Mostly Back

I’m not really sure what to say now that I am back in the US.  The culture shock is, of course, palpable.  The food prices are shocking (but I am willing to pay for the variety and lack of stomach pains), the roads are flat and not filled with potholes, and the buildings seem even larger and more ominous than ever before.  I am happy to be back.  I am exhausted, have jetlag, and keep obsessively washing my expedition clothes; however, I am uncomfortable in large groups, I don’t always know what to say when people ask me about the expedition, but I am also sometimes lonely in a way I have never been before.  It is an odd situation to have shared terrible Nescafe instant coffee and white bread with a group of amazing friends(family, in reality) most every day for over a week and then wake up in a comfortable bed to no one else.  It is also bizarre to see good friends and not really know what to talk.

But these are temporary discomforts that, like the jetlag, I know will pass in time.  More profound are, with any luck, the internal changes that will stick inside me forever.  I feel more empathetic, things that might have once annoyed me are no longer of much concern, and I feel a deep compulsion to protect my health and well-being (this includes my mind, body, and soul).  I don’t know where I am headed or what the road will look like, but I have a much better understanding of who and what makes me happy.  Isn’t that quite the paradox?  I looked despair and desperation in the eye for days and come back with a greater sense of everything I truly want in life.  Perhaps it isn’t such a paradox.  My life, unlike the lives of many of those I interacted with, is not written in indelible ink.  Perhaps that is the greatest gift I received in a time of previously unknown bounties – while I was attempting to assist in writing the verses to a poem about the exploitation and enslavement of children, these same people (and those in their orbit) were really helping me write and revise the verses of my own life’s poem.  Maybe they only worked on a few stanzas, but the changes are quite tremendous.

Stevenson declared in Aes Triplex that “The changes wrought by death are in themselves so sharp and final, and so terrible and melancholy in their consequences, that the thing
stands alone in man’s experience, and has no parallel upon earth. It outdoes all other accidents because it is the last of them.”  I have experienced very little death in my life (blessedly), but the moments of melancholy brought on by those losses did not result in the changes that have overcome me.  Perhaps I will say something different when I inevitably lose someone I share my soul with, but I think I gained more from the instances of heartache, empathy, and even incredible joy that I experienced the last week and a half.

That is another personal paradox I am still sorting out.  There were days of discomfort with many moments of sadness (a depression that persists no matter how dispassionate you try to become), but there were also some moments of seemingly infinite bliss that stand out far more.  Which did I gain more from? I don’t know, but I do not regret an instant of this trip nor an action nor a terrible shot forever known as The Boff Special.  All of these moments blend to create something beautiful. Every memory is special, and while some will fade, I took the time to soak in the most important ones.  And those memories, some blissful and others distressing, I will try and hold in my head forever.

I know this blog is meant to be about my travel, but these words are the only ones I have right now.  As for the purpose of the expedition (as I see it in a post hoc fashion), Vonnegut says it better than I can: “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.'”

I hope that everyone will have an experience as profound as mine, and I look forward to the next expedition. Perhaps the changes will not be so profound in part deux and beyond, but I am sure they will be just as … tremendous.






High Highs and the Story of a Low

From my iPhone:
My apologies for the long delay between posts. I planned on writing something yesterday and instead had an incredibly memorable night with friends. It was tremendous. I have been a part of teams before, both athletic and otherwise, but I have never felt this at ease with a group of people who one week ago were total strangers. Anyway, it was our first free night of the week and we had some of the expeditions highest points in a few hours of talking about anything and everything, drinking amazing whiskey, getting bitten by malaria riddled mosquitoes, etc.

It was a night I needed, and I think we all needed, after five of the longest days I have ever experienced. They might be some of the longest days, but they are also the most rewarding. Even after an eight hour day of trampling through sewage and filth and rotten fish, we still somehow manage to refresh ourselves with the most mediocre shower imaginable before gathering in our teams again to write up interview transcripts and process photos. Most days start at 9AM and finish around 11PM, but most everyday I wake up ready to go. I departed Indy a week ago, but I could have been here a month. Or a day.

Anyway, time for a quick story. I mentioned in an earlier post that we had all experienced a rough night after a particularly rambunctious wedding party. Now playing will recount the details so you can get some insight into life here in Ghana. The guests of the Muslim wedding party were not supposed to be at the hotel past 9PM. The elders had rented the patio apparently under false pretenses and instead of a respectable wedding party, there was an unruly bunch of what the hotel manager referred to as “vagabonds smoking their marijuana.”

Apparently Ghanaian Muslims observe the no drinking rule, but they are still looking for a fun time. Incidentally, the Muslim youth also seem fond of reggae and rap. That’s not too important. Anyway, I am trying and failing to sleep while apparently there is an epic struggle going on outside. The wedding party would not leave despite management demands, and the police were reluctant to do anything. In this case, I don’t blame them too much since high boys with nothing to lose are liable to do anything. The police even skirmished with them briefly before cautioning the management that it might be best just to let the event finish. Again, I do not really disagree with this this decision. I might not love my room, but I prefer it the way it is now rather than post riot.

Funnily enough, I do not believe we were ever in any danger. This is an incredibly religious society with Christians and Muslims living together, and tensions do exist. But the people are by and large kind and respectful and God-fearing as one of my companions would say. I have never really felt unsafe this expedition. The villages might sometimes resemble war zones, the smell might be overwhelming, and the men might look like they could rip me in half many times over before they break a sweat, but this country feels like home in many ways. Perhaps that is just the fact that I feel like I am part of a dozen-plus person family. But if we are a family and Raul Roman is our father, this is a wonderful family to be part of. Friends may come and go, but family is forever. And this family sure has some stories, from our highest highs to our lowest lows, our stories and experiences cannot truly be understood by anyone from outside the family. But that is just fine.

The Kindest People, The Worst Conditions, The Value of Education.

From my iPhone:
This work we are doing is the most important thing I have been a part of in my life. The amount of respect I have for humanitarian aid workers now exceeds that of any other profession, though I am jealous at times that they are able to provide something tactile for the starving and unlucky masses. I say unlucky because it is only circumstance that separates any one of the people I have met so far from myself. Indeed, I remind myself that but for my grandfather’s immigration from Peru to the US, I could very well be in a similar situation instead of blogging from a $600 phone (though, of course I would not even exist if not for his move. Thanks grandpa.)

While I cannot go into detail about the people I meet and interact with during my fieldwork, I can give my general impressions and thoughts. The small, coastal town I worked in the last two days is a cesspool. The open sewers are packed and oozing, the smell is so powerful you have to breathe through your mouth, and even then you need to fight the vomit. The coastline, which would be among the top beaches in the world under different circumstances, is filled with people bathing in the same water that they use as a toilet. This is besides the rest of the beach that serves as a mix of playground, trash dump, and litter box for the community.

Luckily it rained today, and hard, which cleared much of the smell and made the work a bit easier. Despite the desperate circumstances, I have met an uncountable number of spectacular people. They are kind and genuine, the sort of people who smile as you tromp through their neighborhood and wave you over to take their picture. The few children who asked for money were chastised and smacked by their peers for their impertinence, which many seemed to believe would reflect poorly on their community.

Nevertheless, I have had a number of children show me their friends and explain in superb English that their comrades are unable to go to school. They explain that these illiterate children desperately want an education, but their parents are unable or unwilling to spend the ~$50 a year it would take to cover all their fees and medical costs. Instead, many of the children work on the shore on on boats in the perilous world of fishing. When westerners think about fishing, we either picture a lazy weekend at the lake with a pa or watching overdramatized reality shows. These children are diving under the water to untangle nets or working for days at a time hauling in catches to barely seaworthy vessels. The boys who work, some as young as 6 or 7, are afraid of the water and the potential death it represents. Ships capsize miles out to sea and nets tangle even the most careful swimmer; in either case children die everyday.

None of this even gets to the trafficking and enslavement of children that is rampant in some areas. And yet the children laugh and play, and so many parents sacrifice every comfort so their children can go to school. Hope exists, but it is often just a faint glimmer or a daydream. And yet the children laugh and play and follow us around touching our arms, holding our hands, or simply yelling ‘hello!’ and giggling in delight when you respond. The men and women are also mostly happy to see us as they are glad that someone has come to visit their community and has taken a genuine interest in their lives. Many are happy to chat and share their most intimate life details simply because no one has ever asked or cared before, at least in their eyes. That is also crushing. These people are so kind, genuine, and funny that I cannot help but think about how different the World would be if all the ungrateful Westerners who complain about the most trivial things without pause were forced to trade places with the poor and hopeful Ghanians.

I am still catching up on sleep due to the fact that the Muslim wedding that had the music bumping Saturday night lasted until 3:45 AM. But that is a story for another time. I apologize for the lack of photos – my internet is so nonexistent that posting is impossible at this point.

Nante yie ne meda w’ase.

Day 2: Exhausted Yes, Weary No.

I am writing this from my iPhone because the newest update of El Capitan is not compatible with the most common method of Internet in Ghana (Vodafone USB sticks). So this post will be brief because of that. Also, I am tired so that will on increase the brevity and decrease the word count.

Ghana is a wonderful country. At any given moment, one of your senses is assaulted; however, that is often just fine. Music is everywhere. Indeed there is a wedding going on at the hotel we are staying at that is currently playing Ghanian rap over 90s and early 00s beats.

But the smells and sights are also incredible, sometimes for bad reasons, but most everything is just an expression of the people. Ghanaians who I have met are humble, but they often live simply. Even the wealthier Ghanians I have encounter are not typically opulent or materialistic in the way we westerners are used to seeing.

The other people in the program, my teammates, are diverse and delightful. We have been thrust together in an uncomfortable situation with a daunting task, yet I cannot see how any of them could be replaced. Bonding over heat, beer, and exploring began almost the moment we got off the plane. Lifelong friends will certainly come from this experience when we disperse back to our homes.

I experienced two Ghanas today. One was in one of poorest districts in Accra where orphans abound, left without families due to deadly occupations like fishing and the omnipresent threat of disease. But they are surrounded by love and support by extended families and local leaders, like the wonderful teacher, Humphrey, who acted as our guide and temporary companion. The local townspeople, mostly fishermen and those who helped support the local economy, were welcoming and generous. The children might be shy when they are infants and small toddlers, but those older than three are fearless, exuberant, and most importantly just kids.

Today I saw children, surrounded by a poverty most westerners would find crushing and unfathomable, sliding down steps, playing soccer, and roller skating. They would rush over and request a photo and give their approval. If they found the photo unacceptable, they would politely demand one more until you got it right. Their spirit and charm was as infectious as the diseases they live with everyday.

On the other hand, we also went to the home of a celebrated former New York Times editor and enjoyed his tremendous hospitality. Though he hosted us in his mansion, he was a typical, humble Ghanian, albeit with impeccable English and a buffet of food for his guests (prepared by his delightful wife and brilliant granddaughter). While we entered his home as strangers, the entire group left a member of his extended family. These were not empty words either, uttered for effect; rather, he left everyone in the group of over a dozen with a bellyful of warmth. While the delicious wine and food might have helped with that, it was almost entirely due to his gregarious nature and filial energy. When I return to Ghana someday, he will be among the first people I call to visit.

In conclusion, I leave you with the Ghanian name bestowed upon me in a welcome ceremony: Kofi. It simply means “Friday-born” for that is the naming convention. I promise to attempt regular posts, but I make promises on account of exhaustion and poor internet connectivity.

Nante yie ne meda w’ase.

Here We Go

First of all, I want to thank Leon Logothetis for this amazing opportunity.  As some of you already know, I was selected to be a participant in Leon’s Human Interaction Project (H.I.P.) hence the name of this blog.  Perhaps I will write on this blog again when I need a hip replacement and take a trip to Brussels, but for now this blog will be the central place where I log my H.I.P. trip to Ghana.

I initially presented about going to work in a Syrian refugee camp, but for some reason it is hard to find volunteer opportunities in that region.  Instead, I will be part of a team of citizen photojournalists, capturing the images and stories of  child labor in Ghana.  We will meet with individuals from every link in the child labor chain, from the young workers themselves to the people working to get kids in school to the employers who utilize child laborers.  Through a Western lens this is a simple equation: child labor = bad.  But the issue is more complicated.  I don’t know what my thoughts will be in my post hoc examination of the experience, but right now I am trying to keep an open mind. After all, there are four ways to skin a cat.

Anyway, I am going to spend this evening packing and hope my anti-malarial medication does not cause the “intense, hallucinogenic nightmares” that the pharmacist warned about.  Follow my travels here.  Or don’t. It’s a free country.