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Easter Sunday in Doula, Cameroon was eventful before I got the airport to find my flight canceled, visa unextendable, and bought a walk-up ticket to Central African Republic.
I ventured out into the misty streets of Cameroon’s commercial center on a holiday Sunday. I went past city hall and ascended the hill to the cathedral to dip in to Easter Mass. Sunday finest to the nines.
I continued in a loop through the commercial heart of town, past the Chinatown with its many construction materials vendors.
The main street connecting back to my hotel turned out to be the Grand Market. I generally eschew market visits. Repetitive and no fun for me. With few altenrate streets and the market quiet, I proceeded.
A few vendors were open and some families were shopping.
I was prepared. I had nothing in my trouser pockets except my dummy ‘rob me’ wallet with about $15 in local currency. Passport, etc back at the hotel. I did have my camera in a secure zippered pocket on my chest. I also had my phone with offline map for navigation and my travel umbrella as it was raining on and off.
I let my guard down. Outside the market I had checked the map on my phone. I’ll blame the heat but really it was carelessness. Rather than store it away, I held it in my hand against my folded umbrella. It would take sharp eyes to notice the phone. Sharp eyes were there.
A few blocks into the market, after I read a Chinese for-lease sign on a stall, with a Chinese shoe vendor ahead, I was blocked into on the side and the phone wrestled from my grip. The umbrella fell and the assailant pushed past me on his escape.
His escape was slowed by getting around me and I instinctively lunged after, catching him in a couple steps. I have held back writing this because I cannot say I am proud of my reaction. He could have been armed. He could have been in a gang. Something about the moment, the peace of Easter Sunday, the onlooking families, I chased.
I had him wrapped up and dead to rights. I grabbed the phone back. I then saw his face, perhaps 20 years old, half my size, shaking with fear.
I could have seriously harmed him. Three things flashed through my mind and it wasn’t Easter Mass.
The night before I had been watching the concluding episodes of The Sopranos. (Spoiler alert) The image of Tony’s battered face after the car accident and putting Chrissy to sleep. Did I want to be that?
Then pure selfishness. I had a flight to catch and didn’t want hassle with the police.
Finally, maybe more admirable, what would hurting this kid do? Would he even have access to medical care?
I locked eyes with him for several seconds, then let go. He stumbled off.
A local elder in skullcap came to check if I was alright. A smiling young boy ran over to return my umbrella. A mother gave me that concerned mother’s look. I said, ‘I’m ok, I’m ok, thank you,’ and kept moving out of the market. I should have lingered a moment to properly acknowledge them.
I was back on the broad streets back to my hotel. A perspiring jogger passed by. At another street an elderly man with lawn chair shouted in English, “Walk faster, it is good to sweat!” I was walking fast and I was soaked. I smiled and wished him a good day.
The Easter Angel of Bangui was waiting in the ibis Hotel lobby, the hotel shuttle was going to leave at 9:30 with or without me.
In all my travels I had never been robbed. Once as a student in Shanghai I had my backpack unlocked and forgot the otherwise empty backpack had my electronic dictionary in the bottom. I was taking my parents to Yu Gardens and it vanished in a moment.
I have met countless kind people such as all those in Doula who showed concern for me. My memory of Douala will be the smiling boy who brought my umbrella. I think he will do great things in life.