By 7.20am, I am in a cab, speeding towards the Yaba Motor Park. The plan is to grab a seat on an early bus to Benin, and then on to Ekpoma. Overnight my Mum has tried to call me several times. My gamble – forwarding my UK mobile to a Skype Out number- has failed spectacularly; no thanks to the dodgy internet I’ve got. The forwarded calls come in but I can’t answer them with any decent quality. 😦 That early on a Sunday morning, Lagos is already agog – blaring loud speakers, shrill cries of hawkers and bus conductors alike and a steady stream of pedestrians.
At the park, three buses are being filled concurrently – one has the luxury of a a DVD player and screen and air conditioning, the other has only air conditioning, the third is the RyanAir (link) equivalent – no frills, no fancy, basic get-you-there service. I plump for the mid-tier option – handing over 2,600 Naira. There are four more spaces to fill – I settle into the back seat to wait. The loader, a small, wiry, quick witted man whose deeply etched face belies his boy sized body hops about, keeping us entertained with his brand of wit and sarcasm.
The middle row of seats – and one on the first row – is taken up by four women who seem to be part of a traveling party. They have that settled, stolid unflappable-ness of middle aged safety, accompanied with a few tufts of greying hair peeking out from beneath their head scarves. It seems like they have been attending a church convention of some sort. The woman in the front seat who appears to be the leader of the group – reminisces almost to herself, given the lack of comments from the others – on how well a certain person preached the night before.
After another hour of waiting in which the six or so people who have arrived at the Edegbe Line stand opt for either of the other options but not our mid-tier one, I decide to pay for an extra street to speed things up. The bonus is I won’t have to worry about managing my hand carried bag of extra gifts for the nieces and my parents, and the chance to ease the discomfort I am already feeling from squashing my legs into the tight space I have afforded.
Two last two passengers to arrive join me at the back – a much older husband and wife pair, I assume. She is carrying a small purse, whilst he drags a large traveling case. When they speak, it is in faintly accented tones – I place them as academics of some sort. My hunch is proved right when it turns out they have UNIBEN connections and remember my father from back in the day.
We finally get the bus loaded up – the exits blocked completely by the various odds and ends we are all traveling with. I shudder inwardly at the prospects of escape if a fire breaks out.
Just before we head out, the posse of women break out in singing and clapping, followed by an extended payer for journey mercies, and protection from armed robbers and all the other dangers of the road, apparently – thank goodness I think to myself.
The journey passes without significant incident – bar the few potholes our bus clangs through. To be fair, the road is in a much improved state than I recall – for portions of it, we have to switch the side of the road we use – which leads to some confusion.
At Ore – we break for food; I end up grabbing plantain chips, coke and some suya. Missing my regular hotel in Lagos threw the spanner in the works for my first night suya/ chicken republic staple. Ore makes amends.
Benin… We arrive just after 2.00pm. Speeding past Precious Palm Royal, and then UNIBEN in short order, there is at once a lot of and yet little change visible. What is immediately obvious is that a lot of building has been completed since I last passed through these parts. To the right of the main gate, a row of freshly built banks stand, new, clean, resplendent, no doubt profiting from being repositories of all the various fee accounts the university creates.
After I come off the bus from Lagos, I find a bus headed for New Benin motor park to kick off the second phase of my journey. It has just rained – odd for early November. In the midst of the bedlam that is the motor park, someone calls my name; or at least I think so. Not in the mood for any mindless prattle, and using the fact that my earphones are plugged in as an excuse – I feign not hearing.
We are all sweaty in the tightly packed bus. Packed as tightly as we are, the air doesn’t get a lot of circulation, bearing the various smells it is saddled with – cray fish and garri from the ghana-must-go across from me, and a motley of other smells given off by the open gutters around.
Salvation comes when we finally move off, the forced draughts clearing the dense, suffocation that has settled upon us like a blanket. We complete the 80-ish kilometres in just over an hour, the imposing facade of the University gate welcoming us to town. All that is left is the intermittent stopping to offload people, their luggage and their wares. By the time we are past the city centre and heading towards the outskirts, we have been whittled down from fifteen to less than six.
At the last stop there are just two of us – a woman who looks vaguely familiar and I. We hop off the bus, claim our baggage and attempt to hail a cab. She catches my eye and seemingly after weighing it for a bit asks me if I’m not an S. I reply in the affirmative. It turns out she works at the primary school I attended back in the 80’s.
You haven’t changed much since your sister’s‘s wedding she says – I laugh and try to make small talk until I am saved by an okada heeding her call. Grett your mum for me she says.
I wave as she disappears, borne by the bike rider.
I surprise my parents by walking the last few kilometres from the bus stop home. They are surprised – you have always been quietly stubborn mom says.
Home.. Is always home.. As will a fiercely independent child remain…