It can be safely said that Lagos, Nigeria (henceforth referred to as Lagos) is completely off anyone’s tourist radar. Having said that, for those of us who do land up here with bag and baggage, Lagos is quite a revelation. Here’s your complete and definitive guide for exploration of this city and its many layers. As such, there are a lot of travel advisories out there telling you what to do and not do while in this part of the globe. However all you really need is lot of good quality sunscreen (SPF 50 or above), a strong head looking over your shoulders at all times and you are all set.
For starters let us get the pronunciation right. This is NOT Laos with a “g” and hence it is NOT pronounced LAAGOS. Let’s get cheesy about this, shall we. Try LAY-GOS. Yeah! See how much snappier that sounds already. You have to look at the city with a similar lens. Just underneath everything that it lays out upfront, there is a hidden prettiness that you need to hunt for and bring to surface.
It is a popular notion that Lagos grows on you. Spend a few years here and you wouldn’t want to leave. Folks come here thinking “2 years and a fat bank balance it is!” They end up spending decade or more happily living the Naija life! I always wondered how that could be given the constant security risk added with lack of free movement for any outsider. It was only when I realized how similar it is to India, did I actually begin to understand this a bit. In India, one ought to be aware of your surroundings, avoid stopping on lonely roads lest you get car jacked, don’t honk at tolls for fear of a stray gun shot, or as a woman, don’t step out at night for fear of some trouble. It never happens to you, it is always someone else; some other part of the country and it is the headlines in the paper and breaking news on TV! That’s all! You nevertheless take all the precautions all the time. So it is like that here, in Lagos. Kidnapping and mugging happens but hey it’s the more affluent Europeans or Chinese who are the frequent targets. Hence cocooning away for a few years here is a fairly easy recipe for a comfortable life! Some of the favorite cribs one may have had on the mother ship are automatically taken care of by virtue of being here. You have a stay at home house help, called house girl -actually she stays in the ‘boy’s quarters’ next to your residences but doesn’t that actually suit us better! She is your all-in-one limited period edition. You don’t need a separate dhobi, jhadu-pocha-bartan bai, press waala, cook. For the Lagos ‘waasi’s’, she is god sent. You would be surprised how quickly they will pick up on how to cook Indian food and beat the lady of the house hollow at it. Their dresses, make-up and hair do’s can make their Madaam’s run to the closest mall or parlor for a fix up for themselves. It may take you a while to find the right one and when you do like always not a thing will get done the right way without her.
There has never been a better work – life balance. Due to safety concerns, one cannot spend long hours at work even if you want to! So come 6pm, you would pack up, get in the rear seat of your swanky SUV and have your driver, codenamed “chalak”, drive you home. As you drive over the 3rd Mainland Bridge, you can marvel at how we in India felt so proud when the Bandra-Worli Sea link was opened and yet Nigeria has had a longer Sea link since 1990! All 11.8 kms of it. Your Chalak by the way is another god sent angel. He is your Man Friday. He will run your grocery errands, drive your children to and from various classes, drop the Master to work and come back to take the Madaam for her chores, drop off Diwali gifts to the respective places…so much more than just a driver! Can you imagine Kanta bai or James ever doing all this without asking for raise or allowance? It is easy to understand why there are so many Indian (and other) expats who have made their home here.
Communicating with your angels is a different ball game altogether. Pidgin English, similar to our “Hinglish”, is the common parlance. So you either get a grasp of it or have your bread buttered the wrong side or worse buttered with something other than butter! So you have to request your driver to “come fast fast” or “now now” else you will be stuck in the “go slow” and would reach only “next tomorrow”! So he better get into the Keke Marwa (an auto! Who named after Governor Marwa who introduced it in Lagos) and not while away time at “mama-put” (Road side food seller so called because customers frequently beg for extra helpings by saying ‘Mama abeg
put more now’.) A few days back, a friend asked her driver to take her to the vegetable market under the bridge. Now the road passes under the bridge, goes right over the bridge and doubles up to come back under the bridge to the vegetable market. So after spending a few baffling minutes waiting under the bridge wondering why the car is not moving forward in spite of any traffic (a rare occasion in itself) she enquired only to be told that they were under the bridge as Madaam had asked. But it wasn’t the right spot under the bridge! Woes of communication strikes again! But when they have names like Happiness and Gift and Friday or Sunday can we really stay annoyed for long.
Once you have tided over with these minor afflictions of your new country, you should get out and explore the surroundings. There are plenty of local markets called open markets where women spend many an hour happily bargaining to pick up the choicest of things imported from London with which to decorate their homes. The maze of lanes and by-lanes of Iponry market is one such great bargain area. For the more handicraft oriented the Lekki open market is a joy waiting to be explored. Once again the maze of lanes here will baffle you, but for anyone from India, a pattern will soon emerge from the chaos and you will navigate these lanes with great ease. One must always remember to smile and be quick to address the sellers as “my friend”. Many a naira can be saved by being patient with the bargaining. Be willing to spend more than a few minutes if you really want to pick up that table or that tiny coaster. Whatever the value of your goods might be, a friendly bargain is not far away. And just because you may have been a pro at Janpath or Fashion Street does not give you a degree in bargaining here. It is a different ball game altogether calling for oodles of patience. Sit down at the shop if you really want it and prepare for more than a few minutes at war. Yeah! You can do it! Everywhere you go you will be stumped with their politeness. Unknown people will greet you, apologize if they come in your way, give way to your car in traffic…now that is something unimaginable back home isn’t it where road rage rules. Once my Mitsubishi Lancer (ugh!) scraped a Mercedes G500 (ooo!) in bumper to bumper traffic. As I geared up for a long haul in hot sun while the drivers fought, police came and the usual rigmarole unfolded, I was pleasantly stunned to find that both the drivers trudged along parallel for the next 10 minutes just coolly glaring at each other and mumbling driving advise. The maximum aggression displayed was making a hand gesture pointing to their eyes and then the other driver indicating “evil eyes on you”. That’s all! No “fancy” words, no daggers drawn. The G500 dude didn’t even get off his vehicle to check the damage. I think it was just too hot for him and the experience was the coolest ever for me.
What you cannot escape is the delectable food. Even to a seasoned Indian palette the food here is something else. No, not the Nigerian fare I am afraid but the other cuisines of the world which are available here in a very matter of fact manner. Chinese, Lebanese, Italian and Japanese (!) foods have made it their life’s mission to tempt you with one mouthwatering plate after another. Among the Nigerian cuisine though the Jollof rice and suya (kebabs basically) are recommended. Along with the food, the view is also something to write home about. Lagos has a lagoon to boast of and many of the delectable eateries are dotting the creek here with predictable names such as Lagoon restaurant and more eccentric such as Cactus. Another interesting aspect of food in Lagos is the number of bakeries baking fresh bread and buns. There is dichotomy between the modern cosmopolitan world view and the corrupt old world regime that is apparent here as in every other aspect of being in Lagos. Make sure you take a ‘before’ and ‘after’ photograph of your Lagos sojourn…the effect will weigh you down! No discussion about the food in Lagos can be complete without a mention of the drinks and therefore the nightclubs. Now I am sure that God has specially blessed people here with fantastic metabolism. Largely there will not be an extra ounce of fat be it men or women. Which probably explains the very strong and potent drinks that are served in bars and nightclubs here. I have not seen shorter dresses, higher heels or better biceps, leaner bodies anywhere in our part of the world. Safety aside, the clubs start not before 11pm and go on way into dawn hours. Little wonder then that so many of the menfolk enjoy their bachelor parties here in Nigeria with their wifey’s back home with their toddlers. If you are stopped by men dressed in black carrying massive sten-gun like guns and peering inside your car with flash lights don’t be scared too much. These are cops who prowl on the roads post sun down looking for the Maasta (masters) to “dash something for the weekend o!” Our pandu’s or thulla’s back home can take a leaf from this book where there is absolutely no ambiguity as to what the demand is.
Just in case you thought that Lagos was lacking in outdoor life, you would have another think coming. It boasts of a few beaches which are expat frequented and hence “safe”. Surfing is quite popular at Tarkwa bay which is a boat ride away while bar-b-q is favored at Tropicana beach. If you desire a nature walk head over to the Lekki Conservation Center where a 2 kms jungle trail will show you wildlife ranging from hornbills to mona monkeys to snakes and crocs. All wild! Lagos packs in a surprise for you at every other turn.
Lagos has a complete package to offer. From cosmopolitan night life, to the suits clad corporates, to the beach bums. For an expat, it is not all that bad as it is made out to be for the outside world. Sure there are difficulties and challenges but they are not unlike anything you will not see or experience anywhere else in the world. To be aware and to be careful is the key. Other than that, let you hair down and have a good time. Lagos will not spoil…Eko Oni Baje, O! But it will surely spoil you!