Over the sea and back again

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It is winter as you walk through the streets of St. Petersburg. The snow drifts gently down, quietly blanketing the canals and bridges on your way to the metro. Manicured parks and onion-domed cathedrals mark every few blocks, masterpieces so common you barely notice. With only a slight chill in the air, you sweat under your heavy coat as you run to make the metro. Only a few people still hurry through the streets with you, all hoping to get home before public transportation stops and the bridges go up. The imperial city lies quietly under her new white coat; this isn’t Moscow after all, that glitzy metropolis of Russia’s present.

St. Petersburg, even with all her 20th century excitement, belongs to the nineteenth century, to the czar and their palaces. Walking down Nevsky Prospect, one may be forgiven for thinking otherwise: the bright lights, the fashion and the restaurants seem to paint a different picture, that of a city racing towards the future. But turn off the main avenue and you are soon thrown back 100 years or more, to court intrigues, wars of empire and Russian Orthodoxy. Every stroll in St. Petersburg is full of discovery, around each corner another jewel, another piece of history.

The sunsets in St. Petersburg are surprisingly similar to those in Saboba, Ghana. Though somewhat different in look, they are equals in magnificence, even though they occur thousands of miles apart. In Saboba, the sun’s last rays stretch out over vast fields, crossing dirt roads where women walk, carrying loads back from the farm. Biking past them, greeting them as you go, you race home against the darkness. A bucket shower welcomes you upon your return, a nice way to wash the layers of sweat from your body. Afterwards, as you sit out in the compound waiting for dinner, the heat slowly relents, though the temperature cannot drop fast enough. Luckily, your host sister comes home and distracts you with conversation about the day. The night moves swiftly past and soon it is morning again and time to go to work.

The days are full, whether in the field with farmers or at the office. Working within the Ghanaian system isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding. At the end of the day, most of the time, everything is worthwhile, and you’re glad you decided to spend the summer in Ghana working on something you care about. And if work doesn’t go according to plan, at least your host family can always be counted on to welcome you home with open arms.

Such is life overseas. I was in St. Petersburg on a student exchange in the fall of 2008, taking Russian classes and learning to live without ever quite knowing what was going on. I spent this past summer in Saboba, Ghana, working with the Ministry of Food and Agriculture and Engineers Without Borders, helping to build the business skills of farmers. Each experience has done more to shape me than any number of years at home. And it’s not unique to me: everyone I’ve spoken with who has traveled for any length of time always points to their time away as a defining experience, something that’s made them who they are.

Duncan Farthing-Nichol is a U of M student and works in the World W.I.S.E. Resource Centre located in the International Centre for Students.