Friday, 15 May 2015

Reflections on Yaounde

My friend Ian Fraser has just published a post on some time he spent in Douala the commercial capital of Cameroon in West Africa.  This stirred some memories of a week I spent in the political capital of the country, Yaounde, in 2005.  My reason for being there was to represent UNSD (for whom I was working) at a Conference of African Census taking.

It is about 300kms by road inland from Douala and every bit of advice I got was not to take that road.  The informal taxation sector (aka bandits) were as thick as thieves along there and it was always traveled in convoy.

I had got to Yaounde by a fairly indirect route (New York, where I was based, Dubai, Kabul (about a week for work), Dubai again, Nairobi (7 hour stopover)).  The fun began when I got off the plane in Yaounde at about midnight to find that my luggage appeared to have got off - or more accurately never got on -the plane in Nairobi.  Kenya Airlines had set the plane up overweight so solved the problem by leaving a few trolleys of luggage on the tarmac.

The hotel was rather swish.
I will include some nice images from some of my windows but to keep the narrative trotting along will draw your attention to the spot marked X in this image.
On my first morning I noticed what seemed to be commercial activity, such as a colourful market, going on here.  This appeared to be a likely source of underpants so after a brief check in the hotel that this area was relatively free from banditry I got some local currency (possibly Kenya Airlines had provided some emergency stuff as compo - being aware that they were close to a riot from the 40 or so passengers who didn't have luggage).  The exchange rate now is about 500CFA to $US1 so this lot totals to about $60.
So I set off and found, to my surprise a department store which would involve a whole lot less discussion than the colourful market (albeit costing a fair bit more than I should have been able to achieve en plein air). They sold me some underdaks, socks and shirts.  Jeans would have to do for a day or so.  One of the guys in the store also helped me out in finding a liquor store of sorts which supplied me with several large bottles of local beer (for about the same total price the minibar was asking for a small bottle of Heineken.  My memory is it tasted very nice (and I don't think that was too coloured by the brews available in Kabul).

I ducked back down a small lane and across the soccer ground feeling pretty good about things, especially those clinking in my shopping bag.  Some time later the soccer ground was used for training the local team.
Here are the promised nice views from my hotel.  I have no idea what the various buildings were, and suspect that, from the level of traffic, the photos were taken about 6am.  (In passing, I have no memory of the traffic being unpleasant, at least by the standards of (eg) Dar es Salaam.)

I have included this one as it shows the low forested hills around the city.
There was a good lot of art around the hotel.

I have allowed myself to get distracted from the narrative of knickers.  I think we arrived late Saturday, and there was no flight on Sunday.  So we (I think there were about 6 of us at the Conference who'd been on the flight) enquired on the Monday about the whereabouts of out kit and were told it would be coming that night and would be driven to the hotel by midnight.

My memory is that we filled in the time in the rooftop bar until it closed and then went to sit in the lobby.  Midnight came and no truck from the airport.  About 12:30 we just about to give up when the truck arrived.  They had all our gear - astonishing: it had been exposed to Nairobi baggage handlers (remember the informal taxation sector?) for 48 hours and nothing had been stolen.

So, next morning, it was a much spiffier Martin who fronted the elegant hall ....
with its astonishing ceiling.

Needless to say none of the delegates had been at all upset by the mzungu wearing jeans: an apology, a joke about underpants and some harsh words about Kenya Airlines sorted that out very easily.

You'll note I have got this far with nothing about wildlife.  Here is some life, but pretty quiet: I begin with young traders on the roundabout visible in the second landscape shot.
 A more traditionally dressed lady.
I think Alexander McCall Smith has some words in the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency books about people "built on traditional lines".

Finally some natural history.  A couple of lizards hanging out in the hotel grounds.

I managed to record 15 species of birds in the hotel grounds, but didn't take a photo of any of them.  However this is an image from Avibase of one of the more lurid species, Snowy-crowned Robin-chat.
The trip back to New York had its moments!  Departure from Yaounde on Brussels Air (rebadged Sabena) was fine - with some brilliant scenery on dawn over the Sahara and as we crossed the Alps - until we were about 5km from Brussels at about 1000m.  Then they said the runway electronics had failed because of a snow storm so we had to divert to Luxembourg until the problem was fixed.  So away we went.  Waited an hour on the ground and took off again.  This time we were about 50k away when the pilot said that traffic control wanted him to go into a holding pattern for an hour but he didn't have enough fuel for that.  He claimed he'd been told he'd be allowed straight in, but they'd changed the rules.  So back to Luxembourg.

There were flights possible from Luxembourg to New York but no-one from Brussels Air was able to endorse our tickets over so we had to take a bus to Brussels (about 4 hours) and overnight there.  The tight-arsed bastards even argued the toss about paying for me to phone Frances (who had just arrived back in NYC from Australia I think).

The next day didn't start well with Brussels Air trying to say I didn't have the right signatures on my tickets.  At which I totally lost it.  The greeter on the plane asked how I was and didn't appreciate being told my day would improve once the wheels left the tarmac on this bloody country!

The rest of the flight was pretty reasonable.

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