9 December 2006 (evening)
I’ve been in Nigeria for a bit over a week now, and I’m settling in well. So far so good, gastronomically (it has been several years since my tummy was last here, and it is inevitable that I will come down with what I like to call “gastronomicus apocolypticus” soon after arrival), mentally (my malaria pills haven’t induced any hallucinations or depression…yet), and emotionally (it has made a real difference that I am here on my own terms).
Once I finished my orientation at the U.S. Consulate, my cousin Efe met up with me. He is my main partner in this great adventure. We spent a good amount of our childhood together, living at one point in the same neighborhood. It took us several hours to book a vehicle to transport us from Lagos to Benin City, and I was getting nervous because we had to get to Benin by nightfall. It was already 3:30pm when we got started, and it takes 4 to 5 hours to reach Benin. Efe knows which lines are the safest and most comfortable. We secured several seats in an air-conditioned 15-passenger van. I had eight months worth of supplies, my research equipment and a conservative amount of clothes. I also had an entire suitcase devoted to gifts and necessities requested by family members back home – baby clothes, books, watches, perfumes, creams… Given the throngs of people waiting in the beating sun to make this same journey, I was hyper visible as I corralled my luggage, to my several seats in this comparatively luxurious van, which was still packed full.
Apparently we had gone against my older cousin Otite’s wishes. He’s old enough to be my uncle, and is in fact like a big brother to me. He would have preferred us to take a flight from Lagos to Warri and then put up in a hotel for the night. If any of you have read the news on Nigeria lately, air travel is very unsafe these days and the hotel situation is patchy, at best. I insisted we travel by road. The lesser of two evils. Perhaps…
The journey to Benin was an elegy of faith. The driver moved fast, maneuvering deftly around potholes the size of small swimming pools and tracts of highway blocked off due to ill repair and disuse. You often see farmers selling their produce in the areas near the potholes because vehicles inevitably have to slow down. We actually passed by a herd of cattle grazing on an overgrown tract of freeway. In those cases, the driver, in a flash, will switch to the other side, confronting on-coming traffic, converting what should be a 4-lane freeway into a 2-lane highway. The way drivers communicate their presence in this circumstance is to flash their lights to on-coming traffic. They continue this until their side of the road opens up again. His speed rarely changed.
Then there are the security checkpoints. Usually this consists of a band of mobile police, dressed in fatigues and armed with one sort of weapon or another…usually large, automatic guns. They block the road with long timbers and flag vehicles to slow down or stop. Their job is to ensure travelers’ safety because Nigerian highways are notorious for harboring armed robbers who can ambush you at any point. However, there is a price for this “security.” Most of these men require a “settlement” if you don’t want to be delayed for any extended period of time with harassment over insurance, registration, or license. Thankfully, we didn’t pay out too much. Apparently my fair skin and American aura put them off from being too rough or upfront with their business. Every once in a while, they jovially waved us along with one or two Oyibo jokes (Oyibo is the pidgin term for foreigner or white person). I couldn’t tell if our fellow passengers viewed me as a blessing or a curse, either delaying or speeding up the journey. So, we went along with the syncopated rhythm of potholes, fast maneuvers, and loitering men.
We arrived in Benin well after nightfall, the smell of car exhaust fumes, kerosene lanterns, and roasting plantain swirling together to make a perfectly nauseating mixture in the thick night air. Efe moved with a speed to find a taxi while I waited with his traveling partner and my entire luggage beside me. I was very much out of place: a just-landed American, with the scent of newness all over me. I had arrived, my heart pumping, my eyes alert, my ears tuned.