Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Travel Diaries: Lagos, Nigeria

Travel warning: Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, is not for the faint-hearted.
The airport is like the descent into hell. Once in town there are very few nice views or handsome landmarks — one just drives around in a state of mild apprehension.
In three days I got just three nice photos, they are all on this page. One is of the nice Tutsi man who took me Christmas shopping; one is of the pretty fitness instructor with the amazing Star Trek coif  at my luxury boutique hotel (“The Wheat baker” on Ikoyi Island, Lagos’ answer to Belgravia) and one is of athletic banana vendors on the main  street.

Banana-vendors road-side, Lagos.
It’s not that there aren’t a lot of snap-worthy subjects roadside — in fact there are any number of statuesque ladies in fancy dress and uniformed officers hanging out poetically as they lean on automatic assault weapons — but my driver and guide wouldn’t let me take any snaps of them.
“People don’t like white folks taking snaps of them,” he explained.
This is an enormous handicap for a white photo-journalist.
I confined myself to covering the goings-on in my hotel, surreptitiously, with my Blackberry, but  had limited success.
Every time the guest wing lift- doors opened a Naomi Campbell look-a-like would emerge, long purple toe-nails poised to attack if I so much as raised a smart-phone.

Kurus, my Tutsi shopping consultants at Harrid’s Mall, Ikoyi next
to the National Museum of Nigeria.

My foxy fitness instructor at the delightful Wheatbaker
boutique hotel, Ikoyi.
There was also a photogenic bishop who haunted the coffee shop. In his dress sense he was a dead ringer for Michael Jackson’s father, right down to the giant diamond studded cross around his neck and white alligator cowboy boots, but he was always surrounded by Southern Baptist sycophants warding off demons.
I decided to watch the local television channel, “Magic Africa” , to get a reading on the local culture. Almost every program featured domestic violence played out in nouveau riche homes: Over-sized leatherette lounge sets are essential to film-making in Nigeria I discovered: banking scams are hatched on the arm rests, wives and girl friends are hurled down hard onto the holstery and semi-automatic assault weapons are stored underneath.
Still from “African Magic” television show.
Shamans in tribal dress shaking sticks also featured prominently in many of the episodes I watched. The shooting angles are ridiculous and the scripts bizarre (I’ll spend any amount of money to get you back, honey”) but it's addictive.
•         •        •
On one trip out I went to the National Museum, also on Ikoyi Island, where my white face was welcome — “You’re most cordially invited, sir,” said the guard at the main gate — but no photography was allowed. The custodian even turned on the portable generator in the courtyard so I could go through the beaten-metal Waterworld-style doors and see the magnificent Benin heads and other artifacts inside.

Tribal artifact/stone totem from Central Nigeria in the National Museum.
On another trip out I went to a huge communal nursery run by a Lebanese immigrant which featured row after row of the same boring palm. In matters horticultural the Nigerian elite seem to prefer the Pondok Indah-Semi-Classical-restricted-palette look, perhaps as a reaction to their former colonial master’s garden exuberance. The other popular style for the avant-garde apartment complex is “Gotham City Grunge” realized in severe lines with entrance gates of beaten metal plates (a national obsession) with rivets all welded on like.
As a city Lagos has few redeeming features besides the charm and enthusiasm and dress sense of the Nigerians themselves. There is nothing quite like the site of a big mama in funny dress emerging from a black S.U.V. , or an alpha male in kaleidoscopic pyjamas, or the sound erupting from Victoria Island Stadium on Gospel Sunday.
I was lucky to witness these cultural treats and felt as I left Nigeria, after surviving the two hour obstacle course at Airport Departures, that  Lagos is perhaps best enjoyed in small doses.
•         •        •

View from the glass lift at the MCA, New Years Eve.
From the city often voted the world’s worst I flew Emirates, one-stop, to Sydney, the city often voted the world’s best.
For a Bali-dweller like me Sydney is the perfect Christmas holiday destination: it has sea-views galore, moving traffic and no-one offers you a massage or land to develop.

My Christmas tree at Lavender Bay, Sydney
(Flores Island fertility totems).
Loroblonyo meet Queen Elizabeth II — my Christmas
decorations, Sydney.
On the way from the airport I stopped at Wiley’s rock-pool in Coogee and found a Batak family, the Siregars, frolicking  in the surf in a way one never sees on Samosir Island.
Sydney brings out the best in the Batak I divined.

Sydney Harbour thrill-seekers.
On Christmas Eve I took my Batak companion to St. Mary’s Cathedral for the laser show and the 150 strong choir and the atmosphere. He came away unimpressed: the ‘Bogans’ in shorts, toting shopping bags, ruined it for him he said.
Nor was he impressed by the fire-works on New Year’s Eve, viewed from McMahon’s-Point.
“Seen it before,” was his verdict.
So I took him to him to the deliciously Art Deco Cremorne Orpheum cinema to see “Life of Pi” in 3-D.
“Biasa” he said.
Next day we went to Wendy Whiteley’s secret garden in Lavender Bay for real Sicilian pizzas cooked by the gardeners.
“Same as Pizza Hut” he lamented.

Batak tourist pressed into service by Lavender Bay matron.

 Batak after Christmas lunch.
At the fabulous new wing of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) at Circular Quay he was under-whelmed by the Anish Kapur exhibition, but loved the view from the glass lift.
The one thing that got him excited was a trip to the famed Darling Harbour Aquarium with a society Queen’s Council and his children. After ogling sharks for hours he was taken to Lim’s in China town for Yum Cha.
He came back with a smile as wide as Lake Toba — the Chinese all-you-can-eat smorgasbord had hit the spot!
•         •        •

The old Raja of Karangasem, East Bali, with the palaces Nandir (male Legong) troup. The Raja’s son is in the front row in Condong costume
Back in Bali the floods have started in earnest and urban tourists are being washed down the new Kuta underpass hole. The hills are still alive with the sound of Legong, however, and I go to Peliatan  for the premier of the revival of Nandir (all male Legong) by the dance and gamelan troupe of A.A. Bagus Mandera and A.A. Rai Dalem, sons of the late great Maestro Gung Kak. Look out for it on your next trip to Ubud — it will blow your galoshes off!