Now I am living off ship I have to commute, something I have not done for a long while. Commuting in a city, a port city, is completely different to my old commute in Lancashire.
I have to apologise for the quality of the photos, National Geographic they are not! it was raining, and we were moving, and I think my little camera is getting a bit old. We also have to be careful of photographing people as many don’t like it and can get a little bit aggressive, thats why I didn’t hang out of the window! so most were taken from inside the car. The images are to give you a flavour …even though you might have to peer closely!
To set the scene,
Douala (German: Duala) is the largest city in Cameroon, and the capital of Cameroon’s Littoral Region. Home to Central Africa’s largest port and its major international airport, Douala International Airport, it is the commercial and economic capital of Cameroon and the entire CEMAC region comprising Gabon, Congo, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, CAR and Cameroon. Consequently, it handles most of the country’s major exports, such as oil,cocoa and coffee, timber, metals and fruits. As of 2010 the city and its surrounding area had an estimated population that surpassed 3,000,000 inhabitants. The city sits on the estuary of the Wouri River and its climate is tropical. (Wikipedia info!)
We have three car assigned to the house and clinic, and there are many trips made between house/ship/clinic and beyond. Our big white Landrovers and Toyota LandCruisers are very distinctive with the Mercy Ships logo emblazoned along the sides, and they need to be sturdy to cope with what we put them through – they carry crew, patients and luggage, and anything else that needs to be transported, and it is quite an exercise deciding who has which car and who is going where!
When working on the ship we leave reasonably early (6.30) but it is pot luck with the traffic, the morning commute can take anything from half an hour to an hour and a half. There are usually four of us going to the ship in the morning and I don’t have to drive so it is a good opportunity for me to gaze out of the window and take in this mad crazy place.
Depending on how the weather has been overnight determines the state of the road beyond those big green compound gates.
On the morning I was making these observations it had rained heavily overnight , (it rains a lot), so consequently the muddy road was all churned up and slippery – I was glad it wasn’t me driving down our hill !
At the bottom of the hill a mama had set up a small table piled high with bread rolls and various indeterminate fillings. She has been there everyday this week to catch the schoolchildren as they pass by on their way to school. There is always a little group round her as she swiftly spreads fillings on bread and passes it to eager hungry hands. These are younger children who have their breakfast on the go (we are talking between 6am and 7am here!). The children are all smartly dressed in their school uniforms, heavy book laden rucksacks on their backs. Not a rolled up skirt or half done tie insight. They look at us with interest as we drive by and they tentively wave to return our greeting. White faces are a new phenonomem in downtown Yassa.
These mamas are an enterprising lot, there is a lady just up from the port gate who does a roaring trade, all from a makeshift set up.
We drive up the hill to join the main road, and this particular morning we are faced with a row of practically stationary traffic. We slowly edge in to join the snail pace and creep along in amongst the cars, taxis,motorbikes,lorries and pedestrians. I suppose there are rules of the road here but they are not very evident! As we trundle along in first gear what was a single lane becomes a four lane highway as impatient drivers overtake an overtake, driving down the oncoming road at the slight hint of a gap. There are bottlenecks along the route, one particular one, not far from where we join the road has a petrol station on one side of the road and a school on the other. So you have huge trucks and lorries parked in what looks like a makeshift lorry park at the side of the petrol station, they have the ‘ I am bigger than you’ attitude and swing into the traffic without a by or leave. At the same time you have cars and taxis filling up, then rejoining then road, and the general public congregating together to catch the said taxi or motorbike. As you can imagine there is a lot of toing and froing as people are picked up and dropped off. Add to the mix pedestrians who are walking to the nearest market or work, schoolchildren on their way to class and everyone else going goodness knows where – you have total chaos – or so it appears. At this particular point there is usually one lonely police officer doing their very best to control the traffic, even making people reverse if they overstep the mark – which just adds to the problem !
Other bottlenecks occur along the way, particularly at roundabouts ( a popular pick up point for the taxis and motorbike taxis), and also where the road surface deteriorates. There is one spot near the port, on the main highway, that is not so much a pot hole rather the dimensions of a crater, and it’s getting bigger everyday and slows everyone down considerably as they try and negotiate around it.
We inch our way along behind a huge log lorry, plantain piled high atop it’s cargo of three enormous tree trunks. I look down the side streets. None are tarmaced so there is mud, puddles and huge tracks everywhere. Pedestrians pick their way through so as not to get covered with the orange sticky mud. I notice broken down machinery and plant, a metal graveyard, left to rust and disntegrate where they were last parked. Unwanted cars, stripped of all useful parts, piled together, part of the daily life. An enterprising person makes use of their surfaces to display his wares, the latest in Cameroonian football shirts, red safety triangles and mirrors for cars.
I look at the buildings and they are a mixture of styles from small wooden buildings made from slats with tarpaulin roofs, recycled containers, and concrete structures – some completed, some not. There are many unfinished buildings, usually surrounded with very fragile wooden scaffolding that would make our health and safety guy’s hair turn white with fright. Full use is made of them though, the first floor may still have its concrete posts, shuttering and steel pointing to the sky, awaiting further development but there is a thriving business happening on the ground floor. Many a building looks unused too but on closer inspection you can see signs of habitation – a line of colourful washing is usually the give away. All the buildings though have a look of disrepair about them, this climate is not kind to decoration therefore many are not painted and just left with the grey of the concrete. Vegetation though struggles valiantly through and there are a few patches of green to relieve the eye.
It would seem that the whole of Duoala gets up early and is on the move. The markets which along our route are situated mainly in the area around the roundabouts ( along with the taxis and motorbike taxis). leading to a large amount of traffic and people.In one particular market, amongst the dirt and rubble and half built buildings, the stalls are crammed together, with very little space between them. Some have torn and raggedy umbrellas to protect them from the sun and rain, many don’t. Along the roadside individuals set up their wares on a cloth on the pavement, a few vegetables for sale here and there. They squat waiting patiently for someone who is passing by to purchase something, a resigned expression on their faces. There are huge piles of plantain, and I mean huge ! and when we pass by in the evening the pile has almost gone. I do have to say, as an aside, fried plantain is delicious. Rows of silvery fish on a stall vies places with perfume, watches, fruit, car parts,tyres, vegetables, local food, clothes, drinks, wooden furniture ( left out in all weather) and the inevitable mobile phone stall! The place is buzzing, every morning, seven days a week with hundreds of customers.
The women, for the most part, are dressed in beautiful colourful clothes that only a dark skin can wear with success, and many have very interesting braided hair styles in neon colours. They carry shopping on their heads and babies on their back. I often think how practical it is to carry things on your head as it leaves both hands free! It is also very good for deportment, these women, and men, have amazing posture. For those of a certain age, think back to all those deportment classes we were encouraged to do carrying books on our head. The loads that both men and women carry are inconceivable to my eye but they start them young here, you often see little ones carrying buckets and sacks full of something on their heads. There is a slight downside though, I was told when our VVF ladies come to the ship and have a spinal anaesthetic their back muscles are so well developed that when the anaesthetist tries to put the needle in it’s like going through leather !!
As we go along (the traffic is awfully slow today) I see individuals walking up and down the side of the road selling wares. Usually towels or blankets, the display one in their hands and the stock in a pile on their head. My favourite though is the shoe guy as the shoes are all tied so as to hang from his neck and he carries one shoe on his head – just so you know what he is selling !
Dotted all around, amid the abandoned cars, shops and rubbish are small cafes, many with only a few plastic tables and chairs for their customers, enticing people with breakfast before they make their way to work, school, shops, the market. Just like any other town or city across the world.
As we make a our journey, the traffic, as usual, takes on a life of it’s own.We contend with those motorbike taxis who form large groups as they tout for business and when they get their passengers they zoom off, weaving in amongst the cars, buses and lorries. Many a time there will be 10 or more in front of you, avidly trying to spot that gap that they can squeeze through! Their passengers nonchantly sit behind, shouting greetings to passers by they know. There is often three to four to a bike, and this morning there was a Dad (I presume) and his three little girls, two behind and the smallest in the front of him and not a helmet in sight! It is a very rare sight to see a helmet but there are long extended umbrellas fixed to the handlebars to protect them from the sun and rain. Large packages are often carried too and I have seen car doors and framed windows perched precariously behind a driver the passengers arms spread wide as they balance the height and weight, but the one that takes the biscuit is a guy with a full motorbike perched between him and the driver – motorbike on motorbike!
The taxis are scratched, scraped, with metal bits hanging off, lights smashed. Wing mirrors hang off, back windows that are out are covered in cardboard and tape. In no way would they ever pass an MOT or an emission test. They all look like they have done 100 laps on a circuit race, the one they all bump into each other. They too cram as many people in as they can and apparently they stop and pick up along the way until they have a full car – no sensitivities about personal space here! They also weave in and out of the traffic, overtake and undercut, drive up the wrong side of an approach road to a roundabout to nip in, and even the wrong way around a roundabout. Roundabouts are funny anyway ( to me) entering traffic has the right of way, so if you are going around the roundabout you have to stop to let traffic in. I hope I don’t do this at home ! Everyone is just trying to get where they want to be a little bit quicker. Time is money!
Traffic is often hampered by the huge lorries though – they always seem to break down in the most inconvenient place, usually on the approach to a roundabout or on the roundabout itself! The majority are also battered, old and rusty and knocked about. No rescue service here, so they have to be fixed, usually by the driver, where they break down. Occasionally a red triangle is used but more often than not a row of clumped vegetation in a line behind the vehicle indicates a problem.
Buses full of luggage and people pass by on their way to Yaounde, the bored faces looking at us, mostly curiously but some blankly as though nothing registers anymore. We can usually get the children to give us a smile and a wave.
Where the road turns into a three lane highway the traffic flows easier but we notice small children in a row walking along the edges, unable to get to school any other way without a long detour. My heart is in my mouth as I watch their treachourous journey. They will turn though, into the adults that sit under the road bridges, run alongside the cars, and play dodgems with the cars, lorries,taxis and bikes. An occasional pushbike is seen but they are a rarity – although there is a cycle club which one of our engineers goes out with, very early on a Sunday morning, way out of the city. We pass an open backed lorry that has a group of older schoolchildren, all standing, all at ease, probably their usual way to get to school.
As we get near the port the various lorries peel off into the various container depots to be unloaded ( a quickish job since none seem to be secured to the lorry!). We pass rows and rows and rows of log lorries. Enormous trunks of trees, one, two or three to a truck depending on their diameter. It breaks my heart to see the destruction of these magnificent specimens, many maybe hundreds of years old. Apparently mainly from the Congo and further north in Cameroon, but it is an insatiable appetite from the west that fuels the trade – and trade is always desirable – it seems at any cost. This photo was taken as we were driving past ..row after row
One sight that makes my morning is seeing the young men play football on every available space, be it scrub land or a bare batch between buildings. Sometimes they are in full strip , all matching but most times they are a rag tag of styles and it doesn’t seem to matter how early we go in there is always a match going on somewhere.
And then we arrive at the ship!
Journey times differ depending on all of the above ! anything from half an hour to an hour and a half. There is always something to see. All of the above and, me being inherently nosey, am always on the lookout for an unusual sight or a flash of colour to catch my eye and pique my interest.
It is forever fascinating