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From a DC Charter School to Living in Mali, Africa

Phil with friends Paul and Felicity in Ghana
Phil with friends Paul and Felicity in Ghana It’s lovely to meet you, Phil! Please tell us about your background.

Phil: I am originally from Cleveland, Ohio. I went to New York University and afterwards taught for three years in a public charter school in Washington, DC.

I have traveled as often as my schedule and budget have allowed, and in many cases when I probably shouldn’t have.

I studied abroad in Ghana in 2005, traveling for a bit in West Africa and Europe after the semester was over.

I graduated in 2007 and then spent two months traveling in South America. More recently, during summer vacation in 2008, I traveled to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand.

TT: And now you’ve left the U.S. behind to travel the world, starting in Africa! Explain.

A beach in Ghana, West Africa
A tranquil beach in Ghana, West Africa

P: As I write this, I am four months into a trip around West Africa. I spent several months in Ghana, a month in Cote D’Ivoire, and I’m now enjoying the awesome desert and sahelian culture of Mali.

I am couchsurfing as much as possible, collecting and making music, and getting involved with volunteer projects along the way. At the same time, I am documenting the journey on my blog: “Phil in the Blank.”

TT: Love the pun in the title of your blog. So how did you create this remarkable travel opportunity, and how are you paying for it?

P: I studied abroad in Ghana in 2005, and I’ve always wanted to return. After saving money for three years, I left my teaching position to embark on an open-ended trip. I bought a one way ticket to Ghana and I have yet to purchase a return ticket.

Friends Annemarie and Bless being very excited in Ghana
Friends Annemarie and Bless being very excited in Ghana

I funded my travels solely through savings. When I was in Washington, DC, I didn’t own a car, I rarely ate out, and I lived in a group house. I also did some web design work on the side here and there and occasionally made sacrifices to my social life. All of these things allowed me to put money away for travel.

TT: Inspiring! Please tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful, interesting, or funny.

P: Just the other day I was on a pinasse on the Niger River. It was more or less an overloaded ferry boat with two decks crammed with people, livestock, and various other cargo. At one point there were several women next to me who were taking turns peeing into a plastic bowl and then sending the bowl’s contents airborne, over the side of the boat and into the water below. They did this because they were completely boxed in by sleeping bodies and cargo.

After a while I offered to dispose of the bowl myself, because I was closest to the railing and this way I wouldn’t have urine flying over my head. Before long we were chatting in French and they were giving me an impromptu lesson in Bambara.

Meanwhile I was throwing their urine overboard. Moments like these are crafted spontaneously and they happen more often than you might think once you get on the road. You can read the full version of this story here.

TT: I want to say “Ew” and “Aw!” at the same time. So how are your travels impacting you as a Teacher?

Ruins in Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa
Ruins in Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa

P: Besides expanding my cultural, historical, and geographical knowledge, traveling has dramatically increased my reservoir of patience, which is critical in the classroom.

Travel in Africa challenges you in ways you might not expect and if you don’t learn to be patient you will likely be on the next flight home.

TT: How have your travels impacted you as a person?

P: My travels have made me value my friends and family much more than I did previously. In Africa, people are rarely alone. Most everyone lives with at least several family members, and a common activity is visiting someone’s house just to sit around and chat.

Not once every few months, or a few times a year – several times a week at least. This may be one reason there are lower numbers of depression and related mental illnesses in Africa.

TT: Fascinating! In closing , what advice do you have for other teachers who are dreaming of travel?

P: I think most teachers understand the value of travel, but are unsure of its feasibility and practicality. My biggest piece of advice is to just go out there and do it. Start small if you have to and take a trip for spring or winter break. Take advantage of your unique work schedule!

End the excuses and understand that there may be no greater opportunity for professional development. You WILL experience astonishing personal growth and you will expand your knowledge of the world and the people in it!

TT: Phil, thanks for a wonderful chat! I can’t wait to read your blog updates about the rest of your journies in Africa and beyond. Readers, connect with Phil on his blog, his Facebook Fan Page, and his Twitter!


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