It's a Hard Rock Life

Without the distraction of life or death situations (real or imagined) to contend with it wasn't long before my mind wandered to matters of the heart and its anatomical cousins: the loins. Although I was materially secure, be it in suite or cabana, I felt emotionally exposed. I was as vulnerable as a baby bird on the Mongolian steppe whose mother had just been taken by an aspiring falconer.

The empty space wasn't good for me. I had too much time to think, worry and pick at the scabs of my self-esteem. An admirable, stable and mature man would have taken time to meditate, do push-ups and write his memoir. I was not feeling admirable, stable or mature so I allocated the time to reactivating my atrophied Tinder account. In my experience there's nothing quite like kicking oneself in the emotional guts while you're down. This is best achieved by setting yourself up to be ignored by as many moderately attractive women as technology can provide.

To my surprise (and suspicion) it seemed that in Lagos I was a big fish in a big pond and it didn't take more than a few minutes for me to develop a healthy pipeline of promising leads. Some were obviously soliciting and some not so obviously. Some sought immediate cash rewards. Others perhaps sought the opportunity for an elevation in lifestyle, status or security. Few appeared to be looking for love. I briefly understood what it felt like to be a rich man. My complexion and location signalled that I might be a wealthy, international entrepreneur in town to take advantage of local opportunities.

Lagos doesn't come close to competing with Pattaya when it comes to being overrun by horny, Western, male tourists. Perhaps, unlike their Thai sisters might, the local Lagosian fisherwomen didn’t immediately assume I was a low net worth backpacker with attachment issues and a drug problem. My profile more likely resembled that of a global citizen with a promising future who believed in gender equality and had a wife-shaped hole in his life. Perhaps their willingness to find a way to my heart through my stomach would be matched by my willingness to share the spoils of my career in international business. My goals that afternoon may have been more short-term than theirs, but there's a childish part of me that will always believe in fairy tales. Undoubtedly, there's an equally childish part that will bully the first into cynicism.

Now, your naïve and nervous narrator was in no way brave enough to entertain the idea of a cash for fluid exchange in a hotel room facilitated by the friendly tech giants of Tinder and Uber (with loving support from Apple, Google and WhatsApp). My hope was for an oh-so-Western "genuine connection" and not the one provided by my MTN SIM-card. After a few hours of politely declining the bluntest online offers and some cursory conversation with a small set of (what appeared to be) genuine prospects I settled on one to have a date with. Her name was Gina. On her suggestion, we were to meet that very evening to enjoy the traditional, local delights of the Hard Rock Café. I added the brand to the list of corporate overlords to give thanks to that evening.

Just before my Uber arrived, I sent a confessional/welfare message to my mother to let her know that I was going to be going out alone in the dark of night in one of the world's most notorious cities and if she never heard from me again she would know why. This time, I would be leaving my satellite tracker behind. Sorry, Mom.

I slid into the front seat of the Uber. It was a silver Toyota Corolla with a chequered past and a friendly, young driver of limited competence. It had been years since I'd been on a date and I had only one thing on my mind: kidnapping. Two things, actually: kidnapping and extortion. I had no idea whether the messages I'd received leading up to this moment were from a pretty, diminutive Nigerian girl or by the Chief Technology Officer of a sophisticated gang of hardened criminals. At least I'd arranged to meet in daylight on the internationally neutral territory of the Hard Rock Café. My hope that was that it could be to me in Lagos what the Ecuadorian Embassy was to Julian Assange in London. Surely, they wouldn't let the baddies get me in there!

So, I reasoned: I had no idea whether I was meeting a individual, real woman or a collective of armed men; I didn't know whether I was heading to an official outpost of the Hard Rock or a shack with a hand-painted sign; and I couldn't be sure that my Uber driver wouldn't suddenly turn down a dirt alley and surprise me with a location change for my date with the kidnappers.

An experienced Lagos local would have the situational literacy to calculate the probabilities of these fear factors multiplying into a reality. Just like an Australian implicitly knows the likelihood of tripping over a venomous snake while running from the terrifying flames of a bushfire and falling into the jaws of a salt water crocodile. But at that moment my situational literacy was at pre-school level. I was as relaxed as a four year-old on their way to the dentist—fearing certain death from an appointment that would at worst be a little uncomfortable.

Gina was already there when I arrived. She was sitting at the end of a long, stone table from where she could observe the entry and likely buy herself enough time for a quick visual assessment and potential escape should I not live up to my profile's (modest) promises. It never occurred to me that she might be nervous (or at risk), heading out alone into the chaos of Lagos to meet a man she knew nothing about. She rose to meet me and revealed a small, fine frame (not thick enough for local tastes as she would later complain to me).

Gina was demure and delicate in her speech and movement. She had a big, radiant smile which she revealed occasionally and shyly. She didn't initially give much away. After introductions had run their course, we looked around for a perch and settled on a set of sofas around a coffee table on the large terrace that overlooked Landmark Beach. We sat at right angles, each on our own sofa with a small, safe gap between us.

The brashness of the Hard Rock brand had been lost in translation to Lagos and somehow improved in the process. Had it been translated back again in a game of African Whispers it might have resembled something more like Nobu. Some drinks were ordered from a gangly and enthusiastic "server" who Gina unexpectedly barked at in rough Pidgin. This was a hint that I was being presented with the gentler, export version of a girl hardened by life in Lagos. Like New Yorkers, Lagosians develop a thick skin from their daily brushes with each other. They adapt to the constant ambush of competition and conflict experienced just to get through the day. Here, kindness to strangers makes you a lamb to the wolves.

Gina and I set off on our conversational expedition to find common ground and it wasn't long before we reached our first point of interest. She had an older brother (or half-brother, perhaps) who lived in Cape Town—the final destination of my odyssey and the site of many happy childhood holidays of mine. She showed me a photo of him on her large but well-loved iPhone (which her brother had bought her as a gift). The image was of a young man dressed in typical "from the streets to the balance sheets" attire—an Afro-Americanised combo of rapper, athlete and mogul. He sported the oversized shades of a celebrity avoiding contact with the plebian eye. He and a friend leant, with arms crossed, against the bonnet of a dark, matte-grey AMG Mercedes.

I undertook a brief investigation into the photographed suspect's economic activities by way of questioning his sister. I was keen to evaluate any potential future career paths for myself. Unfortunately, the person of interest in front of me was vague about the exact details. Import/export type stuff, I gathered. Importing drugs and exporting dollars, I suspected.

We continued a lengthy tour through Gina's phone which, along with her gentle but persistent talking, seemed to offer her a sense of security. I hadn't noticed her nervousness initially, but it became apparent as she fidgeted digitally and talked more at her phone than to me. Although the setting was (for me) surreal, the date was ridiculously typical—two strangers trying to coax the lightly tamed beasts within themselves into formation as deftly and subtly as possible.

Like my Uber ride earlier that evening things seemed to be moving along well if perhaps a little jerkily and it wasn't exactly clear who was at the controls. We were moving in fits and starts, slowed by the occasional obstacle, but quickly given the conditions. I was ecstatic that I had not only not been kidnapped but that I was somehow interesting and even slightly intimidating to a beautiful, exotic (yes, to me, so sue me) young (sue me again!) woman. Those weren't feelings I was generally accustomed to. I was under a little spell.

After a couple of rounds of unmemorable cocktails and distracting snacks we wandered down stereotypically to the beach in front of the terrace bar where we'd been sitting. A relatively clean patch spanning a strip of bars and restaurants had been cordoned off to prevent too many reminders of the third world (human or otherwise) from making their way onto the sacred sands.

It was dusk but there was still a little light in the smoggy sky. In every sense it was a bit early for suggesting a kiss but I was feeling bold or swept up or something and happily my advances weren't rejected. We returned to our seats and chatted intently as the night set in. More accurately, one of us chatted and the other sat quietly, appearing to listen carefully while he performed the rigorous, mental labour of assessing the probability of it being appropriate to invite the other back to his suite at The Blowfish.

At a certain point with the combined pressure of carnal desire and a compulsion to get a word in edgeways I raised a point of order, interrupting the rather constant flow of words that had been emanating softly from Gina for the last twenty minutes or so. I explained that it was getting late and that I'd enjoyed myself and the company very much so far. My situation was unconventional, I pointed out, in that I didn't have the luxury of time as I was compelled to continue my journey south (actually east and north a bit, first) very soon. Ordinarily, I assured, I'd have suggested that we pace things and let them run their natural course, perhaps catching up for a longer second date in near future. This would be impossible, but I didn't want this to be our last and only interaction. So, with that lengthy preamble I presented Gina with the painstakingly crafted invitation. "Okay," she said in acceptance. "Oh, right," I said. "Okay."

I signalled a little too emphatically to the server to bring us our bill.

Awaiting our Uber in front of the Hard Rock's ornate, modern entrance we stood contently, quietly and closely, wondering our separate thoughts about futures near and far.

© David Baskind · 2022