“But They’re Sri Lankan Bunnies!” Weeks 1 and 2

Hello everyone! I’ve been home for about 2 weeks now, and I’m sure 2-3 some of you have wondered why there has been this delay in posting stories of my Sri Lankan travels, and…I guess I don’t really have a real excuse for it. Uploading my pictures was a long ordeal that isn’t worth explaining; there were over 800 pictures and videos to look through, and I’m really not sure how I managed to take so many. Giving my camera to the kids a couple times probably contributed to the excess, and I suppose there were some really fantastic moments worth capturing. 40% of the pictures alone may just be of the various monkey species I encountered, which…you will thank me for later.

Anyway, I think the main reason for the delay has been my reluctance to dive into recounting my time away; sifting through 6 weeks of memories is not particularly easy, and I’ve been unsure as to how to go about it. In Ghana I posted every week, when the stories and feelings were still fresh, so even with my journal and guidebook by my side, placing myself back into moments that happened in late May and early June is going to be difficult, but we’ll see what happens. To spare myself time and because I want to finally get these pictures uploaded on here, I will divide each entry into 2-week accounts, with some days featured more than others. So bear with me, and I’ll understand if I lose you before the end.

Weeks One and Two: May 26-June 9

I’ll start by first saying that Sri Lanka is a small island off the southern tip of India, and is not, in fact, a part of India at all (I’m looking at you, mother). My father, sister, and best friend had no idea I was traveling to an island, so…just in case anyone else experienced confusion over where I was, hope this helped!

"I want to get a sense of what India is like"

“I want to get a sense of what India is like”

Traveling from New York to Sri Lanka takes a long time, and often involves flying through and missing an entire day. Who knew? Thanks to that pesky 9.5 hour time difference, I left on a Sunday night and didn’t arrive until that Tuesday morning. My first flight took me to Abu Dhabi, an over 13 hour experience that was spent largely sleeping, watching Once, and enjoying my first dabble with Rice and Curry. Little did I know (I kind of did) that for the next 6 weeks, there wouldn’t be much else consumed, save for the occasional springroll (there will be much to say about that delicacy), and the constant sugar bread thrown at us for breakfast. I downed some McDonalds while waiting for my 5 hour flight to Colombo (a problem, I know), and at this point I was just proud of myself for making it so far without experiencing fear-induced nausea.  My new hypothesis is that the farther away I get from home, the more calm I naturally become, cancelling out any anxiety I may feel about what comes next.

I finally made it to Colombo by around 4:30 AM, and was greeted by a cheerful member of the Projects Abroad staff who probably despised me/his life for having to pick up silly Americans at such a ridiculous hour.  I got myself some Rupees (getting to say I possessed that currency always made me giggle), picked up a sim card for my dusted-off Ghana phone, and walked out of the airport ready to commence my Sri Lankan adventure.

SOHOTSOHUMIDOHMYGODITHINKIMDYINGHELPMEHELPMEHELPME

I thought nothing would ever be as bad as Ghana’s heat, but…my body quickly went into panic mode, and probably tried getting me to turn around and hop on a plane back to America by reducing me to a sweaty disaster at a caliber not seen probably by anyone ever in history.

The Jesus shrine across the street from my house

The Jesus shrine across the street from my house

So things were going pretty well, I’d say. The drive to my host family’s house took about 25 minutes, allowing me to catch a small glimpse of my new environment. Paved roads! No goats! Strange Jesus shrines on every block! My quick, highly credible/intelligent assessment was that Sri Lanka’s development was a bit farther along than Ghana’s just for the fact that roads were paved and people weren’t pooping in the gutters.

By around 7:00 AM I had finally arrived to my home for 6 weeks, the household of Macmilan (Mac) and Paulita Jayamannah (may or may not have spelled everything there wrong). They live literally feet from the beach in the town of Kepungoda, Pamunugama, around 20km north of Colombo on the west coast, featuring a post office, a Church, and a bus station. Anything anyone could ever need, really. I spoke with Mac for a few minutes before I settled into my room, and here’s a breakdown of what was discussed/of what occurred:

    • Mr. Herman

      Mr. Herman

      Mac’s first question to me was whether or not I have a girlfriend. After I told him no, he told me that the girl volunteer also staying there who I hadn’t met yet could become that. Oh thank God!

    • He saw my tattoo and smacked my face, not hard, just kind of like a love tap.
    • At one point he grabbed my right boob.
    • He asked me my name, then asked if I was Catholic based off it. I actually told the truth this time, learning from my Ghana mistakes. But then he laughed and said, “I could tell by your nose.” He then expressed surprise when I said I eat pork and commented on how clever Jews are. Hooray for Jewish stereotypes!
    • Mr. Herman: This was a Dutch philanthropist who lived and worked with Mac for years before he tragically passed away in 2012. It took about 5 minutes for him to show me his fully-preserved bedroom and one of the plentiful pictures of him scattered throughout the house. More on him later.

I was brought over to meet my new English girlfriend/roommate, Hannah, who actually lived in the house directly behind mine, where my host parents’ son lives with his wife and baby daughter, Herma (as in…Herman). We spoke for a few minutes before she left for her first day of work at Bosco Sevana (she had arrived a few days before me). I don’t remember what exactly was discussed in that first conversation, but I surprised myself by how much effort I put into getting to know someone. Maybe I’m not a complete impotent human being after all! Or maybe the fact that she’s from England made her appeal instantly surpass the high levels required for me to care about asking questions. The two of us bonded over our interest in crappy reality TV, Adele, food, sarcasm, and talking about people behind their back. Sure, we may have disagreed on what the correct word is for things that shouldn’t have different words (underwear vs. pants, pants vs. trousers, rubber vs. eraser, tank vs. vest, rubbish vs. trash, plaster vs. band-aid, eggplant vs. aubergine, etc.), and she may have never heard of tacos and had the audacity to claim that her bagels/pizza were better than New York’s, but we somehow managed to overcome these obstacles and become friends! A shocking development for me, really. Anyway, more will be said of this wonderful lady (and everyone else worth mentioning) throughout the course of my accounts.

The lagoon!

The lagoon!

After sleeping for the entire day, Hannah took me to see the beach, which basically doubles as a trash pit. But at least there are pigs roaming around and there are beautiful views of the sunset. Our host mother led us to a lagoon about 5 minutes from home; as we were staring into the water, we were approached first by a cow (who would eventually attack multiple people), and then by some random fisherman who had us go for a ride with him. Probably not the safest thing to do on my first day, but Paulita didn’t object and that’s enough for me.We made it back for my first attempt at eating with my hands (right hand only, of course). Eating rice with my hands sounded simple enough, but when there is literally a mountain of it, steaming hot and topped with various curries and meats, things quickly deteriorated. Rice dribbled down my face and possibly my shirt. Mac was laughing at me and telling me to “watch how Hannah does it”, as if she was some hand-eating aficionado.  I wish I could say I improved over time, but…nope. Always a mess. Always rice.

Portion sizes were always a problem

Portion sizes were always a problem

Oh! There’s also a puppy living at home, a German Shepherd I named Fido. He is absolutely insane, and will likely be a danger to Herma in the next few months

Look how cute/psycho!

Look how cute/psychotic!

The next morning a member of the Projects Abroad staff came to take me to Bosco Sevana for the first time, just to show me how to get there and to introduce me to the Fathers, Brothers, and kids. After I made myself sound cooler than I am by telling her it was my third time with PA, we set off on my first encounter with Sri Lankan public transportation. To get there, you need to take 2 buses, the first one leaving just across the street from the house. There is the 273 to Bopitiya, which takes between 12-15 minutes and costs 16 Rupees ($0.12), and the 275 Colombo-bound bus that drops you off after about 10 minutes at Bosco, costing 10 Rupees ($0.08). So…travel was always costly. Once in a while if it was too hot (always) or we couldn’t be bothered waiting the potential 30+ minutes for a bus, we would splurge on a tuk tuk (taxi) for a steep $2.25, or tortured ourselves by walking halfway.

A typical bus crowd

A typical bus crowd

So despite the roughly 25 minutes of travel time, getting to work could take up to an hour depending on how long you wait for the bus to either come or to leave the station. But at this point in my life, sitting around waiting for things to happen is something I’ve mastered. I thought Ghanaian transportation was wild, but these buses are at a hectic level I had never experienced before. If you’re lucky you get a seat, just not in the front where seats are reserved for male/female clergy (female clergy? Don’t think that existed), “Pregnant ladies”, the elderly, or “disabled persons.” Obviously that rule was ignored constantly, because standing on those buses is not ideal. You’re either standing with the buses not very crowded and you fly up and down the aisle, or you’re standing in a packed bus and worry about sweating on everyone around you.  Traffic laws aren’t really a thing that exists there, so these buses are careening down roads at unadvisable speeds and take on way more people than recommended. There was at least 2 times that I was forced to stand on the stairs with the door open, which was honestly fantastic, but probably not the safest option. Oh, and sometimes we are blessed by the presence of renowned local entertainers who come aboard to dazzle us with their impressive tambourine playing and singing and demand our money.

The beach at Bosco Sevana

The beach at Bosco Sevana

When arriving at Bosco I was first taken aback by the fact that the place is literally on the beach, one that’s completely deserted and actually clean! The rest of Bosco isn’t that exciting to detail; there are 2 large buildings filled with classrooms, dormitories, a dining hall, a Church (naturally),  and…a zoo. Besides the numerous dogs that roam the sand and halls (Simba, Nala, and their babies), there are parrots, rat-eating turtles, and a porcupine named Kitty. I don’t know how I feel about Kitty. There are times when I looked at him (her? It.) and thought it was adorable with its tiny little legs and buck teeth, but when those spikes were raised and you can see the exposed pink skin, I wanted to puke. I also wasn’t too sure how dangerous those spikes were (can they be shot from their bodies?), so feeding it biscuits was always an ordeal. I was horrified when I saw that the kids just went in the little compound Kitty lived in to clean it and even pet him/her! I guess Kitty has been properly domesticated, but…yikes. Oh, there are also pigs there which I didn’t know until my last day.

Bosco's entrance

Bosco’s entrance

Before sitting in on the first class I would be teaching with Hannah, I met some of the kids who attend school there. I first believed that Bosco Sevana was just an orphanage and care center and didn’t expect to be doing any teaching, since, you know, I have zero qualifications for that. But it’s a fully functional school, attended by kids who live there full time and who can’t attend regular schools because of learning difficulties, kids who live at home but other schools won’t take them, and by those living nearby who want to take extra classes to improve English. There are only 8-10 kids who stay behind for school at Bosco (there was some variation as random kids weren’t able to go to school certain days because they lacked the correct shoes, or something like that), so that at least made the prospect of leading the classes less overwhelming. In total there are about 40-50 boys who live at Bosco Sevana, ranging from around 10-20 years old. Anyway, before I could even tell them my name, they latched onto my tattooed arm and ogled it; seriously, everywhere I went, fascination over my strange “butterfly” (I guess I can see the resemblance) tattoo followed.

I sat in as Hannah taught the first class of the day, these three 24-25 year old women who work at Bosco either as teachers or as an accountant and who wanted to practice their spoken English. Every day we mostly came up with various topics and questions to ask them, which turned out to be a fun way for us to learn about Sri Lanka while also being somewhat useful. We would have them talk for as long as they could about things like what their daily routines are, what they love to do on the weekend, childhood memories, likes/dislikes, etc. We literally discussed every possible thing minus sex, stooping to desperately low levels towards the end by asking what they’d want to have with them if they were stranded on a desert island, or what one thing they’d save from their burning house. But on this first day, they were asked to talk about what their perfect day would be like, and I was forced to stand up and give my own example. Public speaking surprisingly isn’t something I excel at, so I ended up making up some sad scenario where I’d be lounging on a beach in Greece with my dog while beautiful people brought me food. It was rough, but I survived, and somehow managed to pull myself together for the most part and be a decent co-teacher. Maybe.

Hannah and I decided to see how much the boys knew by testing them on the alphabet. After introducing myself and struggling to remember/pronounce any of the names of the boys in attendance on my first day (Chamindu, Samo, Rauhl, Kasun, Anton, Jude), we learned that they do all know the order of the alphabet. But since only about 2 of the kids could speak any English words at all, getting them to list out words with each letter of the alphabet proved to be an obstacle. And even if they knew a word, spelling was out of the question. It didn’t help that their attention spans were about as developed as expected from young boys, and all they wanted to do was play football or cricket. On this first day I basically resigned myself to understanding that we probably wouldn’t make much progress with them, and that we’d need to celebrate any small achievement.

The original plan for that weekend was to just go to Colombo and this other town nearby called Negombo just to take things easy for our first weekend and to explore our area. But we received a text by another volunteer inviting us on their trip to Yala National Park and decided it would be better to do that, to meet everyone else and, I guess, because there are elephants and leopards supposedly all over that place. It was cute how they were concerned about me being the only boy traveling with 5 girls and how I’d have to share a room with them. Not a problem, ladies. Boys are dumb.

We left that Friday morning after our first class with the girls at 10:30, a morning that conveniently featured my first Sri Lankan monsoon. It was easily the heaviest rain I ever experienced, but I didn’t care at all because at least it was a little cooler out. I started to care a little later once our trip to Colombo started pushing 2 hours (those damned flooded roads) since we had a deadline for when we were supposed to meet up everyone. Considering the distance we had to travel (Yala is on the Southeastern coast), leaving earlier would’ve been a bit more intelligent, but…we were noobies. It didn’t help that the travel plans kept changing (a train ride was originally supposed to happen), and Hannah and I had no idea where we were going/what we were doing. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the greatest “first trip” idea, but I figured that after Ghana, any kind of travel would be relatively less unbearable.

I can’t remember how many buses we took (Bosco–>Colombo–>Panadura–>Matara–>Kataragama–>tuk tuk ride?) or what city we met up with everyone in, but I do know that this whole travel ordeal took around 12 hours. Welcome to Sri Lanka! I wish I could say that this was the worst day of traveling I’ve experienced, but nothing will likely ever rival the 21 hour Hell that was traveling to northern Ghana. Honestly I think it was a good thing being thrust right into long-distance travel; we figured that at least we wouldn’t have to deal with anything as bad as that day, which we were right about. And all those hours on the bus allowed me to start to get to know everyone I was with: Barbora from London, who I wish I got to spend more than 1 weekend traveling with; Karoline from Denmark, Hala from Lebanon/Canada, who’s super lucky and traveled to Thailand and Cambodia after Sri Lanka; Charlotte, this wonderful girl from Manchester with possibly the greatest accent I’ve encountered; and Bev from Australia, probably the coolest woman I’ve ever met. When I’m 48 and if I have kids, I hope I’m lucky enough to be able to still be going on adventures like she’s been able to. After arriving close to 11 PM, all we wanted to do was hobble to our rooms, after crowding together to use the Wi-Fi, of course.

My blonde posse wandering Kataragama

My blonde posse wandering Kataragama

The next morning before our afternoon safari, we traveled to Kataragama, described as “one of the three most venerated religious sites in Sri Lanka”, a site important to Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. The town itself, named after a deity important to both Hindus and Buddhists, is small and quiet since there wasn’t a festival going on at the time, but it was nice being there when it wasn’t flooded with a lot of tourists. As my guidebook says, “it was a welcome alternative to the dusty mayhem that usually passes for urban life in Sri Lanka.” Well said. There were stalls filled with beautifully arranged fruit scattered around, but apparently those were only allowed for Buddha. Damn him.

The fruit offerings

The fruit offerings

We entered the Sacred Precinct, filled with various shrines devoted to the mentioned religions, and made our way to Maha Devale, a complex decorated with elephant and peacock statues, containing both Hindu and Buddhist relics and shrines, one of which represents Kataragama, and another, the Buddha. Close to the complex are stones surrounded by railings, where visitors come to smash coconuts that have been set on fire as offerings to Kataragama.

DSCN3254

Coconut offerings

Coconut offerings

But really, the most important aspect of Kataragama is that it is inundated with langur monkeys.

Nom

Nom

I like this monkey's basketball shape

I like this monkey’s basketball shape

My favorite monkey of all

My favorite monkey of all

We returned to the guesthouse, eager to start our 6 hour safari through “Sri Lanka’s most rewarding wildlife reserve”.  But really, I was ready to see some damn elephants again after the disappointment I experienced in Mole National Park. Things were going well, hopes were high during the 40 or so minutes it took to enter the park.  Early on we saw some wild boar and some water buffalo, leaving us hopeful that it was a sign of good things to come. We even saw a peacock, so we paused to admire its beauty for a while. I mean, they’re pretty amazing birds to see up close, so we figured it would be worth the pause.

This mouth

This mouth

The first of many peacock sightings

The first of many peacock sightings

And then…what? What was that? Is that…No…Is that rain? Okay, okay, it’s Sri Lanka during the rainy season. It rains all the time, right? And usually for just a few minutes and then the sun magically reappears again as if the past 20 minutes of torrential downpours never happened! So we didn’t let ourselves become discouraged; this was a 6 hour safari after all, so the weather couldn’t possibly be awful the entire time. Sure, we were in a truck that had no windows, and tying down the attached tarps to mitigate the rain assault may completely obscure our views and eliminate any chance of seeing anything, but it was just a small passing storm, right?

WRONG. It lasted a long time. There were a few momentary breaks which tricked us into believing the worst was over, but usually that was accompanied by rainfall at even greater velocities moments later. At least we all were able to share this one small towel! We were all left with fairly wet bums by the time the rain finally subsided, but at least we managed to mix in some laughs about the situation in between our mutual weather scorning. To make matters worse, even though the weather eventually cleared up, we were told that animal sightings would be hampered. We began to question the intelligence of choosing the 6-hour option.

The day wasn’t a complete washout, however. We were fortunate enough to see some pretty damn fascinating wildlife:

Wild dog

Wild dog

These deer

These deer

This bunny

This bunny

Luckily for all of our sanities, we were blessed by the presence of a couple elephants, my first time seeing one in the wild in 2 years. It was wonderful being with everyone else as they experienced their first elephant encounter, bringing back memories of my own; the awe doesn’t really diminish over time, no matter how many times I saw them up close in the past.

Hey buddy!

Hey buddy!

DSCN3361

And look at these fantastic birds!!

These pelicans

These pelicans

This guy

This guy

Pretty one!

Pretty one!

A Toucan!

A Toucan!

I think some people were disappointed that after 12 hours of traveling, all we saw were a few elephants and no leopards at all. I don’t know, I think it was worth it. There were a lot of laughs, friendships were formed (a pretty commendable accomplishment for me), and at least we got to eat the first of many chicken and “chips” dinners! Honestly though, the amount Hannah and I looked forward to our weekends just so we’d be able to eat non-rice and curry meals and to be able to use cutlery was ridiculous.

Group picture! From left: Hala, me, Charlotte, Barbora, Karoline, Hannah, Bev

Group picture! From left: Hala, me, Charlotte, Barbora, Karoline, Hannah, Bev

Things began on a potential high note during my second week when my host family believed they had won the lottery. As soon as I heard the words, “We received an email…”, I began to feel a little skeptical, but they were so damn excited so I kept my mouth shut, just in case something miraculous really had happened. Anyway, basically the entire family had us go to the computer to explain what the email said and what they’d have to do to claim their winnings (millions of rupees were involved, I think). The email, sent by “The Shell Lottery Program”, wanted bank information and other personal details that were definitely a trap, and luckily Hannah was the one who was mostly dealing with all this. She called the number provided and ended up talking to some Nigerian man. Womp. Sorry, host family. Y’all have been scammed! So much disappointment.

This week Hannah and I had to travel to Colombo and visit the Project’s Abroad office to extend our visas. We were told this could take a while, which, you know, is pretty obvious at this point. But at least there was air conditioning and a book to read! Really, it was basically like sitting at the DMV, or like any of the other times I’ve sat and done nothing while waiting for something to happen throughout this past year. Only this time, after the 5 hours of waiting, I had to give up $100 (so many rupees!) by virtue of being American, compared to the Europeans who pay closer to $30-50. The Hell is that nonsense.  But it’s okay, I had some nice conversations to pass the time. I debated in depth the following questions: “Is Georgia like California?” and “Is Georgia like a small village?”

The other non work-related event of the week was the arrival to our home of Oliver, a well-traveled 38 year old computer technician from Hamburg, Germany. He and his self-described “magic fingers” was a welcome addition to our lonely house(s), even if it meant having to share a room. He’ll definitely come up again fairly soon (preview: the teaching clothing fiasco).

At work, our spoken-English class with the girls was going strong. Have I mentioned how strange it was to be teaching people older than me? I’m not exactly used to giving people direction; I’ve always shied away from leadership positions, always preferring to be delegated to, not to be the delegator.  So to be listened to, to have my ideas and lessons really absorbed, it was a completely new experience. I like to think that I rose to the occasion, that I took on my role as a “teacher” as seriously as I could. That being said, by the end of that second week, Hannah and I were struggling with coming up with new topics to discuss with the girls.  This week’s topics included: embarrassing memories (I obviously spoke for a while), what time period they’d travel back to, holidays, and religion. When I was asked at the end of the week what the differences were between Christianity and Judaism, I knew we’d be in trouble in the coming weeks.

With the boys it was more of the alphabet, struggling with coming up with ways to make it more fun. That proved to be fairly impossible, so we ended up finishing our lessons early that week and gave them more time to play. Playing soccer football on the beach sounds like an amazing time, and it was, but…these kids are so damn competitive, and kicking the ball barefoot and on sand usually resulted in me kicking the ground and bruising my toes. Oh. And it was SO HOT. So sweaty. So filthy. So disgusting.

Alright, I guess I should introduce some of the kids:

Chamindu: This (questionable) 15 year old is an adequate football player, but is the undisputed cricket “champion”.  While his vocabulary may have been limited to “yes”, “no”, and “champion”, I feel like we managed to understand each other pretty well. He has one of the best smiles, and is one of the hardest workers. There were rumors that he likes to steal, but…I really just can’t imagine. He’s just too cute for theft.

Hannah and Chamindu

Hannah and Chamindu

Rauhl: One of my early-on favorites mainly because he tried the hardest in class. He (and everyone else) is obsessed with Ben 10, which is apparently a cartoon, and often mixes up his letters, creating ways of spelling words I never would have imagined. There was this one time I may have contributed to injuring his foot while playing football, resulting in him being out from class for a week, but that can’t be confirmed.

Me and Rauhl

Me and Rauhl

Kasun: A demon. But really, there were times when he worked so hard, and other times when he just sat there and threw hissy fits. His laugh was particularly hilarious, but he also enjoyed sometimes tossing dirt at me. So…demon.

Demon

Demon

Jude: I don’t even know where to start with this kid. First, there’s his height and age; he says he’s 14, but if you look at him and saw how impossibly tiny he is, you’d think he was 8 or 9. He makes up for his small stature by having the biggest personality and by being the most competitive. When he’s not showing off on the football field (he really is the Bosco football champion), you can find him dancing around to Gangnam Style. Really, thanks for choosing the literal worst song to use for your victory dances. He needs to have his way at all times, and when that doesn’t happen he often just sulks off to the beach and refuses to play. He releases frustration by doing backflips and break-dancing. Despite the amount of times I wanted to pick him up and punt him for his lack of humility, he is one of the kids Hannah and I were closest to.  He’ll be mentioned a lot as well.

Typical pose

Typical pose

This week we also started our evening class with 7-10 boys (and 1 girl!) who either live at Bosco or live close by and want to improve their English grammar. This was probably the hardest and most rewarding class we taught. It was hard because we had to teach grammar rules to people our age (again, so strange!) when we had never really learned the rules ourselves (thanks, America!) and had no idea how to explain them. Even our first topic, articles (the, a, an, some, no article) required extensive internet research on how to explain the differences (already forgot them). We only had one class with them that week, and we just gave them a diagnostic worksheet to see how much they knew about articles on their own (spoiler alert: not much). This class required the most effort, the most planning on our own time. It was the one class that I felt like a real teacher, and the class I was proudest of being a part of.

For our second weekend, we traveled inland to visit Dambulla and Sigiriya, parts of the “Cultural Triangle” where Sinhalese civilization began, and Sri Lanka’s most important historic region. It took only 5 hours to reach Dambulla, where we were picked up in a safari car, cause that’s just how you travel with Projects Abroad. This new American girl, Rachel (another blonde!), met up with us there; I now had somebody on my side when arguing whose word for something (mine vs. the Brits vs. Australia) was less ridiculous.

typical transport

typical transport

The next morning we traveled around Dambulla, home to rock cave temples filled with Buddhist art, statues, and murals. Oh, and most importantly, the monkeys. Even more than the previous weekend! And even cuter.

LOOK AT THEM

LOOK AT THEM

THERE'S A BABY

THERE’S A BABY

LOOK

LOOK

One more

One more (try to avoid looking. You couldn’t? Me neither.)

We visited the five or so Dambulla cave temples located over 300 feet above the town, offering beautiful views of the mountainous countryside and plains. At the base of the steps leading to the temples is the Golden Temple, depicting a 30 meter Buddha statue. They claim it’s the largest Buddha statue in the world, which is apparently a blatant lie (I love that). It’s not even the largest in Sri Lanka.

The perjury

The perjury

Dambulla views

Dambulla views

Each cave was filled to the rim with often dozens of Buddha statues, many of which were meters long, either reclining or sitting. Murals covered the ceilings and walls, depicting, shockingly, more Buddhas (and gardens, elephants, etc.).DSCN3452

DSCN3424

ceiling mural

ceiling mural

DSCN3432DSCN3441Our next stop was Sigirya, 15km northeast of Dambulla, home to a massive citadel sprawled over a giant chunk of gneiss rock, 200m above the surrounding flat countryside. This medieval capital is now a World Heritage Site and is Sri Lanka’s most coveted attraction. Sigirya was first used as a religious retreat for Buddhist monks during the 3rd century BC, and rose to prominence during the 5th century AD as the site of King Kassapa’s residence (until he killed himself).

Our excitement to climb Sigiriya Rock plummeted once we learned how much it would cost to visit it as a tourist: Rs 3750, compared to Rs 60 for locals, equivalent to $28.50 for us, and $0.46 for Sri Lankans. I agreed with everyone else that it was a ridiculous, outrageous price difference. I understand charging foreigners more than locals, but that’s completely unreasonable. We tried arguing that since we were volunteers, that we were working there and donating our time for free, we should be charged the local price or at least be given a discount. But nope! In the end we ended up splitting up, with 4 of us (myself included) choosing to visit the rock despite the wallet pillaging involved.

Our mutual reaction to the money scandal

Leading up to the Rock are the Water and Boulder Gardens dating from before and during King Kassapa’s era. The Boulder Gardens were fairly interesting, with some centuries-old paintings still visible and caves shaped liked cobra heads.DSCN3466

Cobra?

Cobra?

It was finally time to climb up the Rock, a feat that seemed pretty impossible at first glance as we approached it.  It really was enormous, and there didn’t seem to be any visible method of getting up there.  Obviously I was starting to be concerned, but luckily it looked like it wouldn’t be anything more difficult than climbing precarious-looking stairs all the way to the top. So things could have been much worse. The only issue was the wind, blasting 60-70mph+ at our faces and making my already-wobbly legs more unwilling to be mobile.

Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya Rock

Before reaching the top we climbed up this 19th century spiral staircase attached to the rock (absolute terror) to visit the Sigiriya Damsels, Sri Lanka’s most famous wall-paintings of “busty beauties”, painted during the 5th century. Nobody’s really sure what their significance is outside of being just some nude nymphs who happen to like flowers and fruits.

the staircase

the staircase

These pesky damsels

These pesky damsels

DSCN3484Towards the end of our steep ascent we reached the Lion Platform, where two massive paws are all that remain of a giant lion statue, the main symbol of Sinhalese royalty. There were also puppies here. We finally made it to the summit after only about an hour of climbing, and unfortunately not much of Kassap’s Royal Palace remains to be seen. The views of the surrounding countryside made everything worth it, and was easily the most beautiful site I had during my trip.

Lion's foot

Lion’s foot

Sigiriya Rock view

Sigiriya Rock view

The troopers: Hala, Bev, Me, Rachel

The troopers: Hala, Bev, Me, Rachel

We made our way back to Colombo the next morning, leaving our hotel in a fury after there was literally nobody there to serve us breakfast because they were at church. Typical Sri Lanka right there.  Once we made it to Colombo we traveled to Majestic City, which is a mall and not an actual city as I assumed. A few of us ended up going to Pizza Hut, a good indication that I was approaching the “halfway struggle.” But it was glorious, despite the self-hatred that followed.

Alright, that’s about it for now. I’ll have Part 2 completed hopefully very soon! I thought I’d end things with some journal quotes, which you’ll clearly notice is filled with the same level of eloquence seen here.

Excerpts from Matthew’s Journal:

  • “Welp…here we go again.” (May 27)
  • “IT’S SO HOT. IT’S SO HUMID. SWEAT. SWEAT EVERYWHERE. HELP ME!!” (May 28, after landing)
  • “Can’t remember the wife’s name. Juanita? That can’t be right…” (May 28)
  • “This. Weather. Will. Kill. Me.” (May 29)
  • And there’s a porcupine! What the Hell! Such a Botswana move” (May 29—there was a porcupine who came every night to eat our left overs when I was in Botswana)
  • We had a “Western” breakfast and it was definitely not at an IHOP level” (June 1)
  • “So wet everywhere, especially the butt” (June 1)
  • “Thanks, Ghana! No travel will ever be as miserable as your travel!” (June 2)
  • “Paulita handed me my underwear in front of Hannah” (June 4)
  • “So tired/hot always. Help me. 5 more weeks of this. HAHAHAHA” (June 4)
  • “Don’t flop, even it means Serena drags your wig across the clay that you’ll likely diarrhea on first “ (June 5, about wanting Maria Sharapova to reach the French Open final)
  • “If Oliver broke the fan in the bedroom I will poison his fucking curry” (June 5)
  • “Pretty sure my neck is diseased” (June 6)
  • This hotel is pure bliss. Wi-fi, beautiful chicken, AC, hot shower. There were even puppies who charged at us!” (June 7)
  • Got home just in time for second dinner! Really ready to puke, especially since ants were crawling all over it” (June 9)

Where’s Matthew? The Sri Lanka Edition

I’ve been home for about two weeks now, days largely spent experiencing the wonders of TLC: Long Island Medium, America’s Worst Tattoos, Breaking Amish, etc. There is so much beauty and so much brain rot involved, all of which has been the perfect remedy to recover from probably the worst semester I’ve had at college so far. Maybe transitioning back to school in Washington, D.C. after my semester in Ghana was harder than I anticipated, or maybe I took on more than I was able to maintain. And for whatever reason, I struggled a lot with motivation, with generating the desire I’ve had for most of my life to succeed academically. I can’t blame this all on Ghana; yes, those were 4 of the best months I’ve had in my life, and the rigor of the University of Ghana’s workload is miniscule compared to GW’s, but…I don’t know. That can’t be an excuse for how apathetic and distracted I was these past months. Maybe I burnt myself out? Or maybe economics is just evil personified. Needless to say, despite my efforts in the end, which even involved my first all-nighter (hell), I effectively obliterated any progress I made with my GPA since my first semester at school. I believe I’ve hit that proverbial rock-bottom, and definitely won’t let this happen to me again. Hopefully.

So…I’m leaving for Sri Lanka tomorrow night. I don’t know how else to describe what I’m feeling without stating how completely nervous, and borderline terrified I am. You would think that after all these trips I’ve taken, this would be easier for me. I suppose everything seems easier when it’s months away, when it’s just an idea or some faraway date. And then all of a sudden it’s the day before you’re leaving and you realize how completely unprepared you are. I have a feeling I didn’t think this through, that I rushed into this trip; maybe my mother’s psychic was right (long sad story) and I am more careless or impulsive than I thought I was.

But what I’ve learned over the years and with all my trips is that anxiety is normal, probably healthy, when going off on your own to another country. And I know all this has to do with all the uncertainties and the fact that so much of what I’ll be doing is vague or completely unknown. But this is also where the excitement comes; so much of my life is structured and deliberate and planned ahead of time, and these trips provide a complete break from this lifestyle. Essentially, I’m just not an exciting person in any way, and these adventures push me to be more than just some no-fun blob.

There really is nothing I love more than visiting somewhere new and completely foreign to me. I’ve been really lucky to have been able to see so much of the world already at such a young age, to have parents (shout out to Irwin!) who allow me to do these crazy things on my own, even when I was just 17 years old. That’s when this all began, my first trip with Projects Abroad to Peru for 2 weeks, two weeks which felt like such a long time at that point. I’ve come a long way from that terrifying plane ride which featured the closest I came to a panic attack that I can remember. I mean, nobody in my family or really anybody I knew had done something like that, so it felt like a big deal. In a part of Long Island where going out of state to college constitutes a major journey, I’d say my experiences have been pretty…unique? My second trip with Projects Abroad at 19 is probably an experience that will remain unparalleled in terms of the “once in a lifetime” aura that surrounded it. To have lived in a wildlife reserve in Botswana where seeing elephants multiple times a day was the norm is something I wish I had appreciated more at the time. Every day was unique and every day felt like a priceless safari. Yes, I fell in a river this one time and may have ripped open my wrist falling down a tree, but…that’s to be expected at this point.

I wish I had detailed information about where I’ll be staying and what I’ll be doing these next 6 weeks. I’ll be living a few kilometers north of the capital, Colombo, with a host family, this married couple associated with some massive Sri Lankan charity. Obviously I’m a bit nervous about living in somebody’s home, but I think it’ll be good for me. There isn’t a better way to learn about a country than by living with people who’ve spent their entire lives there, something I was too apprehensive to do in Ghana. I may have one other volunteer there as well, but won’t know for sure until I show up at around 4:00 in the morning local time (sorry, host family/Projects Abroad transport team). In terms of what I’ll be doing, all I know is I’ll be working at this care center/orphanage for boys located right on the beach called Bosco Sevana (you can read a brief description of the place here.) I hope they don’t expect me to have all these lesson plans and ideas compiled, and really hope I’m not just thrust into some role I’m not prepared for.

But hey, I’ve mentioned before how life doesn’t really wait to see whether or not you’re ready for what it throws at you, and this will be no different. All I can do is hope I manage to adapt in ways that have been successful in the past. Patience is most important, and understanding that it won’t be easy in the beginning, or even at all. No amount of preparations can truly get you ready for experiences like this; you learn as you go, you figure out a routine that keeps your feet on the ground and your heart beating at normal rates.

I wish I could say I’ll be able to maintain this blog the way I was able to when I was in Ghana, but I don’t think that will be the case. I will likely not be bringing my laptop, so I’ll have to think of something once I’m there. I’m sure there will be internet cafes readily accessible, and maybe I can at least give short updates. Otherwise, once I’m home I’ll detail the trip in a few installments, maybe one per week that I was there. We’ll see.

Alright, well, I guess this is goodbye until July 9th!  Thank you again to everybody who has complimented my writing, and I hope you enjoy the likely ridiculous and/or amazing stories I’ll have to share either soon or when I return.

Turning 21: A Reflection

Always struggling with how to start these things, I suppose I’ll just start from where I left off. If you don’t remember, it the first weekend of Spring Break, the night before I left for California with my father. I was still experiencing a rare high of intense joy and astonishment that I was noticed by Natalie Maines which, in retrospect, probably isn’t that spectacular. But for those few moments I was filled with a glee that was numbing and foreign. Being noticed, man. It’s a beautiful thing.

(If you don’t care at all about my experiences watching tennis, skip about halfway down)

So off we went to Palm Springs, known to some of you cool kids for hosting Coachella, but is relevant to me for being the location of my favorite non-Grand Slam tennis tournament, Indian Wells. It would be my first time attending this tournament and provided a guaranteed opportunity for me to watch virtually every top tennis player in existence. But all that really mattered for me, the crazed borderline stalker that I am, was the chance to watch Maria Sharapova play in person, something I hadn’t done since 2010.

I plan on writing a more detailed post of the trip and providing a lot more pictures than will be posted here, so stay tuned, whoever’s interested in mediocre pictures of people you’ve probably never heard of!

Some might say that watching three scalding days of tennis all day and night and not doing much of anything else on a trip to California would be miserable, but those people are fools. It was seriously 3 of the best days I’ve had in a long time, a rare few days that I got to spend with my father whom I had only seen a handful of times since before leaving for Ghana. Being a smaller, more intimate tournament than the U.S. Open allowed me to be just feet away from people I had only been able to previously ogle from afar. Of course Maria Sharapova’s practices were held as far away from public access as possible (she is the Queen, after all), but I still managed to take plenty of creepy, zoomed-in pictures of her and other ladies practicing. Take, for example, Victoria Azarenka, a “lady” who had been the #1 player in the world for almost all of last year, before thankfully being dethroned by Serena Williams in February. This “woman” is an absolute disgrace to humanity for reasons I won’t get into here, but all you really need to know is that she cheats against teenagers, has convenient medical “ailments”, and is currently dating THIS GUY. No. Really. I’m not joking. See for yourself. DSCN2705

Anyway, the cretin unsurprisingly withdrew from the tournament and I was spared an opportunity of having to watch her play.

To get that rotten image out of your memory, here’s a picture of Maria I took practicing before her Round of 16 match.
RSCN2859

One day in particular had to be one of the greatest (and longest) tennis watching days I had ever experienced, featuring up and coming players choking away leads, top players flopping (I’m looking at you, Petra), and a probable once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to watch Maria Sharapova play just feet away from me. It all started earlier in the day session (early would turn into a relative word for that day) when some lady stood up and announced that she was selling a front-row Stadium 1 ticket for the night session. Knowing Maria was scheduled to play the first night match at 7:00PM, I basically begged my father to get that ticket for me, which he did. Just when I thought I was beginning to break from my past as a crazed, spoiled rotten douche, this happens. But at that moment I had no thoughts other than “HAHAHAHA MARIA HAHAH <3 <3 <3”. Yup. Definitely the sign of a healthy person. If you can’t tell, I was excited.DSCN2748

DSCN2714

As the day dragged on with one 2.5+ hour match after the other, I was beginning to have paranoid thoughts that her match would be moved to another court because it was getting so late. Finally, at around 10:00PM, she took to the court against Sara Errani, the girl she defeated to complete her Career Grand Slam at the French Open last year. Now, you don’t have to like vagina to recognize just how stunning this woman is. It’s completely different seeing her at times just 8 feet away. The intensity you see on TV is amplified at this proximity, and each calculated step she takes and each clenched fist and bitch-stare across the net was breathtaking. In essence, girl looked HAWT.  Oh. And she’s loud. Did you know that? I did. But holy God. It’s actually scary.

DSCN3023Anyway, I was settled in, excited to enjoy a fairly straightforward match against a woman who hadn’t given her much trouble in the past. WRONG. SO WRONG. It quickly turned into one of the most stressful experiences of my life when it became clear that things weren’t going to go as smoothly as I expected. Before I knew it, girl was just points away from losing the first set and I was quickly deteriorating into a state of mild psychosis. Really. It was bad. There were times during that 82 minute set (for non-tennis fans, sets generally don’t last longer than 45-50 minutes) when I was laughing maniacally at moments that were anything but comical, I sunk lower and lower into my seat (there was a lot of head shaking), and basically wondered why I ever thought it would have been a good idea to be this close during one of her matches. DSCN3033It’s like (kinda, sorta, not really) watching somebody you obsess care about suffer through a painful ordeal that you can’t do anything about, and all you want to do is escape and pretend that everything’s alright. You could feel the desperation emanating from this lady, and it was utterly exhausting. Somehow, after 2 hours, Maria pulled through that match just at the strike of midnight, ending things in a much less stressful manner.

So there I was, the moment I never dreamed would happen to me, the moment I would finally get Maria Sharapova’s autograph. By that time the stadium was virtually empty, and I managed to get a spot above the doors leading to the locker room without having to toss any child aside (I would have). I couldn’t believe how serendipitous it was that I was in possession of a U.S. Open 2006 hat, representing the year she won that tournament in a brilliant display at just 19. And wearing this perfect dress. As she approached, I had one of those cheesy/I didn’t believe actually happen moments when everything slowed down, sounds became muffled, and all that mattered was that one of my idols was just inches away from me and my waving hand. She was right beneath me, signing balls and hats directly next to me, and then….

And then the bitch was gone. Snubbed. Ignored completely. Absolute devastation. I’m pretty sure I had never felt more humiliated in my life, and that’s saying something. For the first time I think I understood what it felt like to be rejected, which says things about me that probably aren’t too pleasant. It was basically the first time I really put myself out there, made my feelings and intentions clear (can’t be more clear than shouting her name in crazed desperation while waving a hat in her face), and…just mortifying. We sat through Novak Djokovic’s match that didn’t finish until after 2:00AM, and by that time you could basically count how many people were left in the stands. I figured that he would surely sign an autograph for everyone left, and waited patiently as he signed something for everyone around me. And what do ya know? More rejection! Because the night just wasn’t jocular enough for me. So after a 15 hour day of watching tennis, we sulked back to the hotel empty-handed and cranky.

I should have known that my life wouldn’t take a break from being absolutely ridiculous. The next night, after a disappointing match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal ended with Roger and his injured back promptly being shown the door, I settled in for my final match at Indian Wells that featured the Bryan Brothers, the greatest doubles team to ever play the game. I don’t care much for doubles, but they were entertaining, and I always have a soft-spot for veteran players who have earned respect. They won after saving a match point, and began the tradition of signing tennis balls and launching them into the stands for a few lucky fans to claw each other’s faces off over. One of the twins was facing our direction (we were sitting almost as high up as you can get), and something shocking happened. Astonishingly channeling my 7-10 year old self who had despised played baseball, I calmly stuck out my left hand, and before I knew it, I was looking down at an autographed tennis ball from these legendary men.

photoSo ridiculous. Apparently being 2 feet away from the player isn’t enough to get an autograph, but being dozens of feet away gets a ball launched right into my outstretched hand. I was stunned into a bewildered stupor; Me? I caught a ball? With one hand? I possess that kind of capability?! My father probably hadn’t felt that much pride in me since I had made the game-winning hit in a baseball game when I was approximately 9 years old.  Sorry, dad. But at least I make good decisions 95% of the time! It’s a trade-off. So, the trip ended on a lovely high-note (even higher after Maria won the tournament a few days later), and I look forward to (hopefully) returning next year.

Phew. Wrote more than I planned to about this trip, so for those of you still with me, you will be rewarded with tales of a visit by my mother and sister, followed by some contemplations concerning my upcoming 21st birthday/my future in general.

My mother and sister arrived to partake in their Spring tradition of using visiting me as an excuse to enter into every store in Georgetown and renew their quest of viewing the ever elusive Cherry Blossom. In all seriousness, it was an enjoyable weekend, filled with a trip to the zoo (No otters. But beavers!!), the cherry blossom festival fireworks show, and occasional time to sit and enjoy some beautiful weather when my mother actually allowed us to take a break.photo photo photo

photo

At this point, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect from these two whenever they see me after being gone for a minimum 2 weeks at a time. The amount of fussing and confusing excitement (being in my presence shouldn’t be looked forward to that much) is always overwhelming, but, it’s just something I have to accept. And because things can never be completely normal when my family is involved, I had the foresight to mark down moments that were particularly outrageous. This should paint a pretty accurate picture of what my family interactions are like:

  • Upon greeting me at the hotel, my mother smacked my face repeatedly, saying “Matty!!! You look good!!!!!!!” Oh thank heavens. I was really becoming paranoid that my body had deteriorated in the 3 weeks since she last saw me.
    • Despite my apparent wonderful appearance, my mother still took the time to trace out how she would like to have my beard carved into (basically into the same shape as her boyfriend’s). Yup. She took her finger and drew an invisible beard on me. In the hotel lobby.
  • At one point in Georgetown, I was sitting outside while my mother and sister looked around a store I obviously would have no interest in. They eventually felt bad about me waiting and told the store employee about it. The employee apparently uttered something along the lines of, “Oh. You should have said something! I would have given him “Porsches and Ladies” to read!” Yeah. That’s definitely at the top of my reading list right now. Just beneath the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, actually.
  • WARNING: Graphic. “I must be really comfortable here because I’ve never been able to make a doody the first day of a trip”—anonymous
  • “I remember walking through this broken boulder”—my mother, regarding the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial
  • “I think I’m dying!”…pause…burp.—my sister
  • “Ya can’t be walking around DC at night. There’s homeless people!”—my mother
  • “Who’s coming with me for my colonoscopy?!”—my mother
  • “What’s a Macklemore?”—my mother
  • “I want some pasta” (my mother). “You’re having ravioli!” (my sister). “That’s not pasta to me!!” (my mother).
  • “What’s different about a sloth bear from a regular sloth?”—my mother
  •  “You have fleshy ankles”—shoe store employee to my sister
  • “I don’t know what’s happening”—waitress at dinner to us. Because we can’t just order a meal without chaos. Ever.

DSCN3140The morning they left was the day I registered for classes, an experience that was maybe more problematic than I anticipated. For basically my entire college career I had molded schedules in a way that would allow for the possibility of having an internship. I’ve had a lot of great experiences over the years, been able to spend time at places I never imagined I’d be, and my resume is basically bulging at the seams with entries that make me look more impressive than I’ll ever be. This culminated in me being offered an interview with the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, basically the pinnacle of any DC International Affairs student’s dreams. Long story short, things didn’t go too well (my phone interview skills are unparalleled). I think if I’m being honest with myself, there’s a part of me that sabotaged that interview. Yeah, my lack of confidence or belief that I really deserved the opportunity probably played a role, but I think there’s a larger part of me that really just didn’t want the position anyway. Maybe I’m tired of putting myself through all this stress, of balancing a full class schedule with working 20 hours a week for no pay, doing things that aren’t all that interesting. Let alone finding any time to have some kind of life. So I was left in the aftermath of registration, a schedule that leaves Monday, Wednesday, and Friday virtually free, with the decision of leaving things as they are and trying to fill those days with more work, or of changing things around, maybe taking classes I’d be more interested in that would leave little room for more. I could feel this dread building that I was wasting my time, not taking advantage of college the way I should be. Maybe I can find something smaller to do, like return to the animal shelter I volunteered at freshman year. Or maybe work with DC Reads. So for now, I left things as they are, and even did something wild and added a 1-credit tennis class. Yeah, I’ll probably still apply for internships, but there won’t be this sense of urgency like there usually is. I want next year to be the year I really take steps towards bettering myself, physically and mentally, and damn it, I think I’ve earned a break. What I really wanted was for someone to tell me, to reassure me, that it was okay to take that break, that it wouldn’t be a big deal if I took one semester to just, I don’t know…live? But, it is what it is. We’ll see what happens, I suppose. Things have a way of always working out in the end, one way or another.

So. 21. It’s really hard for me to wrap my mind around turning that age tomorrow, and I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case. It’s an age that people generally look forward to more than most, the age when you really can do whatever you want, whenever you want, without fear of repercussion. No more fake IDs, or having your older siblings or whoever go out and get you all the alcohol you want. Obviously this hasn’t been much of a concern for me; I haven’t been counting down the days like some do for when they can do this. For whatever reason, as this day has come closer, there’s been this growing sense of discomfort, or nausea, or…something. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I can say with certitude that excitement is far from what I’m feeling.

I have some theories. As the years have gone by, especially the last few, there has been this growing belief, a belief that seems to be growing at an increasingly rapid pace, that I have wasted valuable years. With every fantastic, unbelievable memory I’ve made, with every place I’ve visited, and with every opportunity I’ve been given, I can’t shake this belief that I’ve focused zero time on the things that really matter, the things that are vital, essential. I’ve focused all of my energy on achieving superficial things, academic and professional success which, while important, isn’t most important. The problem is that I haven’t allowed myself to even think about anything else; I’ve convinced myself that this is what I need to do, what’s best for me, that I can think about these things later. You tell yourself something enough times and you do start to believe it; it becomes second-nature, something you just believe to be inherent to who you are, instead of being something you manufactured as a way to avoid what you’re afraid of. This has worked for me for many years (I made it into this God forsaken school, after all), but lately I’ve been noticing these cracks. I’m beginning to realize what I’ve been doing and why, and it all comes down to that one word I wrote about a little over a year ago: Insecurity. One little word that’s been responsible for all my avoidance, all my doubts. I know I’m eventually going to need to deal with and figure out why it is I lack so much confidence in myself as a person worth getting to know. I don’t know what I’m afraid of. So there it is. I’m turning one year older, but it’s just another year that has passed with little progress made where it counts.

Another theory, maybe connected to my first one, but pretty basic and unoriginal. Turning 21 means I’m just that much closer to being thrust into a world that I don’t feel like I’m prepared for. I feel trapped in a current that’s pushing me in this unknown direction, and I feel completely powerless against it. All the flailing, struggling and fighting won’t save me from the fact that, one year from now, I’ll be graduating college, and I’ll be expected to have everything that comes next figured out. All I want is for things to slow down, for things to be less urgent, but that’s not going to happen. I hate that everything’s supposed to be decided at this one age, at this one moment, and if you don’t, you’re often deemed to be this visionless, lost person. I think what I’m most afraid of is having to leave my remaining safety net, school. If there’s one thing I’m reminded of over and over again, it’s that the world has the capacity for so much ugliness; the evil, the hatred, the murder, the infidelity, the cruelty. There are so many things out there that make the world a place I often feel disappointed to have to be a part of.

But then…then you see this adorable puppy video on YouTube and you’re brought to instant tears, or see this baby who was born deaf hear his first sounds, or you see this person whose smile or glance alone can make you feel instantly energized. You hear your name being chanted by children when you arrive for “work,” you see the amount of joy just jumping on a trampoline can bring. You receive countless hugs in a given day just for being present, you see the relief and sense of accomplishment when 4+8 is finally figured out. You’re being begged to stay until bedtime to watch a movie, you’re fought over just for the opportunity to be picked up and held, or pushed on the swing. You hear the words, “Mattee, don’t go.” You feel this overpowering love being thrown at you, more than you’ve ever opened yourself up to, and find yourself deflecting some of that love back, even when you realize the pain that will likely come when you leave. In so many ways, Ghana has helped me understand the importance of love, the beauty that it holds. No matter how much I may miss Prince and the others, the most important thing is that for those 4 months, I allowed myself to feel, to connect, to love.

That’s really all that matters, isn’t it? At the end of your life, if you can say that you loved, that you really, completely, unabashedly gave yourself to another person, everything else is just extra, an accessory. The love I gave and received in Ghana I think has been the most important thing to happen to me in years; It has opened me up to new possibilities, it’s made me realize that I do want more than what I have right now. It’s these moments of clarity, these reminders that life is so much more than the ugliness you see on the news on a daily basis, that need to be clung to. It’s the smiles, the laughter, the hope, the awe and the wonder, the leap of faith taken when you board a plane and visit one more new country (Sri Lanka is just 40 days away now)…that’s what needs to be focused on. I hope more than anything else that I manage to channel the person I was in Ghana with these kids in Sri Lanka, but one of these days, I hope I can be that person all the time. Who knows, maybe this will be the year.

Maybe turning 21 won’t be so bad after all.

Shocking Developments

Somehow it’s been about 8 weeks since I last posted on here, 60 days which have whirled by, leaving behind a blur of events that have culminated in this first weekend of Spring Break. I know, I know. My college life never consists of anything worth mentioning, resulting in this time gap. While yes, this is largely true, the main reason behind the delay has been time. These past few weeks have been a frenzy of constant work. When I’m not at class or my internship, I’m usually attempting to catch up on all the reading and assignments I’m perpetually behind on, and by the time I look up from the computer screen or a book another week has past without me noticing. I really just don’t have the 3ish hours required to sit down and carve these out, but a stroke of luck, most likely divine intervention, has spared me from a heavy workload this week.

Classes have been going well for the most part; French hasn’t been too disastrous and International Economics not too debilitating. Psychological Anthropology is starting to become really interesting (finally), now that we’re learning about specific disorders like PTSD and Manic-Depressive Disorder. I can’t really talk about what I’m learning in Cultures of Latin America because…I haven’t paid attention to what my professor has said since about Week 2. I tried, I really did but not really. He’s just so…uninspiring? But at least he looks a bit like Albert Einstein and has a Goldendoodle, so he’s got that going for him. What I really want to do is express a probable creepy amount of love towards Professor Victor Barbiero, who not only has the appearance of a giant, beautiful bowtie-wearing Santa Claus, but whose infectious and bubbly enthusiasm for Global Health and Development has inspired me to seriously consider pursuing public health academically and beyond. I mean, just take a look at how amazing his life has been. Alright. Gotta compose myself.

Work at the Wilson Center has also been going well! I’m really mastering the art of working for free. My internships these past few years have taught me that the most important thing is obedience, a complete willingness to do whatever is asked of me. And for the most part, I’ve enjoyed it. I’m learning a lot, being forced a lot bit out of my comfort zone by having to call many ridiculously wealthy patrons, and I feel like I’m appreciated and that my time isn’t being wasted. It’s nice being kept busy every time I come in, which hasn’t always been the case elsewhere.

All this class and work has somehow, miraculously really, kept me at my Ghana-induced “emaciated” weight. There was one time that I caved and indulged on Dominos, but otherwise I’ve honestly felt guilty about any time I’ve been tempted to eat something…gross. So thank you, Ghana, for showing me the saturated fatty error of my ways. But you shall never take pizza and bagels away from me.

Hmm..what else have I been up to? Obviously not that much if I have to think about it. I went to the GW Inaugural Ball, which was a lot more exciting and worthwhile than it would have been had Obama not won. If that had been the case and everyone had been forced to attend (seriously, those ticket prices were unnecessary), it probably would have been a lot sloppier (if that’s possible) with sad/angry drunkenness instead of happy/excited drunkenness. Anyway, I wore a tuxedo and a bow-tie for the first time, and all eyes were most certainly on me. Cause, ya know, I’m a put-on-a-show kind of girl boy. I also had the most eventful Valentines Day since, well, ever, when I went to the Mumford & Sons concert with HBIC Hayley. I’ll skip the trauma that was the roughly 2 hour drive to Fairfax, Virginia (ZipCar’s existence is much appreciated) and just say that the 2 hours that those British men blessed us with their beautiful harmonizing presence (+ the dreamy banjo player) trumped any other music experience of my life (sorry, Celine. You’ve been dethroned). This picture perfectly captures the state we were rendered while listening:

Faces didn't change much from this expression.

Faces didn’t change much from this expression.

Oh, there was also this one weekend when I had 2 mini Ghana reunions. It was wonderful and strange, being with them in less sweaty circumstances. Oh, and I got to see this guy again:

the greatest reunion, probably in history I'd imagine.

the greatest reunion, probably in history I’d imagine.

I know, I know. We’re adorable. Try to contain yourselves.

You know those times I’ve mentioned how I never do anything that’s even remotely shocking, cause for alarm, impulsive…what’s that? I’ve only mentioned this 500 times? Well, hold onto your weaves everybody because I, Matthew Spencer Reiter, now have a tattoo. No, really. It happened. If I had known a year ago that I would come back from Ghana with the desire to immortalize the experience on my body, I would have laughed (or cried) in horror.

The Incident.

The Incident.

It’s just not something I ever saw myself doing. I tend to shy away from the thought of permanence, so my relationship with my tattoo is probably going to be a bit tumultuous. I have a feeling there will be days when I look down at my arm, see it, gasp in horror (I’ve forgotten it’s there a few times already), and call myself insane. But hopefully the initial shock will pass and it’ll be replaced with a contentedness. I really am happy with it, especially now that it isn’t looking so scabby and my arm doesn’t feel like it’s about to burn off. And everyone who’s seen it seems to think it’s awesome, probably because nobody saw this coming from me. I certainly shocked the Facebook world, if I say so myself.

And then there’s my family. My sister was all for it and encouraged me throughout these past few months, the wild rebel she is with her tattoo trio. My father protested at first, but finally conceded and probably secretly appreciates me doing something out of character for a change. And my mother? Welp…she was kept in the dark. I inherited my crazed conservatism from her, and when I came home and she saw my tattoo, and more “horrifyingly” its location, well…she was a tad displeased. You see, during the Holocaust, those in the concentration camps were tattooed with numbers on their arms as identification. Having a father who survived the Holocaust has left her understandably sensitive to the whole “Jews can’t get tattoos” “law”, and getting one on my arm was especially disrespectful. But later research revealed that the Holocaust tattoos were on the left arm and mine’s on the right, so…I’m not a complete and utter disgrace to my family’s name. I’m sure when my religious, ultra conservative aunt and uncle discover all this I’ll have enough material for its own blog post, but I’m hoping to avoid that discomfort for as long as I can. It’s gonna be bad.

You know what’s another sure way to avoid awkwardness and discomfort? Not showing your mother’s boyfriend your tattoo within the first 5 minutes of meeting him, when you have no idea what his history is or his level of Jewish…ness. But when silence lasts for more than 6 seconds in a conversation, I apparently panic (and display symptoms of Tourette’s, according to my sister). We all know how I am with verbal communication.

Switching gears, these past few days have been a bit odd for me. I’m not sure what the reasons are, but I’ve been having some pretty disconcerting emotional blips with Prince entering my mind more frequently than before. Maybe it’s because I haven’t allowed myself to think about him too much, and now that my workload has lowered for now he’s had more chances to slip into my thoughts. Regardless, there have been moments when I see a picture or a memory flashes and I’m filled with an overwhelming sadness that has (more than once) left me fighting back tears. Good thing this seems to happen only when I’m in class.

Recently discovered this picture on my phone. Too cute to handle.

Recently discovered this picture on my phone. Too cute to handle.

I had held back on asking for an update about Prince and the other kids because I was afraid of what I’d hear. I finally decided to check in the other day and learned that there have been times when Prince isn’t eating well and somebody says to him, “If you don’t eat your food Matty won’t come back.” And it works. So now I know that he still misses me, that he probably has no idea that I won’t be coming back, and…it sucks. I can’t think of a more eloquent way of putting it, but all I want is for that kid to forget I exist. This is probably not rational, but all I feel now is guilt that I potentially hurt him by allowing him to attach himself to me. This is a toddler who arrived at the orphanage just after losing his mother to AIDS, is HIV+ himself, and for whatever reason ended up bonding with me instantly. So things are great for 4 months and then all of a sudden I’m gone, just another person in his life who left. I want to think about it differently, that I helped him and left a positive impact, but right now all I think is that I made things worse. Lacking a sense of time is probably the major reason why he still thinks I’m coming back, but the thought of him still waiting around for me to show up 3 months later is honestly unbearable. This is the first time I feel like I’ve hurt another human being, and I know I’m probably overthinking it, but this is how I feel now. Maybe I’ll have a different perspective later. God. Somebody really needs to adopt this kid.

To lighten things up, I’ll end with some travel news. First off, I’m leaving for California tomorrow with my father to watch a ridiculous amount of tennis at Indian Wells in Palm Springs. I’ve never attended this tournament and I haven’t watched tennis in person since the U.S. Open in 2011, so I’m really looking forward to it. Mostly, I’m excited about the crazed stalking I will likely be doing of Maria Sharapova, probably #2 on my list of favorite powerful ladies. I haven’t seen her play since 2010, so there will likely be tears, which is totally healthy I’m sure. Anyway, I’ll let you all know next week if I succeeded in encountering her in person, if I don’t drop dead in her presence first. Or if I don’t drop dead from the 95 degree weather supposedly happening there this week. We’ll see if Ghana prepared my body enough for this. I’ll need to invest in a new sweat rag.

Speaking of heat, I will officially be heading to Sri Lanka for 6 weeks towards the end of May, volunteering for the third time with Projects Abroad. I don’t have a lot of details yet, just that I’ll most likely be working at an orphanage again and possibly at a tsunami relief camp. When I know more I’ll definitely give a greater explanation, and I feel like I haven’t had any time yet to think about it. But visiting a new place, a new region of the world is always exciting for me, and I can’t wait to share my experiences again!

In the mean time, have a great week off for those enjoying their Spring Break, and start thinking of some witty blog title to incorporate Sri Lanka into. “Study Abroad is Ghana Be Great” was pretty lame.

BREAKING NEWS! My #1 favorite powerful lady, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks replied to me on Twitter regarding the 10 year anniversary of her “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas” statement. Did I hyperventilate and my body convulse? Obviously. So yeah. Nothing will ever be greater than this, unless Maria acknowledges my existence. That would just be too much to handle.

Her response after I told her she lost a lot of douchebag "fans" so it all worked out for her in the end

Her response after I told her she lost a lot of douchebag “fans” so it all worked out for her in the end

Back to Normal

Hello! Did you miss me? What’s that? Not really?

I’m alright with that.

I’ve been home from Ghana for exactly one month and it already feels like the past 4.5 months happened to somebody else.  Memories are blurring and experiences seem like folklore that couldn’t have possibly happened to me. Like there’s no way that I willingly rode on the back of multiple motorcycles or hitchhiked or biked for 18 km through sand. On the equator. It can’t possibly be true that I went without bagels for 140 days and lost enough weight to justify being called “emaciated.” What? I was drunk one time? Blasphemy! I spent dozens of hours a week working with kids?! And they liked me?! And I liked them?! HA. I fell into a body of water? Oh. Okay. That I can believe.

So here I am, 30 days later, thrust back into my hectic DC lifestyle of countless hours in Starbucks, devoid of much human contact outside of work. Just the way I like it it’s been for the past 2.5 years. I hadn’t been in DC for over 8 months yet I’ve slipped seamlessly back into my old routines. Starbucks. Class. Work. Starbucks. Sleep. Repeat. I have a meal on occasion and I sometimes even interact with other humans, but that’s usually accidental or grudgingly. I also make sure to squeeze in some Maria Sharapova/Australian Open stalking time. Did anyone really expect that my social preferences or tendencies would be any different after coming home? Case in point: Within the first 2 minutes of being back to school I was described as “flustered” and “nervous.”

Back to normal.

The only remarkable thing about being home is probably how unremarkable my “normal” life is. Every day seemed like a spectacle when I was away and now I’m back and things are so repetitive and so completely uninteresting, and….well I guess if I really cared I could do something about that. I think part of me likes slipping by unnoticed again throughout my daily routine; in Ghana invisibility isn’t something that was easy to come by. Here everybody goes about their lives oblivious to those around them. No more stares, no more being honked at, no more being talked to by random people interested in me just because I’m a ridiculous-looking white boy. Of course I tend to have a few unfortunate encounters with strangers on the streets of DC/in Starbucks, but otherwise I’m back to blending in.

Then there’s the part of me that partially misses the attention. This may come as a surprise to none some of you, but people don’t tend to be interested in anything about me. A major part of that probably has to do with the apathy towards human interaction that just radiates from my being, but there really isn’t much about me that can be deemed intriguing. For those of you who feel that way, just spend some weeks in Africa and you just existing becomes interesting enough for those around you. So what if the major demographic of people who looked forward to seeing me were kids 10 and under? Anyone expressing interest in my company was refreshing, something I’m not likely to encounter again anytime soon.

I really miss the kids I worked with at Beacon House. The good thing about the constant busyness of my life now is that I can go days without thinking about them, without wondering if they’re doing well, if anyone else is close to being adopted, if any of them miss me. I keep myself busy and push these thoughts down and avoid looking at pictures and for a while this is effective. And then I get an email from my former boss telling me that Ben was sad one day and it was because he misses me. And then freakin Mama Irene posts on my Facebook wall in the middle of the night saying, “hi Matthew. greetings from Prince.” Seriously, Mama Irene? That’s not what I wanna see right now. I’m doing the best I can to not think about that kid, and you go and write that to me?!

Of course my attempts at keeping Prince and the others out of my mind isn’t successful for long. Despite my endless efforts of self-preservation that kid slips into my mind and once even in my dreams (we just rolled a ball together. It was wonderful), and everything floods back. I remember that his future is so uncertain and likely difficult, and the overwhelming dread that passes through me is exhausting. All I want for him and for the others is to remain as unburdened and excitable as they were when I left. I don’t want life to jade them the way it tends to, mostly for people (like me) whose lives aren’t anywhere near the level of misfortune that warrants it.

So that’s my Beacon House shpeal, the last one you’ll likely see from me. There’s too much ahead of me that I need to focus on, and maybe (shockingly) look forward to. I started my internship at the Wilson Center  this week, and I’m already wondering how long it’ll take for my co-workers to witness just how incapable I am at communicating. Good thing I’m in the Development office where interacting with people is pretty much all that goes on. I’ve got GW’s Inaugural Ball on Monday night, one of the rare times I’m looking forward to being fancy. I’m mostly just excited to see just how sloppy people will inevitably get. I’m still figuring out what my summer travel plans are, with a trip to Vancouver all that’s pretty much finalized. There’s a 6 week window of travel I’d like to fill with another Projects Abroad stint, and there’s a strong possibility that I may end up in Mongolia. We’ll see!

I completely forgot that I have videos that Ghanaian internet made impossible to upload, and I decided to share a couple that I have of Prince. Just because I don’t think pictures did him justice.

Epilogue: It Is Really Finished

About one week ago I landed in New York wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Why didn’t I change into jeans and put on a sweatshirt before I arrived, you ask? That answer boils down to me just not being all that intelligent. You can probably imagine what that switch from 90 degrees to 35 felt like; I’m trying to come up with something a bit more creative than “COLD! IT WAS SO BLOODY COLD!” but that’s really all I can come up with. Sorry, literary scholars! You’ll just have to give that Greatest Blog of All Time award to somebody else.

I’m going to take this time to offer some praise to British Airways. That airline is by far the classiest airline I’ve ever flown with. All the flight attendants were beautiful, a definite positive correlation to how British they were.  They also serve free wine with meals! My evident shock when I was asked which wine variety I preferred should have indicated to them that I’m underage; Then again, the hairiness of my head/face (lady at the hair salon described it as “so puffy!”) might have thrown them. Red wine in hand, I watched The Lion King for probably the first time in at least 12 years, and had roughly 4 emotional breakdowns. First when Simba was hoisted in the air on Pride Rock, then after Mufasa died, when Nala and Simba reunited, and finally when Simba spoke to Mufasa’s spirit in the stars. I was approaching Ugly Crying Danger Zone at that point.  I’d blame it on the wine, but 4 hours later I still had a substantial amount left over. Per usual.

As it came closer to my arrival, I began to feel increasingly nervous. I’m not sure if that’s a normal state to be in when coming home after 140 days, or if it’s just a side-effect of my general strangeness. Or maybe it was just anxiety over having to go back to my American life, so different from the easiness that comprised Ghana. When I got through customs/immigration, I had hoped to give myself a moment to mentally prepare myself for the crazed family bombardment I anticipated, but my family hasn’t been one to show restraint. Right on cue, I’m met with my mother, sister, and dog (my father knew better) charging at me and there was little I could do but roll over and accept the barrage of hugs and slobbery kisses (unfortunately not just from my dog). I was mercifully spared by a security guard who demanded that we “Take the dog and go!” Ahh…New York. I’ve missed you, buddy. This is what I dealt with when I got home:

...Welcome Home..

…Welcome Home..

Someone's happy to see me...

Someone’s happy to see me…

The next 24 hours consisted of countless exclamations of how much weight I’ve supposedly lost (comments ranged from “You’re so tiny!” to “You’re emaciated!” to “You look like an AIDS victim!”), and how massive my hair had become. Thus commenced Operation: Carbohydrate Binge. My mother armed herself with two bagels to throw at me at the airport (I only ate one of them. I’m not insane!), and an hour after my arrival I was shoving pizza down my throat. I basically ran to Dunkin’ Donuts afterwards to guzzle some hot chocolate, rested for a few hours, and gorged myself with baked ziti.  The next day was more of the same (more pizza!), ending with an IHOP/best friend reunion I’d been fantasizing thinking about for weeks. I got a haircut, commencing the first of probably many painful exchanges about being in Ghana. I predict I’ll be hearing a lot of “Ohhh…how interesting” which would be fine if Long Island accents didn’t sound so much like Lois Griffin.

Am I doing it right?

Am I doing it right?

Here’s a brief summary of various thoughts I’ve had since being home:

  • Cold. Cold. Cold. Cold. Cold.
  • Woah…so many white people.
  • Gross…Long Island white people.
  • Where are all the black people? Oh…This is Levittown/Wantagh.
  • Where are all the goats? Eh..I guess I’ve missed squirrels.
  • Why am I not being honked at while walking down the street?
  • Why am I not being stared at?
  • Cold.
  • Why does everyone here suck so much?
  • Ermagherd, hot showers!!
  • Damn, I just wanna buy some water in the middle of the road again.
  • Good God, the price of this meal could feed me for 4 days in Ghana.
  • Why am I not being invited to eat with everybody I come across?
  • Wow, menu items are never finished here!
  • Ermagherd, I’m not sweating profusely all day and night.
  • I MISSED YOU, SMARTPHONE TEXTING. photo
  • Oh no, I forgot to log out of Cloud. So many wasted cedis!! Oh wait. I don’t have to pay for internet anymore.
  • Why are all these babies in strollers and not on the backs of their mothers?!
  • God…I just want to be able to stay up past 10 PM and not wake up at 3:30 AM every morning.  Damn it, body.
  • Cold.

We’re told that reverse culture shock is inevitable, but I seem to be doing alright. Maybe it’s because this wasn’t my first time traveling alone outside America, or maybe readjusting to Long Island isn’t really all that complicated. The challenges might come when I return to Washington, D.C. and the hectic busyness that comprises my life there. I’m not sure I’m ready for this, but life tends to not care if you’re ready or not for what comes next.

What comes next? One of the most terrifying thoughts, in my opinion. One of the many things I loved about my life in Ghana was that everything seemed clear, focused, purposeful. This clarity of purpose was refreshing; each day seemed important and the days that weren’t were just a fluke. I could look forward to the week ahead and the weeks after and know that I’d be doing something amazing, whether traveling to a new region of Ghana or jumping on a trampoline with the kids I “worked” with. I looked forward to each day in a way that I never really had before, or at least not for a long time.

That all this purpose and excitement and motivation can just come to an end so suddenly is terrible. That within the span of 24 hours I can switch from a life that was more fulfilling than I can remember to life here and all the uncertainty and all the stress that follows that uncertainty is overwhelming. There was a contentment that was foreign to me, an unexpected sense of calmness and belonging that came with my work at the orphanage. Through all the screaming and shouting and crying and laughter, I felt that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I think about how before coming to Beacon House I had never even held a baby or toddler and it’s hard not to laugh. I remember how terrified I felt that first day, and then hating myself when all I could think of was how similar it was to holding a puppy. For reasons that are beyond me, these kids liked me. They were happy when I came (they chanted my name, for God’s sake) and were disappointed when I left or at least couldn’t watch a movie with them. It was weird. It made zero sense to me. It was beautiful.

Prince. He’s who I worried most about when I left; That kid’s HIV Positive, bow-legged and has the largest head I’ve ever encountered, and the thought of me leaving causing him any sadness…well, it sucked. The rational part of me remembers that he’s just 2 (3? Still don’t know), that to him I was probably just another source of attention and entertainment that any Obruni can provide him with. It’s not like I really offered anything special other than a disproportionate amount of hugs compared to the other children. So I know he’ll be fine. My boss found the letter I left for him and put it in his file, and she told me that there’s potentially a family in Washington thinking of adopting him. That will be the luckiest family in America. If only every family interested in adopting could encounter in person the smiles, the laughs of these children.Prince

I’m not sure if I am different, if Ghana has “changed my life” as some are able to so easily say. I’ve spent a lot of time staring at myself in the mirror, marveling at the subtle changes to my appearance. My clothes no longer fit me, my hair is borderline-ginormous. My cheeks are not nearly as pinch-able as they should be. And I like it. As I was squeezing myself into a jeans size I haven’t fit into in probably 8 years, I decided that my physical appearance isn’t all that repulsive after all. It’s too soon to say how this change of perspective will manifest itself, if maybe some confidence will accompany it. It would be pretty groundbreaking if that were the case, but I won’t be holding my breath.

No, I doubt my physical alterations will be the legacy of these months in Ghana (considering all the pizza I’ve been consuming). I’m not going to sit around thinking about what exactly is different about myself, if anything is at all. I’ll let those differences come to me at their own pace. Some people seem to be able to just list off all that Ghana has changed about them, all that it’s opened their eyes to. Maybe they’re just more self-aware than I am or maybe it’s something else. Maybe I just don’t see change as instantaneous as some people might, but rather as a gradual process, a process that doesn’t start and end at one place. What I love most of all about travel is the exposure to different ways of life, ways that may be better than what I’ve been accustomed to. I’ll take what I love about Ghana—the friendliness and overwhelming generosity and zeal for life—wherever I end up next.

I’m already restless being home and having nothing really planned for the next few months, but hopefully that will change soon. There’s so much more to see, and when I figure out what comes next I’ll let you all know. Until then, happy holidays!

Yεbεhyia bio

“Matteeee, Don’t Go!”

I’ve come a long way from that early August evening 139 days ago when I wrote in my journal while flying to Madrid, “I’m beginning to think that I have completely lost my mind” regarding my decision to study abroad in Ghana. Having these doubts was probably a healthy reaction; it’s easy to say, “I’m going to Ghana for 4.5 months! Bye!” Then you board the plane and the reality hits you and you’re filled with an overwhelming urge to run from the airport and go back home to the comfort of certainty that home provides. Maybe I’m not as spontaneous as I’d like to be; I like knowing what comes next and meticulously planning out every detail, diminishing the chance of a surprise or unexpected blip. When I’m thrust into new or unpredictable situations, I’m usually rendered temporarily overwhelmed or anxious, as was the case in the early days of this semester abroad.

That being said, my ability to adapt to situations, to do whatever I need to do to keep myself grounded and composed is something that has helped me each time I’ve traveled on my own. It’s one of my favorite things about myself (when’s the last time I’ve written about things I like about myself?), and something that has reassured me that if I ever end up working in a travel-intensive field, I’ll be alright. Finding a routine is key, as is keeping yourself busy and remaining focused and motivated.

Remaining focused and motivated has been a bit of struggle, at least academically, during my time at the University of Ghana. It’s hard when professors seem uninterested, assign zero assignments, and generally fail to inspire any interest in topics covered. Luckily my unnatural obsession with academic success hasn’t wavered too far off-track, but next semester is going to be a challenge. I had my last final exam on December 11, a 2.5 hour shitfest to conclude my semester of “Sucks That Y’all Were Born In Ghana.” It’s amazing how spending dozens of hours waiting or sitting in tro-tros in northern Ghana can make 2.5 hours seem like no time at all. Anyway, it’s over. Please, it is finished. No more talking about Ghanaian education ever again.

The next three days were spent at Beacon House, where I wanted to spend as much time as I could before going home. Christmas really came early for these kids, who were visited on Wednesday by 5th graders from a local international school. Their teacher attempted to have the kids participate in an interactive telling of the Christmas story, which involved them having to frantically pass a bag of cookies or candy to their left or right on cue. As expected, this didn’t really go too smoothly, but everyone had fun and I suppose that’s all that matters. The Beacon House kids performed a choreographed song that they’ve been rehearsing for weeks, which was truly beautiful to watch.IMG_3107

The gang!

The gang!

Thursday proved to be even better.  This group of girls from North Carolina who were part of some religious community service program came by and took all the kids to a field where they played a bunch of games. Activities included: limbo, Frisbee throwing, some crazed balloon popping battle, and, my favorite, sack races. I have a feeling having the kids under 5 years old do the sack race/3-legged race was more for the comedic benefit of the older kids and adults, but it really was hilarious. And look at how unbelievably excited Prince is! One of my favorite moments of my time here:

Mouth wide open in unbelievable joy

Mouth wide open in unbelievable joy

shit got real when the staff faced off

shit got real when the staff faced off

This was just silly

This was just silly

We also played “Duck Duck Goose,” which culminated in me chasing down the son of Beacon House’s owner, lunging at him like some starving wildebeest. Despite my body flop I managed to catch him, and was met with a comment I have unsurprisingly never had directed at me: “Boys will be boys!” Who, me? is pretty much what my first thought was. There was also so much Hokey Pokey. So. Much.

I think somebody's struggling.

I think somebody’s struggling.

It was one of my favorite afternoons at Beacon House; There was so much joy, so much laughter, so much…normalcy? I don’t know if that’s the correct word to use, but this was the first time I’ve spent time with the kids outside the confines of Beacon House, and it was a wonderful change. I’m really thankful that I got to be a part of it.

The most beautiful face in the world.

The most beautiful face in the world.

Things got even better that evening when this Italian couple came and cooked some pasta bolognese and garlic bread for all of us. After singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus we were given apple cobbler! The fact that my body didn’t reject this influx of “normal” food was encouraging leading up to the food rampage I’ll be embarking on tomorrow. I failed in my attempts at showing Prince effective ways to consume pasta, but he just couldn’t get the hang of the noodle twirl. So. Messy. After dinner the kids were given Christmas presents by the North Carolina ladies, a wonderful conclusion to a wonderful day.

I tried.

I tried.

Friday at Beacon House was much more subdued, but as I was getting ready to leave to meet up with friends to see The Hobbit (loved it) I learned of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Maybe spending so much time with elementary school-aged kids sensitized me more than I was previously to US gun laws, but I don’t think I’ve ever been angrier than I am now about this. I wrote this post Saturday morning when my anger was still at its boiling point.

Saturday I began the costly task of buying Christmas presents for the Beacon House kids. My original hope was to get the kids a pet goat or lamb, since I thought the owner was, according to her email, “asking for a donation for the kids for Christmas.”  She even emailed a picture of the kids with a goat they were given last year. When I asked her if she thought it wasn’t too crazy for me to buy the goat, her response was, “No, but can it be dead? It’s for Christmas dinner.” WHAT. She sensed my confusion and horror before laughing at me for thinking she’d actually want a goat running around the house pooping everywhere. MY MISTAKE. So yeah. No goat from me!

I spent a lot of time at the mall buying candy and small toys that should keep them entertained for about 90 minutes. I was purchasing bibs for the infants at this baby store when two of the clerks expressed their desire to be my wife and birth my children. She insisted on having my Ghana and US phone numbers after expressing massive disappointment when I told her I’m leaving on Tuesday (sorry to whomever you are with the random numbers I gave). Look, Doreen. You seem like a really pleasant lady, although perhaps a bit too forward. There are few steps before marriage and baby-making that you may have skipped by mistake, but I’m still flattered. It’s just not going to work out between us, for more reasons than 1. Some of those reasons you might even find blasphemous. So I suggest seeking elsewhere.

I promised the children and house mothers that I would go to church with them, and after almost talking myself out of it mostly because I didn’t feel like wearing long sleeves and jeans in Africa, I got myself there on Sunday at 8:00 as requested. I figured we’d be leaving at that time, or by 8:30 at the latest. Looking back I’m not sure why I thought something would ever happen on time for me in this country, so the fact that we didn’t leave until after 11:00 shouldn’t have surprised me.

I had never been to a church service before, and this one was about as dramatic as I expected. The pastor often screeched the gospel he was spewing, since you apparently can’t effectively pass on the Lord’s message by any other means. Despite the drawn-out bellows of “AMEEEEEEEEEN!” that happened far too often and the singing and dancing that popped up on occasion, I still managed to almost fall asleep. Just like in my Hebrew School glory days. I also managed to avoid giving any of my money, partly because I didn’t have much money left to give, partly because I’m a bit of an asshole, but mostly because the pastor sugar-coated the purpose of the money request by saying the donations are “seeds needed to grow into trees.” Or something like that. Just say you want our money to pay the electric bill. Geesh.

After church ended by about 1:00, I went back to the mall to buy a few more presents. I miscalculated the amount of gift bags I needed and I still managed to not get the correct amount of everything, but I decided to just hope that the kids wouldn’t realize that they don’t all have the same gifts.

I spent as much time with the kids as I could during my final two days in Ghana. Some of the kids understood that I would soon be leaving, that I wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon. A few of the younger ones struggled with comprehending it, but then I remembered that I’m not the first person to have come and gone from their lives. A while ago I mentioned how difficult it would be for me to be one of those people, just one amongst many who the kids became close with just to leave them behind.

And then there’s Prince. God. There were times in the days leading up to my final day when I would tell him that I’m going home soon, that I won’t be coming anymore, and he would look up at me with his big eyes, really seeming to understand what I was saying, and he would say, “Nooo, Matteee don’t go!” The thought of him missing me when I’m gone fills me with indescribable sadness that’s almost overwhelming. I don’t want any of the kids to be sad when I go. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out what it is that the kids even like about me that they’d miss. We watched Ice Age my final night there and I had a moment when I realized, God, I’m just like Ray Romano Manny, stumbling across a child and pretty instantly becoming attached. I definitely had more of an emotional reaction watching this movie now then when I was 10.

My final hours at Beacon House were spent more or less how I started: jumping on the trampoline, pushing kids on swings, reading stories, and dealing with abnormal levels of cuteness. I ate lunch with them one more time, and started getting ready to go. I wrote a letter to Ben, giving him some advice and asking him to take care of the others, especially Prince. I also gave him my watch because he and everyone else is so fascinated by it. I left a letter for Prince that he won’t be able to read anytime soon on his own, but I hope that somebody keeps it safe. My mother might be a little sad when she learns that the stuffed bulldog she got for me as a parting gift is now in his possession, but I think she’ll understand that he’ll get more use out of it than I will.

"Matteee, I want to jump!"

“Matteee, I want to jump!”

Before I left I finally gave them their gifts, since that was really all they cared about.  I started saying goodbye to the boys (all the girls were going to Church), and held Prince one last time. I gave him a kiss, put him down, and he scampered away to take his nap after saying, “Mattee, goodbye!” I locked myself in the volunteer office to give myself a minute to compose myself, and left with the group going to church and said goodbye to them there.

Mama Irene and Prince <3

Mama Irene and Prince rocking the shades I bought him

My departure was far from the spectacle I was partially expecting, and I definitely prefer it this way. I’m about as adept at goodbyes as I am at hellos, but at least tears don’t normally accompany introductions. I don’t like fusses being made over me, and I know that about 24 hours from now I’ll be bombarded with an insane amount of it from my sister family.

If somebody told me 5 years ago that I’d be working with children again I would have deemed that thought as outrageous. I had seen the dangers of becoming attached to kids, I had felt the pain of saying goodbye to people that I became close with who I’d never see again. I promised my 15 year old-self that I would never put myself through that again, that no matter how much I enjoyed spending time with kids, having to leave them behind isn’t worth it. That summer in 2007, really this one kid, affected me in ways I don’t think I realized until now. You become attached and then one day it’s just over. Maybe part of why I’ve been so unwilling to form relationships with other people over the years has been partially because of this.

This time around, 5 years later, I think I’ll be alright. A major difference between me at 15 and me at 20 is that I’ll appreciate the time I’ve spent with these kids and not just dwell on the ending. I went in with an understanding that these relationships are only temporary, so I wasn’t hit with the unbearable realization that it was all about to end in the past few days. I opened up a part of myself that may have been locked away since that summer, and with that opening I exposed myself to so much love, so much renewed appreciation of the value of human relationships. I’m not sure how much effect this will have on me, but I suppose time will tell.

I want to thank everyone for reading these every week, for all the compliments I’ve received. People being interested in what I have to say is something I’m not really used to, and I really appreciate it. I’m not sure where this blog will be a month from now, but I’ll do the best that I can to make my life a bit more interesting so I have things worth writing about. I’ll definitely be back again within the next week to talk about what being home has been like.

One thing I can guarantee? So. Much. Pizza.

American Culture: Let’s Do Nothing!

I’m going to take this time, since people seem to enjoy reading my blog, to express my frustration over the tragedy that occurred in Newton, Connecticut, when 26 people—20 children—were murdered. I made the apparently senseless error of immediately venting on Facebook, asking, “How many kids need to be killed for there to be changes made to US gun laws?”

Some people think it’s inappropriate to be discussing gun control immediately after the massacre, while the country is mourning, while shock levels are still so high. But please, tell me, when exactly is the appropriate time to be having these conversations? What is the time frame post-school shootings for when America has healed and can begin questioning how and why something like this can happen so frequently here? For the parents of those 20 children and the families of the 6 adults, I wonder what the time frame is for them?

I have trouble understanding people who say that gun regulation would have little consequence in America. That “bad people will always find a way.” In America that does seem to be the case, a country that can likely boast the distinction of having the highest incidence of gun violence in the developed world. But of course we do, “our culture is different!” Those silly Canadians and Europeans have microscopic homicide deaths by firearm compared to the United States, but there’s no point in looking at those numbers because, “We aren’t like them.”

Ah, yes. American culture. So enduring, imperishable, utterly changeless. Our laws are in place and that’s just the way it is. Because apparently culture is stagnant, and looking elsewhere to see the regulations other countries have in place is just a waste of time. Well, I take issue with that, I take issue with the assertion that regulating gun access and banning assault weapons won’t bring any results. I take issue most of all with the people who think doing nothing at this time is the appropriate action, that being angry is insensitive, disrespectful to the families affected. There is no better time than now to politicize this issue, when emotions are still high, when media coverage is constant, to demand change.

Or we can do nothing and wait out the grief period, a period that will be eternal for some, and just hope that nothing like this happens again in the meantime. On and on the cycle goes.

Tro-Tro? More Like…Oh F**k

I know this has been a long, trying two weeks for those of you (shout out to Shari!) craving waiting to hear about my northern Ghanaian tales, and I hope my account isn’t too melodramatic hyperbolic.  I’ll attempt to show some restraint, but to paint an accurate picture of this past week I think it’ll be necessary to unleash higher dosages of sass than normal. Prepare yourself!

Monday, November 26

My two friends and I departed Monday morning at around 11 AM, eager to commence our trek to our first destination, Tamale, the capital of Ghana’s Northern Region. I left armed with about 4 days worth of clothes, understanding that being disgustingly smelly and filthy would be inevitable and deciding to embrace it. There are a few different ways of reaching northern Ghana, ranging from the easy (45 minute plane ride) to the laborious (12-17 hour bus ride). We elected the borderline-psychotic method of taking a ferry along the Volta River that could take anywhere from 36-50 hours in supposedly fairly unpleasant conditions. All we wanted was to be the cool Oburonis, having the most unique experience of our other CIEE peers who journeyed up north.

I should have foreseen that any attempts of me being remotely cool would only end in disappointment and slight amounts of shame. According to our guidebook, one ferry left Akosombo at 4:00 every Monday. We were really worried that we’d arrive late, but had little reason to fear that Ghanaian transportation would not continue its trend of being completely unreliable with its timetables. When we reached the port at about 3:00, we were really proud of ourselves for being early.

And then we were told that the ferry left at 1:30. Thanks, Bradt Guidebook. After spending about 7 minutes feeling sorry for ourselves, we finally got ourselves together and found a silver lining: at least we’d arrive at Tamale earlier! We didn’t have a Plan B (whoops), but were adamant about not going on the Oburoni Walk of Shame back to Accra to start from scratch. We resolved to get to Kumasi by whatever non-Accra route necessary, which resulted in a tro-tro ride to Koforidua (capital of the Eastern Region) that featured the three of us and some furry friends:

There were at least 5 of these on board the tro-tro

There were at least 5 of these on board the tro-tro

We finally arrived in Kumasi at around 11:30 PM. We hadn’t really eaten anything all day and downed some indomie, too hungry to give much notice to the unfortunate fishy taste. After some debating, we elected to take an overnight bus to Tamale, leaving at 1:30 in the morning.

Tuesday, November 27

Sleeping on that slightly-more-luxurious tro-tro was a challenge I never really overcame. The roads were bumpy, the space was cramped, and there was this crazed music video (with laughable production value) blasting on the bus’s TV on loop. Also, my seatmate appeared to be in a perpetual state of misery and peril, evidenced by him keeping his head out the window on numerous occasions to discharge some probable fufu. Nasty.

We finally made it to Tamale by 8:30 AM, about 21 hours after leaving Accra. We stumbled out into the northern Ghanaian heat dazed and starving, and after a brief food search we settled on $0.50 rice and beans served on a newspaper. We had to share one spoon, but we weren’t about to complain at that point (There would be plenty of time for that later). This search allowed us to get a pretty good idea of what Tamale has to offer: a ton of mosques, lots of motorcycles, and…that’s about it.

Big ass mosque #1

Big ass mosque #1

Big ass mosque #2

Big ass mosque #2

Next on the agenda was locating our guest house, which nobody in this city appeared to have any knowledge of.  A taxi driver brought us to a random hotel, then demanded that we pay him more to bring us to the right one. That’s some pretty impressive logic, buddy. We finally made it there, and after some brief excitement over getting to sit on a bed, went on a search for this leather tannery; the guidebook says to just “follow your nose” through a suburb, which was a pretty accurate piece of advice. The tannery is run by Chief Slim, this eccentric dude who forced some sandals upon us; I purchased a pair supposedly made with goat skin.

some nasty part of the leather-making process

some nasty part of the leather-making process

Let’s play “Guess How Long Matthew’s New Sandals Last.” The answer will be given later on. We were allowed to watch the “entire” leather-making process for a fee that wasn’t really worth it, but we had to do something to justify our stop in this city and there weren’t many other options.

We headed back to the guest house to rest until dinner, which we had at this beautiful Indian restaurant. Naan was consumed. Definitely the highlight of Tamale. It was also around this time that we ran into the damn Projects Abroad crew that I talked about last time. All white people’s roads in northern Ghana end at Mole National Park, so we knew we’d be seeing them again soon.

Wednesday, November 28

We woke up bright and early, determined to get to the Metro Mass station at a time when it would be impossible to miss the bus to Mole (Mole-ay).  According to our never sometimes reliable guidebook, the bus left every day at 2:00. We got there before 10:30, went up to the ticket counter and were told we could purchase tickets at around 1:30. We parked ourselves in the shade and patiently waited, allowing me plenty of time to read the overwhelmingly miserable (and excessively long) Under the Dome

As 1:30 approached I stocked up on a loaf of bread to nibble on in case the ride took a while. The Projects Abroad crew arrived at a much more reasonable time than we did, and they came over to us for what I assumed would be to exchange some pleasantries.

Nope! They came over to tell us that there would be no buses to Mole that day! We spared 5 minutes to express our massive amounts of exasperation before heading over to the tro-tro station to see if it would be possible to get to Mole from there. We were ushered to a tro-tro that was heading to Wa (capital of the Upper West Region), told that we would be dropped off at Larabanga, 6km away from Mole. We got inside, paid our 15 cedi, and were informed that we’d be leaving at 5:30.  It was about 2:45, but at this point we were experts at sitting around waiting to leave for places; we were just happy that our day wouldn’t be a complete waste.

At 5:00, the tro-tro mate paid us a visit, taking this opportunity to inform us silly Oburonis that we wouldn’t be leaving at 5:30 that evening, but at 5:30 in the morning! WHAT?! He also took this opportunity to remind us that tickets are non-refundable, but was gracious enough to invite us to spend the night in the tro-tro. After a group meeting in which we spent a majority of the time cursing Tamale’s existence, we decided that we didn’t want to spend more money on a guest house and to accept the tro-tro douche’s offer. We drowned our sorrows in some beer, then went back to the Indian restaurant—a place we agreed to be Tamale’s only worthy attraction.

This sign's in the bathroom of Swad Fast  Food

This sign’s in the bathroom of Swad Fast Food

Thursday, November 29

We awoke from our night at Le Château Tro-Tro (name credit: Erika Baumann) before 5:00AM. Accommodations included: our own rows to sleep on, tight security (besides the whole window access possibility), free bug spray usage, and free entertainment, featuring music blasting at all hours of the night and a station recording bellowing, “WA! WA! WA! WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!? WA! WA!”

We spent a few minutes lamenting that 2/3 nights of traveling so far were spent in a tro-tro, but we pushed that negativity aside pretty quickly because we were finally on our way to Mole! There was no argument that seeing elephants would eradicate any of the previous 3 days’ misfortunes.

The trip to Larabanga was about 3 hours, and we could either motorbike the 6km to Mole Motel or walk. We elected for the latter since the path was well marked and we missed the morning safari anyway. Off we went on our journey, leading a horde of children, not much unlike Moses leading the Israelites through the desert. Except I refused to give the children any of my manna bread. Or pens. They were on their way to school, so I’m sure they had access to writing utensils. If they don’t, well…sorry not sorry.

Mole National Park is without a doubt the grandest of all of Ghana’s Oburoni Traps. Elephant love isn’t a solely white-tourist phenomenon, right? Maybe. The amount of white people there was actually a bit overwhelming, and of course the Projects Abroad crew was already there, having shelled out $100 to take a taxi the previous day. The incredulous looks we received when we revealed our…unique method of arriving were probably well deserved, but…at least we spent $90 less than they did! Silver linings, remember?

We had a few hours to relax and sit on the observation deck until our 3:30 safari walk, and the multiple warthogs that roamed the grounds gave us some encouragement and hope that we’d be seeing some elephants either that night or the next morning.

Sorry for the crappy quality of this baby warthog

Sorry for the crappy quality of this baby warthog

The only picture of a warthog I used to posses, taken last summer

The only picture of a warthog I used to posses, taken last summer

We were talked into taking the jeep instead of walking since it wouldn’t be expensive when splitting the price 8 ways. The three of us rode on the roof for the first hour, bringing back more memories of my summer 2011 Botswana days. The wooden planks and bumpy roads didn’t make my already-sore butt too happy, but within the first 2 minutes of the trip we saw a baby baboon and all other thoughts ceased in favor of giddiness and joy. We didn’t see any elephants that afternoon, but we were still hopeful and convinced that our bad luck couldn’t possibly continue indefinitely.

our view from the top of the jeep. Baboons!

our view from the top of the jeep. Baboons!

BABY BABOON

BABY BABOON


Friday, November 30, 2012

WRONG.

I am clumsy. My ability to keep my body upright during any potential perilous situation is meager. Whenever I have to perform an activity that involves climbing or balancing, there is about an 86% chance that I will end up on the ground. Maybe my life is just one grand, pitiful self-fulfilling prophecy. Whatever the reason, by the time we left Mole that morning my shame levels were reaching its familiar peak.

We began our morning safari walk at 7:30 with high hopes and determination. The small group of us set off on our generally leisurely stroll through the Park, keeping our eyes open for some tusks and/or elephant poop. We didn’t see much early on besides the occasional antelope, but we weren’t worried. About an hour into the walk, we were told we’d be crossing some water.

That's me in the back. Struggling in the stream.

That’s me in the back. Struggling in the stream.

My mind instantly flashed back to June 7, 2011, the last time I attempted to successfully make it across a stream. That day we had to hop across some rocks to get to the other side, and I missed. And had to be rescued. Once I saw the log we had to maneuver across, I knew I was a goner. My friend and I made it about halfway across before she tumbled in and I followed right after. She managed to gracefully pick herself up and get across without further incident, but I took another spill. On the bright side, the water wasn’t too deep, it was surprisingly refreshing, and no valuables were damaged. (Hope that sentence doesn’t come across as too disingenuous).

No elephants were encountered, but at least we couldn’t say that this trip had so far been anything but consistent! I wasn’t as devastated as the others over this since I was lucky enough to spend 30 days literally living with wild elephants, something I unfortunately took for granted.  We licked our wounds (dumped water on our shoes), got ourselves together and left Mole saddened but hopeful that Wa would be better. And by better I mean filled with hippos.

To get to Wa, you could either catch the 4:00AM Metro Mass bus out of Mole, or…that’s about it, really. We sat around Larabanga hoping for a tro-tro to arrive, but we were about 0-7 in terms of transportation success so we had a feeling things weren’t going to go too well for us. I was also starting to feel a little nauseous, which is just what this trip had been lacking.

Desperation led us to seek alternative modes of transportation, and before I knew it we were chasing down a pickup truck begging the driver to let us sit in the back and take us anywhere towards Wa. Look, mom & dad guys. Hitchhiking is something I will never go out of my way to do. I understand that it can be potentially dangerous, but I also live by the probably naïve philosophy that people, at the end of the day, are generally not assholes. And we didn’t really have any other options; we were not staying in Larabanga for the night. And the allure of saving money was overpowering.

We really couldn’t believe our luck (really. Cause we’d had none up to that point) when we found out that the truck was going directly to Wa. We pushed aside a pair of Ghanaians who were also attempting to hitch a ride (an Oburoni’s gotta do what an Oburoni’s gotta do), and were on our way! The sickness I had been feeling earlier slowly began creeping back, and I was becoming increasingly concerned for the cleanliness of the vehicle and my fellow passengers. I made it until we were about 40 minutes away from Wa before I was forced to have our kind driver pull over for me to go kill some bushes.

I popped a pepto and all was well! We arrived at Wa in the early afternoon and made our way to Nakori, the site of a supposedly 15th century mud-and-stick mosque where we’d be allowed to climb onto the roof. We were met by yet another horde of children who followed us to the mosque.

The mosque

The mosque

Kids running away from me. What a surprise

Kids running away from me. What a surprise

We walked the more-than-4km back to Wa where we struggled to find our guest house. We went on a food hunt and went to sleep soon after to get an early start on our trip to Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary.

Saturday, December 1

Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary is probably Wa’s main tourist attraction, and like most Ghanaian tourist hubs, the inadequacy in its functionality is alarming. To get there, you need to either hire a motorbike or rent a bicycle and ride to the lodge. Oh. And you need to bring all the food and water you’ll require for the duration of your stay. Ghana, this is Tourism 101. If you want people to spend the day/night at your wonderful hippo sanctuary, make sure there’s some damned food and water waiting for us when we get there. The girls I traveled with were adamant about biking the 18km. All I could think about was that for $5.00 more, we could get there in comfort and in 7X less time. But I wasn’t about to be a party pooper, so after basically commandeering bikes from children in the town and stocking up on not nearly enough water and some bread/oranges, we were on our way!

These smiles wouldn't last long

These smiles wouldn’t last long

After about 7 minutes I had a feeling where this bike ride was going to go. The bikes we were using were beyond unequipped to handle the terrain we had to ride through. Not to mention the only biking I’ve done in the past 2 decades has been limited to the occasional 10 minute ride around my block with my mother along flat, paved roads.  Now I was being forced to ride a bike that was probably older than me across unpaved dirt roads and sand. For over 10 miles in the early afternoon. On the equator.

The water supply was depleted after about 2 hours, and my bike’s chains kept detaching. I contemplated death more times than I’m happy with towards the end, and I may or may not have cried. Not bawling or anything deranged like that, just frustration because I knew that this ride was going to be beyond my capabilities. My inability to open my mouth has been my downfall on numerous occasions, but I think from now on I may be more inclined to put the brakes on situations I foresee as being regrettable. But we made it, I didn’t fall off the bike  (about 12 close calls. Seriously, bikes aren’t ridden on the beach for a reason), and we had over an hour to recover before our river hippo safari.

I broke Africa’s #1 rule upon arrival by drinking un-treated water pumped out of the ground, but it was either drink that potentially worm-infested water or drop dead. Both options seemed appealing at that point.

Although I was rendered completely incapacitated, I mustered the minuscule amount of energy I had left to enjoy the canoe ride along the Black Volta River, which separates Burkina Faso from Ghana. During this ride our guide took out a bowl, scooped out some of the river water and proceeded to pour it down his throat, effectively eliminating any qualms I had about my drinking water situation. Despite my strange, often ridiculous history with hippopotami (Hippo“Matt”amus will never be forgotten), I had never seen one in the wild.

Hippos!

Hippos!

I like to think that the few hippos we came across sensed my despair and recognized me as one of their former biggest fans, and chose to bless us with their presence accordingly. Or maybe they understood that if they didn’t show their faces after that 18km bike ride, the fragile emotional state I was still in would have resulted in unpleasantness for all.

We stared in awe at those majestic creatures for a few minutes before heading back, not before making a likely illegal pit stop across the river to Burkina Faso, where we got out and took some victory pictures.

So excited to illegally be in Burkina Faso!

So excited to illegally be in Burkina Faso!

We spent the remainder of the afternoon recovering and reading, with somebody blasting Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” on repeat until we passed out by 7:00.  Ghana really loves this woman, perhaps more than I do.

Probably not.

Sunday, December 2

We left by motorcycle (we agreed that biking was NOT happening again) back to town to catch a tro-tro back to Wa. I said goodbye to my two friends who had more time to travel than I did, and I sat and waited for 4 hours for a tro-tro back to Tamale.

We began to leave the station at 2:40PM and the tro-tro instantly broke down, since no aspect of this trip was allowed to go smoothly.  We piled into another one and were on our way!

At around 5:00, our tro-tro succumbed to the crappy roads that make up northern Ghana. A tire popped while we were in the middle of nowhere, forcing all of us to get out while the spare was put on. As soon as we stepped outside we were bombarded by a swarm of gnats, reducing me to a flailing mess as I slapped myself repeatedly, killing countless amounts as all the Ghanaians laughed at me. It was a sad sight, but it fits in perfectly with the rest of the week’s events. We got back on the road, and at 6:00 we stopped in a town where we were all forced to get out and wait while the driver got the tire fixed.

A half hour later we were back on track, just in time for the arrival of a torrential storm. The roads connecting Wa and Tamale are fairly treacherous in sunny daylight, so those 40 minutes of blinding rain at night were terrifying. It was one of the few moments I can remember when I actually felt like my life was at risk, but I still tried to find the humor in the situation. Lord knows I would not have made it through the 20 years of ridiculousness that is my life if I didn’t constantly laugh at myself.

We finally pulled into Tamale at 9:30, and I decided to stay at the guesthouse close to the Indian restaurant we went to earlier in the week. The taxi driver tried charging me 10 cedi to get there when we paid 3 a few days earlier, and I was not in the mental state to put up with that nonsense. Maybe there’s hope for me after all, and I won’t actually let everyone I come across walk all over me. When I trudged into the guest house looking grosser than I’ve ever looked in my life, the receptionist had the chutzpah to tell me that there weren’t any rooms available, that I could stay there only if I agreed to be out before 6AM. I must have looked like I was about to burst into tears (I was), since a few minutes later I was comfortably settled into a room that I could stay in as long as I wanted the next morning.

Monday, December 3

I compensated my body for the physical/emotional trauma of the past few days by sleeping in, laying in bed and reading until 11 when I left to go the Indian restaurant one last time. I randomly ran into 2 CIEE students who I kind of (but not really) knew, but luckily it was right as I was leaving, sparing me any uncomfortable minutes of silence that would have likely followed if they joined my table.

I arrived at the airport a couple hours before my 3:40 flight, giving me a glimpse of more of this region’s inefficiency. The power at the airport kept going out and none of the metal detectors/scanners were working, forcing a full-body pat down and an airport official having to rifle through my putrid clothing. At least he had gloves!

The flight itself was wonderful. Leather seats! A headrest! Leg room! Ah, modern technology and comfortable travel. You were missed. 45 minutes later I was back in Accra. I planned on taking a tro-tro back to campus, but when I asked somebody where the station was he offered to just drive me there himself. I wasn’t about to say no to a free ride, and I found it fitting to end the week with one final outlandish transportation story.

December 4-Present

Switching gears, the next 24 hours were spent studying for Wednesday’s Colonial Rule and African Response final exam.  It was that Tuesday night as I was studying in the hallway that my right sandal broke. So for those of you who guessed 7 days, congratulations! You can come collect your prize of 3 broken sandals at any time.

There really has to be something wrong with my right foot

There really has to be something wrong with my right foot

My motivation levels were at their typical University of Ghana low, which turned out not to be a problem since the exam was laughable. We had over 2 hours to write 4 pages, answering two essay questions that we’d already been asked in earlier exams. Sometimes I suspect that these professors have no fucks to give when it comes to providing quality education. I miss you, GWU.

That Wednesday evening I had an interview for an internship position with Bread for the City, a non-profit that helps disadvantaged DC residents by providing free food, clothing, medical care, legal aid and social services. The interview was about as cringe-worthy as the one I had 2 weeks ago with the Wilson Center, perhaps more so since I spewed some BS about having no issues talking to people and soliciting them for money. I sent her a link to my blog in a desperate attempt to make her think I possess any semblance of intelligence.

She hasn’t gotten back to me yet, and I’m guessing she won’t be any time soon. Oh well! I consoled myself afterwards by realizing that on the bright side, if nothing works out, I’d at least have a lot of free time on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

I hadn’t been to Beacon House in almost 2 weeks, and my greeting that Thursday afternoon was beautiful, with so many hugs. The kids are beyond excited for Christmas. One kid saw the Christmas Tree waiting to be set up and said, “Look at Christmas!!” as if it’s a person. They had visited a school that morning and were given books as presents, and one 4 year-old showed me his book about Halloween and said, “Look at my Bible!”  I’m really going to miss the verbal gold that comes out of their mouths. What I’ll miss most of all? This guy:

I'm not sure he even has a reason for making this face.

I’m not sure he even has a reason for making this face.

Maxwell and Prince

Maxwell and Prince

Alright, I'll miss these guys too

Alright, I’ll miss these guys too

Ghana’s presidential elections are currently taking place, beginning on Friday, December 7. We were told via email to remain on campus for own safety, but I’m not one to take my personal safety into consideration unless there’s climbing involved. I went to Beacon House that afternoon, experiencing no trouble other than the travesty of the Chinese restaurant I go to being closed. I took this opportunity as an excuse for me to buy some overpriced Oreos at the supermarket. Best lunch I’ve had in a while.

You're cute.

You’re cute.

It’s no surprise to me that Ghana’s elections have experienced some complications. Apparently many of the machines were faulty, forcing people back to polling stations today (Saturday) to vote again. You’d think that with the 4 year period between elections, people would make sure that these machines are working properly. Guess that’s asking for too much technological reliability.  Oh well. Pulling for you, John Mahama!

Oh, and the Wilson Center gave me a formal offer for the internship position next semester. So that’s exciting! My competition must have been non-existent.

If any of you managed to make it through this short story of a post, thank you! Really, the praise I’ve consistently received from some of you guys has been wonderful, and has motivated me to actually put some effort into these entries. I’m still having trouble seeing what’s so special about this drek, but for all the hours I spend on each entry it’s really nice to hear that people appreciate it. We’ve only got 10 days left here, with one final post in the works for next weekend, where I’ll attempt to reflect on this experience and provide some final thoughts, maybe on what’s in store for me in the coming months.

Until then, Happy Hanukkah! I think that’s going on now, but I actually have no idea.

Also, here’s more Amy Poehler being beautiful and smart and perfect.

Adventure Ho(Hoe)!

Once again, I apologize for keeping any of you (mom and dad) in suspense while waiting for another update.  70% of the reason behind the delay is that I didn’t have much to discuss since last Wednesday, and 30% is because I had to study for two final exams this week. And these blogs take roughly 4 hours to complete.

You’re welcome.

Shortly after posting last week’s entry, I received a letter.  On the front of the envelope in red, menacing block letters was “ELECTION MATERIAL. PLEASE EXPEDITE.” Sure enough, inside the envelope was my absentee ballot for the Presidential election. It was mailed out on October 17th, arriving November 14. So yeah. KissExpedite my ass, Nassau County.

Not sure if it’s legal for me to be posting a picture of my ballot.

I managed to squeeze in a trip to Beacon House the next afternoon, and not much happened other than a quick game of ‘Run Away from Prince!’ Unfortunately, the game ended in disaster:

The Anguish of Prince: Part XXVII

Who would ever cry over not being able to catch me? Me?!

Just toddlers, apparently.

That Friday morning I departed with 2 other friends for the Volta Region in eastern Ghana, bordering Togo.  It’s probably the most naturally beautiful region of Ghana I’ve visited so far, with rivers, lakes, and mountains sprinkled throughout.

We arrived in Ho (let’s attempt to contain the immaturity…I may have struggled to) after maybe 3.5 hours and caught a connecting tro tro to Kpando (‘k’ is silent) where our first two points of interest were located.  After lunch we began our supposedly 1 mile trek to the Blues of Ur, a meditation/prayer center described in my guide book as “the most bizarre tourist attraction in Ghana.” That’s all I needed to know.

Tourism! Tourism!! Tourism!!!

After wandering aimlessly along the road for much more than 1 mile, we finally arrived.  There was more aimless wandering while trying to find the exact location of the meditation center, bringing us through cornfields and semi-creepy, seemingly abandoned homes.  Once we stumbled upon located where we needed to be, we were led by a very informative lady through the center, comprising a shit ton of Virgin Mary/Jesus statues and shrines. Did I say informative? Cause she actually knew absolutely nothing. Like when the statues were built.

Please enjoy these pictures of Jesus and Mary:

Ah, the Virgin Mary. What a cutie

Jesus! Lookin good, buddy!

Our next stop was Kpando Potters, a small pottery village filled with wonderful ladies. Their products were really beautiful (and cheap), and I easily would have purchased more than I did if I had more room in my bag/didn’t have a poor history with transporting pottery back home.  I don’t remember half of what I’ve purchased as gifts these past few months, but hopefully it’s enough for me to avoid the belittlement of my mother.

Not likely.

On our way to our final destination of the day, Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary, our taxi driver may or may not have ran over a child’s foot.  Can’t be sure. There wasn’t any crying, but he may have just been in shock. I guess it wasn’t too serious because we were back on the road soon after. A few minutes later we were flagged down by a man who needed to get his daughter to the hospital. Luckily for me, the mother/sick child sat next to me in the back of the taxi. When the girl wasn’t breastfeeding, she was coughing all over me. ‘Cause that’s just my life.

We chose to stay the night at Tafi Atome and take advantage of the $10/person accommodation, dinner, breakfast, and sanctuary tour deal that’s offered there.  For that price I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised by the lack of working toilets/showers.  But at least there was a squatty potty (hole in the ground)! We had dinner with a group of Canadian/European volunteers who coincidentally were part of Projects Abroad, the organization I volunteered with when I went to Peru and Botswana. This is one of the rare times that I’ve expressed more enthusiasm over finding something in common with strangers than the other person(s).  Unfriendliness I can appreciate. I took this chance encounter as a sign that next summer I need to volunteer again somewhere.  Maybe in Asia. We’ll see.

We woke up at 5:30 the next morning for our 6:00 monkey encounter. Upon waking up I noticed that my throat was sore and my nose stuffy. Uh oh! That sick baby infected me! Maybe. I don’t know. But that baby did cough on me a lot.

look at those faces!

It wasn’t so bad, and nothing was going to diminish my excitement over seeing monkeys. We + the Projects Abroad crew were taken to pick up some bananas, learning along the way that the sanctuary is home to over 400 Mona monkeys.  The guide did some kind of monkey call, and almost immediately roughly 6-8 of the little guys scampered down from the trees looking extremely confused and slightly petrified. Or maybe that’s just how their faces always look. Anyway, by the time we ran out of bananas, 2-4 monkeys had climbed all up on me. And it was awesome.

After a hearty breakfast of pasta and bread served on Barack Obama plates (!!), we were on our way to our next destination, HoHoe(pronounced Hohoy). To get to the junction to catch a tro tro, we needed to take a motorbike. I never thought I’d ever ride on the back of a motorcycle, but Africa seems to be the only place I’m willing to do somewhat cool/ridiculous things.

<3

We took a taxi from HoHoe to Wli (Vlee) Falls where we’d be staying the day/night.  After spending about an hour hotel hopping, trying to find one that wasn’t horrifyingly expensive, we settled on one that cost us a steep $6.00/person.

The falls were about a 40 minute leisurely stroll away through a forest and across 9 bridges. The falls itself instantly became one of the most stunning places I’ve visited in my life; I’m always a sucker for a beautiful view. It probably wasn’t the wisest decision for me to swim in the freezing water with my clothes on while sick, but when do I ever make good decisions? Wait. Probably 92% of the time.

There was a minor incident while hiking up to an observation point; We were accosted by an excessively angry guide who demanded that we pay an extra $1.50 for hiking up there. We weren’t having any of that nonsense. But later on there was a lot of yelling in foreign languages and we decided to just throw money at them and leave.

We decided to head back to Accra a day early since we saw pretty much everything there was to see, and because money supplies were becoming an issue. I’m always down for saving money, so by 4:30 we were on our way!

Except it took 2 hours for the tro tro to leave HoHoe. To make the ride extra enjoyable, I was in the middle of a row that should not have squeezed 4 people into, and my nose and throat were rapidly deteriorating. Needless to say, by the time we arrived on campus at around 11:30 PM, I was ready to never use Ghanaian public transportation ever again.

The next few days were mostly spent procrastinating studying and expelling phlegm and mucus from my body. I had an interview Tuesday afternoon with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars for an internship position I arbitrarily applied for a few days earlier. It was advertised as a “Development Internship” so I assumed international development would be involved and so I didn’t actually read the internship description. Turns out development can also refer to fundraising. Whoops. Anyway, a combination of my extreme inability to get through an interview, a poor cell connection, and my stuffy nose resulted in a 20 minute trainwreck that revealed just how unqualified I am for any job. When I was asked to describe my strengths and weaknesses, I should have just replied with, “Well, I possess the obedience of an attention-deprived puppy who’s willing to do just about anything to receive a treat, but I lack any beneficial skills that would appeal to you or any employer anywhere in the world. Ever. Am I hired?” I won’t be holding my breath for a formal offer for the position next week.

I had two final exams this week, starting with Development Studies on Wednesday and Twi on Thanksgiving Thursday. Twi was much more disastrous than I was expecting. It turns out that the class I mocked a few weeks ago made up 10% of the exam. I figured that lesson was completely useless and didn’t study it at all, which wasn’t my brightest move. Eh. Whatever. Ghana’s weird and all you need is an 80 (sometimes a 70) to receive an ‘A.’ Not gonna worry about it too much.

CIEE just loves spoiling us and organized a Thanksgiving dinner for everyone at a really nice restaurant. Since cooking isn’t something my family excels at, Thanksgiving  has been spent at a restaurant for a majority of the past 10 years. Turns out that eating at a kosher restaurant on Thanksgiving is just about as miserable as it sounds. I forced my family to actually put in some effort and have dinner at home 2 years ago, resulting in this:

Cranberry…sauce?

This was supposed to be minestrone soup.

The food consumed at this restaurant was magnificent. There was turkey, chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, rice, and salad, ending with apple pie. I had everything twice. This was just a prelude to the food rampage I will embark on 25 days from now. Look out, every pizza establishment within a 5 mile radius of my house!

I woke up from my food coma on Friday morning, got myself together and went to Beacon House, where I got to witness the kids being woken up by throwing them on the trampoline. The results were pretty miserable:

So much misery

Later that night, I was interrupted from my plans of catching up on Grey’s Anatomy and working on this gem of an entry by some friends inviting me to a fake-birthday party, which was basically just an excuse to consume copious amounts of alcohol. Here are some highlights of the night:

  • I played flip cup for the first time, and was shockingly fantastic. Maybe it’s because I was substantially less intoxicated then some of the other participants at this time.
  • Cheers, Governor (governah?)!  is just a ridiculous game that was the downfall of many, including myself.
  • Absinthe was poured into my beer at one point, and it was probably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever consumed. It’s also green. And was apparently also illegal for a long time in the US. Didn’t know that at the time, but I can understand why it was outlawed. It’s diabolical.

This was probably the first night that I can say I was definitely drunk, and will probably be the last. Can’t let myself become too much of a real 20 year old.

We’re getting down to the wire here, folks. 25 more days! I’ll be traveling for a week to northern Ghana starting on Monday on a quest to see some elephants and hippos and other cool northern Ghanaian attractions. By the time I get back I’ll only have 2 weeks left here, which is unreal to think about. I’ll probably have one more update to talk about next week’s trip, and maybe a final entry for some concluding thoughts and reflections.

And then my blog will probably spiral into oblivion, since my normal life consists of little that’s worth writing about. But who knows? Maybe some of my willingness to be a semi-fun person will carry over to next semester.

But that’s pretty doubtful.

Here’s some Ray LaMontagne to brighten your afternoon