Part One of Three. I’ve divided my posts into Trip Preparation, Tourist Experiences, and Public Health Research.
In late June I traveled to Ghana to complete my practicum for graduate school. This research project was the last thing I needed to finish in order to earn my Masters in Public Health from UMass Amherst (online!). My project was on barriers to women’s reproductive health care in the Upper West District, a rural area with a recent rise in teenage pregnancy rates. I met amazing people and learned so much about Ghana, health care in resource poor areas, and shifting attitudes in cultural beliefs. I also saw millions of goats.
Preparing for my trip to Ghana was a little more challenging than I expected. It was almost impossible to find accurate information on what to bring, where to go, and what to see. The organizer of our trip passed along a list of suggestions and gave us a list of things we absolutely needed to do and be aware of before the start of the trip.
Yellow Fever Vaccine – In order to enter the country, you must have received the Yellow Fever Vaccine and carry proof of your vaccination. Go through your primary care physician and request a referral to a travel medicine provider. When I saw the travel medicine nurse she had printed out all of the potential risks in the areas I would be traveling to and gave me the meningitis, typhoid, and Hep A (first of two) in addition to the YF shot. The other benefit of going through primary care is that insurance will cover the cost. If you choose to go through a private company, like Passport Travel, the YF vaccine will cost you $300 out of pocket. There is a shortage of the vaccine in some areas and you may end up having to use a private company. Before you reach customs at the airport, an agent will ask to see your yellow vaccination card. If you don’t have one, you will be given one once you receive the YF vaccine.
Malaria Pills – Travel Medicine will also prescribe you medication to prevent Malaria and treat Traveler’s Diarrhea. There are two types of Malaria medications: one that will give you insane nightmares and one that won’t. I would push for the one that doesn’t make you wake up screaming. Think it’s not that bad? Read State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. It’s great; you should read it anyway.
Travelers Diarrhea – You will most likely get diarrhea at some point on your trip. Even though we were all vigilant about not eating uncooked vegetables and using bottled water to brush our teeth, nine out of ten of us experienced it on this trip. It’s not any worse than regular diarrhea, but may last for a few days. Make sure to take the medication prescribed to you as soon as you feel like you’re sitting in a Chevy and you feel something heavy or when you’re walking through the hall and you feel something fall. Hi, I’m 36.
Air Conditioner – If you are lucky enough to have one, leave your air conditioner on any time you are in your hotel room. The cold keeps the mosquitos away. You can bring a mosquito bed net with you just in case there are creepy crawlies when you enter your room. I brought one, but didn’t end up using it.
Deet – Make sure the bug spray you bring contains deet. These mosquitos are aggressive and can kill you. They want to kill you. Malaria is the numero uno cause of death in Ghana. It’s not even close. Avoid areas of standing water as an extra precaution.
Bottled Water – Thankfully there is no shortage of bottled water in Ghana. Only buy bottles that have a plastic seal around them as some will refill these bottles and sell them. You will know they’re not legit from the fact the water is brown. Use bottled water for drinking and brushing your teeth. Don’t even rinse your toothbrush with tap water. If you’re really concerned bring water purification tablets, but a one liter bottle of water in Ghana cost less than a dollar.
Hot Water – Do not expect to have hot water on your trip even if you’re staying in the best hotel in the area. When you check out the bathroom you will see a large bucket and a smaller bucket or bowl. Bucket showers are way more manageable than showering continuously under cold water. Do not drink this water.
Wifi – You will think “Oh, my hotel has WiFi! I’m set!” but you’re not. Hotel WiFi is very slow and unreliable. The hotel in Wa gave everyone a new login and password every single day and it would kick you out the minute your screen went dark. If you need to be connected to the outside world, add an international plan to your phone before going. For $60 AT&T gave me unlimited calling and text as well as 1GB of data.
Money – The official currency of Ghana is the cedi. The exchange rate when we arrived was $1USD = 4.6 cedis, but the cedi continues to depreciate and $1USD was worth 5 cedis when I left. There are not many places to exchange money. If you go to a bank it is a giant pain in the butt. I spent two hours in Accra exchanging $200, but there was air conditioning so it’s all good. Your best option is to retrieve money from an ATM, but note that only Visa cards can be used in ATMs. You can exchange money at the Accra airport as well. When we asked the receptionist at the hotel where to exchange money in the area, he walked us over to the market for a black market exchange. Literally, a room with no windows, one dude, a desk, and a calculator. He gave us a pretty good rate, but I don’t recommend this and certainly wouldn’t have gone without a local who knew the money man.
Airport and Transportation
Checked Luggage Tags – In order to leave the airport when you arrive in Ghana you will need to show your checked luggage receipt to an agent. I couldn’t find mine once and they looked at my passport instead.
Pink Shirts – When you walk out of the doors at the airport you will be overwhelmed with the amount of people offering to help you. The ones that you should absolutely avoid, but are almost impossible to, are guys wearing pink shirts. They are the most aggressive. The hotel I was staying at was supposed to come get me, but I couldn’t find anyone from the hotel or see a sign with my name. I tried calling and it was busy. A kind, pink shirted man offered to help me and called the hotel as well. He offered to take me to the hotel and I explained that the hotel charged me $20USD for pickup. Long story short he asked me to be his girlfriend a few times because I am white, asked me if I “like black,” became upset when he learned my boyfriend isn’t black and then charged me $55USD when we arrived at the hotel. Other people on my trip were charged $15USD and $30USD for the exact same ride. After 20 hours of traveling I was too tired to fight, but he received an epic eye roll. Welcome to Ghana.
Extended Airline Layovers – When I was initially scouting for airfare the cheapest flights I found included 20hrs+ of layovers in Egypt and Turkey. I briefly considered it but had no idea where I would go or what to do with my luggage. Egypt Air and Air Morocco offer free hotel stays for layovers four hours or more. One girl on the trip flew Egypt Air, got a free hotel close to the airport, and a tour of the pyramids arranged by the airline when she arrived. My only comfort is knowing I now have enough miles with United to travel to Peru.