Douala was dirty, dark, and had absolutely nothing fun going on. When I land in other African countries, often I’m immediately enamored with the street life: the colorful painted storefronts, the street vendors, the interesting cars and other random regional idiosyncrasies. There was nothing here to marvel at. Douala had failed me. Or I had failed Douala.
When you’re visiting all 193 countries on the planet, sooner or later you’re going to hit a dud. Cameroon was an absolute bust for me. But what makes a country awesome or awesomely bad? Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder; for example, I’ve read many a poor review on a country like Nauru, but that one just happened to be one of my all-time favorites. Go figure. I also admit that it’s totally possible that I could’ve simply “done” Cameroon wrong. Maybe I chose the wrong city, or should’ve ventured out to see nature, or spend time in a village. But you usually can’t go wrong in visiting a country’s main city for a day of exploring—there are usually at least a handful of parks, monuments, even malls or museums to keep you busy. But Douala had failed me. Or I had failed Douala.
I wondered why Trip Advisor’s Top 15 Things to Do in Douala looked awfully bare. But I stayed positive and really looked forward to visiting Cameroon with hopes of some pleasant surprises that every new country I visit usually offers. Although this time, there wasn’t even one.
My day in Cameroon started bad—with no one else to blame but me—when I gave the guy who hailed me a cab a whopping 10,000 CFA, or about 18 USD. I’d made the rookie mistake of not checking the exchange rate beforehand, and as I got in that beat up cab, the albino attendant motioned for a tip. I said, of course, and opened my wallet to grab a fiver for him, which is pretty generous for someone walking me twelve feet to a taxi (he didn’t even grab my bag). But as soon as I opened my wallet, dude pointed to the 10,000 CFA note, to which I immediately said, “Okay!,” like a dumb ass, and handed right over. It wasn’t until I got on hotel WiFi when I realized I paid a man almost 20 bucks to point me to a car that was basically already right in front of me. Amateur move, Randy!
Ramblin’ Tip: Always, always check the exchange rates before you enter a new country. Don’t depend on your arrival airport having WiFi available after you’ve landed. Note the currency exchange before you even leave your house–make it a part of the packing process. 115 countries in, and I can’t believe I was still making that mistake. Never again.
Douala was hot. Stinking hot. And the sky was gray. Not an “it’s about to rain” gray, but a “this sky is effing filthy gray.” I’d left sunny Chad and landed in hot, humid and gray Cameroon. My impressions during the drive into town didn’t improve. Douala was dirty, dark, and had absolutely nothing fun going on. When I land in other African countries, often I’m immediately enamored with the street life: the colorful painted storefronts, the street vendors, the interesting cars and other random regional idiosyncrasies. There was nothing here to marvel at.
Does the Fun Ever Start?
We soon reached my hotel, and even that was a disappointment. The lady at the desk looked less than thrilled to see me, and even though I’d be staying two nights, she told me that it wasn’t enough time to launder my filthy clothes. I’d only packed one bag total—just one carry-on—for the entire three-week, 16-country trip, so I was depending on laundry service at least every five or six days, but it wouldn’t be happening here. She couldn’t care less and just gave me a blank stare. I realize I sound like a privileged prick here…I just needed some clean duds.
After resting a bit and checking Trip Advisor again to see if anything had changed (it hadn’t), I set off on foot to wander the city. It was not a fun walk.
First off—and again, my fault—I took a wrong turn. Little did I know, I was walking away from the city. It took me only about 47 seconds to be completely drenched in sweat, as I baked in this humid oven of a town. The sidewalks were constructed with concrete “planks” that laid above some kind of drainage/irrigation system: a concrete trench about four feet deep that ran under the sidewalk. Problem was, many of these cement blocks were loose, broken, dislodged or completely missing, making it easy for me to fall right down into the aqueduct if I misstepped. Great, all I needed was cholera on this stop! I resorted to walking on the actual road, with cars passing dangerously close to me. It didn’t seem very safe.
Unlike some of my previous African stops, people did not smile at me here. They did not look happy to see me, rather they looked like they would kick my ass at any given moment. I guess I’d be pissed if I had to live here too.
I stopped to take a picture of the only even close to interesting building I saw, which was completely across the street from me, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was actually more like a push. Startled, I turned to my right to see a man scowling at me. I don’t know French but am smart enough to figure out that what “Est-ce que c’est votre maison que vous photographiez?” meant: “Is that your house you’re taking photos of?” The question was rhetorical. I responded with some butchered response that included the words “Turiste, château clasique, tres bien,” before scooting the hell out of there. Damn, the Cameroons were not making a good impression. To think, just days earlier, I was being waved and smiled at by happy strangers in Eritrea and being invited into random buildings to take photos. How quickly the vibe can change.
30 minutes into the walk I was positive I had taken a wrong turn, as the street soon turned into a stretch of highway, with no one around but a dude bathing in the aqueduct. I had to get outta here! I finally stumbled upon an intersection where a LibyaOil gas station and mini market was located, and I popped in for some AC relief and a snack. I was starving by now.
This is the first of only a few things I mildly enjoyed during my visit: the gas station snacks. In the cooler I found a drinkable banana-piña yogurt and a fruit cocktail soda, two of my favorite junk foods in the world. I thoughtfully paired it with a package of milk chocolate cookies, devouring it all at a little table inside the store as the cashier looked on with disgust. The chocolate filling had already melted, so I was artfully sliding entire cookies in my mouth, instead of biting them like a normal person, to avoid smearing melted milk chocolate all over my hands and mouth. To make it worse, I devoured the entire box, right there in the store, as I stood there sweating like a pig. And melted chocolate was indeed all over my hands and mouth. I even disgusted myself. I bought a cold bottle of water for the man outside who was trying to sell me fake Nikes, hoping the karma might come back to me sooner than later. I refused to walk another three miles. Luckily there was a cabbie getting gas when I was leaving, so I hired him to take me to the Cathedral, which was right up the street.
Back in the Swing of Things
Luckily, this stop put me back in the city, and after snapping a few photos of the church, I was now headed in the right direction. Things got a little more tolerable, as I passed the stadium and took pictures of the cool statue outside. The street got busier as I came upon casinos on both sides of the street, a fast food chicken joint that looked intriguing (except this fat ass still had an entire box of cookies in his stomach), and finally, the first decent establishment I’d encountered so far: Le Grenier bakery, where I stopped in for a water. What had caught my attention was the DJ spinning tunes right outside the entrance and giving shout outs on the microphone. There was a dancing Black Santa accompanying his show as well. How could I not patronize this business? Inside was a beautiful collection of French pastries—a few things that I really wanted to try—but couldn’t bare another bite of sweets. I figured I was probably already teetering on diabeetus. Instead, I sipped my water outside, while the DJ spun, Santa danced, and the Baptist church next door let out, filling the street with dozens of ladies dressed in their Sunday best, which meant really awesome, colorful African clothing and headscarves. I was finally feeling a decent vibe!
Wish I Could Stay Longer, but…
15 minutes later I continued down the street when I ran into a man selling maps: big, colorful maps of Cameroon and Africa. Being the ramblin’ man that I am, it caught my attention, and although I didn’t wish to buy one, I certainly admired them. The guy kept coming down in price, from 5,000 CFA, all the way down to 1,000 CFA, so when he finally just asked me to buy him a Coke at the store, how could I say no? I wish Thomas would’ve let me snap a pic of him and his awesome map, but I respected his decision not to be photographed. But damn, Thomas, you coulda been famous!
I’d had enough. I flagged down a vacant cab and headed back to my hotel to spend the last two hours relaxing in bed. I’d had about all I could take of Cameroon this go-round, and was happy I’d made the decision to book a 7PM flight to Equatorial Guinea the same day. Often I hate to leave countries so quickly, but these eight hours was enough. I’d have to come back to Douala the next night anyway, for an overnight layover on the way to Gabon, so I was thrilled about that (sarcasm).
For the record, I do truly attempt to discover the good in every situation. In the case of Cameroon, I really did like my cab driver. After that first ride from the airport to my hotel, Takam made it a point to meet me at my hotel and the airport, three more times, for my trips in and out of Douala. He was always there, right on time, with a smile. Perhaps he was overcharging me, and that’s why he was so enthusiastic about always being there for me, but nevertheless, he made my trip a little easier, and was even at my hotel at 7AM on Christmas morning for my final pickup.
And now…the Rest of the (Insta)Story:
This entry was posted in Africa
I feel guilty for judging and reporting on Cameroon so poorly after just one afternoon in Douala. Maybe it’s not fair. I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out my friend Prasanna, who on the contrary, had a fantastic time touring the country. Please read his very thorough report HERE. He definitely saw a lot more of Cameroon than I, and is therefore more qualified to speak on the country. His stories and photos are fantastic.