30 October 2015

Train to Yaounde for Afrobasket Women's final!

Gare Bessengue, Douala. The nicest lawn in the city!
After hearing about the train as an option for travel to Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, Blair and I dropped by the quite beautiful train station. (As sensitive sites cannot be photographed the station images are from an online search.) In early October we elected to buy the “1st Class Plus” tickets as it was only 9,000 CFA (about $16) for the 4 hour trip, and competitive with the posher bus companies (more on that later).

Douala's Gare Bessengue interior.
It was an overcast morning when we set off (around a half-hour late at 6:30AM), but the rain cleared up later on. We had a few stops to make way for other trains, but we generally move along rather steadily. The train was rather bumpy so my initial thought of writing letters had to be dropped.

Luckily we had onboard entertainment. This began with a cooking show where our chef fried and then pounded almonds. This eventually was turned into a paste which was smeared on people's arms to treat wounds.

Preparing almond lotion.
Next came Cami, (national rail company) Camrail's mascot, to tell us how to purchase tickets and other important tips. Most importantly, Cami proclaimed “Non, non, non! C'est dangereux!” - don't use the toilet when stopped in a station. More on this travel rule later.

"Non, non, non! C'est dangereux!"

Among other programming features were a promotional documentary on the train company's maintenance techniques, regional music videos and Cameroonian stand-up comics, and an informational interview on prostate cancer.

The surrounding countryside provided additional diversions, as we got enjoy the undulating hills as we went (Douala is very flat). We also enjoyed the perks of “1st Class Plus,” which included complimentary drinks and pain au chocolat.

Once we arrived in Yaounde we headed for the Palais du Sport to purchase tickets for the women's Afrobasket 2015 tournament – Cameroon had made the final and was playing Senegal that evening. Again we plumped for more expensive seats (or rather the right to push aside people in the closer sections in a bid to improve one's seats and view of the action), going with the 5,000 CFA ($9) option.
Yaounde's central mosque.

We then booked into a rather humble hotel and proceeded to explore this hilly city. We began with a walk around Bastos (a northern neighbourhood with a rather cheap hotel for us), where we dropped by the WWF office to get their phone number to inquire about possible trips to Cameroon's national parks in the East Region, before heading back to town to grab some food and check out some of the local architecture. A lot of the ministries and other government buildings are quite nice looking, but of course photos are interdit.

Play and win American citizenship!

Next we headed up to Mont Febe to visit a monastery with a collection of Cameroonian art. The art was quite good, but especially impressive was the guide- cum coffee-table book explaining the origins of all the various pieces. Afterwards we enjoyed nice views of the city below.

View of Yaounde from the Benedictine monastery. You can see hints of the German heritage below.

We were able to chase down a taxi outside Hotel Mont Febe and headed to the Palais du Sport. Angola (winners of the last two women's Afrobasket tournaments and longtime continental heavyweights on the men's side) was in the midst of a collapse against Nigeria. The departure of the disappointed Angolan fans and their brass band left a vacuum that we and others rushed to fill, and we were able to upgrade our seats for the final. It was Cameroon's first ever appearance in the gold medal game; the previous best results were a couple of bronze medals in the mid-80s. Senegal, by contrast, has only missed out on a medal in the biennial tournament twice since it began in the 1960s.

Senegalese fans, with talking drums, cheering on their team.
Given this pedigree, the Senegalese fans (there are large contingents of Senegalese, and thus good Yassa poulet, in both Douala and Yaounde) were confident, singing and drumming away with djembes, talking drums and empty water bottles. The Cameroonians were equally boisterous, and the Indomitable Lionesses were able to keep the game close in the first quarter.

Indomitable Lionesses' supporters, and one of several brass bands in attendance.

By the end of the first half, though, the Lionesses of Teranga were ahead by 9. After some legends of Afrobasket were feted at halftime Cameroon's ladies rallied in the third quarter but Senegal pulled away at the end and then rolled away with the game in the fourth quarter. It made for a relatively subdued end of the game, with the notable exception of the Senegalese partisans.

Afrobasket's MC/Ring Announcer.
The Senegalese team was much better (and significantly taller across the roster), but hopefully the Cameroonians will address their game plan before the Olympic qualifying playoff. They frequently had two ladies trying to post up and they ended up cramping each other's space so many possessions devolved into long jump shots as the shot clock was running down. The Senegalese Lionesses, by contrast, passed the ball around quite a lot, and occasionally deployed a 2 to 3 person press which completely flummoxed Cameroon's guards when they crossed halfcourt.

Former stars of Afrobasket Women were honoured at halftime.
Indomitable Lion outside le Palais du Sport.

We headed back to Bastos area to perch above the roundabout in the bar Partenaire. We then got some smoked fish and batons (long boiled manioc/cassava noodles) from a vendor on the roundabout.

View of Rondpoint Nlongkak, Bastos, Yaounde.

Then it was off to bed, where we watched a dubbed Melissa McCarthy running around in Spy, which we greatly enjoyed when we saw it in the U.S. Much of the physical comedy translated, but the French was too fast even for Blair. The picture quality was terrible, but Blair stuck with it then we had a fitful night's sleep as the fan wasn't strong enough to blow away all the mosquitoes or drown out the noise outside.

Blair watched "Spy" for far too long given the reception quality and the fast dubbed dialogue.
For breakfast we enjoyed egg sandwiches cooked by a Fulani gentleman. Due to the mutual intelligibility of many words across the various strands of Fulanis from The Gambia east through northern Cameroon, we were able to tell him it was “sweet” (tasty). We then walked around downtown a bit more before taking one of the posh buses back. It too featured interesting content, including a video where a corrugated tin door got most of the screen time, a Cameroonian comedian going back to school (consisting mainly of him screaming at teachers in a high-pitched voice), and City of Blood, which had darker themes (and a man who could punch the air near a cup or bowl and send it flying). Instead of Cami, we had a bus attendant who had to repeat her request that the onboard toilet be used only for urinating after a couple of passengers flouted that rule.

Passing the hills around Yaounde on the bus home.

Hydroelectric plant on the Sanaga River near Edea.
The trip back went quite smoothly and we got home to Douala early enough to take a couple of beers at our favourite secluded spot down on the water, Marina 2000. It was a little more crowded on a Sunday, with a number of our students and their families, owing to the fact that there's not many places for kids to romp around freely in Douala. We enjoyed the twin visual treats of the sunset and of the salvagers cutting off a few more pieces of metal from the old shipping vessel Arctic Voyager (which is clearly lost).

Sunset in Youpwe, Douala.

Welders salvaging portions of the Arctic Voyager.