The Observer (Kampala)

26 February 2013

Uganda: Tiny, Snowy, Pretty Rotterdam

I might as well sum up my recent stint in the Netherlands as 12 days of absolute film and fun.

I had travelled to attend the 42nd annual International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) but took time off my extremely busy schedule to roam the city of Rotterdam.

I travelled last month as part of this year's selected team of six film journalists from across the globe to attend IFFR's trainee project for young film critics. I was lucky to be the second African to ever make it into the prestigious programme, which features, among others, covering the festival and meeting with famous film personalities.

Now, I bet you are familiar with the old adage, 'God made the universe but the Dutch made Netherlands'. You must also have had that a big chunk of the northern European country's land actually floats on water. I had read that the country is one of the richest and happiest in the world by various global reports.

These - and many more tantalizing stories - coupled with the finesse of their football players, had long made me fancy visiting the Netherlands.

So when the IFFR call came through, I was the happiest. But I intentionally refused to Google information about my host city, Rotterdam, opting to surprise myself with anything the place had to offer. My first taste of Rotterdam came right from the moment I climbed that Turkish Airways plane at Entebbe airport. My neighbour was Dutch and gave me a few survival tips in his homeland.

"We have a terrible winter but you can still get plenty of fun. You can be happy by smoking weed and dating handsome boys," my new buddy advised me before sleeping throughout the six-and-a-half-hour flight to Istanbul, Turkey, where we made a stopover.

Snow

As our plane hovered over Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, I peeped out the window and received my first cultural shock - white snow all over. I had been informed, through email, that it had snowed heavily three days back. My wish to still find the snow had been granted.

Because of the freezing coldness (minus 15 degrees) and out of fear I might miss my train to Rotterdam, I chose to spare my camera memory and headed straight to Schiphol railway station located underground. IFFR has no time to babysit their guests. You are provided with all the information, directions and maps beforehand and you are expected to manoeuvre on your own.

The entire festival programme was tight. My fellow trainees and I usually went to work at 9am and wouldn't be done until 10pm. We would then hit chilly Rotterdam to explore the night life.

Black is cool

Rotterdam, like other major Dutch cities, is highly cosmopolitan with Blacks, Asians and Arabs forming a considerable percentage of the total population. Blacks, in particular, are a common sight, with many of them tracing roots to the tiny South American country of Suriname, a former Dutch colony. Others come from Ghana and Ivory Coast, I was told.

But despite the multi-ethnicity, Rotterdamers and Dutch at large are highly united, mainly by their loyalty to the queen and through such sports as ice skating and soccer. Cases of racism are very rare and usually feature Caucasian and Black hoodlums ganging up against Arabs whom they refer to as Moroccans or Turks.

Apparently, it is easy for black guys to get the girls, because they are considered cool, strong and friendly, one bargoer intimated to me. The excellence of black Dutch particularly at sports and entertainment has given the entire race a soft landing. I personally felt this special treatment everywhere I went. Some people even talked to me in Dutch thinking I was one of their own.

Small concrete jungle

You could walk the entire Rotterdam in mere hours, but the impression you get lasts forever. Every street is dotted with towering skyscrapers, making the city look like a concrete jungle.

Some of the most prominent structures there include the Erasmus bridge, Witte Huis, Euromast tower, Delfshaven neighbourhood and De Doelen, IFFR's main venue. They also have several plush museums and hotels. I was housed at the simple but intimate Eurohotel.

Rotterdam has a vibrant film culture; so, the city boasts of world-class cinemas, including Pathé, Cinerama, Schouwburg and Lantaren Venster, all of which were used as festival venues.

Rotterdam further houses massive rail, road, air and inland waterway distribution systems extending throughout Europe, an inspiration for the city's nickname, Gateway to Europe. But their bus and public taxi service system is not that much vibrant since the trains reach every neighbourhood and city in Europe.

Majority of Rotterdamers prefer to ride bicycles to work, regardless of age, social class, gender or race. Even the city's elite, including business magnates, can be seen freely peddling away on their two-wheelers. For that reason, bicycle parks and lanes are the busiest.

Weed

Weed and other 'soft' drugs are legal in Netherlands and the youth take pride in consuming them. I was told most adult Rotterdamers smoke during winter, apparently to keep warm.

My fellow trainees weren't any different. One evening, a colleague requested me to escort him as he went to buy weed. He had complained that Dutch cigarettes didn't 'stone' him well. We were directed to look for any place with the label 'Coffee Shop'.

And there are hundreds of them in Rotterdam. The one we went to was in fact one of the most beautiful shops I have ever been to. Miniature statues of Jamaican reggae legends smoking the herb welcome you.

Inside, there is a computerized system displaying different grades of weed, their prices and the 'height' levels. My colleague opted for the toughest, Santa Maria, which costs €8 (Shs 29,000). It is about a gramme and is packed in neat plastic boxes, ready to be rolled and smoked.

We later headed to a tiny bar called De Ridderd. There, drinks range from €4to €20 (Shs 14,800 to Shs 74,000) depending on the brand. Heineken, Amstel and Grolsch are the commonest.

Best bar in the world

A couple of years back, respected tourism publication Lonely Planet ranked Rotterdam's Witte Aap (White Ape) best bar in the world. Yet on the outside, the bar really looks ordinary. I didn't get time to pop in, but my colleagues did. They said they saw nothing extraordinary, save for the fact that the bar, unlike its competitors, is open seven days a week and only employs male staff.

It appears most patrons, especially tourists, only go there not because the bar is good, but out of curiosity. They just want to find out whether it's really the best bar in the world.

Gay capital

In 2001, Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage and has since provided a safe haven for gays from across the world. In Amsterdam, I had seen a lesbian couple publically kissing.

And Rotterdam was not any different as such scenes are common sight. During one of the screenings, I saw an interracial lesbian couple - it was easy to tell they were lovers as they behaved so intimately throughout the movie.

But then, there is still feeble ridicule from some sections of the population. But the gays there are too organised and strong to be persecuted. They even have several exclusive nightclubs and cafes across town, identified by the rainbow flag which proudly flies at each entrance.

My colleagues and IFFR official were well-informed about the Uganda government stance on homosexuals. They rubbished the pending anti-gay bill.

On my last night in Rotterdam, I had plans of taking a walk through one of the several red light districts, but later changed my mind and decided to go shopping which turned out to be disappointing; goods were very expensive.

I wanted to buy an Ajax FC shirt but was told I could never get one in Rotterdam since the Amsterdam-based team is arch rivals with local outfits, Feyenoord. In the end, all I could afford were a few jeans, shoes and gifts for my family and friends. But at least I had proudly represented my country.

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