Friday, February 1, 2008

On the Road

We haven’t even left the parking lot yet, and I’m already covered in blood. Relax. It’s not mine. It belongs to Jesus.

Of course, I’m not speaking literally, as this would require Jesus to be riding next to me, and given the state of most Nigerian taxis, I think the answer to “What would Jesus do?” is most likely “Walk”. No, the metaphoric blood being spilled over me and the other passengers comes courtesy of a lay preacher who appears in the doorway of our van shortly before we leave for Ossiomo. It’s a common practice for a vehicle and its passengers to be blessed before a long-haul trip, which is why the protection of Jesus’ blood is invoked. I appreciate the sentiment and the prayer, although I’d rather not set out on a marathon journey with anyone’s blood on my mind. The preacher soon gets on a roll and is enjoying a vigourous call-and-response with my fellow passengers when our driver, obviously a philistine, decides he’s had enough and drives off, leaving him in the dust of the motor park. Undaunted, the preacher leaps into the open doorway of our van and continues as we speed down the road, his rear end swaying precariously out over the asphalt. It’s like getting a sermon from Indiana Jones. I fear our driver will use the nearest road sign to brush him off, but he relents and even slows down so the preacher can hop off safely once his prayer is complete.

Death-defying men of God are but one of the wonders found in the motor parks. Transport within Nigeria is dependent on these hubs, and one is amazed at first how anyone gets anywhere. For the uninitiated, the larger motor parks seem hopelessly chaotic and intimidating. Imagine walking into a full parking lot and having the driver of every car yell at you at once to come with them. The head spins. But a system does exist, and it works quite well once understood. Vehicles headed to different parts of the country are grouped in sections of the park according to their destinations. All I need to do is announce where I’m headed when I walk into the park and I’m immediately directed to the next available vehicle for that location.

This is where luck and timing are critical in equal measures. There are no scheduled departures. Vehicles only leave when completely full. If you’re the last person in, you leave immediately. First person in, enjoy your novel or crossword puzzle, because the wait can be an hour or more. And the vehicles are always filled to over-capacity, far beyond the recommended safety standards for the ……Ha! Ha! Recommended safety standards? Forgot where I was for a moment. If a car can comfortably seat eight people, then eleven can sit uncomfortably. If a van’s capacity is twelve, then there’s room for sixteen. And so on. I now know how circus clowns feel when a ridiculously large number of them exit their tiny clown car. (Relieved, I expect, and with a certain amount of numbness in their clown asses.)

My favourite ride so far was in a station wagon. As we all pile into the car, there’s a sense of going on a road trip with Mom and Dad, if Dad was a slightly hungover teenager and Mom was a three-hundred-pound businessman. The tight squeeze forces us all to put our arms around each other and we reluctantly hug each other for the duration of the drive. When my cellphone rings, I ask my new best friend to answer it, since his hand is already shoved into my pocket. Visions of Steve Martin and John Candy sharing a bed pop into my mind, though thankfully, no one’s hand has been between my pillows…..yet. Despite the close proximity, there’s surprisingly little interaction among the passengers once we get settled. The ride is completely silent, except for Dad’s use of the horn and his love of hiphop. People begin to doze and heads loll at painful angles. We all share a moment of amusement watching Mom fall asleep and drift over to put his head on Dad’s shoulder. What a nice couple. Inspired by the hugs received from my fellow passengers, I consider starting a singalong to pass the time, rather than continuing to sing the same songs in my head. Something jaunty like “Mony Mony” would encourage participation, although the X-rated version of the chorus could get me expelled from the vehicle. I’m on the verge of suggesting “Sudbury Saturday Night” when our wagon breaks down. On the railway tracks.

Normally, this would be cause for concern. I’ve seen enough silent film clips to know that the steam locomotives never come unless there’s a car or a damsel in distress on the tracks. We have both, if we count Mom. But thankfully, of all the dangers that exist in Nigeria, getting run over by a train is at the bottom of the list, thanks to a railway system long ago mothballed and never revived. As we exit the vehicle and push it off the tracks, my fear is more for Dad, as my fellow travelers start gathering the pitchforks and torches needed for official Angry Mob status. I don’t know the Hausa for “Can’t we all get along?”, but I can probably manage “Fire. Bad.” But my Tarzan-like peacemaking efforts aren’t needed in the end. The group resolves to funnel its anger into auto repair instead. I take my turn looking under the hood and grimacing knowingly, pointing out that the black thingie is missing its rack-and-pinion hubcap.

Eventually, we discover that the secret to preventing another stall is to keep the engine revved up at all times. This leads to a highly amusing scene repeated every time someone announces his or her stop and scrambles to get out of the car while Dad guns the engine in neutral. Amusing, that is, until it’s my turn. As we approach the Kagoro market, I zip up my backpack, give my seatmate a goodbye squeeze and get ready to jump. At the appointed location, Dad gives a nod and I grab the door latch to fling it open. And nothing happens. “Vroom, vroom!” goes the engine as I push on the stubborn door. I hear my travelling companions begin to murmur behind me, and I imagine them rummaging through their bags for their pitchforks and torches. Finally, Dad reaches around the outside of the door and pulls the handle. The door falls open as the engine falls silent. A collective groan shakes the wagon, and the remaining passengers get out to push again. I try to apologize, but my “Fire. Bad.” falls on deaf ears. The wagon soon sputters to life and everyone hurries to get back in, leaving me on the side of the road. I consider waving good-bye, but no one glances in my direction to receive it. I shoulder my backpack and start walking through the market toward the familiar cries of “Batauri!” It’s good to be home.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My trip to Costa Rica or why I didn't like it....I just spent 5 days at UN meetings in an exclusive resort on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. I arrived in San Jose, the capital, on Jan 30, and took a 2 hour taxi drive over almost paved roads to the coast. My driver was a young Costa Rican who looked a bit scared at having an Anglo for a passenger ["I don't speak English well," was his first comment] and seemed a bit bewildered about where our final destination was [as if I could help him -- never having been to CR before]. The drive was outstanding for its winding roller coaster effect, and although it is dry season, CR scenary is just stunning. How many 2 lane "highways" can you zig-zag up and down the mountains on in one day? Many, my friend, many. Of course, typical of any travel outside of prissy North America, there are no real barriers between the edge of the road and oblivion straight down the mountain side. I was happy to be traveling during the day, and was doubly happy that I was not driving. My test of any destination is whether I would return, and in the case of CR, the answer is no. Not because it isn't beautiful, but just the opposite: this is a land in the hands of North American developers. The locals do not share in the wealth except as low paid service providers, and even there, most of the hard work is done by Nicaraguans since Costa Ricans refuse to do that kind of stuff. My disappointment is in being surrounded by wealthy sweaty rotund North Americans slathered in sunblock and wearing cruise-wear. Not a pretty site, despite the natural habitate, flowers, jungle, complex spider havens, etc. Escape from this joy threw you into the realm of backpackers and surfer types: too young to be interesting, too scruffy to want to get to know [I'm a fuddy duddy about people taking regular showers and using soap, and there's nothing worse than some skinny rich NA white guy looking like a born-again Rasta dude]. The natives you could meet [if you really had a yen] were part of the trade -- as in licensed, card carrying sex trade, all of whom looked like 16 year olds. The madness of exploitation hung out everywhere, and the broader the smiles on visitors, the more terrified I felt. And here we were a group of people from around the world meeting in the lap of isolated luxury to plan an international conference on sustainability to be held in South Africa in September. The irony boggles the mind. I didn't get to chum with the locals, as you did on the road. I don't know if I would like that kind of intimacy thrust at me -- John Candy and Steve Martin and all. But I do know that isolated posh is not for me either. The only "hand in my pocket" was to pay for the Pina Coladas in late afternoon as we gathered to watch the sun set. And we did need a 4WD vehicle to get around on those mountain roads to pass one lux estate after another, and at one point one of our colleagues burned out the ignition in his rented mid size SUV. But a quick call solved everything and we didn't even have to walk the rest of the way up the dusty road [never mind push the car off the rail tracks]. Sigh, the hardships we all have to endure! The socialist working class me felt very uncomfortable plunked into the midst of the socio-economic mess that is Central America, and that is why I would never return for a second look. Victor