Why solo travel is so awesome

So we recently returned from a trip to China: Shanghai and Beijing to be exact. Russell went for business, and I tagged along for pleasure (and some major sightseeing). Because Russell would be in meetings and workshops all day every day, I already had it in my mind that I would be sightseeing solo. This has never bothered before, as I actually travel quite well on my own, and have done so on a few occasions in the past. Not to say that I wasn’t sad to be missing out on sharing the experience with him, but sometimes I think a spot of solo travel is actually quite good for the soul! Here’s why I think so:

You’ll get to spend some quality time with yourself 

When’s the last time you just hung out with yourself? And I don’t mean hours pouring over Facebook. I mean, just being in your own company and actually enjoying it. Far too many people are uncomfortable spending time on their own, when in fact, it can be something sacred. Knowing yourself, and enjoying spending time with yourself, is such a great gift. Don’t view it as solitary confinement! See it as that me-time you’re always seeking out, but never find the time to indulge in!

You’ll be surprised at how street-smart/adaptable/resilient you actually are!

It felt really great to navigate my way around solo – hailing cabs, figuring out the map, taking everything in my stride – including language barriers, cultural nuances, getting lost and squat toilets. I figured out that using the emojis on your phone can be very helpful when ordering food and discovered that squat toilets are not so bad after all! And  realising that I can get around a foreign city on my own with relative ease was kinda empowering in its own weird way!

You’re in charge of the itinerary!  What you want to see, when you want to see it

When you travel as a pair or in a group, you inevitably need to consider the other person/other people in your planning. You might be fine to go for a few more hours but they’re hungry and need the toilet. They hate museums while you love them. You’re an early riser morning person, they’re a night owl. You like eating local, they prefer Western food. And then there’s the fact that not everyone has the same idea when it comes to what they want to see on a trip. So obviously the great thing about solo travel is that you get to design your itinerary your way. Spur of the moment coffee stop? No problem. Last minute change of plans? Totally fine. Want to take a million photos? No worries.

Your confidence will get a boost

Even if you are already pretty confident, you’ll find having to ask random strangers to take your photo at various tourist sites quite a confidence booster! Striking up a conversation with a new person from a different culture is always interesting, and sometimes funny!

You can really take in the moment

Without any distractions, you can really be in that moment and appreciate the situation  –  whether it’s taking in a spectacular sunset or admiring a centuries-old landmark.

 

Who else enjoys solo travel?

 

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Northern region & Mole National Park

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The Northern region of Ghana is totally different to the rest of Ghana –  in a way, it’s like its own separate country. The landscape is much dryer and dotted with little mosques –  the predominantly Islamic influence is very much evident, as are the wonderfully delightful Fugu smocks worn by men, a garment typical of Northern Ghana.

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The main attraction of this part of Ghana is Mole National Park, the largest wildlife conservation area in the country, home to 800 elephants and variety of antelope species, baboons, monkeys, rich bird life, warthog – and according to a ranger at the park – a few lion and leopard!

Mole is a 2 hour car journey from the regions capital, Tamale. This part of Ghana is also renowned for its Shea butter production.  Shea butter is a skin superfood extracted from the nut of the Shea tree, and is used in body moisturisers and hair products. It can also be used for cooking.

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Another place of interest, is the Larabanga mosque, located just a few minutes outside of the park. The mosque dates back to 1421, when a Moorish trader passing through stopped to rest. During his sleep, he had a vivid dream instructing him to build to build a mosque at the site. A giant baobab tree stands next to the mosque, and it is said that the architect is buried at the base of the tree.

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Built in the Sudanese architectural style and made out of packed earth, this white-washed mosque is one of the oldest in all of West Africa and was recently added to the Worlds 100 Most Endangered Sites list.

Also worth a visit, is the Damongo market which takes place on Saturdays in the town of Damongo. Vendors sell everything from salt and spices to livestock, clothing and prayer mats.

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We stayed at Zaina Lodge, a reasonably new addition to the hotel scene. This luxury lodge overlooks two water holes and it was really amazing watching the elephants come to bathe each morning and late afternoon. The hotel architecture and interior decor draws inspiration from the region, from the Larabanga-inspired design to the beautiful mud cloth fabrics in the reception area so typical of the north of Ghana.

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There is really something special and unique about the northern region and it’s one part of Ghana I’d definitely like to go back to again!

Western region: Axim & Nzulezo

My friend Elena recenlty came out for a visit from Switzerland so it was the perfect opportunity to explore a new part of Ghana. I’d already heard that the Western Region has some of the the most beautiful beaches in Ghana, and I was excited to visit a few new places, including the 2nd oldest slave fort in Ghana, St. Anthony and the Nzulezo Stilt Village, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

We stayed at what I can honestly say is the most beautiful spot in Ghana, Loumoon Lodge. This was our travel base from which we did all our day trips. Situated a few minutes drive from the town of Axim, it’s about an hours drive from the airport in Takoradi. It’s a little piece of paradise, tucked away in lush green surroundings, complete with palm tree-lined sandy bays. We ended up going with one of the island suites, which comes with its very own splash pool, and literally overlooks the Atlantic ocean below. The food and service were impeccable and the entire stay was just perfect.

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Back to the sites of the Western region – although we didn’t manage to visit the Ankasa Forest and Nature Reserve, we did make the 1 hour car journey to Nzulezo; a village built entirely on water, and one of only two of its kind in West Africa (the other, is in Benin).

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The settlement of Nzulezu is built on lake Tadane and is situated about 90km West of Takoradi.  “Nzulezu” is an Nzema word meaning “surface of water.” The inhabitants of the village are said to have migrated from Walata, a city in the ancient Ghana Empire, the earliest of the Western Sudanese States. According to tradition, ancestors of the village were brought here under the guide of a snail – which is why the snail is their totem animal.

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All activities relating to everyday life such as schooling, worship and burial take place on the lake – even new born babies are baptized in the lake. Children learn to swim at a very young age, due to their constant proximity to the water. Most of the inhabitants make their living off the water, in some shape or form. Fishing is obviously one of the main activities, and locals make use of fish traps made out reeds. Others tend to small pieces of land a few kilometres upstream on the main land, where they grow fresh produce.

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Visitors are encouraged to make a donation to the only primary school in the village. Once children finish primary school, they must make the daily trip up river and onto the main land to attend high school.

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The village itself is around 400 years old and offers a unique glimpse into the everyday life of a people who live entirely on the waters surface. Only about 600 inhabitants live here and it is said that they are a very conservative people who do not inter-marry with other tribes.

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The following day, we made the quick car ride over to Fort St. Anthony, constructed in 1515 by the Portuguese (then called San Antonio). It is the second oldest fort after Elmina fort. It is still in very good condition and is currently overseen by a caretaker and guide, who will take you inside and give a very thorough and at times, realistically chilling account of exactly what went on behind the fort walls.

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The history behind the slave trade in the area then known as the Gold Coast spans from the early 1500’s to its peak in the 18th century, until it was eventually abolished in the late 19th century (1807).

When the Dutch captured the fort and took over its operations trading in human lives in 1642, the Portuguese left the Gold Coast permanently. The British later gained control over all the coastal forts in the 19th century. Fort Santo Antonio became St. Anthony when it was ceded to the British in 1872.

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The fort is a reminder of mans’ inhumanity to man. The dungeons, where captured Africans were kept until such time as they boarded ships for the New World to be sold into slavery, are incredibly depressing, the dispair hangs heavily in the air, even after all these years.  You can’t even begin to imagine what these poor souls must have gone through and how they could even have survived such harsh conditions. Many didn’t…. And to make things even more confusing and disturbing, is that the European officials were living just above these dungeons of sadness, conducting business as normal, often hosting parties and even attending chapel – ironically often constructed above the very prisons where they were keeping their captors.

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After the sombre tour of the fort, our taxi driver took us on a guided walk of Axim town. We headed down the main road and branched off into one of the side streets leading down to the beach, where hundreds of colourful fishing boats bobbed up and down in the low tide waters. Locals were going about their everyday business – buying and selling, preparing their lunch, washing their clothes and observing the two of us walking around, standing out like sore thumbs!

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I would really recommend both trips, especially if you’re looking to add a cultural and historical aspect to an otherwise coastal/beach getaway!

Voodoo Festival in Benin

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Voodoo priests and adepts in their striking outfits during the Allada celebrations

When someone mentions the word “voodoo”, the first thing that usually springs to mind is black magic and all the negative connotations associated with it. Voodoo is also viewed as being something evil and often conjures up thoughts of bad ju-ju and wicked spells.

However, these perceptions are misleading and completely inaccurate. They are, in fact, misconceptions. Voodoo has definitely been portrayed in a bad light by Hollywood with its sensationalized and ill-informed depictions of zombies or sticking pins into dolls!  Unfortunately, these portrayals are not only untrue but also incredibly insulting and demeaning to an ancient religion which actually promotes many of the same values as the monolithic faiths. Many of these misconceptions go back to the times of slavery, when Voodoo first came to the attention of European slave traders, who were busy profiting from the pain and suffering of others, in what was probably the most inhumane atrocity of our time: the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. They not only feared Voodoo itself, but also, (and even more so) the power that Voodoo gave the slaves. Viewing it as something strange, eerie, threatening and linked to the supernatural, they sought to snuff it out. Despite their attempts,  Voodoo crossed the oceans into the New World, where it remained a prominent and meaningful religion to those who continued to practice it. It even aided numerous slave uprisings and fuelled the only successful slave revolution in history, on the island of Haiti, where the slaves of African descent overthrew their European rulers and took control of the country. This instilled a growing sense of fear in slave owners and those who controlled the slave trade, as they came to associate Voodoo with bloodshed and rebellion. This further demonized Voodoo in the eyes of Westerners. It was during this time that Voodoo became linked with devil worship, as slave owners (the majority being Christians), actually believed that some of the slaves made a pact with the devil in exchange for their freedom.

Christian missionaries, and later, the colonialists, would try to put an end to Voodoo – to diminish its following, quell its practice and convert its believers. They believed these ‘non-believers’ needed to be ‘saved’ from the evils of Voodoo, but this was just a cover up to conceal their true agenda, which was to convert the Africans to a religion where they could be controlled and subdued. But it was not meant to be – it would never die, nor fade away….Voodoo would endure through it all.

Of course, over time, it mixed and inter-twined with others faiths along the way, which is why a hybrid of the original Voodoo exists in the Caribbean, Brazil and parts of the United States today.

To visit the tiny West African nation of Benin, is to truly discover the source of the religion and to begin to understand and de-mystify the practice of Voodoo. This involves opening our minds and freeing ourselves from the misconceptions and stereotypes we once believed to be real and setting aside our ignorance and our fear.

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Local women gather to join in the celebrations at the Royal Palace in Allada

Though many Christians denounce Voodoo today, it is important to note that Voodoo is neither devil worship, nor is it a cult. It is a bona-fide religion in many parts of West Africa, not just in Benin, but also in Togo, Nigeria and parts of Ghana. We need to bear in mind that it was the Europeans who introduced Christianity to Africa and the Arabs who brought with them, the religion of Islam. Yet long before these religions ever reached African shores, the indigenous populations were practicing their own form of ancestor worship.

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His Majesty, Dada Daagbo (in blue), the supreme priest of Voodoo in Ouidah

Today, Voodoo is recognized as a legitimate religion in Benin, and in fact, is the official religion of the country. Also known as Vodon or Vodou, it centers around the vodun spirits and other elements of divine essence that govern the Earth. There is a hierarchy that ranges in power from major deities, governing the forces of nature and human society, to the spirits of things found in nature, such as rivers, streams, trees, and rocks. A big part of Voodoo is ancestor worship and followers believe that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the world of the living.

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An explosion of colour – the costumes were decorated with sequins, cowrie shells, dyed chicken feathers and many other materials

The Creator embodies a dual cosmogonic principle – Mawu is the moon and Lisa, the sun, and they represent both the male and female aspects respectively. All creation is considered divine and therefore contains the power of the divine, which is why even trees are recognized as having divine power and herbal remedies are used as medicine. Mother Nature, in all her various forms,  also holds the power of the divine.

So now that you have a better understanding of what Voodoo is, its origins and beliefs, I’d like to share more about our amazing trip to the annual Voodoo festival in Ouidah, Benin. The festival, which takes place annually in January, is a big celebration, drawing crowds of tourists and locals alike. We also attended a more intimate ceremony at the Royal Palace in Allada, which I found more authentic as it was low-key and less touristy, whereas I found the one at Ouidah to be more of a “show”. Both were colourful, frenetic and mesmerizing and I will definitely go back again next year! The costumes were out of this world and watching the local spectators spontaneously burst into trance was quite something! As an animal lover, I found some of the sacrificial aspects difficult to stomach (I chose not to watch the slaughter of a large cow) but I did see countless chickens offered up to the gods and one or two goats lined up to face a similar fate.

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A chicken is sacrificed, surrounded by palm oil, used extensively throughout the ceremonies

My absolute favourite part of the spectacle was when a group of Egunguns – masqueraded figures, said to be manifestations of the spirits of departed ancestors, who periodically re-visit the living, especially during times of celebration – dressed in colourful costumes, appeared out of nowhere. Swishing their capes, they caused an absolute frenzy amongst the locals. Their handlers could not control their wild behaviour, as they kicked up a huge cloud of red dust while they danced and contorted like crazy Sufi whirling dervishes down the dirt path.

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The enigma that is the Egungun!

There is something deeply spiritual about the Voodoo religion that really resonates with me. As someone who is not religious, (I do not follow the religion I was born into -Christianity), I really identify with the concept of natures role in all aspects of life. After all, everything in nature was created by the Creator (whoever he/she/it may be). The Creator may not even necessarily be called God/Allah/HaShem. I feel most at peace when I’m in nature and I believe that spending time in nature is the closest we can get to our Maker.

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Devotees attend the celebration held on the beach near the poignant Door of No Return, constructed to honour the captured Africans who were sold into slavery and shipped to the New World

I was also really intrigued by how this religion managed to out-live all European attempts to suppress and destroy it and how it adapted and evolved to its new surroundings to continue to bring solace to its followers, even in their darkest of days. And how even in modern times, it is revered and celebrated and brings pure ecstasy to all those who believe in it!

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Another devotee at the Ouidah festival

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A young boy performs a special dance wearing this elaborate costume

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Whirling and twirling into a trance

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Women devotees performing a dance, which involved exaggerated forward movements of the shoulders

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Men covered in palm oil, possessed by the spirits, dance in a trance-like state

Adventures with friends – exploring Ghana

One of the highlights of this Ghanaian adventure has been making new friends. Some pics from our day trips (and sadly, farewell parties).

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Celebrating Carolines Beach Birthday at White Sands

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Our trip to Boti falls, Umbrella rock and the magical fertility stone and sacred 3-pronged palm

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Hunting for West African treasures including masks and voodoo dolls!

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A day in James Town in the lead up to the Chale Wote Festival

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Yoga poses at Umbrella Rock!

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The sacred 3-pronged palm tree and the magical fertility rock

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Farewell party for Namrata

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Baby shower for Vero

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Cocktails in the jungle!

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Shai Hills adventure with Cris and Amy

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Caroline’s Farewell

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Postcards from Ghana

It’s been ages since I last updated my blog. Here are just some of the places, faces and festivals we managed to experience so far!

 

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Coconut Grove, Elmina

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Elmina Bay Resort

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Elmina town, which has both Portuguese and Dutch influences

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A young girl during the Dipo festival, a puberty rites ceremony celebrated by the Krobo tribe.

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Pictured with one of the Mothers who oversees and heads up the ceremony

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Suspended walk-ways of Kakum National Park –  a look at life above the tree canopies of Ghana’s first protected forest park

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More Dipo celebrations

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Lake Bosomtwe outside of Kumasi, a natural lake formed  in a crater, created by the impact of a meteorite 

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Peaceful and beautiful Lake Bosomtwe, revered as a sacred lake by the locals who live on it

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Feeding a South African ostrich at Shai Hills Reserve!

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Village kids

OAfrica roadtrip ’16

The part I love most about working at OAfrica is getting out into the field and meeting the families on our support. The highlight is definitely the annual road trip, which takes us outside of Accra itself and into some of the more remote areas. I especially enjoy visiting the villages in the rural areas.

On these trips, I’m joined by a photographer and a social worker. Speaking with the children, asking them questions and getting to know them, helps me write the reports for our international donors about what’s happening on the ground and is used as content for our social media posts. I’m so grateful for this experience, and I know that one day, when I’m an old granny, I’ll look back on these memories and smile….

Below are just some of the children and families I’ve met during this years road trip. Special thanks to photographer Shine Wilson for capturing these moments!

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