I grew up on a poultry farm. My father was a specialist breeder of Light Sussex and Brown Leghorn stock. I was raised on eggs, but I never ate chicken, at least not if I could avoid it. I clearly remember when I was small and poked my head around my mother at the kitchen sink, just as she was up to her elbow in a chicken, removing its entrails, before she burned them on the kitchen fire, always causing quite a stink; that was the first of my many vegetarian moments on the farm.
I never had an omelette when I lived at home. They were not a part of my mother´s standard cuisine; she was a traditional Irish woman who deferred to the narrow culinary demands of my very traditional English father. Omelette would have been a bit too French for my father. Six years of WW2 left him with some indelible prejudices.
I had my first omelette in Paris in 1969. I was working with Singer Sewing Machines, installing a new computer system in their French head office. My good friend and Australian colleague, Geoff Rich met me for breakfast. He ordered an omelette with bread and coffee and so did I, not knowing what it was. Delicious it turned out to be. And he played ‘Lay, lady lay’ by Bob Dylan on the jukebox. The haunting lyrics and melody still recall Paris to me. To others, it may seem rather corny today, but those were magic moments for me.
Some years later, in 1978, omelettes came back into my life in Nigeria. It was on my first day of a short-term contract in Lagos. I went to the canteen, presented my plate and received what appeared to be the greater part of a goat, with a few steamed vegetables on the side. The meat was not for me and for the rest of my stay in Nigeria, I lived on beer, cashew nuts, bought by the bottle from street vendors, and omelettes in a French restaurant near to the office, or in the Ikoyi club.
When I was later based in Paris in 1998-2007, I frequented a nearby bistro, La Frégate. The Maitre d´, Patrick, would always read out the short list of specials, ending with resignation, ‘omelette au fromage o salade mixte?‘. I really liked Patrick and I miss his conversation . A very good man and an enthusiastic rugby fan. He always said that if he could not be French, he would elect to be Irish.
In recent years, I have spent a lot of time in Spain and South America. There, the traditional omelette is called tortilla francesa to distinguish it from the Spanish version, tortilla española. The latter is in a cake-form and includes potatoes, onions, garlic in the basic version and other ingredients in regional variations. It can be served hot or cold and on cocktail sticks as tapas or in slices, usually accompanied with fresh bread. With a glass of red wine, the latter usually serves as a meal for me.
And here in Cape Town I have my local bistrôt, Cafe Extrablatt, that serves a generous omelette, french fries, toast and wine at any time of the day. And super-friendly staff that never fail to feel one at totally home.
Bob had been in Nigeria for some time when I first knew him. He was a petroleum engineer and was one of life’s enthusiasts. With his eyes wide open and a permanent grin on his face, he always looked as if he was about to have his photograph taken. He was an instantly likeable guy.
He had recently bought two adjoining cottages in England, with the intention of converting them into one residence. His wife and children were there, sorting out the building work and schools, leaving him as a temporary bachelor. He was enjoying every day to the full and he filled his week with rugby training and the occasional match, tennis, squash and a weekly challenging of all-comers to race around the circumference of the golf course. And of course all washed down with copious amounts of Star beer.
Bob had recently returned from a trip to Tanzania, to climb Mount Kilimanjaro (5895 m), together with a small group from Lagos. Unfortunately, Bob suffered from severe altitude sickness, and did not make it to the top. But not deterred, he was planning to attempt Mount Cameroon (4040 m) later in the year.
One evening at the Ikoyi club, after our second or third bottle of Star, Bob told me of his ambition of walking from Badagri, near the Benin border, along the coast to the nearest point opposite Victoria Island and Lagos. He said that it was about 60 km, but walking during the night to avoid much of the heat, it could easily be done in twenty hours. He said that he had never found anybody interested in doing it.
‘I’ll do it’, I said.
‘Are you serious?’
‘Yup, it sounds really interesting’
‘Fantastic. How about this weekend? There’s no rugby planned’.
We agreed to ask the guys at rugby training the next night to see if anybody else fancied joining us.
The next day, just as I was about to leave work, I received a summons to go to the MD’s office.
‘Come in and take a seat Mr Blackwood. I have heard that two of you are planning a rather foolish venture this weekend, to walk along the coast from Badagri to Lagos overnight. I hope you realize that the police have little jurisdiction over that area and if you get into trouble, I have no idea how you could get help.’
‘Hmmm, I would not describe it as foolish, perhaps a little adventurous. But after tonight, there will almost certainly be more than two of us, and we are all fit, so the distance should be no problem’.
‘Well I can’t stop you doing it, but I confess that I would prefer not to have known about it. It is not the sort of thing that I would fancy doing, but I wish you all good luck’.
I never did find out how he knew about our plans.
And that evening after training and before the second bottle of Star, three more volunteered to join us – Peter, with whom I shared an apartment, Dave, an auditor, and Sean, a recently arrived Irish journalist.
So on the Saturday afternoon, we all met at Bob’s apartment and his driver drove us to the beach at Badagri, and left us there.
We agreed to stay within sight and shouting distance of each other, and to have a ten minute stop every hour, the stop being initiated by whoever was in the lead at the time.
Before long it was apparent that Peter had some sort of problem; he soon fell behind and looked quite uncomfortable. At our first stop the reason became apparent; in his pack he was carrying a huge container of water, enough to fill a bath. Needless to say, he realised his mistake and most of it was dumped.
And to cool down – he was already drenched with sweat – Peter went down to the water’s edge, took off his shoes and went in to paddle in the water. Unfortunately for Peter, a huge wave broke on the shore and washed away his shoes. Some people are quite accident-prone.
Needless to say, we laughed hysterically at Peter’s misfortune, but we soon realised that Peter had no alternative than to walk the next 55 km in his bare feet.
Within the next hour the sun set, but there was a full moon, so we were not exactly stumbling along in the darkness. But the going was harder than we had anticipated. The beach was steeply shelving and in parts we had to walk along the edge of the jungle.
At around 10h00, it started to get much darker, and incredibly we realized that we were witnessing an eclipse of the moon. It was not a total eclipse, but was quite impressive.
It was not long after that we heard voices ahead of us. We had not expected to meet anybody on the beach. As far as we had known, there were no villages on the thin strip of land that we were on and that we were isolated from the mainland by a wide creek.
But there they were, perhaps twenty men, some carrying machetes. There was nothing to do but brazen it out.
It turned out that they were out hunting for turtles and were just as surprised at seeing us as we were to see them. They were very curious about us and must have thought that all white people were nuts. But they were friendly and all ended well.
In the middle of the night it started to rain, gently at first, but soon heavier. Then the thunderstorm started, but luckily we came across a couple of thatched shelters on the beach. They must have been built by weekenders, who came up the creek on their motor boats. We stayed there for about an hour, until the rain stopped.
And so the routine continued, hour after hour. The sun rose, the temperature and humidity rose, and we trudged on. Nobody spoke, we just kept walking. Walking on sloping sand is not easy and nobody wanted to know how Peter’s feet felt. We had expected to get to the end, and the ferry to Lagos, by midday, but we had lost time sheltering during the night, and our progress was slower than anticipated.
But at about 15h30 we finally spotted Lagos in the far distance and an hour later we were at the end of the beach, with ten minutes further to get to the ferry. We had made it on time.
And then potential disaster struck.
‘Where’s Peter? Has anybody seen Peter?
From where we were, the beach extended far into the distance, and as far as the eye could see, there was no sign of Peter. As there was no time to waste, I volunteered to run back and try to find him.
I set off at a steady pace and after about ten minutes, I saw in the distance what looked like a log. It turned out to be Peter, fast asleep. I woke him up and soon we were back with the others. Apparently he just stopped ‘to rest his eyes for a moment’. And his feet were fine.
With time to spare, we caught the last ferry back to Victoria Island, and were met by Bob’s driver. We went to our individual homes, showered, changed, and one hour later met again for dinner at the Ikoyi Club.
We did not say much; we were all extremely tired. We had beer and then ordered a meal. While we were waiting for the food, one by one the heads went down, sound asleep.
When the food arrived, only Dave and I were still awake.
‘Would you be interested in a twelve-month contract in Venezuela with Maraven. It used to be the Shell company in Caracas before it was nationalized?’
That was the question that I was asked by my contact at P-E International. I had just completed a project of more than a year at Shell International in London, through his company, and he knew that I had traveled a lot in South and Central America, and that I was keen to return. I was very excited by the opportunity.
‘We don’t yet have a date for the interviews, but I will find you a short term contract to tide you over until then’.
He was as good as his word, and a few days later I started a small fixed-price development project with Ford in Dagenham. It was a horrible commute from where I lived in Hampstead in north London, but I was able to do a lot of the work at home, and carry out testing in Dagenham in the evenings, when there was less traffic. I worked at least twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and completed the development in just over a month. It proved to be a quite lucrative contract.
But still there was no confirmation of the interview date, so I went on a holiday to the U.S. with the intention of returning once everything was arranged.
About two weeks later I received the notification, returned to London, interviewed and a couple of days later, was informed that I was one of two applicants that had been selected, the other one being a P-E employee. The only problem was that it would take some time for Maraven to obtain 12-month renewable work permits. The wheels of bureaucracy can turn very slowly.
But Shell was keen for the ‘technology transfer’ to take place, so I was provided with a 3-month contract, to make modifications to a Shell drilling system in Nigeria. One week later I was in Lagos.
What followed were three amazing and unforgettable months of my life.
I shared a large four-bedroom apartment on Victoria Island with another P-E employee, and I was given the use of a robust Volkswagen. The work was interesting and I was provided with membership of the Ikoyi Club, with access to its restaurant, bar, squash and tennis courts, outdoor movies etc.
I exercised every day of the week playing rugby, tennis and squash, and running in handicapped races around the perimeter of the Ikoyi Golf Club, two or three times a week. I ended up fitter than I had ever been before.
There were parties every weekend and I will always associate the Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever with Lagos; that recording was played over and over, with the exclusion of everything else.
There was a rugby match against a visiting team from Monrovia (Liberia), a trip to play Kano in the north and a seven-a-side competition.
And there was the 24-hour hike along the coast from Badagri, near the border with Benin, to Lagos, and the trip to Kainji Lake National Park in north-east Nigeria.
But they are stories for another day.
I left Lagos in early November and a few days later, via London and Los Angeles, I arrived in Caracas.
In 1987, I returned to Nigeria, as the UK Director of P-E (West Africa) Ltd, a Nigerian consulting services company.
And for the next eight years, I traveled regularly to Lagos and Port Harcourt for board meetings, visiting clients and entertaining staff.
When I left P-E International in 1996, my relationship with Nigeria came to an end. But I still retain very many warm memories of the people and the country.