The long arrival in Cameroon
Trip Start Feb 13, 2011
30Trip End Mar 14, 2011
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Today was a travel day as tomorrow will be as well. It's not always easy to get between any two given cities on this continent. To do so sometimes requires flying all the way across Africa before connecting to a flight that will bring one back to the desired city, which may not be that far away from the departure city, as the African crow flies. Or, I sometimes wonder, perhaps that is the way African crows actually fly…..
I had to change my schedule after the initial booking, to take into account decisions that some members here had made. Some changed their minds about wanting a visit. It was no longer necessary to stop in Douala, Cameroon, but to avoid losing a non-refundable ticket, and having to purchase another one to boot, I still had to route through here on my way to East Africa. So this morning at 9:00, I took the hotel shuttle van to the airport for the Virgin Nigerian flight to Douala.
The waiting area was not air-conditioned and the windows could not open so there was no movement of air. It was hot. It was the first time I sweated through my shirt. It would not be the last. The check in counters opened about two hours before the 11:20 flight. Formalities went quickly, though our passports and boarding cards were checked seven times before we actually boarded the plane. I found a partially air-conditioned departure lounge where I could wait and read and dry out. When it came time to board, we had security guards rifle through our carryon bags on tables just outside the airport building. Then we had to use the rather ridiculous bus system that has taken over many African airports, in order to reach the plane. The 737 of Virgin Nigerian was about a 60-second walk from the gate. But rather than walk, we all had to load into a bus, cram in tight, and wait for those behind us to go through the security check and get on the bus too. When finally full the bus drove a long figure-8 route with wide turns to bring us to the plane. It took the bus much longer to get there than it would have taken us to walk. I’m not sure who thought up this arrangement, probably a government official who owns stock in a bus manufacturing business.
As we boarded the plane which was already half full, it was clear there had been seating problems. Passengers were arguing, with each other and the flight crew. Finally a stewardess announced in Nigerian flavored English that it was now open seating; we were just to take any free seat.
The 90-minute flight left more or less on time and went smoothly. We touched down in Douala a little before 13:00. Not too many passengers deplaned, so I hoped and thought things would go pretty quickly. I showed my Yellow Fever card at the health counter to show I had been vaccinated (a requirement to enter the country) and moved to the immigration desk. When my turn came I told the agent I was in transit and needed a transit visa to spend the night in Douala. She kept my passport and ticket and told to go get my luggage and to walk out of the airport then back in the departure door, passed the check-in counters to the departure formalities area and there I would find the transit visa desk. This course traced a large circle and brought back very close to where I had started, except on the other side of a wood and glass wall. African crows again.
I recognized the waiting area. It’s where I was held for a day and half several years ago while several officials were trying to shake me down for a bribe to grant visas that we had every right to have. Here I was again. Several other expatriate travellers were already waiting there, that was not a good sign, and the transit visa cubicle was unattended, closed and locked. One Asian fellow was nodding off on the metal benches. It looked like he had been there a while. A group of four Americans, mission workers, were passing the time cheerfully. A French Canadian businessman from the Montreal area was there too; we all wanted transit visas. We noticed an encouraging sign the cubicle: “The transit visa is free.”
After a few minutes a uniformed official walked around the corner with our passports and tickets. As our turns came, we had to point out the information to him on our tickets: “here is my flight, the date, the time, the airline”, while he filled in a form. Then he got out the all-important stamp and ink pad. People here live and die by official stamps on all sorts of documents, travel passes, driver’s licenses, birth certificates, marriage certificates, and yes, certificates of death – all are made official by a rubber stamp and a signature by someone important. Nothing was sure until the stamp went in my passport. They might think of some reason to delay and not give me the visa, even though I had every right to it.
I may be wrong but I think we toyed with me a bit: he inked the stamp and found an empty space on a passport page. He prepared to stamp, held over the passport, then frowned and put the stamp down and leafed through the passport again. Then he inked the stamp again and held it over the empty space, then looked up and talked to a passing colleague, and set the stamp down again. He prepares a third time, then mutters a comment about “the boss” – should he stamp it or not…. He puts it down again. I try to look bored, if you look nervous or frustrated, you might be ready to hand over some cash to speed things along. I wait. Finally the stamp meets the page; he has stamped my passport it and signs it too; I am safely into Cameroon for the day and night. Mais non….
The transit visa must also be counter-signed by a chef, a chief (we think of a chef being in the kitchen: that comes from the French expression chef de cuisine, “kitchen chief”). We are told that there is only one chief on duty who can sign and unfortunately, even though he is on duty, he is not here. Our passports go in a pink folder to wait for the chief to arrive, whenever that may be. We sit and wait and read and talk. And we look at the sign: “The transit visa is free.” After an hour I decide to go upstairs and have lunch at the airport restaurant. I had planned to lunch at a favorite restaurant down by the river, but it will be too late to do that now.
I carry my bags up the stairs. The restaurant has one small air conditioned room which is full. The rest of it is very hot. I sweat through my shirt again. Once one is completely soaked, the heat is much easier to deal with. The waiter brings the menu. It has four items on it, a choice between two first courses and a choice between two main courses. I ask him what the Mount Cameroon Salad is. He replies that it is lettuce, maize, mango, papaya, pineapple, and he lists several other ingredients as well. I tell him that sounds good, I’ll have that. He says “sorry we’re out of that.” OK, I guess I’ll have the other one then….
All the expats are in the restaurant eating and killing time until the Chief arrives. Eventually we go back downstairs where it is less hot, and continue waiting. Finally about 15:45, after a wait of about 3 hours, the Chief shows up and we get our free transit visas counter-signed!
I took a taxi into the Ibis Hotel which I usually use in Douala. I thought back to my first trip here 15 years ago. So much has happened since then. I may not be coming back after this short stopover. I’ll miss people; I certainly won’t miss the mismanagement and the corruption.
For dinner I took a taxi over to the Hotel Meridien, the first place I stayed on my first trip to sub-Saharan Africa in 1996. They have good wood-fired pizzas that can be eaten around the pool. I have many memories associated with this hotel.
Back at the Ibis, I found they had no Internet access, and my television didn’t work either. So it will be a quiet evening. Tomorrow is going to be one of the longest hardest travel days on this trip.