Tuesday, Oct. 28
Douala, Cameroon

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!”