As we pulled up into Murtala Muhammed International Airport (LOS) my heart was beating…not so much because I was apprehensive, but because I always get excited when touching down in a new land – this time in a region I had never stepped foot in before on a continent I have only grazed the surface of in past travels.
As I stepped off the 787 and onto the jetbridge I was hit with a blast of hot, humid air. Inside the 1970s jetbridge the air was stale and warm. Coming out into the arrivals hall, there was a long hallway with a flecked wall on the left and picture windows on the right.
A few paces down and to the left is a mezzanine in which arriving passengers – even if transiting – are herded down escalators to an area in which vaccination cards are checked for yellow fever shots.
I didn’t have mine. There is no yellow fever vaccination requirement for passengers transiting through Lagos. There is a bit of ambiguity in the South African travel rules about whether a vaccination card is necessary if you are just transiting through a country in which vaccination is required. Out of an abundance of caution, I should have taken my vaccination card, but it was in California and I never received that shot anyway.
Anyway, a portly man with a governmental uniform and spectacles stopped each passenger to inspect their yellow card. When it was my turn, I explained I was just transiting. That’s where the fun began.
“Oh no, you must have one.”
“No, I am just transiting.”
“No, no. You need one even for transit.”
“Well, I don’t have one.”
“This problem. Come over here.”
He directed me to a desk in which a thick handwritten ledger was sitting.
And then it came.
“This big problem. You pay me something to make it better.”
I’ll admit it, I laughed out loud. So the horror stores were true – my first encounter with a Nigerian was a request for a bribe!
I had just slept for nine hours and was in a good mood, so I played along.
“Hmm. Is that right?”
“Yes, if you don’t, then I will take you to the government office and they will fine you $150. You just pay me $15.”
“That’s a lot of money.”
“Well, you must have your vaccination card.”
At this point, my first thought was to become nasty, but I was not positive that he was wrong and since the damage was minimal, I deiced to play along.
“Let’s negotiate,” I said.
“You give me $15!
“I have Euros. I’ll give you 5 Euros”
“That’s like $7.”
“No, not enough.”
“I really don’t have anything else.”
“Not enough! Sorry!”
“Tell you what, how about I throw this in too?”
I pulled out a sealed United amenity kit from by bag from the Houston – Lagos flight and handed it to him.
He keenly examined it and said, “Oh, wallet.”
“So are we good?”
I smiled and extended my hand to him. He shook it with a big smile. I laughed, he was too busy examining his new amenity kit to notice.
Surely by principle I perpetuated the lifestyle of bribery by being complicit in the act. It is also harrowing to imagine that a few dollars can buy off a government health official, especially with Ebola knocking at Nigeria’s door during the time of my trip.
But weird as it sounds, I wanted to have that experience. Five Euros didn’t hurt and I have a whole garage full of United amenity kits at home, so there was no loss, just a good story.
For the record, I needed no vaccination:
So, it was onward to the immigration line.
There, I announced to a United employee standing around that I was a transit passenger and he summoned an immigration official.
“Come around the counter and go grab your bag,” said the immigration officers, wearing tan military fatigues and a tan beret. He took my passport and directed me past the immigration desks – I had made it to the other side!
Let me apologize here for the poor quality of pictures in this post. I was self-conscious about using my large DSLR so I stuck to my iPhone, which was only a iPhone 5 at the time with poor indoor picture quality.
I grabbed my bag and we went upstairs to the departure level. The check-in hall was actually not too bad and I mentioned it to the immigration officer who beamed with pride and noted that the airport is under ongoing construction and a new terminal is being built.
It was too early to check-in for my South African Airways flight to Johannesburg, so I followed the officer to immigration and screening. He must have been high ranking, because many greeted him with salutes.
Explaining to his fellow immigration officials that I was in transit, he instructed me to leave my bags in a corner of the security hall.
“Don’t worry. Bags safe.”
We then proceeded through security (shoes had to come off) and I was told that my garment bag would not be allowed as hand baggage because clothes hangars are impermissible “weapons.”
We walked my garment bag back to where my larger rollerboard was sitting and I stuffed it inside—thankfully it fit.
Back through security, we proceeded down a rancid departure hall replete with missing walls, dim lighting, and worn seating. The officer beckoned me to follow him up a steep flight of wooden stairs and we came out by the lounges. Adjacent to the Oasis lounge was the Nigerian Immigration Services (NIS) office and I was invited inside.
There sat a few (very lumpy) couches and I was invited to sit down as the officer used a remote control to turn on the wall-mounted air conditioning. I waited for the next two hours until check-in opened for my SA flight. Surprisingly, to me at least, wi-fi was available, free, and fast. It was actually a productive time.
There is a lot of idleness in Nigeria and during my stay in the NIS waiting room several men came in to shoot the bull with the immigration officer. All were very friendly, greeting me and wanting to know if it was my first time in Nigeria.
The conversations were in English and high-level – there was esoteric discussion on ISIS and terrorism that I was tempted at some points even to jump in on. But I remained silent and worked.
When it came time to check-in for the 22:20 SA flight, the officer and I proceeded back down through security and to the check-in hall where I was instructed to cut everyone in line and drop my bag off.
After picking up my boarding pass for the flight, he brought me back through security and back upstairs to the office, where I had left my carry-on baggage behind.
He told me I was free to go and extended his hand. I shook it and proceeded out the door and right around the corner into the Oasis Lounge, where I set up shop for the next few hours and was able to get quite a lot of work done. I will offer a closer look at the lounge in the next installment of the report.
Terminal, Shopping, and Duty Free
Prior to boarding, I wandered through the terminal….duty free shops with mostly empty shelves, a couple smoking lounges, a few eateries, and a prayer area are available. Both British Airways and Air France/KLM have lounges here that looked (relatively) impressive from the outside.
Boarding for my A343 flight to Johannesburg was done at a tiny gate with multiple passport and boarding pass checks before proceeding down the jetbridge.
Murtala Muhammed is no Singapore Changi, but it is bearable for transit and was actually a rather fun experience.