Monday, January 23, 2017

Welcome To Lagosland


The trip started out inauspiciously enough. For one thing on Friday a giant flock of robins (!) invaded our forest.

Next, we live up at 7600 feet. And Saturday morning they were predicting that the Snowstorm of the Century would hit that night. So we thought it prudent to head down in the evening, put out two weeks of food for our new kitten/cat, pack a couple of days of clothes for Maureen, and quickly check off the rest of the 878 items on my to do list. Off to the airport motel we went.

The next morning we called up a neighbor and, no, it hadn’t started snowing just yet. So I thought it prudent to have Maureen drop me off at the airport at 10 am for my 6 pm flight and have her see if she could make it back up.

My flights were mostly on Monday. But they were airline mileage award travel, and the only way I could get to Dallas was to leave ABQ on Sunday. I did have the bright idea when checking in that maybe they could send me to Dallas on an earlier flight, but no, it was airline mileage award travel. So I went through TSA at the small ABQ airport, and… I… waited.

It turned out that the Snowstorm of the Century never actually arrived. But when 5:30 rolled around they made the announcement that, due to tornadoes in Dallas the 6:10 flight would be delayed. Indeed, the 4:00 flight was still sitting there. And you’ve probably already figured out where this one is going. At 8:00 they put us on our plane. At 8:15 they said that there was another ground delay and we needed to deplane. At 8:45 they put us on the 4:00 plane with all of those passengers. At 9:00 that pilot announced that there was another ground delay, his shift was over, and, hey, he was out of there.

At 10:00 I was basically the last person at the airport. A frazzled girl who had been working since 3 AM couldn’t get me to Dallas on time tomorrow, couldn’t get me there through Phoenix, couldn’t get me there through LA even if I started at 6 AM. Finally a fresh, bright eyed lady showed up, confidently said, ‘I know what to do’, went blip blip blip blip on her computer, and I was now booked on a United flight to Chicago which would connect me to the British Airways flight to London which would connect me to my Lagos flight on time. Whew. I went back to the airport motel.

Except Monday morning when I checked in the lady said that there would only be a 40 minute layover in Chicago, since that flight was on a ground delay. And when I got to that gate everyone was freaking out because the flight had been way overbooked. I was hoping that they didn’t notice that I was one of the reasons the flight was overbooked as the minutes ticked away and they frantically upped the bounty for taking a later flight. At the last minute they decided to randomly bump some people (which wasn’t me because I had a seat assignment), they boarded the plane in record time and we took off.

Miraculously they made up for the lost time in the air, and we landed on time in Chicago. Which was good, since I had to go literally from one end of O’Hare to the other, and the way that you do that turns out to be absurdly complicated. And the only food available before an eight hour flight at the International Terminal was a greasy, disgusting falafel.

London at 6:55 AM. I shuffle over to where the Lagos flight leaves, have a couple of muffins at Starbuck’s (Wow! Everything’s so cheap now that the pound has devalued!), and immediately conk out. Next thing I know some girl is tapping me and telling me that if I’m on the Lagos flight it’s already boarding.

Over the green fields of France and the snowy Pyrenees. Then the coast of northern Spain. I’m waiting for Barcelona to appear but the clouds fill in instead, and when they go away an hour or so later I’m staring down at the endless brown of the Sahara. A while after that I see the Niger River below, which means that now I’m right above Timbuktoo. Here’s hoping the Tuaregs don’t have surface to air missiles. Then the Harmattan dust smog takes over and it’s a blur until we head down through it and into bad, bad, dangerous scary Lagos.

My first impression on descending the jetway is that it’s not that bad for a Third World airport. Then a relatively quick, efficient processing through Immigration. Then that short period of universal dread until my bag pops out on the carousel. Then walk right by Customs. Then a minimum hassle at getting a taxi. Then a drive for about an hour through hardly any traffic and then my driver finds the hotel on just the second try. And the people at the front desk couldn’t be nicer.

Whaaat? Where was the insane swirling chaos, the sleazy Immigration guy demanding a bribe, the even sleazier Customs guy trying to charge me duty on my toothbrush, the ripoff taxi drivers attacking like vulture piranhas, the endless traffic swirl with beggars and vendors pushing things in your face as you sit there helpless, a lone white person in a sea of evil black?

Well, I can’t speak for the Lagos of 10 or 30 years ago. But amazingly enough the Lagos of today certainly appears to be a civilized, friendly place. In fact, for the Third World it’s one of the least threatening places I’ve ever been to. And in terms of traffic and all around nuttiness it’s not even a tenth as bad as normal, everyday India. So what gives? How did Nigeria in general and Lagos in particular get this horrible reputation for taking-your-life-in-your-hands danger?

The next day I went about checking out more of the situation. In my older years I have all too often started my trips by running around in the hot sun for the first couple of days and then wearing myself out. So on Wednesday all that was on my schedule was to catch up on sleep, change some money, and check out the commercial scenery here on Victoria Island, or V.I. as the locals call it.

Lagos is supposed to be inundated with untold thousands of motorbikes which carry passengers to and fro. There are in fact virtually none. Instead they have been replaced by thousands of orange tuk tuks (auto rickshaws) from India, So my first order of the day was to hire one to take me over to the Federal Palace Hotel, which is where the money changers are supposed to hang out.

For years the Nigerian currency, the naira, was around 100 to the dollar, which made Nigeria a very expensive place to visit. But thanks to American Fracking the price of oil has collapsed, which made the Nigerian naira collapse along with it. Now the official rate is 300 to the dollar, but even at the airport exchange they gave me 400. On the street it’s almost 500. Which now makes Nigeria a pretty ridiculously cheap place to visit.

And there is nothing clandestine about the black market. The Federal Palace Hotel is a grand structure, with a gate and a lawn and everything. And when you walk through the gate, off to the left is a pavilion where around 50 money changers are sitting around. You give one a $100 bill, he counts out 48 1000 naira notes. And you can always trust these guys because they are Muslims. Seriously. They’re the ones who people absolutely trust. In fact, more broadly, I don’t think that I’ve ever been cheated by a street money vendor anywhere in the world. They sit there with giant bundles of loot, and nobody ever even thinks to steal from them. Very interesting to contemplate how the world used to operate before Capitalism.

Anyway, back on the street. It’s hot and humid, but not anywhere near as bad as any place in the Deep South in the summertime. As a white guy walking around, no one even gives me a second glance, pretty much like in the rest of Africa. Also, as in most of the rest of Africa, most everyone is unfailingly polite, and few voices are ever raised.

I’m about the only middle class person, white or black, who walks at all in Lagos. After about a mile and a half in the noonday sun I find a pizza place with A/C and have a refreshing meal. Then I go to check out the MegaPlaza, but it turns out just to be a somewhat modern small department store. I walk through their smallish ‘supermarket’, look in vain for any products actually made in Nigeria, buy some Pringles and the like, head back to the hotel, and pop on CNN.

Thursday my first project was to snag a bus ticket for Calabar for the upcoming Saturday. The guide book had recommended ABC Transport as the best company in Nigeria, and they even had a website and everything. But the website wouldn’t take my American credit card. So I went out on the street in V.I. and negotiated a fare to the Horrible Scary Mainland.

Technically Lagos is a bunch of islands, but in practice most of the land has been filled in and the rest has been conveniently bridged. V.I. is the wealthy area, Lagos Island is both the Central Business District and the home of the Huge Market. And the Mainland… Well, no white person is supposed to go there, even in the daytime.

Total posh. It wasn’t much poorer than a lot of Mexico, and everyone studiously ignored me. I went into the office, secured a ticket (shotgun!) and had another cab take me back to Lagos Island. The CBD had a pretty large bunch of skyscrapers for a Third World place, and most of them weren’t shabby. And the fabled chaotic Lagos market? Maybe it was a slow day, but it was one of the least crowded markets I’ve ever been to, and that includes flea markets in the States. Again, walking through even the smallest of alleys no one even gave me a second glance, let alone accosted me in any way.

But that’s the thing about countries that don’t get any tourists. There’s nothing for tourists to buy. Most of the stalls and shops just sold cheap everyday goods for the just getting by local citizens. Ho hum. Time to find a tuk tuk to take me three miles over to Ikoyi, where all the high end shops were. Except that there were no high end shops to be found.
 
A pattern was starting to develop. Lonely Planet books had built up a ‘backpacker’s bible’ reputation over the decades. But a few years ago the founders cashed out to a large conglomerate, and now LP books are kind of stale. Anyway, they would have never published a book about Nigeria in the first place. Instead, another company, Bradt, now has the cachet.

Yet virtually everything in my Bradt guide was proving to be wrong. And it was supposedly current in 2013. For instance, there was supposed to be an 8 story building full of Chinese and Indian shops. Now it was a bank. And the bridge back to V.I., which was supposed to be a crazy non-stop traffic jam of every vehicle possible? Just a regular modern highway bridge with regular traffic zipping by.

Back to the hotel where I rest up from my exposure to the heat and humidity. Then an expedition to find an Indian restaurant. I finally find a relatively poverty stricken one that I had walked by yesterday, serving Nigerian versions of Indian food. I took what I could get.

Friday was to be my day at the beach. Lagos really doesn’t have a good beach itself, so people in the know supposedly took a 20 minute boat trip from Tarzan Jetty about a mile from my hotel. Except that nothing is named Tarzan Jetty, and my hotel says that I should go to Sandfeel instead. I take a tuk tuk there only to find out that no boats go from there, and I should have gone to ‘Seamans’ instead. I figure that this most be only a few blocks away, and since a few of the motorbikes that are still left in Lagos were the only transportation available, I decided to get on the back of one and give it a shot.

Turns out that ‘Seamans’ is way the hell on the other side of Lagos Island, and the motorbike roars off at 45 mph. Hold on to the…! Except that there’s nothing to hold on to and I’m basically a 185 pound bag of rice. Running red lights, weaving through traffic with inches to spare, I conclude that if I survive,  my claim to be the Real Most Interesting Man in the World might carry more heft.

I do make it alive, climb up and down a crossover, and am directed to the ferry area. There I wait for an hour until the clunky old ferry arrives. 40 cents buys me a ticket, everyone is given an incredibly dinky life vest, and the boat chugs over to Tarkwa Island. When I walk off I head straight along a sandy path through what could be a small village in the middle of nowhere. At some point in the hot sun I come to an abandoned railway track, turn left, and after a few more minutes, voila, the beach appears. I negotiate a price for a shaded seat and a Coke, and sit and recover from the mini-ordeal.

The only other people using the beach were a couple of expat mothers and their children. I had come prepared with a swimming suit and everything, but now I realize that I don’t really have time to get totally wet and then totally dry. So I content myself with walking barefoot through the mild surf to the other end of the beach, and then following a shorter path back to the jetty.

When I get to the jetty it turns out that small speedboats fill up and immediately take people back to Seaman’s for 60 cents a pop. So we’re skimming and thumping along across Lagos harbor with tired old freighters moored in every direction. Then it’s time to negotiate a new taxi fare and back to the hotel. After all, I can’t be late! It’s Donald Trump’s inauguration.

I have the front desk order me a Domino’s Pizza and return to my room. I’m 8 hours ahead of ABQ, so CNN is droning on with their analysis of waiting for the inauguration to happen. Finally, just as Trump is about to start his speech, I realize that I’d better log in to Blogger in order to write this post later on.

My gmail account won’t accept my password. What? Instead it wants me to verify my account. Okay. What’s my birth year? That one is easy. Next, what month and year did I set up this gmail account? That was 12 years ago; who the hell would know that? Okay, what’s your normal email address so that we can send a 6 digit verification code. I type that in and a second later that number is emailed. I write it down in the slot provided by gmail and I get a message, ‘Thank you for verifying your account. We cannot provide access to your account.’ I do this several times and get the same run around.

Finally, I go back to my normal account and there is a SECURITY ALERT!!! Someone in Nigeria has tried to log in to your account! Aaaagh!!!

Meanwhile Trump has given his bizarro speech and CNN is back to bizarrely analyzing. There is no way to contact Gmail or Google, nor anything in their notifications that gives me a way to tell them that it is really me. I am effectively locked out of my travel blog.

The fun has begun.


And it surely will continue.  

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