Friday, March 30, 2007

Do I Know You?

I don't know if Ghanaians just pay better attention to what goes on around them, or if they are possessors of some vital gene I simply don't have, but we are continually amazed and humbled by the memories of the people we meet and deal with here.

We were sitting at an intersection weeks and weeks ago and a motorcycle cop pulled up next to us and chatted with Ted. Last weekend, we were at the same intersection and one of the street beggars came up to us and said,

"Good evening! I hope you were not inconvenienced by the policeman last time I saw you here...".

We both just stared at him waaaaay too long and then agreed that his unique approach and excellent memory was worth a few thousand cedi. ;-)

Then there's the basket lady I like on 5th Circular Road. Her baskets are so nice and have little touches that make them different from others we see. I bought a few small tabletop baskets from her about 5 months ago. Last weekend we went back because I wanted a carry basket. Sure enough she had just what I wanted and when I asked how much she smiled and said,

"¢80,000, but for you- ¢75,000. Just don't wait so long next time to come back."

That's the first time ever a vendor has dropped his or her price for me without cause- and since I consider her prices too reasonable anyway, I gave her the money (about 8 bucks for a carry basket you would pay more than 50 bucks for in the U.S.) and got a hug goodbye for my trouble.

We went to dinner at Chez Afrique (our outdoor, live music, neighborhood restaurant) Friday. We didn't get our usual waiter- but the man who did come to our table said,

"Long time! Do you know me?"

We pled old age and bad memories and he smiled and said,

"You work for WAGP, right? I used to be a janitor in your building in 2005."

We shook his hand and agreed it was, indeed, 'long time', and complimented him on his excellent memory.

When we left the restaurant, being old and having a bad memory, I left my reading glassed on the table in their case. When we returned the next morning to retrieve them, our usual waiter ran up to us as I entered the patio area and told me that our Janitor/waiter had taken them for safekeeping and would bring them to Ted's office on Monday- and asked his friend to watch for us and let us know if we showed up looking for them.

In Ted's words- at, say, Bennigan's, by Monday they would have hit the trash.

I won't bore you with the details of the countless places we walk into around here and hear "long time!" and get big hugs and hand shakes from people who haven't seen us for weeks. People who know what beer we drink, that we have a son who accompanies us rarely (one waiter at Ryan's Irish Pub always stops by our table and asks about his 'small brother'- even though Coop has only been in Ryan's three or four times in two years), that we like RedRed, or extra blue cheese, or lots of wasabi.

I tell you, if this country had to succeed or fail on its people alone, it would have nothing to worry about, ever.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Culture Clash

This is a refresher picture for you of Duke's two gorgeous girls, Erica (left) and Christabelle (right).

On Wednesday Duke's wife wanted to get together because we hadn't seen each other for a long time, and I suggested that we go to a new "family fun place" I had noticed, (but not gone into) so the girls would have something to do after lunch.


The place is called ChurChees and it has a nice family restaurant upstairs and a very small play area downstairs with some Chuck E. Cheese type games (four), a small carousel, and an eight foot trampoline.

Lunch was mostly fine because they cater to all tastes, although I ordered Christa a cup of vanilla ice cream to go with her lunch, and when the ice cream came, she had no idea what it was.

Jane spooned some up for her and although she was very surprised at how cold it was, she liked it enough to eat about half of it. Her little sister Erica tried it, but the surprise and annoyance on her face at the coldness of it was all we needed to know she would refuse further offers of devil ice cream.

Duke took off to pick Coop up at school (Wednesdays are half days at Lincoln) and Jane and I went downstairs to the play area.

I paid for twenty "games" and we all trooped into the room. The employees started up the four horse carousel and both girls started crying.

Finally, Jane put Erica on a horse, held her hand, and walked beside her as the carousel went round and round.

While she did that, Christa cowered behind my leg and yelled "I don't like those goats!" Granted the carousel horses were about the size of the goats that roam freely all over Accra and Ghana, and nothing I could say would convince her they were horses and that I wouldn't let them hurt her.

So much for the carousel.

We moved on to the basketball game. When it starts up, ten grapefruit sized basketballs empty into a bin so you can shoot baskets and get points. When the balls were released, Christa jumped a foot in the air with surprise and began crying again. I gave her a ball to hold and her Mom showed her how to throw one at the basket. She watched and refused to try, always keeping an eye on the ball bin in case more demon basketballs came shooting out of the hole.


A variation on whack-a-mole, where two people whack colored lights and try to make their Frog climb fastest. I did one side, Christa and her Mom did the other side. Christa never took her eyes off the frogs climbing- and when Jane beat me twice in a row, she was...unimpressed.

During all this, Erica is standing, holding on to Jane's leg, comatose, wondering what kind of Twilight Zone hell we have entered.


We tried a game where you roll balls down a ramp and try to get one ball in each of seven slots. Christa thought this was mildly interesting and played that one three times before asking where Cooper was.

That's what Jane and I wanted to know. We figured once Cooper came, the fun would begin.

Meanwhile, Christa agreed to get on the trampoline with the girl who worked there. The girl bounced, Christa looked at us like we were the strangest people on Earth. All alone, Christa was too light to make the trampoline bounce. And she had no idea why she would want to, anyway.

Enter Cooper.

The girls were glad to see him, but couldn't spare attention for him in case the carousel 'goats' got loose and tried to eat them, so Duke and Jane played the whack a light/Frog race game, shot baskets, and then we used our last token on the ball rolling game for Christa.

On the way home, poor Christa fell asleep on Cooper while Erica watched me warily from beside her Mother wondering what dumb idea I would have next.

Duke said when he got home Christa chattered about her day non-stop - especially the "killer goats".

At least the adults had fun.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Ghana is 50!

Hooray Ghana! March 6th was its 50th Anniversary of Independence!

The whole country was so excited and everything shut down for this big deal - we watched it on TV having no interest in sitting in 90+ degree heat for what turned out to be six hours.

The ceremony at the Parade Grounds started at 7AM, by 11AM they hadn't gotten to the speeches yet- eek! The Managing Director of Ted's project was there (in a suit!) and got on TV, but I doubt it was worth it. ;-)

The school kids did a really neat marching thing with flags that was so much fun to watch.

Everyone has flags on their cars and their house gates (we do!) and all the businesses are dressed up in bunting. The city has been working for MONTHS to get everything spiffy and nice for the celebration. Last Saturday an army of volunteers was whitewashing the curbing on Liberation Rd. - by hand!

We headed out in the afternoon on the 6th to get a feel for the city on this happy day and there were people everywhere- many dressed in "Ghana at 50" tee shirts, Ghana flags wrapped around their heads, small flags painted on their cheeks, and little paper flags in almost everyone's hands.

Ghanaians are a happy people generally speaking, but celebrations like this bring out a joy that is infectious. We were given a paper flag by a man walking by who smiled and yelled "Celebrate Ghana!".

It was a very cool accident that we managed to be here for this milestone- we have told Cooper he will be only 64 when the 100th Anniversary happens, and he can come back and say (to the extreme boredom of his children) "I was there for the 50th!"

The strangest thing by far has been the absence of street vendors. Starting late last week, gangs of police officers would approach intersections in tro-tros and then burst onto the street to nab the vendors and confiscate their goods.

Officially, they are not allowed to sell to people in their cars, but in practice they are terrifically handy to have around when you need a hankie, some apples, a snack or a million other things.

Usually they are left alone with only a token attempt to roust them by police, but apparently for the 50th the government didn't want all our esteemed visitors to think we were backward enough to have people selling plantains off bowls on their heads.

Even though almost all the visiting dignitaries came from countries that do the same thing.

The intersections were sad, boring, lonely places without the vendors.

This picture probably looks normal to you, but to us it looks like a ghost town. It's missing at least twenty people on foot with 15 different items for purchase on their heads.

Anyway, this website will give you an idea of what's up and what's happening during the year long celebration...

Ghana @ 50!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Adventures in Ghana, Part IV

Now for all the odds and ends from our trip that had nothing to do with our destinations, but caught our interest anyway.

In Kumasi, when we came up the hill all sweaty and vibrating from the market, I snapped this sign (hence the terrifically bad framing, etc.).

Signs like this for Doctors and clinics are pretty common, always listing the ailments the Dr. is able and willing to treat. Someday I'm gonna get a picture of the clinic by our house that has a sign listing many conditions, including "white problems". We want to know exactly what that encompasses. :-)

This sign just made me smile. There are plenty of AIDS billboards, some sponsored, some just put up by the NGOs, but I appreciated the sentiment behind this one. (and apparently you should be happy, careful and TRAVEL!)

These funeral signs more common in the rural areas. In Accra funeral notices and tributes are on large sheets of paper containing pictures, really thorough obituaries, and posted like missing persons signs, but the care (and expense!) behind these lovely signs is pretty special.

Once we hit the coast road, about 2 hours from home, we stopped at the Biriwa Hotel for lunch. We sat high on a bluff overlooking the ocean, outdoors, with just enough breeze to cool us and ordered fresh prawns and cabbage salads and looked out over this:


Okay, this next part is a little gross, but it's very much a part of life in Ghana and it took me until this trip to haul my butt out of the car and sweet talk these guys into letting me take their pictures.

There is a small mammal in Ghana called a Grasscutter. It's also known as a Cane Rat, but it isn't a rat- and they are enough of a staple here to be the object of a small Grasscutter Farming industry. But most of them are in the wild and when Ghanaians catch them, they sell them on the side of the road, all over the country (including the edges of Accra). They are eaten in a variety of ways, including grasscutter soup.

Here is a late, 3-D Grasscutter.

Why mention that it's 3-D? Because just as often the roadside Grasscutters are flat. As in pressed duck. And then they look like this:

Please note the look on my Grasscutter Salesman's face.

He is pitying me because I have just explained that

a.) I do not want to buy his Grasscutter for my dinner and

b.) we do not have Grasscutters where I come from.

What's the point of a country with no Grasscutters? He can only imagine what we eat- and it isn't good. ;-)

And finally, my new obsession- palmnuts. The really pretty, low palms with the long fronds that grow in the tropics produce palmnuts. The nuts are used to make palm nut soup, palm butter, palm oil, and palm soap. When they come off the tree they look like this:

I bought the one at bottom right on the side of the road from the woman whose foot just barely shows and her very puzzled daughter whose bare feet are at the top of the picture. I was excited to have seen the palmnuts in time to get Duke to stop and was quite a spectacle for her, I'm sure. Cost me a buck.

When we got home, I plucked the palmnuts out of what I call the Palm Nut Cone, which was actually fun since I don't have to do it more than once, and this is what it looks like empty (mostly) of nuts.

I liked the look of it, so I set it on the patio table as decoration.

Mark came to me the next day and asked if I really meant to save it. When I said yes, he gave me his usual bemused smile that conveys so much of his wonderment at what his crazy obronis will do next. (Imagine your West African employer eating a bunch of grapes and saving the empty branchy cluster thingy the grapes were stuck to for display on his coffee table because he liked the look of it).

Now I have a wire basket full of the most beautiful palm nuts! I have no intention of making practical use of them. Aside from the fact that I lack the skills, this is yet another West African activity that involves pounding and peeling and stuff. Not my area of patient activity.

So I'm keeping them until they either dry or rot.

Because they are so gorgeous...

Friday, March 02, 2007

Adventures in Ghana, Part III

Okay, now that I'm actually writing about Lake Bosumtwi, I can't find some of the stuff I was reading about before we left. I swear I read that it was one of only five meteor crater lakes on the planet, but now I can't back it up.

In my defense, if you disagree, please note that many people (and websites) refer to volcanic craters and their lakes incorrectly- they are calderas and not the same thing.

So there.

And whether it's one of five or five hundred, it's a very cool thing to see. And humid like nobody's business. A huge bowl of water, sunk in a crater hole, in a humid equatorial climate, evaporating all around you. Seriously- the worst humidity ever.

The lake itself is huge- more than 10 kilometers from rim to rim and very hard to take a picture of without an airplane (or a public domain satellite pic!) but hopefully you will get an idea of it from the pictures I do have.

Scientists have matched tectites from the meteor all the way to the Ivory Coast- the next country over. That was one big noisy impact, and certainly got the attention of whoever was hanging out here a million years ago.

We stayed at the lake's edge in a hotel next to the village at Abono. This is the view from our room...

In our usual fashion, we got a little bit lost on our way to the hotel, and ended up in Abono at the water's edge, and Duke asked directions from a guy in the village. We weren't too far off and after a short back track up the hill, found the hotel easily. As we got out of the car in the parking lot, the guy who had given us directions popped up, having simply walked from the village to the hotel (about 100 yards...)

His name was Paul and he wanted us to know he 'had a boat' and would gladly give us a verbal and waterborne tour of the lake at our convenience. I told him we needed to check in, get some lunch, and re-group before we worried about boat rides, but thanks. He smiled and headed back for the lakefront.

When we went to the shoreline terrace for an al fresco lunch, SUPRISE!- Paul was sitting in the shade nearby, waiting for us.

While we waited for lunch, I lobbied my guys for Paul and his boat tour.

But I was dealing with:

1. Duke, who has a pathological fear of water

2. Cooper, who is a teenager and is thus contractually obligated to view any parentally sanctioned activity as 'boring' and/or 'stupid' and

3. Ted, who was hot, weary, and pretty much not interested in what he correctly assumed would be an incredibly rustic cruise of questionable reliability.

Duke was easy enough- I appealed to his sense of guardianship over us and said we couldn't go out there without our African back up.

Cooper was easy too- I just pulled rank and told him he was coming, thus enabling him to make a face at me and try to spend the rest of lunch not smiling or talking in order to show his displeasure. (He didn't manage it, but at least he tries! Please don't report him to
the brethren of the United Sullen Teens Union.)

Ted was a harder sell. I couldn't counter the hot and weary- I felt it too. I couldn't refute his theory that we would be setting sail on something straight out of Gilligan's Island, but I really wanted to see the shoreline from the water and support the local tourist industry, such as it was...

His first refusal involved me going without him, but I turned my big brown cow eyes on him and won that round.

Then he wanted some facts and dollar amounts from Paul, which was just silly because as soon as we showed any interest at all, Paul considered us sold. $10.50 for all four of us.

So after lunch, we all trooped across this bridge...

past these fishing nets... (and Duke with his cat tail 'sausage')

and literally walked the plank to get into a boat of questionable seaworthiness. (Note to Steve and Judy: the boat was about 50% bigger than the LoneStar with a 25 horse motor slapped on. Putt putt doesn't begin to describe it...)

We four were joined by Paul, our Captain, his first mate, and
an unnamed dreadlocked painter/ entrepreneur.

Duke was scared spitless, Coop was bored and annoyed, Ted was resigned to his fate, and I was re-thinking my need to see the shore from the water while checking to see if there were oars or paddles with which the Cap'n could get us back to shore when we broke down miles from the village...

Our Captain is in the blue shirt, his first mate is riding shotgun, and that little Suzuki was about half the bare minimum required for the size of the boat, let alone the load (Rasta Salesman included!). During the ride, the engine sped up and slowed down on its own, but to their credit, it did the job.

Please note the look of joy and rapture on Ted's face. He must really love me.

Here is the money shot of the shore (and hotel) from the lake.

and a closer shot of a super major tree stump I couldn't have gotten from shore.

Hey. For $10.50 I was ultimately pretty happy.

And just as important, Duke liked it. He even managed to trail his hand in the water a little right at the end. He was proud of himself for doing it, and thrilled to have been so far from land for the first time in his life.

The lake itself is considered sacred to the Ashanti who live in villages all around it. They do not use modern boats or even traditional canoes on the lake, but fish from what are basically big fat planks that they kneel on and paddle with their hands. They put large baskets on the fronts of their planks and collect fish from the hundreds of traps set up all over the lake.

This is the boat parking lot for the village at Abono...

I watched a guy emptying his traps early the next morning, but before I thought to get my camera he was out of range. Sorry.

Why was I up early enough to see fishermen?

Oh... well... we started with three rooms. But the air conditioner in our room wasn't working (after 4 hours running full tilt, our room temp was 32C, over 90F) and they had no other rooms to give us. Since this was easily the most humid place we had ever been on the planet (and that includes Houston, Hong Kong, and Accra!), we were desperate for AC simply in order to sleep.

Our first thought was to trade with Duke who is always freezing around us. Ted went to his room to check on that, but then told him we just wanted to make sure he was comfortable after noting that Duke had his own AC turned down to what Ted called "ice cream temperature", and probably didn't want to trade with us.

Apparently we have given Duke an appreciation for artificially cooled and dried air. Whoops!

That left Cooper's room. We gave him a choice. Take our room and sleep hot, or share with us.

Imagine his joy.

So I was up earlier than I might have been otherwise, and got to see the fisherman. But too early to function logically and remember my camera.

Next post: odds and ends of the trip from along the road. :-)