The first time I saw a wrap of “gala”, the sausage snack, was in Lagos and that was two decades ago. Since then Lagos has never ceased to provide firsts for me and I didn’t think my last trip would be any different. On a Monday night, I found myself seating in the crowded Murtala Mohammed airport for two hours, waiting to board a flight enroute Lagos from the serene Federal Capital Territory.
My flight had been shifted once already hence the two hour wait. I dreaded the possibility of having it rescheduled to the next morning more than it worried me to seat in the airport waiting and I minded that even less than the idea of flying at night and arriving in Lagos late.
It wasn’t just my fear of running into the gentlemen of the night that irked me; it was flying in the dark and not being able to see anything. Somewhere in my head I reasoned that if the worst happened daylight would provide a better chance of salvation and so the black night held no comfort for me. Consolation was only to be found in the reassuring laugh of Haruna, my long time friend. He teased me out of my anxiety and told me to consider the experience an opportunity to do something new. This was going to be another first.
My flight was announced by a rickety voice coated with an accent I couldn’t decide on.
”Is she a Nigerian speaking like a Lebanese or a Lebanese trying to sound Nigerian?” I wondered, but not for long.
On board, I concentrated on shutting out the piercing sound of the airplane slicing through the air during take-off. Reading on trips was an old habit of mine, it helped to kill time and in this instance it would distract me from my aerophobia so I turned on my reading light and settled into a book.
Overtime i have learned to expect certain things from Lagos; like bumping into a Nollywood star, seeing the ocean, being rudely addressed by a bus conductor and being stuck in 3rd mainland bridge traffic. What I didn’t foresee however, was to be ousted out of my role as observer and given a part in the movie- Lagos.
The pilot announced we were approaching our destination and I peered out of the square glass beside me to see for myself. What I saw immediately made me part ways with my reservations about flying at night. Beneath me was a cosmos of bright lights set in the blackness. The lights sparkled like stars right under my feet and I looked down at them in child -like awe. Then sooner than I was ready, the lights began to disappear one after the other until we plunged into the blackness and landed on earth. As the plane taxied to a stop I spied the moon and felt a tinge of jealously. The fun part of flying was seeing the view from up there and after seeing heaven on earth i didn’t think I would be afraid of flying after that. We’ll wait and see.
If my experience in the air was surreal, the one on the road the next morning was anything but. I set out of my Isolo home, armed with the address of the venue for the event I would be attending. It was Four Points by Sheraton on the island. I had been told to walk to a nearby junction and find a cab and once I found one, I was to negotiate N1500 for the cab fee. That’s what I was told.
I dressed carefully that morning in a smart skirt suit supported on black, suede, Runway Next shoes with heels from here to there. Inspite of the 6inches, I managed to trek out of the pot holed roads of Ire Akari estate to the supposed “nearby” junction. I scanned the area to the left and the right but there was no cab in sight.
I heard my Auntie call them “Marwa’s” but they were called “keke NAPEP” in Abuja and now I could see tons of them going up and down the narrow road. One stopped to let a uniformed child unto the street and I quickly approached to ask the driver where I could find a cab. The driver began a rapid explanation complete with gesticulations and I nodded to encourage sense out of him. The man seating behind him listened for a minute then suggested i join them since they were headed toward the street the driver had mentioned. I lifted the weight from my heels thankful to support my legs on the metal floor of the tricycle.
As I held a rod by the window for support, I wondered if I should be thankful for the intervention or wary of help from these total strangers. I instinctively pressed my handbag close to my body and resolved to be vigilant. Soon enough we arrived at a place on another street where I could see two cars with the sign “hire” set on their tops. I found my feet on the tarred road before asking the Marwa driver what I owed him. He smiled an old man smile and said “No worry”. I was surprised but pleased and took it as a sign of good luck. After thanking the old man, i proceeded to the parked cars.
“VI” I instructed in my strongest no nonsense voice.
“3,500 ” A voice returned. A man in a native tunic and trouser inched towards me and i could see he was looking me over. I hesitated. That was too much for a cab and it wouldn’t do to go back home with a sad tale of how I parted ways with N3500 for a cab ride. My cousins would laugh hard and put it down to my being a JJC . Only a Johnny Just Come, JJC for short, wouldn’t know better.
I shrugged off my cool and barked back, “N1500”
The man adamantly refused and I walked on feigning annoyance like I would have done in Abuja. It always worked without fail. The driver would pretend to refuse only to call back the passenger who showed nonchalance. I took a few steps away but didn’t hear a thing so i turned around in time to see that the man had retaken his seat and was now chewing hard on his chewing stick. He wasn’t budging. So much for luck, I thought.
Nothing else moved in my direction for a while.
Someone had been observing me from the side of the road. He was a security guard and presently he walked over and asked me if I was going to VI. I once again pressed my bag to my sides and hardened my face.
“Yes”, I answered in a voice I hoped sounded confident.
“Why don’t you take a bike to Cele bus stop for N100 then from there enter bus to CMS then when you get there you go get taxi easily to VI”.
I looked at the man for a second, then at the time on my wrist watch. The watch decided for me. While the idea of a bus did not appeal, I reasoned that if I could get to the next stop, I would be further ahead than where I was and would find a more agreeable cab driver. The security man hailed a bike that had just stopped a few feet away. He addressed the man as “Molla”, and I felt a little more comfortable that the “okada” driver was Hausa. I spoke to him briefly in his language and he assured me I would find a cab at Cele bus stop so I pulled my skirt above my knee and attempted to raise a leg. That’s when I heard a tearing sound. The bike man understood and made for lower ground while I recovered from the thought that my suit had just be ruined. It was the lining that had given way thankfully so I repeated the move and hoisted myself successfully onto the bike.
When I raised my head to see there was a dirty helmet in my view,
The Hausa man was pushing the helmet into my hand. I shook my head in disbelief and put the thing over my head with a deep sense of regret. I calculated the price of the hair extension on my head before peacefully coming to the realisation that at least, it was protecting my head from the dirty helmet.
Cele bus stop was many streets later and as soon as I got down from the okada i started asking around for cabs. Twice I was directed to cross over to someplace to ask and i would go across a street, find someone who would tell me where else to go only to return to the first point.
By now a lot of time had passed since I left home. I was an unwilling member of a crowd. People moved around while others waited for buses but when one pulled up only one or two made an attempt to get on it. Thugs moved through the crowd of regular looking people who wore trousers or skirts paired with shirts or native styled clothes. None of them looked like me and I could see I was out of place in a black suit, briefcase, handbag and high- heeled shoes. My hair was getting into my eyes and my false nails where too blunt to pick them all out. I was a contrast to the dirty streets and aggressive people around me. I became worried for my safety and constantly put my hand in my bag at intervals, feeling for my smart phone.
“All the load wey you dey carry go fall you o!”
The warning was directed at me, and I turned around to see the owner of the cracked voice. A short man with dirty dread locks and dirtier clothes was coming toward me. I quickly remembered my survival instincts and barked back at him in pidgin English,
“Na you e go fall, Ode”
I grimaced at the sound of my own voice. Where I got that from, I wondered. A second thought followed the first, as I pictured what would happen if the man heard the insult and turned back on me.
Thirty minutes slowly passed me by in Cele bus stop. At this point, the thought of going back home crossed my mind but again I didn’t know how I would explain myself when I met up with my colleagues who were waiting for me at the event. The last person I queried for suggestions was a LASMA guy, they handle traffic in Lagos. He had pointed me in one direction where I was yet unsuccessful.
“Why don’t you take a bus to CMS if you are going to VI?”
How did they know where I was going? I assessed this new entrant who was offering me bus stop consultation services to see if I was looking at a potential heckler. Had he observed my aimless walking and decided I was a good target?
It occurred to me that I had not heard any conductor call for CMS so I questioned him about that.
“They are calling Orinle. Go to Orinle and from there to CMS”.
The bus was dirty, old and rickety and I was given the seat next to the conductor. I came to respect the man after observing his fearlessness when the bus veered very close to other buses. He never flinched!
I had decided that as long as I was moving closer to VI, I was better off than if I kept waiting at Cele. When I boarded the bus, I noticed that the man who had advised me to go to Orinle, followed me into it, by now my hand hurt from clutching my bag.
We travelled for thirty minutes without incident. I had accepted my fate and now I stepped outside the situation to observe the other players. When we went past one road we happened upon a group of policemen beating up a driver through the window of his bus. The poor driver had one hand in a fist to jab at the faces of the police while the other hand held unto the steering wheel. An old woman behind me wailed in pity as she cursed the police men for heckling the driver for his daily bread. They should beg him for the money not beat it out of him she said in Yoruba. Others hissed their disgust. I continued to stare outside, observing the roads that where being constructed and adjusting my eyes for landmarks I hoped I would recognise.
My mind slowly drifted to the horrid stories I had heard of Lagos. One friend had been robbed in a bus while another related the story of a robbery that occurred in broad day light. The armed thieves robbed from car to car in the congested traffic. From my ponderings, I heard the engine sputter and then stop. This woke me out of my thoughts.
The driver said “Ekpo ni” meaning it is fuel, and a lady from the far back of the bus shouted at him to let us out so we could get another bus to travel in. I was lost for words now and didn’t know who or what to blame for my predicament. Suddenly, i wished I was far away from this situation, as far away as Abuja. I started to pity my legs at the thought of another possible trek. But just as dramatically as the engine died, it regained consciousness and the car came alive. Our journey progressed slowly through traffic and fifteen minutes later the bus turned off the road. On cue, i asked someone where we were.
“This is CMS”, he answered.
I hurried to my feet and with more directions found a garage where a jolly old man agreed to take me to “Four pointi” for a thousand naira. Relieved to be in his cab, i took each tired feet out of my now dusty shoes. As we drove past, I enjoyed the view of the ships docked on the ocean then a thought occurred to me and I snatched out my make -up case to assess the damage to hair and makeup. We made more progress through light traffic while I tended to my appearance. Finally, the cab pulled into the prestigious hotel. I looked at my watch and shook my head in disbelief. It was 10:30am! It had taken three hours to get here.
I joined my colleagues who had been worried and for the first time all morning I felt safe. They were surprised at my story and got a good laugh from it. I had ridden an okada, hung around bus stops, hopped on buses and seen the life of a Lagosian who lives on the mainland and has to catch several buses to work on the island. I told myself I would not do it again but for what it was worth, I had just had another first in Lagos!