The place still shows up in my dreams. The roads crowded with Russian Ladas, Fiat taxis, and Mercedes trucks – about half with working mufflers. Walking the crowded markets, the air was ripe with the sour bite of Cameroonian sweat mixed with the smells of diesel and woodsmoke and roasting meat. In a Washington Post travel log, Christopher Vourlias described it:
“Pavement chefs presided over small propane burners, dishing out avocado salads and spaghetti omelets to crowds of hungry laborers. Stocky women in colorful dresses arranged their mangoes and oranges on sidewalk blankets, calling out in a cheery singsong. And young men wove through all the clamor selling secondhand shoes, a high-top sneaker or loafer balanced precariously on their heads." http://wapo.st/ZIU6PU
My arrival in Cameroon was through the port city of Douala. I’d held a hand-towel to the back of my head for most of a 14-hour trans-Atlantic flight, my scalp split open the previous night during a drunken wrestling match in the upstairs hallways of Marine Security Guard Battalion. Scheduled to fly out for Africa the following morning, my friend Jon Wertjes and I celebrated with a couple other Marines and dozen pitchers at the Command Post pub in Quantico. Back at battalion, why pack your bags when you can wrestle with your buddies?
When my head bounced off the concrete floor, my wrestling for the evening was over. They told me I was out for about five minutes, and regained consciousness babbling something like “don’t tell Mom.” I pleaded with Wertjes, “Don’t take me to sickbay. They won’t let me go. You’ll be on a plane to Cameroon and I’ll be stuck here raking leaves.”
I made it through the night, Wertjes shaking me awake every 10 minutes because that’s what you’re supposed to do for an asshole who probably has a concussion. I sought medical attention at Logan International in Boston. All I got from the nurse was a couple of butterfly strips and the opinion “that’s been open too long to stitch.” As a bonus, she also gave me a pitying look that said “the Marines let idiots like you join up? Good thing we're in between wars.”
We arrived in Douala on an Air France flight from De Gaulle. It was late afternoon. They opened the door of the air-conditioned plane and we stepped down the ladderway. The sensation was that of a steaming wet-hot blanket being draped over your head and shoulders. The blanket was heavy, and it smelled like dog.
We transferred to Cameroon Airlines for a hop up-country to the capital city of Yaoundé. Later, it made perfect sense when the Marines at the embassy told us the airline had the nickname “Air Scare.”
We hit dirty air as we came to the foothills leading to the central highlands where Yaoundé lived. The plane started bucking like a bronc with a burr under its saddle. Sitting next to Wertjes was a big strong Cameroonian woman, draped in a colorful boubou and matching head scarf. In her terror at the plane’s buffeting and rattling and bouncing, she’d clamped a panicked claw onto his thigh. It was a death grip. She was staring straight ahead, her lips pulled back in a rigor, and her eyes wide and focused on nothing.
Wertjes looked across the aisle at me. He was mouthing a word that seemed to be a cross between “OWWWW” and “HELLLP.”
(to be continued...)