Book Two: Nigeria

Gigi with the great grandchildren: Cian, Karl, Cruz, Nina, and Aine

“GG” this summer with the great grandchildren (clockwise): Cian, Karl, Cruz, Nina, and Aine

“You are going to be the one to tell your grandmother,” my mother informed me after the dreadful silence over the phone last January when I admitted our next teaching post.  I already figured I was going to tell her, but hearing I had to spoke volumes about the whole situation.  My grandmother was raised in a remote Hungarian village until the age of 18, when she left for America alone, her appendix busting on the voyage over the Atlantic Ocean.  We’re convinced she is healthy at 95 because my grandmother is stress free knowing she’s absolutely right about everything.  If she gets irritated, my grandmother can give you a look that could down a charging bull, even to this day.  I have more admiration for her than almost anyone else on the planet, but the thought of telling her our next teaching post in person was, um, unpleasant.

The local traditional market in lagos

The local traditional market in lagos

Let’s face it, Nigeria is a country that has American news stations swooning with sugar daddy love:  Ebola, Boko Haram, dramatic presidential elections, fuel shortage crises… you name it.  The truth of the matter (as you probably already know) is that the news and its flavor of delivery (particularly American news) is determined by what the stations’ watchers want to watch, and Nigeria is ripe for the picking.  Now, I’m not going to try and make the case that Nigeria is secretly safe.  The evils of Boko Haram and the horrors of Ebola are very much a reality.  In fact, I’m typing this from my apartment on school grounds, which is surrounded by so much high walls, armed security, barbed wire and cameras that we live in a virtual fortress.  I’m saying that much of the news hype, like much of the news, is just hype, and our idea of safety is perception.  After all, we spent 10 years living two hours from the World Trade Center bombing, one hour from the Boston marathon bombing, and 45 minutes from Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Boko Haram’s dwindling strongholds are on the opposite side of the country, made much farther by Nigeria’s poor infrastructure.  All that being said, we’re not in Indonesia anymore, Toto.

Showing off her lollipop tongue on the flight to Lagos

Showing off her lollipop tongue on the flight to Lagos

Our trip here, despite 12 checked bags, two kids and variety of small carry-ons, both living (wait for it) and nonliving, was uneventful.  We flew Lufthansa to Frankfurt, then down over the vast Sahara Desert to the southwest coast of Nigeria.  We arrived in Lagos Airport at night and were greeted by Mr. Joseph, an employee of our school AISL (the American International School of Lagos), who guided us through immigration and customs.  As soon as we entered the absolutely dilapidated airport, it felt great to be back in Africa.  Our new principal for middle school, Dan and his wife Amanda (Cian’s grade 1 teacher) met us outside at the bus and brought us back to the school and our apartment, a palatial estate compared to our shoebox-sized home in Jakarta.  Two baths (with tubs!), a huge kitchen (with a full sized fridge, another full-sized freezer, and oven!) and three huge bedrooms (with big beds!) greeted us and we couldn’t believe how excited we were for such (relative) luxury.

Our school is situated on Victoria Island in the country’s financial capital, Lagos.  Over 50 nationalities are represented in the student body, many the children of consulate and wealthy oil families.  Our apartment is within the campus walls, just across from the swimming pool and playing fields; the commute to my classroom is a one minute walk just around the corner.  Since our arrival August 1, we have found the Nigerian people to be exceptionally warm and friendly.  Although we are much more on our toes than in Indonesia, we have never felt unsafe or threatened.  During a run around Victoria Island, Adrian (yep, he’s back!) said to me sarcastically, “Can’t you sense the danger?”  People were waving, smiling and cheering us on as we ran by.  The Nigerian’s warm greeting is a meaningful “you are welcome”, and you hear it regularly through the day.  So far, we definitely feel welcome.

The school courtyard

The school courtyard

Being walled into campus also means that the teacher kids have free reign around the school, and we haven’t seen much of our children since our arrival.  Occasionally, an assorted variety of them will scooter by or raid the nearest parent’s kitchen for a meal before racing off again outside.  Playgrounds, the gym, the pool, unlocked classrooms and the playing fields are all close by and at their disposal.  Ironically, being confined into the campus has allowed the kids to have the “just make sure you’re back for dinner before it gets dark” childhood we had in the ’70’s.  When in our apartment in Jakarta, we had to do all sorts of preparation work to get the kids down the elevator and out, even to the playground.  Now, half the time we can’t find the kids when we need to- they can just walk out the door.  By the end of the day, they are delightfully exhausted.

Playing darts, of course

Back playing darts

Our living abroad soap opera takes a few twists this season for your inevitable entertainment.  First, we have the return of my infamous partner in crime, Adrian Horton.  Some of my long time followers will remember the limey Brit from posts during our first year in Indonesia, and there were many more adventures that were… well, let’s just say, not permissible to be posted.  Adrian has already completed a year in Nigeria with our other friends from Indonesia, head of school Greg Rayl and his wife Kim (our curriculum director and blogger of Miss Chicken’s Adventures, linked over to the right, there, under “Blogroll”).  To kick off our reunion, Adrian and I met up at the beginning of the summer in Portland, Oregon to attend a teacher conference and wreak havoc on the city before spending time on Greg and Kim’s beautiful sailboat in Olympia, Washington.  He later joined us for a few days on the Cape.  I was able to meet some of our new AISL coworkers at the conference as well, and I can say without hesitation we are in for a great year.  When you live, work and play with the same community, it needs to be good people.

Kim and Greg's sailboat with Mt. Rainer in the distance. Photo Adrian Horton

Kim and Greg’s sailboat with Mt. Rainer in the distance. Photo Adrian Horton

I going to love them and squeeze them and call them George...

I’m going to love them and squeeze them and call them George…

We also have two additions to our family, Boris Badenov and Natasha Rainbow Fatale (the Rainbow part was christened by Áine.  If you say Natasha while Áine’s around, she will immediately correct you forcefully with “its Natasha Rainbow“).  Back in Indonesia last school year, I would occasionally pop into the library and catch Sarah looking at images of cats with our friend Darlene, whose family is also joining us in Nigeria accompanied by their newly acquired guinea pig small dog, Jasper.  When I asked about the cat pictures, I got a dismissive laugh and a “nothing for you to worry about” until suddenly we were putting a downpayment on two purebred Siberians (a cat downpayment?!).  I was informed that we were to pick up the cats at the end of the summer from our friend-turned-cat-innkeeper, Rebecca and bring them along with their skyscraper of immigration paperwork as carry-ons to Nigeria.  We are now the proud owners of the most expensive cats in western Africa.

 *     *     *

The day after we arrived in the States to start our break this past summer, I went to my grandmother’s assisted living complex to drive her to a party at my father-in-law’s.  When I picked her up she hugged me tight and long, like she does when I’m leaving, knowing we’re not definitely sure we’ll see each other again.  As soon as we got into the car, she lifted one eyebrow and said in her no-nonsense Hungarian accent, “So, where are you going next?”

My hours of preparation for the question fell apart.  “West Africa, Grandma.  Nigeria.”  It was all I could say.

“Nigeria…that sounds familiar…”  she said to herself, trying I’m sure to remember why she had heard about the country recently on TV.

“Don’t worry, Grandma.  We’ll be safe,” I said, purposefully interrupting her train of thought.

“You’re like gypsies, you are,” she proclaimed, “not happy in one place!”

“I guess you’re right, Grandma,” I said and quickly changed the subject to the rising cost of groceries, successfully dodging “the look”.

14 thoughts on “Book Two: Nigeria

  1. I love reading your blog John! So well written and really gives the reader a flavor and understanding of your travels. Nice to see the family and the kitties are doing well. I was glad for Sarah’s sake that they didn’t end up being the most expensive stuffed animals ever. Now the real question: How are your allergies? Do they live up to their hypoallergenic reputation?


    • Thanks, Rebecca, and thanks again for taking care of the cats for us this summer! I’m not sure about the allergies yet, but I did get reminded what it was like to step out of the shower and onto a scattering of kitty litter :-).
      I’m not too worried- Aine’s going to one day hold them so tight their heads are going to pop right off. Problem solved 😉


  2. Great blog John, I saw you (from a distance) when you went for a sail with Greg and Kim on Puget Sound. They stopped for a short phone call in front of our place. near Olympia. I really appreciated the photos of your school. I long for the adventures you are having. I was in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone back in the 1970’s and taught in the Alaskan Arctic before statehood so I fear my adventures are in the past ( at age 88).

    Say Hi to Greg and Kim for me————Sandy Sinclair


    • So good to hear from you, Sandy! Greg and Kim speak about you fondly and have mentioned your name to me before. They (deservedly) have much respect for you. Thanks for reading the blog, and I will definitely pass greetings to them!


  3. When we have Grandma here – I will be sure to have her read this… She will be pleased – I think… I have laughed over this a couple of times before commenting (“and I will call them George”) caused a whole series of snurffles…. I have a photo of the kids, the luggage at JFK… You really needed your own aircraft…Sounds like you are all doing well in this new assignment…Understand that Adrian might need a new set of darts… All the best at this new place and since you and Sarah are teaching Middle School munchkins…you have my deepest sympathy (any wonder why I insisted on teaching high school??).


  4. John, I love reading your stuff. What an incredible adventure! I have to say though, the cats are absolutely gorgeous and definitely an asset! Summer in the Hudson Valley has been very pastoral; from picking 60 lbs of cherries (and pitting them!), 23 + qts. of blueberries, bowls of strawberries and raspberries and now the less glamorous but still tasty tomatoes and other veges. I really like the turn toward locally produced foods, including wine and beer. The market is growing all the time. Our travels are often just to see our kids and grandkids (in Colorado, Maui and Texas–the latter being a place we would only go to visit special relatives!) Though we have cooked up a first ever McDonald family reunion in Costa Rica, at a lodge in the jungle, accessible only by small plane and iffy dirt road. Looking forward to it! I’ve been spending more time writing, and being semi retired now gives me more freedom to finally tell it like it is rather than tone things down to keep contracts, a game I tired of playing. The whole field of environmental protection is in such need of a major shift toward activism! I am continually appalled at the damage we are mindlessly, as a species, inflicting on the natural world. I really enjoy linked in because it gives me an opportunity to talk to people who are similarly concerned, all over the world. Makes me feel less isolated. My book on water protection (Connecting the Drops, publi. by Cornell Univ. Press in July) is doing well so far, and I have the next one in the planning stage. I do love writing because there is no limit to where you can go. Of course then there are people like you who have no limit to where you can go anyway! I think your adventures are amazing, and your kids will surely benefit for the rest of their lives. Cheers and love to you and Sarah!– Karen
    ps are you on Facebook? How can I send you photos?


    • Hi, Karen-
      Thanks for reading and signing up for following the blog! Glad to hear all is well and you have had the opportunity to enjoy the environment around you. You have quite the choice in visiting family/reconnecting with the kids! Enjoy Costa Rica- I’ve taken school groups there for years while working in the States and its terrific place to vacation. I’m not on Facebook but Sarah is- you can catch up to us there.
      For my readers, here’s a link to Karen’s book on water protection:

      Thanks again, Karen! Hope to hear from you again soon!


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