Friday, 16 March 2007

Christmas in Lagos

Well, the end of yet another year, I guess we are all wondering were the hell it went! So, it is time to wish you all a very merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous New Year from a sunny, but not so peaceful Nigeria. Yep, I’ve drawn the short straw again and will be spending my festive season in the land of broken pipelines and invaded flow stations. As I write, there is another plume of black smoke rising over the Lagos skyline. Wonder how many were toasted this time.

It has been an interesting year. I have bought land in Benfica and have started to build. In the meantime, I’ve rented a ‘cubico’ on the Ilha, can’t get more ethnic than that. Still, it is cheap (If you call $1,000 per month for a breeze-block shack in a Luandan shanty cheap). At least it means I can sink the rest of my ill-gotten gains into the building project. The other advantage is that Caipirinhas on the beach are only a short walk away.

Being on the Ilha, we are dependant on one water pipe and an electricity cable installed at the same time as that new fangled invention by Alexander Bell. Having said that, we seem get electricity most of the time and we also get water most of the time. Sadly, though, rarely at the same time. Bit inconvenient when water pressure depends on electricity to drive the pump. There is nothing so disheartening as a full water tank and an immobile pump. Except maybe a racing, red hot pump sucking air. Funny that, how the Portuguese never latched on to gravity. Simple concept really, pump it up into a holding tank and it’ll run down by itself when you need it. What the hell did they do before electricity?

We have found an excellent place in the interior to go hunting. It’s a valley accessible only via an overgrown track and is full of Guinea Fowl, Francolin, deer and Pacassa (a sort of African buffalo, meat is fantastic). The local village Soba, to whom one should always pay one’s respects, said that noone had been down there for years. So we dashed him some sacks of pulses and the odd cans of this and that and he agreed that if any other hunters turned up, he would tell them the track is mined. Funny how the accepted wisdom of moving about in a mine polluted environment, primary of which is avoiding exactly what we drove down, a track unused for years, is subsumed by the desire to hunt.

I remember reaching a village the occupants of which, were forced to walk miles for water yet within 500 yards, there was a river. There was also a bridge so the banks and abutments had been sown with mines in a futile attempt to prevent its destruction (the remains of it were barely visible above the tea coloured flow).
‘How long has it been like this then,’ I asked of the assembled village elders who were by now well into the couple of bottles of Passport Scotch I had given them.

That could be a couple or twenty. Didn’t matter. These were once again virgin waters. Yes, I was going to demine a route down to the water anyway, but I was bloody well going to take my rod with me. Best day’s fishing I’ve had since spending a day hoiking Barracuda out of the waters around the mangrove swamps of the Cayes off Belize.

I wanted to import a decent rifle and shotgun but found out that there is a blanket ban on importing firearms to Angola so I’m pretty stuffed at the moment. My pal, Julian, has a 30-06 Moisin Nagant, which probably once belonged to some Russian sniper in Stalingrad. It was ‘legally’ acquired as part of the process to obtain a firearms licence from the police.

‘So, you want a firearms licence, do you? Well, you’ll obviously be needing a firearm and guess what?’ (You can see this coming, can’t you?) ‘We just happen to have one on special offer…’

You can see your file in front of him. He’s grinning, it’s a game. On top is a piece of paper, a form already filled in with the irregular typeface of an antique manual typewriter, the ribbon on its last legs. There is your name at the top. Surname mixed up with Christian name and inevitably hopelessly incorrectly spelt. A single passport sized photograph is clipped to the edge, the whereabouts of the other three they insisted they needed unknown. Just one signature, that’s all that separates you from a licence to kill. His signature. By the same hand currently wielding a conglomerate of corrosion and decay, a barely convincing semblance of a lethal weapon. It has taken months to get to this stage.

‘Oh, alright, I’ll buy the bloody gun as well.’

The resignation with which the last is delivered is usually quickly followed by a strangled, ‘HOW MUCH?!!!’

Scrap metal is expensive in Angola. Or at least firearms certificates are.

Most of us are aware of what could go wrong when the chamber of an ancient and badly maintained weapon is unexpectedly subjected to the enormous pressure generated by exploding propellant contained in cartridge cases devoid of any residual ductility, burning rates significantly affected by the projectile’s reluctance to squeeze itself along a heavily corroded barrel and, judging by Julian’s expression as he screwed up the courage to fire it for the first time, such visions were unwelcome visitors to his consciousness as well. After all, there is not much that can be done to alter the design of the weapon so sighting along its barrel means that the short trajectory of a departing bolt will inevitably, painfully, perhaps fatally, be arrested by the skin, bone and gristle of the firer’s face. Either way, a failure of the sears, pins and detents designed to hold it all in place will leave an indelible impression on your mind.

Now that I know it works, though, I’ll use that for the time being as I cannot bring myself to hunt with an AK. Accepted wisdom, by the way, suggests that a heavy calibre must be used for Pacassa and that a 30-06 or 7.62 short is a bit light but someone has obviously forgotten to tell the locals that. The sight of a wizened local guide, so old that his age could no longer be determined with anything approaching accuracy, as he calmly stood his ground and reloaded an ancient single barrelled Baikal and poured load after load into a no doubt surprised and then increasingly outraged bull Pacassa is one to be cherished and should form an essential part of British Army Training videos.

Anyway, once the house build is complete, I will sort a decent rifle out, get the sport fisher, try and write like Hemmingway and blow my mind on absinthe. I will stop there, though. Fond as I am of EH, or at least his memory and there’s the rub, one could go too far emulating a hero although I suspect that in this instance, my estranged wife would disagree. She’d probably provide me with the all the ammunition I would need and as much encouragement as she could muster. That’s the thing about ex-wives. It only takes one bullet to scatter one’s brains across the lino but she’d buy me a boxful just in case. Irritating, isn’t it? Not even with such a happy conclusion in sight, would she credit me, her useless and inept husband who has been trained in the art of firearms use since boyhood, with the ability to hit my own head first time.

Getting to and from Lagos and Luanda is surprisingly difficult considering that they are but four countries apart. The obvious and shortest way is to use Air Gabon. I have calculated from now bitter experience that you only have a 1 in 5 chance of making it without problems. I have had to use some tortuous routes to get back to Lagos after turning up at 4 de Fevereiro to be told, sorry, Air Gabon is cancelled (and none too politely, either). Try Luanda to Paris, Paris to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Lagos. Only took me two days. Mind you, the business class lounge at Schiphol is better stocked than George Best’s drinks cabinet. The eight-hour delay for the KLM flight to Lagos cost them and my liver dear.

This last trip, I got to Libreville, a tadge late but no surprise there, whereupon all the Lagos bound passengers were segregated. After a few hours of standing around, smoking cigarettes under no smoking signs, we were all called together and with Gallic finality told, ‘Demain’. Our passports were confiscated and we were shown through the airport terminal at the entrance of which, a hotel shuttle bus was pointed out to us. At least I assumed it was the hotel shuttle bus as someone had scrawled ‘Meriden’ on a piece of A4 and stuck it in the side window so I chose to ignore the name and address of a Belgian Patisserie that was more professionally painted along its corroding sides. We arrived at the Hotel and explained that we were the stranded Air Gabon passengers. ‘So what?’ was the response accompanied by an even more Gallic shrug, ‘A room is 200 bucks, take it or leave it.’

The bus, of course, had disappeared, presumably to deliver bread rolls to the French contingent garrisoned close to the airport ever since the last (exciting) election.

Next morning, noone at the Air Gabon desk seemed particularly interested, let alone sympathetic with the plight of forty or so stranded and $200 poorer clients (those that didn’t eat, the rest of us were an additional $100 light). So, to cut a long story short, I had to pay $600 in dashes to get my passport back and be issued a boarding pass.

The plane was due to leave at 1600hrs but there had been a bit of a commotion at one of the check-points and five Nigerians had been detained by airport security. The other Nigerians boarded the aircraft and then took it over refusing to allow the plane to take off until the Libreville Five were released. For two hours we sat there, no aircon, bodies hurtling up and down the aisle, the pilots barricaded in the cockpit and about 50 bemused looking security guards surrounding the plane. You have no idea how many decibels can be generated by Air Gabon cabin crew competing with Nigerians for the 'who can scream the loudest' medal. I tell you something, I admire how well they stick together. Imagine the same in UK. Leave the bastards. I don’t care if woman A is pregnant and the other has a suckling child and it’ll cost ‘em 200 bucks a night to stay there, 300 if they want to eat, so long as I get back. I’m important.

So what if they are a few kilos over? I’m a few kilos under, she can have my allowance. Look at the fat bastard sitting next to me. Did he buy two tickets so that he can spread his lardy arse over a bank of seats and not inconvenience his fellow travellers? No, of course he didn’t. Half the product of his fast food diet is now rolling over the armrest and squeezing me against the fuselage of an ageing 737.

I sharpened my elbows and tucked into my duty free scotch, praying like mad that he was an evangelist and would find my alcohol sodden breath as offensive as I found his presence.

Eventually, the Gabonese gave in (Omar Bonga most probably rang up from his palace to find out what the hell all that noise was) and we took off. Sweaty, disgusting and me wondering where I was going to get another bottle from at the anticipated hour of our eventual escape from Mohammed Murtallah International Airport in Lagos. From now on, I will fly SAA from Luanda to Jo’burg and then up to Lagos the next day and return the same way. If you’ve ever flown SAA you will begin to appreciate just how truly awful Air Gabon must be.

These last couple of weeks have been pretty stressful. The Iduwini National Movement For Peace And Development (read: extorting pirates) invaded the offshore oilfield 3 times. On the last occasion, the Navy detachment (armed) allowed themselves to be boarded (cissies) and one of the ratings had a negligent discharge and put a round straight through the engine of my Fast Response Craft.

Trouble is, the crew of the field support vessel, supplied by a well known Scandinavian company, are so windy that every time they see a little fly boat, they drop the tow and steam like shit out of the field. Then they won't come back unless they get all sorts of guarantees, which I can't give. So I've got directors bawling down the phone at me telling me how much a tanker costs in demurrage and that I should say ‘effing anything to get the vessel back.

Talk about stretching professional ethics. Given the geographical origin of the vessel, I am a bit upset that they didn't send us a boatload of Vikings. Imagine sticking your head up over the stern to see some hairy sod with horns in his hat swinging a bloody great axe. Instead, what do they send me? A bunch of Copenhagen poofters.

So, those of you that will spend Christmas with your families, I envy you. Those of you that will be standing knee deep in snow drinking Glühwein, I envy you more. This place is deserted and my only company in the office is a large motorised and articulated Santa whose bizarre movements call to mind a self-indulgent act long since banned by the Catholic Church. And all that accompanied by a Macy's medley of Christmas carols. Ho Bloody Ho Ho indeed.

Actually, I don’t suppose there is any need for me to be coy amongst friends. With all the imagination that tool pushers and drillers are noted for, he has been dubbed the ‘Wanking Santa’ and not for the first time have building security had to remove a strategically placed candle that mysteriously keeps appearing in his lap. What with that and the anti-Christ Christmas trees hanging upside down from the ceilings, this place is surreal.

Staying in the Eko Hotel is no compensation either. It may have five stars but that's five Nigerian stars. A Formul 1 Hotel in docklands Marseille would merit a veritable galaxy by comparison. The company, in its largesse, pay an additional $100 on top of the already extortionate $240 per night for me to have a room, identical in all respects to the cheaper Corbusier inspired boxes forming the larger part of the hotel’s accommodation except that this one has a sea view. Or rather a view over the murky waters of Kuramo bay beyond which is a sandbank obscured by the plastic and driftwood of so many shacks and only then the sea.

It also has a balcony, of sorts. At first I mistook it for a window box but then I realised that there was a door to it. This door, for safety reasons, opens inwards into the room. If it opened outwards as is usual, anyone on the balcony would be expelled into thin air their sudden departure from the 11th floor being followed as quickly as gravity dictated by their spectacular arrival in the Sports café below.

‘Excuse me, Waiter, there’s a body in my soup’

‘Well don’t let it get cold, then. Would Sir like a steak knife?’

The Hotel, with an optimism equalled by the number of stars management have awarded themselves, have placed two plastic garden chairs on the balcony from which guests, no doubt tired of the agricultural noise of the air-conditioning units in the room, can sit in peace quaffing wine only just this side of mediocre and admire the view the extra 100 bucks a night gets them. That is, if they can stand the temperature. Considering that the edifice is not that old, it was with an amazing lack of foresight that that the only place it appeared the builders could install the air-con heat exchangers was on the balcony. Not only does this reduce the already restricted balcony area, the 1800 BTU’s or so of heat extracted from the room are blasted over the balconists with the desiccating force of a Khamsin. Good for drying clothes though.

And there is one other, only this time self inflicted, irritation that I have to suffer in the Eko in addition to erratic room service, expensive scotch (did you know that India makes a malt? Yep, I fell for that one), and brown bath water, something else against which I am, for the moment, powerless. Hoisted with my own petard, so to speak. Having been foolish enough to take pity on the concierge by being civil with him, a man so camp that he regularly bursts into floods of hysterical tears if some awful and rough oil industry worker so much as raises his voice by even a decibel in his presence, my arrival at the hotel each evening is witness to high pitched squeals of ‘Yoo-Hoooo! Mr Thomas! Hellooo! Welcome! How was your day?’ All this at a volume sufficient to cause every head in the lobby to swing first in his direction, he bobbing excitedly behind his counter, hands flapping shoulder high, and then inexorably, excruciatingly towards me.

Among my peers, this does nothing for my carefully fabricated reputation as a roughy, toughy, whoring security man. I am not that much of a masochist to have had the courage to peer over the counter to see if he really is bouncing up and down on high heels. There are some things that one really should remain in ignorance of.

To be honest, I couldn’t give a stuff what the rest of the boys think. They know better than to piss security off. It’s amazing what an extra minute or two of response time feels like when you’ve got a couple of locals sitting on your chest intent on turning your face inside out with you wondering if the brief, bleating call for assistance you made before they knicked your phone actually got through.

No, I’m not bothered about what my colleagues think of the evident fondness with which the concierge welcomes me home each day. It’s what the Air Ethiopia air hostesses think…


  1. Interesting read.

    Is it possible to have more posts on your experience in Nigeria particularly on the oil fields?

  2. Working on it!

    Nest week, for the first time in over two years, I shall be taking some leave. I have to fit my kitchen and wooden floors in the new house and install the swimming pool but, in the evenings, I will have time to write.

  3. very good work on cheap flights to lagos


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