Thankfully, it was different! There was no line of vehicles waiting to get in, no line outside the entrance of the airport waiting to go through the first scan, and virtually no line at the ticket counter either. Within 30 minutes we had gone through all the security procedures (which for this flight includes having one’s passport checked at least a half-dozen times) and were ready to go to the gate. So we sat in a small coffee shop inside the Duty Free Shop for a bit before heading to our gate. Boarding and the one hour flight, which was only about half full, was very smooth. This was my first flight in Africa World Airlines.
I’ve asked Cody and Bobbi a great many questions before and during this trip, trying to glean as much information as I possibly can about the brethren in Nigeria, and the country itself. Typically when one reads or hears about Nigeria in the news, it is not in any kind of positive sense. Even the Ghanaians have quite a bit to say about Nigerians, and virtually none of it is good. These are not the kinds of reports to make one comfortable with a trip like this!
Cody and Bobbi had warned me about how the immigration procedures at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos would be like. However, much to their surprise (and my relief) it was also very smooth. They told me it appears they’ve remodeled this part of the airport, and it was very nice and efficient. Part of the efficiency is likely because this is a Sunday morning, and traffic was pretty light. Hopefully this new part is what we will be using from now on.
There are two forex bureaus inside the airport, one offering a slightly different exchange rate than the other, so we changed a little money into Nigerian nira and went outside to find the transportation Bobbi had arranged ahead of time.
Our driver was late, but since my phone will work in Nigeria (just at an exorbitant rate), we called and he came perhaps 20 minutes later. We loaded our bags in the trunk (the boot over here) and climbed into a surprisingly decent Toyota sedan. As soon as we did, to our great relief, the driver turned on the a/c! For as far as we are going, having working a/c was going to be a real blessing! As we would find out shortly, it didn’t work really all the time, but it did help.
Our driver pulled out into traffic and we started east. Visually, if one were to look around in Accra, Ghana and then be instantly transported to Lagos, Nigeria, there would be very little different about them.
Our driver is pretty aggressive on the road (and the marks on the front of his car bear witness to the fact that he doesn’t always win…), so this could be an interesting trip! It should take us about five hours to cover the 314 kilometers (about 196 miles). And I will have the chance to experience some of the best highway I’ve seen in west Africa as well as some of the very worst, with potholes that would make the most calloused Ghanaian driver cringe.
Before we left Lagos the driver needed to stop and get some petrol (gas). The station he chose had a surprisingly familiar logo on the side – a large KFC complete with an image of the Colonel! I would never have expected to see a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Lagos! Since we’d had nothing since breakfast, and we wouldn’t eat again until we reached our hotel, Cody went in and bought a box of chicken for us. Much appreciated!
Our driver had a unique cloth badge hanging from the rearview mirror. It is of an elite unit of the Nigerian military. We asked about it, and he explained that this is not something one can just purchase in the market – it must come from someone who has been a part of that unit. He had not been himself, but his uncle has (and if I understood is currently). So he hangs it in his car, and it can be quite helpful!
There were apparently far fewer police on the roads today, likely because it is a Sunday. And the first number of times we saw them, they would start to wave us to the side of the road, and then see the emblem on his mirror and wave us on through. But it didn’t always work. On at least three occasions, perhaps more (I didn’t count very carefully) the police didn’t let him pass just because of the emblem. They required him to open the trunk (full of suitcases) and he had to give them some money. That is simply the way things go here. He explained to us that if they demand money “you don’t argue with a man in uniform”. From my perspective, it isn’t the uniform that matters the most, it is the automatic weapon hung loosely across his shoulder that one needs to be concerned about…
Just before we started encountering the police, the condition of the road deteriorated dramatically, although that didn’t necessarily mean our driver wanted to slow down much. I lost count of the number of times we would hit a hole hard enough to sound as though it was doing some serious damage to the suspension of this little car. The driver kept apologizing, and I told him its OK, it is his car, not mine. If it were mine we’d have to talk about this a bit more!
Unfortunately, by the time I thought to grab my camera and try to capture some of these terrible spots (even though a photo just never seems to do them justice), every one we approached was surrounded by police. I suppose the need to slow down makes it more convenient for them to motion the drivers over for another bribe. And one does NOT want to be taking a photo of the police!
A little over an hour away from Benin City we hit some of the best highway I’ve seen in west Africa – and our driver wanted to take advantage of it. This car’s speedometer is in miles per hour, not kilometers, and he wanted to consistently stay around 80 mph – which it a bit too fast for the condition of this car. I don’t like to tell a man his business, but at one point I did ask if he would slow it down a little. He did – for perhaps two minutes. Not wanting to rankle him, I decided to just let it pass, and pray that God had sent some of His faster angels to protect us. For a brief moment, when I at the speedometer, I realize those angels would have to go 90 mph to keep up…
In spite of the way our driver and many others were driving, we only had one mishap on the way. I couldn’t see clearly what happened because of all the traffic, but suddenly there was a minivan (a common source for public transportation) sideways in the road. Our driver braked very hard, as did another van. That van locked up his brakes and started skidding towards us and going sideways. I never heard an impact nor felt one, but everyone stopped a hairsbreadth apart. Later, when we stopped, I noticed some of the dents in our car, and pointed out a scrape on the drivers’ side front bumper with the yellow and red of the van, asking if that was there before. He adamantly said “No!” So we apparently did make enough contact to transfer a little paint, but not enough that we were immediately aware of it. Given all the other dents, scrapes and such on the car already, this little scratch won’t affect the value of the vehicle at all!
No doubt part of the reason for his hurry was his desire to get off the highway before dark. He said at about dark the police disappear, and the highways become very unsafe because of highway robbers. Sure enough, as we approached the outskirts of Benin City – shortly before the sun disappeared – the last of the police we saw had already changed from their uniforms into street clothes and were preparing to go home. Our driver explained several times that he would not attempt to make the trip back to Lagos tonight, but would find a place to stay here and return in the daylight.
The population of Nigeria is staggering. One source puts the population of Lagos at 17.5 million, while other sources say closer to 21 million. By comparison, the population of all of Ghana is about 22 million. Benin City, our destination, is much smaller, at only about 1.5 million people! And not only are the streets of the city not terribly well laid out, many of the locals apparently don’t know their way around very well! As we bumped and bounded through the dusty streets of Benin City, we stopped numerous times to ask directions to our hotel, which is near the airport. It took several times (and having to backtrack because of poor directions) to finally find the Golden Tulip hotel. Part of the confusion comes from the fact that it was very recently called the Excalibur.
When the security guards opened the gate for us, one of them went around with a mirror on a pole to look under the car. I’ve been told this is common practice here – quite uncommon in Ghana. Then I stayed with the car and luggage while Cody and Bobbi went in to check us in. Bobbi had made reservations online several weeks ago, so we should be good to go. And Cody knows the manager, because this is one of the locations we are considering for the Feast this year, and Cody has been negotiating with him on pricing.
Unfortunately, the hotel has no record of any reservations for us. Bobbi used an on-line hotel booking site, and the manager explained that they often have problems with them. He mentioned one in particular that takes the money from the customer, but has not forwarded anything on to the hotel since 2016. He agreed to give us our rooms for the night, and he will contact this service in the morning. If they do not agree to pay up, we will have to pay for the rooms again (and possibly change hotels) and then do what we can to get a refund later.
Finally in our rooms, we decided to meet downstairs in the restaurant. It took several tries before we got orders we could actually have. A number of things that are on the menu apparently are not actually available. She told us that another choice, pizza, would take a long time to prepare. When we asked how long, she estimated it would take two hours. Not willing to wait that long, we made other choices, which came within 40 minutes or so.
Tomorrow will be a full day. We’ll try to figure out what happened to the hotel payment here, meet with another hotel with whom Cody has also been negotiating as a possible Feast site, and begin meeting and visiting with many of the members in Benin City.