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First Few Days

First Few Days

Alright, I have nearly survived my first full day in Accra, and I’ve come out relatively unscathed, save for a slight sunburn, jet lag, oh and the $400 I somehow lost or left in the US… I can’t put to words how much I hope it’s the latter.

Hiccups aside, I can already feel the ways in which this trip is changing me. As soon as I got on the plane, everything I saw seemed a treasure, not only because it was new but because it meant something. Out the plane window, I saw the sunset, the line between upper sky and lower cloud a brilliant gossamer until the first star poked through above. (I remembered the old rhyme: “Star light, star bright, the first star that I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, wish upon a star tonight.”) My wish a secret, of course. With legs scrunched into the seat ahead, neck twisted over a pillow of scratchy air, I fell asleep beaming.

When the pilot announced our descent, I looked again out the window, in disbelief I’d actually arrived. A place so foreign and far away it hardly seemed to really exist, Accra was at my fingertips.

Going through customs was a breeze, but the real storm came in the baggage claim, where I first learned the concept of “Ghanaian time.” The lot of us from the plane — at least 150 people — surrounded the luggage belt, shifting impatiently and sweating, sweating, sweating.

With each bag that wasn’t mine, I was increasingly convinced they’d been lost, taken by someone else on accident, or confiscated by TSA. For an hour, this worry steeped — 30 minutes in I also realized my feet were swollen and I was convinced I’d come down with something that would require a hospital, maybe even amputation. My ankles seemed to swell to terminal levels until, by the light of some holy power, a suitcase plopped out with the name “MAIOLO” sprawled along its front and sides. I nearly kissed it.

Now, after my first day, all I want is space — I’ve found it outside, on the patio that winds around the front of our complex. I sit in the cushioned bench, where the wifi is best but still only good for a webpage in purgatory, waiting to load. I gulp the filtered water I can’t seem to drink enough of, crunching on almonds from home. (Well, California, but close enough.) I’m not homesick, just thirsty for more.

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By the time we arrived at the complex where we’d be staying, most were already asleep. After unpacking a bit, I walked the streets alone — stuck to busy streets, as per the wisdom of Dr. Williams — in search of a soccer match on TV or a crowd of late-night barhoppers. On a Sunday and in one of the world’s most Christian-dominated countries, I instead walked into a bazaar shop selling t-roll, hand-knit bracelets, malaria pills and stacks of evaporated milk. I bought some cakes packaged in plastic and Arabic. On my way back to the complex, while looking out to the busier streets and taller buildings, I bumped into a man on his cellphone. “Watch your path, Obruni.”

It’s not that I mind the term. I understand it and can’t wait to muster the courage to reply, “You too, Obibini.” Until then, I’m stuck on Mepaakiou (Please) and Medaase (Thank You). Sure, I’m polite, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. The people here, they’re confident, firm — the taxi driver owns the road and cuts off anyone who thinks otherwise. Me, I’m timid. Afraid to offend. That’s just it. I want to stop being so afraid.

I got a great night’s sleep, considering. The lost money kept me up for a few minutes, same with the mosquito net that wouldn’t stay taped to the ceiling and the humid heat. But after the plane ride, little could stop me from passing out. I had my first dream in months — I was with my mother, buying socks at the airport. She was worried I wouldn’t have enough for the trip, or that the ones we’d already bought wouldn’t fit. I tried to assure her but couldn’t speak. She kept droning on about needing more, more socks. Try as I might, my words were muted — it felt like screaming through a wad of cotton balls.

I awoke to breakfast being made. My head was heavy from jet lag, and I thought I was still dreaming. My swollen ankles proved otherwise. Our personal chef-for-a-week chef cooked up frittatas, sweet rice and a plate of assorted rolls. Slices of watermelon were brought out later, which I was thankful for because by that time everyone else was too full to eat many of them. The fools, I thought as I claimed a plate for myself.

We toured the city in a bus (with air conditioning!). I saw two little boys on the side of the road, one holding a toy helicopter, the other, a rock. I watched the boy with the rock walk over to a potholed puddle, hoist the rock over his head and splash it into the muck. He did this again and again, laughing and smiling like I’d never seen. The boy with the helicopter stared too, jealous, I think, of his stones.

The streets are anarchy — I think our bus driver was aspiring for NASCAR. I saw him smile as he managed to cut off a taxi just in time to round a corner and speed ahead. Everyone else on the road was just as into the race as him. There are occasional road signs, but people seem to enjoy neglecting them.

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One man on a motorbike drove up a sidewalk with a goat and a stack of wooden boxes haphazardly tied to the bike’s bumper. He skidded into oncoming traffic, pulled a quick U-turn and entered the flow of traffic. The driver and the goat seemed equally unfazed. In the U.S., even with the heft of traffic laws, the roadsides are dotted with fender-benders or police pullovers. I didn’t see a single wreck during our tour.

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The one ultimate authority of the road, I found, were traffic lights. While stopped at one, a man approached our bus. I made eye contact, and he raised his hand, first in a wave, then to point to the sky. I repeated the gesture, thinking it was a greeting, but he frowned and pointed again, then lowered his hand to his stomach. Even more confused, I tried to ask what it meant from the crack in the window, but the traffic noise and language barrier made it impossible to understand his words. He pointed again; I followed his finger, looking for a bird, a plane — superman! — to no avail. Finally, he shouted, “God!” and again rubbed his stomach.

The light turned green. He shook his head as we pulled away, probably frustrated at another silly obruni who couldn’t understand his wisdom.

“God feeds,” I surmised, if only to humor him in spirit.

I have these expectations while I’m here, and sometimes I rather regret making them. Little is worse than building up an experience to the point where reality can’t meet the high hopes. But I want to find stories in this city — unravel the people, understand them, open them up… but while so many have been kind, it seems so superficial. For money or social media status. Just like in the US, but with the added mark of an “obruni.” It’s inescapable, nearly stifling — a privilege, in a sense, but not for the claustrophobic.

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