Friday, July 29, 2011

Calabar: the Nigerian cross-country journey.

(Apologies for the week delay on this one…)

Plans formed over the week to make an excursion. After eight weeks holed up in rural central Nigeria, we decided it was time to get out and see another part of the country. Hours of scattered deliberation and research later, we settled on Calabar as the ideal spot. The city is famous for an unfortunate reason – it was once one of the largest ports for exporting slaves from West Africa; 30% of all slaves were shipped out of Calabar. In recent years, however, a proactive governor turned around the image of Calabar into a bustling tourist destination. A promise of museums, zoos, nearby waterfalls, and nightlife (from the Nigeria guidebook: “One of the best places for dancing with a truly Nigerian atmosphere is the Krab Bar and Car Wash, a vast outdoor bar where you can conveniently get your car washed at the same time”) was enough to mobilize the group for a weekend trip.

Based on distances, we estimated a five-hour drive to Calabar. I thought it was be pleasant road trip where I could get some Blues music sorting done, perhaps read, etc.

I was way off, because I was projecting from my own reality of rural travel (across the US). Let me tell you, state roads in Nigeria are nothing like state roads in the US. Gives me a profound respect for the immense challenge to maintain the federal and state highway network.

Assumption #1: the trip would actually take five hours. It’s embarrassing that I made this error. Nigeria has a strange dilating effect on time. If someone says, “Let’s meet at 9am on Thursday morning,” it most certainly does not mean that we will meet on Thursday at 9am – at best, it will be around 11am. (Funny, too, because I remember Alex, a friend of Lauren’s, cautioning me about this very phenomenon, although that was in the context of disingenuous yes-ism that is prevalent in Ghana.) If we plan to go to church for an hour, the service actually takes three. Need to leave by 8am because we absolutely-can’t-waste-any-time-today-and-the-boat-will-leave-whether-you’re-there-or-not? Set your alarm clock for 9:15am and you’ll be fine. All of this is to say: an estimated five hour road trip will certainly not take five hours. It will take one hour of trying to rally everyone to get on the boat, a 45 minute boat ride, an EIGHT HOUR CAR RIDE, another 45 minutes of trying to find a place to sleep, and at least 30 minutes of miscellaneous waiting around.

Assumption #2: the car would be comfortable. We have a dedicated van for travel. It’s a compact 12-seat van. Our previous trips in the vehicle have been relatively comfortable. Of course, you begin to notice the corners cut in user comfort when you’re in a van for more than an hour. Riding in the van makes airplane accommodations seem capacious by comparison. Your knees are always wedged against the seat in front of you and there’s no elbow room. Also, I forgot that we didn’t have two additional people in the van before; we had to bring security with us (Nigerian police), so now you only get 1/2 of a seat to yourself. If you’re thinking about trying this at home, let me spare you the suffering and say that sitting eight hours with your pelvis uneven is like having your leg fall asleep and not wake up for eight hours. Oh wait, that is what happens. The cramped quarters certainly did not lend itself to working on a laptop. Actually, it didn’t lend itself to doing anything other than sitting with hands in your lap and staring straight ahead. For eight hours.

Assumption #3: the drive would be smooth. Envisioning long stretches of paved roads from Portland to Seattle, I prepared myself for – at least – a journey with a constant velocity. Hoo boy was I way off. Nigerian roads, as it turns out, have a pothole every 300m (1000ft). It must be specified in the design manual or something. Despite having asphalt concrete paving and no freeze/thaw cycles, spans of bump-free driving never spanned more than three seconds. I’m not exaggerating. And we’re not talking a pleasant thump-thump at regular intervals like on the Pennsylvania turnpike, we’re talking massive potholes of varying depth sprinkled about the road, which means LOTS of swerving. At 80-100 kph.

It also means gut-wrenching decelerations to avoid ripping out the undercarriage when striking an unavoidable pothole. And this happens a lot, since in many places the pothole was the road. Remember, of course, that this is a highway, so an equally nauseating acceleration is required immediately after navigating the pothole. For perspective, take the worst moment of airplane turbulence you’ve ever experienced and stretch it over eight hours – that’ll give you an idea.

Evidently the body instinctually dislikes turbulence or frequent and rapid changes in velocity. It translates into psychological agitation. I felt antsy, trapped, easily angered. When it got really bad, I’d want to punch something.

Assumption #4: the driver would be sane and patient. Dele, our driver, is fantastic, got us much faster than anyone else would, and somehow can put up with the maddening chaos that is Nigerian traffic. He’s also wants to own a racecar. Yeah, you know what that means. Take all traffic maneuvers and speed than up about 50% to get what he does. Add in constant lane changes to pass cars and abrupt braking after realizing there’s a car in the oncoming lane that will kill us if he goes for it. There were definitely moments when we could’ve died. (I mean, more obviously life-threatening than normal; you always put yourself in danger by getting on the road, especially in Nigeria.)

Dele made me realize that there are no traffic police in Nigeria. He would pull the craziest stunts… Once in Calabar, he’d reverse into oncoming traffic (and force those cars to swerve around him), he’d split lanes – with a van! – to sidle up to the front of an intersection and then cut off the other motorist when the light turned green. He’d piggyback, honk his horn (this one is common among all drivers), flash his lights, and tailgate. But, he did dedicate his weekend to driving us and delivered us safely to and from our destination, and for that I must give him mad props. Nigerian traffic is a crazy mess and I wouldn’t last more than ten minutes on the road before suffering a major breakdown.

But at long last, we made it to Calabar. It was around 10pm; we began our journey around 11:30am. We had not eaten dinner. Even having taken a Dramamine, I felt nauseated and had a pounding headache. (The constant flashes of high-beams from oncoming traffic didn’t help matters.) But, now there were city lights, paved streets without potholes, traffic lanes, and storefronts. We finally settled down at an outdoor piano bar that served beef shawarma. I was so grateful for solid ground beneath my feet. I was even more grateful for the food. Some of the best roasted beef smothered in mayo and assorted spices, swaddled in a flour wrap, in my life.

Calabar. We are here. We have come.

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