I’m sitting here on the balcony of our little apartment, on the Greek island of Kos. It’s 9:30 PM and still bare shoulders warm with a breeze that keeps it comfortable, and carries the scent of eucalyptus. It’s much dryer here then Ghana, although nothing like Edmonton. Terry and I wondered if perhaps we might have been ready to fly back to Canada on August 29th instead of coming to Greece and Turkey. After getting fever chilled to the bone on transit through London yesterday and overhearing parents talking to their children about starting school this week however, I knew we made the right decision. We got off the plane in Kos, exhausted from our overnight flight (Accra, Ghana to London), and from a day spent in airports, then we let the warm air kiss us as we pulled off layers of clothes, breathing a sigh of relief.
We are going through culture shock of a different sort here as we walk in bare feet on white tiled floors that don’t turn our feet black. Or as I go 2 doors down from our apartment and have a wide choice of breads, cereals, salty snacks, cheeses, granola bars, yogurts and fruit. I can buy grapes, wash them under the tap and eat; no peeling, cutting or salt water soaking required. It makes one want to buy and eat everything in sight. We’re remembering part of what motivated us to volunteer in Africa in the first place, the pit of consumerism and indulgence. We can drink tap water and walk along quiet sidewalks. In London I was struck by how clean, shiny and modern everything was as we made our way between airports so easily (and expensively). We are in a very touristy town filled with large, white Europeans, not unlike our past holiday visits Mexico, filled with large white North Americans. Sadly, our kids get glared at and judged at times rather than welcomed with open arms like everywhere in Ghana. We need to relearn the boundaries of personal space and noise here compared to Ghana where everything and everyone is loud and up close. We’ve become accustomed to it and have taken it on ourselves, but many people here are taking offense. We are discovering all sorts of beach etiquette that we seem to keep messing up. Also we had to explain to the kids about why so many women were without tops on the beach and how we will be seeing many more smokers here in Europe (virtually non-existent in Ghana).
In spite of the culture shock though we are quickly falling in love with Kos and its constant sunshine, breeze and turquoise blue sea which is salty enough to float easily in deep water. Today was spent taking in all the newness and beauty, trying to figure out where we fit in, still carrying the dust and fatigue of Africa on our shoes. Flying is such a strange way to travel because you get thrown instantly into completely different cultures with little time to adjust. There is a big part of me still in Ghana. Riley lost a souvenir necklace which he has been mourning for a few days now and I found myself in London yesterday thinking, “Oh I’ll just go down to the Paloma (a hotel near our apartment in Accra) next time I have a chance and surprise him with another one”.
It was hard leaving Ghana and I had many moments today of not quite believing we’ve left. It went so fast, not just the final days of packing and getting ready to fly, but the entire time we were there feels like it is gone in the blink of an eye. Already I feel it becoming a faded photograph, something distant and getting further each hour we’re away from our African ‘home away from home’. As we drove out of our neighborhood in Kokomlemle, we waved to our neighbors and local acquaintances. As kindly as everyone treated us, we were really just a short and interesting diversion in their lives, like the World Cup on a miniscule scale. We drove past the places that were part of our daily life and which we were likely seeing for the last time. I tried to drink it all in, those final moments and not let my tears spill out as they had been threatening to all weekend as we packed up our apartment and did our final wanders through the neighborhood for provisions. I held back tears saying goodbye to “the fruit lady” (whose name I finally found out was Agnes) as she gave us God’s blessing and an extra pineapple. She was also teary wishing she could see the kids again (they weren’t with me this time). I finally lost it in church as they sang many of our favorite songs and the congregation swayed together, singing loud, smiling and waving their hankies. I was also touched by the readings about humility, the first being last and the last first. One of the women who did laundry and cleaned for us is a mother of 3 young children. As she sits on the ground scrubbing our clothes, her baby is drinking milk from her breast and the other two fend for themselves nearby. When I pay her, she always bows reverently and thanks me. I wanted to tell her it wasn’t necessary to bow (she has no English except thank you), but it seemed to come from a place deep within her, something cultural or ancestral and essential. Before church she helped me with the final cleaning and when I paid her, I also gave her some leftover food and household items. She selflessly and cordially accepted, then later made a point to come back up with a translator (our neighbor), to thank me and give us God’s/Allah’s blessings. I got emotional when she left and in church couldn’t help but think of her in her humility and graciousness. It also made me think of my Auntie Agnes who spent most of her life working as a nurse in Tanzania. She has a similar gentleness about her and has never made a big show of the good work she’s done and continues to do now in Canada. Nor did she ever criticize the overindulgence of our lives in the West when she came to visit. I hope I can emulate, in some small way, these 2 very different and both wonderfully strong, kind, important women who have touched our lives so profoundly. I want to always carry Ghana with me, but not try to elevate myself in any way for having been there.
Our time in Africa was short, but I feel thankful and incredibly lucky to have had those 6 ½ months with my family. We know we are spoiling ourselves with this final leg of the journey, but I think it will help us in our transition to real life in October when it will feel particularly cold, busy and overwhelming as we begin our adjustment. That’s when the biggest culture shock will hit, but then at least we will be home where everything is familiar. Hopefully our lives will be changed as a result of our experiences here so that we don’t simply fall into old patterns and habits, but allow the changes to filter into our old lives and make them new. I pray that each day we may continue to find joy, surprises and peace in the people and situations around us as we fall back into our Canadian routines and identities living in our Holyrood, Forest Heights and Edmonton communities.