Thursday, November 02, 2017

Nigeria car trip asked for motoring horror stories for Halloween. I tried posting this as a comment, but it seems to have disappeared as of this posting. So, since I've finally written the story, Magda convinced me to post it here.

Many years ago, my family lived in Nigeria for a couple of years. We bought an old car that had some issues. Several of them came to light when we took a trip to the Yankari Game Reserve. This was a trip that had been planned for a while and coordinated with some co-workers of my father's, so we were not going to postpone it just because our brakes were less than reliable.

So, the story starts on the morning of the trip, when a friend of the family and I went to a mechanic to get the brakes fixed. He would be the driver for the trip because, even though my father had a driver's license, he didn't actually drive, my mother didn't drive, and I was about 15. In any case, we spent a couple of hours at the mechanic and, even though we weren't quite sure he had fixed things properly, we went to pick everyone up. On the way home, this friend expressed his uncertainty at the state of the brakes, but neither he nor the rest of us were going to be dissuaded by such a trifling thing. So, we left Kaduna, with the plan to stop overnight in Jos. My father had directions.

This worked great until we got to a place where the road forked and he wasn't quite sure which way the directions meant for us to go. So we stopped to ask directions and, as best as we could tell later, were sent the long way around. Which meant that, by then, the sun was setting. This was probably not the best time to find out that our headlights were good for either searching for things right in front of the car (right) or signalling to aliens in outer space (left). At this point it is left to the reader's imagination to decide why we did not let the other car we had with us (a VW beetle, which, of course, had no issues whatsoever for the entire trip) take the lead. In any case, we did not and forged on as before. Until we missed a roundabout that came before a railroad crossing.

Well, we did not actually miss it, we just missed seeing it. What we actually did is hit it at about 100 kilometers an hour. Thankfully, 1979 Honda Accords were small and low to the ground, so we all enjoyed the little car's best impression of a plane, until our not-so-delicate landing. On said railroad tracks, where the car refused to start. Thankfully, no trains were coming and we were close to a village, so we enlisted some help in pushing the car off the tracks. Nothing was seriously wrong with the car, so after some fiddling under the hood and taking care of a couple of things that had gotten loose, the car was ready to go again. At this point, the fuel gauge, which had not worked since we got the car, started working and it kept on working without problem until we left Nigeria. So the lesson here is: if there’s something wrong with your car that you can’t fix, try sending it flying and see if that fixes it.
Anyway, at this point, some part of our brains returned and we did have the beetle lead the way to Jos. We made it there around 10 p.m., found a nice hotel, and settled in for the night. In the morning, we thought we’d better at least get the brakes checked. So we looked for another mechanic, who looked at the brakes, checked them, promptly let some air into the lines, and declared himself satisfied. We tried getting the air out of the brake lines, but somehow that process dealt the death blow to our master cylinder. Except we did not know it at the time. I can only imagine how our friend who was driving found out.
I found out because we were supposed to make a U-turn to return to the hotel and by the time we passed the third opportunity, I had to ask why we weren’t turning. The answer came back surprisingly calmly: “No brakes.” So we did the only thing we could do: we kept going until we found an uphill U-turn opportunity. We turned around and headed for the hotel. Thankfully, the road to the hotel was uphill, so we had enough time to slow down so that both my father and our friend could lean half-way out the windows, wave frantically at the guy at the gate, and yell “no brakes.” The message got through, as the gate opened in time for us to crawl to a stop just beyond it. Time for another mechanic.
This time we found one who seemed to know what he was doing. The only problem was that a brake master cylinder for a 1979 Honda Accord was not readily available. So we got a master cylinder for a different car (Datsun?) and only connected two of the lines – to the rear tires, if my memory serves me right. So we had brakes. Sort of. You had to pump them three times before they would actually hold enough to lock the tires. But would we be deterred by such a minor detail? Of course not.
Somehow, the rest of the trip to Yankari went without a hitch and we had a wonderful time there. The place is breathtakingly beautiful and I remember it as vividly as I remember car flying on the trip there. But this is a car story, so on to our journey back.
Things went well until we got to a fairly big town (Bauchi, perhaps, though my memory fails me here). There, we came up to an intersection directed by a traffic cop. Because this is the trip where everything happens, he motions to stop as we get close to the intersection. Of course, the car that finally stops is the car in front of us. So we hit the brakes once, twice, three times. Then we hit said car in front of us. Now, that car was a taxi. Which, in Nigeria circa 1993, meant that its front and rear bumpers were reinforced with thick pipe. In other words, that car sustained no damage. Ours was not in too bad a shape, either. But, of course, this took place right in front of the traffic cop. So here he comes, ready to investigate. Amazingly, our family friend managed to convince him that he had no business giving the stop sign when he did, so we managed to get on our merry way.
Merry, that is, until the flat tire. By now it was getting a bit late and we need to find a place to patch the inner tube. So, because the people in the beetle needed to be at work early the next morning, we sent my mother and brother with them, while three of us stayed behind to nurse the Accord back to Kaduna. The tire got patched, and we got going again. By the time we passed Jos, night had fallen. Given our previous experiences with the headlights, the fact that the crash earlier in the day did nothing to improve their functionality, and the usual state of most Nigerian roads (the “Built for Nigerian roads” bumper stickers proudly advertising it everywhere), we were, at that point, going 20-30 km/h. Until a car would come up behind us. At that point, we would speed up to match its speed and try to follow it in the hope that it would avoid most potholes. Unfortunately, most cars driving at night on that road seemed to be taxis that were very much intent on getting to their destination regardless of the damage they would inflict on their cars. So, at the second or third pothole, we would give up and return to our turtle pace.
Finally, one car came up and looked like the driver cared enough to avoid potholes. So, we followed it for about ten minutes, when, in the middle of nowhere, it pulled over on the side of the road. Our family friend decided to also stop and try to talk to the driver of the car. Don’t worry, this is a car horror story, not an actual horror story. Although, for the lady who was driving the other car, it might have seemed a bit like a horror story for a few seconds (car following you... stopping behind you in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night... well-built man walking up to your car...). In any case, our friend talked her into allowing us to follow her into Kaduna. Which, in the end, turned out to be a good thing for her, too, because at some point on the way she managed to run out of gas. We, however, for all the other things we had not planned for (night, or stopping the car, to name two of the more obvious ones), had brought a canister of fuel with us. So, some time after 2 am, we finally made it back, and all these years later, the details still have not faded :)


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