Sunday, 3 May 2009

The kindness of strangers (and friends) – PART I

The western business adage “failing to plan is planning to fail”, is much less relevant in Nigeria, particularly for travelling. The degree of success in planning depends on your ability to control the elements of the plan. Any deviation from the plan inevitably leads to stress. In Nigeria, the less you plan the less you stress. And as a Ugandan once said to a stressed out VSO colleague (that I think I may have quoted before):

“In the West you have watches

Here in Africa we have time”

The other essential ingredient to success, apart from time, is the kindness and helpfulness of strangers (and friends).

So at 5:00am on the morning of Thursday 16 April, I collected my friend Lizzy from Abuja airport for a two week adventure. We had ‘planned’ to stay 2 nights in the Afi Mountain Drill Monkey Ranch, but since no deposit had been paid, there was nothing to lose. That was the extent of the plan.

Two weeks later I, and the rest of Fantsuam Foundation put Lizzy - resplendent in her new Nigerian attire - on the bus to Abuja (now confident of using Nigerian public transport on her own) - having had two of the best weeks of holiday ever.

(Lizzy being sent off by the Fantsuam microfinance field officers)

So where did it all start?

05:30am taxi from the airport to the Benue Links motor park where our driver, Sunday (tip: most reliable driver in Abuja – contact me for details) ensured that we got on the right bus for Makurdi and that our backpacks were safely loaded before he left to return to my friend Thessa’s flat with my suitcase of UK goodies we didn’t want to drag around with us.

A friendly face at Abuja's Benue Links Motor Park and Lizzy’s first (and certainly not last) time on Nigerian public transport (she looks good having travelled overnight on a plane doesn't she!)

By 7:00 (only 30 minute wait) the bus was full and we were off. A thankfully uneventful journey was enlivened by engaging in conversation with two young Nigerians who, in a happy, joyful way, debated the whole range of Nigeria’s problems from leadership, to oil, to religion, education and back, whilst quoting verses of the Bible to each other. Whilst an in-depth and informed debate, in the final analysis it was all down to God’s will. In a country that has witnessed 1,000s of deaths (most recently over 400 in Jos) as the result of religious tension, it was very refreshing to hear Patrick the IT consultant explain that the reason that the (almost exclusively Muslim) Hausa-Fulani by far the most dominant group in Nigeria was because they had been graced by God because they were more God-fearing.

We reached the very orderly Makurdi motor-park by 10:00 and started to search for our bus to Vandekiya en route to Obudu and the Afi Mountain Drill Ranch. Having been informed by the young lady at the ticket office that we’d be best off trying our options at the unofficial motor parks across the road, we passed a bus driver as we were leaving who fervently assured us that his (currently empty) 16-seater minibus would be leaving in no more than 30 minutes and that we should go back into the office and buy our tickets. Oh, when will I learn....?

Lizzy optimistically ready to board the empty mini bus - whilst the rest of the motor park relaxes.

One and a half hours later (however refreshed by cold drinking yoghurt and the biggest and best mangoes I have ever eaten - and no apologies to Alfonsos I’m afraid daddy) we got on our way, belted into the two front seats for the best view (one of the perks of arriving really early).

About 20 minutes out of Makurdi the bus hit something small. The driver immediately stopped and reversed down the road, to collect his small dead bird (= meat for dinner) which two pedestrians had kindly retrieved for him. He threw the still-twitching animal onto the dash in front of us, but as he drove off its feathers started blowing into our faces. He apologised profusely, grabbed the lifeless bird and tossed it onto the floor. Well, onto my foot.

Driver's shoe, dead bird, my foot...

As the journey progressed the driver chatted to us about where we were going and we explained, to which he said: ‘Oh, that is far’ ... ('yes', we were thinking, 'that’s why we needed your bus to leave on time'). Having realised that his advice to wait for his bus could have cost us dearly he stopped by a roadside hawker to buy a large bag of oranges. He offered one each to us which we ate. After which he offered us two more... which we ate ... after which he gave us the whole bag for the rest of the journey.

Arriving in Vandekiya each of the passengers ‘dropped’ at their chosen locations whilst our driver went a little bit further for us to take us to the Obudu motorpark. “How far is Obudu, I asked?” His reply of “200km” raised a sharp intake of breath: it was 3pm and we still had to reach Obudu, get another bus from there towards Ikom, stop at a small village 60km along the way and pick okadas for the final 14km dirt road journey to the Drill Ranch.

Having tried to ensure that we were in good, and knowledgeable hands, the driver left us to return to Makurdi. As usual the bature were swarmed around by drivers offering ‘drops’ – chartered taxis to our destinations costing anything from N3,000 – N6,000, way beyond a VSO’s budget. However I found the perfect (and effective) response:

“Why would I be travelling by public transport if I could afford a drop?”.

The group of young men looked at one another and smiled in agreement and the real negotiating began. Having spent at least 20 minutes trying to find someone who knew the Drill Ranch (not to be confused with the much, much fancier resort, the Obudu Cattle Ranch) we negotiated a price of N4,000 for the drop there, which seemed very reasonable for the 200km to Obudu and 60km to Katabang.

Two minutes out of the motor park negotiations re-started, it becoming clear that the driver had no idea where the Drill Ranch was. I demanded that we turned around and started again..... but by then, we were in Obudu... (Nigerian learning: don’t ask travel distances in km, ask in time!).

The driver stopped by a local policeman for a quick chat as to where we needed to get to. The friendly Nigerian bobby recommended we go to the motor park and advised the standard fare from Vandekiya to Obudu (N150 per person which, in a small private car that would carry 6 passengers, meant N900) so we could pay the driver a fair price for getting us there. The driver dropped us there and once again resumed negotiations with a new group of men eager to drop us (and the ‘would I be travelling....’ worked a treat once again). We finally agreed to a N3,500 drop to the Drill Ranch door, which frankly we were happy to pay to avoid a dusk trip up a dirt mountain road on okadas with large rucksacks. The Ranch manager later congratulated us on our negotiating skills. The ‘would I be travelling...?’ is clearly very effective!

The Afi Mountain Drill Ranch is essentially a conservation project for the endangered Drill monkeys of the Cross River area, which has six screened cabins for guest accommodation. It is a magical place: basic but comfortable. Here is the website and some pictures to tell the story of our (it turned out to be three day) stay here:

Our cabin and our view into one of the Drill enclosures.

Lizzy in the communal kitchen and the 'corridor' to the ranch's guest toilet

Lizzy with her perfect conversation partner who copied her every word... OK, every whistle, and the food table for the monkeys. Bananas and heaps of avocados... Yes my UK readers - here avocados are monkey food!

Lizzy chopping onions for dinner whilst sustaining herself with bread and Marmite...

Lizzy with Nyamson, our Cross River Park guide - and an early view up the mountain.

Me with cocoa - a prominant pre-oil export of Nigeria, and Lizzy with a stand of bamboo

Resting at the park's 'research camp' near the mountain top and a view of the small stream we refreshed ourselves from.

Alpha males facing off, with painful results for the challenger

Drill mother with 2 day old baby.

The chimp enclosure. Me with elder statesman Pablo who, unlike alpha Murphy did not hurl large objects at visitors. Other entertainment for all primates was provided by Lizzy and her synchronised chimp rolling

Ade gives the chimps some water and challenges Murphy to work out how to open the bottle (alpha he may be but clever he aint).

The slightly scary canopy walk; group photo with other ranch guests and the Canopy team led by Chris

Cooling off by the pool

The next day we left for Calabar via Ikom. Ade (Afi’s manager and chief vet) had kindly arranged okadas from the nearby village to take us and our rucksacks to the road. Afi brings good business to the local communities who are extremely ready to help. With just a brief stop to overcome a flat tyre on the way (the driver went back to the village and returned 10 minutes later with a replacement bike: that’s service), we reached the main road where the drivers waited with us on the quiet road until a car came along that was happy to take us to Ikom for the standard fare.

We were dropped off at the Ikom ‘motor park’ which seemed quiet to me but unsurprising for a Sunday morning.. There were a lot of clues to warn us of the three hour wait ahead:
(a) Private uniforms on the attendant staff (not the usual union of transport but.. well Royal Mail actually although the wearer swore it was his company uniform.., meaning it was a private motor park
(b) Completely empty 16 seater mini bus
(c) The clincher: being escorted into a comfortable covered area where a Nollywood movie was inserted into a waiting DVD player.. Nollywood movies last about 3 hours..... on average...

I still hadn't learnt!

After 1 hour Lizzy was looking around anxiously for arriving passengers: she was terrified that the bus might be full BEFORE the movie (‘Beauty and the Beast) ended. She had about 2 minutes to spare when 3.5 hours later we left. But she was delighted and has since bought two more CDs, including the unmissable international hit ‘Bird Flu’.

Finally at about 1:30pm we began our journey to Calabar again seated up front for the best view having booked that spot when we arrived. The journey was uneventful except for the numerous police and military roadblocks: Cross River State borders the Delta area. Each was passed through easily with no (obvious) evidence of money changing hands. At one stage just outside Calabar a soldier was keen for our driver to pull over – to which the driver remonstrated... Why? It’s just a public bus? The policeman pointed to us bature, no oyibo, no sorry – we’re in Iboland now – oniyotcha. And leaning across the soldier asked us, perfectly seriously: “Have you been kidnapped?”

It was the smiles and exclamations of mirth on our faces that convinced him we hadn’t and we were once again on our way.

We arrived at Calabar at about 5pm, later than anticipated and quickly made for the guesthouse which came highly recommended in the Bradt travel guide (essential and wonderful reading for anyone visiting Nigeria), to clean up before meeting up with our Kagoro neighbour Mr Aka’ahs who works in Calabar. Another motorpark discussion: there is always someone who knows where you need to get to and how much it should cost but it may take some time in lively and enjoyable discussion to find that person.

We picked two okadas from the street and asked them to follow each other. Several U-turns later we found the Nele Guesthouse on the edge of Hawkins Street.. Surrounded by a high wall we located the gate and, pushing hard against it, found ourselves in a building site. Ooops.

True the advertised phone number in Bradt had not been working but frankly that’s par for the course here so had not worried me. So here we are in Calabar with big rucksacks on the side of a street and nowhere to stay.

I hoofed down the road to buy some recharge for my phone and called Mr Aka’ahs who arrived 15 minutes later with a driver and friend who knew his way around Calabar. We visited a guesthouse near Mr Aka'ahs' own home but, offering only ‘suites’ at N15,000, he saw our faces drop and offered us a room in his own (extremely spacious) home. Everything was provided (even NEPA and hot water!) and after a luxurious 5 minute shower (I kid not) we went out for dinner.

With Lizzy and I having offered to buy our host dinner in return for his hospitality, we drove to a wonderful spot, the Aquavista, where we had beautiful fresh local tilapia fish and cold beer. And, despite our best attempts at remonstrating, at no expense to ourselves. Nigerians are extremely generous people.

The next morning a heavily laden breakfast table greeted us, with freshly cut delicious mango in front of us, with three more huge mangoes (and two cans of beer) in a goodie bag for the road. Needing to reach the motor park early to try and get the transport to our stopping place Enugu before the early busses had filled up and left, Mr Aka’ahs arranged for his driver to take us there, driving right into the centre of the organised mayhem and finding which bus was leaving next and ensuring we were properly installed.

Four hours later, along some of the worst roads I have travelled on, we arrived in Enugu. A real city: the motor park was full so the bus just pulled up on the side of the dual carriageway amongst other buses, okadas, pedestrians, hawkers and.. of course the road traffic.

We had decided that we would break our return journey to Abuja in Idah (it's a long story but you can read about it by clicking here) so started asking for the motorpark to Idah and was reliably informed that it was across town. We had three choices:
(a) N50: squeeze ourselves into an already full large city bus which really did not look inviting after our long mini bus ride
(b) N200: take an okada across town (imagine Hyde Park corner, without rules).
(c) N2000: get a ‘drop’

Our decision would have been easy but expensive if not for one very unexpected feature of Enugu: ALL okada drivers not only have helmets for themselves but also their passengers. A VSO will be repatriated if seen riding an okada without a helmet (for good reason) however I felt confident that my stay would not be cut short. At least not by repatriation...

Again we picked two bikes from the throng swarming around the motorpark, agreed a price and issued strict instructions to follow one another. Lizzy soon zoomed ahead out of sight, one hand holding onto the bike, the other securing her yellow construction helmet whose loose chin strap (yup, it had one) was incapable of keeping it on her head - at least at the speed she was travelling. She later told me that she’d started by closing her eyes but found that even scarier than keeping your eyes open: strangely enough I concur. There was a certain orderliness to the total chaos of road traffic: a bit like those military motorcycle displays when 50 drivers head straight for each other in perfect formation. You know what I mean?

To our surprise and delight we arrived at the motor park in one piece and searched for the transport to Idah. Accurate advice was once again forthcoming and we soon found a large Peugeot 504 that was shortly heading that way, to nearby town Ayangba. We climbed into the small back seat with an extremely cool Fulani ‘brother’ who bore a close resemblance to some of Bob Marley’s followers.

Ten minutes out of the Enugu motor park the road blocks started: about one every kilometre for about 6 km and for the first time in six months in Nigeria, I saw money change hands.. A straight N20 at every single road block. No surprise the fare had been so much higher than I was expecting.

We soon got chatting to a young man in the row in front of us.

“Where are you headed?” he asked. “Idah” we replied. “Where are you staying?” he asked. “We don’t really know,” we said. “Is there somewhere to stay there?” we asked. “Not really,” he said.
Hmmm. The afternoon, heading towards somewhere unknown and small in the centre of Southern Nigeria, with no idea where we were going and no instructions except the name of a town written on a map.

Hold your breath for part II!


Glenn said...

Hey, Cicely,

There must be something about travelling in that part of Nigeria that lends itself to epic tales! My best stories also came from our time at the Drill Ranch and other spots in the South. Good to see the drills and chimps again....and no monkey missiles this time! Looking forward to Part II of the saga!



Lizzy said...

Cicely, this is brilliant! I'm sending the link to my family - you've reminded me of loads of things I missed when I talked them through my photos. Look forward to part II.

Hope all's well.