Gregor Conrad takes us deeper into the heart of Africa in search of the elusive bean…
The streets of Lagos fairly hummed with activity, as the residents made their way through the day-to-day activities for which Africa is duly famous. Nigeria is among the more developed African nations, but even still I was surprised at the number of locals who had taken to using cars as their chosen mode of transport.
I asked Godwin how far it was to the hotel.
“It is barely 35 kilometres, sir,” he smiled. “It should not take us longer than four or five hours to get there. If we are lucky, we will beat the peak hour traffic.”
As I contemplated getting out and hiring someone to carry my bags for me as I took the quicker option of walking through the oppressive heat of the afternoon, what sounded suspiciously like an explosion erupted nearby.
“Happy Tuesday!” Godwin beamed. “We do love our fireworks!”
The traffic delay became something of a farce within a very short space of time, and we were rapidly surrounded on all sides by other stationary vehicles. It wasn’t long before the driver in the car next to ours switched off his engine, reclined his seat and went to sleep.
“This man here,” Godwin chuckled. “He has the right idea of sleeping. This traffic is truly awful.”
I asked Godwin why the traffic is so bad.
“Ah yes,” he nodded sagely. “It is mostly because a lot of people like to stop their car and go to sleep. In Nigerian custom, it is considered very impolite to interrupt another person’s sleep with your own problems. That is why they are usually left to sleep.”
“But… surely people only sleep when the traffic is as bad as this…”, I opined.
“This is true, sir, yes,” Godwin replied. “They sleep because the traffic is bad, and the traffic is bad because they sleep. Perhaps one day, we will discover a solution to the problem, and then the traffic will not be so bad.”
Taking my cue from Godwin, who was beginning to open up further about his beloved Nigeria, I began to ask about what life was truly like here. As all experienced travellers, such as myself, will attest – the life of a visitor is often vastly different to the life of the locals.
“Oh, Nigeria is a wonderful place,” he said. “There is much to do and see, with many things that are a lot safer than people will tell you. Why, here in Lagos, the many different cultures that make up our people have become a melting pot!”
On that note, Godwin was quite correct. Nigeria, and Lagos in particular, has become something of a poster child for African economic success. The bustling business district has adopted a very African take on the 1980s Wall Street ethos of “Greed is Good” – and the slogan “Get Very Rich” is in the hearts and minds of its many inhabitants.
Such is the extent to which this has been taken to heart, in 2012 Nigeria’s GDP eclipsed that of South Africa, a nation whose economic growth has been faltering since the fall of Apartheid, according to Godwin. He stopped just short of blaming the former all-white leadership for abandoning the people of South Africa under an onslaught of international outrage over apparent institutionalized racism.
Many people see Lagos as the unofficial capital of Nigeria, an easy mistake to make, largely because Lagos was the capital until 1991, when Abuja became the federally mandated capital of the country. Abuja was chosen, I suspect, because it is just shy of 750km from Lagos, meaning insurgents and would-be military dictators would be far more likely to be dissuaded from staging a coup when they faced driving such a distance in appalling traffic.
I asked Godwin about the reports of rampant crime and social dysfunction, the main reason why Nigeria is often seen as a very dangerous country, which drew a hearty laugh from my guide.
“There is no crime problem here, no,” Godwin laughed. “The Nigerian people have been unfairly categorized as criminals all around the world, but it is simply not true.”
It turned out to be an inopportune time for Godwin to be boasting about his countrymen’s sense of civility. Mere seconds after he had sought to rest my mind assured that Nigeria was safe, two young men quickly and expertly relieved Godwin’s vehicle of its headlights as we waited in the traffic. Needless to say, I was shocked.
“Aren’t you going to do anything about that?” I asked.
“There is not much I can do,” Godwin frowned. “It is a shame to see my fellow Nigerians resorting to such petty thievery. It makes me very, very sad… and it will certainly going to make driving home tonight much, much harder than before. We are not easy people to see in the dark.”
At that moment, another loud boom shook the car, this one much closer than before. Glancing out the window, I could see a large plume of dust and smoke curling up from behind a nearby high-rise building.
“Happy Tuesday!” Godwin shouted glumly, as he peered into the rear vision mirror, watching three more enterprising young men removing his brake lights, before escaping into the throng of pedestrians that now moved freely between the stationary vehicles on the road.
“Are all of the young people here thieves?” I asked Godwin politely.
“No, not all,” Godwin smirked sadly. “Most of Nigerians are honest, hard-working people with steady jobs. My brother, for instance, works for one of my country’s thousands of princes, writing letters to ask for assistance in relocating funds that have been wrongly seized by the military during coup season, which runs from March to October every year.”
“But yes, I shall admit, there are many thieves in my country,” Godwin continued despondently, with a sparkle in his eye. “This, you have already seen for yourself. Please, be careful. They are crafty devils, sir, who would steal the milk from your coffee if you give them half a chance.”
The mention of coffee reminded me of what had prompted my journey, and I asked Godwin when we would be travelling north to find the plantation I sought.
“Tomorrow, we will go,” Godwin sulked buoyantly. “If we are to leave early, we will only catch the end of today’s traffic jam, hopefully before tomorrow’s has a chance to catch up.”
“When we do go north, it is vital that you follow my instructions,” he continued. “Here in the city, it is quite safe.”
Another small explosion sounded somewhere far away.
“Happy Tuesday!” Godwin exclaimed solemnly. “But yes, here in the city is safe. Australians are welcomed here, especially journalists. The only thing I must warn you is that you must never, ever reveal to anyone that you are a homosexual. Nigerian people are not at all tolerant of homosexual people.”
“But I am not a homosexual!” I protested.
“That’s the spirit!” Godwin smiled.
Mildly outraged by Godwin’s complete mischaracterization of my impeccable dress sense, we passed the remaining four hours of traffic jam in silence, arriving at my hotel – the Lagos Oriental, on the far side of the Lagos lagoon from the city itself.
Lagos Lagoon gets its name from the Portuguese word for lakes (lagos) – giving the large body of water here the ridiculous translated name of Lakes Lagoon, and cementing forever my long-held belief that the Portuguese should never have been allowed to name anything, ever.
Speaking of names, it was at this point that I pondered the name of my hotel for a short moment, and decided that the irony of latent racism is lost on the relentlessly cheerful Nigerian people. Oriental? Really? It was probably named by the Portuguese as well. And while we’re on the topic, whoever named Niger deserves to be boxed around the ears – and whoever decided to name the nation of Chad after every football-playing date-rapist from Brisbane with a propensity for stealing other people’s wives also deserves a stern talking-to.
Finally, we reached the hotel. Thanking Godwin, I left the car, and was alarmed that someone had managed to steal the front and rear bumpers of the vehicle without me even noticing it was occurring. I remarked on this particular turn of events, eliciting a world-weary shrug of Godwin’s shoulders, and the remark that this would make it much more difficult to survive crashing into the pedestrians who are very hard to see in the dark.
When Godwin popped open the trunk, and I waved to a porter to fetch my luggage and wheel it upon a trolley into the hotel’s beautifully-appointed reception.
The resulting chase on foot was mercifully brief, and the young man in the borrowed porter’s uniform was promptly and severely thrashed by the side of the road by several very enthusiastic passers-by. I trudged back to the hotel through the African dusk, pushing the luggage trolley and glaring at anyone that came within three feet, and eventually made it to the check-in desk.
“I have a room booked here. I was promised the finest suite in the hotel,” I said.
A nearby explosion and gunfire rattled the building, sending a small shower of plaster dust from the ceiling onto the beautifully polished, solid marble counter in front of me. The desk clerk quickly checked a calendar on the desk, before looking up at me and smiling benignly.
“It would seem that our Happy Tuesday celebrations are in full swing!” he said. “Now, if you would be so kind as to provide a credit card.”
And it was there that I cut him off. I had been warned of Nigerian financial scams, and this brazen approach bore all the hallmarks of a sophisticated attempt to raid my bank account while I slept.
“I am afraid I do not possess a credit card,” I said. “I do not believe in attempting to enjoy anything in life that I do not have the means to purchase outright on my own behalf. Besides – I do believe that this room has been arranged by the office of the NTDC – any and all expenses should be directed to them.”
“As you so desire, sir,” the desk clerk responded, a reply as slick and smooth as silk stockings on the legs of a slightly plump young woman named Mary, who wore them as a special treat for me one evening to a midnight screening of Ishtar. I shall never forget the tactile experience of running my fingertips over her knee, the chill of the air conditioning and the overwhelming pungency of popcorn pervading a cinema utterly devoid of patrons, save for Mary and myself. That should have been the night we consummated our passion, but as my knee-rubbing became more pronounced and my intentions more obvious, a sudden sneeze from the projection booth reminded me that we were not, as I had hoped, alone and unobserved.
Mary should have been my first, but I was cruelly denied, and any subsequent chance to spend hour upon hour exploring her exquisite form was also extinguished when I accidentally reversed over her in the driveway of her parents’ home in Chatswood, such was my hurry to get home and relieve myself of the pent-up sexual pressures of 107 minutes of rather vigorous knee-touching. The relationship would probably have ended there, but for the fact that I spent several long, difficult weeks at her bedside in hospital.
At one point, when her surgeons announced that she was near death and had only minutes to live, I proposed and she gave her consent by blinking twice. We were married 15 minutes later by the hospital chaplain. Three days later, she was released from hospital in a full-body plaster cast that restricted movement for her, and access to the parts of her that a husband might otherwise enjoy. Two days later, I returned from work to find that she had been swept off her feet by a hospital orderly called Chad, whose claim to fame was a brief stint in the second reserves for the Brisbane Broncos, until he was let go following a nightclub scandal, a 17 year old girl, and a quantity of sedatives purloined from Chad’s mother’s medicine cabinet.
But I digress.
“Here is your room key, sir,” the desk clerk said. “The dining room is open from 6:00pm – if you would like to dine downstairs, please call down to reception and we will send an armed escort upstairs to guide you to your table.”
“The lift to you your room is on the far side of the lobby, next to the piano,” he continued. “Go up to the ninth floor, turn right and you will find your room at the far end of the hall. Please… enjoy your stay.”
I strode purposefully across the lobby with my bags, following the desk clerk’s directions, and arrived at the lift just in time to see four extremely ambitious young men attempting to steal the piano. As the door to the lift closed, I could see a crowd gathering, getting ready to administer a beating.
“God speed, you plucky young gents,” I said to myself, and the lift lurched spastically, beginning the final stage of my journey to my room.
The room itself was beyond even my wildest expectations. I had been granted the full amenities of the Presidential Suite, which – in the interests of full disclosure – had been paid for by the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation. The bill for the suite totaled 462,000 Nigerian Naira, per night.
I considered the fact that this was roughly 70 percent of the average Nigerian annual wage, which might sound quite a hefty sum, until one factors in the sheer oppulence this 300-square-metre island of solace, with its sweeping views of Five Cowrie Creek, and features such as the full leather couch, so startlingly red that it resembled a kiss from a high class escort that could comfortably seat seven people.
A king-sized bed awaited me – and I could not help but wonder how many Nigerian princes had slept in this bed before me.
Tomorrow – “North to Destiny”