How long do you intend to stay in Nigeria? - The immigration officer had asked me at the time of entering the country almost a month ago. What I did not know at that time was that the answer to that simple routine question would seal the fate of my departure or maybe, my indefinite stay in the country.
There are 80km of highway between Lagos and the Beninese border and this corridor is known to be the road with the most corrupt police in the world. It is the last place on earth in which a human being wants to find himself in trouble with the law, but I have nothing to worry about because there is nothing illegal in what I do. On the other hand, I have already crossed all of Nigeria and police corruption has been no more than a long accumulation of colorful and totally harmless anecdotes. Therefore, already fully recovered from my ailments of recent months, I leave early in the morning full of energy and enthusiasm to reach Cotonou that same day.
The departure from Lagos is as infernal as the entrance had been 10 days ago, but at least this road is so congested with traffic that paradoxically it is much safer. The congestion does not allow the vehicles in very poor condition to circulate at exorbitant speeds along a road in the same conditions. It's a radiant day, I'm in great mood and circulating through this polluted cosmic chaos zigzagging between hundreds of vans, tankers, cars, people, mountains of garbage and more, turns out to be extremely entertaining for me. However, It would all change drastically at km 35, when military police would stop me at the first checkpoint and make my mood collapse.
If only I were an actor
After only a minute of scrutinizing my passport, the officer extends his arm pointing to the left and indicates that I would have to go into the office, which was set up in a cargo container by the side of the road. Confused, but without any intention to offer resistance, I got off the bicycle and obeyed his instructions diligently. After all, I have nothing to worry about. Sitting behind a wooden desk inside the cargo container, there’s the squadron chief to whom the officer who had stopped me extends my passport, while he says a few words to him in yoruba. Beside him, there are 3 other officers dressed in military clothes, two men and a woman. Hiding my worry with a relaxed smile, and showing respect, I greet them all and take a sit across the desk.
The boss looks at my passport briefly, pauses and asks quietly while looking at my passport and without looking up much:
-Well sir, are you aware of what the problem is here?
- No. Not only I am not aware, but I can not even imagine what problem could be - I answer with absolute firmness, thinking to myself that this is a trap of the most corrupt police in the world to get an easy bribe.
Once again, he pauses and calmly tells me:
-well, let me explain: you have overstayed 5 days of your permission to stay in our country and here in Nigeria, that is a very serious offense. -
-Wait what? - I answer alarmed and continue - I have no doubt that there must be an error here, because my visa still has several days of validity.
- You are wrong - He tells me - Do you know what day it is today? - He pulls out his small monochrome cell phone, opens the calendar application and says -Today is November 24th - With the other hand, he opens my passport putting it side by side with the phone and shows me the entry stamp where it says clearly, written in blue pen: 19/11.
At that very moment, I have a sudden flashback that comes up in my head. It is that question the officer at the border asked me before I entered the country. "How long do you intend to stay in Nigeria?" And right there, I clearly realise that there really is something going on and that I might actually be in trouble.
- Officer, we all due respect, I do not understand what you're talking about. Look at my visa, the validity is until November 28th, I still have 4 days left and I'm leaving the country today. I do not see the problem here.
- Sir, that does not mean anything. The validity of your visa is one thing, and the time the officer at the border allowed you to stay here is another. It is the latter that counts.
Perplexed, I insist that I have been honestly guided by the validity of the visa, but I clearly realise (thinking to myself) that I have completely missed that detail. Throughout Africa so far, the duration of my stay had always been determined by the duration of my visa and I did not for a second think that the entry officer would limit my time of stay based on the approximate response I had given him that day. That's why I never noticed the seal. At that moment I understand that I am tender flesh in a pit full of hungry crocodiles: I am truly fucked!
- But do not worry, because I am here (that's exactly what I feared, I think to myself) - The officer says showing his fangs in front of his defenseless prey served on a silver plate
And he continues with the serenity of a Zen master ...
- So, the procedure is as follows: now we are going to have you transferred to Abuja, where we will take you to your embassy. Once there, we finish solving this problem in order for you to leave the country. The fine is 500 dollars every 12 hours ... - At that moment I interrupt him respectfully
-Officer, with all due respect, I am only 45 km away from the Beninese border and you tell me that I have to go to Abuja, which is 1400 km away from here. I do not have the means, nor the money, nor the time for something like that, for an error that was absolutely honest on my part. There has to be another solution, and I appeal to your common sense and your understanding of my honest mistake.
- Well, do not worry because that is the procedure - he replies
- I do worry sir because I have acted in good faith and this procedure is highly inconvenient for me, so I ask you to understand me. Can I call my embassy to consult it?
- No problem sir- he says calmly.
Before entering Nigeria I had contacted the Argentine Embassy in Abuja to consult them about the security situation. Daniel, the consul, had told me that he would be at my disposal for any help I would need. Therefore, on my last day in the country I decided to call him. Daniel listened to my problem carefully and I even passed the phone to the officer so they could discuss the situation. After a few minutes, I get the phone back and Daniel says:
- Look Nico, what the officer says is correct. As a consul, there are things that I cannot suggest to you. I'm just going to tell you to try to fix this while you are there in order to avoid this. If you need us we will be here, but I repeat, try to solve it there - he repeats.
I understand what he is trying to tell me so at that moment, when I hang up the phone, something changes inside me. I somehow turn into something like an actor. In front of the chief and the three other officers that had been present throughout the whole episode, I say:
- Well my esteemed officers, I have got here after almost two years of crossing this beautiful continent on the bicycle that you see out there. Moreover, I have spent the last 3 weeks riding across your beautiful and until now I have received nothing but the most beautiful hospitality from Nigerian people. Throughout the whole country I have been treated with the utmost love and respect at every step I took. People have taken care of me, helped me and took me in their lives as a family member. Thanks to this, and to the enormous love I feel for your country and your people, I want to put all my best predisposition to see if today, between you and I, we can work out this as easily and quickly as possible. Therefore, as I imagine that you share the values of the other Nigerians I’ve met, I also appeal to your goodwill.
After this brief speech, I saw something changed in their faces. The four were silent, almost perplexed and even with a kind of guilt on their faces.
After a few seconds, the boss resumes and says:
-Well, let's work this out. Let's see, the thing is that your offense is very serious, how much money do you have with you?
-I understand perfectly, officer, I am very sorry for this situation and I understand the seriousness of it. But I swear it was a completely honest mistake on my part, and despite my offense, I ask that you to try to understand me.
What I’m telling him is truly honest, but I also add the extra drama of an actor and a lot of fantasy to soften their greed.
- La verdad es que me queda muy poco dinero. No tengo mucho dinero, por eso viajo en bicicleta, porque viajo con mis piernas y cocino mi propia comida, generalmente no más que arroz. También acepto las invitaciones gentiles de la gente local, que de hecho aquí en Nigeria, la hospitalidad de la gente ha sido simplemente extraordinaria. Lo cierto, es que me quedan tan pocas nairas (moneda local) para llegar a la frontera que hoy no he desayunado. Y les digo más, con el fin de resolver este problema, estoy dispuesto a darles todas las nairas que me quedan y no volver a comer hasta llegar a Benín - Les digo con cara de hambre
- The truth is that I have very little money left. I do not have much money, that's why I travel by bicycle, because I travel with my legs and cook my own food, generally no more than rice. I also accept the gentle invitations of the local people, which in fact, here in Nigeria, the hospitality has been simply extraordinary. The truth is that I have so few nairas (local currency) left to reach the border that I have not had breakfast today. But let me tell you something, in order to solve this problem, I'm willing to give you all the nairas that I have left and not eat again until I get to Benin - I tell them with a hungry face
- But how is it possible that you haven’t eaten yet?! - They say alarmed. -Are you thirsty? Are you hungry? Do you know the traditional dishes of Nigeria? - And before I get to answer that question, he orders one of the officers to bring me water and a dish to try it.
At that moment I pull out my wallet and count the last naira. I have the equivalent of about 18 US$ and I tell them that that's all I have, and I ask them with my hand on my heart whether they can accept it and let me go. After meditating a few seconds, with hesitant faces, one of the officers takes my money and puts it away. I thank them deeply and from then on the conversation relaxes. When the water and food arrive, I continue with the show, now pretending that I am very hungry.
While I’m eating, the female officer who had remained silent until now gets closer and asks me:
- And is it true that you have crossed all Africa on that bicycle? Have you done everything alone? Aren’t you afraid? - She asks me with affectionate eyes of a mother
- Yes, that's correct officer, I love this continent, and it's true, I've had many difficult moments, I've seen death pass before of my eyes three times at least and I've been very afraid. However, the most difficult thing has been losing my wife along the way ... - I say in deep dismay -
Your wife? - She says alarmed - Where you travelling with her? What happened? - She asks me like if she were now watching a romantic soap opera.
-Yes officer ... yes, we were traveling together, but one day she left me and broke my heart. She returned to her country, and cheated on me with another man, now she is married and she is pregnant. - At that moment I go silent as if holding tears, pretending that I was about to break and cry. I think I can see her heart squeezing. And it wasn’t only her, I can also see how the men were totally hooked on history as if they were watching TV as well.
- How terrible - She says, completely moved
By the time I finish eating and drinking, after telling more stories that combine reality and fiction, I have earned the sympathy and affection of all of them. When I am leaving the office, everyone walks me to the door to say goodbye and as I continue alone walking with the bicycle towards the road, the one that had taken my money approaches me extending his hand and says to me: - Take Nico, here is your money, you will need it in the rest of the way. -
I am completely baffled. I thank him with all my heart and while trying to contain an explosion of joy I discreetly cycle away.
I can not believe what I have just achieved. I have brought out honesty and compassion in the most greedy and corrupt police on the planet. I have transformed 4 hungry lions into 4 harmless pandas. The situation had forced me to break my promise of not to give any penny of my money to African corruption, and now I had achieved the unthinkable. I got my money, but I have also proved something very important, and that is, that with the right attitude, you can touch people deep reaching their humanity, transcending the barriers that makes them bad and corrupt. It is true that I have mixed reality with fiction to get out of a really fucked-up situation, but that is not the important thing. The important thing is that humanity is always present, no matter how deeply buried may be.
I come out victorious from there, but this is far from over. I still have 45 km to go and there are police checks every 5 or 10 km. I need to use the best of my ingenuity, because if this situation is repeated in each of them, not only I may not have the same luck but it will take me 3 more days to get out of here. Nicolás, think think, think! Non-professional falsification
I decide to take out my passport to find inspiration. I look at the stamp and the date of departure written in blue pen. It says 19/11 on the stamp, today is the 24th and my visa is valid until the 28th. I immediately think about forging that number, but I need to plan it. First I need to get a blue pen and think what number between 24 and 28 is easier to achieve from a 19. No doubt it is 28.
Original stamp with exit date set to 19/11 (green stamp)
Amidst the reckless chaos, pushing the bicycle along the side of the road of any Nigerian city, I make my way between vehicles, goats, shit, potholes, vegetable stalls and dozens of street vendors loaded like Christmas trees, looking for a place to buy a ballpoint pen. I get it and I test it to see if it can work, but I must carefully practice in advance, the motion, the direction of the strokes, the starting and ending points. I have almost no margin for error. It's a very thin line between this being a success or making a terrible mess that might land me in prison in Nigeria. Today, I need Sistine Chapel level of Michelangelo's precision.
Parked on the side of the road under the midday sun in this infernal chaos, I do several mock tests on a separate piece of paper, trying to turn a 19 into a 28. I carefully make sure that the pen does not dry out and writes immediately as soon as it hits the paper. I try to let go of my thoughts, keep my mind calm and release the stress that this situation triggers in me. I need to concentrate without letting stress overwhelm me but the traffic around me makes it extremely difficult. I do several tests until I finally take a shot at it.
19 transformado en 28.
Michelangelo would amputate my hands if he saw my passport, but I think that for the African standard, without putting much concentration on it, it looks pretty decent. I increased the thickness of all the strokes to simulate someone who wrote trying to operate a pen in bad condition, something that is not totally crazy in Africa but rather common. In this way, the 19 was still more buried under the shiny 28 that I wrote on top of it. Now I only had to think of strategies to distract any officer who would look at the stamp again to prevent him from concentrating on it.
I get back on the bicycle and no more than 5 km pass by until I reach a new checkpoint in which another officer asks me to stop. Damn it, I think, here we go. The sweat of my nerves adds to that of this suffocating day of 33 degrees under a blazing sun. I take out my passport and as soon as I extend it I release an inexhaustible catharsis of questions and comments to torment him so much that he could not concentrate on the stamp. My repertoire ranges from the weather to Nigerian society, passing through local cuisine, hospitality, football, Messi, security and Boko Haram and the well-being of his family. After less than a minute, I am certain that the officer returns my passport only for me to be shut up. Challenge number 2 completed succesfully and continue pedaling.
Pasarían tres controles más aplicando mi estrategia, que probaría ser altamente efectiva en cada uno de ellos, hasta llegar al punto culminante: la frontera. Es el final de la tarde, y esta es sin dudas una de las fronteras más populosas que cruzaría en toda Africa hasta el momento. El caos en una situación así juega a mi favor. La cantidad de vehículos y gente cruzando por aquí es tan monumental que bien puedo pasar desapercibido como una hormiga. Esta es mi prueba de fuego final. Voy a todo o nada por eso antes de cruzar el umbral de la oficina me concentro como un actor antes de salir al escenario. Respiro ondo y entro.
Three more checkpoints would pass, applying my strategy, which would prove to be highly effective in each one of them, until reaching the culminating point: the border. It is the end of the afternoon, and this is undoubtedly one of the most populous border crossings that I would cross in all of Africa so far. The chaos in a situation like this works in my favour. The amount of vehicles and people crossing here is so monumental that I can pass unnoticed as an ant. This is my final test. It is all or nothing now, and because of that, before crossing the threshold of the office, I get into character like and actor before going on stage. I take a deep breath and enter.
GOOD AFTERNOON! - I exclaim with fervor and a huge smile from ear to ear. The run-down and suffocating office is full of people who look at me and smile back. I make my way to the back office, where a bureaucratic, bored-looking officer sits behind a precarious desk next to an agonising fan. I make my entrance with such joy and enthusiasm that I abruptly shake the woman out of her boredom. As I give her my passport, my play begins:
- I know I look happy madam, but the reality is this: I'M SAD! Sad to leave this wonderful country, of such beautiful people, where everybody has treated me so well. I do not want to leave, but I will do it only in order to return. I have enjoyed both this and that and that … -
By the time the woman comes to the page where the stamp is, she is so overwhelmed by my compliments that she has no intention of examining the dates. Alternating between looking at me and talking with me and the passport open wide on the table, she takes the stamp with her right hand and with the sweet melody of the blow against the table, she stamps my victorious exit from Nigeria.
I have accomplished great feats so far in this journey, and this one is definitely on par with the greatest of them. This is how I enter Benin.