Two nights Niger. I wasn’t overly excited about my brief trip to Niamey, Niger. I arrived late at night to the Diori Hamani International Airport via a direct flight from Algiers. I passed immigration without any obstacles except for a brief argument with a gentleman who tried to cut the line. As I waited for my luggage, I sweltered watching the lazy carousel. Exiting the dingy airport, I was met by a scrum of gadflies and touts. I spied my driver gripping a sign with my name. I wiggled myself through the crowd and slid into my driver’s car. We weaved through the streets of Niamey, mostly bathed in darkness.
Niger is a country of 20 million people yet it is twice the size of California. Niger is a predominantly Muslim country. The average Nigerien makes 98.48% less than the average American. That works out to $434 a year. Landlocked Niger declared independence from France in 1960. It is a dusty and hot place.
Niger has been in the news quite a bit (October 2017). Four US Green Berets lost their loves working with the Nigerien government to fight against Islamic extremists. It is reported that 1,000 US troops are currently stationed in the country. Niger sits at the crossroads of African instability. In the north Libya is in the midst of civil war, Mali in some regions has been overrun by Islamic terrorists, and parts of Nigeria are controlled by Boko Haram. This is the US State Department’s Travel Warning from April 11, 2017. Not to reassuring.
The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Niger due to terrorist activity, kidnappings and high crime. The Department recommends U.S. citizens avoid travel to Niger’s border regions, particularly the Malian border area, Diffa region and Lake Chad Basin area because of activity by extremist groups including al-Qa’eda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham – Islamic State West Africa, and Boko Haram. Due to security concerns and travel restrictions, the U.S. Embassy’s ability to assist U.S. citizens in remote and rural areas is very limited
My driver deposited me at the Djoliba Lodge, an oasis found in the capital of Niamey. Darkness hung over the compact high-walled compound. The Lodge founded and run by a French expat built it in a traditional style. I arrived to my room and cranked the AC, trying to fight off the heat, as I drifted off to sleep.
Djoliba Lodge was comfortable, clean, and secure but it was not cheap. I was not happy with the price of $102 a night. And the airport pick up was $18 at night time. Again, I felt this price did not have any relationship to the actual cost in Niger. But, there were few options for a traveler in the city, and the lodge was recommended to me by another traveler.
Niamey is not overflowing with tourist activities. And to that fact, I did not meet any other tourists during my short trip there. TripAdvisor lists a whopping nine Things To Do in Niamey, a city of nine million. After lounging in my room, I decided to take a spin around my neighborhood. The heat smacked me in the face, it was 107 degrees, and that was to be one of the cooler days that week. Many of the streets were unpaved … the roads were dusty sand and clay. I managed to find a working ATM and then a corner store to buy a couple bottles of water.
While researching Niger, I discovered the W National Park. I began to communicate with Niger Travel and Tours, a local provider, to arrange a trip. I was quoted $700 for a day trip to the park! I was a bit stunned. Is the W Park three times better than the Serengeti or Masai Mara? I quickly tabled the thought of exploring outside of the capital. It was quite evident why Niger only receives 135,000 visitors a year. Who wants to visit at these inflated prices? In contrast, France receives 230,000 visitors a day.
And unfortunately Niger also does not offer a visa on arrival. To obtain my visa, I sent my passport from Bangkok to Niger’s embassy in Washington DC. The fee for the visa is $155, plus another $80 in shipping costs. That adds up pretty quickly.
I arrived at Terminus Hotel on foot which was about a 15 minute walk from my hotel and found the Restaurant Toukounia. This was an expat restaurant. Well-dressed Nigeriens huddled around tables discussing business deals. Groups of young Europeans working for NGOs discussed solving Niger’s economic challenges. I enjoyed the AC and munched on an uninspiring lunch. The highlight was quaffing a chilly Biere Niger. The label alone was a cool highlight of my visit.
The Niger River cuts through Niamey. The owner arranged a boat ride for the late afternoon. The boat captain picked me up at the lodge and I hopped on the back of his motorcycle as we headed off to the river. We snaked down on a dirt road that traced the river. I watched the life huddled on the banks.
I hopped onto the longboat. Two pre-teen boys managed the motor. The owner perched himself on the bow. He made slight movements, gesturing to the boys to direct the boat in the shallow water. We motored around for a couple of hours as the sun dipped down. Other boats motored by, kids splashed in the water, people BBQed on the banks, and even a couple of hippopotami were in the mix.
The next morning, my driver Alassane, who had picked me up at the airport was now at the lodge to take me on a “city tour”. We had the typical challenges of two people travelling together who don’t speak the same tongue. Alassane spoke French, and my vocabulary started and ended at “ou es la piscine?”.
As mentioned before, there is a dearth of landmarks in Niamey. The air was thick with heat, and the streets overflowed with people getting on with their lives. Everything seemed to be covered in a thin coating of red dust. We visited a couple of markets, a livestock market, and the Grand Mosque. I noted the grinding poverty. As I strolled through the vast Grand Market, I was greeted by scowls as I made my way through the passages. I was met with few smiles, and was yelled at several times for carrying a camera. It was difficult to take photos and I was hesitant to life the camera to my face. The tour came to an end, and I packed up for my flight to Ouagadougou.
I was not sad to be leaving Niamey. Two nights Niger.