The morning sunlight seemed to dance across the West African plains beneath the airplane and I was filled with excitement, but also fear. This was the beginning of a monthlong sojourn that not only opened my eyes, but changed my life. Much more than an adventure, this journey also gave me a re-education, a doorway into history, and a chance to see what I was made of.
I had recently started a career as a freelance writer, and I found myself with not only the time, but the eagerness for an experience that I couldn't get in a newsroom. I decided to take a volunteer vacation - in which travelers sign up with non-governmental organizations for short-term volunteer opportunities. I chose Cross-Cultural Solutions, a New Rochelle, N.Y.-based group, for a trip to Ghana. Each year the organization sends 2,000 volunteers from around the world to programs in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Peru, Russia, Tanzania, and Thailand.
After talking with organization officials, I learned I had to raise the $2,500 required by CCS, then purchase plane tickets, obtain a visa, and get the proper vaccinations and medications.
CCS has set up a system for online, tax-deductible donations, so I e-mailed everyone I knew. No one was immune from my begging campaign. Amazingly, I raised most of the funds in less than four weeks. The only thing left to do was get on the plane.
"We don't tend to call it a 'vacation' because it's really a cultural experience," said Kam Santos, a CCS spokeswoman. "When people think about a vacation, they think about things that are light. But this is a personal-enrichment type of program and there's nothing light about it."
That truth hit home on the evening of my arrival as I walked with two other volunteers around the capital city of Accra, in an area filled with thousands of people who are poor and homeless. Suddenly my own frustrations with life seemed minuscule. I had seen poverty in America, and even known hunger myself, but this was unlike anything I'd witnessed firsthand or seen on television.
But by no means was this the norm in Accra, or anywhere else, for the rest of my visit. The next day, our group set out for the CCS base in Woe, in the country's Volta Region, where I spent most of my time. It is a village populated by farmers and fishermen who are mainly Ewe (pronounced "eh-weh") by tribal ethnicity. Most people get around by taking minivans called "tro-tros." Yams, rice and cassava are diet staples, and everyone speaks the Anlo-Ewe dialect.
The first things most people notice on trips like this are differences in culture and language, and I picked up a few phrases of Ewe as I went along.
But I was surprised to learn how race is viewed here. I am African-American, and most locals considered me a brother returning home. Yet, although they never called me "yevu," which means "white foreigner" (instead preferring "rasta," because of my dreadlocks), some did think of me as white - not because of my skin, but because I was from the developed West.
"We are black, but we also see ourselves as Ewe people," one local explained. "How you see yourself is just as important" as skin color.
One night, I stayed up with some friends and watched the Ghana Television broadcast of "Roots." I had seen the miniseries nearly 30 years ago, but for the shocked Ghanaians, it was the first time. The friends I was with that night did not fully know, until watching the show, the brutal history of the slave trade. Now we understood our kinship.
"This is why so many of us want to come here," I told them. "We want to see the part of us that was taken away so long ago."
My volunteer work consisted of working at Jubilee Radio, an FM station based in nearby Keta. I got to know some of my colleagues there as I helped out with the coverage of local news. A free press is not taken for granted in the developing world, and responsible community journalism, I found, is a public service - as important to them as foreign coverage.
I covered everything from a single harvest of 7,000 snapper - the biggest catch in five years, resulting in the best market day all year - to an Anlo chieftaincy dispute that caused the cancellation of their most important tribal festival, called Hogbetsoso.
Outside of work, I started to adjust to the local culture, learning, for example, to haggle with taxi drivers over the cost of rides, and with market traders over small items. After a while, I got used to the daily cold showers and washing my clothes with well water. I also developed a love for dishes like fufu, a thick, doughlike food made of pounded cassava and yam or plantain; and kenkey, a stew made from ground white corn and served with fish or meat.
One emotional day, I visited the slave den, Fort Prinzenstein. I stood silently at the top of the structure and looked out at the Atlantic Ocean. I wondered what my ancestors felt as they were taken from these shores, then I said a prayer for them through my tears.
At night, I sat under the clear, warm sky talking with locals and other volunteers. Slowly, over time, I saw so many things that I thought mattered actually didn't. I started to realize what's really important - family and friends, and living in the moment.
Valerie Dennis, a volunteer from Orlando, Fla., echoed that sentiment.
"I got back some of me that I had lost in the past five years," said Dennis, who worked in a nursery near the CCS base in Ho. "It started being worth it when I started seeing the difference in me."
On my last night in Ghana, I returned to Accra and sat in a bar laughing and drinking with a new friend, Godwin Azameti, a local photographer and videographer. By then, I had probably downed my 100th Star beer, arguably the most popular brew in West Africa.
We talked about what I had learned, how my perspectives on life had changed, and how enriched I became simply for having made the trip. I was reluctant to go home. But he was reassuring.
"This is not the end of the journey for you," he said. "It is just the beginning."
If you go:
: (800) 380-4777. Each year, Cross-Cultural Solutions sends about 2,000 travelers from around the world to take part in volunteer programs from two to 12 weeks long in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Peru, Russia, Tanzania, and Thailand. The basic cost of $2,389 for two weeks, with $261 for each additional week, covers lodging, meals, medical insurance, ground transportation, programming and your placement. Round-trip airfare to the volunteer country is additional.