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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Seven Hours in Lagos

Written in real time…

Hour One – 5:30 AM

Shit. My plane from Dakar, Senegal lands in Lagos, Nigeria at 5:30 AM. One hour early. Meaning that the already seemingly humongous transfer wait time of six hours is now seven.

I approach the Virgin Nigeria Airlines transfer desk and tell them that I am supposed to get on a Kenya Airways flight to Nairobi at noon. They laugh when I tell them I just want to go to the Business Class Lounge and wait until the Kenya Airways check-in counter opens. No, they say. Even though I don’t have a visa, I have to go through immigration and an official will escort me to a holding area where I can wait until 10 AM when the Kenya desk should open. An immigration official collects me at the trarnsfer desk.

The first immigration official passes me to another, who passes me to yet another. They can’t seem to decide who should escort me. Finally they assign a rather older (I’d say in his late 50s) immigration officer to me. He seems nice, but takes my passport, tells me to collect my bag, and walks away. Wait, I tell him. I checked my bag all the way through to Dar es Salaam! He laughs and tells me I should sit on a bench in the baggage area and wait for my bag.

After 30 minutes my bag does indeed emerge from the broken-down luggage carousal. The fact that it was marked PRIORITY on a big sticker the airline put on my bag doesn’t seem to have affected its priority compared to other bags on my flight as it ends up being the very last one out. The fact that it was ticketed all the way to Dar clearly has no meaning either. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for my immigration guy, Ekong, who insisted that I wait. Except that now he is nowhere to be seen.

I take advantage of the momentary lull to go to the ladies room. I’ve finally learned to pee standing up – at the ripe old age of 40. I’m happy to practice my new skill in the smelly, dirty bathroom. The bathroom cleaner asks for money. I tell her I don’t have any. She isn’t very happy with me. But then again, she isn’t a very good cleaner.

Back out by the luggage carousal, with my big red bag in hand, I wait some more. Lots of scenarios go through my head – mainly having to do with having to talk my way out of paying a bribe to get put through to the other side. Just when I get desperate Ekong reappears. He whisks me through customs, carries my very heavy red bag up two flights of stairs, and brings me to the immigration office at the check-in area.

Hour Two – 6:30 AM

In the immigration office I am greeted by a series of caricatures. The office is small but orderly, and the super sexy lady/official who runs it has her hold on all the men swarming around her. There are several posters telling immigration officials not to take bribes and a few targeted at clients, like me, telling me not to pay bribes.

Ekong sits down with my passport to fill in a log book. More guys come in. A youngish one is wearing a 50cent sweatshirt and 50cent is outlined in rhinestones. Other guys come and go. Two of them are friendly and talk with me while I wait. They both, separately, ask me if I’d like to marry a Nigerian man. To make things easier I tell them that I am already married and I tell them I have four-year old twins. It doesn’t stop one of them from asking me again if I’d like a Nigerian boyfriend. The sexy lady tells him I’m married and he should leave me alone. Besides, she says, Nigerian men stink as boyfriends. I catch Ekong taking a second look at the immigration form I filled in which says that I am single. He looks back at me and winks.

Finally Ekong is done with me. He tells me to go with another guy through security and I can wait in the main passenger lounge until 10 AM. I try to tell him that I should go to the Business Class Lounge but he refuses, very nicely, to let me go there. The immigration office keeps my passport and my big red bag. I ask them for a receipt and they laugh. Go to the lounge, they say, the bag and my passport will be waiting for me at 10. I keep waiting for someone to ask for a bribe, but they don’t.

I walk into the lounge and realize that this is a perfect blog post. I open my computer and start writing.

About five minutes later Ekong comes over. I think he has come to ask for money for helping me. I am prepared to give him some, since he was very nice, but he doesn’t ask. He just says he has come to make sure I am comfortable. I am, I tell him. He says wonderful and goodbye and walks off.

Five minutes later I am still writing this post. A young man comes over to me. He says he is sorry for disturbing me, but he is a young man from West Africa and would like to know if I have dollars I can give or trade with him. I tell him I live in Tanzania and don’t have any dollars on me (a lie – about the dollars). He tells me that Jesus loves me and walks away – a pray-and-run. I hate that! But at least he didn’t linger.

I marvel at how much fodder is coming to me for this post. It won’t be hard to write at all. The truth is more interesting than any fiction could be.

Five minutes later the immigration official who brought me through security walks over. He tries to read my computer (this post) over my shoulder and asks me what I’m working on. A trip report, I tell him. It is sort of true. He lingers and I wait for a request for a bribe. But he just says that he has come to check on me and eventually walks off.

Hour Three – 7:30 AM

I think I am getting a cold so decide to lie down on the chairs for a few minutes. Luckily, they are not too uncomfortable. I’ve been up all night. I hate that. But even though it is only 7:30 AM in Lagos, it is 9:30 AM in Dar es Salaam – or so says my computer which is set to Dar time. I can’t wait to get home to my babies.

OK… so it turns out that the chairs are really uncomfortable. And it is cold in the passenger area – or is it just that I’m catching a cold. I put on my wrap, but I’m still cold.

While I’m lying cold on the bench I reflect on the fact that I’m just a spoiled traveler – not used to inconveniences like lying on a cold bench in the general passenger area. I can’t help but feel bad about the 13 more hours of travel and transit ahead of me. But I’m trying not to be a baby.

I get up and go to the bathroom – and this time the bathroom is clean and there is toilet paper. I wonder why the arrivals area was such a pigsty while the departure area is well air conditioned, relatively comfortable and clean. Perhaps they don’t care what you think coming into the country, but they want you to leave with a good last impression.

I can’t sit on the bench anymore so I go into a lovely-looking enclosed café next door. They are playing MTV Base Africa – a station that I used to be very involved with when I worked on the MTV project. They are playing a Justin Timberlake video. I don’t get it. Do people really think he’s sexy? That whole vest, shirtsleeves, thin tie look is so revolting. Everyone in the video is sexy except for Justin.

Hour Four – 8:30 AM

I see a HIV commercial that was produced with my (FHI’s) funding. I can’t help but think that is really cool. I order tea in an effort to feel less cold. It helps.

The immigration guy shows up. How did he find me in here? He has another immigration guy with him – and I’m told that this new person is now handling my case and I need to show up back at the immigration office in 20 minutes. How many immigration officials will I meet today?

No sooner than my tea shows up and the immigration guy is back again. He has ants in his pants. The Kenya Airways ticket office is open – it is time to go. I take a sip, pack up my computer, and meet him back at the immigration office. A group of Pakistani guys are also there. I can’t help it. They look like jihadists to me – and one of them even faintly resembles Osama Bin Laden. I feel guilty thinking it – but I hope they aren’t on my flight. I’m not nearly as PC as I’d like to be – at least not in my deepest darkest thoughts. I am disappointed in myself.

The immigration guys rushes me, my passport and my red bag (which all seem to be in good shape) back out the immigration line and into the main airport. The Pakistanis are left in the immigration office – which I take to mean they are not on my flight after all. There is no one else checking in at the Kenya Airways desk but the woman at the Business Class counter still seems somehow put out that I am checking in. Perhaps in my schelpy clothes, with my messy hair and big bags under my eyes I’m not her ideal image of a Business Class passenger. Or perhaps she is just a bitch. Either way, she issues me my boarding pass and a ticket to the business class lounge. I have visions of lying down of a comfortable couch and sleeping for an hour or two.

The immigration guys whisks me back past the immigration line straight to the security check in. He says his job is done. I say thank you. He says goodbye and walks off.

None of the immigration people asked for money. It stuns me, only because I’ve heard so many stories about the Lagos airport from seasoned Nigeria travelers. Perhaps they’ve had a recent crackdown on corruption. Or maybe I put off vibes that say – don’t try to mess with me. But either way it challenges my stereotype of Nigeria – and even though it was a pain to spend four hours going through all this minor drama, I’m glad that I’ve had the opportunity to learn this lesson. Seriously.

Hour Five – 9:30 AM

I somehow make it through security with my bottle of water. I’m glad, but it makes me question the vigilance of their security system. But I don’t care so much, because the Business Class Lounge and several hours of sleep are just a few feet away. The elevator is broken and so I climb the two flights of stairs. Once in the lounge, I am totally disappointed. It is crowed and smoky and the chairs are the antithesis of comfortable. So instead I pull out my computer and update this post.

I brought some movies, so I think I’ll pop one in now and hope that the two hours until boarding time passes quickly.

Hour Six – 10:30 AM

I have yet to watch a movie because just as I was about to pop one in the DVD drive the lady next to me tells me that there is wireless internet. I go online, read a few e-mails, check out the New York Times and then get booted off the wireless. I can’t get back on.

There is a small, brown/gray mouse running around the Business Class Lounge. I tell the “hostess” and she just laughs. Some of my fellow passengers take interest. The mouse hides and then comes back out. It is actually kind of cute – in a free range mouse kind-of way. If it were a child’s pet instead a sign of petulance in the airport, I would be enjoying it more. I probably would have also been more willing to eat the sandwiches that have been put out. But for now I think I’ll pass.

I’ve taken out my camera. I’m ready to snap a photo of the mouse should it reappear again, and least you think I’m kidding. But alas, after running around for 15 minutes or so, it goes back into hiding. I am mouse-photoless.

I ask the hostess every five minutes if it is time to go to the Kenya Airways flight yet. She just laughs at me and calls me honey.and dear. Finally I cannot wait anymore. I strike out on my own. When I arrive at the gate a gate agent sees my business class ticket and waves me in front of a long line of people putting their bags through security. I should feel bad about the privilege and the race and class issues that it brings up, but I don’t. I’m too tired.

At the door to the gate a man from a Francophone country who looks like a Maribou (traditional holy man) is throwing a fit at the gate agents who are trying to make him check in his suspicious-looking and heavy carry-on luggage. Of course the gate agents win. They always do these days. It isn’t even worth resisting.

Hour Seven – 11:30 AM

I find my seat, pull out my computer and IPOD and settle in for the five hour flight. I am asleep when the plane finally takes off – around 12:45 PM.

The plane is in the air and I am awake now and eating peanuts and enjoying a Diet Coke. The movie, Oceans 13, is playing overhead but my earphones don’t work. I don’t care. I’m headed home where I expect that my day tomorrow will be easier and less chaotic than the one I just had. I admit that this is the part of travel I don’t much like. But it is the necessary evil required to get the rest of the benefits.- like the ability to cross off Nigeria from my list of places I’ve been because although I never left the airport grounds, I feel like I’ve had a real Nigerian experience. And hell, it is my list anyway.

In eight more hours and I’ll benefit from the best part of traveling, which is going home again. I can’t wait to see my babies.

Prologue – 10:30 PM

I am not at home with my babies. My flight from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam was canceled and I’ve just been dumped by a Kenya Airways bus at the Hilton Hotel. The drama of not getting home tonight was slightly tempered by the lovely Kenya Airways agent who rebooked me for tomorrow, put me up in a four star hotel, paid for my visa, and found my luggage.

I’m bummed. But this is the ugly underbelly of international travel. I have no choice but to take the bad and inconvenient with the good of the travel itself. It is a deal I am willing to take.

I’m hooked on travel.