Sleeping in Airports — a travelogue
By Tolu Ogunlesi (2010)
“You have four minutes,” the ticket attendant at Liverpool Street Station tells me, handing over the ticket I’ve just bought, for the 10.55 pm Stansted Airport Express. It is the last train of the day, missing it would be disastrous. I make it onto the train just in time, grateful, despite the fact that travelling around Europe on a modest budget, as I’m doing, has successfully reduced my life to its essential element: Anxiety (about time, money, and dirty laundry).
How did I end up in Europe in the first place? I’d been invited to Berlin by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures), to participate in a month-long literary festival organised around the World Cup: reading and performances by writers and musicians from participating countries. My event (a reading and discussion alongside Argentinean writer Ariel Magnus) was scheduled for June 12, the day that Nigeria was playing its first match — against Argentina.
I spent four days in Berlin. It was cold in the middle of June, so much for global warming and the multi-billion dollar panic industry it supports. I walked daily from my hotel to the House of World Cultures, past busts of long dead, illustrious Berliners; my footsteps shadowing the quiet River Spree on which large boats floated non-threateningly.
After Berlin my mind was preoccupied with painstakingly planning a travel schedule within the confines of a modest budget. I decided to aim to cover 10-cities in the two-and-half weeks I had before I returned to work. I wasted no time drawing up a tentative list: Berlin, Freiburg, Basel, London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Madrid, Turnhout, Eindhoven…
I have only ever slept in two airports in my life. London’s Stansted, twice, and Madrid’s Aeropuerto Barajas, once. The second Stansted experience was on the night I hurried onto the 10.55pm Express.
There’s something perversely exhilarating about sleeping in a busy airport. On my first overnight stay in Stansted I was surprised to see the masses of fellow slumberers, their vows of ingenuity evident in the way they hustled comfort out of necessity: backpacks as pillows, bodies arranged in a manner designed to maximise warmth and minimise the hardness of the polished concrete floor.
Travelling around Europe as a Nigerian and African can be downright depressing. Everywhere you go there is a loud reminder of all you left behind to traipse through the ‘developed’ world. You imagine how different things would be ‘back home’ if a high speed rail system existed that linked Lagos to Abidjan via Accra. Or if there was a low-cost airline that dissolved West Africa’s hostile borders and turned the sub-region into a giant metropolis.
Travelling from one European capital city to another, you soon come to expect a replication of efficiency: the certainty of an underground rail system; of functioning street lights; of being able to use your international debit or credit card for most of your shopping; of relative safety.
Sometimes Nigeria dons the garb of a stalker. Waiting to board my flight from Stansted to Madrid, Yoruba words float to my ears. The speaker, an elderly woman is behind me. She is on the phone, sending a stream of lamentation through the airwaves. She keeps mentioning “forty pounds” — apparently she’s been forced to pay for overweight luggage. “Won kan f’iya je mekunu…” she says. (“These people delight in making the common folk suffer”)
Soon a young girl (twenties-looking) joins her. The girl speaks English, with a clear British accent — I assume she’s the woman’s granddaughter. She appears to understand Yoruba because she’s answering Grandma’s Yoruba with English.
From the plane during the descent into Madrid the city appears arid and sparsely populated. Some parts look scorched. Our flight takes off two hours behind schedule. When the delay is announced the man beside me complains about the funlessness of modern-day travel.
When we land I immediately arm myself with an underground (train) map, helpfully annotated by a man at an information counter at the airport. I join the animated mass of humanity headed, like me, into the City. At each stop the contents of train and platform are quietly reshuffled.
Hostal Greco, where I have pre-booked (the wonders of the internet Age) a room turns out to be an ex-brothel. I only found this out on the plane. I borrowed a Spain guide-book from a woman sitting near me, for a crash course in Spanish mores. “[Hostal Greco] was once a brothel catering for a wealthy clientele that included members of the Spanish aristocracy. Tell-tale signs of its history include frescoes depicting women striking seductive poses,” the guide-book declared.
There were no seductive women awaiting me however, when I checked in. Instead, in my room was a sign that read: “No wash, iron and dry clothes in the room, balcony.”
Not long after I checked in I switched the TV on, to be confronted by the comforting presence of the English language pared-down to relentless rhythm:
“Did you see the see-saw yesterday?”
“Yes I saw the see-saw yesterday.”
“Did your children see the see-saw too?”
“Yes my children saw the see-saw too.”
“Good. Thank you very much and see you next time.”
It doesn’t take long to realise that all significant cities possess an elaborate ‘History’: a combination of lore (accounts of famous treaties signed, blood shed, protests hosted, and paths traced out by the feet of long-dead famous and infamous persons) and sacred landmark. Madrid, Berlin, London, Edinburgh et al are laden with museums and historical markers, preserving the past in the formalin of authentic reverence. It is not quite the same in Nigeria. It is never quite the same in Nigeria. There’s nothing tangible to hint at the History that lies like an invisible gele on the head of Onikan — to mention just one example.
The World Cup was my constant companion on my trip. In Berlin I saw Mexico hold hosts South Africa to a draw, and Nigeria fall to a terror-inducing Argentina. I was in Basel, Switzerland, the day the Swiss left a single gash in the Spanish side. The Swiss honked their car horns endlessly.
From a fog-wrapped Italian restaurant perched on the mountains in Germany’s Black Forest I watched Nigeria lose to Greece. One of the waiters was half-Greek.
On the day Germany walloped Maradona’s boys four goals to nothing I was back in Berlin, preparing for my flight to Lagos the following day. (It had been three weeks since I first arrived in Europe). I sat at a table at the House of World Cultures with a couple of Nigerian friends, while the Nigerian dramatist, poet and novelist Femi Osofisan narrated how, at the bar in which he watched the match, the German owner had inflicted on-the-house drinks on revellers each time the Germans scored. Following the match three hundred thousand Germans poured into the heart of Berlin to celebrate, paralysing the bus system.
My ‘overnight experiences’ were not restricted to cold airport floors. My train journey from London to Edinburgh was on the overnight “sleeper” service. We departed London at midnight, and crawled into a cold Edinburgh’s Waverly Station just before seven in the morning.
And then there was my ten-hour bus trip from Antwerp in Belgium (I’d spent a few days in Turnhout, a small Belgian town near Antwerp) to Berlin. We left Antwerp on the Eurolines bus (a service run by bad-tempered drivers) at around midnight, forty-five minutes past our scheduled departure time. There were two other blacks on the bus.
I tried to sleep most of the time, but the discomfort of the seat precluded repose. Midway into the journey — 5.30 in the morning (by then we were on the Autobahn) — the bus stopped to refuel, with “7% Biodiesel”.
People rushed off the bus, to stretch their legs, to smoke. No one seemed interested in pee-ing. Not by the roadside, not anywhere else, as far as I could see. At ‘dawn’ the sun was a bright orange orb, so intense it hurt to stare at it.
Let’s fast-forward a few months. I am back in Lagos, parking my car at my favourite suya joint, somewhere in Yaba. It is sometime after midnight. Before I get out of the car I have resolved the situation — the not-young-woman standing two meters away and staring at me is waiting to be picked up. She is what you’d call an ‘ashewo’. When I get out of the car, she tries to make small talk — something to do with me including her in my suya budget.
Like Madrid; like Lagos. Madrid wastes no time in swooping out of darkened, distant memory: The last memorable incident of my stay in the Spanish capital was being accosted, in daylight — between six and seven in the evening — by a not-young-prostitute at Gran Via, right in the heart of the city.
She spoke no English, I spoke no Spanish, but she more than bridged the language gulf with her professional enthusiasm. She offered sex (“seh-ss”) — 20 Euro for 20 minutes — if I heard her correctly. “Visitor” was written all over me — the suitcase I was dragging, and the camera around my neck, made sure of that.
“I want to eat first, let me finish eating,” I told her.
“OK,” she answered, flashing a customer-service smile.
By the time I emerged from a nearby restaurant, where I downed my final plate of the Spanish staple, Paella (which, by virtue of its semblance to ‘Jollof Rice’, had quickly gained my rarely-dispensed gastronomic affection), she was gone.
Relieved, I made my way to the station, to take the underground train to Aeropuerto Barajas, en-route to Brussels. That night I would sleep in an airport for the third time in my life.