DIARY OF A TROUBLED TRAVELER (A SHORT STORY) BY REWARD NSIRIM

Inter-semester holidays were my best days as an undergraduate. They were opportunities for me to escape to my uncle’s; hang out with my cousins and explore that land of perpetual bustle called Lagos. In those days, which were well before the advent of affordable local flights; EkeneDiliChukwu, Ifesinachi, FG Onyenwe, Young Shall Grow, ABC, Dan Dollars and other transport coaches were lords of long-distance intra-Nigerian travel. Molue-like bus services – the quintessential 49 sitting and 99 standing of Fela’s ‘Suffering and Smiling’ – were also about, but those buses will be a story for another day. So it happened that on a certain August morning when a two-week holiday presented itself in my second year in school, I boarded a Lagos-bound Young Shall Grow coach at the Education Bus Stop in Port Harcourt.

We left the bus station at about seven in the morning, our bus navigating with difficulty through the minibus-crammed Ikwerre Road. A young man standing just beside the driver commenced a loud, spittle-laced sermon a few minutes into the journey. I had a window seat two rows behind the driver, but the foul liquid emissaries of the sermon still managed to reach me. I felt sorry for my neighbours by the aisle as they kept bending and shifting to dodge larger and more direct missiles of saliva. The preacher continued, yelling the fear of God, accidents and armed robbers into us at the same time, liberally sharing gory examples from other journeys on the same Port Harcourt-Lagos route. By the time the bus got to Rumuokwuta half-an-hour later, he deemed us scared enough and moved in for the kill. He produced a polythene bag from his pocket and called for an offertory, declaring on top of his voice that the devil and armed robbers and accidents would flee from those who would give. His strategy worked perfectly, for as the bag passed from row to row fear-gripped passengers hurriedly dropped handsome amounts into it. When it came to me I chuckled and passed it on. With his bag returned full to the brim, and the bus now approaching the outskirts of town, the preacher released safety and other sundry blessings on all those who had obeyed the voice of the Lord, and then dropped off at Rumuokoro. We watched the conductor go down with him while the driver waited a couple of minutes, and when the conductor re-entered he was shoving a percentage of the offertory into his right pocket.

I breathed a sigh of relief and hoped for a quiet journey henceforth. It was not to be, for the second preacher – a passenger seated somewhere behind me – started his own sermon as we passed by the community of Rupkoku. He had a voice that wouldn’t need a microphone to address a five thousand-man revival meeting and was utilizing its full capacity in this bus of about sixty people. I wished I could ask the other passengers to contribute his own offering right away so he could shut up and I could manage some sleep, but of course I couldn’t. I sat upright with my eyes open, and miserably endured a protracted, chorused-spiced sermon that surprisingly ended only with a call to repentance and no offertory, as we rolled into Onitsha.

We arrived Onitsha at about eleven, and to my surprise majority of the passengers terminated their journey there. The driver refused to move from Upper Iweka for almost two hours until the bus filled up again. I had not planned to eat at that stage of the journey, but with an empty stomach by 1p.m., I had no choice. As a new neighbour occupied the seat next to mine, greeting me with a loud ndeewo, I pulled the sliding glass over the window open. Immediately, some of the hawkers who had laid siege on the bus ever since we arrived rushed to the window like a pack of flies, offering me everything from bread to rat poison. I settled for a can of soft drink and one sausage roll. It was a combination I would remember for a long time.

No sooner had I downloaded the combo than the coach hit the traffic-jammed road to the Niger Bridge. I looked out the window and marveled, like in previous journeys, at the bridge’s gigantic intersected x-shaped beams. Beyond the beams was the rippling River Niger with its golden hue, full of sand-laden boats and barges. We had not quite crossed that bridge when all of a sudden I heard a strange rumbling in my stomach, like the movement of ocean waves. In a matter of seconds the rumbling charged from my upper belly to the territories below, and I had to jerk myself up involuntarily to prevent a calamity. Suddenly my breathing had turned into panting.

My Onitsha neighbour, a man on the fringes of forty, could not help but notice. “Bianwokem, odikwamma?” he asked.

“I’m fine,” I lied, as I turned this way and that. The bus was filled to capacity, and with the third preacher who had boarded at Upper Iweka standing in the aisle a few yards from my seat and screaming at the top of his voice like the first one, nearly all eyes in the bus looked in my direction. The eyes that were not looking in my direction belonged to a group of pretty young ladies who apparently had no time for the preacher, and sat chattering away about three rows behind me. And those were the ones that bothered me the most and stopped me from doing what I knew I had to do – beg the driver to stop. How could I make such a reputation-destroying request in front of all these…?

The next round of rumbling did not wait for my face-saving thoughts to be completed. As the ferocious sound sped rectum-wards with unbridled aggression, I jerked myself up again, tightened my butt valves, clenched my teeth and held my breath. Necessity they say, is the mother of invention, and on that day I invented several postures to postpone the evil minute. The rumbling worsened, and I turned, twisted and tightened desperately. At some point I jerked my torso up so high until I came to occupy the posture we knew in my childhood as ‘Chinese Bending’, hitting my neighbours before and behind in the process. On seeing that posture, the Onitsha man beside me knew he had to intervene.

Bianwokem, o wunshi?”

The ability to lie died. I turned towards him and nodded very slowly. Immediately he yelled out at the driver.

Bia Driver! Kwusi motor!Stoputhisi motor o!”

    Kai, I muttered. Could this man not be a bit more discreet? Did he have to tell the whole world? Notwithstanding, the driver sped on along the Asaba-Benin expressway as though he hadn’t heard anything.

“Stoputhisi motor o!Mmaduganyunshin’ime motor a o!Thisi man wili shit inside thisi motor o!”

I saw the driver glance ever so briefly at the Indian bamboo-dominated bush on both sides of the road in quick succession, and then shook his head. “This motor no go stop till Umunede,” he declared firmly, speeding on, “Armed robber full all this bush weyunadey see so.”

Kai, I muttered again. Umunede was at least twenty minutes away! My bowels would definitely not hold for that long. I could, however, not really blame the driver. Celebrity armed robber De Rico and his gang were in the news every day for heinous robberies that particularly targeted travelers to and from Onitsha and neighbouring towns. But if the bus could drop only me and move on, De Rico could do his worst while I squatted in the bush and did my business…

“Thisi man wilishiti here o!” my neighbour warned.

By this time the preacher had suspended his sermon, and the attention of the entire coach had now been drawn to both my posture and my neighbour’s alarms. Soon half the coach, including the chatting girls whose attention I dreaded, joined my neighbour to beseech the driver to stop. I effectively had no reputation left. With pressure now from so many people, the driver announced he would stop at the next village which was a couple of minutes away. As the village came into view my neighbour, the standing preacher and every other obstacle cleared the way of their own accord. I stood and made for the door, but with the very first step in the erect position, I almost lost the battle. I paused at the aisle, tensed the necessary muscles, waited to ensure that all was still well, and then shuffled at a snail’s pace towards the door like a soldier performing a slow march. I could clearly hear the loud cackles of some callous co-passengers, but I had already lost my dignity and couldn’t care less. I had also developed a fever and was drenched in sweat.

The bus pulled into a local eatery that resembled a shrine, and I descended the steps of the bus onto the ground. Other smaller vehicles had pulled into the place before us, such that the place was somewhat full of travelers and hawkers milling around. My neighbour – God bless his foresight – sped ahead of me to reconnoiter the territory, and at that very point the waves came with the most belligerent surge ever. Standing became a dangerous luxury, and out of nowhere, I arched my butt backwards and upwards and then stooped downwards. It worked. I had become completely oblivious of the movements or actions of other human beings at this time, my entire faculties being wholly focused on pushing back the surge. My boisterous neighbour however reappeared to announce the direction of the convenience, and had people in the neighbouring villages paid enough attention, they would have heard it.

The next challenge was to how to follow the fast-paced Onitsha man to the toilet he had located behind the eatery. I had successfully dammed the waves with my current position and the most awkward of the day yet, but attempting to move could mess everything up. I nevertheless tried, and again discovered that with a bent back and a raised butt, I could still move my feet. From shuffling I increased speed in measured steps, and I believe that if one could picture a running duck, then one could imagine how I must have looked. I soon reached the toilet – sorry latrine – and found my neighbour blocking its entrance and shouting off other potential users.

“I am tellini you that hisi case isi very verybaadu and you no believu. Look atu him now! Lekwammaduibegi!”

My weird posture indeed confirmed to my competitors that faecal urgency came in categories, and they humbly stepped aside and waved me in. I snatched an old newspaper sheet in the hands of one of them, making a mental note to apologize when my sanity returned. As I stepped into the hot, putrid shack enclosing a pre-colonial pit, a massive choir of houseflies the size of beetles swarmed me with a wild chorus of deafening buzzes, and when I squatted the insects adorned nearly every part of me. Complete expulsion of my watery misery was quickly ensured with one sustained rapid-firing blast, the sound of a Harley Davidson exhaust. Upon exiting the place to the relief of the waiting queue, my yeoman neighbour had some place else to show me.

“They havuchemisti here,” he announced again loud enough for those passing on the expressway to hear, “Make we go make you buy anti bayotisiquicki quick.”

The antiquated chemist sold me something they called Thalazole as the only drug they had that could help me, and for good measure, I took six tablets instead of the four prescribed. I felt weightless as I trudged back to the coach and its smiling faces, taking particular care to avoid the gaze of the girls. Despite the Thalazole, I still visited the rest room about two hours later in Benin, and once more thereafter at Ore – though the coach driver stopped at those places on schedule.

When we reached Lagos my voluble saviour dropped off at Ojota. I thanked him from the bottom of my heart – and belly. After he left it occurred to me that I hadn’t even asked for his name the whole time! I disembarked at the terminus in Masamasa at about eight in the evening, and on sighting a yellow taxi, flagged it down in slow motion. When it pulled up, all I could manage was a whisper.

“Apapa. By Liverpool.”

We reached the place in an hour or so. I wobbled into the yard and towards my cousins’ apartment, my ten kilogram bag slung over my left shoulder now as heavy as a bag of cement. One of them spotted me and came along to help me carry my bag. He took one long look at my sunken eyes, dry lips and disheveled clothes, and then whistled.

“Ol’ boy, you sick? Abi you been fight for road?” he asked, holding my hand.

“You no go understand bros,” I whispered, “You no go understand.”

*                       *                       *

From Fresh Air and other stories by Reward Nsirim. Buy over here or send an e-mail to origami@parresia.com.ng or just drop a comment and yup, we would get back to you! You can also check Reward’s blog.fresh air

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