Why I Travel

I often don’t like excess attention. There are some days when I just want to slink back into my chair in class and just let the day wash over me. But there is one thing I’ll never let go by: an opportunity to talk about travel. If a big trip or vacation is mentioned, my ears will perk up immediately. And when someone catches my eyes, they almost always say, “Well, what do you think about it Matt?” I happily oblige every time: you can never give up a good chance for some travel story sharing.

That’s why I wanted to start write this blog. Seeing the sights is great when traveling, but the best part of traveling is meeting people along the way and trading stories. They tell you about the 16,000 foot mountain they scaled in Nepal, and you talk about the time your friend got heli-evacuated out of the British Columbia wilderness (ask me about it sometime). The connection is immediate: you both experienced events many others will never get the chance to experience. It’s an instant community.

Getting out of the house is one thing, but getting out of the country is a totally different experience. I have been lucky enough to have the chance to travel all over the world. The defining experiences of my life so far have occurred outside the expanse of the Red, White, and Blue. I have also been especially lucky that my travel companions have been my parents and my brother. Though I might not have agreed during those 3 hour traffic jams in India or getting lost in Venice, I do realize that those trips became a the bonding experience for us. I knew myself better for getting outside my own comfort zone, and knew my family better because the crazy mix of emotions on a trip only made me better understand the intricacies of their personalities.

Travel is in my blood now. I have only been back from Ghana for 3 months now, but I’m already rearing to head out of here again. Home is comfortable, warm, and loving, but life needs a stir every once in a while.

Tomorrow might be a slouch-back-in-the-chair day, but soon my mind will be wandering away from centripetal force, fundamental theorems, and college applications, out to the wider world. And that’s where I want to be. Travel shakes things up. It makes life dynamic, engaging, and exciting.

So go out and explore the unknown world. That’s where I’ll be.

Happy travels,

Matt

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“L”: challenging the nature of gender relations in Ghana

Note: This is a little out of place, but I wanted to write a little more in depth on one of my encounters in Ghana. Refer back to the Ada-foah post for context.

Her name was Lilly, or Leila, or Le-ann, or something like that. The fact of the matter is that it didn’t really matter. Name meant nothing for her, especially one that would tie her back to her gender. This is because gender meant nothing for her. It wasn’t the limitation that most of her compatriots would see it as. Gender did not define her intelligence, confidence, or self-esteem.

It was truly a relief. Finally a Ghanaian woman with the spirit to become a doctor.

My stay as a volunteer with Village Exchange Ghana was only a week long at that point, but even in that short amount of time, one issue had become deafeningly clear: women were not equal in society.

This fact tore at my heart.

While walking the streets of Ho, the city in the Volta Region of Ghana where I was volunteering, it was easy to observe the sharp divide between the jobs of females and those of males. The women were models of beauty and strength, carefully molded together to create a graceful machine. Skull crushing amounts of materials and goods to sell at the market laid in a magical teetering balancing act upon their heads. Meanwhile, the men lounged lazily on benches in their roadside shops, drifting in and out of slumber. The entire time I was in Ho, no man ever hawked a single item to me or invited me into his store. That was pleasant for me, but the underlying meaning of this comfort was unsettling. I knew my pleasure was derived from the Ghanaian man’s lack of effort. It was an attitude problem. The men gave minimal energy to their jobs because they knew the women would clean, cook, and support the family from sales of goods at the market.

The worst part was that most women accepted the divide as a fact of life. The little Ghanaian girls that often stopped by the office to use the free library were an example of how this acceptance was ingrained in their minds early on. If you asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up, they would exclaim, “a seamstress!” or “a teacher!”

That is why I was so surprised to hear “L”, as I now affectionately call her, tell me her dream to attend medical school. We had met merely by chance while I was walking along a beach in Ada-foah, enjoying some rays during a weekend trip to the coast. But she joyously started up a conversation. When she began to talk about her career aspirations, I fully expected her to cry out, “a nurse!”, if she was interested in medicine. That was the Ghanaian way, or so I thought.

No.

Instead, “L” envisioned a much better life for herself. She was not going to be subordinate to any man. “L” was going to work hard at her secondary school in Accra (the capital of Ghana), attend a top Ghanaian university, graduate at the top of her class, and go to medical school. She wanted to be the best. “L” realized how much Ghana needed trained doctors. Thousands die every year because they lack access to quality healthcare. More doctors like “L” will mean a stronger Ghana for all.

The confidence that “L” exuded was contagious. As she learns to become a doctor, I am certain that she will be a revolutionary in her field and in her country. “L” is just a girl now, but she is breaking gender barriers in Ghana. I know her passion will mend my torn heart.

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Grace Abdjei

Second follow-up interview. Another borrower I met during my trip.

Grace Abdjei is an expressive and confident woman, concealing all signs of the great losses she has suffered already at the age of 32: both of her children died at a young age and she is now divorced from her husband. In addition, the lack of support at home and her difficulties in school, meant that she was not able to fulfill her dream of going to university.

Instead, she went to Accra where she worked as a maid in order to earn a living and at the same time she managed to acquire a respectable proficiency in English. This was, however, only an intermediate solution for Grace, as she aspired to start her own business in the region where she originally comes from. In 2005 she finally decided to move to Dodome Avexa near Ho in the Volta Region and about three years ago she opened her own little business selling many different kinds of snacks and basic household items.

In order to expand her business she took a loan from Village Exchange International (VEG) of GHS 250 (USD 165 or EUR 115) which she used to buy bowls for her business and thereby increase her product offering. Her small business is now a quasi general store.

In the future she dreams of opening a larger store where she will sell many more products both for her own village and for neighbouring villages. Small loans like this one will provide her with the opportunity to achieve this goal.

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Evelyn Agbo

Catching up on some interviews. One more coming soon!

150 kilometers. That’s the farthest Evelyn Agbo has ever been from the confines of her remote village an hour outside the small Ghanaian city of Ho. Her visit to family members in Accra, the capital city, only lasted a week. Then it was straight back to her hometown. Many would say this would put her in isolation, but in fact, it has helped her understand the demands of her customers. Evelyn is an entrepreneur. She started her own business cooking and selling rice & beans and kenkey, a dough made of ground maize, to local farmers and schoolchildren. She operates her stand just outside her father’s house and uses his kitchen to make her food products.

Evelyn and her food stand.

Evelyn was born and grew up in the very same village. She graduated from junior high school just down the road and attended vocational school to learn the culinary trade. Evelyn eventually got married to a man in the village and had one son with him, five years old now, named Godson Abote. In order to help support her new family, Evelyn had to find some work.

At first, Evelyn worked for a fried fish saleswoman in the village. She worked on commission, getting one Ghana cedi (about €.50 or $0.66) for every 5 cedi bag that she could sell. A bag usually took her a day or two to sell, so Evelyn could not earn enough to significantly supplement her husband’s income.

Like so many other Ghanaians looking to improve their lifestyles, Evelyn took hold of the enterprising spirit inside of her and started a business.

At first, Evelyn was only able to sell rice & beans, but this did not bode well for her success. Many of her customers in the early morning hours were farmers heading out to their fields for the day. They found that the rice & beans did not satisfy their appetite enough, so some began to buy breakfast elsewhere. Evelyn wanted to start a business selling kenkey and fried fish (her own this time), but she did not have the capital to buy the supplies she needed.

In came VEG (Village Exchange Ghana). The organization had previously been operating some microloans in the village, but when Evelyn heard that VEG was planning a new cycle to start in July 2011, she jumped at the opportunity. Evelyn was approved for a loan of 200 Ghana cedis, and on July 5th 2011, the loan was finally disbursed.

Evelyn used some of the money to start the kenkey business, buying maize in bulk from the market. With the other money, Evelyn bought more rice to be able to continue to offer rice & beans, and bought her own fried fish to sell in the village. She now goes to Ho, the closest major city, by tro-tro (the local public transportation) every market day to buy a new supply of fish. The fish goes great with both the rice and the kenkey, and so far her customers seem to be very satisfied with the increased diversity of choices.

With more happy customers, Evelyn has been able to increase the volume of food she sells each day. Evelyn’s microloan has also enabled her to earn more money from selling fish. Now from a 25 cedi bag of fish, Evelyn earns a profit of 7 cedis, instead of the 5 cedis she would get before. And because sales have picked up in pace, she profits much more than she did from her commission job.

Evelyn has used her business knowledge to set up an interesting system with her kenkey competitors in the community. With a decline in customers after the December harvest (fewer farmers going to farm in the mornings), she realized that they were driving each other out of business. Evelyn and her competitor across the street came to a deal that everyone in the village could benefit from. They split the week into two, each having three days during which they could sell kenkey. They set the same price for their kenkey, picking a value which they knew was reasonable for people in the community to pay.

Evelyn’s limited travels have kept her close to her community for her entire life. Having a hand on the pulse of the village, Evelyn knows the demands of her customers well, and this has played a key role in helping her find success as an entrepreneur. Evelyn picks certain days or times of day to sell each product during the week depending on a variety of factors, like events going on or the time of year. For example, on the last day of school, Evelyn decided not to sell rice & beans. Schoolchildren coming back from school are her biggest customer for this dish, but she knew they would be having parties at school and would have already eaten before reaching her stand. Evelyn also doesn’t usually sell rice & beans until the afternoon because of the farmers’s preference for kenkey. She is a sharp businesswoman, tailoring the product to best suit her customers.

She’s a dreamer too. Evelyn has plans to start a restaurant in the village. She wants to hire employees and cook a wider variety of dishes to suit every palette. As long as VEG is offering microloans, Evelyn plans to continue to use them to fuel her business, giving her the power to rise up out of poverty.

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“After”

Today, I hit the worst button possible on this WordPress blog: “Add new category.” That new category was “After”, meaning that this post officially calls my trip to Ghana to a close.

The flights went smoothly, the planes took off and landed on time, and my brother was only 15 minutes late to pick us up from the airport (well, that’s mostly our fault, Customs and Immigration was pretty fast).

Now I can look forward to the joys of Band Camp, finishing summer reading assignments, getting in shape for cross country season, and the beautiful monster known as the Common App. But at no time will my trip be too far from my mind. Even over the past 36 hours, there have been countless moments where something simple reminds me of Ghana in some way. I’m still hesitating to drink water out of a faucet, having mini panic attacks when I feel a mosquito bite me, and confused when my dog actually allows me to pet him (Ghanaian dogs aren’t treated so nicely by….well anyone; if you reach out to pet a dog, it thinks you are going to hit him/her).

I will remember the friendly people I met, the amazing mini-trips I got to experience on the weekends, and chilling out with my fellow volunteers. But as I revert back to my privileged lifestyle, I know my most permanent memory will be all of the young women starting and expanding businesses in the rural villages of Ghana’s Volta Region. With each shower I take, each refrigerator-chilled drink I sip, and each day of my free high school education, I’ll be thinking of Anita, Edith, Evelyn, Margaret, Etonam, and all of the other women I had the honor to meet and work with. While I can sit back and enjoy the rest of my summer, they are out there working hard so they can increase their profits and repay their loans. While I have the opportunity of secondary education handed to me on a silver platter, those women will be struggling to pay to even send their children to junior high.

It’s not fair, but we can make it better than it is. For me, this “After” is merely after the trip. It’s after seeing the hardship, after understanding the disparity, and after realizing our power to do something life-changing for these women.

I’ll be perfectly clear: microfinance will not be the be all, end all solution to an immense problem like poverty. Heck, for a couple of these women, it might not do anything at all. But microfinance is one element of chipping away at the income disparity that defines the world.

This experience will stick to my mind like the Play-doh stuck to those Ghanaian children’s fingers the first time they ever mixed up that wonderful, vibrantly colorful molding clay.

Thanks for reading, and stick around if you would like. There will be a few extra things going up that I didn’t have the chance to blog about earlier.

The traveling is finished….at least for this summer. Backpacking through Europe anyone?

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Leaving home for home

The reason why I have not posted for the past couple days is simple: it would have meant acknowledging that my trip is ending and I’m heading back home to New York. My trip to Alaska last summer was my first month-long trip away from home in my life. I found it extremely difficult to readjust to everyday life coming back from that trip. The people you meet, the things you see; you get a bit spoiled when everything is new and exciting all of the time. Ghana really has become a home over the past month. I’m sad to leave this country that has been so good to me and my family. I’m sure I’ll find myself a little disappointed once my flight lands in New York about 26 hours from now (hopefully, but more on that later).

But before I have to deal with any of that baggage, let’s recap the past three days.

Wednesday:

My mom, my dad, and I went on a little tour of the area around Kumasi, self-guided this time. There are three different villages on the same main road, each specializing in a particular type of traditional craft. We took a taxi out to the furthest one, Adanwomase, and then took tro-tros (basically rusted public transport vans that are falling apart) back towards Kumasi, stopping at the other villages.

Adanwomase specializes in kente cloth weaving. Every single man in town knows how to weave, so there are weaving stations set up beside every house, each making slightly different designs to sell in their stores on the main street.  These men start as young as 10 years old, so they are truly masters of their craft, effortlessly manipulating the string into complex patterns without a single moment of hesitation. They use a combination of strings, foot pedals, and at least three different spools of fabric to make each strip of cloth. And I still don’t get exactly how it all works. Nevertheless, it’s a true wonder to watch.

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Next, we headed on to the village of Ntonso, which supposedly is the center of adrinka stamping. This process involves special symbols carved from wood that are dipped in dye made from tree bark and pressed onto clothing to make intricate designs. Unfortunately, once we paid for the guided tour (about $3), we were told that there was only one guy who still made the cloth, and he only did it because tourists came around and wanted to see it. There wasn’t much to see and there was little enthusiasm in the craft making, so we left pretty quickly.

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Traditional adrinka (left) and an example of Ghana’s never ending love for our president: Obamadrinka (right).

Our last stop was the small village of Ahwiaa. This village specializes in wood carvings. Because of a funeral occurring in the town that night, many of the carvers were off preparing for the occasion, so there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity to watch people carve. But luckily, a few were carving, so we stayed and watched for 20 minutes. It was a little funny to learn that much of the wood they used for carving is imported from Brazil, but I guess Ghana is no stranger to globalization.

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Another tro-tro ride and we were back in Kumasi. We got word that the gold mine in nearby Obuasi was closed to visitors, so we instead decided to head back to Accra a day earlier than originally planned.

Thursday and Friday (today)

Yesterday was mostly spent on a bus. I did long bus ride things like listen to my iPod, read my book (Kiterunner), and look out the window for long stretches of time. I think that particular six hours of my life needs little explanation on this blog. But six hours after we headed out from Kumasi on a nice coach bus (the luxury option of transport at $15), we arrived in Accra, the capital and the home of Kotoka International Airport.

After getting in last night, we stayed at a nice hotel right on the coastline, and then headed off to a different one today that would allow us to hang out for the entire day at their pool for a few bucks. Our flight isn’t until a little after 10pm tonight, and as my mom and I figured out when we stayed in Accra at the beginning of our trip, there’s not much to do in the capital. The museums are disappointing and pricy and there’s not much in the way of tourist attractions. Sitting by a pool was our best option to waste some time before our flight.

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So here I am (see that devilishly handsome guy above? yeah, that’s me), sitting next to a pool, not quite feeling like I’m in Ghana, but instead, like I could be at a nice beach resort anywhere in the world. But it’s important to remember the real Ghana of the last 29 days. The harshness of daily life, the broken down roads, the inspiring amount of construction projects, the unbending spirit of the entrepreneurs I met, and of course, those great Ghanaian smiles.

In an hour or two, we’ll be off to the airport. The stress is building because we’re not quite sure if we are going to get on the airplane. We have standby tickets, and there’s only 8 seats open on the plane. With a little bit of luck, I’ll be sitting on Big Apple tarmac in about a day’s time, but there’s a decent chance I could be hanging out here for a day or two more.

But, despite the uncertainty, here’s my goodbye.

It’s been good Ghana. Maybe I won’t be back here for a while, but I’ll be sure to make it back to Africa soon. There’s no place where life seems so pure and simple as this lowercase “q” of a continent.

Note: I’ll be blogging some reflections on the trip, extra interviews, and random posts that I forgot to put up before retiring this blog for good, so don’t stop coming back just yet. I’ll be sure to let you know when everything is done.

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Kumasi in a day: Ashanti palaces and a never-ending market

The teeming masses traveled beneath, more people going about their daily schedules than I could ever imagine.

Comfort, a local Ghanaian guide, had just brought us up to the top of an unnamed tower overlooking Kejetia market. The view was astounding. On one side, we saw a gigantic crowd of Ghanaians heading towards the market for the start of the day’s trading. On the other side was the market itself, an expanse of metal containers arranged into neat blocks continuing as far as the eye could see.

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The people going to market

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See that blurry brown and silver that stretches beyond in the top middle? That’s more shops and stalls than you could ever possibly imagine.

It was a view we would have never seen had it not been for the guide. The tower was unmarked and we never would have known that people off the street could even ascend its tiny winding steps. The tower gave us a great view of our next objective: a full scale traverse through the winding passages of Kejetia Market, the largest open-air market in West Africa.

So with one final glance, we headed back down to the “trading floor.” With over 10,000 registered shops (yes, they actually pay dues and there’s a big bounded book with the name of each one), you can find any product you could ever dream of somewhere in the market. From clothes irons to wholesale quantities of mouthwash, from imported Moroccan dates to expensive colonial-era trade beads, there’s something for every taste, no matter how discerning or specific.

One of the most fun things to do was seeing all of the craftsmen who work right in the market. There are rows beyond rows of people making all types of traditional Ghanaian cloth as well as custom fitted sandals. Everyone was happy to show us what they were working on, stopping their busy schedules (well, actually some were sleeping) for a few minutes to demonstrate the ins and outs of gluing wooden sandal bottoms to the leather or embroidering ornate designs onto dresses.

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The stalls were interminable, but after about two and half hours (counting the numerous stops at shops), we had finally walked across the market, or as least one route through its intricate maze. And thanks to our guide, even though we could hardly keep our directions straight, we managed to emerge out of the market right where we could catch a taxi to our next destination: the Ashantehene Palace complex.

Saying goodbye to our guide Comfort, we headed on to the former residence of three Ashanti (or Asante) kings. They were the rulers of the Ashanti kingdom and had led the fight against the British colonialists during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The former palace has been converted into a museum (the new one is off limits for obvious reasons, the current king lives there year round). It still contains the refrigerator and TV that the kings used, as well as Madame Tussauds sculpted wax statues of each of the former kings. It’s a little offbeat, but the info is top notch for understanding Ashanti history and culture.

Mini history lesson. The people of the various tribes in the surrounding Ashanti region came together in the late 1600s to create a single Ashanti kingdom under one sovereign. This kingdom eventually expanded its borders past the current auspices of Ghana, but diminished in power with the British invasion. It lost all political power with the creation of the state of Ghana in 1957, but still holds ceremonial power in addition to its economic power over the hundreds of millions of dollars of gold mined in the area.

After the palace, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and were back out for our final activity for the day, a 5 minute tro-tro ride to a brass molding workshop. The man there showed us how everything was made, from rings to elephants. The process is drawn out, complex, and I didn’t understand it fully enough to write it out in detail here, but more simply, they use a mixture of charcoal and wax to create a negative of the desired figure which brass can then be poured into. Very interesting and informative (and free).

And that was the adventure of today. A self-guided village “tour” is probably on the schedule tomorrow, but the gold mine tour for Thursday is in trouble because the mine has apparently doesn’t allow tourists to visit anymore. Too bad for that, but if it happens, we’ll probably just a hop a tro-tro back to Accra and hang out there for an extra day before flying home.

Oh, and there’s a pretty cute, chill cat that hangs around the hotel. He was worthy of a picture.

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Hotel kitty wants to travel in Ghana too.

This part of the trip is fun just because we’re planning it minute-by-minute. One moment we might be heading out on a day trip, and the next we might be going on a long journey to another city. It’s the best way to fully enjoy a trip.

Only a few days left. Let’s see what parting words Ghana has to offer.

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