TRAVELING HAS BECOME AN UNPLEASANT EXPERIENCE. airports stretch for miles, passport country always seems like
a marathon walk and security is unpleasant and unfriendly.. At the airport in Frankfurt, i got a wiff of Germanic obedience.
Using miles I was routed from Seattle to Cameroon via Frankfurt and Istanbul. The Lufthansa flight took off 3 hours late. There were 100 empty seats on the first leg to Frankfurt but few took advantage. I claimed a four seat row but could not sleep on the 10 hour flight. Arriving in Frankfurt I had one hour to get to the Lufthansa flight to Istanbul.
Security and passport control treated us as guilty until proven innocent. Everyone remained obedient even as the lines didn’t move and our plane had been 2 hours late. I was the black sheep. “Take the people in the line who are going to miss their flights” I suggested. They refused. And refused and I got really angry. Are we not the customer, we pay your salaries. No one else said a word. Fear is a powerful tool.
Finally through security with less than 15 minutes, I had to trek 1 mile to the gate. Arriving after they had closed boarding and my checked bags were about to be removed from the plane, I pleaded with them to let me on the flight. Three hours to Istanbul, it was 12:30 midday but I was still on West Coast time. It was 3 am and I hadn’t slept.
My last flight from Istanbul to Douala was a social event; my new friend was a Tunisian engineer traveling outside of North Africa with his friend to work on the oil rigs off the coast of Gabon. At least half of the passengers on the flight were Caucasian men heading to the oil fields. Switching between bad English and better French, he confided that his wife was pregnant with their second child and he was hoping to be well paid for venturing into deepest Africa. He promised to invite me to his home In Tunisia. I’m still waiting.
Wasting another opportunity to sleep on an empty row, I was distracted by the two Cameroonian women sitting behind me. Marie, a nurse, had immigrated to London thirty years ago but returned often to see family. The younger woman Aymen had gotten a PHD in biochemistry from the university in Athens, yes a Cameroonian who spoke Greek. Sleep deprived, muttering in Greek, French and English, I finally slept. Six hours later at 1 am we landed in Douala.
Leaving the plane on the tarmac, we dragged our bags up and down stairs through hot, sweaty dimly lit hallways, reminding me of the worst underground subway stations in New York. The only air-conditioned area is the boarding gate waiting room.
With trepidation at 2 am, I imagined a kidnapping or robbery on the way to my guesthouse. Without any drama, my taxi driver was a sweet old man. But when we got to the Mission where I always stay, my name had been crossed off the guest list. Protesting, livid and determined, I finally got the room of someone who hadn’t arrived yet.
A thirty hour journey ending, heat and humidity, tropical rain, chaos in the streets of Douala, and exhaustion describe the next 3 days. The first day I decided to walk, a challenging activity in Douala, to get a sim card and go to Zepol, a Greek bakery dating back to the 40’s during French colonialism. Dodging big shiny SUV’s, Mercedes and BMWs, motorcycles, push carts, and a lack of sidewalks or traffic lights and sweaty and exhausted, I decided to stay off the street and go by car like most expats and rich locals.
What had changed since I left this gritty, disorganized sprawling city? So many expensive new cars driven aggressively by Cameroonians; a new French boulangerie which sells pastries for the equivalent of $3 each and brown nut bread at $10 kg; expensive restaurants filled with expats and Cameroonians making deals and Apple computers for sale in shiny new offices .
The rumor going around was the rain forest in the east of the country had been sold by the government to the Chinese and the French. Not a small chunk of change that probably ended up in foreign banks.
And of course when I drove through the city, the slums were just as dirty, some still without clean water or electric. The staff at my guesthouse were not smiling, their salaries barely reached $100 a month for 200 hours a month. The day and night watchmen earned even less. The road from Douala to Bamenda, a six hour drive, was filled with potholes and police,under the guise of having official papers for the vehicle, stopping us for bribes. We couldn’t avoid the potholes but we did avoid giving bribes. I shamed the police explaining I was here to help the country.