Chaos in Lagos

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I made the opportunist decision to visit Nigeria after I arrived in Benin and realized Lagos was only a hundred-something km from Cotonou. What I didn’t know was that it would take nearly 7 hours to drive that distance, and only with a lot of luck since I hitch-hiked a private car of some white business men from the border. I’m actually not sure if it sped up or slowed my journey, since their tinted-windows, air-conditioned jeep probably attracted more hassle than normal. We got stopped over and over, sometimes by officials in uniform for passport checks, yellow-fever certificates, or luggage search, and sometimes by a random guy blocking our way with ropes or spikes that only disappeared after a small bribe.

People had been warning me not to go to Nigeria, and my hitchhikers laughed when the found me walking between the borders saying I was traveling through, explaining that “Nigeria is not africa my friend, it’s another world.” The rumors about dead bodies lying in the side of the street and getting picked up every morning for med students to dissect is apparently true, but the value of life doesn’t come from a violent society, just a very chaotic environment. The traffic jams rival the worst I’ve ever seen in LA, and the rule of thumb is basically to get to wherever you’re going as fast as you can. The best drivers in he world are probably Nigerian, since they can calculate the exact location of the front, back and sides of their car down to the exact millimeter, as the push their way into the smallest space just ahead of the next car to ensure they get the right of way. In theory you also have to know the rules of traffic well enough to be able to break them, and have the experience of a few car accidents to know how to avoid them.

My couchsurf host Bolaji explained why the traffic was so bad with two simple explanations – one is that all the shitty cars and second hand buses that get rejected in the rest of the world come to Nigeria to die. So the number of break downs and flat tires and cars who don’t care whether or not you hit and scratch them dominate the road. The other reason is that only the main roads an big highways are thru-ways; for security, none of the side streets lead anywhere but dead-ends, or the streets are in such bad shape that you can barely drive them unless you’re in a jeep and going at 10km/hr.

But despite all the chaos, I enjoyed Lagos. It was a city that could rival Miami or Rio de Janeiro, if any government officials or urban planners could get their shit together to figure it out. It was the first city in Africa where the towering high rises sat on paved roads all marked with street signs. The ocean, lagoon and waterways mark the cities charming coastal location, but the stinking stagnant water and burning garbage piles scattered throughout force their ways into sight everywhere you go. The gutters are more like mini-canal ways, wide enough for half a car to fall through, and filled with neon-green water that can’t possibly be naturally dyed.

The population census of Lagos is between 9-20 million, as if some 10 million people could be strangely unaccounted for. Apparently local people don’t take well to the consensus guys showing up and asking too many questions, so every time they try to count, they stop a few murders later.

A lot of Nigerian stories are probably heresay or intimidating exaggerations, but I can say the Nigerian people are still wonderful and I never felt unsafe in Lagos. Getting my visa was the weirdest experience, since they didn’t have the slightest idea why I was applying for a tourist visa or what “business” I had in Nigeria, but I’ll say that Nigeria just needs more tourism – it’s an exciting, massive place that a little exploration would probably uncover a lot more friendly stories.

Lagos is one of the richest, most developed cities in Africa, but starkly contrasted by the majority of Nigerians who spend their whole lives trying to reach riches. You can fly almost anywhere in the western world on a direct flight from Lagos, but still the planes only come in filled with business men and investors. In a country with some of the best education available in Africa, still the University of Lagos has been on a 5 month strike without any teaching. A lot of it doesn’t make sense, but I’m still grateful to have come here for a first-hand glimpse into this chaotic, complicated mega-city. Bolaji explained that in Lagos, there is chaos everywhere, but if you look closely at the chaos, there’s order in it, and that’s what you have to work with…. That’s how they’re surviving.

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Burkinabé whaat?

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Throughout my travels, few Africans have heard of Iceland. They think I’m from Ireland or somewhere in Asia. When I arrived in Burkina Faso, the Burkinabé people legitimately retorted that most Icelandic people have probably never heard of Burkina, or know where to point it out on a map. The fact that we don’t hear much about Burkina is actually a good sign, since low-profile countries usually correspond to the most peaceful – all the international media seems to cover in Africa is political unrest, poverty, war or genocide.

I arrived in Bobo-Dioulasso from Segou, Mali, after being swayed to skip Dogon country and Timbuktu. The man and two women seated with me in the first row shared everything they bought (and bought everything for sale), including their rice and chicken bones we dug out of plastic bags with our fingers. I had to overnight in Koutiala, where I only decided to stay after 2 hotels showed up on google maps (no other information by word-of-mouth or online could confirm the existence of a hotel). There was no mosquito net or running water in the room, so I used the fan on high speed to blow all my sweat and the Mosquitos away.

Burkina has ridiculously long city names, but they make sense once you figure out what they mean or how to pronounce them. Bobo-Dioulasso refers to the 2 different tribes that live here, the Bobos and the Dioulas. Ouagadougou is just waga-dugu, or Waga to the locals. Burkina is a huge land-locked country, bordered by 5 French West African countries and Ghana. They speak French plus dozens of other local languages, use the same French West African franc, and its one of the cheapest countries I’ve visited in Africa.

I couchsurfed in Bobo with a French guy and German/italian/American girl, who took me around by car or motorbike during my stay, a nice change from the constant battle of negotiating taxi fares. I met a lot of other expats living and working in Burkina, mostly related to research, mining or tourism. One Swiss guy ran a backpackers place who nearly kissed my feet when he heard I was Icelandic. In his “former, younger, more handsome” days, he had been a jeep excursion guide in Iceland. He reminisced about all the beautiful, unpronounceable places he had been, calling Iceland his dream country, and barely let me get a word in edgewise as he got carried away to a distant daydream of the time in his life he most missed. A bottle of wine later, I managed to escape his hospitality, but still feel a little guilty I didn’t go back the next day.

My visit to Ouaga was a little more functional. I tried, without success, to get this magical visa d’entente which allows you entrance to 5 west African countries. There was no one working the day I was supposed to pick up my passport, so I received the passport visaless, ID photos and money back. I didn’t have time to get any other visas, so I spent most of my days walking through the suffering heat and my nights battling the most Mosquitos I’ve had to deal with yet.

I met a guy at the hostel I was staying at, well I met many men who tried to small chat, but one got my attention when he told me that his family bred racehorses. We walked a few blocks away to a small paddock of 10 or 15 horses that night, and in the pitch black I met their 2700m-sprint champion stallion, and saddled up a pregnant mare to ride through the headlighted traffic. I’ve never ridden a horse through a city at night, but it wasn’t easy, nor was tying her up at the roadside bar while we tried to share a tonic. But it was totally worth it to get the sweet sweaty smell of horse and saddle all over my clothes to cover the now-nauseating stink of mosquito spray I had succumbed myself to.

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