The day began with tragedy. A building collapse in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, had gulped 10 lives in a calamity that underscored the fragility of human life. It happened exactly adjacent the hotel I lodged in, on Gimbiya Street, Area II, Garki, Abuja. Little did I know that more unpalatable news lurked.
I had to be in Calabar, Cross River State in Southern Nigeria, by Friday morning. So I set out for the major motor parks in the city, where, one by one, we — my speeding motorcycle rider and I — were informed that all Calabar buses for the day had departed. After six disappointingly unsuccessful attempts, we finally found a park where a car was willing to travel. Yet, there was a snag: I was the only available passenger.
At Nya-nya, the seventh park, a Samaritan advised that I boarded a bus to Markurdi first, then Ogoja, and Calabar. So I phoned Blessing Johnson — an Akwa Ibom-born friend blessed with stunning beauty and first-rate intelligence — for advice.
“Ah, Fisayo, you would arrive Calabar very late, say 11pm or 12am,” she exclaimed chillingly. “But Calabar is a very safe place, so you don’t have to worry.”
Journeying to Markudi was not as brief as my Samaritan made it seem, despite my dozing off as soon as the bus hit the road. I intuitively opened my eyes as we approached the famous River Benue; and by dusk, we arrived at Markurdi, heralded by deafening hip-hop music to which a teenage girl lovingly twisted and twitched.
In a matter of minutes, I joined another bus en route to Ogoja, haunted by the now-dawning near-impossibility of arriving before 12am. Yet the final lap to Calabar was waiting.
Eleven pm was only short of minutes when the bus pulled over at the park at Ogoja, where there was no single travelling bus. Was there no hope? I begged the driver of the bus I came with.
“You may get at that junction,” he motioned vaguely. “It is not far from here.”
“Please, can you take me there?” I inquired. “I will pay you.”
“I nor fit, Oga. I don tire,” he retorted in native pidgin English.
I begged him again. This time, he screamed. “Oga, I say I don tire. I wan sleep. You nor dey hear word?”
The driver must have been shamed minutes later when a motorcycle came along and I flagged it down, paid the driver’s asking price, and mounted it.
At the said “junction,” the Ogoja Park scenario recurred: no more bus to Calabar! The last bus left minutes before my arrival; and none other would embark on the six-hour journey until 4am — just two hours before my final arrival time in Calabar.
My determination was fast becoming desperation. In the end, the only option was to join trucks loading odds and ends to Calabar. Did I have a choice? Again, I was told I had only missed a truck loading garden eggs by whiskers, and that one loading yam left earlier, too.
On came a pepper-carrying van. It was 1:00am. I knew it was my final bet. We agreed on a fee in return for an opportunity to share the boot with several score bags of pepper. It proved a most discomfiting experience!
I am certain that hell is a nicer place to be in! The pungent smell of fresh pepper was choking. Then there was the pothole-ridden road.
We lost good time to several bribery-induced Police stoppages, and by 4am, the van broke down. It took one hour and five minutes to get it back on the road; and less than 30minutes after, the driver abruptly parked, complaining of drowsiness.
In that early-morning darkness I disembarked and hired a motorcycle to convey me to the next park, where I hired a car to Calabar. Meanwhile, the leader of the delegation I was to team up with for the onward trip to Cameroon called to inform that I had only 30minutes left.
The car was speeding at textbook Formula One fashion, but my belief was petering out with each passing moment. I felt like toppling the driver but I knew I would do no better.
At exactly 7:15am, the phone rang. “We are very sorry; Mr. Soyombo, but you just missed the trip. The delegation is leaving….”
Everything changed. I sat still — helpless, motionless. The driver reduced his speed. Forty-five minutes later, I was still on the road … travelling, of course, to Calabar!