“Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.”

Lessons from the Laborers

I have been having a blast with my fellow laborers with whom I muck out the elephant closures every morning.  Although most of them haven’t had the luxury of higher education, and several of them are often a little bit cheeky,  they are always quick to pass on some wisdom behind mucking-out, which I have found can actually apply to life!  Here are a few lessons that I’ve learned…

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Unawatuna, Southern Sri Lanka

A merchant on the beach at Unawatuna

With the New Year holiday putting the country at a complete stand still, I headed south with the other foreigners and tourists and found myself in Unawatuna.  Largely devastated by the 2004 tsunami, Unawatuna recovered so rapidly thanks to the help of all of its’ past visitors who remembered the quaint beach-side town so fondly.  There is still plenty work to be done, and unfortunately the beach has shrunk down substantially and will continue to wash away with every monsoon season.

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Greetings from Kegalle, Sri Lanka!  After quite a long journey trying to get here, I finally made it early last Sunday, and I dived in immediately!

The first day that I arrived, another volunteer and I took a tour of Kandy and the surrounding Hill country. We stopped at scenic views, took a tour of a tea plantation (one of Sri Lanka’s biggest exports), and visited Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Sacred Temple of the Tooth Relic. It is pilgrimage season here, so there were many devotees at the temple; it was surprising to feel so calm and serene in a place that was so crowded! Afterwards we enjoyed a show of some traditional Kandyan Dances and drumming, which featured beautiful masks and a wonderful insight into the culture and their folklore.

I started my first day at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage the very next day. There are currently 83 elephants at Pinnewala – 50 females and 33 males (of which only 3 are tuskers). I promise to give you more details on Pinnewala when I can! In the past week since I started, I have bottle fed baby elephants, helped bathe sick and injured elephants, and even learned some elephant commands. Every day though, I am knee deep in elephant poo until about 10:30 in the morning, helping the workers muck out the elephant closures. After all of the dirty work, I get to walk down to the river and watch the elephants bathe and play, and I get to sit much closer than the tourists! I spend a lot of time with the mahouts (the elephants’ caretakers), and I am learning more and more about the elephants and Pinnewala every day.

As it turns out, I will be here for Buddhist/Hindu New Year, which is next week. So until next time, suba aluth avurruddack vewa (happy New Year)!

P.S. I look forward to sharing much more with you all once I get back, especially pictures!

25 Days Until Sri Lanka!

It’s official!  I have bought my plane ticket and I’ll be on my way on the 29th.

I finally have my itinerary.  The only change is that I’ll be working at Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage first, and then the second month will be devoted to helping at-risk and disadvantaged youth.  I cannot stop thinking about my final week: the one week of silent meditation.  Taking a vow of silence has been on my bucket list for a while now, and I can’t think of a better way to experience it.

Here is a typical day at the Vipassana Meditation Retreat:

04:00 Rising
04:15 Puja (Pay homage)
05:00 Porridge/ gruel called Congee
05:15 Meditation
06:15 Breakfast
07:15 – 08:15 Meditation
08:15 Drink of King Coconut
08:30 – 09:30 Attending to cleanliness
09:30 – 11:00 Bathing and washing of clothes
11:15 Lunch
12:30 – 13:30 Meditation
13:30 Drink of tea
14:00 Mediation advice usually by head monk
17:00 – 18:00 Cleaning outside areas
18:00 Puja (Pay homage)
18:30 Evening drink
19:00 – 20:00 Meditation
22.00 Rest – Lights Out

It looks extremely challenging.  Particularly the getting up at 4:00 AM and staying up until 10:00 PM, and the no-eating-after-12PM rule.  I know meditating will be a strange and new experience, especially doing so much of it.  I’ve started reading “Be the Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World” by Ed and Deb Shapiro.  While it has been a very insightful read, I don’t know how much it will adequately prepare me for what’s to come…

In addition to the new regimen, I will be following the Ten Precepts:

1. Not to kill any living being.
2. Not to take what is not given.
3. Not to have sexual contact.
4. Not to tell lies; not to indulge in idle talk or gossip (wrong speech).
5. Not to take any drugs or alcohol.
6. Not to eat solid food after 12:30 noon until the next dawn
7. Not to dance, sing, listen to music
8. Not to wear garlands or apply scents, use makeup, cosmetics or jewellery.
9. Not to sleep on high and expensive beds.
10. Not to accept gold and silver (money)

Although the retreat will only last a week, I anticipate that the lessons I learn will last me a lifetime.


Okay. So this one is tough. In Ghana, the common greeting between everyone is a handshake, but its a special handshake. It starts as a grab, moves swiftly into a regular handshake, and then ends with your middle fingers snapping off one another. Grab a friend and give it a try, but don’t get too frustrated. I still haven’t really mastered it (and not for a lack of trying), but I quickly learned that there are certain people that can make you snap, no matter how hopeless you are at it!

I found this clip on YouTube that illustrates the handshake really well:


Good luck!

Speaking Twi

Although the official language of Ghana is English, there are a variety of dialects spoken all over the country.  In Accra, and much of the southern half of the country, Ghanaians speak Twi (pronounced TREE; also known as Akan or Fante).  To date, this has been the most foreign language experience I’ve had, but I had such a blast learning new words and phrases and practicing them with locals.  Even if I may have butchered the language, locals loved hearing me try, and it opened up so many opportunities to bond with and learn from the beautiful people of Ghana.

Spelling in Twi is extremely difficult; most of the Ghanaians I met had difficulty spelling or writing in Twi.  Many words make use of special characters that aren’t in the English language.  In fact, the school where we volunteered  had Twi lessons scheduled, but no certified Twi teacher to instruct the course (which focused on writing in Twi).

Therefore, for simplicity’s sake, my Twi “spelling” will be strictly phonetic.  The following words and phrases were so invaluable for me in getting to know and earning the respect of Ghanaians!

Greetings & Responses
Good morning: MA-CHI
Good afternoon: MA-HA
Good evening: MA-DJO
** For enthusiasm, add OOOO to the end. As in, “ma-chi-oooooo”
How are you?: WHOA-WHO-TA-SEYN
What’s up?: EH-TEH-SEYN
I’m fine: ME-HO-YEY (more formal), or EH-YEY (more informal)

Mind Your Manners!
Ghanaians are big on being polite and minding your manners. These phrases will take you far!
Thank you: MEH-DA-SI
Responding to “thank you”: ME-SA-MEH-DA-SI
** This essentially means “I am also thankful”… Since generosity is so expected and commonplace, there is really no translation for “You’re welcome”
Please / Excuse me / Pardon me:  MEH-POW-CHO

Other Words/Phrases
What are you called? YEH-FRAY-WHO-SEYN
I am called…: YEH-FRAY-ME
We will meet again: YEH-BAY-SHE-AH
We will meet tomorrow: OH-CHI-NAH–YEH-BAY-SHE-AH
(Since we were there for New Year’s) Happy New Year!: AH-FEE-SHE-AH-PA
Response to “Happy New Year”: OH-FIM-KOM-BA-TOO-YAY
I don’t understand: MEN-TEE-AH-SAY
“Small, small” (i.e. “Just a little”): KA-KRA KA-KRA
Enthusiasm: PA (Ex. Thank you very much = MEH-DA-SI-PA-PA-PA-PA…. can be repeated as often as you like)

There are plenty of Twi resources online that are easy to find.  To get you started, you can find some more Twi here, here, and here. Enjoy!

My time in Ghana, the Black Star of Africa

DECEMBER 27, 2011 – JANUARY 13, 2012

A group of street children in Cocoa Marketing Board.

My trip to Ghana was a lot of “firsts” for me.  My first experience leading a group abroad, my first time on the continent of Africa, my first canopy walk, my first time eating guinea fowl…  Just so many “firsts” in a country that was completely new and foreign to me.  Even so, from the moment I stepped off of the plane the country felt comfortable and familiar.

I traveled with an amazing group of people.  This part I cannot emphasize enough.  Our group was thoughtful, sensitive, considerate, supportive, and in almost no time at all we became a little family.  We were a mix of ten undergraduate and graduate students all hailing from VCU, plus me and my magnificent co-leader (School of Social Work alums). For about a decade, VCU has been working with Sovereign Global Mission (via Peacework) to help build a school in Adoteiman (a village on the outskirts of Greater Accra).  After the school was completed and classes began, they sought to expand and were able to add a second floor.  Our goal for this trip was to help with finishing the second floor in any way that we could, followed by working with the students in class with phonetics, and aiding the teachers.  Between our weekdays at the school, we went on cultural excursions, and helped with a feeding program for street children.

I remember arriving on a Wednesday evening; things were busy and hectic from the beginning.  We took a wild taxi ride to our hotel, and with the windows down the smells wafted in — a combination of earthiness, car exhaust, and residual smoke from garbage fires.  Along the High Road were shacks and shops, splattered with logos and the most recent football scores. Although it was dark, everything I could see reminded me so much of the Caribbean, and between the smells and the sights it felt like a fusion between Trinidad and the Dominican Republic.  This stayed with me throughout the two-and-a-half weeks.

We were constantly on the go.  Between our work at the school and the cultural excursions, I’m surprised we even had the energy to go out on the town, but go out we did – nearly every night!  Our guides Ghanaian friends (long-time contacts of previous VCU groups) took us out to local bars and clubs, reggae beach parties, local eateries… We got a sampling of everything.  It was cultural immersion at its greatest, and made the experience even more unique and authentic.

I can’t wait to share more about my time in Ghana!
Look out for more posts on the food, the culture, the sights, and more!

Yebehyia! (We will meet again!)