I’m sitting in the Amsterdam airport, on my way back to Canada after seventeen months of having Ghana as my home. It has been seventeen months since I’ve been in a developing country. I thought I would share some of my very first reactions, observations and experiences.
- I step off the airplane at 5:30am and am just blasted with cold air. Boy am I glad I packed my fleece (never used in Ghana) in my hand luggage and didn’t give it away in Ghana.
- I head to the washroom: I inadvertently skip the line, I can’t figure out the toilet paper dispenser and am glad for my emergency stash in my knapsack, I’m reminded of automatic flush toilets, the woman beside me turns the tap on full to slowly lather her hands – I can’t help but stare at the high pressure stream of clean water coming out, I can’t actually figure out how to turn my tap off, beside me women are jostling for space at the mirror to preen and apply makeup
- I have a six hour layover so thought I might head to the city. I try to store my carry-on luggage, you can only have a locker if you have a credit card. Of course I don’t know where my credit card is! I haven’t used it in 17 months. How can you not pay cash?!
- Readjusting my plans, I get on an elevator with a bunch of employees – “where are you going?” they ask trying to push the right button for me, all I can answer is “I have no idea”. I stay on the elevator for two or three sets of ups and downs.
- this place is HUGE
- I know there are people around, I focus and realize they’re all white. White people have really red faces. Or that’s just the cold. Did they forget to turn on the heating today?
- my senses are overloaded. Things are bright and load. Sounds are unfamiliar. In the light, I realize how dirty my clothes are – my hand washing wasn’t sufficient.
- I decide to find a quiet spot to dive into my computer and do work emails – finally, something familiar.
- everything here seems new
- I find myself trying to look for construction and finishing errors.
- I stuff my garbage into my knapsack only to pass a garbage bin 10ft later.
- everyone is pulling or pushing their loads on wheels.
- I haven’t heard a single loud ringtone.
- my stomach is really upset at the sweet potato and three cheese meal that I was served on the plane.
- I’m overwhelmed by and fumbling through the different currencies in my wallet – USD, euros, CAD, Ghana cedis
- I blend in. Not one person has made eye contact. No one has greeted me. I pass by completely unnoticed.
- I treat myself to a latte. I don’t know why; there isn’t enough milk. The barista calls me “lady” – not madame, not auntie, not even sistah…
- There is a family of black people in front of me speaking a language I don’t understand, I try to figure out what African country they’re from. They start speaking to the cashier; they’re speaking Dutch.
- My feet are ice blocks and this fleece isn’t doing a thing.
- I’m honestly overwhelmed with the amount of hair I can see scanning the crowd. Men have hair! There are no women with their heads covered.
- this place is HUGE
- I don’t recognize accents. I can’t type people walking by. I don’t know what is fashionable. I can’t read facial expressions or body language. I can’t judge wealth or role in society. My social intuition and intelligence is rendered completely useless in this new context.
- Not a single thing is familiar. I start crying in the middle of the airport. Still no one makes eye contact or notices me.
I’m experiencing reverse culture shock. I feel stupid. I’m crying in the middle of an airport because I’m back in this ‘easier’ world. I am also finding it impossible to imagine what it would be like to travel to a developed country from a developing one for the first time. I really have so much empathy for those that have done it. I guess I have always assumed that it is way easier to go from developing>developed, but I don’t know if that’s true anymore. I really can’t imagine.
I only have an hour or so left here. I’m hopeful that once I get to a place that is familiar (YVR) and people that are familiar (my family) that the shock won’t be so jarring. I’m sure reintegration will be a slow process, one that is especially difficult at Christmas time when some of the characteristics of Western culture are at an extreme. Also a process that I think will be hard to share with family and friends – how can I be in shock coming back to a world that I lived in for 23 years? But also one that I think will force me to reflect on and appreciate that people and cultures across the world are very, very different and it is worth spending the time to try to experience those differences.