I have developed the habit of noting down the most memorable instances of my life’s journey and sharing them with my networks. My recent journey to the United States of America came with a couple of those. I was there as a Faculty Advisor for the Ghanaian Model UN Delegation from Life-link Ghana during the Middle School Model UN organized by the United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA). Interesting to say that, this is the second time that Model United Nations has taken me to the US. The first was in 2009 when the United Nations invited me to help plan the maiden edition of the Global Model United Nations. But despite the similarity in purpose the experiences have understandably not been the same. In this article, I share with you a trio of highlights and lessons during the trip. The issues contained in this memoirs are drawn from various instances; from my transit time at the airport, through personal interactions, to my time on the flight.
My flight from Ghana was rescheduled for a day later than my intended departure and I had the unplanned luxury of spending the night in one of the premier hotels in Ghana; the La Palm Royal Beach hotel. This led me into a two-hour eventful layover at Heathrow in London. Walking down the escalator, I heard a female voice speak something to me in the Ghanaian Twi language. I turned to realize that the voice was owned by an old lady who apparently had also been on the same flight with me and had gone through the same delay in schedule back in Ghana.
“Are you also going to the US?” She asked in the Ghanaian Twi parlance. I said a quick “yes” and continued walking. I was in no mood to stop because I was mindful of the possible involvement that this could generate if I entertained her. But she followed up with another enquiry in a manner that every Ghanaian youth is familiar with: “My grandson, please I will need you to help me locate where we are going to pick the next plane to the US. Your old lady does not know her way around”. Really?
So I stopped to take a closer look at her and she looked very tired with about three pieces of hand luggage. I was not going to fall for the temptation of helping carry one of them. Well, if you have been accustomed to international travels, you would understand that carrying other peoples luggage at airports was not as recommended a courtesy as they are in the African community (especially for the elderly). The risk of running into trouble was frightening; and I remember hearing the announcements over the speakers at the airport that officials discouraged such a practice. So here I was, an African youth who knew the essence of helping the elderly, but now determined to refrain from doing so within international boundaries.
Well, I decided to follow my head instead of my heart and offered only to help her get to her designated boarding gate; but I made no attempt to help with her luggage. I could feel her trudging behind me and as we got to another elevator I saw how she struggled to keep her balance. At a point, I could no longer bottle my heart’s desire to help my ‘grandma’. I was going to sacrifice my head and follow my heart; fully aware of the serious consequence if things went wrong. So I did, and when we got to her gate (which was different from mine), she said a very heartwarming thank you to me. And said that she had been traveling to the US a couple of times but this was the first time she was transiting at Heathrow.
Then came the shock.
She said: “I realized that you were finding it difficult to help me with my luggage and I know why. This is what our world has become and so many people are afraid to do good deeds. But thank you for what you have done. Hopefully someday, we will meet somewhere”. I said nothing in agreement or disagreement. All I said was “Mum; I did what I had to do”.
Heading to my boarding gate, I wondered whether it was right for me to have braved the odds in doing what I did. But it was history, and I was feeling good about it. But maybe, I wouldn’t; if things had gone wrong. Just then, I heard the speakers blurt those words again: “for security reasons you are advised not to carry another person’s luggage” (paraphrased).
In 2012, I was nearly accosted by a group of gentlemen who took offense at my friendly advance towards two veiled Muslim women in the University of Ilorin in Nigeria. There were two gentlemen who shouted from a distance in an apparent warning to ward off the ladies. I was saved by my Nigerian guide in the University who later prompted me that I was not allowed to speak to those ladies without the consent of their male counterparts/relatives. Well, I did not mean any harm and I was just trying to be friendly and explore the personality and culture of the people I met on my journey.
This character I have to swiftly strike acquaintances through handshakes once again got me into an uncomfortable situation in the heart of New York. I was sitting in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel when a friendly male Muslim came to sit by me (he told me he was Muslim).
“Hi”, he said with a broad smile and introduced himself as a Pakistani civil engineer who had maintained a working relationship with Ghanaian government representatives in the past. He explained that he had a daughter who was taking part in the Model UN committee deliberations going on in the hotel. After a lengthy dialogue bordering on the similarity between Pakistan and Ghana (some of which regrettably were corruption and inadequate governance), a young veiled teenage girl appeared and sat by the man. I guessed this was the daughter he had been talking about and quickly sought to welcome her and introduce myself; as usual. I stretched out my hand in an apparent invitation to a handshake with the words: “nice to meet you”. The girl RELUCTANTLY extended her arm accompanied by a glance at her dad who seemed to have been caught off guard. The girl’s countenance did not suggest that she was pleased by the gesture. Then it dawned on me: I had committed a similar sin to the one in Ilorin. In an attempt to diffuse the embarrassment I proceeded to quickly asked the man a somewhat silly question: “sorry, was I wrong in shaking her hand”? The man hesitated but nodded and said: “don’t worry its ok”.
The atmosphere that followed was eerie. I asked permission to leave; and the man said goodbye. As I moved away, I resolved that, there wasn’t going to be a third time. It was a lesson doubly learnt.
My return trip saw me once again transiting Heathrow via British Airways. I was accompanying a minor on this flight and our seats were far at the tail end of the cabin. When we go to our seats, there was a male cabin crew member who was issuing orders at other passengers and telling them where to place their hand luggage. He was the strictest air host I had ever met, asking passengers to stow away even the smallest of hand luggage. They to be placed either in the overhead cabin or he offered to keep their luggage with him until it was safe for him to return them. Well, that was his job; to make sure the rules are complied with. But did his job include asking me to say please whenever I was to be served?
He would ask: “What would you want: Apple or orange?”
My Answer: “Apple”.
He would say: “What is that?”
I would say: “Orange”
He would say: “It would be better if you said please when you ask”
Wait a minute. “This guy’ (As I and my friend, Phanuel would say) had been serving the last three rows and I did not hear him requiring that of the other passengers. Was it because I had a minor sitting close to me and we were heartily chatting? Did I look that young? He probably thought I was an adolescent then? Probably so, because I made it a point to follow his engagements with the other passengers and realized that I and my teenage neighbor were the only ones he required that ritual of. It is true what they say then about “show me your friend and I will show you your character”. This time, it is “show me your neighbor, and I will show you your status”.
In fact, for the other passengers, he even extended the list: “apple, orange or wine?” whilst I was never asked if I even wanted water (I wasn’t going to take wine anyway, but the discrimination was sickening).
At a point, I nurtured the desire to confront him about why I had to say “please” when I was asking for my share of the “cake”. But the African in me kept me from confronting an elderly man who required open courtesy from me in response for a service he was paid to render. But that is where it ended. I was happy to be going back home and I was determined to not let this ugly incident spoil the fun.
So there you are: the good, the bad and the ugly of my trip to the USA in 2015. Hope you enjoyed reading? Cheers!