June 29, 2017

Haley’s House: World travel changes perspective on ‘first world problems’

As Americans, we grow too comfortable with our amenities. We love our hot showers, properly cleaned food and water we can easily drink from the tap. These are all things many of us take for granted.

Two weeks in Accra, Ghana changed my perspective. After a trip across the world, I believe travel provides the opportunity to have a greater appreciation for the life we are privileged to live and the opportunities we are provided.

When I decided to make the trip to Ghana with Professor Larry Baden and his International Storytelling class, I was unsure of what to expect. The class and I talked with current and previous directors at Webster Ghana and the study abroad office in an attempt to prepare us for our travels.

I do not think anything could truly prepare us for what we would experience in those two weeks. And we often found ourselves reminding each other to “check your privilege.”    

world travel graphic

Illustration: Sarah Blankenship

First was the water. You cannot drink the water. At all. Do not drink from the faucet, the shower or use it to brush your teeth.  The idea of not being able to drink water unless it was from a factory sealed water bottle was something so different to me. It was something so simple that I did not think to worry about.  After one night in Ghana, we worried about it.

One of our students became violently sick from drinking just a little bit of the water. This is something we are not always concerned about in the U.S.  If we want a drink of water, we grab a cup and walk up to any faucet or water fountain and take a drink without fear of developing what could be a fatal disease.  In fact, at first it seemed like a hassle to perpetually use a water bottle for the little things like brushing your teeth.

Unfortunately, constantly purchasing bottled water is more than many families can afford, forcing them to drink unsanitary water and increasing their risk of disease.    

I complain about living in the middle of nowhere with slow internet access, when there is what I consider“no food in the pantry,” and my 40-minute drive to school. The cramped, dirt pathways of the Kumasi Market in Ghana are filled with women, men and children making a living through selling fruit, vegetables, fabrics and meats. If a fire erupts, not one, but several of these shacks burn to the ground; many lose everything they need to make a living.

In the poorest area of Accra lies a maze of little huts with sewage and other mysterious liquids running down the middle of every walkway. In the center of it all is a school filled with the happiest, most positive children ready to show anyone who will listen their dance, music and poetry. But behind each child is a story. Stories like traveling two hours to school on a rickety, broken down, no air-conditioned bus and going home to no food, only to repeat it all the next day.     

I asked myself, how I could possibly complain when there are millions living in the conditions I witnessed daily while in Ghana. I never truly realized how privileged I am.  I have a roof over my head with a warm bed to cozy up in every night. I have fresh, clean food and water.  I attend a nationally and internationally recognized school, where I am able to receive a quality education and receive opportunity after opportunity to pursue my dream of being a journalist.

For many college students, the U.S. and our safety net school feels easy and comfortable. Traveling the world provides college students an opportunity to challenge that safety net and expose yourself to something so different than what you are used to.  This is particularly true when visiting a place off most people’s radar such as Ghana.  Traveling to places like Accra, college students are exposed to a type of lifestyle and challenges one would never imagine in the United States.  But they are challenges that give you a greater appreciation for the little things we take for granted every day.    

Photo credit: Haley Walter Students and instructors at Anani Memorial International School demonstrate traditional Ghanian dance and music.

Photo credit: Haley Walter
Students and instructors at Anani Memorial International School demonstrate traditional Ghanian dance and music.

Perhaps traveling abroad is unattainable. There are ways locally to challenge your perspective. Volunteer at a cultural or refugee center, food pantry or homeless shelter. Talk to those impacted and hear their stories.  While travel provides a first-hand, eye opening experience, finding a way locally gives you the first step.

There is so much we take for granted, so many times we forget to check our privilege.  On a flight from Amsterdam to Ghana, one of my classmates sat next to a man who asked my classmate where he was from. He responded he was from the United States.

The man then looked him in the eye and said, “Sir, I hope you realize how privileged you truly are.”

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