We all have our favorite travel stories. We tell them repeatedly or sporadically, and usually with verve, our grand acts of bravura rarely shrinking in stature over the years. If anything, they become ever-engorged with our courage, foresight, and stamina, even though the truth may bear a more subtle shade.Telling our stories has a way of keeping the adventure fresh, and perhaps more importantly, forges a continuous link to the narrative of who we are. Some even argue that these links form the healthy basis of nostalgia; without which our biographies would not cohere, our identities could not gel, and the sense of who we are, as individuals, would spin off into space like planets freed from centripetal force, that orbital celestial “glue”.But clearly, some stories are better than others. And by “better”, one usually means more exciting, more larger than life, and more straining-the-bounds-of-credulity than the next guy’s. If you’ve lived a life of chronic adventure, as say, has Tusker Founder Eddie Frank, then plucking a favorite may prove unwise since highlighting one over the other could somehow negate the trophies earned and lessons learned.Yet, there is one Eddie adventure, that when recounted with his characteristic sly humility, not only approaches the limit of credulity, but sets the bar implacably high in terms of competitive real-life storytelling.
Because It Is There
It’s the summer of ‘78. Augusto Pinochet is still disappearing Chileans with more than a tacit nod from the U.S.; film director Roman Polanski has fled to Paris after pleading guilty in Los Angeles to a sex crime; and in perhaps his most significant piece of legislation, President Jimmy Carter authorizes homebrew.
Not that any of this news would have reached Eddie where he was. For, not only did he have no Internet (didn’t exist, at least not for civilians), but he was so far down the river (literally) that had the Earth ceased to spin, he may have been one of the last people to hear.
Picture it: drifting down the wide, brackish Niger River in the Niger River Delta, the jungle canopy overhead so thick that daylight could not peek through. He’s in a motorized pirogue, the traditional long dugout canoe, with about two dozen other folks, Africans, all smugglers, on board. Birds and monkeys shriek all about. A local can be heard crying out in the distance, then a gunshot. The target? An ape? Another human? No one on that pirogue would ever know.
It is with these fellow smugglers that Eddie is heading from the tiny border town of Otu in Cameroon, West Africa, to Calabar, Nigeria, with the sole purpose of trading money on the black market—and of course, to undertake this sublime, definitive adventure purely because it is there.
Comfortable in Your Skin
Concealed on his body is $1,000 in CFA (African Financial Community) a valuable tradable international currency used in former French West Africa colonies (the “Confederation”), and backed by the French government. In Calabar, with the CFA, Eddie will buy black market Nigerian naira—at a value twice the official rate. It can be safely said now, 35 years later, that the money is strapped to his person because it was a) illegal to export in said quantity; and b) well, thieves.
The mathematical calculus is simple, if you have a mind for that sort of thing. In 1978 at a bank in Calabar, $1 = 200 CFA = 4 naira. On the black market, however, that same $1 would fetch twice the amount of naira, totaling 8. With the black market naira now doubled in value, having made the “non-bank”—which is to say black market—transaction, Eddie would then, in naira, buy an $800 air ticket from Cameroon to Paris, ($2,957.82 in today’s money), priced at the official government naira rate. With the math all said and done, Eddie will have bought the $800 air ticket for $400, a 50% discount. Should anyone ask, none of this was legal, and had Eddie been caught anywhere in this enterprise—by the Nigerians or predatory thieves—chances are this story would have suffered a more sober end.
For the identical transaction, Eddie could have easily flown from Cameroon to Calabar. But once you toss in the unknown, the fellow smugglers, and the pervasive palette of risk permeating this downriver jungle adventure, it becomes an excursion that no self-respecting thrill seeker could ignore.
To pull it off, though, to thrive under these circumstances, you need to be comfortable in your own skin, and braced for an experience for which nothing in your upbringing could prepare you, not even the colonial schoolmaster’s cane.
Ripe for Chaos
Near the end of the first day, the pirogue stops, grounded on a sand bar. The tide is going out. And here, in the low water, Eddie and the Africans will sit for the next twelve hours, waiting for the tide to return and move them along again. They will eat what they have brought, or nothing, and if they choose not to wade through the murky water into jungle darkness for privacy, they will relieve themselves right there, appropriate body parts aimed overboard. The facilities, to the extent that they “facilitated” anything but a crude biological soundtrack, would not fare too well on tripadvisor, or similar sites.The first day turns to night. The pirogue is still stuck there. The shrieking jungle sounds, mixed with the random shout from an unseen villager, amplify. Or maybe it just seems that way. Nothing is visible, and everything seems still, that is, until the next shriek, animal or human, shatters the night.
If your inner being could not remain as still as that night, if your reason would go to sleep and produce a monster, (as Spanish painter Francisco Goya so famously said), then fear and dread will overtake you, and make your mind ripe for chaos.
An Occasional Foul Smell
Yet, in a situation like this, the power of mind can only go so far. Either you keep still, remaining calm in the moment, accepting your fate in whatever form it comes, or you don’t. If you don’t, and say, bolt, or have an anxiety attack, or become a lily-livered liability to the rest, then chances are that which you fear most (dying?) will manifest, and be brought, by you, much closer to your being.
What we are describing here is temperament, much of it the result of your upbringing, and at least as much an accident of the atoms, your DNA. And because we, in the human species, have been endowed with such a wide spectrum of temperaments, experts—for mostly recruiting purposes—have designed what they call “profiles”. Is someone suitable for work as a spy? For spending six months underwater in a submarine? Able to withstand the rigors of combat or torture? Simply put, if you do not have the profile for an activity, it’s perhaps unwise to undertake it. That is as true for espionage as it was for Eddie taking the long pirogue to nowhere. He was suited for it, and knew it, which is why he was at peace, not fearful in the least, just sitting there with the others, and the mosquitoes.
Not everyone is good at poker, and not everyone can sit for twelve hours in a pirogue in the wild West African jungle with two dozen smugglers, waiting for the tide to roll in. Which should tell us that the profile for true adventure is the ability to embrace the danger, and to tolerate the unknown, even an occasional foul smell.
Like No Other on Earth
By the start of the second day on the river, the tide is back in and the pirogue is motoring its way to Calabar. The air is muggy, even so early in the morning, and by now the ship of smugglers, having exchanged food, drink, and even a few bodily functions, has achieved an easy rapport with one another, proving yet again the Boy Scout Theorem: shared adversity breeds unity.
When they reach Calabar by the end of the second day, Eddie will disembark, happy to stretch his legs, and head straight for the money changers in the central open air market, money strapped to his body because to be found with it without declaring it, per currency regulations, would negate any of his blackmarket profit, and then some.
As a white man, no matter how calm, Eddie is conspicuous. He is approached by a policeman who is as warm and engaging as he could be trouble. They shake hands, never letting go until the exchange ends.
“Hello, my friend!” he greets Eddie. “Where are you from?” “America,” is the reply, with the sly smile. “But what have you brought me from America?” He’s fishing for a bribe. “Ah, but had I known you were here,” says Eddie, not missing a beat, “ I would have brought you something.”
And then, it goes one of two ways:
“But I am here now!” the cop could say, meaning the excuse will not fly and you must come across, in which case Eddie is happy to part with a few bucks for the pleasure of the exchange. Or, the cop acquiesces, in which case Eddie gives him some “dash” a small present anyway for not causing any grief, and perhaps to be remembered next time.
And so it goes in the historic outpost that is Calabar, a 500 year-old seaport known originally as Atakpa, that poignantly, was once a clearing house for New World slaves. Unlike generations prior in chains, Eddie is happy to be here; the place is lively, full of enterprising locals; the meat, perhaps goat, grilled on halved oil drums, is savory; the beer wet and warm; and the music—long before the “World Beat” coinage and iTunes, and thus only able to be heard there—has a rhythmic ebb and flow, and an uplift, like no other on Earth.
The Driving Engine
If there were honor among thieves, it was to be found in the black market money bazaars of Calabar. While Nigeria was (still is) notorious for its stealthy and strongarm thieves, there was never a threat with the changers because money was to be made both ways. Nigerians craved CFA—which unlike the naira, was a true tradable international currency—and people like Eddie needed naira, at the “unofficial” rate, anyway, to buy whatever they came looking for. If word got out that any changers were thieves, they wouldn’t be in business long.
Air ticket purchased (at the unofficial 50% blackmarket “discount”), Eddie would then pirogue it back to Otu, and road it back to Douala in the Cameroon for his flight back to Paris, where he would exchange all his CFA for French francs to then pay off his bar and hotel bill in Munich, where his long journey had begun, the bar bill always being the higher.
If nostalgia is not an indulgence in fake euphoria over a past that never was; if it really is the coherent link to the narrative of one’s past, then Eddie’s tales of Calabar is his link to a real past that no longer is.
Radical Islamists who kill all but the most extreme of Muslims now patrol the Sahara desert through which Eddie would cross from Europe with his German Army surplus vehicles for sale in West Africa. Fulfilling a need in West African agriculture for durable, heavy trucks that Europe no longer wanted, Eddie’s truck sales, all in CFA, all in cash, was the engine driving his adventures down the Niger River to the blackmarkets of Calabar.
A State of Mind
But even if the Sahara were passable today, even if so much of the world were not being bled by a religious war, the Niger Delta itself no longer exists as Eddie remembers it. The Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic, into which the Niger River feeds, has become a source of organized crime-sea piracy so vast that it dwarfs the much more publicized piracy off Somalia. The criminal backwash from this predatory wave feeds into the Delta, and the quiet, respectful, smuggler pirogues have been overrun by heavily-armed gangsters who would just as soon spit as rob and kill.
As for Calabar itself, its outpost charm has been quashed by Big Oil’s polluting chemicals and wealth, bringing with it a bloody battle in the region between insurrectionary armed locals and the oil giants’ security (read mercenaries).
It has been said that you can’t go home again. If you truly cannot, and in the case of Calabar one perhaps should not, it can be remembered that “home”, like the will for adventure, is a state of mind, even if that home lies down a murky, mangrove-canopied river wild that is no more.