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LONDON: DAY ZERO

Yes, London. At least, that’s where I am for now; in four days I’ll be in Paris – and yesterday I was not, as one might expect, in Seattle, but instead visiting family in Minneapolis. Thus begins my next adventure – an international melange of destinations that, when accompanied by the plane trips on either end, will end with me having circumnavigated the world.

To explain: Originally, there were to be two separate three-week trips – one to Europe, and one to India. The Europe trip was, until the end of 2009, a sort of floating exploration of the thing us Americans call “Euroland” or “the land of skinny jeans” – no specific destination was set, just a discussion about how I might be able to meet up in France with my friend –

Steven. Let me introduce Steven: many years ago, when I was still institutionalized in the school system at a small private school by the name of “Seattle Country Day School”, I met Steven. I don’t remember what our first class together was, nor what our first conversation was about – but what struck me first was that this boy was brilliant. At the time, that manifested itself as a predilection towards solving challenging math problems before they were halfway out of your mouth; but even now I stand firmly by that assessment as I have seen his talent spread towards writing, history, and (my personal favorite) board games. Now, I’m not talking about Monopoly, or Life, or Sorry!; I’m talking about board games not that you simply play, but that you seriously dedicated a few hours and a lot of pulled hair towards. They’re fun – but they’re hard.

The board games served as strong application of social glue; whereas during the course of my high school experience I fell out of touch with the majority of my SCDS friends, after the first invitation to play a game at his house (it was “Pandemic” – still one of my favorites) we started trying to make “game night” a little more regular. We even tried to expand it, once, but being the week before finals we had a small turnout (Alex, who, incidentally, got himself a copy of “Pandemic” afterwards); you would think that college students wouldn’t agree to any distractions before studying (in fact plenty of them rescheduled) so it’s worth mentioning that Alex’s last final was actually that day – and I should tell you now (or two paragraph ago) that Steven, much like myself, is taking a gap year.

Yes, in fact that does directly translate into “travel buddy.”

So as I’m getting ready to leave for, I believe, Frankfurt when we got on the topic of my travels, and the proposal to “plan something in Europe for a bit” was made. Time went by, and as I toured Frankfurt-Salzburg-Vienna-Prague (FSVP) (entries will be completed upon my return), Steven put together the “three-week budget dream trip itinerary” – and I cannot begin to thank him enough for doing all that work (not just the itinerary, but all the train and hotel bookings as well). How it shapes up is:

London: January 26th – 30th;; Paris: January 30th – February 5th;; Venice: February 5th – February 8th;; Florence: February 8th – February 11th;; Rome: February 11th – February 18th

It sounds amazing, and looks even better on paper – we have so many fun things planned, and I have my camera to capture every second. However, I have an eensy-weensy logistical error that could pose an issue, which has been the consternation of my mother and myself, as well as the reason behind those above-mentioned dates being a week earlier than originally planned:

India. My fourth and supposedly final trip this year is to India, with my mother, and I was planning on leaving for that trip somewhere around March 1st, and returning towards the end of March, or even April. We had those tentative dates at least set aside, but while I was on my FSVP trip my mother did some more research into my benefits, and we got a little concerned. Expect a side entry on how my benefits work, but the short explanation is that my benefits have two expiration dates – my 19th birthday (March 15th, 2010), if I’m enrolled full-time in college, or my 23rd birthday (March 15th, do the math), no matter what. We knew about this potential snag years ago, but we were hoping that with a physical letter of enrollment from my school, I would be permitted to continue using the benefits.

Well, 1) we don’t yet have our hands on a letter of enrollment from Willamette, 2) even if we did, processing could take a long while, 3) my benefits may be denied anyway until I actually physically begin attending classes in the fall, and 4) I’m not going to have any money left to travel with by the time India is over anyway. Since Steven’s schedule had been finalized, and I really liked it, we decided to move it up one week, and tack the India trip onto the end. Now, I’m beginning on a six-week London-Paris-Venice-Florence-Amsterdam-India-Nepal trip.

Please note, Amsterdam is a 22-hour layover where I simply meet up with my mother before heading on to Mumbai. Sorry to disappoint, but there will be no crazy Amsterdam stories – at least not of the variety that I’m guessing 90% of you readers are hoping for. But yes, India and Nepal have been added to my itinerary. I’ll go more into detail as those trips near, but in the meantime I have plenty more current events to discuss. The point is, I am coming home, and “staying home for a bit” (prepare to disregard that last statement when I figure out how to put myself on the next plane out of SeaTac) after my benefits expire on March 15th.

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If there’s one thing I like to do on a regular basis, it’s make people think. Well, not “make” – maybe, “encourage”? It’s a little hard to describe, what word or phrase would you recommend I use?

Yes, that was a cheap shot. Sorry. However, where this comes into play is that I have procured a set of mind-bending “Killer Sudokus,” a Sudoku variation that I recommend to people at every opportunity – you can check them out online. Another cheap shot – not so sorry this time. The point is that the man sitting on my right (we’ll call him Mr. 19C – can you guess where I was sitting?) began doing an evil Sudoku the moment he sat down. Naturally I invoked the above-mentioned rule of “Don’t Shut Up About Killer Sudokus”, which then spiraled off into a discussion about Sudoku (didn’t see that coming), plane travel, complex systems analysis, enzyme reproduction, technology, and business models. All before take-off. Better than the man sitting on my left – who we’ll call Comatose Carl. You can guess who was the pinata at our fiesta.

Actually, I joined the Legion of the Seriously Unconscious as Sergeant Pass-Out-on-Takeoff, a rank I proudly held until landing… in Minneapolis. Yes, Minneapolis, MN is a typical layover for trips to Europe, since it is a relatively major international hub – but I didn’t just have any layover, I had The Layover: Family Edition. Being located in the area where the rest of my Dad’s family lives, this special edition comes packed with genuinely fun extras like getting picked up at the airport by your aunt, visiting your grandmother, doing your grandmother’s exercises (my legs feel ten times stronger), and then getting the best gourmet pizza in recent memory at a place called “Black Sheep” – meatball, feta, and garlic, with an extra helping of incredibly delicious. And then, with two leftover pieces in hand, you get dropped back off at the airport for your flight later that evening.

Long story made semi-short, I got on my flight with no worries, and proceeded to fly to London. Upon my arrival, I grabbed my bag and decided to take the Tube to the hotel, the Royal Lancaster @ the “Lancaster Gate” station on the Central Line; I navigated this route with bravery and precision, arriving only a solid two hours after Steven and I agreed to meet (my plane was, in fact, delayed taking off) at the hotel.

The reunion having eventually been made, we promptly rested our weary feet in our wonderfully comfortable beds – I managed to completely pass out, while Steven rested for a bit and looked through guide book. By the time I woke up an hour later, he had some good suggestions for how we could spend the rest of our afternoon. The first idea, that we had discussed earlier, was to explore Hyde Park, a moderately-sized (relative to the rest of the parks of London) park across the street from the hotel; following this we would traipse to the Docklands, a new, vibrant social and business center by the Thames/ Tower Bridge.

Sounds easy enough, right? Well here’s how that actually happened: It’s just past dark (at five o’clock) when Steven and I cross the road and wander over to the giant map of the park. While perusing said map, I happened to mention how it looks like a beautiful park and I would like to walk around the lake (Serpentine, it’s called) – however, this is apparently the exact cue for some hitherto unknown source to send forth a car-mounted loudspeaker announcing that “the park is now closing” and to “leave immediately through the nearest gate.”

Next time, I’m going to say how much I hate the park, and maybe then it will stay open all night. Or we’ll just be accidentally locked in. Maybe I just won’t say anything, to be safe. So with Hyde Park having taken a good 99% less time than we were expecting, we headed to the Docklands, through a variety of subway stops to come out on Bank Street. For those that know London, you appreciate that, in fact, the Bank Street subway stop is nowhere near the Docklands. Map in hand, we weaved our way to the waterfront, in the dark, armed with cameras and giant flashing signs that say “tourists” – and, apparently, signs that said, “cars hit here,” London traffic being London traffic. As it was, we wound our down a back alley, up the same back alley, and across Tower Bridge. (good views!); hung a left at some crazy office building (it was either a tribute to, or in defiance of, Euclidean geometry; or both) and headed down the “Queen’s Walk.”

Keep in mind, the planning that was involved in this route was, “Hey, this looks good. Up here. Oh, how about there? Oops. Lets turn here. Oh hey, what’s this waterfront thing? The Queen’s Walk? Cool. Let’s do that.” We never did make it to the Docklands; but that doesn’t matter, because we found good food.

Remember, folks, I am a stomach on legs. The place was “Cote Brasserie”; the crime was a delicious mussel dish followed by a equally delicious set of salmon cakes. The mussels themselves came in a delicious red sauce, which was completely misleading since I can guarantee that it was more white wine than anything; but they were incredible. All fifteen of them. The salmon cakes were, as I mentioned before, also delicious; as expected, they were half potato (after all, they were huge), but extraordinarily flavorful, on a bed of heavily sauteed spinach, turning the whole thing into a sort of salad (except tastier). The piece de resistance, though, was the chocolate pot. When Steven ordered it, I think we were both expecting it to be, well, particularly larger than a ping pong ball. We were wrong; and initial disappointment was replaced by nothing other than relief when we had each tried our first bite, and realized that if it was any larger we would both be experiencing diabetic comas. Let me make sure you understand just how rich this little pot of joy was: two teenage boys, splitting it 50-50, could just barely finish it. I think the table partly buckled when the waiter set it down.

After that, however, and probably because of that, coupled with jet lag, we decided to head back; and now as Steven gets ready for bed I sit here detailing London Day Zero. Let the adventure begin.

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Vienna – the Fifth

Things you don’t hear every morning: “Good luck at the graveyard!”

While some mornings, much like yesterday, I feel as though indeed there is nothing but a metaphorical graveyard waiting for me if I leave the tender embrace of my covers, this morning there is an actual, real graveyard that I’m heading to today (as a visitor). I’m going to save the long story for a rainy day (today it’s just snowing), but I should tell you that my genealogy is well established on my father’s side of the family, and for my mother’s dad – but on my mother’s mother’s side it gets murky, and my goal today is to achieve one more step towards clarification; namely, locating my great-grandparents’ graves.

Here is what I know: My great-grandfather’s name was George Felix Bume, changed from Baum for obvious reasons during the holocaust and WWI; he passed in 1936. His first wife’s name was Grete Katarina Bume; his second wife was also Grete Bume, and she passed in either 1963 or 64. A little confusing with the two Grete Bumes, but otherwise fairly straightforward.

Here’s the only clue I have to finding their graves: “Both of your grandparents are buried somewhere in Vienna.”

Let me make something clear: Vienna, as a city, is gigantic. 1.7 million in the city, with 2.3 million in the overall metropolitan area, which makes it the tenth largest city in the EU. Seattle, by comparison, has a little over 600,000 in the city, with, yes, 3.3 million in the metro area (go us, being 15th largest in the U.S. based on population). In terms of land area though, the city of Seattle is 83.87 square miles; Vienna, 152.7. In that space there are not one, not two, but twelve different and well-spaced cemeteries on the map have; in reality there are fifty distinct cemeteries in Vienna.

And I’m looking for two graves. Maybe. If, in the course of your studies, you are required to define or give an example of “a fool’s errand”, please, feel free to cite this one.

Where to begin? Zentralfriedhof, or “Central Cemetery”, located absolutely nowhere near the center of anything. Here’s how you reach it: Take the orange (U4) line to the very last station (Simmering); get off, climb up the stairs, and walk for two kilometers through the city.

For those of you that haven’t already brought up the Wikipedia article on “Zentralfriedhof”, let me give you the juicy parts:

-the cemetery spans over 2.4 square kilometers, with over 3.3 million interred here. That makes it the second largest cemetery in Europe, and more creepily, it holds the entire population of the Seattle metro area dead and buried.

-the musician Wolfgang Ambros wrote a song called “Long Live the Zentralfriedhof”… Just think about that for a moment.

-there are two Jewish sections in the cemetery (which is where I’m searching, in case you couldn’t guess by the “Baum”), one of which was mostly destroyed by the Nazis during Kristallnacht.

Right now my plan consists of going to the cemetery, and running around the Jewish sections until my hands freeze. Never, ever, put me in charge of search and rescue unless you don’t want to get found.

—————–

Sitting at breakfast, doing my eating thing. I’m sitting at a table with three other lovely ladies; two of them are talking to each other, and the third is just sitting quietly on the other side of the table with her breakfast. I don’t know any of them, nor am I planning on striking up a conversation – instead, during the lunchroom game this morning, I asked myself how I wanted to start the day, and decided I would rather at least be sitting at a table with people than at a table by myself. And these ladies look friendly enough. Let’s eat.

During the course of my breakfast (which was almost identical to yesterday’s, save for two kiwis), Andrew and Rachel showed up. I hadn’t factored them into my lunchroom game before because it was already 8:30 when I got there (breakfast ends at 9 o’clock sharp) and I thought I had missed them; needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised when they showed up.

——————

Honestly, it’s probably the coldest I’ve ever experienced, which might make me sound like a wuss, but I fully welcome you to bask in the glorious bone-shattering chill. I’m wearing my heavy pants, a sweater over my shirt, and my heavier jacket, and I am quite cold – and I’m less bundled than most of the natives we’re seeing.

Andrew, Rachel and I are trekking to Media Markt (no “e”). Andrew and I are on a mission: He needs to buy a new cord for his netbook (it short-circuited courtesy of Venetian floods) and I need a new flash drive (I already have 4-gig and 16-gig sticks, but I have maxed them out with all my music, pictures and videos). What I really need is a 1.5 terabyte drive – of my 14 gigs of pictures and recordings, I took 12 gigs of that since December 17th (that converts to just under 6 gigs a week) and I am picky about deleting (of the pictures I take each week, I’ll delete maybe 5%, not counting the pictures that I put in multiple albums). Granted, at that rate it would take me a while to fill up a terabyte and a half, but that doesn’t include my music collection, my videos, or my design work. So Santa, I’m getting a head start on my list this year.

Anyway, we’re in Media Markt, which is a risky proposition for me – I tend to be an impulsive shopper. Fortunately, I have two tricks at my disposal as I peruse the 32-gig flash drives or the even more awesome 32-gig Extreme (TM) San Disk camera cards (did I mention it sounds amazing?): one, I multiply every price by 1.5, which is only a little higher than the current exchange rate (ouch) and two, I’m only carrying roughly 25 Euro on me.

Fifteen minutes later, now, and we’re just leaving – me with an 8-gig drive and some more batteries (they keep on freezing), and Andrew with the knowledge that he could technically run the computer with cord, without the battery, since the cord is actually not broken (he tested it).

Now to test a hypothesis: I have no more cash on me. There is ATM outside the Media Markt. I am going to Prague tomorrow (surprise!) so I don’t need that much more to survive – let’s say 50 Euro for whatever may happen. Remember the “Theory of Moody ATMs” posited in my previous entry? Yeah, it’s been proven. One bill, a 50, ejected from the slot. Oh well.

———————-

Rachel, Andrew, and I parted ways at Karlsplatz, where they left to go to a cafe and find the opera house; I continued on the U3 line to the transfer point to the U4 at Landestrasse, went to Simmering, and took the aforementioned trek down to my current location, the Zentralfriedhof.

It’s big.

From my location in the corner (my point of entry, closest to the Jewish area) I am staring down fairly wide roads, and am unable to see the far walls – its just a forest of tombstones and other instances of funereal remembrance. More than creepy it is elegant; the quiet I am now enfolded in is not that of death, per se, but of regality; I am a visitor at millions of palaces, each with their lone regent beneath the frozen ground.

A moment of silence for those who have passed.

Now it’s time to begin the search. I am purposely not looking at a map yet so not to get discouraged (yet). I’m doing a loop around the outside of the first group of tombstones I see – ten squares of tombstones, laid twenty by twenty. Round, around, then in and out, across and back – always stepping right behind the head of the tombstones in the previous row so as to carefully and respectfully avoid trespassing on someone’s throne. Back, forth, up down, back forth, across, again.

Two thousand tombstones later, I am starting to get discouraged, and more than that I am beginning to chill. My messenger bag is frozen, as is my map and my enthusiasm for this task. I still manage to push on, muttering something to myself about how this is family, and how I shouldn’t give up; a thousand tombstones ago it wasn’t a mutter, but a fresh reprimand for even thinking about stopping – but most things are dead in a cemetery, and my resolve was quickly joining their ranks.

Finally, I look at the map of the Jewish section – in terms of my foolish enthusiasm, this is the death blow. Those ten squares comprised roughly one-fifth of “Area 6.” There are, according to the map, twelve areas remaining, some larger than this. By rough approximation, I have one-hundred-and-eighteen thousand tombstones left. In this cemetery

No.

—————-

I was absolutely freezing while my resolve lay on its death bed; a such, we held the funeral in the heated church at the front entrance to the entire Zentralfriedhof. The body was carried down the long road for twenty minutes, from the side wall to the main entrance; laid to rest in the main church; and then buried in my memory. I was the only one in attendance.

—————-

Best idea ever? Catching the tram back to the Simmering subway station rather than walking another two and a half kilometers. next best idea? Food. Broke that 50 like a glass bowling ball, and received two excellent melts from one of the bakeries inside the station. Caught the subway back to Landestrasse; then on to Hutteldorf. Got a bottle of water on the way back to the hostel.

Now I’m packing for my inadvertent foray to Prague. I had initially taken over all my allotted space (I do that well) so getting all of my animals back in their respective cages is a difficult task. I’ve already pulled out the singular outfit that I’m wearing tonight and tomorrow, and have set aside my shower gear and other toiletries; the rest of my mess is being systematically removed from my bed, the platform at the head of my bed, the platform at the foot of my bed, the bed underneath mine, the floor, the communal table, two of the communal chairs, and my closet. I came, I saw, I conquered, and now I’m retreating, making a clean international getaway.

———————

To put the rest of my day in the style of one of my favorite alternative periodicals: nothing really happened today, except that Andrew and I grabbed various packages of tortellinis and dumplings from the nearby Spar for dinner, used a microwave (for what purpose, I’m not sure), and settled down with Rachel in the lounge to eat our cold dinner and discuss the details of the next leg of our now-aligned journeys: Prague.

“Good Causes”

There is nothing inherently wrong with mission trips, volunteering abroad, or building houses in such-and-such impoverished country; but where the issue arises is when people think that they are saving the day by “sacrificing” their time for these causes. There are so many things wrong with that mentality, and this topic seems to arise enough, that it warrants being explained in detail.

Primarily, there is no physically possible way that a scrawny teenager on a mission trip is going to be able to do more (close to, or even ballpark amount of) work per day than any of the big, burly natives who undoubtedly have more time, energy, and experience building houses. Don’t get me wrong – I was that teenager once, scrawny and all. The city was El Maizal in El Salvador, and I went with my friend’s church group as a part of Episcopal Relief and Development. I actually went twice, and both times we spent a few days sightseeing and the rest working- digging, wheelbarrowing and dumping. This was all necessary for laying the foundation for more development, and it felt like good, honest work that the inhabitants would appreciate; I realized, later on, that the “construction workers” we were staying out of the way of could have gotten our job done in half the time. When I asked about this, I was told that the trip was never about building the houses; it was about building the community and connection that the group had with the town. That really stuck with me, and I realized that that is the important part about all these trips abroad.

That’s not to say that someone can’t do some serious good while they’re abroad – it happens all the time. But that’s the result of a much longer commitment, and the travelers/ volunteers usually have more appropriate positions while they’re their; or maybe they are bringing donations or business. The reason why I wrote this, though, is because of all the people who think that just because they’re going over for a bit to do whatever, they’re awesome. It’s not that easy to help others this way; and that “precious” time that you’re donating is that of an infinitely more privileged middle- or upper-class lifestyle, complete with disposable income and leisure time (the definition of which changes drastically when you throw a Third-World country into the mix).

My solution is not to try and find a longer, more expensive trip, or even to donate your allowance to charity. It’s much more simple: allow the trip to change you. Don’t go forth with an unshakable devotion, staunch morals, or any kind of self-righteousness – you can get those while you’re there. Go forth with an open mind, and learn about the situation and how to help; and in the spirit of teaching men to fish, when you come back from your trip, teach other people what you learned; don’t be the Third-World’s savior; be their messenger.

Ghana: Day One

[6:17pm, Sunday, November 7th]

Okay, now that I’ve gotten “Sweat” out of the way I can tell you about the rest of my day, from the time that the plane touched down until now, and probably through the rest of the night.

The plane landed safely. This may seem an arbitrary and unimportant detail in my journey, but trust me when I say that without it there would be a serious problem; but fortunately my journey was free of serious problems, and even moderate and minor ones (except for the taxi fare, apparently paid in gold); I chalk this up to the distinct possibility of some more exotic expiration that gets me in the middle of the trip. Better notify REI.

Let’s skip to the part where we caught the taxi, or in financial terms, where the taxi caught us: leaving the airport. The first thing you notice when you step outside the airport (if you use the forbidden side doors that we had to ask really nicely to be let out of so we wouldn’t be trampled by…everyone) is that the airport itself is one of the tallest structures in the immediate vicinity. It is a vantage point – which is saying something because it’s no more than four stories on a hill. I counted five skyscrapers – seven-story buildings – on the way to the orphanage, and a plethora of small walled communities (not “gated-neighborhood” walls, concrete “let’s not get robbed” walls), open space, and burned refuse. In my limited experience in temperate Third-World countries, this is the signature, what I expected from the rural areas – not necessarily from the country’s capital.

My next tourist thought was, “Ghana is not a pretty country.” I admit, that thought crossed my mind a couple times. Here’s the first major issue with that judgment: Ghana is not a hilly, verdant landscape replete with middle-class homes in nice neighborhoods, nice sidewalks (or sidewalks at all), copious amounts of lakes and streams, public art, and a visible, solid infrastructure. For those of you who don’t know, that’s Seattle. Ghana is not pretty, in my opinion, because my definition of a pretty city turned out to be Seattle. Whether that’s because I am predisposed to like Seattle, or because that’s where I feel safe, my definition of beauty will have to change a little bit more – which is not a bad thing. I’m not saying that I’m going to decide that Accra, specifically, is a beautiful city when I wake up tomorrow – I’m just saying I need to better define my criteria.

Enough self-righteous self-wronging. We arrived at the orphanage; we forgot to check the price ahead of time and was hit with 15 cedis fee (todays exchange rate is 1.4 cedis per dollar) when the fee usually costs less than ten. We unloaded the bags and the fun began.

First, we dropped our bags off with Samul (all spellings are phonetic estimates, with which the accent doesn’t help), a young boy at OSU who watched them while we paid a visit to the head of the orphanage, a stout Auntie (as all the older women are called) who after neither asking for my medical note (one of the requirements) or background check, nor asking/telling me what my duties were, gave me a room (the room?) for a rate I have to discern. The room in question is exactly that: room. Roughly 6.5x5x10 (w,l,h; in feet), I have enough “room” to stand, lay straight on the bed, and sit on the upper bunk (next to where I crammed my stuff). Yes, there’s a bunk bed, which takes up more than half the room; a mini, mini fridge (electric icebox?), which isn’t cold but serves as a great end table for one of my bags; and an upright fan to serve as my air conditioning. It’s broken, which is why I know the fridge isn’t cold – so now I have the windows (3×1.5, w,h, in feet) open letting in the cool night air (about 75 Farenheit). I’ve never felt safer, though, since I’m in the inner sanctum of what I think is, in fact, a guest house – the walls are about four to five inches of concrete on the inside, closer to seven for the outside wall, with burglar-proof windows and two currently bolted hardwood doors. I have a key, which is the only reason I haven’t termed my room “The Cell.” I was thinking more along the lines of “Emerald Fortress” – not because it’s protecting the guy from the green city, but because the only light in my room is a dark, vibrant green that makes everything  bit trippy. Yes, my Emerald Fortress is nigh impenetrable except for its Achilles’ heel, namely the light switch being outside the door, enabling a switch-happy kid the ability to render the Emerald Fortress into a normal, boring one. On a side note, I managed to st up some clothesline and my mosquito net using one string of rope, the doorknob, and a bedpost – not quite MacGuyver, but the point here is that I’m sleeping on the lower bunk, hanging the mosquito net from the upper bunk. This reduces the overall efficacy of the net by roughly 130%; for those of you not familiar with new math, we minus 90% because the net is against my skin (not so great for keeping those bloodsucking festerpools off my skin) and the other 40% because I’ve effectively cocooned myself into smothering immobility (I’m thinking they made this net out of kevlar – great if the mosquitos are packing heat, no so great for moving, breathing, or surviving).

So I got my room! While they were preparing it (I’m not sure what exactly they were preparing) we gave bread and fruit to the collection of boys who had gathered around us, and this is when I stopped thinking and started learning. If you only notice one thing about the youth here, it will undoubtedly be that they touch. Everything. I had the contents of my pockets examined, and then returned to me; I shook hands, gave hugs, held kids, gave piggyback rides, and carried little ones around with me; each one probably a hundred times over. While you’re standing and talking to someone, they’ll just keep on shaking your hand (which for the record goes broshake-handshake-snap) for minutes. All the kids come and touch you, even though they don’t know you – I was constantly holding hands. As I found out later, if you at ll bend down, sit down, or squat, you’ll induce a dog pile. I say “induce” because it borders on being one of the laws of physics – probably even more reliable. What’s fascinating about the whole thing is that touching is almost subconscious here; whereas in America we try to not touch, anyone or anything.

We began by dropping off our bags at the office, and then toured the infant’s house. These children are by far the cutest things you’ve never seen, hands down; but they are in these moldy cribs (by no fault of the orphanage – they have gotten some new ones in thanks to some serious fundraising, but not quite enough) with torn mattresses. We then visited the younger boys’ (6-12) house, and stopped by the older boys’ (13 and up) house where they were getting ready to watch the Manchester vs. Chelsea soccer match (soccer is BIG here – I’ll probably end up getting a lot of practice). Finally, we took some of the boys and went to…

…Celsbridge, one of the places (specifically a cafe) that will end up being one of my staples outside the walls of OSU. See, I don’t get fed here. I completely understand this, since the food should be saved for the children, but that leaves me with the following options (as best I understand them):

Celsbridge (the cafe): open air, very relaxed, this place is about 300 feet straight out of the front gate and specializes in meat. Well, supposedly. We ordered chips (fries), two sausages and one beef something-or-other; they were out of beef so we ordered kebab; turns out they were out of kebab, so we got the spicy chicken – and when I say spicy chicken, I mean a little chicken and a lot of spicy. I don’t believe I’ve ever tasted meat that was so searingly spicy before – I’ve done hot satays, I love kim chi, and I do like wasabi, but this was completely different. Good, but definitely an acquired taste; and speaking of acquired tastes, I was introduced to the joys of Malt soda, a barley-based carbonated energy drink, supposedly healthy and tastes like it.

Churchie’s (the pizza place): the second best pizza place, and where I think I’m going for breakfast tomorrow morning. Limited options, remember? It’s out the gate and to the left, down the street an indeterminate distance.

Novatel (the hotel): where the crews lay over, also known as one of my two lifelines – the other being the the American Embassy. I don’t know how to get to either one, yet, but I intend to find out. the reason they’re on this list is because they supposedly have the absolute best pizza, ever. I may have to check that out.

Frankie’s (the greasebucket): a hamburger and pizza place that was warned in earnest against visiting.

The Mall (…): It may or may not be close by, but it’s definitely overpriced. Still, I might stop by and get something to snack on.

Street Vendors (the natural selection): I’ll try these out when I’m ready to expire in the most grotesque display of intestinal fireworks. I think they serve goat, might be fun to try. Once.

The other building of note is the bank, where I’ll be changing my money tomorrow; out the gate, take a left, walk a bit, take another left, and walk some more. People here are reeeeal precise, let’s hope that doesn’t apply so much to the money exchange.

And after seeing all this, and learning all that, and meeting all of them, I retired to my room at one in the afternoon to blog, take a shower, and pass out.

The man next to me on the flight is a very nice Ghanain gentleman from Connecticut by the name of something I can neither spell or pronounce; the reason I know he’s nice is because he didn’t get upset when I poured my orange juice into his lap.

Yup. Let’s backtrack a bit.

I was raised on travel. My mother is a flight attendant and my family has been taking me places since nine months before I was born. People always ask me if I can remember all the places I’ve ever been to; “unfortunately” I took a lot of my trips before I started remembering things (which some would say was early last year, but they can just hush up) so the answer is no. However, I do remember just loving to travel. In the course of my blog I’ll try and throw in as many of my past trips as I can, and I welcome questions, comments and what-the-heck-were-you-thinkings.

However, to stay topical, I’m going to skip straight to the part where I’m taking a gap year before going off to college next Fall. More on that later, but what’s important is that my mom told her friends my plans; and one of them, a fellow flight attendant, suggested that I volunteer at the OSU Children’s Home (orphanage) in Accra. Apparently this woman and her entire family have been volunteering there for a few years, and love it (this includes her children, all of which are younger than me); I was eager to say yes. This would be my second time to Africa, first to Ghana; and I would be there, virtually on my own, for a “good cause.” (I’ll explain this in another blog). It would also be one of the longest amounts of time I’ve stayed in one place. Overall, it sounded like a great idea…

…especially the part where I try some new things. See, besides the “first time to Ghana” and “longest on my own/ in one place” aspects, this would be my first time setting foot in an orphanage. I used to babysit this one kid, Patrick, and he was great. He was everything one looks for in a babysitting job: very energetic, very smart, and very friendly – and there was only one of him. I am not, by any means, a kid person. Sure, I love their cute antics and I seem to get along with them well enough, but I don’t like messy, needy, disruptive, violent, disrespectful, and/or deliberately disobedient people at any age, much less when they each have the energy capacity of a small city. Also, I’ve never been much of a physical contact person, that just is what it is (but I’m getting better). I’m surprisingly okay with the poverty aspect, but the orphan part is totally emotionally incomprehensible for me (as I wish it were for most people). On top of that, I’m not sure about the prevalence of AIDS over at that particular orphanage and that never makes anything easier.

So why an orphanage? And why just jump right in to one in Ghana, rather than building up to it? I’ve been asking myself that for a while, and ‘m not particularly fond of the answers I’m coming up with. Yes, I want to travel. To Ghana? Sure. “Sure”? Yeah, I stopped looking at alternative ways to spend my November when this trip was dropped in my lap. But what about the orphanage aspect? Well, I like to try new things that would normally put people outside of their comfort zones. So you’re just going for your own personal experience? Isn’t that minimizing your goodwill? I just don’t know. In my personal opinion it’s hard to completely selfishly donate one’s time, but it is not impossible and that gray area is where I tread now. I wouldn’t be as worried if I knew that I could make a positive difference; but I’m inherently of the opinion that I can’t bring anything to the table they don’t already have (again, read my “Good Causes” post).

Fortunately, I’m [hopefully] going to be tutoring the children who attend school, and while explaining things to others has never been my strong suit I can only hope that if I take things slow and approach the job with the level of passion that I feel towards education, I’ll be able to make some sort of lasting positive impact. Isn’t that everybody’s goal for life in general though? This sort of normalcy is inspirational.

Now back to the land of the here and now, or more accurately then and there: leading up to the trip was a combination of jealousy and excitement from all of my friends and family, with a liberal dose of apprehension from the latter (I love you guys). I, surprisingly, was nonchalant about the matter. I typically try to never fret about a trip, because I like to have no preconceived notions about my experience, since they provide a digression from flexibility and opportunity. That being said, I took that notion to the extreme, to the point where my parents were questioning my resolve more than once. Not that that was an issue; I welcomed the opportunity to go over the trip with the people that have my best interest at heart; but when one of these opportunities takes place two days before the trip because I still have an untouched shopping list, that’s excessive. Try telling the people at REI that the trip you’re stocking up for leaves in 14 hours (I think they’re taking bets on my survival rate).

So I eventually get packed (true story) and during this whole time I’ve been in contact with various people for making arrangements, or at least going through the motions and faking the rest. I got my visa application sent in (rush mail and rush processed because I left it a little longer than I should have), e-mailed the head of the orphanage, and continually checked in with the woman who would be taking me over and introducing me to everyone (my mom’s friend). She was very helpful in suggesting gifts & donations to bring over, of which I only got my hands on clothes, cards and books (NOTE: if you’re reading this and at any time wish to support OSU Children’s Home, they could use anything having to do with soccer, any vitamins, and diapers, as well as clothes and books. They are in dire need of more cribs as well their current ones are moldy); she was also great help in the nonissue that arose when I heard back from the head of the orphanage. I was out of town the weekend before the trip (see my blog posts about DC) and get an e-mail that Saturday (seven days before I leave and ten days after I sent it) that says I need, among other things, a police background check. For those of you who don’t know, that is a seven-to-fourteen-day, roughly twenty-dollar endeavor that is typically performed by an employer and must be done through the mail (or online for a higher fee). Three days and two police station scavenger-hunts later, I figure that tasty tidbit out. Hence, a dilemma; so instead I begin writing a letter of credence that I thought might suffice; I end up not printing it when the woman tells me that this hasn’t happened before and they won’t turn me away for not having it. Hence, the nonissue is left unresolved.

And with all that travel preparation, on the morning of Saturday, November 6th, 2009, my dad drove me to the airport to catch the 6:15 flight to Lord-only-knows-what (but I intend to find out).