Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nigeria: Day Four

Calabar. I'd raced along to get here. A few weeks ago, I took a look at the calendar and realized I was off-track. My goal had been to give myself an entire month to get across the Congos and Angola, since these are not areas where I can just pop over to the Lonely Planet forum and get the latest info on bus schedules and cool budget digs. And also, I wanted to go to Cameroon for my birthday.

Years ago, I met a guy named Danny on a flight to Nairobi. I can't remember his last name, though I had his card for a while. He was working for an NGO, somehow involved in worm-farming in Nigeria.

"How is that?" I asked politely.

He hesitated, then said:

"There's nothing redeeming about Nigeria."

I was shocked. This was such a generalization. I thought back to my co-workers at Roy Rogers when I was a teenager. Austin and Solomon were both Nigerian college students at UDC. Austin was a real partier and would come in stinking of beer on Sunday mornings. Solomon was a nice boy, never one to visibly show signs of partying. They both cooked chicken pretty well, except when Austin was drunk. He sometimes came in hours late. But he was so charming, he managed to never get fired.

Austin claimed he was a Nigerian prince. And he'd flirt with me. Once, he bought me a Donna Summer album for my birthday—this was hilarious, as not only did I like completely different types of music, but this was years after disco. Austin's flirting would steam Solomon, who eventually told me that there were a lot of princes in Nigeria and that *his* father was the governor.

I googled Austin when I was planning this trip. He never left DC. He's on Facebook. I couldn't remember how to spell Solomon's last name, unfortunately.

Neither Austin nor Solomon ever told me that Nigeria sucked. They loved their homeland, and both would independently try to convince me to come along for a visit. Horrifyingly, Austin once put me on the phone with his father. That was an awkward conversation.

And then last year I was at a party, talking with an older fellow who had really traipsed around West Africa.

"Go to Nigeria," he said. "It isn't safe, and there's not much to offer there. But of course you must go. Just be careful and don't do anything dangerous. Go through the border during the day and go straight to a hotel."

In the end, I will never know who was right, who wasn't right, and if Nigeria is all that dangerous or totally overstated. I know I was forced to pay a few bribes, and that was scary. I know that Africans were scared of the border, and so was I. I sewed my valuables into a secret pocket, but even as I did it, I wondered if I was overreacting. I'll never know. I raced through, too afraid to slow down to try to seek out the truth.

On arrival in Calabar after riding all day in the sprinter from Abuja, the driver walked me out to the road and hailed me a taxi to Hotel Marian, which I'd booked ahead. Easy. But when I got there, the wi-fi was broken.

No. Not again.

"I am sorry, but I need the internet because I have to work. Can you recommend a hotel with internet?"

The front desk clerk was apologetic, and sent me down the road to NAF Club, which wasn't great (nor for that matter, was it called NAF Club, but that's the previous name and everyone calls it that), but after some debate about the price, I ended up with yet another $60 room with a view of the monkey sanctuary next door and barely functional water, took a bucket shower, had some really disgusting spicy spaghetti from the restaurant, and went to sleep.

NAF Club did have internet. Not in the room, unfortunately (though I did have a view of the monkey sanctuary next door). But I could walk down the stairs, through reception, and across a parking lot to the cyber center, where I could get online for a fee. And that's where I spent the day after I rushed off early to the Cameroon Consulate and to the port for a ferry ticket.

I applied for my visa, got the info on where to get the ferry ticket from the Cameroonians, headed out there in a taxi driven by a grousing environmental-educator-turned-taxi-driver, bought a first class ticket for tomorrow morning, then headed back to pick up my passport. (The taxi driver was not surprisingly, grousing about corruption and how all the money in Nigeria is at the top or goes out of the country. Which is true.)

Ten Cameroonians were in the consulate when I got back, all watching the Nigeria-versus-Cameroon soccer match on TV.

"Who will win?" I asked.

"Cameroon, of course. We have the best football team in Africa."

Of course.

I went to Crunchie's, a local fast food restaurant, since I'd worked out that I can't really eat Nigerian food. Too spicy for me. (Even the spaghetti is too spicy for me. I had this problem in Sri Lanka too and ended up eating bread for a week.)

I ordered a vaguely edible burger and fries, and as I sat there eating it, a woman approached me. I was startled and then she said "I was on your bus yesterday." So she was. It was she-of-the-bickering-hand—she had asked the woman in front to share her seat, but the woman had refused. So Bicker-hand spent the rest of the trip complaining to Front-woman that she had to stop moving her head around as it was brushing her hand. Sometimes it's better not to speak the language.

Bicker-hand introduced me to her little daughter, who stared at me with big eyes, and then they went off to buy an ice cream. Nigeria was, in the end, not the bogey-man. It was just a place I needed to cross. If I weren't traveling alone, or if I had some business in Lagos, I think it would not be just a big, scary place I had to get through.

Nigeria's an economic powerhouse, huge, and totally corrupt. Nigeria makes the regional entertainment and dominates West Africa. They even make comic books. But on my own, it's just too risky to explore without having time to become familiar with what sort of behavior is safe here. I blunder through most countries on a smile or a bluff.

Here, I was just too paranoid to try that. I'll wake up at 5 in the morning. I'll eat some Hobnobs and doxycycline (can't take anti-malarials on an empty stomach), and take a taxi to the "Foka" ferry.

I'm told I'll be in Limbe, Cameroon by noon. Which would be great. Going by road would take a day or two over roads that are utterly impassable in the rain. I imagine they're not real special in the non-rain either.

I better not get mugged in Cameroon, after all the fuss I made over Nigeria.

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