Whatever it was that had me so enamored in my very first cultural anthropology class that I decided to major in the field that I only recently realized even existed, is alive and well and seems to come to life every time my passport is pulled out to be stamped. This was the thought that came to me over and over again while sitting at the boarding gate at JFK for Accra, Ghana. Although I had good headphones with me, so good that they block out all surrounding sounds, I chose to leave them in my pack and instead simply enjoy the music of the different dialects that surrounded me. It was almost melodic and more than once I caught myself staring like a small child who doesn’t yet have a grasp of socially acceptable norms. Staring, likely with my mouth dropped open, isn’t one of them. The competing perfumes and strong aftershave smells, mixed in with the melodic sounds of languages that weren’t even remotely familiar (ironically, English is their first language, but it was conspicuously absent) and the beautiful children, mostly boys, made me smile and totally entertained me for the 3 hour wait I had.
I remember this happening when my daughter, Emery, and I went to Peru for the first time and sat at the gate waiting for our flight, in an area surrounded by Peruvians. I was captivated! Maybe it’s a throwback to the many cultural anthropology classes I took, or maybe I’m just nosey, but I would take this sort of entertainment, hands down, over any of the several movies I downloaded to watch, just for this very time gap situation.
It was a full flight with the exception of one empty seat and that seat was right next to me. My travel buddy, Lynette, who I met while volunteering in Greece, was supposed to be in that seat, but a sudden onset of what sounded like the flu, kept her in Atlanta, which was such a disappointment to us both, but hopefully it’s just a postponed trip and not a cancelled one. So my journey continued solo. I was disappointed to see that eventually the seat was filled, last minute, so gave up thoughts of legs getting to be stretched out as well as a landing spot for the two carryons that seem so big once tucked into the tiny airline seat space. I can say now, after 2 hours on the ground and 9 in the air, that I feel grateful to have a seatmate, and even more so that it was him, who at this point has no name.
No name is from Ghana but has been living in the Bronx for the past 13 years with his wife and now 4 kids. I’m not usually a chatter on planes, in fact quite the opposite as I wear headphones so I don’t have to chat if I don’t feel like it (often there is nothing coming into the headphones but it gives me the out if I choose to exercise it). So, my nice seat mate, struck up a conversation while still waiting on the tarmac, when he asked to borrow my pen, which I had just used to fill out Ghana entry forms. I was happy to share it and handed it over, with little thought when I was finished with it. After he finished his forms, he handed the pen back to me then added,
“I always hand things to the elderly with my right hand, and if you noticed me filling out the forms, I’m left handed, so there’s an extra step for me.”
I knew right off the bat what he was getting at as I’ve traveled many places where the left hand is not used in a social setting, simply because it is the hand that… ok, how do I say this discreetly… tends to the hygiene? Or more understandable, it’s the wiping hand. I’m guessing I handed him my pen to him with my left hand, because I most likely had a bottle of water in my right hand. That being said, or heard, more accurately, my response naturally was,
“You think I’m elderly??”
“Of course I do, he answered without hesitation (I’m guessing him for early 40’s ). You are my elder so you’re elderly.”
“Well, yes and no, but mostly no.”
He continued to advise me about the left hand and its job description, not in an authoritative way, but rather out of concern and I accepted his words with the intention that they were presented to me. That annoyance of an empty seat getting filled changed to gratitude for what I was guessing at that point would be someone who would be a nice resource for the next 10 hours for any Ghanaian cultural questions that may come up. And they did.
While taxiing, he lowered his tray table, nudged me to lower mine and it must have been my puzzled look that prompted his explaination.
“The tray table will keep you in place along WITH the seatbelt.”
Of course after his came down, I noticed that every one in the center aisle followed suit and put their tray tables down as well. The flight attendant, rushed over, insisting that the tables go UP, not DOWN, which everyone complied nicely with as we continued our way down the taxiway. He asked me if he could get up and go to the bathroom, still taxiing, and I looked him with a cocked head and furrowed brow and said, NO. You can’t. We’re taxiing.
“Are you sure? I really have to pee.”
I’m not going to tell this grown man next to me if he can or can’t get up and go to the bathroom so I just shrugged and told him he was on his own. The flight attendant tried to stop him, but without any hostility or harsh words, he simply stated how he really had to go and continued on. This is the only non-stop flight to Accra, Ghana from the states, so no doubt this is not a first for the airline employees.
Once the food and beverage cart came around, seatmate without a name, asked for the non-alcoholic wine to accompany his dinner and the flight attendant looked at him puzzled, then at me ( I had requested the wine with alcohol) then with a shrug gave him an orange juice. He saw my wine and then asked for one like mine.
“With the alcohol?”
And he proceeded to have 3 more.
Everything I have read about Ghana and its people speaks of their friendly attitude. He confirmed that with me. I told him it felt like all the passengers, with the exception of me, seemed to know one another. He said not really, but they all know they are from the same country and the different dialects seemed to congregate, although English is their first language.
Seatmate also didn’t seem to have a handle on how to latch the bathroom door shut, or maybe didn’t even think it was a necessary thing to do, so unbeknownst to him, when I saw the vacant, not knowing he was in there, I pushed the door open only to see the back of his acid washed jean jacket. I quickly scooted my way out of the area although honestly I don’t think he had any idea I had opened the door. The 2nd bathroom I approached also had a vacant sign, also with a person in it, but it was a woman and she faced out. I’m guessing the whole lock the bathroom door may not be a thing in Ghana.
I’m really struck by the crowd on this plane. The children, all boys for some reason, are in clip on ties, white shirts and jackets that still have a few more years of growing room in them. The man behind me was in a black crushed velour jacket, a white tuxedo shirt with French cuffs and cuff links and short black pointy boots decorated with silver studs. The women are dolled up and dressed up like they were headed to a cocktail party. I love it. And in my camo pants, with my pale skin and hair that seems neon bright against all the black hair around me, I’m feeling a bit out of sorts, like I need to add some beads or fluff my hair up a bit. I felt unexotic and too white.
When we landed, the whole plane burst into a loud roar of applause. That was truly a first for me. Ado, (my seatmate now has a name), said that the applause is for God for getting us from NY then across the very big ocean and back down again safely. I enjoyed what ended up being 13 hours with Ado (4 of those hours on the tarmac waiting) and found him to be a lovely introduction to Ghana. He’s very proud of his country and told me countless times that I will love it. He said he has a very good job in NY and makes far more money than he ever could in Ghana – almost $3,000 a month and although his apartment is expensive ($1,500 a month because he needs a large one with 2 bedrooms because he has FOUR kids), he still has a lot of money left to send home to Ghana. He’s a good man.
An hour an a half waiting for bags, which I have to say has to be due to the size of most of them. Almost all of them had the “HEAVY” tag attached and several were the size of small armoires. No doubt hoisting them out of the luggage hold was no easy task! This was followed by a 4 hour drive on very bumpy roads to get to the house where I’ll be staying for the next 2 weeks. I was exhausted and was able to sleep for a bit of the ride, but honestly thought I’d crack a tooth with the way my teeth rattled with every bump, so gave up on the sleeping. The other 2 in the van are a couple from North Carolina and naturally, I asked if they were Duke fans. He very excitedly answered, YES! but felt a huge relief to be away from that depressing loss for at least a few weeks. Then I told him I’m a KU graduate…..
The drive took us through poverty like I had never seen before, truly jaw dropping, but I’ll share more about that in later posts. Right now, I’m situated in my room, bottom bunk, under the mosquitoe netting, and just downed my 3rd dose of malaria pills. This already feels far different from anything I’ve ever done. Oh, and it’s hot. Very hot. I have a fan near my bed, which helps tremendously. I’m going to try not to complain too much about the heat, but today’s day one. It’s a free space.
I. feel honored to be able to dip into this culture and learn more… about Ghana, about its people, about myself. These journeys truly fill my soul and make me smile.
This seems like as good a place as any to insert my disclaimer for spelling, punctuation, bad grammar and simply things that don’t make sense. I think I slept 45 minutes last night.