Travel Blues

Sometimes, when travelling, you pray for something to go slightly wrong, not to derail your holiday or make it a horror, but just wrong enough to provide excitement and thrill on a very long and boring trip. For me, I’ve encountered all kinds of wrong. There were times when the journey was more exciting than the destination, and times when the journey was such a pain that I wished they could invent teleportation machines.

The call of the road. Here I was in Saptari district, eastern Nepal
The beauty of documentary film making is you travel. In Surkhet, western Nepal, filming in the mountains.
In March of this year, I traveled to Nairobi for business, and to check out the enchanted places of Western Kenya. I picked Mash Poa because I thought it was the coolest bus, fully air-conditioned, with enough leg room for a tall person like me to enjoy fourteen hours on the road. I was wrong. I’ll never take that effing bus again. Never.
At the border, I delayed in a long queue at immigration and the bus drove off without me. Just like that. I was shocked and angry. Why would they drive off without me? In April 2015, I was in CDG Airport, Paris, stuck in a very long queue, until officials of Turkish Air came looking for their passengers. They talked to migration officers to let us jump the queue, and we took off, a little late, but no one was left behind. I’ve seen it happen a lot in airports. I expected Mash Poa to do the same since they charged a lot more than ordinary buses, especially since it was two am. They did not. They just took off and left me stranded in the middle of the road in the middle of the night. 

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They left with my phone and my luggage. I had to awake a Mash Poa official in Busia, who then made several phone calls to the driver, who told me to find my luggage in Nairobi. So I jumped on the next available bus and did not get to Nairobi until midday. Guess what, the Mash Poa bus had not yet arrived! They had a mechanical fault. I sat idle all day waiting for it, for my phone and all my luggage was in it. Mash Poa is certainly not cool!
Queuing at Charles de Gualle airport, Paris
That time at Charles de Gualle Airport, I spent over two hours going through racist security (see below) and then passport control. It officially made CDG the worst airport I’ve ever visited, worse than Murtala Muhammed in Lagos, and certainly worse than Moroto airstrip. I thought the long queues were a freak occurrence, but on the way out, I suffered three long queues, one to get a boarding pass (I guess that was a Turkish Air problem) then to get through Passport Control. Half of the booths were empty. Was it understaffed? Unluckily, after over thirty minutes of queuing, when I nearly reached the booth the security guy took a break. He just got up and left. No one replaced him. We had to suffer a longer time at the queue. No wonder the Turkish Air flight was stuck for almost an hour on the runway, not for any technical problem but because the lines at passport control and security were ridiculously long. 
In March 2015, I had to go to South Africa. Being caught up in making a TV series, I asked a travel agent to book my ticket and arrange my travel. They sent me the ticket. The flight was to take off from Entebbe at 7 am, so I was at the airport by 4 am. Yet I could not board. The agent had booked the ticket, but not paid for it, yet I had given him the money. I made frantic calls, but he was asleep and his phone was off. I didn’t have enough cash to pay for the ticket, so well, I had to go back home looking like a fool.
The beauty of the airport in Addis Ababa
A few months later, I was travelling to Cannes Film Festival on a government sponsored trip. They arranged my flight, booked me on British Airways without telling me that I needed a transit visa to go through London. I stupidly did not double check this, but I was held up on a job, shooting the making of Queen of Katwe. I dashed from the set, dumped my equipment at home, and went straight to the airport, only for BA to tell me I can’t board without a transit visa. I raised hell, but they wouldn’t hear me. Eventually, I paid with cash for a Turkish Airways ticket, otherwise my program at Cannes, with all the meetings I’d set up, would be screwed. The government people assured me my money would be refunded, since BA issues a refund if the ticket is not checked in, but to date I’ve not seen the refund.
This is me, aboard Ethiopian.
From Cannes I flew to Johannesburg to continue filming behind the scenes of Queen of Katwe. At OR Tambo immigration wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t have a return ticket. They threatened to deport me to Turkey. “I’m not Turkish!” I protested. “You can’t deport me to Turkey!” The guy simply shrugged and said “You arrived from Istanbul, that’s where we’ll send you back.” They took me to a cell awaiting deportation, unless I produced a return ticket. I made frantic calls to the QoK team and they issued a return ticket to Kampala. Then there was another problem. It was electronic. I didn’t have internet access. “What a stupid excuse,” an immigration officer told me. “You are going to be deported.” At a loss of what to do, I asked if I could use their computers to access my mails. After a lot of pleading, one of them said “Kitu kidogo” and then a phrase in Kiswahili that I did not understand. I was surprised that he knew kitu kidogo. How did he know Kiswahili? I paid fifty dollars for three minutes at the most expensive internet café I’ve ever used.
I loved the road in Nepal. There was always fun and pain.
Here I was in Dhangadi town, far west Nepal.
A roadside market in Kapilbastu, western Nepal.
I loved the road trips!
My worst travel nightmare was in Paris, at Charles de Gualle, where I suffered outright racism. A few other people have told me they had similar experiences at that airport. I went there early in April 2015, to present a paper at a workshop,  Manufacture/Domestication of the Living in Science Fiction, at Le Cube.I’d just been on a long flight, after staying up all night because take off was at 4 am. All I wanted was a bed, but this security woman took a long look at my passport and then said, “This passport is very old.”
I gave her my best smile. “Yes,” I replied. “I got it in 2008. I use it a lot. It has to be old.”
“Stand aside,” she said. “For verification.” And she shoved the passport into her pockets.
Verification? Because my passport is old?
I was too shocked and too tired to ask, but maybe something on my face betrayed what I was thinking, for she suddenly stood on her toes (being short, she wanted to be on eye level with me, as if the gun on her waist wasn’t intimidating enough) and her eyes glowed with a wild fire.
Train travel in Europe is said to be less stressful.
“You disobeying me?” She shouted.
That’s when I noticed something strange. A group of Africans (or people of African descent) where huddled in a corner beside the door, their faces haggard and creased with frustration. One man, three women. There were three security people, one woman, two men, and they let Europeans pass without so much as a second glance at their passports. Now the other two security men saw my hesitation, and maybe they thought they had a situation in their hand that could get ugly, for they all turned to me, and one said, while placing a hand on his gun, “Wait over there, sir.” In that funny French accent.
I went to the corner beside the door. I kicked the wall to vent my anger. Unfortunately for me, the wall was of steel, so the loud bang that followed – I panicked. A loud bang in a place with tense soldiers is a very bad thing. I held the wall to stop it from making noise, but of course this was no sci-fi and I had no superpower, I couldn’t take back the noise. It was sharp and it must have drilled holes into the ears of the security guys. I at once put my hands up, in surrender, even though they had not asked me to, for I knew they would pull out their guns. The hall froze. Everyone stared at me. The security woman walked up to me, and again stood on her toes to look straight into my eyes, “You want trouble?” she said. “You want to make trouble?”
“No,” I said, surprised at how calm my voice was, though inside my heart was on fire. For nearly a minute she kept asking if I wanted to make trouble and I kept saying no, all the time praying that my nerves hold and I don’t start trembling, or worse that I don’t pee my pants.

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Eventually, the other two men spoke to her in French, they exchanged a few words, and went back to their work. They checked the passports of all those who had just stepped out of planes, and let white Europeans go, and detained a few more Africans. They harassed one Arab-looking woman, who had a hijab. They wanted to see her ears and her hair. She had a French passport. She spoke to them in French, she was smiling all the time, while they glowered and seemed to be barking. The big smile never left her face. Eventually they told her to stand aside too. After nearly forty minutes, when there were no more white people passing by, the security woman went with the smiling Arab woman somewhere, and they returned shortly afterwards. They let her go. I think the Arab woman had insisted on removing her hijab in a private room.
Now, they surely had to ‘verify’ our passports, and finally let us go. By this time my legs were on fire, my blood was boiling in anger and in frustration, and I knew what these security people were doing was highly wrong. I ached to take their picture. Why did they single out only African (and three Arab-looking) people? What was going on?
To make it worse, I thought they would take our passports to some machines for verification, which is what machines are for, but the three hurdled in a corner, and leafed through our passports, and they talked to themselves, they even giggled, then called us one at a time. I got the courage to take out my phone, and take a picture of what was happening, I wanted to complain to someone.
Unfortunately for me, the security woman stepped quickly to me. I was too busy with the phone to notice her until I held up the phone camera and she filled the screen. I nearly pressed the shutter button, but instead went for cancel. Lucky for me, I hadn’t pulled out my DSLR as I’d at first intended to.
“Are you taking my picture?” she started her show again, barking, standing on her toes, trying to look intimidating, but by this time I wasn’t scared of her. I knew I was on the right and whatever she was doing was wrong, so I said “No, I didn’t take your picture” at the same time thanking God for giving me a stupid Alcatel phone which is too slow. I cut her shot. I gave her the phone. “Check and see if your picture is there.”
Passengers wait for their flights at Ataturk Airport, Istanbul
Now she must have realized her show was for nothing. She couldn’t continue shouting. She took my phone, but the idiot didn’t even know how to check for photos, so she handed it back without a word, and then I wished I had taken that pic.
She asked for my hotel reservation, and return ticket, then she said, “Go.”
Always ask for the window seat, and you will enjoy these sites!
My anger came to the surface. “You made us wait all this time just so you ask for a hotel reservation and a return ticket?”
But the only word she said was “Go,” without the bravado she had exhibited earlier.
Had they held us behind because they did not want to waste the time of white Europeans, or was this harassment, pure and simple?
She was already walking away from me, and I felt helpless and furious and I wanted to kick her butt. Instead, my legs reminded me of how tired I was, so I hurled at her a few words in Kiswahili, involving her pussy and bhangi. She stopped and turned back to me, but maybe thought that whatever abuse I’d hurled at her didn’t matter since she didn’t understand it. If she had, she would have pulled out that gun and shot me.
“Terrorism,” a Parisian told me when I later narrated to him the ordeal. “After that Charlie Hebdo incident, the security forces are jittery. They don’t want to be caught napping again, but instead of looking for the real terrorists they are harassing innocent people who they think are weaker than they are. It’s just like the boys at school who tease younger ones yet are themselves teased by older bullies. But it doesn’t make sense to target out Africans and Arabs because Paris has a large population of those, and there are people who’ve been here for generations. It doesn’t make sense at all.”
That’s how the terrorists win. They sow doubt and suspicion and xenophobia and racism and they make the world a worse place, not by what they do but by how we react to what they do.
See what I said about window seats? I saw the Himalayas!
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