By LARISSA BIRTHELMER
BROOK HAVEN MIDDLE SCHOOL, SEBASTOPOL, 14

I stepped out of the plane. The smell of dried grass and wood filled my nostrils. The air was so thick I could barley breathe, and I choked several times before continuing behind my brother. Although it was around 5, the sun still shone brightly in the sky. I looked up at the cloudless blue expense of heaven and let a tear trickle down my cheek. It was the same sky I had grown up under, it was the same sky I had my first kiss under and it was the same sky I learned home from lost under, but it wasn’t the same at all. I felt isolated and unconnected to myself and my world.

Larissa Birthelmer

Those first few days in Ghana were the hardest. Everything smelled, sounded, felt different. I was stranded in the desert all alone, thousands of miles away from familiarity, yet I was surrounded, suffocated and pressured by the bizarre culture. It was like a bubble, my safety bubble, had popped and the world was spilling in. Although I wanted privacy, I was constantly questioned. I wanted control, but I was given more than I could stand. I wanted independence, but the barriers continued past our yard’s barbed-wire-topped wall. It was too different for me. On a two-lane road, there were four or five lanes being used. The cars were so close together, doors couldn’t be opened. There was just enough room for peddlers and beggars. Vendors sold the strangest of things, including, gum, cookies, illegal movies and toilet paper. It was an enormous Costco inhabited by honking cars. Between vendors, there were homeless people. If one grandmother without eyes received some money, a mob would surround the car. Their stick legs, missing arms and little blind children were heartbreaking and terrorizing at the same time.
I had traveled before; you might even say I had traveled frequently, but this was different. I had seen Europe, I had seen Mexico, but nothing prepared me for Ghana. It was unbelievably, unbearably different. Maybe it had to do with my parents’ divorce, maybe it had to do with the way I was raised, and maybe it had to do with the fact that I was a 12-year-old girl pushed on a plane with my older brother and my dad toward a new country, a new life. It would only be a year, I kept telling myself, then everything could go back to normal.
Then school started. I made some friends. While I struggled with my German studies and spent my weekends hanging out with my new friends, things outside of school began to get better, too. My brother, my dad and I would go to a beautiful beach east of where we lived. It was called Ada Fo. We would take a boat to a small peninsula. This “resort” had no buildings, just little, floorless shacks with beds. Each morning, we would eat breakfast at the only food-serving place. The food was good, but it took an hour to make because they didn’t have any electricity, which meant no fridge to store food or stove to cook. A worker would have to start a fire and go buy food from a market a few miles away. After breakfast, we would go for a swim. We could either walk 100 meters in one direction to the ocean or walk the same distance in the opposite direction to the river. It was like paradise surrounded by water. Lightning and thunder were the only exception. It felt like each time lightning struck something, it struck me. We got a picture of it striking right in front of our shack, so close we could have felt it. It was scary and a glorious view to behold, too.
At the end of a year I realized something. I didn’t want to go home at all. It had been so exciting and new, so different and exotic, so special that I loved it with all my heart. The friends that I had made in year felt closer to me than those that I had known my entire life. The only thing I wanted was to live another year with my friends and enjoy the experience.
To my utter despair, my mother requested my departure from Ghana and my arrival in the states a week before school ended. Although it was incredibly difficult, I said goodbye to my friends and boarded the plane back to States. When my brother and I arrived, I was shocked at how different my surroundings seemed. Everything was so clean, perfect and plastic. It looked like a palace of riches compared to Ghana. It took me quite a while to get used to my surroundings again.
Although I loved the experience, I have really enjoyed a warm shower again. My Ghanaian experience shaped me into the person I am today and for that I am grateful. Now I’m me.