At one point or another, everyone travels. Whether you’re walking down a couple of blocks to the supermarket to get your favorite snack, or you’re seated in an airplane thousands of feet above the ground, traveling offers an opportunity to experience something new. In my life time I’ve done a good deal of traveling, and I have realized that with each step I take away from home, I get a greater appreciation of the world and most especially how similar people are despite our obvious differences.
My first time away from home was during a weekend Girl Guide camp in Accra, Ghana. Although the camp location was a mere hour away from my house, the flood of excitement and fear that washed over me when my mum dropped me off made it seem like I would be a million years and a day away from home. Those two days at camp however proved to be a cornerstone in my life as they made me more responsible and willing to step out of my comfort zone to take risks and achieve my goals.
When I got accepted into Mount Holyoke I wasn’t too worried about being thousands of miles away from home because I had already experienced being away from home for long periods of time while in high school. On August 31st, 2005 at approximately 5pm Greenwich mean time, I headed into the ‘passengers only’ section of the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana. It wasn’t until I was seated in the plane anticipating the adrenaline rush as the plane took off that reality hit: I wouldn’t see my parents every day, wouldn’t eat my favorite Ghanaian dish every weekend and wouldn’t stare out at the interesting street vendors of Accra while riding the ‘trotro’(commercial mini-buses). Obviously, it was too late to change my mind because we were already airborne and my journey of a thousand experiences commenced.
After flying for about an hour, the airplane touched down in Lagos, Nigeria to pick up some passengers. I was happy to return to my birth country, even if I could only get a glimpse of it from the window of an airplane. As fate would have it, a Nigerian man in his late twenties sat in the empty seat next to me. We struck a conversation after which I garnered that he had returned home after living in Germany for about a decade. At the time I couldn’t comprehend how and why someone would leave home for that length of time before returning home.
Twelve more hours in flight and we eventually landed at the Frankfurt airport where I was to transit for an additional twelve hours before taking another flight to Boston’s Logan Airport. At this point in time I was extremely exhausted and to make matters worse the batteries in my CD player had died down. When the Nigerian man suggested that I stay over at his place during the transit period, I hesitated. The very fact that I hesitated before declining triggered warning signals. Any sensible young woman traveling alone would know not to accept an offer from a man to spend the night. But add a dose of extreme exhaustion and a dash of naivety and that sensible lady might just throw caution to the wind.
Fortunately, I had heard too many disturbing stories of young women getting kidnapped in strange countries to succumb to my exhaustion. A couple of hours into my transit period and my next travel lesson sought me out. Because I had missed the meal served on the plane I had not eaten anything within the last twenty-four hours. Hunger soon caught up with me and I had to look around the airport for something to eat. Just when I was about to pay, I realized I didn’t have any Euros on me. Mumbling a quick apology and stealing a last hungry glance at what should have been my meal; I headed back to my luggage to continue my wait and my involuntary fast. Since that experience I make it a point to conduct research and plan in advance when traveling. Perhaps if I had done my research like I was supposed to I wouldn't have had to go through that soulful parting with the delicious-looking pastry that was almost mine.
It has been two years, two months and counting since I left Ghana and I am a lot more educated in the ways of traveling. Traveling is meant to be an experience, be open to it. It’s okay to have expectations, but don’t let those expectations stand in the way of a great time. Although you will most likely meet very nice people, you still have to keep your head on your shoulders. Unfortunately, there are people in this world who do not have your interests at heart. It is your responsibility to be discerning and protect yourself, even if it means forgoing a couple of comforts. Do your research and plan beforehand. There’s nothing worse than getting lost before realizing that English is not the primary language spoken where you are. Don’t be obnoxious. Respect the country and people you are visiting. The fact that you don’t understand their culture or habits does not call for bad behavior. Most importantly never forget your origins and learn from your experience. Whether it ends up being a good experience or a bad one you would have had an opportunity to not only share a part of your world with someone but would also have been a part of someone else’s world. Bon voyage mes amis!