Friday, 16 March 2007

A Man's World?

While I was in Lagos I was warned against going to the Mosquito Bar in Port Harcourt, not its real name of course but one with which the expats have christened it, so obviously it was the first place I went to. Now with a name like that, one would imagine that it lies in some mosquito infested swamp, and indeed it does, but happily that was not why the club gained its nickname. In spite of the fact that Port Harcourt has enough expats to fill a telephone directory, Nigerian girls, and especially the professional kind, know each and every one of them. Which are players, which aren't and the tendencies and preferences of those that do. Play I mean. Naturally, they can also recognise a 'new listing' at 200 paces. Walking into the Mosquito bar by one’s self was like being dropped into a cave full of malnourished vampire bats. If spandex hot pants and tight tops could rustle, I am sure that the apparent sound of fluttering wings would have further enhanced this impression as these avaricious creatures emerged from the shadows and closed in on the kill. I agree, however, that ‘Mosquito Bar’ is a catchier name than 'Vampire Cave' and is also kinder to the girls. Alright, I suppose metaphorically speaking they do suck blood out of you one way or another but at 3,000 Naira ($20) a shot, it really is only a mosquito bite compared to a vampire’s appetite. I am sure you get the picture.

Survival, therefore, depends on quick wits if one is not to disappear beneath a feeding frenzy. The trick, it seems (and it worked for me), is to grab any one of them quickly, plonk her down in a chair, buy her a drink and spend five minutes in earnest conversation with her. Evidently having made my choice the others, through some professional code of conduct refined over time, retire a barely discreet distance and prowl the edges of the newly created space like hungry lionesses waiting for a campfire to die down before nipping in for a quick kill. Consisting as the club does of a large enclosed courtyard with mature trees in well watered health the impression of being alone amongst hungry predators on the Serengeti is all the greater. If your new companion leaves you for whatever reason, to powder her nose for example, these carnivores will nip in and grab a chunk of flesh (usually a cigarette or two, perhaps a drink). Chat nicely to her, however, and keep buying her drinks and she will be your best friend (and not risk leaving you alone too often). Even better, with breathtaking maturity/professional co-operation, she will concede that all men have different tastes so if I did not want to ‘carry’ her (from pidgin English, ‘carry de gel home’, I guess), she would help me select wisely from the stable. OK, maybe not the entire stable, just those that belong to the same worker’s co-operative union that she does.

Outstanding! Glass of scotch in one hand, puffing luxuriously on a genuine Romeo y Juliette (from Lagos, not the ones from Havana), I could sit in comfort while my elegant ring master invited her selection one at a time to join us at the table. It was entertaining to say the least and the atmosphere, I must confess, surprisingly agreeable. Even the music wasn’t too loud, remarkable considering that at first I mistook the disco speakers to be two black armoured cars with their rear doors wide open (well, I don’t know how much profit these places make). Better still, and unusually for a joint like this, and believe me, in the course of my duties (honestly, duties) I’ve been in a few around the world, the lighting is half decent so there is even a chance that a chap can avoid the near cardiac arrest that switching the bedroom light on when finally getting home can sometimes cause, especially if the selection had been made in wartime lighting and under the fug of alcohol.

I once tried to take a few photographs of the place in an effort to capture something of its indescribable merits but within seconds all the girls were vying with each other to throw the most erotic poses conceivable (in a public place anyway), at which point my bipod became a tripod and I suddenly lost interest in photography.

A few words of caution, though, (apart from the usual hazards of casual congress, especially in Africa). Now it is not my intention to belittle, insult or in any way denigrate these fine young ladies. I am merely pointing out the facts as they are. I am not commenting on the socio-economic factors that have encouraged these girls to take up their chosen profession nor am I moralizing. So all the tree hugging yoghurt knitters about to leap all over me frothing with riotous indignation can all please sit down again. Or leave the room. I did mean riotous not righteous, by the way, I’ve seen enough of these buggers outside embassies, abortion clinics and vivisection laboratories to know what I am talking about (we security men get invited to all the best parties). And I am also not going to suggest that the virtue of young Nigerian maidens is protected by their brothers with the manic intensity of Greek farmers even though I have noticed that generally the more attractive the bait, the severer the penalty. Some Afghani girls are gorgeous but messing with them is really akin to pushing your tool into a bacon slicer. This rule, however, doesn’t seem to apply to girls in Nigeria. Not to say that there aren’t any breathtakingly repulsive ones around (remember the bedroom light switch? Heart attack? Never mind). But there are some stunningly beautiful girls here and no religious police or shotgun toting relatives. Unfortunately, (for me anyway, call me old fashioned but I kind of like natural, as God intended sort of stuff) not one has her own hair. This in itself is not a problem as there are some fine bone structures out there that are best displayed rather than hidden by a Sunsilk controlled mop, but here ‘European’ hair is considered a must, so the variety of Axminster hair do's is bewildering. And it gets better. Committing themselves whole heartedly to the idea that man really can improve on God's creation (or woman can in this case), they even shave their eyebrows off and draw new ones in with an erratic stroke of a half inch paint brush dipped in pitch. I always said that I liked them (girls, that is) with a touch of the tar brush but I prefer the kind that doesn’t come off on pillow cases. You must be getting the idea, though. These girls have a 70’s Bronx notion of what men find attractive. I blame the Hustler Corporation for dumping all their old unsold stock into third world markets.

As I was saying, the facts. All these girls would make outstanding wives. They said so. They would honour and obey (their husbands, of course) and would never, NEVER cause any Wahala. They would dress as their husband wished, wear their hair as he liked (so long as he bought it from the market for them), would work like dogs to keep the house, garden, farm, whatever, tidy, and would make themselves anything from skinny to obese as required and, of course, they LOVE kids, (and nice clothes, and jewels, and big cars, and a big house in UK so that all the relatives can come and stay. Forever). They all want to open hair salons so that they can contribute to the family income (allowing Ideal Man to consume as much Star as he likes with a clear conscience) by weaving more nylon into even more girls heads so that they in turn could become Best Wives in the World to other Ideal Men and open more hair salons and not only are they all happy so are Dupont and all its share holders. And they are ALL excellent cooks, assuming you like pounded yam, fried rice, garri (a sort of congealed wallpaper paste made from cassava), stewed goat’s meat and fried chicken. I have not, you will notice, mentioned their sexual prowess, I would have thought that self evident. Which reminds me, you will not find a single bottle of aspirin in the house. Nigerian wives NEVER suffer from headaches.

So, I hear you ask, how does a chap win the heart of what surely must be one of the finest wives available anywhere in the world? The process is actually quite simple and is broken down into easy stages so that even the Tool Pushers can understand. No, not the clients of the Mosquito Bar in general or those that have just had their tools pushed into a bacon slicer by some Mullah’s apprentice. I mean ‘Tool Pushers’, those hardy folk, the back bone of the oil industry who do most of the hard work. Well, they aren’t exactly the sharpest tools in the box, are they? Enough of tools.

Being drunk on first acquaintance is not a requirement but, all things considered, being drunk does not appear to be a hindrance. In fact, potential wives (these ones anyway) seem to feel it their duty to sit out the whole evening drinking that vile, sweet, non alcoholic malt concoction, Maltina, because it is dirt cheap thereby leaving their future husbands at liberty to lay out wads drinking huge quantities of beer or whisky. Well, he has earned it, the dear. Honestly, such selflessness. Wouldn’t see it in an Islington wine bar, would you? Come to think of it, you wouldn’t see it in Luanda either where the girls can consume even more whisky than their client, or in Berlin where they drink champagne or the Zona Rosa in Mexico City where they drink the most fantastic and expensive cocktails I have ever seen. I can’t tell you the drinking habits of Brazilian girls because I have never been there. My ex once told me that if I ever went there by myself, I needn’t bother coming back. Pity I didn’t go, that kind of deal would have been a damn sight cheaper than the one I finally got. Let’s face it, the unused portion of a return ticket to Rio is a lot easier to swallow than half a house in Cape Town and maintenance until the kids are twenty one.

Now we’ve all heard those jokes how in a Man’s World being able to consume sixteen pints of Pedigree in one sitting would be sexually provocative, but in the Mosquito Bar it actually seems to work. The more signs of inebriation that a chap exhibits, the more eligible young spinsters seem to flock around him. And they’re just so damn considerate. Recognising that a good, honest, hardworking man is likely to get a little unsteady on the pins after an evening de-stressing by imbibing one Star after another, they carefully support him with strategically placed hands, and help him to perambulate from table to bar, bar to table, table to urinal, nothing is too much trouble for these kind souls. They even go so far as to assist in delicately adjusting strategic bits of anatomy so that Ideal Man has a good seat. Thinking about it, they seem to spend a fair bit of time doing that. Well, let’s face it, there is nothing more gut churning than accidentally sitting on one of your own testicles, is there?

So what about behaviour? Or rather what in middle England would be considered bad behaviour? Doesn’t seem to be a problem. Nigerian wives expect their men to relax and enjoy themselves. Not for them the shrinking violet who behaves with the utmost decorum and keeps his eyes firmly locked on his wife ignoring the fillies cantering around him. A roving eye that anywhere else would be met by a swift kick under the table or a three day long headache is greeted here with, ‘You like her? She’s a good girl, you want me to call her over?’ Unreal.

Now I don’t care what they say, white men cannot dance. It is as simple as that. When it came to making whites, along with melanin, God missed out that in built metronome that all other races have (with the possible exception of Eskimos, but then I have never been to an Eskimo night club so I could be wrong). What is significant in this case is that white men think they can dance. Not only that, they think that they are so good, that people enjoy watching them dance. I know that this is a huge generalization (and there will be more, this isn’t a thesis after all) but try watching a bunch of drillers that have just spent a celibate and alcohol free month on a rig let their hair down in a place like the Mosquito bar, or the Blues Club or anywhere else that they can kill a few hours before being poured on the plane to Lagos and then off to Europe, the States or Australia. I mean, they don’t even bother to get changed. The bus pitches up straight from the heli-pad and out they tumble, all clad in bright orange or red boiler suits and footwear appropriate to the industrial environment in which they work.

Nevertheless, the girls greet each arriving shift with the same warmth and affection as they did the last and seem genuinely pleased to see the lads enjoying themselves, and cluster in groups giggling (with delight I presume) when the mob takes to the dance floor. No doubt encouraged by the enthusiasm of the audience, cavorting does not remain restricted to the dance floor but spills across the courtyard and into the bar, and some, with true gladiatorial spirit climb up onto the bar, drop their trousers and wave their parts around while singing, ‘Wee Willy Wonker’ or some other catchy tune (they are usually Scottish, I have no idea why). Incidentally, it always amazes me what alcohol does to the memory circuits. Drunk or sober, every chap knows that it is impossible to shuffle across a hotel bedroom floor with trousers around ankles let alone the top of a rickety bar well lathered with beer and mined with a variety of glasses, bottles and handbags. The result is always the same, tackle in hand, their little Sambas end with flailing limbs and a little squeal as they crash into an equally drunk group of tool pushers who, with the aid of sturdy rig boots demonstrate to the hapless fellow just why they are called ‘tool pushers’ and have an undeniably awful reputation. All this, the girls take in their stride and whoever it was lucky enough to be with Samba Charlie will recover what is left of him and sympathetically massage him back to good humour.

So where is the note of caution, then? Expats have a reputation, perhaps thoroughly undeserved given the number of divorcees running around, for making caring family men. Nothing would please these girls more than to score a decent husband. You carry a girl and you assume it is business, and indeed it is. In part. The girl, though, assumes that having chosen her you are making a commitment. See the same girl again and the impression that a lifelong romance is blooming is reinforced, and you’re setting off over the edge of a slope as steep as income tax and as slippery as a government press officer. Let her move in with you and you’re off down that slope so fast the pounding in your ears won’t be love’s heart beating, it will be the sound barrier breaking. I’ve heard of guys who, their ardour somewhat cooled, have tried to quietly finish with their girlfriends (it was all getting a bit obvious and we don’t want the boss to find out, do we?) only to have her appear in the office lobby wailing at the top of her voice about heartless rejection and the injustice of it after all she had done for the guy whereupon she proceeds to list to a by now very interested audience of soon to be (for the Romeo anyway) ex work colleagues just what sort of things he asked her to do in bed and with which household implements.

If it gets to that stage, and it not too infrequently does, the only way out (apart from the fire escape) is to pay compensation for the time she wasted with you immediately followed by a fast jet out of the country. One guy was too stupid for words. Having reached a settlement he went for one more bonk for old times sake before he pushed off on leave. She got him at the airport. Cost him another 100,000 Naira. Yet there are guys who do not want to ride every mount in the stable so what’s chap to do? Be very careful, that’s what. And then there’s the other note of caution. It is business, at least to start with. Everyone knows that the going rate is 3-4,000 Naira. The punters do and so do the girls. Don’t, whatever you do, no matter how many Star’s are swilling around your insides, forget to confirm that before she carries you back to your place. Camp security, along with your neighbours, are only too willing to attend an early morning matinee performance of ‘he made me do this and I’m a good girl and don’t normally do that ‘cos it’s illegal and that’s why he agreed to pay more’ etc. and that’s if you’re lucky. Yet another expat, really drunk by the end of a Saturday spent in the Portofino restaurant bar, persuaded one of the waitresses to come home with him. He thought he’d already closed the deal but I know this guy, once he’s had his customary gutful, he’s pretty much incomprehensible even to a fellow Englishman, never mind a pidgin English speaking local so all the seeds of a ‘misunderstanding’ had been sown. Services having been rendered the girl held out her hand and politely asked for the one hundred US dollars that she had been promised (about 14 thousand Naira). There are various accounts of the verbal exchange that followed suffice to say that he wasn’t exactly nimble on his feet and the frying pans in the houses here are bloody great lumps of cast iron that not even Le Creuset can match for weight and destructive power. I have seen mob hits that looked tamer by comparison.

One final piece of advice before we drop this subject. Be careful with mobile phones. A survey published by Italy's largest private investigation company said that in nearly 90% of cases, it is mobile phones, or rather careless use of them, that betray extra marital activities. As an expat, and especially in the oil industry, it is very likely that you’ll be using the same mobile as your back to back, the guy that does your job when you are on leave. No real problem if you both have similar interests and get on well. Tragic if he’s a backstabbing git. Under no circumstances, if you have any desire whatsoever to maintain a discreet relationship, should you hand out your phone number. Do that and it’s another sign of commitment and the inherent right for them to phone at any time of day or night. And watch that dreaded giveaway, the caller ID function. I know, at work you want the people you call to know that it is you calling (and not a recently dumped concubine hell bent on revenge) so that they will answer, so of course you must have your caller ID activated. Get a few pints down your neck and start feeling a bit lonely, however, and I guarantee that you’ll hit the one key dial without thinking and as soon as you’ve hung up having arranged a meet, she’s pressing ‘list calls’, ‘last call’, ‘options’, ‘save’, ‘[your name]’ on her mobile and you’re doomed.

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