Lagos – Staying Safe in the ABC Bus Station

It’s engraved in my DNA to have no fear. Or if I’m feeling skittish, to face the fear and overcome it. So however many stories I had heard of Lagos being dangerous, I just didn’t believe it could be so bad. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Eduardo is different.

On the bus from Cotonou to Lagos, Eduardo chatted with the man next to him.
“In Lagos, you cannot leave your house after dark.”
“There are so many young people taking hard drugs, that when they rob you, they would just shoot you and kill you.”
“I would invite you to stay at my house, but I’m afraid someone is going to see you and will attack me because I have white friends.”
“When you get to Lagos, you have to stay in the bus station over night, because it’s not safe to take a taxi at night.”

Of course Eduardo listened to all this, and believed it. When two nice ladies from Abuja told us they were also staying in the bus station over night, to catch a taxi in the morning, it sealed the deal. I was furious. But having just arrived in a country that is rumored to be one of the most dangerous in the world, you would be stupid not to listen to the locals.

So, we had another real African experience and slept on the hard metal benches in the bus station together with fifty or so locals and millions mosquitoes. Eduardo tried to get some sleep on top of his backpack. Many people just slept on the floor.

In the middle of the night it started raining hard. The roof of the “ultra-modern”, recently built (in 2006) bus terminal, was leaking. The toilets overflowed. Outside, the streets started filling up with water.

At 9 a.m., after more than 12 hours in the bus terminal, when the rain finally stopped, we finally managed to wade through the water to hail a taxi. By that time, the flooding was so bad, that water came through the doors of the car and we had to lift our feet to keep dry.

But we were safe.

Better safe than sorry? After that night from hell, I would say I was both safe and sorry.

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Niger – Riding on the Buses from Hell – Part One

I almost hit the ceiling, and then crashed down hard on the armrest of my seat. Eduardo couldn’t help laughing out loud. We had just hit a speed bump on the highroad between Agadez and Birni N’Konni. It wasn’t huge, but riding in a bus without shocks means that any inconsistencies, pot holes or slight bumps make you fly like a bird.

The first thing you learn about West African buses is that what you see is not what you get. A bus that looks in fairly decent shape from the outside can be a total wreck mechanically. And on the contrary, a bus that looks like it belongs in a junk yard can actually be quite comfortable and run smoothly.

In Niger, all bus drivers seem to have one thing in common – making every ride a suicide mission. Not because they long to go to Paradise as martyrs and marry seventy young virgins, but because the faster you drive, the more money you make in one day. And driving through a village at full speed, where goats, children and women have to run out of the way in order not to get killed, must be totally normal to these lunatics.

After the first twenty minutes of the nine hour ride to “Konni”, we learned that when the bus slows down, it means there’s an obstacle. And to avoid getting hurt, you have to lift your butt off the seat so that you don’t fly away when the bus hits it. But when the bus driver forgot to reduce the speed, everyone in the overcrowded bus went flying through the air and slammed down hard. And screamed like pigs in a slaughterhouse.

Outside, the semi-desert landscape passed by; miles and miles of red soil, dunes of sand, and in a few spots bushes, trees and tufts of grass. Every now and then we would pass a nomadic camp with round, temporary huts made of long twigs and covered with canvases, old clothes and any other material they could find. Along the road where carcasses of camels and cows, some recently passed and others semi-rotten or completely skeletonized. A Tuareg on a camel appeared out of the bush, his face completely masked by a black turban, and a large sable hanging off the belt of his long blue kaftan. Frightening, but harmless, he was not one of the rebellious terrorists we had been warned about.

Sensuous music pulsed through the speakers of the bus; drums, horns, kora, accompanied by wailing Nigerien vocals. Eduardo made friends with the other passengers by asking about the music , and writing down the names of the bands. I was trying to survive the ride by focusing on not getting hurt, while listening to Alejandro Sanz on my iPod.

When the bus finally rolled into Birni N’Konni, we were bruised, tired and dirty. Our heads and bodies ached from the punishing ride. But we were still alive after having passed through one of the most dangerous, kidnapping-prone stretches of tarmac in Niger, with a driver who didn’t care if we lived or died. At that point, being “home safe” was all that mattered.

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Mali – Riding on the Buses from Hell – Part Two

“We’re going to die in here!” Eduardo moaned after five minutes on our way to Mopti. He was probably right. With no air-conditioning and no open windows, the bus was suffocatingly hot. I tried to calm him down. Surely it would getter better soon, when the bus started driving faster, and we would catch a breeze from the open front door.

The problem was that the bus never really started moving. It took us an hour just to get out of Segou. Every two minutes the driver would stop to pick up new passengers and cargo. You want to ride with us? No problem. No space? Well, you can sit on a stool between the seats. No free stools? OK, you can sit on top of someone else. That’s fine. No worries. Just pay me, and you can come along.

The bus advanced at snail’s pace. Truly. Everyone was picked up. Everywhere. Even if we had just stopped one minute earlier, we stopped again. After half an hour at the bus terminal in San, we stopped right outside the gate to pick up more people, then again at the next corner. We picked up people, boxes, carpets, motorbikes, furniture, goats, chicken. Anything. And the more people entered, the hotter it got. We were bathing in sweat, barely being able to breathe, like sitting in a sauna fully dressed.

After three hours on the road, Eduardo was furious. “Hey driver, stop picking up more people!” he screamed into the driver’s face. “We’re dying in here!” But the bus driver and conductor just laughed. They didn’t care. They were making money. No one else in the bus said anything. They just sat there, silently suffering for ten long, unbearably hot hours.

But if the West African buses are hell for humans, the animals fare far worse. On our return ride to Segou, the bus stopped to pick up a man and his cargo. The poor goats were carried as bags, their legs tied together, hanging upside down. When they hurled the screaming goats onto the roof, and they crashed down on the hard metal, I wanted to kill the bastards. Those self-righteous, greedy monsters didn’t deserve to live. But I bit my tongue. My protests, especially being a woman, would not be heard. I was nobody, and unfortunately could not change a culture where men only respect men, and women and animals have no rights.

I spent the rest of the ride unsuccessfully trying to filter out the wails of pain from the goats as they bounced on the hard roof over the potholed road.

And, yes, I did cry.