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Once I boarded a Ghana Airways flight from West Africa to the United States—or, at first, I tried to board. I waited an hour in a line that didn’t move in the creaky airport in Accra. Mothers held softly weeping children and elderly men stood patiently and stoically in all their robes and finery, but nothing happened. I eventually gave up huffing and puffing and stood silently too.
After an hour or two more it was announced that the plane would not be going after all—in fact, not for another two days! We were put up at a hotel in town, and I spent these extra days going to the beach and chatting with locals and watching the waves of the Atlantic. After two days the plane finally departed, only to touch down for an unscheduled stop at another airport a mere hour after takeoff. We sat on the tarmac for over two hours, without explanation. Every seat was full of sweating passengers, who sat quietly even though we were not provided air-conditioning or water.
When at last we arrived in New York I nearly kissed the ground. Even the vigorous city I call home (the subject of this issue’s cover story) seemed like a cinch to deal with after I got off that plane. But in the end, I had to endure that particularly grueling flight only once in my lifetime. For the Ghanaians going back and forth to their homeland, these types of horrible disruptions are simply the norm. And they face them calmly. What is their choice? They are a poor people with a poor airline, but they do own their dignity and patience. I felt humbled in their presence.
My privileged attitude that things should run a certain way was just that: privileged. Most of the world has to put up with inadequate infrastructures, corruption, and things not going as they would like them to. Yet through it all, these nationalities abide. One Ghanaian during my trip told me, “We believe the best defense is offense. The way to deal with all the things we have to deal with is by actively staying happy and being positive.” What a lesson I had learned from that trip.
William Sinunu, the out author of the recent book Life Could Be Sweeter: 101 Great Ideas From Around the World for Living a More Rewarding Life, echoes such lessons, gained from scores of journeys and from years of encounters with other cultures—about things ranging from looking at time in a different way to embracing one’s sexuality. “Exploring the possibilities of other traditions requires a curious, open-minded willingness to confront the unknown,” he surmises. So much of the time on our hurried vacations we are looking for comfort, not challenge. Yet the act of traveling by its very definition takes you out of your comfort zone and into unknown territory. The journey can be disturbing or exhilarating, depending on how you take it.
And our own subjectivity can be the greatest hindrance to this experience. By looking at life only through our own filter of “how things are supposed to be,” we cut ourselves off from clearly seeing the way things actually are. Gay men and lesbians have known this for centuries of trying to explain the reality of our lives to a heterosexual majority who doesn’t have our perspective. What’s so crucial about traveling is that it dares all who partake of it to see new realities through other people’s eyes—to feel, if only for a moment, what it is like to live someone else’s life. What could be more important for opening up minds around the world once and for all?