The Blowfish

Travelling along the road from the border to Lagos was like being swept up in a post-apocalyptic refugee migration. People from all walks of life, transported in whatever vehicle was at hand when they had to leave, on roads crumbling under wheels, feet and hooves. People riding, walking, pushing, bartering and arguing in the gaps between the trucks, cars and buses that lumbered over or swerved between potholes.

Any level surface was up for grabs, with traffic bursting onto the verges and the median strip between carriageways. I felt the road's engineer turn in his grave as his life's work was overwhelmed with a volume of humanity he could never have conceived. Then again, his plans might've been thwarted by the clever tricks that corruption invents: digging foundations to half-depth and thinning out the bitumen in the asphalt mix so that the remainder can be sold quietly on the black market.

Along the road I passed loosely-defined precincts allocated to a particular variety of debris. There were stretches of road alongside which these items of junk of the same type were stacked high, consuming the verges and median. It was like driving through a gigantic council tip where each mountain had been divinely designated for a particular type of household or commercial waste. It was as if everyone had bought into the unwritten designations of what should go where despite little consequence if they hadn't.

As Lagos drew closer the proportion of people increased and the density of dwellings did too. On flat, sandy ground green palms and bushy trees fought for fertile soil. Low buildings jostled for space on either side of the road. No structure other than the occasional, haunted pedestrian overpass extended beyond two storeys. Buildings alternated between flimsy shacks and soulless compounds enclosed by high, rendered-brick walls. The compounds kept the chaos of the world at bay, allowing their residents to limit their exposure to safe levels.

As the city drew closer the storm of development seemed to grow more tempestuous, throwing up unpredictable, disruptive structures. The road started resembling its designers' vision more sharply with the main branch widening and tributaries flowing in via sweeping overpasses, heralding that I was now officially on a completed section of the Trans-West African Coastal Highway.

The expensive Michelin map of North-West Africa I'd armed myself with for the trip (though it remained mostly in my pannier having disappointed in its utility) showed an eight-lane freeway from the border to the city. It was hard to believe that anybody had ever gone out in person to verify the Nigerian government's claims that they had built what had been communicated on their drawings.

I pictured a bookish, French cartographer arriving in Lagos to a throng of warm smiles and firm handshakes, distracted by attention, fanfare and bombastic speeches. I imagine him being ferried to various engagements, events and ceremonies eventually running out of time to complete the job he was sent to do. Finally, desperately he would insist that he be taken to the site of recently completed construction. He would demand that he be taken west along the entire length of the new freeway. But the driver would be late and a mysterious mechanical issue or other distraction would plague his timely departure. With his flight for France looming, his babysitters would insist on turning around in a cloud of excuses just before the point where the road abruptly ended.

I arrived at this imaginary point on the road from the opposite direction as I travelled east towards Lagos. As I crossed from the unbuilt bit to the built one, I found myself suddenly riding on smooth, wide (if filthy) tarmac. This was after a brief bit of communal off-roading to traverse the dirt no-mans-land between the end of the old road and the beginning of the (once) new one. The non-existent 125 km stretch of "highway" that fraudulently found its way onto the Michelin map had taken me six hours to navigate.

Further along, yellow taxi buses darted at random on the road like amoeba on the water's surface—sometimes swimming upstream. The passengers panicked or prayed and the conductors hung brazenly from the open or missing doors.

The size of Lagos was hard to comprehend. At the time it was more than double the size of London. Much of that "second London" was in the newly established area along the western edge of Lagos lagoon. Where this enormous lagoon narrowed at its southern end and met the Atlantic, the city was divided and to the east lay the more established areas of Lagos Island and Victoria Island.

To the east again was Lekki, a narrow peninsula between the lake and the ocean. Lekki was being aggressively developed under grand government plans (as distinct from the very organic, DIY approach that dominated the western shore of Lagos Lagoon). Here in Nigeria, city planners enjoyed access to powers their English counterparts could only dream of. The large Maroko slum that had stood in the way of the Lekki Utopia had been levelled in 1990 with 300,000 people forcibly evicted by the military. Try doing that in Hackney.

Phase 1 of the enormous and ambitious Lekki project had been completed. Phase 2 was coming along in great strides (according to officials). One might have wondered why this project appeared immune to the regular woes of large-scale African public projects, and one might have investigated and found that it was squarely underpinned by China's Belt and Road Initiative with the Chinese government enjoying a controlling stake. The entire 165 square kilometre area is dubbed a "Free Trade Zone", subject to different trade policies and laws (no duties, no unions allowed, no foreign worker restrictions). Some might call it a colony.

In Phase 1, the proposed condominiums, freeways, railway stations, commercial zones and parks were all there if not quite as polished and pristine as they might have looked in the original architectural renderings. Still, by local standards (or at least as reported by local real estate agents) Phase 1 was an "elite residential area".

As I neared the neck of Lagos Lagoon I coasted down from the low plateau to sea level. Time seemed to slow dramatically as I tried to process the novelty and scale of what I saw. Everything seemed hyper-real. Streets intended for vehicles teemed with all kinds of human activity. I saw four storey buildings covered in the livery of soap, noodle, scotch and cigarette brands—the entire facades externally wallpapered in homage to the most popular products.

Beside me, a long, curved on-ramp to nowhere ended mid-air. It was packed with what seemed like a hundred, stationary B-double trucks. It was as if some cosmic blade had come down and cut the raised roadway in half, leaving the trucks with nowhere to go. Many of the drivers were camped beside their cabs cooking over coals or playing games. It was obvious they'd been there for many days, waiting for who-knows-what promised next step.

Crossing the less than crystal-clear waters of the lagoon's mouth I briefly connected with Lagos Island before another bridge deposited me on my target of Victoria Island. I navigated the neatly designed streets of VI to the big black gate of the bright pink building that would keep me secure and comfortable for the next few nights: The Blowfish Hotel. I would chillax there for a few days while waiting for Maxi to arrive in his bold, red Land Rover. At the gate, I waited as the heavily armed security guards evaluated me with stern expressions.

I was deep in waters uncharted by the overlanding community. For those aficionados of authenticity African cities are meant to be complex, chaotic hives of despair and discomfort. A true overlander would never set a tactically-sandalled foot in such a sacrilegious space of affordable, upper-middle-class luxury. So, I didn't fit the profile of the typical Blowfish guest.

The guards, having worked through their initial profiling of me as a potentially-explosive visitor from northern Nigeria (here to unleash collective punishment for the haram indulgences presumed to have taken place on the hotel's grounds), stepped aside and the electric gate rumbled open along its tracks. I found a corner to park in in the hotel's carpark and went through my ritual of unplugging, stashing, zipping, unzipping and slyly observing my observers. I stomped and squeaked my way to the reception desk, trying not to leave too much dust on the black marble (motif) floor tiles. I was checked in by a trio of boisterous, bantering young ladies who had lots of questions for me about my origins, attire and net worth.

In the quiet, air-conditioned confines of my large room (with ensuite and balcony overlooking motorcycle) I undertook a second stage of unzipping and unbuckling and changed into my pool-bar attire. I was eager to slip into my "expat drinking by the pool" persona. The day was young and hot and from my sun lounge beside the pool I sent Maxi a picture of my beer with backdrop of clean, chlorinated water—signalling a successful journey and a positive review of the facilities.

"Tough times never last," I thought to myself in a heavy, generic, African accent, "only tough people last."

Tough Times
Tough Times

© David Baskind · 2022