One of the most stressful experiences of my life was hearing that the study abroad program I had signed up for as a sophomore in college had been cancelled. Botswana, where I had planned on going, closed its international program. With nowhere else to go, Ghana moved up the leaderboard and into my life, just weeks before I was set to leave. With little time to mentally prepare, I soon found myself stepping out of a plane and onto hot sub-Saharan tarmac, having no clue what awaited me.
Going to Ghana ended up being the greatest, most cliché-inducing study abroad experience anyone could have. I loved it and I miss it all the time, but as much as I loved the whole country, one experience still stands above the rest, if for no other reason than its total lack of resemblance to any other I’ve ever had.
About halfway through the semester, three of my friends and I decided to take a week off from classes and head up north to explore more of the country than the ocean-fed coastline we had seen so much of.
Halfway up the western border of the country, we stayed in a little trailer that had been turned into a guest house at a small national park called Bui. We threw down our minimalist packs in one of two rooms, ours just big enough for a pair of twin beds, and went outside to eat. Starving and covered in the dust of the dry season, we hardly paid any mind to the radio reports we had heard hours before concerning soldiers fleeing from a nearby battle in the ongoing civil war in the neighboring Ivory Coast. While they were said to have found civilian clothes and carried automatic weapons, the reports from our cavernous stomachs rang out much louder.
We tore away at a few bananas, some bread, and a couple handfuls of peanuts, along with some water and beer, soothing ourselves from the angry evening sun under the shade of a tin-roofed shelter. Soon, exhausted from travel, we went back to our room. Aside from a particularly warm and sweaty night in a pair of shared beds and some animal living in the walls that scurried around with what sounded like twenty anvils for feet, the night passed without event.
We awoke at sunrise the next day and the man who lived permanently next door to the trailer slung an enormous rifle over his shoulder and led us off a few miles to a nearby village for an afternoon on the water. Friendly and far more used to waking at that hour, he talked and told us of the animals he’d seen along his many walks, even a lion once, and how in all his years he had never shot directly at any of them. As we approached the village, we learned he spoke eight languages. I tried practicing my Spanish. All the while, the sun rose quickly enough that you could almost see it move and it soon towered over us, hardly granting us any reprieve from the heat of the night before.
Soon, however, we arrived and arrangements were made for us to set off in four hand-made canoes—which had to be emptied of water that had leaked in overnight. We gazed into the waters of the Black Volta river. Tree-covered hills arose on either side, rocks jutted out in the middle of the water, birds drifted lazily overhead in the morning routines, and each had its twin reflected in the opaque water beneath us. Our guides took us through occasional light rapids, bits of river that seemed not yet to have woken up, and, before long, to within sight of a hippopotamus swimming through the middle of the river.
Though it had been our mission to see one, it remained an unbelievable moment seeing something that I had only ever witnessed in documentaries and magazines before. I was suddenly in the midst of a National Geographic cover story, close enough to hear it snort water from its nose, watch its ears twitch. I was living a life-long fantasy and so when we turned towards the shore to give the hippo the space and respect she demanded, I almost didn’t notice the slightly nervous pitch that emerged in the guides’ local dialect and how rapidly we began to pick up speed.
As we rushed towards the shore, wind now pushing back against my face, I looked over my shoulder to see that two more heads had emerged from the water. Smaller, I had to squint at first to see what the figures were, but soon it became clear that the first hippo we had seen was a new mother, and a fiercely protective one. Thankfully, we were to the shore quickly and the agitated mom relaxed. She remained, however, unwilling to leave for a long time.
We stayed a long while floating in place by the bank, and I was thankful for the forced moment of motionlessness. The whole time I had been in Ghana, I had gone constantly from one activity, one state of mind, to the next. When I had first arrived, stress took over my consciousness and the reality of being thousands of miles from anyone I had ever met before, living in the midst of a culture I did not know, filled me with terror. Then, I settled in, and whereas I had eaten little my first two weeks, every moment since had been an unending struggle to sate what become, literally, a dangerously voracious appetite for adventure.
I had broken the law, lied about my identity, hiked and climbed on and off paths through lands I didn’t know—sometimes alone—and had spent plenty of time meeting and following and drinking with strangers all around southern Ghana. I had spent money as irresponsibly as I could, with the philosophy that it made more sense to spend it in the midst of a life-defining event than back home. Not a bad philosophy, if you can at least make your money last through to the end of said experience. I, on the other hand, would end up running out of money shortly after my trip to the north (after adding everything up, I was able to budget the equivalent of about 67 cents a day for food for my final month abroad).
But there, on the Black Volta, I finally stopped and took in a moment as it happened around me, rather than thinking only of what was next. I looked out and saw the head of a wild animal that, if nature so stirred her, could end my life with ease. And yet, aggressive as she had shown herself at first, I saw her relax and content herself to float around through the middle of the river she knew she owned with her young ones at her side. She didn’t seem to have any urgent need, any apparent goal. She was perfectly in her element and took the time to enjoy that fact.
I turned from the scene at one point and looked to the end of my canoe. There, at the tip, one of my guides had fallen asleep. He was not concerned about the deadly creatures that shared the water with us, nor was he worried about where we would go next or how long we would remain stuck, waiting for the danger to pass.
It took time for me to realize it, but up until that point, I had been taking pictures and thinking about when I would find the time and internet service to put them online. I had hopped into a canoe and floated down a magnificent river, thinking only of when we would see a hippo. I had spent three months in Ghana thinking only about what adventure was next, what new limit I could push. I was so eager to shed the version of myself that existed during that time that I lost the ability to appreciate the world around me. This, despite being in the most beautiful and perfectly alien environment that I had ever seen.
There, a handful of yards from a creature that was a symbol for death and yet full of peace and even joy, I felt the world finally pulling me back in. Later we walked across a flood plain, and in the dirt was a footprint, wide, deep, but playful. I looked down into it and smiled, knowing that I shared a path with one of those same great figures that had caused such a fruitful delay hours earlier. I was finally back in the same world as everything around me.