Keywords needed starting here
Marcel, the fellow who provided the confirmed hotel reservation required by the Cameroon embassy up in Madrid and who manages the Hotel Ideal for his family in Yaounde guided me to the 35K CFA (about $70) air conditioned Hotel Clamantis next to his place where he had made my reservation, noting: “because I felt you would be more comfortable in an air conditioned room.” Later the day of my arrival, after getting cleaned up and resting a while from the sleepless night and long four hour walk toward town, Marcel invited me to join him for a beer in a nearby café… more like a covered pavilion where most people were drinking beer.
What an interesting guy he turned out to be. Born in 1970 to the second wife of his father’s four wives, he has three mothers and did not enjoy much status in the family. Forced to live with a frightening step mother after his own mother left, he adopted the Catholic faith with its beads as a shield against the black magic performed by his “vampire” mother. "She had the ability to change her appearance and to disappear and reappear at will." he informed me with utter sincerity. Whenever he felt scared he would take out his beads and chant the Rosary; the white man’s magic proved more powerful than that of his evil step mother and he continues to practice his adopted Catholic faith to this day, as does his wife and children.
When questioned about traditional healing practices in Cameroon (spelled Cameroun throughout the country) it soon became obvious he equates magic, spiritual activities and medicine as aspects of the same phenomenon. When he has any sort of problem he visits the crypt where the skulls of his ancestors (including that of his father who died in 2005) are kept on display for family members. There, after undertaking appropriate preparations specified by a “medium” he “talks” to his father, asking for advice and “hears” his father’s replies. Questioned closely he insists it is his father’s actual voice he hears and not that of the medium guiding the encounter. Serious family problems, life threatening difficulties and other health problems are handled in this way he tells me.
“Is the medium considered a witch doctor?” I ask.
“Not exactly. He is just a very wise man trained in the traditions by his father.” He replies. Western medicine is also useful for many problems like Malaria or broken bones, he assures me.
As you can see, I did make it down here despite the last minute uncertainties about the Cameroonian Embassy granting a tourist visa. In my last postcard I had just been told the embassy could not issue the visa, but that the Charge de Affairs had the final say and might make an exception when he arrived the next day… the day my original Royal Air Maroc flight was scheduled to leave unless I changed the ticket to avoid a fare forfeiture… 24 hours before the time of the flight. As I had no assurance the embassy would actually issue the visa and the woman agent had deliberately misinformed me during our initial encounters, it seemed prudent to just change the flight date so the ticket could at least be cancelled, if necessary by paying a cancellation fee of 20%. If I did get the visa, I could take the later flight. If not, cancel and make alternate plans.
During these past several days of trying to meet the embassy imposed requirements for a visa I had been communicating with Marcel at the Hotel Ideal in Yaounde. His visiting brother-in-law works for the Cameroon embassy up in Madrid and they assured me this contact would guarantee expedient processing of my application. However, after a half dozen Skype phone conversations and as many desperate email messages I saw no behavior at the embassy suggesting any sort of special favorable treatment after mentioning this sponsorship.
The next morning, Thursday I dashed over to the Cameroon Embassy a few minutes before it opened at 09:30 to be first in line and was told to take a seat and wait. I pointed out I needed to be at the airline office to change my flight reservation by 10:30 in order to avoid forfeiting the fare. The reticent visa processor kept telling me to be patient that the Charge de Affair was working on visas and she should soon have the passports. Frankly, given her track record for deception I didn’t trust her and finally told her I had run out of time for dealing with the airline ticket problem and would return in an hour to deal with the visa application. As I left she repeated the “be patient; your visa will be here soon” refrain.
Catching the Metro and making a single transfer to reach the airline office, I arrived well before the deadline and explained my dilemma to the very helpful, English speaking Royal Air Maroc agent who questioned me further and then pointed out she could on her own authority delay the processing of the alternate reservation set for the 10th of December and give me three more hours to complete the Cameroon visa transaction. If I got the visa, she could get me back on the flight scheduled for that afternoon.
So, back I went hopping Metro trains to the Cameroon Embassy where to my amazement the visa agent recognized me as I walked in and held up my passport with a pathetic smile. I grabbed it without a word and stormed out, heading back to the airline office where the various record changes and new ticket printing were handled expediently. Admonished to hurry as I needed to be at the airport three hours before the flight time I thanked the RAM agent sincerely and headed back to the hotel for my already packed bag and a quick checkout followed promptly by a long Metro ride to the airport. I made it with plenty of time before the flight; good thing, too. The Madrid international airline terminal is spread out with rail connections among the various windows, lobbies and departure stations, the most distant taking 23 minutes to reach from the check-in window for Royal Air Maroc!
Both legs of my budget Royal Air Maroc flight obviously appealed to people on limited budgets… like me. Rowdy, uncivilized and arrogant, this noisy load of passengers would win no contest for politeness. People communicated by shouting in several languages, some of which I couldn’t identify. (Africa has hundreds of unique tribal languages known only to members of the tribe, most of which are rapidly being replaced by French throughout central West Africa.)
Everyone seemed to be toting cargo and the overhead storage compartments soon filled to overflowing. Some inconsiderate passengers with way too much baggage shoved other passenger’s possessions out of the way to make room for their stuff. The behavior of an arrogant couple in seats near mine I found utterly disgusting. I’m sure some of the passengers were flying for the very first time in their lives. The passenger announcements first in French, then Spanish and finally English could not be understood. Delivered as a rapid fire chant with no thought to intelligibility, I wonder why they bothered… other than to formally meet FAA safety requirements.
The eight and a half hour flight to Yaounde down from Madrid including an hour layover in Casablanca, landed at 03:00AM. As we approached the capital city of Yaounde I expected to see city lights on the ground like in all other major cities I’ve approached at night. Here in Cameroon I saw almost no lights until we had touched down on the airport runway and even there it mostly appeared dark.
Immediately off the plane we were accosted by a health officer who demanded to see our “yellow cards” proof of immunization against Yellow Fever. I had buried mine deep in my pack and scurried around looking for a clean place to hold the pack while I rummaged through the contents looking for the card.
A large banner sign hung over the arrival area announcing in English: “December 9 is National Anti-Corruption Day!” I suspect the purpose was to impress the foreign tourists who have been reading horror stories about rampant corruption in West Africa.
With the health officer satisfied, the immigration formality took only a few minutes and there were no customs formalities at all. One quick rubber stamp in my passport and I was belched out into the hungry hoard of people waiting for arriving passengers. As escape to outside of the terminal did not seem to be an option at this hour I ducked around the barriers looking for someplace to hide from the mob for a while. With three hours to kill before first light I wandered the arrival area where everything still remained closed. Except for people meeting arriving passengers and the ever present taxi drivers and touts immediately after our arrival the terminal showed little life.
Our flight had continued on to Douala after an hour layover for continuing passengers. I'd hoped to use the waiting time for more research on the country, but the airport has no WiFi service. In any case, lighting discouraged use of a laptop as some of the florescent lighting tubes were out... possibly a default energy conservation measure. This is a very basic airport: just a place for arriving and departing international passengers: no restaurants, though there were rental car, travel agencies and money changer offices, all closed in these wee hours.
My hope of finding an ATM at the airport for some local cash proved way too optimistic for this little Third World country. As soon as I had discovered what passed for the entrance to the departure area at the top of a still running up escalator I located the two lonely metal “park” benches in the waiting area and hunkered down to sit out the few remaining hours of darkness. Using my soft backpack as a pillow proved adequate and though comfortable enough didn’t allow for anything like real sleep. While dozing, one of the uniformed security officers approached and questioned me in English about my plans and asked if I needed any help. I assured him all I needed would soon be provided by the rising sun. Satisfied, he smiled and left.
Every now and then I got up and looked around to see the few other early bird passengers waiting for the sun like me, a couple dozing on other metal park benches down on the first floor arrival area. Then I saw her: a female security guard in plain clothes carrying an automatic weapon like a combat soldier! Boy, did that make me feel safe! In any case, she soon moved out of sight and out of mind. The loud hubbub of chatter slowly subsided as passengers and transportation people dwindled until all became still for the few of us still waiting for daylight.
At 05:30 vague silhouettes of things outside the terminal started to materialize and the sun soon made it all visible. A few minutes before 06:00 I ventured outside to see which direction vehicles might be going. The center of the city appeared to be about seven kilometers due north of the airport on the map I’d studied on the Internet. The actual distance turned out to be more like twenty-five kilometers!
In the gathering light I found myself walking a wide highway through a pastoral landscape fringed by jungle vegetation. At this dawn hour few other people were up, but there were a few. A couple of “shared cabs” slowed to see if I wanted to fill an empty seat; I waved them on. Some young guy left the airport walking shortly after I did and seemed to be following me so I crossed over to the other side of the road. He stopped and waited… and then hailed one of the few cabs trolling for passengers at this early hour. I crossed back to the side with the sparse traffic going my way. After I’d been walking less than a half hour I saw what appeared to be a pile of trash against the guardrail on the shoulder directly ahead on my side.
As I got closer I could see a shoe hanging from the pile and projecting out onto the highway pavement. Wary, I slowed my pace to study the anomaly and soon realized this pile of rags had human form. Now, extremely cautious I studied the still form until it clearly took the shape of a human being, a young man of perhaps 25 or 30 lying with eyes closed in an unnatural crumpled posture and not moving… not even breathing as best as I could tell from twenty feet away. Then it dawned on me: this could be the lure to bring victims close enough for an attack and I stopped in my tracks to consider the situation and appropriate options.
If the fellow were hurt, possibly the victim of a hit and run accident in the dark, he might need help. If he were dead, there would be nothing I could do and without the ability to communicate in French any effort might just further confuse the situation. Then I remembered the other fellow who had followed me out of the terminal and realized others would soon be coming down this highway into town and would be better equipped to deal with the poor fellow’s problem, whatever that might be. So, after snapping a quick picture I crossed the highway again to avoid getting any closer to the body, alive or dead and walked on… glancing back for a while to watch for any change in the scene. My guess is that the guy, possibly drunk had staggered onto the highway in the dark and been hit by a speeding car… or maybe he just fell down there drunk. Who knows? Later I discovered my picture so blurry as to be useless.
These first hours of walking into a new country are always exhilarating. Everything is new and my fresh eyes gobble up tiny details. Soon, children with backpacks like mine on their way to school began to join my trek; some walking the same direction and “talking” to me, others going the opposite direction. One little girl of about ten walking alone toward me carried a smooth stone the size of a baseball in her hand, for protection I speculate. You just never know about the intentions of these white skinned, white haired rascals prowling the early morning streets where only locals are supposed to be.
A couple hours into the walk I came upon two young men who spoke perfect English. In addition to confirming my walking direction they pointed out the true distance I had yet to go, though I refused to believe them at that point. They also told me something of the history of their country and that quite a few people speak English due to the fact part of their country once was a British colony.
After four hours of walking the hilly road toward the city center I felt tired and thirsty, but without any local cash could see no obvious solution. Then, a couple young people at a small mom-and-pop grocery store convinced dad to do a currency exchange to allow me to buy a large bottle of CocaCola. While I rejuvenated with the traveler’s best friend, the kids revealed that in my four hours I had only walked half the distance between the airport and town and should consider taking a cab the rest of the way. Confessing my ignorance of the French language and my dislike for taxicabs because of the opportunity for misunderstandings, they offered to negotiate a ride for me. I still had about 5000 CFS from the currency exchange and they arranged transport to the banking area of the city for 2000 CFS, about $4. The cab trip took over a half hour, so it became clear just how much further I would have needed to walk. The taxi driver conquered the impossibly heavy traffic and dropped me directly in front of the CitiBank.
Most cabs in Cameroun are “shared,” meaning people jump into any one going their way and the driver adjusts his route as requested destinations change. Fare for a shared ride is usually 200 CFS, about 40 cents. When I want a cab to myself the fare is generally 1000 to 2000 CFS ($2-$4). The problem is that it is hard to see if a cab is empty as the black faces of passengers blend into the dark shadows inside the cab. So, I miss flagging some of them. Cab drivers are extraordinarily aggressive, dashing into any available vacant crack in the jammed traffic. What I consider impolite, they accept as the only practical way of navigating the impossibly heavy traffic of this city.
“What good luck,” I thought as I marched into the CitiBank while pulling out my CitiBank cash card. To my questions about the location of the ATM machine I got blank stares from the tellers. “We don’t have a cash machine here; in fact we don’t do any sort of cash transactions for customers at all! You can find a VISA ATM across the street.” So now I know: my MasterCard is useless for getting cash from my checking account back home as it had been in previous trips. Well, I did still have my VISA card and that had worked last time I traveled Africa, though I hadn’t used it for that purpose for a very long time.
Across the street, sure enough I found not one, but four VISA ATM machines in adjacent banks. At the first bank I discovered the machine didn’t like the PIN number I’d been using for the MasterCard and I knew better than to enter more than one wrong number. I’d made that mistake ten years earlier in Egypt and the machine had “eaten” my card on a Saturday causing a travel delay while I waited until Monday for the bank to reopen in order to retrieve my card. So, I went to a second bank and tried the MasterCard PIN again with the same result. Now what?! Neither card is working and I’ve only got about $800 total cash in US currency.
As I walked thinking about my dilemma I remembered the reason for changing the MasterCard PIN number and realized the reason didn’t apply to the old VISA card. Rummaging around I found my thinking cap and pulling it firmly down over my ears let the gears turn until I remembered the old PIN number I’d used in the past. Far from certain I’d located the correct number I decided to try it at yet another bank ATM. Wonders of wonders; the machine gulped my card, whirred a bit and spit out 100000 CFS in crisp new five and ten thousand CFS notes. Wow! I’m rich again and saved from destitution in a strange foreign land. O.K. The 100K is only about two hundred bucks, but it felt like a million right then!
Readers of my previous confessions might recall a reluctance to use taxi cabs as several bad experiences in the past and many conversations with my brother who owned a cab company convinced me how easy it is for a cab driver to take advantage of naive foreign tourists. Also, jumping in a cab for every little distance robs one of opportunities for exercise and deprives one of close encounters of the human kind with the natives. So I walk a LOT! However, this first taxi experience here in Cameroun has changed my mind, at least for this country.
Yaounde has grown without any obvious city planning, so finding my way around has been a challenge. Tired and ready for a shower and nap, I wanted to find the Ideal Hotel as soon as possible and my sponsor, Marcel. So, I asked a cab driver to whisk me to the hotel. The problem is the Ideal Hotel is VERY small and the driver had to check around with other drivers before heading out. When we reached the designated area it became obvious why few people know the location of the hotel: it is very small, more a motel and is located behind some tall buildings.
Inside the hotel office a French speaking receptionist had no reservation for me or even any vacancies and Marcel was nowhere in sight. However, she soon found a note Marcel had made for my arrival and called him. When he got there he pointed out he had reserved a room for me in an adjacent hotel with air conditioning. As he walked me the twenty meters from his hotel and the Hotel Clamantis he pointed out we were now in the very center of the city with many foreign embassies nearby and directly across the street from the colorful central market… which operates on land owned by his family.
The Clamantis is hardly luxurious and the 35,000 CFS ($70) room rate seemed high for what it offered. I’d planned to rough it in his hotel for a few nights, but the advertised room rate for the Hotel Ideal is less than $20 per night! The next day I went hotel shopping anyway and ended up only spending two nights in the Clamantis. During that shopping spree I found the Hotel Laginaque not far from the American Embassy with quite nice rooms for about $50. However, by the time I returned to check-in only a $100 suite remained free… and I took it for the next two nights. Of course the shopping continued and next took me to the Hilton for a consultation about good value hotels in this nicer part of town.
After four days of hotel hopping I finally settled on the Jully Guest Quarter, a four star, ten room, out of the way guest house recommended by Hilton concierge as being in my price range and of good quality. At 60K Euros (about $123) including breakfast on the covered patio, it is indeed an excellent value by African standards.
In order to reach the Hilton I needed to get through a mobbed street market. Wary of the obvious dangers of wading into a crowd like this I could see no other way to get to the other side, but directly through it. Carefully navigating my way among the milling humanity I spotted a break in one small gathering and started through just as two guys rushed to fill the gap, sandwiching me between them in a way I couldn’t really avoid. I later humorously characterized this strategy as the Oreo Cookie finesse: the white stuff sandwiched between the two dark cookies.
As they brushed passed me I felt a hand in my bulging front pocket and immediately slapped down in time to foil the attempted snatching of my bulging wallet containing my bulging passport plus credit cards! At the same time I started yelling “Robber, pick pocket” and pointing at the miscreant, following him a short distance. Only one guy took notice of my fuss and asked if anything was missing.
Later I realized few people would have even understood what I’d been yelling and that in the future the better alert would be something in French! The other guy squeezing me on my left side simultaneously “brushed” my flatter right front pocket containing about $180 in crisp new five and ten thousand CFS notes, but didn’t actually get a hand in the pocket. Fortunately I’d had the foresight to move my fat wallet from the back pocket of my jeans to the less vulnerable front pocket or this note might have been even more exciting.
Before checking into the Jully Hotel the first day I taxied over to the Gabon Embassy to submit my visa application complete with the 50,000 CFS fee for three day processing and a single photo. The middle aged woman accepting applications spoke only a little English, but her good humor and helpfulness made up for the awkward language barrier. After all the contentious encounters with the Cameroon Embassy people up in Madrid, she actually made me feel like I might be welcome in her country. If all goes well, the Gabon visa should be available this Friday, 9 December… Cameroon’s National Anti-Corruption Day. We will see.
The adventure continues.
Fred L Bellomy
PS: KodakGallery has been unavailable much of the time
so I am way behind on processing photographs. I’ve taken
a lot of pictures, but most are still sitting in my
netbook waiting for a more capable Internet connection. Not having access to my photographs is
aggravating, but this is Africa!
Central West Africa map.
Yaounde Cameroon 2011: Pool in the garden behind the Jully Guest Quarter located in an obscure neighborhood not too far from the Hilton Hotel where I learned about it.