Monday, February 27, 2006

Business Travel - May 2005

My Air France flight was due into Luanda, Angola, at 4:30am, and I was apprehensive. I had e-mailed my itinerary to my client – let’s call them Petrox – and they had acknowledged, but some details were lacking. How would I be met? Where would I be staying? I assumed my driver would know where to take me.

The flight landed a little early, and I was nearly the first off the plane. Immigration waved me through, customs was just a formality, and I arrived with two bags and a computer case on the sidewalk of the tiny airport. There was some commotion as people arrived and met their rides – but there seemed to be no ride for me. No one wearing Petrox’s famous logo, no one holding my name out on a card, no one looking like he was looking for a white guy looking for him. So I stood, not sure what to do, in the steamy equatorial night.

Time passed. I hoped that my plane being early, my ride was perhaps late, and soon enough someone would arrive. But the bulk of a 747-load of passengers filed past me, piled into busses, jeeps, cars, scooters, and disappeared into the dark. I cursed Air France, whose business class reps in Paris had insisted on doing me the service of wrapping my luggage in plastic. It had seemed a reasonable precaution against theft at a third-world airport, but now, standing on the curb, I felt very conspicuous, and my crinkly luggage, I feared, made me look the more a novice. I waited 20 minutes, 30, 45, and things began to quiet. The army guards with their machine guns eyed me curiously. I looked around for a phone, but I had no local money, and in any event I wouldn’t know whom to call.

I had to make a decision – was it safer to stand alone in the night as the last people filed away, or to ask a stranger for a ride? Across the parking lot was an SUV, looking very white and clean, with the name of a limo service on its door, and a driver in a starched white shirt. I had been watching him, the only thing that looked like a cab, for some time, assumed that he was waiting for someone, but now I decided to act before it was too late. I crossed the dirt parking lot with my bags on their creaky trolley.

The driver looked at me curiously. I asked him if he spoke English – no, only Portuguese. In my rusty college Spanish I asked if he could take me to the Hotel Tropico – luckily, this was my second trip to Luanda, and I remembered the name of the hotel. The driver told me he would charge me $20, and I agreed. Just then another man walked up, an older white man, with no luggage but well dressed, and in Portuguese he seemed to be asking me where I was going. In Spanish I told him that I didn’t speak Portuguese, and in Italian he asked me if he could share the ride. I was delighted.

On the way, the old fellow chatted with the African driver in Portuguese. After some time, we entered the city, and soon enough I recognized the hotel on the other side of the divided road. The car pulled over, the old man said he lived near by, pressed a $10 bill in my hand, and jumped out of the car. He disappeared into the night as the car pulled away.

My relief at being near the hotel disappeared when the car passed it and kept going. And going, and going, for what felt like a mile. My heart began to pound – at what point would it be clear that I was being kidnapped, not unheard of in this chaotic country only months out of a horrible civil war? But the car rounded a traffic circle, doubled back and soon I was at the hotel. I gave the driver $20, then another $5 as a grateful tip, and found myself in the bright air-conditioned haven of the hotel lobby.

Far more confusion followed before I located my horrified colleagues at Petrox. This global oil company, that emphasizes “safety first” and has a “safety moment” at the beginning of every meeting, had left me stranded, and it was only my travel experience that helped me keep a level head. And good thing – “Most people who take cabs are found dead under a bridge” was the way my contact put it.

I still have the $10 bill. I’m convinced it’s counterfeit.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As I prepared to go to Nigeria this year, I realized that my Angolan reception – lack of a reception – had been more traumatic than I had wanted to admit. It’s a great travel tale, what we in my milieu of, yes, international tax accountants call a “war story.” But as the day approached, I found I was dreading arriving in Nigeria.

I had been to Nigeria before, too, but before had arrived with my boss, an old hand, a charismatic Cajun whom nothing fazes, and when the pushing and shoving had started at immigration, he just pushed and shoved back. He stood behind me and almost inaudibly coached me – “Push up to the desk, Bob. Hand them your passport. Make them take it. Don’t let that drunken Aussie get in front of you.” And when we emerged into the baggage area, there was a Petrox rep who saw us through customs, helped us run the gauntlet of cabbies and hawkers, money changers and prostitutes, beggars and thieves who lined the sidewalk. He ushered us into a van that took us to the company compound, accompanied by armed guards.

This time, I had to assume it would be no different, but I was arriving by myself. We had made it clear to our Petrox contacts that I would be arriving separately, on the 6:30 pm British Airways flight, two hours before my boss arrived on South African Airways from Jo’burg. I had been to Nigeria before, I knew what to expect. What could happen?

Immigration was a breeze. No pushing, no shoving, no shouting. A gracious Nigerian woman examined my visa, an old man stamped it, and I mumbled “ese pupa,” thank you in Yoruba. I was in the baggage area, thick with people from the last flight, but no evidence of anyone from Petrox.

I tried not to be conspicuous. I waited for the carousel to start. I strolled the length and width of the area, trying to see everyone’s badge. Air France, British Airways, Nigerian Government, Lagos State, various oil companies, but no one from Petrox. The room became crowded with people from my flight. Finally the carousel lurched to a start. Outside, lightning began to flash, and several times, the airport went dark. The lights came back up quickly, but it took about five minutes each time for the carousel to re-start. It was an hour before I had my luggage.

I stood on an alcove overlooking the area. My new cell phone, which I had bought partly on the promise that it would work in Nigeria, didn’t work – I had made a point of bringing with me the number of my Petrox Nigeria contact. Finally I decided to go through customs to the last insulating area between me and the sidewalk. My heart sank – still no Petrox reps. If I pushed my way outside, I knew I could find my way to the car park – I have a great sense of direction, and once I’ve been somewhere, I can normally find it again. But the prospect of pushing my way through the crowds alone, a white businessman who looks like a white businessman – a mark, a walking wallet – didn’t thrill me. I knew it would be hard to mask the look of alarm in my eyes, and what if there was no one from Petrox in the car park? What then?

There was an information desk in the customs area. As Portuguese is the lingua franca of Angola, so English is widely spoken in Nigeria, in a beautiful dialect with long open vowels. I asked the woman at the desk if she would call my Petrox rep for me. She looked at the number on the page, then said “Yes, I will call him, but first I will page Petrox.”

She made a call, and about ten minutes later, the page was made, loud, clear, insistent, reassuring. Ten minutes after that, a Petrox representative appeared. My new friend at the information desk insisted on seeing his ID card – kidnapping of businessmen is not uncommon. (I don’t think of myself as a “businessman,” just a CPA with a really interesting job – but when a white guy shows up in Africa with a laptop and gets an armed escort, that makes him a “businessman.”) The rep had me wait in the customs area – the car for the compound had already left, but another one would come soon. Soon after, two guys in Petrox jumpsuits knocked on the window. They had been there all along – if only I had had the cojones to walk out to the sidewalk. It turns out the manifest had been wrong, and despite our messages, I had been expected to arrive on the same flight as my boss. An hour later, he emerged from the baggage area, sympathy in his eyes. If he was seeing me, it meant I’d had another unfortunate adventure – another war story. He had been met at the carousel by Petrox reps. Some guys have all the luck.

* * * * * * * * * * *

I like to call myself the “International Accountant of Mystery.” CPAs have an undeserved rep –actually our jobs are can be interesting and varied. I work in a tiny slice of the tax world that is often known as “expatriate services.” When a US citizen moves abroad, he still is liable to file US tax returns – unlike nationals of almost any other country. And that keeps me employed. I’m the guy your company hires to do your taxes when they get really complicated because you’re working in Nigeria.

I’m good at what I do. I’m a good tax guy, but perhaps more importantly, I like people. When Petrox sends me to Nigeria, what matters most is that, as I sit with each expat, I make him feel like things are under control. That’s not an easy proposition in Nigeria, where people have to ship a year’s worth of groceries from home, where the internet barely works, where it’s not safe to send or receive anything by post. These people are more cut off from civilization than most of us could imagine, and it wears on them. It wears on their wives – they’re mostly wives, not husbands – the “trailing spouses,” even more, and it’s hard on the kids. If they feel like their tax return is under control, that we’re on their side and will make it easy for them, we’ve done them a small but important service. So on these “fly in” visits, we International Accountants of Mystery must be many things. We must be tax experts, and we must be well-traveled. We must know what to do if we’re stranded at an airport in Angola. We must be old enough that the expats take us seriously. We must be senior enough to know how to handle a taxpayer when he throws a fit, for whatever reason, and stressed-our taxpayers on foreign assignment often throw fits. We have to be able to appear impartial while presenting the employer’s policies in a positive light, and we have to be ready for whatever oddball tax questions might come up. It helps if, in addition to being well-traveled, we have lived abroad, so we can nod knowingly when the expats speak of the petty hardships they face. So, we’re a rare breed, we International Accountants of Mystery. My company doesn’t pay me enough, I like to complain, and I mean it, but on the other hand, when you’ve got the travel bug, it’s pretty groovy when your job has sent you to 17 foreign countries. I write this from an Irish pub in my 18th – Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

* * * * * * * * * * *

I know people who love Nigeria. I don’t know how to respond to that. What I’ve seen is a very narrow view, but I have no access to more. The country has no infrastructure, its government is corrupt, and so the people are cynical, wily, and impatient. The color of my skin marks me. It’s perhaps a good lesson to be on the other side of that divide, but I don’t like it, and I squirm in my liberal guilt. I squirm as the African servants in the Petrox guesthouse call me “sir,” deferentially, wait on me attentively, absurdly grateful for a $1 tip. I squirm at the inequity, the sea of tin-roofed shacks as far as the eye can see surrounding the eye-popping palaces of the elite. Lagos is bigger than New York and LA combined, yet you have no sense of it as you fly in at night, because it’s dark, just little cook stove flames dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see – there’s no power, no plumbing or sewerage available to most of the population, in a city of unknown size – 20 million, maybe? Expats and visitors knowingly joke about the stench of the place, and there’s no doubt about it, many Nigerians reek, but can I feel anything but sorrow for a person who makes a dollar a day and cannot afford to bathe?

For the expats, our arrival is a break from the routine, and we’re taken out to dinner by a group of them. No surprise that my boss, the Cajun good ol’ boy, is a hit with these oil workers, while I, the gay guy, go over well with the wives. This year they take us to the latest thing to hit Victoria Island, the central district of Lagos – a Japanese restaurant. Although my personal motto is “I work to travel and I travel to eat,” I find myself hesitant to eat raw fish caught in these polluted waters. But I am assured that the fish is all flown in from elsewhere – and how sad, I realize, that in this city of islands, I’m relieved to eat foreign fish. We visit one expat’s apartment, outside the compound – huge, an oasis really. Like so many, these are career expats, moving from one five-year assignment to the next, and at some point they cross a line. Five years in Angola, three in Indonesia, five in Thailand, four in Nigeria ... are you American any more? Can you go back to Houston and join a Baptist church and vote Republican and feel like you have anything in common with your neighbors at all? So they re-up, and some of them end up retiring in Thailand, or Costa Rica. These career expats have a beautiful home full of artifacts from their travels, and they’re generous with the beer and appetizers. I try to imagine how hard it must be to come by the Japanese rice crackers I munch with my Nigerian Heineken.

The compound is a tiny community, one of the wives tells me it’s just like being back in junior high, and I can easily imagine. A few dozen families, a few hundred people, most of them living inside the barbed wire-encircled compound, everyone knowing everyone’s business, the unemployed wives struggling to find meaning, to keep their kids in line, to run a household when there are some things you can only shop for once a year, others that involve going to the marketplace to change your dollars into thick wads of local currency so dirty you have to wash your hands after you settle a bill. Some wives love it, some hate it, all are affected by it. The kids undoubtedly will be more interesting for having had the experience, though I don’t know that a 13-year-old who has spent five years in Nigeria is really prepared for high school in San Jose.

Some of the expats and their wives are fresh and excited about what they’re doing, some are pretty crispy around the edges. But all of them are characters. Really, you have to be some kind of unusual to accept a three- to five-year assignment in equatorial Africa, a place that is very unlike Omaha, or Colorado Springs, or wherever you’re from. And for all the griping, all the impatience with the locals and their ways and the difficulty of being here, most of them, when you ask them, say they’re glad that they’ve taken the assignment. And, as they all freely admit, they’re being handsomely rewarded. But for me, the contractor, the International Accountant of Mystery who just has to fly in and deal for a week and get the hell out, it’s not that fun, and I don’t know how they do it.

The drive from the airport, which took 45 minutes on a quiet Sunday night, takes nearly three hours to re-trace. Lagos has no highways, no trains, almost no order. I thought I knew about traffic from driving southern California freeways, but the traffic of Lagos is epic. Even the simple van ride to the irport has my stomach churning. The bus lurches along roads that haven’t been repaired in decades, no traffic lights, no cops, the side of every road lined with stalls and shops and commerce. It’s a wonder we don’t run down any pedestrians. They send a 20-seat air-conditioned minibus to take two accountants to the airport, and we compete on the road with countless ramshackle yellow vans, the public transportation system of Lagos, each packed to the gills with people, hot, dirty, breathing unspeakable air, limbs hanging out the windows and open doors.

The airport is barely controlled chaos, again with pushing and shoving, so many passengers with an unspoken message – “get me the hell out of here!” The main departure terminal is famous for a massacre that happened a few years ago and I imagine the floor slick with blood. The security is better now, in fact the guards pushed several people aside with their automatic weapons to enable us to enter – the white businessmen aren’t asked for identification, but the black African locals can’t enter the airport terminal in their own country without documents. It’s almost more than I can take. We’re leaving Lagos a day early and managed to call back to the US to change our reservations, but it’s a challenge to check in with paper tickets that don’t match our reservation. Our Petrox minders see us through the process, and are thrilled at the $5 tips my boss gives them – he’s trying to get rid of his local currency.

When we get through passport control, there’s a sweeping view of the airport runways, greeted with empty jetway after empty jetway, betraying the sad optimism of the airport’s builders, knowing that this country is rich, and it could be great, but the despots bleed it dry. No one wants to come here, and an airport the size of LAX handles fewer flights than Burbank.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Our flight is a red-eye to Dubai. I have changed planes here, but never stayed before. Americans can enter the country with no visa, not even an entry card – I’m astonished that a Middle Eastern country should be so welcoming. The Arab immigration agent takes my American passport, smiles, and says, “You are coming from where?”

“Lagos,” I reply.

“Lagos! Welcome back to the world!” he says. I laugh and thank him. “Was your flight full?”

“Not really.”

“Good!” he says, and holds his nose and rolls his eyes. Ah yes, Nigeria reeks. What more needs be said?


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