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.