I’m sitting in a hotel room in central Yaoundé, fresh from my “shower” which consisted of a full bucket of cold water and a drain open in the middle of the floor of my bathroom, barely able to keep my eyes open from the excitement of my first full day here. Last night Arjun and I were greeted at the airport by hundreds of taxi drivers gesturing and grabbing at us to get us to take their taxis. We were forced to ignore and often shout “Non merci!”, so our logical response was to do the same when another man began gesturing at us. After a back and forth, he broke out in a grin and whipped out a “Middlebury” sign. This was Olivier, our driver, who also dabbled in practical jokes. He led us to our car where we met Ariane, the directrice of the program. She enveloped us in hugs and presented us with goody bags full of giant water bottles and local snacks: peanuts, dried plantains and dried chickpeas. On the ride to the Hotel Diplomate, Olivier fell in behind a stream of cars driving diplomats from the airport. By keeping both his signals flashing, Olivier slotted us right in and all other traffic ground to a halt to let us by. This is an example of “Traffic d’Influence” or “Traffic of Influence”. We got to the hotel in record time, barely avoiding crashing into women pushing carts laden with fruit and fabrics and men stacked four to a tiny motorbike (Traffic lights are merely a suggestion). Safe to say we fell into bed.
Since I hadn’t really gotten a true impression of Yaoundé last night (streetlights and electricity in general are scarce and unreliable here), I was excited to open my curtains this morning. What greeted me was a city of vibrant color. It is so green and lush with fruit trees, vines and thick bushes everywhere. Ariane says that if you planted something in the city, literally in the middle of the red dirt roads, it would grow. The sky was hazy with low clouds and it was hot, although not as hot as I had expected. We went to eat breakfast at Ariane’s house, fried plantain, pineapple, omelets, avocado and baguette with soft cheese, and met the rest of her extended family who live in her small, one bedroom apartment over the school where she teaches French and where her two children, Serena (10) and Franklin (5) go to school. She also has her mother, her older sister and two local children living with her. Plus, a young woman from the university who helps cook. We then headed to exchange our USD for CFA (Cameroonian Francs). This was an adventure for sure. We pulled into a parking lot, Ariane cracked her window and handed all our money to a seemingly random man. He then handed back CFA and we drove away. It took less than three minutes. When asked why we don’t use the bank Olivier and Ariane roared with laughter. “The BANK?!”, they asked, “They would give you such a bad rate that they would be stealing your money.” That was good enough for us. “L’informel ici c’est mieux que le formel” or “The informal is better than the formal here” is Ariane’s motto. The police are too corrupt to help and no one gets paid enough to encourage them to do their jobs with much gusto.
We drove to get SIM cards next which took a while since we had to hand in our passports and be fully checked out before getting the cards. Unfortunately, my phone was locked and so I had to get that sorted at home first (what a nightmare, unlock your phones before going abroad, people), but eventually we were off to the Middlebury centre. Along the way we drove through the Muslim quarter, the most dangerous part of Yaoundé. Ironically the main street of the quarter is named after St. John Paul the Second which Olivier said shows how the Catholics and the Muslims in Cameroon get along very well, unlike in Cameroon’s neighboring country of Nigeria. I was impressed by the balancing skills of the people in the street. A man balancing a stack of at least 15 folded chairs on his bare head darted nimbly across the street, avoiding traffic without disturbing his load. The streets here are crowded, but smell amazing with street food being cooked everywhere. We stopped to buy fresh peanuts which were in soft shells and tasted nothing like any peanut I’d ever tasted. They were more like a bean. If I had been blindfolded while eating them, I would have never guessed they were peanuts. At the Middlebury Center, we had a mental health talk with a psychiatrist who had spent a lot of time in Maryland and New York. He talked to us about settling in, culture shock and homesickness. He assured us that he is at our disposal any time, which was nice and reassuring. We then had a huge lunch chez Ariane because it was her daughter’s 10th birthday. We had chicken stew, rice, spaghetti, an amazing black bean dish, papaya and teardrop shaped donuts which we helped make by squeezing dough through our fists into hot palm oil. We had bakery cake and champagne and sang happy birthday in French and English (Ariane’s family has spent a lot of time in the states). Then it was back to the Middlebury Center where the electricity promptly went out. Not a surprise since in the last two weeks there have only been two days when the city has had power. It was crazy to look out over the city and see only darkness. Luckily, a while later the electricity came back on and we watched it spread towards the hills. We were pretty exhausted by then so it was back to Ariane’s house for a light dinner; boiled plantain and sweet potato, more papaya and rice, before we came back to our hotel. Tomorrow promises plenty of more firsts and wild adventures!