Home Again

April 5, 2013

Last day of teaching at Heritage
Last day of teaching at Heritage

It’s several days into spring term and I’m steadily adjusting to life back at Westtown. Everything feels so surreal – graduation is just around the corner and then my classmates and I are off to college. But in this whirlwind of activity, there remain things I have taken from my experience in Ghana that will never go away.

  • The amenities we take for granted are luxuries and we should always be thankful. Air conditioning, hot showers, flushing toilets, reliable electricity – these seem like miracles.
  • Middle schoolers in any culture are extremely difficult to control. But even if you feel like giving up, remember that they are good kids at heart and really do want to learn.
  • Get anti-malaria pills from a trustworthy source.
  • Stick ten teenagers in a guest house during a power outage and a hacky sack becomes a godsend.
  • Nothing goes according to plan – but it’ll turn out alright in the end.
  • It’s never too late in the year to meet people and really appreciate them. (And share lame jokes and tell embarrassing stories.)
  • Teacher Kwesi was right, I’m not Bill Gates. And while I certainly don’t think I changed the world, maybe a lesson stuck with one student or a comment I made helped another student connect the dots. Our group was thrust onto a new continent and into a new way of life. I didn’t just leave my comfort zone on this trip; I was catapulted into my “oh-my-god-new-experiences-but-let’s-try-not-to-panic” zone. That’s more than enough for me to feel like my time in Ghana was worth it.

Treetops

Originally written March 16, 2013

Our love group at Kakum
Our lovely group at Kakum

We spent all day out and about. It was a fairly early morning and we all piled into a bus to begin the two and a half hour journey to Kakum National Park. It was considerably cooler and damper under the dense trees and we had to watch our step on the uneven stone path up the steep hill. We were drenched in sweat before we even made it halfway up. Continue reading “Treetops”

“Oh My God, White People”

Originally written March 10, 2013

View from Elmina Slave Castle
View from Elmina Slave Castle

Today was a brief break from “rural” living and a respite in paradise (tourist traps). In the morning we made a two-hour drive and found ourselves in Elmina, touring its slave castle and practically pooping our pants over seeing all the obronis that weren’t in our group. Despite all the terrible things that happened in Elmina Slave Castle, the architecture was beautiful and the views from the buttresses were breathtaking. (Though being shut in one of the windowless cells for several moments by our tour guide was a little unsettling.) Continue reading ““Oh My God, White People””

“What Is Your Name?”

Originally written Friday March 8, 2013

Heritage Academy

I have never been a more extreme mixture of exhausted and exhilarated. It’s been a whirlwind of a week, full of turbulent planes and culture shock. The first few days in Ghana were mellow, spent growing accustomed to our new surroundings. We visited Heritage Academy briefly and within minutes every one of us had at least four Ghanaian children trailing on our arms, asking “What is your name?” Later we visited the bustling markets of Mankessim. Everywhere we went we were met with stares and exclamations of “Obroni!” (foreigner). In the tight alleys men and women weaved about each other, expertly balancing immense baskets of vegetables on their heads. Almost everyone in our group left with several yards of rich fabric to be tailored into shirts and pants and dresses. Continue reading ““What Is Your Name?””

A Typical Day for Sophie at the Embassy

8:50 a.m- Show up to work early, stand nervously by security guard while he calls what I know to be an empty office, looking for someone to escort me in.

8:55- Still no answer in Cultural Affairs office, because no one has come to work yet.

9:00- A familiar face finally arrives, takes pity on me, and escorts me in.

9:02- Marine exchanges my passport for a red visitor’s pass.

9:10- Arrive in Cultural Affairs office, hang up coat, swivel back and forth in chair waiting for the two interns in the office to get to work.

9:15- Interns arrive late, exchange small talk and a joke or two, discuss previous nights activities.

9:30- Freak out thinking passport is lost, look everywhere for it, then remember the Marine has it.

9:45- Help intern edit daily news report of German media to be circulated to those working in the embassies in Germany, and then back to Washington. Chuckle at expressions and word choice used by native German speakers who write the report in English. 

10:00- Tanya arrives and whisks me off to a presentation. The interns follow.

11:00- Go back to desk, attempt to unlock Tanya’s iPad. She wrote down the passcode on the first day but I lost it and am too ashamed to go back to her office and ask for the seven hundredth time.

11:10- Swallow pride and get passcode from Tanya. Write it down again.

11:30- Talk to interns about their work and lives back home, discuss differences between Germany and America. Continue reading “A Typical Day for Sophie at the Embassy”

Together


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We had decided that on the last day we should enter the Praza de Obradoiro in Santiago and come to face the cathedral together. We designated a street where we would wait for all the peregrinos of our group to gather  as they entered the city. As members of the group rounded the corner to the named location, they were greeted with hugs and hurrahs by those who arrived before them. The street filled with the sounds of congratulatory shouts, laughter and sighs of relief. Once reunited we walked together down the final stretch of the ancient street and into the plaza that faces the cathedral. It was a powerful sight to behold – not just the monstrous gothic cathedral looming over us – but all of us together, some arm in arm, taking the last steps of the Camino as one.  We had arrived. Together.

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We wobbled and hobbled up the steps of the cathedral to cross the threshold of the edifice that legend says contains the remains St. James the Apostle. The statue of St. James was there inside, waiting for us. Dare I say that most of us, in reality, paid the magnificent shrine to St. James little attention at all. Most did not care in that moment to observe the intricate marble sculptures, the elaborate triptychs, or even the crypt of St. James. We were focused on the fact that the end had finally come, that our weary feet would have to walk no more. We went to the offices of the cathedral to present our pilgrims’ passports and receive our Compostela, the document written in Latin and inscribed with a pilgrim’s name,  that certifies one has completed the Camino. The staffers looked upon us with kindly eyes and granted each of us a compostela. The students squealed as they surveyed their precious documents.

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The Camino de Santiago from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela took 5 days, and we covered a distance of 70 miles. Did I mention the rain? The hail? The wind? The cold? It was a difficult journey.

There weren’t cozy restaurants and taverns to provide respite during the arduous days. Knees, ankles and feet staged revolts against us.  The albergues, public hostels, were primitive but clean, if lacking sufficient heat at night and hot water in the showers. A journey such as this – toward something spiritually significant – should contain elements of sacrifice, though. A pilgrimage is not meant to be a walk in the park. It wasn’t. But it was something better, in spite of – or because of – the hardship. Out of deprivation grow appreciation and thanks.

For me, and I think for all of us – if I dare speak on behalf of others – the Camino de Santiago was an extraordinary experience, one that will never be (can be) forgotten. In between moments of fear, strife and pain a sense of togetherness and connectedness blossomed. We held each other up, urged one another to go on, managed to laugh when laughter seemed impossible. And beneath all that rain, friendships grew. The blisters and swollen ankles will recede in our memories. What we will remember is connection, perseverance and laughter. I am incredibly proud of this resilient, spunky, funny group of students. We did this amazing thing together. 

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