Kenya, Photography, Travel, Wildlife

My Maasai Mara experience.

 

Friends, if you ever go to Kenya, there is one thing you should never do. 

You should never get into an argument with a lion, leopard, hippo, even a beetle. Even if the animals called your mother a prostitute and your dad a bastard, you’ll do well to walk by. 

That’s because the Kenyan government takes sides with its animals. 

You dare not snigger at these animals or insult them. And heavens forbid you step on a buffalo. It will hop on one foot and cry to the government. Then your goose is cooked. Which is another crime, a cooked goose. 

Kenya’s wildlife enjoys exalted status. Unlike your penurious selves, General Lion and crew line the government’s pockets with over $5bn a year. In 2019 before Covid hit, it was $8.1bn. That’s more than the GDP of Burundi, Sierra Leone, The Gambia and thirteen other African countries. Travel and tourism account for 10% of Kenya’s GDP and employ some 1.6m odd Kenyans. It’s silly money not to be trifled with.  

What these statistics mean is that you, my friend, are a liability. 

Kenya’s animals are an asset. 

You sapiens make demands: roads, hospitals, accountability, good governance. The wildlife gets on with it. They don’t protest against Covid vaccines. A leopard never identifies as a zebra. Nor do the animals complain about food prices. They eat one another and move on. They are the best citizens a country can have. 

I gleaned the insight into the eminence of Kenya’s wildlife in a most disconcerting way. 

I visited the Maasai Mara and camped in a tent. 

Which if you are a black dude with any sense you know you shouldn’t do. Black people don’t camp in tents in the wild. White people do that. If a white dude gets eaten by a hyena, it’ll be on CNN, and might result in pressure on the Kenyan government to teach hyenas to love broccoli instead. But if you are a black dude in a tent and become venison to a hyena, well, it must be suicide. Because black people don’t tempt fate.  

So, I went to the Maasai Mara or ‘The Mara’ to locals. 

The Mara is humongous; 1, 510 sq. km of wildlife. It hosts one of the ‘Seven Natural Wonders of Africa’ – The Great Migration. Over a million wildebeest, 500,000 Thomson’s gazelles, 200,000 zebras, 97,000 topis and thousands of other animals migrate between the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. Predators – crocs, leopards, lions, cheetahs, hyenas –  ambush this migrant horde. It is a stunning spectacle.   

My camp was on the bank of the craggy Talek River. The river separates the camp from The Mara. In January, the river is passable on foot in many places and it is not uncommon for animals to cross it into my neck of woods. 

Did you hear that? 

It is not uncommon for animals to cross it into my neck of woods.

Which was what happened while I was there. 

When I checked into the camp, I opted to stay in a tent. I am on a safari and what is more safari-sh than bunking in a tent in the wild. It was, however, a comfortable tent. Two queen beds, two single sofas, a dining area, private showers, WiFi and electricity. My own Ritz Carlton in the wild.

But I’m never staying in a tent again. Ever. 

On my first night in the tent, at around 01:30 am, I heard some animal sound. 

I suppose if you sleep in the wild, you will hear animal sounds at night; leopards sneaking up on baboons, hyenas snacking on mongooses and warthogs snoring. 

But the sound I heard wasn’t far off. It was right outside my tent. I couldn’t figure out what animal it was. But it was right outside my tent.

I couldn’t sleep. I lay motionless in bed. I feared that if I moved or made a sound, whatever beast was outside may decide to charge my tent. 

The camp has Maasai guards stationed around to ward off animals. The Maasai stationed in my tent area was some nice guy called Simon. Seeing him perched outside my tent was always comforting. But on this night he was not about else there would not be a wild beast on my porch. 

I’ve never prayed harder for daybreak. 

The sound stopped at about 4 am. At 05:30 am, when I heard the heavy plod of human footsteps, I unzipped the tent a little and peered out. Simon was sitting in front of my tent. 

Thank goodness! 

I went out and enquired of him. His English was smattering but we communicate. I told him there was some animal in front of my tent all night. He asked me to describe the sound. I described the sound as best as I could. 

He smiled and told me it was only a hippo. 

Only a what now? 

Only a hippo. 

He said hippos sometimes wander close to the lodge. He said I had nothing to fear as the hippo couldn’t have been less than fifty meters away. The night only amplified the sound.

Fifty meters away. 

Usually, when I hear the name ‘Simon’, I think of a saintly chap. Like Simon Peter who preached the Good News on the Day of Pentecost and 3,000 folks got saved. But this Simon? I could throttle the guy! How dare he treat my life with such levity! What did he mean the night amplified the sound? That creature was right outside my tent! 

Of course, I didn’t believe Simon. I couldn’t. Nobody likes to know the time and manner of their death. 

Later I told another Maasai sentry about the sound I’d heard in front of my tent. He asked me to describe the sound. I did. He said, “Oh, it must be kiboko – a hippo.” He said it like it was a chicken. 

You people need help!

I’m a Yoruba boy, not Maasai. I didn’t grow up walking to school through a coalition of cheetahs! 

Having shaken off my nerves, I asked the workers in the lodge what would happen if a guest was being mauled by an animal. They said the default action would be to chase the animal away and not kill it. Killing is the last resort. Animals have protected status in Kenya. 

There you have it. A giraffe’s life matters more than mine.  

Rangers at the Ol Kiombo airstrip confirmed the protected status of the animals. If a plane was approaching landing, and there was, say a ngiri  (warthog) chilling on the runway, the pilot would circle till the sun-tanning hog went away. Or till the rangers were able to plead with it to leave. 

You know those dumb questions some HR folks like to ask at interviews? Like “if you could be one animal, what animal would you be”? Well, I’ll tell you: I’d love to be any animal in Kenya. Because then you won’t have to ask me stupid questions. I’ll report you to the government.

Anyway. 

The lodge personnel always advised me to zip my tent anytime I went out. For right across my tent and the river was a  troop of cacophonous baboons. Simon told me these baboons sometimes enter unzipped tents and pillage them.  

You thieving irreligious primates!

The thought of a baboon stealing my travel passport filled me with dread. I could imagine a baboon presenting itself at immigration with my passport. 

Throughout my stay, these baboons scrutinized me. I’m convinced they were casing my tent. On the day I checked in, heard them complaining.

Baboon 1: Oh man, not a black guy!

Baboon 2: Yea, black people never have things to steal. 

Baboon 3: This one even looks like he can steal from us.

Baboon 1: Mustafa needs to be more discriminatory on who he accepts into this camp.

Baboons opposite my tent. Thieves!

Mustafa, by the way, runs Talek Bush Camp. A very helpful and nice guy. On my first day, he advised me not to walk alone to the Talek Town Center when it was dark. Last November, three lions were spotted around the path.

Jide Alade, shebi you have finished eating and now looking for bekun-bekun. 

But if you love nature and animals, you’ve got to visit the Maasai Mara. The Big Five are resident, it has the most number of lodges (from a $1,200-a-night accommodation to a $100-a-night camp like mine) and it offers hot air ballooning and all-day game drives (6 am – 6:45 pm). There are also several airstrips to fly to and fro Nairobi. 

Hot Air Balloon

I’ve jumped out of a perfectly good plane before. But I have never been in a hot air balloon. So, I looked forward to being in one in The Mara. For $480, you get a 1-hour balloon ride, breakfast in the wilderness, a brief game drive and pick up and return to your camp. It’s not cheap but I’ll tell the missus it was only $120. 

A driver picked me up at my camp at 05:30 am. We drove into The Mara. You could see glints in the dark. Animal eyes. I wondered if there was a lion amongst them rousing: ‘Man, I feel like some Nigerian meat and egusi this morning.’ But I am not going to be lamb chops for some lion. My LORD shuts the mouths of lions.

Just in case you are wondering, I’m the handsome dude in black

Getting to The Mara

Safari in Kenya is not cheap. It is not like hitting Burlington with $300. It will cost you. But if you are a savvy backpacker, you can reduce your costs with shrewd planning and research. In my case, I was in Nairobi on company business. That cut the cost of my safari by a lot. I didn’t have to pay for a flight ticket from Lagos to Nairobi. Business Class ticket on Kenya Airways was N1.4m!  

Your safari starts with transportation. You can fly to The Mara via a single-prop aircraft from Nairobi, or you can go by road. The former is a 45-minute jump. The latter, over 6 hours. The former will set you back some $200 one-way. The latter is $65. As an unabashed cheapskate and backpacker, I chose the latter. 

Now, there was another reason why I chose to go to The Mara by road: the Great Rift Valley escarpment at Mai Mahui. The plains roll out before you and cover much of East Africa. It was magnificent. Standing on the escarpment and viewing the Rift Valley, I felt like Moses on Mt Pisgah looking at the Promise Land. 

The Great Rift Valley escarpment at Mai Mahui

I hired a taxi from Nairobi to Narok, a small city about a three-hour drive from Nairobi. It cost me 6,000Ksh (N22,000 or $52). I could have gone via a matatu – Kenya’s danfo – for $15.  But the matatus don’t stop for pictures at the Rift Valley escarpment. And they don’t chit-chat. Plus, Omicron is still around. 

Narok is a small Maasai city. I like to see it as the last post of civilisation before The Mara. I equipped myself with last-minute provisions; water, juice, biscuit, crisps, the odd bits and bob. For after Narok, perish all thought of finding a bank, filling station, ATM or a supermarket.

From Narok, I then took a shared taxi headed for Talek. The Talek region is a pastoralist settlement that borders the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The taxis take six passengers; four at the back, two in the front. It was 700Ksh per passenger. I opted to pay 1,400Ksh so I could sit in the front alone. So, that’s another $12 or N5,000.  

The drive from Narok to Talek was two and a half hours long. But what amazing scenery! The best way to see a country is always by road or rail. 

Now, let me warn you. At some point during the journey, the taxi will turn off the bitumen road into some Savannah bush. It is not a ride for the faint-hearted. No humans. No other vehicles. Only shrubbery. Eery. Quiet. Insurgent-ish. All the travel accounts to the Talek Bush Camp I had read said nothing about this foreboding leg of the journey. It was about 45 minutes long. 

Then out of nowhere, we burst into the Talek Town Center. 

Phew!  

I’m alive. The wild’s got nothing on me.

The Talek ‘Town Center’ is perhaps more appropriately a village center. But let it be known that I am very happy to see many people and a settlement. If these fine folks decide to call it the Talek Metropolis, a metropolis it is!

From the Talek Town Center, I then took a ‘boda’ (okada) to my camp. It’s a distance of about 300m. I was stiffed 100Ksh for the ride. 100Ksh is not going to bankrupt me. I’m still happy seeing people.

There are six gates to Maasai Mara: Sekenani Gate, Talek Gate, Sand River Gate, Oloololo Gate, Musiara Gate and Ololamutia Gate. The gate by which you enter depends on where you book your camp. The closest gate to me was the Talek Gate. Drive distance between the gates can be up to thirty minutes.  

You pay $70 at any of the gates to get into the reserve per day per individual. So, if you want to visit the reserve for four days, you’ll have to shell out $280 in total. That is excluding the cost of your game drive. That’s anywhere between $120 to $150 per day. Hot air ballooning is between $450 and $500. Then there are the flights, the accommodation and the tips. Yea, safari in The Mara is not cheap. 

I decided to return to Nairobi by air. The nearest airstrip to me was the Ol Kiombo airstrip. Once again, you have to drive through The Mara to the airstrip. More topis, gazelles, buffaloes and warthogs. A single-prop plane was my chariot. Gosh, I hate single-prop planes! Buffeted by turbulence, they feel like they could drop out of the sky anytime. 

 Trip to Mombasa

So, after The Mara, where else is there to go? I’ll tell you where. The Indian Ocean oasis of Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city. Laid-back. Historical. Fusion of cultures and food. And I like food. 

I went by rail. The new and ultra-modern Madaraka Express. Five hours either way. 

It could have been worse. Not long ago – till 2017 – the journey could have taken anywhere between 18 and 24 hours. The single-gauge line broke down often. You didn’t know when you’ll arrive in Mombasa, or at the turn of the 20th century if you will arrive. There were reports of lions savaging builders at night, even climbing into the cabins. Remember the movie The Ghost and The Darkness starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas? About the ‘Lions of Tsavo’ killing rail builders? It is a true story and was about the Lunatic Express, the moniker for the line. It was so named because of the anguish it caused the builders and travelers. 

But now the Lunatic Express has given way to the ultra-modern Madaraka Express. It zips to Mombasa like a gazelle. It is a standard-gauge rail built by the Chinese. It commenced operation in 2017.

One fun fact about the Madaraka Express? It’s never been late! And that was my experience. It departed Nairobi for Mombasa at exactly 3 pm, its published time. It was the same coming back to Nairobi. Left the Mombasa Terminus at 3 pm on the dot.  

In your face, ‘African Time’! 

The train passed through the Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks. We saw elephants, giraffes, zebras, gazelles and other animals. The announcement on the train’s speakers assured us that carnivores were also residents in the park. It was a scenic journey. You could see Mt Kilimanjaro in the distance.  

I stayed at the Bahari Beach Hotel. Really nice place. My window overlooked the ocean. I will live long with views like that. 

There are a lot more interesting places to see in Kenya but I had only four days of leisure. I would have loved to go to Lake Naivasha and visit Iten, the legendary home of Kenya marathoners. Maybe they could give me a few tips on how to lose weight. But any tip must include bacon and sausage. You know what they say: if eating only greens and salad made you lose weight, hippos won’t be fat.

But I did run into Burna Boy in Nairobi. Stoked.

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Creative Writing, Photography, Travel

Memories of New Orleans.

After leaving New York, I visited Atlanta, Houston and Dallas. I have homeboys in those cities and looked forward to some R&R. My base on the trip was Houston. I had planned on visiting the Johnson Space Center in Houston, it being the 50th anniversary of mankind’s visit to the moon. But I was sidetracked by a few Naija owambes. On one instance, we drove four hours to Dallas to attend a wedding. Truth be told, it was nice to eat some Naija food after weeks of oyinbo food. But photography-wise none of those three cities were particularly interesting to me.

But NOLA? That’s a different proposition entirely!

What’s is great about New Orleans you ask? You mean what is great about a place nicknamed the “Big Easy” and “NOLA”? About cuisine that is a melting pot of French, African, Spanish and American culture? Vibrant live music, carnivals and costumed parades? Touristy cemeteries and slave plantations? You had to ask that question?

 “If there was no New Orleans, America would just be a bunch of free people dying of boredom.”Chris Rose

“In New Orleans, we celebrate everything. It’s probably the only place you’ll see people dancing in a funeral home.”Trombone Shorty

New Orleans was the highlight of my trip to the US. I had a homeboy who worked in the city. We both thought it was a good idea for me to visit since I had never been to the Deep South.

I ended up going by bus. I had botched my outbound flight. Somehow, I forgot to book the ticket. To do so on the day of travel was going to set me back some $350. If I hit Ross with $350, I’d dress up my village. So I decided to go by bus, the fare being a benign $40. Seven hours the journey would take. I could live with that. I’d been on the road for about three weeks and got used to keeping myself company. I consoled myself that I would see more of the country. I would fly back to Houston.

It was a great mistake, going by bus. I’ll explain.

See, the eminent state of Louisiana is bordered on the east by the state of Mississippi. Think Mississippi, think ridiculously humongous river. And then the state is bordered in the south by the Gulf of Mexico, ergo the Atlantic Ocean pretending not to be the Atlantic Ocean. In other words, the state has lots of water; massive deltas, swamps and marshland. Huge ridiculous things.

It also turns out that the state has three of the world’s longest bridges over water. Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is the longest at 24 miles – 38km. It is closely followed by the Manchac Swamp Bridge at 22.8miles – 36.7km. Third is the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge at 18.2mile – 29.2km.

Only when was I well on my way did I come across the information that we would go through one of these mammy water bridges to get to New Orleans. That the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge was the shortest of the those three bridges was no consolation. It’s 29km long!

Look, I’m no Aquaman. I am unnerved by long bridges over water. I am that driver that hugs the divider on Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos. I never drive close to the water. I fear that one of my wheels may come off or someone would rear-end me and I would be, er, swimming with the fishes. Yet, the Third Mainland Bridge is a mere 11.8km. The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge is close to three times that length! Over foreboding waters, vexed cottonmouths and hungry gators!

Why would anyone build such a ridiculously long bridge? It’s not as if New Orleanians would curl up and die if no one came visiting. They have jazz, jambalayas, gumbos and Huge Ass Beers. They don’t need anyone else to have a great time. We must learn to respect people’s right to isolation.

The bus was a double decker. Ignorant of what lay ahead, I had selected a seat on the upper deck, in the front of the bus. The ride over the Atchafalaya Basin bridge was pure torment. The consequence of my high perch in the bus was vertigo and the feeling that the bus was tottering and would fall into the water. My prickliness towards the driver at the bus station in Houston would come back to haunt me as the geezer only drove a few centimeters from the edge of the bridge. I could have sworn the bloke was suicidal.  

 

Lake Ponchartrain Causeway – 23.875 miles (38.442 km) . Picture not mine.

Manchac Swamp Bridge : 22.8 miles (36.7 km). Picture not mine.

Atchafalaya Basin Bridge : 18.2miles (29.2km).

Took this shot from my high perch on the upper deck of the bus.

Check this. There is an 8-mile stretch on the Pontchartrain Causeway where you completely lose sight of land in all directions. Drivers have been known to freeze up during this stretch, suddenly feeling trapped and frightened. I gather it is a common enough occurrence that police patrols are stationed on the bridge to escort those frightened drivers back off the bridge.

I did manage to make it to New Orleans alive. My homeboy was waiting for me downtown. We drove to my hotel and checked in. My survival at the hands of the Atchafalaya bridge was a victory that demanded an epicurean celebration. We drove to Cajun Seafood on Claiborne Avenue. I stilled my jangled nerves with gumbo, crab claws and crawfish.

I cannot come and kill myself.

Now, let me tell you about a food incidence that irked me greatly.

See, prior to going to New Orleans, I had read that a must-do for first timers in the city was to eat beignets at Café Du Monde. So I thought to myself that this beignet must be quite the treat. I therefore made it an expedient matter to locate this Cafe Du Monde and introduce myself to this beignet .

I found Cafe Du Monde. Opposite Jackson Square. It was full of tourists. I eagerly waited to be seated. It was recommended that one orders beignets with cafe au lait. But as I don’t drink coffee, I ordered mine with orange juice. I waited with bated breathe.

When the beignets were brought, they turned out to be…Puff-Puff!

Three pieces of Puff-Puff covered with powdered sugar.

Three Puff-Puffs for $7! In Lagos, ten Puff-Puffs is N100! That’s just about a quarter – 25 cents!

I am never accepting the recommendation of white folks on gastronomic matters.

Beignets.

Cafe Du Monde

The beignet affair aside, the food in New Orleans are simply wonderful; gumbo, jambalaya, po-boy, alligator meat, fried catfish, crabs, crawfish. My advise to you; don’t ever come to New Orleans if you are on a diet!

The ever popular and iconic New Orleans gumbo. Some broth with different sea creatures in which you pour some rice. Never the other way.

Fried alligator, gumbo and some cheese soup.

Crabmeat Cheesecake. 

“Catfish Pecan” – pecan-dusted local catfish, popcorn rice, spiced pecans, creole meuniere, farm vegetables

“Banana Foster” – ‘Fresh bananas sauteed tableside in brown sugar and cinnamon, flambeed with banana liqueur and rum, vanilla bean ice cream.’

 

My hotel was just off the popular Canal Street, a stroll from the quaint French Quarters and the carnal Bourbon Street. Only in New Orleans will you find the charming right next to the iniquitous.

Cue Bourbon Street. It is probably the most popular street in the whole of the Deep South. But whatever was historical about Bourbon Street is now, well, history. You don’t go to Bourbon Street to learn the street wasn’t named after bourbon. You go to Bourbon Street to hand over your brains to bourbon, whiskey, rum, vodka, Huge Ass Beers or any other O-be-joyful.

Hustling for customers on Bourbon Street. PS: If the sign doesn’t make sense to you, try watching the Bud Light TV spot below.

In one of the Bourbon Street bars, I ordered a Coke with ice. The sweet bartender asked me “what the hell I was doing in New Orleans if I didn’t drink alcohol”. 

But you will also find creativity abounding in and around Bourbon Street. There are numerous spots with bands playing and little known musicians serenading guests at bars and restaurants. I hear the street is quite a thing during Mardi Gras.

There is of course so much to New Orleans than Bourbon Street. There is the Civil War history (not Avengers!) There are the cemeteries and the plantations.

Let’s talk about about cemeteries.

I found it odd that one of the popular attractions of a city would be its cemeteries. But New Orleans has always had an interesting relationship with its dearly departed.

You see, burying the dead in a city below sea level was always going to be a big challenge. Dig a few feet in New Orleans and you will strike water. Early settlers found to their chagrin that coffins floated on streets during heavy rainstorms, unearthed by flood waters. They tried burying the dead with huge stones on the coffin to keep it down against flood. But that also proved useless. Coffins and limbs still bobbed around the city during floods.

The solution decided was to keep the graves above ground, in like manner of the Spanish custom of using vaults. Graves are not dug. The dead are simply put in coffins in tombs that are above ground.

Many of the tombs look like miniature houses, some with iron fences. These rows of tombs give the cemeteries the appearance of a city with streets. This is why New Orleans cemeteries are usually referred to as Cities of the Dead. They are historic as some of the cities well-known personalities are buried there. And well, they look archaeological too.

The tomb of Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol.

By far the most popular cemetery in New Orleans is the St Louis Cemetery No 1, close to the French Quarters. I took a guided tour of the cemetery. Before the start of the tour, the guide introduced us to the concept attachment.

See, people come to cemeteries and leave mementos at tombs of family members. We were admonished never to pick up any object we found interesting at tombs and within the cemetery. Lest we were visited by the otherworldly owner of the memento. We were told stories of people who had to traveled back to New Orleans to return objects they had taken from from the cemeteries. They supposedly had visitations and were haunted.

“Give back me compass, ye mortal! Lest I be wandering lost in the afterlife. Lest ye replace I in on the River Styx. 

Joke aside, New Orleans is the voodoo and superstition capital of America.

This is the tomb for Nicholas Cage. He bought the tomb in 2010. This is where he will be buried when he kicks the bucket. “Omnia Ab Uno“, is Latin for “Everything From One“.

The next day, I hit the plush Garden District area. I took the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world – the St. Charles Streetcar – to get there. That old timer has been rattling along since 1835 and is not about to toot its final horn soon. It was all so surreal, taking a streetcar that has been in operation since 1835 to a neighbourhood that is just as old.

That District Garden is some mighty fine neighbourhood. Quaint and ornate mansions along oak-lined streets. You could smell new and old money in the neighbourhood. It is the site of many movies and TV programmes.

On the third day, it was time to for some slave lessons and plantation visits.

There are many plantations in New Orleans. There is the Felicity Plantation where “12 Years A Slave” was shot, the Laura Plantation, the Whitney Plantation, the San Francisco Plantation, Oak Alley Plantation and many others. I chose a guided tour of the Oak Alley Plantation.

The Oak Alley Plantation is about 92 km from the New Orleans downtown. It took about 1hr:10m to get there. Again driving through swamps and on bridges.

Why NOLA, why?

Oak Alley was a sugarcane plantation. 1200 acres. Plantation economy depended on slavery. Slaves were brought to Louisiana from Africa and sold to planters (owners of plantations) until 1808, when importation was banned. After that, planters bought slaves from other planters, or from slave traders bringing slaves from the east coast.

The plantation had its customary “Big House” which was where the owner of the plantation and his family lived. In front of the “Big House” stood a row of majestic Virginia Live Oaks. 300 years old beauties. Dig this: the average age for a Live Oak is 600 years. That makes those oaks only middle aged! There were 28 trees, to match the 28 columns on the “Big House”. The property has been designated a US National Historic Landmark for its architecture and landscaping.

No matter the number of times I see slave or race-related movies, or visit sites of racism and human denigration, I can’t hold back the emotions. The pain, fear and anxiety of the slaves become mine and real. As the tour guide solemnly narrated the history of the plantation and the lives of the slaves, I became grateful for the timeline in history I happen to inhabit.

Hey, let me tell you a funny story.

When I was an undergraduate, on one of those days when the lads and I we were broke, hungry and sharing a stick of cigarette, a roommate had lamented about his penurious situation and the culpability of his ancestors for his famished state of affair. He maintained that he could have been Michael Jackson or any notable African American. We enquired as to why this was so and he proceeded to tell us an intriguing story.

His great great great granddad had been captured on the shores of Nigeria by slave traders. The poor bugger was beaten and thrown into a ship bound for America. After many weeks on the Atlantic, surviving typhus, measles and smallpox, he eventually arrived America. While at the port and being paraded to be sold, the man managed to slip his bonds and dived into the water. He began to frantically swim towards the open sea. He was shot at and even pelted with canon fire. But the chap kept swimming. He evaded great whites, hammer-heads, orcas and water spirits. He was repeatedly stung by box jellyfish yet he kept swimming. He even evaded other slave ships. He swam non-stop. He swam breaststroke. He swam butterfly stroke. He swam furiously. He swam until he arrived back at his village after 120 days. He was treated to a hero’s welcome and a feast declared in his honour. He was made a chief and married five wives. He lived ever happily after.

As far as my roommate was concerned, the man should have been eaten by a shark. Of what use was it that the man came back to Africa he vented.

“How could the bugger run away from America! To come back to this god-forsaken country and condemn me to be Nigerian! He made it to America, for Christ sake! The America! The Land of The Free. Screw his chains! I could have been Michael Jackson. I could have been Usher. But now I’m a broke Nigerian with uncertain future! Because of an idiotic ancestor! Abeg, pass me the ciga…” 

Just so you know, it was only cigarette we were smoking not marijuana.

The roommate talked about slavery glibly. But it is humour that many African American will not appreciate. Slavery and it consequent discrimination and segregation doesn’t get to us Africans as it does to our brothers in North America. We were never imports with bar codes. They were. They are constantly reminded of the colour of their skin and their inferior position. Which I must remind you all is a fallout of evolutionary biology beliefs. But don’t get me started on that again!

After such an emotional trip, my spirits needed some uplifting. It was upliftment I deemed only a jambalaya could provide.

On my tour bus were two fine African American sisters. Friends and colleagues. They worked in the academia. I’d struck up conversation with them on our way to the plantations. But they were going to the Whitney Plantation. The bus dropped them off at Whitney Plantation while I proceeded to Oak Alley. We picked them up on our way back, So, I invited them to lunch.

They recommended we eat at Dooky Chase restaurant for a proper Creole cuisine. I had never heard of Dooky Chase. Which was to my shame because ex-Presidents W. Bush Jr and Obama had. President Obama ate gumbo at the restaurant in 2008 and George W Bush Jr had Crab soup and shrimp Clemenceau when he  visited New Orleans post Katrina. Among the eminent people who had also dined at Dooky Chase was Thurgood Marshall, the first African American judge of the United States Supreme Court and Dr Martin Luther King.

Emmanuel Dunnand/AFP via Getty Images

Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The restaurant was run by Leah Chase, an icon of the civil rights movement and Creole chef extraordinaire. Her restaurant served as the meeting place for civil rights activists and entertainers. She would feed free both whites and blacks off the frontline of marches for equality. At the time, the restaurant was the only upscale black restaurant in a city with many Jim Crow laws. The restaurant was named after her husband, Edgar ‘Dooky’ Chase Jr., a jazz trumpeter and band leader. Mr. Chase died in 2016 at the age of 88. Leah Chase would later die in June 2019 at the age of 96. I visited the restaurant in July 2019. I never got to meet her. Rotten luck.

So, it was to this illustrious restaurant we were going for lunch. The prospect of dining in the same room as Nat King Cole made the food more appetizing.

But alas! There was no room at the inn! When we got there, there was a queue as long as the Nile. We didn’t have a reservation. The ladies cooed and cajoled but there just wasn’t space for us. Rotten luck raised to power ten.

So, we decided to try our luck at another popular New Orleans soul food restaurant; Willie Mae’s Scotch House. The Food Network and Travel Channel had named it best for “America’s Best Fried Chicken” In 2007. I’m no chicken fan, but if them sisters wanted fried chicken, then fried chicken it was.

Luckily, there was room at the inn. Out of respect for my guests, I pretended to enjoy the fried chicken. I regaled my guests with my jaunt through Europe. Turned out that they had also been to a concentration camp outside Berlin – the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I told them about my encounter with racism in Poland. They seemed surprised that I was surprised at racist encounters in the world.

Dude, we are black. It goes with the colour of our skin, even in America,” one of the sisters said.

I disagreed and said perhaps black folks in America needed to do more than wanting to be rappers, basketballers and celebrities. I said I didn’t think African Americans were doing enough to rise above their challenges.

From there, the conversation went downhill very fast.

“How could you understand what black people face in America?  We don’t try hard enough? Really? Why would you expect a ‘yes’ when all you’ve ever been told is a ‘no?’ You don’t know our struggles. Your parents weren’t imports. Ours were. You didn’t have to deal with slavery and don’t have to live with racism.”

“You are just so typical of most Nigerians. Arrogant and disdainful of African Americans. You think we are lazy, you don’t want to associate with us. You call us names – akata. Oh, yea, we know you do that…”

 Boy, did I screw up or what! I touched a raw nerve. In retrospect, perhaps I spoke ignorantly. I didn’t mean to disrespect or disparage the challenges African Americans face in the US. But I should have been more thoughtful. Even if it is to have an enjoyable lunch. Lesson learnt.

They wanted to pay for their meal, but I insisted on paying. They humoured me and thanked me but I could tell they were still miffed.

All in all, I absolutely loved New Orleans. I’m coming back and spending more time. This time, I’ll come back with the missus. NOLA is too good to enjoy alone.

And yes, I flew back to Houston. No way was I going to subject my feeble heart to the torture of that bridge again.

I leave you with a few more pictures of NOLA.

They don’t make them like this anymore…

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Photography, Travel

Memories of New York.

So, right. To Uncle Sam.

After junketing through Europe, I flitted across the Atlantic to Gotham. The first city on my US jaunt.

Few cities are as iconic as New York. When you think of America, you might actually be thinking about New York. Yellow taxis. Lady Liberty. NYPD. Manhattan. Hustle. The American Dream. But New York is more than iconic places. New York is an attitude.

“Most cities are nouns. New York is a verb” – John F Kennedy.

You see, New York makes you feel little. And I’m not talking about skyscrapers. Your sense of belittlement comes from the realization that only you knows you are in New York. No one notices you. Sure, if you owe an NY loan shark, someone will know you are in New York. But other than for that lack of gumption, you’ll be just one in the 60 million that visit the city every year. An indistinguishable bee in a mammoth hive. But don’t take it personal. New York doesn’t hate or think little of you. It’s just too busy racking up $840bn in GDP. After all, it is the seat of American capitalism and that beast must be fed.

And New Yorkers? The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it? Everybody’s got things to do and places to be and if you get in their way, well, you’re gonna know about it. One time, my wife’s cousin, a Brooklynite, had visited us in Maryland. She couldn’t wait to get out of Maryland. She said everyone was too slow and she was losing her mind.

This was not my first visit to New York. I’d been here a couple of times. But I can never get enough of the city. In New York, interesting encounters can happen to you without warning. Once at Times Square, my wife and I ran into Beyonce a few years back. She’d stopped to watch same street performers we were watching. Some guys who were doing a Michael Jackson routine. We were no more than ten meters from her. I tried to record a video of her but one of her bodyguards was on to me like a broke cousin.

Slow down, Thanos!

I’d flown in through JFK. I’m ambivalent about JFK. It’s neither a great nor poor airport. It processes you out without a human touch. Very few smiles. Look, I’m not asking for hugs or kisses. Just some human touch. At least at Murtala Muhammed International Airport, the airport personnel smile at you and cajole you for money. That’s human touch. Personal interaction. Even if your wallet is going to be a few notes lighter afterwards.

With some of my country folks, approaching a US Custom and Border Patrol officer calls for spiritual back up. Since a visa merely allows you to travel to a port of entry and then seek admittance from a border officer, and CBP officers known to deny entry to travelers (ATL, I’m looking at you ), many Naija travellers approach these officers with meekness. At that moment, we realise we do not wrestle against flesh and blood and must summon angelic assistance. So don’t be alarmed when you see us muttering under our breath or talking to ourselves. We are engaged in spiritual warfare you best stay out of.

The CBP officials who attended to me liked my camera backpack and National Geographic carry-on. I suppose they made me look like a serious and celebrated NatGeo photographer. When I later traveled to Atlanta, A TSA officer had also complimented me on the backpack and carry-on and thanked me for all the good stuff we bring to their screen on NatGeo. I smiled demurely.

There, all you haters! I’m a National Geographic photographer!

A few mundane questions and the CBP chaps welcomed me to the US.

Ah, New York City! It’s always good to be back!

I hailed a Uber to Brooklyn. My AirBnB was in Brooklyn.

Oh, I love it in Brooklyn!

You see, Brooklyn is kind and real and can be anything you want it to be. It can be upscale. It can be “hood”. It can be homely or it can be distant. Brooklyn doesn’t take sides. Everyone is right in Brooklyn and everyone is wrong in Brooklyn.

And Brooklyn is not a black borough. It is over 44% white and about 34% black. But you find most racial colorations in the borough. Arab Americans enclave, Jewish American enclave, Latin American enclave. Even Russian Americans. Little Russia and Little Odessa around Brighton Beach.

Fancy that. “Russian American.” I suppose there would be American Russians too.

Hey, anyone knows the number of American-North Koreans in the world?

But back to Brooklyn. Brooklyn is getting gentrified however. Richer folks and more middle-class people are moving into the borough making the prices of houses soar. Often beyond the reach of most Brooklynites, especially African Americans. It’s a source of constant angst and anger. But mostly, Brooklyn loves. I feel safe in Brooklyn.

A Brooklyn encounter from many years ago.

It was my first trip to the US. I’d traveled with the missus to New York. We’d just been married and I wanted to meet some of her cousins and other family members. There were only eighteen people at our wedding and not a few family members on either side were upset at the non-invitation. So the trip was a peace-making mission. We would stay with the uncle and cousins in Brooklyn.

On our way from the airport, I had espied a Dunkin’ Donut a few blocks  from the house. The next morning, I woke up early and like a good in-law proclaimed I was going out to get some breakfast for everyone at Dunkin.’ After all, America runs on Dunkin.’

Truth was I was aching sorely for a cigarette. I hadn’t smoked in over twenty four hours and  was dying slowly. I could feel my spirit bidding farewell to my mortal body. I needed nicotine and tar quickly.

Those days I chain-smoked. I was that guy that woke up at 2 am to smoke and jumped into the car to go buy a cigarette when he realised he was out of smokes. And that guy who opts for a stop-over flight instead of a direct one so he could stop over and smoke. I was that hopeless. Kicked the habit now. Nine years since I last lit a cigarette. Surprise, surprise, I haven’t died yet.

So I was saying…

I hurried out of the house with my pack of cigarette in pocket. I walked about three blocks to an intersection and lit a cigarette. I took deep joyful drags and exhaled slowly. It was like air after being waterboarded.

Then this black dude bounced up to me. Unkempt afro, dirty gold teeth, jeans hanging from his butt and fake bling around his neck.

“Hey man, can I have a cigarette?”

I was a little afraid. This was my first time in America and I had preconceived notions of Brooklyn and crime. I hesitated and processed what my action should be. But the dude didn’t sound or look threatening in any way.

“Just a stick, bruh. Help a brother out. You know I’m sayin?”

Yea, dawg. I know what you is sayin’.

I offered him my pack of Rothmans. He took out one stick. I encouraged him to take more.

“Fo real?!”

For real.

He took two more. He asked for a light. I gave him my lighter. He lit the cigarette and took rapid puffs. Happy, he gave me a vigorous bro hug that nearly dislocated my shoulders.

“You ain’t from around here, is you?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Where you from?”

“I’m Nigerian.”

“Africa?”

“No, Nigerian.”

“Yea, Africa. I ain’t ever been to Africa. Adon’t like it in Africa.”

Of course, you don’t, you bonehead.

He gave me another bro hug and bounced off.

My first friend in Brooklyn. I’m really going to like it here.

And there is so much creative energy!

Fulton Street, Brooklyn

Saw this dude at the Broadway Junction station. Probably the first African American Sioux you’ll ever see!

Whereas my jaunt through Europe had been about history – an ignominious history at that- I was coming to America to eat, sleep and take pictures. It’s been nine months since I was bitten by a radioactive photo bug and I’ve been honing my photography powers. I’m seeing improvements. A lot of my compositions are still rushed and I’m still way behind with post processing/editing. But I’ll get there. You will hear of me!

Oh, wait. You already heard of me!

My US jaunt encompassed New York, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and the “Big Easy” – New Orleans. With the exception of New York, I was visiting the other cities for the first time. I was particularly looking forward to going to NOLA – New Orleans, Louisiana. The food! Lord, keep me safe till I get to NOLA!

So, what was there to eat in New York?

Let me tell you about people I have serious beef with.

I don’t care much for anyone who maligns food like pizza, burgers and hot dogs and label them junk food. How can food that gives joy be junk? How can two large lemonades be evil? I’ll tell you what is junk. It’s broccoli, cucumber, cauliflower, lettuce and brussel sprouts. Those are the food responsible for most of the unhappiness in the world. Dig very deep and you’ll find those veggies caused WWII. No one who eats bacon, cheese and pepperoni wakes up to bomb another human being. Companies like Shake Shack and Joe’s Pizza are spreading as much joy around the world as the Salvation Army.

Needless to say my meals in New York were mostly those poor maligned food. They didn’t do my waistline any favours. But be reminded that calories don’t count in heaven.

I had not eaten ‘pepper’ since I left Nigeria two weeks earlier. So I sought to reacquaint my palate with the taste of home. Off I went to Festac Grill off Atlantic Avenue. White rice, ofada sauce with boiled eggs and dodo. Stiffed out of $20. But no point quarreling with food you already paid for. I enjoyed it grudgingly.

Let’s talk about the New York subway for a minute.

Let’s get this out of the way. No other subway in the Milky Way come close to the New York subway in entertainment and pleasant surprises. I haven’t been to Neptune yet, but I’m betting they won’t have Maroon 5 performing in their stations.

I recorded the young hustlers below myself.

I’ve been on a couple of trains and trams in Europe. Boring affair. On the London Tube, everyone might as well be studying for an exam. In France, commuters are too polite to look you in the eye. Not in NY. Those trains may rattle along and be anachronistic, but there’s no knowing who might be sitting next to you. Captain America. Houdini. Keanu Reeves.

Ah yes, my pictures. What have I got to show for the camera slinging across the city? A few decent photographs. But a few people ooh and ahhed over a few of the pictures, though I suspect it was more to encourage me than appreciation. It’s a journey. I’ll get there.

Saw this spot as I walked on the Manhattan Bridge to the Brooklyn end of the bridge.

Colours of New York. Manhattan

Brooklyn Bridge 

    

The Oculus. Downtown Manhattan.

The Oculus.   

The towering skyscrapers of Manhattan banded together to whisper. They looked down at me as I looked up at them with my 18mm wide angle lens. Gotcha!

Brooklyn Bridge Park. 

 

DUMBO here is a must-have in the portfolio of any photographer who visits New York. It is always teeming with photographers. On this day, I had to wake up early to hopefully have DUMBO to myself. I got there at 6 am. I met three photographers! We were considerate to one another.

What I really enjoyed about my trip to New York this time was the fact that I was alone. Didn’t come with the family. No friends. So I was pretty much left to my own devices. Ate what I shouldn’t. Walked distances family wouldn’t and didn’t visit Saks Fifth Avenue. Freedom.

After four days, it was time to bid farewell to NY. Time to head to Atlanta to see friends. Nothing special about my visit to Atlanta though. Same with Houston and Dallas. Staying with friends. Visiting other friends. Shopping for the family. In essence, not blog-worthy visits. I did discover a wicked milk shake shop in Houston though. Right under my nose! I punished myself appropriately for not discovering it sooner by visiting it daily.

So on to New Orleans then.

 

 

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Creativity, Photography

The amazing places passion takes you.

 

Bros for life. Farouk and Ibro.

Howdy good folks! Trust January hasn’t met you in penury.

Oh, I like the sound of that! ‘January and penury.’ “ Save ye for the days to come lest reproach come upon thee like penury in January.” It’s a corny rhyme but I don’t care. It came in the moment, a gift from the Muse. I expect the expression to start making the rounds around pulpits and podiums soon. Remember you heard it first from moi!

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