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.