Greetings from Ghana

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I woke to a light tap tap tapping sound outside my door and the sound of small voices talking. Suddenly roused, I popped the plugs out and heard a small voice saying behind the door, “We want to meet you!”

I stumbled out of bed, hoping my hair hadn’t become too wild in the night and discovered three small children at my door. “We want to meet you,” they said again. I unlatched the screen and let them in.

Standing before me were three children dressed in blue and white Annbell Montessori school uniforms — a three-year-old boy (Kofi) and two girls (6 and 7 years old, Rita and Nicholina). The three-year-old had been asleep in his mother’s arms when I arrived late the night before, and now they were eager to see the Obroni (white lady) upstairs. They took me in with their bright eyes and then hustled off to school.

A very slight breeze occasionally found it’s way through the lace curtains of the window above my bed, and I slept deeply and soundly in the thick hot hair. No jet lag!!! Hurray! My strategy was to not sleep until I arrived in Ghana. From Denver to Boston, I dozed off and on. Our flight was delayed over an hour, and although I had a three-hour transition between planes, that quickly vanished, and I found myself running with luggage cart between the domestic and international terminals at Logan and  checked my bags to Northwest with just 5 minutes to spare.

Crossing the Atlantic on the overnight flight, I sat next to a bright young man from Istanbul. He was with his school group from Robert College – a secondary, private Turkish school based in the United States.  Coincidentally, I had brought Snow by Orhan Pamuk to read on the plane. Snow is the story of an exiled poet from Turkey who returns to the forlorn city of Kars, ostensibly to report on a wave of suicides among religious girls forbidden to wear their heads scarves, but he is secretly drawn there by memories of a radiant woman he once loved, now recently divorced.

The young Turk informs me that Orhan Pamuk attended Robert College as well, and that this school turns out the brightest and best students from Turkey. We spend the next several hours discussing Turkish politics and popular culture and how everyone was so excited about Obama being elected President.

Arriving at 7:30 a.m. local time in Amsterdam,  I felt blurry eyed and almost sick from fatigue. Yet, not wanting to miss the opportunity to see the canals, I scurried around the airport trying to figure out how to get train tickets into town encountering all the difficulties of the uninitiated:  the machine wouldn’t take my debit card, and I had only Euro bills and the machines required coins. Finally, after converting bills to coins and finding a ticketing kiosk that actually worked, I spent another quarter hour running up and down the staircases to the various train platforms like some lost and confused tourist, which I was, looking for the right train to take. With dawn having barely broke, I made it to Amsterdam Centraal at around 9:30 a.m.

Outside the station, I walked aimlessly along one of the canals, not sure which way the city center. Turns out, I was walking along a main bicycle commuting route. Everyone — and I mean EVERYONE — rides a bicycle. It was quite chilly even in my down jacket, gloves and hat, and people – young and old – were riding their bikes! Hundreds and hundreds of bicycles! Everywhere I looked were bicycles – chained up along every bridge and railing — mostly ride cruiser bikes, and it put me to shame how I drive Daniel to school 5 blocks when it gets nippy.

I found my way finally to old town and enjoyed a large latte and some eggs before finding a  tour boat for an hour-long (covered and heated) ride through the canals. The canals are littered with house boats — about 200,000 of them in all. Some look like boats, others more like floating mobile homes – about the same size with shorter ceilings and not quite as long. I decided that I would be most perfectly happy living in one of this small tidy spaces, with plants growing on the roof and lights strung up in the windows.

Another funny fact of Amsterdam is that they make the staircases too small in the houses, so all of the furniture you have must be hoisted up from outside and brought in through the windows! So, every house has a “hoisting beam” mounted at the peak of the roof!

I didn’t have time to walk around the districts, unfortunately, and most shops and cafés were closed even mid-day on Monday. Perhaps Monday is like Sunday. Also, I couldn’t find WIFI anywhere!

On the train platform, I met a man from Iran. He  asked me how to get to the airport. Only recently having been a confused and lost tourist myself, I  became a source of travel knowledge. “Yes,” I said confidently, “the train to Schipool leaves here in 10 minutes.” We sat together on the train car and exchanged what knowledge we had of African politics, the upcoming election in Ghana, and the historic turmoil of the Congo. Kevin told me that he lives in Vancouver because Iran’s government is so screwed up. He said most people from Iran are very well educated but many have immigrated to the U.S. because they just can’t tolerate living in Iran. Mostly they live in California and the west coast.

At Schipool, the security is done at the boarding gate, so I stood for more than an hour to get through this checkpoint and then got straight on the plane. I met a man in line, Osei, who works for the utility company in Ghana and travels around the world to study the utilities practices in other countries. In just a few hours, I  would learn firsthand why Ghana needs help with its utility practices. Also in line was an American now living in Spain reading the 2nd book I’d brought along in my plane bag – Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder — the true story of  a doctor who travels the world bringing medical care to those who need it the most.

After take off, I walked the isles of the plane searching for my friends Adjei and Kari, whom I planned to rendezvous with at Schipool. After three tours of the aisles, I accepted the fact that they were definitely not on the plane and thought for sure I must have I’d screwed up my schedule and booked the wrong flight. I dozed a bit and the woke up a bit panicked. I suddenly realized I was about to land in West Africa alone and had no idea where to go or what to do. Quite by accident, looking for a movie to watch, I discovered I could send SMS text messages via the little seatback monitor in front of me. I reached a mutual friend who informed me (via $10 worth of text messages) that Adjei had arranged for his brother to pick me up at the airport in Accra. But, the location of my friends remained a mystery.

After landing, I walked off the plane straight onto the landing strip. Buses shuttled passengers to the airport terminal, where I found my bags among others in a big heap and was paged to the information desk. A customs officer escorted me to a good looking Ghanaian man waiting for me outside. He introduced himself as Adjei’s brother Sam and took my bags. I had no choice but to trust this muscular man with the friendly face to his beat up Renault in the parking lot. I dropped my purse on top of my bags, and Sam quickly handed it back to me. I  figured out after a man approached us asking too many questions that purses are best kept close to the body.

As we drove through the thick night fast and without seat belts, Sam explained to me that Adjei had missed his flight to Amsterdam, because the plane at JFK was delayed two hours. I felt bad for Adjei but relieved to know that my mind still worked and that I hadn’t screwed up the dates!

Along the way to Adjei’s home in Santa Maria, I noticed many makeshift “store fronts” constructed of tin and/or plywood boards. These stores contained everything from cell phones and DVD movies to bananas and dried fish. People walked and lounged along the roads, most wearing flip flops, jeans and t-shirts. The only light coming from the small flames of paraffin lamps.

Too tired to question my safety or where this man was taking me, I nodded off completely secure with Sam’s speedy navigation. After about 30 minutes, we started heading up a very bumpy hill to Adjei’s neighborhood. We entered a completely darkened courtyard. After we parked, Adjei’s sister-in-law greeted me with a sleeping child in her arms and informed that the electricity had went out that day. (I suppose the international research of electrical grids needs to continue!) Sam carried my bags up a flight of concrete stairs and showed me to my room on the second floor where a lonely tea light candle burned on a small table in the corner.

I showered (the water taps only run Sundays to Wednesdays, so I was lucky to arrived on Monday) and enjoyed tilapia and rice with Margery and Sam. Florence, Adjei’s younger sister, came out and teased me a little, saying “Akwaaba” meaning “Welcome” in Twi. When I replied repeating “Akwaaba” back to her she giggled at me and told me what I’d said. My response should have been, “Medasi,” meaning “Thank You!” Apparently, she was testing how much Adjei and tutored me before my trip (not at all).

After, dinner, I was so glad to fall down on those crisp blue sheets and then delighted to be awakened by the sound of bright children at my door this morning.

Now, after a breakfast of mangoes (that grow on the tree in the courtyard) and toast, and a short walk through the neighboring streets, I’m sitting on the bed, typing and listening to local music, loudly but beautifully coming in through the windows.  A slight breeze today plays across the sweat on my face and arms providing a very nice cooling effect.

When I took a walk earlier, the neighboring children were very excited to see this white woman walking around. Everyone smiles and says, “Good morning. How are you?” Waste water meanders down the middle of the road, and chickens and goats roam through the muck.

I met an artist, Bernard, in a little shack down the road who makes the most beautiful string collages. He takes photographs and places glue on boards and places the yarn in flat loops on the board to create beautiful artwork. Adjei gave me one of his pieces a couple years ago, now I’m glad to see where it came from. I’d love to get one for everyone.

There are three Internet cafés nearby. I’m typing this letter on the computer that I’ll be delivering to Krobo in a couple days, so my future emails may not be as long. The Internet cafes are small shacks about the size of a Tuff Shed chock full of antiquated PCs and CRT monitors. You pay by the minute. Before I go exploring the bandwidth possibilities, I need to convert the too many Euros I got to Cedis. Hopefully, I’ll be able to download a driver for my camera and hopefully can upload pics to my Facebook page. So glad I brought my flash drive!

That’s all for now! Adjei and Kari and Mireku arrive tonight. Margery is a professional cake baker (lots of little cottage industries in the neighborhood) and has made a cute kitty cat cake to welcome them home. Looking forward to that today!

I have no idea what time it is now, but my stomach says, “Lunch!” which also means it’s time for the daily malaria prophylaxis, so goodbye for now!


P.S. Napping after lunch, again a tapping at the door. The children have returned, “Thank you, Good afternoon, Angela. Please may we see you?”

(Back: Dennis and Mary. Front: Kofi, Rita and Nicholina)

We played and then I was discovered by a guy from the UK (Richard) and his two Ghanaian pals (Nii and Ernest). The rumor of a “Dutch” woman walking around by herself this morning spread quickly! Adjei does not arrive until tonight. My new buddies are showing me around and taking me to each of the Internet “cafes.” No coffee — just an internet link is served by the minute. My pals are teaching me all the basic language things I need to know: how to say, “how are you – ete sien” “I’m fine – aya” “thank you – medasi” “you’re welcome – akwaaba.”

One comment on “Greetings from Ghana

  1. This is awesome! An amazing, light-hearted yet very true depiction of my home country, Ghana.

    It is great & insightful how you tell your story with rich picture-portfolio. It makes your story ‘come alive!

    I am also impressed by the ease with which you have picked up the basics of ‘Twi’ and your obvious interest in learning & finding your way around.

    Then your ‘story’ about the ‘door-tappers! The wonderful children who are excited that you somehow ‘landed’ in their house.

    Great story. You make me proud.