3/7/12 – Je suis veni! (I’m here!)
It’s humid, crowded, and polluted in Yaounde, where my plane touches down, and it reminds me a little of Beijing in the summer. There are people walking/driving/riding motorcycles/riding bicycles at all hours of the day. A lot of the ones on foot are carrying things on their heads; sometimes to sell, sometimes just as a way of transporting things. There’s a man walking around with a shoe on his head and he’s got a bag of shoes he’s selling. There’s a woman with an old CRT monitor on her head. There’s a man with an open briefcase full of watches on his head—he’s rigged it on a little platform so that he can carry it up there pas de problème.
I spend the night at a small ‘budget’ hotel located away from the city center. For five American dollars per night, it’s not too shabby; there’s a bed, there’s a bathroom with an American toilet (though no toilet seat, and no visible flushing mechanism) and a little bidet and a showerhead and a small rusted mirror. The mosquitoes are in full force, and there’s no closing the window on them as the A/C’s on the fritz.
I meet up with my friend Alex, who works with Cameroonians and is here in Yaounde briefly before heading further south. We hang out for a bit in my room, talking over being in Cameroon, and what we’ll each be doing here, then we call it a night.
The next day, I go with some friends of Alex’s to run some errands; I get a local phone, pick up my train ticket for that night, and withdraw cash from an ATM. One thing about Cameroon; things take longer to do here than they do in the U.S. The cash withdrawal, for example, requires standing in line for about an hour; I ask if it’s normal for there to be a line this long, and I’m told that this line is always long—since this ATM is right in the center of town, and is well-guarded by police, everyone comes here to make withdrawals.
People stare openly at me; expressions run from mild to great curiosity. At the train station, one of the guards asks me if I’d like to marry him. (He’s probably around 19.)
That night I take the overnight train due north to Ngaoundéré. It’s a sleeper car, with two bunked beds and a little sink with a small rusted mirror. I throw my bags on my lower bunk and take a look around. It’s baking in here. After a few tries, I get the window open; score!
My traincar mate arrives; her name is Isa and she’s got the top bunk. She’s from Limbe, a seaside town in the Southwest, just outside the huge and crazy coastal city of Douala. She’s in her 40’s and has 5 kids. She’s going to Ngaoundéré on business, I think, though later she says she has family there. (Maybe my French is failing me?)
The train ride is long. We roll through the country while faint music makes its way to us through loudspeakers that you can’t quite turn off, you can only turn them down. There is a small non-working fan attached to the wall; when asked about it, one of the train officials informs us that the fans on the train have never worked. We leave the car door open so we can get some cross-breeze.
When the train screeches to a stop at the various stations, it really, actually stops—the engine shudders and turns off and the train is perfectly still. Through the stillness there are cries of ‘Baton!’ and ‘Avocat!’ from locals selling manioc paste wrapped in banana leaves, and avocados. Via our open window, my traincar mate buys about 30 or so avocados (she says her family will finish them in no time) and 7 or 8 hot ‘batons’ and shares some of one. It’s off-white, gooey and warm, and a little bit sour. Apparently it’s typically served with fried fish.
When the train gets going again, it sort of rolls quietly to get started, then it really picks up, and the thundering sound of grinding gears, along with the other stuff that makes a train go, is so loud that it drowns out everything else.
When night falls, you can’t see anything at all out the windows. At some point, closer to dawn, the air gets cooler. It’s unbelievable, actually, because it has been so hot the last 24 hours. I’ve been sleeping on top of the bed, but move to get under the blanket. When dawn arrives, it’s only an hour or so until we pull into Ngaoundéré. Ngaoundéré is the very last stop, and most people on the train get off there.