Under suspicion


The conflict with the extremist group Boko Haram has the country in suspense. There is a reason why I decided to shave my beard and hair and hang Christian crucifixes before arriving here and it is because in southern Nigeria, for some strange reason, anyone who is not from black Africa, is considered by ordinary people as a potential terrorist of Boko Haram. Strange because you can be white, blond and blue-eyed and still run the risk of being chased to get lynched by people who believe you are a terrorist. Therefore, in order to minimise suspicion, I decided to proceed with my aesthetic changes and the adjustment of my religious jewerly. It was not enough.

Only 4 days in Nigeria have gone by, and the day before arriving in the city of Enugu, in my eagerness to fulfil the first promise I had made before entering the country (advance as quickly as possible) I ended up violating the second promise (follow my common sense to avoid dangerous situations). That's how, after a long day having pedalled over 140 km, the night caught me on the road before the city in a populous suburb on the outskirts. The road condition is horrendous. It's so dark and so dusty because of the chaotic traffic that I can barely see the potholes, the stones, or the people around. In a certain way, I am glad of this, because I realise that the element is no longer the same and I feel that at least, I can go more unnoticed this way. I am aware that my situation is not good and I do not want to abuse my luck. Therefore, since in the middle of this chaos I can not find a place to stay, I decide to ask until I get to a police station.

With nerves of steel, I come pedalling in absolute darkness through dirt roads, to the remote and lonely place where the station is. There, in the open field in the middle of nowhere, I find the access gate where two officers are sitting with machine guns. I explain my situation and they tell me that I can not stay there, but they allow me to talk to the boss. Sitting in the gloom, behind an old wooden desk, inside the old brick house illuminated by a dim bulb of light, the boss, surprised by the unusual visit, invites me to sit down.

I give her my passport, and while I explain my situation I can see how she, with two policewomen dressed entirely in black, look at me with great suspicion. After I finish, she concludes coldly: "Here you cannot stay". I try to persuade her by saying that I do not feel safe cycling at night, that there are no hotels around, and that if I do not turn to the police for help, who could I turn to. After a few moments, she tells me that if I want to stay there, they will have to inspect everything I bring with me. Said and done. In the open before the house, four officers with machine guns on their shoulders, make me unpack absolutely everything I bring and scrupulously scrutinise everything as if I actually carried a bomb with me. When they finish, and absolutely all my belongings are scattered around, the boss says to me: "ok, you can put your mattress and your mosquito net there in the gallery. First thing in the morning you have to go" .
  I feel like I've slept 2 hours when an officer comes to wake me up. The constant noises did not let me rest and now it's 5 am, the sky is slightly clear, and they want me to leave. When I finish preparing my things to leave, It is more than clear to me that I will not stay in a Nigerian police station again. I spend the rest of the morning at a wooden stall by the road where a beautiful fat lady serves me a delicious stew of lentils with plantains. I'm dead tired and I do not feel like anything, but at least the food in Nigeria is delicious.

  I start the day in a terrible mood and when I get to Enugu, I receive confusing information about where to cross the Niger River since the bridges that cross this legendary river, are not abundant in Nigeria. All the people I ask in the street, tell me that I must cross it at Onitsha but they say it with the certainty of those who do not know anything else. Even the police do not know how to give me another alternative. Reluctant to leave the "middle way" through which I was cycling across the country so well, I finally give up. In order not to waste any more time I leave for Onitsha hoping to later get back to the middle-way. The brief passing through this dreadful city gave me the first glimpse of the hell that are the gruesome Nigerian cities and the super-dangerous traffic.

Avid to get away from there as soon as possible, I took the first detour to the north along a small rural road bordering the Niger and two hours later I found comfort in the little town of Illah. There, Patrick, a very nice Nigerian giant, invites me to have lunch in a canteen while the rest of the town comes to sit around me ask me questions. At the time of leaving, as a tribute to my time there, Patrick gives me a beautiful baseball jersey of his to take with me, which I accept with great humility and pride. Everyone in the town comes to me with great affection to take pictures with me.

In that moment of joy, while filming my departure, a man dressed in civilian clothes forces me to stop and begins to question me. He announces himself as a policeman and with great seriousness begins to interrogate me saying that I can not film. The tone of his voice alarmed me and I immediately called Patrick, who was still nearby to come and help me. It is thanks to him and the neighbours, that I manage to leave without major problems. Hadn't it been for them, I think a long interrogation awaited me.

Several hours later, after a day without much problems, while I circle the populated streets of the small town of Auchi, I notice men with threatening faces follow me closely with their motorbikes. I play it cool pretending nothing happens while smiling at them, but I do not get any good feeling back from them. I had planned to stop for a break there but the situation is tense and I decide to continue until I leave the city.  By the time I am alone on the road again, it is already the end of the afternoon and now I have to keep cycling to find a town where I can sleep. However, time is not enough to reach it, and once again, I end up wandering in the middle of the night. I feel very insecure and I curse myself for allowing this to happen again until finally, I arrive at a town that is sort of a stop for trucks. There are hotels there, but in all of them they tell me they do not have a place for me, and I suspect that is not true. When leaving the reception of one of them, pushing the bicycle, a middle-aged woman shouts at me in front of everyone with an accusing finger: "Boko Haraaaam! Boko Haraaaam!", and she is definitely not joking. She does not stop and keeps yelling at me in the street and alarming other people. If it were not for the infernal noise of the engines, the music, the darkness and the general bustle, I would not know what could happen to me. Finally, she gives up and now I walk with my head down pondering what to do next to the road between the trucks and a long line of prostitutes. Following the instructions of a truck driver, at the end of an alley, I find a hotel where they let me stay. I made it again, one more night but I must stop abusing my luck.

The noise of the music, the trucks, the screams, the fake moaning of the prostitutes continued uninterrupted all night. Not even the brutal exhaustion I have could make me sleep. I get up late and still, I am very tired. My ankles and feet, which have lost their shape due to the infections, make me cry in pain every step I take, but I must keep moving forward as much as I can. Despite the complicated moments of the last few days, during the day, the middle way is still great. Little traffic, police controls where they continue treating me like a movie star, small towns of adorable people who paint the edges of the roads by putting peppers to dry in the sun, and every so often, an event that makes my day, as when I met yet another Patrick.

  Patrick passed me at 20 kph with his Peugeot 404 truck, prehistoric model, with no less than 4 trillion miles on its odometer and surely having survived 3 or 4 bomb explosions. It takes thousands of kilos of merchandise, and at least a dozen people sitting on it. Its wheels soft as a deflated ball lament when rolling. If I wanted to, I could race him and I would surely win it. When he passes me I greet him with a smile, and later on, I find him again with his rusted metal battleship on the side of the road. He is focused on the engine with the patience of a Zen master, holding the hood with his head. The view is unreal because honestly, I do not know what it is that makes it possible for it to run, but whatever it is, he is fixing it. I stop for sheer fascination and when Patrick looks at me, he greets me with a serene, almost spiritual smile. I smile at him and say: "It seems you've got a problem today, right?" To which Patrick responds: "Problems? In Africa we have no problems, we have challenges." Stunned by his response, with that phrase, I once again received a lesson in life in Africa. One of those that are not taught by any book or university.

I spend the rest of the day reflecting on Patrick's phrase "we have no problems, we have challenges", a phrase that I know I'll carry for the rest of my life with me and I'll remember every time I think I have a problem. Thus, in reflective spirit, I arrive at Ifon at the end of the afternoon. It is still daytime, so I decide to look for different hotels, but after a while of going around the crowded centre of town, a man dressed in shorts and a sleeveless shirt approaches me on a red scooter and forces me to stop. Immediately a crowd gathers around us. -Passport please- he tells me. - But who are you? I do not give my passport to anyone. - I strike back. He tells me he is the police chief and shows me a dubious credential. In order to avoid problems and given the amount of people around, I decide to give it to him, although with distrust. While he scrutinises it and interrogates me, he tells me that he is going to have to check all of my belongings. However, he tells me that the search must be conducted at the station, not there in the middle of the street. I try to refuse telling him that I'm exhausted and I just want to find a hotel to sleep in, and I ask him to check everything there, but he refuses to it.

When we finish crossing the whole town to get to the station, it is already night time. There, once again, 4 policemen armed with machine guns, make me open and unpack each and every one of the things I have, while they interrogate me. My mood is no longer the same, but I do the impossible to stay patient. After an hour of unpacking and packing everything back, the boss who had stopped me explains that he went to look for me in town because the phone kept ringing with people reporting me as a Boko Haram terrorist. "People are very afraid" - he says - "and it is better that I went to look for you myself before people decide to take justice in their own hands if they think you are a terrorist"

I ask him to stay there for the night because I do not want to cycle at night but he refuses. In spite of this, he sends someone with me in a car to escort me to a hotel and whoever accompanies me makes sure that they accept me. Yet another night goes by in which I finish exhausted and aching. Nigerian nights are killing me. Lying on the bed in the red-lit room of the brothel where I spend the night, I can not wait for this exhausting odyssey to end. My sick and exhausted body does not want more.

In terms of distance, I have two and a half days to get to Ibadan, where I already have a place to stay, but I intend to push it even more so I can arrive in only two days. I move fast and stop very little. Even though I pull off 150 km and arrive at a small town by day, once again I experience the same problem. Two men with very hostile looks follow me on a motorcycle. I have little patience left to smile and I get into the first hotel I can find, at least until they stop following me. Luckily I'm accepted at the hotel, but half an hour later, when I'm sitting in the courtyard resting, the motorcycle riders return accompanied by two civilian policemen. Same old same old - I tell myself.

The policemen ask me for my passport and they interrogate me without stopping. At least, they do not search my things, but I have a hard time making them believe in my word. Finally, with disgust, I tell them that I am tired of this lack of trust, that many people throughout the country treat me with great affection, but the police do nothing but harass me. The boss tells me that people are very afraid. I tell him that I understand, but I am a white, western man, I do not look anything like the Boko Haram militants, I wear a hanging rosary, I speak Spanish and I have a legal passport with an official visa of the country. Why are you still distrusting then? - I ask him. To which he replies that the serious problem they have is that they do not know how to recognise them, that is why they are all afraid. I wanted to tell them to go look for them on Google and see that they are not white so they stop fucking with me, but this time I kept myself quiet. Experience brings wisdom.

The next day, I have 160 km to go to Ibadan, I am exhausted, my whole body hurts, but I set my mind to make it because I can not stand these police checks every night anymore. However, it would not be so easy because the road conditions change a lot in the proximity to this gigantic city. The road becomes a highway in dire conditions. Massive potholes, stones, broken asphalt, 5 vehicles in the space of 3 lanes overtaking at the same time and while other ones come in the opposite direction. It's heaven for reckless drivers. It's total insanity, so insane that right there, for the first time, I experienced the fear of dying in a traffic accident. As if that were not enough, as a result of my obsession to move fast, I hit pothole right through the middle going at 28 kph and there I go, flying off the bicycle, landing hard on the broken tarmac. Luckily, the frenetic cars that were behind me managed to dodge me before mashing me like a potato. At that moment I realised that I could not continue, because I would surely die in that insane highway. Doing justice to my second promise, better late than never, I stopped the bicycle and waited until a truck gave me a lift for the last 60 km until the outskirts of Ibadan.

It has been only 9 days since I entered Nigeria and in about 1200 km I crossed almost the whole country. The effort took a great toll on my body though, and the risks have been great, but now I can rest for a few days at the home of Bimbo my adorable hostess.