Monday, April 18, 2011

Nigeria: Day One

After yesterday's marathon day, I couldn't bear to get out of bed again at five. Who knew if the Nigerian border would be open today? I hit "snooze" on my iPhone repeatedly for a whole hour.

The front desk clerk at Hotel Riviera Benin took a 50 euro note as partial payment for my night's lodging, so I didn't have to unsew and untape my ATM and credit cards from the inner calf pocket I'd sewn into my pants using a Zip-Loc bag. My black pedal pushers have seen better days. Namely, Saturday, before I wore them all day in taxis on Sunday. Because I didn't want to re-sew my valuables into a different pair of pants, I was considering wearing the same trousers all the way through Nigeria, just leaving the my valuables taped in until Cameroon, where I could safely use a credit card again.

It was already nine by the time I got the zem motorcycle taxi to the shared taxi park and settled into one where the guy was yelling "Igolo Igolo." I gave all my coins to the zem driver (350 CFA) and then paid a reasonable and correct 1500 CFA to the shared taxi. So far, so good.

Rain kicked in during the 1.5 hour drive to Igolo, but I was lucky that it didn't pour down on me when it was time to get out of the car. I texted the guy who helped me yesterday, but I'm pretty sure I didn't do it right.

One good thing had come out of yesterday. I'd sorted out that if I went through the Igolo border, 30 kilometers north of the notorious Krake border, I would have an easier time of it and could totally skip Lagos.

The down side being that there's nowhere near the same amount of public transportation. That, I assume, is why Christopher had been so adamant that I only go through the Krake border. Taxis leave all the time from the other side. So the route I'd chosen was not without risk, though I'd chosen ease and safety over convenience.

This time, when I got out of the taxi and was deluged by people grabbing at my bag, I grabbed it back and walked away. I went to the money changers, but my changer from yesterday wasn't there, and neither was my helper.

"Border ferme?" I asked a changer.

"Non, c'est ouvret," he answered.

I changed all my CFA to Nigerian naira. Again. And approached a crowd of three fixers.

"Ou est Abdoul Rahim?" I wanted yesterday's guide.

"I haven't seen him around today," answered the oldest guy there, who was probably in his forties or fifties.

"Okay, you take me." I pointed to a teenager. He was probably 15 years old, just a kid. The older guy patted him on the back and said something to him in their own language. Probably "Go get 'em, kid."

The kid carried my bag and led the way at a scamper. I don't think he had ever taken a non-African across before. He did the same thing the guys had tried to do yesterday at both borders, which is just breeze across without stopping. The woman who had been in my Togo-to-Benin taxi had done this in front of me while I watched. She just walked straight through all the borders, dropping 500 CFA coins into palms and not showing her ID once. She'd motioned to me to follow, but I was blocked instantly by officials who would whistle or yell and lead me to various offices. I'd helped her out at the yellow fever certificate checkpoint though--they weren't letting her through.

Finally, I said "She's mon ami." The official said "You must tell your sister to get her yellow fever shot."

I'd promised, and she'd been let through.

Today, the kid led me right into the arms of an official who caught him and sent us into the Benin passport office.

And there is where two women, who were much smarter or maybe just more thorough than the men who'd stamped me in, noticed that my visa had expired on April 6.

I smiled pleasantly and refused to budge until my fine/fee went from 30,000 CFA to 10,000 CFA. And then still refused to go change money and buy a visa. They sent a messenger to do it. I was annoyed that I'd already given a hundred dollars or so to Benin for a six-month visa and I'd been pissed when they'd only issued three. And after the last few days, I fancied myself done being a traveling doormat.

The kid sat and stared with big eyes. I knew if I'd have yesterday's official, I'd have gotten through quickly and for free. But he was nowhere to be seen.

And with a firm thwack of a stamp, I was out of Benin. The kid led the way again, and some men caught us again. We were whisked into a Nigerian office this time, where three people laboriously copied down a lot of details and asked me what I was carrying. Mostly, they were excited that my passport showed I was 44 and I didn't look like what they thought a 44-year-old should look like.

"You have something for us?" They asked at the end.

"Congratulations on a successful election."

Next I went into an office full of men in uniforms. They had a spirited debate on whether I was a "transit" person or a "tourist." The latter won. They stamped me in for a month. God forbid.

The oldest man slowly copied down details from my passport. The kid looked bored.

Back outside, there was one more stop, where I showed my yellow fever certificate. Again, lots of copying down details. This one asked if I was taking the kid along to Cape Town, and I said "Yes." The kid looked alarmed while the immigration guy chuckled. Then, again, a request for "something." Again, a congratulations on a successful election.

And that was it. After about an hour of watching people write stuff down, I was into Nigeria. The kid led me to the final checkpoint, and then I heard:


Uh, that would be me. I must have missed another official.

I stopped. He checked my passport, and we were off again. The next man who stopped us had a uniform and a gun, and asked for 1000 naira to let the kid cross over and take me to the taxi.

"Okay, I carry my own bag then."

Of course, finding the taxi is where I actually needed the kid. He started to take off my backpack.

"Okay, 500 naira."

I paid my first Nigerian bribe.

The kid led me down a crowded border street to a taxi for Ibadan, three hours away. He put me in it, and made sure I understood the right fare (3,000 naira).

I had to wait an hour for the last seat to sell. We left at one. In the meantime, the other two passengers had tried to get me to buy the last seat. "We've been here four hours," they said.

Sorry, not this time. 3,000 naira is twenty bucks. And why don't they pay for the extra seat if they're in such a hurry? I'm not rich in Nigeria. Money goes quickly here.

The driver collected my 3,000 when it was time to go. I handed it to him, and then he handed it back and said "I said 3,000."

I looked at the pile of money he gave me. One of the thousands was a hundred.

Crap. I hate starting off like this. Did I give him a hundred or did he just pull a fast one? Shit.

I took back the hundred and gave him the thousand. Now I was feeling a bit irritated. Was the driver a small-time con artist? Had I pulled out the wrong money?

We drove out of town. The couple next to me was nice and Nigeria looked green and pleasant. I was just starting to think how clever I'd been to avoid Lagos because the rest of the country was nothing like that when we started hitting police checks.

We got through the first check okay. Maybe the second too. The third time, it was a customs guy. He wanted me to give him money.

"Screw that. Absolutely not."

He got kind of nasty. The other people in the car looked at me. They didn't want to hang around here all day. This wasn't going to be easy, was it?

"Just give him this," whispered the driver, taking 300 naira out of my hand. He came back a minute later. "It's not enough. He wants 500."


The police stopped us over and over. The worst one hassled the girl next to me, because she didn't understand his English.

He looked right at her and said "How am I knowing you?"

This baffled her. She shook her head. He then kept at her, asking where she came from over and over and confusing her. "The border," she'd say. "No, I mean before." She was silent. I think she might have just been scared.

He made her get out and unzip her suitcase. I got out too and tried to engage him. He had a gun, after all.

Eventually, the driver whispered "Give me 200." I did, he passed it on, and we were allowed to leave.

I don't think I like this country. Too many bribes. I don't like to pay bribes, even though I suppose you could say it's part of the local experience.

On we drove, over a terrible road. Maybe coming this way wasn't so clever. We hit the main expressway somewhere west of Lagos, where I was shocked by the horrendous, fast driving. Three huge accidents in about an hour.

When we got to Ibadan, the sun was starting to go down. I thought I'd stay there, but the driver offered to take me on the 90 minutes to Oshogbo. That's where I wanted to go, but I'd been thinking of missing it because of how far off the beaten path it is.

"You give me 7,000. I drive you."

"No. Take me to the bus."

"Ah. But it's late."

He had me there.

"Okay, how much you pay?"

I thought about it. At 3,000 a head, he'd made 12,000 for the 3 hours ride. So he was asking for 7,000 for half that. 6,000 was the right rate, but did I really want to pay 40 bucks?

Nigeria isn't cheap.

"Okay, 5,000."

"You give me six."


We zoomed along, out of the heaving chaos of Ibadan and towards Oshogbo.

"Can I get other people?"

I was tempted to say no, since I'd already paid for the taxi. But then, what's the harm in letting him make a few more bucks? I took the front seat and he picked up four adults, who asked me a lot of questions. Nigerians reactions to me today have been amused or amazed. One policeman gave me his phone number. At least he didn't ask for a tip.

I had to answer a lot of questions about not being married and not having children. "Don't you want to enjoy a man while you are young?"

Heh. What's so fun about it? Anyway, I said "Men don't like me. It's okay."

This puzzled them.

"Are you not loving enough?"

"'s..." I tried to think of a way to explain it succinctly in language that would make sense.

"I'm broken."

This sort of made sense to them. But it made more sense a minute later when I added, "Anyway, I can't cook. So I need a man who can cook."

This really stumped them, but it amused me.

"A man wants to taste his wife's cooking. You should learn to cook."

The same man then told me I could easily blast straight through to Calabar in a single day.

"Isn't it unsafe in the Delta? What about the kidnappings?"

"That doesn't happen anymore."

Maybe so. Guidebook info is already a year old by the time the book gets to my hands. But I hadn't researched this online. What if he was wrong? I'd stick to my plan, heading north to Abuja and then back down to Calabar. The long way.

We arrived at Heritage Hotel and dropped me off.

And while I was getting my bag out of the trunk, the driver, who had gotten FIFTY-EIGHT of my dollars today (more if you include what I'm now sure was the sleight-of-hand at the start) for the 4.5 hours of driving, asked me for 2,000 more.

"No. I am out of money."

"I am hungry."

Nigeria isn't winning me over. I gave him what was left in my pocket—about five bucks, and I had to acknowledge that new hard-ass Marie wasn't having a lot of success at being a hard-ass—and checked in.

The hotel? $25 a night. Including A/C and hot water. Sure, the shower didn't work and the ceiling fan was broken. But for $25, I wasn't complaining.

So that's it. Day One is over, and no one had mugged me yet. Or they sort of did, but not in any traditional sense.

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