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The Cameroon Diary Part 1

We are bringing complete reportage from Tour de Cameroon 2012 cycling race.




Preface by author, Martin Fraňo: “ This article is a tribute to a person I liked and who is not longer with us. It was him, Ľubo Kundrata, who was excited about and intereste in all my travel experiences. I didn’t have time to tell him anything about last expedition to Cameroon. It was him who read the French Guayana Diary and dispersed it all around the Roosvelt Hospital where he was working at that time. I promised him that I will publish all my vast cycling experience from America, Asia but mostly from Africa in a book one day. This is just a small part of what may come out in a book one day, if I ever find time to put everything down. Enjoy reading my stories, Kuňďo!”

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Africa is a strange world, not intended to be compared to any other place. I’m talking of the “Black” Africa of course. It´s one of the few places on Earth where we can still find people living the old way. Nothing to be compared to what we are used to in Europe, America or in most part of Asia these days. “When someone visits Africa for the first time they either like it so much, they want to return back sometimes soon, or they dislike it and will never think of coming back, there is nothing inbetween.” said our Belgian manager Fred Blankers five years ago when I was visiting Senegal for the first time as a novice. Since then I have already returned many times – twice to Senegal, once to Burkina Faso and now this my 10th anniversary visit to Cameroon. Racing here is one great thing, but it’s all the surroundings that make it special to me and make me come back. It feels like home. I’ve spent six months of my life over the past five years here.

Ivan Viglaský of course wouldn’t miss a chance to visit Cameroon as well, accompanied by Africa-experienced Milan Barényi. It is second visit for Jozef Zima and Lukáš Bátora and Pavol Polievka are newcomers. Our mechanic Juraj Gavenda has already been here before with our team, so he knew what to expect. It was a brand new and unknown experience for our masseur Martin Sirági though. Our Team manager, Fred Blanks, is over 60 years of age, and the number of his visits to Africa almost come to the same number. He travelled to Cameroon one week earlier and awaited us in Yaoundé.

This time we didn’t take a more comfortable flight from Vienna as we had a CAMAIR-Co tickets from Paris. A 15 hour car ride and a overnight stay in Paris preceded the flight. Early morning check-in was really fast, I strongly advise employees western-european airline companies to do an internship at CAMAIR-Co. The 6-hour long CAMAIR-Co flight was quite comfortable, with the old Boeing seats offering us some extra space for legs.

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We are greeted by our old friends in Yaoundé, a baggage-master Joseph and a welcoming group from the Cameroon Cycling Federation. We put our bikes on the top of buses and head to the well-known downtownhotel Meumi. The small bus is designed for approximately 25 people, including the roof where it’s possible to put both luggage and people. There’s never a problem with space in Africa – they always find their way to squeeze everything in. I have also seen couple of goats standing on the bus roof top without being fastened, they had to balance well in order not to fall down. More experienced drivers cover the live stock by some pieces of luggage so they can´t move and therefore can´t fall down from the roof.

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Hotel Meumi is well known also by the local merchants standing at its gate, trying to sell their wooden souvenirs. I pass without paying attention to them because I know that “my” merchant, my good friend Daoude would arrive later. I met him during my first visit to Cameroon. It´s a very nice guy, I made friend also with all his family. Whenever I come, I always bring some presents, clothes or money to his little daughter Yasmine and try to ease their life a little bit.

Another speciality of the Meumi hotel are its ‘social workers’ who attack the arriving racers immediatelly and offer their service. This time, there is not much to choose from, offer consists only of elder and ugly women. Cameroon is growing economically, so these days it’s mostly only those who can´t find a better job stick to this eldest professional craft. However, young and pretty girls like to have fun with white cyclists – cyclist is being regarded at the same level as football players. I’m not talking of the super level footballers like local hero Samuel Eto of course. But also our rider Ivan Viglaský is a local megastar, incredibly popular in Cameroon. Every small boy knows him, they put him on the same footstall along with Beckham and Drogba. It’s not a profession for these young and pretty girls, it´s more of a hobby and pleasure – not everyday you have an opportunity of getting a young European into bed. These people always hope that a handsome European could fall in love with a local girl and marry her. Almost every girl dreams of it. The one-way flow of beautiful women from black Africa to French speaking countries like Belgium, Switzerland or France is just as common as a Škoda car in our streets. Last year also our team proved we are capable of marrying a local girl – our rider David Žemba met a race hostess Mireille Mokve during an autumn Grand Prix Chantal Biya 2010 race. Couple of months later, in late February, right after a Tour de Cameroon 2011 a wedding was held. One could tell that our team improves the Slovak-Cameroon bilateral relationship.

We were transfered to the far north of the country, to Marua on the Chad border, the following day. There is no paved road leading to Marua, only a train across the jungle to Ngaundere from where you  have to continue by car. Taking into account the great distance of 1500km, organizers chose a traditional transfer by a military bomber.

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When the aircraft lands, its hydraulic ramp opens and soldiers start to load the bikes and luggage. All the cyclists get in and try to find a place to sit in kind of spider-web seats for the one and a half hour long jurney. We didn’t make it with the first group being transported, so we spend another four hours waiting in local airport restaurant until for the plane to came back for us. Especially Paľko was interested in the meat on grill, but he wasn’t brave enough to taste it, so he took only Coke and traditional Cameroonian Castel beer instead.

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A flight in a propeller plane is interesting. It makes one jump up and down all the time. This time noone’s sick, but I´ve seen people throwing up in the past as well. It gets really cold inside the plane as we climb to the flying altitude. I ask my obligatory favorite question whether they have enough parachutes for everyone in the plane. And each year I get the same answer: “I have mine, but I’m not sure if you also brought one.”

We land in Marua. Compared to the wet jungle climate in Yaoundé, the climate here is very dry and hot, desert-like. Temperature rises up to about 46°C in shadow. We unload the plane and move to our favorite hotel Protocole. It´s a two-star hotel – you know that a two star hotel even in my country is already a low level, so no big expectations needed of the two stars in a remote Marua. I know what to expect, I have been here before and really like this town. It´s a muslim part of the country and the people are really nice, I’d say shy. The only problem causes the horrible dry heat, our throats are dry like a Sahara desert, maybe it´s because Sahara is so close to us.

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Milan and Pavol are nervous, because their bikes haven’t arrived with us. Journalist Claryse from Congo assures us they arrived by the first flight and are already at the hotel. I’m a bit suspicious of her being so active towards us, later she tells us she decided to take care of us during the whole tour. So we got an extra member of our support team. She really is strict and tough, argues with someone all the time, but is capable to solve each and every problem in the end. She is awaiting her racers from Congo who still haven´t arrived to Cameroon due to a munition warehouse explosion in Brazaville, Congo’s capital. All fligts had been temporarily cancelled, so the riders aren’t to arrive until the following day. She is the kind of person who always needs to control things – and when there’s nothing to control and organize, she had to make it up. So she found us and decided to take care of our team. Unfortunatelly it’s only me and Fred out of all our group who speak French, so she keeps talking to the two of us. I have no energy left to talk to her and argue with her all the time, so I pretend to be tired. Her presence exhausts me.

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She made her top performance later in the evening while we were enjoying our beer downtown. She was shouting for about an hour at at a guy selling leather sandals and slippers that his prices were too high. After she negotiated the price of a pair of sandals from 3.000CFA to 1.000CFA, she decided to go even further and asked the seller to sell her all of his stock for 10.000CFA. The stock consisted of about 30 pairs of leather sandals. The seller, who almost collapsed at her words at first furiously took the 10.000CFA and calling her names such (Xantypa being ont of the nicest one) desperatelly left the grounds. Claryse seemed to be very satisfied with her performance. But as she didn’t have such a big suitcase for all the slippers, she turned to me and notified me she would transport the slippers in my bicycle box during the whole tour. Really no discussion possible, I only decided I would get one pair of slippers for myself from the box. No wonder she lives on her own, without any husband or boyfriend. Only a blind and a deaf one could live with her. But she really is a good journalist – very assertive and her articles always make sense. The magazine she works for is published all around Africa and is at a really good level.

The CFA, Central African Franc, is another interesting thing in Cameroon. The exchange rate to Euro is stable and doesn´t change, 1EUR= 650CFA. Simply said, we can say that central African countries have the most stable currency in the world. West African franc works the same way, and has the same exchange rate. It’s like an African Euro, accepted in all countries of central Africa.

D Day is here. The first stage is due to a UCI interference changed to a prologue without any impact on the general classification. It’s a fast criterion in the streets of Marua. Race pace is high, the hot and dry air puts our lungs to flames. Hard to refresh yourself even by a sip of water – by the time you put your bidon back in the holder, you’re thirsty again and find it hard even to swallow. A small group tries to escape with Cameroon riders and the French Graczyk. No one from our team manages to be in the break-away and happen to be all but succesfull in todays race: Jozef Zima finishes with bruises all over the left side of his leg. Polievka and Barényi have both flat tyres – Pavol manages to return to peloton, Barényi is not that lucky. Kemsong from Cameroon wins the stage and peloton sprints for 6th place. Bátora finishes in 13th position, Fraňo in 14th and Polievka 16th. The local Kemsong is a winner. Peloton sprints for the sixth position. Bátora ends up being 13th, Fraňo 14th and Polievka 16th. Nice warm-up before the real race starts the following day.


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After the stage, Jozef finds a discovers a lost piece of bread with ham a cheese in his bike box. The bread is 4 days old and survived transfer from Slovakia to Marua, it stinks a big deal and is becoming slightly green. When he sees it, he decides to give it to the starving goats outside the hotel. To his big surprise, a bunch of small kids notices goats with the bread. Goats run away as the kids start fighting over the mouldy bread. A small boy wins this fight and sprints away, taking hungry bikes on the run. All of this happens in just a few seconds. Jozef is shocked, I can see tears in his eyes as he’s really touched by what he has just seen – local kids fighting for each and every bite. He decides to distribute to them clothes donated by my friend Marcela, it’s used clothes from her grown up children. He takes a bag full of clothes and we go outside the hotel along with Pavol. When the kids notice it, they encircle us, there are dozens of them. And again the fight starts, for every single jersey and even a small baby’s shirts. Everything’s gone within 30 seconds. They try to install some kind of system, but it’s too late, these kids got out of control. Full bag of clothes has been distributed by a blink of eye, part of it torn apart as the kids were fighting over the pieces of clothes. Hotel manager comes out, scatters the group and gives a really bad look and not so nice words to Pavol and Jozef. Children in this region are tought to be fast and quick, it’s vital to fight for everything in order to survive. Only the strong ones survive.

 

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