Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Lobsters, the Universe, and Everything

So Saturday night we ate at the beach. We went to a little restaurant that you simply have to know is there, because otherwise you would never find it.

Some friends had been there and told us about it, but they were taken by their driver and had no idea where it actually was, other than at the beach.

So we got directions. Sort of. (Remember, in Ghana, street names are for sissies- if the street you are on has a name, you are probably near an Embassy...)

Go to Accra Central. Okay that's easy enough- just follow Liberation Road from our house to the beach.

Get on the beach road, headed west, and look for Standard Charter Bank.

Got it.

Now look for the 'Cathedral'.

Got it. We think.

Now watch the left (ocean) side of the road, looking for a park, then beyond it, a soccer pitch with no grass.

At that point find a likely left turn and take it.

Remember, it's 6:30 pm and we are doing this in the dark...no streetlights in this part of town, and lots of auto and pedestrian obstacles.

Oooooookay. We slow down, squint into the darkness, signal, and turn. We are facing a fence, of sorts, but just to our left, there is a break in the fencing and an apparent driveway. Kind of.

We drive through the gap.

And find ourselves bumping over rain rutted dirt, through a large open field of more dirt, and some half dry mud. Over rocks, through shallow ditches, and suddenly, ahead- PAY DIRT! Other parked cars and the ever-present parking lot guard, waving us to our specially saved parking spot.

We leave the car, and the guard, in common Ghanaian parlance gives us a "Welllll-come". We thank him as we head for a small cement open arch entrance that has two doorways- one marked ENTRANCE, one marked EXIT.

We enter, and immediately face a set of steep stairs, constructed in the usual Ghanaian way by people with no Uniform Building Code. Some steps are six inches high, some are three. Some steps are twelve inches deep, some are four. But, after a year here, we are not surprised and just carefully make our way down, down, down, while deciding to make sure we don't have too much beer or we'll never make it back up!

At the bottom of the stairs is a nice flower bed and propped inside is a four by six foot chalkboard with "The Menu for Today" contained on it.

We start reading and stop when we get to 'Grilled Lobster'. That's it.

Lobsters in Ghana are more like huge prawns. They are about six to eight inches long, and the Ghanaians split them and grill them then serve them five or six at a time, in the shell, heads and feelers on- and they are sooooo good!

We tell the waiter at the entrance to the restaurant that there are two of us for dinner. He leads us into the restaurant and offers us a table at the edge of a terraced patio, overlooking the Atlantic, complete with huge rocks for the waves to crash against for our viewing pleasure.

We sit down and try to absorb our surroundings. We are the only white faces in the whole place. Fine with us. The fewer white people the better. That means they aren't catering to Europeans, and we'll be paying local prices. Whoot!

We are under a sky so filled with stars, it's hard to believe we're on the coast of a city of more than a million people. Electrical problems notwithstanding, we can see the lights of Osu down the coast a little and they are blinding...but above us is nothing but dark sky and endless, sparkling stars.

Occasionally, off shore, we see the lights of about a dozen fishing canoes and the occasional fork of lightning. But if I told you that you would think I was making it up.

So here we sit, at a table for two. In the dark. The only illumination in the whole restaurant is an occasional globe lamp marking the stairs to the next level down to the ocean (there are three terraces and we are seated at the top). This isn't the first Ghanaian restaurant we've been to that eschews light- Fuud Shack being the premiere one. Since you don't have to read the menu- what the hey? And often, it's just better not to see where you are or what you are eating too closely. You know what I mean?

Anyway. We order a couple of beers, two sets of grilled lobsters, and then sit and watch the waves break bright white on the black ocean, crash into the rocks, then wash up onto the beach. When that gets old, we gaze straight up into a sky just filled with stars, planets, and the occasional wispy cloud.

My hair is curling out of control, and Ted notices that his eyesight is steadily being obscured by salt spray collecting on his glasses, but we don't care. It's romantic, it's secluded, and we are sitting in Africa drinking cold beers and waiting for our fresh grilled seafood. Life is good.

Our table is covered with a thin sheet of rubber, stapled to the wood to help keep the whole thing from disintegrating under the onslaught of the ocean spray, our chairs are Home Depot Specials- those molded plastic ones so ubiquitous in the U.S. at 5 bucks a throw (and even cheaper here!).

We speculate on people we know who wouldn't appreciate this place, and in fact would have left by now, but we are thrilled- life is too short to sweat over the small stuff when the universe and the ocean are laid out in front of you just for grins.

Dinner comes. We can't really see it. I have Ted open his cell phone and shine it on my plate just so I can see which end of my lobsters is up. From there, we just go with our instincts. I believe I ate a few pieces of lobster that weren't meant to be eaten, but it didn't matter- it was fresh and delicious.

After eating our lobsters and french fries, we collapsed back in our plastic chairs and asked for the check.

¢250,000. Faithful readers will know that is less than 30 bucks. For almost four quarts of beer, a dozen Ghanaian lobsters, and the best location this side of Aruba. Oy.

We paid up, left a tip of $2.50 (which made our waiter pledge his first born son to us), and headed home.

As I said. Life is good. :-)

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Papaya Wars

This is our papaya tree. Why, you ask, do I show you a picture of it? Ha. Read on...

I still can't believe I have 'staff'. We aren't the sort of people who have 'staff'. And I surely don't have the emotional maturity necessary to deal with them.

But I can't avoid it here.

We chose to have Mark (who is thankfully a self-starter and one of the hardest working men I've ever met) and aside from the occasional language problems we experience trying to talk to one another, he is easy to have around and great fun.

The company hired guards for my front gate, and although they work for us, they are here whether I want them or not. They come from a local security company in twelve hour shifts of the most boring work you can imagine. They open our gates, they close our gates, they shoo off peddlers, they run to the house to ask if they can admit certain people, they run the house to bring us the electric bill and the water bill and the garbage truck bill (no mail delivery remember). Otherwise they sit and wait and wait and wait. We have a nice little guard house built into the north wall of the front gate, but it's not exactly plush, and the guards have decided to trade fresh air for mosquito protection, so it smells like dirty socks and sweat.

Anyhoo. You all know Stephen, our day guard. He's a pip, he takes his job very seriously, and we love him both for the good job he does and just who he is. He is very protective of us and not shy about telling me when I let someone in the yard that he doesn't think should have been admitted. He works Sunday through Friday, 6AM to 6PM. Our night guards (we have two at night- the theory being one will stay awake...) work Thursday through Tuesday (lately) 6PM to 6AM. On their day off, we have substitute guards- usually the same ones, but there is understandable turnover.

So last week, Thursday morning, I'm laying in bed reading, enjoying the quiet after Ted and Cooper leave the house and I hear Stephen outside speaking sharply to someone. He and Mark are good friends, so this is a puzzle to me, and I peek out the window to see what's up. Stephen is marching toward the house so I scurry out to the front room, trying to smooth my bed hair into something resembling respectability just in time for him to knock smartly on the door.

I open it to an apologetic, "Sorry Madame."

(I am Madame or Mommy, depending on the speaker and their familiarity with me- I'm Mommy to most of the drivers, all the street vendors I buy regularly from, and at least 4 waiters in three different restaurants, but for Stephen I will always be Madame.)

So after apologizing for bothering me, he proceeds to tell me, in his earnest, serious, slightly offended way what the trouble is. In Twinglish- that spectacularly indecipherable language that combines Ashanti Twi with British English. I watch his lips closely and make a fairly good stab at understanding what the issue is, to wit:

The night guard who subbed Wednesday night on the regular guys' day off has taken a papaya from our tree. Apparently this was a papaya that Stephen has had his eye on, so he noticed it missing as soon as he arrived this morning. We are not huge paw paw fans, so I've told Mark to just give us one every once in a while and parcel the rest out to himself, Stephen, and the neighbors. It was apparently Stephen's turn, and he was anticipating the ripening of that papaya.

Sigh. I repeat what I think I've heard to make sure I have it right (in between Stephen and the sub guard yelling at each other in Twi), and Stephen hears how, possibly, petty it sounds. So he proceeds to tell me that paw paws are just the beginning. If the man will steal fruit, then he is capable of stealing one of our bicycles next. Or our pool toys, chair cushions, anything that isn't nailed down.

Well, he has a point there, I suppose. He can tell he almost has me, so he jumps on the opportunity to tell me that he tries very hard to protect us and all our stuff and that he cannot feel safe leaving us in the hands of this thief who might let brigands and ne'er do wells into the gate all night long if left to himself again.

Meanwhile, you wonder, where is Mark during all this? Well, he had decided from the start that it was necessary to mop the porch (where we were all standing for this little drama). Stephen had his back to Mark (which meant I could watch both of them), and the sub guard's view of him was blocked by the porch wall. So I was the only one who could see Mark giggling and snorting through the whole thing, busily mopping the same 5 square feet over and over. Like I wasn't having a hard enough time keeping a straight face as it was.

I get a pad of paper and have Stephen write down exactly what I need to tell the InterCon Supervisor to make sure this man, Danko, never darkens our gateway again, and turn to Danko himself who has been waiting fairly patiently for a turn (sporadic shouting matches with Stephen notwithstanding).

He asks me if he will get a chance to speak his side, and I say "Sure. That's fair." at which point he launches into a difficult to follow tirade that apparently has two main points:

1. he doesn't care if he works at this house so long as he works somewhere- he doesn't think I should try to get him fired.


2. he thinks that Stephen has some sweet deal going and is trying to cut him out of it and that's why he is making such a fuss.

After a while, I stop him and ask, "Did you take the papaya?"

To which he answers, and I quote, "That's not the issue."

HA! Okay, you just made this real easy, buster.

I told him that his non-answer had pretty much made it exactly the issue, and that part of Stephen's "sweet deal" was that we trusted him. I asked him to get his uniform and leave, and that I would be asking InterCon not to assign him here again. He left without a fuss, as Stephen bobbed his head up and down in vindication of his cause.

I got a solemn "Thank you Madame." as he left the porch for a long day of protecting me and my paw paws.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Going to Find Africa Part IV... The Castle

After our Canopy Walk, we headed into the town of Cape Coast to visit the Castle- a British installation that existed for a hundred years as an outpost for various officials, but more infamously as a center for the slave trade.

A small entrance fee gets you access to the Castle and a local guide with a very thorough knowledge of history. This place is wrong on so many levels. The least ominous is the simple fact of yet another colonial building unsuited to the geography and climate of the area, complete with sentry posts just like the ones outside Buckingham Palace. The most ominous of course, is the not so simple fact that people were sold and shipped from here like freight.

The tour starts here at the large door to the men's dungeon where captured Africans were kept by the hundreds awaiting the next slave ship...

The bizarre part of this picture is that the upstairs portion of the building is the post chapel where church services were conducted regularly over the heads of the men in the dungeon.

These two pictures show some of what is there, the ocean-facing courtyard and the view from the cannonade...

It was way too dark to take pictures in the dungeons, but I'm guessing you don't really want the details anyway.

Once the slavers showed up the men and women were marched from their separate dungeons through a tunnel under the courtyard where they emerged here...

and were taken through this door which leads directly out to the ocean...

and loaded into the cargo holds of ships.

Here is a view of the door half open (today there are fishing canoes where the slavers used to be)...

It's a very hard place to visit, and I can't even imagine how I would feel if I was the descendent of a slave. It was a little strange to visit here with Duke. Confronting the very real evidence of what my people did to his people is awkward, at best.

He was interested in what we saw, having never seen it before, and at one point when we were all gathered in the windowless room used for captives unable to walk to the slavers (where they were left to die) he said to the guide, "Please don't shut the door." to which we (the Obroni contingent) replied "Amen!" but without the shuddering realization that our relatives had indeed had that door shut upon them.

This last picture is the view from the sitting room of the British Commander's private quarters. Standing here and looking at Africa while thinking of the men who commanded a place like this is sobering, to say the least.

We weren't sorry to leave the Castle behind us, having absorbed its lessons, and we all climbed back into the car to head for home.

We had figured out when we arrived that we would have to leave by about 3:30 in order to get home before dark (remember Ghanaian roads are even more of a demolition derby after dark and riddled with unlit stalled vehicles and moving vehicles with no headlights, so getting to the edge of Accra soon after our 6pm sunset is important).

Traffic was fairly light considering everything, and we were making pretty good time. We noticed, mostly from the way the wind was buffeting the pedestrians on the coast road that we had a pretty stiff headwind, but didn't think too much about it until the skies started darkening to the east (toward Accra).

We laughed and said, "Whoo boy! Accra is getting some storm!".

About ten minutes later, we stopped laughing when it became apparent the storm was moving rapidly in our direction.

At about 5:00, an hour outside Accra, the black clouds rushed up to us and directly behind them we saw a wall of rain hanging across our path as far to the north and south as the eye could see. The wind blowing through the car took on a chill worthy of a Texas Blue Norther and we all rolled up our windows lickety split.

Within seconds we were driving through a torrential rain that had traffic crawling at 10 mph, everyone using their hazard flashers to warn the cars behind that we were barely moving. Some cars and trucks had pulled over but we all agreed without discussion that being a stationary target was probably worse than being a slow moving one, so we slogged on...

Poor Duke drove that way for miles and miles- we didn't get above 20 mph until way past Kokrobite and the dark and traffic and rain and wind were unrelenting.
What is it with us and road trips? We have a good time until we try to come home and then some bizarro world continuum takes over.

We finally reached the outskirts of Accra a little after seven and were promptly caught up in the snarl of traffic that is always Accra in the Rain. We had to drive very near Duke's neighborhood to get home, so we insisted he get out of the car at his tro-tro stop and let Ted take us the rest of the way so Duke could just go home. He didn't argue. :-)

At a little after 8pm (80 miles and more than four hours later!), we finally reached our house, but not without passing dozens of billboards lying on the ground (or the street), just as many fruit/craft/sundries stands with no roofs (and frequently no walls), and plenty of downed electrical wires.

Biggest storm since we arrived almost a year ago, and we were on the road- just to keep things interesting.

So that's the latest road trip we made to find us some more Africa. Never a dull moment, ever. Nothing happens the same way twice, and we are learning we should always be on our toes.

Even though we rarely are. ;-)

Monday, May 15, 2006

Going to Find Africa Part III... The Rainforest

So Saturday we headed out into Africa again. We loaded up Duke and this time headed for the west coast (remember Ghana is oriented N/S so our coastline runs E/W). Accra is about 2/3 of the way to the east side of the country and we drove over to Cape Coast which is about 2/3 of the way to the west side of the country.

We had two goals. The rainforest (and the Canopy Walk therein) and the Cape Coast Castle (the British installation from which Africans were sold into slavery and loaded onto boats bound for the Carribean and the Americas).

We left bright and early knowing that our trip of about 80 miles would take considerably longer than the hour and 15 minutes or so we would spend zipping along on U.S. freeways, and we weren't disappointed. It took us half an hour to clear traffic in Accra (our house is north, the coast road is south). We hit the coast road and got pretty cocky because they have done a LOT of work on it in the last few years and we were on smooth tarmac that was frequently more than one lane in our direction. We were smokin'!

Then we got about 20 miles past Kokrobite (remember the beach we went to?) and hit the wall. Construction here is ongoing and requires quite a few "lane changes" that send traffic from one side of the road to the other on pitted and rutted dirt tracks. Add in the hundreds of large, long haul trucks in various states of disrepair travelling betweeen Takoradi and Tema, the stalled vehicles that litter every road in Ghana, and the enormous amount of traffic trying to get from one side of Ghana to the other on the only major East/West road in the country and you have a recipe for...about 20-25 mph.

Kakum National Park (the Rainforest) is about 15 miles due north of Cape Coast, so we headed up there first. We arrived about 11:30 - our trip of 95 miles took us roughly three and a half hours. Africa does nothing better than teaching patience. Our vocabulary word for the day is "ntoboase" (en-too-bo-ah-say) and it means "be patient".

So. The national park is a very nice place with a well kept reception area, shady seating, a small outdoor restaurant, public restrooms, and a nice walk-through area that explains the rainforest and how it can be protected.

The draw here is the canopy walk. Many years ago, some Canadians came to the park and spent six months hanging from ropes, stringing cable and netting across the top of the rainforest canopy and then laying a single plank down the middle so teenagers (that would be Cooper) and suicidal old people (that would be me and Ted) and hapless drivers who get dragged along for "fun" (that would be Duke), can walk high above the canopy and enjoy the view. Actually, you are only a few yards above the canopy- you are HIGH above the ground, and by my calculations, the canopy is only thick if you are looking at it, not if you are falling through it- something I was often sure I would be doing during my Walk of Fear. This is what it looks like:

But first, you must climb to the top of the rainforest canopy. By now you know we are practically on top of the equator, but let's be charitable and say it's only 90 degrees. Since it started raining, lightly, just before we all stepped off into the abyss, I'm going to call the humidity during our climb 100%. As faithful readers know, I am not one to 'glow' or even 'perspire'- so after the first quarter mile uphill, I was soaked, and not with clean shiny rain. Here is just one set of steps that we climbed...

there were three 'rest stops' on this climb and by the time I huffed and puffed my way to each the people in our group (who had outpaced me waaaaay back there) were rested and ready to continue. My faithful husband, son, and driver stayed with me though as I hauled my fat ass up and up and up. Finally we reached the top and all gathered in a small hut to get the facts and figures about the Canopy Walk from our Park Guide. Supposedly it can hold two bull elephants. I don't want to ever know if that's true.

After the Guide was done speaking he started us off, one at a time, across the abyss, 130 feet from the forest floor. When one person had almost reached each platform between net and plank walkway, the next would start out. In total there are six sections of plank and net, about 200 feet each, connected by small platforms built in tall trees. The walk is U-shaped and you can see other victims...uh...visitors on the fourth section as you cross the second section.

We went in this order; Duke, Cooper, me, Ted. Here is Duke, heading out, alone, trying to remember why he ever liked us.

Cooper skipped off after him, blithely, in true 'bulletproof teenager' fashion, and I followed soon after, able to swallow my fear mostly through a need to chase my child who had run out into danger. I got over that Super Mom crap real fast when I realized the walkway was not only going to swing, sway, bounce, and creak, but that the ropes I was clutching for dear life were occasionally going to hit me about waist high - plenty low enough for me to accidentally hurl myself over the side and cling briefly before dropping to my certain death.

Ted gamely brought up the rear, making sure to watch me as I had begged him to do so that someone who loved me would be witness to my last moments on earth.

First section. Clear.

I even took time to peer over the edge into this:

but now it's time to step off the solid platform and tackle section two. Okay, no problem, I'll experiment with different hand and arm movements to see what makes the walkway sway and bounce the least while allowing me to grasp the ropes firmly enough for the blood to leave my hands.

Second section. Clear.

I have been reduced to creeping up to the edge of the platform rail to peek quickly over the side while I steel myself for section three.

I step off to a loud creaking noise that I tell myself happens when anyone steps off, not just me. While I'm still trying to convince myself of that, Cooper turns and yells from his platform that I should check out the view straight down. I stop moving, get a death grip on the ropes, and peek s-l-o-w-l-y down through the netting at the drop. I quickly look back up and straight ahead. Cooper yells that I should look OVER the edge of the rope and netting to see it really well. I tell him to shut up and quit telling me what to do.

Section three. Clear.

At this point, I cling to the solidness that is the platform tree and just lean out a little bit to try to see the view over the edge of the rail. I check the next section and see this:

I'm thinking the thrill of fear I get upon seeing Cooper do this has less to do with my fear for him than my fear for ME, but I prefer to remember it as more of my protective Mothering come to the fore.

So now Cooper is way ahead and Ted is coming up fast. I wanta slap that smile off his face...

it's time to go...

About 1/3 of the way across the fourth section, I start to idly wonder if anyone has frozen in the middle of the canopy walk and how they would ever get one back to solid ground if one did. Not that I was considering it or anything. I have my pride, and more importantly I couldn't think of any really viable way for them to get me down off the walkway without a rescue helicopter and I'm pretty sure there aren't any of those in Ghana.

Section four. Clear.

Okay, I can do this. Even if this next section is uphill. And creaking like a dead elm tree in a November windstorm. Hand over hand, one foot in front of the next, don't look down. From behind me I hear Ted say "You okay?".

Why??? Am I not skipping quickly enough for you???

I love him very much, and I know he meant well, but I had to stop concentrating on not falling off the walkway to answer with a hearty, "Yup!".

Section five. Clear.

Behind me, Ted is plugging along, not squeaking out loud like me, and even letting go with one hand before he has a death grip with the next hand. This is what I see when I look back to check on him...

Ahead is my last 200 feet of walkway. At the end I can see Duke, vaguely, since he is well inside the shelter provided for the walkers, and Cooper- facing me, smiling, and yelling "Let's go around again!". As I step onto the last section, the little snot starts bouncing on his end. I threaten him with bodily harm, and he stops. I begin counting my steps, telling myself that I'm just a few feet from safety and solid ground.

Section six. Clear.

I collapse on a bench inside the shelter and risk a peek back to see if Ted is coming okay. Duke comes over to me and says, "Did you look down from the walkway?" I reply in the negative and he says "Me NEITHER!" He is apparently very glad he did it, and NEVER WANTS TO DO IT AGAIN! He is happy I took pictures of him to show friends and family- and he will not mention the part where he was terrified and never looked down. Cooper is still hooting and declaring he wants to do it again. Ted arrives and we all start to breathe normally again.

Theoretically you can see wildlife on this walk. Monkeys and birds and stuff. But that would be without my yelps of surprise every time the walkway moved a little too much for comfort and without Cooper's helpful shouted suggestions about looking over the edge and moving faster. Good thing we didn't go just to see the fauna.

Now all that was left was a hike back down the hill on wobbly legs that were still fatigued from the climb up.

Quick bathroom break, then into the car for the fifteen mile ride back to Cape Coast and the rest of our day's activities...tune in later this week for the exciting conclusion!

Friday, May 05, 2006

What a Difference a Year Makes!

If you have had any doubts about the fact that we're practically sitting on top of the equator, get a load of these pictures...in each set, the first picture was taken in May 2005 and the second in May 2006.

Same view, plus carport addition. Oh my!

Now I'm not saying that it's necessarily an improvement, or that the dogs didn't ruin the grass, but it's the shocking truth that things just grow FAST here on the fattest part of the planet.

We have long since decided that our finger and toe nails are growing faster but it apparently works on plants too. And hair. We have no scientific proof, but we don't care.

I expect we will be swallowed by our urban jungle in roughly six months.

Good thing Mark has a machete.