Saturday, October 29, 2005

Generator Tales

So, whatever smugness I felt at having a fairly reliable power supply has been well and truly run over by the Karma Bus. :-)

For the last two weeks, not only has the power been as likely to be off as on, when it is on, it is shy and tends to run the voltage scale from about 80 to 180- never approaching the 220/240 power supply we are theoretically suppose to have.

Cue the generator (note Old Faithful and his tank o' diesel in picture!). What a buncha babies we are. One night Coop and I had been reading and doing homework by mood lighting for a romantic restaurant- you know, bulbs that say 75 watts, but due to voltage fluctuations, wiring phase brownouts, etc. have been reduced to dim glows under lampshades. Much like sundown, you don't really notice that you are trying to read or work closer and closer to the light source until you bump into the lamp. But we soldiered on, not really caring, having long since shut down the uninterruptible power source for the computer so it would stop beeping at us and telling us the end of the world was near and it had only X minutes of power left before it shut down the whole shootin' match in a fit of pique.

But then we realized that since we were seriously starting to need our lights, Ted would be home soon and we should be thinking about dinner. No problemo! We troop into the kitchen only to notice that part of the wiring phase-out we were having included the kitchen AC and the plug where the microwave is- still no problemo! We'll just move the microwave over to the poolside window- there's a plug there that is on a different phase and still has power. We move the micro, chuck in the frozen snap beans, and watch as it struggles to light the light bulb inside while turning the little glass tray approximately one rpm, and making a horrible wounded elephant sound instead of the steady hum of microwaves bouncing off the little compartment.

Well that tore it. Fire up the generator, kiddo! There's only so much we can stand. And of course once the generator comes on, we are blinded by the sudden barrage of full wattage lights all over the house and deafened by the new rattle and hum of previously quiet appliances whose surge protectors and voltage regulators have shut down or been put into standby until things smooth out.

Cut to later, things have calmed down, our power needs are minimal, we have shut down the generator again and spent a nice evening in Africa. About thirty minutes after bedtime, the power goes off. Ha! We don't care, we are sleepy, we are comfy, and we don't need no stinkin' air conditioners! It may be 85 degrees outside at midnight, but inside, we are coasting on the cool breeze of recently running air conditioners. Then we wake up three hours later, on soggy sheets, sweatin' like the big babies we are. Vroooom! Thank god for generators!

After a day or so of the usual fluctuations we are getting ready for bed again, and suddenly the AC in our room beeps (that means it's either going on, off, or someone has moved the temperature setting up or down). In this case, it means the AC is going off, and in a spectacular fashion that can only happen when the voltage drops precipitously and freaks out the compressor in the unit, setting off all three function lights at once, making them blink, and causing a plaintive Help Me! beep to come from the vent holes at regular intervals. The only way to fix this is to shut the AC off at the wall switch which resets it, but since we have a unit in each room, plus three in the living/dining room, this is lot of lights and beeping and general chaos. We reset all the ACs. We go back to the bedroom and prepare to go to bed.

Beep. Beepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeepbeep. Rock paper scissors to see who gets to fire up the Mack Truck without wheels.

The following day we still had so little actual power to the house we left the generator on until almost dark when the voltage level revived enough to turn it off. The day after THAT, we had no power at all and ran the generator for almost 24 hours straight. Whew! When that Karma Bus comes through, it comes full speed!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Oh Say, Can You See?

It's not uncommon to see the American flag being flown in Accra. Usually outside a hotel hoping to cater to international travelers. The Cresta Hotel where we stayed while we waited for our stuff to come by ship is a nice modern hotel with lots of creature comforts and friendly staff. Outside they have a bank of flagpoles that display, every day, the flags of eight or ten nations. The flags are taken down each night and replaced each morning. Two days out of seven, the American flag is put on the pole upside down. We joke that on those days the Cresta is "in distress" (an upside down flag being the signal for oceangoing boats in distress). I haven't got the heart to tell them it's upside down, since they are kind enough to even put it out to welcome us, but maybe someone else will clue them in.

Down the road from the Cresta is the Shang-ri-La Hotel. Their flag is even funnier. They apparently thought there was a lack of definition in the original U.S. flag, so when they got theirs, they had it made with thirteen stripes and...16 stars. Granted, those stars are much easier to identify, and don't look so busy, but those four rows of four fat stars sure catch your eye as you drive down Liberation Road.

I'm going to start really looking at the flags we pass from now on- I expect I've been missing some good chuckles.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Stormy Weather

The weather here is very changeable. Hourly. And it isn't uncommon to have rain in the front yard and not the back yard. Note the picture. This was from a storm that blew through Monday afternoon after a very sunny morning. It had some lightning and thunder but mostly big fat gusts of wind and these roiling clouds that are only partially done justice by this picture. The kids at Cooper's school all saw the sky and started saying,

"Whoa! Those are tornado clouds!"

...which was my thought exactly, except we don't apparently get tornadoes (or hurricanes, or earthquakes) here. And it didn't have that dread-inducing green tinge that punctuated my childhood in our tornado-ridden chunk of Illinois. After the clouds rolled over us, it rained buckets for about four hours, which was hell on our dirt street and the dirt streets we have to travel to get home from almost anywhere. I think it's the most rain we have had at one time since we got here.

There are conflicting views about the 'rainy season' here. Some say June through August, some say there are two- late May to late July (what they call "winter", even though we are a smidge north of the equator) and then September-November. I'm in the second camp. When we arrived in June it was considerably cooler and less humid than when I was here in March/April househunting. At night we frequently wore jeans with our sleeveless shirts and even carried the odd sweater. This "winter" during June, July, and August is when you are most likely to see Ghanaians in jackets and long sleeved shirts. I kid you not- we have seen at least a dozen local people here in lightweight parkas at night. But we have also seen more actual rain since September than we did all summer (June/July/August- local seasonal designations notwithstanding).

Since about three weeks ago, though, the weather has taken a definite turn for the warmer- more humid, sunnier days, higher temps. The water in the pool is noticeably warmer, although a good cloudy day will help cool it off pretty fast. We wear long pants less often at night, and the dogs are more anxious to get back into the air conditioned house instead of lollygagging around outside looking for ear scratches and bigger lizards.

The Weather Underground site online is happy to give me a weather report for Accra, and it's actually slightly more accurate than it was in Houston, but that isn't saying much. And they don't have any weather satellites over our little corner of the planet, so I've been forced to confront my satellite radar addiction and enter rehab for it. I never realized how obsessively I watched storms move through Texas until I found myself trying to find my Weather Sat Radar picture for Ghana and was repeatedly told there was no such animal. So now I'm living in a pretty constant state of Weather Surprise, with no Weather Channel, no satellite, no infrared vapor data, nada. I am going to lose my Weather Nerd status.

Perhaps that isn't a bad thing.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

How Can We Miss It If We Never Go Away?

Well, sometimes the American Africans have to go relax someplace else, and last week we took off for Amsterdam to do just that.

We had a blast. We knew Amsterdam would be cool, but we had no idea how much we would seriously like- no LOVE it. The place is just wall to wall history, and the Dutch have so many good ideas and ways to live- they appeal to us on so many levels, from their sleeping duvets (just like home!) to the bicycle traffic accommodations, to those lucious pancakes! We adore Holland. We walked miles and miles everyday because we couldn't get enough of it- peeking in windows, talking to everyone we could, crossing every bridge we found, reading everything, even when it was in Dutch and unintelligible to us.

We can speak Dutch now. It's easy. Just add 'en' to the ends of
every major word. "Let's eaten dinneren now." See? Simple! We had
so much fun figuring out words from their possible derivations: Te
Huur means For Rent and we decided it came from something like 'to
hire', and Te Koop is For Sale and we liked 'to keep' as its
derivation. We've got the language all figured outen, I tell ya!

They have the best system for mail there- you put a sticker on your
mailbox that says either "Nee-Nee" or "Nee-Ja" (we didn't see any
other combinations) and it tells the postman that you want NO junk
mail (Nee- Nee) or no junk mail unless it has your actual name on it
(Nee-Ja). It saves a TON of waste and would be something I'd pay
money to get once I ever start actually getting mail again. ;-)

Cooper loved it too- we took the train to Delft and wandered all over
the place down there- Cooper dubbed the speed bumps in the brick
streets "cobble humps". Ha! One day we rented a car and drove to
Schaan Zuus and Edam and Volendam to do the touristy stuffs, and then
on up over the water on a looooooong causeway and back into Amsterdam
from the south, clutching our herbed and garlic round of Edam cheese, our
Delftware mug, and our wooden shoes refrigerator magnet.

Cooper was interested in Anne Frank's WWII hiding place - we hadn't
thought we'd go, but when he said he wanted to off we went, and it was
so much better than we had expected. They have been careful with and
faithful to the original office space and hiding place and included much high
tech explanation and incorporated quotes from her diary into the exhibit.
It's really a good thing, so we are grateful Cooper pushed us into it.

Anyhoo, we got home last night and haven't unpacked anything - it was
COLD there so we got into the pool as soon as we got the house
unlocked, then got up this morn and bought groceries so we could get
back in the pool and bake in the warm equatorial sun.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

May I Be of Assistance?

Ghanaians are almost terminally helpful. If you are lost, stop your car and get out, open your map as far as it will go and wait. Within seconds you will have at least three Ghanaians standing by you, reading your map with you, discussing the best course of action. Even if they don't know where you want to go. Or, more likely, they know where you want to go but don't know how to get there, and are just putting in their two cents anyway.

When our sea container arrived, the semi truck that delivered it had to maneuver in some pretty tight spaces to get backed into our driveway. When they first arrived the three movers had the help of our guards, our houseboy, and our driver. Within minutes, they had picked up the help and advice of two men who had been walking down on our street on the way to somewhere else, and the neighbor from across the street. They all had an opinion of how the driver should manipulate the truck to best back it into our gate. We sat on the porch and watched and laughed and waited. It took about 45 minutes, but they did it. As soon as the truck was in the gate, the crowd dispersed, off to help the next needy person. ;-)

By now you know that traffic in Accra is, at best, congested. This can make it tricky when you are parking, and more importantly- unparking. Often a restaurant or store will have ten or twelve parking spaces directly in front of their establishment and their guard will direct you into one when you arrive. The real benefit is when you are ready to leave. Imagine you are at Frankies' in Osu on Oxford St.- one of the busiest streets in Accra. You have finished your lunch, you are sitting in your car and looking down the barrel of two or more lanes of unbroken demolition derby traffic. Enter Frankies' guard. He has a flag- he walks out into the traffic, snapping his flag at them, and they stop! He has already determined which direction you wish to head and conveniently stopped cars in both directions to allow you to back into the street. He will wave you back and say "Come come come come!" until you should stop, then he will smack you in the trunk and that is your cue to put it in drive and disappear safely into the traffic jam. It's a truly great thing.

On more than one occasion, we have been in a tight spot and the person who helped us was just a regular guy who saw we were in a bind and just started directing traffic and helping us move back and forth until we could safely proceed. A smile and a wave is all that is ever needed or expected- it's a simple case of "if you can help, do".

As we left Imperial China restaurant tonight we looked at each other as the guard stood behind us yelling "Come come come!" and knew that long after the memory of intermittent electricity and unreliable water had left us, we would be missing these warm friendly people and their willingness to help out any place, any time.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Nature Calls...

I don't know how to go about this delicately, so I won't even try. For those readers with more couth than I, skip today's entry because we're going down the public urination road.

I have seen occasional public toilets (two to be exact) in Accra and they cost money. Five hundred cedi- about a nickel, but remember we tip the tunnel guys a nickel, we can get a loaf of bread or a pineapple for fifty cents- so this isn't chump change here, especially for the locals. I wouldn't spend money on a pay toilet either, if my daily salary was only ten thousand cedi, which is common.

So what do you do? You know the answer already. What you probably don't know is how casual it is. On any drive around Accra, you will pass one or two people every mile peeing on a wall, into a ditch, or just watering the bushes. They generally face away from the road (thankyouverymuch), and they are completely unfazed by all the company they have as they go about their business. In our infinite maturity someone in the car will usually chant, "We know what you're doing!" in a sing song voice, not loud enough to be heard outside the car, of course, since the humor would be lost on them. As it is on most people over the age of five- what can I say...

Occasionally we've spotted women answering the call of nature publicly- a dress is a prerequisite, and it's accomplished in a fairly modest manner by squatting over a ditch, but in general, the women tend to be less visible in this endeavor.

It has never been a subject for discussion when Duke (our driver) is in the car, and we don't chant when he is with us. There are bathrooms available in Ted's office for free and the drivers will still pee on the parking lot wall, so we assume that Duke would not share our juvenile attitude.

When we get out into the Ghanaian countryside on day trips (if I can ever pry Ted out of the office long enough!), I'm wondering how quickly we will go native. Pretty darn quick I'm thinking. And dreading. We are veteran campers, but I have a reasonably shy bladder even in a pit toilet, so this isn't inspiring confidence. I'll let you know how it goes. Or maybe not.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Where the Streets Have No Name

Have I mentioned that the streets in Accra often don't have names? Seriously. Never do we get directions like you are used to getting. In Ghana, directions are the useful kind, you know, like English majors give-

"Go past the river and turn left at the third pink house".

"Go to the Shell station, turn right, go about two miles and turn at the big tree".

With no mail delivery, addresses are a formality I guess. And I know from experience that our street name and house number gets me absolutely nowhere, but "Go to the new mall, etc. etc." gets me-

"Oh, yes, yes, yes! I know where you are!".

Many streets simply have no name, and often the ones that are named are not exactly creative inspirations- e.g. Lagos Ave. - okay, major road, leading to my house more or less. 1st Lagos Road- branches off Lagos, goes nowhere. 2nd Lagos Road- ditto. 3rd Lagos Rd.- ditto. Etc. There are 5 that I know of.

The roads that DO have names are often pricelessly colorful though- Dadeban (Dah-day-bahn) Road, Kokomlemle Link (just like it's spelled with long 'O's), Cantonments Rd., Adabrake (Add-uh-brack-uh).

Often the roads are named in a purely common sense way- the road from Accra to Takaradi is...wait for it...the Accra/Takaradi Road.

If there is a name for a street, there is often a sign telling you what it is, although usually only for the street you may be turning onto- so if you don't know what street you are actually ON, you are out of luck. Color me out of luck a LOT.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

White Woman Driving...

I'm driving. Not alot, and not alone, and not very far, but I'm driving. What's the big deal, you say? Ha!

I didn't have trouble
in Australia driving on the left side of the road (and right side of the car) because they have traffic laws . Not so in Ghana. I mean there are laws, but they are just for show. In Ghana, in ANY accident, the person who does the hitting is at fault- a good rule, on the face of it. Now think about who would hit whom if someone a) pulled in front of you at an intersection where you have a green light and they have a red one? or b) the person in front of you decides to merge into your lane while you still occupy it, but he's ahead of you, so you are the one who "hits" him? It's dicey I tell ya.

Taxis and tro-tros are the wild cards of driving here. An empty taxi will troll slowly along the street looking for a passenger or two, blocking traffic and generally driving badly as he looks around for customers. Once he has a fare, he does a 180 and becomes Speed Racer, laying on his horn the moment a light turns green, passing you on the shoulder, pulling out in front of you at intersections and changing lanes three or four times in each mile just in case the new lane moves faster. Two or three of every five cars on the road are taxis. Now tro-tros are a different kind of hazard. They are large vans- like 15 passenger commuter vans, but fitted out to hold more people. They are never less than 30 years old, belch black smoke, sway alarmingly when they change lanes, and are always full to the gills with hot, tired people trying to get to work or get home. (a "tro" is the small coin used to pay the fare) There are regular tro-tro stops and most have a 'conductor' who will wave his arm out the side door (often left precariously open for the trip) in a palm down calming motion as the tro-tro moves across three lanes of heavy traffic in less than a hundred feet to reach its stop. Once its passengers are loaded and any gear stored (this could be giant bags of yams, a live goat tied to the roof, or just ordinary piles of stuff), the tro-tro re-enters the traffic flow with little hesitation- remember, if he pulls out and you run into him, he wins.

In addition, other vehicles are just the beginning of the traffic hazards. This is a country of pedestrians, bikes, and free range livestock. You have to always be alert for random pedestrians darting across the road and goats, chickens, and cattle wandering the streets in search of yummy stuff to eat. Sometimes in herds, sometimes all by their lonesome. No matter when or where you drive, the possibility always exists that a motorbike will zoom past you in the space dividing you and oncoming traffic. It happens at least once a mile, so be prepared. :-)

Lane markings are just suggestions here. If traffic is heavy and your lane isn't moving (and you are a taxi or tro-tro) simply move to one side and blaze a new trail. Two lane roads often become highways in this manner- three lanes going one direction, one lane going the other, occasionally obstructed by someone trying out a fourth lane in that space. Once the taxis and tro-tros break ranks, expect the vehicles with diplomatic plates to follow close behind. These are usually giant LandCruisers with snorkels that have never seen anything less urban than the dirt road in front of their houses, driven at breakneck speed by people who consider their time much more important than the rest of us non-diplomats.

It's not total anarchy- there are stoplights at most of the major intersections, and they are, for the large part, obeyed when they are functioning- which is also most of the time. People generally stay in their own lane when they are traveling in the opposite direction. And many drivers are very courteous about letting you merge into heavy highway or roundabout traffic or on a tricky left turn in bumper to bumper conditions. There is a complicated set of courtesy signals- flash your headlights if you wish someone to let you turn in front of them, or flash your headlights if you will allow someone to make a turn in front of you. If someone does you a good deed and you end up in front of them because of it, turn on your hazards for a few seconds as a thank-you.

And never forget your horn. It's called "hooting" or "popping" here. Your horn is your #1 car accessory. You toot to warn pedestrians that you are driving up behind them (even if they aren't in the road), you toot to warn people not to pull in front of you, even if they show no signs of doing so. You toot at taxis and tro-tros because they are unpredictable and anyway, they are tooting at you. Make sure you watch the traffic signals so you can toot the instant it turns green, as a reminder to the less astute drivers in front of you. And toot the guards at every gate so they know to let you in (often without checking to see if you are supposed to be let in...).

So into this breach, I have driven. But only in a sissy kind of way. Ted drives everywhere, even at night, which on the surface doesn't sound so special until you remember that very few of the streets in Ghana are lit at night- light poles being rare and reserved for major thruways. He knows his way around town, knows all the pitfalls and dirty tricks, and at this point in time just plunges into the demolition derby without hesitation yelling "Look at me! I'm Ghanaian!" as he swerves and hoots and flashes his headlights.

I, on the other hand, practice on Saturdays when traffic is lighter, and Sundays, also known as "Obroni Practice Driving Day". You will never see as many white faces driving cars in Ghana as you do on Sundays. The relatively empty streets are busily cruised by pale nervous white-knuckled people intent on a specific destination. I flatter myself that I'm not that comical, because OPDD is a piece of cake with much of the taxi and tro-tro randomness removed, so I cruise along pretty confidently with my San Francisco, L.A., and Houston driving skills tucked firmly under my belt. One of these days, I'll have to venture out on a weekday though, maybe even at night. Look out Ghana!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Eating Out...

Local Food Stuff

We have been trying new foods lately, after spending the first couple of months eating at places that cater to palates other than Ghanaian. While it's a hoot being wished "Bon Appetite!" by an Ashanti tribal member who is currently working as a waiter at Le Charmiere, or to be congratulated on your choice of stew while sitting in the dark and musty hotel that is Ryan's Irish Pub, we realized that ultimately, coming to Africa and eating the cuisine of the world was as bad as going to Paris and eating at McDonalds. Not that we don't still go out for our favorite foods, but we have started to build a repertoire of native restaurants and foods.

Ghanaians eat a LOT of plantains. We aren't too fond of them boiled, but boy, if you fry those puppies I am a goner! One of the restaurants on the ocean front serves a small bowl of plantains, cut into small chunks and pan fried, for each customer- instead of bread or whatnot. They come with a toothpick stuck in, and with a little salt they are delicious!

Plantain chips are everywhere- roadsides, car side, grocery store- everywhere. They are sliced into chip circles and fried crisp. We all like these and keep a jar of them on the kitchen counter for snacking anytime.

There is a local dish called Red Red that is so good. Beans and rice are cooked with spices and served with fried plantain slices- it's a little hot and spicy, but the plantain cuts it nicely.

Yams are another staple- they are even something you can by from a head-carried-tray at the traffic intersections. Unfortunately, we have tried them grilled, boiled and fried and can't seem to develop a taste for them. This is inconceivable to the locals, one of whom, when accompanying Ted on an apartment tour for one of the rotating employees, inquired- "But where do you pound your yams?" Pounding yams requires a LOT of time, usually two people, a large wooden 'bowl' and a pounding stick (about five feet long and three inches through the middle). One person stands and pounds the yams, the other person moves the pieces around on the upstroke. Yikes.

Kenkey is the local comfort food. It's made from corn/corn meal- we aren't entirely sure what or how and frankly don't want to know. Ghanaians are all keen to share this dish with you- it's served with everything from soup to fish, kind of as a 'bread' or rice accompaniment. It tastes, charitably, like it was cooked in someone's arm pit, and we simply can't choke down more than a polite bite in response to everyone's urging. We tried. Honestly. (We had this same problem in Australia with Vegemite- made presumably in the same arm pit.)

Papaya is a favorite here, and is called 'PoPo' and often sold at the intersections already peeled and sectioned, then wrapped in plastic and offered from the ubiquitous head tray. It's pretty good- fresher and more pungent than any I'd had in the States, and you can't beat that rich coral color.

Of course, everything I've written concerns Ted and me. Cooper is struggling with his starving teenager/puke I'm not eating that paradox. He's been fairly adventurous for him, but keeps forgetting to tell waitpeople to leave all the 'veg' and stuff off his cheeseburgers. He's found a pizza place he likes here and would eat there everyday if we let him, but at school he buys lunch from local vendors who come in just to feed the kids and makes some surprisingly mature choices- roast chicken, rice in fish sauce, and fruit. As I told some friends, his addiction to cheese and cheese-related food has had to adapt to life here in "Try New Foods or Die" land.

We'll keep exploring and trying to get a better handle on living in Africa, as opposed to just living like Americans in Africa. Our next goal is to drop into the local 'chop bar' just down the street from our house. It is called the "Fuud Shack" and has beer and food. When we go we will stick out like a pair of headlights, but if previous experience counts we will be welcomed. Mostly I think we are waiting to make sure we have a big enough store of local food knowledge that we can order without being total tools. Looking foolish happens often enough that we avoid seeking out additional opportunities. :-)