Final Days in Ghana, Amsterdam, Brussels

I’d meant to write several updates detailing my trip to Europe, but I didn’t have time since I’ve been so busy traveling here, so I’ll try to put everything into one big update now. Unfortunately, I lost my camera on one of the last days in Ghana, so I’ll only have pictures from my iPhone here (if I ever get around to putting up pictures!).

The last days in Kumasi consisted of some more outreaches. Our final outreach on Friday also turned out to be our most well-attended outreach. It took place at a Muslim mosque, and over 100 people showed up. On the last couple days in Kumasi, Everest, one of the outreach staff members, introduced us to “red-red,” which is a delicious dish consisting of beans, ground cassava, and fried plantains (just 1 cedi on the street!). We ended up liking it so much on Thursday that we went back for more on Friday.

Stefano and I both returned to Accra last Saturday, September 17, where we spent the final three days of our trip. We left Kumasi on Saturday, and 5 hours later, we were in Accra, where we were greeted by a huge traffic jam. Luckily, Steve decided not to take the bumpy route this time, so we were able to enjoy the drive a bit more while getting some beautiful views of Accra as we arrived. Once we got back, we explored some of the places around the Telecentre and settling on eating at Fingalix, a fast food joint. Unfortunately, due to Accra being a bigger city (and the capital), prices for everything are a lot higher, and the service is not quite as good as it was in Kumasi and some of the other small towns that we visited. For example, food that could easily be bought for 3 or 4 cedis in Kumasi could be 5-7 cedis. On Sunday, we met the other three volunteers (since school has started for most students in the US now, the number of Unite for Sight volunteers has also fallen sharply) in Accra, and went out to lunch and spent some time at the mall with them (where I left my camera at a restaurant).

On Monday, we drove about 3 hours for an outreach with Crystal Eye Clinic. Upon arriving at the church where we conducted the outreach, we were greeted by a large group of schoolchildren chanting “obroni” (like we were some kind of visiting sports team or something!). For some reason, our arrival seemed to mark a school holiday for them, as they simply just left school and didn’t return for the rest of the day, choosing to watch us work from a distance instead. At the end of the day, Stefano gave away his soccer ball to the kids, having to give it to the teacher in order to make sure that the kids wouldn’t fight over who gets to keep the ball (although that plan failed since they ended up fighting over it anyways). Getting to this outreach involved taking the same bumpy (a description that just doesn’t do it justice) road that we took getting to Kumasi, and on the way back we were caught in a downpour that turned the road into a river, which made for a very eventful journey back!

One of the interesting notes that Ernest, an ophthalmic nurse with Crystal, told us on the way back to the Telecentre was that in Ghana, when a new government takes over, they try to destroy all of the work that the old government did. Sadly, this includes stopping and destroying construction projects that were in progress when the government change took place. This is the reason that so many of the roads and buildings that we saw were started but never finished.

On Tuesday, we took a trip to the Accra Cultural Centre, which is essentially a large market where vendors make and sell various types of souvenirs. I discovered that I enjoy to bargain a lot (for a while, it’s tiring!), and ended up buying way more than I had originally planned on purchasing. Some of my best deals of the day included getting a table down from 75 to 15 cedis (and I might have been able to even go further if I didn’t have 5 shopkeepers fighting over selling it to me, which made Stefano and I want to get out of there!) and bringing down some little carvings from 2 for 25. The award for most outrageous offer goes to the shopkeeper who tried to sell me a wooden back-scratcher for 40 cedis. All in all, it was really enjoyable bargaining at the market, but was tiring enough that I think it’s something that I’m glad I only had to do once on the trip.

On Tuesday night, we made it through the Accra traffic to the airport. This airport might beat out the Mexico City airport for how confusing it is, as we had to go through customs before even getting our boarding passes for some reason (before going through immigration again later on). It might also be the first airport I’ve ever seen that has no restaurants after the security check, which was unfortunate because both Stefano and I had planned to eat dinner outside the gate (luckily there was dinner served on the plane). The flight to Amsterdam was relatively short (about 6 hours), and felt even shorter because I was asleep for about 5/6 of it.

Upon arriving in Amsterdam, I took the train from the Schipol airport to the Amsterdam Centraal Station, which is the rail hub for Amsterdam (trains depart from Amsterdam Centraal to nearly every other major city in Europe). There, I bought a 3-day public transportation pass, which came in handy a lot getting around Amsterdam. I took the tram from Amsterdam Centraal to Leidseplein, and walked to my hostel, Stayokay Amsterdam Vondelpark. The hostel was very big, but very clean. It was definitely nice to be in Amsterdam and experience some of the luxuries of the first world again (smooth roads, hot showers, and drinking water out of the tap).

In Amsterdam (Wednesday afternoon and Thursday), I was able to see the Museumplein, Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh museum, Anne Frank House, and also walk around many famous parts of the city (including Vondelpark and Leidseplein). The city is incredibly liberal (which I guess it’s famous for, but it’s always still a little different seeing it in person), but everything is very organized. I was very amazed at how safe I felt traveling alone, even in the night.

On Friday morning, I took an InterCity train from Amsterdam Centraal to Brussels Central, which took about 3 hours. Something interesting about the train system was that tickets are not booked for a certain time unless you are in first class. For example, with my ticket, I can board any InterCity train from Amsterdam to Brussels anytime on Friday (one leaves every hour at :53), and I can take any train back on Sunday. While this is very convenient, the downside with this system is that the trains are overbooked, and many people are forced to stand on the train for a large portion of the 3 hour journey. Luckily, I got a seat upon boarding, although I gave it up for part of the trip so that others who had been standing for a long time could sit down for a while.

In Brussels, I walked from Brussels Centraal to my hostel, the Jacques Brel Youth Hostel. It was about a 20 minute walk (which was a bit annoying with luggage), and I found out after the fact that I could have purchased a metro ticket that would have made it much easier. So far in Brussels, I’ve been able to see the Ancient Art Museum and the Magritte Museum (abstract artist), Grand Place, the Royal Palace, European Union headquarters, and Belgian parliament. My favorite would definitely have to be Grand Place. Although every travel guide told me that it is indeed grand (most call it the most spectacular square in Europe), it was incredible to see in person. On Saturday, there was a concert going on and I just grabbed a Belgian waffle and sat in the square and enjoyed it for a bit. There are beautiful buildings on every side of the square, as well as the first Godiva shop and many other great chocolate stores that sell some delicious fresh truffles. I headed back to the hotel on Saturday night, failed to catch any of the Huskies game, but was happy to hear they won, and called it a night before heading out back to Amsterdam on Sunday afternoon.

One of my favorite parts of the Europe portion of my trip thus far has definitely been experiencing the public transportation system. It is incredibly cheap (if only food were as cheap here!), efficient, and easy to learn. So far, I’ve managed to get around everywhere here without having to get in a bus or car even once, which is something that would be near impossible if I traveled this much in the United States. The trains and trams are always on schedule to the minute that they are scheduled to arrive, and are able to take me to pretty much any destination that I want to visit. Even the non-high speed trains are pretty fast (always faster than the cars on adjacent highways), and unlike Amtrak, they don’t have to stop all the time to let freight trains pass. The only benefit I can think of with Amtrak is that the seats are much nicer/bigger, and passengers are guaranteed seats when they purchase a ticket. I was also impressed with how smooth the trains are in comparison to the Amtrak Seattle-Portland trains.


Week Recap

It’s been a while since I posted, so I thought I’d recap my week briefly. I should get constant internet access when we return to Accra on Saturday morning, so hopefully I’ll be able to post more details, thoughts, and pictures then.

Over the weekend, we had the opportunity to drive to the Boabeng-Fiema monkey sanctuary, which is a protected strip of rainforest that is home to over 900 monkeys. The sanctuary houses two different species of monkeys, both of which are regarded as sacred – the Campbell’s Mona and the Geoffroy’s Columbus. We were able to buy some bananas and feed some of the monkeys (they jump and take them right out of your hand, but are are very nice!). They also had some “strangler fig” trees, which are tall trees that grow on the trunks of other trees, which causes the host tree to rot out and eventually leave a hollow trunk. The guides allowed us to climb up the insides of the hollow trunks of these trees!

Next, we went to the Kintampo waterfalls, which are a series of three natural waterfalls, where the river drops a total of 70 meters over a series of big rocks. While the first two falls were nothing special (and I hope to have pictures later), the third fall was quite impressive and very pretty. However, the best part was that we were allowed to get in the water and climb up the rocks and get underneath the bottom of the waterfall! I definitely had to watch some other people go in first before I trusted myself to do it, but it was a pretty amazing experience. Definitely beats walking behind Silver Falls!

This week, we are conducting four outreaches, the first two of which we did on Monday and Tuesday. Today (Wednesday), we will be observing surgeries at the clinic before we have our final two outreaches tomorrow and Friday. We will then return to Accra, where we will have Sunday off, maybe go to the Crystal Eye Clinic on Monday, before flying out on Tuesday. It’s crazy to think that there is now less than a week to go!

Our outreaches this week have seen better attendance than last week, as we saw over 40 patients yesterday. Although this is still far fewer patients than we were seeing on the outreach with Crystal Eye Clinic, it’s an increase nonetheless, and a sure step in the right direction for the clinic here. After Stefano and I leave here on Saturday, however, Charity Eye Clinic won’t receive any more Unite for Sight volunteers for the foreseeable future, which increases the workload placed upon the staff here.

One interesting observation that we had when we were waiting for a tro-tro (which ended up being a 3-hour journey home), is that we’ve likely spent at least 50 hours driving and 25 hours waiting for various things on this trip if we were to add it all up (and that’s a conservative estimate). The roads tend to turn to parking lots during rush hour, with drivers having very little sympathy for other cars and pedestrians, which leads to 30-minute commutes turning into 3 or 4-hour commutes. Additionally, we typically drive 2 or more hours each way to the outreach sites, which quickly adds up. Even though we may only see patients for a couple of hours on some days, the days feel incredibly long just because of the amount of waiting and driving time. Planning out meals is also somewhat difficult, since it can take over an hour for an order of fried rice or noodles to be made!


Nkaseim Outreach

Today, we conducted another outreach in Nkaseim, Ghana, where about 30-40 patients showed up. The time spent on these outreaches is often misleading because we can spend 4-5 hours in the car and only see patients for a few hours, compared to the overnight outreaches, which typically have less driving time and more time seeing patients. However, it makes sense that the outreach staff doesn’t want to be going on overnight outreaches every week, so driving home (as inefficient as it may be) allows them to spend afternoons and evenings at home.

The most interesting part of the day for me had to be attempting to climb a large tower. It was designed to be a ladder (with a megaphone on top, presumably to make announcements). The whole thing seemed pretty sketchy, as it was just a wood pole with pieces of wood nailed onto it to climb on. The whole thing was about 30 feet tall, and I made it up about 5-10 before it started shaking so much that I got scared and climbed back down (the geckos on the rungs above me didn’t seem like something I wanted to touch either)…


Daily Outreaches

Over the last couple of days, we conducted two daily outreaches, both of which were in a small village called Dadiesoaba, which is about 2 hours from Kumasi. We departed the hotel at around 6:30am and drove to Dadiesoaba, where we set up for the outreach in a small Methodist church. Due to some issues involving publicity and local volunteers at Charity Eye Clinic, both Monday and Tuesday’s outreaches were rather poorly attended, and we saw only about 15-20 patients each day (compared with over 300 some days during the overnight outreach with Crystal Eye Clinic!). With the issues surrounding publicity/usage of local volunteers here, we will only be conducting four outreaches this week (Monday-Thursday), and returning to the clinic to observe surgeries on Friday.

We did have an opportunity to see the local Kumasi zoo over the weekend, where we saw a camel, some monkeys, peacocks, and ostriches. The most interesting part of the zoo for us had to be the condition the animals were kept in. Rather than attempting to create a natural habitat for the animals, they were simply just placed in cages and seemed to be suffering from malnutrition, which was sad to see. On Monday night, the Ghanaian national soccer team played a friendly match against Brazil. It was amazing to see how people crowded around TV’s on every street everywhere we went in order to watch the match. Ghanaians tend to have immense national pride for their soccer team (like India and the Indian cricket team), and it was fun to watch the game with a big group of local people, even though Ghana lost 1-0 (due to a completely unfair early red card called against Ghana…).

For now, we have two more outreaches this week (in a different village), but I do have a monkey sanctuary and waterfall to look forward to on Saturday!


More Days in Kumasi

The last few days were a couple more days off in Kumasi. On Wednesday and Friday, I had the opportunity to see more surgeries. The schedule for those days was pretty consistent, with me seeing 10-12 surgeries each day (usually 3/4 of them were cataract surgeries and 1/4 pterygium excisions), and then being dropped off in Kejetia to use the Vodafone Internet Cafe (I’m becoming pretty familiar with this place!) and explore the central market of the city. On Thursday night, I actually did find an American-style grocery store (although they charged $4 USD for a small bag of chips). On Friday evening, Stefano and Quan returned from their overnight outreach and we went out to dinner at a nice diner.

It’s been a pretty interesting experience getting to explore Kumasi on my own. Somehow, I’ve been able to learn the local public transportation system well enough to get around to the places I need to go to (which is something it took me 18 years to do in Portland…). Something that I’ve noticed is that people tend to be extremely honest and helpful. Although there is a Kumasi prison, meaning there are certainly criminals out there, I’ve never felt afraid to go around on my own or to ask anyone for help. Taxi drivers and shop owners certainly do try to rip us off, but once a price and destination is settled upon, they always honor their commitment. Perhaps most impressive, on the outreaches I’ve been on thus far, not a single patient has tried to steal or even bargain down the prices of the eyeglasses or medications, even when there is havoc at the dispensing table and it would be incredibly easy to do so (or who knows, maybe they were just so good at taking them that I didn’t notice!).

The country on a whole is extremely religious, which reminds me a lot of Chile. There are churches on nearly every block, and there is a mosque behind our hotel, which means that I get to wake up to loud Muslim prayers over a loudspeaker every morning. Like in Accra, church tends to be a very loud event with a full band, so it’s pretty hard to miss! Overall, it was a good week to get accustomed to being in Kumasi. It’s nice that I still have two more full weeks to spend here (although crazy that I only have just over 2 weeks left here!) rather than constantly moving around like I was for the first week (and through the whole trip in South America last year).

We’re planning on attending a local soccer football game here this weekend, before trying to head to the Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary and a famous waterfall here next weekend. The agenda for the coming week consists of five daily outreaches to small communities that are 2-3 hours away. However, I hear that the outreaches here take much less time (usually starting at 7am and ending by 2pm), which should leave us more time to get some shopping done in the city.


Exploring Kumasi

Yesterday, I used the day off from surgeries and the clinic to explore Kumasi some more and familiarize myself with the city. I caught a tro-tro in the morning (which remind me of autos in India with how many people they shove into these vans) to Kejetia, the central market, and then walked up to Adum, where all the banks are located. It was nice to walk through Kejetia again (although it took some time to make it through the crowds!). It can be tough walking in crowded areas because not only do you have to dodge the people running every direction, you have to dodge whatever they have balanced on their head.

I next walked to the Ghana Armed Forces Museum, which is a nice, albeit very over-priced, museum that highlights Ghanaian military history and has several artifacts that have been collected over the years. There are separate buildings dedicated to each wing of the military as well as a hall for both World War I & II. Then I walked over to the Vodafone Internet Cafe for an hour. After this, I took the recommendation of Lonely Planet and stopped by the Tiwaah Restaurant (just a few blocks from the internet cafe). I browsed through the markets for a couple of hours and managed to bargain down the prices of a few souvenirs.

Finally, I walked back down to Kejetia, where the main tro-tro station (I didn’t know there was a whole station!) is located. I was a little afraid of hopping onto the wrong tro-tro, but I said “Trede” about a million times until someone directed me to the correct part of the station. After a 30-minute wait and 1-hour ride in the tro-tro, I was back at the hotel for the night.



Stefano and Quan left on Monday morning for their overnight outreach, leaving me here to explore the city of Kumasi on my own. Like I said before, the city seems to be quite well-organized with plenty of things to do. I decided to take a public bus into the city, which was about 50 pesewas for the 40-minute ride to Kejetia, which is supposed to be one of the largest markets in West Africa. It was incredibly crowded and busy, but was a great way to get an idea of how much things cost (although as Kate, our optometrist, advised, it’s important to start bargaining by offering 1/3 of the price that they first give us). After seeing this market for a while, I walked over to the central part of the city and stopped by the Vodafone Internet Cafe (the other volunteers didn’t lie, this place is addicting, especially on a 100 degree humid day!). After seeing this part of town, I got a call from Charity Eye Clinic calling to pick me up to view and sign off on some surgeries.

Charity Eye Clinic was about a 20-minute drive from the Vodafone Cafe. There were 11 surgeries performed today; 7 cataract surgeries and 4 pterygium excisions. I was most impressed by the speed at which the surgeries were performed, with Dr. Twumasi taking about 7-9 minutes per eye for each surgery. The reason that I was required to stay back from the overnight outreach is that Unite for Sight requires that one volunteer be present at all surgeries to sign a paper to ensure that the operation did occur (since the eye clinic receives money from UFS based on how many operations take place). After the surgeries, we stopped by a fast food place for some fried rice, spaghetti (with ranch dressing?), and boiled eggs and watched FC Barcelona demolish Villarreal. The meals here often consist of weird combinations of food items. I’m looking forward to trying Moti Mahal, the Indian restaurant here that is supposed to be very good.

Tomorrow, I have a day off and plan on visiting the local military museum.


To Kumasi!

Today, Stefano and I both made the 4-hour journey to Kumasi, a city of about 2 million, where we will be working with Charity Eye Clinic for the next 3 weeks (until our trip ends). We were picked up by Kate, an optometrist, and Steve, the driver, and it seemed as though we would have a smooth journey for about the first hour, until the road suddenly turned into a gigantic mud pit (something like the Southridge High School football field in 2005 for those that remember). Cars were swerving across the road in every direction to avoid gigantic muddy hills and holes and we’re lucky that none of us in the car got carsick.

We made it here to the Kate Memorial Hotel in the late afternoon. With temperature-controllable air-conditioning and hot water in the shower, this hotel seems like luxury (and it’s much cheaper than the Telecentre!), and staff is very nice and accommodating to all of our needs and requests. Stefano and Quan, a volunteer that we met here, will be leaving tomorrow morning for a 5-day overnight outreach to neighboring regions, while I will be staying back in Kumasi to observe and sign off on surgeries at the eye clinic over here. It should be a good opportunity for me to explore the city and get some shopping (and laundry!) done before participating in some more daily outreaches next week. We took a trip to the very wonderful Vodafone Internet Cafe (60Mbps download speeds!) and then went to dinner at a Chinese/Indian restaurant before heading back to the hotel.

For some reason, Kumasi seems to be a much nicer city than Accra, with the roads in much better condition and with much better transportation options (more taxis and a bus system that is easy to use). Although our hotel is 30 minutes out of the main part of the city, it is just 50 pesewas (about 33 cents) to take a bus or tro-tro (a big van that acts as a bus) into the city. It should be fun to have a chance to explore the city using public transportation over the next few days.


Days off in Accra

Following the busy overnight outreach to Jasikan and Kpando, I had both Friday and Saturday off in Accra. It was a nice opportunity to sleep in (and have running water and a connection to the Internet again). By the time I got back, my body had finally fully adjusted to the temperature and jetlag, so I took the chance to explore some places in the city of Accra. The first thing that I did was take a cab (which are very cheap here!) to Busy Internet, a huge Internet cafe in Accra to drop some things off for a friend of my brother. Afterwards, I ate some delicious pizza at the Hotel Paloma and did some window shopping at the Cultural Center. Soon after going back to the Telecentre, the other volunteers (who went on a separate overnight during the week with Northwestern Eye Clinic) returned and we went out to a nice air-conditioned Chinese restaurant for dinner.

Saturday ended up being a much more…eventful (if you could call it that!) day. We woke up at 7 and I joined nine other volunteers on a day trip to Cape Coast and Kakum National Park. We rented out a Unite for Sight van for the day. It took about three to four hours to reach Cape Coast, and we stopped there at the Cape Coast Slave Castle. This castle was built in the 1653 by Swedish traders and served as an important part of the slave trade. Inside, we got to tour several of the dungeons and imprisonments where slaves were held prior to being shipped west to South and North America. The rooms were small and often housed several shackled slaves for days before they were forced through a small 70 meter tunnel to waiting ships. According to our tour guide, Michelle Obama believes that some of her ancestors were held in this castle before being shipped and sold as slaves in North America, and the entire first family visited the castle during President Obama’s trip to Ghana in 2009.

On our drive from the slave castle to Kakum National Park, the clutch in the van stopped working. Around this time, we also got a call from Accra that another van had arrived to take Stefano and I to Kumasi. We were not expecting this trip to occur until Sunday (and no one had felt the need to tell us otherwise…), so we simply had to tell the van to wait until we got back. Rather than turning back to Accra, we decided to keep on going (at about 30kph) since we were only about 10-15 minutes away. It was definitely worth it. At the national park, there is the famous “canopy walk,” which consists of a series of seven rope bridges that are tied to tall trees that towers about 100-150 feet above the rainforest floor. This section of the rainforest is a small area that was preserved by the government despite most of the rainforest in Ghana having been destroyed due to construction and mining. The canopy walk was constructed about 16 years ago by Canadian researchers who were hoping to view rainforest wildlife without disturbing their habitat. Although we didn’t get to see many animals, the views were absolutely breathtaking and we were able to hear several different kinds of birds and monkeys from where we were.

The real adventure of the day started on the way back to Accra, when our van completely stopped working in Cape Coast, about 3 hours away from Accra. Unite for Sight volunteer coordinators were annoyingly unhelpful in finding a solution, so we ended up hiring a van on our own and making the trip back to Accra. The ride was good (albeit fast) until we reached Accra, where the driver decided to take some side roads back to the Telecentre to avoid traffic. I’m not sure how much time this actually ended up saving though, because these side roads were unpaved and essentially consisted of big dirt hills. By the time we finally made it back, it was nearly 10pm and most restaurants had closed. Along with Erick and Stefano, two of the other volunteers, we walked around until we found a small bar that was open and able to make us some fried rice. Although long, it was a successful day, as we were somehow able to do all of the things we wanted to do (and then some!).

Tomorrow, Stefano and I will be departing to Kumasi, where we will be working with Charity Eye Clinic for about three weeks.


Kpando: Day 2

Last day of my first overnight outreach! We woke up a bit late this morning (if you can call 6:47am late) and immediately left to go back to the same church for another day seeing patients. Because it was pouring rain as we left, the church was quite empty when we first got there. However, as time went on, the church slowly filled up. Somehow, some patients had been allowed to register one week early, which led to mass confusion (and mini riots) about which patients would be seen first. Eventually, Dennis had to stop seeing patients for a while and organize everyone and assure them that he would see all of the patients by the end of the day.

Lunch, which was again provided by the same local volunteer, consisted of fried rice with fried plantains and a very spicy and delicious sauce made of tomatoes and crushed peppers.Thankfully, it has not been too difficult to find vegetarian food so far (although I am dubious when they claim that the sauces used for the fried rice don’t contain any meat broth). We were able to finish up the visual acuity station by about 1pm, and finished seeing patients around 7pm. By the time the day was over, we had seen about 350 patients. We finished up just as church service was starting, packed up our supplies and luggage, and are now headed back to Accra in the midst of a wondrous lightning storm. Now that this overnight outreach is over, I will have Friday and Saturday off before heading to Kumasi on Sunday.