I sat on the plane in the company of strangers. My co-travellers were scattered about even though the ticket attendant had promised we would be sitting together or at least close to one another. It turned out to be a lie as if with the intent, ‘Warm up to other people.’
I was flanked by two strangers – a man to my right and, a woman in her early fifties occupied my coveted window seat on the other side. The only person close by was Innocent who was seated across the aisle enjoying the company of a young woman. Kay and Kene were some rows behind me.
When breakfast was served, this man on my right disgraced all his ancestors when he requested more food on the ground that he was a Nigerian and such small food could not satisfy him.
I felt indicted.
The food was some moulded egg and a small slab of meat. It was so drab – almost tasteless – that I couldn’t tell whether it was just boiled or steamed. The hostess kindly and politely smiled, a perfect plastic cover, that seemed to say what an appetite. But she said rather that when they finish serving others she will get him extra from leftovers – if there were any.
He turned to me and laughed, ‘You know, that wasn’t amala so it cannot fill my belly.’
I impaled him with my glare.
The woman, on the other hand, had been quiet all the while until she asked me about the food. She couldn’t place what it was and just tucked the pack away in her handbag. I got to know she was returning from a business trip from Dubai. We huddled around the politeness of English in our conversation until she got to know I was a Yoruba. She was excited and said a prayer for me, ‘E ma ko ere oko dele o. E ma de ibi giga.’ You’ll return home with the profits of your travels. You’ll ascend greater heights.’ That could have been my mother in such a circumstance saying a prayer for a stranger. Most Yoruba women believe that such kindness extended to strangers will be replicated towards their children wherever they may be and will always be favoured by strangers.
She accommodated all my inconveniences henceforth like her child as I leaned on her armrest and her lap to capture the different shades of the sky. I was enchanted by the formations of the clouds. Sometimes, they were like a vast cotton field and a brilliant blue that melds into the horizon. I was documenting it in the hope I was going to write a poem or make a short film about it against the persuasion that there is usually nothing remarkable about air travel, that anything remarkable must be catastrophic or near it. It is a popular view of Paul Theroux, my patron saint of travel, which I too believed for long but was now using my travels to deconstruct.
The thing is, whether by air or by road – Albert Camus in his lifetime was motorphobic and ironically died in a car crash, or by water, which to Winston Churchill was monotonous – I have now learned it is actually how one perceives and how receptive one is. The simplest detail in a shifting landscape or skyscape can elicit the deepest emotion or mood; it can open for you that door to serenity or the idea. Tade Ipadeola was en-route India and as his flight was passing over the expanse of the Sahara Desert, he got the idea that became his celebrated poetry volume, The Sahara Testaments. So, a train ride can be as boring as sea or air travel if one is too self-contained to the subtle rhythm of the said monotony.
The quiet lull was broken by the pilot’s voice over the speaker informing us we had arrived in Lagos and were descending. The plane taxied along the runway and finally stopped. As if on cue, a passenger’s phone rang. The ringtone was the evergreen song ‘Odun Nlo S’opin’ by the CAC Good Women Association Choir. Most people that grew up in the southwest of Nigeria know the song by heart, irrespective of their religion. I grew up listening to it on the street, usually around November and December. Many Nigerians believe this period is usually fraught with mishaps and accidents. Nothing of such ever crossed my mind during the trip. The song only reminded me of how long I had been away.
Immigration was crowded when we disembarked because of the people returning for the December festive period. It is around this time Nigerians travel to celebrate the new season with their loved ones. It is a culture. The name of the man that attended to me at immigration stuck out though: Mr Otitoloju, meaning truth prevails. His name must be a sharp contrast to the happenings around him in Nigeria. We blitzed through without hassle and it was great to be back on the Lagos road even with its annoying traffic.
Now, thinking about my travels as an art of movement and transaction, I recall the Argentinean author, Luis Jorge Borges, who had a habit of visiting libraries in his childhood to read encyclopaedias. Travel, for me, is another way of engaging in this kind of learning. I often imagine travelling is like browsing through a huge library where many books on different subjects are opened before me all at once. This infinite immensity was the constant imagery in my mind as I rode in a van across landscapes, as I travelled in a speedboat, even as I sat in a plane meditating the brilliance of clouds.
To now observe the changes that had occurred to me – I had been painting the pictures of others – it was befitting that I did a self-portrait of myself. If I sum up my travels and raise it up to my face like a mirror, I wonder how much change they must have impressed on my face. In this mirror: I am a blonde in cornrows because I bleached my hair in Yaoundé and braided it in Goma; I can see my face knitted in that professorial brood accentuated by months of untamed beard and moustache and; I can see very faint creases across my forehead like the roads I have journeyed.
If I should take a pose and linger before this mirror, I wonder how much has or hasn’t changed in me: I can see episodes flitting before me as prints from a camera. In the first print, I was flirting with Trinity, a Rwandan immigration staff attending to me at the Kivu border before her nuisance of a boss soured my mood by trying to frustrate our entry back into the country. I can see another print frozen in mid-action where I was gesticulating animatedly to punctuate my talk. The travels brought out the pedant in me, for sure, to the dismay of my co-travellers. I zero down on little details and I can’t seem to talk without bibliographical references and context for every action of my co-travellers. The former was okay with them, but the latter was interpreted that I talked too much.
It was a welcome irony. Before embarking on the trip, my sole fear was that I would be so awkward and listless that they might find me uninteresting because I was a loner. It was difficult for me to keep a verbal conversation going for more than half-hour. I easily lose interest in mid-sentence and quit conversations. I was a loner and I enjoyed it. But the pedantic irony was fostered by the act of movement.
I can’t as well help but marvel at a few other memories that escaped me, and a few others I remember but which cannot be easily categorised because they are not within the purview of my interest – like the dream concerning Innocent I had on the road to Yaoundé purchasing a pair of sandals exactly the type I had told him to buy at Garoua marche a few hours before; a photo session of my semi-nude to flaunt the tattoo on my stomach I had planned with Kene but was unable to see through; a poem I promised to write but never wrote for Hilde, a belly dancer in Kigali, and a few others about the complexity of crossing borders that are better left unprinted like all the yippee-ki-yay-motherfucking border officials that frustrated our efforts.
So, when people tell me how fortunate or privileged I was going about places and crossing borders, wanting to go in my shoes, or aligning their wish to travel with me, I think of, and sometimes hand them my vademecum from Derek Walcott’s poetry volume, The Fortunate Traveller:
“You are so fortunate, you get to see the world–”
Indeed, indeed, sirs, I have seen the world.
Spray splashes the portholes and vision blurs.
^This story is an updated extract from Transacting Stories by Tope Adegoke.
Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè is a traveller, literary critic and writer from Ibadan, Nigeria. He is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. He writes for Wawa Book Review and Africa in Words. His chapbook of travels across Africa, Transacting Stories: Markets, People and Places, has been exhibited at the 2019 AfriCologne Festival, Germany and the 12th Bamako Encounters – African Biennale of Photography, Mali. He enjoys travelling and cooking. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.