Before this year, my knowledge of Calabar had been limited to stereotypes and historical legends. The legends, especially, have kept me in a distant admiration of the city. School textbooks carry a fact about a Scottish missionary, Mary Slessor, who stopped the killing of twins in Calabar. Calabar is also the first capital city of Nigeria.
Stereotypes about Calabar abound, and some seem plausible. Stories of fattening rooms, eating of dogs, and most curious and interesting – the sexual prowess of its voluptuous women, are etched in our cultural consciousness of the city. Notwithstanding, they feel distant to me as a resident of Lagos - Nigeria’s commercial capital whose chaotic existence makes other Nigerian cities feel like vacation spots.
I traveled to Calabar for a presentation, and while in the Arik plane, I recalled some of the stereotypes and hoped to confirm them. Alongside was another team member who was strangely waiting to experience Calabar’s dishes – another of the city’s cultural peculiarities. I don’t quite have a love for food so I had no expectations regarding it.
The tendency to exaggerate details of a travel experience is part of the foibles of traveling. In this case, I’m subconsciously comparing my experience with where I was coming from. Untarred roads and filthy gutters mark the streets of Lagos – a strange and energetic city with a baffling and uneven distribution of everything! Lagos seems pretentious. It’s at once unruly and admirably infectious. Its familiar noise, untamable restlessness and hustle are strikingly different from what I was experiencing.
By Nigerian standard, Calabar is clean. It’s unbelievable. The traveler’s eyes are at once startled: Is this still Nigeria? Its trappings feel as though a meticulous urban painting has suddenly come alive. Well, with minor flaws. The roads are wider, trees with flamboyant branches line the streets, and there are huge spaces between gutters and fences.
On the way to our presentation, I noticed the general ease around business. We run around in Lagos. In Calabar, folks take it in strides. They obey traffic lights like kids will obey school rules. Only on one occasion did we notice an unruly driver jolt pass a red light. There’s a Lagos in him.
The presentation was over. Enough time to eat outside of the hotel and explore the city. Finding a good food spot was an excursion. Streets lead to old colonial buildings. Business districts beam with the energy of traders. Children run around, dodging cart pushers and road bumps. The multiple shot feature of the iPhone comes handy as the driver meanders past landmarks. Calabar is littered with landmarks.
We had asked the taxi driver to take us to a good food spot. Dude just said rather smugly, “errrm, I don’t know anywhere. I don’t eat outside. My wife cooks so I go home for lunch.” We exchange a look and tried to suppress the shock.
We found a place anyway. Good, good, good food.
In the evening, we went to a vibrant corner of the city. Huge speakers belch with familiar street pop songs. Suya and fresh fish sizzle from a corner and shop attendants shuffle around with trays of beers and peppersoup. Joints are the same everywhere.
A chatty driver takes us back to the hotel. Dude suspected we were new in town and offered to take us around if we were ready for a later-night rendezvous. That won’t be possible. Not with bodies already heavy with ethanol. We turned down the offer. Dude persisted, “Oga, lemme take you to where you will get good Calabar girls.”
Time’s up. The memories of new sights, food, cheap Shawarma, funny drivers weigh on the plane shipping us back. From the window sit, Calabar thins away under huge white clouds.