About Town: Weird gifts, names and Children on Trains

 

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Sometime ago, not without some misgivings I must add, I moved desks at work, all part of the new re-stacking policy designed around optimising our use of space. Following the move, I went from a desk which looked on into the central corridor with my computer facing away from the door to one where my view was the bus station across the road. The view was decidedly an upgrade, what came with it though was a sense of being blinded to people milling about behind me and coming in to meet me, particularly on the occasions when I have my head phones plugged in to maximise my concentration.

Enter the weirdest – but most useful gift  – I’ve ever been given; a mirror which stuck to the top of my monitor resolves the blind spot around the things behind me. Given to me by the previous occupant of my desk, it now means I have the best of both worlds, a decent view and a significantly lower risk of being blindsided by people door stepping me from behind. Bliss.

***

S and I share an inside joke from time to time, centred around ageing – gracefully or otherwise,  depending on which of us the joke is on. Things like falling asleep in the middle of a conversation, emoji related faux pas, or particularly weird and wonderful auto correct generated communication mishaps bring the joke up; mostly at my expense given my penchant for WhatsApp typos. The latest instalment of this long running joke was precipitated by a typo in a long string of text I sent, Dear somehow becoming Deer. To her credit she waited all day till the evening to point it out, the conversation which ensued  taking a different tenor, one which went down the lines of pondering the etymology of names lovebirds call themselves rather than focusing on my latest foible.

It is an interesting subject, I think, given what the range of the literal meanings  to the ones I pick up from conversations around friends and their significant others can be: defenceless objects which need protection (baby, doll?), unhealthy sweet things (honey, sugar, candy?) and objects of worth (gold, diamond, precious).

In the end, I dig myself out of that hole by referring S to the Songs of Solomon; that provides validation of deer, and the parts thereof as a metaphor for love. 🙂

***

They board at West Silvertown, they being a little girl and someone I assume must be her older brother. She is dressed in what looks like her school uniform, and has a bright pink backpack with some child super hero of some description on it. He on the other hand has huge beats headphones on, and an iPhone in his hand, clearly listening to something. Once aboard and settled in – it is standing room only – she tries to peer into whatever it is on his phone, an act he prevents by moving his phone outside her reach. That attempt at playful, sibling bonding on her part, and an insistent aloofness on his part is a pattern that repeats itself as we chug along towards Ilford where we all disembark. My tired, cynical mind – work, a flight up from the ‘Deen to London City and then this train ride have taken their toll – goes to work analysing the situation, the conclusion being that he has been tasked with getting his little sister home, a task he considers an intrusion on his own plans and space. Not quite content with that, she being the energetic, doting little sister wants his attention but his phone and whoever is on the other end are more important in the moment.

With time, I suspect that he will learn that family trumps the heady heights of young love, and that in ten, fifteen or twenty years time she will still be kicking about in his life, the person on the other end, most likely not.

Of trains… And being curious

[Source]

They clamber aboard at Upminster – they being man, boy and girl – eventually ending up on the seat opposite us. We are on the C2C service from Ockendon towards London Fenchurch Street, the first leg of what we hope will be an uneventful train ride into town; towards Tottenham Court Road for a pitstop at Dominion Theatre for Hillsong. Of the trio who disrupt what peace we’ve had so far, the girl ends up by the window, the man by the aisle and the boy – who can’t have been more than 2 or 3 – in between them. The most noticeable thing about the man is his rather tight shirt, one which his stomach strains at ever so slightly and his flip flops. If I were a betting man, I’d place him as some sort of  suburb dwelling city slicker, kicking about with the family on a weekend, slightly overdoing casual in the process, perhaps as his way to compensate for being cooped up in a suit and tie all week.

In the little maelstrom generated by their arrival, I decide to move one seat over, upon which the girl gestures to someone behind me, just outside my line of sight, someone she calls mum. From this I surmise that they are man, wife, very young son and teenage daughter. The buggy ‘Mum’ has beside her strengthens my belief that the boy can’t be more than two or three; that and the excited curiosity with which he engages his father, firing off question after question at him with no respite. The green arrows above the door (magic door his father says), the yellow lights which flash around the main door controls at each train stop and the picture of the dog on the wall (an ad for the RSPCA) are all my memory picked up from the litany of questions asked.

She  – the sister that is – for her part, once all are settled in, and the train is off again, picks up some notes and begins to pore over them. In the twenty or so minutes we share space as our train chugs into town it turns out she is studying for an exam, one she can ill afford to not pass, if her studious, furrowed brow of concentration, is anything to go by. The contrast between her and her brother can’t have been starker – he infinitely curious, free and inquisitive, she intensely focused on not making another misstep on the exam that looms for her.

Life shit happens they say; and between keeping up with the roles and duties we assume by nature of our place in family and society at large, and the expectations that come with them, curiosity and inquisitiveness can take a back seat to all the serious, mature things life demands of us. Watching the little boy and his indulging father left me with the thought that maybe sometimes the journey itself is as important as the destination. Quite rightly perhaps, one does have to focus on the wheres,  the end goals of life and its constituent phases. The journey though will throw up interesting and sometimes difficult sections which we will have to work around, with wide eyed enthusiasm and curiosity. Or maybe not?

Chaos and Nostalgia…4

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By 7.20am, I am in a cab, speeding towards the Yaba Motor Park. The plan is to grab a seat on an early bus to Benin, and then on to Ekpoma. Overnight my Mum has tried to call me several times. My gamble – forwarding my UK mobile to a Skype Out number- has failed spectacularly; no thanks to the dodgy internet I’ve got. The forwarded calls come in but I can’t answer them with any decent quality. 😦 That early on a Sunday morning, Lagos is already agog – blaring loud speakers, shrill cries of hawkers and bus conductors alike and a steady stream of pedestrians.

At the park, three buses are being filled concurrently – one has the luxury of a a DVD player and screen and air conditioning, the other has only air conditioning, the third is the RyanAir (link) equivalent – no frills, no fancy, basic get-you-there service. I plump for the mid-tier option – handing over 2,600 Naira. There are four more spaces to fill – I settle into the back seat to wait. The loader, a small, wiry, quick witted man whose deeply etched face belies his boy sized body hops about, keeping us entertained with his brand of wit and sarcasm.

The middle row of seats – and one on the first row – is taken up by four women who seem to be part of a traveling party. They have that settled, stolid unflappable-ness of middle aged safety, accompanied with a few tufts of greying hair peeking out from beneath their head scarves. It seems like they have been attending a church convention of some sort. The woman in the front seat who appears to be the leader of the group – reminisces almost to herself, given the lack of comments from the others – on how well a certain person preached the night before.

After another hour of waiting in which the six or so people who have arrived at the Edegbe Line stand opt for either of the other options but not our mid-tier one, I decide to pay for an extra street to speed things up. The bonus is I won’t have to worry about managing my hand carried bag of extra gifts for the nieces and my parents, and the chance to ease the discomfort I am already feeling from squashing my legs into the tight space I have afforded.

Two last two passengers to arrive join me at the back – a much older husband and wife pair, I assume. She is carrying a small purse, whilst he drags a large traveling case. When they speak, it is in faintly accented tones – I place them as academics of some sort. My hunch is proved right when it turns out they have UNIBEN connections and remember my father from back in the day.

We finally get the bus loaded up – the exits blocked completely by the various odds and ends we are all traveling with. I shudder inwardly at the prospects of escape if a fire breaks out.

Just before we head out, the posse of women break out in singing and clapping, followed by an extended payer for journey mercies, and protection from armed robbers and all the other dangers of the road, apparently – thank goodness I think to myself.

The journey passes without significant incident – bar the few potholes our bus clangs through. To be fair, the road is in a much improved state than I recall – for portions of it, we have to switch the side of the road we use – which leads to some confusion.

At Ore – we break for food; I end up grabbing plantain chips, coke and some suya. Missing my regular hotel in Lagos threw the spanner in the works for my first night suya/ chicken republic staple. Ore makes amends.

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Benin… We arrive just after 2.00pm. Speeding past Precious Palm Royal, and then UNIBEN in short order, there is at once a lot of and yet little change visible. What is immediately obvious is that a lot of building has been completed since I last passed through these parts. To the right of the main gate, a row of freshly built banks stand, new, clean, resplendent, no doubt profiting from being repositories of all the various fee accounts the university creates.

After I come off the bus from Lagos, I find a bus headed for New Benin motor park to kick off the second phase of my journey. It has just rained – odd for early November. In the midst of the bedlam that is the motor park, someone calls my name; or at least I think so. Not in the mood for any mindless prattle, and using the fact that my earphones are plugged in as an excuse – I feign not hearing.

We are all sweaty in the tightly packed bus. Packed as tightly as we are, the air doesn’t get a lot of circulation, bearing the various smells it is saddled with – cray fish and garri from the ghana-must-go  across from me, and a motley of other smells given off by the open gutters around. 

Salvation comes when we finally move off, the forced draughts clearing the dense, suffocation that has settled upon us like a blanket. We complete the 80-ish kilometres in just over an hour, the imposing facade of the University gate welcoming us to town. All that is left is the intermittent stopping to offload people, their luggage and their wares. By the time we are past the city centre and heading towards the outskirts, we have been whittled down from fifteen to less than six. 

At the last stop there are just two of us – a woman who looks vaguely familiar and I. We hop off the bus, claim our baggage and attempt to hail a cab. She catches my eye and seemingly after weighing it for a bit asks me if I’m not an S. I reply in the affirmative. It turns out she works at the primary school I attended back in the 80’s.

You haven’t  changed much since your sister’s‘s wedding she says – I laugh and try to make small talk until I am saved by an okada heeding her call. Grett your mum for me she says.

I wave as she disappears, borne by the bike rider.

I surprise my parents by walking the last few kilometres from the bus stop home. They are surprised – you have always been quietly stubborn mom says.

Home.. Is always home.. As will a fiercely independent child remain…

Chaos and Nostalgia… 2

hollandis

Source

Nightfall….It is very nearly half past seven when we begin our final descent into Lagos. From the window, all that is visible is a thick, dense darkness, interrupted by clusters of lights here and there.

I’m surprised it’s not totally dark out there, my seat mate ventures. I shrug. Maybe generators I say. He seems unconvinced. Over the course of the last 6 hours, and some, he and I have conversed intermittently – first about the busyness that engulfs travel hubs like Schiphol and Heathrow, and La Guardia where the first leg of his flight originated. Then a moan about the delays in the cabin crew delivering head phones to use – from which it transpires that on his La GuardiaSchiphol leg he had to ask for them before he got them. The antics of our dear Bini granny also provide fodder for our intermittent, light hearted chatting.  Descending into Lagos changes the bent of our conversation into something decidedly more Nigeria focused – mainly how in a few short minutes our motley of people who queued almost impeccably at Schiphol would disintegrate into a seething, boiling mass of one-uppers and corner cutters.

We land, smoothly, much smoother than I can recall in a long time, prompting the entire complement of passengers to break out in spontaneous applause. As the plane taxies, in blatant disregard of the announcement over the tannoy to keep seat belts buckled and mobiles switched off, the click-click of unbuckled seat belts resounds all over the cabin, and more than one person whips out their phone to make a loud phone call.

It takes nearly ten minutes before we get the chance to disembark. Once the hot, humid air hits, it seems the last restraints around our inner beasts are cast off. A woman stumbles on the stairs headed towards immigration; the surge of people barely takes notice, stepping over and around her in the quest to be early at the desks. She hurls a few choice Yoruba insults to the crowd around her with the extended five finger salute. No one takes any particular notice. By the time I reach the immigration desks, our line – reserved for us Nigerian passport holders – has snaked all the way back, curled upon itself many times over. The air has a certain thickness to it, sweltering, boiling; raging even.

In the rush and tumble, a young man inserts himself close to the front of the queue. Given how tangled it is, it a minor miracle no one else tried to imitate him, at first at least. Once the non-Nigerian passport queues disappear, and the free hands do not offer themselves up in our service, things become a little less clear cut on our line. A grandmother, in a show of extreme bravado, walks calmly to the head of the queue, mouthing off about how she’s been stuck on the same part of the line whilst others who came after her have jumped the queue. I distinctly remember her hauling several duty free shopping bags behind me on the amble from the plane into the airport..

As feared, I spend the greater part of two hours waiting to find my bag. I could have sworn there are at least five or six three to five minute sections when nothing new drops out of the chute on to the conveyor belt. When I finally find it, I drag it behind me and head towards the exit. Very nearly two-thirds of the flight is still waiting for their bags.

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On these jaunts, I have a fairly simple MO designed around blending in imperceptibly. Dressed simply, usually with too much hair, I try to wear my best impression of a weary student, mentally preparing myself such that somewhere between clearing immigration and hitting the exits, I am very nearly fully primed to utilise the full gamut of my pidgin English.

This time, braced to face the gauntlet of SIM-card, taxi, and money changing hustlers, I walk eyes straight ahead ignoring their insistent drone. One outside, I cast my eyes around looking to find a cab driver I might fancy. I settle on one, his boyish charm, perhaps best encapsulated by his Chelsea tee and New York Yankees baseball cap.

He asks for 5,00 naira to run me the nine or so kilometres to my usual budget hotel in Opebi. I insist 3k is less of a rip-off. He moans about how as a younger guy I should understand – clearly my poor student demeanour isn’t fooling him. We settle for 3.5k, after it emerges that I do not actually have a confirmed reservation at the hotel. Apparently it’s a Friday night and between leery old men and their consorts hiding away for weekends of debauchery, travellers and gigs in town, hotel spaces are at a premium on Friday nights. I shrug – we’ll see what we will see.

We make good progress once we escape the traffic snarls around the airport. Thirty minutes later we are on Allen Avenue, where our good progress gets halted. Babes dey o, he says – all kinds, lepa, orobo, 10k for short time. You go relax tire men.. He is pointing at a row of scantily clad women lining the streets, and strutting about. displaying their  ‘wares’ in too tight outfits.

The traffic eases. By the time we reach the hotel, they have run out of spaces. The cab driver offers to run me to a good place – his words – for 500 naira extra. Too tired to haggle, I accept. There will be no chicken republic for me from the looks of it. 

We end up somewhere on  Awolowo road. The only spare room is one which the AC doesn’t work. Normally goes for 22,000 naira, the Manager advises, but because of the AC, we’ll let it out for 15,000. I take up the offer – a large fan should do me fine I reason, bar the noise. I order a plate of fried rice with peppered goat meat – not Chicken Republic fare, but I’m hungry enough to eat anything.

It takes another 30 minutes before it arrives at my room – parting with 2,200 naira in the process. The bonus is the complementary internet service over wifi. I whatsapp a few of the usual suspects – Tee holidaying in Chicago, K in London and B. Somewhere in between, I fall asleep. 

Chaos and Nostalgia…

I

flying

Wheeling my suitcase – out of breath and breaking a small sweat – I arrive at the check- in counter a mere ten minutes before boarding is scheduled to commence. I am Lagos bound, via Amsterdam, thanks to a few extra holidays earned from being stuck in the middle of nowhere by the vagaries of the weather in October. Even though I have had over a month to plan, and pack, I have ended up facing the very real conundrum of having to decide between a pair of blue Levi’s jeans and blue Lee Cooper’s- difficult choice mind, and pondering if a phone and tablet might meet my computing needs this trip; enabling me to dispense with a laptop for the next ten days..

In my defence, a late flurry of activity both at work and in the team I volunteer in at church have contributed to why I have left things this late; as well as the need to travel as light as possible with an eye to not having to check-in any luggage. The plan is to catch the 7.00am 727 bus to the airport, leaving me plenty of time to scale security. In the end, I miss both the 7.00am and 7.20am departures from Union Square, and only have the dexterity of the cab driver, and a burst of speed from me between the drop off point and the check-in desk to thank for making it at the time I have.

The vast majority of the fliers seem to have already gone through – the only other person at the check-in a few desks removed looks Nigerian. There is no further confirmation required when the animated conversation he is involved in with the lady checking in his luggage turns out to be entirely about 7 kilograms of excess luggage. When she speaks, it is in short, terse, Dutch accented words, insisting he has to fork out the extra money required to cover the excess. Given the size of both checked in bags, and his carry-on luggage, my only surprise is that he is only 7kg over the limit, the bulging seams of his carry-on testament to more than a few iterations of the pack, weigh, unpack, reweigh routine.

My plea – delivered in my best imitation of a posh British accent, and an engaging smile – gets short shrift. I am directed with a rather dismissive wave of the hand to try to fit my trolley suitcase into the designated checking spot. As suspected, no amount of pushing and shoving can get it to fit in, the offending appurtenance being the rather large wheels. I return to the check-in desk and go through the process of checking in my bag, more than a little disappointed. Business done and dusted, the check-in attendant’s mien changes into a more conciliatory one.

‘It’s a full flight from Schiphol to Lagos today, on any other day I might have been able to help’. It doesn’t change anything for me I think to myself. Across from me, the other chap has fared no better. As we both leave the check-in counters to scale security we share that pained look of mutual, self-righteous suffering.

No mind them o, them no wan help jare. I nod my agreement, the thought of facing baggage reclaim at MMA hardly easing my mood. Never mind that rules are rules and we both fell afoul of them…

 II

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The flight to Schiphol from Aberdeen passes quickly, the snow covered mountains of northern Aberdeenshire replaced by clouds once we reach cruising height, and then water as we swing outwards on towards Amsterdam over the North Sea.

A few seats across, and in front of me a party of eight excitable women sit. American accents are my guess as they chatter continuously. They look like they are having a ball – one is a writer of some sort, her MacBook getting lots of use as she hammers out what looks like a chapter of book, or a travelogue, judging by the pictures she flips through intermittently – a month’s worth of weird and wonderful picture I guess at. From the snippets of the conversations I pick up, their plan is to stop over in Amsterdam and then on by train to some other city I don’t catch.

At Schiphol, I grab my stuff and make my way to the D gate. Just how full the flight truly is becomes obvious when I find the queue in front of the Nigerian boarding gate is already snaking around the corner, with quite a few people already passed through security. The check-in attendant in Aberdeen wasn’t so much of Grinch after all I think to myself.

I have a mooch around the duty free shops; a couple of bottles of perfume for my parents should ease the welcome – not even my black sheep/lost son/ prodigal affectations can absolve me of arriving empty handed. For my nieces, I grab a couple of Christmas teddies, affectively named Ginger and Fred. They are favourites with travellers, the lady at the till tells me. I’m indifferent, at nearly 12 euros a pop, the nieces had best be pleased with them!  There is a wait of about an hour after I scale check-in, before priority boarding is announced, and then the rest of us cattle class travellers have the joy of boarding.

Making my way to 37J, i find my path blocked by a slightly older woman. She is trying – and failing – to stuff her carry-on luggage into the overhead compartment. I suspect it is at least a tad longer than the one I was forced to check-in back in Aberdeen. Whilst fuming inwardly, I catch sight of a younger woman seated in 37H. She has her glasses perched on her nose, natural hair all wiry and loose and a certain geekish charm. She is half turned, looking up at the woman blocking my path. Mentally, I start to think up a suitably charming chat up line. It takes nearly twenty or so more seconds before the woman succeeds in forcing her luggage in, and I get free rein to head towards my seat. It turns out that the woman is her mother, and she asks me nicely if I wouldn’t mind sitting in 35H – we’d like to sit together she explains. So much for my world class chat up line – never mind the fact that a few years ago I once spent all of a night out swapping glances with a woman in green.

My reward for giving up my seat is to plump my behind down firmly in a seat next to a quiet looking bloke. He looks the classic upwardly mobile Nigerian – glasses, clean shaven, very short hair and an iPhone which he types into from time to time. We nod a greeting as I detangle my seat belts, dump my jacket and settle in. The slight positive just might be a quieter flight for me…

One of the last people to come aboard is a middle aged woman dressed in blue hollandis who coughs a dry, rasping cough as she crashes into her seat.

I don run tire today, this col’ no go kill persin o, she declares rather loudly, for our benefit I suspect. My seat partner and I share a look and cringe. I suspect she is form the Benin area, my worst fears being confirmed when she hurls a koyo o!! across to someone she spots trying to use the loo just before take-off. She fits just the mental caricature I have in my head of some dour, matronly, Bini market woman returning from a month spent taking care of grandchildren.

After that, all that we hear and see are the last flurry of text messages and phone calls as people get in touch with friends, loved ones and perhaps business associates to advise of final boarding and take-off which is only a few minutes away now.

Waiting our turn to take off with the queue of aircraft waiting to go visible through the window, it turns out my seat mate has flown from New York’s La Guardia earlier in the day.

Guilt tripping

Aside of the occasional foray into the main street to either shop, use the ATM, go to church, get to the Library or some other mundane task, I have spent the last few months indoors. Today I went out to the ATM. Normally there should not have been a queue but today my eyes were assailed by a queue, stretching into the distance. There must have been at least twenty people on the queue occasioned by the demise of one of the two machines. These are the only two machines in walking distance of my house, which is shocking considering we are just off the city centre.

I joined the end of the queue, arms folded around myself, even though I was clad in quite a heavy coat to deflate the force of the icy wind. Around me, everyone was heavily clad, quite a few were swaying, maybe trying to generate some heat from the muscular motion. One or two youngish looking chaps had cigarettes which they were puffing on, exhaling with careless abandon in our general direction. The woman in front of me seemed especially cold. She had only a flimsy looking wind breaker on for protection and I could almost swear I heard her bones rattling as she shivered. The person behind me seemed to take pity on her, and handed her his coat, which she seemed to appreciate.
I felt a twinge of guilt for not offering her my jacket. I rationalized it away by telling myself that I needed it as much as she did, and that I’d have had to get it back when I left the queue. As I left, money in my wallet, I headed straight to the nearest KFC. This called for something warm ASAP.

What kind of ‘Worshipper’ are you?

I have been involved in a mini church crawl – attended several churches over the past few weeks with the aim of finding someplace to settle. In the process, I found that people in church  largely fit into one of the following classes.

  1. The irresponsible bloke: This bloke dey feel like gangsta for church. Jeans wearing, ear ring totting, chewing gum splitting type, he is often singled out for the sinner’s prayer/ deliverance.
  2. The scammer: O boy dey scan all the fine babes for the church. Instead of worshipping the Lord, bros is watching the screens -and depending on his confidence levels he might try to catch a wink occasionally. If it is a church where peeps are asked to move around and shake hands or welcome each other, free pass for bros o. He will shake and hug all the fine sisters.
  3. The Spiri bros/ sis: These types are the real members of the church. They have come to worship God, but sometimes they can over do it too o. Like skabashing very loudly, singing off key, or like one bloke in my non-Nigerian church, sway as though a strong east wind is blowing only him. These types usually gravitate to the prayer group, evangelism, sometimes Sunday school and the money counters – not very visible positions.
  4. The fine boy usher/ fine girl protocol member: These are the types that cause the most trouble in church. Dem can pose! Bro is usually decked out in a powerful perfume, correct suit and tire, and the phonetics! Chei, wahala! They don’t sit still in church o, always prancing around, so people can see them. I suspect that at least 65% of church members know them by name!
  5. The choir chic: The typical choir chic can foine! This type is usually decked out gloriously every Sunday, and when there is a need to print a handbill, oh yes, na dem dey dey the front o. Normal songs for worship, become oportunities to showcase their Carrie Underwood-esque voices.
  6. The groove man/ groove chic: These types are your semi-reformed bubblers. Dem don groove so tey, as soon as the songs start to play, especially in Naija churches, they break out into the latest adaptation of a P-square, Wande Coal or  Makossa dance steps (You get the drift). Needless to say, they usually sleep through the sermon as they have over spent their energy.
  7. The would-be intellectual: This types – usually blokes – think they have heard it all. From Aristotle to Socrates, from Blaise Pascal to CS Lewis they have heard all the finer arguments for and against the existence of God. They usually appear in church once in a while, sit at the back and look condenscendingly at the delusion of others around them.
  8. The Gizmo Kid: These types are usually blokes again, but I have seen quite a few female versions. Bible on the iPhone or iPod, ear phones plugged in until church starts, dem can pose!