African dreams, part 1

I’ve been back in Brooklyn for about 3 days, and my African journey
seems like a dream. Especially after what I’ve just seen, it’s even
harder than usual to understand why one of the lead stories on the Today
Show this morning was a psychiatrist’s analysis of the meaning of
Britney Spears shaving her head. . .

I haven’t written about the Nigerian leg of the trip. We left Addis
last Wednesday and flew on a charter flight to Abuja, which is the
newish capital of Nigeria.


The flying time was reported to be 4 1/2 hours, but it actually took
us about 8 hours to get there, as we had to stop twice for refueling.
Those were 2 moments of interest in an interminable trip: we stopped in
Juba, which is the capital of Southern Sudan (!), and in Garoua,


I tried to get off the plane in Juba, but was sent back by the Secret
Service. I suppose, from the number of guys standing around with
machine guns, I should have guessed it wasn’t really a pleasure
destination. The dust there–a dirty red thick cloud–was astonishing.
It’s from something called the Hamatan wind, which blows in from the
Sahara. The pilot had to make a couple of attempts before finding the
runway–but apparently this is standard-fare flying in this area.

On to Cameroon, where President Carter gave a short press conference
in an airport conference room. A reporter asked him about Barack Obama.
He said, not surprisingly, that Obama had a lot of strengths, and that
he would be supporting the Democratic nominee (this said with the big
trademark grin). We returned to the plane, but the refueling hadn’t even
started by then so a few of us ventured into the airport to “shop.”
There were perhaps 6 people working in the airport, and there were 2
tiny shops and a Coke stand. The prices were ungodly in the shops, and
they only took Cameroonian francs, which there was no way to obtain–no
ATM, no exchange, no nothing. One of our party paid for a Coke with 2
dollar bills, hoping to get back some local currency for her grandson.
The guy who took the money spent a long time examining it up to the
light, and I energetically practiced my French to try to get across the
change idea, but alas, no luck. It didn’t help that I couldn’t, at the
moment, remember the words for ‘change’ or ‘exchange’ or ‘souvenir’. We
ended up making the exhange with somebody out on the tarmac. “Vous etes
une banque!” I said, much to the general amusement.

Finally, we arrived in Abuja. The road from the airport was named
Bill Clinton Drive. . . . The Abuja Hilton (where regular rooms go for
$328 a night) was even more of a contrast to the surroundings than the
Sheraton was in Addis.


Nigeria is the most popular country in Africa, with a population
almost half that of the United States, in an area one-third larger than
Texas. There is reportedly no system for garbage collection or
sanitation in the whole country, and boy, does it ever look that way.
Every square inch of ground is covered in trash, garbage, plastic bags,
and general filth. And everywhere there are piles of burning trash.
People living along the sides of the road, in metal shacks, lean-tos,
shipping containers with only 2 or 3 sides, and obviously, almost no
possessions. But, as all over Africa, there is a bustling trade in
everything you can imagine: plastic everything–chairs, buckets, water
bottles–newspapers, clocks, bananas, Coke and Sprite, tap water in
plastic bags, pile after pile of cheap clothes, T-shirts, flip-flops,
phone cards, lottery tickets, and kerosene in tiny bottles. I’ve never
seen the like of buying and selling. Oh, and caskets for the sale by the
side of the road! (“Why not?” said my driver. This may have something
to do with the number of traffic accidents! Near the hotel there was a
bridge over some kind of stream or gulley, into which a car had plunged
earlier that day. There were dozens of cars pulled over and people
standing along the sides of the bridge to gawk.)

Just discovered I have no photos of Abuja, except for the Hilton. We
were always zooming around in a car, so I didn’t get any shots of the
city–nor of the famous airplane house. The Lebanese guy who built it
apparently wanted his wife to stop traveling (read the story here). Aha, I’ve just found a photo of it online.


Part 2, coming up.

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