HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANGELA TRAUPMAN!!

The best mother a girl could ask for. I love you! : ) You’ve always been there for me no matter what decisions I’ve made, and for that I am forever thankful. You’re the strongest, most caring and radiant woman I know. On the inside and out. I love you and miss you!

Happy Birthday! Eat some real cake for me.

Your daughter, Amanda.

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“The week.” Day 3: Fishing boats. Eye liner. Sweet talking. Sweaty sleep.

The next morning I awoke to the sound of rain drops on the tin roof. I mean, what I thought were rain drops on the tin roof. It was really a herd of goats and sheep trotting past our window. Good morning, Africa.

We quickly packed up our bags and headed down to the waterfront, where the mammoth ferry was waiting to take us across the lake to Yendi. There we would catch a bus to our next destination. To the left of the ship was a small, wooden fishing boat, quickly filling up with passengers. So we took it. But of course, no form of transportation could ever be convenient, quick or efficient.

As we loaded in and plopped down on the creaky wooden planks, I noticed two men filling holes in the bottom of the boat with cotton. That’s right. Thin slivers of the floor were starting to part, so to counteract this, they hammered cotton in the cracks with a screwdriver. Meanwhile, another man was in charge of scooping out the water that was seeping in through the various holes.

We waited for nearly an hour when the boat finally pushed off of Yeji soil. Thankfully it was an overcast morning and relatively cool- probably not even 90 degrees yet. I sat next to a woman and her child. The bottoms of her feet were stained a dark purple, her eyes lined in thick black ink. Her child also had some eye liner on, a common Muslim practice that is said to keep evil spirits away. As we drifted across the lake I thought about how that was was her reality. For me, the journey was an adventure, one that I would come to appreciate being over, but for her… that is life. Holey fishing boats. The blazing climate. “Street food.” All the traditional spiritual beliefs that many northern towns harvest. She doesn’t blog or snap photos for her friends and family back home. That is her home. It’s incredible how diverse this world is.

Once we landed in Yendi, we immediately saw the bright orange, boxy Mass Metro bus. And the extensive line stemming from the door to buy tickets. I bought a few bananas and some ground nuts, and we waited. After about 45 minutes, people starting shooing us away from the line. “The bus is full,” they said.

I walked over to the female conductor, dressed in a yellow cotton collar shirt and black pants with an ID card around her neck, to ask her if there was still a chance we could get on.

“Do you mind standing?” she asked me.

“No, we’ll stand,” I replied.

“Okay, you’ll get on,” she said.

“Alright, do you promise?” I persisted.

“Promise. Cross my heart,” she replied with a sincere smile.

After another two hours went by, the frustration began to build. Huge baskets and carts filled with fruits vegetables and other local products lined the open and empty cargo trunks of the bus. What were they waiting for? Why was everyone just standing around? I decided to ask.

“So… let’s go then!” I said, trying to motivate the crowd. “Let’s get these puppies loaded. Anyone need help? What goes in first?”

They all just laughed at me. That’s one thing I’ve come to brush off so easily. Where ever we go we seem to entertain locals with our ignorance and American attitudes. Like wanting the bus to actually leave within this lifetime.

“What are we waiting for?” I asked the conductor.

“After we load we will be off,” she replied.

I just about gave up, when I decided to speak Twi.

“Mepakyew,” I said to her. “Yeku Tamale. Mepakyew,” (Please, we go to Tamale. Please.)

She chuckled.

“I like this,” I said to her, pointing to the black plastic clip holding her hair back. “It’s sankofa. The bird symbol, right? Efefe.” Sankofa is an Adrinkra symbol meaning back to your roots, or that you can undo what is wrong and make it right. Efefe means “it is beautiful.”

She sighed and giggled again before she spoke these glorious words: “I am going to help you out.” As she got out her ticket stubs. She wrote down two seat numbers and collected my money. I strutted back to Ruth, slumped and hopeless sitting on her bag, like a proud momma.

“And here is youuurrrr seat number, miss,” I said. “That’s right. This is what you manage to learn to do after all the years of acquiring wisdom throughout your travels. You learn how to be in the right places at the right times. Mmmhmmm.” I will mock Skipper for the rest of my lifetime.

We arrived in Tamale several hours later. Searching the bus station for anything on wheels going to Mole National Park, we entered the office to ask for tickets.

“The bus is full,” one conductor said. “Come tomorrow morning at four for the next one.”

“Can we buy tickets for that one now?” Ruth asked.

“No, only tomorrow morning.”

So we left the station to brace the northern region’s most populated city. I try to keep a positive outlook on most situations, but that place sucked, for lack of a better term. It was even dirtier and hotter than Accra, although lacking the intense humidity of the south, which was nice.

At Alhassan Hotel we booked a room and dropped our bags off. We headed to a local restaurant for dinner. After scanning the menu, we asked about the pizza.

“No pizza,” the waiter replied.

“Okay, I’d like the red-red and chicken please,” I told him.

“No red-red.”

“Okay, well what do you have?” I asked, frustrated.

“We have eeevvverryything! Just no pizza or red-red,” he assured us.

“Alright then I’ll take the beans and rice,” I said.

“One second,” he said as he stepped outside. He walked back in to our table.

“No beans.”

“OKAY! Well, then, yup. We’re going to go to a different restaurant. Preferably a place that actually has food,” Ruth said as we got up and left.

We found a restaurant and afterwards basked in an internet café before returning to our room. Did I say room? I actually meant the ginormous oven we were staying in with two twin beds. I’m not kidding when I say this. The sheets were hot. Hot like, you just took them out of the dryer, hot. Except when you do that, it’s comforting and the heat goes away in a couple of minutes. The sheets were so hot that my body actually cooled them down. The room temperature easily hit triple digits.

Luckily we were getting up at three, so we only had to endure it for a few hours. And to top it all off, the courtyard was right outside of our window, where a crowd of obnoxious Ghanaian men had gathered to watch soccer.

Lying there in that bed was one of those moments- a moment that makes or breaks you. The kind of moment that truly tests your faith and strength. It was a physical and mental battle, but I managed to push through to the next morning, when Ruth’s alarm went off at three, another day just waiting to be lived.

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“The week.” Day two: Yeji. Rural Africa. Rough waters. Mangoes for dinner.

Our day at sea (or lake, rather) was a beautiful one. The landscape served as an immediate source of inspiration as it transformed from lush, forested mountains to flat, barren and rural land. Our boat stopped at several ports to drop people and supplies in faraway villages. When I picture “real” Africa, I picture these villages. Hidden and untouched. No sky scrapers. No medical centers. No electricity. Just a pair of clay huts with thatch roofs and a fire pit.

When I laid my head down on my pillow, the boat’s consistent humming brought back memories of my childhood aboard the ships my mother and I traveled on. When I closed my eyes, flashbacks engulfed my every thought. It felt the same, but that was over ten years ago. How time flies.

The waves tossed me awake in the middle of the night, which I thought was pretty strange considering we were on a lake. How bad could they get? I stumbled outside at 2:30 a.m. to the captain’s den to see what was going on. As I slipped around the corner, I peaked inside. I found a Ghanaian man with his feet propped up on a desk, steering with one hand. Not exactly the most comforting scene. I noticed a radar screen on the desk, its green and black screen picturing a huge mass that we were headed straight towards.

“So why is it getting so rough?” I asked another guy sitting outside, who was shining a flood light, scanning the water.

“Wind,” he replied.

“And there really isn’t a chance this boat would sink, right?”

“Of course not. Yapei Queen lives forever,” he assured me.

Duh. So after a short conversation I decided to sleep again, despite the questionable land mass that we were apparently heading towards. Of course it was a mixture of my semi-consciousness and unnecessary anxiety that made me actually consider that the boat might sink.

Anyways, the next day we were thrown back into the real world, in a small fishing town called Yeji. About five seconds after we stepped off of the boat we were approached by a young Ghanaian man who offered to help us find a place to stay. It was weird, but I’ve learned that this is truly just the welcoming nature of this culture, most of the time at least. A bit peeved, at first we tried to politely decline and walk away, but it was dark and we had no information about the village. So we agreed to let him help. He led us about half a mile down the main road, which was booming with life, to Ebeneezer’s Guesthouse. Seven cedis each. That’s about five dollars a pop for a bed, screened-in windows, a fan and a communal bathroom. We agreed, paid up and were handed the key.

After a dinner consisting of two water sachets and three small mangoes, we decided to call it a night. But no hotel or guesthouse is ever an easy rest, at least not the ones in our price range. The rooms heat up throughout the day, especially when no fan is running, and the hot air gets trapped inside. It was a relatively cool night, but we couldn’t enjoy it because of one little pest: mosquitoes. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes. During night-time you lock yourself inside and them out.

After a while though, your sweat coats you in a layer of consistent moisture and sleeping becomes bearable. Until that point you just have to wait for your body to adapt. The most painful part. So during this tedious time Ruth and I made a list. A “You know you’re in Ghana when…” list. This is how it goes:

You know you’re in Ghana when…

…you can see over the walls of public toilets.

…you are no longer “Mary” or “Bob” but “Oburoni.”

…water and ice cream come in plastic bags that you rip open with your teeth.

…commuting to work alone is a full-body workout. And so is doing laundry.

…you pay money to pee on a wall.

…you can make friends just by walking down the road.

…you find a pebble (yes, as in a small rock) in your dinner.

…the only reliable aspect about the government is that it WILL switch off the power regularly.

…getting a bus ticket is a blood bath.

…you sweat in places you’ve never sweat before.

…egg sandwiches=happiness.

…you are afraid of wild safari animals attacking you in the night.

…your cabinets fall apart because they were put together with flat screws.

…you think you’ve gotten a pretty good tan until you shower and realize it was just a layer of dirt.

Ohhhhh, Ghana.

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“The Week.” Day 1: Mountains. Volta Lake. Upgraded boat tickets. Preparation.

Our journey began when the university van drove away after dropping us in a random village. Billy, our housemate, stared out the back, hands open and waving to us as it hugged the corner of the gravel road, disappearing from sight. This scene gave me chills. Adrenaline blitzed through my veins as I shared a little hop and giggle with Ruth. Two girls, off to see the world. All I needed was strapped to my back and dwelling in my heart.

We asked locals for the cheapest place to stay and were directed to Benkum Hotel, a quaint lake-side villa painted sunset peach with cerulean wooden shutters. The room screamed with simplicity. A ceiling fan turned it into a windy city, swirling hot air in circles above our heads. We spent some time at a local spot sipping Fantas with our feet submerged in the crocodile-infested water of the Volta Lake. A few hours later we strolled down the street for dinner, an unfortunately negative event.

See, some people view oburonis (white people) in a certain light- a rich, stupid-tourist type of light. (Which we aren’t any of, by the way.) The owner of the little chop shop tried to charge us nine cedis for rice and chicken with banku, a five-cedi meal, at most. And we knew it. So we managed to talk them down and cut the price in half. Nothing like bargaining for dinner.

The next day we awoke to a rush of mid-morning heat. After catching a cab to the port, we purchased our tickets for the cargo ship heading north. Then the waiting game began. As the three of us (we met up with our friend, Ben, who was traveling the same direction as us) sank into the cement floor, locals’ gazes shifted to our vicinity. Ruth and I broke a loaf of bread and a banana, much to their entertainment. I made eye contact with a woman dressed ankle-to-neck in bright, elaborate African fabric. Her thick, cheery face split into an amused grin as I bit into my bread. We shared a smile and a chuckle as I continued devouring my carbalicious meal.

Several hours and a few cat naps later, Ruth and I were approached by an extremely tan, bleach-blonde-haired man, his socks pulled up to his mid-calves, complete with sunshine-yellow shoes. As I noticed his obnoxiously interesting foot-ware my eyes scanned up his outfit to his face, which was surprisingly aged. “Skipper” was his name. And he “managed” to have first class tickets, which he “managed” to get by “intercepting information,” a skill that you “manage” to get with “many years of travel and learning how to be in the right places at the right times.” The only thing he was “managing” to do at that moment was genuinely repulse me.

“You dress like a 14-year-old,” I wanted to tell him, as I’d flick off his backward cap and laugh in his wrinkled, leathery face. But instead I just smiled and nodded as I looked over to Ruth, who was knowingly staring at me with bambi-like eyes and puffed cheeks.

After a few more hours, Ruth and I began to grow restless. I wandered over to the office to ask if any cabins were left, just out of curiosity. “You are a very lucky girl,” the officer said to me as he handed me the last cabin slip. As we followed Skipper on-board he turned to us knowingly. “There is a nice little area over on your side of the boat that would probably be a nice place to sleep, just to let you know.”

Little did he know we’d be his neighbors. And for 24 glorious hours we set sail up the beauteous, peaceful Volta Lake. Our air-conditioned cabin was a God send. As the sun slipped over the dewy mountain skyline, I rested against the rusting balcony rail and drew in an abysmal breath. The scenery could have almost been mistaken for the pacific northwest. Our night was tranquil. Relaxing. And much needed relaxation before the long, hectic and frustrating journey ahead of us. Because what we were in for, we never would have guessed.

More to come. Stay tuned. 😛

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Misadventure..

We heard about it in class one day. Our professor, Dr. Okei, was explaining to us how Ghanaians are very cautious- too afraid to take risks, for instance, hang gliding. A typical Ghanaian would never go hang gliding at the Easter festival that weekend in Nkawkaw, a village about three hours north of Accra.

All it took was a quick glance across the desk. Ruth and I locked eyes, and right then I knew it. We were going.

So two days later, there we stood at the STC station, loading on the bus headed to Nkawkaw, which happened to be running an hour late- just in time for us. Two girls. Two backpacks. A change of clothes and a can of bug spray. Some sunglasses and a pair of spirits thirsty for adventure.

Along for the night was our friend from the UK, Barima, whose family originates in Ghana. He showed up to the bus station… sans bag. That’s right- no change of clothes. No tooth-brush. No bug spray. Nothing. I still wonder what was going through that boy’s head when he decided to travel three hours outside of the city, the night’s resting place still unknown.

But after all, he came- dressed in pin-stripe dress pants, a button up blouse, topped off with a red and white silk scarf resting in a tight knot around his neck. But don’t judge a book by its cover. He was ready for anything.

After a seizure-inducing bus ride we hopped off on a street in the middle of Nkawkaw. Stepping out of the air-conditioned oasis and into mid-day Ghana was a brutal slap in the face. Heat? Hello. Sun. How ya doin?

Barima decided to invest in several necessities. A toothbrush, a package of napkins and a polka-dotted, Gap knock-off blouse. An interesting combination for an interesting fellow.

We asked around about the festival and were directed to the top of the mountain looming over the town’s skyline. As we were headed in that direction, searching for a vacant taxi, I spotted a cargo truck filled with water sachets. My gut flipped over itself in my stomach. I had a feeling.

“Mepakyew,” I said to the driver, which means something like “excuse me” or “please” in Twi. “Are you going up the mountain?”

“Yes! We are! Up there!” He pointed towards the peak.

“Can we go with you?” What am I doing? I thought to myself.

“Yes!” He answered back without hesitation.

So then I motioned over to Ruth and Barima and hopped in the front seat of the truck with Ruth tagging behind me. Barima got the truck bed, which was packed with bags of water sachets, along with four or five Ghanaian workers.

Ruth and I exchanged glances and busted out into deep stomach laughter. I remember thinking to myself at the time, ‘This is what you see in movies.’ ‘This is what you read about in books.’

Our truck headed up the incline, barreling around corners and plunging through potholes, the whole time Ruth and I trying to tape or photograph every detail of the journey. I never want to forget how that moment felt. Freedom. The unknown. Just… going with it. Letting the wind take us where it wanted to go.

We got about halfway up the mountain when the trees parted, unveiling one of the most breathtaking views I’ve ever seen. The luscious foliage covered the town in green. A fairy-tale fog insulated the mountain side, but I could still see for miles.

Every car or person we passed would playfully shout to us in the front seat, causing the driver to erupt in a fit of laughter. I’m guessing they were saying something like “What are those crazy white girls doing riding in a sachet truck?”

The driver dropped us off in a village nearly at the peak, where the hang gliders launch from. He motioned to a dirt road that lead up to the festival and suggested getting a one- or two-cedi cab ride. As we were trekking up the mountain-side path, a car pulled next to us.

“Are you all going to the festival?” A plump, older man asked us.

“Yes, we are,” we replied, hesitantly.

“Jump in. I’ll give you a ride up.”

So that was our second free ride of the day. And were we fortunate to get it. The road became drowned in dust later on and all the taxis were covered with orange soot- both inside and out. People used anything- bags, hankies, towels- to shield themselves from it. Our car was air-conditioned, not to mention, the driver was a staff worker for the festival so he managed to bypass all the traffic that held countless others up.

The actual festival was a bit of a bummer. People had been signed up for days, waiting for hours on end to fly. The organization somehow managed to mess up the schedule, which actually isn’t at all surprising (this IS Ghana), and now a “waiting list” had been enacted. After writing our names down on a random piece of paper that a woman was holding, conveniently at numbers 77, 78 and 79, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. One guy had been waiting since 8 a.m. the previous day and didn’t get to go yet. And he was number eight.

But watching the hang gliders run off the cliff was pretty intense. An entire plot of land was cleared out and used as a take-off ramp. Only foreigners were actually hang gliding, but hundreds of Ghanaians lined the launch pad, clapping, hooting and hollering every time an oboruni would take off.

After the last jumper we decided to head down the dusty mountain once again, to journey over a few villages, to Ruth’s friend’s grandmother’s house. I was just going along for the ride. But we had a few problems. One, it was getting dark. Two, all the traffic was headed in the opposite direction. Three, we started walking directly into a lightning storm. After we managed to talk a taxi driver into switching directions at the promise of a few extra cedis, we were on our way.

Although it was dark, the bolts from the storm lit up the seemingly endless night sky, illuminating the rolling countryside of African rain forest. The breeze washed over my face. It smelled like rain. With the windows down, the crickets singing sweet, I closed my eyes. It almost felt like riding home from Heisler’s on a summer night.

We eventually arrived at the village and met Kwame’s (Ruth’s friend) grandmother. She was the epitome of a Ghanaian grandmother, by the way. Her skin, leathery and textured, seemed to speak measures. Even though she hardly knew a word of English, her eyes delivered a message of warmth and welcoming love. Perched on a fragile wooden bench, she offered us a room for the night. Her grandson escorted us across the town to where we would stay.

Let me tell you, Easter is one strange holiday here. You’d think (you know with it being a religious holiday and all) they’d be early to bed and early to rise, eager to attend church, but no. On Easter eve, they party. On Easter morning, they party. And they party hard. On our way to the room we found a huge group of locals dancing, drinking, clapping and shouting. The party continued all through the night, long after we laid our heads down to sleep.

Speaking of which, our sleeping arrangements were kind of… out of this world. A random room in an open-air house, nestled deep inside the village. Ruth and I slept on a bed of hay. No, really. The mattress was stuffed with hay and covered in a single sheet. Barima slept on the dirt-covered, deteriorating couch. (A true gentleman. There’s still hope!) And strangely, it was one of the best nights of sleep I’ve gotten in this country.

So after 12 hours of rest and zero mosquito bites later (go me!) we were off again. Sitting in the tro-tro during the ride home I was both disappointed and pleased. On the negative front- no hang gliding. A HUGE bummer. But then again, getting there was the fun of it. How many people can say they’ve hitch hiked up a mountain, witnessed an African lightning storm over the rain forest, been welcomed into a random village by the cutest Ghanaian grandmother ever made and had an amazing night of sleep on a hay bed?

From start to end, I’ll never forget a detail of our mini-journey. A misadventure that turned out to be one of the fondest memories here in Ghana.

Another day, another adventure (that was actually a misadventure). Always.

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Mondays are manic, even in foreign countries.

On Mondays and Tuesdays I wake up before the sun. I dash my coffee with a spoon of local cocoa powder. I love that. : ) Breakfast. Some prayer. Then I usually take a walk over to the Aya Centre, where I take classes, and get online for a bit. After I muster up the courage to emerge back into the African heat, I head to work.

My tro-tro stop, “Okponglo,” is across the motorway. In the morning the traffic is so bad that it’s usually packed, at a stand-still, all the way up to my stop. I head to another bus stop about just two or three miles away, and somehow it takes 40 minutes. Yay for city traffic! On the tro-tro ride I have a wide choice of entertainment available from my window. Women and men walk up and down the aisles of traffic selling gum, newspapers, plantain chips and fried dough from their heads. One time I saw a man selling dog collars and mirrors. How convenient.

By this time the sun starts beaming down rays of torturous heat, and the air-condition-free tro-tros seem to be a death sentence. Until they start to move. The tro-tro windows don’t close. Ever. Sometimes there are even holes in the side of the vehicles. I’m not sure if they are purposeful holes or not, but either way, I like them. Air circulation is a good thing.

After I get off at the bus stop “Shangrila,” I walk down the busy motorway and to a quaint side street, where I catch another tro-tro going into Nima, the slum I teach in. The ride into work is anything but boring. It starts off in a pretty little community called “Nyaho,” where big, colorful houses dot the spotless streets, lined by fruit trees and various palms.

After barreling around several corners, the scenery makes an abrupt switch. Palm trees become sewage gutters. The streets quickly fill with people. The dirt picks up, coating life in an orange, grimy film. By this time the day has turned brutally hot. No fans. No air conditioning. You’re at the mercy of the African sun.

The tro-tro ride home is one of the happiest feelings. I live for that- the mixture of relief and accomplishment. A fresh breeze and a joyful heart.

Home. My lime tree, the fruit just sweet enough to eat plain and raw, but still accompanied by a good kick. A fan and shade to retreat from the rest of the world. It is a beautiful thing.

Our guard, George, has let me take his bike out a few times. Riding down the streets and back roads of my neighborhood, I get some stares, a few laughs and a lot of happiness. His bike is the epitome of a 70s child’s dream: sloping lines, a thick, duct-taped seat, a basket and a bell.

But on my last trip it was completely falling apart, hopefully not at my fault. Coming down our street, it brutally jolted to a stop and I nearly flew off. “Oh! Sorry!” said every Ghanaian within 10 feet of me. They always do that here- apologize even when it is something completely unrelated to their actions. I find that so endearing. After regaining composure, I was off again, when a random metal object fell from the bike into the street. I stopped and picked it up, figuring it was probably important.

Once I entered our gates, I frantically informed George of the mishap.
“Um.. George…. I am SO sorry, but this thing just popped off! I have no idea why or how.. but..”

“Oh! Yes. That happens much. Okay. No problem!” he interjects.

And yes, that was it. Just another example of the attitude of these people: No worries. We’re safe, healthy and alive. It’s just stuff. These are just things.

Just things. : )

Life is good. Another day, another adventure. Always.

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I’m baaaaack.

Woke up today. Realized where I was. Realized the opportunities that lie in front of me. And things just, got better. Not much time to blog, but I just wanted to throw that out there. Life really is what you make of it. We are capable of standing whatever we are being put through.

So now when I’m frustrated and want to cry, I laugh. When I’m walking down the street and people start yelling at me, I yell back. When it’s so hot that I feel as though my skin is about to melt off of my body, I find ways to cope. Mostly this involves as little clothing as possible and lots of cold water.

Either way- it’s working. I’ll be putting some effort into the next blog. I’ve got some goooood stories to share and catch every one up on. Peace. : )

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