A Slow Train or Three Across Nigeria (5 of 9)
Some mosquitoes made a nuisance of themselves, accompanied by more wails and screams from what sounded like a miserable puppy suffering the torments of the lost, but in the light of the morning I see that it is a goat, in the goods wagon behind my carriage. I glower balefully as it superciliously chomps on a strand of straw.
We’re still at Bauchi. Out in the railyard I spot a standpipe that was once used for refilling the passenger carriages’ water tanks and as it is leaking I have a sort of washbasin for a scrub and some laundry. At eight I go for a brief stroll, to see that everything is closed, the town is spread out, and not much is nearby. Other strollers say that the delay will probably be past noon; back at the station I’m told “At least an hour” so I go out again and engage a motorcycle ‘taxi’ to the Post Office.
It is a big building, but there are no postcards nor at the nearby shops. Even at nine a.m., many stalls have yet to open for business. I wander back into the P.O., considering what I could post in a limited time, decide on nothing, then as I go to leave the P.O. ladies call me over as they have found some cards. The scribble takes up the rest of the nominated hour, but after a swift ride back to the station, more hours look likely.
Indeed, a railwayman says “Noon – two p.m.”, so I go back out to call at the milk depot noticed on my journey to the P.O. Three yoghurts in small plastic bags at N30 each, plus N30 for the ride is still cheaper than the only other milk available, UHT in plastic bottles for N150. I’m not exactly a big spender with all these taxi rides as there are about N80 to the US dollar. So why not have a fling, and drink a coke or two at a street cafÃ¯Â¿Â½ by the breach in the city wall near the station. Only N15 each. Nearby, a petrol-powered grinder is chugging its way through its supply of peanuts, each woman closely watching her batch slump in and ooze out.
A cafÃ¯Â¿Â½ patron, Kassim, offers to show me around town, but first to check at the station where the word now is “Four – five p.m.; there is a derailment up the line.” So away we go. First to the administrative offices, long low concrete block buildings where he works as a primary teacher for the railway school. The clerks are embarrassed that a foreigner would be experiencing their train service, and laugh uncomfortably when I assure them that I am not distressed, though I do think of the merits of less administration and more maintenance. We continue past his schoolroom, idle now thanks to school holidays, on our way to the neighbourhood pub.
No chain operation this. In the courtyard, clay cauldrons stand in threes around small fires; thick brown liquid seethes and steams. This is maize beer. Guinea corn is crushed, boiled, fermented and drunk, and almost that swiftly. Close by is the pub: a mud-brick shack. Within, patrons quaff a pale brown fluid that looks like thin porridge (or hot chocolate in milk) but with bubbles. It is served, still fermenting, from froth-topped jugs into drinking calabashes, which can’t be put down until empty, but for the special guest, the landlady brings out a metal ring to serve as a stand.
The stuff tastes quite palatable: a bit nutty, with a flavour like flat ginger beer. It has a reputation for causing bad drunkenness, but a quart is not enough for that, though Kassim is worried for me. We’re seated on benches against the wall; scattered around are the jugs of the current vintage, occasionally spurting some brown foam onto the dirt floor. By contrast, the patrons are all steadily holding their drink, chatting cheerfully and asking questions of the strangest thing they’ve seen all week, namely a foreigner here drinking their brew rather than demanding some imported bottle or other while looking lost.
I don’t linger, as Kassim is unable to drink, being a Muslim, and further, it is Ramadan. We head back towards town, pausing to view another stretch of the city wall, then as it is time for afternoon prayer, he goes to his mosque while I head for the restaurant opposite the station. This is a typical restaurant of wood construction, with a typical menu: pounded yam paste with vegetable soup (that is more like a stew), and well peppered. The walls bear various chalked-up slogans and long words. Beneath “Antidisestablishmentarianism” I add “Flocci-nauci-nihili-pili-fi-ca-tion” (which I hope I’ve spelt rite, like) for the benefit of the next student of English to eat there.
Back at the station I decide against a visit to the city museum, a railwayman warning me that four p.m. approaches. Kassim and his friend turn up at 3:30 to chat, and spend the time reading what Lonely Planet says about Nigeria, until six when I decide that it is time to eat. Saheen’s aunt runs the restaurant! However, although the sun has set, they decline to join me for dinner, saying that they have food waiting at home and “You must be careful of your money.” This is a pleasant change from the usual approach to foreigners.
After eating, some hasty farewells, as toots can be heard from the engine so I hasten back to the train. Not that we leave. At 8:15, an engine is attached, and the lights come on. But at nine the lights go out, the engine goes away to its rest and we are to stay here for the night, rather than “Stopping out in the bush.”