29 March 2009

Doing Dubai

Picture Vegas with no gambling and harsh liquor laws...that was my impression of Dubai. On our way to our new home in Singapore, we took a quick jaunt through this cosmopolitan city that lies directly across the Persian Gulf from Iran.

Having only seen economic prosperity in the last 30 years and world recognition in the last 10, the city and its people exist as though they've been rich and famous for centuries. Expensive cars glide gracefully down the sunny and spotless streets; shopping caters primarily to the affluent; dressing to the nines is not requisite, it's expected.
Currently there seems to be a race within the city to build the most outrageous structure imaginable. An indoor ski slope (four slopes to be exact), a building 1 kilometer in height, and a man made island in the shape of a palm tree. Yes, Dubai has it all.

But for all its glitz and glamor, there was a sense of impermanence and unreality apparent in the city...like a dream world that could morph into something entirely different or disappear the moment you wake up. And considering many of the newest and most grandiose resorts are built on man-made islands of reclaimed sand, one flick of mother nature's hand could send it all tumbling down.

So my advice to you...if you are going to visit Dubai do it soon, and do it on a stop over trip to another destination. Three days is plenty for doing Dubai.

26 March 2009

For Better or For Worse

As our time living in Lagos comes to an end, I reflect on why I love the city so much. And I think I've finally figured it out. No matter who you are or where you come from, you must to some degree submit to the reality that is Lagos...for better or for worse.

Let's take the most obvious example: traffic. For those who enjoy the daily Lagos commute, the "go slows" take no prisoners. Most wait for crowded, un-air conditioned buses only to sit in traffic for 3 hours
or more. Those lucky enough to have their own car (and possibly a driver) sit in the same traffic, though the air conditioner provides some relief for the long wait. The only way to get around traffic is by motorcycle taxi (okada)...an affordable option open to everyone.

NEPA, Nigeria's less than reliable electricity provider, also shows no favorites. Everyone is connected to NEPA and pays for its services whether they are provided or not. Those not willing to deal with 3-day electricity outages may run generators paying for the diesel themselves. And even those lucky ones not having to pay for their generator backup services become accustom to random bouts of cut electricity, lost computer work, wear on appliances, and low (or no) water pressure as a result.

Though Brian and I lived in the "Beverly Hills of Lagos," it did not mean we weren't confronted daily with the poverty that is a reality for many. In a book I read recently, the author mentioned that in Lagos poverty slaps you in the face...no matter who you are or where you come from, you can't hide from it. Unlike the States where poverty is often confined to certain areas of the city which can be easily avoided, poverty in Lagos is alive and well and on display for everyone to see.

With all its contradictions and chaos, Lagos is what it is, doesn't put on a show, and doesn't play favorites. It has beautiful beaches which are open to most everyone; it has traffic that shows no mercy for even its richest inhabitants; and the harshness of life envelopes you (though some to a higher degree than others).
Lagos is unlike any other city I've known; it looks like no other city, works like no other city, and stays with you like no other city...for better or for worse.

24 March 2009

Nigerian Networking

Today our seamstress Victoria arrived at our house to work on a couple projects. She had trouble getting in touch with one of our neighbors regarding another sewing project and asked if I knew where he was. I quickly e-mailed him and arranged for the cloth she needed to be dropped at my house for her retrieval tomorrow. She then pulled out a package of Popsicle sticks that she had bought for another neighbor. I asked her, "where the heck did you find Popsicle sticks?" Well, you can't always find Popsicle sticks she replied, but if you ask enough people at the market someone is bound to know someone who has them.

That it how things work here for just about everything. The reliance on personal networks is invaluable for survival in Lagos. Just take the restaurants for instance. The first time we visited "Bottles," the only Tex-Mex restaurant in the city, our driver took us down this windy back road and parked us in front of a rundown building. Hmmm...no "Bottles" sign in sight. He pointed to the door, and sure enough we found the lively well-maintained restaurant inside. Most of the restaurants and businesses are like this in Lagos. But really...why do you need a sign when you can just ask around?

On my recent trip to Badagry, networking proved key to our successful trip. A fellow expat had been there just a couple of weeks before, so I sat with her to discuss the dos and donts in the former slave-port city. She told me to show up at the Heritage Museum (just ask when you get to Badagry and the locals will point you in the correct direction) and there I would find a guide named Tunde who basically knows everyone in the city. He was able to get us from point A to B to F for a nominal fee and safely on our journey back home.

For someone not used to the Nigerian way, networking may seem a nuisance especially in a work setting. Picture the following situation: you work in an office shared by three others trying to get your day started and projects on a roll when an entourage of coworkers come to visit, talk...yep, network. Perhaps this is why socializing and spending time with others is so valued here. It's a necessity and plays a large role in how your performance is viewed at work.

You need something, just ask around. You have something to sell, just mention it in conversation. You need to find labor, someone knows someone else who would be "perfect" for the job.
Like in the States, networking is considered a "must" for finding a job. But in Nigeria, networking is also a "must" for life.

22 March 2009


Nigerians have a reputation among the expats for being slow to work. Whether it is actually showing up to do the job, the amount of time it takes to do it, or the quality of the work once the job is complete, it never seems to meet the "American standard." There is one exception to this rule, however...emergencies.

It seems as though an emergency is an emergency no matter where you are in the world (or at least in African and the United States based on my experience). The first time I noticed this was after returning home late only to find on our bathroom floor 2 inches of water that was quickly gaining ground toward our bedroom. Our water heater was leaking. It was 10 pm on a weekend, and wouldn't you know...we had a repair man there in 10 minutes, the water heater was repaired in 30, and there was no sign that water had been on the floor by the time he left.

Now, if this had been a planned project to, let's say, replace an old water heater that still worked, we would have had anywhere from 3 to 5 guys assess the situation...then assess it again. We'd plan for a day and time for the replacement and they'd show up 4 hours late if at all. The repair would then be rescheduled for a time when I could devoted the entire day for the repair, in anticipation of late arrival or missing parts. The project would start, a part would be found missing, then hours (or days) later the workmen would return with the part and complete the project.

Just a couple days ago, we had another "emergency" on a much grander scale...our kitchen caught fire while we were out of the house. By the time we returned, guards were already investigating the situation, fans were being brought in to clear the smoke, and windows were opened for ventilation. The next day, we had unsolicited workmen and supervisors coming to assess the situation and by noon they were removing the damaged chimney and cleaning soot off the walls. Fast, and friendly, service!

So what I've taken from these various experiences is to have patience with projects and be prepared for the long-term time commitment; but if you really need a new stove fast, burning down your kitchen is a good strategy!

20 March 2009

The Sun Doesn't Set on the US Empire

The US "empire" probably would end somewhere between New York and the Middle East, but the economic empire rules worldwide. This has become increasingly apparent during our various travels throughout the African continent. To obtain visas for Egypt, Tanzania, and Kenya only USD is accepted. Not even pounds or Euros will fly. During our safari, Brian and I were the only Americans (the rest being Australian, South African, British, and Tanzanian) and all of them carried USD as a necessary part of their traveling load.

Even in East Africa the USD seems to rule. We tipped our guides in USD and hotels charged us in USD rather than local currency. While buying some items at a local snack stand, the vendor accepted USD and was able to change us 20s for our 100 dollar bill. Even the Masai villages, which still adhere closely to nomadic and traditional ways of life, negotiate in USD for the trinkets and jewelry they sell.

Don't have enough USD to pay for what you want? No problem. In East Africa mixed currencies of USD and Tanzanian shillings (for example) were also gladly accepted. Economically, the United States seems to rule worldwide...or at least as far east as Tanzania and Kenya.

17 March 2009

The Language Lull

Now that we've lived in Lagos 6 months, we've gotten a pretty good grasp on how to successfully communicate with fellow residents of our bustling and busy city. It is generally accepted to be extremely direct...this could involve shouting (which is not considered offensive per say) or simply stating something as you see it, whether it's a compliment or a concern. Basically, you can put everything out on the table without fear of offense, but retaliation in kind is usually expected.

While visiting Kenya and Tanzania, however, differences in communication style were immediately apparent. Upon arrival in Orusha, I had several logistical questions to ask our trip coordinator.

Does the bus start running at 6:30? (lengthy pause) Yes.
Does it pick up every two hours? (another length pause) Yes.

Will breakfast be served early the morning of the marathon? (now, an annoyingly lengthy pause) Yes.

I was beginning to feel like she was just saying "Yes" because she didn't know the answers! Truthfully, all the information she gave us was accurate but the overuse of pauses and the conciseness of her answers made me skeptical. I quickly learned to ask non-Yes/No questions.

Even with non-Yes/No question, however, the contemplative pauses and concises response were still present. When we'd point and ask our safari guide Raymond to identify an animal, this is typically how it went:

What is that? (pause) Im-pala.

Is it an Antelope? (pause) Ye-sss. (Pause, Pause, Pause). The impala has three lines on their back.

In addition to adjusting our strategies for getting the information we needed, our entire manner of speaking also had to be adjusted from our Lagos lingo style. In Lagos, you are more easily understood if you make things simple, speak in present tense, and speak slowly. Don't use too many fillers or explain the situation too much. Inevitably our accent paired with long explanations would make us unintelligible in Lagos. But in East Africa, this manner of speaking just didn't sound quite right.
Despite the general lull and relative conciseness in speech, there seemed to be little purging of tenses or and our complex, long-winded American statements were easily understood.

Overall, we found it easier to communicate in East Africa than in Lagos. But patience was a virtue when it came to communicating in this lulling linguistic style.

15 March 2009


My perceptions of Africa prior to moving here were a bit skewed to say the least. I imagined a world of elephants and rhinos, endless plains and wild jungles, and a population that was spread into small villages rather than concentrated into big cities. Finally, after our visit to Tanzania, I found the Africa I was looking for...all within the regulated confines of the national park system.

As we started our 6-day safari, I couldn't help but draw parallels to one of the first scenes in Jurassic Park. Jeff Goldblum had just met with the park's creator and, along with the creator's grandchildren, was escorted via jeep on an electric track to view the park first-hand. Being realistic, we weren't towed along on a mechanized track and there was no entrance of grandiose proportion; but we were in Land Cruisers, the only other signs of human life were also in SUVs
led by safari companies and the occasional Masai village on the outskirts, and we traversed the Serengeti on manicured trails maintained by the national park. There was even a well-maintained museum at its entrance to explain ecosystems and plant and animal life that we would observe within the park.

Despite East Africa being famed for
exotic game, we didn't see lions roaming beside the local highway nor did we see much of any wildlife outside of "Safari-land." In fact the only animals we came in close contact with outside the confines of the national parks were camels and goats... not very "Africa" if you ask me. Like false perceptions of Texas -- everyone rides horses, wears cowboy boots, and lives on a ranch -- East African cities are not swarmed with hyena packs or zebra and wildebeest migrations. But if you keep a close eye, the occasional giraffe roaming roadside will give you a subtle reminder that, yes... you are indeed in Africa.

12 March 2009

And the Winners Are...

Pippi Longstocking Look-alike Contest: It's hard to take the buffalo too seriously with a pair of horns that looks like the helmet version of a Pippy-do.

Most Colorful Genitalia: Seated, the Velvet Monkeys look like any other. But when they start to crawl on all fours, the males' fluorescent blue testicles draw everyone's eyes their direction.

Best Poser: No need to be quick with the camera; giraffes love to stand and pose!

Most Rare: Don't be fooled by its splotches of white; this Black Rhino is endangered and rarely seen on safari.

Best Butt: Zebras actually resemble donkeys more than horses. Maybe that's why they have such a great &%$.

Nastiest: The hippos we saw found refuge in refuse...a cesspool of hippo excrement that could be smelled from afar.

10 March 2009

Wild Africa

Coming from the Swahili noun meaning "travel," our safari fit that definition to a tee. For 6 days we traveled an average of 7 hours daily via Land Cruiser across the planes and through the jungles and forests of Tanzania. The Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Lake Manyara were breathtaking to say the least. Animals in their natural habitat tainted by few signs of civilization.

We camped all 5 nights of the journey, which in hindsight was a much better option than lodges. There were always facilities available though they varied in quality (cold vs. hot shower water; outhouse vs. flushable toilets); and if you can deal with up close and personal encounters with wild animals camping is highly suggested.

Our first night, we were welcomed by large storks meandering through the tent area and perfectly willing to pose for pictures. Later that evening, a fellow camper and I headed to the bathroom only to encounter two bush pigs looking for food. The pigs found the food they sought a couple hours later when one actually entered the tent of our friends Logi and Joey. Apparently the bush pigs were fans of Vita Crackers. Luckily pigs are hungry and hoarding but harmless.

More dangerous are the buffalo which Brian encountered on his trip to the bathroom that same night. If you play dead, they won't touch you...after all they are herbivores and don't feel threatened by things that are dead. Hyenas we heard scurrying around our tents on another evening. Don't play dead or you'll end up a happy hyena's dinner given their scavenger lifestyle. Just walk backward slowly, out of harms way, and hope you never get caught between a buffalo and a hyena.

Elephants can be harmless and won't attack unless provoked. But if you see their ears start to flare and a trumpeting sound you should start to worry. Unless you are an achieved Kenyan runner, don't try to outrun the big beast; they can reach speeds of up to 25 miles/hour. A better option is to take cover in a vehicle or building. That's what we did when a hungry elephant (they eat 18 hours a day so they are always hungry) entered our campsite and picked up our trailer with its tusks and trunk looking for food.

Besides the up close and personal encounters, we were able to see just about every type of antelope East Africa has to offer, the wildebeest migration, and of course the Big Five -- Buffalo, Rhino, Elephant, Lion, and Leopard.
It truly was a wild African experience.

08 March 2009

Just a Couple "Tips" for Lagos Living

The concept of a tip is not foreign to me. As everyone in the States knows, there are certain jobs that by nature of the pay (waitresses) or by nature of the work (personal service jobs like hairdresser or taxi driver) warrant a bit extra when a transaction is complete. Here in Lagos a process of a similar sort occurs - dashing.

There are a couple major difference though. The concept of dashing itself, as I have experienced, is not necessarily reserved for going above and beyond what is required for the job. For example, our driver Godday is employed 6 days a week from 7 am to 8 pm according to his salary agreement. However, if asked to actually work all of those hours (with a lunch break of course) I would be compelled to "dash" him. Or if I take him far from the confines of "Chevron-land" I may dash him as well. Understandable considering the man works 13 hours a day, six days a week.

Dashing also isn't reserved for particular vocations. Under certain circumstances I would dash guards (which are everywhere), my steward, the grocery store butcher or checkout person, my seamstress, and even the gardener. It seems to be socio-economic in nature (for example I wouldn't dash my husband's coworkers) and based on relationship rather than service (I may dash the checkout person at our local store but not the street vendor I have never seen).

The frequency of dashing is much higher as well. For example, back home I would very rarely "dash" a restaurant host to expedite our seating at a restaurant. Here, however, just a little naira gets you a long way in almost all situations. Bending the rules is ALWAYS an option with a little dash, and sometimes it is customary.

Dashing can even informally work as a consulting agency payment might back home. For example, I needed to hire security for our recent trip to Badagry. Though there isn't an official process for submitting payment through Chevron for private use, the security manager happily provided the people and services we needed (and promptly for that matter) in return for a dash.

In the end, the habituality of the "dash" in Lagos makes sense given situational factors. First, most people work long hours for little pay so dashes seem to be more necessary than the "tips" of back home. Also, the tradition of chiefdoms still reigns in Lagos. Though the chief no longer acts as the main provider for his chiefdom, his/her role as figurehead, decision maker, and overseer of his land and people is respected in Lagos even today. Finally, affluent Lagosians love to flaunt what they have. A mere salary increase for those in service to the affluent isn't as showy as offering money in hand and in public.

So if you are looking for advice for your next trip to Lagos, here is my tip to you: bring more naira than you think you need and prepare yourself for a good dash!

05 March 2009

A Dyeing Art

For many, part of the vacation ritual is spending anywhere from a couple hours to a couple days searching out the best souvenirs and tchotchkes to commemorate the trip. Depending on where you visit, you return with anything from Venetian glass to woven silk rugs to a simple T-shirt implying "I was here." In Lagos, the more popular curios are trading beads (which I'm sure are mass produced in a factory outside the city and have never been used for trading), items made of ebony (or not, which is most often the case), or centuries-old Portuguese gin bottles (mostly fakes...after all, Nigerians know the real value of these items and won't let them go for a pittance).

But amidst the curios of questionable value is an art truly worthy of remembrance: cloth dyeing. It is undeniable that the textiles in Nigeria rival designs found anywhere else, even other parts of Africa. (Our roommate's mother who lives in Uganda specifically requested Nigerian cloth from her son.) Bright yellows, fuchsia pinks, and neon greens are routinely worn street-side, in offices, and at home. And among these more vibrant colors is the batik and tie-dyed indigo cloth still dyed by hand.

In both Kano (in the north) and Abeokuta (just outside Lagos), I've seen indigo dyeing first hand.
Despite synthetic indigo becoming more widespread, much of the indigo dye in Nigeria continues to be produced naturally -- indigo shrub leaves are soaked and fermented to produce the blue color then caked with a base before dissolved again in water. Dye pits consist of concrete well-looking vats where cloth is dunked repeatedly to obtain its rich color. The final color can range anywhere from light sky blue to almost black depending on the length of contact time between cloth and dye. You can usually identify the village "dunkers" by their conspicuous and permanently blue-tainted hands.

To produce various designs, from stripes to flowers to circular patterns, the cloth is strategically sewed together (not rubber-banded) during dyeing then the thread is ripped out before it is dried. Often the ripping requires a foot-on-cloth method for balance and leverage then a violent thrust upward to remove the temporary seams that created the design. For a more shiny (and pricey) piece, the dyed and dried cloth is then sent to be ironed. For this the cloth is placed on the curved length of a halved log, then beaten against the log with large wooden mallets. This produces a shiny finish on the cloth and also a beautiful percussive rhythm for those that happen to pass by.

One of the more beautiful and celebrated art forms in Nigeria, cloth dyeing has maintained its true essence here. Where cloth and its production has turned to mass production in much of the world, this "dyeing" art remains a fundamental process and industry in this West African country.

02 March 2009

It's English to Me!

Anyone who has lived in a place where your native tongue is not spoken can probably relate with the following situation:
  • You arrive at a friends house, exchange pleasantries in your non-native tongue, are introduced to anyone whom you have not met before, then for the remainder of the evening you desperately try to keep up in the conversation. Who are they talking about? Is this someone or something I should know about or does it warrant a clarification? Can I give an opinion or will that offend? Are we still on the same subject as two minutes before or has it shifted?
When I lived in Spain, I often played my "gringo" card asking questions, requesting a repeat, or slipping in a "mas despacio por favor." But what the heck do you do when you can't understand your own language? There is no "gringo" card for that! This has been my reality for the past five and a half months, and recently it was magnified by 20.

One of Brian's coworkers invited us, his boss, and two of his childhood friends to a cookout at his house. Numerous times throughout the evening, a statement would be made to me and I would smile and nod, not having a clue what was just said. As the conversation progressed into more involved topics, I tried desperately to hang on every word hoping to catch a sense of what we were talking about. Just when I thought I had it, the discussion required me to have everyday, culture-specific knowledge...tribal stereotypes, past and present political topics, regional realities. I finally gave up and waited for someone with a more "oyibo-esque" accent to make a statement that would hint at the gist of our conversation.

It is quite embarrassing to admit that you have not understood a conversation in your own language. And you can't blame it on "their" accent either; mine is just as difficult to decipher. I cannot count the number of times I have made a comment only to be greeted by a confused smile or an answer to a question I did not ask. But what I find interesting about the whole situation is that we (oyibos AND nationals) seem to use the same strategies for "covering up" our non-understanding.

Godday's favorite (our driver) is a muffled chuckle with an superfluous "I know"; Doris (my friend from the guest house) smiles, laughs, and says "Wow" to stories I'm sure she doesn't always understand; and then there is the Fulani women from my neighborhood (I believe she speaks limited English to begin with) who responds "fine, fine" to every comment I make. Then there is my "tell" of sorts; a smile, a nod, and a "yeah" response to questions I should probably say "no" to.

In the end, embarrassment turns to amusement as we all realize we're in the same situation. We know we should understand one another but are trapped in an accentual blur. And though a hindrance at times, it usually turns into either a practice of patience or a mutual enjoyment of an unintelligible conversation...after all, it's English to me!