business in Africa). A large group of American-looking teens were anxiously waiting the boarding to begin. Curious as I am, I walked over to one of the adults and asked why they were going to Cameroon. At that moment a tall extremely gaunt grey-haired ponytailed sixties looking hippie explained that he had lived for ten years in the town of Dschang, teaching at the university. Each year he brought his class from the Colorado high school he now taught at, to visit this wonderful country. As love is blind, he obviously did not expound on any of the negative aspects of Cameroon. When I asked a few students who had returned for a second visit what they liked about this country, they said everything. Everything to them was probably limited to camping in the jungle and meeting the friendly villagers. Finally I found someone who shared many of my strong feelings about Cameroon. It was less than charming, extremely corrupt and disorganized with no infrastructure. She however, had chosen the chaos, and exoticism to the sterile predictability of life in France. Working for the French cell phone company Orange, she had the best of both worlds. A high salary for hardship living in Africa, an SUV, a nice apartment and the choice of experiencing the third world when she felt so inclined. I have to admit I was a bit jealous as once I journeyed into the rural hinterland, my choices were limited.
We finally heard the typical tedious boarding announcements, followed by the slow moving line down the corridor to the plane. When I located my seat, I found a bleached blond black woman already settled in. Less than charming when I showed her my ticket, she forced her friend, another escort service type girl, to change seats. As I dosed off, I realized there was another seat swap in process, this time a white man who appeared to be friends with the two women. As we were landing, we began a conversation, he being a French pharmacist in his late forties, from a small town near the Swiss border. He had come to Cameroon for a vacation which I assumed included young sassy black women, like the one who was removing her bra on the aisle seat and getting ready for business.
As I entered the dilapidated airport with its dim lighting, grey cement walls, and stale humid air, I felt less alienated than I expected. Grabbing my four bags and dragging them through a facsimile of a customs station, I searched for Leo, my friend from Fundong. Stranded without local currency, (all the ATM machines were broken) or a working cell phone, I persuaded the French woman to take me into town in her Orange van. Using her phone, I called Leo who was still in Fundong. His new/used truck was already in the shop.
Without a choice I was destined to spend a few days in Douala, a hot, humid, congested, disorganized, ugly African city.This was not a walking town either, with its broken sidewalks, cars parked anywhere, and moto taxis speeding through traffic. But in the morning I trudged down the broken rutted dirt road leading from my small hotel. There was a large bulldozer blocking the road so I had to do a bit of climbing. Within minutes I was sweaty, dirty and wondering why I had come back. My goal that moment was to change money, reactivate my phone, buy a croissant and get back to my room as quickly as possible. There was one ATM machine in the entire downtown with 20 people in line. To pass time I began my interrogation of the man in front of me online. Educated in Britain with a PHD in environmental sciences, I asked why he had chosen to return here. The main reason was his wife had a extremely good job with the government. Since he had only been back for six months and had spent the last seven years abroad, I wondered if he would change his mind.
Back at my hotel, Foyer du Marin, where I had stayed in 2009, I accidently met an extremely interesting person. Most of the guests were foreign men doing business with the government or young black women like the ones on the plane. He was a photographer and film maker by trade whose great passion was preserving the indigenous cultures and the African wildlife. He had been working in Central Africa for over twenty years doing all of the above. The last several years he had been researching conditions in the national parks of seven central African countries. His adventures and misadventures were fascinating and revealing. Equatorial Guinea now only gives visas to oil companies. Gabon, one of Cameroon’s neighbors, whose recently deceased president for life, had professed an interest in promoting tourism, arrested him for an irregular visa, held him at the airport for 48 hours without food or water, and refused to let him make any calls. His salvation was the arrival of an Air France flight. He was able to borrow a passenger’s cell phone in order to call his embassy.
So much for tourism in Gabon. The condition of most of the parks he visited was dire. The animal population is being hunted and killed off.
The last night in Douala I went out with the woman I met on the plane. She liked to hang with the locals so we met at a typical outdoor shack like bar in one of the poor neighborhoods in the city. As usual the people I met were gracious and friendly and poor. As we were leaving , the rains began and the road to my hotel was flooded. I waded ankle deep in my rubber thongs hoping I was alone. The next morning I was on my way to Bamenda, this time with a hired cab, not the public bus.