Why We Travel (guest post by my lovely husband)

The first thing I notice about Ghana, besides the liquid heat and the wispy haze of Saharan sand that often hangs overhead like sepia gauze, is the Zen-like calm of her people. They exude contentedness despite the fact that chaos dominates the scene like Iron Maiden music played at a funeral. I step off the airplane and onto the melting tarmac where I follow a jet-lagged throng of fellow travelers into a run-down building that dates from the sixties, still garishly festooned with Christmas decorations in February.  I walk past the sign that reads, “Sexual perverts not welcome in Ghana,” the ambiguity of which surely must make many people, besides myself, pause and question for a moment “what a perfect place for a web cam.” And then I step out of the tepidly cooled airport and into the beautiful frenzy that is Accra.

The traffic is like ballet night in the psych ward. A sociopathic, chaotic world where drivers don’t hesitate to literally plow onto the red dirt sidewalks to avoid traffic while  impatiently honking  at the ten-year-old girl selling bags of water from a massive bucket on her head. The quintessential “If you don’t like the way I drive, stay off of the sidewalk” bumper sticker would only draw blank stares here, I’m afraid. As an impatient American with an ingrained sense of righteous indignation lurking just beneath the surface of my pampered ego, the lack of outrage is astounding. The guy driving the car remains calm. The drivers he is ditching seem to hardly notice. And even the young girl nonchalantly steps aside, unhurried and somehow dignified.  I’ve slammed my fist onto the hood of a car driven by a man who stopped in the middle of a crosswalk forcing me to alter my path. I think I would soon be certifiably insane in a place like this.

I wonder if these people have a deep running current of anger beneath their calm exterior. I imagine how I would feel if I lived in a tiny shotgun shack, built from scrap wood and garbage. If I slept on a red dirt floor exposed to the heat and the bugs and the stench of an open sewer, would I be burning with resentment and anger?  I think about these things when we walk through the neighborhoods in Accra, as noticeable as the Addams family in circus attire. Would I want to kill those wealthy looking tourists taking photos of my shack and my people as if they were visiting a different planet? I think I would be a bitter, angry person. Yet the peculiar truth about Ghana is that I never felt even a sliver of resentment towards me or my family. The people were unfailingly warm and friendly.

This is the reason I took my children to Ghana. I wanted them to understand that most people in our world live in shacks and struggle on a day to day basis just to survive.  The insular nature of a teenager’s developing mind can’t fully appreciate foreign realities of any kind unless we, as parents, force a new reality upon it. Travel is like a bracing splash of glacial water on a hot day.  Until we remove our children from day to day life, they will tend to focus on things like peer approval or any one of the distractions that happen to make up their environment. I would liken the developing mind, and to a lesser extent the adult mind, to time in a prison. A prisoner falls asleep and awakens in a cell. He may eat, exercise, write and even read about events in the outside world, but his perception is always tainted because every experience happens in the environmental context of that cell.

As homo-sapiens, we can’t imagine what heaven or hell might be like, so we invent mythology to create a sort of scaffolding below which we build child-like notions about unknowable things. Children and many adults do the same thing when they organize their thoughts about faraway places. Africa, for example, may become a dark, foreboding place fraught with danger and torn asunder by conflict. Some of these perceptions are at least partially true. I mean, of course we should always be careful when traveling. Yet it is pure joy to watch the scales fall from their eyes and their faces illuminate with wonder as they come to see the world more clearly than they did before.

My son came up to me in Africa and said, “Dad, I always thought we were poor, but these people hardly have a thing and they work  their butts off. I used to think poor people were lazy, but I can’t imagine having to work as hard as they do.”

“Do you think most of them would want to move to America and live like us?” I asked.

“No,” he answered, watching the throngs of people milling about in a strange sort of harmony. “I think they would feel too lonely in America.”

This is why I took my children to Africa and the reason we travel. That sort of insight would be impossible in the gilded cage that is our wonderful hometown. And insight through experience is one of the greatest gifts I can give as a parent.

Ghana with Gabe

There’s something quite entertaining about watching a 6’3 skinny white boy from the burbs who’s been plopped down in the middle of a developing African country react to his surroundings. Gabe will be 16 in a couple of weeks and was in desperate need of a break from the bubble that is high school in a small town. I don’t know how many times in the past year we’ve heard, “But EVERYONE at my school gets a car when they turn 16.” Not to mention i-phone, computer, etc., etc. It was time for a reality check, for sure. He was resistant to the idea of traveling to Ghana with us at first, more from fear of the unknown I believe, than anything else. But when he came home from school his first day back in the states, he said “I’m ready to go back to Africa.”

Somehow it is truly soothing to experience the chaos and pulsing rhythm of such a vibrant place. I feel a connection to humanity on a whole different level than is possible in a sleepy village in Ohio. It made me smile to watch the locals on the beach our first evening. Music was blaring, couples were dancing at a nearby bar. Closer to the water a group of young men were playing soccer, but while they waited for the ball, they were also moving to the beat of the music… it was so beautifully organic.

We tried to make an effort on this trip to be less touristy… venture outside our comfort zone a bit. Baby steps, right? Gabe went off with some of the crew to tour the slave castles, which we had done with the girls last month. Todd and I started our morning with a walk on the beach and were fortunate to be there as the fisherman were hauling in their nets from the ocean. Apparently boats drop the nets way off shore and maybe 10-12 people were pulling the nets in… a long, physically demanding process, we discovered, as they recruited us to join in the lineup 🙂 I didn’t last long thanks to my wimpy, manual-labor free hands that don’t have callouses to protect them. They really put Todd to work, though. I think they were quite amused by our efforts and it was fun to bond with the locals a bit.

Another afternoon was spent at the very local Makola Market… this is where Accra peeps can buy everything and anything imaginable and it was the most overwhelming, stimulating, sweltering, experience I’ve ever had. One local said he likes to take first-time visitors to Accra to this market just to see how long they can last. One hour was my limit. Todd took some great video but I haven’t figured out how to upload it.

Our final adventure for this trip was sampling a local dish called banku. “Fermented corn/cassava dough mixed proportionally and cooked in hot water into a smooth whitish consistent paste. Served with soup, stew or a pepper sauce with fish.” Ours was served with a nice-sized tilapia staring up at us and veggies. Basically, you break off a piece of banku and dip it in the sauce, then take a piece of fish and have at it. I believe it must be an acquired taste… both the banku and the very gamey Ghanian tilapia. But it was fun exploring the local neighborhood where the Blue Gate restaurant is and once again, we seemed to be a source of amusement for the waitress who gave us our first banku lesson.

Todd is off to Accra again next month and I’d love to go back. I went ahead and got the multiple-entry Visa, just in case.