Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The 215th good thing about Lagos: The President is a man of mystery

In the United States, the president has a LOT of exposure -- sometimes too much, as in a famous incident where we learned the underwear choice of our President. We hear frequent news reports of the US President's schedule, speeches and activities. President Yar'Adua of Nigeria has been in the news recently for his lack of exposure. He traveled to Saudi Arabia in November for medical care and hasn't been heard or seen in public since. (There was a supposed radio interview in January, but they aren't sure that was actually Yar'Adua speaking.) The government came pretty much to a standstill until a couple of weeks ago when finally the parliament voted to give Vice President Goodluck Jonathan (isn't THAT a great name!) power to become the acting President, even without the letter of empowerment that the constitution says the President must give to cede power to the Vice President should he become unable to fulfill the duties of his office. For the past few months there has been unending speculation about the health of the President, but his wife and Saudi officials have kept anyone from any verification of the state of his health. He is from Northern Nigeria and Goodluck is from the South, so the government officials who benefit from Yar'Adua staying in office are doing everything they can to continue the charade that he is still in control of things and will return to public life very soon. Of course, the political powers in the South want to declare him out of the picture so their man Jonathan can give them some Goodluck. Well, the Phantom supposedly returned to Nigeria last night as the Presidential aircraft and another commercial plane returned from Saudi Arabia, unfortunately just missing the team of government ministers who had headed to Saudi to meet with the President and verify the state of his health. The planes were met in the middle of the night by an ambulance and the arrival was blacked out from any photographer or news coverage, so no one has been able to verify that the President was actually on that plane. After a day, he still has not publicly spoken or been seen, so there is some question as to whether this was all a charade or if he has actually returned to Nigeria, and if he came here to die, or came here to resume his duties as President. I asked my driver this morning what he thought about this and he just shook his head and laughed and said "This country is such a mess." Well, you wouldn't have caught me saying that because I'm trying to put a good spin on it looking for the good things here and all. There's always something intriguing and appealing about a man of mystery, isn't there?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The 214th good thing about Lagos: making a bank deposit brings a sigh of relief

(Note to any of my blog readers who might have criminal intentions. You see pictured below a photo of a lot of money. This money is already in the bank -- please read my blog post to verify! You missed your opportunity to steal a lot of money from me. I've never before had big naira like this in my flat -- I promise you -- and I likely never will again! And this money is gone, so don't even think about it.)

There's not a lot of anxiety involved when I go to the bank in the States, it's just another errand to mark off my to-do list. But here in Lagos it's a different story: I try to avoid banks whenever possible. Robberies are quite freqent in the banks, and robbers target people coming and going from banks. I've blogged before about Nigerian money. Money is a challenge here, as we don't use credit or debit cards at all due to fraud concerns. We don't have a bank account here; we change dollars to naira at money changers who tend to set up shop at little market areas around the major hotels. These money changers are just sitting there with suitcases and cupboards jam-packed with money and there's no obvious guards around. I asked my driver about it once -- why were robbers targeting banks with their armed guards all around and not these money changers and he just laughed and said "oh, they have their security." So I guess they are there, just not so in-your-face about it.

As much as I try to avoid banking here, at times I can't escape it. I had a banking experience recently and it was so different from banking in the States, that I thought I should blog about it. I am chairing the USA's participation in a very large charity event, which you will undoubtedly soon read about here. This past week we concluded our ticket sales and we had collected a lot of money which we needed to deposit in the charity organization's account. The largest bill in Nigeria is for 1000 naira, which is currently worth about $6.65. This is the largest bill in a totally cash economy -- so that makes for some seriously fat wallets. And when we're talking about selling charity event tickets at $50 a pop, the bills add up.

There's always considerable reluctance to count money here -- it is so dirty and germy. Have you heard the expression "filthy lucre"? With Nigerian money, that is literally true. But the contact couldn't be avoided: I counted, recounted, stacked and rubber banded 1000's in piles of 100,000 and 500's in stacks of 50,000. After piling the money in a tote bag, I disinfected my hands and all hard surfaces that had been in contact with the bills.

The bank branches I've been to here have this special security door at the entrance that's a narrow, hollow tube that looks like it could beam you up to another dimension. It's kind of incongruous because it seems so high-tech compared to everything else in the bank. Anyway, I walk up to it and the guard asks me what's in my bag -- "cash or personal belongings?". "Cash," I say quietly. He says ok and asks if I have a cell phone. "Why ask?" I wonder -- everyone in Nigeria has a cell phone. People who live on the street and don't have a toilet or a bed have a cell phone. But he lets me enter despite my cell phone possession and I push the button for the tube to rotate and I walk inside. I don't know if the tube is a metal detector or what exactly it's checking for. But I pass its scrutiny and the tube rotates and allows me entrance into the bank. I learned the first time I made a large deposit that it's not done at the regular teller window. I don't know what the cut-off is for back room deposits, but I made it both times. I'm motioned down a narrow hallway to a room with a peephole and a lock. After the guard on the inside checks me out through the peephole, he opens the door and I enter a room with walls lined with wooden tables and many stations of activity. I wish I could have taken a picture of the room, but I'm sure they wouldn't have liked that much and since there were several men with guns in there I decided against it. Some of the tables have people with suitcases and bags full of bills. I'm asked to sign in at a log book on the table by the door. I write my name, account number and the amount of my deposit. The guard points to a worker at a table and I dump out the contents of my tote on the table in front of my money counter. The only mechanized element to the deposit process was the money counting machine. When I made my second deposit, before the guy started feeding my bills through the counting machine, he put on a particle mask. "Not a bad idea," I think. The machine verifies my thorough money counting -- all my ticket money accounted for to the last naira -- what a relief! He flips the stack of bills under a special light that highlights the special markings on the bills that inhibit counterfeiting. He restacks the bills and he puts official bank wrappers around the stacks and then stamps them. After we agree on the final deposit amount and complete my deposit slip, he takes my money piles (now the bank's money piles) over to another table where he hand-writes the deposit amount in another log book. After a minute, another bank worker helps him carry the money to another table and yet another log book which is duly inscribed with the deposit amount. So that's three hand-written log books and absolutely no computerized entries at all. There's a 3-part carbon copy deposit receipt and I receive one of the copies to verify my deposit before I sign out on the log book at the door. After my exit through the security door, ("Beam me out, Scotty!") I anxiously head for my own car where my driver is waiting and we take a hasty exit from the bank's vicinity. I was sooo relieved when all this money was counted and deposited without any loss or incident!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The 213th good thing about Lagos: Ticket to Ride Tuesdays

I really like playing games. I grew up in a family that played games frequently and it's something I enjoy, not because I care much about winning, but, for me, it's a fun way to interact with others. The sleeper hit of our Christmas this past year was a card game called "Dutch Blitz." My brother and his family introduced it to me when we were gathering for my niece's wedding this past summer and I thought I might be something my married kids would enjoy, so I ordered each of them a couple of sets of cards (if you mark the cards differently, more people can play). It became the favorite game of the holiday season -- on New Year's Eve, we had 11 people playing in one game, which was kind of crazy.

But, alas, I don't very often have my game-playing children around to entertain me. My husband doesn't much care about games. Every once in a while he'll succumb to playing a game to appease me, but he doesn't make time for it very often. I'm grateful for neighbors and nights in Lagos where there's not a lot of activity options. Last year a tradition was started with the Allens, my upstairs neighbors and other area friends and sometime neighbors, the Gibbs, to play Ticket to Ride on Tuesday evenings.

We got kind of obsessed with Ticket to Ride which is a "cross-country train adventure" (says their website) where players play matching train cards to claim railway routes connecting cities. Players receive destination tickets with cities they aim to connect with their trains. It's a race to see who can connect destinations and claim routes before others take the best route between destinations. We play the US version most often, but we sometimes play a Europe version which has a few different elements -- tunnels and ferries -- and the company has other versions with different maps as well. The game is kind of expensive, but maybe as it gets more popular, the price will go down. (And I really think that with this free advertising I'm giving them, they should probably send me a free copy of one of their other game versions. Note to Days of Wonder promotional department: don't send it to Lagos -- my Houston address will be provided upon request....)

I don't know how often Ticket to Ride Tuesdays will happen this year -- Josie has returned to the States to live and the Gibbs may not be in Lagos as often. But we had a game night this past Tuesday and, without the other women around as competition, I beat the guys and set a new personal best record. (Yes, we're obsessed enough to keep a record sheet with high and low scores...) Not that I care about winning or anything, but just to say....

My daughter in Boston, who also enjoys games and doesn't always have a grown-up around to play with her, will sometimes play Ticket to Ride online with me. We link up on Skype and talk while we play (my son who was in another state actually also played with us once -- it was fun!) and it's almost like joining around the family table for a game after dinner. I'm grateful for the internet, which makes distance board-gaming possible!