Tuesday, June 27, 2006

It's All Greek to Me!

Cooper's school year ended June 13 and two days later we hit the road for Greece!

What an experience. A country that speaks a different language AND uses a different alphabet. Thankfully, they have provided, about 40% of the time, translations into the latin alphabet so Ελληνικό αλφάβητο is at least shown in letters we can read, even if the language continues to elude us.

The important words, we learned.

"Tabepna" is the latin translation of the greek word for 'taverna' which is the place you go for delicious food and oceans of beer and Ouzo. There are more tabepnas in Greece than people, which made finding lunch and dinner extremely easy. And every single one of them serves a Greek salad that I would walk across broken glass for. Fresh Greek feta has no equal. Period. :-)

Athens, thanks to the recent Olympics games in that city, has an abundance of Greek/Latin alphabet/English signs, but once you leave that city, the incidence of translations drops way off. This sign is from the gas station- and it's very typical.

More than once we found ourselves pulled over to the side of the road looking at an informational road sign that contained a LOT of information- all of it in Greek, spelled in Greek letters.

There is no faking Greek. You either read it or you don't. And when you are lost already, telling your husband the sign says "Sigma, epsilon, pi, delta, delta, something, omega" does not make him laugh. I know this because I tried.

So we mostly just went where the roads did and stopped worrying about where, exactly, we were.

Also fun were the many attempts to translate greek into english for the benefit of the many tourists.

This sign was posted twice on every floor of every wing of our hotel outside the rooms housekeeping used for their supplies:

Passed that sign elevendy million times a day and still cracked up every time.

...and this one was from the museum on the Acropolis:

Not that our attempts to spell in Greek would be any less comical, but it helped ease our feelings of inadequacy about the language barrier...

Anyway, our first stop was Athens, wherein we booked a hotel for two nights in order to show our son the Parthenon and the Agora. We headed out fairly early Sunday morning to climb the Acropolis and let me tell you it doesn't disappoint. It's a hella climb up that hill but worth every gasping breath.

There are two amphitheaters to inspect on the way up, and more marble than I've ever seen in one place. It's huge, it's ancient and it just took our breath away. Cooper probably got a little tired of us stopping dead and saying "Wow.", but even his teenaged cool was overcome by the power of the place.

It's just stunning to stand there and try to wrap your mind around how old this place is.
We walked down the Acropolis on the opposite side to the one we came up and stopped at the Ancient Agora and fantasized that our feet were standing in the same spot as Plato or Socrates had stood. It is just a very, very cool place to see and experience for yourself and I highly recommend it.

The greek mass transit trains are excellent and we were able to use them from the airport and to get around town. After the Acropolis, we headed for the Plaka and its million vendors.

I have to say, for an ancient people they haven't got a thing on Africans when it comes to hawking their stuff. They are rookies.

No one told us it was "free to look", no one mentioned how it was Sunday so they needed us to buy from them so they could eat/they would give us a special "holy deal", no one made a convincing argument at all. We passed blithely through a throng of vocal Greeks entreating us to buy from them and just smiled...

The next morning we got back on the train to the airport and boarded a plane to Crete. It left an hour late, a fact that no one, including other passengers and Olympic Airlines employees, seemed to notice - it was simply ignored.

We didn't care- get to Crete at 9AM get to Crete at 10AM, it's all the same to us. But we chuckled at the U.S. airlines who have whole websites devoted to "on time performance" and fielding complaints from people who are twenty minutes late and who were kept informed minute by minute of the delay and its causes.

We got to Crete and picked up our rental car. Once again our African experience served us well. Crete drivers are reckless and tend to think of lane markings as "guidelines" but they have nothing on the drivers of Ghana and we fit in very nicely.

The Cretans have added the Texas tradition of driving on the shoulder so faster cars can pass you and that makes the streets both safer and much more dangerous.

It's a crapshoot, driving in Crete, but we did okay.
(n.b. on the day we left, as we drove back to the airport, we passed a car that had hit a phone pole head on, dead center, on the wrong side of the street- we were not, I should say, surprised...)

Our hotel was on the beach on the Mediterranean Sea, facing Spinalonga Island which has been many things to many people over the centuries, but most recently and until 1957 was a leper colony. Here's
the island itself from our hotel room, Ted on the island, and a shot of the 'front door'.

...and here's a shot taken from the hill above our hotel (as we headed blithely off on a drive to Who-Knows-Where?).

The water was so clear when we swam that we could see to the bottom no matter how far out we swam. Tons of fish and coral and sea urchins and crisp cool water. Bliss!

There is so much more to Greece than the tiny part of it we saw, but it was a good introduction. Here are some of our favorite shots of statuary and ourselves...

And if you come to our house now, you can play cards with us and use our new deck of Greek Figures Having Sex playing cards. ;-)

Or, if you prefer, just check out our tasteful fridge magnets and the pottery urn we bought.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Arts and Crafts

We have been busy doing our part to add to the Ghanaian economy, visiting the Arts and Crafts areas around town (there are two biggies- one near our house at the bottom of the hill and one near the Ocean plus loads of roadside vendors with everything from furniture to baskets to cloth), and making sure we acquire the things that will always remind us of our time here.

The people who run booths at the Arts Markets are hilarious. As you wander around in your Obroni skin (which marks you instantly as someone with disposable income and cash in your pocket) they welcome you and remind you that "It's free to look." Once you start to look, of course, you are told in a serious and sincere voice that you are guaranteed a "small price" for whatever you might choose.

If you stop to look at anything for more than 1/2 a second, it is immediately swooped up and put in better light for you to look at.

If you actually touch something, you are immediately shown five similar items that might also interest you.

If you really like it, you have to ask how much. The price given will be at least double what the vendor hopes to get (This only counts for 'things'- prices for food are firm).

At this point you are supposed to begin bargaining for your item.

Except we suck at bargaining.

We hate bargaining.

It just isn't in our nature to bargain, especially with people whose annual income is roughly what we spend on gasoline in a month. But to a Ghanaian, bargaining is culturally ingrained- they do it with each other for everything from taxis to house rentals. The idea of a fixed price for an item, service, or real estate seems foolish to them. So when in Africa, do as the Africans do...

We have developed a system- we figure out in our heads how much an item is worth to us (sometimes that involves picturing it at Pier One and knowing they would ask X amount of money for it, sometimes it's just falling in love with a piece and being willing to spend X dollars on it).

Then we do superfast math in our heads to convert their asking price to our "what's it worth" price then do superfast reverse math to put it back in local currency and make a counter offer somewhat below our top price. We never stand around and haggle- it's offer/counteroffer/countercounteroffer and then we usually give up. About 30% of the time they will follow us with a better offer, but we are so proud of them when they just let us walk away- we almost prefer the kiss off. It's more dignified for everyone. ;-)

Anyhoo, we have acquired some really interesting stuff. What follows is a Ghanaian Arts and Crafts Primer. If you are lucky enough to be family members, make note of what you like and we will make sure we bring you your very own stuff when we return to the U.S. (call them very very late Christmas gifts...)

First up:

These are oversized combs with carvings at the top. There are all sorts of images and wood types and they vary in size from about six inches to three feet tall.

This is one of many animals available- in all sizes and all colors of wood. Hippos, turtles, elephants, giraffes, you name it, they got it.

The human form is available in different poses, usually in this dark wood, in almost any size from 4 inches to a foot or more.

This is one of our favorite masks. These stripey ones are common- they just tickle us. It's wooden.

Baskets! We have baskets! Omigod, do we have baskets. They are tightly woven, very well made and come in every color you can think of (hot pink being a favorite!). They are made round like this, or oval, one handle or two- rarely no handles. Sized about a foot across to about two feet across. All handmade, all done right here in Accra.

This little chest of drawers is handmade of wood and woven grass. We got it for $35 U.S.! And no, I won't buy you one. My shipping container is only so big. :-P

This is a wooden bowl. Most of the ones we've seen are fancier (have handles or extra carvings on them) but we really liked this one for its simplicity. It's about 18 inches across the top, carved out of a single piece of wood.

These little guys are carved wood and intertwined- they can be folded up flat or used to display anything that will rest on their heads. You can get these in light or dark wood. This is the smallest size and they get much much bigger- enough to hold a world globe or table top. We also bought the basket it sits on- $15 U.S.

Cooper assisted me here to show scale. These are masks with faces we couldn't resist. Unfortunately, I can't get enough of them in a picture to show the detail, so you'll have to take my word for it. There are faces there, and lots of intricate carving.

This mask is an all time favorite. It's fairly old, made of wood, and hangs in the living room.

These are leather boxes. The big one is about four inches across and the lids fit into a rim on the base.

I love this bracelet. This is the one I wear most. It's made of some kind of grassy/string type material and it just looks gorgeous on my arm. Cost me two bucks.

These are very typical of the beaded bracelets you can get here- all colors and patterns and shapes. One circle or two (these are two different bracelets of two circles each). You can buy the beads loose, you can buy matching necklaces and earrings, you can get them all very very cheaply. These two together cost me three bucks.

This is a leather box with a hinged lid. It's big enough to hold legal sized papers. These are each made individually and it's hard to find two the same color/size/decoration. We overpaid for this because we liked it so much- about thirty bucks.

That's a beginner's guide to some of the gorgeous stuff they sell around here and that is considered ordinary. Our Ghanaian friends are aghast when we tell them that very few Americans can make things like this and the ones who do get premium prices for their effort because it's so unusual.

When I learn more about the native cloth (Kente cloth) and take that plunge, I'll give you the poop on that, too. It's everywhere and made on looms by the roadside- in the mornings you can see the guys setting up rocks on the far end of thirty or more feet of weaving thread getting ready to start at the hand loom...

Friday, June 02, 2006

Reality Check

Africa is not for sissies.

Even Ghana, which is known, in some circles, as "Africa for Beginners".

Perhaps, but we are still in Africa.

Yes, I have a swimming pool. But it was built by a man who has never seen a pool outside this country and who used bathroom tile, inside and out- the pool and pool deck is slicker than snot when wet, which is...well...all the time- it's full of water! Slip and fall accident waiting to happen, a few thousand miles from the nearest trauma center. Eek.

Yes, I have electricity and piped water. Each week, out of a possible 168 hours we have electricity from ECG, on average, slightly less than 100 hours. If that seems whiny to you, give it a try at your house. :-)

Occasionally, pull your circuit breaker. Not just at night, not just when you are going out, but randomly. Surprise yourself. Make it happen four or five times in one day. Practice wondering if it will come back on in a half hour or if it will wait for 10 hours. Make sure sometimes you are in the middle of watching a movie, cooking dinner, taking a shower, or entertaining friends. Just for laughs.

Now water- that's a whole other puzzle. It flows. It stops. We actually have fairly reliable city water compared to a lot of people we know. That means we get piped water often enough to keep our polytank filled so when the city water stops flowing we can turn the pump on and restore water to the house. Of course this is more problematic when you are IN the shower, alone in the house, and the water stops flowing. The pump, and its switch, are outside. Where Mark and the Guards are (praying the white woman never takes it into her head to make a mad soap-covered dash naked to the pump switch).

Food is plentiful. But don't set your heart on grape jelly, boiled ham, cheddar cheese, fresh lettuce (or a hundred other things you want). The store might have it, they might not. We have established a siege mentality and are currently the owners of no less than 26 boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (easily Cooper's favorite food) since we never know when, or if, it will return to the shelves. We are currently suffering from a lack of grape jelly (not a normal item for the British or Africans, so we wait), saltines (haven't had any of those since about February), and cucumbers (don't ask me- there just haven't been any for weeks and weeks). We suffer only so far as our cravings force us to- the lack of predictable grocery items has made us very creative in our meal selections and keeps us from humdrum dinnertimes.

We've pretty much covered the traffic, bad roads, crazy drivers and axle breaking ditches, but just as a refresher, as you drive today, imagine at every stoplight someone at least eight cars back in the line honking repeatedly the second the light turns green. Every stoplight.

I have learned economy in cooking utensils. I use the fewest pans possible to make dinner, serve up the plates in the kitchen to avoid using serving dishes, and still feel like all I do is...dishes. I haven't done dishes by hand since 1979 and when I leave here I intend never to do them again. I realize that makes me a whiny American housewife, but I don't care. And you can't make fun of me until you have washed the dishes for your family by hand for a year in a country where the hot water has to be turned on well in advance of the chore, the water itself may or may not be flowing, the lights by which you wash the dishes by may or may not be on and the availability of dishwashing soap at the store is never a sure thing. I'm just saying.

We noticed last week, while we all sat in the living room watching Hidalgo on TV (with the generator running since the power had stopped mid-movie), that it was amusing how calm we had gotten about sharing our house with dozens of lizards. We used to jump up and coax them onto magazines and relocate them outside. Now we just remark on the relative size of the one under the window on the wall and continue watching the movie. Our casa is their casa. Chasing lizards could easily become a full time occupation. Better to live peacefully with the natives.

Is it raining?

Then the house is leaking. We stopped caring about those, too. When the rain starts, one person gets a towel for Cooper's room, another person gets a towel for the dining room (at the back door), someone else checks the kitchen leak, etc. It's like clockwork. If the rain is heavy and wind driven, a couple extra towels go in Coop's room for the "special wind leaks". We don't even think much about it anymore. When the rain stops, we take the sopping towels out and hang them on the line.

The heat and humidity have warped my kitchen cabinets so that none of them close anymore without a three inch gap. Oh well.

All appearances to the contrary, we are getting pretty mature in our old age. Things don't bother us as much anymore. It just doesn't seem important most of the time. We have a lot, and so many have so little. We are learning to appreciate what we have and especially to appreciate the people we live among who are happy and productive and kind to us, even though they are making do with so much less. Less stuff, less opportunity, less help, less chances.

Why do we like it here so much? We don't know. It's a crazy place, and it's not an easy place to live, but it's a good place, a fun place, an interesting place. And the people are the best. Even if they do think we are completely lacking in good sense and judgment- they are willing to overlook our cultural shortcomings and befriend us.

Barring that soapy, naked dash to the pump switch...