Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Home and Back- Perspective

After months of counting down, planning, being nervous about traveling and reverse-culture shock, I made it back to America.  Turns out all that stressing was for nothing.  Typical.  It was the travel within Ghana that worried me the most, for good reason, but the travel gods were on my side.  It went very smoothly, I stayed (relatively) on my time schedule, and I even had lots of time at the Accra office to spare even though I left to go home a day earlier than expected.  I hadn't been in Accra since my training group arrived last October.  And it was just as people say: when you leave Accra, go to your village, travel around Ghana, and then after a while you return to Accra, its basically like America.  That's certainly not what I thought of Accra when we landed there last October, but its what I think of Accra now.  Its all about perspective.
So then all that worrying about reverse-culture shock.  That was all unwarranted too I found out.  As soon as I got to the Kotoka International Airport, as soon as I was back in an "international" area, back on a plane for the first time in 10 months, I was back in my comfort zone, I was back to me.  Back on my terms, no more yelling and staring at me, I was invisible again, and it felt great.  (Well, maybe I thought I was invisible, but its very likely that I looked like a very dirty, disheveled person, and maybe people were staring at me wondering who this smelly woman was...who knows.)  The pressures of sticking out as a white person faded away, I could finally let down my guard.  I thought that I would have some sort of reaction being back in a big city, in an airport, in a plane, around lots of different foreign people.  But that was the weird part- there was no reaction. So from then on out I just glided back into normal life without a problem.
And then I was back on an airplane, flying the six hours from Accra to Frankfurt, seated right next to a mother with three children under 7 years (so I got ousted from my aisle seat), so yes, Lufthansa, I will take that complimentary glass of wine...and another, please and thank you.
Lucky for me, I had an 8-hour layover in Frankfurt.  Lucky, you say?  Yes, lucky.  First of all, I'm used to waiting around for hours on end and I've gotten really good at killing vast amounts of time, but I'm also not used to wasting time in a nice airport.  Second of all- THERE WAS FOOD AND GERMAN BEER!!  So, my first meal was a proscuitto panini and a whole milk latte.  Heaven.  I was also very, very fortunate to be able to take advantage of using the United lounge.  The best part- complimentary Hefeweizen on tap.  Wow.  My mind was blown.  I didn't know beer could taste so good and be so enjoyable to drink.  Then on to the 10-ish hour flight to San Francisco- I watched some movies that I had never even heard of, had champagne and wine and port, and I even had the cheese platter AND ice cream with chocolate sauce (I never have both).  It was a beautiful day to fly into SFO, still the most beautiful city in the world to come home to. 
And the best part of all: after getting through baggage claim and customs and walking out those double doors- seeing my parents.

My trip home was beautiful.  Special.  Heart-warming.  Everything I dreamed (literally) it to be and more.  I died and went to heaven at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.  Had an amazing time seeing my family in Oregon at our annual family gathering, and of course ate and drank very, very well, courtesy of my cousins, uncle, aunts, mom, dad and grandparents.  My best friend from childhood, Erika, had a gorgeous wedding in Napa.  I was very happy to be a part of that special day.  And I am very thankful to her for getting married when she did and giving me an excuse to come home.  The last weekend at home, I had a great party with my high school friends and rugby girls- I really needed that.

So where does this leave me?  I have always known this, but being away from home just solidified in my head that I love my life in California and I deeply cherish my family and friends.  That being said, the trip back also made me see that I have a life here in Ghana.  Kongo, Upper East, Ghana is my home, where I also have many friends, Ghanaian and PCVs, that I care about.  I love this life I'm leading as a volunteer and I love the community I'm living in.  At what other point in my life will I be able to sit for hours/days on end and read or just think about life?  When will I be able to sit around, drink pito and socialize all day?  When will I ever be able to sit outside in my veranda and just watch the sunrises, sunsets, the clouds move, storms come in, storms go out, lightning light up the entire sky, the stars, shooting stars, the Milky Way, all day and night, all the time?  When will I ever be able to take bucket bathes in fresh, crisp rain water that I just collected from the storm?  This other life and home will only last for two years, and then I will return to my former life, but for the time being, yes, I feel at home. 
The change in perspective I got while being at home also allowed me to realize that I am "on" 24/7.  I never really break from being in volunteer mode.  Of course my experiences have changed me and how I think forever, and I'm still the same person I've always been but I act and dress very differently here.  I just have to hide the real me a little bit.  From day 1 in Peace Corps and in Ghana, I have had to be professional, this is my job.  Sure, I drink socially here, but only socially and only because that's what people do, its the common, popular activity.  Drinking excessively would just compromise my situation and how community members see me.  Also, since I'm a woman, I have that added pressure of constant male attention, and I have to keep that big, strong, independent, no BS boundary around myself at all times.  No, I'm not here to marry, I'm not here to date- my village life and personal life absolutely do not mix.   I'm here to work, so I demand of people to see me in a serious, professional manner.  You are going to treat me with the same respect as you would a white male volunteer (well...I'm still working on that).
In training, Peace Corps told us that really, volunteers are "on the job" 24/7.  I didn't fully see that until I came home and I was allowed to let go, I was allowed to let down my guard, I was able to talk to men without getting proposed to.  I am somewhat able to relax and unwind here when I'm with other volunteers, but I still always feel a sense of "being on the job,"  we're still all co-workers, your actions around other volunteers do matter, and they do make an impression, just as they do in your village. 
I needed the trip home, I needed a real vacation, I needed a break from the job.  I needed to be able to truly unwind and not worry about my every move.  I got back to being "normal" Britney, at least for three weeks. 

Since I had no trouble culturally going home, I then figured I wouldn't have a problem coming back to Ghana.  I was right.  The minute I stepped off of that plane in Accra, "Ghana" Britney was back, and she'll be around for a while more.

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