Wednesday, December 23, 2009

I think it was Basho

Dec. 23, 2009

I think it was Basho...

The final day of shooting went well. The “I’ll smash your camera!” guy was the first one to greet us and was enthusiastic to speak on camera about the definitions of “Tokunbo” (i.e. fairly used vehicles – the subject of our film). We made the rounds saying goodbye to the people we’ve been working with at the various sites, and then Adis did a little car business of his own before we sat down for another pauper’s meal of yams, beans, and plantains. I’ve been very lucky with the foods here and have quite enjoyed what I’ve tasted of Nigerian cuisine. But I am not (as some of you may have noticed) Nigerian: I’m a West Coast boy who is craving sushi, fresh vegetables, and a glass of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir like you wouldn’t believe.

Later on during our last full day here we went to the funky hotel, Bogobiri, to have drinks with Mazzi and Chuma (our high-society friends) where we brainstormed about possible funding sources here in Nigeria. I think these two could be able to contribute to our project since they are here full-time and might be able to assist with our search for funding.

I’m staying in this morning as my tolerance for Lagos traffic has now officially reached its limit. However, Adis is out running errands, like getting his dread-locks cut before going to his village so that his mother doesn’t refuse him entrance and he ends up sitting all alone on the street for Christmas dinner.

Cleaning cameras and equipment kept me busy this morning and then I had a conversation with the Hausa man who is the gatekeeper where we’ve been staying. He also does little jobs around the grounds and inside the house. I’ve learned very little Hausa (Salaam Malaeoko [sp?]), but my pigeon English be get better, so I was able to follow a bit of what he was saying. He suggested that I go to his village with my camera to make a film: he’ll take me around showing me all the wildlife (catfish the size of a grown male, if I got him correctly), the birds and crocodiles, and the interesting style of house construction. If it is possible, on another trip to Nigeria, I’d love to see the countryside; this trip has been exclusively urban outside of our two days in the ocean.

Finally, barring any last-minute delays by police road blocks or the like, I’ll be off to the airport for a night-flight to Atlanta, wrestle with customs officers in the wee hours of the morning, and with a little luck, catch my flight to Boston where I’ll arrive at 10:30am, Christmas Eve – that’ll be a shocker. It doesn’t really feel like Christmas around here, namely because of the bright sun and heat.

I’ve come to learn that for those fortunate enough, most Nigerians return to their home village for a 5 to 6 day Christmas holiday with their families, so the city of Lagos pretty much closes down for about a week come Christmas Day. And that means the international airport is going to be “kolo” (kind of like "loco"). It’ll be busy with masses of people, Adis has assured me, coming IN to Lagos and that very few people actually fly out right before Christmas. If my plane is indeed practically vacant then I’ll try to charm my way into first-class seating and get my fill of mindless movies and red wine. If not, then it’s ten hours inside a sardine can re-reading a stack of National Geographics munching Twix bars.

Well, that’s all from Lagos. Thanks for reading and to all who’ve sent along comments on the blog. I look forward to getting back to see my Sweetie, putting this film together, and being able to catch up with all the wonderful Wobblers of Western Mass over a pint at The Dirty Truth.

Adventure becomes memorable by return (Matsuo Basho)

This is Professor KevMan signing out.

1:00 PM
Dec. 23, 2009
Lagos, Nigeria

---------------------END TRANSMISSION

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Day without Urine or Gasoline

Dec. 21, 2009

A Day without Urine or Gasoline

Started early, and actually had breakfast, which was unusual and very fortifying.

But man-oh-man was it HOT today! And not just the temperature. The group of people we focused on filming and interviewing today were the hustlers (aka, sub-dealers) at the car site, and we soon discovered that they have a bit between their teeth. First off, they feel, in general, a bit under-appreciated by the main dealers. Second, they’ve seen us coming and going for the past three weeks and seeing us interview everyone but THEM. Even though we went through the proper channels with this group, i.e. speaking with the higher-ups of this rambunctious collective, we encountered a bit of conflict. At one point a bunch of them started yelling at me about filming and then one particularly confrontational gentleman threatened to smash my camera. But a bunch of other sub-dealers muscled in and within ten minutes all was good and the guy who had threatened to smash my camera was quickly and kindly suggesting to me what would be good stuff to capture on film. Quite a change of attitude to say the least.

All the while, the road that runs along side our site was quickly becoming jam packed with all kinds of automobiles, but particularly, petrol tankers. You see, a little while back the Nigerian Navy had began extorting the oil tankers coming into port. Not foreign ones, mind you, but Nigerian oil tankers. And the federal government was doing nothing about this. The result: Nigeria was literally running out of gas. Long lines at petrol stations, a hike in petrol prices on the black market, and our own gas tank steadily evaporating under the Nigerian sun.

So as we were filming the more interesting (at least, visually) story was taking place on the congested highway behind us. I turned my lens towards the road and spent the next thirty minutes filming amongst the mayhem on the asphalt – noisy, dirty stuff with tempers flaring as drivers honked and tried to out-jockey one another.

At this point I realized that I’d consumed about four litres of fluids and it was now nearing 3pm. It was a day that was so hot that you need not look for a private spot to relieve yourself, you just sweat out all that you’ve taken in.

When we arrived home this evening I felt extremely grimy. My skin was covered with a thick layer or road dust that had clung to the five bottles of water, two coca-colas, and one lime seltzer that had oozed from my pours – less than fresh indeed.

Now showered, cooling under a fan and air conditioning, reading in bed sounds like a blissful way to prepare for our final day of shooting tomorrow: with the hustlers, of course.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Winding Down

Dec. 19, 2009

Winding Down

Finished off the week capturing some good film material. We’ve got two more days of shooting (Saturday is rest day, Sunday is AquaChurch so that leaves Monday and Tuesday, and then I fly out on Wednesday).

Adis and I were totally exhausted by the end of the day Friday so Saturday was devoted to doing as little as possible. Before the obligatory few hours of cable TV on the couch, the morning started off with a bit of fun filmmaking.

I shot some impromptu video this lazy Saturday: “Remmy’s Kitchen.” Remmy is the uncle of Adis and he is an exception to the traditional Nigerian male, for even though he lives in a house full of women (wife, mother in law, niece) he is very accomplished in the kitchen. As a matter of fact – and don’t tell the ladies – I think he’s the best cook in the house. He made beans with pasta topped with catfish in a very flavourful and spicy red sauce – really tasty stuff. That meal knocked Adis and I out, hence the extended TV watching.

After a few hours in front of the TV we went off to do a little bit of honest work. We had an interview/meeting at Protea Hotel, Lagos. Phoned the subject at 3pm to make sure we were still on for 4pm. “You bet,” yet, he shows up at 7:15pm. Got the interview but considering what he and his partner ordered in the VERY expensive hotel lobby, the 40-minute interview cost about $3/minute.

Adis and I are also brainstorming potential local financial sources for completing the film. There is so much money here in Lagos we might actually get the funds for what we need to complete the film (another field trip, editing time, production assistants, equipment, etc.). In fact, I bet I could just walk over to one of the many wealthy folks sitting in this hotel bar/lobby and just ask them for a check in the amount needed and with a little luck we might just find the benefactor we need. Fingers crossed.

In all it’s been such a great trip. Adis has been a fabulous host, and everyone has been very cooperative with our project. We’ve even had time to think about additional projects related to our work so it might be likely that we’ll be coming back for a few more trips. That said, I’m ready to come home – even if home is buried under snow.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Trial by Cow Skin

Dec. 17, 2009

Trial By Cow Skin

This, our last full week, has gone rather well. We got a lot of good filming in and even though Adis and I are pretty making it up on a daily basis, everyone else seems quite impressed with our agenda and what we’ve set out to do here.

Of course, we are still routinely stopped by the police. Adis says that it’s because there’s a white man sitting the front seat (that would be boney white ME) with his window rolled down, gazing out the window as Lagos life passes by. Now, unknown to me, this is rather uncommon: most white people sit in back of the vehicle, discreet behind tinted glass feeling oh-so-important. So, I guess the situation with me appears rather quizzical to the local police: I’m either a lunatic on holiday, or a well-contented kidnap victim with a dog’s liking for sticking his nose out of an open car window. Actually, it’s a bit of both.

My bright nose acting as a beacon, the other day there was the predictable stop by the police. Although, this time around they asked ME for money. The only response I could give them was one I had learned earlier in the week: “Sir, I understand the situation here. But I have no money to give you. Have you not heard? -- I am the poorest white man in Nigeria.” It worked: they laughed uncontrollably and let us go. (I do have to say, however, that there is something structurally wrong with giving an AK-47 to an underpaid governmental employee, but that's another blog...)

Later that same evening we met up with some high society folks for drinks at Bogobiri (a very cool, artsy hotel). Mazzy, a radiant Ugandan young woman inauspiciously commanded all of our attention. She spoke with a rather posh English accent and the boys around the table were more than ready to cover her tab. Only later did we discover that she is the daughter of the former president of Uganda -- and we were buying HER drinks!

More interestingly, yesterday we arranged a lunch with the mechanics that work in the used car industry. They are a really great bunch of guys: some Yaruba, some Hausa, but all speak Igbo and broken English (quite honestly, none of these I can understand). So we did a film session of them and Adis gathered around a table talking about their work. It was a great working class take on the entire Tokunbo car industry – very insightful.

Today we shifted gears to film a discussion with some of the head car dealers that also included the Big Man of the entire car selling site – Mr. President, Meche. I slugged around the camera for an hour and a half while Adis kicked back drinking beers with our research subjects, but it yielded some great commentary and material.

Once it was all finished the Big Man, Meche, motioned to me that I should sit down at the table and join him for a beer and a bite to eat. He’d ordered smoked spicy fish for us to share (yum), but some fried cow skin was also mixed into the dish (yuk). I sat down, took a slug from my cool beer and carefully dipped my toothpick into the mix, trying to get some fish and NOT the fried cow skin. Mind you, this was a trying manoeuvre through layers of fish and onion and chunks of stuff I’d rather not know where they came from. Much to my dismay, I ended up with a heaping toothpick full of fried cow skin. The Big Man looked at me with a pleasing gesture, somehow impressed that I would take such a daring portion of fried cow skin. My stomach and I quivered and freaked out. When I hesitated to slurp it down, Big Man, in a rather diplomatic, yet still insisting manner, encouraged me: “Please, eat your fill. Cow skin is good.” One thing I’ve learned in Nigeria is that when the Big Man tells you to eat the fried cow skin, you eat the fried cow skin and you do so with grace, enthusiasm, and (feigned) pleasure.

But I have to say, after a two-week diet restricted to peanuts and bananas, fried cow skin – although not entirely welcome – does provide some diversity to my diet here in Nigeria. I hate to say it but right about now Dunkin Donuts is sounding pretty good (just don’t tell anyone I wrote that).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lagos Business

Dec. 15
Lagos Business

First of all, I want to say how great it is to get comments on the blog – it’s really appreciated so please keep the feedback coming.

This week started off a little bumpy, but the filming has gone very well. We’re just about done shooting where the cars are remodeled, fixed up, and painted and will now be concentrating on where these cars are sold. Key interviews are in the bag with some of the leading salesmen, so we’ll now follow them around documenting their day-to-day work routines and interactions with customers. Believe me, doing business of any kind in Lagos is a highly entertaining event.

Yesterday we stopped by where the banana ladies sell their fruits and it was unbelievable: woman shoving huge bunches of bananas into our car, Adis and Paulinus (his cousin) shouting prices back at them, the women demanding more while trying to out-muscle the others: from my backseat vantage point it was a furious blur of elbows and bananas flying all around.

Today, Adis did some business with an import/export clearing agent. Whenever it came around to settling on a price for services the clearing agent would tell another story. This went on for over an hour. I was videotaping this and began to see that the business deal (and the agreed upon pricing for services) depended heavily upon the relationship Adis and the clearing agent could create by sharing stories and discussing business in a jovial, but not necessarily, roundabout way.

Even buying art can be a difficult matter, especially when you arrange to meet an esteemed and successful Nigerian artist at his house-studio, make it past the guard and gate and are lead upstairs to his studio to peruse his works only to discover that he’s NOT actually the artist you thought you were meeting. Surely, this gentleman is very talented and established, but somehow Adis mismatched the paintings he’d seen in a gallery with this gentleman’s name. Adis coolly raised the question, “So, how about all of the pieces showing human figures with enormous eyes?” “Oh,” the artist replied, “that would be my contemporary, not me.” Even though he wasn’t the man we thought we were going to see, he was courteous and patient with us as we checked out his colorful canvases.

Colorful would not be the word I’d use to describe our attempt to buy gasoline this evening. The nightmare of trying to get gas went from sheer frustration into a humorous and refreshing ordeal. We had waited nearly an hour along a smoggy and noisy highway in a line that was at least forty cars deep when the management decided they wanted to go home and began to close up the station. Adis, prince of this region, would have none of this. He asked me to get into the driver’s seat (yikes!) while he meandered over to speak with the manager. After some time Adis was able to convince the manager that he should let in the first four cars waiting in line to get gasoline (ours being number two). Adis got gas while I purchased some beers from their market (a convenient, one-stop purchase rarely available in Massachusetts).

And then there was lunch today, which came rather late. All I had until then was nothing but bananas, bananas, bananas. But once it arrived it was good: spicy rice, beans with a mystery (but in a good way) red sauce, and plantains. You see, I was bargain shopping for lunch and this was quite surprising to the people at the food-chain cafeteria, Mama Cass, where we were eating. Nigerians are not accustomed to seeing a white man be frugal with his money. (The white people here work for international oil companies or banks. Sure, there’s the odd medical worker or educator, but even they are getting paid to be here.) So, I got some odd looks as I ordered this bargain meal and more still when I scanned my receipt to see how much each item was priced at. As we sat down to eat Adis put it succinctly: “Kevin, you are by far the poorest white man in all of Nigeria.”

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Dec. 13, 2009


Berated and questioned by the women of the house as to why Adis and I did not attend church this morning, and further, whether or not I am a Christian, was the first activity of the day. I avoided the whole Christian thing and just said plainly, “Ladies, indeed, I go to church every weekend. Usually I am in the woods or on a mountain, but today I will go to the sea.”

As Adis and I drove outside of Lagos down the coast he was quick to point out all the development occurring on the fringes of the city. Huge hotels are going up, shopping markets take up a city block, and the road is dotted with Mercedes Benz, Toyota, and Ford dealerships. All this development will make this part of Lagos look a lot like the wealthy outlying areas of any other warm-weather, coastal city (Puerta Vallarta, for example). This is where white people and wealthy Nigerians will make extravagant homes and pay upwards of $500/night in the hotels, yes, $500. For sure, there is a lot of poverty in this city, but there is an immense – almost stifling – amount of wealth here as well. The gap between the haves and the have-nots spans the Third Mainland Bridge between Lagos and Victoria Island (the longest bridge in Africa, look it up).

When we arrived at the beach we found a long stretch of makeshift restaurants and bars facing the sea, but no one was swimming. Adis chose to remain ashore and serve as my lifeguard while tipping back some local brews, while I ventured in to genuflect amongst the waves offered up by his highness, King Neptune.

An hour of body surfing and swimming put me right. The water was warm and clean and the waves were indeed righteous. The snows of Boston were just over the horizon, but there on the beach in Lagos there was nothing but warm sun, soft sand, and good surf – my preferred trinity.

Once out of the water I gradually became aware that you can get anything you want at the beach, and I mean anything. We stuck to refreshing beverages while pimps and boys, dealers and smokers, hawkers and hookers, cruised the long row of shacks offering their goods. This jarred my memory about something I read in ALL the travel literature on Lagos beaches: “No matter what, do not hang out on the beach at night. You could be with locals, you could be with a group of ten, you could know karate – it doesn’t matter. Don’t hang out on the beach at night.” Toweled-off, slammed back the last swig of Guinness, and we drove home before sundown. No sinning for these two boys, just a good day at church.

Filming resumes tomorrow...

Friday, December 11, 2009


Dec. 11, 2009
Lagos, Nigeria

Well, it’s been a week since I left Boston and it has been some seriously interesting, challenging, and fantastic five days here in Lagos. This city is HUGE. Getting from one place to another can take upwards of two hours. I mean, that’s just leaving the sites where we’re filming to go get lunch or pickup equipment. Hmmm, lunch…

Lunch is actually taken around 4pm and can last a long time. Our typical day has us at the film site around 10am (if we’re lucky) and shooting until 3pm. On our way to lunch we get stuck in traffic and maybe run an errand, like getting minutes for topping up the cell phone or internet, and before you know it, we’re not sitting down to eat until 4pm at the earliest. For me, that’s a long time to wait for “lunch.” Luckily my stockpile of energy bars is still quite high. And of course, there are the road-side bananas and peanuts we pick up along the way so that makes for a great breakfast. For those of you who’ve had the fortune to eat a banana in the tropics then congratulations: you’ve experienced what a banana actually tastes like. (I remember eating a banana in Hawai’i as a little kid and asking my Mom why that banana tasted didn’t taste like a banana.) So, it’s bananas, bananas, bananas until lunch. I’ll have to inquire if Nigerians are familiar with the whole “slipping on the banana peel joke.”

Weekend will be a schmooze fest at the Geothe Institute, followed by drinks with a local advertising exce, and then a day at the beach on Sunday, where I hear there are some righteous waves, dude.

More later,


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Uniformed Shakedown

Dec. 9, 2009

Did our first day of filming yesterday at the Berger Car Park. It went very well, but MAN was it hot! Shooting hand-held under a scorching sun in a car park made me sweat like a pig. Went inside to shoot an interview and we had to shut off the AC for sound reasons, but this resulted in the subject (and the rest of us) to begin pouring out sweat like leaky faucets. My hands were so damp it was hard to keep the camera steady.

Today was devoted to running errands and paying off the local police -- seriously. We got stopped, for no reason except for the fact we run around in an SUV, and had to pay off three different sets of police. Not cheap, a little intimidating, and utterly ridiculous. So much crime in this city and those charged with stopping it are actually engaged in it.

I'm more and more impressed with Adis' communicative abilities -- he's gotten us out of several tough situations, but even the locals find his driving a bit disturbing (fists pounding on the hood at "crosswalks" etc.). And let me tell you, from the little I've seen, it takes quite a bit to offend the residents of Lagos with your driving. Adis is truly one in a million.

Food and beer still good, weather fantastic, people very friendly.

Tomorrow we resume filming and we'll be interviewing the Big Man of the Lagos car trade, which should prove quite valuable for our project.

More later.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dec. 7, 2009: no Nigerian word for "yield"

My introduction to the vibrant and fantastically confusing city of Lagos began with my inability to keep track of how many car accidents I most certainly thought we were going to get into during our morning commute to the car markets of the city. Sit in back, buckle up and take it all in in the name of "cultural experience."

Adis drives exceptionally well, but outside of this particular cultural context his style would not go over well with Mass. State Troopers.

Made our initial contacts with the "Big Men" of the Lagos car importing and modification industry, all of whom are enthusiastic (today) about our project. We commence filming tomorrow.

Finishing off my first full day in Lagos at an artsy hotel lobby/bar, with some visiting artists from Denmark and Bangladesh. We transitioned from a talk at the Lagos Center for Contemporary Arts with these folks over to the hotel, and now the drinks are flowing as we converse under the soft noise of whirling fans.

Food is good, beer is cold, weather is warm -- despite the local idea of traffic control, not much to complain about.

More later.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Departure Day

Looks like snow is heading to New England, while latest weather reports for Lagos have the temperature hovering around 90 degrees F. Better pack shorts and t-shirt in my carry-on.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Night before Departure: 12-5-09

Gathered at The Dirty Truth in Northampton for a sendoff the night before leaving for Lagos, Nigeria.

Good friends and well-wishes and more than a few humorous comments about coming back in one piece. All in all I'm very excited about the adventure.

Packed (mostly) with meds, documents, camera gear and a boat-load of energy bars and vitamin C.

Looking forward to making the next entry after arrival in Nigeria.

-- Kevin