February 2011


Everyday we are given a free local newspaper. It’s very good but I am not, and so my copy rarely gets read. However, I did read an interesting article last week about how being late in Ghana is costing the country a substantial sum. The local tradition is that the more important you are, the later you can be. The author moaned that the result was that sometimes the main speaker at an event was more than an hour late. But the dismissal of tardiness is evident everywhere, and something our team has definitely experienced.

The person who is organizing stuff for us is wonderful, but the shuttle that is supposed to pick us up in the morning isn’t so grand. The drivers refuse to come any earlier than 7:30 AM on the dot. Well, our class starts at 8 AM, and that’s barely time to get down the road the mile and a half to our location most mornings. If the driver is at all late or not coming, I have to make a few phone calls to explain before I flag down a taxi, but often there are other people coming on the shuttle as well. It’s just irritating. Furthermore, it’s hard to get people to come to class on time and return from breaks on time, etc.

We are also being slowly starved–for the same reason of not understanding punctuality. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to talk to me lately, you doubtless know already that we’re forging for supper every night. Yes, the restaurants cook your dinner to order, which means it’s fresh. If I were going out every weekend or something, I’d really enjoy the long dinner. However, we’re working ladies; the traffic is too bad to get to the restaurant district of Osu in the weekday evenings. The establishments near us have sometimes taken over an hour to get our food. At the hotel, I can’t get a waiter to even place an order for twenty minutes sometimes. Once it took an hour for them to bring me a salad–explain that one to me.

Shana has saved us all though. She’s discovered a local delivery service that will pick up our orders from the restaurants and bring it to us for the extra cost of $2. Needless to say, we’re using it as often as possible.

The other problem is that the work location’s cafeteria has been in between vendors for the last two weeks. When we arrived, we were impressed with the cafeteria’s large portions and delicious local cuisine. Two weeks later, they left; it was the end of their contract. While the kitchens are being cleaned out for the new vendor, we’ve been given tasteless very bready sandwiches for lunch. There are also chips and cookies. The result is a tiny lunch after a small breakfast and three very starving team members at 5 o’clock when none of the restaurants are open to order. I’ve been to the local grocery and spent a small fortune on what can be eaten in our rooms: rolls, cheese, chocolate, and cookies. Very healthy, huh?

The gym equipment may not be properly functioning but it seems my face at least three times a week from the shear desire to be able to keep wearing my clothes.

Off of the food and back to the tardiness, this morning a local friend had offered to take us to the Makola market, the outdoor local place to buy and sell. She was to pick us up at nine in the morning. Susan called twenty minutes later to say she was on her way. We waited for her till she arrived at 10:45. If she was going to be so late, it would have been fine. We could have gone back and napped or something.

Still, she’s a sweetheart and was eager to take us around the market. Shana, Mealea, and I had been to the Arts Market Friday afternoon, and I was disappointed that once more Makola only offered daily items even with all the vendors present. (We’d been told that our trip on Sunday didn’t count because almost no one sells on Sundays. That did explain a lot.) About the only item that worked for a souvenir was the cloth.

Even though it rained last night, the sun was intense and the heat made me scamper for the shade at every opportunity. Walking passed vendors holding items in the street, we were hissed at to get our attention. I was reminded of Egypt where this is a common means as well. It’s been difficult on both trips not to think it rude though.

The day’s highlight was without a doubt lunch. Susan took us to Sunshine Salad Bar. That’s right: we got to eat beautiful, big, wonderfully full of veggies salads. Shana and I felt like we’d died and gone to heaven. We’ve been talking about salads for the last month.

Advertisements

The rest of the weekend was fun. Mealea and I went to La Beach, the public beach in Accra. Tents shading small tables and chairs littered the sand. Run by food vendors, they offered an oasis from the intense equator sun. However, I was feeling very American; unlike everyone else there, I wanted to  lay on my towel not sit at a table. As Mealea and I wandered up and down the beach to see what there was, I was scouting out a shaded place for me and my towel. Before I was finally successful in finding my shady spot, we ended up having a good conversation with some of the locals who had brought horses down to the beach for a ride along the water.
Mealea had not brought a swimsuit; she explained to me that most people in Cambodia wear tee-shirts and shorts to swim in not bathing suits. I sometimes am I not sure if I’ve learned more about Cambodia or Ghana on this trip! I bargained for a painting by a local seller. We met several locals and chatted.

I ran into the ocean to splash around and be a five year old when Mealea said she didn’t feel like going into the water. As I’m splashing around, this young kid comes up and says hi. He could have been fifteen, but remembering my own baby face, I think 17-18. Mealea has already told me that I look about twelve, so I suddenly realized this guy probably thought I was his age. Ok. No worries. At some point, I’ll explain. We’re talking, and he tells me he works for an electrics company. I wonder if maybe he can be 21; I say I teach software. He’s from Pakistan and just very nice. Finally, since I need to be going, I ask how old he is.

He blows me away with, “23. You?”

“27,” I replied, careful to look at the water. We parted. I went back to Mealea shaking my head and thinking that life is funny. It turns out this young man was really a sweetheart. Having decided I was too old for him, he came over to my towel later to introduce me to his (much) older brother. They stayed and talked with us as Mealea and I had our nails painted by a local woman. It was just a pleasant afternoon.

Shana, Mealea, and I also went on a boat cruise of Lake Volta, the largest artificial lake in the world thanks to a dam built by Ghana’s first president Nkrumah. The cruise on the Dodi Princess was a bit disappointing. My understanding was that the large boat took us to Dodi Island and I might finally be able see some wildlife. That was not the case for when the Embassy hired it out in any case. The ride on the water was almost six hours; we all got a little drowsy. Despite the lovely hills surrounding the water, the last ninety minutes was a bit frustrating as the metal seats were not that comfortable. Everyone seemed content in their little groups; I eventually pulled out my latest murder mystery. Still, it was a very peaceful day. I’m glad we went.

Saturday was another day of car renting and sight-seeing. Shana and I were disappointed when Isa said neither he nor James would be able to take us as we’d agreed earlier. They found out at work on Friday they had to work for the ambassador all weekend. So Friday when we got home, I scheduled a driver with the hotel service. I explained everything we wanted to do. The lady named a figure that was higher than last weekend, but it was all or nothing at that point. On Saturday morning, I got frustrated as I explained to the driver our itinerary before we left. He was not pleased and raised the price saying that not all our stops were along the same road. I was a bit livid because since we were paying for the petrol and had hired the driver for the day, I didn’t see how it mattered where we were going if we knew how to get there. We eventually argued it down to $10 extra, but that was the best I could do. It was frustrating to pay so much more for a half day trip. We were gone maybe seven hours instead of twelve for last weekend. But neither Shana nor I were willing to let another non-travel weekend happen during our trip.

Getting to Aburi meant driving inland north to the beginning of a mountainous region. The views of the orchards and green fields below coming up the mountain were beautiful. We passed Studio 1, which  Bob Marley’s wife set up after tracing his roots to this village after his death.

Our first stop was the Aburi Botantical Gardens. It isn’t a large establishment, but it was a lovely way to spend half an hour or so. I am always amazed at how many different types of palms/palm trees there are, just as it’s impressive to think about the variety within the term evergreen.

About ten minutes away in Mampong was the first cocoa farm in Ghana: Tetteh Quarshie Cocoa Farm. A local from Accra, Tetteh Quarshie went away to work and came back with some cocoa seeds. He planted them and sold seeds to others in Mampong to start their own cocoa farms.

Stepping onto the farm, it was nothing like what we expected when we thought of “farm.” The cocoa trees can’t take direct sunlight, so the farm looks more like a tropical forest. Plantain trees, cocoa yams and other trees are planted around the cocoa plants. The cocoa plants are distinctive, once you’ve identified what they look like, and so the plant varieties are all mixed up in a way that looks like a natural forest.

Shana and I got an excellent tour of the farm from a shy local who worked there. He explained that it takes about seven years for a cocoa plant to produce the pods containing the cocoa beans. However, there are three cocoa harvests each year from the trees. He pointed out tiny flowers that grow on the tree’s trunk. Each flower becomes a tiny pod that will grow and turn yellow in a few months. Some of the trees planted by Tetteh Quarshie in 1879 are still producing cocoa.

He showed us how to open a ripe pot with a machete. Then he handed us each a fresh seed to try. They are covered in a sweet white sticky substance you can suck on. It’s a nice treat. The seeds are then fermented for a week by being left outside and covered in banana leaves. Then they are properly dried and sold. The beans are peeled at the factory.

Most of the cocoa in Ghana is exported with the chocolate products re-imported. This means that most Ghanaians can’t afford chocolate. Heck, I can barely afford the imported stuff. A bar of Lindt chocolate was $7 at the grocery.

The last place on our list was TK Beads, a shop in Dodowa that makes the famous Ghanaian glass beads. Getting there from Mampong was pretty direct: just a right at right at Mamfe and a left at Larteh. Shana was dozing in the backseat while I was reading in the front. We got to Larteh, and I was surprised when the driver took a left. But, I’d been reading my book when not looking out at the mango orchards, so I didn’t think too much of it. About fifteen minutes later, I see signs saying we’re in Somanya. I pull out the map of Ghana that Fred gave me. Sure enough, we’re headed north, not south. I explain to the driver, who probably didn’t believe me. But asking a local proved I was right. Very thankful for the map!

The TK bead glass making was an outside establishment. (See the beautiful products here: http://tkbeads1.weebly.com/) They gave us a tour of the two ways they make glass beads. The ones that are made from powder are hard when they are fired, and so have to be placed in molds that have a rod for the hole. Once fired, they can be painted and re-fired. The beads made from crushed glass are soft when fired and are molded by hand. I love watching such beautiful craftsmanship.

Back in Accra, we successfully used the local delivery service, Runner’s Delivery, to get pizza from Mamma Mia’s without leaving the hotel. Mealea joined us by the pool and we listened to the live band while enjoying our treat.

If our morning was fun, our afternoon was emotionally draining. Elmina and Cape Coast are popular tourist sites here in Ghana. They are along good roads which make access easy, and they do have fun vibes in the towns themselves. But the main sites to see are the castles or forts which were used to hold slaves before they were shipped off to the Americas.

I’ve grown up knowing about the slave trade. I still remember so much of what Ms. Ramsey talked about in our Junior US History course. I remember being horrified at hearing of the conditions on the boats crossing the ocean as well as what happened to slaves on plantations. However, visiting it, standing there, seeing these holding cells…I hope no one goes without being deeply shaken.

We stopped first at Elmina. This harbor town was held by the Dutch who called it ‘The Coast of Gold Mines’ (Da Costa de el Mina de Ouro) after the Portuguese and before the British. We took a guided tour of the Castle of St. George, aka hell.

First we saw where the female slaves were kept. In one of these cells, over a hundred and fifty women would be shoved together. It’s a dungeon cell with very little light. The women were shackled together. There was no where for them to relieve themselves, so that became the new floor of the place. These women were usually held for three months before being put on a ship. They had nothing to help them clean up their monthly cycles. As I said earlier, it was a hot day. Our guide group was about ten people. Just standing apart from each other we smelled from sweating in the heat. Imagine that times fifteen for over three months while no one can take a shower.

Then our tour guide pointed to the governor’s balcony, where the governor would come out to look at the women below. He would pick who he wanted to please himself with. She would be forced up a small staircase, sent to his room, and taken back down to the holding when the rape was done. The other Europeans there also made free with these women. Any woman who resisted was left in the dudgeon courtyard with eight lead balls strapped to her legs and left in the stark heat with no food or water until she relented. Shana and I were both so horrified, we didn’t really know what to say.

I can’t understand how these men could not understand that these people were people. And if they aren’t people, then you shouldn’t want them for sex. As Shana said, “How could so many smart people of the time not question this? Speak out that it’s so wrong?”

The whole thing makes me wonder what we accept now that will be barbaric to future generations.

More than the cruelty of the dungeons or the death sentence of being sent to the containment cell, I was floored by the fact that the fort had a church. And that while doing all of this everyday, the Dutch would refuse to worship in the formerly Catholic sanctuary of the Portuguese and put their “holy” space elsewhere in the fort. Though it may sound too righteous, I could not believe the gall of these men to pray to God like they were good Christians when they were committing such outrageous crimes.

A World Heritage site and one of the largest slave-holding sites in the world, Cape Coast Castle is much larger than St George’s. It’s recommended to stay an hour and a half. Originally a market town, Cape Coast grew to a key trade port between the British sailing in and locals meeting them from their trade routes inside the territory’s jungle. Cape Coast was pivotal in the transatlantic slave triangle.

Shana turned to me when we got there and said she couldn’t listen to another story. I wasn’t sure I could either. We skipped the much lauded tour there and just wandered around for a few minutes. The dungeons were ever so much larger and darker than St. George’s. Walking down into the men’s dudgeon, Shana almost turned back because we could see anything. It was more than four rooms connected. Coming up into the sunlight would have disoriented people enough to ensure they couldn’t overwhelm the guards immediately.  These forts are located along beautiful beaches and are still painted white. They are so deceptively pretty.

5:30 AM is much earlier than I’d ever like to be up on a Saturday, but our group wanted a quick day trip to the Cape Coast area.Our drivers, Isa and James, who are great, picked us up at 6 AM to miss the painful traffic. Our jam-packed day included four stops.

Driving along the road in the early morning, I enjoyed the beauty of the scenery. Looking out, I was reminded more of the Dominican Republic than I have in any other place I’ve been, possibly because the homes dotting the scenery were equally of lean-to quality. But something seemed to say I was in Africa as we sped past empty hills.

Kakum National Park is renowned for its skywalk above the rainforests in the park. Logging between 1975 and 1989 has damaged some of the forest’s natural beauty though it remains an important watershed for the areas around Cape Coast. The park can still boast of well over 200 flora species and exciting animals like forest elephants, which are rarely seen by visitors. Sadly, most people rush into the park for the canopy skywalk and quickly leave. In my mind’s eye, I’d hoped to take more time at the park–maybe taking a quick hike elsewhere or seeing the exhibits Nancy had told me about. With our schedule this was impossible. Instead, we followed the majority by seeing only the canopy.

The weather was good but was like a day typical in Charleston in the summer: hot and humid where fifteen minutes outside will cause you to break a sweat. Maybe it’s from living in the Middle East, but sticky hot days really exhaust me faster. Still, I was excited to be hiking through a rainforest even if we were going along a well-worn path and mist was not rising in the air.

The canopy walk reminded me of the swinging bridge near Goshen. All those times I squealed as a little girl when Daddy rocked the bridge from side to side had prepared me for this moment. I walked along a single plank width walkway surrounded by netting feeling perfectly safe. In fact, mostly I just wanted to go slower than everyone else and enjoy the moment more. Examining the trees from below was not so enjoyable for everyone else that was part of our larger group. As you walk along, there are seven places to stop–little wooden platforms around the trunks of large trees that allow you to rest and take pictures before wandering along the next plank. it was such a fun experience!

Too hungry to wait for lunch in Cape Coast, we stopped at Hans Cottage Botel. This outdoor restaurant is famous for something besides its food: its crocodiles. Signs claim the reptiles are actually friendly, but we all still felt very adventurous getting our photos taken next to one of the baby crocodiles. There were small paddle boats you could take around the small lake were the adult crocs swam, but we were all focused on food. Having forgotten my hat, which is sadly still perched on one of the four posts of my bed in Alexandria, I was not eager to be in the sun so much mid-day. The others were not dying to be closer to the animals.

Instead, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch on the second floor of the restaurant. A gentle breeze and the roof of the open building made air conditioning seem obsolete. James and Isa are locals and enlightened us with new insights into the culture. It was so nice to be sitting outside, looking down at the lake with the crocs, and sipping a divinely cool Bitter Lemon.

This post is possibly overdue and therefore only a hodge podge of my thoughts in the last week. Tonight really feels like a Friday. Shana and I got happy hour drinks by the pool listening to the live band that comes in on Friday nights. There’s also one on Saturday–one really great reason to stay at this hotel.

For those who were expecting an exciting post on sight-seeing from last weekend: inshallah you shall have it on Sunday. Our driver did not come on time last Saturday, so we spent the weekend in Accra. Extra sleep was appreciated. The fun was on Friday night when an ex-pat here invited us to a dinner at her house: great people, fabulous food, and good African music.

Randomness:

The more people I travel with and the more places I go, the more I realize that I am, apparently,” an excellent walker” as Caroline Bingley would distainfully remark. In other words, most people don’t prefer to walk like I often do.

Also, it seems odd that in this country, a former British colony, one does not in fact drive on the left side of the road. Maybe it was a way to rebel? I would love to know if they ever did drive on the left. Surely that was the case before independence.

For the beer drinkers out there, Guiness is only $1.50 per bottle in restaurants–possibly one of the only things cheaper here than in the States. I am very lucky to be traveling with two other ladies. We all split one or two entrees and then share the bill. I really would be wasting a lot of money otherwise.

The one thing I have found in Ghana that I’m not sure how I will live without once I’m home are the Schweps Bitter Lemon sodas. All Pharrs should be green with envy. Oh so good!

My earlier observation in a prior post that I just needed some time to adjust to Ghana was on point. We went back to Osu today for lunch (Fridays are a halfday where we’re working) and had a great time. It helped tremendulously that it was the first meal in days which I actually enjoyed. Now that I’ve shifted my expectations, I find it’s easier to enjoy myself.  (The exception to this is always traffic, which I don’t like anywhere. Yesterday, we got out of the taxi and walked because we just weren’t moving at all.)

I have been trying to understand for years why Imperialists/Colonials/Americans/whatever you want to call them have such a hard time in other countries. When I was living in Ibillin, I was able to adjust my expectations, and life got easier. But I’ve noticed that traveling for business in many ways just doesn’t work that way. We never leave America. We expect to be able to have everything be the American way when we get here: good roads, American food, shopping malls, fast internet, etc. For example, the client back in the States expects things to be accomplished on an American timetable. Even if I knew everything about the local culture, I’m not allowed to change my pace, which is exhausting like climbing up a steep mountain against the gailing winds.

The women here should teach etiquette classes. Princess, one of the people here for training from Liberia, can balance four 2.5 inch binders on top of her head and walk around, including down steps, with no problems. However, as one American points out, people here aren’t much for the words “Excuse me” or “Please.” I’m used to that from the Middle East though.

Speaking of which: WOW. Mubarak is gone. It pretty much blows my mind. He gave power to the army instead of parliament, as the constitution states. I have to wonder if he thought that would help make a true democracy impossible, or he had reason to be wary of Parliament. (Now if only the Green Party could do this in Iran.) Since this started, I’ve been worried about something that started good ending in something less democratic. Only time will tell.

As I’m collecting my impressions of Ghana and trying to convey them back to you, I find myself very surprised to realize that for the first time on this project I am not in a Muslim country (sidenote: there are more black Muslims than Arab Muslims in the world). Some of the first differences I’ve noticed include women’s arms showing. In Ghana women’s thighs are alluring, so skirts and pants cover down to the knees at least, but I can actually wear just short sleeves if I want.

Also along the lines of fashion, in Arab society, long hair is still the most beautiful even if women don’t display it for everyone. Here some women have very short hair; many schoolgirls sport buzz cuts. There are women with long tiny briads, which I found out mean you don’t have to do anything to it for six weeks–sounds like heaven.

The other thing I’ve noticed is alcohol. It seems to have been swapped for smoking as the vice of choice because unlike the Middle East smokers here are a rarity. Instead many stores that sell alcohol, and you hear commericals for it on the radio.

Which brings me to the surprising side note that English is the official language here in Ghana though native tongues (predominately Twi) and French are also widely spoken. I can read everything; I can understand almost everything on the radio like the commericals. It’s unreal.

I’m back to enjoying being in the minority. I adjusted pretty quickly usually only noticing that I’m the odd one out when I see someone else with lighter skin. I was surprised at Max Mart, the small supermarket about a walkable mile from the hotel, when I realized there were five white women in line to check out. The Middle Easterns who are visiting throw me for a loop somehow. There are a handful of Asians as well.

I’ve been enjoying Nancy’s stories about Ghanaian culture. She’s a friend of a friend who married a Ghanaian after college, moved here, and raised her children as locals instead of as Americans. Ghana is the opposite of many places (Middle East, America, and Asia): the darker the skin the better. Nancy says her boys’ friends wouldn’t fight with them because they were “thin-skinned.” The older boy at age 5 decided he had to marry a Ghanaian, so his kids wouldn’t be teased for their lighter skin. It’s really nice to see people being proud of their heritage instead of selling whitening creams like in Asia.

Being here is opening my eyes to so many things. I’m loving that!

The music here is amazing. Shana and I talk about it all the time. We’re bringing the hip life and high life songs back with us for sure. For those who don’t immediately decide to google songs, think Caribbean. If that seems odd, think some more–maybe back to history and triangles… The hotel has live music on the weekends. Right now, I’m at a table by the pool listening to the awesome beat of a live band.

One thing I’d never thought about before is that slavery means that most African Americans don’t know where they came from and how that might affect world views, etc. It’s such a basic concept, I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of it earlier. Maybe because for the most part I think of being from the South, then North Carolina and then Scotland. But the truth is I know I have so much to learn here. I sure hope some of it sinks in!

Next Page »