By Christopher Wink | August 29, 2005 | Travel Reflection
Africa was not real to me. It was imaginary; I saw a place where elephants roam and people starve. I saw children with flies around their faces in villages and huts and tribes. I saw in stereotypes and misunderstandings and prejudices and lies. That was all before I arrived at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra, Ghana.
I gave two months of my teenage life to West Africa, and I was given in return a lifetime of awareness and understanding. I studied in a classroom at the University of Ghana, but Ayi Kwei Armah and Abu Abarry didn’t teach me nearly as much as the cab rides and post offices and market women did. Reading about West African culture in my overpriced course packet never satisfied my hunger as well as freshly pounded banku and groundnut soup did. I played basketball with Octung and Salam to hear them speak in proverbs. I laughed with Tonko and met too many Kwesis to remember.
By Christopher Wink | May 25, 2006 | Travel Reflection
I have proudly represented Temple University on service immersion trips before. I have had South Dakotan ground beneath my feet before, too. Moreover, I have been with Jason Riley in a rental car and with John Dimino on an airplane before. Still, it is easy to understand that some experiences, no matter the similarities, can never be fully replicated.
Our group of ten administrators and students flew into Rapid City, South Dakota in May 2006, destined to work on the Rosebud Reservation of the Lakota Nation. While nearing the airport from above, below me South Dakota appeared wrinkled and aged. As we further approached, her features took form: trees that survived passed generations of agricultural clearing and beef cattle that survived passed days of agricultural slaughter.
This region of Dakota’s limitless expansion is only interrupted by flurries of elevation change. Once on ground, the pavement of interstate 90 appeared to have tamed the land into a consumable table of gentle slopes and caressing ridges. All of which leads me to offer muddled explanations of the region’s geographical features: endless plains with small, yet punctuated elevation changes interjected regularly.
Temple University sent 23 of us to Laredo, Texas to work with Habitat for Humanity. We slept on the ground of vacant classrooms, took less-than-hot showers, and worked a watered-down form of construction from 8am until 4pm daily. For those unfamiliar with what the phrase college spring break generally connotes, this wasn’t your garden-variety week off from American higher education.
Yet, nearly 100 volunteered to pack screwdrivers and hammers in their spring break suitcases. It’s a shame that only 23 of those who applied got to work with the international group that manages to build beautiful homes with volunteer crews and sell them to deserving families with long-term, low interest loans. -The teach-a-man-to-fish type of charity that makes us get mushy inside.
On a recent trip to poverty ravaged Tijuana, I could not help but see the irony, clichéd as it may be, of a border wall – that divides with great tumult the U.S. and Mexico – extending into the serenity of the Pacific Ocean. It is unreal to brace oneself against the rusted wall and watch it snake its way into the greens and blues of the water below as it divides San Diego and Tijuana. Here, lines drawn on maps are far from imaginary and they carry emotional meaning that no fence should.
But for me, when I travel, the first things I notice are the similarities between where I am and where I live. Mysterious or not, the smiles of children are the same in Mexico: where south not only describes its geographic relationship to the U.S. but also its location below the poverty line. Of course American business spills over the fortified walls, so the border region oozes the products of Sam Walton and Ronald McDonald with a Mexican touch.
Things are easier on this side. I realized that when I woke up and, in my persistently active manner, decided I had to go the bank and settle some business. I spent at least a full minute worrying about how I would say what I needed to say in Japanese. Once I realized that wasn’t much necessary, it occurred to me that I have begun a nice grace period where everything I do is going to be awfully simple in comparison to my maneuvering and studying and eating and buying and banking in Tokyo.
The question I am almost always asked is if it is “strange” to be back in the United States. Of course, mostly it isn’t. I am a man of limited means so, while I most certainly have done a lot for what I have been offered, I have spent a great deal of my life wherever my family considered home. It is not strange to return to what I have known for two decades. I may have to readjust and rediscover, but strange is unknown and different. To be sure, in a grand sense, there is nothing different about the America I have found.
I am writing to you in my small – but expensive – two hundred thirty square foot apartment which I share with another here in the quiet residential Meguro-ku ward of Tokyo (one of 23 such municipalities). It has been quite a little adventure already, but let’s get ourselves orientated, no?
In the realm of self-evaluation, I love to consider myself the elder statesman of travel – at least for an independently traveling twenty-year-old. While most of my extended absences from my northwest New Jersey home have been wanderings throughout the continental United States, I spent the summer of 2005 in Ghana, West Africa. That was my first attempt at using education as a façade for international travel. Here in Tokyo I am keeping up that very pretext, though the time before I fall asleep is spent dreaming of travel and language, not books and tests.
I will go home on December 8, 2006. There is a ticket that asserts I will be traveling to a place unknown to the part of me who has lived in Tokyo for the last half year. As thin as paper is, some of it carries a great deal of weight. Some of the most important and powerful things of this world are just paper. My ticket will not change much, nor will it be remembered by anyone in just a few short months. Importance is relative.
I will be happy to find my native America again, but how remarkable my time here in Japan has been. I have seen a 50-foot Buddha and 500 miles on an $85 bicycle. I saw a sunrise from the head of a dormant volcano. I watched an auction of bids for 500 pound tuna. I ate octopus and herring eggs and river shrimp and pickled beets and nearly 60 pounds of rice. I will remember it all.
It was January 16, 2006 that I was offered and I accepted an internship with the Philadelphia Inquirer. It was that very Monday that I accepted a position I hadn’t expected to get, a position with the city desk of a large, historical, urban daily.
I think about the semester I spent walking the streets of Philadelphia with an Inquirer ID around my neck and a steno pad stuck in my back pocket, those felt-tip black pens, Hermes, and DocCenter. I made mistakes, mistakes as inexplicable as your palms sweating when you go to shake some silly celebrity’s hand. I went to court without a pen, to a press conference without a pad, and an interview without both. I called detectives without remembering why and had quotes without remembering from whom.
I covered the courts on Fridays. Allow me to demystify that. Most weeks that meant I sat in the Criminal Justice Center on Filbert Street waiting for jury deliberations to end or chasing down grieving widows to get a quotation on how the verdict made her feel.