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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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