It’s been 32 hours. Hours split between waiting and flying three flights halfway across the globe. Finally, I’ve reached my country of destination — Cameroon. But still, there are another ten hours of driving through potholed filled city roads and bumpy unpaved dirt rural roads before I swerve and crash into a bed and meet my maker. Won’t that be lovely. Exhaustion will make you fantasize… and sleep anywhere.
There’s an issue pulling out of the airport parking lot. The guard requires payment. It should have been a few bucks but he sees me, sitting dollar signs, and places extra demands on my driver, Big Joe. Joe glances out the windshield; a look of frustration crosses his face before he turns his head back to meet the guard through the window. The guard gives him a hard time before he steps back away from the truck and goes into his shack.
Big Joe tells me he has limited cash. I’m tired. I just met Joe. I assume his size is the reason for his nickname. Big guys always need help from little guys.
“You need money. What’s he want? I have some small bills...”
Ones and fives should do, I think. I start to dig out my envelope holding $800 American cash next to my passport and yellow fever vaccination document. Shoot — no ones and fives. Of course. My bank didn’t follow my directions before I left. The smallest bills I have are $10 worth 5,500 Francs…a substantial amount here in Cameroon.
No clouds in an open sky. The sun is shining and Big Joe is sweating… a lot.
I am too.
Very sincerely he says,
“This isn’t good. It’s not suppose to happen this way. You know you shouldn’t have to pay anything and I’m not supposed to take money from guests. It’s against the rules but…”
“Here, take $10.”
I hand it over to Joe and he gets out of the truck to meet the guard. He comes back immediately,
“Do you have another $10?”
Hm. I hand him a ten and he vanishes.
Cars are lined up behind us now all trying to exit the airport. Joe hops back into the truck wide eyed and exasperated. He pulls the truck ahead and off to the side of the road. He looks at me, sweat dripping off his bald head and face, “I need another $20.”
It’s so hot. The sun is cooking through the windshield. And I’m fatigued. The AC can’t keep up and my shirt is starting to stick to my body. Getting ripped off though tickles my ego.
“Twenty bucks! Seriously? Come on man. What are you guys doing??” Joe looks defeated, “He won’t let us go.”
I look at the guard — tall and dark as night. He’s wearing black clothes with colorful patterned prints. Around him are a few uninterested police officers in green army clothing holding AK-47s. They couldn’t be bothered. Who is this guy? I hand Joe a twenty and he disappears again.
Why didn’t he just drive away the first time he paid? This isn’t right. Grease a few palms here and there, fine. It’s expected. I get it. But its an uneasy feeling when it’s done through a third party. If I can’t control getting ripped off, then at least I can dictate the dialogue. However, this is not the case.
Is Joe trying to keep the peace somehow? He must pick up visitors here all the time. Big Joe is from the NGO I am volunteering my plumbing services for to educate and train local people in a community that has virtually no modern plumbing. Automatically, I put my trust in him. He’s friendly, jolly, and good natured. I like his face. We could be friends. He hops back in the truck and we pull away.
“That wasn’t right,” I say. “How much did YOU pay him?”
Clearly stressed he replied, “I gave him $20.”
“And I gave him $40. And that’s NORMAL?”
“Yeah I don’t think so, let me do the math… 33,000 Francs!”
Later I learn that’s half a month’s rent.
“What’s it normally cost to leave the airport?”
Which is 550 francs. Ten hours to go. Is my driver crooked?