Scuba diving with some newbies in the Gulf of Guinea these days. To prepare them I imagine swimming in split-pea soup would be helpful.
One of the big perks of my job is that I get to travel a lot more than I used to. In my previous life, I was tied to a desk all year long, and even when I was ‘on vacation,’ the work was always one phone call away. I spent most of my 20’s and 30’s worrying about work and never truly being free of it, and to now be able, albeit infrequently, to walk away for a good moment and know that it’s all behind me until I come back… I don’t know if I can really explain to someone who hasn’t gone through that special kind of hell what a privilege it is to be able to punch out and walk away. If you have it, savor it. Many schlubs like me didn’t/don’t.
So I’ve been taking advantage whenever I’ve been afforded a moment and hitting the road. And with sufficient travel under my belt and posts filed away on here, we’ve reached that point in the maturity cycle of a blog where the vacation pictures come out. You’ve been warned.
I realized I’ve been “afk” for a while. The truth is, life has taken on a steady rhythm here in Nigeria, and I suppose I’ve been too busy living it to write much about it. I can’t really talk about my work, and the constraints of living the type of life I live mean that while there’s quite a bit happening, much of it isn’t for public consumption.
Much of what I can write about, however, I could categorize as ‘general complaining,’ and I promised myself I wouldn’t indulge too much in that, especially considering how lucky and privileged I am compared not just to the average Nigerian, but the average American as well.
Let me say this though: life in sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest metropolis is neither easy nor pretty. Every day a resident here is accosted by sights, sounds and smells that defy description. Some are grotesque, some are tragi-comic, many are both. I’ve seen it all.
The other day, I saw a dead man floating face-up in the canal. He had been murdered, and even though the police saw the body, they chose to do nothing, as they always do. Instead, the rule is that whoever touches the body must bury it, so if it snagged on the docks by your establishment, you would use a stick to detach it and send it floating downstream to the ocean. This is the reality here: human life is cheap and the state doesn’t care. So the body was pushed out and sent on its way to oblivion. Not the first dead body I’ve seen by far, but the first that was left to rot on its own. The implications trouble me.
Much of what you see out here is not nearly as sensationalist, but rather the small annoyances that accrue and accrete, the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ that expats always groan about. It isn’t fun to write about or read about, so I’ll stop there.
Lagos isn’t bad though. The people always define where you are, and this city is no exception. The people here are the best and the worst part of life here. They infuriate and delight in equal measure. I have had female friends complain about getting harassed on the street, and yet the other day when one girl I know was walking home alone and dropped her mp3 player into a sewer ditch, young men came out of the woodwork, dropped to ground and pulled it out with their hands. Women are forced to do the hard labor that is “too dirty” for the men, and yet a woman with a baby is sacred and would probably be safer walking down the street here than back home, as everyone would watch out for her.
That’s the thing with life in Lagos: as with the traffic, there is a system in place replete with unspoken rules, and it manages to cobble society together and keep it moving along, and yet to the untrained outsider’s eye it all seems to seep into chaos. I suppose it’s only the knowledge that this is not what true chaos would look like that aids in the observation.
There are moments here that destroy your soul, but there is beauty even in the rubble. Turn a corner, and there is a wedding dance. Around the bend, two kids playing and smiling in their church finest. The friendliness and genuine kindness of so many locals. The random Thursday morning military parade sauntering down the street, banging cymbals and drums in their uniforms.
I still like it here. And I want to end on a high, so here are some friends I made at the conservatory this weekend. These guys are from Lagos too.
My first day driving my car in Lagos, Nigeria, where lanes are suggestions, traffic lights are invisible, u-turns into oncoming traffic should always cut across as many lanes as possible, and 4-way intersections resemble sumo wrestlers fighting over the beer tab. And yet, the system somehow continues to grind along, with three lanes of traffic gingerly merging into one and then fanning out again, street vendors plying their wares between the lanes, and traffic cops standing in the middle of the maelstrom and thwacking their batons on car hoods seemingly at random. Not so much order within the chaos as chaos with a vague sense of direction… Anyone who wants to try to understand cities like this should be required to drive here first.
Nigerians have a certain generosity of spirit and industriousness that would remind many Americans of home, if we would just allow ourselves to look beyond our preconceptions.
I’m not saying there are not bad people here. The headlines are what they are for a reason. And corruption does exist at every level of society here. But there is a decency that can be attributed to so many people here… and I would know. I talk to many every day. Even the majority of the people who lie to you just want a better life. I have my duty, but I can understand their motivation.
When my little European washing machine starts the final spin cycle, it sounds like it’s about to achieve Earth escape velocity.
Moved into my new apartment over the weekend. Everything is beige, and the kitchen smells like wet paint and moldy socks got into a slapfight, but that’s what slip covers and air purifiers are for.