Leaving My Comfort Zone (Again): Volta

I know just last month I posted about how I’m over “roughing it” and plan to vacation to higher standards in the future…but that plan got side railed when three Returned Peace Corps Volunteers came to visit us last week.

Before arriving, they talked to current Peace Corps Volunteers living in Ghana to get recommendations on things to do outside of Accra. My Teaching Assistant has lived in Ghana her whole life and when I told her some of the towns and activities recommended, her response was a raised brow and, “Why would anyone want to go there?”

One trip she could get behind was a visit to her home region: Volta.

Volta makes the tourist list in Ghana for the Wli Falls (highest waterfall in West Africa),  Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary (not a real sanctuary), Tafi Abuife Kente Village (cloth making), and hiking (Mounts Afadja, Aduadu, and Adaklu come to mind).

We were just up for the weekend (we had plenty to show our guests in Accra, not to mention Cape Coast), so we made our plan simple. Leave Accra early Friday morning to make it to our hotel near the falls by noon. Make the hike to the lower base of the falls that afternoon. Saturday, our friends would hike to the upper falls (while we relaxed and read!), followed by a drive to the Tafi Abuife Kente Village, then back home to Accra.

Friday morning we left nearly on time and were on the road about an hour before Chandler asked our driver to stop so he could use a restroom. Our driver was visibly concerned. He didn’t know of an acceptable place to stop. Chandler assured him any gas station would do, and that’s why he got to pee outdoors – something we haven’t done since we were Peace Corps Volunteers ourselves:

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I was tempted to hop out and see what a “female urinal” is…but I figured if you’ve seen one hole in the ground, you’ve seen them all.

An hour later when my bladder had filled, our driver breathed a sigh of relief. We were nearing The Royal Senchi Resort which, in his mind, was a much more appropriate bathroom stop:

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I have to be honest. As we walked around the grounds, I was no longer sure the Wli Falls held any appeal for me…I was wondering how we could convince our guests that they’d rather stay put for the night : )

However, despite my best attempt, we pushed on. At about this point, the gravel disappeared and the remainder of our drive was pretty bumpy. I was feeling pretty car sick by now and told the driver I needed to stop. He was still appalled from the morning stop with Chandler and so he asked if it would be all right to drive to the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary for the stop. It wasn’t on our list, but I figured a bathroom was a bathroom.

Man, am I glad the monkey “sanctuary” wasn’t on our list. Driving through the town it became pretty obvious it was just a tourist trap. You pay money for a local “guide” who takes you through the village to find the monkeys (that are already hanging about and easy to spot). You are then “encouraged” to buy bananas and feed them to some already overfed monkeys. The bathroom break was enough for us and before long we had made it to our destination:

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The Island That Doesn’t Speak English

This sounds like a hyperbole, but I can honestly say the only English I heard spoken in São Tomé was from our Airbnb host, Ito, the dive shop owner at Club Santana, and a smattering of staff at Pestana Hotel. The rest of the time, we got away with mixing English/Spanish/Portuguese…and I only speak the first one.

Luckily, two of the members of our group were fluent Spanish speakers and two others could ask questions in Spanish. None of us really knew Portuguese, the official language of São Tomé.

But let’s back up a moment, to an event that assured me we were going to have an interesting vacation. We hadn’t even left Accra yet, we were still in the airport. We had passed through security twice, once at the entrance and again to get to the gates.  We had walked past the first set of gates and had to round a corner to get to ours…and there stood two dudes with airport security tags.

They asked us to come to a small table so they could (yet again) search through our belongings. Chandler went first and his guy was meticulous, touching absolutely everything. That is, until he got to my swimsuit top. He pulled it out of the bag and turned his concerned face to Chandler to ask, “Sir, is this yours?” Chandler was quick to explain that it was mine and we often split our belongings up between bags. The man instantly released the swimsuit, zipped up the bag and waved us all through. Swimsuit tops save the day.

Then, we got on the plane and a torrential downpour began. We waited on the runway for 45 minutes for it to let up. The pilot announced that even though we had been held up, we’d still make it to São Tomé on time. To no one’s surprise, except maybe the pilot’s, we arrived exactly 45 minutes after our scheduled time.

Add this to the fact that despite the 28 rows of seats on the plane, I was placed directly behind the family of one of my student’s. They have three kids. We should have known this was going to be less of a vacation and more of an adventure.

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Resort Hopping in São Tomé

I learned a lot about myself this week. I learned that I’m over “roughing it.” I learned that sometimes, when I want to relax, a resort will suit me just fine.

This year, we decided to spend spring break in São Tomé. If you’ve never heard of this country, don’t feel too bad. I hadn’t either before moving to Ghana. It’s a small set of islands (São Tomé and Príncipe) located west of Gabon and south of Nigeria.

We went with four other people, and to cut down on costs, decided to share an Airbnb. We thought we’d have a low-key, quiet week at the house. For anyone who’s ever spent any time in Africa (I hate to generalize, but for me this has usually held true), something will inevitably go poorly. Whether it’s power outages in Ethiopia, a city-wide day of rest in Djibouti, or Ghanaian food that can’t be made fish-free (a moment of truth: Nothing went wrong in South Africa).

In São Tomé, it was 24 hours without running water. And as much as I’d like to blame the Airbnb for this, it’s definitely a country-wide problem. Also, for as beautiful as the house was, it had been built by the ocean in 2002 and was, 15 years later, absolutely falling apart. The downstairs hosted every kind of bug imaginable, and our bathroom was even home to a very large roach and a very small crab.

That said, the upstairs was light and airy and had wonderful views. I read three books while on vacation here : )

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Eventually, however, a girl needs some water (and light to read by in the evenings – man that house was as dark as a dungeon at night!).

We ventured to Omali Lodge on our second day in São Tomé. As you can expect, island food isn’t very vegetarian friendly, but we were able to dig into some homemade mac & cheese, rice & veggies, chips, and of course, dessert – a brownie with peanut ice cream. However, the real reason to go to Omali is for their cocktails. Their passion fruit margarita was divine.

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When Your Christmas Flight Gets Cancelled Twice

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Monday, December 19th, while my sister was on a flight from Amsterdam to Accra, we got the call that Starbow Airlines had cancelled their Christmas Day flight from Tamale to Accra.

This was unfortunate because approximately two months prior we had purchased three round-trip flights between Accra and Tamale heading north on the 22nd and back south on the 25th.  We were staying at Zaina Lodge in Mole National Park, and at $500 a night, we didn’t really want to extend our stay until Monday. But with the promise of elephants, infinity pools, and relaxation, we didn’t really want to cut our trip short either.

Lucky for us, both the lodge and the airline were accommodating and we moved our reservations to the 21st to the 24th. My sister was going to have one less day to adjust to jet lag, but we figured she could do that just fine in an infinity pool with a mojito in hand.

Our flight up to Tamale was a breeze – they even served us our favorite local juice, Blue Skies. And I promise my next blog will be about our actual stay at Zaina Lodge (still haven’t gotten through all my photos yet!). But, unfortunately, our time living it up in luxury had to come to an end, and at 12:30pm on Saturday, December 24th, the lodge drove us back to the airport.

We arrived at 3:00pm a full hour and a half before our flight was scheduled to leave and were surprised to see only one line in the airport. We were under the impression that multiple airlines flew out of Tamale. We got up to the front and asked where the Starbow check-in was (everyone behind the counter had AWA – Africa World Airlines – gear on).

They were surprised to have to tell us that Starbow had cancelled their flights for the day. We then found out that it was AWA’s last flight of the day and it was booked. We were put on the wait list at numbers 12, 13, and 14. Promising, right?

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When $2.03 is too much

I’m watching this taxi drive away, indignant that he wanted to charge us 15 cedi ($3.80) to drive less than 3 kilometers down a main road. It’s no big deal, I tell myself – and Chandler – we’ve never had problems getting a taxi before, another one will come along.

We continue walking…the length of our road, the length of the next, and we find ourselves on the main road with cars speeding past.

The difference is, tonight is the night before Founder’s Day, and we quickly learn that either everyone in the city is hopping into a taxi to celebrate or most of the taxi drivers have decided to stay in tonight. Whichever way it is, the only taxis we see as we walk along are full.

Now, we’ve never had to walk all the way to the main road before. Once we hit it, we’re not sure the taxis will stop. There isn’t much of a shoulder and they’re driving by at pretty high speeds. We hang out in the bus lane.

A few minutes later, a taxi pulls up. I’m not really sure where we’re going, so I let Chandler barter with the driver. He claims to know where we’re going, but says it is much, much farther than we think. He also says the traffic is so bad we must pay extra for him to return. Return where, I think? We’re going to a traffic circle about 2 km away and then turning around and coming back another 1 km. He’s barely going anywhere.

Chandler gets him down to 8 cedi ($2.03), but by now, I’m so frustrated I won’t accept anything more than 5. He drives away. The next taxi won’t go below 10 cedi.

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10 Travel Tips I Learned AFTER Peace Corps

You’d probably think living overseas in Ethiopia for 2 years would have taught me a lot about travel, but honestly, I moved there with two 50 lb suitcases and two very large carry-ons. I pretty much tossed in everything I thought I could possibly need and then relied on friends and family to send me care packages every 2-3 months.

It wasn’t until my partner (now husband! What? But that’s for another post) and I spent 3 months traveling around SE Asia with just a medium-sized North Face duffel on each of our backs that I really learned something about packing and traveling in general.

Tip #1: Bring a boatload of spare passport photos with you
I didn’t bring any extra to Ethiopia (because buying them in the United States is SO expensive!). It wasn’t a big deal, I had them printed in Ethiopia for super cheap, but I knew the language and had friends to refer me to a place. And while I got all the photos I needed for SE Asia (think visa forms, drivers permits, and lost passports), they all had this silly photo-touched glow to them that left me feeling embarrassed and hoping like hell they’d be accepted! This time around we printed them ourselves using a handy tool from the Department of State, a color printer, and some semi-gloss paper.

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Tip #2: Don’t buy adventure clothes
Things I bought from REI that I could not have lived without: My quick-dry towel, light-weight sleeping bag (only for my time staying with a host family – I never used it when traveling), Swiss Army Camper Knife, Nalgene water bottle (this time I’ve upgraded to a Hydro Flask), and headlamp (because you never know when the electricity’s going to go out). Things I could not wait to get rid of: expensive hiking shoes, linen pants, and rain jacket. If you don’t wear it at home, you won’t want to wear it while traveling! This time around I’m packing plenty of jeans, summer dresses, and an umbrella.

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Add it to my bucket list…

Well, cruises may not be my thing, but traveling still certainly is! In my last blog I talked about all the reasons I didn’t really like cruise life, but I’d be lying if I said at least some parts of it weren’t amazing. Would I rather travel by plane than boat? Yes. Would I prefer to spend an extended amount time in one place than hop around to a bunch of places? Most definitely. But we still got to see some pretty incredible things while docked in Mexico.

Our first stop was the dock outside of Progresso. We were traveling by bus for 2 1/2 hours to reach Chichen Itza – one of the greatest Mayan sites on the Yucatan peninsula. The tour had some pretty mixed reviews: Long bus ride, bland lunch, questionable bathroom on board the bus…if only those people had traveled in Ethiopia! It felt like we were on a luxury trip : )

This is the first time we’ve left the United States since we flew back from Ethiopia via SE Asia in November of 2014, so needless to say, it was about time. But what struck us the most is how similar traveling feels, almost no matter where you are. Take this photo for instance…

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I took it in Mexico, but it could just as easily have found its way on my blog back when I was living in Ethiopia. Life doesn’t always seem so different.

That said, the history from one place to another is what really makes cities and countries stand out. I’ve been to the rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, the temples of Angkor in Cambodia, the San Antonio Missions, the archaeological site of Pompei, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame (all UNESCO World Heritage Sites) and it’s these incredible structures (and the stories they tell) that I value most about my time traveling.

I’m lucky enough to now be able to add Chichen Itza to my list, with its gargantuan splendor. But despite the overwhelming immensity, I was struck most by the precise detailing that still survived.

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Each of the figures or animals, still so intricate. Though not all of the structures have gone unscathed. Take, for instance, the main structure for which Chichen Itza is known. That temple has undergone an amazing face lift to transform it back into its former splendor, however, sides of it remain as it was found, a solemn reminder of what can happen to our history if we don’t take care to preserve it.

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