Sunday, January 17, 2010

"Hey white people, it's an experience okay?"

I've been home for 13 days.

After Togo, I had a few days in Ghana to take my last exams, go to Carmen's last show and say goodbyes. On the 12th of December we left for Burkina Faso.

Burkina. The country to the north of Ghana is known for being one of the world's least developed countries. A 24-bus ride from Accra, Carmen and I knew we were in for a long one. It was dark by the time we made it to Kumasi (only 5 hours north of Accra) and we had a long way to go. The Kumasi-Tamale road was being worked on so much of it was just dirt. Then it started to rain. Comfortable with long bus rides by this point and on an STC bus (supposedly the safest)we planned on sleeping. For some reason I couldn't. Not long after I had closed my eyes about an hour and a half past Kumasi I woke up and looked at Carm who had just woken up as well. Suddenly we were jolted forward and to the side, after a few rough bumps and some commotion from the front we came to an abrupt halt.

The bus was dark. People were moving around and yelling for the bus driver. All we could see out the window was dirt. We had obviously crashed. Disoriented from just having woken up, I was scared that something was going to slam us from behind. When the light came on, we realized we were at a 45 degree angle in a ditch. Luckily, everyone was okay. What happened next was pretty amazing. With no direction, anger, or arguing, people opened the side windows and started helping people out of the bus one-by-one. Carm and I were the last ones out, we joined the other 45 passengers on the side of the dirt road in the rain.

We didn't know what had caused the accident or what was happening next, but as the only Obrunis, we decided to stay quiet and do what everyone else was doing. Minutes passed. It was still dark and it was getting colder. Nobody had an umbrella. About an hour after the crash we started to wonder what we were all waiting for. A woman with a plastic bag on her head could tell that we were confused and filled us in. We were waiting for another bus to arrive coming from Kumasi which would take us the rest of the way to Ouagadougou. So, we waited. Cars, tro-tros, trucks and buses passed. A highway patrol passed, he didn't stop. Another truck passed. "Hey white people, it's an experience, okay?"

At two and a half hours, Carmen and I started bouncing to keep ourselves warm. People laughed but we didn't care. At three hours, people started to get hungry and really cold. They started bouncing too.

Finally, at midnight, three and a half hours after the accident, a new bus arrived. Relieved, we piled in to our same seats for the next 18 hours of the journey. Before we knew it, we hit the worst muddy traffic jam I have ever seem in my life. Long story short, it had been a total of 36 hours before we arrived in Burkina.

Burkina was amazing: French speaking, Markus, moto rides, baguettes, beautiful children, cora making, gun powder tea, dirt roads, clean water, yogurt, fan joy, hanging with the locals. Everyone was so friendly and no "Obruni!" calls. We stayed with a family in Bobo-Dioulasso, played with the children all day, played cards, played music, ate an amazing vegetarian lunch they prepared for us, and enjoyed the the heat.

Luckily, the ride home was only 22 hours, though we spent one night sleeping at the station and the next sleeping in the bus. Back in Accra we repacked our things, slept our last few night in Volta hall then off to the airport. Carmen back to San Francisco and me to Senegal...but that's another blog...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

To go to Togo

Day 134.

We crossed the border at 8:36pm on Sunday night. Lots of paperwork and stamps but mostly a breeze. It was apparent immediately that we were in a different country. We were approached by men asking us in French if we wanted a moto taxi, which we understood by their motorcycle hand motion, and we simply replied, “Non merci” as if we knew what we were doing. Soon, we found a cheap hotel, set down our bags, and went for a walk.

The streets of Lome near the border are sand roads lined with neatly addressed houses and outdoor restaurants and bars. Very low key, however, we were told this area was dangerous so we stuck together in search of a Fan Milk man. Fan Milk is a company that makes frozen treats that come in bags (weird right?..but also amazing). In Ghana there is only Fan Ice, Fan Choco, and Fan Yogo but in Togo there is Fan Joy, Fan Coctail, Fan Xtra, Fan Yogo Maxi, Fan Icy, and Vanille Lait. We were on a mission to try all the flavors before leaving the country. Fan Cocktails in hand, we wound our way through the streets to lose a couple of guys who were following us and made it safely back to our hotel.

The next morning, after a bomb avocado, onion, and tomato sandwich on a fresh baked baguette, and an exciting moto ride to the tro tro station, we boarded a car for Kpalime. Kpalime is a small city right along the Togo/Ghana border adjacent to the Volta Region: lush vegetation, mountainous terrain. We spent the day walking the streets, eating Fan Joy and avocado baguettes, playing cards, and speaking French (or at least trying to). Unexpectedly that evening, we ran into Matt and Nikos, played a few rounds of Psoi and made plans to visit Kpime falls the following day.

At 8:30am we were in search of four moto taxis who would take us to the falls for a reasonable price. After some bargaining in broken French/English we agreed on a price and were on our way (moto taxis are one of my new favorite things). The falls were visible from a distance and very inviting. At the bottom, we found out we could do a 4km hike to the top for a great view of the entire region. Sounded great, problem being our moto drivers would have to wait for us as it is an isolated place where we wouldn’t see any motos. After significant bargaining without success, we decided their prices were too high and we would just walk back. “Au revoir, Au revoir”. We began the walk to the falls with our guide and before we knew it, our moto drivers were following suit. They decided our price was good and instead of waiting for us at the bottom they would just come with us. Two hours later after taking pictures with the falls and climbing the steep trail to the top to see a beautiful view of Togo from above, hawks circling, an old Portuguese dam, and laughing with our drivers, we were back on the motos on way back to town. The day was a success.

The next morning we woke up and made the journey back to Lome where we planned to stay one more night. We arrived with our giant backpacks on and walked around the Grand Marche for a few hours, slightly shopping but mostly looking for a place to stay. The Grand Marche is much different from markets in Ghana because as there are far less cars in Togo, the market just takes place along the streets, and in the streets, motos winding their way through the crowds. Hopelessly looking for a hotel within our budget, we found a Lebanese man who lives in Lome. We showed him in the guidebook which hotels we were looking for and he responded, “You go there, they kill you!” With that (and rejecting his offer to stay at his house) we headed for the border ending our trip a day early. A hop, skip, and a few stamps away, we were back in Ghana…no more avocado baguettes, but safety and familiarity.

This week: two more tests, a few last trips to the market, Carmen’s last performance, goodbyes, and a 24-hour bus ride to Burkina Faso. I’m ready...and I'll be careful.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The North

Day 126.

We arrived in Tamale at 3:30am after a 13-hour bus ride. It was dark out and surprisingly cold. Hoping to get a ticket for the 6am bus to Larabanga, we walked to the MMT station. The station was busy for such an early hour: women selling bread, pure water, knives; men riding motorbikes in Muslim smocks; toddlers sitting on the ground playing with rubbish. To find out if there were tickets, we had talk to the conductor. He wasn’t around so we sat. And waited. Brushed our teeth. Watched our bags. Hours passed. No conductor. Finally, we were told the tickets were finished. We bought tickets for the 1:30pm bus, found a place to sit, and slept. Hours passed…slowly. After a strange interaction with foreigners wanting to take us to their hotel, interrupted sleeping, buying a few pairs of Ghanaian sandals, and eating plantain chips with peanut butter it was time for the bus to arrive. A hot, long, bumpy four hours later, we arrived in Larabanga.

Larabanga: population 4,000, 100% Muslim. Mud houses, dirt roads, minimal electricity, so many children. We stayed at the Salia Brothers Guesthouse, a simple room and a simpler bathroom (a hole in the concrete with an intoxicating ammonia scent). The coolest part was we could sleep on the roof! Up a small branch ladder to the flat roof, we could not only see much of the village but we could see all of Mole National Park in the distance. It was freezing but we made it through the night, waking up to Muslim prayer on the loudspeaker at dawn …melodic and calming, nothing like the amplified Christian praise we wake up to in Legon. By 6am the town is awake and beginning the day’s work: rhythmic pounding of fufu, collecting of firewood, and the setting up of small food stands. For a long time I watched from above the life that the people of Larabanga live everyday. A life of hard work and simplicity. A life that I am envious of until I hear their stories: husband killed in a car accident just before her son was born, father shot and killed at Mole for hunting antelope, the only of four brothers who wasn’t able to go to school can hardly read or write, a classroom full of children with no teacher, kids drinking water out of a tank with bugs swimming in it.

That morning we rented bicycles. Old, single-speed, squeaky, rusty, drop-bar bicycles. Mole is 10km from Larabanga on a dirt road. The road was relatively flat with a few hills to climb and potholes to avoid. It felt great to be riding again. We arrived at the park and realized there were 5 hours until the start of the tour so we biked back to get out books to read while we waited. Hot and tired after the second 10km, we napped instead. 10km back during the hottest part of the day and we were ready for the safari. No toes allowed so we rented big rubber boots and headed into the bush following D.K., our armed guide. Walking safaris are rare in Africa because of the danger involved so we lucked out. 5 minutes into the safari we were 50 feet away from a 54-year old male savanna elephant. He was casually shaking a tree and eating the fruits that fell from it as we watched in amazement. Through the binoculars, I could see every wrinkle in his face. He walked around the tree, sneezed, and then started coming towards us. D.K. told us to back up slowly to avoid him charging, he wasn’t coming for us, we were just in his way. With mighty steps, he passed us, ignored the baboons all around, and went to dig a hole to reach a salt lick…his dessert. Now only 30 feet away, we stood in awe. It is amazing the difference I felt seeing an elephant in the wild where it belongs as compared to a zoo. Just like elephants, that moment I will never forget.

The rest of the safari was great: antelope running, baboons grooming each other, warthogs walking, birds chirping. The sun was setting over the watering holes, a giant orange African sun, and I was happy. This is Africa. We returned to our bikes at sunset and tried to peddle back as fast as we could to avoid darkness. Before we knew it, we couldn’t see the path in front of us. Passing a few pairs of cows and fireflies on the way, we made it back to Larabanga safely but hungry. This is when we met Satau.

At a small egg sandwich stand on the side of the road, a woman stood waiting for customers. We ordered two sandwiches and waited for them while we talked with the local children that came to say hello to us. The sandwiches were amazing and as we ate them, we talked to Satau. She told us that about her husband who died, her father who was shot, and her 16-month-old son, Mohammed, who was sick. She was only 24-years-old. She told us she wanted to make us banku in the morning and teach us to pound fufu, so we decided we would be back to meet her at 10am. Afterward, we followed a girl named Ama to her house where she was going to take dinner and then escort us back to our guesthouse. At her house we were met by at least 20 other children who were so excited to see us, and even more excited for us to take their pictures. The most striking thing about the scene was the 16-year-old girl who sat in the middle of all the children butchering the better part of a cow with a machete. This was completely normal. So many pictures later, we returned to the guesthouse to find that we had been slightly robbed. 30 cedi missing from my bag, 10 from Carmen’s. Was it one of the Salia brothers? Was it the small girl who came in when we were napping? One of the boys in town who was in and out of the guesthouse often? Who knows…I just hope they really needed it.

The missing money limited our activity the next day: no morning safari, no bikes, minimal food. Despite the run in our plans, I had an amazing day. Banku in the morning (fish in the pepe but I put on a smile and ate around it), pounding fufu with Satau, a tour of Larabanga, including the 600-year-old mosque, hanging out at local school, visiting with Satau at her grandfather’s house, egg sandwiches, and more playing and taking pictures with the children at night. We were the only Obrunis in the town and I felt at home.

4:30am the next morning we awoke to the bus approaching Larabanga. Lightening fast and laughing, we packed our things and ran to the stop, just in time. A hot, long, bumpy four hours later, we arrived in Tamale. Tamale lays in stark contrast to Accra: hotter, drier, Muslim, less crowded, more friendly, and the best part is everyone rides motorbikes or bicycles. The most impressive thing I saw was a motorcycle transporting (in this order, front to back) a toddler, a man, a goat, a woman, and a baby (on her back)…Now that’s efficiency. We spent the day exploring Tamale: the Center for National Culture, the central market, the side streets. After 5 days of dirt we finally took a bucket shower and went to bed satisfied with our journey to the North, alarms set to catch the 6:30am bus in the morning.

13-hours, the most unexplainably complicated traffic jam, and too many bananas later, we were home.

Traveling to Togo tomorrow.

More adventures to come.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

music and football

Day 115.

Last weekend, Carmen played in three shows at the Music Department...I went all three nights it was that good. Line up: Yerekorossi (from Burkina Faso), Pure Water, Obrubini, and Big Shot. Each night was a little bit different and so much fun. On Friday night, Prophet Fish, Big Shot’s lead singer, invited me on stage to sing “Tunamensa” with them! As I had gone to a few of Carm’s rehearsals I knew the song, and as my only part was singing the word “Tunamensa” is was not so difficult.

Sunday: Ghana v. Mali FIFA World Cup Qualifier in Kumasi…this time everything went according to plan. The area surrounding the stadium was packed with football fans and hawkers, wearing and selling anything and everything with a Ghanaian flag on it: key chains, necklaces, noisemakers, hats, visors, scarves, flags, jerseys . I wore red, yellow, and green beads in my hair and waved a small Ghanaian flag, I thought that would be enough spirit, nope.

We arrived in Kumasi five hours before the game was to start, so we did some exploring. Elle, Karen and I wandered around what seemed to be a friendly area. The further we got from the stadium, the quieter it was, which I enjoyed but soon enough we were back near all of the excitement. Somewhere along the way we decided to make up fake names and where we were from. This is something I would do when I was little and I don’t think I ever pulled it off, but here it was a cinch and so much fun. Most of the time I decided to be German so I could say “Ich mag schwerkroft”, which means “I like gravity”.

The game was much more exciting than the last as Mali is a far better team than Sudan. Last time we had VIP tickets so we were in a chill section. This time we had middle range tickets so the crowd was more rambunctious and noisy -constantly yelling at the field in Twi and Pidgin. They scored. Half time. We scored. They scored. We scored! Satisfied with a 2-2 finish, we left the stadium for the long ride home.

The road from Accra to Kumasi is one of the most dangerous in Ghana as the majority of it is not paved and covered with potholes. The bus driver, who said a prayer before we left, drove like a maniac and didn’t seem to adjust his driving to the conditions, other than swerving determinedly around the potholes and the vehicles without slowing down a bit. Miraculously, we made it back to Accra safely.

Lectures are finished. I’ve taken my dance and Twi exams. Four more finals and I will be officially done with my undergraduate education.

I’m so excited to start traveling.

Monday, November 9, 2009

one day

Day 107.

Aburi Botanical Gardens. An hour north of Accra in the hills just beyond the Accra Plains. From the entrance, you turn around to see a panoramic view of Ghana’s capital and its surroundings – from there everything looks small and clean. Directly in front of you are houses made out of cement bricks or scrap wood with tin roofs in need of repair, if there is a roof at all.

The Gardens are small and not so well organized but they are well maintained. The place was full of Ghanaians enjoying the fresh mountain air and cool weather – drumming, singing, dancing, running, laughing, and even some students copying down scientific names! Walking in the shade of unique trees covered in vines felt like a fairy tale, especially when we stumbled upon kids playing in The Strangler Ficus Tree, a Ficus Elasticoides that strangled an Afzelia Africana killing its host and creating a hollow interior…perfect for climbing.

Thunder. Suddenly, it started to rain and people from all directions went running for cover. Kids laughing, tripping, yelling, parents right along side them. When it let up, we left the Gardens and walked towards the station. Carmen bought a coconut on the side of the road and just after the man hacked it open with a machete, it started to pour. Quickly, we hid under a truck until the coconut man showed us to an overhang where we stood crowded with about twenty-five Ghanaians also waiting for the rain to stop. It was pouring harder than I’ve ever seen it pour. Then it stopped.

Exhausted, we returned to campus, ate banku at night market, and came back to our room. A dance and drumming group from the Volta Region was performing at the drama studio on campus this weekend and in return for them performing for us, we were supposed to perform for them. Carmen and my dance classes were asked to participate – people from her class performing Gown, people from mine performing Kpatsa. I couldn’t do it on Friday night but signed up for Saturday. Expecting there to be four other Obrunis and ten Ghanaians as there had been the night before, I arrived to find nobody from my class. Ten minutes before we were supposed to go on, seven Kpatsa dancers showed up, all Ghanaians. Ten minutes later, I was the only Obruni on stage in front of one hundred plus people performing a Ghanaian traditional dance. Despite my worrying that it was going to be terrible, I had so much fun.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

day 101

power is back to normal.

water is being rationed (volta = tuesdays and saturdays).

dance class is great. lessons anyone?.

it's still hot.

mosquitoes are out.

bug spray is on.

laptop is broken.

birkenstocks have holes.

i love banku.

i miss burritos.

in 64 days i'll be home.

Monday, October 26, 2009

funerals. nature walk and small things

Day 93.

Traveling on Saturdays is always a trip because in Ghana, Saturday is reserved for funerals. On a short trip (outside of Accra), you are likely to see at least one funeral, and on longer trips, it is not uncommon to see four or five. Funerals in Ghana, though largely Christian ceremonies, incorporate cultural elements that would never be see in the States. In America, people generally wear black to a funeral; in Ghana, people wear the most amazing fabric, a dark slightly shiny black with brown adinkra symbols or white with small black patterns, both with red accents. Older men simply wrap the cloth around them. Women have it made into outfits with a long skirt and matching top. A funeral can be spotted from a mile away because hundreds of people attend every one. Another difference is that during a part of the ceremony, the casket is carried by people though the streets as friends and family members crowd around clapping, singing, dancing. Unlike at home where funeral ceremonies are centered around mourning the dead person, in Ghana, funerals truly are a celebration of life.

Saturday (and exactly three months since I left): Day trip with Carm to Boti Falls in the Eastern Region. Nature hike with a guide named Frank: descended a rainforest valley emerging into a partial cave that was once the home of the natives of Koforidua, climbed vertically arriving in a savannah landscape, relaxed in the shade of Umbrella Rock eating fresh coconut, followed by small children to the three-trunked palm tree, sat on a stone that is thought to make the sitter the bearer of twins (I sat on it twice, thought it might reverse the first time, but maybe I’m having quadruplets), swam in the pool below Boti falls. It rained.

Small things:

All the women here have fake hair. Sometimes it falls out and single braids are found disembodied on the side of the road (Andrew: gross right?).

Because they all have fake hair, the women change their hairstyles monthly, sometimes making it impossible to recognize your friends.

People here sweep all day long. If there is 100 leaves they sweep. If there are 10 leaves they sweep. If there is one leaf they sweep.

My new favorite meal is banku with pepe. Banku is a traditional Ghanaian dish made from cassava and corn that essentially tastes like unbaked sourdough bread. Pepe is a combination of tomatoes, peppers, and onions – spicy. No utensils allowed.

It is so hot now that I don’t even leave the room in the morning before I start sweating.

Last night I realized that I am really going to miss Ghana.