After 3 ½ months in Southeast Asia, I leave Vietnam for my volunteer assignment in Ghana, Africa. It feels thrilling to know I am the only person in the world traveling from Nha Trang, Vietnam to Ghana, Africa. It takes me over 48 hours to get to Ghana, with four flights, 24 hours of layovers and a near panic attack when I discover there are two airports in Kuala Lumpur and I need to travel 20 kilometers to make my connecting flight. I have a 13-hour layover in Cairo, and unexpectedly go on a day tour of the pyramids. I am absolutely awestruck by the pyramids and the sphinx and happily pose for many cheesy photos.
My homestay in Ghana is in Adaklu Tokor, a small village thirty minutes away from the city of Ho. I obviously didn’t read the fine print about my volunteer work, because I’m surprised to learn the village doesn’t have electricity or running water. The house is a beautiful bright blue, with a courtyard of sunflowers and okra. I arrive on the day of the big World Cup game of Ghana vs. Uruguay. My host family has brought a generator from town and it seems the entire village is here, with about 75 people crammed around a 19 inch TV. When Ghana makes the first score, everyone is screaming and dancing and jumping up and down with joy. When they lose, everyone is completely dejected and shuffles out silently.
My first week in Ghana I feel homesick and out of sorts. It’s not the language or culture, since I’ve spent many months traveling in Southeast Asia in similar circumstances. I attribute it to the total isolation. No electricity means no internet, so I’m not connected to my friends or family. It means I go to sleep when it gets dark at 7 p.m. and wake up with the chickens at 4 a.m. No running water means no flush or squat toilets. It takes me two days to figure out how to wash my hands! One night I stumble to the outhouse through the dark with sleep still in my eyes. I brush the grass from my legs once, twice, and then shine my flashlight down on my legs when I realize something is very wrong. There are rivers of ants everywhere. Swarms and seas of big black ants, and medium-sized red ants. And they are all over my legs. I am jumping up and down, and now I really know the childhood chant, “she’s got ants in her pants!”
Ants aren’t even the worst insect in Ghana. One morning, I wake up with over 50 mosquito bites. I scratch them repeatedly. Douse them with Chinese green medicinal oil. And then itch some more. Apply hydrocortisone. And itch them again until they turn into angry red welts. Deep breathing is the only temporary cure. One day, all the village women see my mosquito bites and cluck in sympathy. An old woman leans over and lightly scratches them one at a time. It’s soothing and comforting and I want to hug her. Instead, I thank her and ask if there’s a local plant remedy. She laughs and says, “No, try long sleeves.”
My host family is very sweet, and it takes me days to figure out they are giving me the blandest of meals because they are worried about my stomach. A typical lunch or dinner is rice with a dollop of bland tomato paste. After I tell them I eat street food in Vietnam, they invite me to help make fufu, a staple of the Ghanaian diet. It’s a laborious process that includes boiling cassavas and plantains, and then pounding them in a huge mortar with a four-foot pestle. It usually takes two people to pound it into a paste. You eat fufu with your fingers served in a spicy soup. The strangest part is you do not chew fufu, just swallow it whole. This is hard for me to adjust to, so I make very small portions of fufu. My host family laughs and says I am eating baby-sized bites. The laughter is comforting and Ghana finally starts to feel like home.