Archive for July, 2010

You Are Welcome!

I only have a few days left in my village and am feeling a bit pensive. The last week I have felt particularly embraced by the local community and it is sad to say goodbye. As I walk down the road, there are many elders, men, women and children who I now know that stop to greet me. Ghanaians are big into greetings. Instead of saying, “Hello,” they say “Welcome,” a very charming and Ghanaian greeting. They love to shake hands and the handshake ends by grasping the other person’s middle finger and snapping each other’s fingers.

A friend and I purchase school uniforms, shoes, toys, school supplies an diapers and visit the orphanage.  As soon as the children spot us, they start yelling, jumping up and down and run down the road to hug us. We open the first package of toys (13 used stuffed animals for <$8). This is the biggest crowd-pleaser, even for the teenage girls, and they are all screaming with joy! The other big hit is the notebooks, pencils and crayons. Ghana is crazy about Obama and the notebook covers have photos of President Obama and the Obama family. They want us to write on the notebooks, so I write enthusiastic phrases like, “You always make me smile,” and “Be a good boy in school.” Next, they ask me to draw pictures in their notebooks, like a tree, airplane or house. And then they proceed to duplicate my drawing – so cute!

Last weekend, I went to Accra, the capital of Ghana. It is big, crowded and expensive. In Ho, the city near my town, it always costs 25 cents to take a taxi anywhere in the city. You don’t even need to ask the taxi for the price of the fare since it’s always the same. Granted, it’s a share-taxi so you pick and drop people off along the way. In Accra, taxis were $3 to $11 which is a steep increase. I’d made hotel reservations in advance and when I open the door was a bit disappointed by the dismal room. But I am more alarmed when I realize they haven’t changed the sheets. When my friend finds a used condom in her garbage we decide to leave. It’s hard to find a mid-range hotel in Accra since the city is designed for business professionals staying in $250+ hotels or budget hotels with rooms that make me want to cry. So I blow my budget and splurge on $55 rooms the entire weekend. It is definitely worth the money.

The hotel owner tells me about a witch doctor down the road. I am immediately intrigued and we go for a quick visit. It’s a full moon, and we wind through a maze of houses and onto the beach. My stereotypes were surprised to meet a young 36-year old man, instead of a decrepit old man. His name is Eleven-Eleven and I ask him about the various objects. He explains about love potions and how to win court cases. Afterwards, we sit outside by the beach chatting. I start to doubt his authenticity when he keeps proposing to me (my fifth proposal in Ghana) and his hand starts inching up my knee. Later, I hope he’s not casting a love spell on me!

A friend from Seattle is in Accra and invites me to attend a Pan-African Cervical Cancer Conference. The conference is also hosted by the Forum of African First Ladies Against Breast and Cervical Cancer. It was a star-studded event and included the First Ladies, Queens and Princesses from Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Niger, Swaziland and Zambia. I am so ill-informed on the issues that I didn’t even realize HPV causes cervical cancer. Eighty-five percent of cervical cancer deaths occur in the developing world, with 20 percent in Africa. Due to the lack of prevention, screening and stigma, most women wait until they are at very advanced stages and die from preventable deaths.  There is a dizzying array of information presented by NGOs, academics, governments and clinicians. The most impressive project is occurring in Uganda by PATH. Many countries are piloting prevention and screening activities, but are challenged to get women to participate due to stigma. In Uganda, women are collecting self-samples that don’t have to be refrigerated for up to two weeks, and PATH has developed an affordable battery-operated device that tests the samples for HPV. Due to the labor market, it’s challenging to recruit and retain doctors and nurses, and the project doesn’t even require skilled medical staff.

This weekend, I leave my village to venture out for one month of travelling in Ghana. During me first week in Ghana, I’d contemplated changing my plane ticket to leave Ghana as soon as my volunteer work was completed. But now I’m excited to travel and experience more of this lovely country.

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Daily Life in Ghana

Now that I’ve been in Ghana for three weeks, I’m really savoring my time and appreciating all the everyday occurrences that make Ghana so special. Wisdom is the 15-year old nephew of my host family. Many parents name their children after the emotions felt during pregnancy, and I just love hearing these names, like Courage, Joy, Wisdom, Patience and Precious. Wisdom brought me to the village Kindergarten class. When we enter the one-room schoolhouse all the children stand up and politely greet me, dressed in brown and white checkered uniforms. The teacher states the name of a verse and they recite “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” “Rain, Rain, Go Away,” and “Ghana, Ghana, Ghana” in sing-song voices. Afterwards, Wisdom brings me to the road. Its seems like half the village is there working. It takes 30 minutes by car to get to my village, 13 kilometers on a red, dusty dirt road and the final 2 kilometers on an uphill rocky road. Several times a year, the village works on this last 2 kilometers. Men dig rocks with pickaxes to fill in the holes. Women carry buckets of dirt on their heads to pack between the rocks. They could wait forever for the government to help, so instead the community bands together to improve their lives.

I am in Ghana for over a week when another volunteer expresses dismay over being yelled at by children on the streets, “Yevu!” She told me it meant white, and I immediately start noticing this daily refrain from children everywhere.  Countless times a day kids are always yelling “Yevu” at me, while smiling and waving. A fellow Honduran-American volunteer is also peeved by this call, since she isn’t white! We ask a Ghanaian friend to translate yellow and brown for us, since we think it would be funny to yell this back at children while pointing to ourselves. He told us that Yevu is used for all foreigners, even African Americans, and the literal translation is “tricky dog.” Somehow, I am immediately comforted by this new more appropriate translation. 

The transportation system in Ghana is ruled by tro-tro’s or public vans. There are no timetables and tro-tro’s leave for their destination when they are full. Yesterday, it took me three hours to get from my village to town, and it’s only a 30 minute drive. Frequently, I have to wait for hours for my tro-tro to show up, and then wait longer for the passengers to fill the van.  Along the route, people get off and on, accompanied by an unbelievable amount of cargo. On the roof of the van, women load huge burlap sacks of corn and ground-up cassavas to sell in town on market day. Also furniture, generators and livestock. Besides the driver, there is another staff person yelling at people on the road to hustle up more business and collect fares. I’ve taken enough tro-tro’s to realize the premium position is the front window seat, next to the driver. They can squeeze a lot of people into these vans, including six people into seats made for three. But they only put two people in the front seat because of the driver and stick shift. I get to see so many interesting things in the front seat too. On a four-hour ride, we pass through 12 police checkpoints and I witness bribes at half of them (adjacent to huge signs stating it’s an offense to bribe police). When tro-tro’s pull into towns, the windows are swarmed by women and teenage girls selling products in metal bowls balanced on top of their heads. Passengers always share food with me, and I happily accept their offerings of smoked fish and donuts.

I go to the market to buy fabric and the choices are staggering. After I select a beautiful material, I don’t even haggle since it’s only $14 for six yards. We go to a tailor and I’m overwhelmed by the design choices. I pore through the designs and the 18-year old dressmakers are already giggling at me. One of them asks if we can be friends and slips me her phone number. Madame Regina takes my measurements. At one point, she pauses and someone from the back yells, “Yevu, have you eaten lunch yet?” I laugh and slap my stomach saying maybe I’m pregnant. This immediately evokes a flurry of questions like do I have children, why don’t I want children, etc. I tell them I’m too old now and plan to adopt in a few years. Madame Regina grabs my breast and says, “Don’t you want a baby to suck here?” The entire experience is hysterical, much like many of my experiences in Ghana. I don’t understand the culture here at all, so just try to be my authentic self and laugh a lot.

A friend and I visit an orphanage two villages away from me. When we arrive, the staff members cheerfully greet us. The kids start to arrive from school and peel off their uniforms. They each have one uniform and daily wash the dust and sweat from their clothes. At first, the children are a bit reticent with us, but soon they are laughing and playing and hamming it up. The facility is lovely, supported by a German NGO. It’s quickly apparent that although theses kids are well fed and taken care of, they don’t have any extra amenities. There are no toys and they are all playing with rocks and old metal bike wheels/spokes.  We ask them what they need, and immediately agree to buy a second school uniform, shoes, baby supplies and arts/crafts/toys. We measure each of the children’s feet on paper and they are getting excited. Most of them only have flip-flops, and they need sturdy enclosed shoes for school. There are fifteen children from newborn to 17 years old. The only babies are twins. When we are visiting, the mother is nursing them. She had premature triplets and one of the babies died. Her family is too poor to take care of the children, and she frequently visits – it must be heartbreaking for her to leave her children. Most of the other children are ages three to six years old, with three teenage girls. I can’t wait to visit next week, our arms laden with presents for these kids.

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Feels like home

My first week in Ghana was rough. I feel homesick and out of sorts. It’s not the language or culture, since I’ve spent many months travelling in Southeast Asia in similar circumstances. I attribute it to the total isolation. No electricity means no internet, so I’m not connected to my friends or family. It means I go to sleep when it gets dark at 7pm and wake up with the chickens at 4am. No running water means no flush or squat toilets. It takes me two days to figure out how to wash my hands! One night I stumble to the outhouse through the dark with sleep still in my eyes. I brush the grass from my legs once, twice, and then shine my flashlight down on my legs when I realize something is very wrong. There are rivers of ants everywhere. Swarms and seas of big black ants, and medium sized red ants. And they are all over my legs. I am jumping up and down, and now I really know the childhood chant, “she’s got ants in her pants!”

Ants aren’t even the worst insect in Ghana. One morning, I wake up with over 50 mosquito bites. I scratch them repeatedly. Douse them with Chinese green medicinal oil. And then itch some more. Apply hydrocortisone. And itch them again until they turn into angry red welts. Deep breathing is the only temporary cure. One day, all the village women see my mosquito bites and cluck in sympathy. An old woman leans over and lightly scratches them one at a time. It’s soothing and comforting and I want to hug her. Instead, I thank her and ask if there’s a local plant remedy. She laughs and says, “No, try long sleeves.”

My host family is very sweet, and it takes me days to figure out they are giving me the blandest of meals because they are worried about my stomach. A typical lunch or dinner is rice with a dollop of bland tomato paste. After I tell them I eat street food in Vietnam, they invite me to help make fufu, a staple of the Ghanaian diet. It’s a laborious process that includes boiling cassavas and plantains, and then pounding them in a huge mortar with a four-foot pestle. It usually takes two people to pound it into a paste. You eat fufu with your fingers served in a spicy soup. The strangest part is you do not chew fufu, just swallow it whole. This is hard for me to adjust to, so I make very small portions of fufu. My host family laughs and says I am eating baby-sized bites. The laughter is comforting and Ghana finally starts to feel like home.

After one week in the village, I crave comforts like electricity, toilets and running water and head to the beach for my birthday weekend. Seven volunteers make the trek to a wonderful seaside lodge. It’s a long bumpy ride and when we arrive at our destination, I’m laughing and dancing and skipping – so happy for a holiday weekend! I tell all the staff it’s my birthday weekend, and they promise many festivities. And they don’t disappoint me at all. There are African drumming circles at night, and they sing happy birthday in the local dialect. On my birthday, we take a boat up the river. The drums join us on a huge wooden boat built for 70. It’s the local transportation between villages, and as the drums play, the children from the villages hear the music, run to the shore dancing and waving at us. Old women climb on board, laden with baskets and bags. Young men with fake Dolce and Gabana shirts also join us, and sing along with the chants. The next morning, we walk to the beach to see the fishermen bring in the catch. Fifteen people are pulling on a rope from the mouth of the sea. One kilometer away, is the other end of the rope with another 15 people and a huge net stretches between them. They invite me to pull the rope and it’s really hard. After two minutes, I give up and they ask me if I’m tired. I show them my red palms and they laugh at my soft hands. The man leading the crew is missing one hand, and I can’t believe he is pulling away for hours and I can’t even last a few minutes. They chant as they go along, inching closer to the other rope and eventually meet. They pull in the catch and everyone is happy with the amount of fish, shrimp,crab and cuttle fish. They will sell it for 200 Ghana Cedis, or less than $5 per person for many hours of hard labor.

After three days at the sea, we go to a Monkey Sanctuary. We wake up at 6am to meet our guide and he starts making kissy-noises. The monkeys hear his call and the trees shake as they leap along the branches to meet us. I hold a banana tightly in my fist, and the first monkey jumps on my arm, eating the banana and then prying my fingers open for more fruit. I feel his fingernails scratching my skin, yelp, laugh and throw the fruit down. We travel a few more hours to Wli Waterfalls. It’s located in a tropical rain forest and we cross nine streams and lush vegetation, like bananas, pineapple, cocoa, coffee, papaya, and avocado. We get to the waterfalls and it’s huge. Just as I’m about to get into the water, we hear screaming and laughing behind us. Suddenly, a group of 75 teenagers are running up the path. They are visiting from a few hours away and the boys immediately jump into the water. I convince one of the girls to join me. She is laughing and splashing and tells me she has never been swimming in her life. In fact, most of the kids here have never been swimming. The girls ask if they can snap me (take my photo) and when I pose beside them, they ask me to take off my sarong and reveal my bikini – ha!

Today, I’m back in my village without electricity, running water or toilets. And there is nowhere else I’d rather be.

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I had a dreamy three week vacation after my volunteer work. Three days at the beach in Mui Ne, Vietnam stretched into a lavish nine days. I’m travelling on a $50/day budget and my maximum hotel budget is $30 which buys me the top-of-the-line budget accommodation (air conditioning, private bathroom, TV). I’m not 20-years old anymore and can’t handle a shared bathroom or rooms that make me want to cry when I open the door and the wave of mildew wafts over me. My remaining $20 is spent on transportation, food and of course, massages! Mui Ne was an absolute dream because our budget hotel was on the beach and I’d fall asleep and wake up to the sounds of the surf. Then we’d walk a few steps to the most glamorous restaurant and pool and felt like I was in a 4-star life. Cabanas surround a pool and the interior design feels like I’m a movie star in the South of France. Even though it’s super-fancy, there is a down-home family feeling with children and dogs running around.

We get to know the Vietnamese staff and ex-pats and even get invited to the local poker tournament and receive complimentary meals and drinks. We play endless games of cards, swim in the beach and pool, read and do absolutely nothing for hours at a time. We take a break from this life of luxury for the big tourist attraction in Mui Ne and visit the sand dunes. An 11-year old girl guide walks us to the top of the white sand dunes. We each have a long piece of plastic and the girl shows us how to use it to slide down the hill. When I get stuck a few feet down, she jumps onto my back and we zoom down the hill in a fit of laughter. At the bottom, we cool off in a lake filled with lotus flowers. This respite in Mui Ne is exactly what I need, and I feel a bit sad to leave.

Next up is Dalat, a cool retreat nestled in the hills. I have to pile on every item of clothing to stay warm (one long sleeved shirt, long pants, scarf) in the seemingly freezing 60 degree evenings. In my younger travelling days, I shunned fellow backpackers. These days I’m much more open, and Tiffany and I pick up travelling companions along the way. Neil accompanies us from Mui Ne to Dalat, and the two of us go on a three-day 300 mile tour of the Central Highlands on the back of motorcycles. Neil is half-Japanese from Canada and everywhere we go people ask where we are from. I begin to tell people in Vietnamese we are hai lai (two mixed people) because everyone thinks this is absolutely hysterical and it evokes an easy laugh. It’s Neil’s first trip to Vietnam and it’s fun to expose him to new things, like the amazing fruit of Southeast Asia. First time eating mangosteen and custard apple – YUM! I get to eat passion fruit for the first time and it’s tart and delicious. After a hot morning, our driver cuts open several passion fruit, scoops out the innards into a glass, adds sugar and ice and it’s the most refreshing thing I’ve eaten in years!

Our first night, we have a homestay in an ethnic minority village. The communal village toilet is across the road and I start to wonder if this is what Africa will be like. I fall asleep to the sound of gongs from a funeral, and wake up to the squeals of pigs. We visit many ethnic minority villages, most of them have access to water through wells, and have only recently gained access to electricity. Everywhere we go, the women are working so hard. It’s the same all over Vietnam, and it’s common to see men during the day in cafes and in the restaurants at night. Women are never around because they are working. Working all day and taking care of their families at night. We visit a brick factory, and again it’s women everywhere in what seems like the most masculine job. One of the women tells me her husband also works there and I ask where? She points to the one lone man, sitting smoking and watching all the women on the line. We walk through the factory and I find all the missing men – they are sleeping in hammocks in the shade.

In Nha Trang, our threesome becomes a foursome with the addition of Michel, a Swedish-Serbian traveler we met in Dalat. The next few days feels golden. We lounge on the beach, swim, get massages, play cards, eat street food and visit the pagoda orphanage for the last time. We go on a four-island boat tour which perfectly sums up my experience in Vietnam. The scenery is gorgeous with mountains and crystal blue water. We are all packed into a small boat and when we get to each island it’s pure chaos debarking amidst the throngs of other boats. After lunch, they convert the benches into a makeshift dance floor. The band is comprised of a drummer and guitarist, who are also the driver and deckhand. The emcee starts it off with a heartfelt song with his eyes closed. A 9-year old boy sings to his father. The father sings about Hanoi. When the emcee reaches his hand down to me to dance (I’m still wearing my bikini from the afternoon swim), I am feeling it and go with the moment. He spins me around this tiny dance floor and my head grazes the ceiling. We are laughing and the audience is clapping and smiling. He goes to dip me and I’m so relaxed that when he drops me onto the guitarist, we fall into a heap laughing and I emerge without a scratch. I coax my friend on stage and he plays the guitar and sings a rousing rendition of “Johnny Be Good.” I get a bit teary-eyed because I LOVE VIETNAM.

It takes me over 48 hours to get to Ghana, with four flights, 24 hours of layovers and a near panic attack when I discover there are two airports in Kuala Lumpur and I need to travel 20 kilometers to make my connecting flight. I have a 13-hour layover in Cairo, and unexpectedly go on a day tour of the pyramids. I am absolutely awestruck by the pyramids and the sphinx and happily pose for many cheesy photos.

By the time I get to Ghana, I am feeling pretty wrecked. I collapse in a guesthouse, and when it starts to pour rain I start to wonder if I’ve made the right decision. Many of my friends and family have told me how brave I am to go to Africa and I didn’t think anything of it. My volunteer assignment is fundraising and my homestay is in a local village. I obviously didn’t read the fine print because I’m surprised to learn that the home doesn’t have running water or electricity. The house is a beautiful bright blue, with a courtyard of sunflowers and okra. They have brought a generator to watch the World Cup game of Ghana vs. Uruguay. It seems the entire village is here, with about 75 people crammed around a 19 inch TV. When Ghana makes the first score, everyone is screaming and dancing and jumping up and down with joy. Everyone shuffles out silently when they lose.

On my first morning here, I wake up feeling very homesick. But I’m homesick for Vietnam, not Seattle.

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