Here's how taxis work in Yaounde, Cameroon. A taxi driver sees you and slows down his cab. You yell out your destination – in French – followed by how much you're willing to pay. If he agrees, he honks once and stops his taxi. If not, he keeps going.
Great, I thought, when my bus pulled in from the Cameroonian coast. So hailing a taxi in Yaounde would be... well, not easy, considering I can't speak French.
Fortunately, there were taxi drivers waiting at the bus park, so I didn't have to test my poor language skills. Of course, they couldn't understand my accent and didn't know where the hotel I'd chosen was, but at least I didn't have to yell at them from the side of the road.
I tried asking for my hotel, Meumi Palace – which I'd chosen due to its location near embassies – using different pronunciations.
Ah, that worked. The hotel was across the street from the Embassy of Chad. I checked in and headed downstairs to a small shop in search of a bit of chocolate.
I was in Yaounde because I needed visas before I could continue the next leg of my ten-month round-the-world trip. Gabon. Republic of Congo. Democratic Republic of Congo. Each would take at least a day, more if I didn't pay for express service, but given the price of hotels in Yaounde (on the high side), it was in my interest to pay the express fees.
I asked at the hotel reception for directions to the Embassy of Gabon.
"It's not far," said a woman that wore a cool wig featuring a purple streak. "But it's complicated. You'd better take a taxi."
She was right. All I had to do was go around the loop then left onto a little street, then left up another little street, and well... I only would have gotten hopelessly lost the first time.
The Embassy of Gabon was open! I was relieved. I'd been worried that it would be closed for Easter. But the visa officer couldn't help me.
"I am sorry," he said. "The boss is out until Wednesday. You can leave your passport, but you cannot collect it until Thursday."
"What if I go get another visa first? Is the Congo Embassy near here?" Actually, I said something more like: "Je vais au Ambassade de Congo est rentrer demain," but he understood.
"Yes, this is an easy visa." He replied in English. "Go there first. It is right down the street. You can come back here after you get that visa."
He got up from his desk, walked outside with me, and pointed down the street.
"Do you see where that man is walking?"
"There." He motioned for me to make a right turn there.
I thanked him and walked down the street, then went down a dirt road, looking at the names of embassies as I went.
The Republic of Congo one was easy enough to find. I approached the door, but could see that it was locked.
Two young men and one young woman sat across the street in front of a photocopy shop.
One of the guys said something to me in French that I didn't understand.
"C'est ferme?" I asked.
Now he heard me, and my accent, so he answered me in English.
"Closed for public holiday."
"Ou est Congo Kinshasa? Autre Congo?"
"It is complicated. You need to take a taxi."
The woman of the trio spotted a taxi at the same time that I did. It was parked down the street in front of a phone card shop. She started walking to it, so I did too.
I wasn't sure if she had to go somewhere, but when we got to the taxi, she commanded the driver to take me to the Democratic Republic of Congo's embassy. That's how people speak here. It's not meant to be rude.
The driver agreed, and said he didn't know where it was. The two guys had caught up by now, and the trio spent several minutes explaining to the driver where to take me. Most movements I've made as part of MariesWorldTour.com have been actively discussed by local residents, who always seem happy to help.
We stopped for directions several times. Two passer-bys and one Embassy of South Africa security guard were involved in directing my taxi to the embassy. Which was open! Hooray!
I entered the gate and climbed the stairs to the reception area.
"120,000 CFA please," said the woman behind the glass.
I stood there, stunned. That's around $265. I was only planning to be in Kinshasa for a day, and then would take one more day to travel to the southern border.
"120,000 CFA? Really? Is there a transit visa? Anything cheaper?"
She shook her head with resignation. She probably has this conversation ten times a week.
I scraped around in my wallet, searching for spare CFA. I was 5,000 CFA short, but the clerk agreed that I could bring it to her tomorrow when I picked up my passport. I filled out the visa form, left all my money at the embassy, and had to walk back to Meumi Palace.
After a quick visit to an ATM, I promptly went to Espresso House to drown my DRC-visa sorrows in a cappuccino. Downstairs, I spotted a salon. The sun was going down when I headed into the salon for a manicure-pedicure.
As often happens when I go to salons that aren't geared to expats, the workers there looked both surprised and amused by my presence. They sent me upstairs to a chair in a windowless corner, where a young woman showed up with a portable foot-bath. She filled it with warm water and soap, instructed me to soak my feet in it, and then took my hands and got to work with the nail polish remover.
I love going to salons when I'm travelling, because I can watch local women in a comfortable environment. In Kuwait – where I am sometimes employed – I'd see Kuwaiti women take off their black abayas so they could get dolled up. Here, it was all about wigs. Both male and female hairdressers worked on women's wigs, sometimes on head and sometimes off.
I was watching one particularly interesting wig-work, trying to figure out how exactly that swirly pigtail was going to stay on, when the power went out.
And my nail technician proceeded to get a candle so that she could push and cut my cuticles by candlelight.
"Maybe I should tell her to stop that," I thought. "Seems dangerous."
But the power cut hadn't phased her. She just kept working.
I don't even like it when people cut my cuticles in the light. But I didn't stop her. My curiosity wanted her to keep going. Could she really do this? Did I really want to find out if she couldn't?
I held very, very still.
And eventually, the nail technician straightened up and pronounced her job done.
When I got back to my hotel and looked at her work, I saw that she'd missed a tiny bit of polish, but nothing was bleeding and actually, she'd done a pretty good job.
Even in the dark.
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