Pictures coming soon.
Ouidah & Cotonou, Benin, Africa
Douala, Cameroon, Africa
I got ready this morning and finished packing. I tried to pack so that I had valuables I really wanted, but packed it in a way that I thought would survive police wanting to confiscate it. Everything else that I didn’t need (excessive dresses, gifts for the orphans in Ouidah, cooking food, and extra money) I locked up inside one of the closets. I told Aminata this and asked if I should take the key or not. She said yes, good idea, and I was surprised that she clearly wanted my things to be safe. I guess there’s just a different interpretation of things that are left out. Here, left out means abandoned. Locked up means Don’t touch.
A car pulled up and I believe it was Aminata’s husband. We jumped in and left Ouidah for the airport in Cotonou. I was nervous, but glad to be with people I knew in the trip. Besides, this project was the whole reason why I signed up for everything else. Once at the airport, I was way too early. Aminata hugged me and said I would be fine, just go inside. I was ridiculously nervous to have to deal with customs alone and in French. France is one thing, but Africa… their accent is horrendous and their humor doesn’t usually amuse me. I stood for a very long time before I was finally let inside. Then I waited in line to check in and was denied. I had to sit for an hour before they called me for my flight. I had only a carry-on, so I was able to pass through fairly quickly.
At customs, I showed my passport to the guard. “Where is your visa?” he asked in French. I flipped through the pages and pointed to it. “This is for Benin. Your plane ticket says you are going to Cameroon. Where is that visa?” I hesitated a moment, then frowned. I reached into my bag and pulled out a second passport. “I have two,” I explained to him. “Because I left the USA before my other visa was finished.” Surprisingly, he nodded and waved me through. The next set of guards weren’t so professional, though. They told me repeatedly how “belle” I am. “You’re very pretty, are you married?” one asked. The other grabbed my passport from his hand and said, “Why you leaving me? I say you stay in Cotonou, marry me. No? Why won’t you stay?” The first guard grabbed the paperwork back from the second and looked at it closely. “Kah-lah…Day Volt, ahh, very nice!” I started to walk away, shaking my head and reaching for my passport. “Ahh, come back soon!” “I’ll be back in two weeks!” I said, taking my passport and heading to security.
I went from a casual professional at customs, to funny jokesters at the checkpoint, then straight into the jaws of a dirty security official. As I pushed my bag through the scanner, I kicked off my shoes and turned to the detector. “Attend,” he said, telling me to wait. With a very stern face he said, “Ta robe?” I stared at him blankly. I knew what he said, but I stared because I didn’t believe him. In French, he said, “You have to take off your dress, too.” I didn’t reply. I was both angry at his joke and terrified he was serious. Messing with African officials is never a good thing. He kept repeating himself and I saw a slight smile. “Non,” I refused, waving him off, and marched through the detector. He was cracking up. The other women were just shaking their heads as they ran checks on my bag. Shoot, my toiletries. Everything was in the bag. The alarm went off. There goes my shampoo, I thought. But all the woman did was read the label and shrug. She put it back and I hightailed it out and straight into the open hands of another guard asking for money.
“Pourquoi!?” I asked Why, exasperated. “Je n’ai vraiment RIEN!” I explained that I honestly had nothing. And I didn’t, at least not in his currency. We argued a couple minutes, then I shoved past and into the waiting room. It was at that moment that I realized speaking French was not in my favor. The oblivious, dumb, little girl doesn’t get so much trouble because no one likes dealing with her. I pulled out a book that I had borrowed from the compound and started reading it immediately, ignoring everyone around me and eating a Cliff bar from my bag. The waiting room was a bunch of chairs facing glass windows and two TVs at the front, a mirror image to the waiting room across the hall. For being a capitol city, this airport was extremely small.
I watched a little of the TV while waiting; it was African acting in French and absolutely hilarious. The acting is horrible and the humor is ridiculous. This particular episode had a family joking around with one cousin dressed in a large diaper, cooking yams. The joke was they were trying to get another cousin to eat exuberant amounts of the giant, tasteless tubers grown in that region. Usually they’re smashed into something more edible. I was amused that African TV was making fun of one of its very own staple foods. Then the men started bickering with the women and one man started chasing his wife and beating her with some branches. Domestic violence is not an uncommon thing in this region, so, once again, I was impressed by the African sense of humor and how they will laugh at themselves.
When my plane finally arrived, we were walked to a bus which took us in a loop around to the planes in front of the building. We climbed the stairs like celebrities. I was surprised by how empty the plane was. Boarding didn’t take long, and soon we were in the air. I got a meal and beverages, so I chose wine. The flight attendants were brightly dressed locals with very polite French. As we flew across Nigeria, however, the turbulence got so bad that we had to ascend higher than I probably ever have before. I developed quite a headache, but soon I looked down and could make out a lot of green shores and deltas. I had been nervous about taking an African airline, but seeing Cameroon closing it made me feel better. “Well, after all that trouble,” I thought, “Even if this plane goes down right now, I can say that I at least made it.”
We filed off the plane relatively quickly and were hit by hot, humid air. The terminal sides were open to the outside air unlike at Cotonou, but the airport itself was much larger. I walked for a while before finally arriving at customs. I once again had to pull out my two passports. I was nervous, but the ladies checking our documents didn’t really care. Soon I was off to find my ride outside, glad that all I had was a carry-on and a book bag. I turned my phone on and it automatically switched to a Cameroonian service. I waited until I had woven outside, then I sat down on my suitcase along a wall outside and called the number I had been given for one of our local connections, Guy.
It was nearly impossible to hear him. After a few tries, I established that he was still an hour or so away from the airport. Frustrated, I sat down and guarded my things aggressively until an hour had passed. People were pouring around me with the arrival of each plane. A crowd would form outside to hug people walking out. It resembled a mob and had police trying to contain the crowd. After over an hour, I texted Guy, worried I wouldn’t know who he was. He texted me back after some time, saying “try not to be scared” and “I’m coming as soon as I can”.
Just then, a Cameroonian policewoman started my way. She had just reprimanded some other people who were milling around. She walked up to me and asked, in French, “What are you doing here?” I briefly explained my situation. “Give me your papers,” she said. I pulled out my Yellow Card and, reluctantly, my Cameroonian visa. She had already asked me which flight I came on, so I knew what was next. “Where’s your Beninoise visa?” Slowly, I reached into my bag and pulled out my other passport. Still sitting on my luggage, I passed it up to her. She snatched it up like a teacher stealing a note in class. “What is this??” she asked, so I tried to explain. “No good, no good!” she said. Oh, my god, I thought. This is when I get arrested. “You can’t do this, not in Cameroon!” she scolded me and shook her finger. She had bright red lipstick on and I realized how powerful she was, even in an African country. It was the first woman I’d seen in power since I arrived on the continent. “You can in the US, and I’m American…” I tried. “No good!!” she shouted, then lowered her voice. “No good! You come in Cameroon, you have two passports, you get arrested!” she shoved the passport I used in Benin back into my hand. “Put this away, and don’t ever take it back out! Not until you leave. It doesn’t exist. And you need to leave. Soon.” She walked away to another group of people.
I was shocked that having two passports was going to pose such a risk, and shocked that she was willing to cover me for it. I also didn’t understand why I couldn’t sit along the wall to wait, but I decided not to draw attention to myself by lingering any longer. I got up and pulled my bags back through the lobby of the airport and looked around for a shop or a restroom. Every step of the way, I was being chased down by men I didn’t know, shouting, “Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle!” and asking me to wait so they could help me with things I didn’t ask to have help for. Two men in particular started fighting over my attention. I gruffly retorted, “Non, merci!” and decided to march back outside where the police were keeping things in order. Guy texted me that he was extremely close, so I stood closer to the wall. A male officer offered me a chair amongst the police force. The others asked him why I was there, but he explained after I told him, in French, my situation. Before I knew it, a man who was obviously Guy was standing in the crowd, wearing a Lamarc polo, and waving over at me. I was easy to pick out.
The rest of the evening was spent by Guy and I waiting for the others to arrive on a delayed flight. I was literally at airports all day long for a short international trip. I met a few more people at the airport who were from the village we were visiting in the mountains. Amongst these men was Paul Dennis from the water committee who also teaches at the local school. He tried his English with me, but it was horrible. I told him to stick with French.
When my friends finally arrived, I was relieved that I could now lie and say I flew in from Paris so no one would ask for my Benin visa. How would they know when I actually arrived? We loaded up our van (which had come from Yaounde and was the cause of Guy’s delay). Not only did we have luggage, but enormous crates of equipment for our project. Only Kate H., Ryan, Amy, and Eric arrived today, I was told, so Emily and Kate J. would join us the next day. In other words, I was the only translator for at least 24 hours if not more. Also, because it was so late coming in from the flights, we didn’t have enough time to make the 4-6 hour trip north. It was already almost dark and dark is when the bandits and highway robbers come out, Guy said.
The crammed ride into the city of Douala was not unlike the rides I’d had so far in Benin, but it was the first time to Africa for all of my group members except for Kate H. I told them a lot of stories and they asked a lot of questions on the way to our hotel. When we finally arrived, I was surprised that we each got our own room. I thought our budget was tight. The rooms were the nicest rooms I had seen yet in Africa, so I knew the price was steep. There was a large bed with somewhat clean sheets, a TV, furniture, and a bathroom that was the typical open room where the shower throws water all over the floor. I dumped my things in my room, locked the door behind me, and hurried downstairs to meet the others for dinner. I hadn’t had a real meal all day. The hotel made us chicken dishes, so I requested just rice with sauce and extra fries. They also gave us a drink called Malta, an energy drink by Guinness. Guinness is one of our sponsors and they have a large division in Douala.
I had to take all of the orders and translate until Guy joined us. We insisted he share our drinks and have a meal, thanking him for all of the time he was taking off of work to assist our project and be our guide. We weren’t sure where Paul Dennis and the others went, but we suspect our driver Elvis slept in the van overnight. When we were done eating, we went upstairs and got ready for bed. I was afraid of my sheets, so I slept on the cleanest one and pulled my bath towel over me as a blanket. I refused to touch the pillow case. There was something about Cameroon that I just didn’t like that much, so I was acting more peculiar than usual. It didn’t help when I looked up and saw an enormous cockroach dodge behind the furniture. I took my malaria pill, flipped on TV5, and fell asleep to French humor. I slept miserably between the dry air, the cold temperature at night, and the mosquito that flew into my ear at around 3AM. And thus began the next two weeks of my life.