Welcome to Niger
Niger was at the tail end of this three-week, sixteen-country African expedition. You could say it was the last country in Africa-Africa; it was my last stop before heading north to Morocco, where I’d ferry across the Straight of Gibraltar to catch my flight home from Madrid. It had been an amazing trip.
For all accounts, Niger, to me, was underwhelming. So far this month, I’d seen the exciting (Somalia), the bizarre (Equatorial Guinea), the incredible (Sudan), the gorgeous (Eritrea), the fun (Benin); and just about everything in between. Niger for me, was just kind of blah. It could have been me; maybe I was just too tired. Or maybe blame it on my guide, who had the personality of a prune…but there wasn’t anything memorable about Niger…at least for me, on my trip. It’s a strong possibility I simply didn’t “do” Niger right. Who knows?
The only thing that left a real impression for me was the hotel. This wasn’t just any hotel: this was a grand, luxurious, attractive, Chinese hotel. The Soluxe Niamey was owned by the Chinese, featured a Chinese staff (in addition to locals), served Chinese food, and housed Chinese guests. I was baffled. Why all the Chinese in Niger?
Hong Kong Phooey
I knew there were Chinese in Africa. I’ve witnessed, first hand, the Chinese infiltrate Africa and just about every other nook and cranny in world (including Nauru), but not to the level of what I witnessed at the Soluxe. They had their own hotel…and this wasn’t some motel or Chinese version of a Howard Johnson’s…this place was a palace, with marble floors and gold accents. I was baffled and befuddled. Along with the Chinese guests, were Americans, too. What were they doing here??? I had to get to the bottom of this. But first, sleep. I had a red-eye the next night, so I used my time wisely: a meal at the big restaurant there and then some shut eye. Jeeze, I’d never felt a mattress so hard. I actually prefer a firm bed, but this one felt like wood. Instead of a “bounce” when I finally threw myself down on the bed, it was a thud. Great.
The next morning, at breakfast, I couldn’t stand it anymore, my curiosity got the best of me. What were the Americans doing here? I walked over to a table of two gringos. These rednecks looked like they were straight out of Duck Dynasty. My attempt to chat them up went nowhere, and when I asked them what was the industry that brought Americans here, they didn’t tell me; rather they simply shrugged me off and pleaded the fifth.
“No muhfuggas, I mean what are you doing here?” I wanted to blurt out. “Why the heck are you here???” But of course I didn’t say that. Instead, I awkwardly ended the one-sided discussion by saying, “I find this place interesting,” to which one of them muttered, as I walked away, “There’s nothing interesting about this place.” Dicks.
I met my driver at 9AM and he certainly wasn’t the warmest either. Our 90-minute drive out of town, to the giraffe park, was spent mostly in silence. We listened to his playlist of Justin Bieber and Jennifer Lopez…on repeat. After 45 minutes I wanted to stab by ears with a pencil.
I did enjoy the scenery on the way—we passed some very cool little villages, complete with mud walls and thatched roofs. The highway ran along side the railroad tracks, which I surmised weren’t in use anymore: various materials were piled up on the tracks along the way. Villagers used the rails as benches to sit on. My guide later told me that the rail system was new–and shut down shortly after starting. I wonder what the story was there. I liked seeing all the goats and donkeys. I saw a camel with supplies piled on his back ten feet high.
After what seemed liked hours, we finally reached this “giraffe park,” where I paid an entrance fee and then we drove some more; off-road for about fifteen minutes, now with a park guide who had joined us in the car. We finally reached an area with some giraffes and other visitors, where we parked and exited the car. Then we looked at some giraffes. From 1,000 feet away. Then left.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Skip the giraffe park. Maybe it was my guide, but driving 90 minutes to look at eight giraffes from 1,000 feet away isn’t my idea of fun. In hindsight, I should’ve asked if we could come closer. This trip was a waste of time. I’d have rather just returned to Kisumu, where I could walk right up to the giraffes.
Thankfully I clocked in a few minutes of snooze time on the long drive home. Back in town, I told my guide I’d rather skip the river cruise that I’d originally asked for. I doubted a boat ride here could even come close to my visit to the Ganvie water village the day before, so why even waste the time. Yes, I was a little grumpy at this point, can you tell? I yearned to just go back to the Chinese hotel, where I could watch TV and get on WiFi. And nap!
I asked my driver for a quick tour around town, and you guessed it, that was disappointing too. Boy, I probably sound like an entitled prick, but there just wasn’t anything enjoyable about my time in Niamey. I certainly don’t hold this against the people of Niger—I’m sure they’re great—I just didn’t find myself enjoying this country the way I’d enjoyed others on this trip. And that’s my problem, not Niger’s. I’m sure there was more to do, see and experience—I just didn’t get to it.
Nappin’ in Niger
I popped a sleeping pill and enjoyed two naps the remainder of the day—I needed to fully recharge for the red-eye that would bring me into Casablanca the next morning at 6AM. I didn’t want to be so tired that I would sleep my only day in Morocco away.
A fellow extreme traveler named Giannis arrived in town that night and we met for dinner at the hotel and exchanged travel stories. At the time of this writing, Giannis was at 184 countries—just nine away from completing all 193. He’d had a much rougher last two weeks than I, and just hearing his stories of missed flights, overland travel, constant bribes on the road and lack of sleep made me feel grateful for my pretty-comfy last two weeks.
A young man named Omar, from the hotel, drove me to the airport that night at 12:30AM. He was super-friendly and very talkative. I think I learned more on that 20-minute trip to the airport than I did all day. Thanks Omar, and later, Niger!
To be Fair
I knew that it just might’ve been “me;” that my particular set of circumstances and timing might have just been off. Sure enough, moments after publishing this article, I heard from a friend of mine and fellow traveler that had a great experience in Niger. Here was his summary:
I wandered around town and had a few meals overlooking the Niger River at the Grand Hotel. In the evening, a seemingly endless stream of large bats flies overhead — there were many thousand every night. Did a pirogue ride to see hippos, which was underwhelming, but it also included a visit to a village on an island where the kids were very excited to have a visitor. Four or five kids holding my hands at once while showing me around town. And not one of them asked for a cadeau (gift). And then, the giraffes. It sounds like my experience was similar to yours: Drive to an area where there are 6-8 giraffes. Stop the car and get out to watch them. It wasn’t the best wildlife experience I’ve had, but I still quite enjoyed it.
And now…the REST of the (Insta)Story!
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