I’m in Cameroon, on a last-minute trip. I was supposed to be here two weeks ago, but the Embassy drug it’s feet (my visa photos were slightly too small, they said; I only submitted one application form – as required per their stated requirements – not two. Oh, and I should get a letter of invitation notarized by the police….). So, the visa was actually issued after the date of my departure, after I had canceled my flights from Paris to/from Douala. And the visa would expire after one month. I used the round-trip flights to Paris to visit ministerial colleagues and other members in the UK, France and to spend a Sabbath in Switzerland.
Considering the trouble and the arbitrariness of the process at this time, I decided I’d better use the visa while I could, I wasn’t sure I could easily get another. So only about 4 days ago, I bought tickets to come to Douala, and threw some clothes and a Bible in a suitcase.
Thursday was departure day. The first obstacle arose quite soon, at DFW Airport. The check-in agent looks at my passport and my itinerary. He stares at the screen in front of him. “It says here no one is allowed to travel to Cameroon from here” he tells me. I told him there was a great deal of contradictory material on various Cameroonian government websites, but as I had a valid visa, that was permission from the government to enter the country. “I need to get more eyes on this, please wait” he tells me. I wait. He calls more experienced agents over to look. They are perplexed. The agent picks up the phone and calls a supervisor, who suggests several things to try, back-doors into the system. After 10 minutes on the phone I hear my agent say to the phone “hey, that’s a good trick, that one worked.” He hangs up and smiles at me, “OK, we found a solution, I can check you in.”
The flight takes off half an hour late, but we make up the time. I change planes at JFK in the
evening and in Paris the next morning, I slept about four hours, not too bad. The connection at CDG was a little tight. On the six-and-a-half-hour flight from Paris to Douala, I was seated next to an English-speaking woman originally from Cameroon, who was traveling on an American passport. This was the case of many passengers. I ask her where she was from. “I was born in the English-speaking part of the country, but grew up in the French-speaking part” she told me. She was going to visit family members for two weeks at the beach resort area of Limbe. I have been to Limbe, it’s one of the nicer places to go in Cameroon, right on the ocean. Not an international destination, just local.
She asked me if I had trouble getting a visa. She knew the country and its systems. I told her my story of last-minute travel. She said “hmm that means you probably had to pay more for your tickets?” I told her that was true. “It’s not good what they do” she said simply.
We finally arrived yesterday, Friday, in the late afternoon.
The arrival process was unpleasant and rather arduous. Stepping from the plane into the heavy tropical heat, we had to show our boarding passes to Air France personnel. This is meant to prevent an ongoing passenger from entering Cameroon illegally (next stop Malabo, Equatorial Guinea – big oil deposits – on an island off the coast of Cameroon). Why anyone would want to enter Cameroon illegally, I have no idea. Most of the people I know here, at least the younger of them, would love to find a way to leave.
Next step, enter a departure gate lounge area transformed into a health screening center, and wait in line to show proof of Covid vaccination. I must fill out a form about my health status and where I will be for the next few days. I wait in a disorderly line, where people are pushing and shoving and cutting in front of others, whenever possible. Finally, the nurse takes down my information and stamps my form. I go out of the waiting lounge and enter another line. In a corridor of fortune health workers sit at desks. We must all have Covid tests.
When my turn comes, I sit at a desk and she takes my form, then sticks the swab up one nostril and places it in the text vial. I may go. I walk down the long terminal corridor, turn a corner and arrive at the other health desk, where I must show my Yellow Fever vaccination card. Then I may get in the immigration line. It is very hot. There is no ventilation. These large room were constructed on the idea that there would be air conditioning, but there is not. No windows may be opened, no air currents may relieve the heat. So, we sweat while we wait in line. When my turn comes, I smile at the agent and wish her a good day. She doesn’t look at me or respond. She looks at the visa, it passes muster, I breath a silent sigh of relief. She points for me to look at the camera on a small wand, and take my glasses off. Then I must place my fingers and thumbs on an electric reader. Finally, she stamps my passport and I move on to the luggage carrousels.
Here there will passion and high drama. In spite of how long it has taken us to arrive here, we still must wait for the luggage to begin arriving. People have very small space envelope expectations. Several have not bathed recently enough. They are used to pushing and shoving to get what they need. It’s not impolite, it’s the world. People push empty luggage carts in the crush so they’ll be well-placed when their luggage arrives.
When it does finally begin arriving, the poorly adapted nature of the system become immediately apparent. An Airbus 330-200 can carry anywhere from 200 to 400 passengers depending on seating arrangements. The flight was full, so I’d estimate there were about 250-300 passengers on the plane. Most of those passengers have more than two suitcases, my observation would be three or four per person. So somewhere around a thousand suitcases are arriving on a very short luggage carousel, a third or a quarter as long as one would find in a Western Airport.
The belts will not stop moving, so the luggage began piling up and blocking others as they come around. The ground staff is not sufficiently numerous, and don’t seem particularly motivated, so passengers began jumping in, literally, to help. Some jump on the belts, some on top of the carousel, and began pulling or pushing blocked suitcases. The ground staff began shouting for them to stop and get off, either because it’s dangerous or because they’re afraid for their jobs, probably the latter. Angry passengers shout at the staff and at each other. Two men must be restrained from coming to blows. Suitcases fall off the Carousel onto the floor. A wall of people shoulder-to-shoulder next to the belt, blocks the view of those behind them. Heads bob this way and that, trying to get a glimpse of the belt. Sweat drips from our brows and soaks our clothing.
The suitcases come in batches. When each new batch arrives, the pile-up and the passion rise again.
As I watch, I think, “If I could get this on Youtube, it would go viral; I could retire early from the revenu stream (not that I would). But if I started recording, the police would intervene in a few seconds.
Will my suitcase arrive? It was a rather short connection in Paris…. Air France lost my suitcase twice in the space of three weeks in the Fall…. Then, toward the end of the third batch, my suitcase appears, rivulets of water running down its sides. It is not raining outside; the moisture can only be condensation that formed when a cold metal suitcase met heavy humidity. No matter, it is here!
I roll my suitcase and rollaboard toward the door. One more obstacle: a unformed airport policewoman indicated I must put them through a luggage scanner, but that passes without incident. A few more steps and I am finally in Cameroon, and quit of officialdom for a few days.
I negotiate a taxi outside; the driver asks for twice the going rate. I tell him I’ll pay 5000 francs like usual. He agrees. He’s a chatty fellow, hoping I may provide more business for him during my stay. He asks if this is my first visit to the country; I tell him I have visited many times. He asks me, in all seriousness, how many children I have in Cameroon. My reply is that I have no children in Cameroon. Many foreigners do, he tells me, he knows one Chinese man who has 10 children with various mothers. He comes to visit them. What a world, actually it’s the same old world it has always been.
We arrive at the Ibis hotel and check in just before 6:30 pm. It’s been a very long day.
In my room, I finish my weekly member letter and send it to the mailing list. Then I call Marjolaine to tell her about my day, she knows Cameroon well too.
Then a bowl of soup and a glass of wine in the restaurant, and I will finish my day.