Nigeria. a new world!
24th March 2014.
My hotel had no breakfast offering, so I packed up and rode down to the centre of the village where I expected a ‘cultural’, breakfast experience, that hopefully gave me the strength to deal with the border crossing bureaucracy that no doubt awaited. I was really hungry, and found ‘just the spot’ in full view of the Cameroon customs and immigration office. It seemed the place where ‘the boys’ hung out for breakfast, and with about 5 tables full of locals having their breakfasts, and the owner / chef, working behind a mist of steam and oil, I entered the cosy, low roof rendezvous, with a warm, double thumbs up, “Good morning / Bonjour”. I could see many were taken by my open entry, and one guy immediately asked me: ‘So, are you from Germany?” (It’s either Germany, England, or sometimes, but not often, America?) I always like that, as I respond with emphasized shock, with a huge smile, saying: “What? I’m and African, just like you. I’m from South Africa”. I then tap his shoulder in a uniting way, saying: “You African, and Me African, isn’t that good?”, and then we do a double African handshake. It always goes down well, and I enjoy watching the faces as they deal with the conflict this presents. The routine went down well this morning, and I was soon offered a shared table and accepted as ‘one of the boys’. Breakfast was good, a condensed milk coffee, an onion and red pepper omelette, and a 8 cm thick, single slice, of fresh white bread. My shared table neighbour turned out to work for the Department of Forestry, trying to control illegal logging. Their job was to check all movement of logs / timber across the border. The usual questions came up, and I could feel I moved up a few notches in their respect model, when they found out the huge Africa mission I had already done. It boggles most of the locals’ minds, and they really do wonder why someone would do something like that…..? It does make one think about ‘our differences;, hey! The omelette was so good, or maybe I was just so hungry that I ordered a second one. I could feel, this moved me further up the acceptance and belonging rungs, and conversation eased further….
I managed to strike a good deal with a money changer, to rid myself of all the Central African Francs, and exchange USD100 for Nigerian currency. We would consummate the deal after my visit to Customs and Immigration, just in case there were some additional payment. Shocks and surprises!
I entered the immigration office, facing stern faces, but within minutes, and rolling out my routine again, I was ‘working’ in a friendly atmosphere, where the formalities were mixed with shared life stories. No more money needed, the moneychanger made his, well deserved, buck out of me, for the day, and I headed off down the worst, rocky road to date, to the Cross River bridge, and then Nigerian Immigration procedures.
It’s never over till it’s over: Another Cameroon check point before the bridge, so off the bike, and all the documents out again. I was in total relaxed mode, and went with the flow, once again ending up changing an intensely serious checkpoint atmosphere into a friendly conversation spot. Long after the checks had been passed we were talking about Africa and life, with these two guys, hypnotised by my story of ‘No house, no car, no TV, no friends, and the path I had taken to get there. I fuse in there the African concept of Ubuntu, and how what I see is Africa struggling with giving up, it’s community focused Ubuntu, for the pursuit of the wests capitalist, individual centred, dream. These guys get it and as we talk I always enjoy seeing where each individual relates the journey, which side of ‘the line’ there are on, and confusingly which side of the line am I on. I always end by saying: We all need money to live and prosper, and so need ‘the system’, it’s just knowing when is enough, enough, and then being able to be big enough to use the system to step out of the system. I always add, that most African have a huge advantage, because they know how to live simply and with little expense, the danger is they are moving away from that, and getting themselves into prison’s they may regret!
This may sound like all intellectual stuff above the average guy, but I am always surprised, how intensely they listen, and acknowledge the existence of the picture in their lives. In all these similar encounters over the years, I sense what these discussions end up doing is allowing people to think about their lives, that they have choices, and most importantly what is it all about: The pursuit of pleasure, contentment, or personal growth and fulfilment? The three are valued and promoted, society accepted pursuits, but my reading of things is that they are virtually mutually independent journeys, with necessarily different value systems, drivers, and goals, and this is confusing Africa.
We shook warm good byes, with the one guy saying: “We really like people like you, it makes our job fun and interesting, and you mean well.”
I was through the final Cameroon gate, and riding across the sizeable steel bridge across the ink black seemingly stagnant, Cross River, with dense forest coming right out of the water either bank. Now for Nigerian officials!
Well, the atmosphere I hit in the immigration office, was icy, even in the equatorial heat of the day! Two Germans, who I’d met the day before, and who were, very unusually travelling in convoy, one in each of two Landcruisers, were in there and things weren’t going well. They had clearly done something wrong, and were protesting to an officious, unsympathetic iconic immigration official. I waited outside but was called in, and asked for my passport. I arrived with my ‘routine’ icebreaker, that I had slightly modified for the heavy duty I anticipated from what I saw ahead. It did help change, stereotype perceptions, but these guys were hardened officials, experienced in the use of bureaucratic power, so I was in the ‘normal’, arm’s length process.
Well due to where my visa was located I’d left Cameroon on my South African passport, and was now entering Nigeria, on my Australian passport where my visa sat. Well, this was a huge crime, as having two passports in Nigeria is illegal, and my attending official said to the Germans’ guy. “He has the same problem.” The Germans started explaining and seemed to be in a deep hole with their official. I just switched the subject to the problem, and how we can solve it? The Cameroon exit stamp in my South African passport was of no value to these guys, as to them I only had an Australian passport. All I needed was another Cameroon exit stamp on the page in my Australian passport, and bingo it should be OK. Knowing I had friends ‘back there’ I went back over the bridge, and soon had a second exit stamp, but this one, exactly as requested. My friend at the last Cameroon gate, even gave me a lift on his bike up to the immigration office and back!
I was soon back at the Nigerian office, purposely looking happy and not harassed, and with the Germans no longer there I was able to work on the relationship. There were lots of pointed questions, and each one I gave my from the heart story, and these guys warmed and warmed, until all was good and we were having a conversation similar to the Cameroon side, but also including their help on the roads and security situation inside Nigeria, This was all great helpful stuff. The customs was the same, and while it took a long time the Nigerian process was actually very personally rewarding. It hit me how the officials I met were worldly a step up from the Cameroons people, and the one guy even said I look like John Kerry the US Foreign secretary! Well that got us onto Russia, the US and the Ukraine, and quite a heated debate. As I wondered what felt different, it hit me that here I was being challenged on my views, and by a guy who was seemingly very up to date, informed, but most of all had a passionate belief system of his own, about world issues. That was great, I needed more of those interactions!
I was soon on the road to Ikom, assured that it was all safe and the road was good. I did pass quite a few police / military vehicles stopped on the side of the road in surveillance mode, but no issues. Then I passed four heavily armed guys, straddling the road, with Anti-Crime Unit banners and uniforms.
It was 240 kilometres to the river mouth, estuary based town of Calabar. I wanted to visit it as the travel guide said it was the most free, and culturally aware, place in Nigeria.
Two heavily sand bagged police checks along the way, but all seemed keen to tell me all was OK, and they supported me.
Nigeria did feel different. A level of development and sophistication one up for what I’d seen so far. What did hit me straight away was the influence of the Christian Church here. Everywhere there are signs of meeting halls, places of worship, church sponsored community events, it was so noticeably different from elsewhere. Many of the cars had cryptic religiously motivated stickers over them.
The second thing that hit me was the poor quality of the petrol station infrastructure. Lots of service stations, almost all one off, non-branded operations, mostly in a poor state of repair and many placed in very uneconomical locations, where maybe 4 or 5 stations compete virtually directly next to each other. There were lots of closed down service stations, and all this told me a story of a time of huge entrepreneurial opportunity that had chased away the international companies, but that had now seen it’s day.
Lastly, in a blog a few days ago, I mentioned the carnage along the African roads. Well, I should have kept that comment for Nigeria. I have NEVER seen so many written off vehicles along the road. Some of the sights were shocking, and everything from huge tankers to small motor cars. Not only accidents, but I passed huge ‘graveyards’ of dumped vehicles, lying rusting away, never to be used again. On riding on the road, I could get a sense of why these accidents occur. The driving is wild, with large trucks, overtaking other large trucks, and not giving a damn for the fact that they take up both sides of the road and oncoming traffic is approaching. I was almost forced off the road at least half a dozen times….. I’d been warned about this road safety situation, and so have committed myself to an extra conservative approach.
So far the people have been real friendly, with a bit of a traders’ edge approach detected quite often! It’s nice to be back in an English speaking environment, but the dialect is quite unusual, and I get misunderstood quite often. I arrived late in Calabar, and then a huge rainstorm kept me hotel bound the rest of the day, so the products of exploring the town will be for another blog post!
Leg is still on the upward trend, and antibiotics are ‘going in’ as prescribed!
New West-ing records are set each day, as I have turned the corner of the bulge of Africa, and now levelled off on my northern trajectory, to pursue almost a direct west course for a while yet. Just 7 degrees of longitude to the Western hemisphere!
That’s all for today!
Sorry, no photos again, I have been cautioned, by ‘my friends’ at the border to watch it, it’s not encouraged and being caught is not fun. So the ones I have taken aren’t that interesting, a shame hey!