Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Forest Catches Me

While I'd been waiting in Immigration yesterday at the Nigerian border, one of the bored officers had struck up a conversation with me.

"Where will you go in Nigeria?"

"First to Oshogbo, then to Abuja, then to Calabar, and from there to Cameroon on the ferry."

"Oshogbo? To the shrine?"

"Yes, to the Sacred Forest."

He chuckled.

"What will you do if…"

He dramatically stretched his arms wide then swept them together.

"…the forest catches you?

"Uh…mumble huh mumble…I don't know…does the forest catch people?"

"Yes, Susanne Wenger. Did you read about her? She came here and the forest caught her for 50 years."

I had read about her. She was an Austrian artist who'd come to Oshogbo in the fifties and stayed there until her death a few years ago. She's spearheaded the rebuilding and artistic interpretation of the Yoruba shrines in the Sacred Forest. She'd even become a priestess in the Yoruba religion. She didn't build these shrines alone, but assisted local artists in planning and creating the shrines. She was one of these rare people who gets involved in a truly local way, not looking for fame or a book contract or patting herself on the back, but for a way to enable local traditions to continue and not be lost.

And now, I'd gone pretty far out of my way to see the work she'd overseen.

This morning in Oshogbo, someone knocked on my hotel room door at 7.

"Will you pay your balance?" It was the hotel manager.

"Uh, yeah. Do you have change now?" Yesterday, the front desk hadn't had any change, so I'd been told to pay my bill today. I hadn't expected to be visited in person by the manager at seven a.m. though.

"Yes." He went away with my money and returned with change.

"What will you do today?"

"I will go to Osun Shrine today, then I will continue to Abuja."

There was no stopping the train after that.

"I am an artist! I will take you myself to Osun Shrine. Then I can show you my paintings."

"Er…uh…shit…actually, I am quite happy to just catch a taxi to Osun Shrine. I am in a hurry. Really. It's okay. I can go by myself. I like to travel alone."

"No, that is not a good way to see the shrine. Once you are there, you'll need to get back. A taxi will be very expensive. I will take you."

"I really don't mind taking a taxi. I can get a motorbike and ask him to wait for me. I don't have any time. I have to go to Abuja. I can't go see any paintings today."

I was being pushed into a corner and saw no way out. What would he want from me later? How many paintings would I have to decline purchasing before today was over?

"I am sure your paintings are wonderful," I now chose words carefully. "But I am carrying only my backpack and if I bought any art, it would be ruined in my bag. I cannot buy paintings."


"Well, anyway, I will take you to Osun Shrine. I am an artist and I can help you to understand it. Get ready. You can leave your bag in the car and then I will take you to the bus station. Let's go in ten minutes."

Sigh. I didn't even want to speculate on what my end of this unavoidable bargain was going to be.

I hurried through packing—which was easy since I'd barely unpacked—and went outside with my bag to the car. It wasn't the manager's car. His friend was giving him the keys and explaining a few things about how to use the windows and the locks.

The price just went up. Not only was I going to have to pay the "artist" for the tour, but also, the owner of the car. How do I get myself into these scrapes?

We drove to Osun Shrine, as I carefully outlined my plans to take the public bus to Abuja due to my status of being not-rich in Nigeria. This is an expensive country. My money does not go far here. Not far at all. I reminded him again that I couldn't buy any paintings, and asked if he had a website.

"I'm working on it."

"You should make a website. You could use Picasa to create a gallery of your art. This way you could reach a wider audience. Also, you could create plans for tourists there, where you could offer them trips to see local painting studios as well as the shrine. Tourists don't like to be surprised, y'know? They like to see it all laid out, exactly what kind of trip they are taking and how much it will cost."

He agreed this was a good idea. I nervously hoped I was making my point.

At the shrine, the guard asked me for an insane amount of money for a video permit. I said I wasn't videotaping, and then I only had to pay for myself and my photo camera. (Why would I videotape sculptures, I wonder.)

The guard turned out to be the guide as well. He walked me through the Sacred Forest.

Which was stunning, peaceful, and atmospheric. It was nearly perfect except for one thing.

The manager wouldn't shut the hell up, and wouldn't stop urging me to hurry. He'd seen this forest a million times. And he was also trying to make some kind of tourism deal with the guide while I was looking at the sculptures.

Anyway, he didn't try to make me see his studio at the end. He drove me to the bus park—refused my offer of $10 US for the morning and demanded more—then told a tout to put me on a bus to somewhere called Akure. When I got to Akure, I was to take a taxi to the Abuja bus. Or something. I really had no idea. I was just glad to be out of the clutches not of the Sacred Forest, but of the overeager painter.

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