Thursday, April 8, 2010

Se Bon, Benin!

I’ve spent the last 17 days sleeping in all sorts of different places.

My dad and I had to light a single candle for light for about an hour in a rundown hotel in Kumasi over two weeks ago and previously had stayed at a secluded beach resort on the coast of Elmina. We also spent time in Mole National Park, deciding on a whim to take the long journey in hopes of seeing elephants. We didn’t see elephants, but my dad did get to see Northern Ghana, which is a great opportunity. Ghana is so diverse from region to region, and I am so humbled by everything we were able to do in such a short amount of time.

My dad flew from London to Accra, and I was so jumpy just waiting to get a glimpse of him at the airport. When he finally showed up—sans his baggage due to British Airways misplacing them—I was just so happy. This was really happening! My dad managed to fly from Denver all the way to Accra. He was here. He was finally able to see this place that I have slowly grown accustomed to calling my home. It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but indeed, this is now home for me, and I was just overjoyed that my dad would get a glimpse of it, and a taste of Africa to boot.

He spent a total of 9 days. In those 9 days we did a lot, saw a lot, and experienced a lot together. On his first full day in Ghana, I took my dad to the Madina market. We took a tro-tro there, and I knew once we stepped off that this was literally unlike anything my dad has ever seen in his entire life. The market is chaos, people are everywhere, anything can happen. People are selling their goods every which way, and it is incredibly overwhelming. I remember how I felt the first time I spent time in the Madina market. I felt so much sensory overload and quite unsure of how I would ever manage to get used to things here. Somehow, I have, and as my dad and I walked around, I felt comfortable showing him the ins and outs of market life. He seemed to take the experience to heart; I know it was intense and hard to see, but I was proud of him for willingly jumping right into Ghanaian life. Sometimes in life you just have to jump in and get your feet wet to begin to understand a new environment. Our day at the market certainly did that. I thought it was neat for him to tell me later that even being the only white man at this market he still felt safe. Comparatively, he told me that in downtown Denver he feels more threatened. He asked “why?” and we could only speculate. Something to think about.

Our travels brought us many surprises, experiences, laughter, and reflection. From seeing a bat being sold for food on the side of the road in a remote village up North, to my dad’s first taste of Banku, and to seeing a dead body on the side of our hotel room in Kumasi, it was always interesting. Hardly ever a dull moment.

Putting into words what my dad’s visit to Africa meant would be hard to do, but I can say that my absolute favorite moment of his visit was our time at Kissemahn. We lugged a suitcase full of school supplies around Kissemahn, being greeted by many in the community, until finally reaching the school. Literally, the minute the kids saw us, they ran up as fast as they could and greeted both my dad and I with so much love. Immediately, my dad became “Daddy Ted” and instantly admired by all of the kids. We were walking from the office to the classroom when I looked back at him and saw a face full of sadness, intensity, and emotion. I think seeing these beautiful children and seeing the conditions of their lives was beyond intense for my dad. I know he has never seen such extreme poverty all at once….and I watched it tug at his heart strings, which in turn, pulled at mine. We were continuously greeted by the kids, they sang my dad and another volunteer’s dad songs they sing every day, and just expressed so much love and gratitude for their visits. In the midst of so much brokenness, there was strength. There is strength in Kissemahn. I don’t know what will happen to all of the kids. Where they will go, what they will do, but I do know that they have changed my life, no doubt about it. That’s why, more than any other place in Ghana, I had to take my dad there. It’s a part of me now, and there is certainly no turning back.

Around Accra, I showed my dad the Accra Mall (a vast contrast to the poverty rampant in the streets), Champ’s Sports Bar, Ryan’s Pub, the STC station, the major tro-tro stations, and other places in the city. I think he might tell people that Ghana is much different than what he expected—in good and bad ways. I think he was overwhelmed by how welcome Ghanaians are to “Obrunis” and also shocked by the lack of infrastructure in Ghana. Ghana, in my experience, has been relatively “hit and miss” in that some things work, some things don’t. So, we certainly experienced a lot of that while he was here.

Dad said goodbye to me up in my room at the hostel and though it was hard to see him go, my dad continuously reminded me of something very important. The fact he got to visit at all is huge, something that I was SO blessed to experience, and I can’t help but be thankful that he got to see Africa. And besides, saying goodbye also allowed me to realize how quickly this journey in Ghana is winding down. It will be over soon, I will be back in the states, and will be leaving this home for another. I thought about this as I saw his car drive away, and I once again had a wonderful moment of affirmation. This is where I am supposed to be. This is it. And with just over a month left, I certainly had no time to waste to soak up every moment.

Soaking it all up began the next day of course with another beginning of another journey. Rachel, Paula, Taylor, Mitch, John, and myself left ISH at 5:00 am. Destination? BENIN.

We left early enough to catch a tro to the main station in Accra and then catch a tro to the border town of Aflao. Without a hitch, everything went smoothly—we even had air conditioning in our van to the border! Rachel certainly was right when she said that this transportation would be the best of the entire trip. Hands down, she was absolutely right with that assessment. We made it to the border and of course had to re-work what we were going to pay for the ride. As we would many times throughout the trip, we would be sucker punched and forced to pay a little more extra. It just happens, unfortunately.

We crossed the border on foot, literally, and headed into Togo to continue on to Benin. Justice, Mitch, and I got separated temporarily from Rach, Paula, Taylor, and John when we were taken to different spots in Lome. Somehow we were fortunate enough to find each other again at the market and get transportation to continue us onto Benin. We drove through Togo in what seemed like a New York minute! Our driver was a vigilante on the road…with a broken speedometer Lord knows how fast we were going, but we were swerving recklessly around other cars. I can’t say we didn’t have a few close-calls, but we managed to make it to Cotonou, Benin after a quick stop in Ouidah, Benin to see a python temple. Ouidah has an extremely strong presence of Vodoun, and though we didn’t have the time to explore it more, it was neat to be in the place that is a stronghold for Vodoun practices and rituals. We entered a small hut full of at least 70 pythons…and I was totally creeped out and fascinated at the same time.

We traveled more the next day too, but not before spending time in Ganvie, Benin to see a stilt village. By far, this was one of my favorite moments of the trip and even of my time in Ghana. We took a canoe with all of us on it for a couple hours to see the village. The entire village is on stilts, leaving transportation only available by water. I was taken aback by the families that we passed, by the homes, and by the people. I couldn’t help but wonder what we looked like. I felt invasive almost like I might be seen as gawking at their way of life, but I also couldn’t snap my camera fast enough. It was all just…surreal. We docked our canoe and I managed to find myself alone out on the dock. I tried taking it all in; I tried to understand what it must be like to live in this village, and even after 3 months of living in Africa, some things just aren’t easy to understand. I found a friend to try and attempt to speak French with, and I thought I was making relatively good progress. Of course, then I totally had to butcher “Si vous plait” as we departed on our canoe, and I couldn’t help by chuckle. God has certainly blessed my life in many ways, but when it comes to learning other ways of speaking and languages, I certainly do struggle! It’s okay though, I feel now that after 6 days in a French speaking country I can at least, very slowly, make do with short basic greetings. It’s something, right?

After the stilt village we had some trouble getting to our next destination, but after a couple of hours we did manage to get a couple of taxis to Abomey, Benin. From there, in the morning, we headed to the Abomey station to get a bus ride closer to Penjari National Park (our final destination!). I had a lucky break when we had the same taxi driver from the night before come and pick us up. I had left my camera in there the night before, and when I checked in the backseat, no problem. It was right there. I was fully relieved. We spent a couple hours at the station until the bus up into Northern Benin finally arrived. The bus in a word? CHAOS. Getting on was barely possible, and we were crammed with nowhere to sit. People were everywhere, drenched in sweat, with not even the slightest breeze. I couldn’t help but be amused when I realized my seat on the bus would be on John’s lap on a gas can. Yes, believe it. All 7 of us were placed on gas cans in the aisle so that we could have a place on the bus. Eventually we got seats and arrived at Tanguieta to make arrangements for stay before our safari in Penjari. Long story short we stayed in Tanguieta after Rachel negotiated for awhile with Samuel, an intern from Penjari that we met. He helped us arrange the actual safari and was so helpful. It’s amazing the amount of wonderful people you can meet traveling, and that’s one of the many reasons I love exploring new places.

After a restless night, we awoke at 4:30 am for our SAFARI. Penjari National Park, located in Northern Benin, is one of the better national parks in West Africa, especially in terms of seeing big cats. We didn’t see cats, but if it’s any indication, an elephant charged at our car just a few short minutes into the safari! I heard the trumpet of the elephant’s horn, and others actually saw it coming! Needless to say, we drove away rather quickly. The park was beautiful. It was so big, so open, and once we stopped at the waterhole, I fully was able to appreciate everything. We were witnessing the African savanna. How amazing! We saw baboons, water buffalo, elephants, hippos, crocodiles, and so many different types of antelope. The day was perfect. I had the chance to ride on top of the car for hours, and it was incredible! I could see everything, and just sitting up there made it all so real. I laughed a lot on our safari. After our safari we headed to a nearby waterfall that was completely stunning. We had a short walk to the upper falls, and the colors of turquoise, green, and blue were everywhere. The water was so clean, and the minute I saw it I immediately took my shirt and shorts of and jumped right in. I was sweaty, dirty, and dusty from a long day in the park, and the chance to cool off was greatly appreciated. I even mustered enough guts to jump off a small rock probably 15 or so feet above the water. It was a rush, a great rush, and as I made impact with the water, I realized that this moment, this day couldn’t have gone much better.

Our journey home was long, full of early mornings and long bus rides, but we finally made it. The boys headed back to Accra a day earlier, and the girls stayed in Contonou to finish the last leg of the trip the following day. It was so great, just able to relax, drink lots of coke, and chat for hours with my wonderful girlfriends. Rachel, Paula, and Taylor are my closest friends here in Ghana, and I couldn’t have asked for better travel companions. When we pulled up to ISH with our backpacks and food bag I had a big grin on my face. I was home. I had a film of dirt on my face, an empty stomach, achy joints, but I was content. Happy. Relieved. I spent the last two weeks traveling all around, so to come home just feels so good. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point or another, Legon, the University, and my hostel have just become my home. The uncomfortable has become comfortable. The impossible has become possible. Somehow, someway, I feel like I belong here.

Benin was a trip to remember. I have jokes, memories, and experiences that I will carry with me forever. The last two weeks have just been exceeding all of my expectations. My dad, Benin, what’s next? I can’t say for sure, but I do know that my last month or so in Africa will be a month to remember.


  1. Heather, honey, all of this is amazing. I'm so thrilled that you have been able to have these experiences. I CANNOT believe you were charged by a freaking elephant! You're practically party of the lion king cast now. hehe. I love you so much, baby and I hope and pray that the rest of your adventures lead you on more grand adventures and then safely home. Although, I am sorry you have to leave Pumba.

  2. I love reading about your adventures. You're going to have this for the rest of your life- how precious!! Girl, I can't even begin to tell you how much I miss you. I STILL can't believe you're in Ghana. In my head I know you're there, but when I try to imagine what you're this very's just so hard. Blessings, peace, joy, hope, and love. xxx