On Travel. The Year of the Return (again).
My mum bought me a Little Miss Explorer book for Christmas.
You know — of the Little Ms and Mr Men fame. Little Miss Explorer travels all over the world, seeking out adventures and stories which are waiting to be viscerally felt and known. She ventures amongst tropical jungles, scales sky-high mountains and plunges into the depths of the ocean. Expanding the edges of her world and her understanding is something she can’t not do.
Unfortunately for her, her travel companion was Mr Worry who on several occasions left them both stagnant and paralysed in paradise. At the end of last year, whilst travelling, I identified more with ‘Mr Worry’ than ‘Little Miss Explorer’. It felt unnatural and uncharacteristic — so much so, that here I am writing again on Medium after 4 years out the game, trying to make sense of that (short-lived) paradigm shift.
I’ve just finished crying on a flight which I have taken, on average, once every 6 weeks for the past year. This particular flight is from London Heathrow to John F Kennedy, New York. If you know me well — you’ll know that 30,000 feet in the air is where I do most of my emotional processing.
The motion of travelling from one place to another, quite obviously, can stir up internal dialogue around where you’re coming from, where you’re going, what you’re venturing towards and what you’re leaving behind. Ultimately you’re thinking about who you are. After flights I often feel as though I’ve returned to myself and to what is important to me. Thoughts gently aided by the hum of white noise in the background. The anonymity of the space. The lack of expectation. The lack of external opinion and judgement. The awareness that your safety and basic needs are being taken care of. The landscape steadily morphing outside the window. The deficit of optionality. The novelty of grazing clouds.
The insignificance of you in the grand scheme of the world.
The significance of your life choices in the grand scheme of your world.
Thinking on flights just feels pure.
Hiatuses spent suspended above unassured lands and timezones affords the rare privilege of escaping 1. time 2. place and 3. people. Time, place and people are three (massively broad) themes I’ve been thinking about very explicitly as of late. I’ve recently turned 30, moved to Portland and the nature of my relationships, both developing and established, are evolving rapidly — some further in sync and some further out of sync with my life and values.
By design, I have led and will continue to cultivate a relatively transient life.
Travelling expands my world and perspective, whilst making me acutely aware of the body and mind I take with me wherever I go. Travel is not an escape from yourself but a move towards yourself.
But, for the first time on that plane, that restorative sensation of weightlessness, quiet and motion just felt like solitary confinement surrounded by nothingness.
24 hours prior to my New York flight, I flew from Accra to London.
London is my home but no longer feels as concretely so. Accra never was, but feels as though it should have a greater semblance of home.
You’re nested between Osu and Cantonments.
It’s your last day in Accra after 2 weeks.
Festivals, litres of Hennessy + parté after parté, after parté after parté.
Your 3 friends from University days left days ago for London.
Your brother has a solid set of his British-Ghanaian and Ghanaian pals.
Your parents are enjoying their singular holiday of the year, together.
Your cousins have significant others.
And lives beyond you.
You go to The Woods Bar.
You wonder if you remember it from last year. Or whether it has been constructed specifically and temporarily for ‘The Year of the Return’.
You recognise that you’ve been self-censoring on this trip for weeks.
Moving with an uncharacteristic lack of curiosity and questioning.
You’ve been replacing it with a calculated ease.
A desire to skip straight to cultural assimilation.
To fade into the background, unnoticed at all times.
Aside from you and 1 bartender, it is completely empty.
You’re alone for a total of 7 minutes.
It feels uncomfortably long.
A new friend who is visiting Ghana arrives at the bar.
They are razor sharp.
Perceptive. Inquisitive. 100 mph.
Over the evening they enquire : “So, what’s it like being Ghanaian but British-Ghanaian and mixed heritage whilst being here? You know bits of the culture in the context of second-generation London? You don’t understand Twi or Fante, right? How comes? And you’ve never lived here but you’ve visited enough, before the hype of the Year of the Return? I guess you grew up in London but are probably not so connected to that scene of black-Londoners anymore because you’re never really there, in London? You have friends in America too — there are a lot of African-Americans this year trying to discover their roots? Do you notice differences in how they’ve been engaging with “African-ness”? Do you feel connected to everyday life and people out here in Ghana? Do you feel as though you can comment or have the authority to? But then how does your proximity to whiteness and blackness play into that based on how you identify and where you spend your time?”
Weirdly, that conversation was cerebrally-depleting but emotionally invigorating. Those questions had the clear potential to leave me feeling attacked, yet they validated the source of my inwardness on my fourth visit to Ghana as an adult. It was a welcome barrage of trick questions. Those questions were well-received not because I felt understood, but because I felt seen just for a moment. And being seen was unconsciously what I’d been trying to avoid whilst moving through every single space I entered. But in this particular setting, I was exposed, with nothing to hide behind and I felt active rather than passive.
Their last question was a potent distillation of the whole cross-examination:
“Where do you feel most “you” right now?”
Answer: in the air 30,000 miles above Earth trying to process the weight of each of those individual questions. Coming to terms with the fact that none of my experiences and explorations travelling in Ghana (and beyond) could be neatly and conveniently stitched together and arranged in order to respond.
Onwards and upwards.
(Tomorrow 12:25 LHR-PDX, to be precise).