12 Jul A Single Step: Travel Independence in Ghana by Mridu Khullar Relph
Editor’s note: Lonely Planet recently published an extraordinary collection of original tales, The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology, celebrating both the rigors and the life-changing riches of travel. The story below, by Mridu Khullar Relph, is excerpted from that collection.
Family legend has it that when my parents decided to move back to India after a three-year posting in the United Kingdom I, all of nine years old, put my foot down and declared that I was not going to leave my beloved London. The London where all my friends lived. The London where I had already become a writer. London, my home.
When it became clear that I was not to have my way, I cried for weeks. Then, in a stubbornness that has marked my character through most of my life, I vowed to return one day, on my own.
For the next several years, I wrote long letters to my best friend in England and my class teacher, the one who had given me a golden sticker with her address printed on it. For years, I looked at the sky, watching planes passing by. “One day,” I said to my mother every time, “I will be up in the sky on that plane. It will be my turn to go abroad.”
By my twenties, London had become a distant dream, what with visa regulations making it all but impossible for a writer like me to settle anywhere but in my own country. I wanted to travel, however, and so after months of applying for writing residencies, fellowships, and grants, I had finally heard from a non-governmental organization that was willing to sponsor my visa. To Ghana.
So now, here I was. Up in the sky, on a plane. Going abroad.
It was common enough for Indians, especially middle-class men and women, to head to better opportunities in the West. What was relatively uncommon was a twenty-something Indian woman packing her bags and heading off to Africa on her own. It never occurred to me, however, that I wasn’t going to the developed world in search of the so-called better options. I was on a plane in the sky. As far as I was concerned, I was finally living my dream.
This wasn’t to say that I wasn’t absolutely terrified. I had wanted to leave India, by any means necessary, because my culture and its treatment of women stifled me and repeatedly threatened to crush my dreams. I wanted to, needed to, get away so that I could create a life for myself, find my own way in the world.
“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go,” Robert Louis Stevenson once said. I wanted to go. But I was woefully underprepared.
Women in my culture, heck, in my country, have traditionally not been permitted to travel alone. Not only are we thoroughly unequipped for it, what with basic lessons in survival denied to us (Wait, so you’re not supposed to drink seawater? Why won’t that quench your thirst?), but we’re actively discouraged from the idea with sordid tales of women broken and brought down to their knees when chasing after independence and a free spirit.
Were we supposed to feel sorry for the woman who set off to cycle across the Middle East and was raped three months into her journey? Or the foreigner who should have known better than to venture out into the dark Delhi night? Or the twenty-something who wanted to live alone but then complained when strange men broke into her apartment?
If you were going to chase this dream of independence and autonomy, I had been warned repeatedly, you were responsible for all the evils that would befall you. Don’t come crying to us if those are the choices you are making.
I had squashed these voices in my head — some of them loud representations of my own fears — and had frequently traveled through the country alone. But so far, I’d always traveled around India, where I knew the people and the culture. Even when I arrived in a place where the language was unknown to me, I knew I could confidently read the situation, blend in, find help, and create fallback options for myself.
The biggest gift my education had given me was not the language that formed the bedrock of my writing career or the ease with numbers that allowed me to put a business head on my artistic shoulders, but the knowledge that there was an entire universe out there, a whole world full of people who did not live by my culture’s rules. When my parents had bought a computer and got an Internet connection for the first time in my late teens, I spent hours looking at photos of large American cities, small English towns, the cafes of Paris, and the small windy lanes of Brazil. I pretended to study at night when everyone else was asleep and instead, stayed up until three in the morning watching repeats of travel and food shows on TV that drilled in me just how limited and small my world was.
Now, suddenly, my world had expanded. But my courage had not expanded with it.
I arrived in Accra and on finding that my sponsoring organization had no clue what they were doing, got myself a hotel, and fretted about what I was to do next. The heartbreak of knowing that I would need to return to India soon, where I would be trapped again with no way out, squeezed my chest and left me breathless.
Depression hung over me like a heavy, persistent fog. I was not seeing the world; I was locked away in my hotel room for days, hiding from it.
I was in Africa, in Ghana, a country where I knew no one, had no cultural references, no sense of reading a situation, no people to call in an emergency. What if I was raped, or worse? What if I got so depressed that I wanted to kill myself?
But I had been raped once before, in my own country, and I had survived that. I had done that. I had gotten so depressed that I had wanted to kill myself once before, and I had survived that. I had done that, too. I had picked up the broken pieces of myself, glued them back together, and become whole for another day. I had taken the long and torturous journey of the single step and that single step was all that I needed. It was enough. I had taken that one step, then another, then another, until I was walking again.
I had done that.
What then was so difficult about a goddamned trip to the beach?
I picked up my pieces. I glued them back together. I embarked, yet again, on the journey of a single step.
I considered it a success when I left my hotel room that next day, the entire hotel the second, and the neighborhood in which the hotel was situated on the third.
On the fourth day, I left the city altogether and found myself in the coastal town of Teshi, a suburb of Accra known for its exquisitely handcrafted coffins. I was curious to see these coffins, which I had been told were designed to reflect the deceased person’s trade. Fishermen were buried in coffins made to look like fish, pilots in jets, and cellphone salesmen in large Nokia phones.
I walked down a long dusty road, with wooden huts scattered randomly across either side, expecting to see dozens of shops competing for business. Instead, I found just the one. I climbed the wooden steps into a wide open space that made me feel I was walking along a pier. There were no walls, just long, framed windows, and I was pleased to find that my effort had not been in vain. The coffins were not what I would describe as high art, but they were strangely stirring.
The story goes that a popular craftsman was building a chair in the shape of a cocoa pod for a village chief when the chief died suddenly. Instead of finishing the chair, the artisan turned it into a coffin instead. A few years later, a beloved grandmother of one of the craftsman’s apprentices died. They built her coffin in the shape of an airplane. She had always wanted to go on one and in life, never could. In death, they wanted to give her that final voyage.
“The Ga tribe find beauty in death,” I had written a few days ago, to an editor who’d been interested in a story about these coffins. I was keenly aware, even as I wrote the sentence, that this was one of those bumper sticker messages that didn’t stand up to the scrutiny of stark reality. But the coffins also reminded me of the Buddhist monks I had met in India, who believed that the art they made was impermanent like them, to be created, enjoyed, and then washed away. These coffins, too, beautiful and precious as they were, were ultimately headed for the ground. The final destination was dust. Life was going to fuck us all in the ways that life always does. But maybe we could see the beauty, be beautiful in the spaces in between.
Could I? Could I learn to see the joy in my freedom of today instead of worrying about the entrapments of my future?
Over the next month, depressed or not, I forced myself to leave my hotel room every single day. I watched Bollywood movies with Mary, the receptionist at my hotel. I went on a day trip with a Ghanaian woman I met in a restaurant and her five-year-old son. I visited the home of the college student who was worried about his math exam and tutored him as his roommate watched television in a part of the room separated with a curtain. I sat on the side of the road with the woman who had asked me for money and heard her life story. I told her mine.
I went to the beach.
Every day felt like a challenge. It was as if the world was testing me. You want to travel alone, you Indian woman who dares to think she can survive independently in this rough and tumble world? Let’s see if you can handle being stuck in a taxi with a man you don’t trust. Will you be able to find your way back to your hotel with no money and no directions? How well will you deal with being called a “fucking Paki”?
I forced every day to be a success. I met one person, who introduced me to another, who introduced me to another, and soon I had a chain of people, a network of friends supporting me, holding me up, refusing to let me fall.
Eventually, I ran out of money and days on my visa and it was time to go home.
I arrived at the airport four hours early. I sat on a chair opposite the boarding gate and read a book I had bought from a roadside stall in the city. I waited patiently until the gates opened and then I queued up behind the two people ahead of me until I reached the counter. I placed my passport and my ticket in front of me and was told, abruptly and rudely, that I wouldn’t be able to board the plane because they had overbooked it and I hadn’t reconfirmed my flight.
I argued with the man at the counter, but when nothing worked, I stepped away, and then stood there rooted to the ground. I started to cry, big, panicky sobs that made people turn around to look at me. I shook my fist at the man on the other side of the counter, who was gleefully handing out boarding passes to people who slid cash into his palm. I felt angry and betrayed at the outrageousness of it all.
When I calmed down, finally, and looked up, I understood that it was in all that I had lost and would lose that lay the seed to what I was just beginning to find.
I had put myself out in the world, I had made myself available to failure, but also to exploration, to the moments of beauty. I had eaten alone in restaurants, spent days in my own company, made unlikely friends, found myself in precarious situations and learned to trust my own instincts about them.
In Ghana I had learned, for the very first time, to completely trust in myself.
This was what it was to travel alone. You had to learn to live with you. You had to learn to like you. You had to learn to trust you.
I went back to my chair opposite the boarding counter. I calmly watched my flight take off without me. I grasped, perhaps for the first time, that nothing could trap me any longer. I may not have fully grown into my courage in Ghana, but I had experienced a small sliver of it.
I had taken the long and torturous journey of the single step and that single step was all that I needed.
It was enough to set me on my way to becoming the person I wanted to be. The writer who would go on many solo voyages, have many exciting adventures, and meet many incredible people. The writer who would keep her promise to her nine-year-old self and eventually find her way back to her beloved London.
Mridu Khullar Relph was born and grew up in New Delhi, India, and now lives just outside of London, UK. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, Time, The Independent, CNN, ABC News, The Christian Science Monitor, Ms., and others. In 2010, she was named Development Journalist of the Year by the Asian Development Bank Institute. She is currently working on her first novel.
Reproduced with permission from The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology, published by Lonely Planet, © 2016 Lonely Planet
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