On the road
Leaving was no easy task for a Cameroonian man, but a traveler’s life is full of departures. I bade adieu to Douala and boarded a bus for Kribi, a pretty resort town where Frenchmen of a certain age are known to whisk their young Cameroonian lovers for weekend trysts.
If Douala comes at you with a switchblade, Kribi approaches bearing a long-stemmed rose. So seductive is the town’s spell that a barmaid in Limbe had warned me not to accept any food from local girls, lest I succumb to whatever potent juju they had used to spice their dishes.
The town is a ramshackle collection of curio shops and cabarets. Whatever secret rendezvous transpire on the weekend failed to break the weekday torpor. The lovers, I suspected, were still sitting in their far-off offices in Douala and Yaoundé; I had the beaches to myself.
In the evening, I rekindled my love affair with “33” — “three-three” in the local parlance — and feasted on fresh prawns and the bitter-leaf stew known as ndole. From the terrace of my beach shack, buffeted by a balmy sea breeze, I watched the lights of fishing boats twinkling far off at sea. That means God bless us, indeed.
I’m accustomed to the hardships of African travel — I had arrived after a two-month slog through Nigeria — so I found Cameroon an easy country to navigate. After Kribi I made my way to the capital, Yaoundé, a green, hilly city with a bracing springtime climate.
Here the cheerful commotion of Cameroonian life seemed of a kind with the bright, sun-splashed hills. Pavement chefs presided over small propane burners, dishing out avocado salads and spaghetti omelets to crowds of hungry laborers. Stocky women in colorful dresses arranged their mangoes and oranges on sidewalk blankets, calling out in a cheery singsong. And young men wove through all the clamor selling secondhand shoes, a high-top sneaker or loafer balanced precariously on their heads. In the cool evening air, with the couples languidly strolling hand in hand past the crowded cabarets, it was possible to imagine a happy life here, a joyful procession of days and nights as gentle and pleasing as the city’s rolling hills.
Yet the open road always proves to be a more powerful seductress for me. Amid the clamor and din of Yaoundé’s central train station one morning, I boarded the Camrail train to N’Gaoundéré, the gateway to the northern Sahel. Settling into the cramped quarters of my premiere-class carriage, I fell into conversation with my cabinmate, an older man of serious but pleasant comportment.
He lived in Douala and was traveling with his 2-year-old son to visit family in the north. The boy sat on the edge of his father’s bunk, eating chicken with grave determination and spitting the bones and gristle into his father’s palm. A brisk contingent of waiters bustled along the hallway, rapping on doors and taking dinner orders. The mood was festive; music played. As the night deepened, I could hear my fellow passengers going through their ablutions and retiring to their cabins. Before long, the boy was curled like a comma into the crook of his father’s arm, his little chest rising and falling with the train’s rhythmic clatter.