Category Archives: Before

The One Bag Challenge


Here you have it, in all it’s glory. The bag. This Samsonite rolling bag might seem like any ordinary piece of luggage, but it is not. This single carry on bag will hold everything I need for my month-long trip. I’ll go from storing my clothes in a medium sized closet and a six-drawer chest (….and my floor) to single 20” by 14” by 8” compartment. A huge change.

The packing list is as small as the bag. 5 tee shirts, 4 pairs of shorts, a few pairs of socks and underwear, a sweatshirt, a camera, sneakers, sandals, a rain jacket (with sweet dragons on it), some cards, a journal, a book, a towel, a mosquito bed net, a laptop, and minimal toiletries. (yes, I do care about the oxford comma)

It’s most definitely not a luxury vacation.

My mom found a great website that has helped me figure out what’s necessary to bring on a trip. It advocates taking the same amount of things on any length of trip. We’ll be a little dirty at times, but there is always time and water to wash clothes (and people).

It is easy to overpack, but that won’t be an option for us.  We want to avoid the potential hazard of losing checked baggage, so we will carry on our single bags, hopefully allaying any fear and uncertainty. We will check one bigger rolling bag, filled with mostly with clothes and other items to donate.

So tomorrow, I will say goodbye to the comforts of home. I’ll no longer have the privacy of my own room, the 12′ x 18′ (yes I measured) enclosure of peace, the ability to go somewhere to just get away. Traveling is empowering and full of new found independence, but there is always an underlying unfamiliarity to your journey: the unknown. But that is what is exhilirating about going on a trip across the world. You never quite know what is going to happen.

31 hours until departure!



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How I’m getting to Ghana

It’s the part you don’t think about when planning a trip to a foreign country. You can easily scope out the places you want to visit and sights you want to see, but there’s just one issue: how do you get there in the first place?

Luckily, modern airlines have made traveling around the world a breeze. With little more effort than a click of a mouse, you can be on your way to anywhere in the world, even the city of Accra in Ghana.

I thought it might be interesting for everyone to see how I’ll be getting to Ghana. To get to Accra (the capital and the location of the international airport), I’ll have to make a stop in London first. That flight will take about 6 1/2 hours.

The next leg is London to Accra, which will take another 6 hours. Luckily for us, however, we won’t have these flights back to back. We’ll be flying standby on the flight from London to Accra, meaning that we get the leftover tickets that aren’t sold previously. My mom used to work for British Airways, so we get to fly for very very cheap as long as we go standby. Since we have a little flexibility, we are going to stay in London for a day and explore the city a little bit.

Oh yeah, and we’re going to see Harry Potter at 3:30 in the morning on opening day. You know, just hanging with crazed British Harry Potter fans at an ungodly hour, no biggie. I’ll post some pictures.

New York (JFK) to London to Accra

But when we finally get to Accra, our journey still hasn’t ended. To get to the compound that Village Exchange International is based out of, we must drive to Ho. Now, previously I said that the drive would take about 2 1/2 hours, but that’s just a guesstimate. Roads are not always paved or in tip top shape in Ghana. You just never know in a developing nation, so it could take a while to get to Ho.

Once we finally arrive in Ho, with a collective breath of relief, we can settle in and start working. A little bit of a crazy experience before the real adventure even starts. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

Leaving in 5 days!

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Scheduling the month-long trip

Going to Ghana comes with some inevitable tradeoffs. Unfortunately, I won’t get to spend a ton of time with some of my friends before they head off to college. Since I’ll be in Ghana from the middle of July to the middle of August, I also missed out on getting a job. Nobody wants to hire anyone who is only going to be there for two weeks at the beginning of summer and two weeks at the end.

So why did we pick those dates?

It came down to a few reasons:

  1. Weather: In Ghana, it can be only one of two seasons: rainy or dry . There are two rainy seasons in the South, one that lasts from May to mid-July and one that lasts from mid-August to October. We will be arriving just as the first rainy season is ending, hopefully making for a dry but comfortable temperature. And we’ll be leaving in perfect timing, just as the next rainy season is starting up.

    Weather for Accra (Ho is pretty similar)

  2. Birthday: I missed being home for my birthday last year because I was on a trip to Alaska. Though my friends on the trip made it a pretty unforgettable birthday, it’s always nice to be home. I’ll get to wake up in my own bed and hang out with my family for the day. And of course, you can’t forget the fireworks. I’ll get to watch the fireworks bonanza going off on the barge right near the end my block. Ghanaians don’t celebrate American Independence Day, and they even have a ban on fireworks. There’s no way I’m missing the best part of my birthday.
  3. Buffer: It’s nice to have a little time to rest after the hard grind of school comes to a halt. I gave myself two weeks to sleep in, hang out with friends, and just generally relax before the big trip. In addition, it’s not nice to have to go straight back to school right after coming back from a trip either. It feels like summer has just started, and then school is back in session. Splitting the difference, we came up with a (roughly) two week buffer on either side. I think it will work pretty well.

For all the tradeoffs, in the end I have to realize, I’m going to Ghana, and I’m crazy excited. I can hang out at home all year; now is the time to go exploring while I can. 10 days!

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Microfinance in Ghana

Here’s an example of how microcredit can help people in Ghana. Though this isn’t the same organization I am working with, it gives a good idea of the power of microloans.

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Shots, shots, shots, everybody!

No, not that kind of shots.

Unfortunately, traveling into a developing country means coming in contact with diseases that largely have been eradicated in the United States. Diseases like yellow fever and malaria are common throughout Ghana, meaning I’m forced to take a bunch of medication both before and during my journey.

The doctor’s office.

Yesterday I visited a doctor that specializes in foreign infectious diseases to get my yellow fever vaccination shot. Out of all the shots I’ve had, this one wasn’t so bad, but I’m sure I will have a some muscle soreness in my arm for a few days.

In addition to the yellow fever shot, the doctor said I might need a shot for typhoid fever and possibly dengue fever as well. Ugh. There’s only so many times I want a person to stick a needle into my arm.

The yellow fever vaccine.

To prevent against malaria, the doctor wrote a prescription for Malarone. It’s a pill-based medication that you have to start taking a few days before the trip starts. I’ll have to take it daily for all 30 days of my Ghana trip, and then for a few weeks afterwards as well. I have taken it before on trips to South Africa, India, and Indonesia, so hopefully I run into any potential side effects. Malaria is spread via mosquitos in Ghana, so I’ll have to be extra careful to always have bug repellant on. We also get very cool looking mosquito nets to put over our beds.

A malarone a day keeps the malaria away.

It is a bit of a nuisance to take all of this medicine, but it’s just another part of the adventure. 13 days til departure!

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What is microfinance?

Even if you read my first post, you still might be wondering: what exactly is this microfinance mumbo jumbo?

Well, here’s a one way to explain it:

According to, the leader in web based microloans, microfinance is:

“a general term to describe financial services to low-income individuals or to those who do not have access to typical banking services.”

It is all based on the idea that impoverished people in developing countries could pull themselves out of poverty if they only had the opportunity to access a line of credit. They invest that money in expanding their small businesses, paying back the money a little at a time. It allows people to keep their dignity while still giving them help, preventing possible embarrassment from offers of charity.


The first experiments with modern microfinance were done by Bengladeshi Economics Professor Muhammad Yunus in the 1970s. He founded the microfinance institution Grameen Bank in 1983 to further this cause. The latest spike in popularity for microfinance began in 2006 after Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Many people in developed countries want to help fund low-income people using microloans, but just are not able to travel to Ghana or Bangladesh to do so. That is where websites like come in. They allow users to fund microloans for as little as $25 at a time, and it’s all done online. And it’s not charity: the users get their money back once the loan is paid back, usually 4-6 months later depending on the conditions of the loan. The best part is that users get to pick who they want to fund. If their focus is on women or agriculture, or Asian livestock owners, they are able to pick exactly who they want to loan to and how much they want to loan.

Other websites have jumped on the bandwagon in a multitude of creative ways. uses microfinance to promote political reconciliation in the West Bank area of the Middle East. uses the online microloan model to distribute student loans to students in developing countries, allowing them to emerge from poverty through advancing their education and earnings potential.

One important thing to note about microfinance, however, is that it is not the be all, end all solution to poverty. It does not work in every situation, so we should not stop all of the other great programs in place to help the disadvantaged. But it is one step towards eradicating poverty for good. People working their way towards a better life, one microloan at a time.

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Going to Ghana!

And for another crazy Cohen family summer adventure…..I’m heading off to Ghana.

Yup, that’s right. For 21 days (that’s 504 hours, 30,240 minutes, or 1,814,400 seconds for my math geeks out there), I’ll be volunteering in the village of Ho, located on the eastern edge of southern Ghana, about 12 miles from the border with Togo and about 2 1/2 hours drive from Accra, the capital of Ghana. Afterwards, we will be spending a week traveling the surrounding area (can’t go to Africa and not see the sights).

So what does one do in a remote Ghanian village for three weeks? I’ll be volunteering through an organization called Village Exchange International. I’m specifically working on their Microfinance Institute project. The organization is able to provide rural villagers with a source of credit previously unavailable to them. Using these loans, they can invest in expanding the businesses that support their livelihoods, whether that is a roadside yam stand with dreams of diversifying their business to sell plantains as well, or a family buying a second cow to double their plowing capabilities while providing surplus milk to sell at the market. Micro-loans make this all possible, while allowing low-income groups to establish a solid credit history and learn the basics of finance and money management.

If you would like to read a little more about the organization, click here.

The organization is always looking for donations, so if supporting a struggling family or individual in Ghana seems like something you are interested in, just shoot me an email ( or comment below. I’d be glad to connect you to the right people. Heck, I’ll even do my best to show you where your money actually goes to while I’m down there. Instead of your money going off to a big pot at some charity’s headquarters, you can see the effects of your donation happening right before your eyes. Of course, I’m not making anything from it, so if you would rather just read the blog posts, that’s fine by me.

I would love if you would come by a few times during my trip. I promise to check in and spill the latest, with photos as well.

I’m not leaving until July 13th, but I will be blogging a bit about microfinance in the meantime. So sit down to your computer with a nice cold drink, learn something about microfinance, and enjoy the summer. It’s gonna be a wild one.


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