I am fortunate to have seen four continents, a dozen countries and I have lost track of how many cities, but travel continues to be a priority for me. I live simply, save, hunt for travel bargains and when the time comes, hit the next place on my list.
When I flew back from Ghana last week, I felt the way I always feel after a memorable trip. Still more connected to the place I was leaving than home.
As much as I love home, temporarily letting go of it to be fully present in a new place comes naturally. So, I got my shots, dropped my cat off, packed, locked up my house and left.
If you feel at home in the Caribbean, you feel at home in Ghana was what my daughter and I quickly concluded when we arrived. Lush, tropical landscape, melodic accents, vibrant music and clothing, bustling entrepreneurial energy, cultural pride, daredevil driving, shea butter scented air, welcoming spirits. As such, it made perfect sense to me to discover that Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s widow, had relocated from Jamaica to Ghana.
We thoroughly explored three cities—Accra, Kumasi and Cape Coast–visiting lively marketplaces, neighborhoods, beaches, museums and historical sites, gardens and farms, spas, restaurants, and re-learning about the slave trade by touring the dank dungeons where my possible-ancestors were brutally imprisoned before their transport to Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean. The last experience was emotionally heavy, but necessary, and all but swept away the when we flew to Kumasi days later and were warmly welcomed back and treated to a traditional Asante naming-and-blessing ceremony.
Deliciously stewed fish, plantains, red-red and jollof rice were on the menu almost every day. Juice from fresh pineapples and mangoes ran down my chin a lot too and I was deeply happy.
Because my daughter lives in LA, her return flight was routed through Amsterdam, so I flew back through time alone, missing Ghana, missing her. After a sleepless 10-hour flight to New York, the intensity of JFK customs and changing planes, bone-tired, I wanted to just sleep or zone out the remaining six hours home.
But then, two little girls joined my 3-person row.
My roaming eyes found their parents in the adjacent row with a little toddler boy. The mom’s bonnet, dad’s hat and generous beard, and homemade-but-tailored look of the whole family’s clothes said Amish. Their energy seemed friendly enough, and yet, I still managed not to make direct eye contact with any of them for about fifteen minutes after the plane took off.
One thing that impressed me about Ghanaian children, especially that day at the Labadi beach, is that they played simple games with great joy for a long time. Tag, kickball, ball toss. Five of them suddenly started a game of hide-and-go seek with me that was one of the highlights of my trip.
Child magnet that I am, there I was again with these two little girls (5 and 7 they later told me), whose family had stretched out and fallen fast asleep. They were good little girls. Well-behaved, not fidgety, grateful for small things like airplane food, company and kindness. They softly talked to each other in syrupy little voices that made my heart smile. I couldn’t help notice that they didn’t have books or toys of any kind. I knew the Amish were anti-tech, but why didn’t these girls have reading material or coloring books?
I am an empty nester and I am not going to babysit these children, I chanted over and over in my head, and then the older girl next to me innocently smiled sweetly at me, all sunshine and wonder, and that was that.
She leaned on my armrest and quietly began watching my movie, What Men Want, which I didn’t think was appropriate, so I turned it off and asked if she wanted me to show her how to get to the kid’s movies on her screen. She beamed eagerly and when I landed on Frozen, she and her sister both lit up. “Do you have headphones?” I asked and they said shook their heads.
I called the flight attendant and requested headsets that I was willing to pay for. She shot me an uncomfortable smile, saying she’d have to check with the parents. The parents who were probably Amish and didn’t necessarily believe in technology. The parents who were asleep. I smiled back encouragingly as in Go on then. These girls are bored and they’re not sleepy. Then, the 7-year old shook her head solemnly and said, “No, it’s okay. We don’t need them.”
Fine, I thought and taught them to play games on their seat consoles. They were quick learners and happily played independently, letting me enjoy my games in peace, but with a curious eye because I was leveling up fast. We slipped into an appreciable silence until the littlest one suddenly scooted into the seat next to me. She showed me her mosquito bites. I told her not to scratch, realizing then that I hadn’t gotten a single mosquito bite in Ghana, rare for me in tropical climates.
With the small talk out of the way, she whispered that she wanted to watch Frozen, and maybe this was wrong of me, but we had three hours left and the parents were still asleep and how many chicken chase, bird trap and driving games can two little girls play?
On her console, I navigated to the movie and offered her the spare pare of earbuds I had gotten free on my first flight, but hadn’t used since my personal ones worked. She grinned and put one in one ear and the other in her sisters’. At some point, her mother stirred and studied me and them, glued to the screen and curled together like they were trying to become one person and let it be.
As we were descending, all looking out one window, I pointed out the snow-capped Cascades and slices of Pacific Ocean.
The mom called them to come gather their belongings, and as we got off the plane, looking more rested than me, she warmly thanked me and said her girls enjoyed their time with me.
I was grateful for them too. At the start of the flight, I was still much more in Ghana than anywhere else, but interacting with her little girls, I found myself letting go of jollof rice and humidity, crazy driving and colorful accents; possible cousins and Kente cloth.
This is why I travel. To have new adventures in faraway places and come home to what we all have in common. Smiles and laughter, kindness and wonder, giving and learning, and that universal need to connect.
I love the moments of my life and how they are often sewn together so perfectly.