Friday, February 4, 2011

Happiest people in the world!

When we get back to our hostel after eating out, 52 year-old Joerg from Germany has arrived with his BMW R1200GS-Adventure. Our bikes look like ants next to his beast. He isn’t happy with the weight though, complaining mostly about its poor handling in the sand. Boni, read this! We exchange stories over a beer and of course we team up for the ride to the Nigerian border. According to what we’ve heard from fellow travelers and locals, the road via Nikki is less terrible than the road via Kandi. So after having met half of the zems (motorbike taxis) of Parakou during breakfast, we hit the tarmac towards Ndali. Tiresome slaloming due to the many potholes and crazy car drivers. This is motorbiking 2.0. From Ndali, a dusty but rather good gravel road leads all the way to Nikki. At the Benin customs office, Isabel has a flat tire. Luckily, there is a repair shop nearby. I take out the rear wheel and have them pull off the tire.
As usual, I can hardly resist the urge to take over when I see them working the tire with the levers. “Doucement!” Not enough… When the rear wheel is mounted, it turns out that the brake disc is slightly bent due to the rough handling. I don’t try to hide my consternation. No way are we going to pay for the repair, unless they pay for a new disc! I hate to see that one of the young boys gets the blame, since it is not his responsibility. Luckily, we later find out that it affects riding far less than anticipated.
At the Benin border police post, we happily greet the tarmac that starts on the other side of the bridge. Nigeria. What are we going to find there? We have had a lot of warnings: from our own Dpt of Foreign Affairs, from the “Dangers and Annoyances” Chapter in our Lonely Planet, from worried West-Africans and fellow travelers wanting to avoid Nigeria. At the same time, we have heard from others – who wanted to check it out for themselves – how hospitable they have found the Nigerians to be. If we allow this rather developed country to scare us, how will we then be able to cope with our main challenger, the Democratic Republic of Congo? And finally, the objectively most dangerous country on the trip lies already behind us: the death toll on the road is presumably nowhere as high as in Ghana. And since most deaths while travelling happen in traffic…
The Nigerian border officials are admittedly slow and thorough, but certainly as welcoming, polite and friendly as most we have met so far. It seems though that they are quite unfamiliar with “tourists”, seeing far more aid workers and businessmen than travelers like us. A little tense, we enter the border town to change some money, having been warned never to use a credit card in Nigeria. We decline the ridiculous exchange rates offered by the black market money changers, but we find a lot of friendly people, and unexpectedly given the introduction of Sharia in some parts of Northern Nigeria, also some Muslims drinking (some even excessively!) in public. The prejudices are further mowed away with every chorus of children and adults greeting us heartily when we pass by in small and larger villages alike. The manager and personnel of a local bank – closed on Friday afternoon – are prepared to open up to help us. Only, they don’t change foreign currencies.
From Kosubosu, the road degrades into a dirt track. Our speed slows down and Joerg starts to complain about the sandy stretches. We think back of how much we have learned since our off-road course in Mauritania… We are getting low on water and the sun is starting to set, while the road gets bumpier and more eroded. In the village of Gwasero, I stop at a corner of the busy market, just in front of a stall selling antelope and feline skins, skulls and medicines. In less than 1 minute, a mob of hundreds of people gathers around me. Surprisingly, it doesn’t feel threatening at all, even though nobody seems to speak English. It doesn’t take long however, before 2 chaps start helping us out, changing a bit of CFA into Naira at a very honest rate and directing us to water sachet sellers. The tarmac is not far anymore, they say, but we suspect them not to want to discourage us.
After Joerg has dropped his 300kg mastodon a second time that day, we feel like finding a place for the night. In the first village after Gwasero, we halt near the well. A mass of people accompanies us to the chief of Kura, who receives us in his audience room. We are offered to stay the night in the very place.  

While the elders gather in front of the house and the Quran teacher disciplines the children approaching the bikes, someone brings us a large bag of food, tea, sugar and cacao powder. Joerg asks if he’s allowed to smoke and gets offered a package of cigarettes right away. The hospitality nearly makes us cry of joy and gratitude.
After a quiet night, the muezzin calls for prayer and we thank the chief for his hospitality. One of our gifts is a well received photo session of the elders and the children. We see hardly any women outside. From Kura, it takes us another couple of hours to reach Kaiama, where the terribly degraded road abuts the tarmac. We come across Nigeria Police and Immigration Services twice, and the second squad doesn’t want to let us go without warning his officer in command. At least two hours and a lot of wrecked nerves later, we are allowed to leave the office. They’re thorough, we’ve said it before.
The road after New Bussa – where the mighty Niger river is cut by the Kandji dam – is perfect. Mokwa must be hell on earth: slums, waste, dust, road construction works, heavy traffic and awful collisions… Luckily, our hotel is a safe and rather quiet haven, thanks to the helpful owner, barbed wire and the machine gun-armed guard. From there, it takes us another long day on the road to reach Abuja. To make things a little more exciting, Joerg decides to cut his finger while slicing bread. Pretty bad, but he’s fine with the temporary bandage that Isabel offers him. Abuja announces itself by the towns that keep on following each other and our speed is suffering a blow until we enter the clean, 6-lane highways leading to the city center. It seems as if Abuja is lying on another planet than the rest of the country. Spreading over several valleys amidst isolated hills, the city was built in the 1980’s in an attempt to reconcile the rivaling North and South and allegedly modeled after Los Angeles. Impressive.
For more pics see album "Happiest people in the world"
Thanks to OpenStreetMaps, our GPS leads us to the Sheraton. We’ve heard from other overlanders that the hotel runs a campsite. The staff is very professional and helpful, but at the reception, they don’t seem to know what we mean at first. After a few phone calls, we are escorted to the back of the hotel premises, where we see South-Africans Andrew and Claudia, whom we met in Benin, and the Dutch/American couple Stanley and Julia with the kids, whom we first met in Ouagadougou.  Following days, we spend listening to each other’s stories, trying to obtain visa for Cameroun and Congo-Brazzaville and contacting my cousin Cyril in Jos. Tomorrow, we’ll head for Jos, which has been the scene of violent ethnic tensions for years. Cyril has ascertained us that we will be safe, as long as we don’t ride at night. For convenience and safety, we’ve bought a Nigerian SIM card. But what will help us most: according to a New Scientist survey, the happiest people in the world live in… Nigeria!

1 comment:

  1. Zo ziede maar weer. De gelukkigste mensen leven in Nigeria! En ik zit hier terug thuis in het koude België... :-( Doe de groeten aan Stanley & Julia!
    Ik volg jullie reis op de voet. Zeker nu met Joerg en zijn BMW adventure :-)