From today, I will try and keep a kind of diary of my two-week trip to St. Petersburg. Hopefully I will be able to find a computer that I can use to upload the pictures that I am taking.
I flew into St. Petersburg yesterday evening on a flight from Vienna. I have always wanted to put those cities in a sentence that involves me. As is the usual case for The African, immigration was a complex matter. It never ceases to amaze me how suddenly, when you are in an immigration queue, the crushing power of the State makes itself felt. While aloft, I was an international traveler, a privileged being that has taken flight. My troubles were behind and below me; ahead was possibility and optimism. When I landed, it was like being in a Toyland. The rows of planes, the terminal building and the little trucks zipping here and there all appeared a bit unreal, like a kind of children’s Lego set.
It is the immigration form that brought me to earth. It made no apologies for its demand of information: when was I born; where was I going; why was I going there; for how long; where did I come from; what was I carrying, weapons, acids, sharp objects, animals, plants…; citizenship; residence; date of birth; maiden name; address; passport number and date of issue and expiry; other? It is ‘other’ that gets my goat. What else could I tell? That I was carrying drugs or planning acts of terrorism? That I may have left behind heartbreak and that I hoped to one day win the lottery and that the expiry of my life, not just that of my passport, was a constant worry? Well, I filled the form. It is habit. I have been categorized, measured, weighed and credentialed so often that it now feels normal to squeeze my life into forms. And I also filled it because not doing so always has unpleasant consequences. 98.5% of all forms are a way of avoiding punishment, pleading and justifying. So I filled mine and got in line to speak to the most important individual in my life at that moment, the immigration officer.
By the time I inched up to the desk behind which sat, as always, a grim faced official my happy feelings of having been magically transported had dissipated. I was gripped by an inexplicable guilt, that I had committed some crime that the official would spot instantly. This is why I clutched my passport a little too tightly, and glanced repeatedly at the page with the visa to make sure that it was actually there and has the correct dates. Also in hand were my ticket, insurance form and the schedule of the writing conference that had brought me to Russia. I half expected that I would have to re-apply all over again for permission to enter. My overly active imagination started making up scenarios of the official ordering a search of my baggage and a joint of marijuana being found. I worried whether the friends I have lent my suitcase in the past could have left such damning evidence in it.
The Russians and Europeans ahead of me briskly stepped up to the official and were processed quickly and efficiently. She barely looked at their passports, seeming to be satisfied on the basis of the country that had issued them. The Austrian that I spent part of the flight conversing with kept up a lively chatter that I could not concentrate on. He had few worries; this for him was just a small irksome procedure. And that it is how it appears to Africans as well, after they have been successfully admitted. Before then, you can tell who they are by the silence that envelops them in the queue and their solemn expressions.
Finally it was my turn and as is my wont, I brightly said hullo taking special care to pronounce the ‘hi’ with a distinctly American accent. It was better, I calculated, to say ‘hi’ instead of hello or habari or niatia. Such greetings may mark me for some kind of rent seeking, asylum declaring African. The dirty little secret of the African in line is that he attempts to reduce his Africanness in every possible way. The passport from Kenya or Uganda and, heaven forbid, Nigeria, is trouble enough. Thus my chirpy ‘hi’ which evidently had been tried before since it was met with silence and a searching glance.
OK, have to run and meet the group for dinner. The Petersburg diary shall continue later.