Travel

My America visa interview experience.

US B1/B2 visa

Recently, the missus and I attended a B1/B2 visa interview at the US Consulate in Lagos. While we are not unfamiliar with visiting the Consulate, it had been 10 years since we attended a US visa interview. We’ve always used the visa waiver programme or “drop box.” Until Nigeria’s village people went to work. 

Turns out that in 2016, per widely acknowledged reports like this, 12,043 Nigerians overstayed their US non-immigrant visa. 

In 2017, the number rose to 19,676 people. 

In 2018, the number strapped on booster rockets and soared to 30,000.  

That’s close to 62,000 Nigerians who decided not to come back to Nigeriana. Clearly, all these folks were loving it in the US like a Big Mac. 

Also, between 2017 and 2018, Canadian authorities reportedly intercepted 7,600 Nigerian asylum seekers at its unofficial land borders. Over 6,000 of them had valid US non-immigrant visas. 

The US had become a jumping-off point for Nigerians seeking a better life in Canada. 

Canada was pissed. 

Department of Homeland Security was pissed. 

Donald Trump was pissed.  

All these pissings snowballed into the US Embassy in Nigeria suspending the dropbox programme indefinitely in 2019.  Everyone now had to attend the disquieting US visa interview. The denial rate was said to be in the ninety percentile. I know people who travel to the US often but who were still refused a B1/B2 renewal. 

But Nigeria’s mother’s head was not sleeping in heaven. She fought Nigeria’s village people till President Joe Biden won the US elections in 2020. The mood of the Biden administration towards immigration and travel became more obliging. Dropbox was reinstated in 2021. 

But not soon enough for me and the missus to qualify. We were a few days behind eligibility. So, it was the interview for us.  

Now, let me state clearly that I am very displeased attending a visa interview. I should never have been born Nigerian. My agreement with destiny was to be born in America. Say on a Hawaiian beach sipping a cold Virgin Mojito, looking into the sunset while they cut the umbilical cord. Destiny and I shook hands on it. But a man’s enemy is often a member of his household, and you need not look further than my great, great, great grandfather. 

See, while many West Africans were merrily signing up to be slaves in the New World, my great, great, great grandfather ran from the slave traders. For several years, this dude was as uncatchable as Frank Abagnale. There were several close calls, but somehow, this fella always managed to escape the clutch of liberation. 

I don’t get it. This dude had nothing going for him in his village. No wife, no kids, no Wi-Fi, no Netflix. And he’s never been on a cruise ship. Why on earth was he running away? 

But it gets worse. The geezer was eventually captured and taken to Charleston, South Carolina. 

Thank goodness! 

But while paraded on the dock, this impossible fella jumped into the water and swam back to Nigeria! 

Unbelievable! The prat!

This dude swam through a smack of box jellyfish, a frenzy of hungry great whites, fought the Kraken, and breaststroked all the way to Lagos! One night he even snuck aboard a slave ship, purloined their food and jumped back into the water and continued swimming to Lagos. breaststroke, butterfly, backstroke. He swam night and day till he arrived in Lagos. When he got back to his village, there was much feasting and celebration. He was made king. He married eighty wives and sired eight hundred children. 

And here I am two hundred years later attending a visa interview. 

I’ve moved on and not flogging the issue. But Proverbs 13:22 is very clear: “A good man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children…” What inheritance did this bloke leave me? A green passport and failing national grid. 

But I digress. Back to our US visa interview. 

While you may have been to the US many times and have strong ties to Nigeria, a favorable outcome in a B1/B2 interview is far from certain. This makes the issuance of a US visa highly prized. Unlike the UK and Schengen visas that we have seen finish. In fact, if I am refused a UK or Schengen visa, I’ll demand to speak to Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron. What nerve!

But the missus and I were confident. What’s the worst that can happen? We get denied the visa and plump for Papua New Guinea. If Uncle Sam is unobliging, we’ll turn to Aunt Lilibet.  

The Consular Officer who interviewed us was courteous and pleasant. She and the missus found a point of connection in a book my wife had and on their respective birthdays. Her inquiries were conversational. She gave us new information about ineligible reasons to travel to the US. Folks can no longer travel to the US for the sole purpose of giving birth. She was just saying. 

Does she know something I don’t? Mrs. Alade, you can’t be preg?… If you are, I’m not the father!

Anyways, she approved our visas and wished us a wonderful trip. 

Sorry, Aunt Lilibet. Gumbo and jambalaya calls. 

Actually, the three Consular Officers who interviewed people on the day were courteous and pleasant. They were chopping it up and being reciprocally nice. No pre-determined agenda.

Now, to the unpleasant part of the interview experience. 

It seemed everywhere you go in Lagos; you can’t escape guards soliciting money. It grates but we have resigned to it. But I wasn’t expecting to find such soliciting at the US Consulate. It was from the guards opposite the Consulate building. The ones who let you into the waterfront waiting area. They were discreet about the soliciting but it was obvious. We were chagrined. I guess the country is harder than we know. 

Now, inside the interviewing hall. Why do Nigerians who work at consulates or High Commissions assume an importance they don’t have? There was this bloke inside one of the booths. He checks the DS-160 confirmation pages and passport photographs. He spoke gruffly and his body language was condescending. 

Guy, be calming down! Even women no dey wear shoulder pad again. 

Then we were chaperoned to this guy who took biometrics. He was a white dude. He greeted us and asked for our travel passports. He was about to take the biometrics when a female colleague swung by. They started “gisting.” he left us standing and chatted with the colleague. 

We stood in front of him like prized idiots. He just kept on chatting with the colleague. He must have kept us waiting for at least fifteen minutes. It was very disrespectful, to say the least. 

No be him fault. Na my great, great, great grandfather cause dis see-finish. 

Third, standing in line kills you! When did that start? The last time I was at the consulate for a visa interview, there were seats. You sat till your number was called. Admittedly, that was ten years ago but I expected better treatment if anything. We must have stood for fifty minutes before it was our turn to be interviewed. And the missus wore high heels. There were older people standing too. That can’t be right. Made me feel poorly about my citizenship. 

I wish the interviews were more private, though. I don’t like people in my business. But if you go for a US visa interview, everyone will be in your business. We could hear the interviewers’ questions and interviewees’ responses. Many linens aired in public. I know the chance of running into someone at your interview on the street is slim. But still, I don’t want the world listening to my life and plans. You can’t unhear some conversations.

Oh, there was this young bloke who was feigning a ridiculous foreign accent. He’d never traveled out of Nigeria before. He was going for a 2-week conference but was staying for 7 weeks. The Consular asked him why that was the case. He began rambling. In his ridiculous accent.  Me, I was losing it with the guy. But the Consular Officer was long-suffering. You felt he wanted the guy’s story to cohere. In the end, the dude got refused the visa. 

And there was this young couple. They had an adorable daughter, a sweet toddler. They’d also never traveled out of Nigeria. The dude was a farmer I think. I wanted them to get the visa. They got rejected. Gutted for them.

I equally remembered this older couple too. They’d also never traveled out of Nigeria before. They wanted to visit the US to say thanks to a friend who came for their wedding. The Consular Officer didn’t buy it. They got the blue paper. Some lady who was a flight dispatcher at a local airline wanted to go to the US to study to be a pilot. That seemed a credible aspiration given her current job. The Consular Officer must not have been convinced of her intentions. She got the blue paper.

I was most gutted for a woman whose son was in college in the US. The son was born in America and hence an American citizen. The Consular Officer asked if she was going to visit the son. The woman said no, not really. She was going to a different state from where the boy was schooling. She was staying with relatives. That sounded odd to me. But it will make perfect sense if the boy would travel to see the mother in the state she was in. Maybe mama didn’t want to spend money on a hotel visiting the boy. In the end, the mother got rejected for the visa. The Consular Officer told her the son should file for permanent residence for her when he turns twenty-one.

What! Surely, a parent should be allowed to go see her American-born child? What was it about her story and circumstance that didn’t convince the CO she was not an intending immigrant? The missus and I were pained for the mother.

In all, about twenty people were interviewed before it was our turn. Only one elderly woman was issued a visa.

Yup, a US visa is a prized possession. 

While the missus and I have strong ties to Nigeria and have traveled often like Benin witches, we do not take the issuance of the visa for granted. We could have been interviewed by a Consular Officer who just didn’t fancy us. A man receives nothing unless it is given to him from above, capisce? God approves. Man gives.

By the way, why do some countries get issued a 10-year visa but we only get two years in Nigeria? India, Argentina, and many other countries get a 10-year validity visa. Why not Nigeria?  

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Kenya, Photography, Travel, Wildlife

My Maasai Mara experience.

 

Friends, if you ever go to Kenya, there is one thing you should never do. 

You should never get into an argument with a lion, leopard, hippo, even a beetle. Even if the animals called your mother a prostitute and your dad a bastard, you’ll do well to walk by. 

That’s because the Kenyan government takes sides with its animals. 

You dare not snigger at these animals or insult them. And heavens forbid you step on a buffalo. It will hop on one foot and cry to the government. Then your goose is cooked. Which is another crime, a cooked goose. 

Kenya’s wildlife enjoys exalted status. Unlike your penurious selves, General Lion and crew line the government’s pockets with over $5bn a year. In 2019 before Covid hit, it was $8.1bn. That’s more than the GDP of Burundi, Sierra Leone, The Gambia and thirteen other African countries. Travel and tourism account for 10% of Kenya’s GDP and employ some 1.6m odd Kenyans. It’s silly money not to be trifled with.  

What these statistics mean is that you, my friend, are a liability. 

Kenya’s animals are an asset. 

You sapiens make demands: roads, hospitals, accountability, good governance. The wildlife gets on with it. They don’t protest against Covid vaccines. A leopard never identifies as a zebra. Nor do the animals complain about food prices. They eat one another and move on. They are the best citizens a country can have. 

I gleaned the insight into the eminence of Kenya’s wildlife in a most disconcerting way. 

I visited the Maasai Mara and camped in a tent. 

Which if you are a black dude with any sense you know you shouldn’t do. Black people don’t camp in tents in the wild. White people do that. If a white dude gets eaten by a hyena, it’ll be on CNN, and might result in pressure on the Kenyan government to teach hyenas to love broccoli instead. But if you are a black dude in a tent and become venison to a hyena, well, it must be suicide. Because black people don’t tempt fate.  

So, I went to the Maasai Mara or ‘The Mara’ to locals. 

The Mara is humongous; 1, 510 sq. km of wildlife. It hosts one of the ‘Seven Natural Wonders of Africa’ – The Great Migration. Over a million wildebeest, 500,000 Thomson’s gazelles, 200,000 zebras, 97,000 topis and thousands of other animals migrate between the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. Predators – crocs, leopards, lions, cheetahs, hyenas –  ambush this migrant horde. It is a stunning spectacle.   

My camp was on the bank of the craggy Talek River. The river separates the camp from The Mara. In January, the river is passable on foot in many places and it is not uncommon for animals to cross it into my neck of woods. 

Did you hear that? 

It is not uncommon for animals to cross it into my neck of woods.

Which was what happened while I was there. 

When I checked into the camp, I opted to stay in a tent. I am on a safari and what is more safari-sh than bunking in a tent in the wild. It was, however, a comfortable tent. Two queen beds, two single sofas, a dining area, private showers, WiFi and electricity. My own Ritz Carlton in the wild.

But I’m never staying in a tent again. Ever. 

On my first night in the tent, at around 01:30 am, I heard some animal sound. 

I suppose if you sleep in the wild, you will hear animal sounds at night; leopards sneaking up on baboons, hyenas snacking on mongooses and warthogs snoring. 

But the sound I heard wasn’t far off. It was right outside my tent. I couldn’t figure out what animal it was. But it was right outside my tent.

I couldn’t sleep. I lay motionless in bed. I feared that if I moved or made a sound, whatever beast was outside may decide to charge my tent. 

The camp has Maasai guards stationed around to ward off animals. The Maasai stationed in my tent area was some nice guy called Simon. Seeing him perched outside my tent was always comforting. But on this night he was not about else there would not be a wild beast on my porch. 

I’ve never prayed harder for daybreak. 

The sound stopped at about 4 am. At 05:30 am, when I heard the heavy plod of human footsteps, I unzipped the tent a little and peered out. Simon was sitting in front of my tent. 

Thank goodness! 

I went out and enquired of him. His English was smattering but we communicate. I told him there was some animal in front of my tent all night. He asked me to describe the sound. I described the sound as best as I could. 

He smiled and told me it was only a hippo. 

Only a what now? 

Only a hippo. 

He said hippos sometimes wander close to the lodge. He said I had nothing to fear as the hippo couldn’t have been less than fifty meters away. The night only amplified the sound.

Fifty meters away. 

Usually, when I hear the name ‘Simon’, I think of a saintly chap. Like Simon Peter who preached the Good News on the Day of Pentecost and 3,000 folks got saved. But this Simon? I could throttle the guy! How dare he treat my life with such levity! What did he mean the night amplified the sound? That creature was right outside my tent! 

Of course, I didn’t believe Simon. I couldn’t. Nobody likes to know the time and manner of their death. 

Later I told another Maasai sentry about the sound I’d heard in front of my tent. He asked me to describe the sound. I did. He said, “Oh, it must be kiboko – a hippo.” He said it like it was a chicken. 

You people need help!

I’m a Yoruba boy, not Maasai. I didn’t grow up walking to school through a coalition of cheetahs! 

Having shaken off my nerves, I asked the workers in the lodge what would happen if a guest was being mauled by an animal. They said the default action would be to chase the animal away and not kill it. Killing is the last resort. Animals have protected status in Kenya. 

There you have it. A giraffe’s life matters more than mine.  

Rangers at the Ol Kiombo airstrip confirmed the protected status of the animals. If a plane was approaching landing, and there was, say a ngiri  (warthog) chilling on the runway, the pilot would circle till the sun-tanning hog went away. Or till the rangers were able to plead with it to leave. 

You know those dumb questions some HR folks like to ask at interviews? Like “if you could be one animal, what animal would you be”? Well, I’ll tell you: I’d love to be any animal in Kenya. Because then you won’t have to ask me stupid questions. I’ll report you to the government.

Anyway. 

The lodge personnel always advised me to zip my tent anytime I went out. For right across my tent and the river was a  troop of cacophonous baboons. Simon told me these baboons sometimes enter unzipped tents and pillage them.  

You thieving irreligious primates!

The thought of a baboon stealing my travel passport filled me with dread. I could imagine a baboon presenting itself at immigration with my passport. 

Throughout my stay, these baboons scrutinized me. I’m convinced they were casing my tent. On the day I checked in, heard them complaining.

Baboon 1: Oh man, not a black guy!

Baboon 2: Yea, black people never have things to steal. 

Baboon 3: This one even looks like he can steal from us.

Baboon 1: Mustafa needs to be more discriminatory on who he accepts into this camp.

Baboons opposite my tent. Thieves!

Mustafa, by the way, runs Talek Bush Camp. A very helpful and nice guy. On my first day, he advised me not to walk alone to the Talek Town Center when it was dark. Last November, three lions were spotted around the path.

Jide Alade, shebi you have finished eating and now looking for bekun-bekun. 

But if you love nature and animals, you’ve got to visit the Maasai Mara. The Big Five are resident, it has the most number of lodges (from a $1,200-a-night accommodation to a $100-a-night camp like mine) and it offers hot air ballooning and all-day game drives (6 am – 6:45 pm). There are also several airstrips to fly to and fro Nairobi. 

Hot Air Balloon

I’ve jumped out of a perfectly good plane before. But I have never been in a hot air balloon. So, I looked forward to being in one in The Mara. For $480, you get a 1-hour balloon ride, breakfast in the wilderness, a brief game drive and pick up and return to your camp. It’s not cheap but I’ll tell the missus it was only $120. 

A driver picked me up at my camp at 05:30 am. We drove into The Mara. You could see glints in the dark. Animal eyes. I wondered if there was a lion amongst them rousing: ‘Man, I feel like some Nigerian meat and egusi this morning.’ But I am not going to be lamb chops for some lion. My LORD shuts the mouths of lions.

Just in case you are wondering, I’m the handsome dude in black

Getting to The Mara

Safari in Kenya is not cheap. It is not like hitting Burlington with $300. It will cost you. But if you are a savvy backpacker, you can reduce your costs with shrewd planning and research. In my case, I was in Nairobi on company business. That cut the cost of my safari by a lot. I didn’t have to pay for a flight ticket from Lagos to Nairobi. Business Class ticket on Kenya Airways was N1.4m!  

Your safari starts with transportation. You can fly to The Mara via a single-prop aircraft from Nairobi, or you can go by road. The former is a 45-minute jump. The latter, over 6 hours. The former will set you back some $200 one-way. The latter is $65. As an unabashed cheapskate and backpacker, I chose the latter. 

Now, there was another reason why I chose to go to The Mara by road: the Great Rift Valley escarpment at Mai Mahui. The plains roll out before you and cover much of East Africa. It was magnificent. Standing on the escarpment and viewing the Rift Valley, I felt like Moses on Mt Pisgah looking at the Promise Land. 

The Great Rift Valley escarpment at Mai Mahui

I hired a taxi from Nairobi to Narok, a small city about a three-hour drive from Nairobi. It cost me 6,000Ksh (N22,000 or $52). I could have gone via a matatu – Kenya’s danfo – for $15.  But the matatus don’t stop for pictures at the Rift Valley escarpment. And they don’t chit-chat. Plus, Omicron is still around. 

Narok is a small Maasai city. I like to see it as the last post of civilisation before The Mara. I equipped myself with last-minute provisions; water, juice, biscuit, crisps, the odd bits and bob. For after Narok, perish all thought of finding a bank, filling station, ATM or a supermarket.

From Narok, I then took a shared taxi headed for Talek. The Talek region is a pastoralist settlement that borders the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The taxis take six passengers; four at the back, two in the front. It was 700Ksh per passenger. I opted to pay 1,400Ksh so I could sit in the front alone. So, that’s another $12 or N5,000.  

The drive from Narok to Talek was two and a half hours long. But what amazing scenery! The best way to see a country is always by road or rail. 

Now, let me warn you. At some point during the journey, the taxi will turn off the bitumen road into some Savannah bush. It is not a ride for the faint-hearted. No humans. No other vehicles. Only shrubbery. Eery. Quiet. Insurgent-ish. All the travel accounts to the Talek Bush Camp I had read said nothing about this foreboding leg of the journey. It was about 45 minutes long. 

Then out of nowhere, we burst into the Talek Town Center. 

Phew!  

I’m alive. The wild’s got nothing on me.

The Talek ‘Town Center’ is perhaps more appropriately a village center. But let it be known that I am very happy to see many people and a settlement. If these fine folks decide to call it the Talek Metropolis, a metropolis it is!

From the Talek Town Center, I then took a ‘boda’ (okada) to my camp. It’s a distance of about 300m. I was stiffed 100Ksh for the ride. 100Ksh is not going to bankrupt me. I’m still happy seeing people.

There are six gates to Maasai Mara: Sekenani Gate, Talek Gate, Sand River Gate, Oloololo Gate, Musiara Gate and Ololamutia Gate. The gate by which you enter depends on where you book your camp. The closest gate to me was the Talek Gate. Drive distance between the gates can be up to thirty minutes.  

You pay $70 at any of the gates to get into the reserve per day per individual. So, if you want to visit the reserve for four days, you’ll have to shell out $280 in total. That is excluding the cost of your game drive. That’s anywhere between $120 to $150 per day. Hot air ballooning is between $450 and $500. Then there are the flights, the accommodation and the tips. Yea, safari in The Mara is not cheap. 

I decided to return to Nairobi by air. The nearest airstrip to me was the Ol Kiombo airstrip. Once again, you have to drive through The Mara to the airstrip. More topis, gazelles, buffaloes and warthogs. A single-prop plane was my chariot. Gosh, I hate single-prop planes! Buffeted by turbulence, they feel like they could drop out of the sky anytime. 

 Trip to Mombasa

So, after The Mara, where else is there to go? I’ll tell you where. The Indian Ocean oasis of Mombasa, Kenya’s second-largest city. Laid-back. Historical. Fusion of cultures and food. And I like food. 

I went by rail. The new and ultra-modern Madaraka Express. Five hours either way. 

It could have been worse. Not long ago – till 2017 – the journey could have taken anywhere between 18 and 24 hours. The single-gauge line broke down often. You didn’t know when you’ll arrive in Mombasa, or at the turn of the 20th century if you will arrive. There were reports of lions savaging builders at night, even climbing into the cabins. Remember the movie The Ghost and The Darkness starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas? About the ‘Lions of Tsavo’ killing rail builders? It is a true story and was about the Lunatic Express, the moniker for the line. It was so named because of the anguish it caused the builders and travelers. 

But now the Lunatic Express has given way to the ultra-modern Madaraka Express. It zips to Mombasa like a gazelle. It is a standard-gauge rail built by the Chinese. It commenced operation in 2017.

One fun fact about the Madaraka Express? It’s never been late! And that was my experience. It departed Nairobi for Mombasa at exactly 3 pm, its published time. It was the same coming back to Nairobi. Left the Mombasa Terminus at 3 pm on the dot.  

In your face, ‘African Time’! 

The train passed through the Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Parks. We saw elephants, giraffes, zebras, gazelles and other animals. The announcement on the train’s speakers assured us that carnivores were also residents in the park. It was a scenic journey. You could see Mt Kilimanjaro in the distance.  

I stayed at the Bahari Beach Hotel. Really nice place. My window overlooked the ocean. I will live long with views like that. 

There are a lot more interesting places to see in Kenya but I had only four days of leisure. I would have loved to go to Lake Naivasha and visit Iten, the legendary home of Kenya marathoners. Maybe they could give me a few tips on how to lose weight. But any tip must include bacon and sausage. You know what they say: if eating only greens and salad made you lose weight, hippos won’t be fat.

But I did run into Burna Boy in Nairobi. Stoked.

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Creative Writing, Photography, Travel

Memories of New Orleans.

After leaving New York, I visited Atlanta, Houston and Dallas. I have homeboys in those cities and looked forward to some R&R. My base on the trip was Houston. I had planned on visiting the Johnson Space Center in Houston, it being the 50th anniversary of mankind’s visit to the moon. But I was sidetracked by a few Naija owambes. On one instance, we drove four hours to Dallas to attend a wedding. Truth be told, it was nice to eat some Naija food after weeks of oyinbo food. But photography-wise none of those three cities were particularly interesting to me.

But NOLA? That’s a different proposition entirely!

What’s is great about New Orleans you ask? You mean what is great about a place nicknamed the “Big Easy” and “NOLA”? About cuisine that is a melting pot of French, African, Spanish and American culture? Vibrant live music, carnivals and costumed parades? Touristy cemeteries and slave plantations? You had to ask that question?

 “If there was no New Orleans, America would just be a bunch of free people dying of boredom.”Chris Rose

“In New Orleans, we celebrate everything. It’s probably the only place you’ll see people dancing in a funeral home.”Trombone Shorty

New Orleans was the highlight of my trip to the US. I had a homeboy who worked in the city. We both thought it was a good idea for me to visit since I had never been to the Deep South.

I ended up going by bus. I had botched my outbound flight. Somehow, I forgot to book the ticket. To do so on the day of travel was going to set me back some $350. If I hit Ross with $350, I’d dress up my village. So I decided to go by bus, the fare being a benign $40. Seven hours the journey would take. I could live with that. I’d been on the road for about three weeks and got used to keeping myself company. I consoled myself that I would see more of the country. I would fly back to Houston.

It was a great mistake, going by bus. I’ll explain.

See, the eminent state of Louisiana is bordered on the east by the state of Mississippi. Think Mississippi, think ridiculously humongous river. And then the state is bordered in the south by the Gulf of Mexico, ergo the Atlantic Ocean pretending not to be the Atlantic Ocean. In other words, the state has lots of water; massive deltas, swamps and marshland. Huge ridiculous things.

It also turns out that the state has three of the world’s longest bridges over water. Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is the longest at 24 miles – 38km. It is closely followed by the Manchac Swamp Bridge at 22.8miles – 36.7km. Third is the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge at 18.2mile – 29.2km.

Only when was I well on my way did I come across the information that we would go through one of these mammy water bridges to get to New Orleans. That the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge was the shortest of the those three bridges was no consolation. It’s 29km long!

Look, I’m no Aquaman. I am unnerved by long bridges over water. I am that driver that hugs the divider on Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos. I never drive close to the water. I fear that one of my wheels may come off or someone would rear-end me and I would be, er, swimming with the fishes. Yet, the Third Mainland Bridge is a mere 11.8km. The Atchafalaya Basin Bridge is close to three times that length! Over foreboding waters, vexed cottonmouths and hungry gators!

Why would anyone build such a ridiculously long bridge? It’s not as if New Orleanians would curl up and die if no one came visiting. They have jazz, jambalayas, gumbos and Huge Ass Beers. They don’t need anyone else to have a great time. We must learn to respect people’s right to isolation.

The bus was a double decker. Ignorant of what lay ahead, I had selected a seat on the upper deck, in the front of the bus. The ride over the Atchafalaya Basin bridge was pure torment. The consequence of my high perch in the bus was vertigo and the feeling that the bus was tottering and would fall into the water. My prickliness towards the driver at the bus station in Houston would come back to haunt me as the geezer only drove a few centimeters from the edge of the bridge. I could have sworn the bloke was suicidal.  

 

Lake Ponchartrain Causeway – 23.875 miles (38.442 km) . Picture not mine.

Manchac Swamp Bridge : 22.8 miles (36.7 km). Picture not mine.

Atchafalaya Basin Bridge : 18.2miles (29.2km).

Took this shot from my high perch on the upper deck of the bus.

Check this. There is an 8-mile stretch on the Pontchartrain Causeway where you completely lose sight of land in all directions. Drivers have been known to freeze up during this stretch, suddenly feeling trapped and frightened. I gather it is a common enough occurrence that police patrols are stationed on the bridge to escort those frightened drivers back off the bridge.

I did manage to make it to New Orleans alive. My homeboy was waiting for me downtown. We drove to my hotel and checked in. My survival at the hands of the Atchafalaya bridge was a victory that demanded an epicurean celebration. We drove to Cajun Seafood on Claiborne Avenue. I stilled my jangled nerves with gumbo, crab claws and crawfish.

I cannot come and kill myself.

Now, let me tell you about a food incidence that irked me greatly.

See, prior to going to New Orleans, I had read that a must-do for first timers in the city was to eat beignets at Café Du Monde. So I thought to myself that this beignet must be quite the treat. I therefore made it an expedient matter to locate this Cafe Du Monde and introduce myself to this beignet .

I found Cafe Du Monde. Opposite Jackson Square. It was full of tourists. I eagerly waited to be seated. It was recommended that one orders beignets with cafe au lait. But as I don’t drink coffee, I ordered mine with orange juice. I waited with bated breathe.

When the beignets were brought, they turned out to be…Puff-Puff!

Three pieces of Puff-Puff covered with powdered sugar.

Three Puff-Puffs for $7! In Lagos, ten Puff-Puffs is N100! That’s just about a quarter – 25 cents!

I am never accepting the recommendation of white folks on gastronomic matters.

Beignets.

Cafe Du Monde

The beignet affair aside, the food in New Orleans are simply wonderful; gumbo, jambalaya, po-boy, alligator meat, fried catfish, crabs, crawfish. My advise to you; don’t ever come to New Orleans if you are on a diet!

The ever popular and iconic New Orleans gumbo. Some broth with different sea creatures in which you pour some rice. Never the other way.

Fried alligator, gumbo and some cheese soup.

Crabmeat Cheesecake. 

“Catfish Pecan” – pecan-dusted local catfish, popcorn rice, spiced pecans, creole meuniere, farm vegetables

“Banana Foster” – ‘Fresh bananas sauteed tableside in brown sugar and cinnamon, flambeed with banana liqueur and rum, vanilla bean ice cream.’

 

My hotel was just off the popular Canal Street, a stroll from the quaint French Quarters and the carnal Bourbon Street. Only in New Orleans will you find the charming right next to the iniquitous.

Cue Bourbon Street. It is probably the most popular street in the whole of the Deep South. But whatever was historical about Bourbon Street is now, well, history. You don’t go to Bourbon Street to learn the street wasn’t named after bourbon. You go to Bourbon Street to hand over your brains to bourbon, whiskey, rum, vodka, Huge Ass Beers or any other O-be-joyful.

Hustling for customers on Bourbon Street. PS: If the sign doesn’t make sense to you, try watching the Bud Light TV spot below.

In one of the Bourbon Street bars, I ordered a Coke with ice. The sweet bartender asked me “what the hell I was doing in New Orleans if I didn’t drink alcohol”. 

But you will also find creativity abounding in and around Bourbon Street. There are numerous spots with bands playing and little known musicians serenading guests at bars and restaurants. I hear the street is quite a thing during Mardi Gras.

There is of course so much to New Orleans than Bourbon Street. There is the Civil War history (not Avengers!) There are the cemeteries and the plantations.

Let’s talk about about cemeteries.

I found it odd that one of the popular attractions of a city would be its cemeteries. But New Orleans has always had an interesting relationship with its dearly departed.

You see, burying the dead in a city below sea level was always going to be a big challenge. Dig a few feet in New Orleans and you will strike water. Early settlers found to their chagrin that coffins floated on streets during heavy rainstorms, unearthed by flood waters. They tried burying the dead with huge stones on the coffin to keep it down against flood. But that also proved useless. Coffins and limbs still bobbed around the city during floods.

The solution decided was to keep the graves above ground, in like manner of the Spanish custom of using vaults. Graves are not dug. The dead are simply put in coffins in tombs that are above ground.

Many of the tombs look like miniature houses, some with iron fences. These rows of tombs give the cemeteries the appearance of a city with streets. This is why New Orleans cemeteries are usually referred to as Cities of the Dead. They are historic as some of the cities well-known personalities are buried there. And well, they look archaeological too.

The tomb of Benjamin Latrobe, the architect of the U.S. Capitol.

By far the most popular cemetery in New Orleans is the St Louis Cemetery No 1, close to the French Quarters. I took a guided tour of the cemetery. Before the start of the tour, the guide introduced us to the concept attachment.

See, people come to cemeteries and leave mementos at tombs of family members. We were admonished never to pick up any object we found interesting at tombs and within the cemetery. Lest we were visited by the otherworldly owner of the memento. We were told stories of people who had to traveled back to New Orleans to return objects they had taken from from the cemeteries. They supposedly had visitations and were haunted.

“Give back me compass, ye mortal! Lest I be wandering lost in the afterlife. Lest ye replace I in on the River Styx. 

Joke aside, New Orleans is the voodoo and superstition capital of America.

This is the tomb for Nicholas Cage. He bought the tomb in 2010. This is where he will be buried when he kicks the bucket. “Omnia Ab Uno“, is Latin for “Everything From One“.

The next day, I hit the plush Garden District area. I took the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world – the St. Charles Streetcar – to get there. That old timer has been rattling along since 1835 and is not about to toot its final horn soon. It was all so surreal, taking a streetcar that has been in operation since 1835 to a neighbourhood that is just as old.

That District Garden is some mighty fine neighbourhood. Quaint and ornate mansions along oak-lined streets. You could smell new and old money in the neighbourhood. It is the site of many movies and TV programmes.

On the third day, it was time to for some slave lessons and plantation visits.

There are many plantations in New Orleans. There is the Felicity Plantation where “12 Years A Slave” was shot, the Laura Plantation, the Whitney Plantation, the San Francisco Plantation, Oak Alley Plantation and many others. I chose a guided tour of the Oak Alley Plantation.

The Oak Alley Plantation is about 92 km from the New Orleans downtown. It took about 1hr:10m to get there. Again driving through swamps and on bridges.

Why NOLA, why?

Oak Alley was a sugarcane plantation. 1200 acres. Plantation economy depended on slavery. Slaves were brought to Louisiana from Africa and sold to planters (owners of plantations) until 1808, when importation was banned. After that, planters bought slaves from other planters, or from slave traders bringing slaves from the east coast.

The plantation had its customary “Big House” which was where the owner of the plantation and his family lived. In front of the “Big House” stood a row of majestic Virginia Live Oaks. 300 years old beauties. Dig this: the average age for a Live Oak is 600 years. That makes those oaks only middle aged! There were 28 trees, to match the 28 columns on the “Big House”. The property has been designated a US National Historic Landmark for its architecture and landscaping.

No matter the number of times I see slave or race-related movies, or visit sites of racism and human denigration, I can’t hold back the emotions. The pain, fear and anxiety of the slaves become mine and real. As the tour guide solemnly narrated the history of the plantation and the lives of the slaves, I became grateful for the timeline in history I happen to inhabit.

Hey, let me tell you a funny story.

When I was an undergraduate, on one of those days when the lads and I we were broke, hungry and sharing a stick of cigarette, a roommate had lamented about his penurious situation and the culpability of his ancestors for his famished state of affair. He maintained that he could have been Michael Jackson or any notable African American. We enquired as to why this was so and he proceeded to tell us an intriguing story.

His great great great granddad had been captured on the shores of Nigeria by slave traders. The poor bugger was beaten and thrown into a ship bound for America. After many weeks on the Atlantic, surviving typhus, measles and smallpox, he eventually arrived America. While at the port and being paraded to be sold, the man managed to slip his bonds and dived into the water. He began to frantically swim towards the open sea. He was shot at and even pelted with canon fire. But the chap kept swimming. He evaded great whites, hammer-heads, orcas and water spirits. He was repeatedly stung by box jellyfish yet he kept swimming. He even evaded other slave ships. He swam non-stop. He swam breaststroke. He swam butterfly stroke. He swam furiously. He swam until he arrived back at his village after 120 days. He was treated to a hero’s welcome and a feast declared in his honour. He was made a chief and married five wives. He lived ever happily after.

As far as my roommate was concerned, the man should have been eaten by a shark. Of what use was it that the man came back to Africa he vented.

“How could the bugger run away from America! To come back to this god-forsaken country and condemn me to be Nigerian! He made it to America, for Christ sake! The America! The Land of The Free. Screw his chains! I could have been Michael Jackson. I could have been Usher. But now I’m a broke Nigerian with uncertain future! Because of an idiotic ancestor! Abeg, pass me the ciga…” 

Just so you know, it was only cigarette we were smoking not marijuana.

The roommate talked about slavery glibly. But it is humour that many African American will not appreciate. Slavery and it consequent discrimination and segregation doesn’t get to us Africans as it does to our brothers in North America. We were never imports with bar codes. They were. They are constantly reminded of the colour of their skin and their inferior position. Which I must remind you all is a fallout of evolutionary biology beliefs. But don’t get me started on that again!

After such an emotional trip, my spirits needed some uplifting. It was upliftment I deemed only a jambalaya could provide.

On my tour bus were two fine African American sisters. Friends and colleagues. They worked in the academia. I’d struck up conversation with them on our way to the plantations. But they were going to the Whitney Plantation. The bus dropped them off at Whitney Plantation while I proceeded to Oak Alley. We picked them up on our way back, So, I invited them to lunch.

They recommended we eat at Dooky Chase restaurant for a proper Creole cuisine. I had never heard of Dooky Chase. Which was to my shame because ex-Presidents W. Bush Jr and Obama had. President Obama ate gumbo at the restaurant in 2008 and George W Bush Jr had Crab soup and shrimp Clemenceau when he  visited New Orleans post Katrina. Among the eminent people who had also dined at Dooky Chase was Thurgood Marshall, the first African American judge of the United States Supreme Court and Dr Martin Luther King.

Emmanuel Dunnand/AFP via Getty Images

Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The restaurant was run by Leah Chase, an icon of the civil rights movement and Creole chef extraordinaire. Her restaurant served as the meeting place for civil rights activists and entertainers. She would feed free both whites and blacks off the frontline of marches for equality. At the time, the restaurant was the only upscale black restaurant in a city with many Jim Crow laws. The restaurant was named after her husband, Edgar ‘Dooky’ Chase Jr., a jazz trumpeter and band leader. Mr. Chase died in 2016 at the age of 88. Leah Chase would later die in June 2019 at the age of 96. I visited the restaurant in July 2019. I never got to meet her. Rotten luck.

So, it was to this illustrious restaurant we were going for lunch. The prospect of dining in the same room as Nat King Cole made the food more appetizing.

But alas! There was no room at the inn! When we got there, there was a queue as long as the Nile. We didn’t have a reservation. The ladies cooed and cajoled but there just wasn’t space for us. Rotten luck raised to power ten.

So, we decided to try our luck at another popular New Orleans soul food restaurant; Willie Mae’s Scotch House. The Food Network and Travel Channel had named it best for “America’s Best Fried Chicken” In 2007. I’m no chicken fan, but if them sisters wanted fried chicken, then fried chicken it was.

Luckily, there was room at the inn. Out of respect for my guests, I pretended to enjoy the fried chicken. I regaled my guests with my jaunt through Europe. Turned out that they had also been to a concentration camp outside Berlin – the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. I told them about my encounter with racism in Poland. They seemed surprised that I was surprised at racist encounters in the world.

Dude, we are black. It goes with the colour of our skin, even in America,” one of the sisters said.

I disagreed and said perhaps black folks in America needed to do more than wanting to be rappers, basketballers and celebrities. I said I didn’t think African Americans were doing enough to rise above their challenges.

From there, the conversation went downhill very fast.

“How could you understand what black people face in America?  We don’t try hard enough? Really? Why would you expect a ‘yes’ when all you’ve ever been told is a ‘no?’ You don’t know our struggles. Your parents weren’t imports. Ours were. You didn’t have to deal with slavery and don’t have to live with racism.”

“You are just so typical of most Nigerians. Arrogant and disdainful of African Americans. You think we are lazy, you don’t want to associate with us. You call us names – akata. Oh, yea, we know you do that…”

 Boy, did I screw up or what! I touched a raw nerve. In retrospect, perhaps I spoke ignorantly. I didn’t mean to disrespect or disparage the challenges African Americans face in the US. But I should have been more thoughtful. Even if it is to have an enjoyable lunch. Lesson learnt.

They wanted to pay for their meal, but I insisted on paying. They humoured me and thanked me but I could tell they were still miffed.

All in all, I absolutely loved New Orleans. I’m coming back and spending more time. This time, I’ll come back with the missus. NOLA is too good to enjoy alone.

And yes, I flew back to Houston. No way was I going to subject my feeble heart to the torture of that bridge again.

I leave you with a few more pictures of NOLA.

They don’t make them like this anymore…

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Photography, Travel

Memories of New York.

So, right. To Uncle Sam.

After junketing through Europe, I flitted across the Atlantic to Gotham. The first city on my US jaunt.

Few cities are as iconic as New York. When you think of America, you might actually be thinking about New York. Yellow taxis. Lady Liberty. NYPD. Manhattan. Hustle. The American Dream. But New York is more than iconic places. New York is an attitude.

“Most cities are nouns. New York is a verb” – John F Kennedy.

You see, New York makes you feel little. And I’m not talking about skyscrapers. Your sense of belittlement comes from the realization that only you knows you are in New York. No one notices you. Sure, if you owe an NY loan shark, someone will know you are in New York. But other than for that lack of gumption, you’ll be just one in the 60 million that visit the city every year. An indistinguishable bee in a mammoth hive. But don’t take it personal. New York doesn’t hate or think little of you. It’s just too busy racking up $840bn in GDP. After all, it is the seat of American capitalism and that beast must be fed.

And New Yorkers? The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it? Everybody’s got things to do and places to be and if you get in their way, well, you’re gonna know about it. One time, my wife’s cousin, a Brooklynite, had visited us in Maryland. She couldn’t wait to get out of Maryland. She said everyone was too slow and she was losing her mind.

This was not my first visit to New York. I’d been here a couple of times. But I can never get enough of the city. In New York, interesting encounters can happen to you without warning. Once at Times Square, my wife and I ran into Beyonce a few years back. She’d stopped to watch same street performers we were watching. Some guys who were doing a Michael Jackson routine. We were no more than ten meters from her. I tried to record a video of her but one of her bodyguards was on to me like a broke cousin.

Slow down, Thanos!

I’d flown in through JFK. I’m ambivalent about JFK. It’s neither a great nor poor airport. It processes you out without a human touch. Very few smiles. Look, I’m not asking for hugs or kisses. Just some human touch. At least at Murtala Muhammed International Airport, the airport personnel smile at you and cajole you for money. That’s human touch. Personal interaction. Even if your wallet is going to be a few notes lighter afterwards.

With some of my country folks, approaching a US Custom and Border Patrol officer calls for spiritual back up. Since a visa merely allows you to travel to a port of entry and then seek admittance from a border officer, and CBP officers known to deny entry to travelers (ATL, I’m looking at you ), many Naija travellers approach these officers with meekness. At that moment, we realise we do not wrestle against flesh and blood and must summon angelic assistance. So don’t be alarmed when you see us muttering under our breath or talking to ourselves. We are engaged in spiritual warfare you best stay out of.

The CBP officials who attended to me liked my camera backpack and National Geographic carry-on. I suppose they made me look like a serious and celebrated NatGeo photographer. When I later traveled to Atlanta, A TSA officer had also complimented me on the backpack and carry-on and thanked me for all the good stuff we bring to their screen on NatGeo. I smiled demurely.

There, all you haters! I’m a National Geographic photographer!

A few mundane questions and the CBP chaps welcomed me to the US.

Ah, New York City! It’s always good to be back!

I hailed a Uber to Brooklyn. My AirBnB was in Brooklyn.

Oh, I love it in Brooklyn!

You see, Brooklyn is kind and real and can be anything you want it to be. It can be upscale. It can be “hood”. It can be homely or it can be distant. Brooklyn doesn’t take sides. Everyone is right in Brooklyn and everyone is wrong in Brooklyn.

And Brooklyn is not a black borough. It is over 44% white and about 34% black. But you find most racial colorations in the borough. Arab Americans enclave, Jewish American enclave, Latin American enclave. Even Russian Americans. Little Russia and Little Odessa around Brighton Beach.

Fancy that. “Russian American.” I suppose there would be American Russians too.

Hey, anyone knows the number of American-North Koreans in the world?

But back to Brooklyn. Brooklyn is getting gentrified however. Richer folks and more middle-class people are moving into the borough making the prices of houses soar. Often beyond the reach of most Brooklynites, especially African Americans. It’s a source of constant angst and anger. But mostly, Brooklyn loves. I feel safe in Brooklyn.

A Brooklyn encounter from many years ago.

It was my first trip to the US. I’d traveled with the missus to New York. We’d just been married and I wanted to meet some of her cousins and other family members. There were only eighteen people at our wedding and not a few family members on either side were upset at the non-invitation. So the trip was a peace-making mission. We would stay with the uncle and cousins in Brooklyn.

On our way from the airport, I had espied a Dunkin’ Donut a few blocks  from the house. The next morning, I woke up early and like a good in-law proclaimed I was going out to get some breakfast for everyone at Dunkin.’ After all, America runs on Dunkin.’

Truth was I was aching sorely for a cigarette. I hadn’t smoked in over twenty four hours and  was dying slowly. I could feel my spirit bidding farewell to my mortal body. I needed nicotine and tar quickly.

Those days I chain-smoked. I was that guy that woke up at 2 am to smoke and jumped into the car to go buy a cigarette when he realised he was out of smokes. And that guy who opts for a stop-over flight instead of a direct one so he could stop over and smoke. I was that hopeless. Kicked the habit now. Nine years since I last lit a cigarette. Surprise, surprise, I haven’t died yet.

So I was saying…

I hurried out of the house with my pack of cigarette in pocket. I walked about three blocks to an intersection and lit a cigarette. I took deep joyful drags and exhaled slowly. It was like air after being waterboarded.

Then this black dude bounced up to me. Unkempt afro, dirty gold teeth, jeans hanging from his butt and fake bling around his neck.

“Hey man, can I have a cigarette?”

I was a little afraid. This was my first time in America and I had preconceived notions of Brooklyn and crime. I hesitated and processed what my action should be. But the dude didn’t sound or look threatening in any way.

“Just a stick, bruh. Help a brother out. You know I’m sayin?”

Yea, dawg. I know what you is sayin’.

I offered him my pack of Rothmans. He took out one stick. I encouraged him to take more.

“Fo real?!”

For real.

He took two more. He asked for a light. I gave him my lighter. He lit the cigarette and took rapid puffs. Happy, he gave me a vigorous bro hug that nearly dislocated my shoulders.

“You ain’t from around here, is you?”

“No, I’m not.”

“Where you from?”

“I’m Nigerian.”

“Africa?”

“No, Nigerian.”

“Yea, Africa. I ain’t ever been to Africa. Adon’t like it in Africa.”

Of course, you don’t, you bonehead.

He gave me another bro hug and bounced off.

My first friend in Brooklyn. I’m really going to like it here.

And there is so much creative energy!

Fulton Street, Brooklyn

Saw this dude at the Broadway Junction station. Probably the first African American Sioux you’ll ever see!

Whereas my jaunt through Europe had been about history – an ignominious history at that- I was coming to America to eat, sleep and take pictures. It’s been nine months since I was bitten by a radioactive photo bug and I’ve been honing my photography powers. I’m seeing improvements. A lot of my compositions are still rushed and I’m still way behind with post processing/editing. But I’ll get there. You will hear of me!

Oh, wait. You already heard of me!

My US jaunt encompassed New York, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and the “Big Easy” – New Orleans. With the exception of New York, I was visiting the other cities for the first time. I was particularly looking forward to going to NOLA – New Orleans, Louisiana. The food! Lord, keep me safe till I get to NOLA!

So, what was there to eat in New York?

Let me tell you about people I have serious beef with.

I don’t care much for anyone who maligns food like pizza, burgers and hot dogs and label them junk food. How can food that gives joy be junk? How can two large lemonades be evil? I’ll tell you what is junk. It’s broccoli, cucumber, cauliflower, lettuce and brussel sprouts. Those are the food responsible for most of the unhappiness in the world. Dig very deep and you’ll find those veggies caused WWII. No one who eats bacon, cheese and pepperoni wakes up to bomb another human being. Companies like Shake Shack and Joe’s Pizza are spreading as much joy around the world as the Salvation Army.

Needless to say my meals in New York were mostly those poor maligned food. They didn’t do my waistline any favours. But be reminded that calories don’t count in heaven.

I had not eaten ‘pepper’ since I left Nigeria two weeks earlier. So I sought to reacquaint my palate with the taste of home. Off I went to Festac Grill off Atlantic Avenue. White rice, ofada sauce with boiled eggs and dodo. Stiffed out of $20. But no point quarreling with food you already paid for. I enjoyed it grudgingly.

Let’s talk about the New York subway for a minute.

Let’s get this out of the way. No other subway in the Milky Way come close to the New York subway in entertainment and pleasant surprises. I haven’t been to Neptune yet, but I’m betting they won’t have Maroon 5 performing in their stations.

I recorded the young hustlers below myself.

I’ve been on a couple of trains and trams in Europe. Boring affair. On the London Tube, everyone might as well be studying for an exam. In France, commuters are too polite to look you in the eye. Not in NY. Those trains may rattle along and be anachronistic, but there’s no knowing who might be sitting next to you. Captain America. Houdini. Keanu Reeves.

Ah yes, my pictures. What have I got to show for the camera slinging across the city? A few decent photographs. But a few people ooh and ahhed over a few of the pictures, though I suspect it was more to encourage me than appreciation. It’s a journey. I’ll get there.

Saw this spot as I walked on the Manhattan Bridge to the Brooklyn end of the bridge.

Colours of New York. Manhattan

Brooklyn Bridge 

    

The Oculus. Downtown Manhattan.

The Oculus.   

The towering skyscrapers of Manhattan banded together to whisper. They looked down at me as I looked up at them with my 18mm wide angle lens. Gotcha!

Brooklyn Bridge Park. 

 

DUMBO here is a must-have in the portfolio of any photographer who visits New York. It is always teeming with photographers. On this day, I had to wake up early to hopefully have DUMBO to myself. I got there at 6 am. I met three photographers! We were considerate to one another.

What I really enjoyed about my trip to New York this time was the fact that I was alone. Didn’t come with the family. No friends. So I was pretty much left to my own devices. Ate what I shouldn’t. Walked distances family wouldn’t and didn’t visit Saks Fifth Avenue. Freedom.

After four days, it was time to bid farewell to NY. Time to head to Atlanta to see friends. Nothing special about my visit to Atlanta though. Same with Houston and Dallas. Staying with friends. Visiting other friends. Shopping for the family. In essence, not blog-worthy visits. I did discover a wicked milk shake shop in Houston though. Right under my nose! I punished myself appropriately for not discovering it sooner by visiting it daily.

So on to New Orleans then.

 

 

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Creative Writing, Travel

My Holocaust jaunt. How it all began.

Sometime in 2018, I watched CNN’s Christiane Amanpour interview Ronen Bergman on his book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. In the interview, Bergman talked about how the Mossad, the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security organ) and AMAN (Israel’s military intelligence) went about aiding perceived enemies of Israel cash in their chips early. Bergman explained that Isreal’s strong hand on its perceived enemies was borne out of centuries of Jewish persecution, the Holocaust and the Talmudic mandate:

“The Talmud says: ‘If someone comes to kill you, rise and kill him first.’ This instinct to take every measure, even the most aggressive, to defend the Jewish people is hardwired into Israel’s DNA.”

Bergman talked about a particular incidence. On the instruction of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Air Force had scrambled two F-15s to blow up a chartered plane thought to be transporting the hated Yasser Arafat. The F-15s circled the plane waiting for final confirmation orders to shoot it down.

Turns out it was not Yasser Arafat on board but his brother, Fathi Arafat, a doctor. He was escorting thirty wounded Palestinian children to Cairo for treatment. The intel was wrong. The strike was called off.

It was a gripping expose.

I was filled with righteous indignation. But it turns out that on no less than five different occasions had F-15s and F-16s been scrambled on the instruction of Ariel Sharon to shoot down commercial airliners thought to be ferrying Yasser Arafat. Only internal sabotage by military officials — galled by the order and fearing war crime charges against Israel — ensured the missions failed.

By the way, when you pray for luck, pray for the the Yasser Arafat-type of luck. Given how badly Ariel Sharon had it in for the man, that he died of natural causes is nothing short of a miracle. As we Yorubas are wont to say, his mother wasn’t dozing in heaven.

I have always loved spooks stories. So after watching the interview, I went out and bought the book.

Two words: don’t be an existential threat to Israel.

OK, that’s seven words. What I meant to say was: mind blown.

How the Israeli government allowed the book to be published beggars belief. The book gave details of many of Israel’s covert operations and the names of principal actors and agents, many of whom are still alive!

Assassination through poisoned toothpaste. Assassination of enemy nuclear scientists. Car bombs. Letter bombs. Sidling into hostile and friendly countries to eliminate, abduct or blow up targets. All in a day’s work.

The book was a scintillating read. However, I doubt that families of the many dearly departed on account of Israeli bullets, knives or bombs would find it so. Not if you learned your beloved was dumped into the Mediterranean from 30,000 feet.

But the book sowed a seed in my heart. To understand a man you only need to understand his past and his fears. So, I thought to myself: what if I visited some of the historic sites of Jewish persecution in Europe? Understand what haunts Israel so badly?

It was a very entertaining thought. I already had a US vacation planned and was going to fly through Europe. Why not stop over for some gulag history and haunting memories on the way to divine cuisine in New Orleans? And since I had recently been smitten by a photography bug, I could take some interesting pictures.

Oh, I liked the sound of it. I liked it very much. So, I planned the trip and off I went.

Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, Budapest and Krakow. Six European cities in 9 days. Then I skipped over the Atlantic for some R and R. New York, Atlanta, Houston and New Orleans.

You can’t be broke if you don’t check your bank account.

Since many human beings suffer from the grand delusion that people are dying to read whatever drivel they write, I am sharing memories of the trip in separate posts. The links are below. Maybe it might inspire you to have some sense and not travel, the consequence of which is some seriously expanded mind.

Hopefully, not from visiting coffee shops in Amsterdam.

Please click on the cities below for account of each trip.

Amsterdam. Berlin Munich Budapest Krakow New York waka. New Orleans waka

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Creative Writing, Travel

My Holocaust jaunt. Amsterdam, I shall be back!

So, let’s talk about Amsterdam.

If you are reading this blogpost, chances are you probably read the earlier post that led to it. However, if you didn’t or haven’t, it might be a good idea to. The link is here.

Amsterdam was the first port of call on my European jaunt. I had never been to the city although I’d flown through Amsterdam Schiphol on several occasions. I’d heard a lot about Amsterdam. Its diversity. The Red Light District and legalised prostitution. Coffee Houses that sell no coffee. The canals. Rijksmuseum. Tulips. The Amsterdam Arena and Ajax football club. The ‘Venice of the North was the stuff of myths. I was therefore looking forward to seeing the city.

So, on the wings of the Flying Dutchman I flew into Amsterdam Schiphol. I have always loved Schiphol. It has an easy and laid-back feel I find pleasing. Either arriving in Amsterdam or transiting through Schiphol, you do not feel harried or anxious. Cool Runnings. By the way, do you know our own Murtala Muhammed International Airport was modeled after Amsterdam Schiphol? We only decided to stop at one terminal.

After arriving at Schiphol, I took the NS train to the city-center Amsterdam Centraal station, or “Centraal” as the natives call it. The Gothic-styled station is the biggest in Amsterdam and the second busiest in the Netherlands after Utrecht.

What’s remarkable about Amsterdam Centraal station? Why, the double-decker trains, of course! I have never seen one. So you would understand my excitement when one pulled to a stop in front of me. I jumped in. I couldn’t care less if the train was going to Fallujah. I had to get on a double-decker train. Upstairs seating would be fine, thank you.

The hostel I booked was across the River IJ and Centraal. I arrived in Amsterdam in the wee hours and supposedly would not be able to check into the hostel until 3 pm. Eager to make the most of my two-day stay in the city, I opted to take a shower in a facility at the station so I can hit the city immediately. €18 that luxury cost me. A mugging, especially since the hostel checked me into my room at 8:30 am.

No justice can be done to exploring a city in two days. Budget and my time constraints notwithstanding, there was no excuse for treating iconic Amsterdam with such levity. Apologies Amsterdamers, I shall be back!

But what were my first thoughts of Amsterdam?

Why, the bicycles of course!

The ubiquity!

There are close to 900,000 bicycles in the city. For a population of 1.1m people. It’s ridiculous.

And what dexterity too!

I am convinced Amsterdamers cycled right out of the womb and are born with wheels instead of legs. Folks around here probably ride a bicycle from the bedroom to the toilet.

I chose to walk. I will not embarrass my ancestors among such aces.

And what is Amsterdam without its canals? It’s the only reason it is called the Venice of the North. I must have walked by or gone over 50 canals but I understand the city has over 160 canals and over 1500 bridges. That’s preposterous! Amsterdam, you take liberality too far!

You can’t miss the diversity in Amsterdam too. It is pleasantly a multi-racial and diverse city. Only 49% of Amsterdamers are Dutch while 50% are of foreign ancestry. Folks of non-Western origin account for 35% of the city’s population and over 170 nationalities call the city home. Which was great because I loathe finding myself in a back street with ultra-nationalists. I am concerned about racism when I travel. But I needn’t worry. Black lives seemed to matter in Amsterdam.

If I was to describe Amsterdam in one short sentence it would be “a cosmopolitan city that still managed to remain a little town.” You get the feeling you could walk the whole city in a day.

So, why did I come to Amsterdam?

Amsterdam held a special interest to me for two reasons. One, its light-handed treatment of topical moral issues is fascinating. Prostitution is legal and unionised in the city. And so also is recreational marijuana use. The Dutch reckon that if people are going to pay for sex or smoke ‘weed,’ there’s little you can do to stop them. So why not allow and regulate the activity instead? The city is famed for its Red Light District and places that sell marijuana are euphemistically called Coffee Shops.

Coffee shops that sell no coffee. Quintessentially Dutch.

By the way, I never visited the Red Light District. See no evil, think no evil.

So yes, the Dutch believe morality should not be legislated. Live and let live. Which sounds all nice and dandy. But where do we draw the line? Next stop bestiality? Paedophilia? Incest?

The second reason Amsterdam held special interest to me was its long tradition of welcoming the persecuted. Catholics and Jews found respite in the city during very difficult times. The city welcomed Jews from all over Europe when everyone else was throwing them out. They gave them a home and put their business acumen to use building the city. It was also why the city was also referred to as the “Jerusalem of the North” on account of the big Jewish population in the city at a time.

Stories of Jewish persecution in Amsterdam will inevitably lead to the story of Anne Frank and the Anne Frank House. Which was one of the reasons why I was in Amsterdam.

That and food and photography.

Let’s talk about food, shall we?

Many white folks gush about the street food called herring.

“Oh, you must eat herring when you are in Amsterdam.”

“Herring is a Dutch institution. It is delicious and healthy.”

“You can’t go to Amsterdam and not eat herring”

Oh herring this. Oh herring that.

So I went looking for this herring and tried it.

My advice to you: never listen to white folks!

As a matter of fact, never listen to anyone who finds raw fish, pickles and onions tasty.

But I did like bitterballen (which is not bitter at all), stroopwafel and some of the Indonesian cuisine.

And cheese! What is Amsterdam without cheese?

I visited the Henri Willig cheese factory in Zaanse Schans outside the city. I have never seen such varieties of cheese! Baby Gouda, Goat Cheese, Sheep Cheese, Baby Goat, Baby Cheese, Herbs & Garlic, Pepper, Red Chilli Pepper, Fenugreek. My face lit up like a Nigerian politician at the sight of lucre.

And eat I did. I was shameless with the generous free tasting. Deride me all you want. He who brings cheese, brings life.

One of the pleasant cheese maids proceeded to teach us the right way to pronounce ‘Gouda’. It is pronounced ‘hak-ouda.’ You pronounced the ‘ha’ as if you were summoning phlegm from your gut.

OK ma’am. Just let me have the cheese, thank you.

And the weather!

In terms of the worst weather on the planet, London has kith and kin in Amsterdam. If your life depended on it not raining, you will die. Because it will rain in Amsterdam. In winter. In fall. In summer. In spring. I hated that about Amsterdam.

Right. To Anne Frank and the Anne Frank House. One of the reasons why I was in Amsterdam.

If you don’t know the story of Anne Frank, allow me to summarise.

Jewish girl Anne Frank was 11 years old when Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Anne lived with her father, mother and sister in Amsterdam.

As Jewish people began to disappear all over Europe, killed by the Nazis, Anne’s father, Otto, began building a secret annex in his office to hide the family from the Nazis if things came to a head in Amsterdam.

It did. In 1942, when Anne was 13 years old, the family moved into the secret annex. They were joined by four other people. It was very cramped in the annex.

They lived there for two years until they were discovered in 1944. Rumour has it they were ratted out. The Nazis deported the family to the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Poland (Which I was to visit).

Anne and her sister, Margot, were later moved to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. Condition at Bergen-Belsen was no less bad than at Auschwitz. The prisoners were overworked and many died from sheer exhaustion. Communicable diseases were also rife in the camp and Anne and  Margot contracted typhus to which they eventually succumbed.

It broke my heart that they died in February 1945. British forces liberated the camp in April 1945.

Sweethearts, if only you knew help was around the corner. If only you could have kept going for two more months. 

Peeps, no matter what, hold on. Persevere. Find a reason to hold on. Victory might be 24 hours away.

Anne’s father Otto was the only survivor from the secret annex. Anne’s mother had also died at Auschwitz.

But while Anne was in the secret chamber, she kept a diary. She wrote about life in the secret annex and her hopes and aspiration. She wanted to be a writer and a journalist and had intended to publish the story of life in the secret annex.

The diary somehow escaped the clutches of the Nazis. Otto Frank was moved by her daughter’s story. On encouragement, in 1947 he published the diary into the now popular novel, Het Achterhuis (The Secret Annex). He hoped that readers of the diary would become aware of the inherent evil in discrimination and racism.

The book has since been translated into over 70 languages. The house in which Anne and her family hid is now a museum, the Anne Frank House. More than 1.2 million people visit the house every year.

That was some summary, wasn’t it? You really can’t summarise agony.

I had intended to visit the Anne Frank House. But due to the frazzling of cells in my brain for no apparent reason, I forgot to book the guided tour of the house.

You see, tickets to the Anne Frank House are sold out up to 2 months in advance, especially during summer. And this was summer. A limited amount of tickets are released online at 9 am every morning on each day of visit. But the queue of people waiting to snatch them up stretch from Amsterdam to Babylon. I am not especially endowed with patience.

I kicked myself over and over again. How could I have forgotten? How could I have been careless?

Well, I was in Amsterdam anyway and I might as well make the most of it. I set about taking pictures. I wandered around the city. The Joordan, De Pijp, Amsterdam-Noord. I visited the Rijksmuseum, Zaanse Schans, Inntel Hotel at Zaandam. I should fare better in Berlin, my next stop on the jaunt.

But it rained. My two days in Amsterdam were cold, wet and overcast.

1-0 Amsterdam. You win this tie. There will be a return leg. You will not get the better of me again!

Right. On to Berlin then.

Please click here for my Berlin account.

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My Holocaust jaunt. Berlin you beauty!

So, here I am. Berlin. The second city on my European jaunt. The first was Amsterdam. You can read about that here.

It feels ridiculous to wake up at 6:00 am to catch a train when you are on a vacation. But that’s what I needed to do if I was to catch my 7:00 am train to Berlin. On my tight European jaunt, every hour counts. I was going to be in Berlin for only two days. The earlier I hit the road, the more I could pack into a day.

From Amsterdam Centraal, I took the Deutsche Bahn IC to Hannover. There I changed unto the ultra-modern ICE Sprinter train to Berlin Hauptbanhof. Those Sprinter trains were mighty comfortable. And fleet! The whole journey was some minutes shy of seven hours. By far the longest train journey I’d been.

We crossed into Germany at the small town of Bad Bentheim. Sleepy me, I thought the town read ‘Bad Bethlehem’.

German immigration police came on board at Bad Bentheim to check passports and right to cross into Deutschland. Polite lot. We were soon on our way.

I arrived at Berlin Hauptbanhof at about 1:45 pm. ‘Hauptbanhof’ means ‘main rail station’. And what a station it is! A humongous glass and steel affair. A most spectacular modern architectural edifice. It spans five floors and is one of the busiest train stations in Europe. It sees over 110 million passengers a year.

I was promptly lost.

A question; why do many Germans pretend they don’t understand or speak English? Many I approached for direction said they spoke spattering English, when in fact they spoke sufficient English to give me directions? I’m not asking them to explain Lord of the Flies in English.

Fellas, please leave me out of your beef with England. I genuinely need help!

I took the S-Bahn (city rapid railway) to Berlin Friedrichstraße Station (pronounced Freedricht-‘strassa’). Friedrichstraße Station is a popular stop for tourists. I thought I might feel my way around the rail service in Berlin before I hit my hostel. I was after all a tourist.

On exiting the station, what should befall my eyes?

Currywurst!

Nestling against an exit of the station was an imbiss, a snack shop that sold street food. If Berlin is the city for street food, then currywurst is its mayor.

I quickly got in line and ordered a fare. Pork sausage (or Bratwurst), ketchup, curry powder, fried onions, mayo and fat fries.

60,000 calories of Berliner goodness!

Oh Berlin, could this be love?

Having wolfed down my currywurst, I was now in the right frame of mind to find the whereabouts of my hostel. I hailed a Uber. The day was sunny and beautiful.

Berlin, you and I are going to get along just fine!

So why am I in Berlin?

Easy. This was the capital of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. The fall of Berlin signaled the end of Nazi Germany and its reign of terror in occupied Europe.

A brief explanation of Nazi ideology.

The basic elements of Hitler and Nazi ideology were hatred of democracy, communism, and Jews. This was combined with a belief that the German people were superior to all other races. This warped ideology proclaimed biological inequality and the right of the “superior” German nation to dominate and decide the fate of the “inferior” nations. The way Hitler saw it, Jews, Slavs, Roma (gypsies) and blacks were at the bottom of the food chain and must be rid of.

This ideology necessitated the invasion and occupation of Europe, especially Eastern Europe, which Herr Hitler regarded as German “living space” – lebensraum. He therefore proceeded on the liquidation of the “peoples of the East.” The liquidation entailed reducing fertility, increasing mortality and outright extermination.

There. A brief history of what plunged the world into WWII. But let’s pause for a moment here.

Do you see the parallel between Hitler’s depraved racial convictions and atheistic evolutionary theory?

Let me break it down for you like MC Hammer.

Evolutionary theory infers that we are all beings of inconsequential existence. A mass of chemicals and impulses accidentally spawned by a swirling mass of gas. There is no purpose to our existence. We arrived here by chance and ‘natural selection’. The stronger adapted to its environment and survived. The weak died. In fact, the stronger ‘superior race’ must of necessity eliminate the ‘weaker’ and ‘inferior race for a progressive march in the evolutionary journey. That gave birth to the field of German eugenics – the genetic engineering to isolate and ‘breed out’ the weak and inferior race so they would not contaminate the superior gene pool of the Germans.

Further, in the atheistic evolutionary theory, there is no room for morality. No room for moral absolutes. Right and wrong are relative. The possession of morality may well be a handicap that prevents a species from advancing. Human lives have no intrinsic value. No transcendental qualities.

But a human life does have intrinsic value. Endued to us by our Creator because we are Imago Dei – created in His image. It is why we condemn murder. Why we loathe cruelty, and why we have sympathy for the weak. When we accept evolutionary biology beliefs as true, we accept that, in essence, there is no difference between a man and a cow.

Which, when you think about it, may not be a ridiculous idea. After all, you have come across many cows that can play a concerto, write books or code in Python. I am beginning to suspect that all that Neil Armstrong “one-small-step-for-man-one- giant-leap-for-mankind” business may well have been a misattribution. Clearly, it was Matilda the Cow who first stepped on the moon and what she probably said was “one small step for a cow, one giant leap for all ungulates.”

Embedded in evolutionary beliefs are the roots of racial discrimination, subjugation and death. Thought you should know what you are signing up for when you gush over evolution.

OK, back to Berlin.

Of particular interest to me in Berlin was the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial, the Topography of Terror, the Mauermuseum, and the remnants of the Berlin Wall.

Well, those places in addition to food and photography. I had only two days to spend in the city so my itinerary was cramped.

But what were my first impressions of Berlin?

Well, Berlin is open. And straight-talking. And cosmopolitan. And hip. And punk. And inexpensive. And artsy. And German. And Turkish. Indeed Berlin has the highest number of Turkish people outside Istanbul.

Which, pardon me, must inevitably lead to talks of the Doner Kebab.

I’m sure you can swear that you’ve eaten some wicked kebabs in your life. And you may very well have. But if you have not eaten Doner Kebabs in Berlin, well, you haven’t lived!

Take a look at the pictures below. Oh Berlin, you are so good to me!

At this point, you may think that this Jide bloke is besotted with food. I can’t tell you what to think. What I can tell you though is this: Only the living eat, people. Only the living.

But I digress again.

The Holocaust Memorial is a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust – the Nazi mass execution of Jews, Roma, Slavs and other nationalities. It consists of 2,711 concrete slabs erected in a grid pattern on grounds that slope. The memorial looked like a cemetery to me although the designers of the memorial say it is not.

As the memorial is on a sloping field, once you go in, the concrete slabs begin to grow taller into pillars until they completely consume you. The memorial becomes one massive maze. The pillars become smaller as you approach the exit. Quite a design marvel.

But it was sobering in there. The memorial evoked a feeling of loneliness. Of being lost and nameless.

Next stop was the touristy Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. Holocaust stories aside, I was still a tourist and touristy things are well in order. I wandered around the Mitte district a bit.

In the evening, it was time to look for…the Burgermeister.

In Germany, the chairman of the executive council or cabinet in many towns and cities is known as the ‘Burgermeister.’ But let me be clear, I was not in Berlin to meet politicians. The Burgermeister I was looking for is the Burgermeister. The famed burger joint in Berlin.

I sought it. I found it. It was located under a subway in the artsy Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district. In an old disused public toilet from the 1920s (how cool is that!).

It is said that Burgermeister makes the best burgers in the whole of Germany. Hundreds even vouch that its burgers are in the top three of the best burgers in Europe. Now that is some reputation that must be verified.

I quickly got in line (there is always a long line at the Burgermeister). I ordered the chili cheeseburger and fries.

I took a deep breath.

I lifted the burger towards my mouth.

I took a bite.

Oh Berlin, I have been an idiot for not coming to you sooner!

The next day, it was time to visit the East Side Gallery, the Mauermuseum and the Topography of Terror.

The East Side Gallery is an open-air gallery of frescoes painted directly on 1.3km-long remains of the Berlin Wall (you do know about the Berlin Wall, right? Right?!) It sees over 3 million visitors each year.

The Mauermuseum is just across Checkpoint Charlie (don’t tell me you don’t know about Checkpoint Charlie!). It gave insight into life in the Soviet-run ‘German Democratic Republic’ or East Germany. I saw exhibits of the dangerous and brave measures East Germans took to escape to a better life in Allied-run West Germany.

Escapees hid in the trunk of Volkswagen Beetles like this

This armour-plated car simply barreled through the border into the West amidst a hail of bullets. All occupants made it!

The Topography of Terror is both an outdoor and indoor Nazi Germany history museum. A very long segment of the Berlin Wall in its original state is also visible here.

In all, I had a very enjoyable stay in Berlin. I liked the place. I felt welcomed. I could have been Herr Alade from Roundtheblockdorf. Maybe if I stayed longer I would see the ugliness inherent in every city. But as far as this trip went, Berlin was aces. I will be coming back.

I’ll leave you with more pictures and memories of Berlin below.

Next stop, into the heart of Bavaria – Munich!

Please click here for Munich.

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My Holocaust jaunt. Imperious Munich.

Guard post at Dachau Concentration Camp.

So Munich was the third city I was visiting on my 9-day, 5-city Holocaust jaunt. You can read about my visit to Berlin here and the visit to Amsterdam here.

My chariot from Berlin to Munich was once again the ultra-fast ICE Sprinter service. Just like the train service from Amsterdam to Berlin, you simply get on the train without a check-in. You get to the train station, locate your train and get on the couch. No one checks your ticket or absence of it. Now, I believe you are not that guy nursing the idea of free travel at the Deutsche Bahn’s expense. I advise you to perish the thought now. At some point during the journey, the conductor will come round to check for tickets. If you are caught without a ticket, the train will be stopped, you’ll be tied on the tracks and then run over.

OK, just kidding. Don’t be a jerk. Pay for your travel.

But fly that train flew! I clocked it doing over 210km/hr at periods. It flew. Through meadows, valleys, farms and wind turbine installations. We got to Munich Hauptbanhof in just under four hours.

Munich. Beautiful architecture. Beer Halls. Lederhosen. BMW. Bayern Munich. Oktoberfest. The heart of Bavaria.

What were my first impressions?

Well, in Munich beer is food. You could have had five bottles of beer and not had a drink yet!

 Hahaha. The Dachau tour guide told us that.

There is some aloofness about Munich. An imperiousness. This is not an effusive and necessarily welcoming city like Berlin. You are well-advised not to expect warmth.

A curious incidence.

While waiting to catch the train to Dachau at Munich Hauptbanhof on my second day, I went to a Chinese food stall for some chow. I stood in front of the menu board unsure of what to order. Then along waltzes a smiling oriental attendant. He enthusiastically pointed me in the direction of fried chicken and boiled potatoes.

No, he didn’t just do that!

I was livid and barked my disgust at him. That caught him unawares.

I was surprised that he was surprised. So, I thought to myself; “Calm down, Jide. Maybe this dude doesn’t even understand the symbolism of black people and fried chicken. I mean, the dude could barely speak English. And you are not African American anyways. So, why the offense? Maybe fried chicken and boiled potatoes was all he’d seen most black people order.”

No matter. I still thought it was profiling and stereotyping.

I stilled my anger with a bowl of noodles and pork chops.

Why am I in Munich anyway?

Munich was “Hauptstadt der Bewegung” – “the Capital of the Movement.” The birthplace and spiritual home of the Nazi Party. This was where Hitler began making all his speeches and building the followership that resulted in the Third Reich.

Munich was also where the Nazis built the first concentration camp, at Dachau, just outside the city.

I had booked the Hitler and Third Reich Walking Tour. There were twelve of us on the tour. Our tour guide was a guy named Achim. Sarcastic and funny guy. He took us on a walking tour of historical Nazi sites in Munich. We learned about Hitler and the Nazi party. We walked over 6km in about 2hr 30m.

Achim

By the way, did you know that Hitler was a sir-fart-a-lot? Yep, he was a fat-bag. His farts were so horrendous they could put out an elephant.

He also thought he would die young, like his parents.

He died at 56.

40 would have been better.

Maybe 30.

Heck, maybe he should never have been born.

Day two of my stay in Munich was when I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp and the BMW Museum.

Arbeit macht frei.

That’s the dubious charge that greets you at the gate of the Dachau concentration camp and all concentration and extermination camps the Nazis built. It means “work sets you free.”

I could see the twisted humour in it. Inmates died from overwork and exhaustion. Their spirits left their bodies. You could therefore say work set their souls free.

My Dachau (pronounced ‘Dakau‘) was an older German chap who looked so much like Christoph Waltz. I liked him the moment he was introduced to us.

Dachau was opened in 1933 shortly after Hitler became Reich Chancellor. It was the prototype for all other Nazi concentration camps. It was initially designed to be a “school of correction” where political prisoners and criminals were sent for punishment and harsh re-education. It eventually evolved into a death camp where thousands of Jews and other “undesirables” died through malnutrition, overwork, disease or outright execution.

The “undesirables” were people Hitler considered unfit for the new Germany he conceived or people who opposed his racist Nazi ideology. These comprised artists, intellectuals, the physically and mentally handicapped, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and of course, Jews. Some prisoners of war were also kept in Dachau; Poles, Soviets, French, Yugoslavs, Czechs.

Dig this. When the US Army’s 45th Infantry Division liberated Dachau in April 1945, they released all the prisoners of war. The Soviet POWs refused to go home. They argued that if they went back to Russia, Stalin would probably treat them far worse for having been caught by the Germans. At least 3 of them shot themselves dead rather than go back to Russia.

Beware any regime that extols atheism.

Anyway, back to Dachau.

At Dachau, detainees were also subject to brutal medical experiments. In the cause of the camp’s existence, over 34,000 people perished there.

You ask yourself how educated and enlightened people such as the Germans were could be complicit in the mass murder of millions of innocent people.

As you would expect after such a distressing tour, my spirit was a wee bitter. So I found myself a nice little confectioner and ordered nice Bavarian strudels. Two plates. Just to be certain the bitterness was fully dispelled.

And well, what do you know! The Doner Kebab chased me to Munich!

It is something of a consensus that Mustafa Gemuse Kebabs are about the best kebabs to be had in Germany. I’d had my fill of kebabs in Berlin and was not going to have any more in Munich. But what’s a man to do when Mustafa willfully erects a kebab shop in your path? I’m not one to spurn a man’s hustle.

Ah yes, the BMW Museum.

Sim Simma, who got the keys to my beemer?

Nothing better to take your mind off death and suffering than a beemer.

By the way, do you know the Quandt family owns about 49% stake in BMW? They are the richest family in Germany.

Not particularly interesting news. Until you realise that Gunther Quandt, their progenitor, built his vast empire aiding the Nazi war effort and using forced labour. At some point, the Quandt businesses used over 50,000 forced labourers from concentration camps.

If you don’t have to pay salaries and benefits to 50,000 employees, that saves a tidy penny, doesn’t it? Pennies that grow over time and that could, for instance, be useful in acquiring a certain troubled automobile company – BMW. Courtesy of the Nazi dispossessing Jews of their businesses, Gunther was also able to acquire many Jewish businesses for next to nothing.

But hey, it’s all water under the bridge now. Many of the companies we have grown to love today also profited from the Third Reich; Hugo Boss (he made those smart black uniforms the dreaded SS wore), Siemens, IBM (developed the numbering mechanics by which all Jews were identified and recorded in the camps), Coca-Cola (“Fanta” was specifically developed in Germany for Germans to bypass the trade embargo the Third Reich placed on Coke and American imports), Bayer (made the Zyklon B gas used to gas Jews) and many more. Many of those companies have officially acknowledged and apologized for their part in the Holocaust. They have contributed millions of dollars to funds set up for reparation and compensation.

Right across the road from the BMW Museum is BMW Welt. You can test drive a BMW and order one there. It will be delivered to you anywhere in Europe.

What was that sales pitch from BMW again, “it’s not about what you make. It’s about what you make people feel.”

Look, all I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.

Right.

Next stop, Budapest!

Please click here for my Budapest account

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My Holocaust jaunt. Hello Buda and Pest!

So, on to Central Europe. To Budapest.

Just so you know, Hungarians hate it when you refer to Hungary as being in Eastern Europe. They are in C-E-N-T-R-A-L-E-U-R-O-P-E!

My train from Munich to Budapest was the Euronight sleeper train Kalman Imre. It leaves Munich Hbf at 23:00pm to arrive at Budapest Keleti station at about 8:00 am. I’d booked a berth in a 4-bed couchette for a comfy night’s sleep. A pleasant Swiss guy and I turned out to be the only occupants of the cabin. I was hoping on that. I’m in luck!

The train pulled out of Munich Hauptbahnhof. While the Kalman Imre was a clean train, it was not as modern as the Deutsche Bahn Sprinter trains I’ve come to love. The bunks in the cabins reminded me of my boarding school. Double bunks. Thin mattresses. Flat pillows. It was a cherished memory. The ride was smooth.

A few minutes into the journey, the portly conductor rolled to our cabin. He advised that we bolt our door throughout the journey. I found the advice unnerving. What did he mean bolt our door? I asked him if there was a possibility of theft or robbery. He shrugged and smiled.

Not good. Not good at all. My mind went to Murder on the Orient Express.

I bolted the door after him.

It was an uneventful journey. It was dark. We went through sleeping villages and towns. Nothing of interest. There was a full moon out and my mind entertained otherworldly thoughts. What if a lycan jumped on the train with Van Helsin in hot pursuit? After all, Transylvania was not far off. I thought I also saw Dracula perched on a church spire regarding our train with interest.

At some point during the journey, I woke up to the sound of loud conversations outside our door. It must have been around 2 am. Soon there was a loud knock on our door.

We didn’t open it.

I wasn’t going to open my door in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere when I’d been advised to bolt it.

After a few seconds, the knock was repeated. This time heavier.  It was accompanied by a deep-throated announcement of “border officer” or something to that effect. Only then did we open the door.

At the door were three well-built men in plain clothes. They were accompanied by the conductor. They were dressed in mufti but had police-type vests over their clothes. They had sidearms. One of them had some sort of scanning device in his hand.

They introduced themselves. There were Austrian border control officers. We had crossed into Austria. Big deal. It’s only Austria, not Asgard. They asked to see our passports. The guy with the scanner scanned my Schengen visa with the device. He got on a mobile phone and read something out on my visa. He wasn’t speaking English so I couldn’t tell what he was saying. Soon after he gave me back my passport and bade me goodnight. They were professional and courteous if stern-looking.

Alas, my Swiss mate took leave of me at Vienna. I now had the cabin to myself. There was still about three hours left till we arrive at Budapest.

After what seemed like a millenia, finally, Budapest.

The Budapest Keleti Station.

Courtesy seat61.com

Large, classic and dated. I’m certain it looked grand in 1884 when it was opened. To me, however, it looked like a train station in a Cold-War Eastern Europe. Russian and American spooks arriving in trench coats and umbrellas.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. 

I attracted some curious glances as I got down from the coach and headed out of the station. I took it Budapest didn’t see too many handsome black dudes. Well, here I am fellas! Free hugs for the first ten smiles!

Budapest. The Hungarian capital.

Cleft in two by the mighty Danube River. Hilly and imperial Buda to the west, and flat, buzzing and bourgeois Pest to the east. The two cities came together in 1873 to form Budapest.

Check this. One of the names for consideration for the city was Pestbuda? Luckily, the politicians didn’t have the final say.

So, why am I in Budapest?

You mean apart from the fact that the name sounds romantic?

Well, if there was a single country that experienced the double whammy of both Nazism and Communism within a short period, it was Hungary.

During WWII, the Nazi proxy party in Hungary – the Arrow Cross party – a fascist organisation, unleashed total terror on the people of Budapest. Thousands of Hungarian Jews were rounded up and deported to extermination camps all over Europe. Some were executed in the city and dumped into the Danube.

Then came the Soviets after Hitler lost the war. They imposed their own brand of terror on Hungary and Budapest. Citizens were reduced to subjects and killed for the flimsiest reason.

Consequently, I was in Budapest to learn more about Jewish subjugation and communist oppression. To that end, I was very keen to visit the Dohany Street Synagogue – the largest Jewish synagogue in Europe and the memorial it housed. I was also visiting Memento Park, with its giant sculptures venerating communism. On my hit list were also the Arrow Cross Party torture chamber – House of Terror and Shoes on the Danube Promenade memorial.

But first, what were my first impressions of Budapest?

At times, I thought it was a city suspicious of black people. I did not experience any overt racist incidence. But it’s all in the simple things. The stares. The looking-over-shoulders at me as I walked past. The deliberate attempt to avoid hand contact.

In Budapest, I was conscious that I was black. But I sensed no aggression or resentment. More like caution and indifference. I can live with that. I’m gonna be out of your lives in two days.

There is no Uber in Budapest, only Taxify (Bolt). I can’t explain it but I found all the Taxify drivers in Budapest the most amiable of purveyors. Almost all of them thought I was American. I wasn’t feigning a foreign accent. One of the drivers put on a hip-hop track as I got into the car. He was bobbing his head enthusiastically and smiling at me. I rated him 5 stars for effort.

Hungarian House of Parliament.

St Matthias Cathedral

Love on the Danube. St Matthias Cathedral across the river.

But it irks me at the supposition that any touristy black man in Europe is likely not African. Its part of the racist profiling of Africans. My wife and I had encountered this perception on earlier visits to Paris and Rome. Some white hucksters in those cities had tried to sell us on some over-priced memento taking us for gullible Americans. The one in Rome kept saying “American, buy. Only $40.” In Paris, the huckster was around the Louvre.  He accused me of denying being American because I did not want to buy from him. Only when I began to berate him in Yoruba did he leave me alone.

I had such a cramped itinerary so I wasted no time in getting started. I checked into my hostel, showered and hit the town. First stop, the Dohány Street Synagogue. I have never been inside a Jewish synagogue and I couldn’t be presented with a more fitting synagogue. The Dohány Street Synagogue is the largest Jewish synagogue in Europe.

You have to go through serious security checks before you get in. Pat downs, body scanners and luggage scanners by eagle-eyed and steely-faced security personnel. One time, I put my camera backpack on the ground and took a few steps away from it to take pictures. Two security men were instantly on to me telling me to pick the bag up.

I am not going to fart in this place without clearance.

But once inside, the splendour and glitz are impressive. Seated in the pew, a rabbi talked us through Judaism, its different sects and the history of the synagogue.

With the Nazis penchant for confining Jews to a single location before transportation to concentration camps, the synagogue found itself within the borders of the Jewish Ghetto in Budapest created by the Nazis. The Nazis had similarly created such ghetto in Warsaw – the Warsaw Ghetto. The synagogue consequently housed several hundred Jews. Over two thousand Jews died within the ghetto from starvation and the cold. They were uncustomarily buried within the premises of the synagogue. The tombs remain to date. At the back of the synagogue is the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs, a metallic willow tree whose leaves bear names and tattoo numbers of the dead and those who had disappeared. I was moved to tears.

Done with the Dohaney Street Synagogue, I hailed a Taxify to St Matthias Cathedral and the Fisherman’s Bastion on the Buda side. The latter is perhaps the most visited tourist attraction in Budapest on account of its panoramic view of the city.

In the evening, it was time for some chow. And what better place to eat than the Szazeves Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Budapest. A Taxify driver had recommended the restaurant for an authentic Hungarian experience. I checked the review online and knew I had to pay them a visit

Meet my dinner.

Magyaros gulyasleves or Goulash soup Hungarian style. And Belszingulyas galuskaval aka Sirloin goulash with dumplings. I tell you, people, a person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.

I didn’t dream that up. Check Eccl 2:24.

The next day, it was time to hit the House of Terror and the Shoes on the Danube Promenade.

The House of Terror is a museum on the popular Andrassy Avenue in Budapest. The museum contained artifacts and exhibits related to the fascist and communist era in Hungary. Citizens were interrogated, tortured or killed in the building by both the Arrow Cross Party – and the AVH, the puppet but no less mean state security apparatus of the occupying Soviets.

An ominous soundtrack accompanies you as you walked throughout the house. It was dimly lit, adding to the sense of dread. The dungeons below were particularly unnerving. You feel someone might come out from nowhere and do you in. Painfully, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the building.

Shoes on the Danube Promenade is the most touching and poignant reminder of the atrocities of the Nazis against Hungarian Jews in Budapest.

Installed along the bank of the Danube were 60 pairs of shoes, sculpted out of iron and true to life in size and detail. The shoes were in the fashion of the 40s. They are a memorial to the over 20,000 Jews shot on the bank of the Danube by the Arrow Cross Party.

Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends and children were rounded up and lined up on the bank of the Danube. They were asked to remove their shoes and face their executioners (shoes were valuable during the war). They were then shot in cold blood, their bodies falling into the freezing Danube.

It was a haunting memory. I imagined children holding tight onto the hands of their parents cold and crying and being told by their parents that everything was going to be all right, when in fact they knew it wasn’t. 

The Shoes on the Danube Promenade was the highlight of my trip to Budapest. I tossed and turned in my bed that night. I wasn’t prepared for the emotions of the memorial.

Well, if I was this torn by the shoes, what emotions will I experience when I get to Auschwitz-Birkenau?

One day at a time, Jide. One day at a time.

Right. To my last European city – Krakow.

Please click here for my Krakow account.

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Creative Writing, Travel

My Holocaust jaunt. Krakow. Auschwitz-Birkenau.

On to the last leg of my Holocaust jaunt. To Krakow, Poland.

If this is the first post you are reading about my European jaunt, it might be worthwhile to read why I embarked on this 9-day, 5-city tour. You’ll find that here. You may then follow up with accounts of my trips to AmsterdamBerlinMunich and Budapest.

Done with Budapest, I chose to take a bus to Vienna. I would then take a sleeper train from the Wien Hauptbanhof to Krakow.

So, why did I choose to detour via Vienna?

Because I can! Stop asking silly questions!

But really, Budapest to Vienna is just three hours by bus. I thought I might hop over to have a look at the city. After all, this was the city of Mozart, Beethoven and Freud.

And the Käsekrainer.

 

That is a Käsekrainer.

It’s a large sausage filled with cheese. When grilled, the cheese melts deliciously and with it any resolve to shun cholesterol. It is It is usually served with bread, mustard and/or ketchup. It’s a favourite street food of Viennese.

Oh Käsekrainer! If I spend an extra day with you, I might not ever leave Vienna again.

Vienna or ‘Wien’ to Germans is so German. It is the second-largest German-speaking city after Berlin. The city centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001 and in 2017 moved to the list of World Heritage in Danger, a list which included Timbuktu in Mali.

Vienna, you and I need to know each other better. How about a date? Dinner in 2020?

 

Shonbrunn Palace, Vienna.

Right. On to Krakow.

I Ubered from the city centre to the Wien Hauptbahnhof (see how German Vienna is!). It’s a very modern and cool station. Rail travel in Europe is just so interesting if you are coming from Nigeria or Africa. The stations, trains and coaches have different personalities. There was something aloof about Vienna and the Wien Hauptbahnhof. Self assured and cultivated.

My conveyance from Wien Hbf to the Krakow Glowny station was the Euronight sleeper train the Chopin.

Awesome. This is the closest I have ever been to a virtuoso pianist.

The train left Vienna at about 22:10pm. I’d book a two-bed deluxe cabin but this time I was lucky to have the whole cabin to myself. The cabin had its own wash basin, wardrobe, TV and complementary snacks and juices. My two-bunk Hilton.

There were no border patrol offers knocking on my door during the journey. However, the train conductor had also advised to bolt the door while I was in.

Sigh.

Just as with the journey from Munich to Budapest, it was dark and there was nothing of interest to see. In between reading A Forest of A Thousand Daemons and short snoozes, the time flew by quickly.

Soon it was dawn. The morning was covered with mist. The train rolled slowly through villages and farmsteads. Along the rail tracks were lone houses with dim lightbulbs. The mist gave the villages an ominous feel.

Sometime around 6:00am, we passed very close to a house. Upstairs, there was a woman by an open window. She was taking in the fresh morning air. I was peering out my cabin window too taking in the rustic scenery. When the woman saw me, she reeled back sharply from the window and closed it.

That can’t be good, can it?

We arrived Krakow Glowny station at about 6:30am. Warsaw was 3 hours away.

Why am I in Krakow anyway?

 Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 

Gate into camp. The Nazi motto “Arbeit Macht Frei” means “work sets you free.”

The largest extermination camp the Nazis built.

Close to 1 million Jews were gassed to death there in 3 years.

Mothers.

Children.

The elderly.

The weak.

Check out the BBC drone shot of Auschwitz-Birkenau to grasp the monstrosity of the this death camp:

Auschwitz was also where Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” conducted genetic experiments on inmates. Without regard for their safety, health, physical or emotional suffering.

Mengele was particularly fond of identical twins. Between 1943 and 1944, he performed experiments on nearly 1,500 sets of imprisoned twins at Auschwitz. Only 200 of those twins survived the experiments. Sometimes he would sew two twins together to see if he could create conjoined twins. Or he would inject different dyes into their eyes to see if the eyes would change colour.

That Josef Mengele was never caught and never faced trial is a travesty of justice. Bugger died in 1979 from a stroke while swimming in Brazil.

Swimming in Brazil?

He should have been swimming with the fishes!

Shame on you, Mossad!

If there was one Nazi you needed to catch, it was this guy!

What was that? You tried? You almost had him?

Yea, I almost married Halle Berry too.

Breathe, Jide. Breathe.

Anyway, what were my impressions of Krakow?

Simple, I didn’t get the feeling I was welcomed here. I’ll share three encounters.

When I disembarked from the train at Krakow Glowny, I hailed a Taxify to take me to my hostel. The driver would meet me at Car Park 5, on the fifth storey. At the elevator, there was a white older man also waiting for the lift. I reckon he would be in his early to mid 60s.

I greeted “good morning” with a big smile. The man looked me over and ignored me. Trust me, I didn’t look like a bum. I had a very chic camera backpack and a cool National Geographic carry-on. Every inch the tourist.

I greeted the man again with an even bigger smile. Maybe he didn’t hear me the first time. The man looked at me again and ignored me still.

I concede that perhaps the old chap doesn’t speak English.

But the look. Loathsome. Looks don’t lie. You know when someone abhors your presence.

In the second incidence, a few hours later at the same train station, I had approached a policeman for directions. The buses to Auschwitz were somewhere around the station and I needed directions. So I approached the cop.

The guy shooed me away without listening to what I had to say. He returned to fiddling with his phone. I told him I needed help with directions. He gestured to me to get lost.

This was a cop.

After the experience with the policeman, I told myself there was no way I was exploring this town after 7pm.

Which was a shame because Krakow is the intellectual and cultural heartbeat of Poland.

But I was spooked. Better be safe than sorry.

The third incidence was on the second day, my eagerly anticipated day of departure from Krakow. My flight from the Krakow-Balice International Airport to Amsterdam Schiphol was 7:30am. By 5:30 I was outside my hostel having hailed a Taxify.

Then along came this white dude. He was drunk somewhat. He walked past me and then walked back. He raised his hand and asked me to hi-five him. He was speaking Polish, or what I assume to be Polish. Could have been drunkenese.

I shook my head in the negative. I’m not hi-fiving you, mate. I mean, I don’t know the dude.

But he insisted and wouldn’t leave.

Where was this bloody Taxify!

As he stood there harassing me, a police patrol drove by. They parked on the other side of the road observing our exchange. Perplexed, I gestured to them that the dude was bothering me. Then two officers got down from the car and came to us.

They asked what the matter was. I explained to them what happened. They spoke to him in Polish and an argument ensued. They asked him to apologise to me but the fella refused (I suppose for my benefit, they spoke to him in faltering English). They then told him to be on his way but he was yet unyielding. They tried to shove him off but he was adamant. He kept talking to me.

One of the officers brought out a hand-cuff and was going to cuff him. Only then did the chap become sober and walked off. The police then got into their van and drove off.

Phew.

But I was still alone on the streets. Where is the bloody Taxify!

Now, was the guy simply drunk and under the influence?

Maybe.

Should I have hi-fived him?

Definitely not.

From what I saw in my less than 48-hour stay in Krakow, black people are as plenteous in the city as virgins are in a brothel. I was obviously an interesting sight to the guy. Not because he was drunk but because I was black.

But I forgive those lot.

Because of the Zupa Dnia and Pierogi.

“Zupa Dnia – Soup of the Day.” Warmed my spirit greatly. 

Pierogi z miesem – a sort of meat dumpling. Heavenly!

The food accepted me for what I was – a hopeless and hungry food lover. No discrimination.

While I’m reluctant to generalise that Poles are racist, it was precisely because of discrimination that places like Auschwitz happened. Hatred, spreading one person at a time.

I did go to Auschwitz -Birkenau. Boy, it rends your heart.

How did man descend to such ignominy? How did our soul become this seared?

All the Dachaus must remain standing. The Dachaus, the Belsens, the Buchenwalds, the Auschwitzes – all of them. They must remain standing because they are a monument to a moment in time when some men decided to turn the Earth into a graveyard. Into it they shoveled all of their reason, their logic, their knowledge, then we became the gravediggers.”

– Rod Serling. 

I’ll tell you how man descended into such evil.

It happens the moment we remove God from the affairs of man. The moment we think we are a product of time and chance. Masters of our fate and the fate of others. It happens the moment we subscribe to moral relativism.

Jews, Slavs, Romas and Russian prisoners of war were brought in from all over Europe in coaches like this. Like farm animals. The track leads straight to the gas chamber.

Auschwitz I – the barracks where inmates were housed.

The Nazis stripped inmates of their valuables on arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Boxes, prosthetics, brushes etc. Shoes were especially valuable during WWII

Seized cases with names of victims on them.

Prosthetics confiscated from inmates

Shaved hairs from inmates. 5400kg-worth. Hairs were shaved to prevent the Nazi guards from getting lice and typhus. Industrial use was also found for them: They were used to line the boots of German soldiers or spun into yarn to make socks for crews of U-boats (submarines).

 

Bunks where the prisoners slept. As many as 7 people could be on one bunk.

Empty canisters of Zyklon B gas – a pesticide – used to gas the inmates.

In late 1944 when the Nazis realised they would lose the the war, they began to erase traces of their atrocity at Auschwitz-Birkenau . They burnt records and blew up the gas chambers at Birkenau.

You never leave Auschwitz-Birkenau the same. The death camp vividly re-enacted all the Holocaust movies I had seen but not fully appreciated. The Pianist, The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas. Schindler’s List, Inglorious Basterds, Defiance and many more. You understand why the state of Israel is paranoid about the security of the Jewish state.

Never again.

Never again, you say? Maybe you want to explain what happened in the Rwandan genocide. 800,000 Tutsis killed in 100 days by the Hutus.”

Yet some people had the nerve to doubt if the Holocaust really happened. They ask how the world could have stood by and watched the annihilation of 6 million Jews. Scarily, the history is being forgotten.

Right.

This ends the account of my Holocaust jaunt. Thanks for journeying with me!

Off to the other side of the Atlantic. To Shake Shack burgers in NY and gumbo in The Big Easy!

New York, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and New Orleans here I come! 

 

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