The moment Michael Griffith turned his back, his wife let out a bloodcurdling scream. He whipped around to see Nancy jumping up and down, crying, her face contorted with panic and disgust. They were at the immigration desk at Lagos airport with barely an hour left to suffer Nigeria.
Michael now knew for sure he shouldn’t have brought Nancy along on this short business trip. She’d been so warned, so exhorted, so horror-storied, that she was utterly paranoid and never even left the perceived safety of the hotel.
A few days earlier, as Nancy browsed the hotel gift shops, she’d had a brief conversation with another hotel guest.
“I hope you’re not leaving this god-forsaken country on Friday,” he’d told her.
“I don’t know for sure,” Nancy said with alarm. “Why?”
“They steal passports on Fridays,” the man explained. “Goddamned immigration officials at the airport.”
“Why on Fridays?”
“Because they know you’ll pay anything to get your passport back so you can get the hell out of Nigeria without waiting all weekend until Monday.”
When Michael returned to the hotel that evening, Nancy asked him what day they were leaving. Friday, Michael said. So Nancy related her newest tale of terror and, together, she and Michael came up with a plan. Nancy would carry their remaining cash in a flat leather pouch attached to her belt and slid inside her jeans. 100 nairas, the exact amount of departure tax for two, would be put into Michael’s shirt pocket. Nancy would tuck an American $20 bill into each of her two front jeans pockets in case bribes were necessary, and Michael would carry a 20 naira note in each of his two front pants pockets. Never let go of your passport at immigration, they’d been warned. Michael would hold onto their passports during examination and stamping.
As a lawyer who represents Americans arrested abroad, Michael was no novice at foreign travel. He’d been to almost eighty countries, through hundreds of airports. It was his business to know the laws and procedures of other countries, their customs, and dangers. He’d been through the notorious Lagos airport many times before, but never with his tall, blond wife. Nancy, too, had traveled extensively. She had just retired from her career as a supermodel.
Nancy’s jitters came from the endless nightmare experiences she’d heard and read about travel through Nigeria. Even the U.S. State Department considers it one of the most dangerous, corrupt, and unpredictable territories on Earth.
So it was not a pair of travel virgins who meticulously prepared themselves for
the perilous journey through Nigerian formalities. These were travel warriors. From New York. Michael, at least, thought he’d pretty much seen it all.
They approached the immigration desk as planned, Michael in the lead, Nancy dragging their wheely bag. It was not crowded, and they stepped right up to the official’s high desk.
“Airport tax fifty nairas each,” the government official demanded.
Michael reached into his shirt pocket and extracted the prepared cash, five
20-naira notes. As the officer’s fingers closed around the money, Nancy shrieked. She yelled with a shrillness and urgency Michael had never heard before, unlike her wail of frustration on the tennis court, her cry of anger occasionally directed toward him, or her extremely rare explosions of rage. In an instant, a heartbeat, a fraction of a moment, Michael heard intense terror and overpowering repulsion, desperation, and primeval fear. He felt it in the hollow of his chest. In his bones. On his skin.
He spun, already flushed and slick with instant sweat.
Nancy was screaming, but she was also jumping and twitching. And Michael
saw that she was covered with cockroaches.
Covered might be the wrong word. There were only twenty or thirty cockroaches. But they were huge, shiny as glass, and black as terror. They skittered up Nancy’s jeans, down her blouse, and along her bare arms. One had become entangled in her hair, and kicked frantically at her ear. A few dropped onto the floor, where Nancy crushed them as she leapt spasmodically.
A uniformed immigration officer strolled away from the hysteria, indifferent. At his side, he casually swung a large-mouthed jar of grimy glass. It was empty.
Michael, accustomed to extracting people from sticky situations, was at a loss. He’d pulled people out of South American prisons, choreographed an American’s escape from a Turkish jail, rescued the wrongly accused and the clearly guilty. Now, as he grabbed his delirious wife by her shoulders and tried to steady her, he saw the same overwhelmed eyes he saw in many of his clients. They bulged with a desperate plea for a savior, and of unspeakable horrors.
Michael swatted and kicked away most of the creatures. Then he opened the lower buttons of Nancy’s blouse and removed one more. He pulled one from her hair, and then removed the serrated legs that had remained stuck there. He asked her if there were any more. Then he held her.
“Let’s get out of here,” he whispered in her ear. “We’re almost home.”
He turned back to the immigration officer, still placid in her high booth.
“You only gave me four twenties,” she said. “I need one more.”
“Lady, I’m from New York,” Michael said dangerously, “and this is the best I’ve ever seen. You know and I know that I gave you a hundred nairas. You’re getting nothing more from me.”
The officer waved them through, expressionless.
Nancy, catatonic with shock, began to regain her composure when they arrived at the gate for their flight.
“If I ever get out of here, I’m going to kiss the ground of America,” she said with conviction.
And she did so, eighteen hours later at JFK airport, though it was technically not ground, but the dusty terrazzo floor thirty feet above it.
A U.S. Customs Officer must have seen Nancy bend to the floor in the busy baggage hall.
“Ma’am, you must be just back from Lagos!” he grinned. “Welcome to the U.S.A.! Welcome home!”
Excerpt from Travel Advisory: How to Avoid Thefts, Cons, and Street Scams
Chapter Three (part-d): Getting There—With all your Marbles