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

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“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.