On the importance of travel and how it sparks our creativity.
My sister and I land in Budapest on a hot afternoon that cushions our moist, alien tongues. We sleep through our first evening and rise to a city of contrasts, gothic buildings and bright art nouveau architecture, affluent, hillier Buda on one side of the Danube and the grittier, buzzing Pest on the opposite side. We are happy to discover a place rich with beauty and colour; Budapest has a particular, old world romantic charm. It is a city of trams, bicycles and healthy-looking, attractive people. Our first few days, I find Hungarians to be surprisingly warm. Workmen building tram lines wave to us, people offer to help when we’re lost. We amble about freely without fear or discomfort. I am somewhat frustrated by the language barrier but not because some people don’t speak English more because I cannot speak Hungarian. But I am nothing if not plucky and resourceful in unfamiliar terrain. I adjust, finding ways of communicating with locals that isn’t too painful for either party.
Early in our trip, I make contact with a new acquaintance, an activist called Kira who was heavily involved in providing relief for the Syrian migrants. Several days later, we arrange to meet me at Blaha Lujza Ter, part of the 8th district, it is a rougher, diverse area that feels more real. Standing outside the MacDonald’s, I am amused by the attempts of a mixed group of rough-looking locals to hustle me out of cash using a bewildered looking baby in a pram. They have no idea that I am Nigerian and that hustling is somewhat in the blood. It is early evening, the city is just starting to show its snuggle-toothed smile languishing beneath all that beauty. The lights are bright, heady. I watch crowds of people from every direction, scattering as if spooled from the same frayed, electric blue thread, listen to the splintered sound the trams make slowing to a halt at stops across the road. I play the game of trying to grab silhouettes disappearing into my peripheral vision but cannot. It feels like attempting to catch a wind changing disguises rapidly. Occasionally, I adjust myself to avoid the rush of another body slamming into mine and awkward apologies that would follow as a result.
Kira arrives bearing a warm, inquisitive half smile, tumbling mass of curly, dark hair curtailed in a side ponytail. Looking like a paler, attractive reincarnation of Frieda Kahlo, she pushes her bike towards me and small tracks into a gap to be filled with borrowed items of the night. We chatter on the walk to Aurora, a community and activist venue discreetly tucked away. The centre is a busy hub of bodies and conversation when we get there. At ground level, people loiter on circular seating areas on the floor in large groups, bikes are propped up on the wall in a corner and the smell of cigarette smoke lingers. After buying drinks from the bar upstairs and bumping into a dreadlocked friend of Kira’s fresh from the border, the new inheritor of a golden coloured dog that circles us and leaps up excitedly, we head back down to join another activist friend animatedly flipping through some government propaganda whilst disdainfully giving a verdict on each section. I feel like an outsider being a black woman amongst this group of white, leftist women but not in a way that is uncomfortable. I imagine it is a little like finding an object in the dark, running a finger across it until you know its lines with your eyes closed. I am relaxed. I want to hear their stories. They are interesting, intelligent women, passionate about their relief work. They are warm and welcoming. I listen between sips of gin and tonic. The dog threads its way through this striking assortment of rebels, angling for affection now and again.
They inform me that up till a few weeks ago, many Syrian migrants had been staying in a local park not far from the Aurora centre. That the government had been happy to keep them contained there since it is a rougher area of town and that charities like the Red Cross had done very little to help. It was largely down to hundreds of volunteers that food, water and bedding was provided for these migrants. They talk of visiting the border, of police brutality, chaos and children screaming. They worked tirelessly during that concentrated period of intensity. Now that the migrants have been moved, it is difficult to adjust back to normal lives. Their anger is palpable. They have been left holding the pins of grenades that will detonate inside them unexpectedly. At one point between puffs of cigarette smoke Kira regards me curiously. “Why did you come to Hungary? It seems a strange choice. I wouldn’t go somewhere where I don’t know anyone.” The group looks at me expectantly. I am aware whatever answer I give will seem inadequate considering what they’ve just experienced. I shift the tone slightly with a question in response, knowing it will cut the legs off this particular strand of conversation but I am matter of fact, friendly. “Why would you be surprised I’d come to Hungary? Life would be dull if we did things that only ever appealed to our comfort zones.”
“Oh you with your exotic name and British passport! Staying in the posh side of town.” Another member adds. Her light, teasing tone breaks a tension I feel, that of the new girl whose answers carry the weight of acceptance or refusal into a group. We laugh, but a certain irony isn’t lost on me. I wonder what sort of treatment I’d receive in Hungary at this particular time were I here with a different passport. I am fully aware that my British accent and sensibilities makes me less suspicious to some. I am reminded of my migrant experience as a young girl in Britain, of being in an all white boarding school in Norfolk and how everything marked me out as other; my hair, my skin tone and my accent. And that those differences, which I wasn’t aware of suddenly, became huge against a paler canvass. We find ways of blending in when this happens. It is a survival instinct that kicks in. Before I knew it, at eight years old, English snow began to gather in my mouth, melt and dilute my strong Nigerian accent when necessary.
I leave Kira and her crew a few hours later. The plan had been to volunteer as part of their relief efforts but the migrants had gone. I had come in the aftermath, to find women wielding ashes glinting malevolently in their silences.
I wonder around a bit, enjoying the connection my body has with this new place. Despite the timer ticking away silently in the background, I am happy at having made this leap. There is something about being in new spaces that forces you to look at the world differently. You reset elements of yourself, of your potential. Somehow, you want to document this experience be it through photographs, a short story, a poem or factual piece. A couple of years ago, traveling through parts of Europe inspired my short story Then Our Outtakes Were Airborne where a British couple on holiday caught up in the Volcanic ash disaster find the pressures of trying to get home testing their increasingly fraught relationship. It is important for writers to travel and to write whilst travelling. There is a revelation specific to you waiting to be discovered on the page that will not reveal itself until the end of that process.
I am fascinated by the travel experiences of women of colour whether it’s Andrea Lee’s searing accounts of expatriate life in Moscow in Russian Journal or ZZ Packer’s protagonist in her short story Geese from her superb collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere where a young black woman adjusts to living in Japan.
I have a keen interest in the voices of women regarded as other who travel. I want to write about them. I want to know their stories, their reinventions, the sound and shape of their nomadic cries, because each one is distinctive.
My sister and I spend our last night in Budapest walking through the city. It is an emotional visit for us, at a time in our lives where the possibilities of the future feel exciting again. A year before, I would never have predicted she would be well enough to make such a trip due to health conditions. It is a wonder to me that she is full of energy and a zest for life’s adventures again. I take pictures of her on Margaret Bridge, surrounded by the backdrop of the city. Budapest is stunning at night. We walk along the Danube River, occasionally looking for the debris of our distant lives to break the silvery surface of water. We exchange promises with gigantic statues that feel hollow, final. I scan our photographs on my iphone for shapes that snuck in from outside the perimeter of a small lens. I check for weird angles of light we can carry as hand luggage.
Arriving back in England, I realise I miss Budapest already. I miss the version of myself I encountered there, aware of my borrowed time, I felt more engaged with everything around me and did as much as possible. It is a city that fuelled my imagination and further cemented my strong bond with my sister. Outside Stanstead airport, it dawns on me I am somehow still clutching my boarding pass for the flight there. Amidst the sounds of planes, traffic and the sky opening, it flaps in my hand, borrowing the expressions of weary travellers hopping into cars. I stare at it in the evening light, as though it will morph in my grip, as though it will give me access to things in the future that will feel foreign but conquerable.
Irenosen Okojie is a writer and Arts Project Manager. Her debut novel ‘Butterfly Fish’ was published by Jacaranda Books. Her short story collection ‘Speak Gigantular’ will be published in 2016.