NIGERIA FOR 37 DAYS: PROS AND CONS OF A BREAKDOWN


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Africa » Nigeria » Abuja
February 17th 2008
Published: March 19th 2008
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Bike packed up and ready to leave Ekom for AbujaBike packed up and ready to leave Ekom for AbujaBike packed up and ready to leave Ekom for Abuja

It took hours of loud arguments to figure out how our bike would be transported: the boys wanted to put it in a station wagon, but finally we convinced a minibus driver to take out a few seats and wedge the bike in. For nearly $300 I'm sure he wasn't too put out.
Nigeria, Nigeria. This has been the hardest blog entry to write. I don't want to sound like an Africa snob, raving on about how friendly a country that most people hate is, but I think the enforced extension of our stay in Nigeria allowed us to see a different side of the country. Most people travelling through West Africa try to spend as little time as possible in Nigeria due to the country's formidable reputation; some of the most corrupt officials in the world man the road blocks, crime is rampant in Lagos and other parts of the south, and violence is common in the Niger Delta. However, we had a fantastic time and there were a few crazy moments when we half considered never leaving.

For us the border crossing at Ekok/Mfum was fine other than taking a few hours longer than necessary as hopeful officials flipped through our passports, Carnet, and stalled as long as possible hoping we would start handing them money. We didn't, of course, and after nearly 3 hours were on our way to Ekom with the bike still wedged into the back of Tabe's Pajero. The radiator had cracked on the gnarly jungle track
Nick helping to fix the flat on his bdayNick helping to fix the flat on his bdayNick helping to fix the flat on his bday

The driver did not have a jack, his spare had a hole in the rubber, and a good day it was not meant to be. On the way to Abuja
in Cameroon just before the Nigerian border, and we were unable to fix it. Our BMW book said there was a BMW motorbike shop in Abuja, so that was our destination to get spare parts and figure out what was wrong with the bike. Tabe had agreed to take us from Mamfe in Cameroon as far as Ekom, 30 km from the border on the Nigerian side, and the first town where we could find transport to Abuja. We paid him extra as the original deal had only been for him to drive us to the border, but I think it all went to border guards in exorbitant temporary import fines on his truck, and corrupt officials at the 10+ road blocks just after the border. Bribes at checkpoints are a very typical African feature and certainly not unique to Nigeria, though they did seem more excessive than usual. Most of the income raised by these officials comes from locals as the majority of travelers would rather argue for hours than hand over a bribe.

We spent the night in Ekom, and I changed money as ATMs are hard to come by in Nigeria. I walked to the Ekom motor park from our hotel and changed US$100, but when I got back we realized we would probably need more to pay for transport to Abuja. It was dark at this point, but I walked back to the motor park by myself through alleyways, side streets and along the highway, changed the money then walked back to the hotel, my pockets stuffed with US$300 worth of Nigerian Naira. Nothing happened of course, and neither of us thought much of it at the time, but later I realized that not many people would be comfortable doing that, especially their first night in Nigeria. And maybe I just got lucky, but never felt threatened in the crowded alleys or empty streets, so even though my mother probably would not agree, I think your attitude and expectations have a lot to do with how much of a target you are.

The next day was Nick's birthday, but we were up before 5am to try and organize a ride to Abuja. It was a Sunday, and as it turns out "Sunday is the day of the small cars", which means that owners of regular passenger cars get to take paying passengers rather than
Malaria daysMalaria daysMalaria days

It was a hot day, especially in the tent, but my fever was climbing to 40C
minivans drivers. This meant it took a lot of shouting and waiting to sort out how our bike would be getting there. A minibus driver was in the park, and he was willing to pull out the 2 back seats to put the bike in. We would have to pay for the seats that were taken by the bike, but the car drivers were not willing to let him sell tickets to fill the other seats. They said it would take business away from them, and our man, AK, would have to convince the drivers of the station wagons to let him fill the rest of his minivan. This was a long, loud process, and the bits of it we could understand were the car drivers shouting, "I put my eye on you!" to which AK yelled back, "take your eye off me!" This went on for a long time, and a few times I got involved in the arguing even though I didn't really understand their local dialect/English mix. It cost nearly US$300 for us and the bike in the end, which was reasonably fair as we were paying the set price for the seats that were taken out to fit our bike in. We didn't take any passengers from Ekom, but picked people up from a village about an hour down the road. The 8 of them piled onto a seat for 2 people, their masses of cargo stacked on the roof, and we were away to Abuja.

It was a trying and sometimes harrowing ride sitting in the front seat as AK careened around pot holes, making the oncoming traffic swerve onto the shoulder to avoid a collision (an African minivan specialty), and pointed out wrecked trucks and minivans on the side of the road, tsking some drivers' recklessness. The lady in the back spent most of the trip repeating, in a strange tuneless voice, "in Jesus' name" until even our religious driver told her to shut up, which she ignored. We got a flat tire, and AK didn't have a jack. The boys went off in search of one, and eventually, after a few attempts, flagged down a car with one the right size. AK was resourceful enough to have a spare tire, but it had a hole in it so we had to slowly make our way to the next town, Makurdi, to get
Campsite at the Sheraton Hotel in AbujaCampsite at the Sheraton Hotel in AbujaCampsite at the Sheraton Hotel in Abuja

This was home for a very long time
a new tire put on. Predictably it took hours in Makurdi to be on our way again, and I wondered why, with all the weight from the cargo they pile into their vans, and the ridiculous state of the tires (beyond bald, and occassionally stitched up with yarn), they don't carry jacks and decent spares. AK seriously must go through that same scenario every time, and since the "new" tire he put on was just as bald as the last, he'll probably go through it again next time.

Eventually we reached the outskirts of Abuja, and after more arguing and money being handed over we and our bike were escorted to the Sheraton Hotel, where we had heard from other overlanders camping is free. Thankfully they were right, and there is a little back parking lot at the Abuja Sheraton where overlander travelers can camp hidden from the view of regular Sheraton guests. We had gotten in around 10pm, and by the time we had set up the tent and showered it was nearly midnight, so Nick's birthday dinner was fish and chips from the Sheraton bar in the wee hours. Africa definitely won that day!

The next
Kenneth, aka Chris RockKenneth, aka Chris RockKenneth, aka Chris Rock

He's the water man at the Sheraton, but if you close your eyes you would swear you were talking to Chris Rock (we moved our tent to the shade after a couple weeks- we weren't going anywhere and were sick of the sun and concrete)
day I came down with malaria again, so spent the first week of our stay shivering in the tent or lying in the shade on a lounger by the pool. We spent from January 13th to February 15th at the Sheraton, either trying to figure out what was wrong with the bike, waiting for parts (there is no BMW motorbike shop in Abuja so we had to courier parts in from Europe), or trying to fix the bike. There were many upsides to this enforced stay, mostly having to do with being at the Sheraton. There was a pool, hot showers, an air-conditioned lounge with comfy chairs, sofas and a TV, and our saviour Chris, the assistant general-manager whose Kawasaki 650 Nick fixed. Chris took it upon himself to make sure we had a good time under the circumstances, and through him we enjoyed the good life at the Sheraton, meeting plenty of expats working for Embassys, NGOs and IGOs. The highlight was the friendly Serbian ambassador who said he admired what we were doing and invited us to celebrate Serbia's National Day with him. All things considered we got quite lucky, but there were practical things on our minds,
Chris, our Abuja knight in shining armourChris, our Abuja knight in shining armourChris, our Abuja knight in shining armour

He's the man to know in Abuja- thanks Chris, we love you!!
such as our Nigerian visa expiring, running out of money, our Carnet de Passage expiring, and not knowing what was wrong with the bike and not having any mechanics around who could help Nick (he did everything himself). Every day that passed put more stress on the rest of the trip, which slowly became impossible to forget about despite the rare luxuries.

While waiting for parts we went up to Kano in northern Nigeria for a few days, since all the time we were wasting on the bike meant that we would not have time to see more of the country once it was fixed. Taking public transport was typically an adventure unto itself, and came with a stop at the police station for everyone in the minivan to get frisked by the police when another passenger accused one of us of stealing 70,000 Naira (nearly US$600) from his pocket. The money was never found, and interestingly the police were careful to make everything that was going on very clear, and did not search us because we are foreigners. After a few hours we were on our way with the police concluding, "If somebody stole this man's money, then may he be punished by god, and if this man lost the money by it falling out of his pocket, then may god open another path for him." Well spoken I thought, but maybe I wouldn't feel the same if it was my 70,000 Naira.

Kano itself was great, and though we only had one full day around the city we made the most of it. Interestingly we experienced our only Nigerian hustle here, when an immigration officer came up to the hotel room we were staying in (we were treating ourselves to a holiday from the tent), and spent over an hour grilling Nick, being very obvious about the fact that he was looking for a way to get money out of us. He accusingly wondered how we would have been able to get visas for Zimbabwe (how random!), and why our receipt for the Nigerian visa had not been signed by us, among other things. That was the start of our day, and it could only improve from there. We visited the indigo dye pits that have been in use for centuries, Gidan Makama Museum on Hausa traditions and culture, and the massive Kurmi Market, one of
Nick getting a conference callNick getting a conference callNick getting a conference call

We were the only tourists at the Sheraton in Abuja, and when we stayed in a room over the weekend to belatedly celebrate Nick's birthday we felt a wee bit out of place in our zip-offs and threadbare T-shirts.
Africa’s largest. A school group was visiting the museum while we were there (which shows how wealthy Nigeria is- certainly most African schools would not run field trips, even if it was the museum down the road), and they had a photographer to take class photos. Every local within sight took advantage of a camera being present to come over and have their picture taken with us- museum staff, the teachers, and other random people hanging around, a reminder of how few tourists Nigeria sees. We walked everywhere, and the streets of Kano are very different from Abuja: Abuja was built in the 1990s to be the capital of Nigeria, and it is very modern and well-planned, while Kano has been an important western African trade hub for centuries and the streets are choked and chaotic.

Returning from Kano was also an experience; we had randomly met a local guy, Mohamed, who had been educated in Russia and China, and just happened to mention he was going to Abuja on business the next day. We asked if we could get a ride with him, and he agreed, so the next morning he picked us up and we drove around
Kano's indigo dye pitsKano's indigo dye pitsKano's indigo dye pits

They're centuries old, but these days more washing than dying seems to go on
Kano for an hour or so while he looked for people and shouted out the window. Eventually we got gas, which involved jumping a queue of cars that stretched around the block, and started for Abuja. Mohamed turned out to be a passionate man, and talking about Nigeria, the corruption and problems here, he almost worked himself up to tears a few times. He railed that everyone over 40 should be killed because they are all too poisoned by corruption, and everyone driving a fancy car should be killed also, but then later said that he himself, in his job with the government, takes some extra money where he can to look after his family. And that if he were a minister or governor he would, for example, take for himself $50 of $100 that was meant to be spent on the people. There was no arguing with him, though, as he was flying along at 170km/h and would wildly gesture and look at us instead of the road when he was trying to make a point. The extent of corruption in Nigeria is almost implausible; one Nigerian president, Sani Abacha, died with US$10 billion in stolen oil revenue in
Indigo cloth drying in the sunIndigo cloth drying in the sunIndigo cloth drying in the sun

Later on a specially trained woman will make a design on the cloth; the finished product looks really cool and the different designs have different names, but taking pictures would have cost money
a Swiss bank account, and since non corrupt politicians likely do not exist in Nigeria I would guess people like Mohamed think that being less corrupt than the norm is one and the same with not being corrupt. We ran out of gas at one point on the trip, and had to pick up another passenger to pay for it (he didn’t have any money and we had already paid for most of the gas initially). Even the local guy was gripping his seat and pumping an imaginary brake at Mohamed’s insane driving.

Once back from Kano our parts had arrived and it was time to get on the road again. Our cracked radiator had turned out to be the main problem, so we had friends in Germany get a new one from BMW and DHL it along with a new water pump, gasket set, and a few other things as precautions. They finally arrived in the first few days of February (we had limped into Abuja January 13th), but even once Nick had put in the new radiator and water pump, and the bike appeared to be fixed, the next day water started leaking from the water pump!
Traditional Hausa bride's hutTraditional Hausa bride's hutTraditional Hausa bride's hut

It's a tiny conical hut with a really uncomfortable-looking bed in it
So we went from thinking we were finally on our way again to having no idea what could be wrong with the bike. It turned out that the water seal in the water pump was not seated properly, so Nick pushed it into where it should be, and we were again on our way. However, once again before we could actually leave Abuja there was another problem. This time water was mixing with the oil, which not only meant something else had gone wrong, but that Nick would have to clean the engine to get rid of the gunk from the corrupted oil. To cut a long and frustrating story short, BMW in Germany had sold us a brand new water pump with seals that were too big for it! The water pump comes as one complete part with the seals, so it was not a mistake on our part or on the part of our friends getting the parts for us. Nick solved the problem by putting the old seals on the new water pump (because they at least fit), and now we're hoping for the best. A very, very discouraging few days having no idea what was going on.

The seals were in fact the final solution, and Feb 14th Nick rode our bike back from Coscharis Motors, the BMW car dealer (no motorbikes) whose garage Nick had been using to work on the bike, for the last time. Chris treated us to a flash Sheraton Valentine's Day dinner and enough drinks to give me a killer hangover for our departure from Abuja. However, nothing was stopping us from leaving the next day and we started a 3 day sprint for the border. Harmattan, the grey-brown sand-laden winds blowing off the Sahara, was quite strong and made the dilapidated villages punctuated by rubbled remains of unlucky buildings look very much like war zones. Nigeria is not a physically beautiful country to drive through, at least not the part of it we saw. However, people were invariably friendly everywhere we stopped, and we wound up camping at gas stations where locals went out of their way to make us feel welcome and comfortable. Since we cannot carry much extra water with us on the bike it was really handy to stay at gas stations where we could get water for cooking and washing dishes with. Our last night
School group at Gidan Makama Museum in KanoSchool group at Gidan Makama Museum in KanoSchool group at Gidan Makama Museum in Kano

They were having class photos taken, but this was abandoned when every Nigerian adult in the vicinity made the photographer take a picture of them with us- this made me think we were probably the first tourists Kano had seen in a while
in Nigeria was spent at a gas station whose owner insisted we sleep in an air-conditioned telecommunications sub-station in a shipping container, which we were more than happy to do as it was a very hot day. When money is not involved, and camping at gas stations no one ever hinted at payment, Nigerians are genuinely hospitable and friendly.

Interestingly, on this 3 day ride we were never stopped at check points until a few kilometres from the border. Even then it was only 2 stops, and other than those we were waved through every other check point we passed in Nigeria. Something to note for people planning to travel through Nigeria: there are loads of road blocks in the 10 or so kilometres on the Nigerian side of a border crossing, but other than that there is not an unusual amount on the roads through the middle of the country (via Abeokuta, Ibadan, Abuja and Mfum), and the officials did not bother us. In fact, on the bike through the whole of Nigeria (since the rest of the time we were on public transport) we only had those 2 checkpoints just before the border, which took about a minute each and involved no hassles. Other people we met in Cameroon who had been through Nigeria generally said it was not as bad as they expected, and they were actually getting stopped more frequently at check points in Cameroon.

That was a good way to leave Nigeria, and we were in total disbelief as we had expected a lot worse from the police. The border was typical, and we spent well over an hour at immigration while they mucked around, not asking for a bribe but likely hoping that if they took long enough one would be forthcoming anyway. It wasn’t, and we were pleasantly surprised by an efficient and friendly Nigerian Customs officer. We asked him about the exchange rate for Nigerian Naira to West African CFA francs (the currency of Benin), and his reply was “I’m not sure about the bank, but on the black market it is 276 Naira for 1000 CFA.” Gotta love the honesty of African border officials: they never have a clue about official rates, or even sometimes that there is an alternative to the black market for changing money. So, we were out of Nigeria and on our way into Benin
Streets of KanoStreets of KanoStreets of Kano

Always crazy busy, hazy from car and motorbike fumes, and dusty from harmattan
without encountering any of the hassles and harassments we had been warned about.

For the other side of the story, check out Nick’s blog http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/African-raid/


Additional photos below
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Nick on Valentine's DayNick on Valentine's Day
Nick on Valentine's Day

We don't usually celebrate Valentine's Day, but we weren't about to turn down the offer...
Departure Day at last!Departure Day at last!
Departure Day at last!

Chris, me and Nick in our last few moments of luxury at the Abuja Sheraton
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Cool box

Our last campsite in Nigeria- the friendly owner of the gas station we planned to camp at let us sleep in this air conditioned substation, choice!


21st March 2008

Your mother agrees totally about attitude and expectations playing a major role in how much of a target you are. Well do I recall your dear brother casually dropping you off one night in one of the worst areas of the Bronx, so you could figure out your own way into downtown New York City. And how you, with your open and friendly attitude, asked a group of locals for subway information. Your expectations - helpful information kindly given - were met. "Her confidence is tragic; her intuition magic..." (But I don't think your confidence is one bit tragic!) All my love -- mom

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