December 12th, 2017 - Tilburg - 38908 kilometer - #host 23
I stare out the window at the rainy Dutch skies. Two hours before the train drops me at the station in Tilburg. It's getting dark and I dive deeper into my scarf. Winter is in full swing. I hate it. The day after tomorrow we land in Cameroon, where it is around 27 degrees.
Elske opens the door. Her half long blonde hair is wrapped in a bun with an African colored band around it. She gives me a hug. Inside I see so many suitcases. "Gosh, you’re only allowed to take one suitcase per person right?" I ask Elske in shock.
No, with our tickets we can take two times 32 kilos,” she says. We calculate how many kilos we’re taking with us, for four weeks traveling. It’s more than 250 kilos. We start to laugh. Two of the bags are filled with the accessories for her wedding dress. Elske and her husband Eric met three years ago in Tilburg, where they have been living for over a decade. I was taking pictures during their Dutch wedding. But since Eric grew up in Cameroon, they still want to get married in his hometown Akum.
The next day we drive to Brussels with a packed car. It's still dark outside. The oldest two children are over the moon and Elske has her hands full with them. The youngest two are with Eric in Cameroon to prepare everything for the wedding.
The flight to the capital city, Yaounde, takes seventeen hours. I have traveled to Africa before, so I'm prepared for my arrival: a lot of noise from shouting taxi drivers who see dollar signs at the sight of our white skin color. Elske runs into Eric’s arms when she sees him. I am touched by this loving moment.
In the parking lot, a full crew of people are waiting for us. Relatives and friends who will help during the long bus ride to where we need to go. But it's a big mess. The traffic is completely fixed and we are waiting in the bus for over an hour before we finally leave for Akum. Eric booked two seats for me, so I have a little more space. I’m very thankful for this, because the seats are cramped and not designed for European lengths. It is the most bizarre bus ride I've ever experienced.
As I doze off, a man stands up. He begins to preach loudly. "Hallelujaaaa!" he shouts. Everyone around me starts to pray. The man repeats constantly that we should pray for a safe arrival. I start to wonder what is so exciting about this bus ride? Then the bus driver puts his foot down on the gas pedal. Max Verstappen (Dutch race car driver) has nothing on him. Even though we might only be driving eighty kilometers per hour, but the roads are bad and with all the potholes and bumps it feels like a dangerous rally race. My confidence in the driver is falling by the minute.
The preacher continues. I turn on my MP3 player and listen to some music, but it does not help. He is preaching too loud. I can hear him through my earphones. It irritates me to no end, but I cannot do anything about it. Elske looks at me with wide eyes. She also doesn’t know what’s going on.
I'm trying to meditate and shut myself off from my surroundings, but all of a sudden we're standing still. The preacher's grabbing something in his bag. He's holding up toiletries. I can't understand it, but the fact that it's a sales pitch is obvious. The preacher transforms himself into a market trader.
I laugh on the sly, when he says that his bottles of lotion have a healing effect on eczema or allergies and yes, even cancer can be cured thanks to this superlotion.
When the preacher, alias the salesman, has earned his daily wage (he is seriously trading in that bus), we drive on. Relieved I try to continue sleeping, but from the speakers I hear rock-hard African reggae. After two hours I am so done with it that I walk to the driver and ask if it can be done more quietly. Annoyed he answers: "No, otherwise I fall asleep!" Maybe praying for a safe bus ride wasn't such a bad idea. It is now three o'clock in the morning and we are on the road for five hours. Suddenly we stop and we have to get off.
"Get out, passport control!"
In a hurry we are taken out of the bus . I hate it, because I just took off my lenses. With my -7.5 strength I don't see much. I can't clearly see what's going on around me, but it's chaos. We have to walk a bit and for a moment I'm afraid we won't find our bus again. I stay right behind Elske; I can't lose her and I put my hand on her shoulder. All buses look exactly the same: old, rotten and discoloured. But Eric is used to the situation and keeps a close eye on us. When we get back in, I quickly check if I still have all my camera equipment and curse myself for having been so stupid as to leave all my things behind.
It's six o'clock. The sun rises and the view is beautiful. The landscape is greener than I expected. They don't know bus stops here, so you'll be dropped wherever you want. Look, that's a plus compared to the Netherlands. We arrive at Eric's father's house.
The first days are all about the preparations for the wedding. The church is out of a fairy tale, but the reception hall is missing a floor and the wedding is in a few days. They promise to have everything ready by then.
Meanwhile, I combine my movie assignment with another assignment in Cameroon: a NGO* company that is providing micro credits to farmers to get them out of poverty. Charles, the priest who runs the project, is at my door. He is a cheerful man and remarkably articulate. He wants to know if I'm ready for three days of filming. “Can we get back to this house every night?” I ask Charles. “Oh, it’s far away, so we can’t drive back in just one day. You have to sleep at a local,” he replies. Oh shit, I was not prepared for that. I quickly grab some toiletries, some underwear and an extra sweater and throw it in my bag. I cannot take anymore with me on the motorcycle. I jump on the back and wave goodbye to Eric and Elske. "See you the day after tomorrow!" I yell at them. Not knowing I would return as a different person.
*NGO is a non-governmental organization that works independently of the government to promote social interests.
Once we leave the city, I enjoy the warm sun. I love sitting on the back of the bike. Everywhere I look I see palm trees. It's pretty dry so I'm covered in dust because they don’t have asphalt roads here. Every car honks when they see my blonde hair waving from under the helmet. Four hours later we arrive in Balikumbat. A tiny village in the middle of nowhere.
“Oh my god, you are here!” Larissa comes running toward me. My host for the next two days. Larissa is over the moon. She never spoke to anyone from Europe. Her children are very shy and they hardly dare look at me. She and her husband Steven are the sweetest people I've ever met. She immediately gets the shower ready for me, because I'm sandblasted. I pour the two buckets of hot water over myself and it feels like the best shower I've ever had. Funny, how you suddenly appreciate the small things.
Larissa and her husband live relatively well by African standards. The house is decorated with gold leaf. I get assigned a private room. I plop down on the mattress, which feels like a block of concrete. Still, I fall asleep because I'm exhausted.
The next day we have breakfast with French fries. I'm so hungry I want to eat everything, but at the same time it is so oily it turns my stomach. But it gives me the energy I need for the long day ahead. For the next twelve hours I film three different farmers. The last interview I have is with Margaret. With the help of the NGO she could finally buy furniture for her home. Margaret runs her six-hectare farm by herself. What a superwoman! For the first time she sleeps with her husband in a bed instead on a mat on the floor. I think about how I threw half of my possessions away last year, because I wanted to live as a 'minimalist'. Because we in Western society get so restless from too many things. What a joke we are.
When the job is done and I'm leaving, Margaret wants to give me a gift, a bag of corn. I don’t want to accept it. They have so little and what do I need with a bag of corn? Charles quickly whispers in my ear that it's downright rude if I refuse her gift. I take it and decide to give it to someone else later.
After an intense day full of impressions, I arrive that evening at Larissa’s home and I think about the generosity of the African culture. They say: “the less man has, the more one wants to share.” Here it is hitting the nail on the head. I lie in bed and it takes me a long time before I fall asleep. Thoughts continue to haunt my mind. Fuck, man. I start to feel embarrassed for my Dutch penny pinching mindset. Be thrifty, that is what I was brought up with. Is it due to my large family that we needed to earn our own money at an early age? That what you earn you keep for yourself? I make a decision: from now on, no more splitting bills after meals. The Dutch way is over for me.
The next day, we drive back to Eric and Elske. I will never forget this day. In fact, this is the day that will turn my Cameroon trip completely upside down.