If you are anything like me there are so many thoughts going through your head and emotions reeling through your body when flying to a new country. For me these emotions run from apprehension, to excitement, wanting to get out of the airplane seat, and fears and anxiousness about what awaits (transportation beyond the airport, people meeting you, baggage showing up). It is always interesting to see how all of these emotions match up to the experiences of the first moments in these countries or locations. Here I would like to share some of the experiences that I have had traveling and hope that you will do the same in the comments section.
Sweden (2000): This was my first major international destination other than Canada. I was 16 and flying to Sweden to start a 13 month stay for a Rotary exchange in Östersund. My flights took me from Portland, Oregon to Seattle; from Seattle to Denmark (very long flight over Greenland and the North Pole) and onto Stockholm, Sweden. Even though this was my first major international trip and I was traveling solo things were going well up until Kopenhagen Denmark where I somehow lost my next connecting flight’s ticket out of my pocket while buying a magazine. This was pretty scary because when I went to the flight desk where the flight was to leave from, they said there was nothing they could do. But luckily someone turned in the ticket and that was a great relief.
I was very excited to start my year in Sweden this dominated my thoughts and emotions while traveling, along with what I was leaving behind and what I would experience. I was going to be flying into Stockholm where my host family that I will be living with for the next 13 months would meet me, then in a day our two I would be heading about 4 hours north by car to a language camp for a week.
When I arrived in Stockholm one of my bags did not arrive, this was my first time in a new country, first time I had lost a bag, and the first impression I was making to my host family. The bag that did not arrive was a giant North Face rolling duffle that I had got specifically for this trip, I was traveling heavy due to the fact that I had packed for 13 months, I had two large bags including the rolling duffle, a carry on, and two pairs of skis in a bag. The large duffle that had been lost had the majority of my cloths in it along with some other gifts, ski boots and things I was bringing. I waited for some time to see if the bag would show up, after it did not I was one of the last people to go through customs then I had to go to the claim counter to notify them of the lost bag and try to work out where it was and how I would get it. This was about the time, my host family the Jonssons found me, I was quite disheveled at this time and am sure the first impression I made was kind of frantic. But it was good that they came along when they did because I was pretty lost when trying to tell the people in the claim office where I would be staying for the night and where I would be going from there. So my host family sorted it all out.
Where I was staying for the night was more than an hour away and I was very concerned about not getting my bag before I needed to head north to the language camp. That night we went and stayed with my host grandparents a bit south of Stockholm in a town called Suedatelia. I stayed in a really charming little guest house in the back yard of the property. The next morning I woke up and played a few games with my host siblings and looked around the town a little bit, by early afternoon I was so relieved when a cab showed up with my bag. This was amazing to me that they would hire a cab for an hour and a half drive to bring me my bag. But all worked out and I was able to relax.
London (2001): While living in Sweden my sister started a month and a half long university program in London. It seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to visit her and check out London. Being 17 I was very much on a budget, luckily for me I found some Ryan air tickets for under $70 and convinced a Swedish friend Andersk, to come with me. At this point traveling was not too much of a concern for me but Anders had never really been outside of the county that the lived in, in Northern Sweden, so it was a totally new experience for him even just going to Stockholm. Because of the price of the tickets that we got though there were a few hiccups in the fluidity of our travel plans. We first flew from Östersund to Arlanda airport, Stockholms major airport. From there we took the train into Stockhom central Gamal Stan (old town), where we took a bus to Skavsta airport which took about an hour. From Skavsta we flew to Stanstead outside of London. To get to central London we needed to take a train then we were going to meet my Sister at the station.
All was going well until we started our train trip into London through the country side. There was a recent storm is what we were told, which resulted in us being continually delayed on our train trip because of power outages to the track. At one point we were just dropped off at a station to wait for a new train. I am a pretty flexible traveler and this would not normally be a problem other than that my sister was waiting at the station we were to arrive at more than an hour early and since we just arrived in the country we had no form of communication yet. We showed up about an hour and a half late but it all worked out. My sister was worried but she was still there waiting.
We had a wonderful 4 days of touring London and were able to do it on our tight budget even with the highlights being, Madam Tusads Wax Museum, Tower of London, and the Broadway show of the Lion King. The real trick was when it was time to leave. Our flight was early enough in the morning there was fear that we would not make it to the airport, way out at Stanstead in time for our flight. The subways were not running with any sort of consistency at the time we needed to get to Waterloo. So we ended up taking a cab and getting the first train out of Waterloo in the morning. I have been in 3rd world countries where there was less confusion about when things leave and what time they get places, but once again everything worked out, and it was a great little holiday.
Return to Sweden (2002): I had spent my whole senior year of High School working hard at a Safeway saving up to return to Sweden after graduation. I had succeeded, and purchased my plane ticket which had my departure at just a few days after my high school graduation. So naturally I was stepping out into a new world of post high school life and was very excited about my trip and what lay beyond. The class that I was a part of in Sweden the students were a year older than me but the same class was graduating from Gymnasium the same year. I had planned my trip to be in Östersund as my class and friends were graduating. My flights went very fluidly this time and I even enjoyed my new found post high school independents by ordering a drink on one of my international flights, a luxury I would have to wait another 3 years for in the US. I arrived in Stockholm and purchased my next ticket for the connecting flight from Stockholm to Östersund from a vending machine, what a great idea, and very affordable. When I arrived at the airport which is on a large island in a lake I was overwhelmed with joy and emotion as I walked into the terminal and was greeted by over 20 of my friends an classmates, along with my host family from the year before who I would be staying with for the 2 weeks of my trip. This was the best arrival I have had anywhere and really set in stone how much I loved my experiences in Sweden and the relationships with people I had developed, this is something that could never happen with a casual visit to a country and one of the reasons why I really love to spend the time to live somewhere to get to know the people and the area. I had a fantastic time for those 2 weeks then it was time for me to fly back to the US and work through the summer before I moved to Denver to start college.
Ghana 2004: After living in Sweden and traveling through Europe I really wanted my next international experience to be truly exotic. It did not hurt that this time around the University of Denver was paying for my plane ticket (which is kind of a fallacy when you think about how much I was paying the University to do that). I had decided that Africa was where I was going to do my study aboard for a Semester, and I had decided on Ghana. Being fully comfortable with travel at this point I was primarily feeling excitement for the epic adventures that I will be facing in Ghana and at the University of Ghana. For this trip I really didn’t know what to expect, I only had what I read here and there to base what it would be like. I made the personal rule that I would not go into the experience with any expectations, that way I would only experience discovery and there will be no disappointment if thing were not to live up to those expectations that I refused to make.
For the weeks leading up to the trip my life had been a world wind of activity, I had spent the summer in Oregon working as a wild land firefighter, and less than a week prior I was fighting a large fire on an Indian Reservation in central Oregon which was the #1 national priority fire at the time. I then got everything ready to go in less than a week got a ride the 4 hours to the Portland airport and was then off to Seattle, Minneapolis, Amsterdam and then Accra, while still coughing up some ash from the trees in central Oregon. Having taken 3 flights already, and having just finished the grueling 10 hour flight across the pond from the US to Europe, when it came to my last flight form Amsterdam to Accra I was ready for it to be over. But I kept good spirit and only had one glass of wine with my dinner knowing that I needed to be awake and be ready for my arrival in the new city that I would be living in for the next 5 months.
I luckily got a window seat for this flight and really enjoyed the beautiful colors of the Sahara dessert flying from 35,000 feet. It was dark by the time the plane was in the sky over Accra, but I could see the lights of the city below and where all the lights ceased and the sea started. I love the water and the ocean so I was very tickled to be living along a tropical coast line. From the air it was really hard to discern in the fading light what it looked like on the ground. There were lots of corrugated roofs and square compounds, which is actually pretty much what is going on with Accra.
Upon landing I exited the aircraft onto the tar matt and walked a little while on the outside to the arrival terminal. The air was very heavy and humid and you could definitely feel, and smell the sea air mixing with the air coming off of the land. Being a small West African country I had good idea there would be some military presence at the airport and true to the tune there were two guys with automatic rifles at the entrance to the terminal, after a hallway with slightly dirty beige walls with some colorful murals painted on them all the arrivals were broken up into about 4 to 6 lines for visa checks and passport checks. This went pretty smoothly with some basic questions about my business in the country, in this case since I was a student so it was fairly strait forward and direct. It was now time to wait at the baggage carousel for my bags, this is a very anxious time for me you can imagine after reading my other stories about arrivals, but fortunately all of my bags showed, but took a little while.
I knew my transportation was waiting so I did not worry about exchanging any money or anything at this time. As I was walking towards the exit doors, I had no idea what awaited me beyond, when the airport itself was relatively quiet inside on this evening. There were only a few cab drivers that must have had a deal with the airport that asked me if I needed transportation before I exited the doors. Stepping out of the doors of the airport I was immediately blasted again by the heavy humid air, and to a very large roped off crowd and people yelling to help me and carry my bags. I spotted the sign for my transportation and went with that person. There was mass confusion and people all around it is hard to really remember what went on from here. But some other students in my same program came in on the flight and there were two mini busses waiting on the street to take us to the University. It was hard to tell who was part of the group that I was with, in terms of who was the driver and the help, and who were just opportunists trying to carry your bag in the hope of a tip. We loaded the bags into one of the busses; I was really hoping that, that bus was going with us. At this same time I was approached by a gentleman with another in a uniform who informed me he was a police officer and was here to watch my bags, and keep them and myself safe. I thanked him and tried to figure out what was going on and where I needed to be from then on. But they continued to try to get my attention and told me that I needed to pay the officer for watching my bags and keeping me safe. I was confused by this and really overwhelmed at the moment and really did not want to pay them but also did not know what the protocols where when being given orders from an officer. Unfortunately I only had American dollars, and only in $20 bills. I told them that I did not have any acceptable change and they reassured me that they would bring me a $10 in change, yeah right. But being confused and go-able at this point I gave them a twenty and of course they promptly disappeared never to return with change. Then I also had no idea that I had handed over about 20 days worth of a salary for either of them, with a 20 dollar bill being a significant amount of money, I don’t even think I ever paid that much for a meal the whole time I lived there. This bothered me a little bit that I had already been scammed after being out of the airport for less than 10 minutes but I tried to quickly get over it as we were pulling out of the airport as I was getting my first glimpse at my new home.
Pulling out of the airport in the mini buss and driving down the streets of Accra between the airport and the University of Ghana, it was very difficult to get a feel for how things would look in the light of day. One thing that was very prominent to me was the lack of urban planning and the evidence of uncontrolled urban sprawl. The convoluted route that the streets took was pretty amazing to me, it seemed as if we were going through a maze, but after knowing the route at a later date it is even more boggling because I was on one of the main roads through that part of the city. But this did take a number of turns and seemed to be one way a majority of the way. It went through the largest traffic circle in the world at that time. Viewing streets at night it was impossible to tell that it was even a traffic circle, traffic then proceeded to take a number of turns then end up on the main road again. It was like driving a half circle going through a police checkpoint by a little market with just wooden stalls with open fires and oil lamps, then essentially taking a detour around 2 city blocks and entering the main 2 way road again. The routes that the streets took were just beyond reasoning at this point for me, and it is understandable knowing now why this was the worst traffic area in the city, taking a cab through this area at some times during the day the price of the trip would automatically be doubled. The circle has since been taken out and turned an interchange. After navigating the apparent maze which the streets of Accra seem to be we entered the large white gate of the university and stopped at a large block of phones were we were given cards to call our families to let them know we had arrived safely.