Reflections on Ghana: Part 1

   

  

 In 2011, I embarked on my biggest adventure yet. I was spending the summer abroad in Cape Coast, Ghana with 14 other Mizzou students. I must admit, going to Africa, was never on the top of my travel priorities. I had never gone out of the country and I always imagined my first trip abroad being in Europe and gallivanting in Paris. I knew that at some point, I would embark on a journey in an African country but never did I imagine Ghana as my very first travel experience.

  
I tend take things as signs, so when I saw the flyer advertising a service trip in Ghana three times, I knew that it was in the cards for me to go. My sophomore year of college, I had gotten more involved with service and had recently switched my major from business to political science. It all seemed to fit so perfectly together. I jumped at the chance. I had no clue how I would pay for the trip and I knew absolutely nothing about Ghana but I decided I would go, so go I did. (I highly recommend applying for the Gilman Scholarship if you qualify).
After struggling and worrying about how I would pay for the trip, it finally worked itself out (Thank you Jesus). I found myself on the longest flight ever (around 11 hours total) heading to Ghana. On my way from the restroom on the flight, a Ghanaian woman promptly handed me her baby and instructed me to sit in her so that she could go to the restroom. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but it was the first Ghanaian encounter I had. In America, a stranger would not dare hand their child to a stranger but in Ghana, I found that trust was a given. Raising a child was a community task and this flight was no different. I learned about the trusting nature of Ghanaian people before I even landed.
  
Fast forward to landing. I arrived in Accra on a sunny June day. There was no bridge way from the plane to the airport. We walked down the steps of the plane and into the airport. (I later found out this was not uncommon anywhere. This was my second flight ever, the first being the shuttle to DC for this flight). Going through customs was kind of frightening for me. I had never been out of the country and no one told me what to do. I was surrounded by a rainbow of languages. A friend and myself, navigated our way through the airport to find our ride. We had been told very strict guidelines about how to conduct ourselves in the airport. We were told not to let a cabby touch our bags. If one touched our bags we would be obligated to tip him regardless of the fact that his service was unwarranted.
We searched for the escort from the organization called Proworld. My university had partnered with them for group internships. Proworld was a NGO that provided interns and funding from the interns to local nonprofits, schools and clinics. The idea was that we would help provide a sustainable structure for the organization we assisted. (yes, cue the American savior music). 
We finally found our escorts without problem. We waited awhile for other Americans to arrive. My friend and I were arriving a few days earlier than the rest of the Mizzou students, so we were going to be with home stay interns for the next day or so. When we finally hit the road, we drove from Accra, the country’s capital to Cape Coast. The drive was long and tedious. Ghanaian traffic is notoriously bad so a trip that should have been about two hours took more than four. Luckily, I had a seat in the front of the 17 passenger van. I was able to get a quick tour of the country that would be my home for the next 5 weeks. I remember the dirt being so red and bright. It was like nothing I had ever seen. Driving between cities was like driving in between different worlds. Certain parts of Accra were adorned with multi colored mansions and buildings. Outside of the capital lie make shift shacks and homes barely big enough for one. While some of the sights were devastating, it still had a beauty to it that one could only understand when there. Businesses and homes were covered in cell phone logos. Children and women walked up and down the roads and through traffic selling water pouches, and plantain chips on their heads. 

After driving for hours, we finally arrived to our pro world house (its been a long time, so I do not remember the name of my town L). We arrived late night and everyone was jet lagged. We ate a quick and short meal made by our house cook, Elizabeth. Then we all went to bed for what would be our first night in Ghana. I fell asleep dreaming about how the rest of my Ghanaian adventure would go.

What I was seeing was just a precursor to what I would soon know as Ghana. Ghana is a land filled with beauty, inspiration, and love as well as, poverty, oppression and despair. My trip to Ghana, thus far, has been the most enlightening trip I have had.

Stay tuned for a more on my Ghanaian reflection. 

   
 -Imani

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Things I Learned in Europe



 

I am not much of a planner.  As I have said in previous posts; life rarely goes according to plan, so I rarely make them. This being said, I learned a lot while in Europe about traveling and making arrangements.  My previous abroad experience  in Ghana was somewhat structured by my university.  Also, in Ghana you really don’t have to plan. Everyone there is very laid back and lively. Ghana is inexpensive so doing things last minute doesn’t harm your budget at all. Europe is polar opposite.  

 

In Europe, the better you are at making arrangements in advance, the better your chances are of saving money and having a smooth trip.  For Americans, traveling within Western Europe can be costly compared to traveling in other places (our currency is generally worth less than the Euro, Pound and Franc).  Learn from my mistakes and plan ahead if possible.

 

1. Peeing is not free!

Most major European cities charge for the use of public restrooms.  In most train stations, malls, and attractions, you will pay about one euro or franc to use the restroom. This being said, keep your coins.  Many European countries have coins that value up to 5 (euros, franks, pounds), so discarding these coins are costly.  You never know when you have to go.  Most small business and restaurants do not have restrooms for the public, so be prepared.

2.The Eurorail is trash

This is obviously based on my own experience but the Eurorail is not the money saver it seems to be.  The Eurorail pass is very complicated and has lots of fine print.  It costs about $400 -$500 for about 8 travel days. The countries you choose must all border each other and if those countries are not a popular ticket choice, you will need to order in advanced or get it online. Most major cities require you to reserve a seat, which will run you about $60 USD or more roundtrip. If you do not reserve seats earlier enough, you run the risk of the train being booked.  (You can still board the train, but you end up standing or sitting on the floor.)  If you choose to use the Eurorail, I recommend using it for Eastern Europe.  The countries tend to be closer together and there is less need for seat reservation.  The train can be time consuming if your destinations are not close.

3.Flying is the way to go

Flying in Europe is a dream.  It can be very cost efficient to catch a flight, not to mention time saving.  I flew from Geneva, Switzerland to London, England for $70 USD round trip and booked my ticket only two weeks before my trip. There are several travel sites that make flying cheap. I booked my flight directly through EasyJet (European Airline).  There is also Ryan Airlines and Skyscanner.com is also a great way find cheap flights.  Note:  if you use these airlines, the only bags that are free are carry-ons.  They can be very strict about the sizes of the carry-on, so check for measurements and do not push it.  Also, give yourself plenty of time to get through airport security, some airports are very small and cannot always get through people quickly. 

4.Booking a Room or Hostel

Hostels are popular among young travelers in Europe.  Hotels can be really expensive, so it is worth it for your budget to either book a hostel or rent a room or couch from someone. Hostels typically house anywhere from 3-10 people in a room.  (You can get a private or two person room but it isn’t cost efficient.) It sounds scary, especially if you’ve watch movies about Americans in foreign countries but really hostels can be a great environment.  In Barcelona, our hostel was very clean, had free breakfast, lots of young people and was in the center of town. I met some very cool people who recommended restaurants, tours and activities.  I even met a girl with the same name as me!  However, book ahead if possible.  In Paris, we did not book a room in advance and boy, oh boy did we regret it.  We stayed in a shabby hostel that was questionable in cleanliness and their idea of a complimentary breakfast was the vending machine.  Needless to say I slept on my sweater.  



imani and imani


If you aren’t a fan of Hostels and prefer a more private experience, try using AirBnB.  It’s a great website and app that is growing.  Locals rent out a room or sometimes their entire apartment. I didn’t personally get to use it but everyone who I know that did, enjoyed it.  If the host was there, they often acted as a person tour guide.  I tried to use AirBnB but my procrastination made it impossible for me to book anything.  Just because a space is available does not mean they will agree to you booking the space.  Remember these are people’s home.  They usually want enough to prepare for you.  They need to check their schedules, so give yourself minimum a week to book (and that may be cutting it close).

5.Always bring a Student ID

Even if you are not a student anymore.  Europe is all about the youth.  Most museums, attractions and activities offer a discount to students.  This can really help you shave down the cost of your activities.  Note; If you are in Paris, the Louvre will not give you a discount unless your school is located in the European Union. BOOOO!  However, the Eiffel Tower gives discounts to anyone under 24. 




6.Bring a Water bottle

Again, there are not a whole lot of water fountains and water in most restaurants are not free.  If you do order water, make sure you ask for tap water, otherwise you get overpriced bottled water.  It is better to just pack your own water and fill up on those rare occasions you find a water fountain.

***Bonuses****

*Paris smells like pee.  In fact a lot of urban Europe does.  *The toilets use very little water, so they smell as well. *Find the free beaches.  A lot of European beaches don’t have sand. (Spain does, they import it). * Doing laundry is expensive.  Learn to hand wash.  *If you are there for an extended time period, know that you will not have an oven.  Your refrigerator is miniature. *Starbucks is ridiculously expensive.  *PB&J is always in style.  *The European metro system is really good in urban cities. *Train Stations double as malls, don’t get sucked in.

 



I hope you all get the chance to visit Europe one day.  Learn from my mistakes.  I promise you will save soooooo much money and time.

 

-Imani





Barcelona, I love you

Paella.  Very common spanish cuisine.
Paella. Very common spanish cuisine.

Of the five European cities I’ve visited so far, Barcelona is hands down my favorite city. It has a culture about it that is very different than the other European cities I visited. It is festive, a constant celebration. It’s a city full of hustlers and the political history of this city runs rampant.  There is so much to do in Barcelona and so many people to meet. It’s an excellent place for travelers. Travelers in Barcelona have an agreed upon bond. When you embark on a journey in this city, you can never be alone, you have a traveler’s family.

Laughing in Spain
Laughing in Spain

“I am in love with [Barcelona]. Probably more than Paris. Barcelona has so many hidden beauties in all of its nooks and crannies. It is seriously like a concrete old world maze. The architecture is typical Europe but with more gothic finishes than you could image. It’s so urban and so festive. If I could live in a European city it would be Barcelona. The entire city is filled with old world charm. The city is built upon war, blood and corruption and the evidence of the differences in political views are everywhere. Even still there is something so mesmerizing about this place…” –excerpt of my journal while there.

City view in the Parc de Guille
City view in the Parc de Guille

Where I Stayed:

I stayed in a hostel called Equity Point Gothic. Equity Point has numerous hostels throughout Europe (The US also) and three in Barcelona. I highly recommend staying in Equity Point Gothic. It was a great location and a great hostel for young people travelling. The hostile itself is very clean. You get a complimentary breakfast (if you get up early enough). They provide you with clean linen and there are lockers for your belongings. You can choose to stay in large rooms by sex, mixed rooms or pay more for more private rooms. A lot of people use Air BnB in Barcelona and this is a great option as well. However, I think hostiles such as Equity Point allow you to meet and interact with other travelers much better. I also highly recommend storing some of the fruit and breakfast foods in your bag for snacking later in the day. Because we were in such a great location, we hardly used public transit. Location is everything, so do your research on where you are staying.

http://www.equity-point.com/our-hostels/gothic-point-hostel/general-information.html 

Catalonian musician
Catalonian musician

What I Did:

I did pretty much everything. I’m not big on the travel guidebooks. I find them to have too much fluff and they aren’t always current. Instead I used Google and Trip Advisor. I literally googled “Things to do in Barcelona”. Google will provide pictures of popular locations and activities at the top of your search. Trip Advisor provides you with prices, reviews and current hours. From these two methods, I found myself in the Parc de Guille, Sagrada Familia, Museu Picasso (museum), Santa Maria del Mar (catholic church), Casa Batllo and more. (Bring a student ID. Barcelona has student prices for pretty much everything).

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My first day in Barcelona, I went on a walking tour recommended by the front desk agent at my hostel. Walking tours are great. They are tip based, so it’s really affordable and because you are walking, you get to see more and you have more time to take pictures in front of sites. It was also a really great way to get to know other travelers. Through this tour and my awesome tour guide, I learned about Catalunya and Barcelona’s history. I was so amazed to see how few people in Barcelona/Catalunya identified as Spanish. There are Catalunyan flags hanging everywhere! We did the two hour tour, so I couldn’t begin to tell you everything I saw. There is also a strong Jewish history here, take a stroll through the Jewish Quarters and learn about their exile.

Again, I highly recommend being friendly with other travelers. Through word of mouth, I learned about an awesome Flamenco dance show, great restaurants, and received directions to the beach. There are so many hidden gems here, so be sure to talk to some strangers.

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What to Watch Out For:

Barcelona is a city full of hustlers. Watch your shit! It is the pick pocketing capital of Europe. I know so many people who have been pick pocketed while there. Ladies, I highly recommend you use bags with longer, thicker straps that you can wear across your bodies. Keep the bag in the front. Guys, I also recommend you invest in a nice man bag or a shoulder backpack that you can keep in front. Traditional bookbags can easily be stolen from so I don’t recommend their use. Also, do not carry all of your cash in one place. I recommend having a smaller amount in one place for use so that you aren’t pulling out large wads of cash. Barcelona hustlers are always watching, so be careful.

beach babes
beach babes

Also, there are a lot of street vendors. This is normal in Europe however, DO NOT BUY ALCHOLIC DRINKS FROM STREET VENDERS. It is illegal and unsafe. It is not uncommon for there to dangerous ingredients in these drinks. On the beaches, it will seem like its ok because there are so many and they have a legitimate looking set up but it is still not safe and still illegal. Buy your drinks from restaurants or shops only.

Also if you go to the Parc de Guille, do not be shocked if the loads of park vendors disappear at the sight of a cop. Buy from them while you can because they may be gone when you get back.

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There is so much more I could say about Barcelona and its treasures but I will stop here. At a later date, I can review some of the places I visited in depth. I will say that the top three places/activities I did in Barcelona were: The Parc de Guille, the walking tour and the flamenco show!

I hope this helps for those who are considering going to Barcelona. Feel free to comment with questions or your own Spanish stories.

-Imani