Monday, January 30, 2017

The Big Pivot

Friday AM I arrange for a taxi from my perch in the middle of nowhere overlooking the ocean back to the wildlife center in Limbe.  Turns out that the shaved ice in those delicious banana smoothies wasn't made from purified water.  You mean tap?  The French volunteer shrugs his shoulders.  Oh well, I guess that's why I bring along Immodium.  I order another.

I then go upstairs to again say hello to the director Guillaime, and to tell him that I am going to Douala that evening.  He points out that I can hire their driver to take me door to door to the airport for $30.  That's a lot of money in Africa, and in my younger scroogier days I might have opted to save the $15 over the cost of public transport and taxis.  But I wisely accept.  Besides it will give me more time to do stuff here in Limbe.

The main stuff I want to do is to spend $5 and have a motorbike guy drive me the 15 miles up to Buea and back.  The town is 5000 feet above sea level on the slopes of Mount Cameroon, and we go up on the scenic old Tea Road.  True to its name, after a while we are puttering past many endless acres of carefully pruned tea bushes. Not as splendid as Sri Lanka, but then Cameroon isn't especially known for its tea.  When we get to Buea it is just another drab, uninteresting town.  But it is somewhat in the clouds, and the air is noticeably cool and refreshing.  Ah!  That kind of confirms my theory that the reason that I am feeling so perpetually wiped out isn't just my age, but rather the stinking tropical sea level heat.

We head back down to Limbe, and when I arrive my theory is spectacularly confirmed.  All of a sudden everything is horribly sticky and lethargic.  Back at the wildlife center there is still a couple of hours before the driver comes.  So I just sort of hang out beside the gorilla enclosure.

I suppose that I have become somewhat of a gorilla snob, but the mountain ones that I saw in Rwanda after huffing and puffing 3000 feet up a volcano seemed much more majestic than these guys.  Still there is definitely something to be said about sort of splitting fields with gorillas on their home turf.

The driver arrives and we start east for the 45 miles drive to Cameroon's biggest city.  Only a couple of towns and plenty of flat land lined with banana palms, palm oil trees, and various other planting.  It's a two lane road and the constant Third World game of chicken keeps things interesting.  Then we get to the outskirts of Douala.

Actually, there is no outskirts.  All of a sudden you are just in this hot, ugly, smoggy mess.  And do I mean ugly and smoggy.  The intensity is really overwhelming.  And I've been to some intense places in my life.  Also, all of a sudden all the signs stop being in English and start being in French.  And from this point on in Cameroon no one will speak a word of English.

I am really glad that I popped for the $30 drive.  Even though at some point we do pass an area of nice middle class apartments and even a real modern supermarket, I really don't care to have to deal with all of this hot, humid hassle any more.  And although you may argue that three days was not enough time to get to 'know' Cameroon, I would argue back that I really don't care to know any part that was worse than Limbe.  And it turns out that it all is.  Besides, the northern half is off limits because of Boko Haram, the Anglo part is shut down because of that strike, and heading towards Gabon and the Congos in crappy buses and trucks is...

See, that's the sheer beauty of my plan.  Because although the great majority of Africa is actually very dry, Gabon and the Congos are the one part that is the hot swampy, buggy, disease ridden nightmare of all those old African jungle movies. And for the years that I had been thinking about this I didn't know exactly how I was going to finesse that part.  But then I came up with the Equatorial Guinea-Sao Tome-Angola gambit, and it all fell into place.

Problem was, though, that it all was a gambit.  First, how was I going to buy tickets from an airline that didn't have a website?  That was resolved when I found Angel from Ruta 47.  We finally finalized the tickets when I was in Lagos, and now I was about to find out whether or not that had worked.

I got dropped off at the airport, but the Ceiba ticket window hadn't opened yet.  About an hour later it did and with a little trepidation I asked if my name was on the manifest list.  It was!  Even more amazing, the flight was actually leaving tonight relatively on time.  I logged out of Cameroon, the Cameroonian TSA lady confiscated my empty water bottle, and I sat there dryly in the departure lounge for another hour or so.

At 10 PM they led us out to the tarmac where a smallish prop plane was waiting, we boarded, and twenty minutes later we were thirty miles out at sea at Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea.  The next part of my gambit revolved around the fact that apparently Americans are the only people who don't need visas for EG.  I was nervous about the 'apparently', but thanks to our good friends at Exxon Mobil the immigration guy didn't give my passport a second glance, just went STAMP, and I was in.

You see, EG is one of those oil rich places, and all the big, clean, modern  lit up buildings around the airport were really shocking after the real Africa that I had been in.  This wealth also meant that the cheapest hotel in town was $125 a night, and a $5 cab ride for 3 km later and I was there.

Ibis Hotels are owned by the same company that owns Motel 6, and they are the international version of same, maybe a half step better.  But after sleeping on rust bucket ferry boats, etc., this was a touch of heaven.  Nice, clean, and unbroken.  It was now midnight, although I had to set up the old netbook and Skype the wife to let her know I was still alive.  Then a quick shower with instantly hot water and soft, sweet sleep on a big comfortable bed.

Since there had been no internet in Cameroon I hadn't been able to let Angel know that I would definitely be there, but at 10 the next morning as I was devouring the breakfast buffet he showed up to say hello.  An older Spanish guy from the land of Quixote, his business was a quixotic attempt to have a tour company in a place that virtually no one has ever heard of and where it is almost impossible (if you are not an American) to get a visa for.

Not to mention that it also has the reputation of, next to North Korea and Turkmenistan, being the harshest dictatorship in the world.  Here, though, let me assure you that this is some more of that fake news that you've been hearing about.  In reality, the place feels absolutely no differently than any other African country.  Why do they make this stuff up?

Sure, the oil wealth could be spread more evenly.  But, ahem, our wealth could be spread more evenly, too.  And we have way less excuse than African dictators do.  Besides even the everyday people in EG seem more prosperous and less despairing than, say, those of Cameroon or Nigeria.  What's more they seem to have high standards of everyday honesty and integrity.

Angel had dropped me off downtown, and I walked around for a while.  There was a nice old Spanish church and a little Spanish plaza, but most of Malabo was a typical small African city catering to the needs of typical Africans with their typical everyday needs.

I found the place where communal minibuses head out for the rest of the island and I bought a $3 ticket to Luba, at the end of the line.  This took about an hour and a half to reach, and although the island is a result of a brother volcano to Mount Cameroon, that was shrouded in mist, and most of what I saw was jungle/forest and banana palms.  Luba was a suitably derelict little place with feeble Saturday market activities, so I bought another $3 ticket back to Malabo.

Angel had told me where the best pizza was to be had, so I headed on over.  The pizza was indeed good, but what was really surprising was the huge number of expats who were hanging around.  Usually in Africa you virtually never see a white person, but here they were all over the place.  Mostly seeming to be Spanish, which made sense, since EG is the only Spanish speaking country in Africa.  But they didn't look burly enough to be oil workers.  And some of them looked like the type of European who you wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of a drug deal gone bad with.

And where were all those purported Americans?  Turns out that they are all housed in some gigantic gated guarded compound that they are all too afraid to leave.

Then next door to a (for Africa) really well stocked supermarket, and back to the Ibis, where I could luxuriate for one more evening of comfort and ease.

The flight to Sao Tome was originally scheduled for 10:30 AM but when I saw Angel he told me that it had been changed to 12:30.  But was there any chance that they would change it back?  No, they wouldn't do that.  And I should also be glad that the flight is going, because Ceiba has been canceling a lot of their flights recently.  But when I returned to the Ibis the spaced out reception clerk said, oh, yeah, there was a message for you from an Angel who said to go two hours early.

So at 6 the next morning I was up, showered, and down at the breakfast buffet.  I had reserved the free shuttle service the night before, but of course the reception clerk had spaced that out, so some flunky had to go out to the highway on a trafficless Sunday morning to find another $5 cab for me.

My string of good luck continued, though, and the flight did take off relatively on time.  And after a brief stop at the capital of Gabon we headed west for the volcanic island of Sao Tome.

Now Sao Tome, besides being perhaps the most obscure country in the world, is also one of the poorest.  So they're trying to push the tourism thing, and to that end they set up an online visa service.  Except that the website doesn't work.  And there are no phone numbers in the U.S. for anything Sao Tomean--UN, embassy, whatever--that work.  So it took a couple of weeks and a lot of tension before I got the visa permission letter which I would absolutely have to have if I didn't want to be sent back to wherever on the next plane.

When the immigration girl looked at it, though, she said, 'Why did you do this?  Don't you know that if you stay for less than 15 days you don't need a visa?'  So, $30 of unnecessary visa money later I was legally in Sao Tome and another bit of my gambit had worked out.

Like I said, Sao Tome is really poor.  And after the Ibis the plain pension type room that I now found myself taken to looked pretty drab.  But the a/c, the hot water, and the wifi all worked, and that's a pretty good trifecta for Africa.  Moreover the staff turned out to be really nice and helpful.

In fact, all of the people on Sao Tome turned out to be really, genuinely friendly.  Kind of like the trust of a bygone era.  And I would need that Monday morning because this was going to be the most critical piece of the gambit: Getting the Angola visa.

Now if you try to have a visa agency in the States get you an Angola visa they will tell you that they can't do it.  Many a traveler trying to get overland to South Africa has been caught in the lurch.  Angola just doesn't give out visas.

BUT my research had found that in Sao Tome they do.  Not real visas, mind you.  But five day transit visas.  And since it only takes three day long bus trips to get from Luanda to Namibia, it can be done.

On the other hand, in Africa in general you can't take anything for granted.  So bright and early on Monday I hopped on the back of a motorbike and was taken the few blocks to the other side of town and the Angola Embassy, which was just opening up.  There the nice friendly lady sadly told me that, no, it was impossible to get an Angola visa?

But, I explained in my fractured Spanish, I knew of people who had done it.  She shook her head sadly, no again.  Then I realized: But I only want a transit visa.  Oh, she said, maybe that is possible.  But you would have to get it at the Consulate.  What?  This tiny town has both an embassy and a consulate?  Apparently so, and she was nice enough to have the embassy driver take me over there.

Here another lady, in rapid fire French, laid out the procedure: Fill out the form, photocopy your passport, yellow fever vaccination, driver's license, and airline ticket.  Also go across town to the EcoBank and deposit $30 in Angola's bank account.  But I haven't got my airline ticket because I don't have a visa yet.  Can I get it by Thursday's flight?  Yes, bring this all in by Tuesday morning and you will get the visa Wednesday.

I then walked along the shoreline about a km or so to the EcoBank, waited in line for a half an hour, and deposited the $30.  Back to the guest house where I ordered the ticket on line.  Then a complicated procedure where I had to transfer the confirmation to the guest house's computer so that it could be printed out.  And now it is all siting in a file folder ready to be taken back over to the nice consulate lady tomorrow at 9.

So gambit far, so gambit good.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

To Calabar To Cameroon

The bus was supposed to leave at 6:15 sharp, which made sense since it was around an eleven hour ride. So I arranged a wake up call at 4:30 and a taxi for 5:00, since my schedule demanded that I get to Calabar—on the other side of Nigeria—on Saturday. I woke up at 3 anyway, figured what the hell, and got all my things together.

The hotel cab cost twice as much as it would have been on the street, but at 5 AM there wasn’t much on the streets. We made it to the Mainland at 5:23, and I went to the waiting room at the tiny little bus compound. At 6 I went out to where all the decked out minivans were stacked, and asked which one was for Calabar. ‘There will be an announcement’ I was told. I was also told that at 6:30 and at 7. At 7:10 I heard a passenger lady say something about Calabar and I followed her out to the right bus. Never any announcement, but at 7:20 all 14 passengers and their luggage were stuffed in and we took off.

No traffic on the freeway of sorts and I was noting how solid, not slummy, most of the buildings were. Five minutes later the bus stalls out. I’m thinking ‘fuel pump’. It takes another 20 minutes for the driver to start and stall, start and stall, and us to make it a half mile to a pull out.

Now in any other country in the Third World the driver would have pulled out his phone, called the head office, and had another bus come and replace this one. But not here. Instead the driver took another 20 minutes to get a half gallon of gas, then drive to a gas station, fill up, and hit the road again. Okay, what do I know about mechanics.

Except now it is no longer early, early morning, and I finally get to experience one of Nigeria’s notorious ‘go slows’. A jumbled mass of cars and trucks averages not more than one mile per hour for two and a half hours until we get to a bridge construction. It is all thoroughly excruciating. Then it clears up and we have open road on a more or less dual carriageway for a couple of hours.

Then the bus stalls out again. This time we are at a dead stop on the ‘fast’ lane with everyone whizzing around us. The driver is totally befuddled. After about 20-30 minutes of this a guy in a jeep with a tow rope notices this potential business and stops on the shoulder. Now commences a bunch of haggling, with the driver not realizing that the jeep driver can charge whatever he wants to. Finally a rope is connected and we are pulled for around 10 miles to a sort of minibus motor park by the side of the road. An itinerant mechanic shows up with an all purpose fuel pump in his hand. Aha!

But the fuel pump doesn’t fit or something, and it is decided that the bus is kaput. You’ll remember that ABC Transport was supposed to be the best bus company in Nigeria. Well, it turns out that it used to be. Now all the passengers agree that it is a total mess. We are now an hour outside of the city of Benin, and you would think that the company would send us a replacement van from there. But no. Instead they decide to send one from Lagos, through the go slow and all, and it should be here in another four hours.

Nigerians speak English, but the accent is so different that it is extremely hard to communicate. Fortunately a couple of the other more prosperous passengers get my drift and walk around to see if they can charter one of these minibuses that are sitting around. They can’t, but finally my new Nigerian friend Ifa finds a partially filled share taxi which is going two thirds of the way. It is now 2:30 in the hot sun. Three of us squeeze in and off we go.

The thing about Nigeria is that, even if tourists came, there’s pretty much nothing for them to see. No cathedrals, no quaint villages, just an overpopulated, somewhat up and coming, but still very Third World country. As for the countryside, it is all virtually flat, scrubby forest/jungle. On my entire trip I wouldn’t see a field or farm. This is because either the soil is so bad or Nigerians are inherently lazy. I prefer the former explanation, although most Nigerians would suggest the latter. Like most Third World places the citizens are on the one hand proud of the idea of their homeland, but thoroughly disgusted with their government, their fellow citizens, their banks and their highways and their bus companies and, well, you get the picture.

We drive through one major city, through the market area, and thousands of people are calmly carrying their purchases home. The taxi driver jokes that in an hour’s time, when it is dark, they will all be desperately running due to all the thieves with guns that immediately appear. There aren’t enough white people in Nigeria for crooks to make any money off of, so it is the middle and upper middle classes which are thoroughly frightened by crime. (Which, by the way, was another reason I was taking this cab. Usually bus drivers stop for the night, and the major cities our ABC guy could have stopped at have horrible reputations.)

We are now passing through the area of Nigeria which is their oil center, and here there are many foreign oil workers who are being constantly kidnapped and then bought back by Shell and the like for huge amounts. But it is dark and no one can see me, and by 9 PM we are at the end of the cabby’s run, still three hours short of Calabar. My friend wants to try to continue on, but everything and everyone is shut down solid, so it is deemed prudent that we get a hotel room and continue in the morning. I crash on my bed and am out like a light for eight hours.
It transpires that the replacement bus finally showed up at 7:30 PM and the driver then drove all night to Calabar with everyone squashed together. On the other hand, when we arrived in Calabar around noon we at least had gotten some sleep. Still, for both of us, we were so wasted that Sunday was just a wash.

Monday was a big day when I would find out a lot of stuff. First, the hotel provided me with a driver who took me to where both Google Maps and he thought that the Cameroon consulate was. Nope, it was back on an offshoot of Spring Rd., where it had started out being. I was their first customer of the day, and after giving them $75, three pictures and a little more than an hour of my time, I had a Cameroonian visa. (Interestingly, right after me six Dutch motorcyclists on their way from Holland to South Africa trooped in.)

Then it was over to the Muslim money changers where I got enough naira for the rest of my stay. Then down to the riverside area to try and find if and where the ferry left from. When we found the air conditioned shipping container of an office the man informed me that the Fako ‘fast boat’ no longer ran, but that his boat was almost as good, and that it left tomorrow morning at 8 AM sharp, ‘100% Guaranteed’. I’ve done enough Third World traveling to take such statement with very large boulders of salt, but it looked legit. At least I wouldn’t have to attempt the alternative of heading four hours north and then crossing overland. I then had my driver deposit me downtown so that I could see some of the historic buildings.

Calabar has a great reputation in Nigeria for being laid back and friendly and for having a bit of heritage. The majority of slaves heading for the Americas started from here, it was briefly the capital of Nigeria, and there are supposedly rundown colonial buildings to gawk at.

I couldn’t find any. In general, Calabar, while friendly, is still a messy Third World agglomeration of mostly ramshackle daily grind. Anyway, Sunday was supposed to have been my tourism day, and I was running out of time. I had the choice of the old museum, supposedly the best one in Nigeria, or tracking down the primate rescue station, the Drill Ranch. I chose the latter.

Tuk tuk drivers everywhere never seem to know where anything is. So they are constantly stopping to ask directions. My guy ended up hopelessly confused, and deposited me in the middle of nowhere on a busy street. And this is with me constantly showing him the map where the place was. Fortunately, some people at a bank there knew what I was talking about, and a little later I was walking down a side street and around the back to where the ‘Ranch’ was.

Sitting at a table outside, working on his computer, was Peter a 65 year old American who, with his wife thirty years earlier, had had the bright idea of trying to save the drill (not to be confused with a mandrill, but looking kind of similar), probably the most endangered primate on the planet. They have a huge, real ranch about six hours north where they keep close to a thousand drills, easily 20% of the remaining population.

After 30 years of this Peter had developed a dim view of Nigeria and Nigerians. One finds this a lot: Someone joins an NGO or commits to teaching with all the save the world enthusiasm there is, and after a while it just wears them down to absolute nothing. Myself, I try to have a more compassionate view of it all. But on the other hand I am just passing through, and do not have to deal with all the insanity each and every hot, humid day of my life.

Joanna then came out and they both showed me the thirty sick but recovering drills that were here in Calabar, plus one chimp that had been given to them by the President of Nigeria. One doesn’t see that many non-Africans here in these parts in general, and fellow Americans are indeed a rare sight. So I think that it was a good visit for all of us.

Ifa had come by the hotel at 7 that morning, and I had casually suggested to him that we get together for dinner. So at 6:30 he, his fiancee Vera, and his brother (his car had broken down) showed up and we ate at the hotel restaurant, me regaling them with some of my travel stories and all of us having a good time. Finally, when it was time to go Vera says, ‘Thank you so much for buying us this wonderful dinner!’

What? Was this some kind of scam? Anyway, I literally had no naira left beyond the ferry ticket. But it turned out that in Nigeria when someone invites you to dinner, no matter how casually, it is assumed that he is paying. When I thought about it later it did sort of make sense in a ‘Big Man’, ‘Successful American’ kind of way.

Nevertheless… Awkward.

My body wasn’t ready for the 6 AM wake up call. But I dragged myself together, and at 7 the driver took me down to the boat yards by the river. Except that now the ferry was leaving at ‘11, maybe 12’, which I took to mean 2 PM at the earliest. I bought the ticket anyway, since I figured that so long as it left at all that would be easier than by land.

But as I sat there in the hot sun I was getting madder and madder. Why, if I had started out this morning for Itom up north, I’d be in Mamfe for sure today, maybe even Bamenda. And even if I left this afternoon I’d definitely get to Itom. I went back to the office to see if I could get my money back. But the guy tap danced all over the place, I was still exhausted, and I went back to wait.

Somehow I found my way into the Nigerian Immigration office, and there they provided a chair and let me sit right next to the air conditioner. As one lady put it, ‘We like white people’. And in general that’s really true about Africa. What’s more, they really admire and respect us. After all, our stuff tends to work. As do our bus and ferry schedules. And from where they’re sitting, that’s incredibly impressive.

Also, as Ifa put it, ‘White people are tougher than Africans’. Partially I’m sure that’s due to all those Clint Eastwood movies. But also the white people that they tend to personally meet are the ones who are tough enough MFs to stick around and put up with Africa instead of running back to a life of luxury and ease.

For whatever the reason, though, I was glad to be next to that air conditioner. And I have also developed the ability to go into a semi-awake, semi-asleep state for a few minutes at a time. And if I do that for several rounds I actually end up feeling refreshed. So at some point I got my energy back, marched back outside, saw what an incredible piece of crap rustbucket the ship was, and marched back to that shipping container to DEMAND my money back.

Now, though, they were all atwitter filling out manifests and the like and assuring me that the boat would now definitely go. Okay, back to my immigration station. And when they brought the manifest over I was the first one to be stamped out of the country. This meant that I was the first one on the boat, and could snag a bench down in the semi-air conditioned part.

We took off at 2:20. After a while I walked out on top to see where we were going. It was a wide estuary of a river, with endless palm trees on either side. But after a bit somebody came and told us to get off the deck. Arg, that’s right, these be pirate waters. I had just in fact noticed that there was no military escort boat. And I suppose that the last thing that the ship owners wanted was some highly visible white guy walking around.

An hour or so later I went up and now we were in the open sea. A nice breeze, but nothing much else happening. As darkness fell I went up again, and now we were passing some of the many, many oil platforms in the area, each with a bright burn off fire lighting up the sky. Quite the sight.

They turned the lights and a/c off for a while, maybe again because of pirates. But then lights and a/c and Nigerian videos came back on for the rest of the journey. One video was a soap opera of a poor Nigerian mother named Comfort who had absolutely everything go wrong for her and her family until in the end some benefactor up and gave her 5 million naira. There was that and a lot of gospel videos, and I, like everyone else, dozed fitfully on and off throughout. This ‘slow’ ship was actually chugging along at a good clip, but it still took nine hours to get to our destination of Limbe, Cameroon. At this point the captain cheerily announced that, since it was 11:30 we would all sleep on the ship and clear immigration in the morning.

It actually wasn’t that bad. I had most of a bench to lie down on, and occasionally I could stretch out all the way. One problem was that some of the myriad pills that I have to take for all my ailments were in my baggage squooshed up on top with everyone else’s. I went up, gingerly stepping over sleeping Africans, weaseled my way over to my pack, successfully found my pill bottle, and then… somehow dropped it down on through the entire jumble of stuff . Agh!

Otherwise I slept well, and woke up at 6 surprisingly refreshed. What’s more, as I was leaving the ship I enquired about my lost pill bottle, and someone had actually found it! A 500 CFA reward for that, then through the not too bad hassle of Cameroon Immigration, and now I was in a new country.

The scenery had certainly changed. Now it all looked totally tropical, with hillocks and mountains and everything. I decided to walk the half mile or so into town so as to get my bearings, not to mention that I hate getting ripped off by taxi drivers at points of entry.

It was good that I did this, because I just happened to walk past the Limbe Wildlife Rescue ‘zoo’, an offshoot of Peter and Joanna’s Drill Ranch. In fact, Peter had told me to make sure I visited Guillaime, the French guy who managed it. So I shouted at the closed gate (it was still 7:15 AM) until someone let me in, and then let me wait until everyone arrived around 8.

Guillaime turned out to have a really busy day ahead of him. But he let me leave my stuff there while I walked the rest of the way into town to check it out. I first went to one guide book recommended hotel, but I wasn’t too impressed. So I backtracked, and then went into the center of town in order to find a working ATM. I was successful at my second attempt, although there was a long line. Because ATMs hadn’t been working for a while. Because…

A little Cameroonian history here. The country started as the German colony of Kamerun, but after WWI a little of that was given to Britain and the rest was given to France. Why Britain didn’t then annex their part to Nigeria I don’t know. But when independence came there was a little Anglophone part in the west and a much bigger Francophone part in the rest. And ever since then the Anglophone part has felt belittled, betrayed, and what have you by the Francophone part.

And now the Anglophone part was on strike. Seriously. Apparently, especially up north, the cities are like ghost towns, with nobody open and nothing moving. I would have been so screwed if that ferry company had given me my money back and I had gone overland.

Right now, though, the main practical problem is that the government had shut down the internet for the Anglophone section for some three weeks. Great. Somehow in all of my planning I had never thought of that possibility. And now Maureen, who is overly worried to begin with, won’t hear from me until Friday at the earliest!

Back to the wildlife center. It was a much bigger operation than the small place in Calabar. They even had a restaurant attached, and I was able to order a vegeburger (after a fashion) and a real banana smoothie with real chipped ice made from real purified water. Then it was off to see the drills, gorillas, and chimps. Each gorilla and chimp had a picture and story on the fence about how they had spent years in a tiny cage, had their mothers shot, were sick unto death, etc., before they had been rescued. They all were kind of lethargic, but so was I in that heat.

Now it was time to find a hotel. Because of the strike there were few if any taxis. So it was down to strapping my 40 pound pack on the back of a motorbike, me squeezing between that and the driver, and heading down the road. Outside of the running of red lights and weaving in and out of Lagos traffic, it was actually a pretty pleasant way to get around. And after several false leads and hotels, I finally found one way the hell outside of town, all by itself and overlooking a black sand beach. The black sand is because this is the ground down lava from Mount Cameroon, a towering 14,000 foot active volcano that is the backdrop to Limbe.

The hotel was funky, but that is actually good by African standards. The a/c worked, the hot water worked after I complained, and the TV had a 24 hour Japanese new station that spoke in English. Nothing to eat at the restaurant except greasy french fries, but, Hey!

Thursday I spent mostly in bed in my air conditioned room recuperating. Occasionally I would get up, try and rearrange my stuff, and then finally get down to writing this long, long post. It is now 4:30, which gives me time to slap on those swim trunks and take a long romantic walk on the beach by myself.

Then back here for an evening meal of french fries and a large Coke. And if all goes well tomorrow it’s back to Limbe, then onward to the main city of Douala, out to the airport, and the 20 minute $200 flight over to Malabo, in exotic (after a fashion) Equatorial Guinea.

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.  

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Perhaps Penultimate Hurrah

Just in case somebody finally figures out a way to destroy the internet, I decided to print out everything I had written so far on this puny little blog.  It came to over 800 pages.  And this is including the reality that I've more recently gotten tired of the whole process, and didn't write about either my 12,000 mile drive to Labrador and Newfoundland last summer or the Atlantic cruise that Maureen and I took in 2014 from Fort Lauderdale to Barcelona by way of the Cape Verde islands and Gambia/Senegal.

But, speaking of processes, I'm now in the process of implementing one of my most difficult journeys yet.  Namely the one from Nigeria to Namibia.  Who does that?  Especially somebody who has reached my advanced age.  And who hasn't been feeling all that terrific lately to boot.  What about Gabon and the Congos (Brazzaville and the DNC)?  Are there even roads?  Isn't a war going on somewhere?  Further (if you know about such things), how does one get a visa for Angola, which famously (among people who know about such things) doesn't give visas to anyone?

Ah, but that's the beauty of it.  For, assuming that I successfully get from Nigeria to Cameroon, I can then fly over to the island of Equatorial Guinea, one of the harshest dictatorships of the world, but which for some reason exempts US citizens (and only US citizens) from needing visas.  Then I can fly to the almost totally unheard of island nation of Sao Tome.  Which, because it--like Angola--used to be Portuguese, has an Angola embassy which actually does give visas.  Then a flight to Luanda and buses down to the border with Namibia.  Which is kind of like a suburb of South Africa. Which means that it has ATMs and cars to rent and all kinds of neat things like that.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, if you've ever been to Africa you already know that just about everything always does.  Nonetheless, after much travail I've gotten my Nigeria visa.  I've found someone who can get me tickets on the impossible to find on the internet airline that flies to those two islands.  I've found a cheap source for Malarone, the best anti-malaria drug.

Although, truth be told, you can still easily catch malaria even taking those anti-malaria drugs. Which I did back in 2005 on the first trip chronicled on this blog, the one from Casablanca to just short of Nigeria.  Which you can read about if scroll a-l-l the way back to the beginning.  Not that I expect you to.  Although, if I may say so, it would be a pretty good read if you did.

And you should certainly keep checking up on this upcoming trip.  After all, it might be the last one, if for no other reason that I might not make it back alive.  Not that I'm expecting this to happen.  After all, my energy usually triples as soon as I hit the road.  Anyway, God wouldn't let ME die, now would He???  And in reality, as with almost all travel short of to downtown Mosul, the biggest actual danger will always be getting into a traffic accident.

But what will have happened at the end of this is that I will then have done a pretty much unbroken overland trip from Northern Morocco all the way around South Africa and back up to Northern Ethiopia.  And there won't be any strings of countries left in the world that I haven't been to except North Africa between Egypt and Morocco.  And since Libya looks like it's never going to be stable in this lifetime, there might not be any more insane adventures to chronicle.

Or to put it another way: Except for 19 islands and a few more outlier African countries like Chad and South Sudan, there will then be only three countries in the entire world that I haven't been to: Bhutan (which charges too much), Saudi Arabia (which doesn't let tourists in), and North Korea (which does let tourists in, but sometimes sentences them to twenty years of hard labor).

Anyway, all of it then will have been a pretty neat lifetime achievement, eh?

 And I wasn't even a millionaire.