A Slow Train or Three Across Nigeria (9 of 9)


Dawn finds us at Ibadan, where the family unloads many sacks of yams, so farewell to the kids. Mum’s estimate on Saturday of a Tuesday arrival at Lagos is looking to be accurate, and better than any of my mathematical calculations, based as they were on too simple a model. At 7:30 we leave the desolate station. The country now is covered with green, creepers everywhere, but still there is burnoff. At eleven we’re entering a city draped over a granite hill: Abeokuta. While not pretty, it is at least not an ugly town. As with other recent stations, there is not much by way of food here, unlike the hordes of vendors at Kafanchan, for example, so the bananas bought at about one a.m. will have to suffice.

Onwards, swiftly (maybe even forty m.p.h.; alas I’m out of practice with such speeds), but at 12:10 we stop in nowhere for no apparent reason. Engine off, birds twitter, time passes. At 12:30 it is restarted and revved; 12:35 mournful toots waft forth; we lurch, stop, ..move on.

At 1:10 we shudder to a halt at Itori, and a Mama hastens over with a bowl of something, wrapped in banana leaves, but we move off before she can satisfy all her willing customers, to her annoyance and mine. What’s a few minutes more delay for us?

At 2:10 we stop again somewhere, engine off. At the trackside are some buildings and a shack where a big mama offers rice and curry, so a good meal for all who stroll over, many trampling the trackside signal wires. At 2:45 our front engine belches smoke as it starts, then at 2:50 a toot, a lurch, stop, then move on with much screeching from the wheels. We stop again at 3:15 in some market area, waiting until a train going the other way passes at 4:10. We advance a few feet, lurch back, move on.

Stop and go continues as we approach the urban squalor of Lagos. Some trackside stalls are within a foot of the side of the carriage: obviously, no fast trains have passed recently. There is plenty of water here; open drains of blue-grey ooze, one with a sign “Keep clear, septic tank drain”, but it seemed no different from any other. Vegetables for sale are piled right by the drains. I am already unhappy about the meat markets, so this is not a comforting sight. It should be clear why African cuisine often involves cooking for hours on end. Likewise, fiercely hot sauces are common in hot climates: they may burn your lips, but imagine how it would be to bathe in the stuff, as an intestinal parasite! Deep frying in boiling oil looks good to me.

And at six p.m. we draw up alongside a long platform. It is Lagos station at last, just three hours short of a week since leaving Maiduguri. I farewell the other diehard passengers, and walk into the dusty station hall, with its dusty display of schedules. Outside is the maelstrom of Lagos street traffic. I find a taxi stand, and yes, the driver doesn’t know the Ritz hotel, or King George V street, nor can he comprehend a map, but some bystanders assist, so shortly I’m away, my train journey completed.

End: Tuesday evening

For this trip I needn’t have quoted times to the minute, though I was recording them in order to attempt to interpolate my position on my big map. The nearest day would have sufficed, and as for estimates of the final arrival time, they were pointless.

This is something to remember the next time you receive a vague answer from local people when you pester them with stupid queries as to ‘When do we arrive?” Pro-rata calculations are based on the simple idea of ‘steady progress’, a model that is laughably inappropriate for Africa as there is no cognisance of what are in fact the controlling factors: namely that at any time, at any place, some arbitrary and unimagined mishap may occur, that overwhelms all your silly calculations with brute fact.

Lagos. Ah, Lagos. “Most travellers detest Lagos.” “Even Nigerians agree that the city is a hellhole.” So says Lonely Planet. I found it not so bad. There was some traffic, but not a dreadful street-clogging frenzy, just the light traffic that might be found on a Sunday afternoon. This was not surprising, as it turned out that Ramadan had ended as I arrived, so that a three-day public holiday was in force.

Likewise, the streets did not seem as dangerous as described, at least those I strolled along. Perhaps thieves and muggers also take the opportunity of a holiday to get out of the city! Even so, I kept away from the rough areas, and at night went no further from my hotel door than the adjacent street restaurant. For example, my hotel (The Ritz!) did not have a working telephone, so I asked about a telephone office. There is one just around the corner, but then the clerk blinked, and said “Don’t go.” The time was just nine p.m.

Luckily for me, my one-month visa extended to Friday, when everything re-opened for a day, and I was able to obtain a visa for Benin that very day, so escaping the need to engage the bureaucracy in a request for an extension of my stay in order to deal with the bureaucracy of leaving. Rather than just leaving.

On a working day, there was indeed a street-clogging frenzy of fumes and noise such as I saw on arrival. A pedestrian, even with a pack, moved faster than the vehicles through the city centre, to a ferry terminal that got me away across the harbour, out of the worst and a good start on reaching the departure area for Cotonou.

And at the border, as I worked my way through the multiple stages of the exit procedure, one pair of officials asked me where I had been and how I travelled and were so amazed that I had travelled by train that they returned the ‘beer money’ I’d given them saying, “Here, keep this for the next man.”

Many are the benefits of train travel.


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