Ebolowa, Cameroon (a.m.) / Oyem, Gabon (p.m.)

  • Date
  • 11 May 2000
  • Lodging
  • Mvet Palace
  • Distance
  • 228 KM
  • Total
  • 73327 KM

On the drive through Cameroon, we crossed wooden bridges of local, extremely durable hardwoods, with people below washing clothes and dishes in skinny rivers enveloped by lush rain forest. Entering the tiny village of Konagy, we saw over 100 students, age six to 15 dressed in uniforms of baby blue shirts and navy blue trousers and skirts, in front of the small, clay school. When we stopped, the children went wild – over the car and us. As I stood among the students, girls flocked around stroking my skin and pulling at tendrils of my hair, dangling from a tortoise-shell barrette. Many of the young girls had never seen light-colored hair or a barrette like mine. One teenager liked it so much she tried to pull the barrette from my head. We snapped two Polaroid photos of the schoolchildren and our yellow Millennium Mercedes, giving the pictures to the two teachers. I’m quite certain most of the students had never seen a photo of themselves until today. As we drove away, the children cheered and clapped. Experiences like this in Konagy make life on the road a real joy.

But leaving Cameroon was a nightmare. No signs on any of the dirt paths offered directions. Police stopped us at least six times for the ‘final frontier check’. Admittedly, we lost our temper a time or two. Finally at the Gabon border, Jim dealt with the carnet de passage and I headed for immigration. Entering the office, I asked where to have our passports stamped. A man not in uniform, wearing black pants, a white tank top and flip flops, put his hands over his ears and made the motion via his finger over his mouth – shhhhh. I thought he was perhaps deaf and feared I’d offended him. Then I asked another man, this one in uniform, and he acted the same way. I went to another man who conducted himself just as the first man and after a few long moments, they all started laughing. I guess they could see the confusion and uncertainty on my face.

They were ‘playing with me’ yet I felt these were men who could do horrible things to someone ‘all in good fun’. While in this office, I watched a local man pay-off an officer who was trying to confiscate the local’s wrench and a woman sitting timidly while an officer searched everything, including notes and wallet, in her battered handbag. Before departure, a uniformed officer asked for my watch, I refused and he insisted taking hold of my arm. Again I refused and went to his superior, who was circling our car, telling him that his underling demanded my watch. The superior roared with laughter and the watch-wanting officer chuckled too as he staggered inside the office swigging a large, brown bottle of beer.

Unwilling to stamp our tourist visas, they sent one of their officers with us to Bitam for passport inspection. We crossed horrible roads with huge craters in the dirt path and later learned the short cut took us through Equatorial Guinea. Once in Bitam, the road improved markedly. We arrived at the office of the soldier’s superior where we waited half an hour only to learn we should go to another office. Here an employee said we must have photocopies made of our passports. Jim blew up. I made nice with the man’s boss who entered trying to calm the scene. The boss said we need not have copies made, our passports would be ready in 10 minutes.

Just before reaching Oyem, a drunken police officer stopped us at another ubiquitous checkpoint. Officer Joseph kept us over an hour, demanded we show passports and carnets many times and forced us to show the contents of several bags. Wreaking of alcohol and spewing spit from his mouth during constant rages, he repeated, “You are not in America now. You will play by our rules.” Finally this drunken officer let Jim go inside the shanty office for passport inspection, where the drunk’s superior said our visas, which we bought for 35,000 FCFA (US$50) each in Abidjan, were not acceptable. Jim asked why and she gave no reason, but demanded we pay an ‘extra’ 10,000 FCFA (US$13) per passport. Jim demanded a receipt. The woman took 20 minutes producing receipts for only 3,000 FCFA (US$4) per passport never explaining what the fee covered or why the receipts were less than our actual payment. Of course this was just a dirty, expensive bribe, but both of us felt outraged having to pay a ridiculous fee to a drunken officer and his superior, but what could we do? They hold the power.