By Olivia Dagbo
Bags packed, money counted and passport in hand, I entered the Greyhound bus with high expectations and excitement. I had long looked forward to leaving Toronto with my mother and sister to venture off to New York. My previous travel experiences were not for leisure, but rather new beginnings, as much of my childhood was spent moving from one city to another. This was my first vacation—not with the luxuries of hotel stays and opera shows, but still very much welcome. The purpose of the trip was threefold: to explore the great City of New York, to rest from the irritations of Toronto, and to meet family previously foreign to my sister and me.
Fear quickly overshadowed all happiness when I realized our place of stay was in Harlem. My predigested understandings of the area splashed images of poverty and delinquency within each passing thought. Each step closer to my cousin’s apartment shattered my dreams of leisure and exploration. Decades had separated the last time my mother had seen her sisters. As their families expanded and connected, ours remained excluded and ignorant. Though they knew of our existence I have been oblivious to most of theirs. Being raised by a father who valued silence in public made my sister and me mute in the midst of the chaos of our newly discovered family. The voices they wanted to hear were buried under a lifetime of teachings that emphasized the value of a docile woman. Obedience had been worth more than my opinions. To reveal a voice long silenced to face their never-ending questions required a level of comfort I did not have.
Other occupants of the apartment were not on vacation like we were. Each morning was a whirlwind as the sound of doors closing and footsteps running cascaded down the halls. Echoes of screaming children rang in my ears when their parents headed off to work. Gender roles did not escape us. It was an expectation for my sister and me to cook, clean, and serve the men of the house. I had expected to be exposed to a different environment, to meet new people and gain new experiences. These expectations, however, had morphed into a nightmare. By the third day, I was certain that this was not my ideal vacation and my need for escape heightened within the claustrophobic apartment.
My childhood experiences with moving from city to city are not considered as travel, partly because each new destination became my home. Necessities of shelter and clothing required financial participation my family was, at times, unable to provide. Home was a space loaded with complexity, as my family and I were often not in control of our life circumstances due to our financial instability, and had to adapt and endure both the good and the bad that came with each new environment. If home was my complex and troubled reality, perhaps travel was laden with my fantasy to escape. On this trip to Harlem, my immediate environment had changed, but gendered expectations and financial responsibilities followed me across the border. I was not able to entirely detach from those socio-economic structures.
By the sixth day, I was prepared to either return home or make changes to my vacation. I decided to make changes. Instead of wallowing in my disappointment and depression, I reframed my perspective on what constituted a good vacation. In a sense, I accepted my environment and my presence in it. I decided to confront the fear that held me captive in the Harlem apartment and explore. Harlem must be more than the negativity I had assumed from it. After all, I reminded myself, Scarborough is no Manhattan either. I found a basketball court that served as the centre of the community. Vibrant events and exciting games regularly took place there, involving youth and children from the community. As I saw people take their seats at the stands one day, I realized that I was experiencing something rather marvelous. Harlem had beauty I had completely ignored. I was surrounded by a strong community, perhaps not one featured in television commercials and travel brochures but beautiful nonetheless.
I could not expect my extended family to replicate the courteous manner of a five-star hotel staff. They were complex individuals, like all people. Learning about them, through observation and interaction, I came to know and treasure them. Harlem was no Times Square, but it was something different, something real, which was truly welcomed.
A rainy day marked my departure back to Toronto. Looking out of the Greyhound bus window, I thought about the vacation. My return to Toronto felt bittersweet. I was given the opportunity to see New York and Harlem through my own eyes, to get to know people and their communities by living with them, not simply by consuming them like a tourist might. This was not a conventional vacation. It was a trip that taught me to comprehend my environment through participation, without false expectations and preconceptions, and it was one of the most important experiences in my life thus far.
Olivia Dagbo is a fourth year Human Geography and City Studies major. She hopes to become an urban planner. In her spare time Olivia could be found reading, writing, or designing clothes she will most likely never make. Olivia enjoys laughing at the weird things of the world. Her passion is in exploring the human mind.