Sunday, December 7, 2008

Gypsy 1

In the past I have called myself an itinerant. A gypsy traveler, a rolling stone, one looking to see the world and dance barefoot on sandy beaches and distant peaks. I was that young girl once and I will be that young woman in short time. This time last year I was in the middle of a 6-month continental drift. Tramping from Africa to Australia to Asia, the common thread of experience was one of intrigue, awe, and eyes-wide-open learning. The rhythm of my life spent abroad is similar to a camera shutter’s click-click, like the Canon that perpetually hung from my neck: exposure to the seemingly unconnected worlds and cultures gave me constant opportunity to open up the loving embrace of my mind, absorb the sights, tastes, sounds, smells, and then bring together all of these pixels of experience and create my own intimate picture of what that moment, those people, a whole country was for me. I feel that in some cases the shutter has yet to close and I am still counting on a return visit to solidify the final print.

Living in South Africa for 4 months, attending classes and generally carrying on in skewed normalcy was undoubtedly the nearest to South African reality that most travelers in the country will ever encounter. As a student, I saw the next generation of South African professionals straining to maintain grades as well as a flow of money to large extended families in their poor township homes. Often finding myself the singular young white woman in the places I would go, I was forced to acknowledge my age, skin color, and gender as both a huge liability to my own safety as well as a basis for trust from others. As I came under siege of both irritating catcalls from some and others merely seeking genuine friendly conversation from this noteworthy traveler, I realized that while South Africa is far less “African” than many realize, it is still an African country struggling under the weight of its past and stumbling toward an uncertain pursuit of wealth and westernization in its future.

In 2007, over 220,000 other American students were studying abroad all around the world. While the top destinations are English-speaking countries like the UK and Australia, there is growing interest in places like China and South America. Ten years ago, destinations like South Africa or India would have had new international students numbering in the hundreds each semester, compared to the thousands going to place like Italy or even the beautiful, but often ignored, Sweden. Today, however, places that were once too uncomfortably foreign, often without running water, and mostly void of reliable medical treatment, are falling in step with increased globalization and the tourist industry, backpackers and students alike are running to these cultural gems while they still are.

I will once again pack my life into a surprisingly roomy, I-could-probably-sleep-in-it sized backpack, hop on and off 4 different planes for over 24 hours, and finally land 7,561 miles from home prepared to reestablish my life abroad for no less than twelve months. This decision was made what seems like ages ago but was really only last year while I sat in the crowded, noisy computer lab at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa. This time Mama Africa draws me into her callused palm: West Africa. Really, though, “palm” is a euphemism as the African continent has always appeared as a clenched fist and wrist to me, with Ghana, my future home, nestled in the middle of its hot, equatorial thumb knuckle.

Home to one of Africa’s largest ports, Ghana was the beginning of the end as many Africans knew it as they boarded one of a stream of European and American ships that arriving there for to buy slaves. Accra, its capital and home to the University of Ghana, which I will be attending, is a bustling, tumultuous third-world capital city like many others, full of people trying to make a living in a place where they are shrinking fish within an ever-increasing ocean. I will bring with me a few preconceived notions of what life will be like there (hot, humid, cultural pride, open markets, strong Christian presence, very hot, stereotypically “African,” drum circles, exquisite languages I don’t understand) but will spare you the details until then. I am fortunate enough to once again step into the role of ambassador, both for my country and myself. Representing America this time around may just be more trying than attempting to represent the person I’d like to become while enduring the unfamiliar pressures of an alien land.

Like my camera’s shutter, my experiences will be brought in close for inspection and recorded for others to examine. My only hope is that through my chronicles, others might see the commonalities inherent in all human beings without regard to nationality or income. I have yet to meet a soul with which I could not relate on some level, whether it be recognizing what the pits of desperation can bring out in us or in the desire to help someone if for no other reason but as an attempt to show that “we are not all like they say, sista.”

We will speak soon, dear friend. Until then, the light in me reflects the light in you.

I am a current student at University of California, Irvine but call Bakersfield home. Now entering my fifth and final year as an undergraduate, I will be finishing my dual degree in psychology and anthropology in Ghana. When I am (often) asked of my future career plans, I can only smile and say that I plan on saving the world. My intentions are generally humanitarian within the growing third world, but the more people I talk to the more I see that hardly narrows it down. That is, these are all easy ways for me to explain my intention to work hard and always leave room for opportunities to just fall in my lap. While in Ghana I will be conducting my own research project and am hopeful about a proposed internship with the World Health Organization.

This is the first of a monthly chronicle of my personal African adventures. Enjoy.

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Also published in Wellness Times, December 2008