Travel At The Mercy of Strangers

about that awful flight

On the road, you are at the mercy of strangers. And when you get lost in a strange country with strong winds trying to drive you against the wall, and with temperatures well below zero, well, it is pure nightmare stuff. I can’t imagine what it’s like for those travel because their lives depend on it, with no money for airbnb or taxis, with no Google Maps to guide them, those who end up being hunted down as ‘illegal travelers’.

I landed in The Netherlands on a cold morning late in January of 2018, mostly to attend the inaugural edition of Other Futures, which brought together some of the biggest non-White names in science fiction and fantasy today. It was not a pleasant flight. I sat next to a Norwegian who could not shut up. He had such with a thick accent that I never understood half of what he said. I nodded and laughed along out of politeness. Whenever I pretended to sleep, he would tap my shoulder to tell me this or that. Whenever I plugged in earphones to watch a movie, he would keep yapping. Effing sod. Worse, another man a few rows away snored so loudly that at first we thought the engine had a problem. The airhostess gave him coffee to keep him awake, because everyone was cursing, but he got angry. “It’s my right to sleep!” he told the airhostess. “Give them earplugs if my snoring bothers them!”

boat river amsterdam haarlem
A boat on the banks of a river in Haarlem, near Amsterdam. I love small boats.

the smiley immigration officer

So when I landed in Schiphol airport, I was very grumpy.

Now, a visa does not guarantee an African entry into Europe. You need hotel reservation and return air-ticket and whatever document to prove you won’t stay forever. Never travel without a hard copy of these, but me, being me, I never print anything. I use digital copies. Alas, this time I forgot to download the docs from my email. I tried to connect to the airport Wi-Fi, but for it was not working. I could not prove to the immigration guy that I did not intend to stay in The Netherlands forever.

“Go into that office,” the immigration man told me.

An armed officer led me into the said office, where I met a smiley young man. His smile did not reassure me. I expected rough treatment, like the kind I got at Charles de Gaulle airport.

“So you are a filmmaker?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied. “I’m going to Rotterdam.”

“You have a film showing there?”

“No,” I replied. “Just visiting.”

“What proves you are a filmmaker?”

Trying hard to stay calm, I powered up my laptop and showed him the trailer of Her Broken Shadow. He watched it in silence, then smiled.

“Now, we are going to keep you here until we have watched all your films,” he said. I gave him a furious look, and he quickly added, chuckling in apology; “I’m just joking. Your film is good. Remember us when you become famous.”

And he stamped my passport and let me go. It was so easy I for a moment thought he was pulling a trick on me. I almost protested, I almost asked him to first harass me, then I would believe that he was really letting me go. Hesitant, I walked away, frowning at the cops. But he had really let me go, that easily.

Did I really have to go through all that? I thought he was nice, that he went out of his way to make me comfortable. Compared to Charles de Gaulle, this was something like friendly banter between two strangers. But did I even have to go through all that?

a young female student hosts me

Whenever I have to pay for my own accommodation, I couchsurf for free lodging. In France I stayed with a kind family in the French Riviera, in a town called St Rapheal. In Lagos I stayed with a young man and his brother. I could have done it for this trip if I had months to plan. My hotel during Other Futures was assured, but not in Rotterdam. I had to use Airbnb.

One of my hosts was a Chinese (or was it Taiwanese?) student in her early twenties. Her rates were cheap. Very cheap. Of course, I frowned when I her age and sex, but I thought I’d have a separate room to myself (which is how she had advertised), and her place had an elevator, a very rare thing in the old residential buildings of The Netherlands. In fact, of all airbnb places I stayed in while there, it was the only one with an elevator.

When I arrived at her apartment, in a block made for students, she was not present. She had left her keys in a locker downstairs, and I let myself in. I was confused to find it had only one room, a section of which was the kitchen, and only one bed. Actually, she had no bed. Her mattress was on the floor. I got uncomfortable. Then I thought that maybe she’d spend the nights I had booked to stay with her elsewhere. Surely, she wouldn’t want to share a room with a strange man.

She returned home at about 9pm, and said we would sleep in the same room. I thought she’d be uncomfortable, her being a young girl in her early twenties, me being, well, a man just turned 40, but she was okay with it. “Of course I checked you out in airbnb,” she said. “You have good reviews. I knew I could trust you.”

It was too late for me to leave, so she cooked me a meal and we talked, about life, about school. She wanted to see my films, so I showed her What Happened in Room 13. She freaked out when the sex scene came on, and I could see fear in her eyes. Those Airbnb reviews would not save her, would it? “Look,” I said quickly, scrolling to later parts of the film to show her it was not porn. “That scene is only for a few seconds,” I added. She sighed in relief.

Sleeping time came, and I thought we were going to share the mattress. I was very tense, a bit excited and a bit scared, but that did not happen. She had a sleeping bag. She crawled into it and let me have the mattress.

red bicycle amsterdam
A red bicycle on a bridge somewhere in Amsterdam. It is very much a bicycle city.

the old man who did a ‘Get Out’ on me

I checked out the next day because I didn’t want to sleep on the floor, and because I wanted a private room to myself, which I got in another part of Rotterdam. Getting there was a nightmare. I didn’t know how to purchase a train ticket in the small station, where everything was automated and there was no railway person to help. People passed me by, ignoring my pleas for help. I got depressed. It was cold, and the icy wind was blowing right through my jacket.

An Arab woman eventually showed me how to purchase a ticket using my visa card. I jumped on the train, and got off at the right station, following Google Maps. I walked for nearly half an hour, dragging my heavy suitcase and fighting against the strong, very cold winds. The wind was so strong that I feared it would blow me away.

I got lost. Google Maps told me I’d reached, yet I was in the middle of a car park, with the nearest building over a hundred meters away. That f***! moment.

I was wary of what happened to me in Berlin, when I got lost tried asking for directions, but people thought I was a beggar. Still, I had no options. I was tired of walking with heavy luggage and the wind was tearing my face apart. I went to the nearest building where a man was repairing a door. He knew no English. Instead of replying me, he disappeared into the house and an old man with all gray-hair came out.

Surprisingly, the old man invited me in. He showed me such kindness that I had never experienced in Europe. He gave me tea, but refused to give me his Wi-Fi password. Instead, he called my airbnb host to find out my host’s address. Google maps was off by at least two miles.

“I’ll take you there,” he said. He had a car. I hesitated. Would he ask me to pay? White people are not supposed to show such kindness to travelling Africans. For a moment it felt like I was somewhere in rural Uganda (you know how we are good at giving directions, how getting lost turns into a socializing experience).

We set off. We talked. He had just moved into this house, which was on the ground floor, because of a bad knee. He had to give up a house he had lived in with his wife for over forty years, because he could not climb stairs anymore.

We reached my host’s place. “Don’t use the front door,” he said. “The front door is for strangers. The backdoor is for friends.”

This was their custom. If someone rang the front doorbell, it would most likely be a postman, or some such profession, but the back doorbell ringing would indicate a neighbor, or a friend. I did not know which way to go, for I was a stranger to this airbnb host, so the old man said, “If in doubt, use the front door.”

I could not check into the airbnb place until after 1pm, so I only dropped off my luggage. Now, the train station was a twenty minute drive away, but the old man continued with his kindness. “Don’t worry, you are a stranger in need of help. I’ll take you to the station.”

I still could not believe it. An old white man being so kind to an African traveler?

“I’ve never known this kindness in Europe,” I finally said.

“I’m a Christian,” he replied. An evangelist, a pastor in charge of the area. He had been preaching and winning souls to Christ all his life, though he had never left The Netherlands.

Now, it all made sense to me.

At the train station, he prayed for me, asking God to protect me. He put his hands on my knees as he prayed. I was polite enough not to object, for he had been so kind. And yet, the feel of his hand on my knees made me uncomfortable. I could not figure out why.

The next day, I developed a sharp pain on my knee, right where he had touched. All through my stay in The Netherlands, my knee hurt. So bad. I couldn’t walk about to explore the cities. I could not understand this strange knee pain. Curiously, it stopped hurting the moment I stepped out of the plane in Entebbe, and at that a moment, I begun to fear that the old man had done a ‘Get Out’ on me. He had transferred his bad knee to me, but our people say juju can’t cross water….

Now that you are here, I have a small favor to ask. I regularly make science fiction short films and I’m looking for your support. It’s very difficult to make it as a filmmaker in Africa, where there is virtually no market to encourage big film investments, and so any dollar you can spare will go a long way into changing things. Please pledge on You only pay after I make the film, and you can stop payments at anytime. For other options, like donating via mobile money or PayPal, please go here

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4 thoughts on “Travel At The Mercy of Strangers”

  1. Europe and visas. They should be honest and always tell us we’re at the mercy of whatever mood or power trip the immigration officer is having that day too. I’m glad the young man wasn’t an ogre towards you. 🙂

    • Oh yes, he was surprisingly nice. But still the visa trauma makes you hesitate to visit that continent. Every time I get an invite, I first sigh, then brace myself, then comfort myself with whatever reason I’m traveling there for….. 🙂

  2. I think you had me at the point when they said they were to keep you until they watched all the movies.The kindness of the strangers moved my heart!Can’t wait to keep up with all these adventures.

    • Hihihi thanks Patsy. Hope you enjoy the coming ones too……. The guy also had me at that point, I was ready to throw the laptop at him.


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