Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A weekend in Lagos, Nigeria

I told you about my Friday in Nigeria, which although technically the “start” of the weekend, involved a customer dinner, so it was kind of work. Therefore, I will start my weekend with Saturday morning. I met two of my coworkers at 10:00 a.m. in my hotel for the hotel brunch. It was a buffet breakfast that I had been avoiding all week by eating protein bars in my room for breakfast. I don’t regret that because had I eaten that breakfast every morning, the week would have been more damaging than it was (and I’m fairly confident it was pretty damaging.)

Aside from the breakfast being delicious… and including all the Nigerian classics, as well as omelets and pancakes and donuts, meats, cheeses, juice, coffee, fruit, cereal, bread and bacon… it also continued the theme of the week with great conversation. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed every conversation I was a part of this past week. I don’t know if it was the people here and their openness or my desire to connect, but I just felt very, very familiar and connected with everyone.  Being still new to Atlanta, it's not something I get all the time, so I very much enjoyed it at the most basic level.  We talked about work, struggles, ups and downs in life, and I know I sound like the cheesiest of cheesy people right now, but after breakfast I just felt really good.

I had been looking forward to my weekend in Nigeria all week long.  All week, as much as I was enjoying myself, I was excited for work to end, and for the added non-work related part of my trip to start. To see Lagos outside of the office.

And, I will be totally honest with you and admit that before I came, I was really nervous about spending the added weekend in Lagos. I actually called my travel center once trying to change my flights to go back earlier, but was put on hold for a while and didn’t end up doing anything. I actually went into the trip thinking, if it doesn’t feel right, I can always change my flights and go home before the weekend. And you know what? It felt right as soon as I arrived and I am so thankful I had that extra weekend in the city.  It was wonderful.

After the brunch and conversation, we headed out to do some shopping. I really wanted to purchase some sort of clothing that had traditional African prints on it. We started by visiting a local mall called Shoprite, which made me laugh, since Shoprite is a grocery store in the U.S. But anyways, turns out the stores in that mall didn’t have what we were looking for. Their traditional fabric stores had just that – fabric – since most everything “traditional” is custom made – and the ready made clothing that they had was not in my size. Although it wasn’t a total bust because within the Shoprite there was also a grocery store, and I love exploring grocery stores in other countries, as weird as that may seem.

I browsed around a bit and got some recommendations of snacks and candies to bring back for my team in the U.S. to be able to share a bit of the experience with them. After browsing the grocery store and making our purchases we head out from the mall.

We tried another shop that was just wayyyy expensive, we tried a tailor that took my measurements and offered to make me something if nothing else, and finally ended up at a little boutique in Ikoyi neighborhood of Victoria Island. And at this boutique called Eve and Tribe we hit the jackpot. It was like we had been Goldliocks and everything was their “too this” or “too that” and we finally settled upon something that was “juuuuust right!”

And man, we ended up there for who knows how long, but I think I tried on every single item in the store! And although I didn’t end up buying every single item, they were all beautiful pieces and unique and flattering and both one of my colleagues - okay, let's just call her a friend -- both my friend and I, ended up buying a number of items. And the guy in the group patiently waited while we tried on everything under the sun. Plus, my friend has a fashion blog, so I trusted her advice. Plus plus, the boutique was having a special event with cake and wine and extra stylists on site, so it was just a ton of fun in all! I love companies who engage their customers via social media and are ahead of the times and this boutique in Lagos, Nigeria was all of those things. I received my receipt via e-mail, started following them on Instagram, and they posted a blog of our shopping experience so we are pretty much famous in Nigeria now!!! P.S. I did not purchase the dress below.

Oh, and do you remember I said that there was cake at this event? As a sweets fanatic, I did try a bite of the cake, or okay, the frosting (it didn’t taste as sugary as American frosting, it actually tasted almost fruity? I couldn’t quite identify it.)  Anyways, I didn’t eat more of the cake because right before the final shop we went to, we stopped at an ice cream store! When the question of “Do you guys want ice cream?” came up on Saturday, the answer was an obvious “Duh!!”

Well, in fact, let’s be honest here, we talked earlier in the week about favorite foods and such and I mentioned that I loooved ice cream. So, having ice cream in Nigeria was sort of an inevitable for me. I consider it a cultural experience to try ice creams around the world. So far I’ve tried United States, Mexico, Germany, Italy, Nigeria, France, China and Turkey.

It was served in just a plan straightforward plastic cup that you use at little kids birthday parties and such. I decided to try two flavors – one of which was caramel and one of which was “chocolate with cereals.” And I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the best ice cream (a little grainy and icey) I’ve had in my life, but ice cream is still ice cream, so I can’t complain!

Following the clothing shopping extravaganza, which I was so appreciative of my FRIENDS being so patient and easygoing with me for, we then stopped by a small market with different African artifacts. I shopped around a bit, making a few purchases for myself and for friends and also continuing a tradition I started a while back of buying myself a piece of artwork where I traveled. It was a long day but was really successful and I felt really good about the purchases I made.

My friends dropped me off back at my hotel around 4:30 p.m. and I decided to relax for a little bit by the pool – although hiding in the shade!

After some relaxing pool time, I headed out for dinner with another coworker. In order to fit in as much as possible, he decided to make the plan to go to a number of different places and just get a drink or a bite to eat at each out, which was fine with me!  We started with the outdoor place that I ate the other night - I didn't have the heart to tell him that I'd already been.  But it turned out to be a totally different experience and I love being on the water, so I am glad we went.  We sat in cozy porch chairs had some local favorite beer and a small plate of Suya, which is grilled beef with spices and also some vegetables on the side.

The sun was setting, rather than being dark when I went before, and there was lots of pop boy band music playing.  My coworker friend was able to not only identify, but sing along to a bunch of West Life songs, which is a boy band that I totally forgot even existed!

From this place, we went to another restaurant called RSVP, which was really trendy and hip.  Once you were inside, I feel like you could have been in New York City or San Francisco or any sort of cool city.  We ordered some beet hummus, that I actually thought was really good and reminded me of the beet hummus I made all last summer and also non-alcoholic cocktails.  I don't usually get non-alcoholic drinks, but I followed others leads and knew it was going to be a long night, so figured it was for the best.  It had fresh juices in it and was really delicious.  Oh, and at this point, I was totally not even remembering the whole, "Avoid ice" rule.  Woops.

Our party grew at RSVP when one of my friend's high school friends joined us.  As someone with close high school friends myself, I connect with people who also have lifelong friends like that.  When friendships date more than 20 years and start in the most awkward years of your life, you know that there is a lot of real-ness rooted in that relationship.

The next stop after RSVP was a road side meat grilling place to get more of the "suya."  Suya is really like a spicy shish kabob that can be either beef or chicken.  We saw the local people grilling this out in the open in front of us just in a little parking lot area and there were huge lines of people driving up to buy the suya, which would be cut off the kebabs, covered in more spices that it had also marinated in, and wrapped in paper and passed along to the purchasers.

I took a whole bunch of pictures because I thought it was really cool and something I would have never known about without being with a local.  It was a fun experience to go and purchase the suya, see it being made, and then an even more fun experience to eat it.  It was deeelicious.  So juicy, hot, spicy, and really really flavorful.  It was definitely worth breaking my rule of "no street meat" for.

While we were picking up the suya, we actually ran into another one of the guy's friends from high school, who invited us over to his house for dinner.  I'd just like to remind you that I was with a coworker, I just switched to using the world "friend" just in case some of you are thinking, "Who is she doing all of this with?!"  Additionally, the coworker used to work in the same business as me and we had many mutual friends, so I immediately felt very comfortable with him for that reason, even within the context of work.

Anyways, we just randomly ran into this friend of theirs, he invited us over for dinner and drinks, and not too soon afterwards we were sitting down for a delicious meal of the traditional Nigerian food I've been eating this week.  The guys said that this was very typical and normal for them, to just have one person host and a casual group over for dinner and drinks, which is very much in line with what I did the night before but with a work group setting.

I know I sound like a broken record just saying over and over again how much I appreciated this... but the dinner time conversation was again, so great.  And let me tell you why.  Over dinner I sat with three people who are different nationality, a different race, a different background, and a different gender than I am.  They were so welcoming and hospitable and smart and fun.  We talked about religion, politics, race, government, terrorism, fear, culture, wealth, equality, gay rights and so much more.

We talked openly about the world's perception on Nigeria, their views on their government, and the impact that the United States having an African American president has had on them in their own lives.  One of my now friends in this group is able to recite multiple speeches of President Obama's word for word.  I had him recite for me one of them and he chose the speech that Obama gave in Chicago the night that he was elected President for the first time in 2008.  Every one of them knew exactly where they were when the found out that Obama had won the election.  I remember vividly where I was, but couldn't tell you what he said in his speech that night.  However, it impacted a young man in Nigeria, who at the time was in his mid-twenties, to watch that speech so many times that he has it memorized.  Oh, and his friends were rolling their eyes at him reciting the speech because it wasn't the first time that they had heard it!

This group of guys were all incredibly ambitious, smart, hospitable and welcoming so I am really glad that I was able to see their side of Lagos!  From dinner we went out dancing before I returned back to my hotel and it was such a great way to see the city.

In the morning on Sunday, I spent the day pretty slow.  I started with brunch again at the hotel, packing up my things in my room, and scheming a late checkout at the hotel.  My flight was at 9:00 p.m. and I was planning to leave the hotel at 5:00 p.m. but with a checkout at 11:00 a.m.... what's a girl to do??

People in Nigeria are VERY direct with what they want.  Asking nicely doesn't always get you what you need from wait staff or shopping I learned.  I tend to go in with the "kill them with kindness" approach and don't want to ask too much.  However, in the end I was able to manage a 4:00 p.m. checkout so I spent some time on Sunday at the pool, then heading back to my room to shower and pack up at around 3:00 and then grabbed something to eat from the hotel at 4:00 before jumping in my car to the airport at 5:00!!  The timing worked out quite nice and I even had a visitor at my hotel right before I left, of one of our customers.  He stopped by to bring me some traditional gifts from Nigeria and it was so incredibly nice and thoughtful of him!

Getting to the airport was an interesting experience for me.  I got in the car with the escorts and noticed that there was another car from the same company parked at the hotel.  I commented, "Oh, is there another person from the hotel going to the airport now too?" and the driver responded, "No, that is your escort."  To which my reaction was, "Huh???"

Turns out that the company policy is that when your flight departs or arrives within the evening hours, you need to have an armed police escort to and from the airport!  It tooootally shocked me because I hadn't truly felt unsafe the whole time that I was there.  I felt very safe but the thought that this was something that was written into the policy really shocked me.  Why did they put this policy in place?  Were they used to having something happen?  Is there a history of people getting attacked?  And then actually just thinking through the logistics of how an armed escort would actually help me... would they shoot someone trying to kidnap me?  What if they missed and they hit me?  How would they do that?

The airport was an interesting process.  I was dropped off, and then brought to an escort through the airport.  Which was really helpful because it was super chaotic and confusing.  It was not the same calm happy place I had seen when I flew in on a Monday afternoon.  On Sunday evening it was bustling and hot and there were no automatic machines so long lines at the tellers.  There were also processes that I would have never known existed - like getting a health check for ebola before going through security!

I got to the airport pretty early so I went to one of the lounges so I could use the free WiFi and sit in air conditioning while I waited for my flight to board.  There was lots of security checks and my temperature was checked a number of times before I actually made it onto the plane.  Once I did and settled into my seat, it was a relatively easy flight home.  The flight was longer on the return - 13 hours rather than 11 - and I felt like my seat was smaller for some reason.

And also, because these things happen to me, the man sitting next to me on the plane started chatting me up right away and within asking me my name and where I lived, suggested we exchange phone numbers and put his phone in my hand to enter my number.  What?!?!  I had just met this person, we barely exchanged words, and still had 13 hours to sit and fight over elbow space on the shared armrest and he was already asking to stay in touch?  It was incredibly bizarre.

The flight was a bit bumpy at times and made me nervous, per usual, but I arrived home in Atlanta at about 6:00 a.m.  I made it back to my apartment, showered, ate breakfast, and went into the office.  And just like that, my adventure in Nigeria was complete and life was back to normal.

Well, relatively normal.

The past two weeks were a lot of looking inside of myself, a lot of learning, a lot of deep thinking, a lot of expanding my mind.  And I am just beginning to digest it all and learn the ways it is affecting me.  I want to share a lot of that on here and I am planning to do so.  I have more pictures, more stories, and more reflections to share of this trip, so hang tight because although this is the end of my day to day recaps from Lagos, this is not the end of the discussion :)

Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone!

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