My first trip to the mother continent… Africa and I was excited! No longer a narration from ‘Wildlife On One’ from the comfort of my armchair this was first person discovery and there was certainly no Attenborough-calming, fatherly voice guiding my steps into the unknown. If anything this new frontier was quickly shaping into an excerpt from Conrad’s masterpiece and I could already feel the pull of Kurtz’s enigma sucking me up-river. I am not one for half measures and true to form was not easing my way ‘in country’, I was going straight for the jugular, putting my finger on the pulse and counting off the rhythm of the beating heart that is Nigeria. What was I doing heading to West Africa? Well, as a freelance consultant one of the many perks is visiting a kaleidoscope of exotic countries – at least briefly before heading offshore.
I have been travelling pretty much all my life and I was using my day job to answer bigger questions – through culture clashes and polar opposite world views and sometimes just playing witness to the madness. I am lucky enough to travel to the far reaches for work, the outer rim, meeting new and different people beyond the mindset of the lab and even the office for that matter. I was in search of the ‘vortex’ of life, the hub that binds us all. To find the nerve and understand how does this ball of spinning dust contribute to what we locally define as the quintessence of life, making us who we are collectively, but yet so different?
Official advice (at the time) was that my destination was very unique and ill advised for travel. Port Harcourt, Nigeria was classed by the British Home Office as a warzone and the third most dangerous city in the world, third! – after Baghdad and Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. To be honest reading that fun-fact although eye opening, I felt a pinch of salt might be needed… surely there were worse places on earth to be mixed up in and surely the company wouldn’t send me into an official warzone!? That said, as I trundled down the tunnel at Heathrow full of enthusiasm and unchecked bravado a plain-clothes official stepped into my path prompting from me: “Travelling to Nigeria?”. Oh shit I thought, here we go – what the hell did I do to incur the wrath of the secret police. Next thing I’d know, I’d be bundled into a steel box with a video camera, hot, white lights and a one-way mirror. I was pretty sure I was at home last night – but, could I prove it! I answered, “yes”, “business or leisure?”, I replied quickly – with “business” and he simply stood aside and let me go with no further explanation as to what was going on. Surely, I thought this would have been the answer to prompt a cavity search or at least further questions rather than a free rein, but hey, maybe they’ve just put a check on me until I return. But it got me thinking of a few scenes from various war films about where I was really heading. One thing was certain I was going beyond the wall of western security and comfort.
I arrived in Paris to get my connecting flight, which was to take over 7 hours. The office told me I might bump into my new teammates here, but given the flight time awaiting us I was not looking to use that time to socialise or bond with any new people. There would be plenty of time during our six weeks stuck on the ship for that rubbish. I wanted to relax and get my head right; not spend my time being polite and going through the inevitable 20 questions of what the fuck I was about or what I was doing prior to this little folly. I guess it comes from flying before I could walk and enduring intercontinental overhauls between divorced parents throughout my childhood and teenage years – so spare me the bullshit and just get me to my destination. Anywho, I kept a low profile and avoided the designated gate seating, watching from afar – essential to my incognito status especially as you could guess there were very few white people heading to Port Harcourt, at least not for leisure. My reconnaissance proved useful and surprisingly uplifting, spotting my two colleagues already knee deep in the awkward who’s who narrative and tentative personality probing. Sensing their enthusiasm I decided to stay put where I also got a front row seat to the type of persona heading to Nigeria. They were either returning home or visiting relatives in many varied and beautifully coloured garb.
I quickly grasped Nigerians’ complete disregard for rules or at least missing the point that each passenger was only allowed one carry-on bag. To my amusement almost every one of the intrepid travellers was well over their allowance. Initially the airline crew were slightly patient and let the odd one pass, but as more and more passengers for the flight filed up to the desk – the circus unfolded. I did feel a little sorry them since the majority of their bags were duty free shopping bags and bags and bags. Do they not have any shops in Nigeria I thought? Needless to say they were not at all happy to have to put their newly purchased items into the hold and nor would you after spending that kind of money in the airport and this is where the clear short-sightedness of that policy unravelled. Their misfortune was not amusing, however, how they argued with the staff and their sheer and utter surprise at the same ‘news’, which had just been broken to the people in front did make me chuckle. I will hand it to the Nigerians, in what seemed a hard fast rule was by no means set in stone for their tenacity allowed a select few to negotiate their way through and occasionally get their way. This of course only added to the ensuing chaos of those passengers behind, upon seeing what they were being told was impossible just goaded them on to argue for longer and with more vigour. With each success, I silently cheered them on to what was now no certain outcome and all bets were off.
Touching down in Lagos and with the first leg of our journey over, the majority of the passengers got off the plane, leaving behind what seemed to be only those brave enough intended for business and a few hardcore revellers native to Port Harcourt. There were literally only a handful of us left on the flight – this and the fact that the flight crew all resembled burned out versions of their former selves should have been another alarm bell. The airline was either punishing these poor bastards for spilling coffee onto some big-wig’s lap or they were no longer able to meet the bullshit aesthetic of pretty, young things representing the company a mile high. Either way they all had in one way or another reached their sell-by date, yet due to employment rights and unions they were not legally allowed to fire them simply for being old and tired. So they shipped them onto dead-end destinations where their lacklustre didn’t matter. Just another fine example of corporate-fuckery.
Night’s dark cape drew over mother Africa as we were starting our descent unto the infamous end destination, Port Harcourt, leaving only a silhouette of the immense jungle below, a darkness so intense I had to wonder how in hell an actual city lay beneath us. The void was occasionally and irregularly interrupted, pierced by flickering lights from makeshift and illegal refineries. This fire light, dotted through the landscape making up a patchwork of where locals had either tapped into one of the big oil companies ‘own’ pipelines siphoning it off for themselves, much to the company’s impotent displeasure, or where they had penetrated the earth collecting the bounty of ‘black gold’ beneath. It gave an eerie feel to the shapeless void that we were sinking towards, indicating life beyond – a terrestrial bioluminescence – but like all explorers touching their toes on foreign shores, you had to ask yourself: were those friendly fires?
With our feet firmly on land we were ushered to a walkway where following everyone else’s lead I waited – I guessed for our bags – but as to why here I could not make out. The walkway ran into what made up the airport terminal and was flanked on either side by a grassy verge and dense undergrowth of the impending jungle. Suddenly, there was quite a bit of jostling to one side, again for reasons unknown. Eventually a baggage truck appeared our bags in tow that were then literally dumped onto the grass next to the walkway – thankfully I thought nothing fragile lay within. There was a mad rush as everyone jumped over the small wall onto the grass and jockeying for position began grabbing bags furiously – I couldn’t figure out why there was such a rush, but I then flashed back to the hold taking on the extra duty free bags. There now also seemed to be a number of new faces that had not been on our plane, who were also grabbing bags. I found my bag,,, but with someone attached to the other end – I guess he thought I was over flowing with dough and was going to be his lucky charm for today. Since I had not worked for a while – nothing could have been farther from the truth. I literally had ‘emergency money’ only on me, expecting the company to pick up the tab for anything and everything erroneous as promised, so I was not about to start shelling out cash I didn’t have. A small tug of war ensued between me and my new found friend, but knowing the end game – I insisted and wrenching my debt free, headed towards the building acting as the terminal.
With each passing moment, chaos was continually redefined; a theme I would soon learn was synonymous with the whole situation. After queuing up at various, makeshift check points, I finally proceeded to passport and visa control. The two contractors in front of me seemed to be attracting some bad noise – I could not make out why, but then some money exchanged hands and away they went. My passport was different and so they let me pass hassle free, still smiling from their previous booty. There were obvious official procedures in place here and then a very different way of how things were actually done.
I was strictly reminded not to go beyond the area just after passport control – a small holding area that lead to a tall set of gated bars separating arrivals from a cacophony of bodies and limbs waving and screaming. A multitude of taxi drivers were all vying for our consent to be taken away by their own chariot of fire to wherever you or possibly only they wanted to go. I was happy to be kept behind bars at this point, but they soon died down after the main body of arrivals dispersed. We were to wait for our company agent and no one else. It was here that I ‘first’ met my colleagues and whilst we dispensed with the pleasantries I gave a quick and calculating eye realising how I travelled much lighter than their “five pairs of shoes – for every occasion”. They did know we were going to be on a ship, with nowhere to go, didn’t they? We were also to wait for the 4th and final member of our team, who would arrive 45 minutes to an hour after us on a separate flight. Eventually this tall, skinny, wide-eyed wanderer emerged visibly shaken from the very un-western greeting we had all been subjected to. I had been specifically asked by my office to look after this guy and now I could see why – there did seem to be a special kind of light designated to shine oh so differently on his little dreadlocked head, bless him. Soon after, our agent arrived and after a quick roll call he rounded us up into single file and completely blazé to the pandemonium beyond the gates lead us through to our transport. We were to be escorted to our hotel, sandwiched between several military pick-ups overflowing with armed-to-the-teeth G.I.’s and prepped not to open the curtains; more to the point not to expose our plump, white faces to the outside, wanton world. Although I think with the police style sirens and flashing lights, not to mention the small army surrounding us – I think it was safe to say that any bystander was going to figure out there were people ‘of interest’ within. At this point I thought I had seen it all and was now entering a ‘safe space’, cue the maniacal laugh! If only I knew what kind of whacky race at DeLorean speeds awaited us through stand still traffic.