Friday, September 30, 2005

My Tunnel Friends

Near our house is a one lane tunnel that crosses under the motorway and comes out on Spintex Road- a main drag for us. The tunnel is manned during the day by men with reflective green vests and red flags and they do a good job of moving traffic through the tunnel one direction at a time. Every once in a while you will see a car ahead of you drive by the men with a hand out the car window to give them a small gratuity for their service (usually a 500 cedi coin or a 1,000 cedi note- that would be a nickel or a dime). We did not know about this practice for the first month or so, although in retrospect it seems pretty brainless of us not to have realized. But even before we learned about the tipping, we were treated to cheerful recognition by both men each time we passed through the tunnel.

The man on the west side of the tunnel is a young guy- mid 20s- with shoulder length dreadlocks and a constant smile. He keeps up a patter with each car that passes him, and whenever I go by he yells "Ameri-CA!" and waves and gives me that 100 watt smile. The man on the east side is older (age is difficult to gauge here, sometimes), and much more subdued, but he smiles for me nonetheless and each time I pass he yells "British Mama!" (I am Mama or Madame to all strangers here). How they each decided on my nationality I have no idea other than their guess based on my skin tone, and traffic is so busy at the tunnel I doubt I'll ever be able to slow enough to find out their names even though Cooper has asked me to do that. We mostly just make sure that we have coins in the car to give out on a regular basis.

At night, the same tunnel becomes a dangerous place. No one mans the entrances, so there is danger from oncoming cars, but unfortunately it's also an attraction for criminals after dark so we just don't use it then.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Wildlife, in our yard.

Lizards! We have a lifetime supply! They are all the same type, but they come in every size possible from about 2 inches to about 15 inches. The males have orange heads and orange or yellow tail tips. The females can change their color to blend in with their surroundings (or at least they think so- the closest they can get to our yellow walls is a pale pinkish hue). Anytime we walk outside we scatter a half dozen lizards that had been lounging in the sun or shade or hanging out on the walls. We watch them on the pool surround - heads bobbing in warning to other males and as they play spirited games of "King of the Curb" and chase each other onto and off of the curbing by the back door.

The dogs think they are great toys. The large ones are uncatchable (thank heaven), but the smallest ones are unfortunately too inexperienced and too slow to dodge the friendly paws that come their way. Elliot habitually smacks each one with a paw to ask it to play and then wanders off in disappointment when it just lies there (newly dead) and won't respond. Thankfully he only sees the tiny ones if they are in the house where we would just as soon not have a steady stream of lizards, so it isn't all bad, but if we see them first, we catch them and let them go outdoors. Cody Bill likes to watch them- chasing them would require thought and energy, neither of which he has in any appreciable amount, so they are kind of like his television. He just watches them for entertainment and then takes a nap.

Since they eat insects, we are very happy to be Lizard Central because now that we live in equatorial Africa, the fewer insects in our yard the better. :-)

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Adventures in Technology

Well! I've been gone for a few days. Where did I go you ask? Short jaunt through the Third World. :-)

Saturday night we lost our internet connection. This afternoon (Wednesday) we got it back. In between we did a lot of useless things starting with switching the modem off and on, calling the ISP who told us to switch the modem off and on, and then calling the ISP back, at which time they stopped answering the phone.

Monday, from the office, Ted emailed the ISP. No response. Tuesday he got cranky and managed to get some personal cell phone numbers of the people we needed to talk to. Then he passed the potato to me since I'm here with the equipment, and I called the technician who had originally hooked up our connection. He told me to turn the modem off and on. I did. He checked our connection from his end, told me I didn't have one, and asked if he might come to the house and fix it.


Oh well, what's one more day?

So today they came. And now we are fixed.

For the time being.

Actually, we really like our ISP- they are called Third Rail (most Twi speakers in Ghana are unable to pronounce the 'th' dipthong, so they substitute 't'- so Theodore becomes Tee-odore, Earth becomes Ert, etc. Imagine our childish glee when they first answered their telephones "Hello, Turd Rail!"), and they are very up to date and knowledgeable, but they are stretched so thin for staff that you could read a newspaper through them, and they are on the go all day every day. Our original hookup came when the technician showed up at our house at 9:30PM on a Friday night. Our first hiccup was fixed on a Sunday. So when they don't answer our calls, we don't take it personally.

In order to provide us with broadband internet, they erected a mast with some tile thingies on our roof and pointed it at the University of Ghana which is just across the hilltop from us. This mast sways alarmingly in the wind, but it is bolted to the house in three places and cabled to the roof in two more. We'll see what happens when the seasonal winds (the Harmattan from North Africa) kick up in December, January, and February. So we have the fastest connection available in Accra- seriously faster than other ISP's dial up here- on good days (and at 3AM- that's when I download pictures!) we manage about 256kps, but still not the screaming DSL we had in Houston. So we just pretend it's 1991 and we are back in California when we marveled at our 28.8kps dial up connection.

Bottom line, if I disappear like I did the last few days- never fear! We are probably just in the middle of another trek through the Turd World. I mean Third World. :-)

Friday, September 16, 2005

Odds and Ends

On the list of things I'm not sure you know, I'll put that we don't have mail delivery. There is no mail delivery to homes- if you want mail you must get a post office box to use. It's kind of nice not to have to check the mail and especially nice not to get junk mail. When we have a bill come due (water, electricity, garbage, etc.) they send someone around to the house and leave it at the gate with the security guard, who brings it to the house.

Now, the security for our house. That takes a little getting used to, at least for us. We have 24 hour security- two shifts of twelve hours each, one guy on days, two guys on nights. When we come and go, they open and close the gates, if someone comes to the house they speak with them outside the gate and then accompany them to the house if they have legit business. Most of the time they just hang out, though. Expats in Accra with few exceptions, and quite a few Ghanaians, have 24 hour guards. Most people have a house-specific set of rules to suit their family, but we have only two rules:

1. Use the bathroom in the boys' quarters (otherwise they'd just pee on the wall)
2. Make sure the dogs aren't outside before they open the gates.

It's strange to have people at your house all the time though. The guards try their best to be invisible and they are very kind and friendly, but having someone around all the time is a weird feeling. We are intensely private people, and we have had to get used to having our movements and habits noted by the guards and Mac, our 'outside man'.

We also don't have landline phone service. Our neighborhood simply doesn't have phone lines available, so we don't have one. We use my cell phone as the main house line- and we don't need an answering machine here because the house phone is always with me! The cell service here can be spotty, but it's fairly reliable, all things considered. Once we leave here, if you are talking to me on the phone and we get disconnected, don't be surprised if I don't call back just out of habit- we have gotten very used to being cut off and if the conversation has covered the important points already, we just leave it at that!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Yesterday in the Third World...

Sometimes I get whipped back to reality after a quiet week in our tidy little house.

I spent part of last week trying, unsuccessfully, to get tickets for our vacation in October to Europe. Thing is, booking online (the only way we have traveled for more than ten years) is not something you can do from here. Expedia, Orbitz, and any number of 'international' online booking sites simply won't let you begin your trip in Africa. So Tuesday morn I went to individual airlines sites- KLM and British Airways fly from Accra regularly. B.A. wouldn't deal with me unless I began my trip at a UK airport, and KLM wouldn't sell me a ticket unless I showed up at the airport with cash (and this is a buttload of cash, remember).

I decided to go to the airport and see if they would book me and take my MasterCard once they saw it was a U.S. card (it's stolen African cards/numbers they are wary of). The kind lady in the info booth at Kotoka International told me that contrary to the website claim that KLM is open at the airport from 8:30 to 3:30, they are actually there only from 2PM to 3PM- coincidentally, just when our driver has to be on the road to pick Cooper up from school. Not an insurmountable problem, but since I wasn't sure they would take my MasterCard anyway, I moved on to plan C...

Local travel agents. I found three. The first dealt only with corporate accounts, the second two booked only tours within Africa. Plan D...

Ted's admin gave me the name and number of the travel guy who handles some of their bookings. I called him, explained what I needed (in my incomprehensible American accent) and finally got him to understand, at which point he asked if I would email him the details. Sure! says I, and after he gave me his email address (a painfully slow, mistake ridden exercise in Twi/English/American accented attempts to convey individual letter sounds), I hung up and began my email to him.

Type-ity type type ty....whoops! The power's off. Oh well. We have a UPS on the computer- no problem. Save mail, power down, wait patiently. The power hasn't ever been off for more than 45 minutes.

Cut to me, four hours later. No power. Fridge warming up. Okay, time to start the generator. This is easy- go to generator, open door, push button with picture of hand on it, and voila! Except we haven't used the generator for weeks and weeks- we usually just do without for the short times we are without power- and the battery is dead. Dead deader deadest. Plan E...

[By this time, I have unconsciously started singing the Eagles "Hotel California" to myself, ' can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave...'.]

So I call the really swell people at the generator place and the technician shows up in about an hour, bless his heart. He checks my generator, changes out the battery, we fire it up- voila! Yippee! I throw the switch that moves our power supply from the city to the generator and my house is once again powered up. I sit down at the computer, turn it on, and... the internet is down. Off, offer, offest. Sigh. I am out of plans. I decide to stop fighting my environment and just quit trying to do anything. This works very well, and I finish my novel. After all, Scarlett, tomorrow is another day.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Ghana DMV!

Ted and I both have our Ghanaian driver's licenses, (although I haven't driven a car since I took the Trooper to CarMax on June 11 and sold it!). We got international driver's licenses because they are valid in all the countries we plan to visit, including Ghana, but apparently if we get pulled over here and don't have a local license, it can be an excuse to hassle us.

Our driver, Duke, who has been so incredibly helpful in so many ways helping us assimilate in our new home took Ted in to the Accra license bureau first, then took me in the next week. The place is mostly open air- offices that open directly onto outside corridors, payment windows with jalousies opening onto the same type corridors, tons of people, and much confusion.

I arrived armed with a copy of my passport, a copy of my driver's license from the U.S. - front and back all on one page, four passport sized pictures, and ¢62,000 (about $6.75). Since I have a valid license, I didn't need to take a test, just pay a fee, so Duke and I started in an office where a man perused my documents, and gave us a form. We moved to an open area where people were waiting to take the written test and I filled out the form (pretty standard name address etc.). Then we took that form to a payment window and a woman stamped it and took a passport photo to attach to it and took ¢2000. Then we went to a different, but identical office and a different but identical bureaucrat looked at my form and crossed out information I had filled in that he didn't need, got out a book of forms and instructed the air around his head to sign here (point), here (point), here (point) and here (point), and then handed it to Duke, who handed it to me (although I had been sitting directly next to the man the entire time) and I signed, here, here, here and here.

I gave the man back his book and he produced more paper, instructing the air where to sign, handing it to Duke, who handed it to me, and I signed.

Then he stamped and validated and verified, then nailed another of my photos to a smaller form and took ¢60000 and explained to Duke about the mechanics of this, my temporary license, and how long it would take for my permanent to arrive. Duke checked with a look to make sure I was clear, then we left.

On a funnier note- one of the expats was having trouble getting a license here and Duke volunteered to go with her the next day- the official, having seen Duke three times with expats, got very angry and yelled at Duke, telling him not to come back, EVER, and quit helping the Obroni (local word for 'foreigner') through the process because it was damaging his side income (this third expat had been told the previous day that her fee would be ten times the norm). Duke remained calm, gave the man ¢5000 (about 60 cents) and the man immediately became friendly and revoked Duke's ban from the license bureau. Snort.

So I can drive, if I develop a desire to engage in the demolition derby that is Accra traffic. We'll see. ;-)

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Shopping the African Way (Kind of)

First, groceries. Getting them here is very easy- although it can take a few side trips to get all that you need. There are a couple of fairly large "supermarkets", large being a relative term. Koala and MaxMart are both run by Lebanese families, catering to strangers in a strange land, although there are a number of Africans who shop there too.

The floor space for the groceries is about the size of your neighborhood Walgreen's, and they have groceries from all over the world, although I often can't read the product label- it could be in Farsi, French, Italian- you name it, and many times there just isn't any information in English. When there isn't even a picture, it would be like buying those "mystery" cans in the States with no labels, except here you still have to pay full price. Ha!

As I've said before, we can get some American products for a premium, but the only ones we buy regularly are cereal- it's not something Ghanaians eat so our only choices are imported from the U.S. and the U.K. and there's no alternative if you want Cheerios or Raisin Bran, which Ted does. Well, that and Coca Cola- which we get in bottles here and 24 of 'em cost me about $6- the advantage of having a local Coca Cola bottler.

Beer is a steal! The local brew (or at least one of them and our current favorite) is Star beer- and bottles of that cost us half what the Coke does. Woohoo! We lament that we never developed a taste for Guinness- you can get 12 bottles of that stuff for just a little over $2. Don't ask me how.

Dog food is a huge deal for us. For starters there is very little selection, and the dogs hate all of it except the Pedigree, which is garbage and STILL costs $45 for what would be a $10 bag in the U.S.. So, being good dog owners, but not complete idiots, we buy them local dog food which still costs us $21 for the $10 equivalent, and add in a bag of Pedigree "Mixer" that is supposed to be an additive for canned feeding but which we use to disguise the crappy dog food. They are not fooled. To make it even more fun the food comes in small bags- small enough that they are only a three day supply for all 150 pounds worth of dogs, so we end up buying bags and bags of dog food at one time to avoid having to run to the store for more every third day. Probably should change the term "Dog Lovers" to "Suckers", at least for this family. It is great fun to have them here though, and if I had it to do all over again, I'd still bring them. Like I said: Suckers.

We get our produce from roadside vendors, mostly. Bananas, pineapples, potatoes, avocados, and carrots for sure. The avocados are huge but a little stringy and when they are ripe they have a very different feel here, as I found out after peeling a few and finding them nowhere near ripe yet. The pineapples, however, are perfectly ripe and sweet when their prickly outsides are still deep dark green, which also took me a few tries to get down. Practice practice practice. The good people of Idaho will be thrilled to learn that there really is a distinct taste and texture to Idaho Potatoes, one I never noticed until I couldn't get them anymore. The bad news is, of course, that after three months, I like the potatoes here just fine and don't need my Idaho bakers anymore. Whoops!

We are trying local foods as we can, but unfortunately our palates aren't as adaptable as we could hope- kenkey and fufu are two staples that Ghanaians eat every day and for us they are inedible. Kenkey is made from corn somehow, but it resembles corn not at all when they are done with it, and tastes kind of, well, rotten. Fufu is like a thing to sop up your juicy food and soup with and isn't meant to be chewed, just swallowed, get the picture. It's comfort food for Ghanaians, but I think you have to be born to it. At least we do. We are still exploring local foods though, and I'll let you know what we find.

As far as household goods, we go native! There is a huge store called Melcom that my Grandma would have called a 'Sundries' store. We are usually the only white people there, with a few exceptions, but they have everything your heart desires (within reason) for a fraction of the cost at the stores that cater to Europeans. Plasticware, glassware, rugs, towels, clocks, lightbulbs- all that little stuff it takes to make a house run. If you can't find it at Melcom, then you can go to Accra Central. This is, basically, downtown. It's pure mayhem, and we don't drive ourselves there because it's a free for all demolition derby on fairly narrow streets, but Duke takes us there in our car. We park in the one parking lot which fills quickly on weekends with cars parked in every square inch of space- often blocking the exit for cars around it- for about 45 cents for however long you want to be gone. There are lot attendants who will help you squeak out of your parking space, and who do a pretty good job of matching up the people who will be gone for a long time and the people who are just running in to a store real quick.

Anyway, from the car park you can negotiate the sidewalks and/or dodge traffic to get to just about any kind of store you want- appliances, tennis shoes, furniture, electronics, clothing, dry goods, toys- each in their own narrow store, each extending back half a city block. In addition, there are vendors on the sidewalk- food, water, backpacks, cloth, art- and thousands of people all headed somewhere besides the direction you are going. It's a mad crush and we LOVE it! It reminds us of some of the shopping alleys in Hong Kong. Normally we hate crowds and avoid them pretty compulsively, but for some reason this sea of people and activity in Accra Central calls to us and we go whenever we think we think we can justify it. Often we are among the only white people there, too, and I think that is part of the draw for us- we came to live in Africa, not a Disney version set up for Europeans, so we like being in the places where Africans are, doing what Africans normally do, and getting a feel and taste and smell of life here.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Carrying Things the African Way

Among the thousands of pedestrians in Accra, an easy 40% of them are carrying something on their head. It's the coolest thing and makes me green with envy, both at the effortless way it's done and the excellent posture it ensures. Most, but not all, use a pad between their burden and their heads- twist a cloth or t-shirt into a rope, then coil it around itself in a circle about 5 inches wide, then tuck the loose end into the coil and place it on your head. Men, women, children- anyone with a load to carry makes uses their head. I'm sure I could give my neighbors a good chuckle practicing this myself, but I've spent so much time in the last three months being clueless and looking foolish, I think I won't go looking for new opportunities just yet. :-)

We have seen the most amazing things being carried on heads around here- huge wooden boxes with glass windows filled with meat pies, gigantic metal basins full of individual plastic bags of water, and every kind of food imaginable. Imagine a tray full of boiled peanuts, in the shell, all stacked up facing the same way, as the tray bearer darts among the stopped traffic at an intersection, bending to see into the cars, selling the peanuts, and making change, all without dropping a single nut. It's a thing of beauty, I tell ya.

And no one in Ghana carries a baby or toddler on their hip. I am so ticked off that I didn't know about this when Cooper was little (and HEAVY!)- they carry their small children on their backs, wrapped snugly with a long cloth that holds them tight to their mothers with their feet sticking straight out (it's all you can see of them when their Moms walk toward you) and their arms either popping out the top or secured inside with the rest of their bodies. 90% of these children are sound asleep and look so happy and content. I even saw a Dad with one tonight on the way to dinner. It's simple and ingenious. And about ten years too late for me. Maybe with my grandchildren....

Friday, September 02, 2005

Around the house...

I just realized I haven't told you guys about a lot of the basic stuff! Here's a rundown on life at home...

We have individual water heaters for every occasion. One for each shower or bath, one for the washing machine, one for the kitchen sink. Each of these heaters needs to be switched on (wall switch) at least 15 minutes before you need it, and then switched off when you are done. This sounds easy. It isn't. ;-) At least for us. The closest I have come to routinely remembering is to turn on the kitchen one when I start to cook. So I can do every dish, pan, fork and knife by hand in the sink! It's like living at The Lake again! Except not just for the summer. We have started to get a routine down, though. We all clear the table and Coop and Ted put away the previous day's dishes (which we just let sit and air dry overnight) and any leftover food while I wash and stack the dinner dishes and any others that have collected throughout the day. It works pretty good, and by the time we are through here it will run like clockwork I'm sure. And I'll have terminal dishpan hands.

Now, electricity is a more capricious matter. We have been very lucky so far with our power supply, but when it does go out, we use the generator. It's basically a Mack Truck without the wheels and cool seats. We can start it with a button push (there is a key but just to lock the door that covers the button!), and once it's running, we have a big honking lever we throw on the back porch by the laundry room that shifts power from the house supply to the generator. Next to the generator is a big old tank with 250 gallons o' diesel fuel in it. So we are set, come what may. Truth be told, we usually don't bother with the generator when the power goes off- it isn't off for very long most of the time, and the only real concern is the fridge- if it's off for more than an hour, we have to fire up the power for that- this is the equator (or as good as) after all!

Life with indoor dogs and no carpeting is...interesting. We are aghast that Elliot has any hair left on his body since it seems like we have swept enough off the floor to make three sweaters and an afghan! We have lovely shiny tile floors that are much the same color as Elliot, bless his little canine heart, and I have a very nice micro fiber dust mop that I run over the whole house. It takes at least five "trips" around the house to catch all the dog hair and run it out the back porch and over the railing. I also have a really good slanty broom, a regular straw broom, a dustpan and whisk, a sea sponge wet mop, and a small vacuum- each of which has its own place in trying to keep our African floors in a livable condition. I will never swear at my wall to wall carpet again!

As for temperature control, we have individual air conditioning units in each room (two for the living room). This is pretty standard here- they are wall mounted on the inside and run from AC units that are wired up outside the house. So each A/C is high on the wall inside and directly behind it, on the ground, outside, is a small motor/condenser unit. It's very civilized- each unit has a remote control that fits in a wall mounted holder and controls the fan speed, temperature, and vent tilt. It's easy to close off any room you don't want air conditioned and just run the ones that are needed, and because of the house configuration, we can keep the bedrooms icy cold at night without shutting our doors and not lose much cooling to the rest of the house.

As for water, we are piped to the city supply. The dogs drink tap water, we don't. It's good for cooking if you boil or nuke things, and we brush our teeth with it because we are just that kind of wild and crazy people. The city water goes off and on at its own whim, no warning, no rhythm so at any given time we need to turn on the pump that is wired up to the house and will give us water from our 800 gallon water tank (this can require starting the generator if the power supply decides to be whimsical at the same time) and provides us with water during lean times from the city supply. Any time the water is on from the city the tank refills, and so far we haven't had to buy water for the tank although apparently some families have to buy it all the time. Perhaps we don't wash enough. :-)

Our windows, like all windows in houses here, have iron bars that accordian open and closed. They have keys to lock them closed along with iron bar gates on all the exterior doors that are keyed or padlocked. We don't close any of our iron bars- doors or windows. We are apparently alone in that practice among the expats in Ted's office, but we honestly can't get too worried about it. We have 8 foot cement walls around our entire yard, razor wire on top of those, a guard house with 24 hour guards (two at night!) and more yard lights than a Kroger parking lot, so we just take our chances and live dangerously. Violent crime here is almost nil- the big threat, and hence the razor wire, is theft. Anything left "lying around" - even inside my locked house, is apparently fair game for a certain number of people here, but as I said- with the walls, razor wire, and guards, it just doesn't seem like we need to live cowering behind iron bars to boot, so we don't. When we go on vacation we intend to lock things up pretty good- although we have keys for every single door in the house (this means the closets, the bathrooms, EVERYthing), and probably won't bother with those...Ha!