June 28, 1998

Nigeria: Derelict palm-oil factory outside of Calabar

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the trip.

Real feel of wind-down lately, and that's not just because I expect to be leaving in 7-10 days: many others are making noises about leaving the trip and/or flying rather than driving to East Africa. I plan to jump ship in Douala and spend a couple weeks in southern Cameroon before flying to Harare.

Nigerian cities are loathsome, but the rest of the country isn't bad - in part, I think, because the roadblock police have been instructed to be nice to tourists, in part because of the World Cup, and in part because we're here at a time of transition what with Abacha's death and its repercussions.

Spent the first night camped on a leafy side road surrounded by the usual crowd of villagers while Gavin went for a walk and became a temporary Nigerian immigration official. The next day, we had the fourth - and first heavy-duty - search & inspection, filing into the truck one by one to show off our prize possessions, then waiting under leaky thatched huts amid the drizzle outside. Eventually (3 hours) made our way to a small town, where we turned down the chance to haggle a crap exchange rate and bought two Cokes with 1000 CFA instead (got _some_ change). Went through Ibadan, a big spread-out apartment-block sprawl of a city, changed money and went on a fruitless quest for a burger. Left town the hard way, through the markets, with two thousand raucous Nigerians screaming exuberant welcomes at us. Parked in an old quarry by the side of the road.

Next day - 23d? - with PK & Shirray sick, Tim & I took over the cab and rode along with Mick. Bombing down a four-lane highway carved from rainforest, listening to Kenny Rogers, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Cops taking money from local traffic (who don't even stop, just slow down long enough to hand over the dash) and welcoming & waving us on. A fruitless quest for diesel in one of the world's major oil-producing countries. Navigating with nothing more than Rough Guide maps and Michelin #953 - and stops to ask for directions.

Stopped in Ondo to fill up on water and were given seriously hard time by local tinpot dictator who claimed to be an immigration inspector but was apparently just a prison officer. PK handled it well. Drove on through thick green walls of jungle. The road went from sealed tarmac to dirt track for 1K, then back, for no apparent reason other than to remind us we were in AFrica. Stopped for lunch at a roadside clearing with a butterfly-stren path that led to a tiny forest village.

Found a super-cool campsite, another disused quarry, huge, with pools out back, the skeletal remnants of buildings, and a natural freshwater spring that the locals showed us, which filters through rock and cascades into a small cave.

Into Benin City on the 24th, a hot noisy dusty polluted hellhole where we couldn't even find a decent lunch spot but did have two saving graces: a donut stall and the Benin City Plaza Motel, an oasis of comfort with a good bar, good restaurant, plush leather chairs, CNN, laundry service, and a swimming pool, all at a decent price.

Spent two night there, lazing around chatting, swimming, reading, playing poker for several hours, watching the World Cup, making the occasional foray into town. Celebrated Naomi's birthday the second night with a group meal and booze-up.

Day before yesterday, off to Port Harcourt for reasons which escape me, all day in the back of the truck, parked in a low-tech rubber plantation (spirals carved into trunk, feeding old lidless beer cans, attached by wire to the tree) where the locals cleared out tent space for us with machetes. Sat on top of the truck listening for World Cup results on the BBC World Service shortwave; cries of jubilation when we learned England was through to the second round.

Yesterday, another driving day, sat around for hours getting enough diesel to make Calabar, got into Port Harcourt and learned that the hotels were superexpensive and we had engine trouble, promptly left and free-camped at the side of a side road. Late bubble & squeak & baked-bean dinner. Slept on the truck, first time in ages, which takes us to today, _another_ driving day, but a fairly cool campsite amid the rusting girders and tanks of the old factory.

Massive girder just struck massive tank six times: it's 6 PM, and the day shift watchmen are signalling the night shift to come in, incidentally driving me near-deaf.

Tomorrow, Calabar: this week, Mount Cameroon: next week, independence again.



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