A Fish Out of Water

I have now been in Nigeria almost three weeks, and it’s time for an update.

Firstly, the hotel which I complained about in my last post turns out to be the finest in town, which makes me feel a lot better.  It is a lot easier to handle being in a shabby hotel if there is none better than if there is a swanky beach resort just up the road which your company won’t pay for.  And actually, it’s not too bad.  I can get used to anywhere pretty quickly and start thinking of it as a sort of home shortly thereafter, and now the room feels as mine as anyone’s.  I’m getting a bit tired of the room service menu though, and although the Italian restaurant in my part of the hotel serves good food half the time, it would be quicker to order it direct from Naples.  There is a restaurant in another part of the hotel which serves the same stuff I have on my room service menu, and the other restaurant has a buffet which looks okay but they make their lamb curry from stringy old mutton.  On the upside, the internet isn’t bad and I can get the Premiership football on the weekends plus a handful of European matches during the week.  And the gym here is pretty good, which is just as well.  My lifestyle in Sakhalin and the six months of unemployment in Thailand was as taxing on the liver as it was not on the heart, lungs, and muscles.  A gut started to appear, and for the first time in my life I was sick after having to run, this time for a plane in Bangkok airport.  I was pretty disgusted by this, so in August I decided to hit the gym in my condominium block, starting out with a 30 minute run that ended abrubtly after 8 minutes when I realised I was incapable of running any further.  So I backed off a bit, took it slowly, and spent a month shaking off the cobwebs.  It hurt, and it was humiliating in parts, but by the time I went to London I could do moderate exercise without dying on the spot.

Now Lagos is a place you must drive around if you want to go anywhere.  Without exaggeration, anywhere beyond 300m must be driven because walking is practically impossible.  Pavements serve as car parks, places for stalls, or even homes in Lagos, meaning you have to walk on the road.  The average road is chock full of traffic with horns a-honking, thankfully gridlocked, interwined with a couple of hundred pedestrians just like you and another hundred or so hawkers, all trying to avoid the motorbikes which zip between the whole lot.  It is considered fortunate if the foot-deep water you are wading through is filthy black only because of leaked motor oil, garbage juice, and various flotsam and jetsam and not because it is raw sewage.  People piss on the side of the road in downtown Lagos with an alarming frequency.  Being an expatriate in the oil and gas business, all issues I am largely expected to sort out myself (ignore the guff they spout during recruitment, come prepared as though you were their first ever employee)  with transport being one of them.  There is a shuttle bus which takes me to work, and another one which takes me home and only sometimes doesn’t show up, and there is a taxi service which I can call but having tried it once I don’t think I’ll be bothering again.  The permanent solution is to buy a car, which I am in the process of doing, but this takes time.  I also have to find a safe, reliable driver, which will take both time and a miracle.  In the meantime, I am stuck in the hotel evenings and weekends.  I was hoping there would be a decent gym here, and I was not disappointed.  True, it’s not David Lloyd, but it is easily good enough.  Partly to get to an acceptable level of fitness and partly to get tired enough that I am not bored or depressed, I have been in the gym almost every evening and weekend.  My large laundry bills nothwithstanding, I am feeling an awful lot better than I did last August and I have no intention of stopping.  I have nothing else to do, so I might as well get as fit as I can.  Welcome to expatriate life in the oil business.

The alternative would be to prop up the bar, which I’m keen to avoid, at least for a while.  From what I can gather, the social life here consists of the gatherings of mostly French families on the compounds or the seedy bars favoured by contractors on Saturday nights.  Neither appeals to me much, so other than the evening I had with the Russian (who is now on leave), I have been almost tee-total since I’ve been here.  For now at least, I consider my social life lies elsewhere, outside of Nigeria.  Look closely in a few clubs in Sakhalin and you’ll see my spirit propping up the bar on a Saturday night.  Or holding forth in somebody’s living room as I’m plied with unlimited cakes and tea on a Sunday afternoon.  Or sitting on a stool any time after 4pm at the Dolphin Bar in Patong.  Wherever it is, it’s not here, and so I work, I go to the gym, read, and sleep.

Not very exciting, eh?  Fortunately, my work is going pretty well.  I’ll not say too much about it as it will be boring, but from a work perspective it looks as though it will be a rewarding three years here, and will stand me in very good stead later on.  This is the reason I am here, and right now this is the most important thing.  Am I glad to be here?  No.  Am I glad I came?  Yes.  If that makes any sense.

There is some fun stuff to report, though.  In my second week I had to undergo some safety and offshore survival training, which took place in a centre some 1-2 hours outside of Lagos.  We got taught first aid (warning: don’t get injured around me); firefighting which involved playing with various types of extinguishers on real fires and trying to find your way through a dark, smoky maze (during which I passed out and woke up to find two beefy Nigerians carrying me outside: most uncool); and helicopter escape drills and sea survival.  The last two involved getting wet, particularly the helicopter escape training.  They strap you into a mock-up helicopter capsule, dunk you in water, flip you upside down, and expect you to knock the window out, unbuckle yourself, and get out.  It’s easier than it sounds as you simply follow a set of clear instructions to do it.  You’d be amazed at how intently you listen to the classroom part of that course when you know what’s coming after lunch.  Anyway, the capsule has a lot of big windows and one small window about a foot and a bit wide.  The course consisted of 8 Nigerians, a Frenchman, and me.  None of the Nigerians could swim, so wore red helmets.  The Frenchman and I can swim, so wore blue helmets.  That means the safety divers keep an eye out for the red helmets and don’t worry themselves about the blue helmets.  It also means the blue helmets get to sit beside the small window when the capsule gets dunked.  It was a tight fit, and I have no idea how the Frenchman got through it.  Perhaps his gut left by the front door?  Anyway, I was kind of pleased because if I can squeeze out the small window I’ll positively waltz out of a big window, and as it turned out with a bit of wriggling and pulling free of seat belt straps I made it to the surface each of the six times we did the drill, which is why I’m writing this now instead of lying on a metal table with a mason carving “Shoulda Worn a Red Helmet” onto a piece of marble somewhere.  One Nigerian was shaking with fear before we even got into the water, and after a few minutes coaxing he jumped in and went into a wild panic (a bit like the one I did in the firefighting room, now you mention it), and had to be pulled out thus failing the course.  I felt sorry for him, I used to be scared of water before I learned to swim (aged 23), and knew what it was like.  But the rest of the Nigerians, who were also pretty scared, came through it okay and all passed the course.   The one thing they never managed was to summon the nerve to wait the 7 seconds between entering the water and exiting the window.  This is to ensure the helicopter blades have stopped whirring when you escape, and you’re supposed to hang upside down, strapped into a chair in an enclosed capsule, nonchalantly counting to 7 before unbuckling yourself and getting out of there.  Having done scuba diving I found this fairly easy, but the Nigerians were unbuckled and halfway out the window before their faces had gotten properly wet.  By the time the Frenchman and I surfaced, everyone else was at the side of the pool.

Overall it was a good fun course, and the Nigerian instructors were by and large excellent.  It certainly made a difference from my experience doing a similar course in Russia.  The Nigerians don’t have many Nigerian standards and regulations and instead simply adopt the international best practice, which in this field happens to be that of the UK sector of the North Sea.  The Russians didn’t have any underwater helicopter escape training standards either when the international oil industry showed up, but being far too pig-headed to adopt somebody else’s standards they hurriedly created a course of their own – handing monopoly training rights to a crony in the process – which was very expensive and largely useless.  And I described the Russian firefighting course here.  Anyway, the Nigerians instructors are trained, and the course run, to UK HSE standards.

The course also gave me a bit of an insight into Nigerians.  If I came away with one impression, it is that they have a sense of humour.  Throughout the course they were niggling each other, mocking each other and themselves, bantering with the instructors, and laughing at anything not entirely serious.  I was surprised that they did not speak a common language, or even two or three common languages, other than English.  One of them told me there are over 300 tribal languages and dialects in Nigeria with the result that 10 randomly selected Nigerians would not be able to communicate in a native tongue.  So unfamiliar were they with each others’ language that they were struggling to pronounce their classmates’ names, making fun of any name which sounded funny to at least one of them, which was all of them.  The instructors joined in the fun, with comments like “What kind of name is that?” There were two customs officials on the course with us who were the subject of much joking and derision, along the lines of “Oh, they’re government, they can do what they want!” and “Better get to know them, they can help us next time we’re being asked for bribes at the airport.” The customs officials found this as funny as the rest of us.  They were also able to mock Nigeria when appropriate.  When asked if you would swim away alone or help your colleagues, one of my class piped up “What?! This is Nigeria, it’s every man for himself!” which induced hearty guffaws from his countrymen, and the two Europeans sat in front.  And Nigerians are outwardly friendly and extremely polite.  Everybody says good morning, and everyone seems to be at least partially cheerful.  Getting into a conversation with a Nigerian consists of standing still and waiting for one to come up and speak with you.

But probably the most astonishing thing I saw, possibly ever in my life, was the scenes we passed on the drive back from the training centre.  The outward journey was done in the early hours of the morning when it was still dark so I couldn’t see properly, but we drove back to Lagos mid-afternoon.  The first 5-10 miles of the dual carriageway appeared to be some sort of…well, like a…actually, I have no idea what it looked like.  But lining the road were hundreds upon hundreds of tanker trucks, a few obviously working, most impossible to tell whether they were still running or not, and plenty with grass growing up through the axles and cabs.  They were parked higgledy-piggledy along the road, in the central reservation, sometimes four or five deep back from the verge, and in between, underneath, and all around was what I will loosely call a township.  People were eating, sleeping, manning stalls selling who knows what, and generally living all around several hundred parked or abandoned tanker trucks.  There were fires lit, barefoot children playing, shacks erected, and engines and transmissions stripped right beside the road or up against one of these trucks.  I tried to find out from one of the locals what the place was, but they didn’t know.  I couldn’t tell whether it was a lay-up area, a repair yard, or scrap yard.  Or maybe all three.  I had plenty of time to look because our speed was restricted to 30mph to avoid running over one of the thousand people who were all selling the same identical packets of nuts in the middle of the road.  One truck had been parked on the central reservation about 10 years ago and left there, still with an enormous 36″ pipe section on the back.  There’s probably some poor soul in the Shell procurement department trying to locate that piece and unable to close out and demobilise until he does.  Even worse were the areas where the Lagos rubbish had been dumped beside the side of the road, some of which was actually being dumped as we drove past.  Mile-long stretches of road had for a hard shoulder rubbish of the sort you’d find in a landfill just piled at the side of the road, polythene and black garbage juice everywhere, with people living yards from it, children playing in it, people walking through it, and the tanker trucks parked on top of it as if it wasn’t there.  I’ve seen poverty and squalour before,  but not of this nature nor on this scale.  Africa, it seems, is really like it is on TV.

As we got closer to Lagos the tanker trucks thinned out and the side of the road gave way to the sort of scenes you’d expect if there were no laws in place regarding what you could and couldn’t do on the side of the road.  There were buildings going up, buildings falling down, shacks, stalls, houses, petrol stations, all thrown up any-old-how with no regard whatsoever to anything.  Half the buildings were derelict.  In one place I saw a new petrol station being built right beside the site where an old one stood rusting away.  Goods yards held everything from a million blue plastic barrels to lumber to bricks to concrete to bits of old car to you name it, it was there.  Adverts were scrawled on walls with almost childlike optimism: “Borehole Specialist”, Welder Here”, “Scaffolding” each accompanied by a mobile phone number.  The only thing which added some sort of order were enormous, open-air churches with colourful names like “Blessed Church of the Forgiveness” which looked as though they could hold Woodstock with room for Galstonbury off to the side.  There were dozens of these in various states of repair.  Some looked brand new and well kept, others clearly had featured a preacher with a poor message and were disappearing under six feet of grass.  Just as we got into Lagos we passed an enormous shanty town next to an equally enormous rubbish dump on one side of the road, with a huge stadium-sized church on the left.  By the time I got back to the hotel I was still trying to take it all in.  I wish I’d taken some pictures, but waving a camera about in such an environment is probably not a good idea.  But if I go back along that way, I’ll try anyway.

Africa, it seems, is going to take some getting used to.


2 thoughts on “A Fish Out of Water

  1. Google Earth seems to show Lagos covered with those tanker trucks, with no room to move. We now make you responsible for finding out why there are so many of them.

    Always enjoy your reports.

    Be careful out there!

  2. I wrote down my one and only experience with a Nigerian few days ago (ask me if you didn’t get some slang Russian); yes, as far as I remember, jokes and general cheery outcome is considered a good form.

    Otherwise, the country sounds positively terrifying.

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