Sunday, June 12, 2011

Announcements, Emergencies and Fumigation*

My journey yesterday started at 4am.  One car trip, boat ride, train trip, taxi ride, and a flight later, I was sitting on the floor of a gate crowded with Ghanaians at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.  When the KLM agent announced business class boarding for the flight to Accra, almost everyone stood up and crowded the entrance to the airplane.  "Business class only," she reminded them, "everyone else please sit down.  Please sit down!" A few stepped aside, but no one took a seat.  Every time she announced a specific section of seats ready for boarding, she would have to repeat the announcement to restrain the travelers crowding around her.  I was annoyed.  Why can't they follow directions?  I recalled a recent situation that had irked me similarly:  I was waiting in line in a small grocery store in Barcelona only to watch customer after customer cut in front of me to pay.  "Oh yeah," my traveling companion remembered, "they don't queue in Spain."
My German upbringing has left me with a need for a great amount of personal space and little patience for inefficiency.  The English part of me apologizes profusely for the most harmless bump into a stranger, and the Bay Area girl in me loves to talk about what the weather's going to be like tomorrow.  When I observe cultures where people do the opposite of what I do, my Dutch inclination to live and let live gives way to quiet resentment (or loud, as I share this in a public blog entry) as I think about how much better things would be if everyone did them the way I do.
What attributes would we want to emulate from each culture in a perfect world? Certainly not the Ghanaian laissez-faire attitude that had me hunting down my 24 hour visa when it hadn't shown up 6 days later.  Probably not whatever prompted the German at Frankfurt airport to look at me in disgust when I attempted ordering a Bockwurst in his language.  I for one could do without the English tendency to smother sunblock on like white paint, and abolish any culture in which foul body odors go unnoticed.  Am I being insensitive?  Absolutely, and that's my point.  Clearly it's easier to see what we don't like about other cultures rather than what we do like.  So, to get in the traveling mindset, I'm reminding myself that each culture is a national personality, and a celebration of history and tradition and identity.  Most importantly, whatever they're doing works for them.  If it doesn't work for me...why on earth am I traveling?
We landed in Accra and within moments, while the plane was still moving, people clicked off their seatbelts and started opening the overhead bins.  I was horrified.  "The seatbelt light is still on! Come on people!"  How I wished the flight attendant would berate them for not following protocol.  But she didn't...because this is not her first time to Accra.  In the airport, before I found my roommate, I heard a familiar sound.  Taxi drivers were hissing at me (tsssss!  tssss!), a culturally acceptable way to get someone's attention in Ghanaian culture.  The American in me thought "how rude", but the Ghanaian in me just turned and smiled.  Time to get acclimated.

(And yes, this is all a long way of saying I've arrived safe and sound. Accra is marvelous, and I will write more when I've soaked it all in.  For now, I will leave you with a picture of my impromptu drumming lesson at a market this morning.)

*Just a few fun little anecdotes from my journey.  A public announcement was made by the train driver upon our arrival into Waterloo: "The American girl who's napping may want to wake up now."  Then there was a medical emergency requiring a doctor on my flight to Accra, which ended with some kind of fumigation that is apparently now required on all flights to Ghana by the World Health Organization.  Sure smelled nice, though.

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