After an extremely tearful (and very late night) goodbye to my wonderful friends, the Bradfords, I headed up the escalator of the Yaoundé Nsimalen Airport.
My 2011 visit to Yaoundé had been full of laughter, matchless cultural experiences and quality time with some of the most splendid people ever to walk to the face of the Earth. From my wonderful Bradfords to Ryan to many other kindred spirits, I left Cameroon full of love and light. However, the experience flying from Cameroon, Central Africa to Knoxville, Tennessee was one that remains a vivid and haunting memory. As Edith Wharton would say, it was “plaintive and poignant.” I exaggerate a skosh, but you can gauge the experience for yourself as I share it here in this week’s edition of VV.
Upon arrival at the passport control, I found three Cameroonian women painting their nails. No, I’m not kidding. At this point, I was still crying because I was sad to leave my friends (even though I was looking forward to seeing my Tennessee people). “Pourquoi pleurez-vous?” (“Why are you crying?”) one of them asked, with a bit of attitude. “Mes amis me manquent,” (I miss my friends.) I responded. Impressed with my language abilities, she continued in French telling me that I needed to leave my passport with her and go pay the “exit tax” of 10,000 CFA.
I was very reluctant to give her my passport, as at that point, I was pretty sure I was never going to see it again and I would be living permanently in Cameroon with the Bradfords. However, she gave me no other choice. Paying the “tax,” I watched a man behind bars counting an enormous stack of money. Very, very shady. However, you see these types of things when traveling in third world countries. It’s just part of it.
I went to retrieve my passport and the women were much nicer. I’m telling you, the ability to speak the language of the country in which you find yourself makes life much easier. Try it.
I moved along and found my gate. On the way, security did a quick check of my bags to make sure I had no contraband to take back to the States with me. “C’est très bien fait, madame,” he told me. Apparently, I had done everything right. Oh, goody!
I found my seat at the gate. Immediately, I noticed a very strange man talking into a tape recorder. It was absolutely frigid in the seating area. I shivered, and noticed a man with a harp. He continued to play the same tune over and over.
We were told that there would be a rain delay. The man continued to play the harp. “Where am I?”I thought to myself.
Around 1:00 A.M., we boarded. The seats provided ample leg room (almost unheard of) and there was no one behind me, so I was able to deliciously recline throughout the entire six hour flight to Brussels, Belgium. A nice man beside me offered me his pillow. I graciously accepted. The pillow felt like about three paper towels in a pillow case, but every little bit helps.
There were no televisions on this flight, but as it was after 2 a.m., I had little desire to watch movies. At 3 a.m., it was time for a meal. Yes, really. I was served curried chicken and a very pungent piece of fish on rice. This was followed with a piece of fetid cheese on some type of specialty bread with a strong taste. (I am an adventurous eater, but not at 3 a.m.) I managed to keep it down. I ate it because I needed nourishment. Remember, I was traveling in a covered wagon on the Oregon Trail. Okay, really it was three flights to Tennessee, but it may as well have been a journey in a Conestoga.
After a long “night,” daylight was peeking out on the horizon. I noticed we were flying in what looked like a fog as thick as pea soup. For some reason, I’ve always heard planes do not fly in fog. Hmm. I kept trying to distinguish any signs of the fog lifting when the landing gear emerged. Within moments, we were on the runway. There was no announcement. I still have no idea how the pilot even saw the runway. Scary.
At the Brussels airport, I received a thorough pat down from a female flight security officer. After this full body check in front of the people of Belgium, the woman told me to have a nice day. I said “Thank you” in a Bette Davis tone and walked away. The flight from Brussels to Washington D.C. was relatively comfortable. The seats did not feel as if they were made of plywood and myseat was near the restrooms, which were always open. That never happens.
The entire flight was freezing cold, and I found myself wrapping myself from head to toe in a blanket like the African passengers who were not used to air conditioning. I cannot stand being cold. It chills me just like the poem “Annabel Lee.” I feel you, Annabel.
On this particular flight, a man had his arm all over my seat, and disapproving glances did nothing to deter him. His own personal comforts were of the utmost importance. When we landed, people went into an actual frenzy. They were shoving, cutting line and just being generally obnoxious. One man pushed me, and rushed around like the Apocalypse had come. “Toujours!” I yelled at him. (Translation: Always!) Notice that I was still speaking French even though I had landed in America. It takes a while to re-English.
Three continents in twenty-four hours. The captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign.