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Phil's Travels - Yaounde/Douala, Cameroon (06.21)


Phil's Travels - Yaounde/Douala, Cameroon (06.21)

'Ah, l'Anglais', was my client's greeting when he first caught sight of me in the flesh, following more than 16 months of Teaming and Zooming. And to obtain such a greeting necessitated quite the palaver.

It all began on a Friday morning with an easy game of Spot The Scot. My travel vaccines were administered at Boots on Oxford Street and everywhere I went (between meetings, calls on the hoof and procurement of travel provisions) I bumped into Scot folk. They were especially abundant in the Hard Rock Hotel at Marble Arch. It was later that I realised the clans were in town for the Eng v Sco match at Wembley (as part of the delayed Euro 2020). Armed with the right vaccines and pills, and a Frozen plaster on my shoulder (featuring the snowman, Olaf), I was ready for the journey to Heathrow T2 and the first of my seven C19 tests (yes, seven!) for this trip.

The testing operation at T2 was very efficient (provided you don't eat or drink for 30 minutes prior to the penetrations, note to self) and I got my results via email the next day (in the negative).

I was out of bed before 06.00 on Monday morning (the earliest since March 2020) and was at Heathrow T2 for my flight before 07.00 - giving me plenty of time to consider the world's most boring terminal in glorious detail. Many shops had clearly closed down and the Perfectionist's Café was also out of commission (maybe due to lack of staff, which was becoming a growing post-Brexit issue). I did not think it was possible, but it was - T2 was even more boring than its previous self as the most boring terminal in the world. We transited through Paris CDG, which was made much more pleasurable by my travelling companions generously inviting me into the Club Lounge for the five-hour layover.

France is one of the most over-regulated countries on Earth and yet, somehow, they still manage to fail on even the most basic things. In this time of C19, distancing and high levels of cleanliness, none of the bathrooms in the Club Lounge had any soap at any point during our tenure. A comparison of the departure boards between LHR and CDG showed that the latter was clearly the busier. LHR had a flight every 15-20 minutes, whilst CDG often had multiple flights at the same time (like LHR of old).

T2 may be the most boring terminal in the world, but it has to be said that CDG is perhaps one of the ugliest, most confusing, poorly laid out and most appalling airports in the world. For example, the wing that hosted our gate was packed with passengers (no social distancing), very hot (the sun streamed in unabated) and the boarding procedure was over-complicated, tortuous and very slow.

I flew to Yaounde in the most uncomfortable premium economy seat ever to leave the ground (note to Air France to review seat quality - my return leg in economy was a much more comfortable seat). The TV selection was poor, only one meal was served in seven hours and the aircraft was chocka, with no social distancing.

On disembarkation at Yaounde Nsimalen International Airport, we were herded into a departure gate for temperature checks and C19 testing. Unlike the T2 testers, here they only poked around a nostril (no tonsil jousting) for a lateral-flow test. Ten minutes later my name was read out and I was free to go and join the others (just as well as the gate area was filling rapidly to the brim with the contents of our flight, with again no social distancing possible).

Our departure from the airport was a little confusing, as our reception committee seemed to be having trouble getting our passports approved. The fabulous FM even disappeared with all our passports for a good ten minutes when we were out and waiting patiently by the cars. We had no idea where she was or what she was doing, only that we had no passports and felt very vulnerable. We need not have worried, FM came bounding back to us and returned our documents. The trouble was my passport. I need a new one. I did not have any double-blank pages left, which is a requirement for a Cameroon visa. They were going to refuse me entry until FM worked her magic and got me in anyway. (Note to self, get new passport as soon as post-trip isolation is over.)

The next day was my 'Ah, l'Anglais' moment, back-to-back meetings and dinner entre nous visitors at the Sucre & Sale cabaret venue opposite the hotel (no mbongo tchobi, again, but there were plenty of huge juicy gambas). Following day was more meetings, two key presentations and another C19 test. This time the full PCR, but nostril only - do Cameroon nurses not like the throat approach? And why does everyone keep poking uniformly and solely around my left nostril? Every time it was the left one. The poor thing was beginning to feel quite disturbed (not a good thing for a hay fever sufferer). Anyway, this latest tester was not happy with what she saw on her swab from my left nostril and dove into my right nostril as well. Have trawled the depths of my nasal passages, she re-examined the swab, grunted, said something like, 'these guys don't make many bogies, do they?', and let me go. Fortunately, the test was negative again and I was able to fly out as planned.

The first of our two key presentations was to the Minister of Tourism. A lovely man whom I had met on my previous trip to Cameroon. The second was to the President's Minister and an altogether very different affair. The Presidential complex was built on a hill overlooking the capital and covers more than 160ha. Within it lie government offices, multiple residences, parkland, security posts and the office of the Presidential Palace. In order to enter, the security was very strict. Our convoy of black Mercs was told to park up by a checkpoint and we had to disembark and play a game of Whose Got A Phone Anyway. After many minutes of confusion (including me having to take my laptop with me even though I did not want to and the guards calling me 'Mr London'), we drove up to the palace proper, walked through more security and finally into a soundproof meeting room. The President's Minister was a delightful chap and I think he really liked the project. All well worth the effort.

On this day of key meetings, I had decided to wear my best suit, also known as my rain-making robes. I told the guys it would rain at some point and sure enough during the extended security protocols, throughout the meeting and back at the guard-post to retrieve our phones, it poured tigers and dingos. Yaounde is the driest of the big cities in Cameroon and it rained. I never wore the pluviculture suit again on the trip and in much rainier Douala, not kitten nor puppy was to be seen. I tell you, if you need rain, just give me a call and my best suit will bring on the precipitation.

That evening we celebrated the excellent meetings at our client's home and I retired to bed with the throbbing bass of the night club below my room in full cadence with my entire bedroom. Needless to say, sleep was not possible until around 03.00. I was up at 06.00 for the lumber-truck-dodging drive to Douala, in our cavalcade of black Mercs, which was supplemented on the outskirts of Douala by a military escort comprising a Hilux pick-up truck, motorbikes and black-clad authoritative men of muscle. The ride into town was a like a game of Midtown Madness. CP even recorded the experience from the front passenger seat of the leading Merc.  

Phil's Travels - Yaounde/Douala, Cameroon (06.21)

After the thrill of cutting through Douala's crazy traffic with impunity, we toured the project site and its environs, followed by more meetings and workshops. That evening we dined down in the port at La Baleine Bleu and gorged ourselves on fresh gambas from the passing Wouri River and fresh sole from the nearby ocean. All served by the delightful Mr George. We slept in one of Douala's newest hotels, but no better soundproofed than the one in Yaounde. At 05.30 I was awoken by a nearby cockrell announcing the dawn. Other major issue with the hotel, and a big pet peeve - there was only one socket at the desk, meaning you could either have power to your laptop and no light, or light and no power for the laptop. That said, one did get the hang of the juggling act eventually.

On the plus side, apart from all the lovely people and delicious food, Cameroon was very serious in its handling of C19. There were bottles of hand gel everywhere. Everyone wore masks and social distancing was pretty good. During the many meetings, I learnt a new favourite word: 'une soufflerie'. It means wind tunnel. But it is so much more sexy than wind tunnel, which sounds very matter of fact. A soufflerie sounds like something you might entertain on a romantic spring evening in a café by the Seine under a setting sun whilst drinking a glass of the finest rose.

Our final evening was a glorious feast of Indian fare, that would rival anything on offer in London. Absolutely delicious. Our return flight was late that evening and back through CDG again. Having said Cameroon was pretty good with C19 protocols, it seemed as if the air industry everywhere operated by a different set of rules. The whole flight was crammed into a tiny departure gate, standing room only, with no social distancing possible. On the plus side though, the room had no air-conditioning and became so hot and sticky that no virus could possibly have survived in that inconducive environment anyway. I would hate to think what it was like in that gate during day-time temperatures and with the sun beating in. A human incinerator comes to mind, whereby all passengers are rendered to atomic dust before boarding.

The return transit was through another part of CDG. A part populated by, as one quick-witted passing Aussie put it, 'wandering packs of condoms'. Put more accurately, small groups of Chinese tourists were on walkabout about the terminal attired in what looked like white, all-in-one hazmat suits (hoods, visors, gloves, shoe-coverings and all). They may have looked a little odd amongst the rest of us in normal attire, but to be fair, they do know how to handle a pandemic better than most. Maybe such suits should become mandatory flight attire and then the world could open up more quickly.

We took off an hour late from CDG (no excuse given) and as we taxied around Heathrow I noticed many Virgins clustered around T3 (very few other brands were in evidence) and only four aircraft on stand at T4. Altogether a very disturbing sight for one of the world's busiest international airports. At least our hotel at T4 was doing well with the ensuing quarantine trade. After the Passenger Locator Form interrogation and passport check, I discovered that my suitcase was still in Paris, together with over 100 other bags from our flight (the queue at the luggage counter was half a mile long, good job I got there early and missed the crowd). Apparently there had been a technical difficulty and that the handlers at CDG had gone on strike at having to work it all out manually. No wonder the skipper of our flight did not provide an excuse for our delay. There would have been a riot on board had he told us the truth.

Minus suitcase I went straight to the T2 C19 test centre for my fourth test, left nostril again, and then headed to the Express. A delayed suitcase when back at base is much less inconvenient than when it goes missing whilst out in the field. However, I did have my return Heathrow Express ticket and all my tech cables in there (silly boy, proof of lack of recent travel experience). But, thanks to Milton at Heathrow Express, I managed to get home without spending another small fortune on another ticket. In fact, I think I had the entire eight-car train to myself. There was no one else on the platform.

At home I took a lateral-flow test to make sure I was ok (test #5). Negative again, as was the #4 test result the next day. I had two more tests to go (the Day 5 Early Release and the obligatory Day 8 tests). At least for my self-administered test I gave my poor, abused left nostril a break and scraped around the right one instead. And so ended the first overseas travel of Mr London, aka L'Anglais, since February 2020 (I have never been grounded for so long). It was good to be travelling again and I hope you too will enjoy the freedom of flight somewhere soon.

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