Porto Novo to Lagos

December 18, 2007, Ritz Hotel, Lagos, Nigeria

The next morning I returned to Cotonou for the visa, which I finally got, then I headed for the station to take a shared taxi to Lagos. After waiting for some hours and watching one taxi driver purposefully leave without me, I realized it was getting late enough in the day that if I still tried going to Lagos, I would arrive there at night, something I really didn’t want to do.

Instead, I got a ride from one of the taxi drivers to a hotel to try again the next morning for Lagos – the drive explained that taxi drivers wouldn’t want to try carrying me over the border due to border control delays. He suggested instead taking a shared taxi to Seme at the border, then crossing alone and picking up a vehicle for Lagos on the Nigerian side of the border.

The border crossing, starting from Cotonou in Benin, itself was daunting. I tried the day before yesterday, but taxi drivers wouldn’t take me, even from the station where such taxis usually depart. After three hours wait, I found out why – tourists take longer to pass through the border, thus slowing the workday of the driver who then may earn less money. The solution the drivers proposed was for me to wake up at 4am to take a shared taxi to Seme at the border, then walk through the border crossing and pick up another taxi on the Nigerian side of the border.

The border crossing was difficult, with the Benin border control trying for a 5,000 CFA bribe which I simply refused to give, so they kept me waiting for awhile. Then, I had to drag my bags across, which is never fun since the terrain is uneven and bumpy or sandy. On the Nigerian side, a border control guy mentioned he had the power to turn me away. I just told him it would be a shame not to include Nigeria in my book. Eventually, he too relented and let me through.

The border crossing did in fact take awhile, first because I asked for a name, stared down, and refused to bribe the Benin passport control official on the way out (he had asked for 5000 CFA and I had already paid 10,000 CFA for a 48-hour transit visa and 12,000 for a visa extension). Then, endless Nigerian petty officials checked me for one thing or another, with one pointing out to me that he could turn me back at the border. I just told him what a shame I thought it would be if my historical novel got written without including Nigeria. He told me he had read many histories of Nigeria, implying mine was not really needed, but eventually let me pass. Then, by around 5:30am or so, I had to walk dragging and rolling my heavy bags on uneven and sometimes sandy terrain through a phalanx of shifty-looking characters shining flashlights at everyone in the early morning darkness and arbitrarily stopping random individuals walking or riding by. I had no idea if they were actual officials or not, so I just kept walking past them until a couple of them cornered me to prevent me from proceeding. I asked to see ID and it turned out one of the guys was a drug law enforcement guy. He seemed most curious about the prescription medicines I was carrying and checked their labels carefully, whereas illegal drugs seemed only an afterthought. No one actually searched my bags – I don’t think they wanted the hassle, nor perhaps even cared what I or anyone else was bringing into the country as long as they could continue to collect their bribes.

I hope I live to the day when borders between nations no longer exist and people cherish and respect each others’ culture and history, rather than greedily seeking money and excessive material gain.

I finally made it past the border and hopped on a minibus going to Mile 2 Station in Lagos. I think there were more than 20 police checkpoints before reaching the station. The driver didn’t stop fast enough at one of the so a cop swung his wooden stick in a threatening blow to the left sideview mirror of the vehicle, resulting in lots of little glass pieces spraying through the open window onto my face – luckily none into my eyes. The driver handed over endless 20 naira bills at the checkpoints along the route.

Lagos, Nigeria

When we arrived at Mile 2 Station, the kind guy who sat next to me helped me find a taxi, though a few tried to charge me so much that I turned them away. The driver who finally took me got twice as much as I’d figured for carrying me to the Ritz Hotel.

Driving in a shared taxi into Lagos from the Benin-Nigerian border took around four hours due to the “go-slow? or in this case the “no go? during the especially busy Christmas season when townies and country folk come to shop in the big city.

In the early morning darkness, more people shone flashlights in my eyes and I didn’t know if they were government officials or bandits. I kept walking until two of them cornered me. I asked for ID and it turns out the one guy was a drug enforcement agent. He delayed me at least 15 minutes and was more concerned about the legal prescription drugs I carried than any illegal ones I might have (which, by the way, I didn’t have).

Between the Benin-Nigeria border and Lagos, there were no fewer than 25 checkpoints, many of which required the driver of the vehicle to pay bribes. When he one time tried to run a roadblock, a cop brandished a wooden club and smashed his sideview mirror, the glass spraying onto my face and chest, fortunately not into my eyes.

Arriving finally at the Mile 2 Station in Lagos, I wandered around awhile before getting on an overly expensive taxi to the Ritz Hotel, in a somewhat grubby section of Lagos Island.

The Ritz Hotel in Lagos is a run-down pit of a hotel, decaying from top to bottom of its several stories. However, 1400 naira per night is an amazing price when many of the Lagos hotels charge more than ten times that price.

Bedroom of Hotel Room, Ritz Hotel, Lagos, Nigeria Bathroom of Hotel Room, Ritz Hotel, Lagos, Nigeria

The floor of my room is tiles worn into the concrete lying below them with a rotting bathroom door due to the water that splashes from the shower. There is a rusty showerhead, cold water only, used to fill up the bucket of water that acts as a flush for the seatless dysfunctional toilet. To take a shit, I wipe the edge of the seatless rim with toilet paper, then toss it into the bowl to help prevent splashing of the filthy water below. I use the wall and the handle of the decayed door to perch, squatting on the toilet. Once I’ve released the waste into the bowl, I wipe, then pour the bucket of water into the bowl to flush it down. Then, I refill the bucket right away with water in case there is a water outage that would prevent flushing or showering completely. A small threshold keeps the shower water from flowing onto the floor of the hotel room proper.

When I arrived, a power outage rendered the air conditioner meaningless until this evening when power returned apparently after a break of several days.I’ve discovered that, in rooms without refrigerators, one can use the air conditioner to resolidify melted chocolate and cool down bottles of water that have warmed up in the sultry heat outside. The bedsheet was so worn it had little bunched up knots of fabric all over it, so I asked for another sheet to put over the worn one, then pulled out my sleep sack to use as a top sheet. I asked for a towel, but they don’t provide them here. Soap and toilet paper are possible if you wait long enough. Nevertheless, the staff are friendly and cordial, after the initial grumpiness of the manager, perhaps due to having to explain repeatedly the longstanding lack of power and lack of a backup generator for that eventuality.

Lagos itself is vast, busy, and loud. Everyone from motorcycle taxis, to kekes (like the motorized rickshaws in India), to cars and regular taxis, to trucks all beep their horns all the time and pedestrians are lucky to remain safe from motorcycles even while on the sidewalk. The sidewalks are passable about a third of the time if they even exist. Sometimes, they are just the concrete slabs wedged in place over the formerly open sewer visible below through the cracks between the slabs.

Monet, Mitcho, and More

David and Tommy invited me to the Monet exhibit at the Legion of Honor today. It cost $15 to get in and it was overcrowded. I saw several paintings I really liked: one of a hay stack, one of a obscure winter scene, a quite abstract painting of a wave, and another of a seascape at sunset. In the regular collection, we saw a painting titled “Love and the Maiden” (1877) by John Rodham Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908), that included the words “Cor Cordium” over and over again on the cupid figure’s clothing.

Love and the Maiden (1877) by John Rodham Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908)

A google search turned up this lovely poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne (thanks to David for help with the research on this stuff!):

Cor Cordium
O heart of hearts, the chalice of love's fire,
Hid round with flowers and all the bounty of bloom;
O wonderful and perfect heart, for whom
The lyrist liberty made life a lyre;
O heavenly heart, at whose most dear desire
Dead love, living and singing, cleft his tomb,
And with him risen and regent in death's room
All day thy choral pulses rang full choir;
O heart whose beating blood was running song,
O sole thing sweeter than thine own songs were,
Help us for thy free love's sake to be free,
True for thy truth's sake, for thy strength's sake strong,
Till very liberty make clean and fair
The nursing earth as the sepulchral sea.

We hung out at Cafe Flore afterwards, then I went to a celebration of Mitcho’s retirement from as the director of the city’s queer youth outreach program. I chatted with many of the guys who were at the Covelo camping weekend and of course congratulated Mitcho. The Sisters of Indulgence helped Supervisor Bevan Dufty announce that the City of San Francisco named the day after Mitcho. Mark Leno and other notables were there, but the most poignant speakers were the kids who had come to the youth center. Some described how Mitcho persuaded them not to commit suicide or helped them off of meth. I met two interesting new people: Ariel, a writer and biological female whose crazy doctor father at Harvard reassigned her to be a male in an incident of abusive constructive intersex status, and Aaron, a young fellow who drinks, smokes tobacco, and plays guitar.

After that, the gang walked over to Moby Dick, then walked over and picked up Indian takeout to Johnny and Brian’s place in the Haight. I found out Mark of Mark and Onyx went to Senegal for two years in the Peace Corps and we agreed to meet up again to discuss his experiences there. I got tired before midnight and headed home.

Soft Soul

Grampy’s soft soul is slippery
with voided balconies,
overdosed drugs, and
the self-induced pneumonia
of neglect. He wants to
be by her side
in the great beyond
after more than 60 years
together in the here and now.
There is no way to explain
why not
after all
what consolation is
an empty apartment of memories
that flow stronger than time?
The descendants and helpers
who bring conscious present
do little to stave off
omnipresent death.

Candid Shot of My Grandfather Sleeping

Home Safe and Sound

From 304 Winfield Street, San Francisco, CA:

I made it home safe and sound.

South America was amazing for me.

Taking care of Grampy in Washington, D.C., along with my mother, was important.

Sending money to Guille in Montevideo may have been foolish. I’ve been trying to reach him by phone every day since I got back here with no success. I’m not sure why it’s so much worse for me not knowing what has happened then, let’s say, hearing from him that he no longer wants me to contact him. The uncertainty of not knowing if something has happened to him is part of it. Perhaps it’s part of my “wanting to rescue a boy” complex like Nikas talked about.

I met Nikas when I invited Storm out for a night dancing at the End Up. Storm flirted with him first — we both thought he was real humpy. It surprised me when he said he wanted to spend the night with me instead of Storm. He actually gave Storm $20 for a taxi home when I mentioned I was worried about him getting home OK. Storm seemed happy with the arrangement and Nikas didn’t seem like a psycho-killer, so I went home with him.

When we arrived in his bed, he told me has been HIV+ for years. We still hugged and kissed. I was horny, so jacked him off, which he liked, and he then did the same for me. It was comfortable hanging out with him, even though he confided in me that he’s had a speed addiction, shooting it up. Although he says he’s now off it, I get the sense that it may rear its ugly head in his life again. We ate a nice brunch at a place called Cafe 69, or something like that, on Maiden Lane. Then, we went our separate ways. It’s been a few days and I haven’t heard a peep from him. He has my info and Storm has his phone number in his cell phone.

Open Letter to Barebackers, Bug Chasers, and You Who Don’t Care

Dear Barebackers, Bug Chasers, and You Who Don’t Care,

I’m all for freedom, so my first thought is to tell you, “Go for it, find your own way through this life. Do whatever you like as long as you aren’t hurting others.” I would never sic the law on you for consensual adult activities like fucking without a condom or using crystal meth because I believe in your personal liberty.

Our culture has caused problems for every one of us in one way or another. Growing up with a constant stream of abuse and discrimination against queer people — whether or not directed specifically at any one of us — takes its toll on all of us. Some struggle to have pride because we didn’t have it before. Some become macho men to counter the stereotype that fags are sissies. And some assimilate into queer consumer culture claiming that we no longer face discrimination so we no longer have to fight for our rights.

I was a big drug user. It started in high school as a way to find acceptance, to hang around hot guys among the stoner crowd and to avoid dealing with my attractions to them. Fortunately for me, my drugs of choice weren’t really addictive. I didn’t get trapped in a box of using and needing to use more until my body started to waste away. But some of my friends got addicted and more likely will.

I fucked a lot too. In college, we had a club where you had to have sex with two other members at the same time to join. Fortunately for me, my sex of choice wasn’t really risky. I prefer being a top, so once AIDS came around, it was fairly easy to avoid getting fucked without a condom. But some of my friends fucked unsafely a lot and more likely will.

In the earlier days of the disease, I stood by helplessly as my friend Richard, who had AIDS, lost his mind and lost control of his body, screaming incoherently as they dragged him off to the hospital where he went to die.

Even with the drugs available today, friends who have HIV often have to pop pills multiple times every day, fighting off the side effects of the meds. Some face troublesome health complications and others just don’t make it because they get drug-resistant strains of the disease or decide not to seek conventional treatment until it’s too late.

I stood by helplessly as my friend Todd got hooked on meth. Looking for love in the raver crowd, he did what everyone else wanted him to do until his body shrank, his face grew gaunt, and he got nervous ticks and twitches. He couldn’t concentrate on anything anymore and, as he says, the drug became “an evil necessity” so that he couldn’t have sex or function at all without it. He got HIV while he was high. And reaching rock bottom with an overdose, he’s actually one of the luckier ones who had the resources to get into a rehab clinic and try to clean himself up.

When I go the bars, the sex clubs, or the chat rooms online, I see lots of guys cruising for bareback sex and pnp (party ‘n play), using drugs for sex. I read that the rates of younger and older queer guys getting HIV are going up. Then, we have the higher rates of suicide, especially among queer youth.

I’m writing to you because I care and it’s tearing me up inside to watch you and live among you.

I want to live in a place where we have faced the odds stacked against us and responded by connecting and taking care of each other, living fulfilling lives in a supportive community.

I want to live in a place where we have exorcised the personal demons of low self-esteem and self-destruction — whatever the combination of internal struggle or external abuse that caused them — and responded by taking care of ourselves so we can live fulfilling lives in a supportive community.

It seems like most everyone is at a loss for how to prevent these problems.

My intuition is that it starts with caring.

Caring enough to see the people inside the bodies in the cars and walking down the street. Caring enough to tell people it’s totally fine to be queer in this crazy homophobic era. Caring enough to love people with the color of their skin and the cultures they come from. Caring enough to love people of the gender we don’t necessarily want to fuck. Caring enough to love people in whatever place they come from enough to offer a helping hand when we can and when it helps, rather than hinders, the situation. Caring enough to take action for constructive social change. Caring enough to discuss drug use and sex practices with our friends. Caring enough to choose not to pass HIV on to others.

And most important, caring enough about ourselves to get to a place beyond low self-esteem, drug abuse, unsafe sex, and self-destruction to a place of heightened self-esteem, hot sex that affirms life, and friendships that form a community of support that strengthens us all.