Bonjour from Yaounde, Cameroon!

May 27th, 2010

This place is absolutely nuts! Crazy drivers, a different language, and hot weather.

On Wednesday at 12:55pm (EST) I left Burlington, Vermont and on Thursday I have arrived in Yaounde, Cameroon at 7:40pm (WAT). I arrived in the dark so I didn’t have much of an introduction.

I suppose the realization that I was going to Africa hit me when I was in line boarding the plane from Zurich to Douala and then Yaounde. That’s when I realize that for the first time in my life, I was going to be in the minority. At first I must admit that I was a little nervous, but eventually I got my head around it and have no problem with it. It truly was a shock though – when I think about it, the Czech Republic is more white than Vermont, and Vermont is one of the whitest in the union with something close to 98% Caucasian.

Flying from Europe across the Mediterranean Sea and then across the Sahara desert was quite amazing. The pictures are a bird’s eye view of the Algerian Sahara, Niger’s desert to grassland transition, and finally, the complete forestation of Nigeria and Cameroon. Honestly when we were landing first in Douala, Cameroon, I thought we were touching down in the middle of the Amazon. I sat on the left side of the plane so I had no view of the metropolitan city that holds several million people, just a glimpse of riverside shacks next to the runway.

Making the short hop from Douala to Yaounde was an interesting trip. The flight was only 40 minutes but in torrential rains and thunder and lightening, it seemed a bit longer. The lightening was unlike anything I have ever seen, maybe that’s the African tropics or perhaps just that I was at altitude in a plane. However, each flash of lightening seemed to set off a chain reaction of other bolts and flashes that lit the entire horizon. Landing a huge plane in thunder and lightening is a bit less flashy.

The Center of Yaounde, Cameroon

The Center of Yaounde, Cameroon

When I landed in Yaounde, the vaccination controls, passport controls, and visa controls were no problem. I claimed my baggage and a friend of Dr. George’s held a sign across the U-shaped baggage carousel that read “Michael Ursiny.” Primus, as his official state-issued cab license read, was dressed in a white, cotton robe that went almost to his ankles. However, the cynic inside me thought that perhaps this was some sort of plot to kidnap me and I began to ask some questions to verify why George wasn’t waiting for me at the airport. The relatively clean English responses seemed to satisfy me enough to follow him to his friends and the car that was waiting for us. I guess I didn’t really have any other options anyway.

Primus was the only English-speaker, the three others spoke French. Not only am I rusty, but they also speak so quickly and with a bit of a slur or lisp. It’s very difficult for me to distinguish where one word ends and another begins; hopefully George and the TV will help me to learn.

The thirty minute drive to George’s humble abode was eye-opening for the sleepy passenger that I was. It was dark and rain was coming down in sheets. Alongside the road were people walking opposite the cars, two abreast. I’d say that conservatively we almost hit about six people head on. Then there are the motorbikes. Half of them didn’t have their lights on. Typically, you may say that it may not be that serious, but drivers here are maniacs. Thank goodness that the engines in most of the cars are substantially weaker than American equivalents, otherwise automobile transportation would be worse than it already is. Imagine the Massachusetts school of driving, and then amp up the aggressiveness by about ten notches. There are lines on the road, but it’s as if no one gives a damn. Passing occurs in the most life-threatening way imaginable, I immediately regretted sitting in the middle seat in the back of the car for fear that I may fly through the windshield when we inevitably would make an unsuccessful pass. When following a car and intending to pass, we would slide to the center of the road and wait for oncoming traffic to pass by and then we’d make our move. However, I’ve never seen such repeatedly small passing buffers when tucking in front of the car you just passed. Basically it feels like I’m in the opening scenes of the James Bond film Casino Royale.

Either way, I ended up just getting over it and trusting the driver because I’m sure this is all commonplace here in Cameroon. Eventually we arrived safely to Georges’ apartment where he showed me to my room and prepared some food: beans, corn, bread, mini-hotdogs, and laughing cow cheese. Zenge ate an entire fried fish while we had a few fried cornbread balls with a quite picante cover along with some coke, water, and guava juice.

Me, Zenge, and Messeman

Me, Zenge, and Messeman

Tomorrow around noon we shall load up a van and meet the rest of the volunteers. We are all heading to Maboye on our first medical mission. More to come…

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