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We woke to the sound of our 5:30 alarm, packed our bags and headed for Yangon airport for our flight to Luang Prabang, Laos. When we got to the airport and checked in we found out that air Asia charges money for checked bags, it ended up costing us $160 American for our bags to make it to our destination. After saying aloud that I would never take Air Asia again, Jesse tells me our Australia flight is through Air Asia too. I guess that explains why it’s often so cheap. We checked our bags and got on our plane.

We had a few hour layover in Bangkok so I went to exchange our Myanmar money. When we got to the counter we find out that not one exchange booth would take it. It was 112,000 kyatt which is around $82 America’s dollars. I began checking gate numbers for flights that were leaving to Myanmar, there were two close to us. My only option was to walk around and ask random people if they wanted to exchange at a better rate. We were willing to take a price cut in order to switch currencies

I went to the people that I thought might have American dollars in hopes that one of them could help us out. The first few people were a little confused and scared at some random person asking them for money and a few people didn’t have cash on them. It wasn’t looking so promising for us, but I decided to go up to one more man. It turned out that he was going to Myanmar but only had a hundred dollar bill. I was willing to exchange with him for $70 instead. Neither Jesse nor I had change so I went upstairs to the exchange booth again and asked if they could break a hundred for smaller bills, they wouldn’t because their policy says they can’t. I went back downstairs to find the guy and he disappeared so I tried one more person and sat down, no luck.

We decided to go get something to eat since we had a little time. We saw a Subway upstairs, it’s nice to have familiar food once in a while. When we got back downstairs I tried one last time and I found a couple that we’re going to Myanmar and we’re willing to exchange 70,000 kyatt for $50. That’s all they had in American and it would normally be about $51 so we weren’t losing much. Unfortunately, we were still stuck with 42,000 kyatt but we were grateful to get a portion of it exchanged. Hopefully, somewhere down the road, we can get rid of the rest of it. So the lessons for the day are: Don’t fly Air Asia and don’t forget to exchange the currency you have before leaving that countries airport.

We get to the Laos airport after a short flight, pay for our Visas on arrival and head out the door. I love that some countries have e-visas or visa on arrival. If you’re traveling from country to country, sending your passport off in the mail isn’t an option so this quicker visa process is great.

We hopped into our taxi and headed for our guesthouse. When we’re in the process of traveling from place to place, putting our bags down as soon as possible are our first thoughts. We have everything we own in them so currently, they are pretty heavy, probably heavier than they need to be. When we get to Australia we’re going to rethink what is necessary to be traveling with and get rid of the rest. Jesse and I both often wear the same clothes every other day or for a few days in a row. I’ve always been an over packer so it will be nice to get rid of what I haven’t used in months.

As we get into Luang Prabang we immediately notice a change in the air and overall vibe. The air seems cleaner and smells fresher. Since many countries still have the open sewage along the roads you often get a whiff of unpleasant smells if you are walking. We are surrounded by mountains and right along the Nam Khan river. Our beds at our guesthouse were dorm style, Jesse on top bunk and me on the bottom. These beds were probably our most comfortable beds in Asia so far, they were bigger than a twin but smaller than a full, with a soft puffy blanket and a soft pillow. It’s rare to have everything on the softer side while traveling so we were really living it up.

We sat down for a little while then decided to get some dinner and head to the night market. We found an all Vegan buffet right in the market. It was basically a table with a bunch of pans filled with different items. Then you fill your plate and give it to the cook to heat up in a wok for 15,000. You can pile the food as high as you can too. This was the cheapest meal we’ve found so far in Luang Prabang. It’s funny you think that a country will be cheap and it is but since tourism is growing things are becoming more expensive. It seems to work for the people traveling on vacation but those that are long-term traveling, the cost really adds up. That’s why volunteering is a win-win for everyone. It saves us money and we get to help others on an assortment of projects.

Right in the city, there is a restaurant and bar called Utopia that has a beautiful view of the river. There were cushions on the ground for floor seating and numerous other cushions just for lounging. It was nice because some were in the shade and some were in the sun, you could even nap there if you wanted to. Almost everyone there was a foreigner, you wouldn’t see the local Lao people spend their money there, its too overpriced. Regardless of the price of the food, this place was beautiful and the owner really took their time putting Utopia together. They also have a net set up for volleyball and have other games you could play, or you could simply go there and relax with a book without even buying anything. It’s definitely a place to check out during the day to relax, and at night to party.

 We spent a few days at the guesthouse and then headed to our next volunteer experience. When we got into our Tuk Tuk, in the back there was a small hammock stretched across. I peeked inside to find a little girl sleeping. I really love how different cultures have different modes of childcare. This little girl was so content with just laying there, even when she woke up she was just calm and quiet. It’s likely that she does it pretty often so she’s probably used to it. In 2017 so many children are just given a screen to look at to keep them busy and when nothing is there they don’t know how to entertain themselves. I had so much fun playing outside as a child with no electronics, but times seem to be changing pretty quickly. I can see myself telling my grandchildren…”Back in my day…”

Finally, we arrive at Nam Khan Eco Farm where we will be volunteering for the next 3 weeks. It’s based on the banks of the Nam Khan river. The volunteering is a mix of building projects, gardening, eco-farming, and teaching. The land is very beautiful and relaxing with 9 greenhouses and tons of fresh veggies growing in the garden. Its pretty great to be surrounded by fresh locally grown food, you can really feel the life of the plants. I never thought I’d be amazed at how beautiful a head of lettuce is while still in the ground. I’ve been wanting to tap into my green thumb more and begin Learning more about gardening so this experience should be a perfect beginning. Nature is a healing and we look forward to helping at the Nam Khan farm.

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Once again we’re on a bus for a long journey to Bagan, around 10 hours we are told. After our first bus trip, we always add a few hours to the time they tell us because it’s likely to be different. We decided to do the sleeper bus there and on the way back to Yangon to catch our flight to Laos we will do the daytime bus so we get the views. This time we decided to travel in luxury and take the VIP bus which isn’t much more than an average bus. We got on the bus not knowing what to expect but it turned out to be pretty nice! At first, I looked at the back of the bus to see that there was no toilet. Every 3 hours or so the driver stops to get a stretch break and you have the opportunity to get a bite to eat, but being on a 10-hour bus ride it’s not fun waiting to go to the bathroom. Although there was no toilet in the back I turned around and magically a toilet appeared in the middle of the bus on a lower level. I’ve never seen one like it before, directly in the middle. The bus has outlets, blankets, pillows and complimentary water which is a huge step up from our last bus experience. There were quite a few empty seats and they shut the lights off soon after we all sat down. Score!

Once 3 AM came we were tired and fell asleep, we woke to the driver saying we’re here, Bagan. It seemed so quick and I was having some wild dreams so I woke a bit discombobulated. It ended up only being 9 hours instead of 10 which was shorter than we originally thought. We stepped off the bus to a bunch of guys, as usual, trying to get us to take their mode of transportation. This time horse and carriage was an option and cheaper. We decided to try the horse out for the experience. I’m such an animal lover that every time I make a choice like this I instantly regret it. It seems like a lot of weight for a horse to carry. With two heavy pieces of luggage and 3 adults on a wobbly carriage next to cars and buses speeding by it doesn’t sound too pleasant. The horse’s hooves were slamming against the hard pavement and it just sounded terrible. I would say it was more the size of a pony rather than a full grown horse, but I could just be feeling bad so my perception is off. We stopped at a place on the side of the road to pay an entrance fee and then we were off to our hostel. What sounded like a relaxing ride turned out to be a somewhat stressful time because we were both clenching our teeth for the poor horse who clearly was not enjoying the position he was in.

When we arrived it was about 6 AM and we were exhausted. We decided to lay low for the day and not explore much until the following day in order to get our moneys worth out of the e-bikes. In Bagan everything is a distance away so renting an e-bike is essential. The sun is hot during the day and we didn’t wake from our naps till the afternoon, so our first day in Bagan out of 5 we spent sleeping, eating and catching up on the Alien movies Jesse got me into. When you’re traveling it’s necessary to take those days to recharge, shut out the outside world and engage in a good sci-fi film. It was a gentle reminder of how small we really are.

We woke the next day just in time for breakfast, ate and headed next door to rent an e-bike for the day. I’ve never used one before so we got a 2 person bike to share the first time till I got the hang of how it runs. It is really easy and similar to riding a normal bicycle, with your occasional minor wipeout in the thicker soft sand. We marked a few potential sunset destinations and went out searching for them. In Bagan, there are 3 main areas, Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U where our hostel is. On our first full day, we decided to go toward Old Bagan first, with a few sights in mind but mainly in search of a good sunset spot. We cruised around for about 3 hours weaving in and out and all around some of the 2,000 pagodas and temples that Bagan has to offer. While riding we crossed paths with a young Burmese guy who offered to show us a pagoda that we could climb to see the sunset. There are many great viewing locations that are secluded but some of the popular ones are swarmed by buses full of tourists. We decided to take him up on his offer, but before we followed him on his motorbike I asked if he was trying to charge us for his help. He responded saying he was a local artist and after we see the sunset spot he will show us his art. If we like his work we can purchase a painting, but there is no obligation to do so. He brought us to a dirt path that led further back from the road to a small pagoda. As we took off our shoes and stepped inside there was a small Buddha and a brick staircase winding to the top. This staircase was about 3 foot wide so space was limited and getting to the top required some bending, ducking and twisting, it’s definitely not for people that have back pain. I love when entrances require some irregular movements, it makes it seem more adventurous. We get to the top and you can see pagodas in the distance and when the sun sets there would be nothing blocking the view. After taking a look around we climb back down and walk out of the pagoda over to a bamboo table where the guy laid out his watercolor paintings. He went through one by one telling the history of some of the pagodas in the paintings, there were a few we liked but had no intentions of buying one. He was very kind and genuine and we wanted to support his work so we gave them a second look and negotiated a price. When we saw this black and white one, we had to have it, it is so beautiful. As we exchanged money for the painting I had a little laugh because as you travel from place to place you see the ways people sell their work and the different pitches they have. You can tell who’s genuine and who’s just telling a made up story, some people are really good at what they do. Although he said he doesn’t sell too much, you can tell a lot of time is put into his work and the fact that the table was created in that exact spot shows that he’s done this many times.

Now that we had a nice sunset spot we continued to drive around a little more before heading back to the hostel to eat lunch. After a good nap and some relaxation out of the blazing sun, we headed back out to see the sunset. When we arrived we noticed there were about 6 others on the pagoda. I knew we wouldn’t be alone so it wasn’t a surprise to me. We climbed back up and sat next to the others awaiting the beautiful sunset. It was peaceful and calm and the sunset looked pretty promising but as time went on the sun was engulfed by all the smog and what would have been a stunning sunset turned out to be just a quick fade into what soon would be darkness. We stayed a few minutes after the others left and then we headed back. On our way back to the bike we saw another young guy at the same table selling art. I spoke with him and asked him some questions. It turns out the guys selling them throughout Bagan aren’t the artists and it’s someone’s uncle. It made me laugh, but I’m ok with that. It’s still a locals artwork and it’s very well done, like I said before, they are sometimes really good at what they do.

The next day we planned to wake at 5 AM to catch the sunrise almost in the same location as the sunset. This is a beautiful time when you can see the hot air balloons rising in the distance, something I’ve seen in pictures and was excited to see in person. The alarm went off but we stayed up really late the night before so with 2 hours of sleep, the sunrise just wasn’t in the cards for us. We rolled over and went right back to bed with plans to do it the following morning.

In our near future, our intentions are to soon travel to Australia on a work and holiday visa, which allows us to stay 1 year working any job. We’re running low on money so we need to be working sooner than later. When we woke up I saw an email saying that in order to get my Australian Visa I had to have a medical examination and chest x-ray. I have no insurance and the fact that I’m in Myanmar made me panic a little. We have just a few days left here on our Visa and we planned to spend them in Bagan. The clinic is 10 hours back in Yangon. It was Thursday morning and in order for me to get the exam done before our flight to Laos the following Monday, our only option was Friday afternoon so we had to cut our Bagan trip short by a few days and rush on the long bus ride back to Yangon, just to go to the doctors. Australia has an agreement with certain clinics around the world so you have to go to specific ones in order for them to process your exam. The clinic in Laos would have been an extra $200 to get to not including the exam fee so we needed to make Yangon happen. Since I’d potentially like to teach in Australia I have a more extensive process than Jesse, his Visa was approved overnight. When you work with children just about anywhere it’s a whole medical process before you can be placed in a classroom. I have done this multiple times and I forgot how annoying the process is until now. Sadly, this won’t be the last time either.

We booked our bus back to Yangon that night and had the afternoon to explore a little more. We rented an e-bike and cruised around for about 5 hours. We stumbled upon this amazing vegetarian restaurant called The Moon, it was a hidden gem in a cute little neighborhood in New Bagan with wicker chairs and a relaxed vibe. Bagan as a whole is really a magical place, the vibe is so calm and peaceful. I’m kicking myself now for not waking up at dawn to see the sunrise, I thought I’d have another chance to but plans changed quickly.

If you ever get the chance to travel to Myanmar, Bagan should be at the top of your list. The pagodas and temples were beautifully imperfect which was a nice change from seeing all the golden pagodas in the city. The brick was often crumbling and decaying which somehow made it even more beautiful. Foreigners are only able to rent e-bikes, nothing else, but driving around on the bike weaving through the sand and dirt was so fun. There are many paths, pagodas, and temples, you could have a few specific ones in mind to see but in the end, it’s more fun to just get lost in them. In all my life’s travels so far Bagan is at the top of the list with regards to the beauty of the environment. The pagodas and temples were scattered everywhere with dirt paths leading around them. In most areas, no other buildings were near them just open space. It was nice to only see pagodas in the distance and not 20 story buildings. Each pagoda has some type of Buddha inside, either large or small and majority of them you could go inside.

It was about to be sunset and shortly after we had to catch our bus, so we headed home, returned our e-bike and waited for the bus back to Yangon. The benefit of taking the night bus is you can watch a movie on your laptop then sleep and before you know it you open your eyes and you’re at your destination.

So fast forward 10 hours. We arrived back in Yangon this time closer to the airport since we will be flying to Laos on Monday. Our hostel is also close to the clinic making it an easier process to get the medical exam done. After a whole lot of unnecessary stress, suddenly I was at the clinic, exam finished and paid for and although I haven’t been approved yet, instantly the stress was gone. Thankfully the cost was only $125 U.S. dollars, I thought an x-ray might be a little more but I was happy to be wrong. During the checkup, the doctor checked everything, urine, heart, ears, eyes, reflexes, stomach, chest, blood pressure, height, and weight. It felt so good to know I was 100% healthy! This was a reminder to me that it is important every few years to make sure you get a checkup similar to this. It was really cool seeing the inside of my body and knowing that I’m physically healthy from the inside out.

It’s funny that I needed a checkup because lately I’ve been drinking more sugary drinks and just the other day I had a moment of clarity prior to finding out I needed to go to the doctors. As I sipped my Pepsi I was reminded of the taste of chemicals and all of a sudden in my head I began questioning myself, “what am I doing?”, “what am I drinking?”. I love a sprite once in a while but things were getting out of hand, I believe it’s more the urge of wanting a cold drink more than anything. When you travel you can get filtered water for free from your hostel so you often drink it to save and it’s rarely cool. During the hot afternoons, there’s nothing more refreshing than drinking something cold. Ice isn’t really used here as much, there are places that have it but it just melts too fast to keep up with it. The medical exam was a reminder for me to continue to take care of my body now. Anyone can fall ill at any moment, but it’s important to try your best at living a healthy lifestyle so that you don’t feed any potential sicknesses. Although I was a little upset we didn’t spend more time in Bagan, I am grateful to know that I am healthy.

In a few days, we will be traveling to Laos for a 3-week volunteer opportunity. It’s a mixture of building projects and teaching which is good for both Jesse and myself. We land in Luang Prabang and will spend our time mainly along the banks of the Nam Khan river, but also exploring during our free time. Thankfully this time we chose to fly rather than take a bus or train. Laos here we come!

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Myanmar wasn’t originally in our travel plans but we had a month to keep busy before going to Laos so instead of staying in Thailand another month, we took a look at the closest countries to Chiang Mai and decided it was the best choice. Myanmar was formally called Burma so throughout this post I may use the two interchangeably, although I was introduced to the country by a Burmese woman as Burma, so I prefer Burma.

While waiting for the bus to Burma I was reminded of my Burmese students back in Rochester. A woman waiting with us had the same sweet smile that I remember. In the past, I’ve always had a hard time distinguishing different Asian cultures but as time goes on, I’m able to pinpoint the differences in facial features and overall presence, which are now clearer signs as to where a person is from. The overall service at the bus station was friendly and helpful. The bus ticket is mostly In Thai but the name of where you’re going and the bus number are all you need to find your gate. All of the signs are written in both English and Thai and are similar to a bus station in the US except it’s a more open, free-flowing air kind of environment. There are also food vendors and a few small shops. That’s one thing I love about tropical landscapes, the openness of it all. Countries with warmer weather almost year-round tend to have more of a natural air flow. I guess the downside is that it’s often a higher level of pollution. The open outdoor kitchens are a favorite of mine. You have to be smart about leaving food out but surprisingly you don’t get as many bugs as you’d imagine.

To get to Burma, first you take the green bus, the bus is similar to a US greyhound with comfortable seats, air conditioning and a crazy amount of reclining space which is great for you but terrible for the person behind you. I couldn’t believe how far they recline, your head is basically in the lap of the person behind you. Thankfully everyone is aware of this and reclines respectfully. There is the bus driver and a helper. The driver has a door that shuts behind him closing us all in the back end of the bus. Don’t worry there are numerous emergency exits. When we got on the bus the helper began handing out complimentary water and snacks as if we were on an airplane. For a 5-6 hour ride, you definitely don’t get this kind of treatment back home.

As we journey to leave Thailand I couldn’t help but feel like we didn’t do or see enough of the beautiful country, we probably should have stayed in Thailand another month but the wind was blowing us elsewhere. Thailand is full of mountains, beaches, islands and unlimited amounts of fun stuff to do, but when you have plans to see 10+ more countries you really have to be smart about traveling. Someday before leaving the general vicinity of Asia, we will return back to Thailand for some more exploring. I’d love to spend some time in a local school and teach or just observe their way of educating and also see more of the countryside. You can do a lot in a month but it really does go by fast and before you know it you’re on the road again. I would recommend staying a few months with a good mixture of both volunteering and pleasure, but if you’re wise the volunteer experiences could be the highlight of your time spent in a country.

Looking out the window and driving past all the mountains reminded me of how much I love being surrounded by trees and the high peaks. The air pollution is pretty high during the dry season so unfortunately, everything has this foggy haze. When I drive through the mountains I always get this moment where I take a deep breath and exhale this calmness and am suddenly filled with all this gratitude for being able to see the beauty that nature provides. Different landscapes definitely appeal to certain people and although the beach and ocean are unbelievably beautiful, I am definitely a hike a mountain, get lost in the woods kind of girl. I’m pretty sure I get that and my thirst for adventure from my Dad (Thanks Dad).

There are times when I look at Jesse and I’m like whoa we’re in Thailand. Now we’re heading to Burma, it’s pretty wild to be co-creating this adventure together. He is definitely the right travel partner, from experience I know I can’t travel with just anyone but our general outlook on life is the same making it almost effortless at times. When I need a break he takes control and vice versa and we join back in the middle to make the important decisions together. Not to mention he’s the brains when it comes to navigation, my sense of direction is non-existent and my internal compass seems to always be on standby. Geography has never been my forte.

After hours of driving, we arrived at the Thai-Myanmar bus station, right before the border. As soon as we got off the bus we were guided into a truck to be brought to the border, which cost 50 Baht each. The truck gets to the border and drops us right at Thai immigration. I must have accidentally thrown out my departure card but thankfully the woman just created a new one for me. Then we had to walk down a little further, fill out an immigration card and go to the Myanmar immigration office. They stamped our passports took our pictures and then we were free to cross the bridge into Myanmar. The bridge is about a half mile long and the only way to cross as a foreigner is by walking, although some have been known to hitchhike. The area right after the bridge is very busy and isn’t a place you want to settle for the night so once we got across we immediately looked for the bus station so we could go straight to Yangon. After asking a few people we were directed to a guy who had a little table set up with bus tickets to different places throughout Burma. We bought our tickets for 400 baht each which is around $12 American and had about an hour or so to wait for our overnight 10-hour bus ride to Yangon, arriving around 5 AM.

Since we had an hour before the bus comes and a long ride, I went in search of food so we wouldn’t be hungry. We’ve been carrying around a Tupperware container to store food in while traveling from place to place and I highly recommend it because it really comes in handy, plastic ziplock bags are great too! In the Burmese language, there’s a special word “Thatalo” which means ‘no living things.’ The guy that sold us the bus tickets told me how to pronounce it and said it’s meditation food, aka, vegan. Even though plants are living. I went to a food stall where I saw a woman serving noodles and tofu and said “Thatalo” and she repeated it and “I said yes no meat”. She served us some noodles with veggies, tofu and different sauces she put on. This word is well known throughout Burma so I can go anywhere and say Thatalo and BAM, delicious vegan food! I always say no fish, fish sauce or egg too because often fish sauce is in a lot of dishes throughout Asia and you know when its in your food because its a very distinct smell. While walking to find food everyone was so kind which made me smile even more. When I got back to the bus where Jesse was waiting a guy was there to pick us up to bring us to the bus. He was pedaling what seemed like half a bicycle with a small cart attached to the front where we put our bags and sat. It was extremely unstable and heavy so the 5 minute peddle to the bus stop must have been very difficult. We made it without tipping over and stopped at this side alley bus station which looked to be someone’s house. They pulled out some plastic lawn chairs for us to sit on and we waited to leave. After about 10-15 minutes we are told it’s time to go. The bus we’re taking through the windy mountain roads is an old sketchy tour bus from the 1980s, with cigarette trays for every seat. Thankfully smoking wasn’t allowed. It wasn’t in the best condition and our bags in the undercarriage were held closed by an old toothbrush instead of a padlock. You need to use what you have I guess, we hoped for the best. Jesse was having a hard time trusting we would be safe, having a mechanics mind he knew the bus had some major problems. I told him to just close his eyes and not to think about it and that they do this stuff daily, we will be fine. When I stepped onto the bus to see there was no bathroom, the 10-hour bus ride suddenly felt a lot longer. I immediately ran off quick and asked to use the bathroom before we left. I was led to a really run down squat toilet bathroom in the bus station building. When it comes to using toilets in Burma it seems that you can ask just about anyone and if you’re genuine about it, they will allow you to use theirs. It may not be the best quality or the cleanest but it’s a toilet and I’m pretty sure squatting outside like they often do in Ghana isn’t acceptable. There are so many pagodas and temlples in Burma that its likely that you may accidentally squat on holy land, so its best to find a public toilet or ask a local.

Shortly into our second bus trip, we were entering more windy mountain roads with dirt paths in the mix and little towns in between. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to the border in time for the early bus so we were on the overnight, where you can’t see anything till sunrise. I was looking forward to the journey and seeing the landscape but I guess the universe had other plans. This was probably a good thing since Jesse was not at peace with the buses condition. At least now he couldn’t see anything to worry. I’ve traveled in worse conditions in Ghana so these comfortable seats are luxury for me. Even though my seat was broken, it was comfortably broken. I could do without the mothball smell though. There’s something about Burmese culture that they use moth balls all too often. When my student Eh Paw made me a traditional Burmese dress, I had to ask specifically for her to not use moth balls or else it would be near impossible to get the smell out of the clothes. The dress was beautiful and hand woven with a lot of detail. When we took money out at the ATM, the crisp bills also reeked of mothballs. It really is a strange distinct smell, I’m not sure how people can walk around smelling it all day.

The 10-hour bus ride turned out to be 14 hours. We stopped at a bus station and one guy got off, we weren’t sure if we were supposed to or not so we stayed on till the next stop down the road where everyone got off. Everyone crowds you when you get off the bus, they all want to be the chosen one, to take you to where you need to go. We grabbed our bags and a guy walks up to us asking us where we were going. We said we needed a place to sleep and he mentioned city center which is 1 hour away driving give or take with the crazy traffic. We were able to talk him down 2,000 Kyatt but I knew we got ripped off. It was a bit chaotic and we needed to get out of there so we agreed to the price. The traffic reminds me of a mix of Accra and the Philippines where everyone communicates through honking their horns. The look on Jesse’s face was priceless. So in total, the trip was 15 hours not including getting to the place we will be volunteering which I think Is another hour.

We didn’t have a hostel booked yet and unfortunately didn’t do too much research but our driver agreed to stop at three different hostels and we could choose one of them. The second one we stopped at was called Backpacker Bed and Breakfast. They had decent pricing, clean rooms, friendly staff, a rooftop restaurant, free breakfast and unlimited clean drinking water and juice. We were sold. When we stepped back outside to pay the driver he tried to rip us off even more, saying the original price he said was per person. I said no you never said that he then slapped his forehead saying that he forgot. Since we knew the price was ridiculous already I looked at him, smiled and said no. I couldn’t help but wonder how many visitors he’s ripped off with that routine.

Myanmar is filled with genuine smiles and kind people. We spent a few nights in the city of Yangon at a local guesthouse. Settling in with the culture a little before jumping into volunteering. We took the time to check out some of the local markets and pagodas. There was a night market close so we ventured to see what was being sold. We imagined it being a typical market with clothes, jewelry, souvenirs, and food, but we were thrown off by what was actually there. There wasn’t too much for food but there were 100s of cell phones, game systems, watches, sunglasses, chargers and tons of old electronics. We saw a few iPhones on sale really cheap so that night we went home and Jesse did research so he would be able to tell if It was real or not. Turns out it was a fake from China and the second camera on it wasn’t even real. From what he read, some Burmese get the fake iPhones even though they aren’t real because it makes them look wealthier. It was pretty wild to see all electronics, piles, and piles of electronics. I’ve been traveling before and needed a charger so although I’ve never seen a night market like this one before, I could see how it would come in handy.

There were many pagodas scattered throughout the city but we only saw a few of the popular ones. In the city of Yangon golden pagodas are very popular and they are beautiful but the more you see the more they all look the same. The pagodas were swarmed with both tourists and locals, but were filled with magic and radiated so much positive energy. There are certain Buddha’s based on what day you were born and a specific ritual you complete using the 4 elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) to show your gratitude and respect. I found out I am a Monday Buddha and Jesse is a Tuesday Buddha. A local guy that enjoys telling the history of Buddha, walked us each through the ritual pertaining to our specific day. It was a beautiful process. There was a woman at the Sule pagoda that fed the stray cats every night, 100s of cats show up at the pagoda around dinner time and she single-handedly feeds whoever is hungry. As you walk around the pagodas you can see cats throughout, climbing on the different statues and often just resting or playing together. The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar and is believed to contain 8 strands of Siddhartha Gautama’s (Buddha’s) Hair along with a few other relics.

The city of Yangon is pretty polluted and many of the buildings are old and decaying, yet I found so much beauty in it. There are clothes laying over the railings 8 stories up, crows that sound like monkeys, and a beautiful view of the sunset from our guest houses rooftop. When its night time you can see the local families sitting with their children on their balconies, often eating dinner or just enjoying the cooler night air. Tourism is on the rise so it’s a perfect time now to be visiting Burma. I often wonder what it was like before 2012 when the majority of foreigners weren’t allowed in Burma. After doing some research I’ve read that the doors to Burma have only been opened for 6 years now after going over 50 years without tourism. The original visa process has changed significantly, now you apply for an e-visa online which is available to over 100 nationalities making it extremely easy to visit. It’s hard to believe that in 2012 internet wasn’t accessible and rarely did you see a Burmese walking around with a cell phone, speeds were so slow that most services would have been impossible. It was a place that was disconnected from the world. Flashback to the night market with all of the electronics we saw and you can tell that there has been a huge amount of growth in such a short period of time. I’m beginning to understand why my Burmese students were so grateful to be in the United States. They were sheltered for so long that now the whole world is opened up to them, literally. When we first arrived I could see that growth was quick, you felt it in both the air and environment as a whole. I was concerned with all of the tourists coming in and some of the changes happening. I could see now how tourism is benefiting many locals yet at the same time it’s changing their culture completely. The infrastructure here is very old, especially in the major cities and the sewer system alone isn’t designed well enough to handle the large influx of people. In the future I foresee a lot of rebuilding, I hope that over time, this beautiful country doesn’t lose the special charm that it emits.

After spending a few days exploring the city life, and learning more about Burmese culture, we were ready to go relax and do some volunteering at the Thabarwa Center, just 15 minutes outside the city, 1 hour with high traffic. The Thabarwa center is a meditation center with a twist. You get the chance to live among local Burmese people in a place where everyone is co-existing for free. We packed our bags and headed to the center to lend a hand wherever it was needed most.

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We landed at the Chiang Mai airport and immediately felt more relaxed. The vibe is more chill and although it’s a busy city the environment was more appealing and it seemed like a slower pace. We got to our hostel, put our bags down and went to explore the area. The location we were in was pretty good, just a short walk to the night bazaar area with the wild nightlife and all the food vendors and shops. Almost every tourist you see in Chiang Mai wears elephant pants or harem pants, it was like seeing everyone walking around in their pajama pants. By the end of each day, we ended up walking around 6 miles. If you choose to walk rather than take a Tuk-Tuk you will get plenty of exercise throughout the day, which you will need from eating so much rice. Rice is good if you’re trying to eat cheaply and be full but it gets to a point where you need a break for a couple days.

There were many local food markets and night markets and the food seemed fresher and more healthy than it was in Bangkok. The Ploen Ruedee Night Market near Night Bazaar was a place we went to every night. It was an outdoor food court with tons of food vendors selling everything you could imagine. We found an amazing Vegan food vendor, falafel, burritos, grilled corn and so much more. There was a lot of fresh fruit in the area too. The fruit smoothies around the corner from our hostel were heavenly and we drank at least 2 a day. As you walk down the streets they are lined with shops, restaurants, and people selling everything and anything. Often people are wheeling carts down the street selling fruit or snacks.

We walked by one of the many places offering massages, but this one was unique. They were offering a foot massage plus fish spa. This is where they use tiny fish called “Dr. Fish”  that consume the dead skin off of your feet. First, you dip your feet into a fish tank for about 15 minutes. Then you get a half hour foot massage, then you put your feet back in the tank for another 15 minutes. This method has been used in many places around the world to treat serious skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema. A spa in Turkey has been offering this service for more than 100 years. The fish don’t have any teeth, so they can’t bite off any healthy skin. They can only nibble at the dead, flaky skin with their lips. It’s an interesting feeling and at first, the tickle sensation is unbearable but after 5 minutes it feels relaxing. If you ever get the chance, try it! You will enjoy the experience.

In Chiang Mai, there are unlimited amounts of tourist excursions to do and every accommodation has pamphlets for you to browse. They will also set up everything for you and often pick you up right at your doorstep, making it extremely easy. The hosts are very helpful and kind and are compensated when they book for you through the company’s they work with. After browsing some of the pamphlets we decided to choose one touristy thing to do, zip lining in the rainforest. The one we chose wasn’t the popular Flight of the Gibbons, that one was way too expensive but we did have a great time and saw a few monkeys in that general area. We chose Dragon Flight. If you book zip lining my advice would be to go at the earliest time and bring a long sleeve, in the morning its pretty chilly. Normally there are groups of up to 10 people but we went first thing in the morning and it ended up being just Jesse, me and our two guides, lunch included. So it was more personal and fun not having to wait in a line for everyone to have their turn. There were over 26 zip-lines and 55 platforms, one after the other. What was supposed to be around 2 hours ended up being a little over an hour because it was just the two of us. There was one zip-line that was the longest and as you ride down you begin spinning around in circles surrounded by the lush trees and sounds of the birds. It was really beautiful and money well spent.

My vision on Thailand wasn’t entirely wrong, monks are seen often walking about the city, and temples are scattered throughout the cities and countryside, you can also see traditional clothes and dances at some night markets. If you want old school Thai culture you need to go out into the country, that’s where you’ll find the rice paddies, traditional farming, the hill tribes and for elephants you have the many parks and sanctuaries. I’m hesitant about spending money to go hang out with elephants, I’m not sure all are treated with the best care and it seems like they lack the freedom just to be elephants because they are spending so much time entertaining tourists.

After spending some time in Chiang Mai not working or volunteering but just traveling I couldn’t help but see how the swarms of tourists are flocking in and changing traditional Thai culture but I guess that comes with growth and expansion. All of the tourists flying in from all over the world are bringing in income for the local people so it becomes a supply and demand type of situation. The more we come, the more Thai pants, elephant clothes and Buddha statues will be sold. In my option and from what friends have said, the true gems are in the north, but there are also some less touristy beaches that are amazingly stunning. After seeing the touristy aspect of traveling we were reminded that it’s not what we want to be doing. Majority of people are traveling for a while on holiday or for a year or so with plans to go back home after and continue to college or go back to their jobs. Jesse and I are different, we aren’t planning on going back to the U.S. to live so our home is wherever we are in the present moment. This also limits spending money, so volunteering is essential in order for us to travel cheaply and at the same time its what we want to be doing. After a week in Chiang Mai just sightseeing we decided it was time to volunteer, so the search began.

The last week of Ghana was a countdown for me. I haven’t seen Jesse in a month and I was ready to be off traveling again. The morning of my flight I woke up early to eat a good meal before heading out. We had to leave extra early because the ride to Accra was 3-4 hours long and with the traffic and the condition of the roads you never know what delays will happen. I said my goodbyes and Makafui and we hopped in a taxi headed for the bus station. I originally was told that he would be joining me on the ride to Accra and then be riding back alone. I get to the bus station to find out I’m going alone. I pack my bag in the back of the bus and hop in the front middle seat next to the driver. Normally the ride isn’t so bad, dirty but the seating is comfortable. This time was opposite, it was clean cause the AC was on and the windows were shut but since I was in the middle seat in the front it was somewhat on a slant and extremely uncomfortable. I don’t think its meant to be a seat for an adult, but after shifting positions 100 times I made it to the airport just fine. Transportation in Ghana is different every time, you never know what you are going to get, one time it could be a comfortable experience and the next you could be stuck waiting on the side of the road for another bus cause yours broke down. I arrived at the airport about an hour early just in time to relax for a minute with a beer at the airport bar before boarding my flight. There were a few Thai people waiting also and I saw a guy take his shoes off under the table, a man came over and asked him to put them back on. Another Thai man took a video of some of the pastries being sold at the bar and the woman behind the register yelled at him and said that maybe it was ok in his country but it wasn’t acceptable here and that he needed to delete them. He said he would but the woman proceeded to take his phone directly to the security officer where the man spent about 20 minutes trying to handle the situation. Meanwhile, I was sitting at the bar legs crossed, shoes on the floor and I previously took a picture of the bar and not a word was said to me. It’s always interesting to see the different treatment given to certain ethnicities, neither guys were doing anything wrong yet both got confronted. It’s also interesting to see the different security measures within different airports. Every one is so different, some require shoes off, some don’t, some barely search you some are extremely thorough.

As I boarded and settled into my seat on Egypt Air I noticed there was no T.V. screen on the seat in front of me, I looked everywhere but only noticed a few main screens. Usually, for a long flight, the airline will have individual screens where you can choose movies to watch, not this one. They chose the movies and played them on the big screens for everyone to watch together. I find that watching a few movies makes the time go by much faster, luckily the movies they chose weren’t terrible. Before I knew it we were coming in for a landing.

When I first arrived in Bangkok it was a fairly large airport but easy to navigate. Online it claims you need a return ticket to show that you are leaving Thailand but we did research and decided it was unnecessary. So we both got our 30-day stamp upon arrival and were good to go. Although I was a little nervous going through customs everything went fine and they didn’t ask for the ticket. There are too many people in line for them to be concerned about asking everyone. I’m sure it happens occasionally but it’s unlikely.

I was about 10 hours ahead of Jesse so I found a local metered taxi and gave them our hotels’ address and would later go back to get him. If you’re ever in Bangkok airport be sure to look for the signs and go to the lower level to get a metered taxi. Don’t make the mistake of taking an airport taxi and pay double if not triple the price. Luckily I knew this already so I was able to get to the hotel cheaply. Driving towards the hotel there were some Buddha statues and alters in front of buildings and along the roadside where they present gifts such as flowers, food or open drinks. These are scattered throughout Asia, even in some of the most remote places.

I went to pick Jesse up at around 11 PM, we planned to meet outside the gate where he’d exit but somehow missed each other because there was another gate. Thankfully for Wifi, we found each other eventually. We headed to a hotel close to the airport to catch up on some sleep for a few days. Since I was coming from Ghana and Jesse from Seattle we wanted a few days to completely rest before really beginning our travels. We ended up staying up till about 5 or 6 AM completely wide awake. It took us a few days to get on a different sleep schedule.

Traveling to another country never seems to be a culture shock for me. After going to both Ghana and Haiti twice nothing seems to shock me. When you see true suffering and struggle of both animals and people it opens your heart beyond what you ever could imagine but also hardens you in a way where you become somewhat accustomed to seeing some things that others would be shocked by. It doesn’t change how you feel but it does change your reaction and your compassion just continues to grow. Going back to the U.S. effects me more, they call it a reverse cultural shock. Seeing all of the waste we produce with packaged food and going out to eat after coming back from Ghana the first time left me feeling disgusted. Products are way over packaged and at restaurants so much food is being thrown out. “Eh, I’m full I don’t need that perfectly cooked roll or the leftovers”. For a while, I began taking all the leftovers and literally just dumping it outside somewhere. My mind was still stuck on seeing all the hungry cats and dogs that it felt so wrong to throw it away when others would be so grateful to have any meal at their fingertips or paws. More restaurants in the US really need to compost, but I won’t get into that. Back to my point…When I travel somewhere my mind seems to put these images in my head of what a place looks like, I’m assuming it’s based on movies, TV, and pictures I’ve seen. It never looks as I imagined. I knew this wasn’t real but in my mind, I imagined Elephants everywhere in Thailand, temples throughout, traditional clothing and dances, unique handmade hats, monks everywhere, dirt roads and mountainsides. It’s funny what the mind does. For Jesse it was very stimulating in a different way, he was looking at all the different types of cars and vehicles and the sounds of all the diesel engines. His mind is very mechanical so while I’m looking at the cat hiding under the truck he’s looking at the actual truck and gears are turning in his mind trying to figure out the details about it.

Bangkok is a huge city and concrete jungle like NYC or Seoul with tons of shopping and a busy nightlife. When we were in search for some vegan food we found Central World Mall, it’s the tenth largest shopping complex in the world with 7 floors, including a 57 story hotel that’s attached to the side. There were a lot of name brand stores. The one store that caught my attention was Croc’s but unfortunately, we couldn’t find it and we didn’t see a mall map. It was so unbelievably big and overwhelming that we ate and got out of there!

I’m sure there are beautiful sights in Bangkok because I’ve seen them in pictures and videos but we thought our time in Thailand would be better spent elsewhere. My personal advice would be if you’re a nature lover like us, completely skip Bangkok unless it is a cheaper flight to go there first, which is usually the case. Spend your time north in the mountains or along the beaches and islands if that’s more your thing. We decided to spend a few days resting and then leave Bangkok. We had trouble finding Vegan food so that was one deciding factor to leave as soon as possible. We didn’t have much of a plan and I’ve heard good things about Chiang Mai so for the sake of time we booked the 1-hour short flight and were off.

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After spending Christmas together in Buffalo, NY with my family, Jesse and I went our separate ways. He spent a month traveling to see his dad in North Dakota and his uncle in Seattle while I was off once again to Ghana. We haven’t spent more than a few days apart since meeting each other so a month apart would be a journey in itself. We said our farewells to family and friends not knowing when we would see them again, and the journey began.

The plan was to go with Cha Cha and some others but due to a number of reasons, I found out a week before leaving that I’d be going alone. Since I had my one-way ticket to Ghana and one way to Thailand booked and didn’t buy insurance, I couldn’t rewind time and get a refund. I was nervous, yet a part of me knew I had to go still. I originally left for South Korea alone so I had some previous solo travel experience but this was Africa and I haven’t seen Cha Cha’s family in over 4 years. If you’ve ever been anywhere in Africa you know that going, in general, is a journey but going solo is a pretty intense experience.

I arrived at the airport and vaguely remembered my way around. I was told that Cha Cha’s brother would be picking me up at the airport and bringing me to Hohoe. Last minute change of plans and an old childhood friend of Cha Cha’s met me at the airport. We then went to a hotel near his house, where I would stay the night and we’d continue on to Hohoe together in the morning. I’m reminded that traveling anywhere requires you to be able to go with the flow and be flexible with what comes your way. As long as you are safe, have a place to lay your head and can eat, then the rest will work out.

The next morning bright and early, we took a taxi to the bus station to catch our 5-hour bus ride to Hohoe. The size of the bus is a little bigger than a minivan and has around 12 seats, which includes 3 in the front. With luggage, the seats are pretty cramped. The bus definitely has some miles on it and it was pretty beat up, but I didn’t expect luxury. I put my headphones in and hoped for the best. As I traveled down the dirt, pothole-filled roads headed for Hohoe I was both nervous and excited to start this journey. I remembered all of the wonderful experiences I had the first time with the people I met and was filled with love and gratitude for being able to visit again.

Once we arrived, I pat the dirt off my clothes and bag and greeted the family. They were more than welcoming but we were all thrown off a little by the fact that Cha Cha couldn’t come. Normally he would have a general itinerary for the day and there would be someone making the meals, so without him, his brother and some of the other family members had to step up and take on that role to make sure I felt comfortable. The kids were tall and all grown up and there was a new cat and 3 kittens! You could tell which one was the runt, it was thin and frail but still very playful with his siblings. I wanted so badly to take them all home and feed them multiple cans of Fancy Feast. Later in the trip, one kitten disappeared. I was told it was sold to a man who would eventually eat it. I always wondered what the cats’ purpose was, but I didn’t think they were dinner.

The first few days were hard for me. I questioned why I came here and what I’ll be doing for the next month. My mind started to go back and forth about changing my flight to a different date and leaving earlier. One minute I was ok the next I felt I had to leave. It was really an interesting time for me on a deep level, that’s when I realized I really need to just sit with these feelings to really understand what is happening. I reminded myself that throughout this entire journey in Ghana and beyond, everything is unknown so I needed to get used to that space of not knowing where each day would lead and truly live in the moment.

One night I decide to go out front of the house and people watch. There was a kid that came up to me and before I knew it all of his friends were surrounding me. They learn English in school so it was easy to talk with them. They asked me questions and wanted to teach me some of their language, Ewe. When I would repeat the words back to them in Ewe they would laugh and cheer and bounce around like it was the best thing they’ve ever heard. After that night I began going out front every night up until I left Hohoe. The group seemed to grow, night after night they would bring a new sibling. Each night was filled with singing, dancing, pictures, videos, games and laughing. These kids reminded me of how much I love being around children, just having fun. I was having a hard time the first few days and then I met the children and any worries seemed to be silenced and I remembered not to take life so seriously. Saying goodbye was hard knowing that I wasn’t sure when I’d be back again. One little boy even cried, which made me cry. It just goes to show that time spent with children is far more important than any material object.

Like the first visit to Ghana, I presented donations. One to the village of Aklorbortornu where the small group of children were and another to the headmaster of a local school. When I got to the village the children and some others were gathered up for the presentation, it looked like more children than last time. This is when I learned that they received donations from the community to build a school building for the children. I was happy to hear that they no longer had to worry about it raining and not going to school. Unfortunately, I forgot to snap a picture of the new school building, but it is a very basic open-air shelter from the elements. Currently, a local pastor and another kind man are volunteering their time to teach the children, but in reality, they need a steady teacher. The first time I went to Ghana it was a woman so it seems to be an ever-changing role that the local people take on in order to give the children in the village some form of education.

Although my intentions were to volunteer with Ndor Eco Village, I didn’t end up doing any work on the projects which was the whole reason for going so I had a very relaxing month in Ghana. I had a lot of free time and for the first time in my life, I felt what it felt like to be lonely. I wasn’t sure if it was because Jesse and I were always together and now I was alone or if it was some inner issues coming to the surface. Eventually, I realized this was a time for me to just enjoy being with myself because I’ve gone a whole year without much solo time, which is usually necessary for me to reflect and grow. Knowing that after Ghana it would be a lot of on the go, one country to the next, I began enjoying the calmness of it all. Jesse reminded me to surrender and let it all go and just make the most of my time there.

Cha Cha’s nephew, Makafui was my sidekick for the month, he made sure I had Vegan meals and was comfortable and taken care of. I’ve been talking to him on and off through facebook since my first trip to Ghana so we became even closer friends. I basically tagged along wherever he went, the market, into town, the ocean, I even got to see his University and sit in on the Welcoming speech for the new year. I originally was to stay in Hohoe for the entire month but Makafaui and Madam Lizzy, Cha Cha’s sister in law were leaving to go back to where they live in Denu. Denu is small village minutes away from the Togo border with the Atlantic Ocean in the backyard. We all thought it was best I go along with them. Lizzy is a teacher at the local school and she said I could sit in on classes if I’d like. I thought this was a great opportunity to see another side of Ghana that I haven’t seen, and to be near the ocean sounded wonderful.

From Hohoe to Denu is about 4.5 hours give or take a little, but our trip ended up being about 6 hours. Our bus had some trouble so we stopped for about 20 minutes for a mechanic to see what the problem was. Not too long after we were back on the road we broke down and we all had to shuffle to different buses to get to where we needed to be. As we walked to the front entrance we are greeted by Madam Lizzy and her children. The ground is covered in sand, no grass or concrete, just sand.  I set my bags down and was told I’d been sleeping in the neighbor’s house, Madam Diana, which was right next door. There are about 5 apartment’s in the complex each apartment had only two rooms. The front room is the kitchen with some open space and the back room is the bedroom. The bathroom and shower were out back. The toilet is cement seating and somewhat like an outhouse, but if you’re only going number 1 you can squat in the sand. Trust me, you want to squat in the sand because at night the abnormally large cockroaches take over the outhouse. The shower was basically a concrete wall, open-air bucket shower…my favorite! There’s something special about showering under the stars at night.

Being near the ocean was breezy and relaxing, even in the hot sun the breeze was able to make the temperature seem less hot. One day I went to the ocean during sunset by myself to sit with a book and have a moment of silent reflection, that lasted about 2 minutes. As soon as the kids see a foreigner they flock to you. At first, they sat at a distance staring, then they slowly come closer, before I knew it I had 30 kids surrounding me and my moment of silence turned into an interrogation. Some of them knew little English, but there’s always that one kid that speaks it well and will question you about everything and anything. After that day I never went to the ocean alone again, when I’m with Makafui they don’t seem to come up to me unless called upon. Being by the ocean gave me a different perspective on life in Ghana. Many of the locals rely on the ocean for both their income and food, not only for them but food for the surrounding villages and cities. I was able to see the local fishermen pulling in their net, I’ve never seen so many creatures so closely together. There were octopuses, stingray, snails, and tons of different types of fish, all in one giant net. They open the net up and the women come over with their giant bowls sorting the fish and bringing them to an area where they dump them. After everything is removed from the net in piles, the fishermen weigh them and distribute to the women based on what they are seeking. The process is really interesting!

I spent two weeks in Denu and each week I observed at the local school. You can read about my observations and thoughts in the Ghana education post.

My time spent in Ghana was rewarding on a personal level. I was able to dive deeper within myself to open myself up even more and truly see the ways I limit myself and the steps I need to make to continue to keep an open heart. Since a child I’ve always been a shy person, as I grow older it slowly is becoming a thing of the past, but at times I see that shy little girl emerging again. This trip to Ghana has given me the tools to remind myself that every experience I have is a reflection of whats going on inside me. We have the ability to choose how our experiences are going to go, by staying open you allow the energy the space to flow freely. It is also a lesson in living in the moment. Although my experience this second time in Ghana was much different, it isn’t a bad thing…just different. Change is growth and being able to see where I limit myself and cause unnecessary discomfort has given me more insight and understanding of the human condition.

A few days into my trip I started reading a book that I brought with me called ‘The Untethered Soul’ by Michael A. Singer, it could not be a more perfect book to be reading. It brings you on a journey beyond yourself and into your heart. One excerpt from the book that really hit home for me was:

“The more you are willing to just let the world be something you’re aware of, the more it will let you be who you are —the awareness, the Self, the Atman, the Soul. You’ll realize that you’re not who you thought you were. You’re not even a human being. You just happen to be watching one. When you start to explore consciousness instead of form, you realize that your consciousness only appears to be small and limited because you are focusing on small and limited objects.” (Chapter 4: The Lucid Self, page 37)

This excerpt may hit home for some of you, for others you may not understand and that’s ok too! I’ve read something similar years ago but for me personally, it was a jaw-dropping reminder. One of those moments where I remembered who I am. I’ve visited some busy cities but I think living in the U.S. is too fast paced for me, one minute you’re feeling present and aware, the next you are caught up in the busy life. It’s so easy to get distracted with the hustle of the day and the unlimited stimulation surrounding you, especially if you have multiple jobs, children, families, and numerous other responsibilities. Times are changing and technology is evolving, even more, machines are even replacing what were once jobs for humans. It takes more strength and conscious focus now more than ever to stay present in your life. I often find myself going back and forth, slipping into a lower level state for a brief time then eventually I’ll read something or have a moment and my attention and focus will be heightened once again, each time coming back stronger and stronger. I am reminded that it is essential to have a daily practice, whether it be Yoga, meditation, journaling, reading, whatever brings you to that clear-headed space. Take the time to check in with yourself on the inside because what happens inside is reflected outward. You’ll attract all the right situations and all the right people if you keep your heart open and your energy flowing.

After spending a month in Ghana, not really volunteering, just living. I am reminded even more that one of my purposes in life is to volunteer my time to projects I believe in and perhaps one day create one of my own. In life we’re supposed to do what makes us happy, volunteering is the one thing that brings the most happiness to my soul and my time in Ghana only made that clearer. I am not a tourist, I’m a volunteer.

I decided to give you a little more background with my time spent in Ghana and go all the way back to 2013 to my first trip. My present time in Ghana will be in the post after this one.

There is one place in the world that I have always felt drawn to visiting, Africa. Africa is huge but I’ve always felt connected to African culture and a pull to volunteer somewhere within the continent. Ndor Eco Village is the name of the project based in Hohoe, Ghana. A non-profit grassroots organization created with a vision in mind, to promote rural education and sustainable agriculture. Every child deserves an education, living in a small village many children miss out on opportunities that other children in Ghana have. One of the project’s missions is to bring the opportunities to them. You can read more about Ndor Eco Village, see pictures and learn ways to become involved through the website.

My first time volunteering in Ghana was in 2013 for one month. This was also my first time traveling outside of the United States. To some level, I always knew I’d make it to Africa regardless of money concerns. My soul was being pulled there and I knew that I had much to learn. When I first got there, I recall feeling this inner calm, a deep breath of fresh air. I never felt as comfortable in my own skin and as healthy as I did when I was in Ghana. Eating fresh fruit and vegetables from the land and drinking bottles upon bottles of water was a cleanse that I didn’t even know I needed.

On my trip to Ghana, I was accompanied by Cha Cha and Ashley. Ashley and I soon became friends, wandered the land together and walked for what seemed like forever in the blazing sun. We shared a room together with bright pink painted walls and a small electric fan. There were times at night where the electricity would shut off for an unknown amount time and we would wake up sweating, to step outside and see the rest of the family laying out under the stars. One night I pulled my mattress out there too, unfortunately, I forgot to put on bug spray and woke to around 30 bug bites at my ankles. Bugs are really sneaky, you often don’t even feel them on you, yet you have bites all over. I’m grateful to have shared this experience with another woman, something I will forever cherish.

In Ghana, it comes across as disrespectful if you don’t greet the people you see, whether it be walking down the street or walking into someone’s family home. You always say hello and ask how they are doing “Ayfwa”, in response, I am fine “Ay mayfo”. As you make your way through the village you will hear people say “wayzo”, often from across the street or in passing. This means welcome, they are welcoming you to their village, the proper response would be “Yo” meaning, ok (showing you achknowledge them). Learn these simple phrases and you will always be greeted with welcoming kindness. Ghanaians are very confident, they want you to learn their language and are always willing to share their food with you, no matter how much is on their plate. Their confidence at times may come across as intimidating but their hearts are made of gold. If you make even the slightest effort to learn about them they will welcome you with open arms.

While we were there we mainly worked on digging up clay, which would be used to mold bricks for the guest house building. We visited the village of Aklorbortornu where we donated some school supplies to a group of children who have limited opportunity for education and no school building. One of Ndor’s projects is to build those children a school. In our free time, we were able to go on adventures through town, see the monkey sanctuary, Wili Waterfall, and observe at a local school. Being a teacher I always look forward to seeing how schools in other countries are run. You can read more about my school observations in the Ghana education post.

Cha Cha and I took a trip to the monkey sanctuary. This was Ashleys second time in Ghana and she went to the sanctuary the first time so she decided not to come with us. After a few hours driving, we arrived. The sanctuary is right next to a small village, so with it being a Ghana tourist spot, it brings business to the locals. After we paid a small fee we were off with bananas in hand looking for the monkeys. There is a certain call our guide made that brought the monkeys out of hiding. Since they know this call means bananas, they all emerge from the trees. I stretched my arm out while holding a banana and a monkey came running, full sprint, straight up my leg to sit on my shoulder. He ate his banana and continued to sit there for a few minutes before jumping off back into the trees. When he ran toward me I was thinking his nails might scratch me but then he climbed up my leg so gently and effortlessly that I almost didn’t even feel a thing. His hands were similar to human hands and his eyes were deep. You could tell he was an intelligent being. Since the drive was far we stayed overnight at the sanctuary in small huts that had multiple beds. When night came and the mosquitos started coming out I realized I forgot my bug spray. There were tons of bugs and creatures so this was not the best place to be forgetting spray. I enclosed the mosquito net around me and hoped it was good enough. I woke alive and well and we headed back to Hohoe.

On a different day we gathered up a group of the local kids and kids in the family and went to the Wli waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Ghana. Many of the children rarely leave their towns and villages so this was a special time for them. It’s respectful as a foreigner not to show too much of your body, so we wore leggings and tank tops and walked into the water. I remember being pulled to go closer and closer and at one point I was directly under the waterfall. It beat down on me so hard that I lost my breath and had to step out. The majority of the children can’t swim because they don’t have the opportunity to practice so they stayed at the edge, just splashing around in a foot or two of water. At one point we looked at the waterfall and this beautiful rainbow appeared, spreading across the waterfall. You can see a picture of it on the first blog post. The song natural mystic came to mind, it was a magical moment. Being in Africa and seeing certain situations, many Bob Marley and the Wailers lyrics began to have a whole new depth and meaning for me. At times it was as if I was seeing the visual representation of the lyrics and as I sang in my head it brought a smile to my face. You can hear a lyric and enjoy the words, but just like the Grateful Dead, sometimes you have a moment in time where you’re like whoa I actually understand because I’m experiencing it. When I saw people sleeping on the cold ground and wearing shoes too small for their feet, the song “Talking Blues“ became a powerful one for me.

When you hear about Africa on the news, in general, its portrayed as very poor with violence and hungry people. The commercials, movies, and images that are shown put fear into peoples minds about traveling to an African country. I recall people getting worried telling me that I’ll get sick, get malaria, or possibly even die there. Besides your occasional homeless person on the street, from what I saw of Ghana everyone seemed to eat enough. Yes, there are countries in Africa where people are hungry and malnourished but I think we need to stop giving the entire continent of Africa that image.

During my time in Ghana, I became Vegetarian. Being an animal lover it was really hard for me to see the starving dogs, cats and overall way the animals are handled, but this is part of being immersed in another culture. You have to see it how it is without judgment, in my option, it’s just a lack of knowledge. Animals to them along with many other cultures are strictly for food, guarding the house or work purposes, nothing more. Coming from America where we treat our ‘pets’ like family, it was quite different and took some adjustment. I cried quite a few times during this trip and I would often cover my ears when the chickens were being gathered to be put away for the night. The sound of discomfort and pain is a sound you can’t fake. The shocking part was, I thought if I were to cry about something it would be for the people, not the animals. I was very much wrong. I cried not only for the animals but for people living in the United States. Many of us have strayed so far off from living a natural life and it was becoming even more clear to me that the simple life is my American dream.

My favorite part of Ghana was meeting all of the children, which seems to be my favorite part of every country. They are eager to learn and are very funny! I will never forget all those smiling faces or their reactions when we walked into their schoolyard. In a matter of seconds, you have about 20 children crowding around you. There were moments where I had children touching my skin, just to touch it, or multiple little hands wanting me to hold theirs. They often tried to scratch my freckles off because they’ve never seen them before or touch my hair because blonde was new to them. The children were very hands-on and always willing to shower you with infinite amounts of love.

Overall the first trip to Ghana was an eye-opener for me and life-changing. It reminded me of who I am and what I stand for. Cha Cha’s family was friendly and made me feel right at home and when the day came for me to leave, they reassured me that I would always have a home in Ghana.

We also have more pictures on Facebook.