Amy’s sister Michelle is in her final year as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Eastern Province of Cameroon, Africa. This past July, Michelle traveled back to the United States for our wedding in Washington D.C. It was during our time together in D.C. that the three of us, along with Amy’s dad, made our first tentative plans to visit Michelle in Africa. Six months later, after lots of planning and many vaccinations, we were finally ready for our trip. This is our story.
This is part 1 of my experience: travel to Douala, Cameroon.
Amy went home to Boston for Christmas but I stayed behind in Singapore. Consequently, we were not able to travel to Cameroon together. Our plan was to rendezvous at the Douala airport on the 27th of December.
Getting to Cameroon from Singapore is neither cheap nor easy. I booked my round trip flight on KLM / Air France (the only airline that flies to both Cameroon and Singapore). My itinerary to Cameroon included a long daytime layover in Amsterdam and an overnight stop in Paris.
My fully flexible, but also very expensive economy ticket was the only option available when I booked my ticket in late October. However, the ticket came with certain advantages including the ability to upgrade to business class at steep discounts if availability existed at check-in. This came in handy later on my flight back to Singapore (a flight that was much longer than expected due to an emergency landing in Romania – story to follow).
There were other, cheaper options to get to Cameroon from Singapore, but they generally included even more stops (in not so nice cities) or otherwise long flights on small, uncomfortable planes. One option that I considered but ultimately dismissed was to fly from Singapore to Istanbul and then from Istanbul non-stop to Cameroon. However the second leg of this journey included a 9+ hour flight on a single aisle 737. I decided to pass on the Istanbul route.
Finally, I had never been to Amsterdam and the KLM / Air France route would give me almost a full day in the Northern European city.
My flight to Amsterdam was uneventful. The half empty plane left just after midnight on December 26th. After takeoff I moved to an empty row, stretched out along three seats, popped a prescription sleeping pill and slept for almost nine hours (a personal record). The sleep was neither restful nor relaxing but it made the 14 hour flight far better than I’ve come to expect from similar long-haul trips.
After waking up I was served breakfast (I was starving after sleeping through the earlier food service), watched several episodes of How I Met Your Mother and before I knew it we were landing in Amsterdam.
We arrived in Amsterdam early in the morning and EU customs only took a few minutes. I had done a poor job of planning for my layover and had little idea of how to get to downtown Amsterdam or what I should do once there. I had, however, read about the luggage storage area at the Amsterdam airport and found the large lockers in the airport’s basement extremely convenient. After storing my bag I headed out of the main airport. Luckily the airport is connected directly to the train terminal and I quickly bought a ticket and was on my way into the city.
Amsterdam was cold, overcast and largely empty when I arrived. I tried to make the most of my time in the city though: I visited the Anne Frank house, took a canal boat tour and wandered through the red light district (although it was still early and the streets were largely deserted).
My flight to Paris did not leave until after 8:00 pm but around midday my jet lag began to catch up with me and I decided to head back to the Amsterdam airport. At the airport my exhaustion and fatigue were overwhelming and I did my best not to fall asleep and risk missing my flight.
Thankfully, I had booked a room at the Charles de Gaulle Hilton in Paris. My flight from Amsterdam was unremarkable and after arriving in Paris I stumbled to my hotel, took a long shower and fell asleep.
The flight to Douala, Cameroon was scheduled to leave Paris at 11:00 am. My father-in-law was flying from Boston via Paris. After suffering through the long customs lines at Charles De Gaulle I found him already seated at the gate. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and it was soon time to board.
I had, somewhat naively I suppose, assumed that Douala would not be a popular destination and I expected a somewhat empty plane. I was wrong. Every seat on both the flight to Douala and the flight back was filled. The Air France entertainment selection was good and the six plus hours passed in a blur of movies and TV shows. In no time the pilot came on the intercom to announce that we were beginning our descent into the city. My seat was in the middle section of the two aisle 777, but I did my best to strain to get a view of the city through the window as we approached the airport. The first thing I noticed was the smog and smoke. It looked, from the air at least, like there were fires throughout the city. A not so auspicious first impression. Later, I learned these fires were from people burning their own garbage, something that happens not just in Douala but throughout the country.
As the plane was continuing on to another destination, the flight attendants announced that passengers would have to show their tickets when exiting the plane to confirm they were at the correct destination.
We disembarked through a dark jetway and emerged into a very basic airport gate. The walls were corrugated and opened up to hot outside air.
I had no real expectations for the Douala airport but I had read and heard from Michelle that it serves as an intimidating and not so pleasant welcome to the country. We quickly passed through a health inspection station where a woman took only a cursory glance at our WHO vaccination books to confirm we had the requisite yellow fever immunization. There was no real line for this, so it would have been easy to circumvent this check.
The customs “line” was next. This resembled more of a crowded concert, with people pushing to the front, than any sort of organized line. While waiting to pass through customs, the flight from Brussels arrived and guess who we ran into. . .
The baggage claim at the airport was chaos.
After more than an hour of waiting, Amy and her Dad finally retrieved their bags (I had not checked mine) and we headed outside. It was a relief to escape the airport.