Wednesday, Sept. 10
Douala, Cameroon

I remember, vividly, the first time I arrived in Cameroon, six years ago for a study-abroad program.

From the airplane, I saw a fire on the ground near the runway, and I figured a small plane had crashed. I didn’t know then that fires are set intentionally all over West Africa to burn trash and clear fields of old crops.

I was downright scared in the Douala airport, even though I was with a group. Men hassled us, trying to carry our bags or give us a taxi ride. Belongings had been stolen from several students’ luggage, and one girl’s bag didn’t arrive at all. I pitied her, all the while thankful my backpack was safely on my back.

Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, wasn’t safe, so we immediately piled into a bush taxi destined for another city. The air smelled strongly of exhaust and burning trash. Our driver pulled off the highway, then reaized he had taken a wrong turn. He reversed the van all the way back up the ramp, as cars whizzed by us at full speed. I held my breath until we were going forward again.

This time around, I knew what to expect (even though Douala still scares me). I packed everything that would be difficult to replace — medication, glasses, computer, guidebook — in my carry-on bag, and strategically placed tampons in the top of my checked luggage to deter any curious baggage handlers.

At the airport in Douala, I headed straight for the ATM to get CFA to pay a taxi. The machine didn’t work, so I exchanged dollars with a guy who lurked around the airport. Another man followed me, saying, “Vous etes belle. Tres blanche.” Translation: “You are beautiful. Very white.” It’s lovely to know my whiteness is my best feature.

It was nearly midnight by the time I took a taxi to the hotel, and the highway was mostly empty. The first car we passed made me laugh. The driver must have missed his turn-off. He was reversing right in the middle of the two-lane highway.