Today, I had to go to the bank to get some of my personal savings to pay for my trip to Northern Cameroon with Alex. I brought two means of obtaining those personal savings: travelers checks and an ATM card. Even small errands like this end up becoming a scavenger hunt here in Cameroon. So follow along for a blow-by-blow decription of my 2.5 hour long extreme adventure in getting cash for my vacation.
11:35: I went to get my credit card and travelers checks from the safe. Here in Cameroon you need to bring the receipts for travelers checks or they will not cash them. So I got those as well.
11:45 Left the office with the country director who was kind enough to give me a lift to one of two banks he knew have ATMs that work with US accounts.
12:00: The ATM at first bank is not working, and they do not cash travelers cheques in US dollars, just those in Euros.
12:10 Walked through the rain to the next bank, Credit Lyonnais. Insert my ATM into the machine and nothing happens. I start to feel nervous when after 5 minutes the screen is still frozen. Ask another customer for help, then at long last my card is spit out, rejected. Walk upstairs trying to find the person responsible for travelers checks, and finally find a secretary who says that they are a branch office and I should go to their main office downtown.
12:25 Dodged more raindrops on the way to the next bank. My hair is damp, my sandals muddy. They only cash travelers checks for people with an account. And their ATM is down.
12:50 Arrive in downtown where all the main bank branches are located. First bank has not ATM and only does Thomas Cook, not American Express travelers check.
12:55 Arrive at second major bank downtown. Huge lines snake along the walls of the main lobby. There is no sign of an ATMs (because there are none.) After asking several people, I find a small spiral staircase that leads down into the basement. I stand in one line, waiting for the impartial clerk to make eye contact. She stares down at her paperwork as if she does not notice the ten people in line waiting to talk to her. Finally I make it to the front of the line, "Go to the next counter." There is no one there. Wait 5 minutes for someone to show. "Sorry we can not cash travelers checks because the internet is down, and so we can not validate the check numbers. Try across the street."
1:10 Walk across the street. Wow! There is a small buiding with hge shiny windows and not one but three ATM machines. Insert my card. Wow! It is asking my passcode! Type it in. Wow! It asks how much money I want. OK, $100. Then, suddenly, the machine spits out my card. "Insuffient funds." This has got to me a mistake. But no after trying all three machines, three times, I can not even withdraw $50 from my account.
I am beginning to get worried because I need cash to pay for a cab to the airport (a whopping $40 round trip), and a night in a hotel ($22). What if nothing works? Will I be able to borrow money from another volunteer or Peace Corps staff member?
1:15 Go inside the bank to try my luck with the travelers checks. Walk up a spiral staircase to their travelers check counter. No one is there. "Come back later. She will not be back for 20 minutes." I am getting more nervous. I have an important meeting with the country director and director of the health program at 2pm. Am I going to make it? I do not have a cell phone anymore, so I can not even call them to tell them I am running late.
1:30 The clerk finally arrives. "I am not sure we will be able to verify your checks. The computer system has not been working. But let me try." Tipity-type-Tipity-type-Tipity-type... Her face is passive and unreadable. Nothing is happening. Tipity-type-Tipity-type- "Can you fill out these three forms?" So I print my name, birthdate, birthplace, US address, reason for obtaining cash, passport number. Sign three times...no here also. Tipity-type-Tipity-type-Tipity-type... Finally something happens. "Are you OK if we give you 88,000 for $200?" As a matter of fact, it is not OK. The current exchange rate would normally give me 100,000, so they are deducting $24 for the pleasure and security of using travelers checks. But hey, beggars can not be choosers, and I need the money. "I'll take it."
Two hours later, and $24 dollars poorer, I have enough cash to pay for a cab to the airport and a hotel room tonight and maybe for part of my train fare to the north. Alex is bringing cash to cover the rest. Carrying so much in cash would be insane in any other country, but here in Cameroon, that is better than the alternative.
2:05 I am back at headquarters for my meeting. "So what are you doing here in Yaounde today?"