I’m counting Nigeria.
That means I’ve been to 41 countries; since I’m counting. Some folks wouldn’t count Nigeria since I’ve been here less than seven hours and am already at the airport to leave. But this place has made more of an impression in a single morning than many of the other 40 did in weeks.
I woke in Cotonou, Benin today after an 18-hour bus ride from Niamey, Niger yesterday. I came through Benin instead of going straight from Niger to Nigeria because the bus was more direct and everyone in West Africa had told me to avoid Nigeria.
Intrepid George came here once. On the way from the airport to the city they were stopped by some cops, compelled to hand over all their money and chose to return to the airport and board the next available flight.
Robberies and kidnappings are a way of life, I was warned.
But everyone at the border was so friendly I began to wonder what I’d be missing if I pulled a George and took the first flight out. Strictly speaking I have 48 hours until I must board a plane to Kenya to meet Jill and Africa’s aversion to credit cards made booking the essential ticket impossible so it was still TBD whether I’d fly today, tomorrow, or Sunday.
The Nigeria of lore arrived when we tried to leave the border. There were five of us in a sedan headed for Lagos. We pulled out as our driver refused to pay a parking “tax” and proceeded 50 of 60 feet before someone in a uniform halted us and asked to see our passports. We showed him, the driver gave him a fist full of bills from his stash under the steering wheel and we went on our way.
It was another 50 feet or so before two other green-clad guards attempted to stop us. Our driver resisted, lost the battle of screaming wills, and pulled over again.
The guard took my passport, asked where I was going (“Lagos”), how long I was staying (“Just flying to Kenya”), questioned if I had a transit visa (“No, no, full visa”), asked who I was visiting in Lagos (“No one, just a tourist by myself”) and eventually turned his attention to a man in the back seat from Burkina Faso who didn’t have a passport or enough money for a bribe and was detained there at the border.
The rest of us drove on as the driver lamented that this was the first time he’d left someone at the border. We evaded some other “guards,” most dressed in t-shirts with no professional identification except a trademark wooden stick to jab at approaching windshields.
It isn’t like checkpoints in other places where every car stops. Here less than a third of vehicles stop, but because there are so many “check-points” (50 maybe) you’re always being pulled over to donate a fist full of naira to the man with the stick.
We unloaded the trunk a couple times for customs checks (only one bag of rice allowed) and they asked what was in my bag (just luggage, no professional video equipment here; look, some books).
The most awe-inspiring interview came a couple miles down the road at maybe our 10th stop. The guard took a special interest in me and surveyed my passport with great care. He found no fault in my Nigerian visa but asked something I’ve never heard before.
“Where is your visa for Benin?” he asked.
I showed him the Visa Entente, which granted me entry to five countries including Benin.
“No, this is for Burkina, where is the visa for Benin.”
I explained it was for the whole group of countries.
“Where are you going in Nigeria?”
“What will you see in Lagos?”
Well, I’m staying at the Ritz hotel.
“But where will you go? Do you have a map?”
“Let me see your map.”
I pulled out my Lonely Planet and showed him not one, but three depictions of the Nigerian capital.
“Okay,” he said and waved us on.
There was a man with a very stern look who stepped into traffic in a white uniform and directed us to the side of the road. Our driver waited for the car infront of us to pull away and then darted around the guard and down the road. He disregarded the guards quite often.
“They are very lazy,” the driver said. “If they run and catch you, you pay 5000 or 10,000 but they don’t come.” We had pulled to a stop at another checkpoint a few hundred feet down the road but the disregarded guard was busy with someone else already.
“Whatever job I do, I do it to help other people,” the woman in the back said. “These people are no good.”
I asked the driver it was always like this and he just laughed. We finally stopped on the outskirts of Lagos and I had 120 naira in my pocket, about $1. Supposedly the banks don’t change money or have ATMs. I decided I’d go to the airport and leave if I could.
The driver tried to help me find a way to the airport and when a taxi-van pulled up shouting “airport, airport” he made sure I didn’t get in it. I tried to get in it because it was only 80 naira and I didn’t have enough for a proper cab. But he pointed out it was all men in the van, which was true enough, and they would surely drive me somewhere where they could take everything I have.
“They are robbers,” he said until I believed him.
I paid a moto driver with ten American dollars I had in my pocket when I boarded the plane in New York. I had plenty of $100 bills with me for times when there weren’t ATMs but I brought small bills too for no specific reason I could imagine. But it was very good to have that money today.
Karen at the Kenyan Airways office at the airport got me a ticket to Nairobi for tonight. She couldn’t take my credit card but she took all the money I removed from the sole of my right shoe and from my shaving bag and got me out of Nigeria without a scratch.