Ikom, Nigeria * December 23, 2008
Lunch break, roadside, west of Benin City – OK, officially the most insane road I have ever ridden! The drivers, so fast, so aggressive, so brutal!
Beneath that I drew a diagram of the four-lane road we had chosen through a southern slice of Nigeria. It is charitably called an expressway and is divided by a weed-infested concrete median. On a four-lane expressway in the Western world, vehicles in the two right lanes would proceed east, while those in the two left lanes motor west.
Not here. Not in Nigeria, not on this throbbing artery of blood-thick traffic and long stretches of destroyed pavement. My diagram depicts traffic flow with four arrows. The journal goes on:
Incredible! To get somewhere faster, drivers cross the median and DRIVE THE WRONG WAY DOWN A HIGH-SPEED ONE-WAY ROAD!
The first time, I thought I was seeing things. Then I thought, Oh wow, that driver really got screwed up, he’s going the wrong way against traffic! But then I saw it again and again, and watched in grim amazement as drivers jockeyed back and forth at a breakneck pace, going both ways on a one-way route, a hundred head-on collisions waiting to happen. My journal continues:
Saw a sign – “If You Can’t Read This, You’re Going Too Fast. Nigerian Federal Road Safety Commission.”
No, the sign didn’t make sense. Nigeria didn’t make sense – not on the highways we rode. Motorized and urban Nigeria was upside down and inside out, twisted and furious and mutant and crazy and brash and bold and filthy and horrifying and exhilarating.
Africa on steroids, Migo called it. And amphetamines, and crack cocaine, and LSD … name your drug. Nigeria was on a permanent bender, intoxicated on its own stinking exhaust.
Migo and I took three days to ride the 800-plus miles from Abomey, Benin, to a border crossing at Ilara, Nigeria, north of Lagos, to Calabar, a city of 500,000 in southeastern Nigeria. In Calabar, we found a rundown, overpriced hotel off the main market and wandered into the pulsating night, stepping through dense traffic and around open sewers and over gaping holes in the street, for dinner and beers.
We sat outdoors on wooden benches at a rickety table in a dirt yard. The municipal electricity was off. It often was, in Calabar and elsewhere in Nigeria. Cans of kerosene with open dancing flames furnished illumination. Migo chewed on a kebab of peppered meat from a street vendor. I poked at a bowl of rice and red sauce. We sipped our warm Gulder beers.
“You know,” I said. “Those were the three most stressful days of motorcycling I’ve ever done.”
Migo exhaled deeply. “Phew, me too,” he said. “That was absolutely crazy. In Germany we drive fast, but not like that. Not that crazily. The wrong way on a one-way road! That actually had me a little scared. It’s like there’s no law out here – anything goes. Completely lawless. Every man for himself.”
“Lord of the Flies,” I said.
A woman from a food stand stopped by to see if I would like some bush meat with my rice and red sauce. Bush meat means monkey or crocodile or rodent or any other animal hunted, often illegally, by natives in the bush. I had seen a sign for bush meat in the dirt yard. I told her no.
I thought for a minute. “The Nigerian motorist is like a dog,” I told Migo. “He’s all nice to you when you’re stopped or eating something and he wants some food or petting, but put him behind a wheel and he turns into a crazed animal that hates motorcycles.”
I looked at my friend and smiled and was glad that he was still with me.
It was close. Damn close. Migo hadn’t seen it. But he had very nearly been rear-ended by a speeding blue and white car earlier in the day. We would see dozens of these late-model blue and white cars – taxis, they were -- on the road from Onitsha to Calabar, the final day of our white-knuckle run across Nigeria.
Migo was ahead of me, as he usually is, on account of he rides more aggressively and has assumed navigational command for the group. He slowed for a vehicle trundling along in the right lane. This section of the road was four lanes. He checked his rear view mirror; a car was pulling up fast behind him on the left.
Once that car was past, Migo executed his pass. He is skilled and artful rider. Many times I have watched admiringly at how he tosses his big black motorbike to the left or right with a playful flair.
But Migo had not correctly judged the speed of a second blue and white car now racing down the left lane behind him. Or perhaps he hadn’t seen the car at all; he had no recollection of the incident. My estimate is that the car was doing 90 to 95 mph. I watched in horror as the car slammed on its brakes just behind Migo. I could see its brake lights flash a lurid red and the vehicle lurch forward and its front end dive as the brakes took hold.
I watched helplessly as the gap between the car’s front bumper and Migo’s rear tire narrowed to a matter of feet. My friend accelerated through his pass. Fear and then profound relief shot through me, and I thought of how I had made the same mistake in Portugal. Geoff had told me with chilling matter-of-factness how a car he estimated was running at up to 120 mph on a similar four-lane road had nearly taken me out from the rear.
A week later, in Limbe, Cameroon, I would learn that Geoff had crashed outside Benin City in Nigeria. He caught up with us after a 10-day excursion to England and Scotland, and as we sat for a couple of New Year’s Eve beers at our hotel in Limbe, he told me about the accident. A truck had slowed in front of him, but its brake lights were broken. Geoff slammed his brakes upon spotting the slowed vehicle and swerved hard to the right at about 35 mph, missing by inches the edge of the truck’s rear with his left shoulder.
Geoff powered through deep gravel along the side of the road, and angled to return to the pavement. But his rear tire got hung on the pronounced edge between pavement and shoulder, and his Yamaha XT went down, twirling 360 degrees across the road. He was unhurt and his motorbike was all right; the truck driver swerved around his prone Yamaha and never stopped.
“That traffic was the worst I’ve ever seen … and I’ve ridden through India!” Geoff said. “I couldn’t wait to get out of Nigeria!”
Thirty miles down the road from Migo’s near-disaster, we slowed to pass an accident. More than a dozen blue and white cars lined the side of the road. Their drivers stood idly about. I spotted a blue and white car freshly crashed on the right side, nestled into the dense foliage.
I lost track of how many wrecks I saw on the way from Ilara to Calabar. It was well over 50. Maybe 75, probably more. I would motor past and shake my head at the spectacle of a horrifically twisted truck or tractor-trailer lain on its side or upside-down, or the cannibalized carcass of a car or a small bus. I would think of the irony of how a couple of weeks earlier, in lightly trafficked Ghana, I had rhapsodized about the joy of speed.
Before Nigeria, I had counted coastal Route 101 north of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil as the most dangerous road I had ever ridden. Racetrack 101, I called it. Traffic there was thick and fast and reckless; tailgating is a Brazilian sport second in popularity only to soccer. At police checkpoints, the Brazilian authorities had assembled dozens of crashed vehicles as a means of encouraging drivers to slow down.
Our route through Nigeria was worse. Vehicles in Nigeria raced at astonishing speeds with little to no regard for others, nor for themselves. There are no speed limit signs. No police cars lurk off the road with radar detectors. It is entirely ruthless. Motorists seize the smallest advantage to gain time and space.
The four-lane sections were bad enough; two-lane sections posed their own perils. Parts of the two-lane sections would be clean and fast, but then another stretch would be badly potholed, or pavement destroyed completely. To negotiate these subpar sections, vehicles would slalom back and forth between enormous potholes, aiming for pavement that posed the least disturbance to speed.
This slaloming also presented an opportunity for the enterprising motorist to gain ground. If a vehicle ahead had chosen a line to the right, a vehicle behind would often opt for the left side. Then each would accelerate through the rough in a hellbent race to get ahead of one another. More than a few times, I would find myself stuck in the middle … or angling to gain ground myself.
An awareness of vehicles behind you is a principle of sound motorcycling. On an open road in the U.S. and its generally civilized traffic, it’s often a point of mere curiosity. In Nigeria, an awareness of what’s behind you is essential. Migo’s near collision had proven that. Weaving back and forth between potholes on my motorbike, I had always to pay attention to whatever fiend lurked behind me.
The blue and white cars were egregious offenders. So were small, white Toyota Hacia buses. They are sleek, late model vehicles and packed with passengers. You would think that a bus full of passengers would proceed at a judicious pace. Twenty or more lives are at stake.
But they did not. They tore past me at 85 and 90 mph. Or worse, they tailgated me at most uncomfortable proximity, and paid no heed when I pivoted my head around and gestured for them to back off. That technique had proven effective in Brazil and elsewhere, but it seemed only to antagonize the Nigerian. The traffic was so furious and reckless that I resorted to using my turn signals in an attempt to give pause to those vehicles racing up behind me.
And there were the trucks. The putative expressway was clotted with tractor trailers and mid-size trucks. They were old and beaten and creaky from the thousands of punishing miles they had endured. Despite their unsuitability to run at high speeds, their drivers used a leaden foot.
They barreled past me at 75 and 80 mph, and I observed with mounting scorn the colorful religious inscriptions that adorned these trucks. The inscriptions are schizophrenic. They suggest piety, but there is no piety on the highways of Nigeria.
Redemption Never Fails
If God Doesn’t Care, Who Does?
Jesus Is Coming Repent Your Sins
Repent YOUR sins, I thought, your speeding sins, you lunatic bastard! Would Jesus drive a beat-up old tractor-trailer at 80 mph, carving through traffic like a madman, running the wrong way against opposing traffic? A more appropriate inscription on these trucks, it occurred to me, would be Hammer of God.
Not long after spotting the crashed blue and white car, we tore up a long hill. I watched Migo dart from the left lane into the right, as a tractor trailer came heaving down the left lane, going the wrong way against traffic.
A few days before I left for Toronto and the plane flight that would take me to Lisbon, I had lunch with a pair of favorite cousins. They had driven more than a half-hour to see me off, and we enjoyed fish sandwiches and salads at a comfortable drive-in. We got to talking about travel and its inevitable difficulties.
Jim and Eileen are well traveled around the U.S., but not in foreign countries. In the winter, they often motor from their home in chilly upstate New York for warmer climes in the south, or hop a flight to Las Vegas. They have a TomTom GPS in their Ford Explorer, but nevertheless, became disoriented on a freeway that cuts through Wichita, Kansas.
It was quite an ordeal, Eileen said. They had missed the freeway exit at which their hotel of choice was located, and had driven down the interstate through Wichita before turning around and heading back. It was nighttime, and they began to get anxious.
I could picture it vividly: A well-marked U.S. interstate with civilized traffic, illuminated exit signs every half-mile, and colorful billboards advertising the comforts and convenience of Motel 6 and Denny’s and Applebee’s and the Radisson.
“Oh, it was horrible,” Eileen said. “I was so glad when we finally found our hotel!”
I thought of my cousins now. I thought of how they and other Americans of refined travel sensibilities would react if they were to be beamed down into the middle of the insanity in which I found myself in Owerri, a city of more than 225,000 people on the northern lip of Nigeria’s Delta Region.
Massive piles of stinking, rotting garbage lined the middle of Owerri’s main road. These half-dozen piles were the size of tractor trailers, and now a bucket-loader was laboring to remove them. The odor was piquant and nauseating, like diapers and death. The thousands of people crammed in proximity to this Third World urban landfill seemed oblivious, or at least resigned, to the stench.
Migo and I were crushed all sides by traffic, barely inching forward. A cockeyed old truck would lurch in front of me from the left. A grimy mini-bus crammed full of people and baggage, sitting on the roof and hanging off the sides, would be stuck in front of me. To my right, dozens of whining little Chinese motos angled for the slightest opening. These openings would often be extremely slight, because to the right would be a rubbish-filled open sewer, carved a foot down into the earth and roughly parallel to the road.
The asphalt had been destroyed long ago, tortured and chewed by ceaseless traffic. Instead, we crawled over huge undulations on an earthen surface. Potholes brimmed with garbage and debris. I had to watch where I put my feet down, because chances were fair that it would be into a hole, or in the path of a bus tire. I was sweating profusely.
Exhaust belched, choking us with noxious fumes. Horns blared incessantly. Motors idled and roared, many of them ungoverned by mufflers. People hollered and chattered. Peddlers of bananas and phone cards and bags of water stepped gingerly through the clotted traffic, shoving their wares towards motorists. On each side, hundreds of people congregated around shacks and stalls. Music screeched at ridiculously high volumes from huge old speakers set up in at storefronts.
I had never seen anything like it. The anarchic density of vehicles and people and noise and exhaust was outside of my experience. The poverty was grave and arresting. You could see it in the hard and haunted and hollow faces and filthy clothing of the hundreds, the thousands, of people jostling and yelling and shoving through these African Calcuttas.
Nothing in Morocco or Burkina Faso or Ghana, nor any Latin American city through which I had ridden, was comparable to the chaos of a Nigerian city. It was unreal, and made all the more unreal by the incongruous sight of Migo and his sleek, loaded adventure bike inching along in front of me, traffic and people crushing him from all sides. He looked as out of place here as a supermodel in a leper colony.
People stared at us. Young men, swarthy and broad-faced and shirtless, their muscular black torsos glistening with sweat, hooted at us with a macho verve I had not heard in countries past. Men on motos gave us leering smiles, as if in satisfaction at the shock we were experiencing. Some wore the silliest little blue hardhat helmets, which, unstrapped beneath their chins, would fly off at the first hint of a collision. “I want your bike!” a moto dude would holler. “We trade, huh?”
I felt as if I was in an alternative universe devoid of sense and reason and order and decorum. It seemed imperative to get through and get out of this vortex. Though I would regret it later, I took no compelling photos of the chaos I observed in urban Nigeria. If I did so, I reasoned, I would have lost Migo, and we would have the hassle of reuniting. I would be instantly surrounded by people; the idea of taking of my camera seemed wholly inappropriate, to do what – document the miserable conditions in which they spent their days?
It wasn’t just Owerri. It was each large Nigerian through which we passed – Abeokuta and Ijebu Ode and Benin City and Onitsha and Aba. I had read guidebooks that even average-size Nigerian cities were monstrosities, but that benign description did not prepare me for what I would see.
In Abeokuta, I looked in vicarious horror at hundreds of people jammed onto a narrow strip of pavement, between a wall and an open sewer, and the absurdly coagulated traffic at sewer’s edge. The people just sat there, perhaps hoping for a coin to be tossed from the stalled traffic. My God! I thought. Why are those people crammed together like that, so wretchedly, in such filth?!
Leaving Onitsha in a preposterous snot of traffic, a mid-size truck elected to maneuver through vendors off the right side of the road. The truck inched ahead of me to my right, and I watched with escalating dread as its left rear wheel sank into a deep depression and the tall rear trailer canted over far to the left, nearly at 45 degrees.
Omigod! I thought, suddenly fearful for my life. That truck is going to fall over right on top of me! Migo, just behind me, was equally alarmed. The truck lurched upright from the concave surface and crawled ahead.
Outside Abeokuta, I saw a man sitting in the middle of a huge pile of garbage. Just sitting there. I saw another man, naked and slack-jawed, sitting at the edge of a city street. Cars and trucks and buses and motos edged uncarefully around him. His expression was completely vacant, catatonic.
It wasn’t just the highways and cities of Nigeria that didn’t make sense. The whole country was a knot of contradictions -- upside down and inside out, like the black and white negative of an old Kodak filmstrip. Nigeria is crisscrossed by more power lines than a Godzilla movie, yet electric service is sporadic across the nation. It is Africa’s largest oil-producing nation, yet fuel stations were often empty of gasoline and diesel and kerosene, or jammed with long queues of waiting vehicles.
Nigeria is infamous in the Western world for email scams that promise millions of dollars, yet I spotted just one Internet café in our crossing, in Calabar (compared to the abundance of Internet cafes that one finds in most African nations). And we had expected to be stopped and extorted at the police checkpoints for which Nigeria is notorious, but we passed without incident through more than 300 checkpoints, being stopped just once (by an immigration officer, not the police), despite officers’ fervent entreaties that we pull over.
Our entry began tamely enough. We chose a quiet border crossing from Benin about 100 miles north of the Gulf of Guinea coast, to avoid the Nigerian capital, Lagos, which with 15 million people is Africa’s largest city. (I would later meet, in Limbe, Cameroon, a pair of Irish adventure riders who told me it took them nearly four hours to ride their KTM 640s through heavy traffic into Lagos center).
We cleared Benin immigration and customs, swapped our CFA for Nigerian naira with a moneychanger, and found ourselves on the rugged dirt streets of Ilara, Nigeria. It’s a small, forlorn little border town. No signs of Nigerian immigration or customs were evident. I stopped in the center and asked where we could find the immigration office. A man in a car volunteered to lead us.
Migo, parked behind me, said, “I think we need to go to the police.”
The police?! We’d been speculating for days about the rumored corruption among Nigerian police and how we would likely be shaken down for “dash,” meaning small bribes, and Migo wanted to go straight into the lion’s den!
We debated back and forth. Migo thought we needed a police stamp in our passports. I insisted we needed to find the immigration office for our passport stamp. I relented. “OK,” I said. “You want to go see the police, we’ll go see the police.” Some memorable misadventure would probably ensue.
Police headquarters were up a dirt street. I let Migo go into headquarters by himself, and parked in front of a nearby municipal building. A handful of men and boys were hanging around outside, and they greeted me warmly. This was the seat of local government – the Kingdom of Ilara.
The traditional tribal hierarchy is still in place here. The chief of the kingdom percolated up on a little Chinese moto and invited me into the building, telling me he was second in command only to the king. Inside was a large and elaborate throne, with two smaller but still impressive chairs to the left and right. I enjoyed my visit and chatted with the men and traced for some shy youngsters our route on the African continent sticker on my motorbike
Fifteen minutes later, a slightly red-faced Migo emerged from police headquarters. We did indeed to visit the immigration office, not the police, he admitted. But now the police chief had been summoned and would be at headquarters shortly. We would wait for him.
I stepped into the police station and showed my passport. A nice lady officer gave us some bananas and told us to sit. When I told her I would rather stand, she pointed to a chair and said firmly, “SIT.” I sat and chewed on a banana.
The chief arrived, ensured that all was in order, and tasked a young man on a motorbike to lead us to the Nigerian immigration office, a half-mile up a sandy track. We cleared the police, immigration and customs without being asked for a bribe, and I had something to tease Migo about.
The countryside east of Ilara was green and rolling and lovely, but a spectacle other than scenery captivated my attention. As soon as we left Ilara, we encountered roadblocks every few miles. Men had wooden boards full of nails across or the side of the road. With a rope fastened to the end of the board, they could readily yank it across the road to stop traffic, either by encouragement or puncture.
It was impossible to tell who these men were. Some wore uniforms, some did not. Were they police, privateers or army – or a little of all three? Some carried automatic weapons over the shoulders. Others wore pistols around their waists. I was in the lead, and my nerve and well-practiced habit of cheerily waving my way through police checkpoints would be tested.
Unless an officer is standing in the middle of the road and clearly gesturing for me to stop, I’ve always been able to slow a bit, keep my head straight ahead or feign some distraction, wave at the last minute, and accelerate on by. No one has ever given chase or fired a shot at me.
But the nail-studded boards gave me pause. I slowed out of caution that someone would yank the thing at the last minute, blowing out both my TKC 80s. I tried to conceal myself behind trucks and buses and cars and even motos, so that by the time I was at the roadblock, no one would have noticed me and I could motor on through.
Still, some roadblock men spotted me from a distance. My headlight signaled my approach. Motos here turn their headlights on only at night; mine cannot be turned off. Some men waved us through, as if we were nothing out of the ordinary. Others, though, gestured for us to stop, usually with a half-hearted pointing to the side of the road, sometimes with a hoot and a whistle.
I would slow and percolate on through with a wave or salute. After each instance, I’d check my rear-view mirror to make sure Migo was still behind me. If I had insulted the men by neglecting to stop, they could well take it out on Migo. He kept close on my tail, though, and we proceeded through without incident, occasionally trailed by catcalls that were more forceful and virile than any I had heard in other nations.
Later, Geoff would report that he had been stopped multiple times at these police checkpoints. He blamed Migo and I. “The cops said a couple of riders passed through a week earlier and they never stopped!” Geoff said. “They weren’t too happy about that, and they made sure as hell they stopped me. So thanks a lot, pal!”
It was after 5 p.m. by the time we reached Abeokuta, the first large (with some 600,000 people) Nigerian city we would encounter. Traffic densified towards the center, and we stopped to try to get our bearings. A huge crowd surrounded us on a slope, crunched in between stalled traffic and vendors along the side.
My Rough Guide to West Africa offered three paragraphs of information and a couple of hotels, but no Abeokuta map. The book said a cheap hotel could be found in a district called Oke Ilewo, and men in our large crowd pointed up a hill. Migo took the lead now, relying on his Garmin 60Csx GPS unit to find the way through traffic denser than I had seen elsewhere in Africa.
Migo enjoys navigation and is good at it; Geoff and I have swapped grins many times over his initiative. It meant that we wouldn’t have to trouble ourselves with the chore. With him charting the course, we found a place called Hotel O. It was off the main drag, down a garbage-strewn dirt hill. The light in my room didn’t work. Neither did the sink nor the shower; I bathed with a bucket of cold water.
The electricity went off in the night, taking with it the fan, and I lay uncomfortably in the oven-like room in the wee hours, slicked with sweat and tossing back and forth, until being awakened before dawn by the rooster-like call of a diesel generator, producing electricity, outside my room.
I stopped at the bridge leading over the Niger River. It was a milestone of sorts, as I had crossed this same 2400-mile river to enter Timbuktu in Mali. It was after 5:30 p.m., and I was on the outskirts of Onitsha, a city of more than 550,000 people in south-central Nigeria. Migo was ahead of me, out of my sight.
I was exhausted. The day’s stresses on highways and in cities had taken their toll, and my concentration was failing in lockstep with daylight. My nerves were on edge, electric and erratic. My ability to safely operate the motorbike was compromised. I needed a break.
I took out toilet tissue from my tankbag and wiped my brow and my face. The tissue was black with grime. I had been riding with my faceshield up for optimal visibility, and soot from vehicle exhaust had fastened itself up to my skin. A man on a Chinese QLink moto rode over the bridge’s pedestrian walkway and stopped.
Ten minutes later, I was surrounded by 50 moto guys. They chattered away in the local language, incredulous that I had ridden here from San Francisco, California, United States of America. No one rides through Nigeria, they said, not here, on the upper edge of the oil-rich Delta Region, notorious for gun-toting bandits who kidnap and ransom foreigners.
Another moto dude rode down the pedestrian walkway. He was not pleased with the obstruction he encountered. The motos surrounding me blocked his way, and within minutes he was in a heated argument with another man. They hollered at each other and slapped each other upside the head, in a seemingly practiced manner. I thought, man, how fiery is this Nigerian personality!
It looked like a full-fledged fight was about to break out. The crowd hooted and hollered and egged the antagonists on. I began to excuse myself, and the crowd parted to let the aggrieved rider through. Where are you going? I was asked. I told them I had in mind a place called the Bolingo Hotel. We’ll take you, let’s go, they yelled.
One guy leapt boldly out into bridge traffic, his arms raised as an order for it to stop. It did, honking in irritation, and I took off over the Niger River like a VIP with an entourage of a few dozen moto dudes in tow.
Migo, it turned out, was in the center of the bridge, waiting for me with his camera. The Bolingo Hotel was less than a mile away. It was also expensive. Rooms would be more than $50 USD each. The girl behind the counter would not negotiate. I headed out to give Migo the bad news, and the hotel manager caught me in the large, secure parking lot.
“How much do you want to spend?” he asked. A lot less than you’re asking! I said. He offered a two-bed business suite for about $40 USD, and encouraged me to take it. Migo and I could split the cost. ”This is Nigeria,” he said. “You need security. You are white. Don’t try anywhere else. You and your bikes will be safe here. This is the best hotel in town.”
I gave the moto dudes who led me about $5 USD for their trouble, and I could hear them arguing loudly how it would be divided as I retreated behind the tall, lockable gates of Bolingo Hotel.
Down the street was a lively outdoor bar. Migo and I sat for a couple of beers, and got to talking about a Ryszard Kapuscinski essay called “The Hole in Onitsha” in his book, Shadow of the Sun. I was pleased to be here, in a city that Kapuscinski had visited, even though it looked like a chaotic disaster of a place.
What Kapuscinski had observed in Onitsha the 1960s was still true today, in areas of central Nigeria where pavement was destroyed and traffic hopelessly backed up. These areas gave rise to teeming cottage industries. Kapuscinski had written about a huge hole in an Onitsha road through which just one vehicle could pass at a time, requiring strong men to push it from the bottom:
“I was immediately struck by how the area around the hole had become the epicenter of local life, how it drew people, engaged them, spurred them to initiative and action,” he had written. “In the normally sleepy, lifeless backwater on the outskirts of town, where the unemployed slumber in the streets and homeless malarial dogs roam, there arose, thanks solely to that unfortunate hole, a dynamic, humming, bustling neighborhood. The hole created work for the unemployed, who formed teams of rescuers and made money hauling cars out of the pit.”
And stuck drivers, Kapuscinki reported, became customers for sellers of food and drinks and cigarettes and car-repair entrepreneurs and tailors and barbers and families who placed clumsy “hotel” signs outside their homes. We had seen very much the same phenomenon on our way here.
I asked several people in Onitsha if they recalled that colossal hole, or had heard of Onitsha’s fame at Kapuscinski’s hand. None had. But at the bar where Migo and I passed a few hours, a young man who said he worked in the computer industry had heard of Nigerian email scams, and that his country was notorious for it in the West.
“Oh, that’s called the 419!” he said, referring to a section of the Nigerian penal code. “The authorities will arrest you if you’re caught doing that. Me, I would never do it.” He pointed skywards. “The big man will get you.” And he had some questions for us, namely, was it stressful to ride a motorbike around Africa, what with immigration and customs procedures and police checkpoints and all?
I laughed out loud. “Stressful – customs and immigration?” I said. “The most stressful thing I’ve done is ride 275 miles from Abeokuta to here! You Nigerians, my friend, are the worst drivers in the world!”
We enjoyed his company for a while, until he excused himself to attend an evangelical revival that was about to get under way across the street.
Migo and I wandered over to the revival. It was 9:30 p.m. Hundreds of people sat on plastic chairs, waiting and listening to horribly loud recorded hymns, made even worse by someone’s bad idea to play two tracks simultaneously, each screeching over the other, while someone else clumsily tried to tune an electric guitar. No more chairs were available, but shortly a man approached with a pair of chairs and bid us to sit down beneath a loud loudspeaker. We did, and waited for the spectacle to get started.
And waited. And waited. More than 1000 people now crammed into the revival. A large sign hung over the crowd: “Winners Chapel Onitsha (New Branch) | Covenant Day of Deliverance | Recovery of Destiny.” Migo nodded off around 10:15 p.m. Others fell asleep, too. Young women giggled and stared and pointed at the only two white people in attendance. Finally, at 10:30, the revival got going.
“Hallelujaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” the loudspeaker over my head blared.
“Hallelujaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!” the crowd responded, suddenly rising to its feet in a tidal cheer.
“Can someone begin to clap?” the loudspeaker demanded, and the crowd obliged feverishly, in a sudden burst of energy, and a jaunty hymn played, and everyone sang along, these many hundreds of faithful in the sweaty and humid Onitsha night. We made our exit from the thundering cacophony 20 minutes later.
I awoke for a pee at 3:15 a.m. The electricity was off. Our room at Hotel Bolingo overlooked the side street on which the revival was held. I looked out the window. The revival was still under way. The crowd had thinned only slightly.
I stood with my Suzuki at the inaptly named Nelbee Executive Guest House in downtown Calabar. Our motorbikes were parked conveniently in front of our shared and shamelessly overpriced $50-a-night suite. I held a new sticker that I had carried from the U.S., bought from the Adventure Rider Web site.
“Welcome to the Asylum,” the sticker said, in part.
I chuckled at the irony. Urban Nigeria was the real thing. Whoever thought up the slogan could not have imagined the demented Nigerian cities through which we had ridden, nor the treacherous highways. And in Calabar, bizarrely, the Cross River State Psychiatric Hospital was just a few blocks away from our motel.
I contemplated where to fasten the sticker on the bike. A young man named Jerry stood with me. He was 22 years old, and had been painting the exterior wall surrounding the Nelbee Executive Guest House. Jerry read parts of the sticker out loud: “’Adventure Rider. Ride the World.’ You like Nigeria?”
In fact, I wasn’t sure. The country’s traffic had terrified me. The cities horrified me. I had awoken this morning in Calabar with bad dreams of Nigerian cities lingering in my head. I dreamed I was a small boy and an evil carnival had visited my little town, full of cackling clowns and sideshow freaks and huge, seething mechanized amusement rides.
The Nigerian people were …not unfriendly, exactly. In fact, almost everyone I had met was perfectly sweet. But the Nigerians struck me as disconcertingly aggressive in speech and tone of voice. It had given me pause. We were called “master” and “sir.” I started saying “yes sir” a lot. The Federal Republic of Nigeria commanded my respect. And I had witnessed the oddest things … an evangelical revival that starts at 10:30 p.m. and goes on past 3 a.m.!
Nigeria, with 140 million people Africa’s most populous nation, struck me as the black sheep of the continent. The description of the country in my Lonely Planet guide didn’t seem far off: “As a travel destination, Nigeria seems more a place to avoid than book a flight to. … Challenging yet exuberant, this is Africa in the raw – there’s nowhere quite like it on the continent.”
Jerry was a nice, quiet kid with a striking resemblance to the American baseball star Ken Griffey Jr. He prefaced most things that he said with a shy chuckle. He said he was a university student, but would not specify the focus of his studies, nor which university he attended. I suspected he was just getting by with painting and other odd jobs. He offered to take Migo and I on a tour of Calabar’s sights.
Jerry showed up promptly at 4 p.m. to lead us around. He was dressed in his Sunday best, with blue polyester pants and shiny black shoes and a white dress shirt, its long sleeves rolled up. Jerry and Migo and I rode moto taxis to a place called Marina Resort, a new municipal facility on the lazy Calabar River. We stopped to regard the merry-go-round. It was surrounded by a tall metal fence to keep thieves out at night. It looked like something from my dream of the evil carnival.
We strolled down the waterfront. I teased Jerry about whether he had a girlfriend, and he replied with only his shy chuckle. We spent 10 minutes admiring a colorful lizard, and on our way back, I had to pee. I retreated behind a maintenance shed to relieve myself. The voice of a park staffer barked behind me: “Please, don’t piss here! We have toilets!”
I thought to myself, how upside-down, how quintessentially Nigerian! The Nigerian towns and cities I had seen were perfect dumps. Throughout Africa, men relieve themselves whenever and wherever they feel like it. And I was reprimanded for going discreetly behind a shed, into thick foliage.
Calabar was, though, a decided step up from Abeokuta and Onitsha and Aba and the other cities. We entered the city two days earlier, down a broad and handsome four-lane boulevard that looked almost Western. I would see municipal trash baskets and streetlights and police directing traffic and a fast food outlet called Mr. Bigg’s, with relatively good food. But these niceties were not to be found in the center, where we lodged, full of lunatic traffic and garbage-filled open sewers.
From Marina Resort, we hopped another set of moto taxis for a 15-minute ride to the outskirts of town. Out here, I would see a handful of old, rusted signs on each street block for all sorts of churches and religious congregations. Other signs for little eateries advertised bush meat. Jerry led us to a hotel and resort where he did odd jobs. I couldn’t figure out why, until I learned he lived just a few blocks away. He wanted to introduce us to his family.
We made our way down a dusty street to a low, concrete building full of passageways. This was Jerry’s unassuming home. He opened the door to a tiny bedroom. A shirtless man and a woman in a nightgown were lying in bed. An air conditioner was running and they were watching TV. They got up to greet us, and I thought, What the hell am I doing in this guy’s bedroom?!
An outdoor bar was down the street from Jerry’s house. We sat for beers. Twilight was upon us. It was Sunday evening. Here in the hood, our simply being white (forget our adventure motorbikes) was enough to attract stares from the locals. A drunken old man in filthy clothing who lived across the street insisted on buying Migo and I beers. I had to turn away, he smelled so badly. His wife looked on, appalled.
“Bakara! Bakara!” I heard the word hollered in our direction a few times. I looked at Jerry quizzically. “Bakara means ‘white man,’” he told me.
Up and down the street, men percolated around on QLink motorbikes. These are 125cc machines made in China. They cost 65,000 naira brand new, or about $650 USD. Many men eke out a living using their motos as taxis; I didn’t spot a single four-wheeled taxi in Calabar.
It was dark and time to go. Migo and I bid farewell to Jerry, and gave him about $10 USD for his efforts. Jerry had shown us a kinder, gentler Nigeria, and I was pleased for our experience. We hopped on a pair of moto taxis for a 15-minute ride back to Nelbee Executive Guest House.
We went fast. The drivers of our respective moto taxis seemed to be dueling with each other to see who could go faster. They beeped and swerved and hit their puny throttles. They sped around slower traffic and rode on thin strips of pavement between stopped cars on the left and open sewers on the right.
I didn’t care. This was Africa style. Months ago, I hated riding on the back of a moto taxi. Now I loved it. I hollered at Migo, and he turned around and gave me a huge grin. The breeze buffeted my bare face. I watched the lights of nighttime Calabar whiz by in a blur. White noise and honking horns roared in my ears.
I looked over the moto dude’s shoulder to see how fast we were going, but his speedometer was broken.
Finally in Calabar, I saw a white person. A white woman sat alone at the Marina Resort. Over four days in Nigeria, I had not seen a single white person, except Migo, of course. But I had thought about white people. Inching through the crazed urban chaos of Onitsha and Aba and Owerri and other cities, I imagined seeing just one white person living among the Nigerians.
It almost stood to reason by sheer numbers. Wouldn’t some white person among the billions on the planet choose to stake his or her life in these demented urban centers, amid the noise and the garbage and the exhaust and the insanity? Wouldn’t at least one find a charm amid the abomination, some redeeming value, some worthiness?
I knew the answer was no. The question, really, was: Are we that far apart?
Then at the Cameroon Consulate in Calabar, which Migo and I visited to secure Cameroon visas for $150 USD, the highest fee yet, I saw lots of white people. They were part of a British-led tour group that had passed through Nigeria on a northerly route, through the capital of Abuja and south to Calabar. I asked the leader how the traffic was up north.
“Horrible …just horrible,” he told me. “Freaking Nigerians, they’re the worst drivers in the world!”