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June 23, 2008 » 1:40 am

Nigeria, Day 2: Trust and Travel

My last post stirred up concern and sympathy among friends and family, which felt reassuring on the one hand and a bit embarrassing on the other. If you’re in a position where you can have a bad experience, then immediately find sympathetic ears from worried friends and colleagues both on the ground and over the Internet, then you’re really not in a bad place. I pulled out my camera last night at dinner, and Fatima, who works with Judith Walker at dRPC and who’s been taking care of us, teased, “You can take as many pictures as you want here, and we won’t take your camera away!”    (N09)

The truth of the matter is, my travel experiences — both now and in Ethiopia and India — have been mightily skewed by the fact that (a) I’ve had trusted locals in each place who have embraced and taken care of me; and (b) I’ve stayed in the equivalent of luxury hotels everywhere I’ve gone. When I returned from India and Ethiopia, I told people that if I had to go back a second time, I’d be completely useless because my hosts took such great care of me, I didn’t have to do anything. Even when I’ve spent time with villagers in extremely rural conditions, I’ve always returned to a hotel with running water and, in several cases, Internet. High-bandwidth Internet is a huge, huge luxury in many of the countries I’ve been working in, particularly Nigeria, and I’ve had good enough access here to Twitter regularly. Roughing it I am not.    (N0A)

There are two levels of challenges when visiting a developing country. The first has to do with base-level needs. If you’re intimidated by poor plumbing and strange foods, you’re not going to have a good time. I’m staying at the Tahir Hotel here in Kano, which is where Madeline Albright stayed when she visited. (Magdalena Lopez is staying in the room Albright stayed in, her prize for having arrived first.) While the service and security here has been first class, the quality of the lodgings has been about equivalent to a decent, but not great hotel in a developed country. The water pressure is very low, the hot water doesn’t work, the toilets don’t take toilet paper, and the power goes out often. These are all functions of the infrastructural challenges of the location and don’t reflect on the hotel itself. We still have it a million times better than most people here in Kano.    (N0B)

If you can deal with the rougher living conditions, then the main challenge in developing countries is finding people you can trust. You can see this right when you exit the airport, when you are bombarded with people offering to help you, the vast majority of whom are looking to scam you. How are you supposed to filter through all of these offers and find someone trustworthy? There are plenty of scam artists in most large cities, but in the States, you can be fairly certain that cabbies aren’t going to rip you off (too badly) or that security isn’t going to solicit a bribe by stealing your camera.    (N0C)

In Nigeria, people in the know don’t exchange their currency at banks. Thieves hang out there, looking to rob newly weighed down patrons, not to mention the thieves inside the bank who rip you off with poor exchange rates. People in the know have a “guy.” (We met ours in front of a Chinese restaurant on the streets of Kano, negotiated a great rate, did our business, and moved on without ever leaving our car.) There are, of course, no directories of trusted “guys,” at least none that I’m aware of. Choose badly, and you could end up with a handful of counterfeit money. Or worse.    (N0D)

http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3127/2605947618_4e9b44a087_m.jpg    (N0O)

Haddis Mulugeta told me that, up until about ten years ago, people took it for granted that they would need to include a bribe inside their passport in order to gain entry into Nigeria. Stuff like this is what makes travel hard in these countries. You have to build trust to operate; you can’t trust the formal institutions. In developed countries, trust is institutionalized.    (N0E)

What’s sad and bad is that these challenges have a way of coloring one’s attitude about the people, which is totally wrong. Internationally, Nigerians have a reputation for scams and running drugs. However, letting this affect your judgement of the people as a whole is like saying that all Arabs are terrorists or that all Americans are ignorant and arrogant. I’ve heard nasty stories about muggings and shootings, especially near the Niger Delta. Well, I grew up in a safe neighborhood in suburban Los Angeles, and the guy living across the street from us got shot in his own home. It happens. I’ve spent time in cities all over the world, but I’ve only been mugged once in my life, and that was at the Newark Airport. Based on my experiences, I might argue that New Jersey is the scariest place on Earth. That happens to be true, but in most cases, generalizing like this is really stupid.    (N0F)

I had a rough start to my trip, but I had a great first day here, and I’m starting to get excited. I got to see a bit of Kano, and I learned a few words in Hausa. More importantly, I’m around amazing people.    (N0G)

Of course, the one thing that is guaranteed to get me excited is the food. At lunch today, Cheryl Francisconi told Judith Walker, our host, that I want nothing less than the authentic, local experience. Judith turned to me and asked with some surprise and delight, “Are you okay with cow tails?” Uh, yeah. If you’ve never had my Mom’s ox tail soup, then you haven’t lived. It turns out that Kamyla Marvi is also an adventurous eater, and Cheryl is no slouch herself, so this is going to be fun. I don’t know exactly what Judith and Fatima have in store for us, but I heard the words “goat’s head” and “brain” bandied about, so they’re not fooling around.    (N0H)

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One Response to “Nigeria, Day 2: Trust and Travel”

  1. […] countries find ways to collaborate more effectively with each other. As part of this work, I spent a week working with leaders in Kano, Nigeria. When I first arrived there, I asked my host to show me where the local bank was so that I could […]

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