Tuesday, Oct. 28
Douala airport officials are known for demanding bribes from foreigners trying to leave the country.
But two South African men I met in the airport while waiting for my flight told me a story that trumps all the rest.
The men joined me in a small air-conditioned lounge attached to the airport’s lone restaurant, where I was killing time before my 2 a.m. flight to South Africa. We were the only three people there, and we chatted while I ate a plate of spaghetti, one of the few items on the menu. We quickly realized that all three of us were going to South Africa, albeit on different flights.
“I hope we get home tonight,” said the man who had told me his name was Abdul. He started to laugh. “God willing, we’ll get home tonight.” Then he turned to me and added, “They kept us here in the airport for a week, you know.”
I almost choked on my noodles. “What?”
“They wouldn’t let us leave,” Abdul said with an accent that sounded both South African and Indian. “We slept in this airport for a week.”
“What do you mean, they wouldn’t let you leave?” I asked, my eyes growing wide.
Abdul began recounting the tale, which had started two weeks prior when he and his friend Mahesh were on their way to the Central African Republic. The trip was for business; Abdul was a diamond cutter who planned to buy stones in the CAR, and Mahesh was going along as his partner. They had no plans to visit Cameroon and stopped in the airport only to change planes.
But when airport officials, while inspecting the men’s travel documents, noticed they had an invitation from a diamond company, the officials insisted they pay a fee in order to board their plane to the CAR. Not a small bribe: 4,000 Euros.
At this point in the story, Abdul paused to put his head in his hands, and then he began to laugh, as though he still couldn’t believe the absurdity of what happened next.
He and Mahesh refused to pay the bribe, he said, and the uniformed men wouldn’t let them leave. They missed their plane that day, as well as the next five flights that left the Douala airport for the CAR that week.
By now I had started laughing, too. This was just too ridiculous. I pictured them in the bare-bones Douala airport, with its lone pathetic restaurant, dirty floors, unbearable heat and hard, uncomfortable chairs. I thought of that Tom Hanks movie, the one where the main character is stuck in the airport for what, months? A year? Even spending that much time in the airport in the film, with all its amenities, would be preferable to spending a week in the Douala airport.
“Where did you sleep?” I asked, giggling.
“Over there,” Mahesh pointed through the glass. “There is one cushioned chair in this airport. I’d sleep on the chair and him on the floor until he started to get angry, then we’d switch.”
Now I was really cracking up, and since it was obvious the story amused me, the guys continued with more details. They clearly enjoyed relaying the ridiculous tale, probably because it was the first time they had talked about it with anyone other than each other. They hadn’t been able to communicate with most people in the airport because they didn’t speak French.
“Oh, everyone in this airport knows us!” Mahesh said theatrically. “The police, they kiss our cheeks! The women who clean the floor, they say hello! Let me tell you, before this fiasco I would have done anything to make love to a woman who spoke French, just to hear her speak to me in the language. But now, after this trip, if anyone, anyone speaks French to me, I will throttle them!”
“And it gets worse!” he continued. “I’m a vegetarian! What do you think they have on the menu here that’s vegetarian? Bread! Bread and butter!”
In perfect timing, the waiter then entered the room to take my empty plate. “Have these men really been sleeping here in the airport for a week?” I asked in French, giggling.
“Yes, they have been here,” the waiter responded. And then, with a serious face, “They don’t like hotels.”
At that, I laughed for a full 30 seconds before I could speak. “Did you understand what he said?” I asked my new friends.
They shook their heads, no.
“He said you don’t like hotels!” I announced, and the three of us doubled over laughing, howling like drunkards, knowing the airport staff thought they preferred this “dump,” as Mahesh called it, to a proper hotel.
In between hoots, Mahesh offered what I was hoping he would. “You have to see the chair!” he cried.
We walked our laughing selves through the restaurant, around 20 or so Swedes in fatigues, out to an empty hall. And there, next to a sliding door that opened to a concrete balcony, sat a lone cushioned chair, its black covering torn to reveal the white stuffing inside.
“That is where you slept?” I howled. The men, still amused that I was so caught up in their story, posed for a photo, both of them sitting in the chair. And then Mahesh walked out to the balcony like he apparently had done so many times before.
“It’s perfect for inhaling plane exhaust,” he said. “And if you take off your shoes and walk on the tiles, it’s like reflexology!”
The men finally were able to leave the Douala airport a week after they had arrived, but only after the diamond company and several CAR government officials intervened. They spent a week conducting business — “After all that time in the airport, we got to the hotel in the CAR and the shower had only one knob! No hot water!” Abdul said. — and were now on their way home, stopping again on layover through the Douala airport.
We finished the chair photo shoot and headed together toward our gates, Mahesh pointing out where I needed to pay my departure tax and the office of the airport director. “I could write a book about this dump,” he said.
After all three of us made it through the security check, we said goodbye, and I headed in one direction toward my gate, they in the other.
I hope they made it home. I hope they’re reading this blog post from the comfort of their living rooms in South Africa, and not still taking turns sleeping on Douala airport’s one cushioned chair.
UPDATE: (Nov. 1) I just received an e-mail from Abdul! He writes: “We arrived back in S.A. without much drama, except for them searching me thoroughly in Douala, all part of the madness I guess.” So they’ve made it home!