Sunday, March 7, 2010

Up in The Air - Observations of a traveler

I’m in an airport again. Ran around like an absolute mad woman at the office today, delusional in the belief I would get all the loose ends tied up and leave early. Got home the usual time, threw the last things into my bag (realized the humidity in Accra is rotting the zippers of the luggage), and had a shower. Then ran around the house trying to organise food for the boys at home for the week, and had about half an hour to unwind. Now I’m sitting in Accra’s International airport. It’s 33 celcius outside and it’s 9pm. The air-conditioners are not working in the airport today. Little tickly beads of sweat are gathering into fluid streams, and find their way down my temples, behind my ears, under my bra. I feel soggy.

An hour ago I was fresh and clean.

This scenario plays out about twice a month. I travel a lot for work. Every chance I get, I travel for pleasure as well. Sometimes I like to combine the two. I probably travel too much but who’s to say what’s too much. Last month it was Sierra Leone, now it is Canada, later this month it will be Lebanon and Jordan (but that one’s for pleasure!), and then the day we get back, we’re on a plane to Nigeria.

Whenever I am in transit I find myself considering my identity, my place, my cultural constructs of the world. Where do I belong?

I’m looking down at myself. My t-shirt was bought in Houston while at an Oil & Gas exhibition. My jeans were bought last year on the trip to the PDAC show in Toronto. My shoes were bought when down in South Africa last year for a wedding. We got my watch in Los Angeles on Rodeo Drive (which was a bit surreal). My laptop from a mall in Germany, my phone on a trip through Dubai.

Living in Ghana, where adventures with local salons have led to disaster*, I even have a hairdresser in Dubai! Go to her every time I’m passing through. I think that might be an indication that I travel too much.

This trip is taking me via Heathrow, back ‘home’ to Canada. The term ‘home’ doesn’t really fit into my reality. Though Toronto is my birthplace and I grew up in the surrounding suburbs, I have lived in a completely different world for close to 15 years. I’ve spent 14 of the 22 years of my adult life (that’s 63%), on another continent in a world so far away on so many levels. My concerns are not the concerns of anyone I know in Canada. My day to day reality, something so different, so removed. And now that has become the norm for me.

I think the day I first realized the extent of my alienation was when I arrived at Pearson International some years ago, carried along by the drowsy crowds of arriving passengers, and noticed acutely the accents of the immigration officers. I picked up the certain nuances that characterize a Canadian accent - something I didn’t realize existed before I left her shores.

In the expat world of Ghana, I spend time amongst Ghanaians, Nigerians, British, Germans, Jordanians, Polish, Lebanese, South Africans, Americans, Spanish, Italians, French - and the odd Canadian.

For now, that life is home. Our house, a 70’s monstrosity, was once the Libyan Embassy. With company furniture and a few local nick nacks, we have no sentimental connection. Our next home will be a boat, and we will take it where our whims carry us.

Over past few years, whenever I arrive back in Toronto I find that I’ve lost the connection to the city. It has become like so many others – arrive one week, notice the new buildings, smell the unfamiliar air, off to another destination the next week.

With an outsider’s eye, the city no longer feels comfortable. It has no spark, no recognizable beauty. It is a suburb. Life goes on here, mothers take their kids to school in their 4x4s, each neighborhood has it’s chain store mall, the sidewalks are straight and the grass is cut. There are laws and rules and things work. Elevators go up and down, water comes from the taps. In winter a grey hue descends and covers everything. It wills people to hibernate against it’s grizzly embrace. In summer it is peeled away and people live more each day for those few ‘thawed’ months, when the sun visits.

All of this is a foreign world to me. At ‘home’ in Accra I dodge potholes in the road, look away at traffic lights, as the beggars push their thin babies to the car window. I argue with the house cleaner/cook about putting mint instead of basil in the spaghetti sauce and for forgetting that bleach isn’t to be used on the coloured clothes… I worry about the generator not starting or the water supply being cut off for weeks. I worry about the malaria spreading mosquitos every night when we’re out past 6pm. I consider 26 degrees celcius a cold day and 38 degrees a hot day – and I can expect the average temperature all year to be 30 to 34…

11 hours have passed and I’m in another airport. I’m surrounded by a whirlwind of colour and sound – undecipherable chatter and coats and bags and parcels and the swoosh of late passengers dashing toward gates.

I sit quietly and am very aware of myself as one among the many. Just another passenger headed to another destination.

But my trip is not like any other. I happen to be heading to Toronto. Though I don’t live there anymore, it is my family that draws me back. I am lulled by their welcoming arms at the airport. The delight and excitement in my mother’s eyes when she first catches sight of me among the crowd. I am attracted to the nostalgia, to the din of the family’s chatter on a Sunday afternoon, while my sister cooks up a gourmet meal. There is a tenderness and a level of comfort that has no equal. When I am back in Ghana I keep the memories of these visits in a place deep within me. Mementos. They remind me what the term home actually means.
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Argentum Vulgaris said...

I can so relate to your paragraph: "All of this is a foreign world to me. At ‘home". Although a cold day is 22º here, we've just had two months of over 40s.


Miss Footloose said...

Holli, I so identify with everything you say. I don't belong anywhere. I don't feel that any place is "home," and that does make me sad a little. I haven't lived in my native Holland for decades and although it feels comfortable enough when I visit, I still feel like a foreigner.

My husband's country, the USA, is also comfortable, but I'm always aware I am not from there. And having lived in a number of other countries, including Ghana (twice), only ads to the feeling of rootlessness.

Having said that, I have always valued my life overseas, my experiences, all the things I've learned about the world.

At the moment I am back in the US, but after living in less-rich countries for so many years, I cannot get used to this culture -- all the prosperity, all the huge malls, the giant stores, all the consumerism.

I'm looking for a simpler place to live, but have no idea if there is a place where I'll really feel I belong.

Violins, anybody?

Anna said...

I can SO relate, in a way. "Home", i.e. where I grew up and spent the first 19 years of my existence is no longer "home. Nor will here ever truly be "home" even though I feel at home here. I am stuck somewhere inbetween!

Krissy said...

I find it interesting that when someone talks about their alienation, or the things that exceptionalize them, everyone's first response is "I know exactly what you mean."

It seems that a sense of outsiderness is something that's shared. Every time we try to talk about the particularities of our experience that make us different than others we end up talking about the things that connect us.

There's a real tension here between being unique vs not being unique, the need to differentiate experience and to explore what's shared.

The pale observer said...

Hi All - thanks for sharing - I think Krissy's point is really important and true. Just when we feel alone, others are quick to let us know they are also feeling it, so it connects us! This should be comforting :)

Lora said...

and what will be the first thing you eat when you get there? I think that is always an important way to reconnect with your home.

poutine? if so, have some for me. I only moved 400 some miles away from the Great Lakes, and no one has ever heard of the stuff here. And in the off chance you might find it, it's just melted cheese and jarred gravy over fries. nothing like the real stuff.

Enjoy your travels.

The pale observer said...

Hi Lra - hate to disappoint - but I never grew up with poutine in suburban Toronto... I have come to love it as an adult but it doesn't remind me of home.

However - in the attempt to eat a bit of everything I don't normally get, i've blown the diet and eaten everything in sight!!! :(

Land of shimp said...

Hmmm, this is an interesting one for me to ponder. I've never been much of a world traveler. I live in suburb, I do my own thing, tend to keep to myself. I dearly love my home, and I loved the one before this, too.

I finally figured out something, not all that long ago, actually. I had what most people would term a bad child. Alcoholism, insanity, periods where the water was turned off, and we didn't have enough to eat (I mentioned that I volunteer at food banks, I do so because we had to use one when I was a kid). Just the kind of childhood you don't associate with the U.S. It wasn't some great tragedy or anything...but it didn't boast much security. I worried more as a kid than I do now.

I love reading your blog, and Pauline's blog, and Miss F.'s many "take me on an adventure" type of blogs, letting me see into different lands, other people's adventures.

But I never wanted to take them. I have a happy marriage, a nice son, a good home...and do you know what? When I was a kid, that's what sounded exotic, foreign, impossible to me.

I don't know that home is a place, necessarily. It's whatever happiness you make in your life, that thing you rely on for your place in the world.

I guess for some it's a job, or an existence that sounds nomadic to others. Or a house in a boring suburb, that seems like paradise simply because it's happy.

I don't think home is really on a map.

Land of shimp said...

Oh, unfortunate typo. I didn't have "a bad child" ..I had a "bad childhood" :-)

The pale observer said...

Land of shimp - thanks - that was a lovely contribution! Home is where we feel secure and loved unconditionally. :)

Pauline said...

Home is not necessarily a place -- well said. I did not think of it that way before.

Still, I strongly relate to what Holli describes -- that peculiar sense of alienation when one returns to the country where one has been born and raised. It's got nothing to do with wanting to be unique or special. For me, it's the amazement of seeing familiar things in an entirely different light. Every time I go back to Holland, I realize how much I have changed. Even if I can speak my own language and walk around without being noticed and understand all the social and cultural codes, I do not take anything for granted. It's about cultural identity, I guess.

And what makes the question of identity so difficult to answer at times, is the fact that I will never be able to feel completely at home in West Africa. My skin color will always brand me as an outsider, a foreigner -- whether I like it or not. So why do I choose to make things difficult for myself? I haven't the answer yet, but having had a stable childhood probably goes some way to an explication.

Patty said...

I love traveling, the world is my home. I can't imagine just settling down to one country, maybe some day. Great post!

blunt edges said...

i really liked the last paragraph...its true for so many people who live away from their "homes"! :)

n talking about 'up in the air', i'm finally planning to catch up on the movie today :D

amy zimmer said...

Ha-ha! Yay for the Obroni! My adventure this week will be about the differences between riding bikes in rural northern California vs. riding my bike to the mall yesterday. Hmmm...I didn't realize you travel so much. Wow. Off to Egypt for Passover, oops, I mean Spring Break. TTY soon? xo Amy

deb said...

exquisite writing.
I moved quite a bit as a child, so feel no sense of "home" in that typical roots sense. Nor a stable family to call the true home either.

I love to travel , the little that I do ( nothing compared to others... or you, not even close), but I know call home our little suburban large family living a life from sunrise to sunset doing the best we can. We love life, breaking bread, and knowing that the world is huge and diverse and we are a very small part of what is truly a beautiful wonder.

Bungalow'56 said...

it is always such a pleasure to come for a visit.
Thank you,

Anonymous said...

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Brian Miller said...

wonderfully written...i traveled extensively, just among the US fo several year and oftn woke up wondering where i was, which really was just a sense of loss of home...your look at all that you were wearing brought that back to me...glad i dont travel as much anymore...

Velvet Over Steel said...

You wrote about this so well! I can really relate, but most of the people I know here have never been anywhere and don't understand the way I feel. This is a great blog and your writing is amazing! So glad you found my blog, so I could find yours! Following you back and will be back often to read more! Hugs ~ Coreen

Anonymous said...

Hello. And Bye.

Maggie May said...

What an wonderful glimpse into your life. I love your intelligent, precise way of writing.

Argentum Vulgaris said...

The Pale one, I did a review of your blog on my Blogger's cafe:

Might like to check it out.


A Touch of Dutch said...

What an absolutely wonderful post! I am still an amateur in my life, compared to where all you've been & what you experience, but I could still relate on so many levels. Thanks for sharing this!

Cindy said...

Thanks for a terrific post. Maybe there's hope for me yet!

Boonsong said...

You have a fascinating view of your way of life. Thanks for sharing it here.

johnwilpers said...

Hi, Holli,

It's John Wilpers from GlobalPost where we are sharing your blog with the world. I tried to send you an e-mail but the address isn't working. Can you send me an address I can reach you at, please? My e-mail is



Jungle Mom said...

I just returned form a trip back to the US and this certainly hit home with me. Funny, I posted a travel/airport post myself today.

Nana said...

Wow, its refreshing to hear this from a different point of view. Being born in Ghana and now been living in the States for 16 years, I can so relate. Yes, I have great highschool, college friends who are all dear to my heart but I still feel a sense of not belonging once in a while. Visiting Ghana, which I do almost every year presents the same issue. Hmm, maybe I need to check out the caribean. At least theres good weather, carnival and beaches.

Holiday in South Africa said...

nice body painting and the story is also good.

James said...

You definitely love extreme life style, I remember a few years ago I was in a business trip in Ghana, it was awful, I was robbed twice, so no way I'm going back there.

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