Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Yonso Project and Kumasi...then head back home

The last leg of our trip: Kumasi! Kumasi is the cultural epicenter of Ghana and something I've been looking forward to for a while. But most of all, I've been wanting to visit my friend Sonja's non-profit called the Yonso Project which is about 45 minutes away from Kumasi. And check out the Kejetia Market!

The great thing about traveling in Ghana is that a bus company called STC InterCity goes to the main cities in Ghana with comfortable, air-conditioned buses on a set running schedule -- which is a God-send here in West Africa! We take that from Busua to Kumasi, and fortunately, the Guestline Lodge (the hotel we wanted to stay at in Kumasi) was only a block away from the STC bus station. Another backpacker's hostel paradise -- clean rooms with no thrills. And cheap!

The next day (Sunday), Danso, the Country Director of the Yonso Project, came to get me and Colette decided to come along, too! We took a tro-tro (like minibuses that travel everywhere and anywhere in Ghana and are ridiculously cheap, although some of the drivers drive ridiculously crazy) out to Jamasi (the next 'big' town to Yonso), then take a taxi to the village of Yonso.

WOW, Yonso is such a cool village, particularly because the topography of Ghana beats that of Burkina Faso. There are mountains and hills and greenery -- everything that Burkina Faso doesn't have except in the Southwest.

I encourage you all to check the Yonso Project's website ( and read up on what they're up to and how you can donate.

I'll let the pictures below let you know what I've seen...

In front of the Yonso Project library. Sonja, I'm so proud of you!

A picture of the Yonso Project library. We couldn't get inside because the teachers have the key but were able to open a window to see the inside.

Danso (the Country Director for the Yonso Project) and the guy in charge of the bamboo bike production. This is where the bamboos are dried.

Close-up of the bamboo bike. Apparently it's really, really durable.

Danso and I. He's so damn hilarious!

So this was really interesting. A lot of schools in Ghana have these "Speak English" signs painted around their schools.

A procession of the village elders, the queen mother and the chief heading to village centre. Apparently every 40 days, they meet in the village centre and hear the town's citizens voice their concerns.

The next day, the three of us were on a mission to do two things: visit the Ghana National Cultural Centre and shop at the Kejetia Market. We decided to visit the Ghana National Cultural Centre first and it was a haven for souvenir shopping while supporting your local Ghanaian artisan. They have fabric, jewelry, paintings, clothing, books -- you name it, they have it!

Me in front of the Ghana National Cultural Centre. Basically, we got all our Ghana souvenir shopping done here in a matter of a couple of hours!

As I've mentioned before, the Kejetia Market is the biggest market I've ever been to in my life and is quite possibly the largest market in West Africa, if not in all of Africa. You walk in and it just swallows you sounds horrible but really, it's one of the more interesting experiences I've had here! They sell everything but one thing I wanted to get was fabric to make shirts, since I think I really need to update my African wardrobe, haha.

Me next to the Kejetia Market in Kumasi. This has to be the biggest market I've ever been to! I'm positive it's the biggest market in West Africa if not in all of Africa.

Getting to Kumasi bus station to get back home, Colette, Devin and I made a point of spending all our Ghanaian cedi (currency) so that we wouldn't have to exchange it back to West African CFA (since we heard exchanging Ghanaian cedi back to West African CFA gives you a really bad rate). We didn't really need to buy anything else before getting on the bus so between all of us, we had about 2 cedi. BUT I completely forgot that we needed to pay for our bags because we were putting them at the compartments at the bottom of the bus. 6 cedi. Shit! So we asked if we could use West African CFA and they said no...I'm telling you that God was really watching over us and things just fell into place when they could've been absolutely chaotic. And Devin would repeat this all throughout the trip! Fortunately, a man behind us in line offered 6 cedi without hesitation. Actually, he asked if we needed 60 cedi and we were like, "Ohhh no, no, no, we need 6 cedi." He was willing to give us 60 cedi which was absolutely insane! We felt so bad asking him for money but eventually gave him more than enough back in West African CFA...even if he refused to take it, we pretty much forced him to take it, haha. And get this...his name was Emmanuel. Which means "God is with us." Crazyyyy!!

Long story short, we head back on the nice and comfortable air-conditioned bus back to Burkina Faso later that evening...and thus ends our adventure in Ghana!

Really, I encourage everyone and anyone (granted, one has enough money) to visit West Africa and see for yourself what it's all about. Burkina Faso and Ghana have been absolutely amazing, and with a little French and an open mind, you'll discover this is one special place. Cheers!

Christmas on the beach in Ghana!

Finally!! We leave Cape Coast and take the relatively long trek to Busua, a small beach town along the Ghana coast. When we arrive, we thought all the resorts were in one location but it turns out the Green Turtle Lodge is farther away. Every volunteer that's been to Ghana has recommended the Green Turtle Lodge and I'm glad we made the journey over there...

Its location is so remote but regardless, there are still other people there. It seems to be a haven for other volunteers when they vacation in Ghana and just want to take a break from it all and chill on the beach. So we set up our tents (cheapest accommodations yet! Only 4 cedi/1200cfa/about $3 per person/night to set-up your tent!) and pretty much hit the beach. So we get there on Christmas Eve and immediately jump into the felt so refreshing especially since I hadn't seen the ocean in over 6 months. =)

Colette setting up her tent. I'll say that it wasn't as comfortable as it looks.

The next day (Christmas Day) we woke up to breakfast on the beach and we each decided to do something special. When we were at the Koala Supermarket in Accra, Devin had this amazing idea of each of us buying something to share on Christmas Day at the beach with one another. The idea was food -- one salty and one sweet -- but it could really be anything. But we had to surprise each other Christmas Day with all of our stuff!

So Colette got these Christmas popper things that have stickers and a little joke inside each of them. It's a tradition in her family and she brought it all the way to Africa to share with us!

Devin, Colette and I after opening our Christmas poppers. There were little paper crowns inside along with stickers and the corniest jokes everrrrrr.

We chill on the beach some more and it was just nice to take in the warm beach breeze and watch the waves crash onto the shore. Next to the Green Turtle Lodge, there's this place called Paco's Tacos which seems completely out of nowhere. I've been craving Mexican food for a while and this was the perfect thing to satisfy my craving! The older couple that owns this is actually from California and they built their house along the beachfront....and Paco's Tacos as their business.

At Paco's Tacos for lunch. Chicken tacos and avocado tacos!

Again, more chilling at the beach. I forgot to mention that the Green Turtle Lodge is remote enough that there isn't cell phone reception. Except for this one distinct spot that we discovered. So I sent some text messages to family and a couple close friends. Before I left site, I promised Madame Ouattara that I'd call the family and say hi...but since reception was kind of choppy, I decided to text them. She texted me back almost immediately and wished me a very Merry Christmas and said that the family missed me. Really made me miss site! I also got a call from my Mom that afternoon and it was the morning of Christmas Day back home. They were all at my Tito Vic's house since the whole family does a little sleepover. I got to talk to a couple of uncles and aunts, my brother and my grandpa but it really made me miss home! I don't think I've missed home more than I did at that moment...

All three of us get ready in our Global Mama's outfits and head to Happy Hour at the bar. And walked around the beach until sunset. For dinner we had garlic roasted chicken and potato salad! Delicious! And to top it off, we had a huge bonfire on the beach with the other guests.

I just couldn't resist taking a picture in front of this. Oh man...

Enjoy our first drinks of the night -- Deep Blue Sea and Tequila Sunset. Yum!

The three of us in our Global Mama's outfits and drinks in hand.

The sunset setting on the beach. Amazing.

Look how huge that bonfire is!

The day after Christmas, we had breakfast again on the beach and got ready to leave for our next destination: Kumasi!

Relaxing one last time on the beach before heading out to Kumasi.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ghana: the adventure continues in the Cape Coast

Cape Coast. After a couple of days in the hectic capital (Accra -- seriously, the traffic is neck-in-neck with Los Angeles traffic), we head to Cape Coast to do two things: 1) walk along the rope canopies at Kakum National Park; and 2) visit the Cape Coast Castle where they once held and sent slaves to the Americas and Europe.

By recommendation, we stayed at the Sammo Guest House which is your typical backpacker's hostel. The good thing was that we had a balcony that brought in a consistent breeze from the ocean, plus it was central to everything! Walked around and headed to the Mighty Victory Hotel for lobster with garlic butter sauce and potato salad! We met a Canadian business development volunteer from Kumasi there, so it was nice meeting another new person.

The view from our balcony. Look at that sunset!

The next day, we wake up really early in the morning and take a taxi to Kakum National Park to experience the rope canopies. There are 7 walking bridges in a semi-circle, attached by rope, nails and rope to huge trees about 30 meters (about 100 feet) above the forest floor. Insane! If you're scared of heights, it's definitely an experience that'll make you piss in your pants.

It was created by 2 Canadians and 2 Ghanaians but I was confused if they made it in 6 months or change/repair the rope bridges every 6 any case, check out the video in another entry! It was so humid at Kakum; our original plan was to camp out there on one of the tree platforms -- thank God we didn't! I also tried palm wine for the first time (de-licious) and met a girl from Oakland who was vacationing here with her boyfriend. What a small world!

Us three on one of the tree platforms 30 meters (about 100 feet) above the forest floor!

Crazy! It's not bungee jumping but it's damn close. Haha!

Devin, Colette and I being our own crazy selves. <3

We later head to the Cape Coast Castle which is something I've been really looking forward to for a while. You know, it's one thing to learn about slavery in middle and high school but it's another thing to actually visit the holding quarters for slaves in Africa before they were shipped off to the Americas and Europe! The Cape Coast Castle was handed down by different European countries for different purposes, eventually landing in the hands of the English for slavery.

A replica of Cape Coast Castle at the museum.

Two things stood out most for me: the holding quarters for male slaves and the Door of No Return/Return. The holding quarters for the male slaves was essentially this huge underground dungeon that they were held in for months at a time. To explain the gravity of their situation, they sat in waist-high feces for weeks at a time, and you can even see shackle marks on the ground for when they would try to revolt and attempt to escape from their captors. There was even a church right above the holding quarters for the male slaves and the guide referred to it as "Heaven and Hell." So interesting!

One of the dungeon areas where the slaves were kept for months. The wreaths of flowers below are left by descendants of slaves every year to commemorate the lives (and deaths) of all those kept captive there.

These are marks on the floor left by slaves that were shackled and attempted to revolt/escape. Absolutely surreal.

As a slave, if you were seen as strong enough and survived months of torture, you were sent through the "Door of No Return" which led directly to the slave ship and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. The government/historical society that decided to preserve the castle in the 70's (I think) put a "Door of Return" sign on the other side of the "Door of No Return" sign as a way of welcoming back the descendants of slaves and anyone willing to learn more about the history of the Cape Coast Castle/slavery.

Our tour guide, Issac/Kofi, showing us the "Door of No Return." On the other side, it says the "Door of Return."

The steps leading down to the Atlantic Ocean after exiting the Door of No Return. Now it's where a lot of the fishers prepare their nets and get ready to head out to the ocean.

During the tour, I also met a couple from LA and they were vacationing here in Ghana! Man, Californians are everywhere!

Me with the Atlantic Ocean in the background. Note the cannons in the back, too.

This plaque was presented by Barack and Michelle when they came to Ghana in July of this year. So cool!

At the museum, there was this really interesting map of the slave trade.

Also, a replica of a slave auction stand. Crazy!

Colette, Devin and I with the Atlantic Ocean in the background.

Not going to lie -- it was pretty emotionally draining but interesting nonetheless. We walked around the main roads of this very bustling fishing town and found an NGO that sold cool-designed fabric to make shirts, etc. We also took pictures with these really random kids who were absolutely hilarious! We also had dinner at the Oasis Resort which is right next to the Cape Coast Castle and right along the beach...coincidentally saw Jen and Farma (a fellow BF PCV and her boyfriend). Good times!

Colette and I with some neighborhood kids at the Cape Coast. They were absolutely hilarious!!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ghana: the adventure begins

Hello everyone!

It was quite the adventure getting over here. On Saturday morning, we left to get to the bus station...apparently, Saturday isn't the best day to leave for Ghana from Burkina Faso.

We made reservations earlier in the week but of course, when we get to the gare (bus station) they say we're not on the reservation list. SO we head to another big bus station with smaller minibus vehicles...not cool. We waited for almost 2 hours but were able to meet another fellow American. Her name is Jessica, just graduated from Princeton and is doing a year-long fellowship in Burkina Faso. Crazy because she's taking transport to Accra to fly out of their international airport (it's cheaper to fly out of Accra than Ouagadougou...the difference can be in the thousands of dollars)! Long story short -- 24 hours later, switching vehicles 3-4 times with screaming children, packed buses, and goats everywhere (once at the border of Burkina Faso and Ghana, once at Bolgatanga, once in Kumasi), and having to switch languages almost instantly (French to English), we finally arrived in Accra!!

Jessica, Colette and I on transport vehicle #2 (bush taxi) that head to Bolgatanga. Wow.

The heat was stifling...reminded me so much of the humid Philippine weather; add that to the fact that we were SO dirty from all of that crazy transport travel and it was pretty much a recipe for disaster. We found a decent hotel in Osu (the happening part of Accra where all the restaurants are). I remember showering, looking down at my feet and seeing all of the dirt just wash away. Disgusting!

The three of us all clean and ready to explore Accra!

So Sunday, we rested for a bit and headed out to a really good Chinese restaurant near our hotel. Fortunately, right below it is a store called Global Mamas.

A picture of the inside of Global Mamas. So many colorful apparel made by women in need in Ghana! As I mentioned, all the profits go to the women's groups that create these products.

It was started by a Peace Corps Volunteer a while ago and has been growing ever since. They sell clothing made by women's groups, all the profits go to a good cause and is part of the Fair Trade Organization! Colette wouldn't stop talking about it when we were in Burkina so it was a must that we visit it. The rest of the day, we just relaxed at the hotel and enjoyed the air conditioned room.

On Monday, we exchanged money and came back with wads of cedi because there are so many bills! We got lunch at this placed called Papaye. I highly recommend it if you're ever in Ghana. Relatively cheap food and their charcoal grilled chicken is delicious...probably the best I've had
in Africa so far.

At Papaye's getting ready to get our grub on. I wanted to check out this place called "Seoul Grill" which apparently has Korean food but sadly, it was closed. So we headed to Papaye's instead. I really wanted Korean food because it reminds me of late-night food runs back in college in LA when the only places that were open late were Korean food places and fast food joints!

Headed to Koala's Supermarket (the equivalent of Marina Market in Burkina Faso, only better) to get some snacks and again went back to the hotel to rest (the humid heat is tiring!). We got up right before the sun was about to set and headed to the lighthouse on the coast. But we were stuck in traffic (lame) and didn't make it in, the lighthouse was closed.

The lighthouse near Ushertown and Jamestown in Accra. Overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and towers above the nearby fishing villages.

So we headed to the beach and it was my first time seeing the ocean in 6 months! Living in California, I really took the ocean for granted so it was just a nice moment for all three of us to be there, on the beach in Accra. I can't say it was the nicest beach ever -- it smells horrible and the fishermen live on the beach in squatter-like houses so it's definitely a bit crowded. But it was interesting to see a different side of Accra, albeit for several minutes.

Afterward, we headed back to Osu to eat at this restaurant called Monsoon. Clearly, we had no idea it was probably the fanciest restaurant in Accra and we weren't dressed the part. I'm no food critic (I eat everything without much complaint)....while the food was delicious (salmon sashimi, prawn California rolls and Indonesian satay salad...whaaat!!), I got this really pretentious vibe from a few of the people working there and even a few customers. It such a complete 180 from what I'm used to in Burkina. Example: we get to the place and the host tells us: "Let me tell you a little bit about Monsoon. We usually get tourists that have come far and wide to come to our restaurant. Usually it's busy with guests and you normally can't get a table without reservations well in advance...blah blah blah." We look around and there's probably 10 people max in a restaurant that probably seats 150 people. Hmmmm. In any case, that was quite the experience...

Me eating salmon sashimi in Africa. Who would've thought this would be possible? SO GOOD.

Anyway, we head to Cape Coast today and I'm super excited!! Seeing old slave castles/forts on the coast + going on the rope canopy bridges 30 meters above the forest floor at Kakum National Park! We're even planning on camping out on the tree platforms. Exciting! Then we head to Busua to chill on the beach for Christmas and head to Kumasi for a few days after. Let's go!!

**Most of the photos in this entry were taken by Devin with her super spiffy camera! Thanks, girl!

Friday, December 18, 2009

GEE IST : the lovefest begins again

[X] Surviving first three (3) months at site

Wow, I can't believe I've lived more than 3 months at site! I've been waiting for Inter-Service Training (IST) in Ouaga for a long while now for a few reasons: to reunite with my GEE Peace Corps family (really, it's a lovefest); to take a little break from site; and gain some practical skills to bring back to site!

We all came in on Monday and had sessions everyday (pretty much like Pre-Service Training all over again) from Tuesday to Friday. The first night of IST, we had dinner at Doug's (our Country Director's) house which brought back good memories of the time we had dinner at Doug's the first night we arrived in Burkina Faso as fresh-off-the-plane Trainees. His wife and him were so accommodating and their house was filled with Christmas decor...with a Christmas tree! Man, it made me really miss home and my family but made me even more appreciative of the Peace Corps family I've made here half a world away. We had some delicious Mexican food with Christmas music playing in the background. I wanted us to take a "family portrait" by the Christmas tree...thanks to Doug and his wife for taking the pictures you see below:

Peace Corps Burkina Faso GEE 'Stage' 2009-2011
Dinner at Doug's house (Country Director)

Your stereotypical family portrait...Peace Corps style. I love us!

IST was, to me, a fairly huge success. While the structure itself was much like PST (long days of back-to-back sessions going from 7:00/8:00-17:00/18:00), most of our sessions revolved around practical skills that we could take back to our sites now that we've completed our Etude du Milieu (a gigantic document that we each did that analyzed our community and assessed its needs during our first 3 months at site). Aside from sharing our own experiences at site and working on Action Plans for our next 6 months until MSC (Mid-Service Conference), we had sessions on:

  • HIV/AIDS sensibilizations (awareness raising sessions)
  • community gardens/planting Moringa & other fruits and vegetables
  • clubs (English, girls' clubs, reading, math, etc.)
  • liquid soap making (a good income generating activity for women's groups)
  • community radio and theatre sensibilizations
  • and many other things I don't quite remember because I'm getting old =)
Below are some pretty good pictures of some of us during the liquid soap making session:

The inseparable Coleman and Charlie taking a stab at mixing water and salt for our liquid soap making demonstration.

Rachel, Leslie and Molly are all smiles at IST.

Jessi and Julie helping with the initial step for preparing liquid soap.

Colette, Devin and I being the great observers that we are...

This picture cracks me up for multiple reasons...we're all doing different things except for Colette. Oh Colette and your silly facial expressions. =)

'Random' should be added to the list of the top 50 words to describe the Peace Corps. Doug, our Country Director, came into our IST training and showed us some live chickens that were given to him by villagers. It turns out Doug just came back from a visit to a Volunteer's site in the region. Little side note: Doug is leaving Burkina Faso in late January 2010 and will be the Peace Corps Country Director in Ukraine! We'll miss him.

Needless to say, IST has been great! It's helped keep the ball rolling for me, giving me ideas to implement at my site. IST has also given me and everyone else an outlet to express ourselves in a way that only we can understand. We may all be living in different villages/cities with unique experiences but the basics remain the same. And more importantly, it's been a chance to reunite with fifteen others that I've grown tremendously close to in the past 6 months and will continue to as 2010 and 2011 approach.

Julie, Marita, Emily and Leslie made each of us a cute little snowman with characteristics that are particular to us. Note the placement of Volunteers/snowpeople between the two things. Creativity, I tell you!

Also, I leave for Ghana with Devin and Colette early tomorrow morning! Hello 20-hour bus ride! Awww man, it's going to be so exciting! Blogging will for sure happen, granted I have access to the Internet. Hooray!!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Thanksgiving, Part Deux.

At the end of last week, I had my VAC (Volunteer Advisory Committee) meeting in Ouaga. Really productive but also an excuse to take a little vacay from site. =)

Currently, I'm at the Bobo-Dioulasso Peace Corps office, recovering from what was one of the most delicious meals I've had here in Burkina Faso! This past Saturday I got the chance to celebrate a (late) Thanksgiving fête with 30 other volunteers...good food (turkey, grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, pecan pie, apple pie -- you name any traditional American dish, we more than likely had it), good drinks (you can't really go wrong with a cold bottle of Brakina beer), good music & dancing but most importantly, good company! There were a good number of people from my training group so it was like another mini-reunion.

I think I've talked enough about family in my last entry so I'll let the pictures speak for themselves...special thanks to Anne-Marie and Devin who I borrowed these pictures from. Voilà!
The three of us cutting potatoes for Devin & Colette's mashed potatoes. Hollaaaa.
The three of us again. Attached to the hip. We're all wearing jeans!
The delicious smorgasboard of Thanksgiving food. Oh maaan.
Fellow 'CaliBoy' (hah!) Coleman and I eating up a storm. This was actually a candid of me...and I look horrible. Wow.
Cheers to my first Thanksgiving in another country!

Other things to look forward to: Inter-Service Training (IST) for a week in Ouaga followed by Christmas in Ghana! What whaaaat!