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Discover Cameroon, a microcosm of the African continent

Yaounde-Cameroon

Yaounde, Cameroon

In the morning, we awoke on the outskirts of Makor, a village of tidy mud-brick houses sitting on a small hill overlooking the tracks. The mist was just beginning to lift from the valley floor. It was a beautiful landscape of forested hills and plots of land cultivated by women who were already in the fields at dawn, bent at the waist. We pulled into the N’Gaoundéré station at 8 a.m., barely an hour behind schedule.

The platform was crowded with local officials and policemen and a few low-level dignitaries. An important delegation, I learned, had arrived with us on the train from Yaoundé. A marching band struck up a welcoming tune. A chorus line of singing women, wearing identical blue dresses emblazoned with the smiling visage of President Paul Biya, serenaded the arriving VIPs.

But the welcome was “pour les riches seulement”; the station was shut down to make way for the morning’s eminent arrivals. The rest of us first- and second-class plebes were shunted down the track, dragging our suitcases across the gravel. We pushed and shoved our ignominious way through the service entrance. Young touts were waiting to greet us outside, calling out destinations — “Garouagarouagaroua” and “Marouamarouamaroua” — in the far north.

Maroua. Yes, that sounded about right. Just as one journey had wrapped up, another was beginning. I stopped to buy some fruit for the long bus ride ahead — 10 hours, at least, into the dust bowl of the Sahel. I carefully counted out the change in my hand and gave it to the fruit vendor, who smiled and deposited a few plump mangoes into a plastic bag. As I turned away, he called out to me and offered one more.

“C’est un cadeau,” he said, a gift. Then he wished me a safe journey.

Vourlias is a writer traveling in Africa and working on his first book.

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