With spring break coming up, the question everyone on campus is asking during conversational lulls is: “Where are you going?” Given a little free time, people inevitably seem to leave home and the comfort of familiarity in search of an adventure. I crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the first time last summer, and my experience taught me just why it is so important to travel and experience the unfamiliar.
While traveling, the mundane aspects of everyday life become more noticeable—usually because they are different, but sometimes because they are curious or even alarming. Traveling gives you a new appreciation for the details of life at home that you usually take for granted. I’ve watched a bus be repaired with a tree branch, eaten stew made from leaves of a baobab tree, and discovered the scatalogical consequence of consuming nothing but bananas for several days (if you know what I mean). After seven weeks of rice and bananas in Ghana, I couldn’t stop grinning in appreciation of the eggs, baguettes, and yogurt (or yaourt, as they spell it) waiting for me in Burkina Faso.
Traveling is learning how privileged I am to be a U.S. citizen. It’s going to the internet cafe in Accra (the capital of Ghana) and noticing that, out of fifty people using computers, at least ten of them are on the U.S. State Department’s Web site trying to get interviews for US Visas. It’s being told that when men come up to you on the street and propose marriage, they’re only half kidding.
Traveling is learning that nervous habits that are innocuous at home suddenly take on new meaning in foreign countries. If you’re in Holland, peeling the label off your beer apparently means that you don’t get much sex. Duly noted.
Traveling is finding out that no matter how far you get from the United States, you can never entirely leave it behind you. It’s hearing West Coast slang in Ouagadougou as someone says, “Donkeys make hella noise because they are hungry.” It’s hearing Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” in the taxi only an hour after arriving in a foreign country. It’s when you’re killing time by sitting in a street café and you realize it’s nicer than all the other cafés you’ve ever seen in the country, so you ask around and discover you’re sitting in the reception area of the largest jail in the region. And what music is playing? In my four hours there, I heard “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas, and “Miss You” by Aerosmith. On repeat.
Traveling is learning to appreciate, very quickly, how important communication is to everyday life. You learn that you are nowhere without at least a few words. This is especially maddening when you need to go to the bathroom or find a restaurant. You also discover how quickly your English begins to deteriorate as you learn new languages, and you find yourself writing confusing statements like “but we get here yesterday” in your journal. You learn to convince yourself that being told by the Italian man in your dorm to “eat legumes to make gas and your belly go flat” does not mean you look pregnant, but that he was probably just commenting on the fact that you bought only fruit at the market that morning and that you might benefit from a more balanced diet of vegetables.
Traveling is learning that your assumptions will constantly be challenged. It’s common knowledge among American parents and babysitters that children should not play with knives, scissors, or anything the least bit dangerous. In Ghana, my students always took out machetes to sharpen their pencils and repair their desks. Traveling is about asking the person who picks you up from the airport if you should put on your seat belt and then realizing that those laws, if they exist, are definitely not enforced in this country. (It’s also understanding that after being awake for twenty-four hours, people ask stupid questions.)
But back to the original question. Given all this, why do any of us ever leave our comfortable surroundings? It leads (quite inevitably, if my summer is any indication), to embarrassing, humbling, and often awkward experiences. I love traveling because it teaches me about who I am and what this world is really like. I want to find out what remains of me when I leave the people and places that have always surrounded me. When I leave, I become someone else to those who surround me, and I get to discover what parts of me still translate. This summer, I was called nassara, yehvu, bruni, blanc, all of which translate to “white person” in Moore, Twi, Ewe, and French. I was also called teacher, miss, and girl. People view you in ways you never quite expect, and when you leave, you never return as quite the same person. Sure, the trip exposes you to new sights, but it will also lead to insights into yourself and the world around you. Can we get two weeks for spring break next year?