“Are we human, or are we dancer”?
- The Killers
My first soiree with the continent of Africa went quite sour, quite quickly.
I landed in Abuja, Nigeria on 1 February with some colleagues. We proceeded to the visa on arrival/ immigration office. 4 visas were processed and biometrics recorded, but not mine. I was told that the visa procedure was new and had glitches. I was assured I would receive my passport in a few days. I didn’t have much of a choice but to leave for the hotel, passport-less, along with my colleagues. A few days and some minor misadventures later, I asked after my passport. I was told that many others had to surrender their passport, and I should not worry. Gauging by the general chaos of the Local Organising Committee for the event, I started to do exactly that. M and I were the only ones in our organisation who were without a passport, and due to fly out a day after the rest. They had their passports. We wanted to change our flight to leave along with the “Top Boss” of this event, but this too was proving difficult to get done via the organisers, who were by this point broke (both financially and metaphorically).
We insisted that we very worried about the passport, but were alternatively dismissed, belittled or assured that we wouldn’t be left behind by our colleagues unless we got them back. Foolishly, we decided to trust this, and did not call our embassy. By Friday evening, we had been in Nigeria for 6 days without documentation, the competition was over and we still had no passports. “Top Boss” was supposed to fly out in a few hours. By this time my embassy was closed. We decided it was time to panic.
That night it was settled that we would all go the airport together, where the “Top Boss” would help us secure our passports, prior to flying out. On the way to the airport, we got reports and frantic calls from contractors who had flights in a few hours. They were all in the immigration office, where their passports were not being released, and they had no knowledge of why. When we reached the airport, the “Top Boss” proceeded to check in while M and I proceeded to the immigration office. What greeted us there was chaos. People were frustrated at having no answers and stressed about missing their flights. There was shouting and arguing in every direction. I tried to check on my passport and was told that it had not been processed. They asked me for a visa payment slip which I did not have. I immediately contacted the colleagues and informed them of the situation. M and I got no response to our texts nor phone calls. We only received the number of an immigration officer who even after 3 calls never appeared to help us. By now the President of the Local Organisers (thus the only one with any real power and all financial responsibilities), had resigned amidst some drama. In spite of knowing all of this the “Top Boss” proceeded to board his flight. The contractors too, were agitated. After a few hours, they eventually received their passports and left.
M and I were left alone in a less than safe foreign country after midnight. I asked what the problem was but was denied answers. I offered to pay the fee myself but was refused. I tried calling the Indian embassy but could not reach the Abuja office. M and I started reaching out to anyone we could think of. M was crying hysterically and her phone was dead. I felt the strain of having to hold it together. I sat down on the airport floor in a pile of helplessness, fear and frustration.
An armed guard approached me on the pretext of assisting me. When rebuffed, he proceeded to threaten me with gestures, straining against immigration officials to get at me, and told me that I had "messed with the wrong person".
After about 3 hours since our arrival at the airport, the ex-President appeared. There was more shouting and fighting, and we were again given no answers and asked to wait and be patient. After another hour, our visas were issued and we were free to leave. It was 2 am by now but the driver had waited for us for 4 hours, so M and I proceeded to the hotel. 1 of my phones was dead, and the other was at 2%. The imagination of what could happen to 2 young women travelling with 2 unknown men in a car for 45 mins from airport to hotel at 2 am in Abuja, Nigeria breaks me. Our passports were held ransom and used as hostages for an issue that till today, remains unclear.
We were not alone in this, in fact, we were even one of the "lucky ones". But that is not my story to tell.
The first 2 times I attempted to write my report (at the airport and on the plane – apologies for freaking out the nice lady sitting next to me), I completely dissolved into tears. Writing has always been my way to process, and this time was no different. My mind and body had dealt with the stress and underlying danger of being passport-less in Nigeria for a week, while continuing to work long hours and in ridiculously minimal working conditions. It had been topped off by a 5-hour ordeal at the airport.
Over the course of the competition, it had been trying to deal with the Nigerian attitude of saying things will get done, but nothing actually happening. It was definitely overwhelming that most of the people I met seemed to be cheerful and friendly at the outset, but there was a rage bubbling just underneath the surface. A rage that was loud, aggressive and scary when called to the forefront.
Travelling as a curious tourist is so different from a) moving somewhere as an expat b) travelling for work. Under the pressure of hosting large sporting events, you get to experience people and their culture like you would probably not get a chance to while sitting in a hotel lobby or in a museum. As far as work culture goes, Indians might also promise things and then do nothing about it. The subtility of reading whether or not the assured action will really take place is in the detail – where the eyes flicker to, whether the head shakes this way or that. But, when things go pear-shaped, Indians don’t generally confront. We avoid and use a “side-lane” to escape a situation (aka patli gali). So this dormant rage that erupted like a volcano every now and then around and before me was hard to deal with.
When I landed safely in Germany, and then in Bonn, I did feel relief. But it was only intellectual. My body didn’t feel any different and neither did I feel emotionally safe. This is where I learnt so much about our mind-body connection. I took a few days off and went to work as usual after. I realized a few hours in that I was anxious, unable to concentrate and being at work was not doing me any good. Instead of pushing on, I went to the doctor who had vaccinated me for my trip and told her everything. She didn’t say much, except to write me sick for 10 days and ask me to go back to her if I still did not feel better. She would then, if needed, write me a prescription to visit a therapist. I thought it was a little extreme, but I decided to err on the side of caution. I could always go back earlier to work if I felt better, she assured me. I saw that she had diagnosed me with “acute stress reaction”. Ok, I thought, whatever that is, and off home I went to recuperate.
The ensuing days were interesting to say the least. The first 3 days I found it difficult to get out of bed. I was in touch with a friend R I made on the trip, but not many other people. I wasn’t sad, I think I was just in shock and exhausted. I was probably still very tense. I won’t go into the psychological and biological after effects of adrenaline because there is loads of literature out there that talks about it. However, research apart, the nightmares and chest pains I felt were very real. The relationship I nearly pushed away was very real. By Valentine’s day, the chest pains had subsided but I still didn’t feel great. I developed an insanely itchy skin rash on my arms and thighs, which at first I thought was scabies from the shady hotel but later turned out to be caused by… you guessed it – stress! A few days later I turned 31. It had been 10 days since I landed back in Germland and was convinced to go out for a quiet dinner. I agreed, and we proceeded to a steak house where I attempted to place my fairly uncomplicated order. As it happens, I found it impossible to do to do so. In any language. As I opened and closed my mouth like a goldfish, nothing came out but I could feel my heart racing. Being stranded by someone who had promised to get us out safely made me lose faith in humanity and that made it hard to even talk to a cashier or service person.
I’m not sure how it passed, but the progress was slow. Swimming helped me, as well as slowing down and going into my shell. I cancelled plans with friends unashamedly, knowing they could see through my feeble excuses but also that they would forgive me. I was uncharacteristically kind to myself in that period (in spite of knowing that M had bounced back to usual). I wonder if it was because I could see the physical manifestations of what I was emotionally going through. One day I saw a girl in the pool in the lane next to me trying to do a flip-turn. I risked a conversation and offered advice. I started to feel like myself again.
It makes me wonder why a lot of us need to be pushed to that extent to listen to ourselves. Listen not just to our bodies but also our minds. Recently I saw a wonderful video by a nutritionist and food blogger who is against the idea of diets, of restricting ourselves. She advises us to listen to our bodies, give in to cravings so they lose their emotional hold over us instead of leading a life of constant restraint. (She explains it much better than I do). What if we did the same with our minds? Instead of pushing stress or sadness away, I am starting to believe in “indulging” it. No, don’t wallow. But if we accept that its there, then only can we process and deal with negative emotions. Only then can we look for coping mechanisms, positive affirmations, meditation, music, colouring or whatever floats your de-stress boat. And sometimes indulging enough to just sit on the couch and cry it out, perhaps. Sometimes life is too hard to start making a list of everything you are grateful for – so don’t force yourself, in that moment.
As shit was hitting the roof back in Abuja, the competition was delayed by a whole day and the contractors were protesting. The DJ started playing a Nigerian favourite (it wasn’t Fall by Davido which is mine), and almost all the Nigerians in the event venue stopped what they were doing (which wasn’t much tbh) to dance. It amused me and I watched as a smile broke on their faces and they started either shaking a leg on the spot or did a sort of dance-walking jig and kept going on their way. The image of the lady stopping her stressed out argument with her colleague to shake her booty pops to mind every now and then.
10 years ago I took a trip to Bhutan and was amazed by the peace-loving people in this peaceful country. In Nigeria I was confronted by a more complex interspersion. What if you are peace-loving but your surroundings don’t let you be? What if your daily life is such a struggle that your only self-defense might be a rage bubbling under the surface, which erupts and protects you when you think you are in danger? What if actually you just want to dance?
Of course, right now our lives are very different from our own personal “normal”, at the very least. The first few weeks I was quite happy with the slowing down of our generally fast paced life, and indulging my innermost homebody/introvert. Then one Friday evening 2 weeks in, it suddenly hit me how much I missed physically hugging (some) people and going to the gym. How much technology brings us closer but we are still so far away. How much I took for granted my parents’ yearly visit and how sad it makes me not knowing when I can see them and my brother again. The stress of every grocery buying expedition and the challenge of deciding whether or not to snitch on your social-not-distancing neighbours to the police is only surpassed by the stress of worrying about the physical, emotional, financial safety and security of every single person you hold dear. For an empath like me, it is the anxiety of how mankind will emerge from this trauma, and how much suffering it will have to endure before it does emerge.
When this all hit me, I let it wash over me like a wave. Not only did I dip my toes in the sadness, I took a bath in it. And when it passed, I remembered how grateful I am that my loved ones are safe right now. That I get to continue my job from the comfort of my home. How nice it is to be able to work without a commute. To have lunch on a sunny balcony and extra time to read a good book. To make a Skype date with my mum and have her re-teach me the Bangla alphabet. To skip gym without the guilt. When I look down and see my ever so slowly expanding food-baby, I remember all the cooking experiments I have undertaken in the last weeks. And, as my new friend R from our escapade put it, imagine if I had been stuck in Nigeria right now. The anxiety evaporates. I never imagined I would take something less-than-traumatic away from Nigeria. I try to stop and dance.