Saturday, November 16, 2013

Country #93: Nigeria. It counts.

As both of my regular blog readers know, I am a stickler for the rules in this lifelong game of Count the Countries. Merely landing in an airport doesn't count; a territory and its motherland only count as one and I don't care if a country is barely larger than the average shopping mall (I'm looking at you Vatican and Monaco, little commercial enterprises that you are), if the UN recognizes it as a country, it counts.

The fact that my latest conquest, the Federal Republic of Nigeria, fell within this very specific set of criteria was probably the best thing about my less-than-ideal visit to this north African nation. However, before anyone gets the wrong idea, I should mention that it wasn't the oft-mentioned threats of crime or flesh-eating bacteria that dropped the turd in the proverbial traveling punch bowl. It was a pair of much more intractable foes that thoroughly and mercilessly stymied our every attempt at proper sightseeing.
We were stumped by the two terrible T's. No, terrorism isn't one of them. We got hosed by time and traffic. Time, as in we landed at 3 in morning and were leaving once again at 1 in the afternoon. Traffic, as in sweet baby Buddha, how many cars can you put on one road without everyone simply collapsing into a vehicular black hole?  There are 10.7 million people in the metropolitan area of Lagos and each and every one of them was on the road, either driving a car, riding a tuk-tuk or standing in the road, trying to sell us batteries.

A moment of respite from the usual bumper to bumper standstill and also our view for most of the tour.

Dude contemplating who he will call on his b'day.

Adding to the frustration, we were staying on the mainland in Ikeja, site of the international airport (more on that later).  Everything we wanted to do or see happened to be "on the island". Museums: on the island.  Souvenir shopping: on the island.  Magical photogenic lands that everyone should see: probably just a bit past the island.  We had hired a driver to show us around from 9-12,  three hours of experiencing the best that Lagos had to offer.  The drive time to the island (which was visible from most rooftops): about 2 hours!!

Stuck on Ikeja, we asked the driver to take us to a market, in hopes that we could at least see a bit of local life, and maybe pick up some handicrafts.  His first stop, a gated suburban mall.  I did not look closely but it would not surprise me if there was a Starbuck's and a Victoria's Secret lurking within.  "No, no, no..we want local market.  Outside, no big shops.  Africans, please."

So, he took us to the Chinese Market.

Do not ask me why there is a Chinese market in the middle of mainland Lagos, staffed and supported by a 60-40 Chinese to African ratio, but there is.  There, one could purchase fruits, vegetables, plastic toys, clothes, batteries (just in case you didn't already stock up at the intersection) and assorted necessities..but no handicrafts.  Not a mask.  Not a wooden figurine.  Not even an "I Love Nigeria" t-shirt.

It seems that during our absence, our driver had conferred with other cabbies as to where to take four tourists with only 3 hours (now 1 1/2) to play with and all this traffic.  Oh, the traffic.

It was determined that he should take us to the National Theater, I think under the hopes that they had a gift shop of some kind.  At least this is what I have gathered, after the fact.  All I know is that after another 30 minutes in traffic, we were here:

and much paperwork and visits of official-looking offices later, I was wearing a badge and we had this:

So, we were going on a tour of the 70's era National Theater.  Built by the Bulgarians, it is now home to several meeting rooms, reception halls and a nice rooftop view.  Basically, everything but a theater, since the main room has not been used in what appears to be a very long time.  Also not an option: a gift shop.

Our guides, a lovely pair of ladies, proudly showed us room after room, while we nervously glanced at our watches, wondering if we were going to make it back on time because, you know, the traffic.

We ended up having to cut the last item from our itinerary, a visit to Fela Kuti's Shrine, which is actually his son's recreation of the original club/ commune and probably a hopping place at night. Having seen Fela! on Broadway, this was something I was looking forward to, even in the daylight hours, but I did not protest the cutting short of our visit because if anyone would had mentioned the traffic one more time, I might have hurled a battery at them (and then promptly re-stocked my ammunition before the next light).

We did make it back to the Lagos Sheraton with enough time to both prepare our bags and wander around the property a bit.  Its cloistered walls offered all the usual hotel stuff: an outdoor restaurant, pool, gift shop and a mustering point.

Excuse me, I mean a guests emergency mustering point.  Fortunately, during our brief stay, we never found ourselves with the need to urgently muster, so we never saw this baby in action.

But still, mustering point aside, it was extra disappointing to end such a short stay with nothing but photos of a generic chain hotel to show for it.  This was where the Murhala Mohammed International Airport came through, in flying "You are not in Kansas, anymore" colors.

Just a few hours earlier, on our arrival, we had been taken to a makeshift shack to show our passports and asked to sign into a grade-school lined-paper notebook- cum- official ledger.  I had assumed that this was due to the unusually late hour of our arrival and as much as I had wanted to photograph this scene, I had some reservations about my colleagues' ability to find me a Nigerian bail bondsman at that hour so I had refrained.

Come mid-afternoon, we were back at the shack, now being asked to sign out in the very same Trapper Keeper.  The smiling immigration official looked on as each of us signed, while others whipped out their cellphones to capture the moment.  Noting the lack of protest on the official's part, I very slowly pulled out my camera, waiting, all the while, for an order to put it away.  None ever came.

All told, I may not have made it to the island.  I may not have a new African mask hanging upon my wall. I never did get to listen to Afrobeat tunes at the Shrine.  But- I did get to add #93 to my list and I did get a photo of this, the world's shackiest immigration office, ever.

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