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.


June 21, 1998

Nigerian border post

It's quiet. Too quiet.

This is the nicest border post we've been to so far. Quiet, relaxed, green, no hassle or hawkers, just roosters and sheep picking their way among the customs & police buildings.

People seem pleasant too: guy - official? - just chatted with me about his friends, refugees in Canada.

Customs just checked the truck, a barely-more-than-cursory search.

Nigeria, so far, does not live down to its fearsome reputation.

Went through two countries in the last week, but it feels uneventful.

Headed from the Togo border to the hospital, where it turned out that Angela and Gavin - poster children for homeopathic malaria medication - had malaria. Went off to Robinson's Plage, nice seaside campsite with a horrible zoo and beach being eaten away by the ocean. But otherwise, honest, very nice.

Back at the bar and slept in the sea breeze. Next day into Lome, where we

(addendum: past the border, 10 mins drive, another police search followed by _another_ customs post)

parked at a supermarket, shopped, ate street food and grande cocas, wandered for a while.

(addendum II: wasn't customs, but State Security and Drug Enforcement, who did a thorough 40-minute search while we waited, hot & stuck & bored, outside).

Lome's not a bad town - lots of hassle, but I'm getting inured to that. Colourful, busy, lots of cold Coke.

(addendum III: stood outside half an hour for a passport check)

Went to the ritzy Palm Beach Hotel to watch the World Cup, England defeating somebody or other. Then back to Robinson's for the night. Next morning, a medical crisis, Angela gravely worse. We got her to a (surprisingly clean and organized, nun-staffed) clinic in town and arranged a flight out. Also got Sam's Nigerian visa, lucky for him.

To Benin, a thoroughly unremarkable border post, and a nice campsite in Gran-Popo: large, grassy, misty, on the beach, with a decent bar. Next morning as I stood on the beach a huge storm blew up, a black wall, looming every closer to the beach, gusts of wind blowing fretfully around, and then a wall of rain slamming down on us.

Off to Ouidah, birthplace of voodoo, muddy streets in a constant drizzle, spaced out forever, decaying colonial buildings. Chong & I went off for lunch and were promptly abandoned by the truck. Wandered about, were serenaded by a brass band. Ouidah has a very strange feel, like there's no connection between the buildings and the people on the streets, like they reject the notion of "town." Eventually chased the truck to the Voodoo Museum, OK paintings & pictures and very good if disturbing sculptures, made of bicycle bits & spare engine parts. Camped in a soulless patch of dirt on the outskirts of Cotonou, watched more World Cup.

Very touristy expedition to stilt villages the next day, 13 of us in 2 boats powered alternately by pole & paddle & sail, to houses on stilts with a chorus of "cadeau" echoing across the water. Stilt Coca-Cola cafes and Nescafe billboards. Public phone and everything. Long boat ride back and a return to the campsite.

Yesterday, morning in Cotonou, a hot noisy dusty polluted crowded city with a couple of nice cafes and supermarkets. Drove north in the afternoon to avoid the Lagos border post. Bush camped.

Today, the Nigerian border crossing: we're still sitting here, waiting for something to happen. An all-day transition.


June 14, 1998

Ghana-Togo border

Red tape, wafting in the sea breeze.

I'm paying 10 pounds a day for the privilege of being in Togo: hope I enjoy it.

Strange to be back, on the move, with the truck. Can't help thinking - especially at moments like this - that it would actually be less hassle to be on my own. Well, maybe not in Nigeria.

Reunited with the truck at the Accra post office and was lured out for a night of drinking at expat establishments ( a genuine Irish pub in the heart of West Africa) and the Novotel - very expensive. Sam showed up the next day, making us a full complement for the first time in ages. Back with the truck to Big Milly's, lounged around for a day, watched the World Cup on their battery-powered TV.

Went off the next morning to a fetish-drumming festival with Kokrobite refugees Ron & John & Simon & Jennifer, plus Afro our drum teacher and this guy Adu. Stocked up on supplies and schnapps (a gift to the chief) in Accra and tro-tro'd/taxied to the village. 1PM sharp opening time was delayed in true African style to 4 PM.

Fascinating festival - waves of drums washing over the crowd, topless fetish dancers hyperventilating and trying to call down the spirits, chiefs and the elderly in kente robes watching the drumming sternly, libations of gin and schnapps and palm wine poured on the ground, gourds of palm wine passed around.

After the festival we ate - very well - wandered up the village and tranced out at a hypnotic drumming-and-dancing circle which went on for hours (with a rude brief interruption when a snake was sighted.) Went back to our room and drummed panlogo, danced, watched Ron do kung-fu lessons, listend to Adu's astonishing drum solos...good time. First time I've been in an African village without feeling like an outsider.

Mozzies were bad inland, loud enough to keep me awake as they massed on the net. Tried to leave early the next morning, which meant of course that we got stuck in Accra rush hour. Had real ice cream at Frankie's, wandered 'round town for a couple hours, and tro-tro'd to Kokrobite for (sob) the last night at Big Milly's.

Headed out on the truck yesterday, another afternoon in Accra, and free-camping in the middle of nowhere, a nostalgic moment. Sunset causing a cloud to glow supernaturally. Today to the border.

Fingersnap handshakes. Pee Cola. Smoke rising from roadside burns. The diesel stench of palm wine. Knees rubbed raw by tro-tro streets. Fan Men and their skyrocketing stock. Georgie the paranoid-schizophrenic rasta who had to pour a libation to save Chong from man-eating rocks at Accra's cliff-front bar. Tales of Ghanaians hitting each other and children without provocation. Forty Africans in a remote village watching the World Cup on a fuzzy B&W TV alligator-clipped to a car battery. John going camera-crazy at the festival, but less noticeable with every picture he snapped.


June 08, 1998

Ghana: Hotel de California, Accra

We can check out any time we like, but we can never leave.

A good week: the beaches and coastal castles of Ghana. Are due to rendezvous with the truck in four hours. Have met up with the long- elusive Chong, who's been bouncing from country to country doing visa & money paperwork: Sam's whereabouts are still a mystery.

Although we're theoretically deep in rainy season, there's precious little rain to show for it.

The Cape Coast/Elmina day trip was fun. Especially the transport. Ghanaian taxi and tro-tro junctions have to be seen to be believed: a field of dirt hacked out of the bush at a crossroads, attendants raising and lowering chains to make sure that no vehicle escapes without paying the fee, a massive congestion of taxis and Jeeps and tro-tro vans and pickup trucks, held together by spit and baling wire, all horns blaring at all times, with sacks of food and boxes of toothpaste and trays of smoked fish lashed to every conceivable vehicular extremity, women walking around with bowls and boxes and barrels and baskets full of food and icewater on their head, a whole eye-level food court, hawking their wares over the horns and the dozen shouted driver-passenger arguments going on at any moment, while goats and sheep and chickens pick their way unconcernedly through the chaos. People dress in polyester business suits or shorts and American T-shirts or traditional African robes & dresses, riots of orange or indigo or grey or green carved into complex geometrical patterns by neat black lines.

Cape Coast was a bit of a dump, but Elmina was nice - excellent beach, fun people, and an extraordinary if disturbing old castle, the first European settlement in sub-Saharan Africa, complete with shiver-inducing slave dungeons.

Off to Kokrobite for a few days, a backpacker's paradise, a small fishing village with "Big Milly's" elysial enclave in the middle with the African Academy of Music & Arts Ltd. just a klick away. Met a host of Peace Corps workers, Finnish overlanders, Dutch backpackers, New Age Californians and ron, an ex-military brat ex-civil rights activist ex-coke dealer ex-UA emergency procedures designer who is there studying drumming for a few months. Took drumming lessons - illicit and black-market, because drumming is taboo until this Thursday - from Afro, a virtuoso master drummer who's played the Royal Albert Hall. Took long walks amid the rolling hills and stunning coconut-laden beaches. A good time.

Came to Accra yesterday and promptly bumped into Chong. Drank at a clifftop cafe and splurged at a hilarious expensive dinner. Too many menu choices, but no beef. Delicious hummus, bleah main course. Gleaming Bavarian coffee china set out...followed by Nescafe packets. Of course they take Visa...but not today.

Today, sorted out last night's bill, ate pineapple, checked Chong's e-mail, and now we'll head back for the cliff-front cafe for a while before the rendezvous with Big Bertha.


June 02, 1998

Ghana: Happy Days Spot, Winneba

Eating: Fufu or rice balls, with pepper sauce and (surprisingly good, if suspicious-looking) fish bits. Coconuts. Pineapples. Avocados. Bananas & plantains. Green oranges.

Sleeping: Massive amounts, generally 9PM-8AM, believe it or not. On foam beds that might be uncomfortable if I wasn't exhausted. Tonight's bed has Coventry City Football Club sheets and pillowcases, for that extra dollop of surrealism.

Listening: To African music, which has some cool rhythm & bass going on under the sickly-sweet. Hymns sung on the street, and in one of the countless churches (still not sure if Christianity absorbed animism or the other way around, but on the surface, at least, it's a curious melange - Jesus-as-talisman). World Cup fever building on the radio.

Walking: Everywhere. Klicks, maybe 10 a day, just roving around Accra's urban sprawl. My 10-pound sandals would still be a great deal if - God forfend - they fell apart tomorrow.

LP describes Winneba as "pleasant," and they got it in one: not "superb," maybe, but a good place to chill.

Come to think of it, you could describe all of Ghana that way: on the other hand, I've been seeking low-strain activity. Spent a couple of days roving around Kumasi, eating cheap Fan Milk ice cream and running into the same Dutch couple (nice people) wherever I went. Status as cultural capital is overstated, but a nice town.

Took train from Kumasi to Accra, which was cheap but tedious, as it stopped at every little village - and sometimes for no apparent reason at all - and took 18 hours to get there. Evangelists and snake-oil salesmen roved up and down the train, and the usual assortment of cargo, dead and alive, was carried on and off. Splurged at the Novotel - a 9-pound meal, a price which seemed absolutely appalling, but I credit-carded it so it doesn't count.

Spent a few nights at the nice-and-cheap YMCA (seemed even nicer when I went over to the Bellevue hotel for an excellent draft beer and a German man told me how his luggage was stolen) in a dorm room with John Akefesone, a nice guy who was theoretically doing his national service but who pleaded malaria with his boss every morning and spent the day shooting the shit with his friend.

Shopping in Shell stations for luxuries. Power cuts every night, and the hum of generates rises above the city. The Ghanaians like their music LOUD.

Caught up on my e-mail, looked for CAR updates - little news, none of it good - wrote & sent postcards, wandered & lazed, chatted with fellow-travellers, dodged scam-artists ("I'm from Vancouver! Come change money on the black market!"). We're supposed to be in rainy season, but only one downpour, a week ago in Kumasi. Lake Volta is at record lows, hence the energy crisis and power cuts.

Tomorrow, day-trip to Cape Coast & Elmina. Next day to Kokrobite, and I expect the truck will catch up with me there.