So… did you actually use that huge bag of stuff you brought?

Before I left for Ghana I read an amazing blog about what I would and would not need in Ghana.  However, I found that living in Accra (a large capital city) had different needs than I anticipated… so I thought I’d write my own!  For those who don’t know about my trip, I lived in Accra, Ghana (which is the capital, and in the south by the ocean).  This blog reflects living in a big city, and living in the south. The first part is the quick list of top 10 things not to forget.  Below is pictures and a more detailed list of what I really brought (and whether or not it’s sufficient).  Number one piece of advice – no matter what your packing list says, bring more than 4 pairs of underwear!

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The actual bag I ended up with… plus a purse and overnight bag as carry-on.

Top 10 Things You Need on a Regular Basis In Ghana

  1. A waterbottle (with a small place to sip out of… a nalgene bottle will spill all over you in a trotro)
  2. At least two weeks worth of clothes (you don’t want to hand wash twice a week, and you want to have enough underwear until the next weekend if you go on vacation or travel for work)
  3. A smartphone (ideally dual SIM with a long battery life) – plus appropriate plugs. Converters that have multiple input ports are the best for hotel rooms with just one plug for 2-4 people!
  4. Weekend travel kit (you want a bag that will hold everything you need for 2-7 nights… having small containers for all your toiletries is also way better than lugging around a huge bottle of shampoo)
  5. A good computer that you’re willing to break or lose (electronics have a nasty habit of getting ruined here. You don’t need good speakers, fancy programs or a high resolution screen. Long battery life and portability are king!)
  6. Appropriate work clothes. If possible find out what city you’ll be living in and the type of work. If you’re in an office, bring what you would wear at home (minus the high heels – unless you’re amazing at navigating potholes). If you’re on a farm, bring long pants, closed shoes, and things you don’t mind getting dirty. The south is also a lot less conservative (i.e. similar to North America) than the north.
  7. Good shoes – Sandals that are comfortable, don’t hurt your feet, can be cleaned and can transition from office to dinner.
  8. Small purse items – my handheld bug spray and flash light have come in handy on numerous occasions when going straight out from the office (since it gets dark at 6 each night).
  9. A small wallet/change purse is also necessary but you can buy those here.
  10. Deodorant – you will sweat! People here also use a handkerchief, which are easy to buy here. A hat helps on hot days…

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Left – My explosion of stuff during pre-departure training, when the girls helped me narrow my items down to what might actually fit in my bags (and be appropriate). Right – My explosion of stuff when I first arrived at the hotel  in Accra – trying to find something to wear.

So here’s the list of what I brought (in regular text), what I should have brought (in red text), and my opinion (in blue italics).  The list is in no particular order, but is sorted into 4 main categories (electronics, clothes, toiletries, and other).

Electronics/Gadgets

  • Chargers for all gadgets (iPod, Kindle, laptop/tablet, phone)essential, but can buy here
  • Converters for wall sockets x 2 (UK or universal) - bring at least one universal (some plugs are European), you can buy them here but don’t buy the cheapest one, it won’t work!
  • Phone (unlocked) – Useful, but you can buy here. New costs the same as home, but you can buy used too – just make sure they’re not stolen/broken… Dual-SIM especially useful, since most people have more than one network – it’s super easy to buy phone credit on the street.  You can get by with a cheap phone, but smart phones are amazing for finding your way around the busy streets with GPS!
  • Kindle/e-reader (with lots of books) - Essential for people who love to read! – but bring a few real ones for the beach and power outages…
  • Tablet/laptop + case - Essential! Make sure it has a long battery life and is light enough to carry to work every day
  • External Hard-drive (full of movies and shows) - Internet can be expensive and spotty, so this is essential if you want to watch a lot of TV or take a lot of pictures
  • Camera (+ connector to computer + extra battery/charger + extra SD cards) - I know cell phones have cameras, but when the power goes out frequently it’s better to have separated electronics (in hopes that something will work at any given time)
  • Small flashlight - Great for carrying in your purse in case the power is out when you get home
  • Headlamp - Essential for cooking in the dark
  • Extra rechargeable batteries (and charger) – AA + AAA – Super useful (especially rechargeable, since there is nowhere to properly dispose of batteries…). Make sure to check which kind your devices (flashlight, headlamp, camera, etc.) need before leaving.
  • Alarm clock - It sucks when all your devices are dead and you have to get up for work (a digital watch would also suffice)

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Basically all of my stuff (minus the bags), once I put it in shelves at my first house.

Clothes

EWB recommends bringing only second-hand clothes, nothing fancy, and no jeans.  I think this advice is outdated. Everyone wears jeans and western clothes. You’re expected to look professional at work, so wear what you would at home to an office.

  • Pants x 5 (2 dress pants – black and grey, 1 blue jeans, 1 coloured jeans, 1 light comfy pants) – Didn’t need all these pants, but the guys wore pants almost everyday (dresses are comfier when it’s really hot, but bring leggings)
  • Skirts x 5 (2 full-length stretchy skirts, 3 knee length skirts) - Wore them lots to the office
  • Shorts x 4 (1 cotton capris, 1 jean capris, 1 long shorts, 1 short, stretchy, jean) - great for around the house, doing laundry, beach vacations…
  • Leggings x 3 (1 long-black, 1 capri-grey, 1 short black shorts for under dresses) - Necessary for wearing skirts/dresses while riding public transit
  • PJs x 5 (3 shorts, 2 long pants + 2 tank tops, 2 t-shirts and 1 long-sleeved) - Wore more shorts than pants for sure, it gets hot at night if you don’t have a fan/AC (even if you don’t wear pjs at home, bring at least 1 pair – you will end up sharing a room on trips)
  • Work-out clothes – Lulu (1 capris, 1 shorts, 1 tank top) - If you work out at home, you will here too, so bring what you need, whether that’s clothes, runners, etc.
  • Shirts x 22 (8 tank-tops (to wear under), 8 work appropriate shirts, 2 cute tank-tops, 4 casual t-shirts) - Glad I brought so many tank tops! (take up no room and stop you from looking so sweaty).  Wish I considered more which tops went with which bottoms before packing
  • Long sleeves x 8 (2 hoodies, 2 long-sleeved t-shirts, 4 cardigans) - Cardigans are useful for making summer-wear work appropriate, bring at least one warm sweater for when you get drenched in a storm at night… Buses are also notoriously cold, I would wear a long-sleeved t-shirt and a hoodie when taking a 12-hour overnight bus.
  • Dresses x 6 (2 work-appropriate, 1 maxi dress, 3 sun-dresses) - Wore them ALL THE TIME!
  • Underwear x 18 (all styles and colours) - Don’t regret a single pair… they take up no room
  • Bra x 3 different colours - Could have gotten by with 2 (Bring at least 2 since you need to hang dry, which takes awhile)
  • Pantyhose x 2 – Useful for formal business meetings (but not necessary)
  • Socks x 10 (5 long + dark, 5 gym socks – white, 1 liner for flats) - Gym socks = must, didn’t need as many longer socks (depends how often you wear pants/are in the field)
  • Baseball cap - Great for hot sunny days. Bought a second hat while I was there to wear on my commute (different style)
  • 3 purses - Definitely need one bag for work, one small bag for dancing/nights out
  • Shoes x 4 (runners, flip flops, sandals, flats) – Wore them all frequently. Runners = farms/hiking, Flip flops = beach/shower, Sandals = daily (work and nights out), Flats (nights out). Actually bought a second pair of sandals while I was there (to switch it up from day to day)
  • Bathing suit x 2 + towel (XXL – quick dry) - Bathing suit is necessary. Quick dry towel is great for taking up less space in your bag for weekend trips (and drying quickly) – I know it’s expensive, but if you’re a girl (especially with long hair) – splurge for the XXL size!

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Left – Towels and purses. Right – All my clothes (minus undergarments). 

Toiletries

Basically the rule here is bring one of everything (so you don’t have to go out and find things in your first few weeks).  If you’re picky about a certain product (say you have sensitive skin or a particular hair-care need) then bring what you need for the duration of your trip.  If you’re easy and just want simple shampoo and soap, it’s easy to get everything here. Keep in mind basically anything you want is available in Accra, less so in other places.

  • 1 large Full bottle of shampoo and conditioner - Good amount
  • 1 bottle of face wash - Good amount
  • Deoderant x 4 - WAY TOO MUCH (maybe 2?)
  • Soap x 2 – Good amount (bought more when I ran out – they have great shea products here)
  • Lotion (1 large bottle plus purse size) – Good amount (bought more when I ran out – they have great shea products here
  • Toothbrush - One was fine (also brought a foldable travel one)
  • Contacts (and solution/cases) and glasses (with case) - Good to bring both – difficult to find solution here, bring enough contacts for duration
  • Hand wipes (lots) - Good to have in your purse for emergency situations…
  • Kleenex (x4 – purse-sized) – Useful
  • Cold stuff (instant soup, neocitron, Nyquil/buckleys, throat lozenges) – I would recommend bringing whatever you use at home to make you feel better.  Doesn’t take up much space, and worth it when you’re sick and have no one to take care of you.
  • Hand sanitizer x 3 purse-sized bottles - Some people brought lots but I barely used it… prefer the wipes in most cases
  • Toothpaste x 1 - Good amount
  • Brush and comb - Necessary
  • Feminine hygiene products - I brought tampons and pads to last me just in case. You can get both in Accra but not in rural areas… I would recommend the DivaCup (it’s hard to use at first, but if you can get over the initial weirdness it’s totally worth it in areas where your only bathroom might be a field or a trough – even regular bathrooms rarely have garbage cans…)
  • Makeup – Bring what you use at home…
  • Jewelry – Bring what you use at home… Not CRAZY expensive (but they love colour)
  • Hair gunk - Bring what you use at home…
  • Hair elastics/clips/ whatever you use – Super useful – It’s hot and humid, you will get sweaty and want to put your hair up.
  • Lip gloss x tons – Because that’s just how I roll…
  • Basic drugs (advil/tylenol, cipro – antibiotics, any vitamins you take, pepto bismol, gravol, tums, immodium, birth control, etc.) - Useful (better safe than sorry)
  • Malaria medication - Bring enough for your trip
  • First aid kit (bandaids, thermometer, polysporin, etc.) - Can come in handy (better safe than sorry)
  • Bug spray x 2 (and after-bite) - Used this most nights when out (even had a tiny bag in my purse at all times for this reason – it gets dark early)
  • Sun tan lotion x 2 (and after-sun/aloe vera) – Rarely wore this (except at the beach), but did wear a special one on my face daily (and used a foundation with spf for makeup days)
  • Nail stuff (polish, file, clippers, etc.) - Clippers are a must.  The rest bring if you use at home (girls will likely wear sandals daily, so if you wear polish at home in the summer, you will here too likely).
  • Buy malaria treatment and test kit when you arrive in Ghana - cheap and better to have it then try to find a pharmacy in the middle of the night when you’re panicking)
  • List of possible diseases and their symptoms/treatments - Everyone goes a little crazy when they start feeling sick… you’ll forget everything you learned from the travel doctor

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Left – odds and ends. Right – Toiletries, undergarments and shoes.

Other

  • OBVIOUS TRAVEL STUFF – PASSPORT, YELLOW FEVER CARD, TRAVEL INSURANCE, TICKETS, MONEY,ETC.
  • Motorycle helmet - Never used it!
  • Mosquito Net - Used it in my house (make sure to attach it well or it will fall on you in the night – no fun!)
  • Small teddy bear - ‘Cuz I’m sentimental like that… 
  • Travel Pillow - Useful for long buses… (included a pair of socks, ear plugs – SUPER USEFUL, and sleep mask – USEFUL if you’re not a morning person)
  • 1 large packpack (about 65L), 1 small daypack (about 15L), 1 duffle bag - All necessary… I used the daypack for taking to work (would have preferred a slightly larger one, but I had a small computer). Large backpack only for moving (I would have preferred a proper rolly suitcase honestly… I never moved without a taxi). Duffle bag was great for overnight or week-long trips to other parts of the country.
  • Pencil case (pens, markets, pencil crayons, scissors, exacto knife, etc.) + small sketching pad – Good for me (but bring whatever you need for your own hobby)
  • 1 large notebook + 1 small notebook - Good for meetings… bring one that fits in your everyday bag for impromptu work meetings
  • 2 folders (with notes about arriving, tickets, foundation learning, facts about Ghana, etc.) - Useful (helped keep my papers organized)
  • Umbrella - Heavy rains during the summer – could use umbrella or rain coat. Even if it looks nice in the morning, it might rain in the afternoon.  But you can buy stuff there too…
  • A couple books + magazines – Always good for a plane/bus.  Can trade books with other expats.  Lots of used book sellers on the streets (but mostly religious texts in my area…)
  • Sunglasses – I rarely wear these at home, but if you wear them at home then bring them
  • Swiss army knife – Mostly used the bottle opener… but could be useful for emergency knife/scissors
  • Ziploc bags – Super useful! Great for packing toiletries… Can buy them in supermarkets here
  • Snacks from home… - For when you’re sick and feeling crappy (or not adjusting well to food in the first few weeks – i.e. granola bars, Kraft dinner, crackers, nuts, etc.)
  • Gifts from Canada/Pictures of life in Canada - Unnecessary (thought I did bring some blank thank you/note cards that were nice at the end).  Pictures are totally pointless (use the internet to google things back home if you need to show people), but pictures of friends/family to put in your room can be nice.
  • Sewing kit - Useful (but tailors can also fix anything you need and are cheap and readily available…)
  • Water bottle - Super useful, carried in my purse every day. Water comes in 500ml bags (sachets) you rip open with your teeth and suck the water out. So unless you want to drink your water all at once it’s better to have a container to dump your sachets in.

Wow, lots of stuff I guess!  Honestly, I used most of what I brought.  You’re going to get bored of your clothes no matter what, so be prepared.  If you’re preparing for your own voyage then I wish you luck and safe travels!

P.S. If you’re a traveler headed to Accra (or anywhere in the region) feel free to ask about anything I may have forgotten to include.  I’m more than happy to give advice to fellow travelers, even if I’ve never met you and it’s 5 years later. :)

Leaving Ghana… Bittersweet

I have many draft posts that I meant to put on my blog but never finished.  So here’s one I wrote before leaving Ghana, let’s see how true I still think it is.  I wrote the top 5 things I’ll miss and won’t miss about each country (Canada and Ghana)… So, what’s it really like once I’m back?

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Things I’ll Miss About Ghana

  • Beautiful beaches
  • Dancing (Salsa every Wednesday night at Afrikiko has become my ritual)
  • New friends (including the boys at MBC – shout out to Kombate, Bernard, and Mike)
  • Exploring parts of a new country
  • Being able to wear summer clothes every day (and never pack a sweater! – even though my neurotic planning brain says “bring one – ya never know”)

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Things I Won’t Miss About Ghana

  • Bad roads
  • Burning plastic smell
  • Inefficiency
  • Feeling like an outsider
  • Constant sweating…

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Things I Missed From Canada

  • Food (Bagels, Nachos, Iced tea, Reese’s peanut butter cups)
  • Snuggling under a blanket when it’s cold
  • Laundry machine (I’m awful at doing it by hand!)
  • Having restaurants readily available everywhere (not only super expensive one in the white part of town)
  • And, of course, Steve! (And my family and friends)

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Things I’m Not Looking Forward to in Canada

  • Really cold winter days
  • Early sunsets (though the sunset always feels to early here for the warm weather – about 6:30 all year round)
  • Packing again to bring it all back
  • Trying to answer the question. .. “So, how was Africa?” with something beginning to resemble all the complexities of how I really feel
  • Having to grow up and get a real job..

So far I’ve been back for almost 3 months, and just writing that blows my mind.  It feels like it’s been a few weeks, and it also feels like it all happened years ago – if you know what I mean.  Some things have been harder than I expected, while others have been easier.

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I miss Ghana, but mostly just my life there in general. It was pretty laid back and easy.  I guess my life here is easy also, but I can’t let myself relax when I don’t have a new job yet… In Ghana you have to relax, especially when there’s no power.  There’s not much you can do to be productive even if you wanted to, so you learn to go with the flow (which I’ve had a hard time retaining since returning).

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However, I really am a Canadian… and even though we all complain about the cold and the snow, I’ve really sucked it up this year!  Steve and I have gone skating on the canal and at city hall at least 5 times (plus ice sculptures and beaver tails of course!).  I really love skinny jeans and scarves and layers… so no prob!  Plus, I’ve been having lots of fun days, baking with my friend Jenna, and just chilling at home playing games with Steve.  It’s so great to be back with people who know me well… and going to the gym with my mom twice a week is really great bonding time!

Overall, I’m doing alright.  I haven’t found reverse culture shock to be as big of a deal as others have.  I have a feeling that it’s because I was in the capital city, where things are a lot more similar to Ottawa than the rural areas would be.  Most people mentioned winter being difficult, but winter is difficult every year so that’s just a given.  Finding work sucks, but that’s not really new…

I guess I’m ready for a new adventure!

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What an inspiration! 91 and working at IDEO…

Today somebody sent me an amazing article, and it made me happy for two reasons.

a) It is about an amazing design company I would love to work for one day… IDEO.

b) It inspired me to keep searching for my dreams – because you never know what’s possible.

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So basically there’s this lady in Silicon Valley who is 91 and has been working for IDEO for 2 years.  She lives in a retirement home nearby, and comes in every Thursday to help the team.  She was born in a time when women weren’t allowed to be engineers.  When she was 10 (during the great depression) she made toys out of odds and ends she could find around her home.  That’s when she decided she wanted to be an inventor.  Most of the people who work in tech and design firms are in their 30’s and have no idea what it’s like to be elderly.

As a 10-year-old I wanted to be an inventor,” Beskind told Jenna Bush Hager on TODAY Friday. “I’ve arrived. But it took me about 80 years.”

Beskind was 10 years old during the Great Depression, when ingenuity was a life requirement. “I wanted to make a hobby horse, and I made it out of old tires,” she said. “I learned a lot about gravity because I fell off so many times.”

You can see the full article and video here.

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For those who don’t know, IDEO is a company we learedn a lot about in design school.  They focus on human-centred design, which means they take the end-user into account more than other companies might.  They really try to understand who they’re designing for, whether that’s a cardiac surgeon, a child using a toy, or a person using a shopping cart at the grocery store.  They are a consultancy based out of the US, which means they design for many different industries.  IDEO also helps designers and others to work with their communities when creating projects (and even has a deck of cards with great tools for understanding your client). They’re known for hiring all different types of people on their team (like psychologists, engineers, biologists, etc.) in order to get diverse and interesting perspectives.  They also tend to explore the real world contexts their products will end up in before sitting down to draw or make models. IDEO is one of my dream companies!

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Even more exciting is a new branch of IDEO called IDEO.org, which uses the same design approach to tackle problems related to poverty! How amazing is that? They only started a few years ago, but their aim is to design products that can be used by marginalized people.  Just because the products must be inexpensive, doesn’t mean they should be ugly and fall apart. IDEO.org believes the people in developing world deserve all the same design considerations as consumers in North America, and they help NGOs and other organizations to realize that dream.  Perhaps when I’m older and wiser I could work there… wow, wouldn’t that be incredible?  Combining my background in design, with my passion for working in underserved communities… maybe one day!

The job hunt may difficult and tiring… it’s easy to feel defeated and unmotivated.  Sometimes finding the perfect job may take many months or years.  However, this video gave me a renewed sense that eventually it will all work out!

Re-Blog: “The Baker’s Dilemma and the inequity of restricted funding”

Today I stumbled across a great blog post (you can find the original blog post here) about the problem with restricted funding by donor agencies.

Today, I want to talk about unrestricted funding. A couple of weeks ago, Paul Shoemaker published this piece speaking against what he calls “Quite Damaging Dollars” (QDD), funds that come with burdensome restrictions and are not just unhelpful, but actually detrimental to nonprofits’ work.

Now this issue is actually something I was talking to a new friend at a few weeks ago at a party.  We both expressed happiness about the great work that certain organizations are trying to do, but frustration about how inflexible some funders seem to be.  For those readers who are not in the development sector, many NGOs get large portions of their money from foundations, governments, and other funders who can place certain restrictions (such as which contractors NGOs can use, which projects the money can be for, etc.).  Although the goals are good (to increase transparency and fund great work), the outcome is a huge increase in the complexity of accounting and reporting for the NGOs.

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Restricted funding also can sometimes be found with strict project guidelines.  This means a large funder might say “Okay, go do this education/healthcare/income-generating project for X group of people, in Y location, but your methods must be exactly those written here.” The NGO and funder both agree that this is a good strategy and off the NGO goes off to carry this out.  However, after a few months they realize it is not working and ask the funder if they can change some things to make it more effective.  Inflexible funders will say “No, we agreed, you must do what is stated.”  The NGO then has to complete the work, even though they know the impact won’t be as positive as it could be.  The funder will often also ask for a report at the end, and if the report isn’t positive the NGO risks not getting more funding, and thus has an incentive to lie in the report – making it seem more positive than in actuality… a vicious circle.

He goes on to mention how tricky it is for organizations to go through all of the different restrictions placed on them by different projects and different donors.  He mentions that only the largest NGOs have the time and resources to figure out how to finance everything, and how this disproportionately affects small organizations.  The small organizations therefore spend time and money managing all the different funders, instead of doing their great work.

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His blog mentions a great little scenario called the Baker’s Dilemma.

Basically, a group of five siblings want to pool their money together to buy a cake for their parents’ anniversary party, but each has restrictions on what his or her money can be spent on. John will pay up to $7, but his money cannot be used for eggs or electricity, and it will pay for no more than 1 stick of butter. Steven will contribute up to $5, and will pay for anything except flour, but only if another person contributes an equal amount. Sue will pay up to $5, but her money can only be used to buy eggs, sugar, or butter, but not the full amount of either. Etc. Your group, the pastry shop, has to figure out how much each sibling is paying for which ingredient of the cake.

He gave this scenario to a group of funders at a conference to try to figure out – and obviously they became very stressed and aggravated.  It really helped them to understand the difficulty organizations face when trying to deal with only restricted funds.  If you want, you can sit down and try to figure out the Baker’s Dilemma for yourself.  Or try it at your next board meeting…

So if you’re a funder, and you think an organization is doing great work, sit down with them and figure out a plan for what they need to keep doing great work, instead of just giving some money with restrictions in place.  It will be better for both of you.

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I would totally recommend checking out this blog… It’s great to have people being honest about development, aid, and NGOs.

Goodbye 2014! I wonder what 2015 has in store?

A few weeks ago, WordPress sent me an email about my last year… just like facebook does with the photos, except this one was about my blog.  I didn’t think it would very interesting, but I was wrong.  I’m so happy to know that so many people have read about my adventures.  Apparently it has been viewed by people that I’ve never met… not just in Canada and Ghana, but in 86 countries… wow!  Thanks for your support guys!

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,500 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 58 trips to carry that many people.

Huh, good to know!

Apparently “The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.” Click here to see the complete report.

And that reminded me… A new year, with new possibilities.  It’s a bit terrifying…

“Amanda, do you wanna go to that concert in July?” “How about coming to the graffiti festival in Montreal in June?” “What do you wanna do for your birthday Steve?”

So many questions about the future, most that I’m unable to answer.  I don’t have a job yet, but I’m looking for one, which pretty much means my life is in the air.

Where will I be in 3 weeks, 3 months or 3 years?  I have no idea!

I found this excerpt that I could really relate to…

The problem? Too many options When you live abroad, there’s a deadline to the experience. Your trip is a bookend that makes everything feel special and like you’re working toward something. Back home, with no finishing date, life can suddenly feel overwhelming or excruciatingly boring. Suddenly, you have to make decisions about your life rather than just your day.

I guess I’m a grown-up now, and have to get a real job with actual responsibilities.

So how have I been doing lately? Honestly, I’m not too sure. I’m keeping busy, but I feel a bit apathetic and melancholy to be honest. I guess it’s a combination of winter time blues and not having a reason to get up in the morning. Plus, everyone knows that job hunting is awful!  Also, I’m getting a lot of conflicting feedback… like ToDoist says I’m one of the top 1% of planners using their app… yay, I’m super productive!  But “2048” (a game on my phone) also let me know I played so many times I won. *sigh* Am I doing the best I can, or should I be striving for more?  Do others expectations matter to me as much as I think they do, or is it okay to be unemployed for a little bit?  I feel like even Facebook and LinkedIn are judging me when they say that my “current job” field is blank, and that I should update it… :(

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You can view the ToDoist report here.

One thing I’m trying to do is to get out at least 4 times a week.  Whether that’s the gym, an event in the city, or a nice dinner with Steve.  It definitely helps to get out of the house.  I also just started a new course called “The Challenges of Global Poverty” that I hope is interesting, and will maybe give me a better idea of a direction to head in.  But for now it’s back to silly fb games, watching netflix, sleeping in… oh yeah, and some job applications in between!

Anyway, sorry to whine.  Just wanted to be honest with you guys about where I’m at.  We can’t all be happy and successful all the time.  I guess this is just part of my roller-coaster that we call life. Hopefully there’s a big hill on the horizon!

Christmas in Mexico – Sun, Sand and Margaritas!

During the summer, my mom was asking my sister (Shannon) and I what we should do for Christmas.  We both went to Vancouver to visit Shanni last year, so we figured this year we should all go somewhere instead (especially since it’s about the same price – and a lot more fun – than the three of us flying to Vancouver).  My mom loves the beach, so we decided to hit up Mexico since Shan had never been.  So, less than a week after getting back from Ghana, Steve and I packed up our stuff and woke up at 3 am to fly to Cancun.  My mom met us at the airport, and we got some breakfast before our 6am flight.  The early morning was a killer, but it was worth it to be in Mexico and able to explore by the afternoon.  After we arrived at the airport (and all my Christmas gift wrapping was ruined by customs), we took the one hour bus to Playa del Carmen.  My sis would be meeting us there in the afternoon.

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Instead of staying on an all-inclusive resort, we decided it would be cheaper (and more fun) to just rent a hotel.  I’m glad we did!  Playa del Carmen feels super safe to walk around, and there is lots of public access to the beach.  You can rent chairs and umbrellas for pretty cheap, and get yummy margaritas anywhere you go on the beach.  For those who’ve never been, Playa has a great “main drag” that runs parallel to the beach, called 5th Avenue.  It has tons of cute shops and great restaurants.  It was great getting to wander around and try something new every night!

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Christmas was fun but mostly just another day.  We brought Santa hats and took silly pictures.  Shan and I tried to do some jumping shots but obviously we were not very coordinated, so we got this one instead!  It was great to spend so much time with her.  Although we’re very only 2 years apart, we have very different personalities.  However, we always get along great and laugh lots when we actually get to spend time together.

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We stayed for a week and got into a pretty regular routine.  My sis and mom would get up early and go find an umbrella by the water (since my sister got sun-burnt on the first day).  Steve and I would sleep in, grab some Starbucks for breakfast, and find them on the beach.  We’d spend the whole day reading, drinking margaritas, and going in the water to cool down (though some days the waves were pretty intense).  When the sun went down we would go back to the hotel for a nap, shower, and then head somewhere new for dinner (and maybe  bit of shopping along the way).  Before we got there, Steve had looked up all the attractions.  Maybe we should dive in the caves, check out the ruins, go to a crazy beach club, or check out some water sports.  One day we did take the ferry over to Cozumel to go snorkeling, but for the rest of the time we just chilled… which was exactly what I needed.  I don’t regret the rest and relaxation at all!

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I feel a bit bad for Steve, since some of out trip was super girly.  My mom and sister love to talk about food and calories, and we did a lot of shopping (even buying bracelets on the beach!).  He was probably a bit overwhelmed but he handled it well.  By the end he seemed to be craving some man time, and hit the gym immediately when we got back to Ottawa, since he wanted to “lift something.”  He’s a trooper. :)

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However, I’m really glad he came.  It was hard spending 5 months away from him, and it was a great chance to spend some quality time together.  We were planning to do lots of excursions and exploring and we ended up being lazy and reading on the beach – which was just perfect!  It worked out well, because we got 2 rooms at the same hotel.  I was able to balance some girly time with couple time, and it was wonderful. :)

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At first thought, it seems like travelling so soon after a long overseas placement might not be a good idea.  However, I think it’s exactly what I needed.  Many of my friends who were abroad came back to intense holiday pressure.  Gifts, food, and too many people asking them a million questions.  I got to spend a week with 3 of my favourite and most supporting people.  I got to relax on the beach, catch up on my reading, and drink margaritas.  It was a great way to end a fantastic, jam-packed year!

“So, how was Africa?” – A letter to friends, family, and supporters of a short-term overseas volunteer

Hey everyone,

I am now officially back from Ghana, and sitting in the living room of my apartment with Steve in Ottawa.  It’s hard to believe that I’m actually back here and that it’s been 5 months since I left.  Wow… overwhelming! Sometimes I’m so happy, sometimes angry… hopeful, excited, or just plain emotional. I’m all over the place, like a roller-coaster.  I’m really excited to be back (and especially thankful to my wonderful boyfriend, Steve, and one of my favourite couples, Anne and Ryan, for picking me up at the airport in Toronto – and bringing some winter clothes!).

I’m excited for many things back in Canada.  I want to go skating on the canal, eat all the food I missed, snuggle with my boyfriend, and watch all the new movies in theaters with my friends. Although job hunting really sucks, I’m excited for the new opportunities I will eventually become part of. I’m a bit nervous that my relationships will have changed, and that uncomfortable silences and awkward moments will be the norm.  I’m worried I’ll forget who I once was, and the city I’ve always called home.  I’m scared that I’ll forget all the important lessons I learned about gratitude, patience, understanding, and “going with the flow”.  But most of all I’m excited for my life to continue, filled with new friends, experiences, and wonderful memories.

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As my friends and family, I know you care and want want the best for me.  I know you want to hear all about my trip but don’t know what to ask.  However, when I get the question… “So, how was Africa?”, or “How was it?”, or “Tell me about the last 6 months”, I’m a bit overwhelmed… I don’t know where to start, and I don’t know how to give you the stories you want to hear. Instead, think about what you love.  Are you interested in art…? If so, ask me about dancing, or the music, or the clothes people wear.  Are you interested in money…? If so, ask me what kind of jobs people have, how to haggle with taxi drivers, or what street hawkers are like.  Are you interested in people…? If so ask me about how they take care of babies or what the gender dynamics are.  These types of specific questions will give me a much better idea of where to start, and will help you possibly learn something new (that you care about!).

As EWBers and other NGOs I know you want to hear all about my work.  However, when you ask “What was your impact?” I’m at a loss to describe everything I worked on over the past half year.  Perhaps instead you could ask me what the highlight of my placement was or to tell you what our curriculum focused on.  More specific questions will give me the chance to tell you what you really want to know.  Even more importantly, I would appreciate your support in the transition back home.  So maybe don’t just ask me about work, but ask how I’m doing and if I want to go for a coffee.  Getting re-accustomed to life in Canada and just sitting down to talk with friends is currently my top priority.  Perhaps half-way through that coffee we’ll talk about work, but before we do I’d love to related to you as a fellow caring human being.  I think you can all handle that! :)

So thank you in advance for asking me great questions, and giving me a chance to talk about my experience  I know three-quarters of my stories for the next few months will likely start with “In Ghana…” and you might get annoyed, but please be patient.  That has been my most recent frame of reference, and I don’t yet have very many interesting stories to share with you about life back home.  In time those will come.  I missed you all, and I look forward to the chance to become reacquainted with you wonderful people!

With gratitude,

– Amanda

P.S. I had planned to post all my blogs about Ghana before leaving, but of course that didn’t happen! If you’re interested in a specific topic or aspect of life in Ghana, and won’t get a chance to see me in person, then feel free to comment or email me asking to talk about it on my blog.  There’s no such thing as a stupid question! :) Stay tuned in the days, weeks and months to come for more thoughts and experiences related to my EWB Ghana placement!