Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sprinting to Calabar

Wow, that Abuja room was disgusting. And something chewed on my leg all night, which meant I was scratching all day.

The hotel had lots of better rooms. But I hadn't had any money, so I'd ended up in the hovel at the back. Yuck.

I walked out of the Q Palace Hotel just as the morning light broke. A taxi rolled up a second later and took me to the ABC Transport bus terminal.

I had a ticket on the "sprinter" service to Calabar, the last town in Nigeria before Cameroon. From there, I'd get the Friday ferry to Limbe, celebrating my birthday by crossing the border.

But first, I had to sit on this sprinter—which is a nice van or maybe you'd call it a jitney—until dusk.

The van wasn't sold out and still left on time. We had air conditioning and curtains to pull shut when the sun got to be too much. There were only six passengers—a businessman, a younger man, two women, a nun, and me.

We spread out, each taking a single seat or row. The nun sat in the two seats across from me. I'd taken a single seat.

The bus driver gave us each an orange juice and a packet of Hob Nobs. Which was great, even though I'd just had Hob Nobs for breakfast as the hotel restaurant wasn't open early. We finished filling out the next-of-kin form so that we could leave—I'd caught on now to put down the US Embassy as a contact person. Who better to be notified in the event of me having an emergency in Nigeria? Hob Nobs and paperwork complete, we headed out of Abuja.

"I have a question for the lady in the back," announced the driver. He'd begun to drive and was looking back through the rear view mirror.

"Do you like riding horses?"

The woman sitting behind me looked puzzled. We were all a little surprised by this question. But then I got it.

"He is saying that the ride is bumpy in the back," I explained.

"Yes, it is very bumpy. You should move up."

"No, I am fine back here," she said. We all liked having seats to ourselves.

"Okay, but if you want to move up later, there is plenty of space. Now, might I ask our Sister to lead us in prayer and bless our journey?"

The nun sighed and looked a little put-upon, then smiled and said "Oh, all right."

She read a verse from her Bible, the gist of which was to deliver us safely, and then began to sing a song about Jesus. I don't know the song—they must have different hymns than the ones in the States. Everyone else in the sprinter did know the song. They all joined in.

I felt like a loser now…not only did I not know the group song, but also, I can't sing anything like this nun or these other passengers. They all sang beautifully, probably from years of singing in church.

Traveling in comfort makes a huge difference, I thought, as we pulled away from the four-lane highways of Abuja and headed out into the countryside. Even after three more hours, I was still delighted with this style of travel. Leg room! Knees not in total agony! And best, regular toilet stops that included time to graze.

Okay, the toilet stops weren't perfect. They featured three-sided concrete blocks without roofs, and you peed downhill into a trough. One of the women from our van went first. She eyeballed the situation, laughed and went ahead. Still, this was adequate compared to the no-toilet-stops I'd been living with for a while.

After a lunch stop for mango, avocado, and bread (French-speaking Africa has much better bread than English-speaking Africa), we headed out again, on in the direction of Calabar. Rap gave way to a country-style cover of Lay Down Sally. I studied my Coke can, and learned that what I'd long suspected was true—African Coca-Cola still has sugar in it, not high-fructose corn syrup.

The men chattered away up front, while the women kept to themselves. In late afternoon, the road turned horrible, potholed and broken. Our driver steered slowly around and through the gaps. The woman behind me eventually did declare the back seat to be similar to riding a horse, and asked the woman in front if she could share her seat.

"No…I want to spread out," said the woman up front, lamely. I could see what she meant—we had so few passengers and now she was being asked to share, after boarding early to get a good seat. But still, she didn't own the van.

"You can share with me," said the nun. Now three of us sat across a row of three seats. I was tempted to move to the horse seat, but worried about being stuck with it if it really was too bouncy.

The businessman's mobile phone rang and he picked it up.

"Hello? … Yes, are you all right? … How were the elections in Jos? … Hmm. … Yes, I see. … They did what? Burned what? … Threw rocks at you at the polls? … Jesus Christ. … Is everyone okay? … Okay, best wishes to you and your family. Stay safe."

There had been a great deal of election-related violence in Jos. He fell silent when he hung up the phone, and then started reading the newspaper.

"Hey, listen to this." He read out loud an article he'd come cross. "President Obama has advised again all non-essential travel to Nigeria. Americans should avoid going to Nigeria at this time."

Five pairs of eyes turned to look at me.

"Uh…oops?" I grinned. Not much I could do about it now.

And five Nigerians laughed along with me.

No comments:

Post a Comment