Pictures coming soon.
Batoula-Bafounda/Douala, Cameroon, Africa.
Cotonou/Ouidah, Benin, Africa.
We left early, but not as early as we had planned. I jammed things in my bag…So many new clothes made it difficult to fit in a carry-on, and I had brought rubber boots that I never even used while we worked here. The drive was an obnoxious 6 hour ride, dodging potholes and people and overturned trucks and other cars that were dodging potholes from the other direction. The air-conditioning didn’t work, but the windows down made it loud – especially as we passed through denser populations. Motorcycles always add to chaos in the cities. Toll booths give just enough time for women and children to shove handfuls of bananas, bottled water, peppers, and other foods into our windows in hopes to make a sale.
We weren’t able to get lunch, and we had hardly had breakfast. I was dead thirsty; the air wasn’t helping. I could sterilize sink water, but I threw out my plastic bottle I had been saving since I bought a drink in an attempt to reduce the amount of things I had to carry. When we finally reached the airport in Douala, we pushed through the hot and humid air to find the check-in counter. Having a duplicate passport is such a pain. I have to try to hide it as much as possible, especially since I almost got arrested upon arrival. It’s not “illegal” per se – it’s just Cameroon, and bribes can make anything suddenly “illegal” if there’s hope of scoring some foreigner’s money.
My carry-on back was way over weight. On the way to Cameroon, the Benin airline really didn’t seem to care about anything at all. Cameroon, however, is just so damn corrupt – worse than Benin. I was told I had to give up things. I feigned crying and like I didn’t understand French. A poor lady tried to translate for me, but I knew exactly what was going on. It worked, because the guy said angrily “JUST THIS TIME!” and let me through without a bribe and with all of my stuff. It was good, because I had absolutely no Central African Francs (CFA) left to pay for a bribe or for an overweight bag. All I had was 10mil for my exit fee (yes, we have to pay to leave the country – GRR).
Just when I thought I was golden, past customs and past the first security checkpoint, I encountered another checkpoint: the Cameroonian police. I got all angry at them and demanded why they would check my bags a second time. I knew what was coming. The police officer snatched up my nearly full bottle of nice shampoo. It wasn’t a problem on my other flight, but he insisted “no liquids” (neglecting the other liquids and aerosol cans, of course). He looked at me like I was going to take a bribe, but I really just felt like slapping him. I was about to degrade him in French but I knew this might end up putting me in a situation where I would be arrested and need money to pay my way onto my plane. At this point, I was completely alone again. I couldn’t risk anything. I just cursed him under my breath and acted like it was funny that a man with little hair wanted women’s shampoo. I left with the rest of my things and sat in the air-conditioned waiting room for my flight.
It’s funny in other countries how different personal space is. Normally, sitting in a remote corner means you expect privacy. Here, people were just regarding an empty chair as an empty chair. They’d sit right next to me as have no issues with bumping legs or having their bag more in front of me than in front of them. The airline company was much nicer to me than the police, though. I had asked the scanner man a question about the police, but his English was too poor. I asked again in French and, relieved, he answered that the first checkpoints are strictly Cameroonian police and that the airlines (this was Camair) have their own. Weird systems. I guess heightened security is a payoff for slightly nicer accommodations. But this is still Africa. I just hope Aminata knows to get me tonight.
As I sit, I start thinking silly things, documenting my days and trying to be philosophical. I’m realizing how much writing is like plowing snow bank that comes over your head. You can’t see ahead, but you can plan. No one else can get where you’re going until you plow through. Even if you hand over the shovel, someone else won’t necessarily take the same path or at the same speed. If you walk away before its done, voila…a draft. Unfinished and not very purposeful but yet somewhat inspiring despite its incompleteness. I continue thinking about writing while I ride the very empty plane high over Nigeria. I hold my breath for the landing…And we land…And, okay, so everyone just clapped because we landed. Like, stood up, whooped, and clapped. Did they expect us to crash?? Sadly, it is probably likely on a Camair flight. Flying records on African planes aren’t exactly the safest. I’m just glad that’s over with.
Aminata had been waiting when I got my bags and climbed outside, somewhat familiar now with this airport. She said she’d been around, and said something about the driver getting sick. It took a while to pick her out because she was reading and not standing with a sign as before, but she wore bright orange traditional clothes and her pretty face isn’t hard to recognize. She has a very Cameroonian look to her, round features with a flatter forehead and petite nose profile.
We walked from the airport and talked quickly in French as I followed her, but we were angrily drawn back by army police guards. We stood and waited as they brandished their guns and directed each other with motions in the air. After a few minutes, a storm of black cars and important looking people surrounded by police bikes shot out of the gate to the left. Aminata said the president of Benin was just arriving from Canada. We were finally allowed to go, and Aminata commented on how good my French had gotten in just two weeks.
We passed a man and she paid him to take my bag. I got upset until I realized we didn’t have a driver and she had just bought the zems to take us to the taxi area. In other words, he was paid to drive us so this was just part of the deal. We climbed on the back of two motorcycles with my bag balanced and zipped off through the city as we have now done so many times before. She also paid for the taxi. I guess it was part of the program fees. We pulled into the familiar taxi area and fought past throngs of people to find a decent haggled offer back to Ouidah. Motorcycles with goats tied up over the laps of drivers swarmed around a caravan being loaded with goods. A goat was left bleating on the roadside, tied up, while traffic roared past and its people were distracted.
We had a fairly comfortable ride for once after a rough loading time and watching goats flail things while all tied up land crying like kids (ha!). When we got back, Aminata left quickly. The guy had dropped us off right there because we were all from Ouidah. I ate leftovers from my free meal that day and noticed how wiped out everything was, apart from a few food items I had locked in my closet before I left. This was strategy because I knew I’d be broke. There was no wine left, no Ryan. No radio, even, which was his. I quickly indulged in some books and wound down for the night. I couldn’t believe how happy I was to be in this apartment, in this dusty city, in this strange country – here in the same spot with the same people I had hated waking up to Christmas morning just a couple weeks before. Ouidah suddenly felt like home. I was falling into a rhythm here, and loving the people despite all of their peculiarities.
This once scary place – this STILL scary place – suddenly felt like home.