Coming to Nigeria

Leaving Ghana for Nigeria would be a fiasco, this much we knew.  Just buying the tickets had become a five day long project, with roughly thirty to forty hours of travel (and then waiting, more travel, more waiting, and so on) before we were finally successful.  Bearing this in mind, we expected actually traveling thousands of kilometers across Africa would prove to be at least as exhausting.

As the bus left Cape Coast I had a brief moment of finality.  Finality because the Cape portion of our filming was over — whatever we needed to shoot, we’d have better done it already –and also a bit of sadness because I don’t know when, if ever again, I’ll see Cape Coast and my many new friends.

In Accra we headed to the Rising Phoenix, the 26-to-30 GHC per night guesthouse I had previously said less than great things about (the first time we stayed we got a room with no electrical outlets, despite it being the most expensive place we’d stayed in Ghana).  We’ve stayed there subsequently, mostly because we know how to get there, it’s central in Accra, and our stays keep improving (for instance, I haven’t been covered in wet paint recently).  They also have a vegetarian cafe, if one desires a “bean burger” and fries.  Last time we stayed, the owner, Phoenix, even gave us a ride to the STC station near Kaneshie, which was awful cool of him.  So we’d called to ask if we could store our non-Nigeria baggage there whilst in Nigeria, and then stay for a night when we return (before flying to the US).  Phoenix not only said yes, but said he’d store our 4 bags for free, which was again, awful cool of him.  So we dropped our bags at the Phoenix and then headed to do some errands.

The full list of errands is too much to recount, but basically we handled little things we needed to do before leaving, and the only accounts on which we were unsuccessful were in buying new cheap sunglasses at the market (I left mine at the Red Cross in Cape Coast by accident), and in finding a Nigeria guidebook.  We wanted the guidebook because it happens our Lagos flight would include an overnight layover before we’d fly to Abuja, and due to our checked bags we wouldn’t be able to stay in the airport (also it turns out our Abuja flight as at a different airport!).  A guidebook would have some idea of cheap accommodations we could taxi to … hopefully.

After failing to find any guidebooks anywhere (Miranda actually got laughed at when she inquired at the bookshop at the Accra mall — I guess people don’t vacation in Nigeria), we started to get a bit desperate.  I read the Lagos lodging section of the Bradt guide online (on googlebooks) but their minimum priced place was like $150 USD, which is about ten times what we prefer to spend.  I messaged a couple on CouchSurfing (a site on which we have met many cool people when hosting in Seattle, and on which we met Dom in Cape Coast, who is now one of our best friends).  I messaged a friend on Facebook (who lives in Nigeria) as well, in case the CS couple in Lagos couldn’t come through.

My friend promptly called us and said not only would he host us for the night, but he insisted on picking us up and then driving us back to the airport (4 hours later).  And, sure enough, once our plane landed and we cleared customs, there was our friend (and my fellow Citizen Ambassador) Toye.

Leaving the airport Miranda and I successfully fended off a “I-push-your-cart-and-then-ask-you-for-money” airport employee, and I had a moment of satisfaction at now being immune to at least the major pitfalls of Africa, so perhaps Nigeria wouldn’t be so scary.  As we made the long walk to Toye’s car we met a security gaurd who asked for a bribe (in a roundabout manner I’d read about on Wikitravels) and it was interesting to see Toye say “maybe next time, my friend,” which is exactly the method we’ve been using on people who ask us for things we cannot provide to them.

The streets of Lagos were quiet and dark as we sped along the highway.  It was nearing midnight, and it turns out it was about to be Toye’s birthday, which speaks even more highly of his Nigerian hospitality.  We ate some oranges he brought us and sat in his apartment asking him about Lagos and his experiences here.  His power goes out several times per day, apparently because Lagos sens its power to the federal grid (by law) to be redistributed amongst Nigeria.

We headed to sleep, and a mere three hours later were back up again to head to the domestic airport (which is a 1500 Naira –$10USD– cab ride from the int’l airport, so apparently when we fly back to Accra we should be ok).

Landing in Abuja I immediately had the feeling that we were in a very different place.  Lagos, even at night, had reminded me a lot of a slightly-more-dangerous Accra … lots of barred windows, potholed roads, trotro (although they call them something else), crazy driving, and so forth.  We did see streetsigns in Lagos, though, one thing we would never see in Ghana.

Abuja is in the north of Nigeria, which is a very different place from the south.  Speaking in general terms the south is more Christian, and oil rich (and also much more violent thanks to the oil).  The north is either halfway or entire Muslim, depending on where you are.  Abuja is the capital city, so it’s more on the halfway side, although I have seen several giant mosques and no Christian churches at all.

The airport was tiny, and the luggage conveyor belt terminated at a wall; in most airports if you miss your bags they will “come around again” indefinitely for another pass, but in Abuja if you miss your bags they hit a wall and fall onto the floor in a haphazard pile.  I collected our bags, fended off several “let me help you with that” people who would undoubtedly want compensation afterwards, and Miranda and I paid for a shuttle.  Toye had warned us a cab to the city would be 4000 (or more) Naira, which is like $30-40USD, so we took a shuttle for 800N each (around $5-6).

In front of the airport there was, surprisingly, no mad rush of taxi drivers vying for our business; just a few top-up credit sellers and maybe some gum or something small for sale.  I didn’t even see anyone with anything balanced on their head.  Were we still in Africa?

On the drive into Abuja I saw why the cab ride costs so much: the airport really isn’t in Abuja at all.  It’s certainly the nearest airport to Abuja, but maybe only because no one has built another in the region.  The drive into Abuja took at least an hour, with about half of it marred by crazy traffic.  The traffic itself was similar to anything you’d see in LA or Chicago, except there were dozens of desperate drivers in the median and on the shoulder, trying frantically to bypass the jam on the road.

With the drier climate, prevelance of Islam, relative calmness of the airport, and crazy driving (although this exists in the south too), Abuja to me has a much more Egyptian feel to me.  Abuja has a lot more visible infrastructure than Accra — most of the construction projects I see in Accra look scary, with homemade concrete and not a right angle to be found, but Abuja has the feel of proper construction (to me this is an indication that industry in Abuja has “money”).  Abuja also has a lot better English speakers than Ghana.  So far we have yet to have a cab driver misunderstand anything we’ve said.   One even admonished me to buckle up!  (After three months of riding in vehicles without seatbelts, it’s become habit not to even try to buckle in taxis.)  The roads are smooth and populated with myriad expensive vehicles.  The shoulders of the roads have virtually no one walking on them.  In general Abuja does not feel like West Africa to me.
The north of Nigeria is supposed to be quite impoverished, so it’s interesting to see so many signs of education and wealth in Abuja.  The prices of things are on par with the US (and in fact rent for a western style apartment would rival or exceed NY city).  Our UNICEF contact refers to Abuja as an anomaly.  Paul Farmer writes a lot about steep grades of inequality, and the problems they create, and I have a feeling we’re about to see the bottom of that grade.

We spent the late morning getting up to speed at UNICEF, and then the early afternoon running errands thanks to a lot of help from Paula at UNICEF (who took us to the money changers, a UNICEF lunch where I had pretty decent spaghetti, and then worked her butt off to find us a hotel room).

We stayed the night in Abuja in the cheapest hotel we (er, Paula) could find that had rooms available.  The only rooms they had were about halfway up the scale of prices, but with the UNICEF discount it worked out to around $80USD.  This is roughly four times as much as we’ve paid for lodging anywhere in Africa, and had Paula not been working so hard to take care of us (and find us a room), I would have passed.  That said, we could afford $80 for one night, it would be rude to say no after her hard work, and it gave us a bit of a chance to see how the ‘other half’ in Africa lives.  Maybe that should say ‘other one percent’?  I took my first hot shower since we left the United States, watched a few minutes of BBC News, and then we left to handle more business.
Two days ago we’d been standing next to the Gulf of Guinea, meters from a village of mud and thatch huts, watching a local fisherman, use just a hand-line bated with crawfish to catch small stingrays, pluck them from the ocean, cut their stingers out, and leave them in the sand to die while he worked to catch more.  He spoke no English, but happily showed us his catch as he de-hooked it.

Forty-eight hours later we’re in Abuja, where it’s hotter but less humid, surrounded by men in three piece suits and linen gowns.
We tried to find some dinner but the restaurant didn’t open until seven.  We met in the vacant lounge with a former teacher of Toye’s, who gave us a potential contact in Kaduna and went out of his way offering to drop us at the bus station in the morning.  As we were talking in the lounge the power kicked on and off several times.

Earlier in the day, as we’d been driving around Abuja, Paula had remaked how the entire cluster of UN buildings is on generator power 24/7.  The majority of Abuja has no power.  Whether a given place is wired for power is not the question, because effectively there is no power.  Most hotels are on generator, along with other buildings that the wealthy congregate at.  A handful of intersections have working streetlights because they, too, are on generator.  The rest are either tenuously negotiated by drivers in some sort of informal stop-and-go system, or during the day some of the major ones have police officers in the middle to direct them with hand signals.

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