A Friday night flight means an extra early departure, just in case.
Just in case there is an accident on the bridge. Or a dignitary and his security shuts the roads down. Or it rains. Or we experience mechanical issues. There are a 1001 reasons why we leave for the airport early, and they all boil down to anticipating the unexpected, just in case.
Travel from point A to point B is a simple mathematical algorithm; time is a function of speed and distance. But in Lagos, this straightforward formula, a constant elsewhere, is turned upside down as unforeseen variables enter the equation. Travel out becomes an exercise in controlling for these unknowns. And like good statisticians, we carefully examine data accrued from past experiences to determine the optimum departure time. We begin with measurements of central tendency: what is the mean or average travel time of all airport departures? What is the mode or most frequent travel time? If taking into account the range of times, what is the median or middle number between the quickest and longest? Then we add known variables into our equation. We consider the time of year; different holidays means a different flow of people in and out of Lagos. The impact of weather; a hard rain, or really any rain at all means flooded roads. Another critical variable is the political climate; tension in the lead up to elections can explode into transportation or fuel strikes, which in turn impacts the flow of traffic. Day of the week matters, too. A weekend departure equals relatively clear roads, while Friday’s are…well, Friday’s. But the most important consideration is time of day. An early or mid-morning departure has one moving opposite the heavy traffic flow onto Victoria Island. But one must enter this flow cautiously and before the tide reverses from entering the island to exiting; once caught up in the flow, there’s no escape. This, more than any other variable, is the most difficult piece to get right.
With all this to consider, and a heavy yearning for home after a year away, we determine an earlier than usual departure is warranted, just in case. Packed and ready to go, we leave the garage at 2:45 pm for a midnight flight. That we had made the right choice was immediately clear when it takes forty-five minutes to cross Falamo Bridge; a journey of fifteen minutes in normal Friday traffic. As we slowly make our way onto the adjoining island, traffic is more stop than go, but we are making progress. Besides, the view out the window is always engaging.
I watch as a two-car police escort muscles through the heavy traffic. Horns blaring, the men have their guns griped tightly in one hand as the other swats at the adjacent cars demanding we give ground. We do. As they move off ahead, I ignore the creeping urge to use the toilet, resigned to a journey that will continue for hours.
At 4:10 we enter the Third Mainland Bridge, the longest bridge in Africa, connecting the islands to the mainland. The road is relatively clear and drivers take advantage in anticipation of the inevitable slow down ahead. Our view directly ahead is of passing cars, buses, 300 cc motorcycles and transport vehicles of varying sizes and degrees of working order carrying people and cargo; our pace is fast but no match for our less cautious companions. We pass one of Lagos’s ubiquitous yellow buses. Filled to the brim with patrons it rides low to the ground, the back door partially open and bumping up and down on rusty hinges, tentatively secured by a series of bungee cords. A less fortunate group of travelers are in the process of disgorging from a bus that has seen it’s final days. Towed to a safety stop by the police, it joins a growing assortment of derelict and abandoned vehicles too broken to finish the journey.
A glance out our side windows offers a view of the water. Small wooden fishing boats, some with makeshift sails of discarded patchwork bags bob along the surface. Powered by wind and hand, the fishermen ply the brown waters using hand thrown nets and luck to pluck a few remaining fish from the murky shallows. I can’t help but compare these small boats with the boat we are traveling to, and the stark difference in both purpose and design. We will spend two weeks on Journey, our 44′ blue water fiberglass cruiser, as part of our summer vacation. Our focus this summer is to better learn her systems, her lines and her idiosyncrasies in preparation for a three-month sailing sabbatical set for July 2020. We spend our time, energy and money on sailing because it fulfills our need for adventure, for connection- with each other, the environment, our souls- but not for survival. This contrast in opportunity and possibility is a familiar refrain from years spent living abroad. Perspective, gratitude and purpose are requisites to reconciling these contrasting realities.
My eye catches a sudden flashing twist of movement ahead. Two cars engaged in heated competition for the same expanse of road have collided. One swerves heavily, but manages to correct, continuing on it’s way. The other flips, and after executing a couple rolls, settles onto one side, windshield pointed towards the oncoming traffic. Colorful Ankara fabric fills the shattered windshield as desperate hands frantically claw for freedom. Despite watching the accident unfold before our eyes, our role as foreigners is clear; our presence would only bring unhelpful complication to an already bad situation. As others run to help, I swallow a twinge of guilt, tighten my seatbelt, and we continue on. A few minutes later, we finish the crossing and I breathe a small sigh of relief. Half-way there.
But within a few moments, a scene straight out of any number of futuristic dystopia movies unfolds. Traffic is once again at a stand-still. We’ve entered a multi-year construction zone of multiple improvement and expansion projects. The road is in the process of being widened and a new train station terminal is being built. Both are necessary improvements and will eventually, one day, help to ease the burden of traffic. We will not be in Lagos long enough to reap the benefits so for now, the construction exasperates an already chaotic journey. Eminent domain is taken seriously here as evidenced by long rows of buildings that have been literally cut in half, as if a surgical knife was used to make a careful incision from one end of the road expansion to the other. Three and four story apartment blocks are completely exposed as the wall facing the roadway, and half the roof, has been literally shorn off. Despite the wreckage, some are still inhabited, evident by hanging laundry and peering faces. The market surrounding the roadway has simply picked-up and moved back from the encroaching construction; life continues uninterrupted.
The traffic jam we were caught up in is known locally as a ‘go-slow’. A frequent and annoying occurrence in Lagos, go-slows nonetheless do offer an insight into the entrepreneurial spirit of Nigerians, and a unique shopping experience for drivers. A legion of independent vendors walk the cramped space between the cars, yellow buses, 300 cc okadas, and transport rigs, hawking their wares. The selection is as varied and at times, as nonsensical as the items found at your local Dollar Tree.
The following is a list of items seen for sale, in no particular order:
- Coat rack
- Framed picture of Lagos Governor
- Black and white fruit “asala”
- Plastic baggies of flat bread
- Step ladder
- Men’s slacks
- Denim jeans
- Peanuts in various containers (plastic water bottles, small baggies, loose)
- Individually wrapped juice boxes
- Steering wheel cover
- Emergency items for car (fire extinguisher and flares)
- Windshield wipers
- Fried Plantain chips
- Black plastic funnel for oil
- Board games (Monopoly and chess)
- Various books (self-help and popular fiction)
- Individually wrapped tissues
- Garden tools (large handled hedge clippers)
- “Tasha” instant ginger drink
- A fully inflated pool mattress (plus a spare)
- Casual button down shirts
- Measuring tape
- Carved wooden game with marbles
- Framed artwork
- Printed elastic waist pants
- Bagged local snacks
- Bottles of water and assorted soda
- World and country maps
- Front door mats
- Plastic flip flops
- Boxes of “Kill and Dry” rat poison
- Men’s leather slip-on slippers
- Assorted small snacks (candy, gum, breath mints)
This list goes on and varies with the season. By the end of November, Christmas items enter the mix. Getting towards Easter? Religious books. Back to school? You got it: back packs, folders, pencils and other supplies are on display for passing motorists. Any time traffic slows to a vendor’s top sprinting speed, they are out. As the traffic flow increases, vendors are challenged with handing over items, which are usually carried atop their head (well, maybe not the step ladder), making change and dodging traffic. It’s hard, hot work. My understanding is that most vendors, far from being self-employed entrepreneurs, actually sell for a distributor, squeezing an already slim profit margin even tighter. After an hour or more of stop and go, we eventually make our way onto the final stretch of highway that will take us to the airport, leaving the go-slow behind.
Three hours after leaving campus, we arrive at the airport. Our check in and escort through passport control and security is smoothed by a Delta ‘courtesy’ agent, and we are settled into the Delta Lounge for a final three-hour wait before boarding. Soon enough we are at the boarding area where a five minute power blackout followed by a parade of wheelchairs momentarily halts our progress. We finally board and settle down into row five. I say ‘yes’ to the glass of bubbly, look at Greg and smile; we’re almost home.