Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Kaduna to Port Harcourt


The taxi we hired from the bus station rolled along the deserted road. Deserted except for the few bodies ahead, shadowed behind bright flashlights, directing us to stop. Police check. Common in this part of Nigeria, I'd heard.

“Why are you travelling so late at night?”
It was 1 in the morning and we had just arrived in Port Harcourt. We took the bus from Kaduna and had left the bus terminal at 8 the morning before.

The police officer shone his light in the back seat, stone-faced as he observed its contents. My partner and I sat squinting at the obtrusive brightness, separated by the backpack between us. I smiled wanly at the officer, unable to muster the energy for anything more. On top of the stress of a long journey, I was coming down with something. Hard and fast. It started with my throat; dried out from Harmattan-- the seasonal wind that takes the sky by two hands and wrings until the last drops of moisture become dust. I had been coughing throughout the bus trip with no relief. Not only was the bus packed with people but also with luggage, carried for a price, to unseen recipients along the route. This meant discomfort and infrequent rest stops. Even when we inched forward in traffic like the body of a long metal caterpillar, it was impossible to exit the bus through the mosaic of bags blocking the door. Even when the driver; large hands flying in exasperation--left his door hanging open to scold the offender who had bumped our back fender, we were trapped inside a quickly heating oven with no escape. The tickle in my throat had spread to my head, nose, stomach, and finally my whole body began to ache.

The police officer returned his unblinking light to the driver, apparently satisfied with what he'd seen, and waved us on.

Five minutes past the police check, honks and lights chased us to a stop. I held my breath as a white pick up truck coasted by on the left, no more than a foot from our taxi. It stopped directly in front and released four armed men who walked towards us. Are these them? The people everyone is afraid I will meet in Nigeria. Maybe they will kidnap me and hold me for ransom. I looked to my partner for some information. He looked straight ahead at the approaching lights for a moment, then down at his feet. He pressed his toes against the floor, raising his heels slightly and letting them bounce to a stop. His face gave me nothing. I felt a flicker in my chest as my heart quickened, again.

Earlier, our bus driver had decided to take a 'short-cut'.
“Don't you have some proverb about short cuts?” I had asked my partner.
“What do you mean?” He said.
“You know. . .something like, short cuts never end up being short cuts?” I laughed.
He thought for a minute. “I don't think so.”

I reached for his hand as the driver turned down a narrow road off the highway. The sun was nearly set making the unlit route ahead invisible past the feeble beam of our headlights. The fluctuating speed and sporadic pressure on the brakes proved the driver was not familiar with the 'short cut' he decided to take. Long grass and trees reached out from unseen origins with twisted arms. The skeletons of vehicles that had taken sharp turns too quickly, emerged and retreated with the touch of our headlights. We were alone on the road. The looming space created a vacuum around the bus that captured imaginations, forcing them to wander deep into the surrounding darkness. All of the news articles, personal stories, travel advisories started running through my mind at increasing speed. They suddenly carried a weight I hadn't noticed before. Robbers? Kidnappers? How can we run? There's no way out of this goddamn bus. No cars around to warn us of what's happening up ahead. They might try to take me. What would I do? Is it better to identify my partner or have an ally on the outside? They might kill him. They might kill me. Or worse.

Floating lights appeared from an incalculable distance, the glare on our cracked windshield obscured our already limited visibility.
I inhaled deeply. The other passengers in my periphery fixed their eyes on the blinding orbs ahead. No one spoke over the dull rumble of the bus. The approaching car swerved to the middle of the narrow lane almost directly in front of us. Our bus screamed collectively as it lurched forward, slamming on the brakes. The dust swirled before settling on the two bright headlights blocking the road ahead. There was nowhere to go. My partner's hand slipped out of mine as it grew wet with a cold sweat. Every hair on my body stood on end.

The headlights jerked up then turned towards the left side of the bus rocking up and down. They neared then disappeared behind us. The pavement had come off the patch of road directly ahead and was only passable through a narrow swatch of raised clay in the middle. If we had continued at our previous pace without seeing the hazard, the bus may have flipped. I felt fingers fumbling for mine as the light around us receded. A squeeze of assurance before our bus continued down the deserted road. Darkness flooded back in with my exhale.

The same fear flashed through my body as four bobbing LED flashlights made their way towards our taxi. The taxi driver instinctively rolled down his window. Two lights shone brightly into the back seat as another, on the driver's side spoke briefly and inaudibly to the driver. The driver opened the door and stepped outside.

“What's going on?” I asked my partner.
“Nothing, don't worry. It's fine.”
Another bright light appeared in his window. He too opened the door to step outside.
“Should I come with you?”
The door closed behind him in response.

I was alone in the backseat. What's going on?Why didn't he say anything?Would people really try something so close to a police stop?It wouldn't be very smart. . .Am I ever going to make it to meet his family?Couldn't he have said something?

“Ogara inyuanyu zoro azoro, one who goes to take a shit steps in shit on the way.” My partner had said, after we had survived the 'short cut' and the bus driver had turned back onto the main route.
“What?”
“That's the proverb you were asking about,” he laughed.
I thought for a minute.I don't get it.”

Now, a light outside my window lowered and I could see the light reflecting off of a middle aged man's dark skin. He motioned for me to open my window.
“Oyibo! How are you?” His smile was welcoming. The intention in his voice erased my desire to separate myself from his identifying label—white.
“I'm ok. Not feeling very well.”
“Sorry,” he said, in customary sympathy for another's troubles. “Where are you coming from so late this night?” He was wearing a black uniform with a faded 'police' marked on it. Could it be a knockoff?
“We just arrived from Kaduna.”
“We?”
“My husband and I.” It was less complicated to say that, but we weren't married yet.
“That's your husband?” He motioned to a space in the darkness I couldn't see.
“Yes.”
“Where are you from?”
“I'm from Canada.”
“Canada? Wow. So, how are you seeing Nigeria?”
“It's fine.”
“Yes. Nigeria is a good country. I hope you're enjoying it here.”
My partner's door opened and he slid back into his seat with a sigh. A moment later, the driver's door opened and he too slid back into his seat.
“Take care ok?” The officer said and turned back to the pick up truck with the three other bobbing shadows.

“Ndo. Sorry. It's like this in Port Harcourt,” my partner said.
“Did you pay them?”
“No! For what?” He shrugged with his palms facing up. “Do I owe them something?”

The driver put the key in the ignition and turned. There was no response. He tried again. Nothing.
The driver said something in Igbo to my partner. The tail lights from the police pick up truck were already too far to call back.

“Hold this and come outside.” He passed me the bag containing our money and passports.
“Outside?” Out the window long grass creeped towards the boundary of dust that edged the strip of asphalt we drove on. The bush devoured remains of concrete block walls beyond. “Are you sure? Is it safe?”
He and the driver opened their doors and stepped outside, still conversing in Igbo. I sighed, then coughed, as I followed them into the still night.

Besides the disappearing tail lights, nothing stirred. The air had a faint scent of diesel and crickets chirped a soundtrack from somewhere past the pavement.
After inspecting the car and briefly leaning over the opened hood, the driver lowered it back over the failing engine and went back in behind the wheel. My partner stood behind the car for a minute then put both of his hands on the trunk. He started walking, slowly at first and gradually, began jogging behind the car. Against my protesting body, I walked beside the road, increasing my pace to keep up with them.
The engine sputtered a few times before finally coughing back into life. Half-life, at least. My partner stopped as the car rolled on by itself. It stopped a few meters up the road to wait for us.

“You have to be careful of your movements around here. Sometimes they try to take everything,” he said, rejoining me.
My brain was too tired to function. My throat was killing me. My body wanted to collapse on the ground.
“What? Peanut, I don't get it. What are you talking about?”
“The taxis. They pretend there's some problem and when you get out to push they just drive away with everything.”
I stopped mid stride and looked up. I hadn't noticed how bright the stars were here.  A long moment passed as I tried to wrap my tiny brain around the exact transposition of the sky I saw. 
“Uwa nka safe,” I said. What kind of world is this? It was one of the Igbo phrases he had taught me so far.
His high pitched sigh pierced the night.
“Uwa nka safe,” his laugh was a mix between a wheeze and a giggle. He took my hand in his. “Uwa nka safe, my sister!”
We continued towards the taxi. Laughter erased our fear and tumbled out, raising in harmony with the crickets, lightening the thickness of night.

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