Monday, June 30, 2008

The Bullet Riddled Testimony

So I went to church this weekend, and discovered that, for the most part, the Baptist church here in Lagos was not all that different from a Baptist church back home. But there was one thing that could not have happened anywhere else…

The preacher approached the podium and asked for one of the members to come up and share a particularly moving testimony. Nothing too unusual here, I thought, but I had no idea what was coming. So this Nigerian guy comes up to the stadium and proceeds to explain what happened to him.

The man started his testimony by explaining that his family lives in Lagos while he works in Abuja, the nation’s capital. This past weekend, he decided he would drive home and pick up his daughter from summer school. Afterwards he was simply going to spend time with his family. The father proceeded to pick up his daughter from the school and was driving across town to Victoria Island (where I stay) when he noticed a disturbance in the road ahead. Evidently he observed that there were people on the side of the road next to a group of vehicles. He simply assumed that there was an accident and that people were being dragged to safety. But as he got closer, he realized that there was no accident at all, and that the people were being subjected to an armed robbery. Unfortunately he realized this too late, because soon the armed robbers had their AK-47’s trained on his vehicle. They motioned for him to stop, but the father made the split second decision to gun it. As he rapidly tries to accelerate away, the robbers open up their guns, riddling the SUV with bullets. The father forced him and his daughter as low as possible in the car and just kept driving until they ran into a bush somewhere down the road. The father sat up and realized that they had driven far enough from their assailants that they were relatively safe. The father took the time to look around the car and observed that the window had four bullet holes in it, his side of the car was shot up, and that both he and his daughter were bleeding. His daughter had been shot in the arm, and he had only been grazed by a bullet in the side. He quickly drove his daughter to the hospital where she now recovers from her injuries. The man simply wanted to Thank God that they survived the incident and that his daughter will make a full recovery.

Now how is that for a church testimony? There are a couple of things that I found particularly shocking about this. First, this happened in broad daylight. Secondly, this happened on a Friday on the nice side of town when there was probably plenty of traffic. Third, the father tried to run AWAY from the men with automatic rifles. Ever since I have been here, people have explained that armed robbery is just one of those things that happen here, and that you just give them what they want so they will leave you alone. Otherwise they might feel the need to try and shoot you. But hey, you never know what you will do when you are in that sort of situation, especially when you have your daughter in the car with you and you realize she was going to be in danger no matter the outcome.

Surprisingly, this testimony tied in with the Sermon for the day. The message, if I may summarize, was Do Your Part to Make Lagos Less Screwed Up. He proceeded to tell people to not abuse power or management, to not take bribes, and to not do ‘favors’ for undeserving people. But on top of that, he gave a history lesson. He spoke of the Lagos of his childhood where you could put your goods and a price list on a table outside your home, and people would leave the money on the table and take the goods without any risk of getting ripped off. He was probably exaggerating, but it emphasized the point that Lagos’ descent into mayhem and lawlessness was both rapid and recent. The answer to this downward spiral was naturally Jesus. The lack of Jesus in the community was the reason these things were happening. This I found interesting, because Nigerians seem to be the most religious people I have ever encountered. But as most people know, being religious and being a Christian are too different things. So maybe the preacher was right after all.

Free Stuff Sucks

You know that saying, nothing in life is free? I am beginning to believe it. I have been bragging about my free Microsoft Zune (80 GB) that I got from my Corporate American Express Card reward points. It was new, shiny, and more expensive than an MP3 player I would ever buy for myself. I was very excited to have gotten it.

All that changed yesterday when it decided to erase all 40GB of music I had put on it. Don’t worry, the music is still safely on the computer, but the Zune has crapped out. Every time I try and load any music on it, it freezes and gives my computer the blue screen of death.

So now I have to get it replaced. Which sucks, because I am in Nigeria. How am I supposed to 1) call support 2) ship the thing back 3) receive the replacement when I am on a different continent. Worse is the fact that I am on a manufacturers warranty driven timeline. Fortunately, I can’t get too upset because its not like something broke that I actually paid for.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Striking Nigerians

On another note, it turns out that Nigerians in the oil industry like to strike. My trip to Nigeria was actually postponed due to one of the strikes happening against ExxonMobil. It’s a clever trap they have set up. Nigeria allows an oil company to come in and pump oil but they have to use 85% Nigerian workforce. Begrudgingly, oil company agrees, and then proceeds to set up training centers so that Nigerian citizens are skilled in the necessary areas. This national content also usually applies to materials, so now the contracting companies build fabrication yards so that the materials can be manufactured in country. Now that the workforce and the material is controlled by Nigerian citizens, the unions go to work. The unions make demands for raises or they will shut everything down. First, they can and will shut everything down, and second, their request seems understandable since they are paid relatively low wages in comparison to the expats. So Oil Company gives in. In the case of XOM this has evidently resulted in a 28% raise every two years or so. But this year has set a new precedent. With oil prices as high as they are, the unions are making stricter demand. In XOM’s case, a 30% raise fresh after getting a 28% raise. Now the oil company’s are in a pickle. They do not want to give in, because at some point this precedent will result in equally paid or better paid nationals than expats (see post ”We’re all Doc Thompsons Children” on why that is not exactly fair) making the idea of being in Nigeria unprofitable. So the companies resist. The government is a partner in all of these projects, so when oil company loses money, they also lose money. This is why the Nigerian oil company is currently in the poor house. So the government tries to intervene, but unfortunately Nigeria has no control over its unions, rendering it powerless. So Union flexes its muscle and shuts everything off, forcefully. The office that I sit in right now forcibly (but peacefully) kicked everyone out when the strike took place. Similarly, people shut down platforms, closed wells, and went home. Now Oil Company is really in a bind. They are here for oil, and every day shut in is probably a half billion dollars in revenue… do they need oil more than the employees need a paycheck? Evidently the oil company loses every time. Shell, ExxonMobil, and currently Chevron are all subject to the same extortion, but they take it. I find the whole thing to be extremely ironic. The same thing that Europeans did to Africans all those years ago, are happening in reverse today. Now I don’t think two wrongs make a right, but in this case I remain neutral. The only thing that Nigeria needs to watch out for is revolt. Just like there were occasional revolutions against European colonies, these oil companies may revolt by pulling out, which recently happened in Venezuela. This industry is great.

Productivity... Who needs it?

So what I actually do at work is Project Management, and part of that is determining productivity. It is based on an index where a value of 1 means that you are as productive as the Gulf of Mexico area in the US in 2000. It relates all these projects overseas to how long it would take back at home. A value of 1.5 for Singapore would mean something takes 50% longer there than in the states. Nigeria’s factor is 4. Meaning, anything done here is expected to take 4 times as long. It’s not saying that workers or Nigerian employees are four times as long, but that, for example, building a fab yard in Port Harcourt will take 4 times as long. Before I got here, I always thought that this was a huge exaggeration, but now I am thinking again. Work, not linked to your survival, seems to be a distant second to your family and personal relationships here… and that’s awesome. What sparked this was the fact that it was 7:30 AM and I had been at my desk for half an hour. My cube mate, who got to work was everywhere but at the desk. She was engaging with her coworkers, what a strange concept. It made me realize why things frustrate expats here, because all most of these western expats are interested in is work. That’s what they do, and they get frustrated when others don’t share the same zeal for it. But at the same time, there are benefits to this obsession. Stuff gets done. Here, you throw an eventually in front of that statement. Similarly in Qatar, they would say the phrase ‘En Shalla’ (sp.?) after every request by a westerner, and it meant God Willing aka eventually.

This Is Nigeria

So I had my first “This is Nigeria” moment today. This statement is uttered on occasion by expats who have had something not perform to standard. Mine started this morning with a phone call. Not from the wake-up call I asked for, but from my boss asking me if I was coming down to the car. I looked at the time, 7:15AM, what the hell happened to my 6:00AM wake up call. I told my boss that I was just waking up and did not get a wake up call as requested, so he said he would send the car back for me in half an hour. So I quickly get ready and head out the door. Once out the door, I knew I was in a country ran by black people, because what is bumping over the loud speakers… none other than R. Kelly. That was not too bad, mostly just funny. So I walk to the elevators and get on. Right as the doors close, the power goes out. I worried about that happening, given the frequency of power outages here. Sure enough, I was stuck in the elevator in the dark. It was actually scarier than I would have thought; I actually had to remind myself to stay calm. Luckily, the power came back on a minute or two later, and I got out and met Linus at the car. I thought the antics were over, but in trying to get across the road we were almost ran over by a Mack truck that ignored the cops instructions to stop. It was not the near-running over that made me think “This is Nigeria”, it was that the Mack truck was actually towing a bunch of people. It was just like any other 18 wheeler, but instead of a boxcar being on the back, they were towing what looked like an improvised bus set up. They had cut holes in this thing and added seats, and it seemed to function just like a bus except it was an eighteen wheeler. It was the coolest most creative thing I have ever seen on wheels.

Just Like America!

On the way to work today, I heard an advertisement that made me laugh. It went something like this.

Person A: You ready to go to the club tonight?
Person B: Naw, I think I am going to stay in
A: What?!? You were all hyped up about going just yesterday, what happened?
B: Well if you must know, my clothes are kind of funky. I got nothing to wear.
A: (Laughs) Well that’s no problem, just get them washed.
B: What are you talking about, where am I going to get my clothes washed in time for tonight, its already mid afternoon.
A: Haven’t you heard about Nigeria Wash (made up the name). It’s brand new, you can wash clothes right there. Just like in America!

Announcer: That’s right folks, you heard it right, come see Lagos’ first American style Laundromat. You can bring your clothes, and actually wash them yourselves while you wait! No more hand washing, or waiting for days, come to Nigeria Wash and experience the brand new laundry experience. We have 12 state of the art washers and 15 dryers that will have you in and out in no time. Just like in America!

That had me cracking up, first because I did not consciously realize that Laundromats were a luxury service, and secondly because he used America as if the mention of the name were enough to get people in the store. Maybe it is.

Stationary and Retirement

Evidently supplies don’t last very long here. Someone told me to start paying attention to stuff like paper, or toiletries, or pens and pencils, because you will notice that they never put out more than what’s necessary. The reason, people take it and sell it. Now I know why I always felt the need to take pens and pencils from the office, it’s in my blood. But really, they take the stuff because this stuff is a luxury expense outside of the office. It’s sort of like the Robin Hood principle, take from the rich, give to the poor. By the way, I believe that Robin Hood really was from the hood. I always connected with his principles and I think that it is the closest thing that black folks have to a fairy tale.

At dinner the other day with a fairly seasoned Nigerian guy, he dropped a fact I found most interesting. The mandatory age for retirement in Nigeria is 55 years old. He went on to explain that mandatory was more like “mandatory” but that you have strong incentives to getting out by then. Mostly your pension quickly erodes the longer you stay after 55, which was another interesting concept. He explained that you basically have a pot of money that is dealt out to you after retirement, and that the pot is biggest at the age of 55. After that, not only does the pot shrink, but whatever you make as salary comes out of that pot. The idea is, the money is there to support you when you are not working, not when you are employed. So were they discouraging people from working? No, the reason was quite simple. There are a lot of young, highly educated people in Nigeria who are waiting in the wings for that good job to open up. The government realizes this and incentives the older folks to leave so that the new generation can have their chance. What seemed backwards at first ended up making sense after all.

Random Stuff

So I gave up on the daily accounts because they are actually giving me work to do these days, and it is seriously cutting down on my ability to write in an uninterrupted flow… so now I have switched to writing snippets. My snippets will be long though.

I am trying to stop being so random because I think my boss is beginning to think I am weird with all my seemingly unrelated statements. So with these snippets, I will try and group them together in some related categories.

“So has Don talked to you about the women yet,” asks my boss on the way home from work the other day. Don is like your old mean uncle who has a raspy voice like a New Orleans trumpet player. Naturally he is full of advice, and one of the first things he told me about was the women. “Yes he’s told me,” I reply. But clearly, Greg wanted to explain again. Greg then proceeds to go on about how the women of Nigeria will see me as young, attractive, walking gold. I thought he was joking but I have been hearing the same story from expats and Nigerian’s alike. I guess we will see.

So it turns out that I have a cousin (sort of, she is my mom’s first cousin’s husband’s sister) who lives in Lagos. My mom sent her my contact info and told me to call her. After verifying with my mom that she was expecting my call, I give her a ring. Naturally the woman had no idea who I was or why I was calling. But after a few minutes of convincing here I was not some stranger, we had a pretty good convo. She married a Nigerian guy 30 years ago and has lived here ever since. They are having their 30th anniversary party this Saturday, and she has invited me to go. Well yesterday she stopped by the hotel since she was in the area, and she proceeded to tell me how Lagos is the safest place on earth. ‘Oh don’t worry about walking around, you’ll be fine’ she says, but the next sentence is ‘But make sure you carry some ID on you in case you somehow become unconscious’. She was a nice lady though and I look forward to going to her party if I can get transportation to it.

I realize that I stare at people here, and I think it throws some people off. I sit in a cubicle, whenever someone crosses my path, I end up looking at them and making eye contact. I think the office is beginning to know me as that staring guy. But I finally figured out why I do it. I have been conditioned to immediately observe black people. Under normal circumstances, I would never see a black person at work, or at a work social gathering, or even at my apartment complex. So I constantly subconsciously searched for black skin so that I might not miss the chance of seeing someone like me. I know we (black people) do it, when you walk into a room, you probably notice all the black people in there. Well I have not shaken that habit yet, and since nearly everyone is black, I end up staring at nearly everyone. I guess eventually I will get used to this.

At work the other day, I had my first completely Nigerian meal and I really enjoyed it. It was some beans, jollof rice, and chicken. It was great. Since then I have discovered some collard green like dish that’s pretty good and plantains which are awesome. Its funny to see the origin of so many foods in Caribbean and Black culture right here in Nigeria. It makes sense, but it is just cool seeing food here and seeing its evolution into foods back home.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Nigeria: Day Five

Thirteen hours of sleep. Wow. When I went to bed last night, I told myself I was going to sleep as much as I possibly could. I was expecting to wake up at nine or ten at the latest. But one in the afternoon that was preposterous. Not even the many wake-ups of the Lekki Expressway could get me up this morning, I just kept going back to sleep. But I actually needed to be up at one today, a guy from work, James, said he would take me around a bit. I am friends with James’ beautiful daughter back in Houston. Unfortunately she has an awesome boyfriend and is uninterested in jumping ship, oh well. So I called James and he said he would swing by the Bayshore (my hotel) in half an hour. That gave me enough time to get dressed, brush my teeth, and get my phone. Oh yes, my boss told me he had a spare phone that he could loan me, so I finally have a method of local communication! So James scoops me up and he tells me he has to go and buy a phone for his wife who is coming soon to Lagos.

As I had said earlier, there are no Radio Shacks or Circuit City’s around here, so I had no idea where this was going to take us. Well luckily his driver knows exactly where to go for these things. He drives right to this roadside market that looks entirely dedicated to mobile phones and peripherals. As close to a Sprint store as you are going to find here. So out we go. A quick jump over a drainage ditch (these drainage ditches don’t drain, they mostly just collect putrid runoff water so that it can slowly radioactively decay) and we are in the market. All eyes are on us, especially the vendors’. Why, because we drove here unlike 99 percent of the people here who walked. On top of that, we were driven here, and my friend James is very light skinned, more so than any African would be. So they knew we were outsiders, and flocked accordingly. Our driver stewards us to this storefront in the corner and introduces us to the vendor. I have come to learn that names and introductions are very important here. So far, Nigerians have proven amazing in their abilities to remember names and to use them often in conversation. It’s a very personal place, where hand shakes and introductions proceed any shop talk. So after the introductions the vendor shows us his selection. Really he does not have to show us because the boxes are perfectly visible. The store is not really a store, more like one of those carts in the middle of American malls that sell little goods like hair clips and electronic belt buckles. Picture those but squish them into a much smaller space and put it outdoors in 90 degree heat with no shade. Naturally he starts off with the most expensive model, but after hearing the 45000 Naira (roughly $400) price tag, James quickly told him to downgrade. So he went with the well-featured, modestly priced entry that was going for 19000 Naira. You’ve got to give the vendor credit, he said the price tag so nonchalantly that I almost expected to see a price tag on the box with that amount. James thinks about it, and before he can respond, our driver (a Ghanaian whom everyone assumes is Nigerian) asks again how much the price is. Once again the vendor states 19K. Our driver motions for us to move on to the next stall, but of course the vendor backs down. After much heckling the vendor gets down to 17200 Naira, and all parties seem satisfied. Later James confesses that he gets reimbursed up to 40000 Naira for the phone so he really did not care what the price was. But by the time we get the memory card and the phone card, we are right back at 19000. We jump back across the drainage ditch and we get in the car. As we prepare to drive off, we notice the phone card guy running after us. Evidently, we did not pay him for the phone card. When asked how much, he said 1000 Naira. To which James brings out a 1000 Naira. But Robert (our driver) is appalled by this rip off. [I was told by a Nigerian that you can get a phone card for 300 to 700 Naira off the street] So Robert gets back out of the car and basically gets in this guys face until he backs down to 500 Naira. I have learned that Robert has a temper. In a particularly bad traffic jam, Robert put the car in park, got out of the car, walked over to a car that was blocking the road and started hitting their glass and yelling at them to get out of the way. By the time he got back in the car the road was clear.

After the phone market we drive to our next destination, the Shop Right shopping mall. We did not go in, but it was amazing to see a small but seemingly normal shopping mall in Lagos. And it was packed, it was clearly the place to be on a Saturday. The next stop on the Lagos tour was the Lekki Market, but it must be noted that just as much stuff was being sold in the street outside of the mall as in the mall itself. People were selling paintings in the street, yes paintings. On the way to Lekki Market we drive by the Chevron complex and that place is NICE. It makes the Exxon compound look like poo. I have heard that the Chevron complex is a self sustaining place, now I understand why. High fences and barbed wire block off what is clearly a huge complex of impressive homes and facilities. It was like a little chunk of American suburbia transplanted in Nigeria. In addition to Chevron’s place, we passed some other very impressive building complexes that were clearly for the financially well off, and each one, as explained by Robert, housed some Company’s expats or rich Nigerians.

Eventually we arrived at Lekki Market, and it is as busy and as chaotic as you might expect a large Nigerian market to be. There are so many things that are shocking to me as a westerner. The amount of meat and fish sitting out in the sun exposed to the elements is amazing. Right next to that raw meat might be some fresh fruit, or some kids playing next to water that looks like it should be roped off. Then there are the roads, I cannot express how terrible these roads are. When I say some of them conjure images of cleared minefields, I do not exaggerate. If you are not in an SUV, I just don’t see how it is done, yet car’s manage to succeed. Continuing through the market, we see roadside hair salon’s, goat slaughterhouses, fruit shacks, and clothing stores. Anything you can think of. James even remarked that he might go pick up some coasters for his tabletops. I just want to say, that as messed up as the infrastructure and conditions are, this place is wonderful. It is so ALIVE, everything about it pulses with activity. When Robert stepped out of the car at the market to buy a lottery ticket, James turned back to me and gave me his two cents on the place. He explained that everyone lives hand to mouth here, whatever this guy makes from me today, is what he can eat with. So there is no complacency, no sitting idly, everybody hustles, because to stand still is to walk closer to death. Preach on James. When Robert returns with his lotto ticket, James asks why he plays when it is a waste. Robert explains that it’s a waste to some, but he has won twice, hustle on.

On the way out of Lekki market, James asks Robert where we can get some cold beers. Naturally the answer is ‘on the side of the road somewhere’, and before you know it, Robert has pulled up next to some shop and sent a little girl into the back to get us some beers. They aren’t that cold she says apologetically, but that’s understandable when most of the people are without electricity. Later on in the day I was remarking to Robert that there were no speed limits, or traffic lights, or lanes in the road, and how different that was from the states. He simply said that when they put up lights, they get taken down for parts and wires, if they put up speed signs everyone would ignore them. He said he stays in Nigeria over Ghana because there are no rules here, whatever you can do to make money is what you do, no one will tell you no. Back to the girl with the beers. Seeing that we had no bottle openers, she runs in the back and returns with a piece of aluminum window frame with a hole cut in it. She knocks the tops right off and runs back inside with the homemade masterpiece as if all bottle openers were just like it.

Before heading back to Victoria Island (we were in Lekki), Robert recommends we drive by Victoria Garden City. This gated community is the Beverly Hills of Lagos. Huge homes, parks, clean well paved streets, speed limits! Green grass and personal delivery diesel trucks screamed ‘we have money’. Robert explained that this is where very rich Nigerians lived and some expats as well. What amazed me was that this place was able to exist without being constantly robbed or solicited. But evidently crime was not a big issue. Robert explained that because you have to drive into the complex, most people that are up to no good (poor, desperate people) can’t get in.

After the brief VGC tour, James takes me back to his place because he wants to ‘try out his George Foreman grille’. I thought that would imply steaks or something, but evidently James like to George Foreman his hot dogs. So we have a meal of chili dogs, beans, and fritos. Surprisingly, that all American meal was exactly what the doctor ordered.

James had Robert take me back to the Bayshore, and not long after getting there, I gave another guy from work a call. Dwayne picked up and within twenty seconds he had convinced me to come with him wherever it was he was going. Ten minutes later I was in his car heading off to another meal. Dwayne is a special guy, it took ten minutes of riding in the car with him to even say hello, because he probably made 12 phone calls. When I say that this guy is Mr. Lagos, I mean it, he knows everyone and everyplace that is worth knowing. Unfortunately he is a ball of energy that is a little too much to be around. He had been up since 4AM and was as active as a twelve year old post pixie stick 14 hours later. He ends up taking us out to the Golf and Tennis Country Club of Lagos where he pointed out all the big shots of Lagos. There is the presidents assistant, there is a VP of Chevron, there is so and so who is the cousin of blah blah blah. He knew everybody and everybody knows him. He is the type of person I like to use. But we had gizzard and beef Suya, and boy did that stuff have some kick. I don’t know what gizzards are but the texture made me reluctant to ask. They were good though. We also had some special fruit drink that I forgot the name of, I think it was made of pomegranate or something. I forgot to mention that there was another guy there named James (a different James) who is the most Nigerian looking Louisianan I have ever met. He was full of stories of how he was often confused with the staff at his own housing complex. But anyways, James was cool, but me and him were mostly the entourage of Dwayne (turns out this was the first time that James had met Dwayne as well). After the Suya, Dwayne rounded us up and we were off to the next place… another meal at restaurant called Saipem. There we met up with a big shot ExxonMobil Nigerian named something that sounded like G-Day. He was very nice, but I only got to get one or two sentences in with him the whole night, this guest was for Dwayne’s engagement. When I say this restaurant was nice, it was nice by any countries standards. Excellent décor, and good food, naturally it was expensive. Luckily we were all so full from earlier that we did not eat too much. In the end G-Day explained that the cost of this meal was about two thirds the same price of his first car that he bought for 3300 Naira. As he counts out the bills for our meal from a huge wad of cash, he recounts how different things were back then. He explained that even the denominations of cash had changed. A 50 Naira note was the most they made in contrast to today’s 1000; and that the exchange rate to the US dollar was 1 Naira to 2 US dollars, contrasted with today’s 118 Naira to 1 US dollar. Inflation and oil changed everything he says. At 10PM we parted ways and Dwayne makes a few more phone calls. He plans on calling it a night, but he wants to see if any of his friends are willing to take me out tonight. He assumed correctly that I would be interested. Perhaps for the best, none of his friends are going out, but before we go home Dwayne decides to show us a little eye candy with a drive-by of one of the clubs close by. Once again I will say, there are some beautiful women here.

I eventually get dropped off at the Bayshore, where there is a message waiting for me that my sister called. Not a message on Voicemail, no none of that, this is a verbal message delivered by the reception desk guy. These guys no your name and room number just by seeing you, and they gave me my message without needing to reference any notes. Impressive. Once in the room, I fruitlessly try to call my sister, but by this time the radio room people have called it quits. Instead I pull out my laptop and start typing away. That, and tending to the far too often demands of my bowel movements. How’s that for a note to end on.

FYI, Dwayne did tell me that his wife has two tennis coaches, a personal trainer, a cook, a driver, a masseuse… all for a price that’s reasonable to his salary (p.s. he makes a lot of money). So if anyone wants to marry me and come live in Nigeria, let me know, you could be living the luxury life pretty soon. Plus, I will get a much better incentive package if I ever move over here with a wife :).

Prostitution Revisited

Confrontation…It’s got my heart pumping a little faster… Me (a friend of mine’s sister) is right about one thing, I do not get enough challenge to my ideas. Thank you, and let’s analyze. Here’s the response to my Prostitution post, written by Me (not me):

Dude, A. Are you serious with this post? First, I concur with Tatamwari- I thought the only reason one didn't sleep with prostitutes is because your schlong would explode? A nice serving of emotionless sex and a side order of HIV to go. No thank you.And I've posted on your blog before, and finally, you have me convinced that you do not understand women. That or you've placed yourself on some undeserving pedestal that you cannot even take the time to be introspective or self evaluatory enough to realize that dude, your theories just do not make sense. Or perhaps you just need less "yes" men around you. Dating as prostitution (I've indeed heard it all.)And FYI. The feminist in me needs you to recognize that prostitutes ARE honest women. Sometimes, a woman has to survive how she may. And her body sometimes is what she has because the man's weakness for the flesh is legendary. And there are those who are in it due to a lack of choice. Think drugs, desperation, an abusive spouse/ boyfriend, kidnapping or just the plain old pimp stereotype. They're no less honest than any other woman out there. It's mindsets and comments like yours which contribute to stereotypes and prevent abused prostitutes from getting the help and attention they need.Dude, you need to sit down while you're out in Nigeria and do some thinking. P.s. Nigeria is not all that bad. Just leave Lagos. It's the pits.

End Post

My, my, Me, seems I have struck a nerve. So let’s see if we can clear some things up, because this looks like the usual case of mistaken identity.

Yes, Me, I am serious with this post. And I also would throw STD’s in the mix with reasons for not sleeping with a prostitute, but certainly not the only reason. Otherwise, brothels specializing in clean women (and I am sure there are such ‘classy’ places) would by my after-school hang out. The purpose of the post was not to address the risks involved, but whether I personally thought it was right or wrong for me to become involved in such activities.

Me, I freely admit that I do not understand women, heck, I don’t even know if women understand women. But I get along with them, so I guess that is all I can ask for. In addition to that admission, I have placed myself on a pedestal. I am one of those ‘God’s gift to women’ guys that women despise, but guess what, you women put me here. I had no idea I was a catch until women told me so. Luckily I have some friends that bring me back down to size eventually. I do, however, resent the accusation of not being introspective or self-evaluatory. I consider myself to be the very embodiment of those things. And why do people, in this case Me, make statements like ‘your theories just do not make sense’. Please elaborate, be specific. Which theories, and what about them do not make sense? A theory is meant to be tested (to their possible destruction), otherwise I would call them laws.

Lastly, I would like to agree with you and dispel any notion that prostitutes are not honest women. They are as honest as the rest of us, they just practice a social taboo. I just do not think highly of their chosen profession, but then again, I don’t really like lawyers or engineers either. But we all make a living doing what it is we are able to do best. That being said, I do think its an unfortunate fact that most women are led into this life by Me’s aforementioned reason, but nothing I wrote about ever implied otherwise.

My post was an objective evaluation of the idea of prostitution and my interaction with it. I purposely stayed out of the murky waters of contemplating the actual prostitutes. So which comments contribute to the stereotypes of prostitutes and prevent them from getting help? I suspect that was just a reactionary statement to satisfy the ‘feminist in you’.

Inadvertently, my blog has turned into exactly what I wanted, a place of dialogue. Awaiting your reply…

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Welcome to AskAnOilMan.Com. Here you can ask all those questions about energy and Big Oil that cross your mind, and you will get as best an answer as OilMan can provide.

Question # 1: I hear ExxonMobil is closing all of its service stations, sounds like a bad sign for the lubricated giant, right? (Paraphrased from Tatamwari)

Excellent question Tata, glad you asked! Indeed, ExxonMobil (XOM) will be phasing out its corporate-owned US gas stations over the next few years. That seems like an odd announcement, akin to General Electric’s recent announcement that it will cease selling appliances. But similar to GE, XOM is finishing a job it started a long time ago… and for a number or reasons.

First, let’s discuss what the release of these stations mean. In the grand scheme of getting oil from the ground to moving you down the road, operating service stations is a necessary but relatively unprofitable business. In the U.S. XOM has about 12,000 branded (i.e. display Exxon or Mobil) service stations. What most do not know is that all but approximately 2200 of them are privately owned as franchises. This is done for the same reason that most franchises are created, low margin operations (the actual operation of the stores) are better handled by independent owners whom have less overhead and bureaucracy.

So why sell the remaining 2200? It mostly comes down to the current pricing situation. As most of you know, gas prices are set to be well over 4USD/Gallon for the remainder of this year, but is less publicized is that the average gas seller makes roughly 11 cents per gallon sold. When coupled with the fact that credit card companies eat up 5 to 6 cents per gallon in transaction fees, this leaves the owner with only half their expected profits. Surprisingly, three or four years ago, service station owners were making significantly more than 11 cents per gallon when gas prices were only a fraction of today’s costs. Why, look to 135USD/Barrel oil prices. The price of oil has increased four fold in three years while gas has less than doubled. The downstream (the gas makers) has to pay for its oil in the open market, meaning XOM oil does not sell straight to XOM refineries and then to XOM gas stations, leaving the price increase to be absorbed the profit of gas makers and gas providers. This is not in the goodness of their hearts, but they simply cannot pass on the price increases to the consumer and still expect them to pay for their product.

The other reason to sell these stations is to ease public relation tensions. It is easier for XOM to go before congress and say, ‘don’t blame us for 5 dollar gas,’ if they are no longer in the gas selling business. One recent article recommended removing even the branding from the remaining stations.

So in conclusion, does this selling of service stations because of their diminishing profits signal a problem? I would say no, because that is the duty of any large corporation. Invest in the profitable businesses and remove the less profitable ones. It also must be considered that most likely only half of one percent of the $40B profits last year was earned through its service stations.

This was fun, so if you have any other questions, feel free to ask.


I never considered myself to be a John. Or a trick. I just could not see myself pulling up to a street corner, saying some corny line, and then handing a chick some cash as she gets into my car. The guys on TV and the movies just seemed so sleazy. But it was not really the sleazeball factor that pushed me away, it was the combination of facts that sex should be free and that I was never that horny a person that I could not wait. So you could say I was too cheap and unmotivated. My sister will be the first to attest to my belief that a lot of dating is a molded form of prostitution. Typically, a man takes a woman out, feeds her, pays for her, gives her attention, and then he solicits sex and often receives it even though she probably does not particularly want to. A trade of services is made. Goods in terms of affection, attention, and a free meal are traded for attention and sex. Most of you are probably holding back your disgust at this bastardization of courtship, but dating and all relationships is really an exchange that benefits both parties. Prostitution is just that as well, just a socially taboo one.

Regardless of what you think of my theories, the point is that I never considered prostitution. Now that I have been traveling overseas, all my assumptions have changed and I don’t know what to think anymore. If I was traveling to economically equivalent places like most of Europe, my impression would remain the same. In Germany, you still have to go and get yourself a hooker and pass twenty perfectly free (honest) women along the way. But lately I have been traveling places where the socioeconomic structure is all screwed up. The norm now seems to be, where the people with money are, so will be the prostitutes. Most of the time, sneakily disguised as normal women. So here comes Anthony in a hypothetical situation. I walk into a club with some friend. This is not some ordinary club, not one mainly for locals, but an expat friendly place that is safe and not too different from what westerners are used to. Let’s face it, in a lot of places that are not westernized, either you are not welcome in most places or you are not comfortable going in most places. So you end up going to someplace that is a mixture between your background and the culture of the country you are in, a place specially designed for your kind. So here I am in the club, and I notice that there are some lovely ladies from all over the world scattered throughout the bar. Eventually I work up the nerve to go and talk to one. Great, she is receptive. She smiles, laughs at my jokes, tells me about where she is from, and seems to be generally having a good time. About the time that I think that I really have found a nice find, she whispers in my ear her price. Not wanting to believe, or selectively not hearing, I say ‘come again’. She says ‘if you want to come again, that’s double the price’. Haha, that’s my attempt at a dirty joke. But eventually you realize she is a prostitute. (This has yet to happen to me luckily, but it is inevitable). You then go through two reactions, first you feel betrayed because you believed you were talking to an honest women, and second you feel dirty because you are actually thinking to yourself ‘that’s actually pretty cheap’. I may say no the first time. But what happens when the situation happens the next time, and the next time and the next time. Soon your disgust with the situation wears then, and your shock at the situation becomes non-existent, and you end up with a hooker back at your place.

That is how I imagine it happens. The proof is in the pudding. Almost most of the expats and contractors that I have met overseas (and especially the military guys) have admittedly frequented prostitutes. I would venture to say that it is the norm in my line of work. The people, mostly men, are usually married, and are away from their families for long periods of time. They mostly seem to go this route because they are bored or need affection. As much as I look down upon them, I understand. So here I am, having recognized the chain of events that could turn me into them, have to make a conscious decision. I must decide relatively early in my career whether I will succumb or not to these offers. But there are some moral pitfalls in my path.

One is the rich man complex. As an American, that often makes me the rich man by default. So lets say I boycott prostitution, but instead, sleep with a girl that I know is after me just because I have money and can treat her better than any comrade of hers. Or that maybe I will fall in love with her and take her home to the states. Is that as bad as prostitution? I may not be paying her outright, but without the money, there would be no way she is interested in me. How can I tell if it’s real or not?

Do I just abstain from relationships all together? I really like relationships and is it reasonable to ask for me not to pursue one because I know the scales are not balanced? I never felt like the scales were balanced in the states, simply because there are so few good black men and so many good black women.

Do I think prostitution is inherently wrong? No, I generally think everyone has the right to do what they want with their body. Do I think highly of prostitutes? No, but how highly would you have to think of somebody you are just having sex with. Actually for me, that’s pretty high. And that’s where the issue is solved. See fear of sex entry, my current state of affairs is that I can’t have sex with someone unless I really like them and feel comfortable with them. Maybe the fact that I am such the anti-manwhore will prevent me from even being able to entertain the idea of hiring a prostitute. In conclusion, me and prostitutes will never probably mix, because my standards for sexual partners is too high. Similarly, I don’t really feel comfortable taking advantage of someone. Like in Qatar, there was a very beautiful, adorable, smart, and engaging young Filipino coworker that I really got a long with. We had a definite attraction to each other, and we confessed that to each other, but I told her I would not pursue anything with her. The reason: she would have expected so much more from the relationship than I did. I primarily would have been interested in the sex and companionship. She would have had dreams of a brighter future. Because when I left work and went to the Four Seasons, she took the worker’s bus home to the labor community in one of the small towns not far from the office. She lived in a completely different world. It was like Romeo and Juliet, or a West Side Story. It was tough to realize that there was another barrier on love, you have to start on even footing.

Note: All you people that think love is enough. If you’ve got love, the rest of it will work out. I hope you are right, but unfortunately the evidence is against you.

Nigeria: Day Four Continued

The rest of the work day was pretty uneventful. I verified that I was screwed as far as a phone was concerned so they recommended that I just buy one and expense it. Well there are not exactly radio shacks around here, so they recommended just getting one off the street. We will see about that. Florence, the admin, brought the list to me, and even helped fill it out. I officially made my break with my boss today as well. He asked me if I was ready to go home around 5, and I told him that I was actually going to stay late because I was going to dinner with a friend. I could see the slight look of disapproval on his face. But all he had to see was ‘have fun’.

After work, I met up with an older gentleman named… let’s say Al. At some point in the night, Al said to me, ‘I want to know if you understand something. What happens in Lagos stays in Lagos.’ This was said after a few drinks, but I will get to that later. So I meet Al in his office and he tells me we are going to a Mexican place named Bottles and that another one of his friends was going to meet us there. Let’s call the friend Bob. So Al is a black guy, Bob a white guy, both of them much older and I all head off to Bottles. Now I had heard of Bottles before, because it is like the high school jukebox joint or Nigeria. Expats tend to go there and meet up after a hard day of work. The popular night is Wednesday when they have their margarita specials. I might have mentioned this in a previous post, but this past Wednesday, the margarita night ran out of margaritas and food (as reported by disgruntled expats). So we arrive at Bottles, and it is a pretty hole-in-the-wall institution. Inside is tackily decorated in Mexican-like wall murals, and sombrero hats tacked to the wall, but it does the job of coming close to replicating Mexico while on another continent. Dinner talk was fun and entertaining, especially as Bob explains his lifestyle of living in Angola. He explains how beautiful the women are (mostly due to the many skin tone variants produced from Portuguese promiscuity with the natives) and how he has a different local flavor for every day of the week. In a slimier looking white guy, I would have thought much less of him, but Bob was pretty cool. And as it turned out, he married one of these chicks. Somehow that made me feel better. So Rob an old guy was clearly a manwhore. But so is Al. So I am out with these two old guys having drinks, and eventually the question is asked by Bob, ‘Where can we go where there are not any ExxonMobil folks’. Now as explained before, Bottles is essentially the ExxonMobil expat hangout. This is around the time where we have went through a pitcher of margaritas, a big bottle of beers, and I have been described as a ‘hard cock’. Not me in particular, but I think they were generalizing about the horny nature of any person of man my age. The statement was dunked in envy and sprinkled with nostalgia. So Al gets the check and we go off into the night.

We end up heading to this place called Michaels, and along the way Al verifies my ability to keep secrets. So we get to this place and it appears to be the typical club setup, a bar, tv’s, people, and prostitutes. Wait a minute… prostitutes! Yes, unless my whoreometer is busted, all but a handful of these women were out to make some money that night. At least I hope so, why else would these gorgeous women be hanging on to some old crusty white guys with ponytails and a bald dome. In short, I had fun, no one hooked up with a prostitute (I think), and there were some nice girls in there that I think were free to talk to. I was afraid to find out though. I met a Nigerian guy who gave me his card and assured me there was a lot of money to be made in Nigeria, but I don’t know whether he is trying to scam me or not. People have been telling me to be wary of people that seem overly friendly, and that’s unfortunate. We ended up calling it a night rather early, around 11 or 12, which was sad because the ‘women’ were getting more and more beautiful by the minute. I got home and decided that I was going to sleep until I could not sleep anymore. And that is what I did.

Monday, June 23, 2008

My Nigerian Blogging

Hope you all are enjoying my writings of Nigeria. My entry posting is delayed mostly because I have no Internet connection at the hotel, but eventually they will catch up. I have been writing everyday so far, but I imagine that will slow down eventually to just record the good stuff.

That's about it, later.

Nigeria: Day Four

Your right Chisom, I still do not have earplugs, and I don’t think I will be able to find them. But I think I am used to it now. For the first time, I did not bother to set up a wake up call. I just woke up at 5:30 to the honking as usual. I think I am okay with it… actually it’s going to suck being woken up at 5:30 on a Saturday.

This morning as we were leaving the gate of the hotel, our driver, Linus, ever so subtly slipped the traffic guard the thousand Naira that Greg had promised yesterday. The guard new the deal, but more surprisingly the guard on the other side of the street new the deal as well, because as we passed them, he beckoned for us to give him money as well. Linus waved him away and kept going. Greg, clearly uncomfortable that he created friction, was asking Linus if the other guard would share. [Side note: Communicating with Linus is always an interesting task, because despite the fact that he speaks English, his type of English is very different and causes a lot of confusion. I get the impression that Nigerians speak a hybrid English sort of like Spanglish, but instead it is infused with their Native tongue.] After some confusion, Linus insists that he will share not only with that guard but with two others that are manning the block.

In the car this morning, I noticed my first mosquito. I was told they were small, and this thing was tiny indeed. Mosquito’s are on my short list of things that are ok to kill, but these Malaria mosquitoes are on the must-kill list. Evidently one in fifty four mosquitoes in Nigeria carry the malaria strain, and that is enough for me to squish every one I see. Eventually it popped up again and it was squished. I felt better.

You know how there is casual Friday in the states (well not at Exxon), at my office in Nigeria, they have Traditional Dress Friday’s. So a good deal of the Nigerians, and even some of the expats come dressed in African garb. Naturally there is some competition as to who can look the best, so the outfits are really well put together. I am glad my mom told me to bring one of my African shirts, that way I can participate next Friday. Also, one of the admins is supposed to have the hook up on a tailor, so I will have to pursue that a bit more.

One of the old black guys in my group, who is a bit grumpy I might add, made fun of me for staring at the women who pass by. Called me a rubber-necker. It’s true though, but only half of my staring is because the women are beautiful, and they are, but it is also because I am so easily distracted. I tend to follow any object that crosses my sight. The worse part, was while he was ridiculing me, he blatantly was checking out the behind on this chick that passed by. After giving him the ‘I see what you just did’ face, he replied, ‘I’m old, I can do that’. Then he told me that if they find out that I am American, to some of them, I might as well be Puff Daddy. His name is Don and he is so close to retirement that he can do whatever he wants, including socializing for most of the day.

So, one of the persistent issues that I have had since arriving is having access to a cell phone, and an office phone as well. I have all the ingredients to have a working cell phone, an international phone that accepts various sim cards, and a Nigerian sim card by MTN. But because its an ExxonMobil phone, it wont let me put in another sim card without knowing the special password. Since I don’t know that password, I had to send an email to the cell phone authority back in Houston requesting it. I get the following note back: Turn the device on and enter anything into the password field. Doing so 7 times will erase the device, and you should be able to enter the device. So I do what he says, and instead of granting access, it locks me out of the phone. Now all it says is contact service provider. So I write this fool back telling him all this, but I am sure he will not write me back until well after I have gone home for the day. Oh well.

I also came to the conclusion that Malarone is making me a little queasy. I was feeling fine this morning, but after taking Malarone (our anti-malarial prophylaxis), I started feeling a little stomach ache. My boss told me I need to take it when I eat more fatty foods and to stop taking it with breakfast. Maybe that will help.

My boss decided to give me a little history lesson on Nigeria and the oil industry. The story goes like this. Above $50 a barrel of oil, oil companies really don’t get more money because almost all agreements signed with foreign governments are things called Production Sharing Agreement. They basically say, when oil price is this, you get this percentage of the oil. But since these contracts were all signed when oil was 10 and 20 bucks per barrels of oil, and were never expected to go above around 50, the terms were very generous to the nations past that point. In other words, as prices shot past 50 bucks, the percentage of oil that ExxonMobil gets to claim plummets. The idea is that the oil companies should not get ridiculous profits because oil prices rise, or else they might influence the price of oil upward. Unfortunately, this concept has not been widely understood outside of the industry especially not in Nigeria. Here the government pushes for workforce raises, and for higher taxes, which has left Mobil Producing Nigeria (Exxon) and NAPMS (Nigerian National Oil Company) in the poor house. Which leads to, as Greg puts it, strangling the golden goose until it gives you more eggs. The companies are in dangerous territory of not being able to reinvest in developing new fields. So the money the government wants now is taking away from its potential earnings in the future. This is the nasty state of affairs in Mexico and Venezuela as well. The unfortunate aspect about the Nigerian tale is that no one seems to know where the government confiscated funds are going. The reason there is so much unrest with groups like MEND (the hodge podge of militant groups wreaking havoc in the oil producing region) is because the people believe that the money is being kept from them and is instead filling the pockets of corrupt politicians. The end.

This brings me to another issue. I have and will say some things that put Nigeria in a bad light. But I like to think I do so respectfully and objectively. But one thing that I have noticed is commonplace here, is for expats to talk about Nigeria as if they owe it no respect. Black, white, and yellow expats from all over the world regularly denounce the place often right in front of Nigerians. Statements such as “I could not stay in this s***hole for more than a year,” or “I don’t see how anybody could eat this food,” and many others that are a waste of time to type. A lot of the people here treat this country with open contempt, as if they did not choose and continue to decide to stay here. Not only that, the air or superiority and the taint of ‘civilized living’ is present in their approach to all things Nigerian. It is not necessarily what they say, but why they sat it. If you point out the poverty all around you with empathy and with the desire to help, it is different that pointing out poverty simply to degrade a nation. The people here are smart, cognoscente of their countries situation, and are tenacious about improving their lot and those around them. So it is hard for me to hear people describe the average Nigerian as part of the problem. These people are part of a system that needs fixing, and sipping on the haterade is not going to help.

I was inducted into some of the office drama recently. So evidently, every MPN (Exxon) employee is entitled to 4500 Naira worth of goodies per month. That can range from water, to chips, to coffee, to cookies, but everyone is entitled to it. It is managed by the group admin, who is an admin. It is obvious that the policy is designed more so for the Nigerian majority who work in the office, but its open to us expats as well. So I hear Greg telling the admin, Florence, that I need to see the list. After that, he comes to my cube and begins to fill me in. Evidently, Florence had been ordering everyone’s stuff, except his and other white guys stuff. Instead, he suspects Florence received the stuff and took it home with her. Whether to sell or to keep, who knows. His evidence seemed rather convincing, waiting until they were out at a meeting to distribute the stuff, or claiming their order was lost, or making up orders in their name and asking them to sign for it… basically it seems very likely that she was purposefully ignoring the US expats. The catch is that these expats get all these things free anyways. The same stuff on the list is available in limitless supply at the various residences that the expats stay at. What Greg, and perhaps the others want to do, is to give their order of stuff to their Nigerian drivers as gifts. Eventually this came to a head when someone turned Florence in to the big boss, and she was almost fired for it. In comes my role. I am supposed to inform Greg if she actually delivers my stuff or not. But whatever happens, I know one thing, I ain’t no snitch!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Nigeria: Day Three

‘We should get our friend a present’ says Greg my boss. He is speaking to Linus our driver about the police man in the middle of the street that guides traffic. He never makes us wait when we show up at the intersection because he knows we come from the Bayshore Suites and are therefore likely to tip him. Linus agrees that it is a good idea to give him a present. After asked by Greg what we should get him, Linus hesitates before saying 1000 Naira. Greg’s mouth opens a bit, and Linus, who thinks he has overstepped his bounds, quickly corrects by saying 500 Naira. I silently chuckle to myself, because I was thinking that he was going to get him something like a teddy bear or an ExxonMobil mouse pad. Greg was thinking correctly though, and told Linus, that 1000 was fine, he just thought we should give him more…

I spent the first two hours of the job today writing about my accounts. I have no problems with that, we end up working ten hours a day anyways so I call it even. Justino, a 70 year old Filipino man who looks 50 and has not intentions of retiring, just came in explaining that there was a major wreck on the way to work today. He nonchalantly explains that some guy got hit by a car, so they moved his dead body to the side of the rode and laid a cloth over him. ‘Life is so precious’ he says before logging in to his computer. This makes me think of the conversation I had with Greg the other day, where he told me the going rate for a human life in Lagos was around $40… maybe life is not that precious.

I just went to the restroom and there was a guy finishing up his business. We’re talking dropping kids off at the pool, not watering the flowers. We made eye contact as I prepared to wash my hands, and I scooted over for this young Nigerian guy to access the other sink. He came up to the mirror, brushed his hair, and then left! No hand washing. Now I hate to stereotype off of one data point, but that was nasty, and I am going to be monitoring cleanliness from now on. Note: I can only cast a small stone; I have been known to not wash my hands occasionally as well, but always after the number two.

Today I decided to go to the cafeteria by myself in hopes of forcing someone to sit and talk with me. The way it works in the Caf, if I did not clarify this yesterday, is people go through and get their food, and then try and find a seat wherever they can. Seats are in high demand, so if you sit by yourself, someone else or a group of others might come and share your table. So I head down and pause in front of the food display table to check out what they are offering. Goat stew for the national dish, and hamburger patties and pasta in gravy for the continental dish. The goat stew looks really good, and as I am mentally preparing myself to order it, I hear ‘Anthony!’ from behind me. I turn around and it is my cube mate Ladun. She comes over and inquires about why they sent me down to the cafeteria all by myself. After insisting that I chose that fate, she asks me what I plan on ordering. I guess my abnormal amount of time in front of the display case alerted her to my difficulty in choosing a dish. So I explain how I tried the food yesterday (to which she was very amazed) but told her that I was not really ready for it and did not finish it all. Then I said I was willing to try again today with the Goad Stew. Surprisingly, she recommended against it saying that it would prove too spicy for me to handle, and that I should get the hamburger patties. Around this time, I notice a very attractive young lady over Ladun’s shoulder, so I quickly agree to get the patties, and move on to the sign in sheet behind mystery woman. I decided that I would get whatever food selection she was getting. But despite my waiting in the middle of the two lines for her to make a choice, she ends up talking with some friends before getting her food. I noticed that her table of friends was full, so I went in line and put my hopes into following her to whatever table she sat at. Naturally, I get my food way before her, so I dilly dally until I see her moving. I guess I was paying too much attention, because I ended up knocking my huge water bottle into my meal. So while I am cleaning up my mess, I see that she has pulled a seat up to the table with her friends. Luckily, Ladun sees me looking around for another table and she waves me over to hers. The whole scene reminded me of the first day of high school. You want to sit with the cool kids but somehow you end up with the nice dorky people.

At the table with Ladun, I had my first real conversation about Nigeria. She told me about the different states, where she was from, how the politics work, the corruption, and what she thinks of the country’s problems. She spent some time in the UK, and I she said something memorable about it: “It’s interesting being in a place where the system works”. I guess I never really thought about it, but we DO come from a system that works. Your basic needs are provided, you have opportunities to accomplish most things, and your future is relatively secure. She was saying that here in Nigeria, the system does not work, and that no one really knows how to fix it. Her thoughts on the solution start with Power. [The following is research results combined with talk with Ladun and my own opinions] Nigeria produces 3500 MW of power. When compared with the 40,000MW of power that South Africa provides for its population roughly one-third the size of Nigeria, you begin to see the problem. Nigeria has for many years suffered from outages and shortages despite its access to natural resources like oil and gas. To reach industrial-nation levels for its population size, it will need roughly 100,000MW of power. Billions of dollars were poured into the power sector over the last couple of years (by the previous administration) but the current administration has discovered that the money was used for anything but power generation. According to Ladun, power generation actually fell during the last administrations revamp efforts. So why is power important? Not in the sense you would think, i.e. lights, cooking, be able to watch TV and get on the internet. Really power is necessary to generate investment in the country. No company will bring its manufacturing plant to Nigeria when it knows it will have plant shutdowns three times a day because of power shortages. Similarly, data and energy intensive industries like banking, chemical, metal plants, mining cannot come in and turn Nigeria into an industrial powerhouse. The people are who ultimately pay for this shortcoming, because instead of being employed by the plethora of companies that are attracted by the cheap and abundant work force, people are finding employment though odd jobs and side hustles. Something like 70 to 90 percent of government funding comes from oil, but if they were able to diversify this mix, total income would increase, and the country’s leverage on resource sharing agreements would greatly improve. But enough about the problem, how do you solve it? I don’t know.

After lunch, I launched on a campaign to find friends, and emailed all the names that I had gathered before arriving here. These were names of Nigerians and African Americans that are here in Lagos who are friends of people that work at Exxon in Houston. The email went something like: I’m new, I am stuck in the hotel, and the white people I work with won’t let me out. Help. So far the response has been overwhelming, almost everyone one of them has agreed to help me out by taking me around or introducing me to the right people. In fact some have even stopped by and introduced themselves already.

We decided to take a different way home today to avoid that terrible hour and a half delay we had yesterday. Instead we got an hour long drive home, due to impromptu road closures, and people turning two way roads into one way roads. But today’s trip was awesome, because we were on a major road this time. It was like driving through a mall, so much stuff was being sold right outside the window. But the rules of street vendors is the same everywhere, don’t make eye contact, and politely wave no thanks. We were specifically targeted because my white boss is in the front seat and we are driving a shiny new car. This may be an inappropriate reference, but the balancing on the head thing is just like National Geographic said it would be. I swear the most amazing, lopsided, huge bundles of stuff are carried on the heads of these street vendors. Trays of peanuts, packages of pants, towers of fabrics, all balanced with ease. It made the ride home pretty awesome. Normally I pride myself in my sense of direction, but I am out of my league here. I cannot tell up from down in these convoluted streets.

After work I went to the gym for the first time, and that was really cool. It’s owned by the same people as the hotel, but it is open to the public. And it is a really good gym. My friend’s last day in country is today, so we went and got some food and drinks. We ended up having a good conversation about black people. It started from watching a soccer game where most of the players were black, despite representing a non-African nation. Why are your people so good at sports type talk? It ended with us coming to the conclusion, that if he really want’s to know what it feels like to be a minority, he should take a full time position (a year or two) in one of these countries we do business in. Being in another culture that you do not identify with is the essence of being a minority, and I think everybody needs that chance.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Nigeria: Day Two

It’s 5:30 AM and as promised, the Lekki Alarm Clock has woken me up. I thought it strange that this hotel had no alarm clock in the room, but I now understand why. Everybody wakes up at 5:30, whether you intend to or not. This is courtesy of the Lekki Freeway that borders the side of the Bayshore Hotel. My fellow expats told me of this phenomenon, but I was still shocked to experience it. As if on cue, the symphony of honks start and will not stop until 10:30 PM. Oh well, I had my wake up call set for 6:00 AM anyway.

I take my shower in quickly diminishing hot water, and brush my teeth hesitantly using the tap water (they insist it’s safe at Bayshore, despite the repeated warnings of the Bus driver warning us against tap water). I would simply trust the line that Bayshore has its own filtration, but then I ask, why can’t they filter out that slightly brown color? Oh well, its 24 hours later, and I am ok.

Breakfast is some Lebanese approved, Nigerian prepared, version of American breakfast cuisine, and the results are quite interesting. Interesting is the official word for things that I am hesitant to call bad, but I certainly do not think is good. So far, a lot of things in Nigeria are interesting… but I expect that my perception of things will change as I spend more time in country. After breakfast we head to the car where I am introduced to our driver. His name is Linus, and he is as my boss explains “the happiest guy I have ever seen, he is always smiling”. If whitey was paying me a good salary for two half mile drives, I would be smiling in his face as well. Regardless, Linus expertly executes the acrobatic moves of getting us across the highway without breaking a sweat. A feat I was too be impressed by until later that afternoon when he pulls an even greater performance.

The quick two minute drive to the office grants me my first impression of Mobil House. Mobil House is like an island, not that it stands alone from its environment physically, but more so like a wart on a face, or a gold tooth amongst a smile. It’s big, uninviting, and maintains a sense of westernized corporate order in a country that generally lacks such things. It simply does not seem to belong. But it is here, and I am glad for it, because it is completely necessary. Once past the multiple security checks, you emerge into what ExxonMobil clearly considers ‘architecture inspired by African tradition’. I’m convinced, but then again, I am the westerner who knows nothing really about what I am talking about. One thing to note, when I get issued a badge, you literally write your name and other info in a giant book and that serves as the record. Same with checking in my laptop. No computer database, no redundancy checking, no verification, and really no point. But this is one of the first examples of western expectations unsuccessfully executed in a non-western world. It is similar to the ‘honor code’ system at Bayshore Suites where you write in a ledger what you ate and drank, and ExxonMobil pays the tab at the end of the day/week/month. Regardless of what is written there, Bayshore Suites is going to charge whatever it wants to Exxon as long as the amount passes the sniff test.

So at work, I am shown to my cubicle where I get settled and introduced to a few people. The vast majority (appears to be 85% or so) of Mobil House employees are Nigerian citizens, with expatriates making up the remainder. My group is more 50/50. Shortly after arriving, a man comes and takes my chair, stating that he had stolen the chair I initially had from someone else, and that it must be returned before he gets to work. He returned with a much crappier chair that had seen its prime about ten years ago. He promised to bring another later, along with a phone, a trash can, and a few other things. This is a white guy by the way, in case your mind is visualizing a Nigerian (not sure if that was a necessary clarification). I like my dilapidated chair though, it reminds me of my furniture at home.

The highlight of my workday was the hour long explanation of how dangerous Nigeria is from my boss. Don’t get me wrong, this city is very visibly dangerous, but my boss takes it to the extreme. He literally goes to work, gets to the hotel and locks his door, and does not come out until the next morning. He eats the American food that he had shipped over ($6000 worth) for breakfast, lunch and dinner, because ‘I ate the food twice, and twice I got food poisoning’. He considered going to the gym at Bayshore Suites, but the first day he was going to go, it was robbed by an armed gang who stole everybody’s stuff. So never going to the gym he says. He proceeded to give examples of contractors getting shot (injured not killed) when driving to the mainland without a police escort, and of people getting robbed on the street because they look like rich white guys. For clarification, he explains that I will not have as much of a problem (because I am black), and that the Lagos island that we are on, Victoria Island, is safer than mainland Lagos. Although, I am seemingly imperious to fears of death, his continued monologue of danger begins to sink in. I am now officially worried about my safety in Lagos. This is probably a good thing, because now when I go out, I will be more aware of my surroundings. I explained this to him to which he says something like ‘I came here to work and to make money, I did not come here to die’, but wishes me luck in staying safe if I venture out. After the hour safety discussion, we discuss what I am here to do.

Lunch time comes, and my boss reluctantly takes me down to the cafeteria. He explains that he ate here only once (reference previous statement of food poisoning) and has stayed away ever since. But, he continues, he has since found out that they have a sandwich and salad bar. I notice once he gets his meal, that they are out of lettuce at the salad bar, and that the sandwich appears to be four pieces of toast, poor guy can’t catch a break. I on the other hand am looking forward to my meal. The National (aka Nigerian) selection was Cassava, Fufu, Otongo Soup and some other goodies; but I was set on the less adventurous curried chicken with rice. As I get in line, I notice that I see a lot of the National dish being served out, but then again most everybody in the caf was Nigerian. But as I get closer, I do not even see the rice and curried chicken, but when I ask, the lady says yes there is chicken. She was referring to some other chicken, not my curried chicken. So here I am at the ordering place and I do not know what I am looking at. So I get a little of everything. By the way, there is no such thing as a little. They give TREMENDOUS portions, to the point where its preposterous. So, my little of everything was still a lot. The second I saw her spoon the Otongo Soup and noticed that there was a mucous like film hanging from the ladle, I knew I was going to have some problems. I have explained to some, that my only beef with Nigerian food comes from the heavy use of Okra, which becomes slimy when boiled. This Otongo Soup was the definition of slimy, but I promised to give it a shot.

I get my plate and meet my boss at the table, and I can sense his disgust at my plate before I look up and see it. ‘You’ve got bigger balls than I do’ he says. My balls were not that big after all, because I did not make it very far into that meal. I took my first bite of Fufu, and it was so spicy, and so foreign a taste that I had ended up drinking half my glass of water. Then I tried the Cassava, which looked like a potato like food, and found that to taste like toilet paper. Don’t ask me why I know what toilet paper tastes like. It was not bad, but it was just bland. I wrapped some Otongo Soup around it, yes you have to wrap it or else the stuff will just stick to your spoon, and tried the combination. That was better, but no success. It was when my boss said ‘You don’t have to do this to yourself’ and ‘I won’t think less of you if you give up’ that I did indeed give in. I found the international line and returned with some yummy curried chicken and rice. The rest of my day, I spent battling massive indigestion, and refusing to get sick.

Around 6:00PM (time out, my office mate is cutting her nails with scissors) we go home, or at least we try to. It took us two minutes to drive to work, would have taken at most ten minutes to walk it if we were allowed to, but it took us an hour and a half to drive home. The worse part is that there was no obvious reason what the delay was for. Cars just were not moving. Evidently this trip doubled the last record for longest trip home, but I was not that bothered by it. I was able to witness a little bit of Nigerian life during that time. Chickens, small shacks that were barely livable, mansions whose land was evidently worth more than most places in Beverly Hills, seemingly eighteen year old police men and their AK-47s, car to car salesman carrying socks and shirts, friends socializing, a guy taking a crap in the bushes, men repairing tires, vendors selling fruit, beautiful women being flirted with, drivers creating their own lanes, restaurants and jazz clubs, potholes that made the road look like a cleared minefield, range rovers, Mercedes, pintos and hoopties. An amazing spectrum of things, but still the overriding flavor is poverty. Maybe not in the eyes of those in the streets, but in my eyes, ones that have seen better. And I feel correct in saying better; there are basic necessities that are not being met for a lot of the people that you see here. I am the first to say that all you really need is food, water, air, and shelter but it seems these basic requirements are not fully being met in the general populace.

It was easy to theorize about how to ‘fix’ Africa back in the states, or how Yar’Adua was doing a good job in revitalizing Nigeria, but on the ground and in the streets it was hard for me to think of ways of making things better. How would you go about cleaning the streets of the overwhelming garbage? Where could you house people so that they are protected from the elements? Why is there such a disparity of wealth? How do you change a culture built on ‘corruption’? The last one is particularly tough to me. You bribe everyone here, but when it is expected and a source of salary for most; how do you change that, would you want to? Dash, a gift, a tip, a present, whatever the form, small infusions of cash are the way of getting things done and spread the wealth amongst the population, but also undermines the ability of governments to curb corruption and large scale corporate bribes. How do you permit something in the micro without it also affecting the macro? Tough stuff.

Back in the car, we finally make it back to the hotel after our driver forces his way across four lanes of gridlocked oncoming traffic. At this point, I am eager to take care of my indigestion, and also to relax. I talk to my Pops and watch some TV before heading down to dinner. My stomach barely at ease from lunch, I take it light during dinner and overhear a pretty funny convo. ‘Did you make it to the happy hour, I hear they ran out of food and drinks’, response, ‘They always do’. I need to get out more.

One of my coworkers from Houston showed up as I was finishing my meal (turns out he just got out of work) and he exchanged some money with me. I now have my first $100 worth of Naira. Those hundred dollars gives me 11,700 Naira, which turns out to be a pretty thick wad of cash, but they say it goes fast. As seems to be the custom, Star beers were purchased and everyone drank until they felt tipsy enough to sleep through the honking horns. Another eventful day in Naija.

Nigeria: Day One Continued

I failed miserably at staying awake. The hours between 6 and 8 PM were a total loss. I did not even gain the satisfaction of feeling refreshed because I woke up at least 50 times during that nap. If you don’t know, I am a light sleeper, and in this noisy city, that equaled no sleep. So I literally would lie down on the bed, fall asleep, wake up, look at my watch, realize two or three minutes had passed, tell my self to get up, try and will myself to move, and in the process fall back asleep; repeat. Two hours later, I broke the cycle. Mostly, I awoke because I was supposed to call my boss around 8PM for dinner.

After receiving a busy tone from his phone, I went down to the dining hall of the Hotel and found a group of Houston coworkers well into some post-meal bottles of wine. They offered some leftover pizza and I eagerly obliged. But being old, most of those guys went to bed around 9, and another recent hire and I stayed behind. The EuroCup was in full effect so we went to the bar across the hall where I was introduced to Star Beer. Evidently, in Nigeria, you can choose between Heineken and Star when it comes to beer. There are more, but those definitely seem to be the most popular. This leads me to the legend (or rumor) behind Star beer. Once upon a time ago, Heineken opened a brewery in Nigeria to satisfy the demand from it’s local customers. Soon the brewery went defunct and was abandoned. Not long after, a Star was born that somehow tastes remarkably like Heineken. And that’s the story, but the source of it warned me that it could be completely false. Anyways, at the bar with my Caucasian friend, the Nigerian bartender asks my friend Ryan where he is from. He says the US. Then she turns and asks me where I am from, and I say the US. Then she proceeds to look very confused. She asks, ‘Are you from the US, America?’ I say yes. Then she says, ‘but’, and rubs her skin. I, shocked that she might think there are no black people in America, look at my friend who is just plain confused, and explain to her that there are plenty of black people in America. She then goes and gets a friend and explains that both me and the white guy are from the same place. Ryan, finally understanding the situation, adds in that we even work in the same building for the same company. More shock and incredulity. All in all, it was a revelation for all parties involved. I almost refuse to believe that their misconception was genuine, but perhaps it was.

Not long after that, the bar closed and we were forced to take our drinks to our rooms like drunkards. What’s awesome is that the giant bottles of Star beer we were drinking cost 300 Naira, which is about $2.50. Party at the Bayshore Suites.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Nigeria: Day One

It is the rainy season here in Nigeria. This became apparent as the water droplets streaked past the planes on the window, obscuring my potential first viewings of the city of Lagos. It was not until the airplane began making its way to the terminal that I realized I was excited. My first footsteps on the continent of Africa was about to begin and I had no idea what to expect.

The doors of the plane opened to warm humid air, but all I could think was, these are my first lungfuls of African air. It smelled like it had been raining a lot, that sort of mildewy scent that emanates from damp carpets, but I am learning that this city engages your senses more than anyplace else I have been.

A fellow Exxon employee, Brian, happened to be traveling in the adjacent seat as I on the plane. Brian, a Caucasian, allowed me to really see some of the subtle differences of our similar work experiences. Through our talks it was clear that he was here for work, and I verified that I was primarily here for growth. Brian and I both had an error in our immigration paperwork, but at the entry desk, Brian was not allowed to pass and I was. Same guard, same error, different person. Similarly, whenever I handed my passport to an airport official, they would reply ‘welcome home’. That’s amazing. Even the guard checking the bag blessed me with those two words. My American passport meant nothing except I had not been home in a while, and that has set the tone for my experience thus far.

Although I felt welcomed, I still felt like a stranger in a strange land. A Nigerian Exxon employee escorted myself and the other travelers to the bus that would take us to our destinations. And there we waited. The plane landed at 10:00AM and I arrived at the bus no later than 11:00AM. Due to complications in the baggage of two travelers in our party we did not leave the airport until Noon. That hour was filled with hunger and thirst, but also with my first chance to observe the people. It is hard to comprehend how much infrastructure we expect in our American lives, until we get to a place without it. Just the walk from the terminal to the bus allowed me to slightly grasp some of these things.

The guard with the AK-47 was the first sight to leave an impression, not because he had a gun, but because he had such a stripped down, second-hand gun. My guide to the bus was initially missing, and it was amazing how many people could smell opportunity in the air. One man asked me if I would like to use his phone for a call, another asked if he could carry my bags, a third and fourth if they could drive me somewhere. I felt nervous, not because I felt in harm’s way, but because I knew I was out of my league. Luckily, the escort appeared before I became too edgy. The walk to the bus was mud strewn with potholes intermittently spaced along the road, and people were everywhere. They were not at the airport for flying, but were there to make a living doing whatever small tasks were available. In the bus was my the last of my initial observations. The bus had all the curtains drawn, which was expected. I was most surprised by the fact that no one besides myself was tempted to look outside. I was in a bus with five Caucasians, most of whom had never been in the country, and they were seemed little interested in the brand new world around them.

Eventually the bus driver announces we will begin moving. But first, he says he must find out where he is taking us. It turns out, your hotel location in Nigeria (for Exxon employees at least) is not guaranteed until you actually arrive in Lagos. Then they find a place for you, with your stated preference being ideal. All but one of our group of six were staying where we wanted to, the unlucky fellow just happened to pick the short stick that day. The bus is off, and before we leave the grounds of the airport, the incessant honking begins. This honking is the one constant in Lagos. Even as I sit in my hotel room typing this, the chorus of different pitched horns is piercing the narrowly insulated hotel walls. Back to the bus ride. The things you notice immediately, are the poverty and the audacity of the people. The poverty is obvious through the plethora of shacks and dilapidated housing that line the major highways, but the audacity is more interesting. The phrases, balls to the walls comes to mind. Meaning there is no half-stepping. When they want to sell something, they get in the middle of the highway and sell it. Speeding cars be damned. This guy really wants to sell some automotive floor pads, and this guy needs to get rid of some embroidered napkins, or some fruit, or some sodas, or DVD’s. At some point I begin looking at the toes of these road vendors to see if there feet are imprinted with tire treads. They are not, and it’s because they are good at this. This audaciousness is found in many things I have observed thus far. The driving stretches the limits of reasonableness, people cross the street as if they are only mildly aware of the implications of getting hit by a bus, business men ride on the back of mopeds, and people find work in anything from picking weeds by hand or shoveling dirt from one pile to the next. It’s chaotic, it’s primitive, and it’s beautiful. The tenacity, that celebrated hustler spirit, I witnessed in the hour and a half ride goes straight to the top of my list. Out of poverty comes necessity.

As our police escorted caravan enters the first of the ExxonMobil compounds, I see why the rest of the party took the time to sleep or chat with their coworkers. They are expected to be isolated from this society. The compound is behind a big wall with big metal swinging doors, and appears to be a self sufficient living quarters. I quickly learned that Bayshore (where I stay) is the same way. I can eat here, catch the bus to work, and sleep here without any needs of interacting with the outside world.

After dropping off the first of our crew, we continued on our way down the increasingly smaller streets. At one point, to avoid a traffic jam, the police escort ushered us down the wrong side of a one way street. As much as I was enjoying the increasingly liberal road rules, my destination was soon upon us. The Bayshore Suites is a Lebanese Owned, ExxonMobil rented temporary housing facility that does a very good job of providing generous accommodations in a place where the general population has so little. After some initial confusion (they claimed I was not supposed to be staying with them) I got into my room and started to get as settled as possible. The staff, all Nigerian, has proved very nice and has so far offered to take me to church. They promised the service would be short, three hours at the most.

That is my account thus far. I am trying to fight sleep as best I can, but luckily the perpetual cacophony outside my window is going to make staying awake much easier. Tomorrow, I will invest in some earplugs.