Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Abuja airport

I had heard so many horror stories about the Abuja airport – stories of shakedowns, intimidations, requests for money, fees for bringing a laptop, problems with taxis – that I got off the plane alone rather frightened at what I’d encounter and how I’d handle it. I was relived to find a smooth and fairly-hassle free experience.

After disembarking, you get your passport stamped. There are carts available at the luggage carousel as well as porters. I was carrying less than $5,000 cash, so customs ended up being easy as well and there is no problem bringing in a personal laptop.

If you have a driver awaiting you, you’ll find him just after customs. If you are going to take a taxi, you have to walk out of the airport and about a block to the right. Make sure to take a green taxi with a number on the side. Reports of robberies come most frequently from what are called “painted” or non-official (green) taxis.

When it’s time to depart, locals told me I could arrive one hour before departure. But expats told me to leave my hotel four hours before departure, which I found was much too early. There are quite a few steps involved in departure, but it’s not so difficult. Unless you expect a lot of traffic enroute to the airport, leaving 2.5-3 hours before your flight should be sufficient. If you have a late night flight and your driver is not from Abuja, keep in mind that he may not be able to return home, since driving at night in some places is discouraged.

The steps in departure are:
1. Change any leftover money. There is a bureau de change next to a shop on the right-hand side of the airport upon entering.
2. Show your passport.
3. Go through the security machine. If you are using a porter, he will take your luggage through the machine, then will expect payment.
4. Just to the right of the security machine exit, people will take a look at your luggage.
5. Over to the left of the ticket counters, you weigh your luggage on a scale and get a slip.
6. Then you can check in and get a boarding pass
7. Finally, go through passport control and up to the waiting lounge.
8. There may be another security machine check before boarding the flight.

It sounds like a lot, but it went pretty quickly.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

To use a credit card or not in Abuja

Everything I read before departure warned people not to use a credit card in Nigeria, due to the risk of fraud. But your only other option is to carry a huge wad of cash, which isn’t much easier. If you bring over $5,000, you have to declare it, which will give you extra hassles at the airport.

When I arrived, I saw credit card machines everywhere from my hotel to the small supermarkets. The Hilton had an entire row of ATMs from different banks.

I spoke with an expat who visits Nigeria frequently and who has paid for her stays at the Sheraton with a credit card without issue. A couple of tips she offered are:

• If using an ATM, aim for Standard Chartered, which are supposed to be safe
• Avoid ATMs that are on the street and unprotected
• Find out your cards anti-fraud policies. Keep an eye on transactions and notify your card if you see anything unusual
• You may want to contact your card ahead of time and let them know to expect a charge/charges from Nigeria. Otherwise, their security flags are likely to rise.
• While using a card to buy things within the country is easy, you may face difficulty in trying to purchase something online and have it shipped to Nigeria.

Taxis in Abuja

In getting around, you have three choices, from most to least expensive.

1. Hire your own driver, who will stay with you. You can ask around for recommendations. Or many of the hotel “car hires” (see below) are available for longer term use.

2. Use your hotel “car-hire.” A “drop off” – meaning a ride to a place in town is usually 1,000, but can go up to 2,000. It costs more if you want the driver to wait. When you are ready to leave, you can call the driver for another “drop off” ride. These are generally nice cars with air conditioning. But not all of the drivers are well off. Some of them rent the car from someone else on a daily basis, so they can make their living off the difference they earn doing “car hire.”

3. Hail a taxi on the street. They are almost everywhere, easy to catch, and cost 1/3 to ½ the price of car hire. But the vehicles can be in varied states of repair and you’ll enjoy the breeze from the open windows. Foreigners I met said they and their acquaintances hadn’t had any problems, as long as they took the green cabs.

As you move around town, you’ll find you like and trust some drivers more than others. Ask for their numbers if they don’t offer them. Most drivers are happy to respond to calls and will do so quickly. It’s always nice to know that a trusted person is available to come pick you up.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

First impressions of Abuja

The 30-kilometer road from the airport to town is beautiful. Paved and smooth, it is lined with trees, the green contrasting with the orange-brown dirt. It is in the process of being widened, to five lines on each side, so a cloud of dust billowed over the road while workers did their jobs.

There isn’t a whole lot to see between the airport and town, but I still got the very clear feeling of being in Africa. The first thing I noticed was the soil. Something about African earth stands out to me. Perhaps because it is more visible than elsewhere, where it might be tarred over or forested. Perhaps because of the hue it takes on. Or perhaps because of the deep, rich scent. But it moves me and makes me happy to be here.

I saw a billboard urging people to Say No to Overloading vehicles. A man walked down the street carrying an old black sewing machine with a hand crank on his head. Muslim mean wore colorful long robes and pants and round, flat embroidered hats. The non-Muslims dressed spiffily, in suits, slacks, skirts and blouses. I saw fruit – mango, papaya and other items I couldn’t identify- sold in buckets at the side of the road. Peddlers offered their wares to backed up traffic.

My driver was listening to Love FM, a nice blend of music, BBC-like local news and commentary. A short sermon by a Reverend talked about fasting during Lent. I was struck by his understanding and inclusiveness. He said the Bible offers no command regarding fasting and it’s an individual choice. One who fasts should not be ostentatious about it, nor should one judge others who make a different decision. He reminded listeners that there are some who can’t get enough to eat on a daily basis and there is no reason for them to fast. It was positive, uplifting and promoted understanding of others – a contrast to the religious discourse I hear on the radio at home.

The city of Abuja seems to be made up of a lot of new buildings, separated by wide, paved roads. It doesn’t appear to be very pedestrian friendly, as the dust pervades even the city center. My driver pointed out the beautiful gold domed mosque, and the Christian church across from it. He said there are more Muslims than Christian in this area. He showed me the various government offices, most of which looked new and modern. My hotel looks out at the federal police headquarters, a massive white structure that looks more like the United Nations than an African government ministry.

My initial impressions are good – better than I expected actually – and I’m looking forward to seeing and learning more

Arrival in Abuja

I was pretty freaked out by what I’d read and heard about arriving at the airport in Abuja. More than one person reported being “shaken down” at the airport, whatever that means. I read an account in the otherwise helpful book, This House Has Fallen, about having to fight off hordes of people trying to extract money, including a customs agent who demanded $300 to “import” the author’s personal computer. I stepped off the plane feeling like I’d be fresh bait in a pond.

It wasn’t like that at all. The passport line was a little slow, but presented no problems. Everyone was in uniform, from the officials in their khaki uniforms to the luggage carriers in their lavender shirts. Not a single person approached me. I used a free cart, grabbed my bags, sailed through customs (noting a big sign on the door that said Say No to Corruption in Customs) and found my driver outside. There is nothing to be nervous about here.

German efficiency

It’s been a while since I’ve passed through Germany, a place I used to go frequently. I spent last night in Frankfurt and more than anything, I was impressed by the efficiency.

There were no lines at either passport control or luggage pickup and processes moved smoothly. Even at flight check-in, the line moved very quickly, with a screen showing the next available agent and directing the first person in line in that direction. An automated machine gently turned suitcases on their sides before loading them on the conveyor belt, and another machine automatically brought the trays back to the beginning of the security line.

Despite the grey color of the airport and the modern industrial look that was hardly cheery, the efficient manner in which everything operated and the healthy and well-cared for looks of everyone (from the servers to the window washers to the baggage handlers), gave me the impression that Germany is probably a nice place to live.