Friday, September 29, 2006

You Can Check Out Any Time You Like...

Gah. Remember my trials trying to book airline tickets for our first vacation from Ghana? Written to the strains of the Eagles' Hotel California?

Fun times, redux.

No airline website will let me book or pay from Ghana. Third World countries inspire suspicion in companies all over the world and even the sites who will let me check available flights will take me no further.

So my trek began, again.

Ted and I headed down to the Lufthansa office and sat down with a reservations clerk. She was kind, friendly, helpful, and gave us pretty much what we wanted so we prepared to pay.

Not so fast, Obroni.

To take a credit card, she needs supervisor approval. The supervisor is out of town and will not return until the following Wednesday.

No, she can't take a check, either. That would require the same approval from the same absent supervisor.

This leaves the cash option. Cash in Ghana is no mystery to anyone who has been reading this blog. The largest bill in the country is the equivalent of about $2.25. And that's if you can pry ¢20,000 notes out of the bank- something that I have only managed to do about 30% of the time.

I had to pay for my little white car in cash. No U.S. Dollars, please. Duke and I nervously conveyed two shopping bags full of cash to Tema on that day, and that was a lucky ¢20,000 note day!

The plane tickets are somewhat less expensive than my car was, but not much, and I'm unwilling to risk life and limb carting buttloads of local currency all over town for the privilege of paying someone way too much money to fly me out of the country.

And there's the rub.

It's impossible to do so many things here because Ghana is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a 'trouble spot'. Five major international airlines fly into and out of here every single day (one of them multiple times a day), yet it's nearly impossible to book and pay for a flight if you live here. If you are booking round trip from outside Ghana, no problem.

But don't try to leave once you are already here. They'll gitcha every time.

So fine. I go back to the Lufthansa office the next week to meet with the supervisor and see if she will agree to accept my credit card (which carries my picture) for payment. As usual, I am the only one in the office that doesn't work there- what a surprise! Go figure why Ghanaians aren't lining up outside to deal with this stuff.

Unfortunately, of all the people working there, the supervisor isn't one of them.

"Oh! You just missed her! She had a meeting and won't be back until Monday."

When apparently I will return to beg them to take my money.

I go back on Tuesday. A different reservations clerk motions me to her desk. I explain why I am there.

She tells me they don't take credit cards. Sigh.

I tell her "Yes you do." and that I have been instructed to speak with her supervisor to obtain approval.

She reluctantly disappears for a few minutes and when she returns not only do they accept credit cards, but she has a form that pops right up on her computer into which she can insert information from said card. Gosh! From "we don't accept" to "actually my computer is already set up for it" in just 15 minutes. Who says miracles don't happen?

She typedy-types for a few minutes, then gives me a sad face worthy of Sarah Bernhardt and points to a line on her computer screen.

"Card denied."

I smile like the mature person I hope to become, take the card from her and call America on my cell phone.

I have gotten good at calling America in the last year or so- you would be surprised how often the need arises. I can recite faithfully the recorded announcement that begins "The 800 number you have dialed is not free outside the U.S. if you do not wish to be charged for this call..."

In any case, my behind is still firmly parked at her desk, and my reservations clerk is somewhat surprised that I didn't just take my card and my "Denied" shame and slink from her presence. I reach Citibank and explain the situation.

The gentleman on the other side of the Atlantic calls up the transaction information.

My spiffy clerk has entered the expiration date wrong.

I thank him, hang up, and commence a tutorial about dates.

Granted outside the U.S. dates are reversed (day first, month second) but that is apparently not the problem- she holds a thumbnail just below the relevant month number and says "September?" Ummm. Not even close.

So we try again.

Card denied again. (Sarah Bernhardt sad face replaced by a "See? You are a deadbeat." face)

Call America again.

Spiffy clerk has entered the account number wrong. I ask the lady on the other side of the Atlantic to hold the phone as I help SC re-enter the number to avoid yet another transatlantic connection fee...

Sensing that I am not going to leave her desk without my tickets, SC gives in and completes the transaction, thus confirming that they do, indeed, not only take credit cards, but take MY credit card which seems to piss her off beyond all reason.

Needless to say, we will not, in future -like apparently every other sane person in Ghana- be booking any flights out of here on Lufthansa. Hopefully the airline will always have enough business from other countries, because they would never last a day if they relied on their local Ghanaian office.

On the upside, this spiffy reservations clerk is almost unique in my experience here.

There's always one in the barrel and apparently it was my turn to take a ride with her...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Public Service Porn

Warning, explicit stick figure sex ahead. If you are easily offended, you may want to click through.

This is our new all time favorite billboard. It's in Osu, on the Ring Road.

It's very important to use condoms in HIV infected Africa (and everywhere else!), so we appreciate this billboard's willingness to demonstrate, with stick people, all the ways they can be used.

Every single one.

I have no more words for you (except that the E and the A are my favorite letters).

(don't forget you can click on the picture to make it bigger. It's educational!)

Monday, September 18, 2006

Your Waiter Tonight is Kwame Ababio.

We eat out a lot. I have a husband who not only thinks hot dogs and macaroni and cheese are actual dinner fare after a hard day's work, but who also appreciates the finer points of letting someone else do the cooking and cleaning up (or maybe he just loves me a bunch).

Anyway, we are regulars at an embarrassing number of restaurants around town, and some of our waiters even predict (correctly) what we will order when we sit down.

When we get "known" at restaurants in the U.S. we tend to move on, but here we are wallowing in our hearty "Welll-come! Long time!" and the personalized service we get. The bartender at the Ange Hill Hotel will bring our Star Beers before we can even get our butts comfortably arranged on the chairs in the outdoor bar.

And yet.

Don't mess with the stuff on your table. Ghanaian waiters are very well trained in their jobs, instructed in exactly how to do things, where things go, and when to do it all. Ted and I tend to re-arrange our table tops to suit ourselves. This means we move candles, flower arrangements, salt'n'pepper, etc. to one side so we can see each other and share food. Ghanaian waiters, with almost no exceptions, will return to our table and replace each item we have moved to its original, correct placement.

Since we are immature, we sometimes move stuff just to see if they notice.

They always do.

The same deal applies to your food when it comes. The waiter will set the plates where he has been trained to set them, no exceptions, no moving them until he is well out of sight. This is rarely an arrangement conducive to eating, but is usually pleasing to the eye.

If you are outside and having a Coke or beer from a bottle, they will leave the bottle cap loosely on top to keep out flies. Good idea, but we often forget to replace the cap. The waiter will patiently come and do it for us. It's the rule.

I can't remember the last time I had to pour my own beverage- bottle of water, bottle of Coke, bottle of beer- they all come to the table sealed so you can witness the cap being removed, and then the waiter pours your drink for you. And refills it anytime it gets below half. We have occasionally been scolded for refilling our own drinks, although most of our waiters are used to us doing it by now.

Sunday night we ate at a new Chinese restaurant that had napkins folded all fancy and stuffed flower-like into wine glasses at each place. After we chose our table, our waiter came over immediately and snapped open our napkins, then carefully place one corner of it under the salad plate and the rest over the edge of the table into our laps.

Since Ghanaian restaurants tend to use their tablecloths over and over in an evening no matter what gets spilled on them we are used to a variety of schemes designed keep them as clean as possible, but this was a new one on us. We didn't want to mess up their tablecloth, and knowing what slobs we can be, we left the napkins in place and basically did Yoga poses when we needed to dab the corners of our mouths. Plus we lived in fear of accidentally grabbing the tablecloth along with the napkin and upsetting the whole shebang.

Speaking of Chinese restaurants...we have been to no less than six different ones in our time here (we like Chinese food a lot), and every single one of them offers a hot steamy towel with which to wipe your hands before the meal (and a few of them do so after the meal also). This is a nice touch, except the towel boy always brings them in a tray and hands them to us with tongs. This is because they are TOO HOT TO HOLD. Yet he hands them to us anyway.

And we take them.

And then do the hot potato dance with it until it unfurls, when we wave it like a flag of surrender trying to cool it off. We have seen other patrons manage this ritual without the histrionics, but we can't seem to develop the asbestos hands necessary to act like grownups. At least we amuse our towel boys.

Last weekend we were at Ryan's Irish Pub and decided to eat outside on the patio because it was such a nice night (and no one else was out there). We sat at our favorite picnic table and our waiter showed up with nice cushions that attached to the benches with elastic bands. We told him he was spoiling us and his grinning reply was, "Of course I am! That's my job."

I'm trying real hard to imagine that scene at our Texas or California Bennigan's and I'm just not getting the visual.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Roof With a View

Last week I was talking (online) to friends back in the States. I was asking their help with some song lyrics we had heard while sitting in our favorite rooftop bar and I realized that typing the words "rooftop bar" would evoke all sorts of erroneous images in their heads.

So this is a post about rooftop bars, Ghanaian style. Just to clarify. :-)

This particular place is fairly close to home and very close to Ted's office. It's called the Neighborhood Pool Bar and Grill. Downstairs is a bar, some high top tables, a small alcove with low tables, five blue felt pool tables (one is L shaped and we still aren't sure of its origin or rules of play), and assorted white naugahyde sofas and love seats around the edges of the main room.

Upstairs is the "smoking area" which is a section of roof (about 20X30 feet) with a half wall around the outside, a bartender's window with coolers, and eight high top tables with chairs, with music piped up from the DJ booth downstairs.

Since it's outdoors, what smoke there is gets blown away so we always go upstairs when we're there (we've only gone to play pool once- it's incredibly busy and the tables are always in use). We are, for some reason, almost always the only obronis in the place. Occasionally two or three young Lebanese men will show up briefly, but for now, we stick out a lot with our pale skin (and maybe more importantly, with our rickety old selves. The average customer age is about 25-30...).

You can get food (lots of big salads, some sammiches, kebabs) and at night the building is decorated with fairy lights (small single colored strings of lights) strung along the roofline and front walls, so the atmosphere is very cheerful.

What the bar looks out on is a typical neighborhood street. It's next door to a lot that contains a partially finished house (the foundation and support beams for the walls) that will be finished as and when the people who own the property have the money to proceed. It's not unusual for homes in Accra to be built over a period of years this way.

That's the "rooftop bar" where the man and woman are standing in the orange building, and the Shower of Blessings store is where you can pick up dry sundries. All the overturned benches and tables are in use on weekdays and at night- usually by the light of large citronella candles, then set this way for a Sunday when business is slow. One woman has a grill for plantains and kebabs and another has stacked, peeled local oranges. As we sit at the roof top bar, we can watch the people who live on this property going about their business, hanging clothes on a line, sweeping the dirt clean (a surprisingly good way to keep a dirt floor tidy!), doing roadside business, while their children play and yell and act like children everywhere.

The structure at the front right corner of this shot that looks badly whitewashed is one of two things on the lot with walls and a roof. We have watched many different people wander into and out of it, and assume when shelter is needed, everyone gets a space. The two stands in front of that are the kebab stand and the peeled local orange stand.

Directly across the street is this house...

It is farther along in construction than the lot next to the pool bar, and occupied while the owners wait to accumulate enough money to continue.
This is really typical.

Everything is smooshed together in Ghana- people out for a night of pool and music right next to people scratching out a living selling oranges one at a time. It has become so ordinary to us that until I typed the words "rooftop bar" the whole scene hadn't even seemed odd.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Old Story, New Wrinkle

Electricity. We are all getting a close up education in what it takes to provide it.

There is more demand for power than Ghana can provide and the load keeps increasing because Ghana is a healthy, emerging African nation. But this is still a third world country, and the infrastructure put in place by the Colonial Brits is aging and frail.

So the latest solution is scheduled rotating power outages. "Scheduled" being a relative term.

Actually, the kids at Cooper's school knew all about it and filled him in, but we were clueless since we don't subscribe to the local newspapers (no one does- you have to buy them from street vendors at the go-slows and unless Cooper needs one for school we usually forget...).

So the new regime began for everyone whether they read the paper or not.

Whether they have a generator or not.

Whether we like it or not. ;-)

At 6AM or 6PM (no discernable pattern yet) every third (or fourth or second) day, our power goes off for twelve hours. It was off last Wednesday from 6am to 6pm, Friday from 6pm to 6am, Tuesday from 6am to 6pm and today it went off at 6am again.

Electricity roulette. With a sure thing at the sixes.

I wonder and worry a little about the lady across the street because she doesn't have a generator, but then again, she has lived in Ghana her whole life and this is hardly a new problem for her.

Doing without power for a few hours has been easy and not much of a disruption- I rarely turned on the generator unless the outage exceeded the insulating capacity of the fridge or I was in the middle of a load of laundry or something. But twelve hours at a time is beyond our little fridge's ability to hold enough cold air to keep the frozen food frozen.

And no music, computer, or TV for twelve hours stretches my ability to entertain myself.

It's possible to manage without the AC during the day- heck, most Ghanaians do it 24/7! But at night, we become sodden messes without at least the fan to blow across our bow (or stern).

So we fire up the generator. And try not to dwell on what we'll do when that craps out, because we are for sure in better shape than the vast majority of electricity users, although I sometimes wonder if living like a native instead of a European would be a more workable solution. :-)