Tim, I tried to Skype but you aren’t connected. Web service here is touch and go at best. I’m pasting this from the memory stick… Glad we planned for that. I don’t now when I’ll next be in touch. Cell phone is acquired and I will buy minutes today. I’ll be in touch ASAP and I love you.
I Made It!
As I write, I am in Accra at the home of Gunadiish, the In-Country Coordinator (an all around jovial and hospitable guy). Since he guarantees that I’ll pass out shortly, as most early morning arrivals tend to do, I won’t fight the moment when exhaustion trumps excitement. For now, that hasn’t happened.
How It All Went Down
JFK’s Delta terminal was a madhouse yesterday, teeming with those who were stranded like me the day before. I found my way to the automated check-in kiosk but was told I had to see a ticket agent. That’s when I discovered that Accra has it’s own check-in area, with good reason. The number of bags people were transporting was astounding. One guy was charged nearly $500 with the new fees and he was less than prepared for the big surprise.
Once checked in, I met a family in security. Better stated, they met me. Two young boys going to Ghana had a million questions about where I was going and why. By the end of our conversation, I had been adopted. They were from Long Island so I scored points for having a husband from Brooklyn. When we got to the gate they were sure to tell their mom, “We need four seats, three for us and one for her.” I then heard stories about how their aunt and uncle owned a bank in Accra. “They don’t just work there, they own it. That means we’ll get FREE MONEY when we get there! FREE Money!” I didn’t have the heart to tell them anything different.
On the plane, I met Diantha, a young woman who works in international government aid. We talked so much that I never realized the plane hadn’t moved for an hour. She told me about living in Haiti for five years and how she would set out past the villages to live in peace for a month at a time, dropping all calls from her cell and having no access to email. I told her it sounded wonderful. She told me she’d come out a little weird … just like I would after this month.
Even with the delay, the flight time was ten rather than the typical eleven hours so we arrived on time. The first thing I noticed upon landing is how red the earth is here. The dusty clay-covered roads are so vibrant in contrast with the deep green trees along the edges of the city. The iron content must be very high. The city is also very widespread. I could see thousands of structures, although not clearly, from the center section of the 767.
The airport in Accra is easily navigated. I made my way through the orderly, well marked areas and was caught off guard only by the silhouette of a lizard crawling on a wooden wall just past the window. It made me laugh, which always looks weird when standing alone. I got a cart, loaded my bags, changed some money (which is very close in value to the US dollar) and wheeled through customs with no issues. The only thing that struck me was the customs agent who inspected the children’s books and said, “I wish my child was going to get such gifts.” From the gravity in his voice I knew he truly meant it.
Gunadiish and Christian, his driver, were among the masses outside the gate waving Village Volunteers signs as promised. I pictured a more frenetic reception but we moved about quickly after friendly handshakes and hellos. They loaded my bags and whisked me away down the streets of Accra where, among the most lush and beautiful flowering trees, women carried enormous tubs of pineapples and bananas on their heads.
I got some historical context along with an introduction to Ring Road, the main drag adorned with billboards featuring Guinness products and beautiful Vogue-type Ghanian fashions. Street vendors stood between two lanes of crazy traffic holding items for sale up to passenger windows. Gunadiish took a book about Obama from one, cooly bargained a price and took his time paying before the light turned green. From then on we all engaged in a spirited political discussion. (VV warns against this but we were all safely on the same page.) The occasional goat stood watching this bustling world go by in the outdoor shops lining every inch of every street. Welcome to rush hour.
Once parked in Dansoman, a suburb of Accra, we passed behind the cell phone shop through a metal door with all my bags, followed the dirt path stepping over the open sewer, and entered into a dirt courtyard with several benches and a small dog tied to one of the bench legs. Here several apartment units converged and neighbors looked on with the yapping dog as Gunadiish keyed into his unit. I smiled and waved to them receiving timid smiles in return.
With shoes off and in through the single-file front hall, we passed through a kitchen and into an air conditioned living space. Once I dropped my bags and settled on the couch, Gunadiish said with outstretched arms and a great smile, “Welcome to my ghetto.”
Some Americans might see more truth than humor in this jest, but Gunadiish has made his apartment very comfortable. Off the front hall are two small rooms, one with a toilet, one with a shower, and the small sink is in the entry itself. The kitchen is a bit tight with plastic chairs stacked in the corner, cases of water stacked beside them and a small table accompanied by a stool. These spaces are not air conditioned but the important rooms are kept quite cool. Through the second kitchen door, railroad style, is a living room and then a bedroom both of which have walls and windows covered with light blue and tan drapes. These serve as decoration as well as a means to keep the heat out. Aside from a central compact fluorescent bulb, little outside light makes its way through the fabric and yet the atmosphere is cheerful with many photos of volunteers and family with Gunadiish encircling the upper portions of every wall. Great care has been taken to keep things very clean. The dark purple carpet hasn’t a spec of lint. As a final touch, an Obama tee is hung prominently next to the couch.
In the living room we enjoyed a stereo, CNN on TV, and internet, kind of. Internet “speed” here is an oxymoron. I’ve been showing my host around WordPress.com and Windows Live Writer as an alternative to Blogger when there is access. The power went out twice already so we’re taking it one step at a time. Gunadiish does web design and coding (as evidenced by his bookshelf), is on Facebook, and has Skype so we have been in total tech-talk mode. This also led to a discussion about the precarious condition of the dam at Volta Lake and thus the fragility of the nation’s energy supply. There are two units on the floor that protect his electronics from frying as the power surges create waves that would make the Honolulu surf jealous. I must admit, this makes me a bit nervous to plug in when I get to Have.
We meandered through topics such as Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, media filters and consolidation, capitalism and government. I taught Gunadiish idioms like “party pooper” and Gunadiish deciphered what specifically constitutes cursing in Ghana. (Taking the Lord’s name in vain in any way is off limits as most of the country is Christian. Everything else appears to be fair game, unless I misunderstood). All of this has been mixed with a LOT of laughter. At one point, Gunadiish turned to me and said, “You’re the volunteer and I’m learning more from you!” This is absolutely untrue, but I was happy to help determine that a US college asking for his help in searching for Ghanaian students was not a hoax.
The bathroom is an interesting adventure. The door is locked from the outside until you enter and lock it from the inside. A sign reads “Sit down before you pee. Do not stand.” When you turn around, you learn from another sign not to flush toilet paper but to put in in the waste basket. Before you flush, two drops of bleach get added to the water and then you can hit the handle. My favorite additional signs were those with philosophical text on the door:
Always be engaged in Pun’ya (virtue, those actions which lead to the cosmic goal) and always avoid Pa’taka (sin of commission and omission). Always try to be with those people who are engaged in Pun’ya. Never be with those people who are engaged in Pa’taka. This is because these Pun’yaa’ne people who are engaged in Pun’ya will give you outer suggestion, good outer suggestion, positive outer suggestion. Pa’takiis will give you negative outer suggestion, and their suggestions are detrimental to the progress of the human society.
– Shrii Shrii Anandamurti
Virtue and vice are temporal entities. These things have nothing to do with man’s relationship with the supreme father… High or low, upgraded of degraded, all are equal for him because the heaven is his creation; the Hell is his creation… He is in Hell also… You must not think that you are a sinner, that you are a degraded person. If you think that you are a sinner, it means you are meditating on sin… A man becomes just like his object of ideation, his object of meditation. You should think, ‘I am the son of a great father… and a day is sure to come when you will become one with your great father.”
– Shrii Shrii Anandamurti
Just after my arrival, I was introduced to my sleeping quarters for tonight. I’ll have a mosquito-netted bunk while a mother/daughter team arriving this afternoon will take the queen size bed to the left. Another volunteer arrives this evening taking the other bunk while Gunadiish sleeps on the floor in the living room. A rooster is crowing outside the window right now and I’m sure that he will serve as the alarm when tomorrow, at 9 a.m., Christian takes us all out of Accra. I’ll get out in Have, about 2.5 hours away, and the others will continue on to Kpando (said Pandoo) about another half hour down the road.
Paul from EDYM Village just called to welcome me and make plans, although I heard from a little Rasta bird that I should be pro-active in choosing my activities or I’ll be at the mercy of others choosing for me. For now, all I want to choose is which bunk to nap in. I just hit the wall.
PS: Gunadiish just offered me a can of prunes. He got them from another US volunteer and laughed, “My friends all ask where I get this stuff. I am like an American… living in Ghana.” He followed this with another hearty laugh.
Oh yeah, this is going to fun.
After my nap, we left for the airport to pick up 3 more volunteers. On my way through the bathroom door, my finger caught the latch incurring a small but somewhat deep gash. Since we were in a hurry, I let it bleed hoping that the germs would be carried out with the flow. There was no way I’d find the small tube of Neosporin in my bags now. The throbbing and swelling was uncomfortable throughout the night and I hope for no signs of infection but there is always the Cipro if needed.
In our search for a taxi, every driver wanted 10 cedis (close in value to dollars) rather than the typical 7. Aggravated with them all, Gunadiish turned to me and said, “It’s because of you.” I suspect that the drivers’ assumption is that white people can afford more so should be charged more. I offered to stay out of sight until a fair price was agreed upon, jumping in the vehicle only after the money was settled. Gunadiish laughed but his stress would not subside. We were under the time constraint of the new volunteer arrivals. Pat and Nat, mother and son (not mother and daughter as I had expected but it seems pronouns are often interchanged here), would arrive at 6:00 from London and Gunadiish feared that nobody would be there to greet them. After walking away from five or six stubborn negotiators, we finally stumbled upon a fair deal.
Hitting evening rush hour, brought back memories of my childhood growing up on the sandy shores of a small cottage town on Lake Erie. The smell of baked corn husks and burning refuse wafted through the air with the sweet scent of a Fourth of July beach party. Oil lanterns aflame on vendor tables flickered down the streets. Bullying our way into each turn through oncoming traffic, it occurred to me then that there were no stop lights. That morning it hadn’t stood out because it was daylight (and I was less than awake). With nightfall at about 6:30, I could see only the soft glow of headlights or the red brake lights, no green or yellow was anywhere to be found until we got closer to the airport.
Arriving a bit late, Pat and Nat were very pleased to finally see friendly faces. Someone had offered Pat the use of their phone, an act that appeared as kindness. She learned only after hanging up that it was for a fee.
We all had a bite to eat at the airport’s outdoor Chinese restaurant and I learned that Pat had held an “auction of promises” in order to fund the travel for several students at her school. She was meeting up with them and her husband already stationed at the Missahoe Orphanage in Kpandu. By 8:30, we met up with another volunteer arrival, Emily from the US, and Christian, our driver. An exhausted Emily wasn’t prepared for every Ghanaian who greeted her with a hearty handshake and “You are welcome.” Personally, I really like it.
All six of us and 7 enormous bags piled into a tiny five seater. When young Nat had to share the front passenger seat with Gunadiish, he asked for the seatbelt. Gunadiish said, “Don’t worry. We don’t use those much around here.” Looking behind me, I realized that there weren’t any. I later read a billboard saying, “Did you know that wearing a seatbelt is the law?” This is great in theory but too many vehicles just don’t have them.
Once back, I took my shower in the evening hoping to avoid early morning, Western style grooming. What I got was a frigid blast from the handle that was marked hot. It was difficult to force my head under the faucet but I had already committed to a head full of shampoo. So much for easing in to sleep with my heart racing from the shock. I’ll really have to get used to this.
Added the following day…
Seeing that Gunadiish was exhausted from his full day (his is no 9-5 job), I tried to sleep so he could also retire. With the bedroom air conditioning set to ice cold, my head sopping wet and no top sheet or blanket on the bed, I lay awake thinking about the sweltering heat radiating off the road this afternoon. It was of no use. I froze. (I knew I should have nabbed that Delta Airlines blanket.) I spent most of the night wrapping my warm fingers around my cold toes. I eventually crawled out from under the mosquito netting and grabbed my shower towel to use as a blanket. Still wet, it was only slightly better than nothing. Then, as I was finally about to fall asleep, Nat’s snoring began. (He had warned me that this would happen thanks to his upper respiratory infection.) Emily did a lot of shifting in the bunk above while talking in her half-sleep. By 5 am, when the rooster crowed, I had all but given up.
Breakfast consisted of bread and instant Nescafe with powdered cream and sugar already in the single serving packet. As we ate, all four of us admitted to having the worst night’s sleep due to the cold. Nobody said anything during the night because we assumed every one else was comfortable. So much for being polite. Next time it’s all about being honest.
Of course, too much honesty isn’t always a good thing. Emily (in the gray tank) was entirely too honest, announcing how tired she was, that she hates the smell of burning peat, that her mother called to make sure she had a toilet where she was going and that she doesn’t have the energy to do more than she’s asked. I honestly wanted to know why she bothered to come.
No matter the sleeping circumstances or negative attitudes I’m subjected to, I AM IN ACCRA. I wish you could see my happy face!