From Backpacker to Volunteer

Here's something that just about all of my friends and family know about me: I'm a backpacker. I love waking up in the morning, pointing to a spot on the map, hopping on a bus and ending up somewhere new. In fact, I've backpacked through 42 countries and counting.

When I had the opportunity to volunteer in Ghana with Cross-Cultural Solutions in November of 2013, I could hardly believe that I'd be making my very first trip to the African continent. I pulled out my map and a guidebook on West Africa. I located Ghana, and then my mind began to race. "Wait! I'm going all that way and only visiting one region of one country? Shouldn't I see Togo or Burkina Faso too? Won't I be missing out on some key elements of Ghana if I stay in the Volta Region the whole time?"

It turns out that staying put gave me the opportunity to experience the nuances of Ghanaian culture that I would have missed if I had decided to explore West Africa as a backpacker.

My experience volunteering in a primary school allowed me an insider's perspective into Ghana's education system. My spirited students and I played hangman to practice spelling, and they taught me their favorite songs in Ewe (the local language). They were so excited to tell me about their future career goals and how they would go about achieving them. They would all fight to hold my hand at recess and ask me questions about my life back home. This type of deep connection and conversation day in and day out would not have been possible if I was just hitting the highlights listed in my guidebook.

Here are some other moments that I would have missed out on had I not traveled to Hohoe to volunteer with Cross-Cultural Solutions:

  • A cooking lesson with Joe where I learned how to pound fufu.
  • Being invited to a neighbor's house to practice the art of batik making.
  • Learning how to do laundry Ghanaian style with Nancy, the CCS housekeeper.
  • Taking a whirlwind adventure through town to visit a local kente cloth weaver's home and check out his newest creations.

And as an awesome bonus (a bonus that every CCS volunteer has the opportunity to enjoy), I had plenty of free time to travel on the weekend and satisfy my wanderlust. My weekend trip to Accra and Cape Coast allowed me to learn even more about the country and its history, making my free-time adventure an accoutrement, instead of the main course.

Normally, at the airport on the way home from a big adventure, I sit and recall all of the amazing places that I visited, and new tastes and smells. However, on my long journey home from Ghana, I left with memories full of people. My driven students, the in-country team, local women who ran through the neighborhood with me when it poured rain. All of these people taught me that the best travel moments are often experienced when you "take it cool," a mantra that our Ewe teacher, Auntie Pat, repeated to us at each lesson.


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