Welcome to Lagos

My thoughts on a my very first visit to Lagos.

When my client first mentioned that there would be a trip to Lagos, Nigeria I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  I think the UK and indeed the global media do a pretty good job in portraying Nigeria as a country full of crime and corruption where every visit ends up with me being kidnapped.  Of course this is not the case, and while the Northern states of Nigeria maybe be in a worse state, Lagos is (as my hosts repeatedly told me) perfectly safe.

Anyway – As the KLM plane descended I decided that while wasn’t feeling nervous about my trip, I was perhaps, felling just a little apprehensive.  A colleague told me a story of his last trip to Lagos (some years ago) that involved a man walking down a street, a car, a bloody giant sword and an arm (with an expensive watch) being removed.

Just to be on the safe side I had ‘forgotten’ my watch (worth about £40!) when I made this trip.

The plane had landed and there were a few passengers in front of me waiting to get out the plane door that hadn’t opened yet.  I was naturally assuming that when the doors did open, there would be a bridge to take me into the airport… there wasn’t; instead a set of rickety old steps stood before me.

I managed to clamber down and noted the sheer number of people waiting on us.  I counted 18 and I am sure I missed some.  There were people everywhere and I was not sure what they were trying to do.

Once down the steps, I was directed up some steps into the terminal.  The unmistakable smell of stale sweat hit me. The airport is undergoing some ‘refurbishment’, which actually means that you navigate through a building site to get out of the airport – I have the sand on my shoes to prove that I’m not kidding!

My hosts had booked me a driver to pick me up at the airport.  I was surprised to find someone shouting “Mr TravelFreak, from [current client]” almost as soon as I had entered the terminal building.  He introduced himself to me and explained that he would help me clear customs and then take me to my driver.  Great stuff I thought.  He started walking at a fast pace which almost turned into a run.  I was about to ask why we were running when we arrived into the customs / arrivals hall and the reason became clear.  There were large queues of people everywhere, and of course I knew that there were another few hundred behind me from my flight.

My host said ‘come this way’ and marched to the front of the queue, lifted the barriers and pointed.  That was certainly one way to save some time.  The amusing thing is that nobody knew who he was; he was dressed in a suit and had an airport ID round his neck.  Nobody said a word to him… or me.

I reached the first desk and was thinking to myself that this was an excuse for customs (a desk with someone writing things in pen on the landing card I had completed on the plane) when I was handed my passport back.  As I went to walk through the 1ft ‘barrier’ out into Lagos and all of Nigeria, my guide called me back.  He explained that I now had to join a different line so that my passport could be stamped.  I queued in this line for about 15 minutes, realizing that the air conditioning in the airport was either broken, or more likely, didn’t exist.

I got to the desk and handed my passport to one lady who directed me to another line… A few minutes later the passport was passed along the desk to me.  A quick stamp and I was in Lagos!

My guide appeared from somewhere and explained that we could wait for ‘up to three hours’ for bags.  He asked what class I was travelling in and looked pleased when I told him it was business.  He explained that often the business bags arrive in ‘less than an hour’.   Usually anyway.

Some 45 minutes later (having given out some relationship advice to my young guide) my bag appeared and I was delivered to the agent waiting just outside the airport who helped me navigate through the crowds to reach the main road.  We waited another few minutes and the special colour of my clients’ van could be seen approaching.  Very soon and I was on my way into the city of Lagos…. Well at least 2 miles along the road…

The driver was helpful and friendly and happily agreed to pick up a Nigerian SIM card for my phone (although he was amused by the SIM cutter I had packed to make it work on the iPhone!) for me.  I very quickly noticed that the standard of driving in Lagos was… terrible; all rules of the road are completely ignored and everyone basically does what they want (I could tell the story of my driver driving for three miles in reverse to beat the traffic so I didn’t miss my meting a few days later… but I won’t).  If you find yourself in Lagos don’t even think about hiring a car without a driver.  You will lose.

Anyway, I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss of Lagos was about when we pulled into the hotel…there was a 12ft wall with barbed wire all around and as we cleared the first gate, we were made to stop while the van was searched for bombs.  We were driving a van that was clearly marked with one of the most recognisable brands in the planet… however it, just like any other vehicle, was made to stop at several points throughout my stay – including when arriving back in the ‘office’.

The hotel was a fairly standard Ibis affair although it was amusing to pay almost 100,000 in cash for a hotel bill (yes it was Naira, not dollars!).  Having just checked in and ordered a beer from the bar (all cans here), the lights went out.  Not a single person moved or seemed to notice; conversations continued, computers continued to work and beer continued to be consumed.  A few moments later I could hear the hum of the generator kicking in and the lights came on again.  I was surprised at how quickly I got used to this happening during my stay; I would never had guessed that by the end of my stay I too barely noticed the power being cut.

Daylight brought me curry for breakfast and another ride on the streets of Lagos.  Just outside the hotel there was a large road with a constant stream of traffic and people walking in every direction.  I noticed the yellow ‘taxis’ that waited for a full load before starting their journey with the ‘conductor’ holding on to the side of the van as it tried to fight through Lagos traffic.  This was very different from rush hour in London!  I wondered what the women sat on the corner of the street was selling, it appeared as though she had only an umbrella and some paperwork but then I realised she was selling phone top up cards for the many unreliable phone networks that were available in Lagos.  I felt slightly humbled by the sight of the strong men who worked, slept (and as I later observed) washed, on a building site close to the office in the unrelenting heat.  And then I further reflected on how they manage this with the torrential downpours that seem to happen every few hours.

I arrived at the office and aside from being informed to use the ‘Executive’ toilets (yes, they were inside as oppose to the ‘standard’ toilets that were not), there was nothing exciting to note here.  Although I will say that without exception, everyone I interacted with was really friendly and enthusiastic.  I would ask them about Lagos and was told of the excitement and the freedom that the city provides compared to the countryside where some of them grew up.

On my second day in the office there was a serious traffic incident on the way back to the hotel.  Serious traffic incidents in Lagos are fairly common, however this was a big one that made the front page of the local press the following day.  Our driver had to go ‘off-road’ to try and find a route to the hotel.  We turned down a dirt track and I saw shacks; wood mills with huge saws and dust everywhere; children working harder than I have ever done in my life; small stores made out of nothing more than a few bits of wood serving the local community; ladies and girls with large families which were clearly about to become larger still.

I don’t think I could get much further away from my life of, travel, airports, credit cards, laptops, iPhones and Blackberries, expenses and cars where status is everything.  This was the real Lagos where for most; every day is a fight for survival.  And yet most seemed to be happy enough, with lots of laughter, joking and smiling.  I reflected on how the kids here would never moan about ‘being bored’ if their X-Box were taken away from them for even a short while.  Indeed I wondered if these kids even knew what an X-Box was.

After my last day in the office here in Lagos, I had arranged to take my hosts and the colleagues I had been working with out for some dinner and drinks to thank them for making me so welcome during my stay.  My hosts selected a venue on the other side of town so I had an interesting trip in the van once again.  This time I was shown the ‘posh’ end of Lagos with large houses (gated with guards of course), laundry services and even a KFC.  The disparity between rich and poor here was even greater here; our (branded) van was chased on foot by some young blokes trying to sell us drinks with one man in particular trying so very hard to get something from us.

We arrived at the venue for dinner and I sampled some traditional food; I enjoyed fish pepper soup but I pray that I will never have to eat goatskin again.  It was interesting though that this type of establishment exists here (outdoor pool, funky bar), just like anywhere else in the world there are always enough people looking to spend money on entertainment, regardless of what else goes on around them.  The other things that amused me was that almost all of my colleagues opted to take their meals home with them to share with their families, rather than eat it in the restaurant.  I think this is a nice thing to do but I doubt I would get away with it at a business event in the UK!

All that was left was for me to say my goodbyes, knowing that it was highly doubtful that I would see any of these people again which was rather sad.  I was given some dried fish and some dried chilli (looking very salubrious in a small black bag) as gifts from my hosts; and they sure know how to make chilli hot here.

Journey back to the airport was uneventful and once again I was met by a rep at the airport and guided through the airport that didn’t appear nearly as strange as it had when I had arrived only a few days ago.  I doubt I will be back in Lagos any time soon but should I find myself in the situation where a client has an office there I will embrace it rather than fear it.  You should to.

Wow. It's Quiet Here...

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