Monday, April 25, 2011

Yaounde by Candlelight

Here's how taxis work in Yaounde, Cameroon. A taxi driver sees you and slows down his cab. You yell out your destination, followed by how much you're willing to pay. In French. If he agrees, he honks once and stops. If not, he keeps going.

Great. So this should be...well, not easy.

But it doesn't work that way when you get off the bus from out-of-town. There are taxi drivers actually waiting when you get off the bus. Of course, they can't understand my accent and don't know where the hotel I've chosen is. But at least I don't have to yell at them from the side of the road.

I tried asking for my hotel, Meumi Palace—which I'd chosen due to its location near embassies—using different pronunciations.

"Moo-mi Pah-lass?"

Blank stare.

"May-you-me Pah-lahce?"


"Chad Embassy?"

Ah, that worked. The hotel was across the street from the Embassy of Chad. And so we were off.

The hotel was adequate, though nothing special. The location was good, the price high ($70), the wi-fi worked well the first day and then occasionally after that. The morning coffee was astonishingly wretched, with an aftertaste of...I don't know. Something awful. Maybe dirt that has had squirrel decomposing into it for three weeks.

And still I drank it. Even though there was a brilliant cup of joe just a few blocks away, at Espresso House. But laziness wins. I'd wander up to Espresso House in the afternoon, but I couldn't fathom getting that far out of my room at 7 or 8 in the morning.

On the morning after Easter, I drank the nasty hotel coffee. I'd head up the street for the tasty cappuccino later, but first, I had a mission.

I needed visas. Gabon. Republic of Congo. Democratic Republic of Congo. Each would take at least a day. So I'd be drinking a lot of that bad coffee.

I asked at hotel reception for the directions to the Embassy of Gabon.

"It's not far," said a woman with a cool wig that featured a purple streak. "But it's complicated. You'd better take a taxi."

She was right. All I had to do was go around the loop then left onto a little street, then left up another little street, and well...I only would have gotten hopelessly lost the first time.

The Embassy of Gabon was open! I was relieved. It'd thought it would be closed for Easter.

But the pleasant-but-harried visa official couldn't help me.

"I am sorry," he said. "The boss is out until Wednesday. You can leave your passport, but you cannot collect it until Thursday."

Oh. Shit.

"What if I go get another visa first? Is the Congo embassy near here?" Actually, I said something more like "Je vais au Ambassade de Congo est rentrer demain" and he understood.

"Yes, this is an easy visa. Go there first. It is right down the street. You can come back here after you get that visa."

"This is a good idea," he said, in English. "That is a fast and easy visa."

He got up from his desk, walked outside with me, and pointed down the street.

"Do you see where that man is walking?"


"There." He motioned to me to make a right turn there.

I thanked him and walked down the street, then went down a dirt road, looking at names of embassies as I went.

The Republic of Congo one was easy enough to find. I approached the door, but could see that it was locked.

Two young men and one young woman sat across the street in front of a photocopy shop.

"blah blah blah French stuff," said one of the guys to me.

"C'est ferme?" I asked.

Now he heard me, and my accent, so he answered me in English.

"Closed for Easter Monday."

Ah. Deflated.

"Ou est Congo Kinshasha? Autre Congo?" Might as well get the low-priority one if I can't get anything else today.

The three discussed and debated a bit, then the same guy addressed me. "It is complicated. You need to take a taxi."

The girl of the trio spotted a taxi at the same time that I did. It was parked down the street in front of a phone card shop. She started walking to it, so I did too.

I wasn't sure if she had to go somewhere, but when we got to the taxi, she commanded the driver to take me to the Democratic Republic of Congo's embassy. That's how people speak here. It's not meant to be rude.

The driver agreed, and said he didn't know where it was. The two guys had caught up by now, and the trio spent several minutes explaining to the driver where to take me.

He did, but he stopped several times and asked passerbys where to go. Two passerbys and one Embassy of South Africa security guard were involved in directing my taxi to the embassy.

Which was open! Hooray! The driver, Pascal, gave me his phone number in case I needed him again.

I entered the gate and climbed the stairs to the reception area.

"120,000 CFA please," said the woman behind the glass.

I stood there, stunned. That's $267. I was only going to be in Kinshasa for a day, and then one more day to the southern border.

"120,000 CFA? Really? Is there a transit visa? Anything cheaper?"

She shook her head with resignation. She probably has this conversation ten times a week.

I scraped around in my wallet, searching for spare CFA. I was 5,000 CFA short, but the clerk agreed that I could bring it to her tomorrow when I picked up my passport. I filled out the visa form, left all my money at the embassy, and had to walk back to Meumi Palace.

"Where is the ATM?"

They sent me down to Hotel de Ville with a driver who hangs around the hotel. I tried various ATMs, but they didn't work with my Citibank ATM card, which has a Mastercard imprint.

"One of these works," I thought. I had researched this ahead of time. I could use my card here, but I had to remember where.

For the moment, I just took out cash on my Capital One Visa. I'd gotten this Visa because lots of places in Africa are Visa-only, and this had the least fees of the cards I'd read about.

I'd sort out the ATM question later and get more money, but at the moment I was desperate.

I promptly went to Espresso House to drown my DRC-visa sorrows in a cappuccino. Downstairs,  I spotted a salon. A women's salon. I made an appointment for a mani-pedi an hour later. The sun was going down when I headed into the salon. Nice way to spent the evening, I thought.

As often happens when I go to salons that aren't geared to expats, the workers there looked both surprised and tickled at my presence. They sent me upstairs to a chair in a windowless corner, where a young woman showed up with one of those portable foot baths, like something you'd see in a Skymall catalog. She filled it with warm water and some kind of soap, instructed me to put my feet in it, and then got to work on my hands with the nail polish remover.

I love going to salons when I'm traveling, because I can watch local women in a comfortable environment. In Kuwait, I'd see Kuwaiti women take off their black outer robes so they could get dolled up. Here, it was all about wigs. Both male and female hairdressers worked on women's wigs, sometimes on head and sometimes off.

I was watching one particularly interesting effect, trying to figure out how exactly that swirly pigtail was going to stay on, when the power went out.

And my nail technician proceeded to get a candle so that she could push and cut my cuticles by candlelight.


Maybe she needs to stop that, I thought. Seems dangerous.

But it hadn't phased her. She just kept working.

I don't even let people cut my cuticles in the light. But I didn't stop her. My curiosity wanted her to keep going. Could she really do this? Did I really want to find out if she couldn't?

I held very, very still.

And eventually, she straightened up and pronounced her job done.

Nice work, too. In the dark, she'd only missed a tiny bit of old polish on a few toes. But she hadn't made anything bleed, so I was impressed.

This called for a celebratory cappuccino.

No comments:

Post a Comment