This is the journal of my visit to Cameroon and Kenya.
I took all of these pictures. Most of them link to very much larger versions of same. Suitable as desktop images.
Chicago, USA : January 16, 2007
Take me to Africa! That's what I said at the airport check in. I like saying that. Maybe I should say it more often.
I'm in Chicago, in transit from Las Vegas to Cameroon, by way of London and Nairobi. The total travel distance is well over 10,000 miles. My British Air flight doesn't connect very well with the only flight from Nairobi to Douala, Cameroon so I'm going to spend a little less than one day on the ground in Nairobi before my Kenya Airways flight across Africa's middle. After three weeks in Cameroon I'll return to Nairobi and stay at Mount Kenya for another three weeks before going back home to Las Vegas.
I'm visiting friends in each country. Why else would I be going to "the most disease-ridden place on the planet?" The doctor at the county public health office was speaking of Cameroon when he asked me about that. He has immunized me against Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A and B, Tetanus, and Typhoid. I'll start taking daily Malaria pills when I reach Cameroon. But he told me they've got lots of diseases that don't even have names yet.
Speculation about how I am most likely to die on this trip has been rampant for weeks. Besides the diseases, there's also that situation over on Kenya's border with Somalia. The Somali government is being propped up by Ethiopia and together they're driving out the radical Muslims. It's a little disturbing that they're driving them in the direction of Kenya. So now Kenya's military has mobilized to defend the border and keep the Muslims radicals out. Maybe they're doing a magnificent job. Maybe they're not. All I know is the Somali border is only a little over 200 miles away from Mt. Kenya. So I might get beheaded on CNN - if I'm still healthy enough.
There's a travel advisory on the U.S. State Dept. web site regarding Kenya.
Seems that crime is totally out of control. So maybe I won't even live long enough to worry about getting sick or taken hostage!
But there's good news too. When I get to Cameroon, I'll be the guest of my friend Rob at the U.S. Embassy. Rob looks after America's business in the city of Douala. I'm sort of a guest of the Embassy. That is probably good, right?
And when I get back to Kenya then I'll be the guest of my friend Iris at the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy. She's been there for about 35 years. Iris doesn't have status as a diplomat but she sure has lots of experience with Africa's ways.
I'm in good hands in Africa! And as an added bonus, Iris has arranged a driver and a hotel for me during my overnight in Nairobi. Somebody is standing at the airport in Nairobi holding up a sign with my name on it. I'll get there in about 24 hours so his arms are probably going to be real tired.
It's an overnight flight to London so there won't be anything to see. But London-Nairobi is an all-day flight. I'll get to see Europe and the Sahara Desert from the air from my window seat! So I must try to sleep on the way to Heathrow.
London, UK : January 17
I won the British (Airways) Lottery! The flight was only about 1/3 filled so I got three seats all to myself. I arrived all rested and refreshed. It was glorious. It's early morning in London and I feel like I might stay up all day easily.
The flight to Nairobi leaves in a couple of hours, and then I arrive at 9:20pm after gaining another three hours. 11 hours time difference from Las Vegas.
Swiss Alps : January 17, 2007
Lightening doesn't strike twice. My 747 is filled to the rafters with a very diverse set of passengers.
We flew over top of some unremarkable English and French clouds earlier but now we're in the Alps. Oh! This view of the mountains is fantastic! And it comes complete with scattered picturesque mountain villages. At some point, these become the Italian Alps, which are just as good. Only I can't help thinking that probably there ought to be more snow here in January. Global warming?
On out over the Mediterranean. There's still too much cloud cover to fully appreciate the famous shoreline. Rome is a little ways off to our left. I'm looking right and we pass Malta. I sure do appreciate these GPS locater displays. How else would I know with confidence that I'm looking down at Libya? Sudan is next. Very creepy country. By now the sun is setting and there isn't really anything at all to see. But now I can say that I've sort of been to Sudan. Yikes!
The sunset is a fiery red in the direction of what my GPS display informs me are the Darfur Mountains. Hell on Earth is just a little ways over in that direction.
Nairobi, Kenya : January 17, 2007
I didn't stay awake all day after all. Never seriously thought that I might. I've been napping on and off all through the 4000 mile flight. There are some big fires burning in 'the bush.' From up high and in darkness, they look like lines or circles of orange light. Not much else going on in the way of a nighttime view. I'm asleep again when we slam into Kenya and I let out an involuntary YELP. The Americans next to me laugh and smile and I'm embarrassed. It really was a hard landing though.
I think the airport is better than I expected. In Johannesburg we had to walk down the stairs onto the tarmac, which is fine for a presidential photo-op but is a little retro for the rest of us. Here, we got the usual sort of entry directly into the airport. First stop, buying my visa.
Most peculiar system. I pay $20 for a transit visa this time. I'll pay $50 when I come back. There doesn't seem to be any point to these exercises other than to generate revenue. And the money is just scattered all over the guy's desk. I might have thought that all this money could have bought at least a cash drawer. Visas can only be paid in U.S. dollars. With Bush working so hard at crashing it, I can't help thinking they might have to switch over to Euros before long.
It takes a while for a filled-up 747 to disgorge all its luggage so it's not very soon before my bag appears. Interestingly, there are large glass windows between us and the workers who are taking apart the big containers and transferring the bags onto the belts. I consider that there is probably a direct correlation between this glass and the fact that my bag shows up with everything intact. (In Johannesburg, the unions have successfully had the cameras and other security devices shut down, with the result that much baggage is now stolen.)
First stop, the little banking station. The teller is behind glass, and eating his dinner. I pass him $60 and he passes me me five notes with the number 1000 on them, plus a couple of coins.
I walk out with my bag and nobody bothers me to match it up with my claim ticket. Security here seems mostly to be a matter of keeping the mob outside from entering the luggage area. Mob is a harsh word and there are a lot of arriving passengers on this flight. But still I can't help being disappointed that there is a veritable SEA of signs with people's names on them! I'm dazzled and it takes me a moment to decide to go at this systematically from one side to the other to find my name.
My driver is a woman with an easy laugh and passable English. She takes me outside and tells me to wait while she goes for the car. I notice a sign that urges arriving passengers to take an official taxi ("for your convenience and safety"). Who knows what the unofficial taxi drivers are up to. Several times I'm invited to get into one of the cabs but I decline. Thieves or not, they're all very pleasant.
Nothing very much to see on the way in. My driver's name is Pauline and she tells me she owns this car with a partner and, between them, they drive it 24 hours a day - all day, every day. I'm impressed! I ask if she would like to bring me back to the airport tomorrow, and she says yes.
Looking at the city, I say to her that I regret not having read more about Kenya before coming here, but I've been so busy working. She tells me that things are good in Kenya, no complaints. The government is doing a good job. Wow! Maybe she is kidding but she seems sincere.... but then she mentions the police sometimes arrest people for no reason. Then I suddenly remember what is the biggest news from Kenya. Barack Obama. She laughs and recalls his visit here last year. The junior senator from Illinois is treated as a rock star in Kenya, reported the New York Times, and Pauline's reaction to hearing his name seems to bear that out.
My hotel looks all right. It's got a restaurant. The place is not at all scary, and not lavish either. It's just exactly right. Before she takes my bags from the trunk, the driver hands me a large envelope with my name. Iris has left me something.
I notice that Pauline's car has a cell phone number printed on the side, and I ask her if she's got a card. No card. She'll write it on my envelope. That works. And there is a room for me, which Iris has paid in advance. The driver takes note of my room number and we agree that she will be back for me at 5pm. All set.
While I'm filling in the registration card a very pretty girl in a frilly party dress strikes up a conversation with me. I can be so slow at times but I do catch on, even if a bit late, and then my registration card begins to demand my undivided attention. Finally, she leaves, but in doing so she sort of twirls so that her dress brushes my hand. I am much too involved with my hotel registration to look up.
Inside my room (alone) I dig out my converter plug - British to U.S. - and turn on my laptop. No Internet. I'm sure the hotel's web site mentioned Internet. I call the desk and they tell me that it's off for the night. "It will be turned on again at 8am." There has been very little strangeness up to now so this wins the prize as the strangest Kenyan thing so far. Why in the world would they want the Internet to be shut off at night???
My package from Iris contains a personal welcome letter, a Globetrotter series guide to Kenya, a small book How to be a Kenyan, a magazine called TN - Travel News from East Africa, and a road map of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
I open my patio door, which faces the back. It's about midnight here and I listen to peculiar jungle-ish noises. I'll see about that in the morning. I make sure my patio door is shut tightly and locked.
I shower and get into bed. It's been a long time since I was able to do either of these.
Nairobi, Kenya : January 18, 2007
I wake up at 5am local time (It's 6pm the night before in Las Vegas). Too early for Internet. Too early for sunlight. African birds are going nuts in the trees outside. I feel all rested and refreshed - again. We'll see if the energy and wakefullness lasts a bit longer this time.
The restaurant is very cozy. I like it a lot. I'm the first in for the buffet. It's got a veranda on three sides and has some kind of openings in the roof so that I can hear the sound of the birds with full force. I comment and the maitre d' seems to apologize for them. LOL. It wasn't a complaint!
I think of my last African buffet, at Sun City in South Africa, and I wonder if we're in any danger here of being overrun by hungry monkeys.
Seems that breakfast is included free with my room. So I leave a 100-whatsit note, as a tip. I have no idea if that's too much or too little. (Surely it must be one or the other.)
In back of the hotel / restaurant is dense foliage. That's where the birds are. It's very nice. And right inside the city, too! There's a bar here that looks out onto it all. This hotel is a very comfortable place.
On the way back to my room there is a lizard walking along the wall. Fine, just as long as there are no snakes!
I think I should probably just stay in the hotel all day and catch up on little bits of work, in between naps. I wish they would hurry up and turn on the Internet!!! And I'm expecting calls from both Iris and Rob. I feel like another nap now.
Grrr. Now I learn that I must come down to the office to plug in my laptop for Internet access. Better than nothing, I suppose. I pay 1/2 day to remain in the room until my ride to the airport so I figure I'll nap. And read my new Kenya books! Iris calls during one of the naps. We have little to talk about because she's already read my journal to this point!
She is down in Mombassa on the Indian Ocean today. She's much closer to Somalia than me and all is quiet. I'm to be comforted knowing that the Somali Muslims are not causing very much trouble anyplace in Kenya and I am unlikely to be murdered on CNN. I'm not actually worried about that, just amused that my friends are fighting over how to divide my travel insurance payout when I'm dead.
Iris says she only wants to inherit this journal, which is fine. Iris also reports that there being an international conference going on this weekend in Nairobi, the police will have deployed extra undercover police. This causes the criminals to back off for a few days and so I will probably make it out of the country safely.
And Iris urges me to get to the airport in plenty of time because Kenya Airways is notorious for deliberately overbooking. Nairobi traffic at 5pm is likewise notorious and if I'm late then I'll be out of luck.
So, first I call Pauline. The operator must place this call for me so I do it from the lobby. I ask her to come at 4:30 instead of 5:00 and she agrees ...I'm pretty sure. It's difficult to understand her clearly. Then I call the airline and they tell me I need to be there not two hours early but three hours early. So now I need to call Pauline again. I ask the nice lady at the hotel lobby to please talk to her, figuring they'll speak in Swahili or something and it will go more easily. But they speak English.
Only now they're abruptly disconnected. The clerk says, "Pauline hung up on me! I wonder why she did that." I laugh and say, "Well, it's a cell phone. I think she was just cut off. This happens to me all the time in Las Vegas and I'm not surprised there, so I'm sure not surprised here." Pauline calls back, and gets cut off again. The clerk insists, "She hung up again." Whatever.
Maybe I'll just take the hotel's own taxi - but somebody needs to tell Pauline not to come in that case. She waited for me 45 minutes at the airport last night. I'd rather go with Pauline. Three hours early for a flight is just ridiculous.
At lunch I'm seated near a couple that's in a room across the hall from me. He looks Dutch. She looks Kenyan. I imagine him to be a retired mercenary or hit-man on the run from Interpol, and she is his sex slave. Something rough about them both, and not quite right. And some exceptionally well-dressed Kenyan men - either businessmen or government officials; and probably corrupt in either case. Maybe this is an underworld hangout ...or maybe I'm just influenced by the Jeffrey Archer novel I'm reading at lunch.
I end up taking a hotel cab to the airport, after my hotel clerk finally is successfully able to speak to Pauline. I notice there are no stoplights, and barely any discernable order to the movement of vehicles and pedestrians. Seems to me that stoplights would help matters but my driver seems to think this is fine the way it is. He points out the national capitol building on our left and the very nice Uhuru Park on our right. He tells me that 'uhuru' means 'freedom' in Swahili.
At the airport, Kenya Airways annoys me further by requiring me to check both my suitcase and my duffle bag. Up to now, I at least had a few things in the duffle bag in case of any mishap (lost or stolen luggage). Now I've got nothing but my laptop.
I've got nearly four hours to kill. I walk, I read, I nap, I window-shop. I wonder at the other people hanging around, including some Japanese, a Scotsman wearing a kilt, and some Pakistani soldiers in uniform - all of whom seem to me seriously out of place.
I look up from my book as a flight arrives and there is Archbishop Desmond Tutu with a small entourage. We nod at each other and smile. I never actually liked this guy but it's still a pretty cool thing to look up and, surprise, here is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. I could boil down my issues with him to just a few questions, but it doesn't seem quite the right time to ask them them of him.
Tutu has got some explaining to do, concerning his overly simplistic view of Apartheid as pure evil and the ANC as pure good - ignoring the fact that all during Apartheid black people were fleeing black governments to get into South Africa while those same black governments fancied themselves the 'front line states' standing up to the pure evil that Apartheid is purported to be. And now the ANC has got the country run by some shockingly stupid and corrupt government ministers, and the president speaks warmly of the lunatic Robert Mugabe who has systematically destroyed neighboring Zimbabwe. Not only is his simplistic black and white world view deeply flawed, it's also not very Christian. The Nobel committee did a better job in choosing Martin Luther King who was far wiser in dealing with similar issues.
I can't find a sign displaying gate assignments so about an hour before the flight I ask at the Kenya Airways counter for my departure gate. Gate 4. At Gate 4 they're actually leaving to Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam and I'm told that I belong at Gate 9. At Gate 9 I need to do the whole metal detector thing in order to enter the waiting area. I guess they're not very confident about being able to secure the airport as a whole so they do each set of passengers as they board. Only as soon as I'm inside secure waiting area, they announce that the flight will now depart Gate 4 after all. Sigh. When I go back to Las Vegas, maybe I should wear metal-free slippers, and do without my belt, and give away all my coins to beggars. I'm getting tired of dealing with metal detectors.
As I settle into my seat on the plane I notice the luggage handlers are carefully noting the number on every single bag as it rolls up into the plane. Seems that Nairobi Airport is especially careful and I appreciate that! The flight to Douala stops 40 minutes in Yaounde, Cameroon, the capital; and is otherwise uneventful. It's a night flight and I'm asleep most of the way. Only interesting thing is they say everything in both English and Swahili. And it's disturbs me they keep referring to the pilot as Captain Crunchy.
Douala, Cameroon : January 19, 2007
I normally don't stand up until the movement of traffic in the aisle has allowed me to actually begin to move but I realize this is an exceptional situation because I'm in the very front of the economy class and the business class in front is near empty and most of these people are not getting off here. So I can be first!
Leading all the other passengers, I walk down the ramp to the tarmac and I've already got a bad feeling. It's dark and dingy and very un-airport-like. I'm directed to walk under an overhang and up some steps into a building that looks like a long-abandoned dilapidated warehouse which only days earlier has been restored to any semblance of usefulness. This place is an extraordinary mess! I wish I could take pictures but (1) somebody might think that I'm a terrorist plotting to blow it up, which is hilarious, and (2) besides the place is much too dark for picture-taking.
Unexpectedly, Rob has sent his regular driver for me. I've heard about him. Rob relies on him a lot. I forget his name but he's holding a sign with my name printed on it. (And here, just by the way, I am the one and only passenger greeted by such a sign!) He takes my passport and goes to speak to the officers at the head of the passport control, and poof I'm special again and we are passed through to the (horrible looking) luggage area ...where both my bags soon appear!!
Customs opens the larger of the two bags and looks inside for not quite one entire second and then we're let outside into Cameroon. Bags are locked in the car and we go back. By this point I'm a little confused but it turns out Rob has arrived someplace else in the airport and we're all going to meet up with the visa officer. Normally, you're supposed to get your $100 Cameroonian visa before arrival into the country but it's possible to get one issued at the airport under certain circumstances. Besides, the visa-issuing officer here turns out to be a friend of Rob. And Rob's driver frequently greets officials here like they're his best friends. Members of the U.S. Foreign Service are strictly forbidden to engage in bribery but there is no law against them being very, very friendly with the people who are in a position to make your job either easy or difficult. Everything goes easily and I get my visa stamped into my passport.
Rob takes me to his house, which is not very far. On the way, I notice that the highway is of surprisingly good quality. The house is in a wealthy neighborhood. Rob has told me that this is one of the most expensive cities in the world, for 'ex-pats' - Number 25 in the world. I don't know if anybody understands the reason why it's so expensive. Rob mentions how much the U.S. government pays annually to rent this house... but I'm reluctant to repeat the amount here. Douala is the commercial capital of the country and the largest city, and Rob is the only American Embassy official posted here.
As when I visited Rob in Haiti, there is a gate and a guard. He honks and the guard looks out and lets us in. The house is very big. and the backyard and pool are enormous. Rob has official parties here for a couple of hundred people at a time so it's a good thing it's big. My room is at the back. There are metal grates on all the windows and my bedroom door is of steel which I am advised to bolt shut at night. There is a mosquito net over my bed. Rob suggests that there is not really any reason to begin taking anti-malaria pills until after I get my first mosquito bite.
Yaounde, Cameroon : January 19, 2007
Despite my countless many naps yesterday, I have slept soundly until it's time to wake up early and drive to Yaounde. Maybe by now I'm adjusted to the 9 hour time difference!
The meetings in Yaounde mostly concern the two American schools in Cameroon. Rob is working at getting greater cooperation between the two and so we collect some passengers who represent the Douala school and we set out. It's about 150 miles and we travel in a 9-seater SUV.
First thing everybody remarks on, in the early morning, is how bad the dust and sand in the air has become. It looks like fog but it's actually what's blown in from the Sahara Desert. Nasty. (How exactly a rain forest finds itself located so near a desert is something of a mystery to me but I let that go.)
Traffic is better than usual, they tell me, and it hardly ever comes to a complete stop. There is a lot of commerce going on beside the road, and when traffic slows a lot of it spills out into the road, with young people waving all sorts of things available for sale. We buy some bags of nuts and some bananas. Both are excellent - tree ripened bananas are a lot better than those you get in an American grocery store (which are always picked green).
I'm horrified by the slabs of beef - or perhaps more likely Bush Meat - hanging in the open near the side of the road. Cameroonians seem to have very little appreciation for the problems caused by germs. Rob mentions that we're passing an area that was recently hit by a bad outbreak of Cholera, with hundreds dead. And right away, there is a river. You mean there is cholera in that river right there? Yes. If not now, then recently.
The people insist on believing that if only water is clear then it can't cause them any problems. And they ridicule anybody who says differently as being "too white."
Sounds like the root of their problem may be education. We pass lots of children in their school uniforms. I comment that these kids would not make it in Haiti, where the school children dress astoundingly well. No Haitian parent would allow these children out of the house dressed like this. (Every other thing in their lives is horrible but Haitians always dress well for school.) And we pass a school which looks to me like a poorly-maintained barnyard. I must try to get a picture of one of these schools.
Leaving the city, we enter a sparsely populated jungle. There are some beautiful views here. I notice a lot of logging trucks. They each carry just three or four thick trunks. I'm sure they're extremely valuable rainforest hardwood. Probably coming from the Central African Republic, Rob says. In Cameroon, logging is very restricted and that explains why the rainforest is looking good here, at least from this highway. No problem of deforestation - which has pretty well destroyed Haiti among other places. The logs are being taken to the big port at Douala.
I ask about eco-tourism. It's not big here. There is a brisk trade in 'bush meat' here. They'd sooner kill their wildlife for food than to invite foreigners to pay to admire it in its natural state. Unfortunate. Besides, they've got that gawd-awful airport which also stands in the way of tourism. Basically, nobody comes here except in circumstances like mine - visiting somebody who works here.
It's a dangerous road and we frequently see signs indicating "3 morts ici" or even "27 morts ici." It's only the one winding lane in each direction most places. Rob says it was supposed to be built as a much safer divided highway, with two lanes in each direction but when it was opened then everybody was surprised to find that half of it was missing. Government ministers stole the other half of this most important highway in the country, and so crippled the economy for years to come.
Yaounde, Cameroon : January 19, 2007
All along the way from Douala we have passed a big blue bus about every half hour. Rob is thrilled by each and every one of them. The busses are made in China and operated by an American company. Each bus has a stewardess who serves snacks and drinks, and the buses leave every hour on the hour regardless of whether they're full or not. Passengers are even required to wear seat belts. Besides improving links between the commercial and political capitals of Cameroon, they're a significant step forward here toward a more orderly society.
(Haiti has no busses, not even any cabs. Public transportation is handled solely by a bizarre system of privately owned pickup trucks with passenger seating in the back, and this poor system is among a large number of reasons why that economy never develops.) This new bus system is of world-class quality and Rob is excited for me to see the bus station in Yaounde. It's on the edge of the city, as busses are not allowed in the city center, which seems to us like a mistake.
We make our way to the U.S. Embassy passing the French Embassy, which is very plain, though big. The Canadian Embassy is so little that I barely notice it even when it's pointed out to me.
A little later we see in the distance where they're building a new mansion for the president, up on a hill. And after turning onto the street where the American Embassy is located, they're building another mansion for the president's wife. Separate bedrooms, okay, but why does she need a separate mansion? Rob says a lot of people wonder that but since, officially, the mansion is being built "with her own money," officially, it's not really anybody else's concern.
The American Embassy is quite marvelous. Definitely the most beautiful building that I've seen here. It was built to the highest security standards following the East Africa Embassy bombings. Some of us have got security badges and some of us do not, including me of course. But I trade my passport for a visitor badge and the Marines let me inside. Actually, it's a private security company, Wackenhut, that handles the outer perimeter and the Marines only handle the inner sanctum, behind the blast doors.
Rob needs to visit the little store inside the embassy where staff can buy familiar American things tax free (including Captain Crunch cereal). He oversees it, although he lives far away and seldom visits here. A little odd, but I guess it doesn't need much supervision. The manager seems to be doing a fine job. Then Rob is off to meeting #1 of the day and the rest of us go to one of the embassy's guest houses where I take a nap. But first, we pick out our rooms in this big house. I get a déja vue. Our small group wandering in an unfamiliar big house... it feels like the beginning of any number of horror slasher Hollywood movies. (Everybody stay out of the close-ups and, whatever you do, don't have sex. You have sex and you're doomed to an immediate and gruesome death.)
Rob wakes me for lunch, which is meeting number 2. It's at a Russian / French / Italian restaurant called Salsa. Strangely named, but it's fantastic. It's in a garden with a good view of the national parliament on a hill. I remark to the Cameroonian woman seated next to me that I hadn't expected such luxury here, that my friends figure I'm probably eating monkey brains or something. She says there are world-class restaurants in Cameroon, especially back in Douala.
During and after lunch there's a lot of talk among the 13 people at the table about how the two American schools need to more closely coordinate what they do. There are over 300 students in the two schools. Tuition is very expensive. About 1/3 of the students are Cameroonians, including the president's own son. Americans send their children here so that they'll be easily able to adjust back to an American school when they're posted back home. Others like the American schools (which are located in most countries) because it puts kids on a good track to acceptance at an American college, and these typically include both children of diplomats from anyplace and children of local elites. (Diplomats have their tuition paid by their home governments.)
Leaving the restaurant, I genuinely admire the avenues and the hills. There clearly has been some considerable degree of city planning here. With not very much more effort, Yaounde could be well on the way to being spectacular. The only really strange thing is the great troughs along side of the road. They're about 3 feet deep, and appear dangerous. They're needed during the rainy season, when it rains so much it makes you just about go mad (according to all reports I've heard). Happily, this is the dry season. I kick myself repeatedly for forgetting to bring my camera along on this outing.
One of Cameroon's problems is that in order to buy off assorted regional and tribal interest groups there are currently 55 ministers in the government. We pass a lot of government ministries. My favorite is the Department of Scientific Research and Innovation. I can't imagine what they're doing in there.
Similarly baffling is the government ministry concerned with the well-being of albinos. Rob says there are lots of them here.
We're going to drop some people at the American school. I'm surprised by the soldiers with guns waiting outside the gates. Yikes! But they say it's nothing. It only means the president's son is inside. At the gate the guards (both local and presidential) inspect our SUV for explosives.
We need a few things for the house, including drinking water, so we stop at a big grocery store. In Haiti, a store like this would have two or three guards outside with shotguns but there are no guns in evidence. What is exactly the same as Haiti is the Arab owners in an office area that looks down on the checkout area and the exit. Arabs have been expert merchants for thousands of years, and they've taken their skills to a lot of remote places in the world.
The prices are outrageous - and recall this is not even the expensive city. Rob waves a little cheapo coffee maker. How much in the USA? I venture, "$12 at Walmart." Here, it's $40. Most of the country's tax revenue comes from its import duty and that shows up here. 'His and Her' Presidential mansions don't come cheap.
Back at the house, I intend to take another quick nap but, unfortunately, I sleep about 6 hours and wake up at 11pm. This jet lag thing is going to take some more time.
Yaounde, Cameroon : January 20, 2007
I love the sound of the jungle birds but that dove right outside my window is really bothering me. Despite that, I'm sleeping a lot. I wish I could get firmly onto the West Central African time zone. At least I don't seem to have any mosquito bites yet. This house didn't come to us equipped with nets. But we're at much higher elevation here so possibly malaria is rare here.
A sore throat is bothering me too. Everybody says it's normal, on account of the Sahara Desert. And I cough up dusty flegm every so often. The dust is less here than back in Douala, where we're going today. I hope they have more seasons in Cameroon than just the relentlessly pounding rainy season and the Sahara dust in the air season.
On the Road : January 20, 2007
Near Death in Africa - Experience #1
Backing up slightly, I didn't have Internet back in the Yaounde, the capital. The U.S. government house we were using didn't have it installed and the Japanese ambassador next door has - very thoughtlessly - secured his wireless Internet so that I couldn't use that either. But the pictures I took from the moving vehicle on the way here were surprisingly good so on the way back I was taking lots and lots of them. We even cleaned the windshield so that the forward-facing pictures would turn out well.
I'm happily taking lots of pictures of jungle on my right, and people and other things up ahead of us. En route between the two cities there are three toll stops. Each of them costs 500 of these Central African currency thingies, which comes to about $1.00. You pay and you get back a receipt from the person dressed in bright orange standing in the street. Because traffic slows here, there are also lots of people selling things (nuts, bananas). At the second of these stops, I'm holding the camera on the dashboard in front of me and taking some pictures of the scene when this young man begins shrieking and waving and pointing and chasing us.
He catches up to us when we stop to pay the toll and he is unbelievably furious about the camera. He is perfectly hysterical. The toll-taker joins in, saying something about the camera, and there is somebody else on the other side of her who's got his face in the window and he seems to think the camera's a very bad thing, too. I was just totally stunned, speechless, confused - and a little alarmed (even inside our solidly built V8 powered SUV).
Rob quickly gives up on his insistence that the toll taker give him his receipt and his 500 in change, and drives away. He figures she was just taking advantage of the opportunity to resell the receipt and also keep his change. The equivalant of $2.00 goes pretty far around here.
This pattern of behavior is familiar to everybody in our vehicle, but I get the feeling that this particular incident is above average in its intensity. Nobody has a clear idea what is the cause of it. Maybe they only want to be paid for the use of pictures of themselves, but that doesn't seem to account for this kind of wild-eyed intensity. More likely, it's religious / superstitious. I remember an old Tarzan movie - could have been the original - where the natives are fretting that photographs steal people's souls, or somehow reduce lions to paper replicas (removing them from the world). I forget the details of how that worked. Whatever the fear exactly, I had no idea it still existed - and with so very much force!
Have I mentioned previously that there are no tourists here? One can easily see why. A single headline like "Tourists Torn to Bloody Bits by Angry Mob for Crime of Taking Pictures" would put a complete stop to any little bit of tourism in a real big hurry.
For most people living in ordinary countries, I think SUV's are the height of irresponsibility. But I sure appreciated our government issue tank today!
There are dangers everywhere in Cameroon and I think this proves that, try as one might, one cannot reliably anticipate and avoid all of them.
Douala, Cameroon : January 20, 2007
After dinner we go out to a local restaurant / bar / bakery called Havana. It would be considered a classy place anywhere, and especially here. The manager is a Lebanese friend of Rob's. Conversation seems to keep coming back around to the trouble with Cameroonians. Rob likes them well enough but not nearly as well as he liked Haitians. And we all laugh at stories of how poorly treated the customers used to be under the previous management in this place. Rob claims that one time he came in and sat down and the waitress just sat there staring at him angrily in the apparent hope that her open hostility would compel him to leave and she wouldn't have to do any work.
This conversation was prompted in part by our observations after asking our waitress for an Amarula with Kahlua. First, she makes clear her disapproval of my order (presumably simply because she never heard of it before); then when I offer an apology for my poor French she agrees that it's poor with rather impolite promptness and certainty; then she comes back and tells me they are out of both Amarula and Kahlua. Her manager jumps in at this point and tells her that's plain wrong and she should not be so lazy and just go and get the bottles from the back if they don't have any more in front. Eventually, she comes back with a small glass of Amarula, which is about close enough. All of this behavior is regarded as 100% typical of Cameroonians' assorted character flaws.
Add to that, they don't like white people. Any white people. Rob says if he wants a good price for something he always sends his maid. Her price is a lot better. (Her name is Marie Claire. Every time I hear her name I think of a pastry named Mare.) Rob tells one story of buying something. The maid was with him and she objected that she knew the real price to be much lower. That's when owner made clear that he would prefer not to sell the item to a white person at all, felt he was compromising his principles, that selling to whites is degrading. So it's all much more deeply weird than just trying to charge as much as it's believed that the customer can afford to pay.
These people have got some real serious issues.
I get to bed at about midnight - and without one single nap all day long. Now I'm completely in the right time zone!
Southwest Province, Cameroon : January 21, 2007
It's Sunday. A good day to go to the beach!
It's close by, in the direction of Nigeria. And they speak English over there.
Cameroon is officially bilingual. The dictator doesn't speak a word of English and there are large regions of this small country where he has never bothered to visit. In polite terms, he is considered to be 'aloof' by certain 'restive' elements of the population. Particularly the English-speaking elements. The Southwest Province had the opportunity at one time to be joined with Nigeria. They would have preferred independence. Instead, they got piled in over here with the French.
We stop for gas and Rob leaves me all by myself to deal with four perfectly beautiful children who come up to my window begging. They don't seem to speak either French or English but they're holding out empty blue bowls which makes their purpose quite clear.
I have no local currency at all or I'm sure I would happily trade some money for some pictures, but neither of us gets what we would like. Rob says it's a bad practice to give money to children here. Their parents send them out begging in place of sending them to school. He says they might be refugees from Chad. I told him I need to get some 'adorable children' pictures at some point.
The currency here is the CFA Franc which is worth about 500 to one U.S. Dollar. Pronounced SEE-fahs. The price of gasoline, measured in liters, comes out to something in the neighborhood of $4.50 / gallon.
On the way out of town, Rob tells me that the President appoints all provincial governors and mayors. There is no independent local authority.
And he tells me some stories about how hard it is to operate a private business here. The sister of an acquaintance of Rob's opened a tiny restaurant in Yaounde. The total investment was about $700. During the first week, she was visited three times by government officials demanding payment of about $2500 in taxes. So she closed her new business.
From the perspective of the rest of the world, it looks like we have tried long and hard and at great expense to try to help Africa to get onto its socio-economic feet. But from here, it looks to me as if the widespread poverty here may be entirely deliberate. The elites may actually prefer to have 99% of the people living in absolute poverty.
That said, the poverty here doesn't seem as bad as in Haiti. But Haiti also has a ruined environment - including deforestation and a shortage of fresh water. Here, it's at least possible for people to live off the land. I saw starving children in Haiti. I have not seen anything like that here. At least, not yet.
We pass a rubber plantation, a banana plantation, and a palm oil plantation.
The palm trees are grown for their oil.
I had no idea what a rubber plantation would look like. Turns out, the trees are quite narrow. Each tree has a small cup attached, and that's what collects the sap - much like maple syrup.
Each of the banana bunches has a blue bag with lots of holes tied around. Somehow, this improves the quality of the banana but I don't know how exactly. Its run by the Del Monte company. Their quality standards are very high and very specific.
Children get to come and collect the sub-standard bananas. Rob said there was a minor scandal hereabouts, allegations of child labor, but there was nothing to it. Busy-body do-gooders. Del Monte pays their workers well and if children come onto their property and take away the left-over bananas to benefit their families then it's no fault of the company's.
The dust in the air is real bad for picture-taking today (not so good for my throat, either). So Mount Cameroon is hard to see. It's a surprise when the road makes an abrupt detour at the point where the last lava flow ended in 1999.
The beach is interesting. There are these little structures on high grassy land behind the beach. Also a litte bar (locally produced beer is very cheap). Behind that, there is a pool of water which is fed by a natural spring. It's all very nice. I shudder to think what will happen when (if) the mixed blessings of commercial development arrive here. All of these pictures have a large version available, just click.
It's getting late and we absolutely must return to Douala before dark. It's not safe to drive at night... err, well, it's never actually safe to drive here. But it's markedly less safe to drive in the dark. And it's against the embassy's policy to drive outside of the city after dark.
However, we do have time for a quick stop at a café in an absolutely beautiful place. Unbelievable. Again, here you can click any picture to see it large.
Besides the amazing view, it's also amazing that a place with such a fantastic view should be so under-developed. I'm not complaining! It's just very, very amazing. Out in the rest of the world, a place like this would hold a world class resort. Here, we were practically alone.
Our table was right at the edge of the cliff. I couldn't quite have flicked a penny off the table and hit water, but I'd have come close.
There were a lot of little islands all around. After a while a couple of boats appeared. Then this beautifully-colored lizard wandered past. What a perfect place!
You'll never guess what the bill was for two nice little salads, a bunch of bread, one beer, and one soft drink... US$5.
We got back to Douala before dark but it was dark before we got home. I was perfectly amazed by the number of motorcycles driving around without headlights. And practically no Cameroonian ever wears a helmut (it would be too "white"). A lot of cars don't use headlights either! No wonder it's considered unsafe to drive here at night!
Douala, Cameroon : January 22, 2007
Rob went to work and I spent my day catching up on my own work, and catching up this journal. Only two things happened. A lot of kids came over from the American School to practice swimming. They came in two or three shifts. It was so noisy here!
Then Rob took me to lunch at a real nice Chinese restaurant. Prices here are very confusing. There were three of us and it cost $40, which is too much. The Chinese owner is a good friend of Rob's. She ran up and kissed him - not those fancy French cheek kisses - but smack on the lips. He's sure she's not just after a visa, she's been to the USA before. She told me she was not very impressed by Texas.
On the way back from lunch, I couldn't resist taking this picture of a family on a motorcycle - none with helmets, of course. Do Cameroonians have a death wish???
I forgot something. On the way to the beach, we took a side road to a Centers for Disease Control facility. It's actually located inside of another larger facility (shared security). Anyway, the interesting thing is that Rob tells me they're studying the possibility that the AIDS virus got started in the immediate area of this facility.
Of course, I'm sure I don't understand the theory at all - and there is no obvious consequence even if it is true; but it rests at least partly on the fact that there are more varieties of the AIDS virus circulating in this area outside of Douala than anywhere else in the world.
So this is a kind of AIDS Ground Zero in that sense at the very least.
This looks like a good time and place to end Page 1.
I took all of these pictures. Most of them link to very much larger versions of same. Suitable as desktop images.