I braced myself for the inevitable as I entered the elevator to head up to my first class back from spring break. Much like after summer vacation, a single, ubiquitous question swirls around every classroom in the country: how was your break? Typically, people look forward to being on the giving and receiving end of that question, whether they spent a wild week in Miami or a sedentary one at home with Netflix, but this time, for me, it was different. This time, the thought of somebody asking me that question made me feel uneasy.
That’s because I spent my highly anticipated vacation not gallivanting at South Beach or watching House of Cards, but across the Atlantic Ocean in Ghana, assisting a professor on a class trip. Let me be clear: my experience there was easily one of the richest I’ve had in my 23 years on earth. Every emotion I felt in my five days in Ghana was completely saturated, like when you leave a tea bag in your mug and let it steep all the way. That’s not to say each of those emotions was positive; the highs and lows were equally extreme.
What caused me so much anxiety about that question, though, was where and how to begin answering it. Did I start with the moment I decided I wanted to go, which I’m pretty sure was when I first danced to West African music at Little Baobab in San Francisco? When I exited the plane at Kotoka Airport in Accra (the country’s capital) and was immediately cloaked in a warm, thick, balmy air that stayed with me the rest of the trip? Or was the real beginning of the story the following morning when I stared outside the tour bus window, watching the city yawn and unfurl its limbs as the markets came alive? Do New Yorkers even have time for stories to be told this way anymore?
There were moments so beautiful that I needn’t have even written them down in my journal to make sure I remembered them. There was the time we were driving through Accra one night when I spotted a young boy walking fearlessly among the traffic selling food. We made eye contact, so I smiled and waved. He responded by touching his fingers to his lips; he was hungry. I immediately thought about the young boys who sell fruit snacks on the uptown A train I take to work, and realized that poverty and hustle are universal.
There was the first morning I woke up in Cape Coast (a smaller town southwest of Accra), and ate breakfast just steps away from the Atlantic Ocean, almost paralyzed by its beauty. Later that day, we toured the Elmina Castle, which brought me more intimately and inescapably close to my ancestral history than any book or documentary could even attempt. Once you see the stone walls, smell the unique mixture of blood, sweat and metal that still hover over the castle six centuries later, and feel the closeness of the quarters slaves were forced into, you cannot un-see, un-feel, un-smell. This is a blessing and a curse.
There was the group of siblings who asked me to take their photo after crossing the tree canopy bridges at Kakum National Park in Ghana’s Central Region. One of the younger sisters ran over to peer into my digital lens afterwards, leaning her head against my chest to get a better look. It was the simplest gesture, but in that instant I felt how trusting and refreshingly open Ghanaian culture can be. It was beautiful.
We spent our last night in Ghana at Chez Afrique, a huge, roofless restaurant and nightclub. In front of a small dance floor, there was a live band playing highlife music (a jazzy, horn-heavy style that originated in Ghana in the 1920s). Dancing to local music is one way I orient myself to a new place, and by the time I left, my Ghanaian compass was set. I won’t go so far as to say that I was “finally home,” but I certainly felt at home.
I ate kelewele, the Ghanaian version of fried plantains, at every single opportunity, often several times a day. My foray into the Ghana’s market bargaining culture can only be described as hilarious and unsuccessful. (I once walked into a shop expecting to pay 10 cedis for a highlife CD. The shop owner quoted me 22. I paid 18, and walked away feeling satisfied for about two seconds.) Back in New York at the time, I wouldn’t dare leave my apartment without at least four layers of clothing, but I was comfortable in Accra in a simple sundress all day long.
An unmistakable pang of wrongness washed over me as the plane took off at the end of our trip. I wasn’t ready to go. To this day, I haven’t changed my watch back to Eastern Standard Time from Ghanaian time.
Will I return? Yes, very soon. Can I wait? Of course not. Do I have a better idea of how to answer the question of how the trip went when people ask me now? Only slightly. But more importantly, I have learned to be OK with the difficulty in retelling some stories. For the insatiably curious, however, there’s a solution: go there and find out for yourself.—Tamerra Griffin
Tamerra Griffin is an NYU graduate student interested in African popular culture, feminism and food. Follow her on Twitter @tamerra_nikol.