Day 1 (June 16, 2010)
It’s hard to describe the exact atmosphere of Cameroon as I’ve perceived it so far. Upon arrival at the Douala airport, the mass lines with little direction quickly emphasized that things were run differently here than they were in the US (or even Europe from the brief times I’ve spent there). The baggage claim area, though always slightly disordered in its own right, was lively chaos. As I walked in, three conveyor belts were churning out luggage as crowds scrambled to retrieve them. The far conveyor belt was particularly overzealous and a pool of luggage had accumulated at the end of the line, each bag being shoved over by the one behind it. I was confused for a bit—though indeed everyone seemed to be moving around and talking at once, no one seemed to be moving to clear the mass of bags that constantly grew. I quickly spotted my yellow Wake Forest Rugby bag and began to navigate my way through the crowd of bags, stopping occasionally to regain my balance after being bumped and jostled without any apparent concern or notice.
When Robert and I had both secured our luggage, we decided to take on the infamous customs process (Or shall I say adventure? Perhaps ordeal would be more appropriate). It was difficult to know where to begin. Though there were clearly two separate doors to the outside Cameroonian world, one marked “Customs—Nothing To Declare” and the other “Customs—Goods To Declare”, we weren’t sure how to proceed. The doors to the route of no declaration were closed and a solitary customs officer (I assume? He wore no uniform but his nonchalant demeanor and his apparent obligation to remain in that same spot for over 20 minutes suggested some sort of authority) sat there, staring blankly at everyone. The other door, however, was open and before it stood several (uniformed) customs officers opening and inspecting luggage. Did all these people have goods to declare and thus the search? And what exactly was I supposed to declare and how should I declare it?
Before I could resolve any of these questions, another officer wearing a third uniform approached me.
“What’s in the bag?” He gestured towards my backpack.
“A computer…and some books” I replied. A curious smile crept across his face.
Ugh, did I just declare incorrectly?
“Do you want to go through customs”
Of course not!
“ I have no problem going through customs…I have nothing to hide”
“Yes but if you go through customs they will open your bag…”
I thought I just told you what was in the bag anyway…
“Why don’t you follow me outside” he continued, beginning to walk away towards the door. “Come with me, you won’t have to have your bags searched.” Not one to argue with authority (which I suppose isn’t actually true but I certainly have a lot more reservations with it when I’m freshly arrived in a new country) I followed him outside where happy Cameroonians were being reunited with their friends and family. I was being picked up by a man, Levi, who had exchanged emails with me and informed me that he would be picking me up and taking me to Genesis’ home. I began to scan the crowd looking for him when the officer tapped me on the shoulder.
“Alright…” he began in a very innocent voice, “I’ve helped you out now. Now you help me out…what can you give me?” Ah, here was the infamous bribe at last. Sadly neither Robert nor I had managed to get any US Dollars converted into the XAF currency used here. The officer didn’t seem to mind when I offered up that excuse. Broke, I turned to Robert, hoping he had brought cash. As he dug around in his bag, another man began to shove us to the side to make way for more people. At this point Robert began to shove bills into my hand before diving into his bag to look for more.
“How much are you trying to give him?!” I asked incredulously.
“I’m trying to get $50.” I counted out $20 in my hand already and forced the rest back into his bag. Surely the officer could not have expected $50 for his help. I handed the $20 to the officer.
“That’s all we have” The officer looked at it and started to shake his head, very disappointedly, almost angrily. At this point I saw a man with an upside down sign that read “Turner Robert”. Upon recognizing each other (he saw me staring and beginning to point at him) he bounded over, apologizing for his lateness. Somehow some more men (whom we would later have to pay as well) materialized and offered to help carry our bags to the car. It wasn’t until later that I realized that Levi knew them about as well as I did.
The car ride back to Buea theoretically takes 1 hour and 30 minutes. This, to me, must only occur under divine intervention. The roads in Cameroon appear designed to create the best possible situations for a car accident short of leading two one way streets into each other. There are no lines to determine how many lanes fit to the road and often times there are no lines to separate the cars going one way from the other. Roads criss-cross into one another or rapidly condense from 5 lanes down to one (the source of a very hot hour-long delay). I’ve drawn below some of the perplexing road designs. In spite of this, the locals were masters at navigating the roads and avoiding seemingly inevitable collisions. It helped that 70% of the vehicles on the road were motor bikes of some kind, weaving in between cars and even driving on the sidewalks. My driver, Russel, seemed to take no notice of most of these bikes that we encountered, frequently squeezing them out of the road while taking no apparent notice of the honks and screeches from the angry commuters now behind him.
At some point I must have fallen asleep because I woke up as we were pulling down a very bumpy path that led to Genesis’ home. It was very dark at this point. I thanked the three gentlemen that had helped us as they left and turned to find a white male about my age (who quickly introduced himself as Adam), a white female perhaps a little older (who later introduced herself as Sabrina), two girls (young and screaming), a girl about my age as well (whose name I’ve already forgotten how to pronounce), and an older woman whom I assumed was Genesis’ wife (and whose name I promptly forgot as well). Everyone was very friendly and showed us to our room (which is pretty good) before returning to watch Uruguay punish the South Africans in a 3-0 World Cup loss.
I’ll talk more about the room and the people later; I’ve only just been introduced to both. Adam, I will note, plays rugby! He’s from an area “about an hour south of London” and plays for both his university team and his home club.