A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Walking Safaris in the Bush

On our second day, with the intent of sleeping in, we awoke early with anticipation of a safari but it was pouring like mad outside. Instead, we read and relaxed, and when the weather cleared, headed out for an afternoon safari. Waiting under a giant baobob tree, the rangers split us into groups, luckily we found ourselves in a smaller group with two tall dutch guys. Our instructions were simple, don’t litter (yay! someone finally cares about the environment) and no talking (fine by me, silence is golden) so as not to scare the critters away.

The rains had come and went leaving the air thickly packed in humidity. My double layer of spf 50 sunscreen and ultrathon insect repellent puddling in white sweaty blotches on my neck and brow, as I dabbed away furiously. See I may be a girl but I don’t perspire and I definitely don’t “glisten” especially on a hot day in Africa. I was sweating buckets. The ranger lead us off the worn paths through the tall tundra, brushing aside tree limbs and plants with his rifle swinging dangerously off his shoulder pointing straight at the head of the person in unlucky position number 2.

We came upon a massive trash dump full of cavorting wart hogs. Not exactly my ultimate wilderness fantasy, although we did get to see a wart hog frenzy when a woman dumped fresh trash and then two tusked males rammed each other in a violent show of dominance. The winner triumphant and puffed up with a sly mustachioed smile between his tusks, the loser slinking away into the forest, beaten and battered.

Next, we veered off the path and watched the ranger poke around on the forest floor, showing us a huge dropping that could only have come from one thing - an elephant. Looking around, there was a clear path where the grass was stamped down under enormously heavy feet, and we followed it with sheer glee. We were on an elephant hunt! Faster and faster we followed the trail with anticipation, and then we heard a loud roar only several hundred feet away. Freezing in place, and listening intently, we had to make a careful approach. Scampering up on an embankment we saw the massive mammal staring back at us, snacking on tree leaves. His white tusks glinted against his black body in the late afternoon sun, with graceful ears always billowing like a flag in the breeze and surely listening to us sneak up on him.

Our cameras snapping furiously trying to frame a decent shot through the trees. We inched forward, craning our necks. The ranger, behind us watching the scene, said it was far enough. Just a little bit closer and I‘ll get a shot, just one more inch. All of a sudden with a loud snort the elephant came charging at us. Oh my god! We ran in all directions. The ranger, steadying his rifle, looked more scared then us as we bolted past him. As fast as it began, the elephant had stopped short, he wasn’t going to run us down, just scare us a little and show us whose boss.

Pumped up from our first walk about, we wanted to do a longer walking safari in the morning and inquired about breakfast. You remember that work ethic I was praising in the poor working class? Sadly it doesn’t extend to critical tourist functions, like park rangers, service schedules, and hotel wait staff (with notable exceptions at big milly‘s and aylo‘s bay). It seems as if everyone tries to work as little as possible, acts incompetently and indifferently, doing you a favor to answer your questions or take your order, directly inhibiting any logical coordination between services. I mean, honestly, you can‘t get coffee before heading on a safari, and when you get back the free breakfast is over. What kind of crap is that? With this attitude its no wonder that tourism has not flourished here.

It was a busy morning and we were unsure we would get our own ranger, as there were at least 20 people waiting for the morning walking safari. We had struck up some conversation with a German law student named Oliver that we nicknamed Safari Joe due to his Crocodile Dundee attire. He was heading on a long walk in the valley with a guide already set-up and graciously allowed us to tag along.
We tucked our pant legs in our socks, and descended down into the valley. It was 8am and the weather was absolutely perfect, slightly cloudy with brisk air from a recent rain. Our first destination was a waterfall that we tried to approach through mud increasing steadily in thickness. At ankle deep, with mud sloshing between my toes, we gave up and headed instead to a tree platform built out in the park. It was a well built, albeit little used structure next to a less used water pump. “Who is way out here pumping water“, we asked. “No one“, he replied.

Along the way we saw a magnificent waterbuck grazing in the grasslands.

We also saw quite a few kob, a type of antelope, with interesting white markings (almost like crude graffiti) on their orange coats. Very skittish animals, at first they freeze in position like stuffed statues and then flee at the slightest provocation, bounding off into the forest as you would imagine bambi.

The walk was a little over four hours and was our favorite adventure at Mole. Even though we didn’t see very many animals it was exciting to be in the wilderness and getting dirty. We only wished we knew we could camp at a tree platform earlier in the week, because that would have been the ultimate experience, even with the frequent rains.

Later that night, Oliver bought some Pito, a locally brewed beer, for us to sample. It tasted earthy and fruity, but at room temperature out of plastic water bottle, it wasn’t exactly an ice cold honey amber ale. He said it tasted better out of a gourd, and we nodded in agreement, everything tastes better out of a gourd. We talked and laughed and took turns lifting an elephant bone that was far heavier than it looked.

Later, after one too many beers, Ron and Oliver thought it a good idea to go on a night-time safari without a ranger. They walked down to the watering hole and saw a pack of waterbuck. On the way back up, the lead ranger appeared furious over their little escapade and placed them under arrest. Fortunately, some quick talking and bribery let them off the hook, otherwise they would be forced to pay a hefty fine and be escorted out of the park immediately. Great idea, boys.


Monday, September 28, 2009

Mole National Park

Already baking hot outside, we headed to the bus station at 8am in the morning to ensure we got a ticket for the 2pm bus. This nonsense is due to the fact that you can’t buy advance tickets on buses in Ghana so you drag yourself there the day of and hope for the best. When we arrived before 9am, the ticket guy said the bus was full. How could it be full already?! He said we could stand on the bus, but that was unthinkable for 4 hours on a bumpy road. My heart sank to my stomach, now what? We chit chatted for a minute, even pulled out a little Dagbani, the dialect of the North, that we recently learned from a nice organic farmer named Carlos. Dasiba means Good Morning, to which you say Na.

Then, out of nowhere, he says he’ll sell us a ticket. Now I’m thoroughly confused, and ask him if it was a joke before that the bus was sold out. He says no, it was no joke but his wife manages the ticket process so he’ll give us two. The Metro Mass buses are the size of a greyhound with the comfort of a school bus, and we got seats 9 and 10, reconfirming the bus was never “sold out”. I’m not sure what type of high school system of “you are in the cool club” they use, but I was just thankful we qualified. Two other American girls we would overhear later that day were flatly turned down for tickets an hour before us and had a hellish day long tro-tro ride to Mole. Ron wouldn’t think himself lucky as the Ghanaians standing on the bus leaned on him the entire time but I was happy as a clam with room to put my legs in natural right-angles.

The Mole Motel is the only hotel in the National Park itself and it reminds me of every other hotel with the sole honor of being in the wilds (thoughts of the Awahnee in Yosemite) - overpriced and under delivering . Built in the sixties it has a great location on a cliffside overlooking two large watering holes so you can relax and potentially see animals frolicking in the water (if you are lucky and have binoculars). It could be an utterly amazing property, but the details are completely neglected, and everything else, including the staff, is average at best.

Our room was expensive, at more than double our usual room rate (51 cedi or $36 a night) but it came with several features we have been dearly missing: “working” air conditioning, mini-fridge, plush bath mat, complimentary towels, drinking glasses, clean white sheets, and orange marmalade with breakfast. When a bath mat brings you joy, you know traveling has quite possibly changed you forever.

Our first morning we sat out by the swimming pool and saw a pair of wart hogs mowing the lawn Fred Flinstone-style and then lingering in a long tusk entangled smooch. I thought about sending one home as the ultimate in souvenirs and also to meticulously maintain the grand backyard I hope to have.

Behind us a monkey lept up onto a table of French tourists, hearing their startled cries we turned to see the monkey making off with their toast. Later a baboon came within inches of us, strutting his stuff, while his partner in crime opened the screen door of the kitchen and snatched an entire loaf of bread before bolting past the staff. You could almost hear him snicker, and from the two events, it made me wonder how much they incur in annual bread-loss.

Later we saw a group of three elephants, two black and one grey, grazing by the watering hole in the distance and munching on grass. All this action in the span of four hours.

One day, we rented shoddy bicycles for 8 cedi ($5) and road the 6km to the village of Larabanga. Ron was attacked by swarms of biting flies and had to pull over, waving his hands wildly over his head like a cartoon character. I found this comical, but he said it hurt like hell. The distance wasn’t far but the humidity and hot sun was unrelenting. By the time we arrived, worn down and so sweaty it looked like we had walked out of a downpour.

Against much research and preparation, we still fell prey to the many unofficial guides ripping off tourists visiting the towns mosque.

They say it’s the oldest mud and stick mosque in Ghana but no one quite agrees on the facts, being built anywhere between mid-1400’s to mid-1600’s. It was interesting nonetheless, but as non-muslims we were not let inside to gander around. We begrudgingly paid our “donations”, bought some fried yam and doughnuts from a street vendor and peddled back. We arrived just in time to miss the elephant that strolled up to the hotel giving everyone else fantastic pictures. But not as good as one of the elephants that comes up every dry season to take a sip from the swimming pool.

Olive baboons freely roam near the hotel, and we were lucky to see a whole pack of them coming down a dirt road in the park. We stood still and quiet and let them go about their business only six feet away.

It was pretty amazing to watch their nimble fingers lovingly groom each other and especially the depth of the look in their eyes.

This is definitely what you would consider the bush, where you need to slather on a gallon of repellent, but then immediately sweat it off to be inevitably nibbled alive by bugs. The million winged insects have made constellations of bites on our arms and legs that we compare and lament over on a daily basis (and try not to itch!) At night, mesmerized by the swarms making fantastic acid-trip tracers from around the strung lights, we sit and listen to the crickets and wild sounds from beyond the darkness of our balcony.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Road to Tamale

The nice owner of the lodge, drove us to the ferry we would take from Yeji to Makonga. Another nightmare water vessel somehow declared fit for live passengers. Miraculously, we squeezed into two shaded seats along a long wooden bench, with the help of an elderly woman directing others to make room for us. God bless the grandparents of the world, they have helped us more than once to get a seat, a fair deal, and a free direction to our next destination. Only, in this instance I had to place my backpack in a puddle of rusty water for several hours, a small consolation for not having to stand.

The ferry departed at 9am for a one hour journey that would soon become a maritime saga due to the storms the night before. Several hundred feet from the Makonga port we would be surrounded by floating grass islands, which might as well have been icebergs, impeding our arrival indefinitely. We had to endure the ship captains inane ideas of pulling the islands out of the way, only to disturb nearby islands to float back in the wake. And on top of this, one of the engines went out so he couldn’t turn properly, overshooting the approach again and again and again and then again and yet again and (maybe we’ll make it this time…nope) again and again and again. This went on for hours, to the point that I was about to shove him out of the way and take over. Nevermind I have never captained a boat, at this rate we were waiting for a monkey to type out the Illiad.

Finally in a daring maneuver he plowed forward only to be stuck 6 feet from land, locked in impenetrable grass that had to be freed by the hands of a dozen voluntary men waist deep in water for half an hour. It was now after 2pm and we missed our connecting bus to Tamale, and don’t you know that Makonga has no guest rooms. Can I get a refund? No.

By a stroke of sheer luck, we had struck up conversation with a Baptist missionary named Immanuel that was heading far north to Bolgatonga and more relevant to our predicament, had a Honda 4X4 in tow. He graciously offered us a ride all the way to Tamale. He said that he owed a lot to Americans who pay his salary and bought him the truck, so he could spread the good word. I would like to spend a silent moment here to thank each and every one of my generous American brothers and sisters that inspired this man to save us from sleeping in the bush. The ride, however, was anything but smooth. There was no blissful dozing off you so often get on car trips, lulled to sleep by the incessant hum of the vehicle. It was cramped, loud, bumpy but thankfully a nudge shy of vomit inducing.

The roads in Ghana are terrible, and that’s being complimentary. Drivers, by definition, must be crazy. They swerve across the road to avoid the plague of potholes like they are dodging land mines in a video game. Flinging coins out the window to children who painstakingly fill the holes with dirt, until they are worn away by too many cars or washed away by the rain, and then the process starts all over again. Making exceedingly polite little taps on their horn to people, animals (most likely lingering goats), and other vehicles as if to gently say “be careful, please watch out” that is the complete opposite of the loud roar of the horn from people back home saying “get the hell outta my way!”

This reminds me of another endearing Ghanaian trait for getting your attention, they don’t say ‘hey! hey you!” they make a small hissing sound “tsss tsss“, which is subtle yet grandly more civilized. You can hiss at a water sachet seller 100 paces away and she’ll make eye contact and come running, its fabulous.

The drive lasted a little under 5 hours, when we reached Tamale and insisted on filling the gas tank for 20 cedi ($15) for the lift. Immanuel dropped us off at TICCS or the Tamale Institute for Cross Cultural Studies where we got a basic room with a ceiling fan for 19 cedi ($13) a night. At which point, we stayed within half a mile of the hotel for the next four days. We read and rested, organized our packs and had the maid wash every piece of clothing we owned for 6 cedi ($4), sadly the first time our clothes had a real washing in over 3 months.

Leaving the haven of our hotel only to go to the internet café to catch up on the blog and eat nearly every meal at Swad’s Fast Food, a fantastic outdoor café run by an Indian ex-pat. After dinner escaping the worst of the downpour under a thatched umbrella with lightning criss-crossing in pulse machine patterns across the sky. More than once blessing the rains, like the Toto song, as a welcome, if temporary, relief from the heat.

Goat herds, like people, roamed the streets in all different emotional states and configurations: goat families, goat couples, heartbroken goat men and goat women, happy goats, lucky goats, happy-go-lucky goats, lost goats, confused goats, forlorn goats...

We visited the market which was nearly desolate on a Sunday, and missed the opportunity to see the famous fetish section selling leopard and other exotic skins. But the meat market was open, wafting horrid smells and visions of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

There’s not much else to report about Tamale, except the feel of it was immediately better and more manageable than Accra, and it is a noteworthy major city in Africa for the many bicyclists, so many that they widened the streets with large, luxurious bike lines.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Akosombo to Yeji Ferry

We took a taxi to the marina and confirmed our reservation for one of the only two passenger cabins on the boat, that was made with little more than a phone call and a first name. A lot of deals are made like this, on faith, and its amazing that people stick to their word as much as they do. I wouldn’t trust anyone in the States to save me anything with my first name, except for an eventual misunderstanding and ensuing headache. Although most Ghanaians practice Christianity, there is a surprisingly large Muslim community towards the North which led unexpectedly to “Ramadan Strikes Back“. It was Sunday, we had many hours to kill, and nothing local was open.

With nowhere else to go, we took a broken-down shared taxi back to Akosombo, that made the 5 minute journey nearly an hour due to the engine stalling a dozen times. I was surprised and relieved when we actually arrived to spend the afternoon on the patio of the nicest hotel in the area, Volta Hotel, overlooking the famous dam that created the lake. The view thankfully distracted us from the slow crawl of the internet, too slow to post anything. The food was expensive but delivered great culinary satisfaction in the form of juicy hamburgers, fat sausages, and mounds of grilled peppers .

Back to the dock, we sweated out a couple hours wait before the “line” started forming for the boat. A line is relative thing in Ghana. If you can get in front of the next person (or there is a mere half inch of room available), you push yourself in, and don’t look back. I think it’s a bit rude, but like when I was a little girl waiting patiently for the slide and the bigger kids pushed me aside until my mom showed me to stand my ground, you only have to bully me once and I’ll elbow my way through with the best of em. Our backpacks were an effective tool to deflect would-be usurpers off balance as we battled through the line and once in front we were punished with a baggage fee on top of the 40 cedi ($29) fare for a cabin. On every form of transportation in Ghana, bags are charged extra fare, no exceptions.

The Yapei Queen was not what we envisioned at all for our journey up the Volta, and was actually an actively working and worse-for-the-wear cargo ship. I realized, this is what people mean when they say things like “traveling off the beaten track“. We rushed onboard with the crowd, the hull still bobbing in the water, past forklifts bearing down on us and high towers of wooden crates stacked precariously about. The whole ship seemed sinister and dangerous. Climbing rusty stairs so steep you are forced to use the disgusting disease-streaked hand rails. We made our way through cramped dining halls that would soon become makeshift dormitories and up onto the staff deck at the back of the ship, eager to see our “first-class” cabin.

Now whatever images of luxury that conjures up in your mind when you say adjectives like first-class has no direct bearing on reality in a cargo ship in the middle of nowhere in Africa. The only thing first-class about the room was that it had a door which proved to be a huge liability when we found out that the AC was broken, and we wished we were sleeping on the deck instead. In fact, we would have but all the space was already staked out by straw mats under strewn soundly sleeping bodies.
I scratched my head and asked, only half jokingly because I was slightly pissed, if we got a free beer for the inconvenience, and was told with a smile that the only thing I’ll get for free around here is ventilation if I opened the porthole window. I had to be thankful for the sarcastic wit, at least.

We watched a movie that night in our sweatbox with the door wide open and when we turned on the lights the spot on the ceiling opposite the laptop monitor had a mob of swarming insects that made me yelp, twitch, and shake all over. We would go to sleep and wake up in the same state: sweaty - itchy - physically unhappy with at least 12 more hours to go.

In the wheel house we were shown the key to the “washroom” though I never ventured to use it once because one of the only amenities we had was a working wash basin. You can put two and two together, but I’ll freely admit it, I peed in the sink three times. Sue me. I was not going to use the toilet ill maintained by a dozen sailors, all of whom male, which only meant one thing - it was disgustingly rank

We were told there would be plenty of food on board, and there was, but it was all traditional fare, cooked on the back of the ship in giant iron pots. The head chef was a women that looked like she stepped off the aunt jemima bottle, with a gap in her two front teeth that I only saw through a sneer as we tried to convey our food orders. We had crispy chicken and rice both days with an omelette sandwich and coffee in between, all of which was very good and very cheap. I couldn’t imagine what it was like working a ship kitchen for 18 hours in row. After our last meal, I went around and tipped her 1 cedi, and she gave me a broad, surprised and grateful smile.

The vast surroundings of blue water and green tree-line felt like the Pacific Northwest, and the lake was beautiful but it was a very sad thing to see all of the locals on board polluting it without a second thought. There must be a billion water sachet baggies sunk underneath. In fact, all over the country, people litter unconsciously, while Ron and I carry stuff around in vain looking for a trash can. Even if something goes in the trash there is little infrastructure to deal with it.

We were so glad to get off the boat, but not so much that we were landing in Yeji, a village so small it didn’t even have a guest room listed in our guide book. The captain pointed us towards a car from the Ahini Lodge, supposedly the best rooms in town, that he said, I kid you not, actually has running water and electricity. I can’t bear to think what the others were like, sharing a haystack with a goat family probably.

We were more than happy to escape the melee of the disembarkment and headed to our very passable room (which could have been anything after the first-class hellhole, even a haystack with a goat family) for the short night. An hour after getting in bed, I awoke startled to what I surely thought was artillery overhead but was only the rain pounding loudly on the sheet metal roof. Ah, I love the rain. And maybe tomorrow will be cooler…


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tro-tro to Atinpoku

It was sad to go but it was time. We had spent eleven nights at Milly’s and it was time to bite the bullet and try to navigate the country on our own. We took a taxi in to Accra and made the poor driver stop at five banks before we could withdrawal enough money for the next leg of our travels, either the machine was broken, it wouldn’t accept our card, or we could only withdraw fifty dollars each. Again, it was Barclay’s to the rescue.

We arrived at the tro-tro station that so daunted us the first morning we arrived in Ghana but this time had Mike as our guide. We bid him farewell on this trip to his families house in the Volta region and loaded our bags and ourselves on to the tro-tro. Soon we were surrounded by mobs of street sellers carrying their wares on their head (which is a quite ergonomic way to carry a heavy load): sachets of water, yam chips, gum, laundry detergent, toothpaste, ice cream, kola nuts, you name it. It’s a study in micro-economics as there are few stores as we know them to be, here the goods come to you.

We were smushed on board with every available space taken by person or various carry-on item going to or coming from the market. Microsoft Word does not believe that smushed is in the dictionary but I politely object, citing clown cars and now Ghanaian tro-tros as objects of evidence. Three people shared two person benches, as I misfortunately found myself wedged between Ron and a regal looking grandmother wrapped head-to-toe in bright orange and blue fabrics. My knees crushed into the seat in front of me. My feet, stuck at unnatural angles between a spare tire, a bucket of paint, and a large bowl of fresh fish, thankfully lost circulation after a few minutes, though my nose couldn‘t say the same thing (if it could talk). This was not a temporary inconvenience, as the ride lasted a full four hours. But I can safely say I will never ever complain about flying coach again. I never actually thought long distance travel could get worse, but oh boy can it, in a most tortuous and uncomfortable way. Give me a delayed 17 hour Southwest flight any day of the week and I’ll be happy as a lapcat sprawling out with the spacious leg room taking long, unnaturally deep inhalations of sweet pressurized air. Ahhhhhhh.

Arriving to Atinpoku in early evening, grateful we were still alive with most limbs still working and even our backpacks intact, we went in search of accommodation. Our fist pick, Aylo’s Bay, we knew was booked because we called in advance, so we tried a similar place down the road, it too was full, we learned with an unpleasant greeting by the receptionist, so we took a shared taxi a few kilometer further to Sound Rest Motel where I reprimanded the driver for trying to overcharge me and stuffed what I thought a fair price in his greedy hand before departing.

The guest house was basic but livable for two nights at an unbeatable price of 15 cedi ($10). Little did we know it should have been renamed [Loud] Sound [No] Rest Motel due to housing most of the local military presence that were up chattering about at 5am every morning outside our makeshift window. All over the North, they love the glass slat windows that don’t quite close all the way and are extraordinarily early risers so you are up bright and early with the locals, the sun, the roosters, and inevitably the woman sweeping the dirt path making soft shushing sounds with her broom. The next day on our walk back towards Atinpoku we saw two signs placed most ironically next to each other.

We went to Aylo’s Bay that I recommend on multiple levels - the seashell paths, the quaintness of the landscaped patio, the floating pontoons you can dine on, and of course the proximity to the Volta river. It was warm and humid, when we exuberantly waded out into the coolness of the river, scolding the wake boarders zooming by disturbing the glassiness of the waters surface. Damn obruni.

Afterwards, hammocking lazily and reading away the afternoon in a slow rock back and forth. We stayed for dinner, mostly more of the same continental fare but also sampled a local specialty of fried shrimps freshly fished from the lake. When we finished, the sun was down, the bugs were out en masse and we had a long, dark walk ahead of us.


Friday, September 18, 2009

No Last Words for the Rooster

It’s our last day in Kokrobite so our local friend Mike planned a dinner and bonfire for our departure. If we paid for the dinner supplies and wood, then he would cook up a feast and even haul all the wood out to the beach, which he did all morning long while we slept in, lazed around and drank coffee.

For dinner, we decided on the defacto standard Ghanaian dish of grilled chicken and jollof rice, with the live chicken supplied from a woman’s coop a few houses down. It was bound to be the freshest bird we ever ate.

Mike’s landlord was hired (for around $3) to kill and clean the chicken while we stood in awe and finally understood the idiom “running around like a chicken with its head cut off”. I was less traumatized than I thought I would be, unlike the Great Chicken Kill of 1980 when my grandma from Oklahoma came and killed all my pet-chickens and cooked them up for Thanksgiving dinner.

We captured the entire scene on video replete with the gory details of the bloody jerking neck pipe that seemed to still be breathing as the wings flapped madly in final death throes. Watch at your own risk, especially for all of our vegetarian friends who will agree, what a cruel, medieval practice it is of big critters eating little critters. It certainly made us think twice, never really knowing what took place before it was a perfectly plump vacuum packed butterball in the grocery store window. But we couldn’t exactly turn down dinner now, could we? At some point, you are past the point of no return.

It was getting dark while the chicken smoked on the grill and the boys sipped Mandingo, a noxious red liquor that looks and tastes like cheap cough syrup with the rampant rumor that the MAN in Mandingo gives you energy like Viagra. Sorry folks, I can’t deny or confirm this rumor, my lips are sealed. Finally it was too dark too see so we bribed an electrician (another $3) to come fix Mike’s lights which turned out to be a single bare blue-hued bulb inside that offered us little help. Ron donned his super cool headlamp to finish cooking up the jollof rice. Dinner was certainly fresh, I could say that, but the bird was a tough and chewy, the rice a tad undercooked, which was disappointing given all the hours of painstaking preparation.

A little boy from next door came over to watch our activities. Timid at first, we won him over after a couple hours, giving him butterscotch candy and rides on Ron’s shoulders.

We headed back to Milly’s to catch the end of another Saturday night drum performance, and then out to the beach to start the bonfire. We brought the coconuts from Salomey that were a big hit and gone in less than 60 seconds. So fast, neither of us got one! Nevertheless, we were perfectly content, relaxing by the fire, listening to the impromptu drumming and singing carried off by the ocean breeze. I filled a shot of Mandingo for each of the drummers, kind enough to drag out their drums so we could have music.

The night was only spoiled by those asking for more booze or donations or whatever they thought they can get since someone else is paying. I think we did make a couple real friends during our stay at Kokrobite (out of several dozen hanger-ons) despite the fact we were giant walking-talking dollar signs to most everyone we encountered. The fire died down with the droopiness of our eyelids and we retired for the last night in our little hut by the beach.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Visiting Salomey in Her Village

If you have not read my previous post on Salomey, I will recap some of the background. I have been sponsoring Salomey, a girl of 15, and exchanging letters with her for over 6 years through Plan International, an organization that supports community development through child sponsorship. My monthly membership fee of $29 goes to the village to build schools, dig wells, and provide health and immunization services. Plan allows in-person visits and graciously picked us up in Kokrobite to chaperone us to Salomey’s village (a two hour journey) for the day.

In a little village called Ahentia outside the town Badjiase in the Central Region, is Salomey’s family home. A family home is a walled compound or group of nearby houses shared by the extended family from children to parents to grandparents. Everyone in the family grows up together and grandmothers take a very active roll in childrearing so you often see small children swaddled to their backs with decorative cloths, leaving their hands free to work. The children are very well behaved here, probably because they grow up never often apart from the warmth of mother or grandmother, though I hear sometimes the fabric loosens unexpectedly and the child falls head first to the ground. Future psychological issues aside, tt seems ingenious.

I saw Salomey sneaking a peek at us from behind the house as we got out of the car. She was shy and nervous, just like us, for our long awaited meeting. We smiled and hugged briefly and sat in white plastic patio chairs in a circle, trying to steal a little shade from the sun in the thatch overhang of the roof. It seemed like her whole family was in attendance: her mother Vivienne, older and younger sisters, grandmother with young baby cousin on her back, grandfather, uncle and various other cousins. Her father is not a part of the village, leaving mom and kids several years back in what I surmised as a bitter divorce.

The first few moments were a little awkward as we were all warming to each other. Salomey had written some questions for me. The first was, “How is your mother?” I had sent her a picture of me and my mom that she proudly showed to me. It appeared worn around the edges, like it was taken out and looked at many times over the years. As I talked about my mother, I knew she had a similar bond with her own and this was something we shared. Daughters and mothers, all over the world. She also asked “What color is the sand in America?” which was heartbreaking in its simplicity, as if America could have been on the moon or another planet altogether.

She was wearing the dress from the fabric and materials I sent her once and I got the full story. Her aunt, a seamstress, sewed it for her. When she was younger, she looked up to her aunt and naturally it seemed a good profession for a young woman. But as she has gotten a few years older her ambition is to become a nurse. How noble I thought. Or more importantly, how useful. She would be in demand in her own village or anywhere in Ghana she chose. In a place where you see deliberate knife scars on the faces of people who were “treated” for illness as a child (anything from convulsions, measels, or pneumonia) you know that modern medicine is in dire need.

She had just finished junior high school and was awaiting her exam scores. If her marks are high enough, she will receive a scholarship through Plan to high school for three more years. I got a few differing numbers on how many receive scholarships but it sounds pretty competitive. She thought she did well, her favorite subject being English, and if her near perfect grammar is any indication, she may just get one! After high school, she will also need to go on to vocational training in nursing for a number of years. Here, the competition is really fierce to get a free ride and few people I spoke to sounded hopeful that it could happen, maybe for fear of having too high of hopes. Without a scholarship school fees can be over 100 cedi/term or $70. This doesn’t sound like much but considering a lot of families live with less than that per month, its serious money to them, and the reason so many youths never make it to high school or beyond.

We presented the family with our gifts. Plan has rules over what we could bring. Nothing too expensive, no money, and we couldn’t exchange phone numbers or addresses. These are all things meant to keep confidentiality for the child and harmony within the village. We asked some friends about traditional gifts when you are invited to a Ghanaian home, so we brought a large burlap sack of rice and liter of cooking oil for Salomey’s mother, which we brought in Ron’s shoulder bag (that he traded for a backpack in Paris) and then gave it to Salomey as more of an afterthought. She was so happy to receive it, although her real gift was a pair of gold flower earrings with cubic zirconia centers I bought at Macy’s, that I suddenly felt bad we gave her an obviously used bag. She didn’t seem to notice or care and put it on to model for her family and the others in the community that wandered over to say hello. We thought we would see a lot of children so we brought some Tom-Tom candies but ended up passing them around to the group we had around us.

The family asked if we wanted a coconut to drink and I jumped at the chance, never having tried a fresh one right off the tree before. Salomey hacked open coconuts with a giant curved tip sword like she had probably done it a thousand times before. More kids with sharp instruments, I thought. They offered us a straw, but the traditional way is to sip it from the shell, a nature made cup. The milk was clear and would have been sweet and delicious if not for the licorice candy still in my mouth, ruining the taste.

Then it was time to tour the village. We met the chief, Nai Whyette who presided over the village. He was dressed in a traditional gown with the coolest sandals I’ve ever seen, all black lacquered and shiny. As protocol dictates we sat in a circle and did two rounds of introductions. First us, the guests, shaking their hands in a counterclockwise order and then sitting. Then the chief and other men (including Salomey’s uncle and grandfather who accompanied us) got up and shook all of our hands similarly before sitting down. The chief then asked our mission, which was to be permitted to visit the village and spend time with Salomey and her family. The chief wished us well and thanked us for our donations to the community through Plan. Then Ron rose and handed him our traditional offering, a bottle of schnapps aptly labeled “for kings” that looked more expensive than it was (at 5 cedi or $3.50) in a sealed box. He was very pleased and even went so far as to say he hoped we would return to the village again and that he would give us land to build on!

Next we visited a nearby elementary school that Plan built. We met the teachers and toured the library which housed at most 100 books, but in which they were quite proud. You aren’t allowed to check out the books like our libraries but if you bring your own chair you can read any available book during library hours. We walked the grounds, and hiked a ways behind the school to a watermelon garden planted that season by the children. Once harvest comes, they sell the watermelon’s and the proceeds are fed back in to the school.

Passing back by the school we were greeted by the children. All the smiling little faces peering out from the windows looking at the obruni, maybe for the first time. A wave gets a hundred enthusiastic returns. We even got to go inside a kindergarten class and listen to their lessons made from songs and rhythmic clapping between the teacher and students. Dance and musical talents are cultivated early and are a way of life not a mere elective.

We returned to Salomey’s family house and however difficult, now was the time for goodbyes. We had Plan translate to the family our thanks for having us to their home and that we wanted to remain in touch through letters, even after Salomey turns 18 and is no longer eligible for Plan. I told Vivienne to keep her safe and healthy. She sent us off with a dozen coconuts and Salomey followed us to the car for a long goodbye, two hugs, and nearly tears at our departure. It may be the only time I ever see her (though I hope not) so the enormity of our visit was felt by us all. Standing on a dusty road across from the mud hut she calls her home in that bright flower print dress, she beamed one last smile at us.

It struck me as we were leaving just how poor her family lived. They didn’t have anything to speak of and I‘m sure they were living hand to mouth, the grandmother rearing chickens, and the mother selling fried cassava snacks. It’s a hard life, without too many opportunities knocking on your door. In some cases, not even a door to knock on. Therefore no way out. I have a secret I can’t share with you here for all the world to see. But I promise you that Salomey will be going to school, as she had promised me under her breath and in her eyes when we departed. And someday, she’ll even become a nurse and heal the sick in her village and be respected by her community as an educated and caring woman that I know she will be. She’s the only child I have (however remotely it may be) and I care for her future as deeply as any children I hope to have myself.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Canoe Trip in Bortianor

One night we had beers with Damian, the Australian owner of Bahdoosh, the new hotel next door. He was a funny, sarcastic chap that had a lot of great stories about life, travels, and living in Ghana. The next day we walked over to his place and had delicious burgers (lacking only a real burger bun) and fries in his restaurant situated right smack on the beach.

His business partner, nicknamed Small, offered guided canoe trips in a nearby village. The details of the arrangement were severely strained due the fact we could barely understand his heavily accented English. At times I didn’t know if we were making any headway as the same question would yield wildly different responses, but somehow we managed to agree on something and the next day headed out.

It was a lovely sunny day that wasn’t too hot and we walked through his village nodding to the incoherent tidbits of information he told us. We rented a canoe for a couple cedi and carefully yet clumsily climbed aboard without tipping everything over. We passed by many types of fish and crab traps, their wooden frames poking out of the water. Overhead birds hunted, spotting a fish through the clear water and dive bombing down for a quick snack.

We landed on an island that housed a fishing village that was “on vacation” this month. The work ethic of most Ghanaians is astounding, as they work some twelve hour days with no days off to rest. This is especially true of the small-time market sellers but we even noticed our hotel staff worked from sunrise to well into the night. So it was nice to hear these fisherman taking a month off every year, more vacation than some people get back home!

Meandering along the narrow stretch of beach, a new resort is being constructed adding a stark contrast to the fishing village next door.

We headed back to the village, picking up a couple passengers that needed a lift along the way, which is the proper thing to do. The sense of community is very tangibly realized here as you soon learn when someone digs their hand into your bowl for a taste of what you‘re eating. Sharing is expected. We visited Small’s family home and more facts to which we dutifully smiled and nodded. Altogether a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

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