Friday, May 20, 2011

Zack in Amsterdam

10 degrees Celsius is 50 degrees Fahrenheit, a fact lost entirely upon me when I picked out my clothing to wear last night. Five months of a fairly standard 80 degrees has distorted my sense of temperature. I assumed Europe would be enjoying summer when late spring is more like it. I surely stick out like a sore thumb much more than usual with hiking boots, tan shorts and a worn tropical, button-up shirt.

First impressions, more English translations would help but people are friendly enough. I was quickly redirected to another platform by a kindly trash collector, barely catching the train to Amsterdam Centraal. For breakfast, I order something vaguely similar to a favorite of Coffee Cue, a chocolate waffle with banana, corresponding roughly to pancakes with Nutella, of which I am reminded of as it sits just behind the counter. With the exception of Hotel Le Galion in Lome, Togo, I had not had a really breakfast in months so it was rather top notch.

Also interesting, the area I am in just off Centraal station does not seem terribly busy for being in the middle of the morning commute although the train in was relatively empty as well. Of course, there are people on bicycle, plenty of them compared to what I am accustomed too. I would guess that this particular district has turned itself into a Disneyland of sorts, catering to tourists as I walked by a deserted casino and several shops selling unmentionables. It may be an indication of the tourist economy there or the Dutch work ethic.

Wandering further in the neighborhood, HotelScooter offered three hour bicycle rentals for 8.50€ so I explored the city that way. I rode up and down endless kilometers of canalside streets, past the Anne Frank House, and up still more narrow streets. Amsterdam has got to be one of the most friendly bicycle cities in the world as new streets are without dedicated bicycle lanes and drivers are rather kind to bikers. Pedestrians also provide a grudging respect. At some of the traffic lights, there are even lights similar to walk/don’t walk signs but with outlines of bicycles. Plus, I was in the company of a great many other cyclists which is a refreshing change from both Ghana and the US where that is rarer. While I was helmetless, no one really speeds as most of the bikes are not really made for it, leisurely paced rides are the name of the game. There were even specially built bikes with from compartments which can be used to house kids, dogs or both. I wonder if the occasional significant other must ride there too.

By the time I got to Dam Square, the rear tire gave out on me, giving me my 11th flat tire in as many months. Luckily, wheeling my bike back to the shop was not far as I had been much further than that. He gave me a new one and extra time if I so desired. I decided that my last stop on the new bike was Vondel Park, the Central Park or Boston Commons of Amsterdam. As Amsterdam is a rather elderly city, it was small but a refreshing change of pace compared to Amsterdam.

I had lox over sliced bread and a blueberry smoothie just across from Amsterdam Centraal Station. I wandered historical neighborhood and the Chinatown just nearby before climbing back on the train Schiphol airport. Unlike the US, the Dutch installed a train station below the floor of their terminal so it was easy to do. If anyone hopes that I smoked unmentionables or saw the unmentionables district, they will be sorely disappointed as neither terribly appealed. There were very few people smoking unmentionables and the unmentionables district had little appeal as well.

Going Home

At times, I never thought this day would arrive (or by now it has fallen behind). It was surreal, flagging a cab and driving to the airport, taking the route I have done countless times on my bike, in a tro-tro or in another taxi. It seems I was teased as it took a full 45 minutes instead of what should have taken a mere quarter hour. My arrival at Kotoka Airport, named for a certain general of the same name who was shot there in the 70’s, was to a quiet place with the other BA passengers on a half full flight looking for their bags. Leaving tonight, not only was my flight full but there were half a dozen other widebody planes filling up to. Thus, chaos reigned although security was quick and boarding was relatively easy to.

And where I am headed? Amsterdam of course which I sure was the first place that popped into your head. Of course, it is only for a mere 11 hours or less if my debit card fails to perform. In order to come home as early as I did, I had to use Delta miles which got me on KLM which has been rather top notch so far. I have a suggestion or two in my pocket for to do in Amsterdam although it will revolve around a café with a decent breakfast, non-instant coffee, and a free walking tour. Of course, all of that will be in Euro prices but still, a nice change from too salty egg sandwiches and instant Nescafé. I may even get in a little more blogging. And I have never set foot on Netherlandish soil so for me, this is a real treat, right down to added to my passport’s stamp collection.

Originally , I was supposed to meander on home early. However, I got lucky with the exam schedule and unlucky with bad chicken so I decided that getting into Western New York ten days early would be better than sticking around. Sure, I could have gone up to Mole National Park or one of the great national parks in Benin but after my last hurrah to Benin, my funds petered out. Coming home early also allows me to get a week extra of work in for the summer.

More importantly than any of those reasons, I have to see dear Ruth whom I have not laid eyes on since January. While she said distance makes the heart grow fonder, my heart said that shrinking that distance earlier is a great thing indeed. On the home front, we added a new member of the family. No, we did not upgrade one of my sisters but simply added a cat to what had been a two dog mix. The last cat we had made a one-way trip to the farm due to a coping with death mechanism that failed to involve the litter box. Apparently, Zoe can deal with Ginny without a problem which should not be too difficult a task given that Ginny is afraid of little kids. I wonder if they all sleep on my parent’s bed.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Talking about the Foreign Service

Those of you who know me well know that I harbor diplomatic ambitions. My dream career at present is to become a Foreign Service Officer (FSO), political cone, at the Department of State. I have been exceedingly lucky to meet people who can help me achieve this. My mentor served with a political officer who currently works at Embassy Accra and was kind enough to introduce me for a meeting. After meeting a fellow FSO wannabe while signing up for classes, I invited her along after confirming a meeting. Wannabes should stick together after all.

He began with talking about his position. One of the best aspects of his job is to simply provide results. That is what Main State (State Department headquarters in Washington) and Washington (Capitol Hill and the White House) care most about, and not so much about how those results were achieved as long as the Embassy remains productive and efficient. The “unless otherwise directed” phrase best describes this as often times, a mission will simply tell Washington that this is what they are going to do unless otherwise directed and if no one responds, it is off to the races. In the course of his job, he has dealt with explaining why the US is invading Iraq and why the host government should be supportive of this, assisted American businesses such as Kosmos and Exxon Mobil navigate the burgeoning Ghanaian oil bureaucracy, and at mission higher-ups discretion, represented the U.S. at a women’s trade fair along with the diplomats of a few other countries, and a host of other duties. He told us that there is not a moment he has ever regretted joining the Foreign Service (FS).

He talked about lifestyle of an FSO, saying to my colleague and I that one must embrace the lifestyle or else you’ll never be happy. What is the lifestyle? Moving is important. Most FS jobs last about three years, transitioning to another post mainly during the summer. Most of the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan jobs are about one year and junior officers spend their first two two-year posts processing visas. Over a 26 year career, this diplomat lived in nine different countries including Washington D.C. That appeals greatly to me as I think that that transition to a new job with new people will break up things perfectly for me. I think that doing that is a great idea and is one of the main reasons why the FS carries so much weight in my mind.

When asked about his favorite post, he said that every post had its ups and downs. While he enjoyed most aspects of Kenya, thirty-five of his friends were killed in the 1998 Embassy bombings. A close friend was violently murdered. Nairobi is significantly more dangerous than Accra as violent crime is very rare here while it is more commonplace there. While serving in Suriname under an Ambassador that he did not get along with at all made him dread going to work, he learned to fly-fish there through some native guides, learning on waters that had seen few white faces and with some of the best fishing worldwide. When one remarked that a road would eventually be constructed through his homeland and that he was told that it would bring jobs, schools and tourists, he dismissed the development as ultimately not being good for his people. When serving at a hardship, unaccompanied post in the horn of Africa, he said that his colleagues were life-long friends. Apparently getting shot at can do that to a group of people. In conclusion, he noted that if we were happy with Ghana on balance, we would probably be cut out for the Foreign Service.

Why must one embrace the lifestyle? FSOs must spend a significant chunk of time overseas. Breaking down the diplomatic corps, two-thirds of the jobs are located overseas and about one third in Washington, reporting to Main State. Therefore, he told us to expect to spend about two thirds of our career abroad. While there are some 5,000 FSOs, recall that there are five cones or jobs, political, public diplomacy, management, economic, and consular. Then, there are various grades or rankings. Language training requirements, medical clearances, hardship posts, and unaccompanied posts all bring that 5,000 job number to about 50 that one would be immediate eligible for. Out of that 50, you are tasked to list six on your bid list as jobs that you immediately qualify for.

On the bid list, he suggested that as a political officer, one should seek to build a relationship with a bureau as he has done with the Africa Bureau. If they know your work and you put decent job in Nairobi at the top of your list, your chances at getting that position, fighting out three or four others while everyone else quarrels over the cushy posts in the European Union are significantly better. While bid lists seem a faraway dream right now, I am sure I will be contending with them before long. This diplomat will certainly be getting a call from me as his mastery of them along with their attached jobs propelled him to the top of his career.

He also discussed the job of political officer as I was most curious about this. A dearth of specific day to day job information stems from the unprofessionalness of blogging about a job that has classified material and State’s monitoring of blogs prevents this. However, he provided as much light as he could. Fundamentally, political officers are reporters, sending back those now famous (and eloquently written) diplomatic cables to Washington describing situations with plenty of details. He provided an excellent theoretical example. While Washington can discover on the internet that Ghana’s official HIV rate could be 1.7%, it may not be a true reflection of the actual number. A political officer would dig deeper, calling his contact who runs the main hospital to inquire his opinion on the rate, talking to friends at the Ministry of Health, those who provided that number in addition to sex workers, homosexuals, and other high risk groups that may have been excluded from that 1.7% as those groups are not well regarded by broader Ghanaian society. That is a political officer’s fundamental position, reporting on events such as elections, protests, and running down intelligence, sending to Washington what he or she thinks Main State needs to know.

Political officers also serve as sort of catch all operatives. If a job needs doing and no one else it on it, it may fall into the lap of an unsuspecting political officer. If the post lacks a military liaison, the political officer may liaison with the military to oversee a military training program as USG (U.S. Government) does a lot of that sort of work. Political officers might clear their plates to assist a Co-Del (Congressional Delegation) or to prepare for a President visit as these are often communicated in the manner of the White House telling the Embassy that the President is coming to town in July. That wide, always changing portfolio appeals to me greatly. Parts of the job such as writing and networking have come more easily than anticipated. Ultimately, it comes down to being a job in which dull moments are rare, a perfect career path for me.

Internships were another topic. He reminded me that an FS job offer is ultimately a measure of how well one does in the Foreign Service written test and oral examination, and while previous experience is important, passing the test outweighs most everything else. In his own experience, State told him that he was unqualified for an internship due to the GPA requirement at the time but made him an FSO a year later. After reading my last internship rejection email earlier that morning, I felt a lot better about that.

Speaking of the test, he shared with us the best strategy for passing. After seeing the Yahoo group dedicated to passing the FSOT, he said that most of what they discuss is nitty-gritty and largely unimportant. While I was not a passionate member of the group to begin with, it was certainly good to hear that from someone of his experience and rank. He told us that State fundamentally wants to know that you can write well, analyze and report on information, and have some basic knowledge. During the oral exam, they want to know whether you are the pushy jerk whom no one wants to work with or the quiet but effective result getter. He gave a specific hypothetical example in that many of the positions the test asks you to argue are fundamentally loser positions with flaws, saying that the goal is not to win but to stand by the best policy. He said a good strategy is the present your assigned position as best you can but conclude by being honest and saying that Cindy’s position is a better one. That tidbit will certainly stick in my mind. Talking to someone who just passed the test was his best suggestion, especially if they are in the A100 or close to being in the A100 job training class (diplomacy 101 for FSOs). He encouraged us to contact him should we ever have difficulty finding a recent pass-ee.

His advice on languages was also a particular help to me. He said that he has always had difficult learning languages and that while there are a few lucky people with a gift for them (Lucky for me, I have fallen rather hard for one of those people!), he was not one of them. Inquiring as to whether I had a dog and then asking if I had a stupid one (in my case two of both), he said that with persistence and hard work, you can train that dog to do something such as learn a new, difficult language. This comes after 20 months of slogging through Arabic in Tunis (and being able to fluently tell me so). He said that self-study for languages is difficult for those without the language gift. While I think I will continue with Arabic in the fall, his advice does provide me some perspective as I don’t actually need Arabic to join the FS, passing the test is the ultimate decider, outweighing all else.

In all, this was one of the highlights of my trip. It is not often that one meets a practitioner, let alone someone who is in the same cone that I am most interested in. I am very grateful and look forward to keeping in touch.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Last Hurrah: Benin Part III

After a less than restive night sleep, we arose, had a quick breakfast, and made for the taxi station. The ride to the taxi station took some negotiation but we finally ended up there. Quickly, I found a taxi that would take us to Cotonou. While only 1,000 CFA per person, we sat four across in the back seat and one half of me sat on an uncomfortable metal bar. The girls crammed in the back seat where I later found out there was little air. Like the taxi the day before, this taxi was similarly dilapidated, requiring a literal running start as two guys pushed the car until the driver put it into gear.

Riding through Cotonou, we saw a city very different from any we had seen. While it was as poor as Lomé, there seemed to be a lot more life. The entire scene was visually rewarding. A plethora of motorcycle dealers, fewer sellers of the usual roadside items whom were less well stocked than their Ghanaian counterparts (indication of wealth), and far too many vehicles and motorcycles on the road at once. As the taxi slowly emptied out, we negotiated to be taken all the way to Porto Novo and our hotel. Approaching a toll booth, our driver ignored the line of vehicles and proceeded to cut in front of the bulk of the line. It turned out that this was common practice although the constant blare of horns reminded us that not everyone accepted this practice. Not long after exiting the toll, the taxi ran out of gas and the driver had to run down the street to find some. After restarting the car using wires instead of the key, the driver had someone push the car in order to get back into gear.

Upon our arrival after a long ride, we checked into the Hotel Songhai in Porto Novo. I have always been curious why no African nation has adopted this ancient name Songhai, after the ancient Songhai empire, as Ghana did with the ancient Ghanaian empire. After about ten minutes in the air conditioned goodness, my roommate and I left our other two travel mates to relax while we took the opportunity to visit a stilt village.

A large lagoon/lake sits behind Cotonou, the commercial capital of Benin, and Porto Novo, the political capital. Home to endless fishermen and women, an entire village built on stilts, and numerous crab traps and fishing apparatus, we negotiated an expensive boat ride with the wrong people. While we got an extended tour of the marshland and talked the price down from 40,000 CFA to 18,000 CFA for the two of us, my roommate figured that not one of the people in the boat on the way back paid anywhere near that much.

Riding the boat was relaxing. I wonder if one can take the boat all the way to Cotonou. We rode through the swamp grass, stopping every now and then to clear the propeller of weeds or to get the motor working again. After passing numerous fishermen and women, we arrived at the stilt village. Since the rainy season has only just begun, the water was a few feet below the village’s level as there was a sandy bar below most of the homes. The Japanese development agency built outhouses some years which has no doubt helped water quality. At the village bank, several women loaded their day’s catch into our boat for the trip to the market. Most of the fisherwomen had what I hoped were their children as their first mates, helping them load the fish and then taking charge of bringing their small canoes home. I say hope as it is sadly not uncommon for people to purchase children as slaves to work in their fishing boats.

One last side note: While writing this in my hotel room, CNN is talking about human trafficking. I wonder if any of the children we saw fishing were slaves.

The Last Hurrah: Benin Part II


Exiting (sorté) Le Galion, we took moto-taxis to Grand Marché and quickly found a tro-tro that could not only take us to the Beninois-Togo border but to our final destination, Comé, Benin. Differing slightly from Ghanaian tro-tros, the Togolese cram four people across a seat where Ghanaians would cram no more than three (smaller tro-tro). While my roommate and I shared the relative comfort of the front seat, our travel mates shared a cramped seat further back with two others.
Upon our eventual arrival in Comé, we took the most dilapidated taxi I have even seen to Hotel Chez Théo on the shores of Lake Ahéné. Scared in the front seat, I reached down for the seat belt to find only a sharp edge. Looking up in slight pain, two people began to push the ancient Nissan backwards as it appeared the reverse gear was no longer in working condition. While we arrived at the hotel safe and sound, the ride was more memorable than I would care to recall.


While the room was standard enough, the hotel has a restaurant on stilts. While the kitchen is on shore, the tables and bar are on a variety of platforms, seemingly built ad hoc. Breakfast was French bread, still heavenly warm, with real coffee and fruit although my first placemat was inhabited by a colony of ants. Upon finishing breakfast, we decided to take a trip to view some of the local sights.

Riding moto-taxis, our first stop was the python temple in Comé. The Beninese are about 60% traditional religion and the reminder French Catholic (contrast dually noted).The python temple was simply that. There were small half size huts that would house the priests for seven days in preparation for some sort of festival. We were ushered into an odd shaped temple that housed some forty pythons. They all appeared rather lethargic and one was passed around my travel mates necked. While I had no problem with the snakes, putting one around my neck was never considered.

An English speaking guide from the local tourist office was provided to take us around on moto-taxis (zemi-johns) to view the local sights dedicated towards reminding people of the slave trade. Benin was known formerly as the Slave Coast. We saw a tree in front of the slave market, originally constructed by a Brazilian slaver. We then stopped at a variety of traditional religious symbols marking each aspect of the slave trade. The Tree of Forgetfulness required slaves to walk around it three times in order to forget every aspect of their lives in Africa, all at the request of the Dahomey (Benin’s colonial name) king.

The last stop on this depressing moto-taxi ride was the memorial at the ocean. Built by the government, it was a simple arch that framed the sea. Slaves would be rowed out to the slaving ships for the trip to Brazil and Haiti. We snapped some photos, ignored the many purveyors of tourist junk, and made for the hotel.

Riding back on moto-taxis, it almost immediately began to rain. And rain it did, in fact it bucketed at one point. Luckily, I had put my camera under my raincoat along with our photo copied guide of where we would stay. The next day, my only boots were still wet.

The Last Hurrah: Benin Part I

After my meeting with the diplomat, three of my friends and I hopped a tro-tro to Aflao, the Ghanaian border town next to Lomé, Togo. Our ultimate goal was Comé, Benin but my meeting lasted longer than I thought and we had to drop by the Beninese embassy to pick up our visas. What a simple process, doing this ahead of time as the Beninese consular office was very nice and efficient, processing our visas in less than 24 hours.

After a bumpy but largely comfortable tro-tro ride to Aflao, the last bit with only a few people inside (and a whole row to myself), we arrived at the border, crossed without too much of an issue although purchasing the Togolese visa was a bit costly and before I knew it we arrived at Hotel Le Galion, my favorite in all of West Africa thus far. The next morning, we would travel to Comé, Benin and onwards to our hotel.

Why is the Hotel Le Galion my favorite? The atmosphere is irreplaceable. That begins with the clientele. Both poorly aged French men and their hookers, along with students from both France and ISH, make the hotel their base. All mix and mingle in the courtyard of the hotel, under huge old trees and safely behind a medium height wall. There are tables under umbrellas with the hotel looking down and in. Just inside there is a large bar that also serves as the front desk. The staff and service is very good as a few of the women even speak small-small English or enough to understand non-Francois’s such as me. On some nights, a band plays in the far side, masquerading the diners in sounds of electric guitar, piano and the soft Togolese vocals.

Par the former French colonial Africa tradition, Le Galion also has a full service restaurant serving excellent food. From ham sandwiches (on a toasted baguette with melted cheese and ham),omelets that are yellow, tasty and with real cheese, and coffee that isn’t instant, Le Galion knows how to do French West African food. Drinks include a variety of beers (well beyond the big Ghanaian five) including Flag, the best macro-lager I have had below the Tropic of Cancer. Wine is expensive but decent enough. Dessert includes top notch ice cream and chocolate mousse. All of this is at good prices and right in the hotel courtyard. One realized quickly why Hotel Le Galion is my favorite.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

My frustration is palpable!

Studying Arabic in Ghana has not gone as well as I hoped. Finding the class turned out to be an immense challenge only to resolve itself at the very last minute. Next, acquiring the course pack was a minor hurtle due as the class had met without the professor to take orders for the course pack. I acquired it eventually. Other hurdles included trying to read the professor’s handwriting, difficult in class assessments, and hard to get right homework assignments. While the professor commented that I do my own work, he did so by implying that my low grades on it indicated such as some students simply pay older students to do their homework for them.

What did I learn? Well, not much. The professor is a nice guy but his teaching methods are difficult to “get.” By the time I understood the structure of the class, I only had about three more classes left in the semester. Language courses require more time but the University of Ghana only allocates a single two hour lecture per week. The department also provides a relatively unstructured tutorial class, kind of in the spirit of a discussion section but with much less structure and lacking the quality of the TA’s of my own university exhibit. My other issue is that language books should contain more English to promote self-study. The Arabic books my mother provided halfway through the semester have this down but UG does not.

The straw that has almost broken my back was the oral examination. When I checked Friday on the language department noticeboard to see when my examination would occur, I discovered my name was not on the list nor were any of the other three obrunis. Therefore, I knocked on doors until I found one with a person behind it. The TA told me that our names had not been added to the list but showed me where my name should appear, Tuesday at 2p. I passed this along to the other obrunis.

Today, I show up, anxious as could be. I have trouble memorizing things but this test required recitation of a passage. I had this down but would have to read an existing passage first and answer questions in Arabic. While I learned the basics of answering questions last semester, in essence matching one string of words to the one in the question and copying that down word for word, this was also taught this semester although mentioned might be a better word than taught. Before our first in class assessment (held on a Saturday), we were told what I had learned last semester and to learn the Arabic words for what and when. Once the test actually arrived, I saw that my memorization of the words what and when were not helpful as only a few questions contained that word, the professor’s test contradicting what he had said would be the case. He also asked about moon/sun letters despite failing to mention that in class, replacing the section that we would have all done well on.

Back to today, our names are still not on the list despite one of my colleagues strongly asking the professor to make sure that they were there in the last class. That meant that we would either wait for all 62 people in front of us to take the oral despite only three being present or we could wait until tomorrow. Since I was still unfamiliar with Arabic question words and how to respond to them, I decided to wait until tomorrow despite the greater grief it will cause. One benefit is that it takes place at 9am which is a slight improvement as I won’t have to wait all day.

What I do not understand is that the University of Ghana has been dealing with obrunis (international students) since its inception when we constituted a full 12% of the student body (currently at 4%). Yet, the Arabic department does not seem to understand this despite pleas prior to the oral exam schedule. Yes indeed, my frustration is palpable!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

My new BFF, King Menelik II

Why don’t they just say they will buy Abyssinia!
King Menelik II in 1902, referring to a proposed agreement

Tasked with my first paper, I picked the most interesting sounding name on the topic list, Menelik II. Much to my horror, the World Wide Web failed to provide its usual plethora of information. What to do? Thinking back to the distant past, some twenty years ago, I thought about what my parents and others had done. Of course, the Library is where they would have gone.

I marched off to the Balme Library to find something out about Menelik II. After all, I had three pages to fill. The Bradt Guide had a blurb on the Balme Library as a place not to be missed. Since the University of Ghana was founded in 1948 as the University College associated with the University of London and is the eldest University in Ghana, the Balme library is home to an excess of books unrivaled in both Ghana and probably all of West Africa.

Luckily, the catalog is digitalized so a quick search directed me upstairs to the Africana Room. Modern Abyssinia was published in 1901 by British Vice Consul Augustus B. Wylde. Vice Consul is British diplomatic rank dating from the colonial era. He visited the main battle site in Adowa in researching his book. I discovered two other books detailing exactly the focus of my paper.

Essentially, I set out to prove that King Menelik II’s use of diplomacy was the main reason why Ethiopia was the only African country to successfully resist colonization by the Europeans (in this case, the Italians). He used diplomatic notes in the same format and manner that the Europeans used in to communicate to them in a language they understood. After soundly defeating the invading Italian army at Adowa, he negotiated a treaty with the Italians that recognized Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial boundaries. Other European powers did the same and send numerous commercial and diplomatic envoys to his capital, Addis Abeba, in attempts to sway this man to do one thing or another. I will try to post the full paper in a new side bar.

It was very interesting to see Menelik do what no other African leader was able to do at the time. Below is a funny anecdote highlighting the man’s character.

After the Italian emissary, Count Antonelli left in a huff after failing to convince King Menelik and Queen Taitu that Ethiopia was unwise to repudiate the treaty, Menelik sent a mule so that the man did not have to walk to his Legation. In anger, Antonelli gave the servant who delivered the mule 100 thalers as he did not want to owe anything to Menelik. When the servant told Menelik the tale and offered him the money, Menelik was supposed to have said. “As a tip it is too much! But as the price of an Imperial mule it is really too little!” Menelik laughed, “It is a tip” he told the servant, “keep it.”

The End is Nigh

Here it is, the end of the semester. After a long spring, the end is in sight. In fact, I moved that sight up by 10 days. The hospital was the straw that broke this camel’s back. This is not defeat but rather an acknowledgement of the circumstances. Even in Cedis, my bank balance appears tiny. Furthermore, I must get back to the love of my life as we are getting together Memorial Day weekend. The food is beginning to become repetitive, particularly after. One can only eat some many egg sandwiches and there is always the worry in the back of my head about getting sick off it again. Thanks to my dad, I have about ¾ of a pound of Starbucks French Roast left but I really want to use my free drink coupon on the new trenta size! Icy coffee drinks would sell so well here.

Coming home early proved to be more trouble than I thought. Searching the web last fall, I found a wicked cheap fare at a ticket bucket company called Student Universe whose attempts at legitimization include checking that its patrons are actually students. Customer service is outsourced to India. I was very happy with it right up until I went to change my ticket to an earlier date. I know that this costs money, a change fee plus the different in fare. However calls to both India and United yielded no availability in my fare class. At United, I inquired as to paying the difference in fare class as there were plenty of seats available. In a gross disservice to United’s shareholders, he refused to do it, saying that it was not possible. Suddenly, my attempts to get home early were in dire jeopardy! I was going to have to mope around Ghana for an extra 10 days with little to do but think about being at home.

Luckily, I have a dad who is more than generous with his frequent flier miles. With just enough miles, I was able to book a flight using Delta miles on their best friend KLM through Amsterdam to New York JFK. The tiny leg to Buffalo required double the miles so I booked a JetBlue flight for less than a hundred bucks. After exams, nothing more matters than leaving as soon as humanly possible afterwards so my flight leaves at 10:05p from Accra on the balmy evening of May 19th, not long after my last exam finishes at 1p. After an 11h layover in Amsterdam, I arrive in western New York shortly after midnight in the early morn of the 21st.

I have enjoyed my time here thoroughly. Before I leave, I am planning one last trip to Mole National Park in the north to take in some of Ghana’s wildlife. This coming week, I have a meeting with a high ranking diplomat to take about the Foreign Service. Tomorrow morning at the ripe hour of 6:30a, I have my dance class final exam. Tuesday at 2p, my Arabic oral will hopefully be at least a passing grade. After that, my next exam is on the 13th at 7:30a.m giving me plenty of time to study. All of which should be lovely!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Health Care: IV

For those of you worried about my well-being, you are in good company. The director of the University hospital popped in to say that he promised my program director that I would get better. To do that, he said that he would need to restart my treatment. I explained to him why I had stopped and that no one tells me anything, that being in a hospital in a foreign country where people talk about you in their native (Twi) language is rather intimidating. Unbeknownst to him, he was also capitalizing on my regret about stopping treatment. Thus, I listened to good reason and restarted. A new IV insert was jabbed in below my veins. The medication began flowing once more. I managed to fall asleep too.

Morning arrived with the pervasive calls of a rooster. My IV had run dry again but it restarted without the painful jump-start. My program director had brought silverware but breakfast was a piece of bread with a bowl of hot chocolate. I felt much better, quantum leaps better. I even finished the Clancy novel.

Sitting in a chair outside my room people watching, a woman came up and we got to talking. I found another chair and learned that she was a former Foreign Service Officer (FSO) with Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). Her first posting had been in Togo and upon her arrival, she found that a man would not stop bothering her and they eventually married. Since he was also an FSO, she had to resign as it was understood at the time that married women could not serve with their husbands in the work place. Her most memorable post was to Washington where her husband served as Deputy Chief of Mission, a position outranked only by the Ambassador. They lived in an all-white neighborhood in Bethesda MD. The first weekend after she arrived, her husband hosted a neighborhood cookout and she got to meet all of the neighbors. She said she wondered how the neighbors would act around her as they did not know her achievements, working with the MFA before she met her husband, and some may have expected a bush wife. But everyone was very cordial and she got many requests for recipes of the
Ghanaian dishes she served in addition to the standard American fare of hot dogs and hamburgers. What a break from the boredom!

Unfortunately, my second day in the hospital turned into a second night. My program director talked to the doctor before seeing me over her lunch break and apparently they wanted to pump me full of cipro to get rid of the bad food. I think my body did a fairly good job at this all on its own but I did not argue. She wrote a list of things I would need and promised to be back later that evening.

Coming back, she brought a pair of sheets to replace my sole hospital issued sheet, a few more books, my cellphone (which of course did not work well in that part of Legon), and other things to get me through one last night.

Morning arrived before I knew it. In fact, I awoke to see the doctor looking through my chart. She asked if I had any complaints which in my newly awaken-ness was having trouble comprehending exactly what she meant. This woman had been terse from the start and was very annoyed that I could not understand what she thought was a basic question. My request for elaboration discerned that she wanted to know about pain and if I had any other ailments. No was thankfully an easy answer and I went back to sleep. Later that morning, I walked up the hall to see if I could be discharged the last IV had finally been exhausted. They removed my IV and I packed my backpack to leave. I needed 15 cedis to pay my bill but had only 13 which the nurses thankfully took. The evil IV insert came out (note how it was not before I paid my bill) and suddenly I was free from the hospital!

After telling a cab driver that 3 cedis was too much for a simple on campus ride, I walked into the hostel, triumphant that I had vanquished the vile piece of chicken! The ironic thing is that I probably could have walked out at anything except for the fact that I was not retaining what I should have been retaining. I will never complain about being in an American hospital should I ever find myself in one again!

Health Care: Part III

Sleeping in the hospital is difficult even without anyone around to make noise. I was still hooked up the IV which I was watching anxiously as the fluid fell lower and lower until it ran out. I was extremely worried about it letting air bubbles into my blood stream which I believe are very painful (I am not going to confirm this since any web search results would induce nightmares). Once the IV ran out, a nurse was nowhere to be found. What to do? As I was hooked up and enjoying my book, I decided to wait.

What a costly decision to do so. Since there was no longer any fluid flowing through my IV, my body clotted up the intrusion. A nurse finally arrived to change my IV packs and the fluid had trouble flowing. This was no shock to me but it seemed to be news to the nurse. Before I knew it, she was feeling along my vein to un-clot the blood which was particularly painful. However, things began to flow once more and my heart beat declined to a more moderate pace. For the second time that day, I had been forgotten about by the hospital staff (the first time was in the “ER” restroom). Upon awaking from a nap, the IV had run out again. After wandering up the hall in search of medical attention, I was told to go back and that someone would be along to change my IV. A Ghanaian wait, a change in IV bags, and the fluid again refused to flow. The same painful procedure followed but it failed to get things moving. I did not even have my glasses on as I had just awoken so I failed to anticipate a large needle being inserted just downstream from my insert. It hurt more than words can describe. In retaliation for my blood being so forcefully un-clotted, it boiled up in anger. This was avoidable if the nurses would actually check in on their patients every once in a while. I asked as politely as my boiling blood would let me that this not happen again.

It was either bed or reading so I choose bed. I woke up a few hours later to find for the third time that evening, my IV had stopped at halfway long ago and that my blood had likely clotted the intrusion. This was the last straw. I had no faith in the nurses’ abilities to watch over me. I could have died in that room and upon the discovery of my body hours later, they would have just said “ooohhh” in that apologetic manner of Ghana with perhaps a “charlie” which is what sorry sounds like. When the nurse came by to change it, I said no more. I thought that the medicine was my last bag and it was still half full, indicating that I had received half of my medicine. I told the nurse that I was stopping treatment, that I did not want to be forgotten again, and the procedure to restart the IV was too much to go through again. She did not take kindly to those words even thought I was polite as one could possibly be under the circumstances but left to report the uncooperative “obruni” patient to the nurse in charge. This second nurse did not argue and told the first nurse that it is the patient’s right to refuse treatment. Before I knew it, I was free and unable to sleep, went back to my book. As far as I was concerned, I had received most of my medicine and would check out tomorrow. No one had volunteered any information to the contrary.

I have always wondered why patients stop treatment but here I found myself selecting it as the most rational option at the time. The IV problems were the first reason as I had never had an IV before and was scared to death about the air bubbles. Second, the general lack of attention and care to my well-being was thoroughly unnerving. It is not that I am a needy person but both times my IV clogged were preventable with even a little attention from the nurses. Third, I felt very much alone. I left my phone in an unusual location in my room so my roommate could not find it. I have not memorized any Ghanaian phone numbers so calling one of my friends was not an option. My only connection to the outside world was when my program director arrived the next morning.

Finally, I was overwhelmed by Ghana, anxiety about the IV and air bubbles, lack of faith in the nurses to help if my condition worsened, and culture shock at the hospital conditions led me down the most rational path of stopping treatment. I was shocked that no one was informing me as to what was happening, I have no idea what sort of medication was put into me, when I might check out, or anything unless I asked and I was in no mood to ask. Much to my annoyance, the insert was left in my skin as they fully anticipated me restarting. I went back to my book since my boiling blood utterly discouraged sleep.

Health Care: Part II

After discussing my symptoms with the doctor, I was wheeled to a room which I can only describe as the ER. Unbeknownst to me, eagerly awaiting medicine on a bed, my program director and her husband were arguing with the nurses about getting me some medicine. Apparently, they did not think I was seriously sick enough to warrant “free” drugs and were demanding payment before treatment. I only heard shouting and only later confirmed my suspicions with my roommate who was kind enough to accompany me to the University Hospital. Finally, a nurse came by, drew blood and hooked me up to an IV. The IV was an entirely new experience for me and was frightening. My previous hospital stay was about 20 years ago as three month old infant who thought it prudent to see just what the parental unit was made of through the whooping cough test (My current existence suggests a passing mark).

During this “ER” stay, the unmentionables struck and I discovered that toilet paper was not in stock nor had it ever been. While I expect this at almost every public place in Ghana, it was somewhat of a shock at the hospital. I shudder to think of the alternative.

Eventually, I was moved to another room which would become my confinement for the next not one but two evenings. Medicine was hooked up to my IV tube (also a scary process). My program director and her husband along with my roommate appeared. Her husband had found toilet paper and soap at a nearby market stall. They would be back later with additional stuff and I provided a list of important items that I would need.

The dinner cart, literally a few pots on a cart, arrived later that evening. A kindly father tending to his son in the next bed made sure that I received some food as I was sort of out of it, having just awoken from a nap in which I dreamt a rather vivid dream. Unfortunately, the kitchen lacked even a single spoon to spare so I had to eat my rice and soap African style (without assistance of utensils). The hospital couldn’t even sell me a plastic spoon! Shortly after that, my program director and her husband reappeared with some of my stuff such as a change of clothes, a Tom Clancy novel, and more dinner. My program director thought that I would be discharged the following morning.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Health Care: Part I

Ahhh, the hostel floor was as cold as the refrigerated water I was craving. Moments before, I had walked out of the bathroom on a quest to retrieve my bottle of icy cold goodness from the communal fridge just up the hall. Walking forward, my vision began to black out, longer than it had before, so I resorted to feeling my way along the wall. The thought of sitting down and letting this episode pass never occurred to me as I fully anticipated a vision restoration momentarily. I guess my belief in my body’s infallibility propelled my forward (although my friends saw me and wandered why I was so close to the wall). Suddenly, my legs lost hope in this infallibility belief and down I went, sending my head into the wall, and my body sliding down to the cool hostel floor. Mind you, only my vision blacked out and I recall hoping that someone, anyone had seen this tragic tumble so I wouldn’t have to shout for assistance in the otherwise quiet hostel.

Luckily, a university employee saw me and run up. Two of my friends also saw me and one immediately called our program director. They even bandaged up my then bleeding forehead. Before I knew it, I was in the back of my program director’s car enroute to the University hospital in the company of my roommate, hoping that I would not get sick in the back of the car which had retained its new car smell. S

Walking into the hospital, I was shown to a bed. After a wait as a doctor was found, I was plopped into a chair to explain what exactly was ailing me. The doctor who seemed to be of student age was rather terse as apparently, she was all set to leave for the day. Always nice to know exactly what a bother you are.

What happened?

That is a good question and one that I can only answer with an educated guess. On Sunday, I was feeling lazy and did not rustle up much energy to do much of anything, even getting breakfast, beyond reading Tom Clancy. I ate crackers and drank very little. Late afternoon after explaining why Burkina Faso had fallen off my radar for this trip, I hopped on my bike to double check the exam schedule (which is subject to change at all times) and then took a longer detour around the neighborhood. I have no problem exhorting the tons of energy required for this escapade on a largely empty stomach. This past summer, I had no problems hiking six miles to discover that my lunch was not in my backpack but on the counter at home. Half of ancient Nature Valley Bar ™ kept me going (Ginny got the other half). I took another detour past the Creamy Inn, a sad excuse of an ice cream shop, for an attempt at a sundae that would remotely resemble its American counterpart.

Later Sunday evening, I had dinner with my roommate at one of the night market stands. He chose sausage (read hot dog) while I chose chicken, a defining choice. After assuming both sets of grandparents that I am doing okay over the phone, I went to bed.

At around 4am Monday morning, unmentionables struck me unawares. Coming back, I wondered if I could still make it to dance. I concluded that the potential for embarrassment was too high so I reset my alarm with the goal of sleeping off whatever ailment I had. Until around 1:30p, those unmentionables would arouse me from my bedridden-ness every two hours as if on a timer.

I suppose that is the backgrounder. Inferring from that, I think I had low blood sugar and mild dehydration, all of which conspired towards the moment of collapse.

Friday, April 15, 2011


Alright, I suppose I should admit it. I am addicted not to alcohol (although this rosé from Argentina is quite good), nor I am addicted to medication (I just take one malaria pill each day, not any time I feel like it). Rather, I cannot get enough of Ghana’s chocolate bars. For those of you that know me well, I have a mouth full of sweet-teeth. Much like Albany, Ghana lacks the sweet tooth culture of dedicated desert shops, icy coffee drinks, and a lack of convenience stores that sell a plethora of candy bars. Granted I can still get Snickers, Twix and a few others on occasion, even more from high grocery stores like Max Mart and Shop Rite. And while FanIce carts selling vanilla ice cream in a plastic sachet package are a nice treat (and for about $0.35), it is unable to quench my thirst for sweets.

Kingsbite Milk Chocolate, by Golden Tree and manufactured with Ghanaian cocoa in nearby Tema, simply melts in my mouth. Eating only half of the bar is rarely an option. It does not help that they are widely available, even on the streets (their asking price of 4 cedis is an outrageous, I do not pay more than 2 cedis, 50 pesawas). I walk by the convenience store that sells them every day. I get craving while deep into campus and wander aimlessly in search of chocolate amid the sea of women selling bananas and groundnuts (peanuts) at a pittance.

I am not sure what I will do when I get home. I suppose taking the best girlfriend in the world to Aletheas’ will help, in particular their selection of dark chocolate and dreamy ice cream sundaes. I will buy a bunch to bring back as they do not melt easily in heat (Ghanaian feature). When that runs out and I am busy at some sort of summer job, I do not know what I will do. Maybe Starbucks has the cure, I think they make chocolate now right? I have to maintain my Gold Card status somehow!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Back to Ghana


After a top notch breakfast, we climbed onto the back of motorcycle taxies for our trip up Mount Klouto. It was only 12km from Kpalime although way up a narrow, winding mountain road. We briefly stopped for photos at a waterfall. Instead of hiking up Mount Klouto right away, our guide took us to a local artists gallery.
Using paints made from local plants and canvas also made locally, the paintings were rather stunning. While there were typical depictions of palm trees, traditional mud huts, and women, I was impressed by the amount of abstract art done by one of the artists. Perhaps it was the strength of the Togolese coffee but I overcame my usual pre-fabricated opinions about abstract art to warrant some complements. I also hoped for a good price on one of the hut with palm tree scenes hanging in the corner. Without even negotiating in the tense Ghanaian style, my offer of $20 USD for a 12,000 CFA painting was accepted. I also bought half a pound of coffee which will with any luck (pending my existing stock of Starbucks), make it all the way home.
Hiking up Mount Klouto was rather easy as our vertical ascent was at best 400 feet as the motorcycle taxis had done most of the work getting us to the artist gallery. We walked through a pretty English run hotel which may warrant another trip back as the locale was quiet and cool with beautiful views. We walked up the quiet dirt lane past an enormous tree, big enough to warrant photos of ourselves in the tree.

Through prettier fields of a crop of the unknown sort (at least to me) and past glimpses of the views below, we finally reached the flat top of Mount Klouto. We were even greeted by not one but two radio towers. Barring that, the view was rather stunning. While haze obscured things such as distance Lake Volta, we could still see the surrounding higher hills, a PM’s summer residence, and a small town nestled in the valley below us. Unfortunately, the legions of butterflies were reduced to just a few because of the later hour in the morning and the lack of ripe fruit on the large tree on the top.

Mount Agou, despite its taller nature, lacked the 360 degree views of Mount Klouto. It was more about the journey away as the mountain was a good 20km away over rough and narrow roads. It was quiet coming down as the motorcycle drivers turned off their motors to save gas as the grade allowed for surprisingly quick speeds. We passed through a small hillside village that could have come from Nepal. On the way back down, we were stopped by a fallen tree as a family of loggers were hard at work ravaging the hill side. My driver got off the bike, picked up a machete and within ten minutes, the large tree was cleared and we continue almost silently down the mountain road, the loud cycle horn advertising our presence coming around a blind turn.

Back to Accra

After a long wait for still more delicious food, my travel buddies and I decided that since we had accomplished all that we had set out to do, and since we were low on funds (16,000 CFA per night can do that), we hired our guide and two others to take us by motorcycle taxi to the border. Of course, luck would have it that we owed half a day extra due to our late checkout and the sky which had been relatively clear all day turned ominous as it often does although rain rarely falls from those skies here.

Well, we had sat on the back of motorcycles for at least 60km on Friday and as we hopped on one last time to go back, we had already logged 64km or more than day. Surely, a few more would not be too much of a problem even with full backpacks of stuff. Well, it turned out that my travel buddies were scared for their lives most of the way back.

The sky got darker, the rain drizzled down, and the road was among the worse “major” roads I had laid rubber on. Despite my grave misgivings on the 45km ride back from Lake Togo on Friday, complete with enormous and overloaded tractor trailer trucks, total road reconstruction, and other crazy motorcycles, all at the terrifically terrifying speed of 80-90km per hour, I thought the ride back to Ghana was a piece of cake. It helped that my driver and I joked about the road including my own father preference for non-avoidance of potholes.

All of my good rides were with drivers who at least could laugh at what I was saying, my non-Francoise coupled with “small-small English,” helped the mind forget the fact that one is indeed on the back of a motorcycle with no helmet, speeding along on an awful road at with a poorly functioning headlight, and clear out the thoughts of should one survive the immediate worst of a crash, the subsequent medical facilities located hours away in Ho, Ghana or Lome, Togo. Cutting edge surgery would be assessable only with the medical evacuation card in my wallet followed by a 6 hour chartered flight to Europe or South Africa. Plus, there is the added pressure of loved ones and what such an event could do to them. Should I travel to another country with abundant motorcycle taxis, I may purchase a helmet before leaving.

Crossing the Border

The poor quality indicated the amount of traffic the crossing to Ho, Ghana typically handled. Our first passport check was with a Togolese military guy. He was in a dilapidated hut, cradling a flashlight to look at our visas, write down our personal details inside an equally dilapidated ledger, and find the ink pad to give our passports a decent stamp. Should the Togolese military ever find a better use of their time, they could train 10 year old's to perform their job or at least a large percentage of it.

Our second Togolese passport check was even more relaxed. A military guy and his off duty buddy were lying on cots under a pavilion. We chatted up the lonely pair and the military guy became more animated as he came out of his drowsiness. “How are you from?” That was the answer he sought my colleague who was having none of it as it was at the end of a long day of traveling, all of which appeared lost on the face of military man. He gave us back our lifelines with a smile and a goodbye.

Finally in Ghana

We finally reached the Ghanaian border station. We were first asked for our yellow fever cards, a new experience as we had not been asked for them when we first arrived at the airport. After a few tense moments of frantic scrambling, we were waved through as the yellow card I received from the Albany medical clinic finally served its purpose after decorating the last page of my passport. This was also done by flashlight. Unlike the Ghanaian border station at busy Aflao, computers were nowhere to be found nor were the passport scanners, ready to scan my identity into Ghana’s database. Instead, flashlights built into cellphones and after an generous donation, matches started a lone candle which helped the agents read the Ghana residency permits in our passports and fill out our immigration forms. Shortly after beginning the process, the sky opened up as it had threatened to do the entire ride to the border. It did not just rain but bucketed in a tropical sort of fashion that one is accustomed to seeing television shows such as Lost. By the time the immigration formalities had been completed, most of rain stopped.

We got one lost short ride to the mostly empty tro-tro station and paid our guides with both CFAs, handshakes and hugs, augmenting that feeling of accomplishment at the ordeal we had all jointly experienced. The tro-tro was meant to hold nine, two in the front of the station wagon, four in the middle and three in the back but one lone Reuters contractor and ourselves ended up paying extra to get things moving to Ho. The car lacked even side panels on the doors as well as a handle to open the windows. My pencil found a use to crank things open. In addition to being dirt, the road was also under construction as the driver occasionally weaved through large piles of gravel and drove through large puddles of rain. We even passed a few soggy motorcycles trying to do the same thing. Ho came up quickly and the gentleman from Reuters walked us to the tro-tro station that goes to Accra as he was headed in the same direction. We settled in to a comfortable, new Toyota van with clean seats, air-conditioning, and closed windows for the two and a half hour jaunt back to Accra.

Togo was well loved as I know one of my travel buddies is headed back this weekend! If I had more money, I would join them but I would like to visit Burkina Faso and Mole National Park before heading home instead.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The rest of Togo: Part 1

I am too tired to blog in my Togo voice so you will have to bear with the soothing, calm sounds of my natural voice.

Picking up where I left off in the internet café in Lome, I realized that the time set aside to meet with my fellow travelers to proceed to Lake Togo had come and gone. At Le Galion, the staff gave me a note that was left detailing exactly where they had gone which made it easy to catch up. I packed up my stuff in my room, left behind my phone charger, and checked out. Perhaps because of the lack of a toilet (but in its place a shower and sink), my room was 7,000 CFAs (seefahs) or about $14 which was less than my meal at Eiffel Restaurant.

Hopping onto a moto-taxi, I rode to the Grand Marche where I could change 100 cedis in CFAs as I would need that for the next day or two. I found two Muslim men who, perhaps in appreciation of my Arabic greeting, gave me a decent return of 30,000 CFAs. Back onto a moto-taxi and flush with CFAs, I showed the driver the location, Hotel Le Lac, Lake Togo. When he did not know where to go, he stopped at a hotel and asked directions as something was getting lost in translation between us (he spoke only “small-small” English). The hotel staff spoke better English and directed me to a taxi stop just up the street and told me to pay 1,000 CFAs to get to the hotel. I relaxed as best I could in the taxi, sitting four across in the backseat which reminded me of my first few weeks doing Crew.

My backpack and I were let off at the stop for Hotel Le Lac. For 200 CFAs, a moto-taxi took me right to the entrance. Looking out at the water, I saw my friends who had not been there too long anyways. The beach on Lake Togo had a resident population of Hobie Cats (catamaran sailboats) and other small sailboats. I asked a guy who appeared to be guarding them about a possible rental and he said that they were all privately owned, much to my disappointment. Luckily, the lake was quite pleasant and warm to swim in, and exceedingly shallow. I was several hundred yards off and still standing up in the mucky bottom. This even allowed me to explore a fishing set up, a series of poles and nets in the water aimed at trapping fish. The one I looked at had a few of them in it.

After relaxing on the beach under the shade of palm trees, we packed up to head back to Lome to pick up passports and catch the tro-tro to Kpalime, a town in the heart of coffee country. The enterprising Togolese immigration officials had advised my colleagues to buy a yearlong, multiple entry visa, lying that their single entry visa had expired. We were able to pick up passports without an issue and made our way to the tro-tro.

Togo is less well off than Ghana in some ways. Food is wicked expensive (but delicious) and it is simply confusing to use currency with so many zeros in it. People are also poorer as evidenced by the tro-tro. Vehicles are older and much more overloaded with stuff than in Ghana. While the three of us claimed the back seat, a fourth person was inserted when it was really meant (at least in Ghana) for three across. Thus, the two and a half hour drive was cramped and bumpy. At a tollbooth, our Togolese seatmate bought escargots on a stick, handed in from out the window. I have seen a lot of different foods on sticks but snails were definitely a first. Unfortunately, we drove off before we could decide whether to buy some.

Arriving late at the hotel, I ordered some food and checked into my room. It was 16,000 CFAs a night or around $34, expensive by West Africa standards but really nice. I turned the air-conditioning down to 16 degrees Celsius, took my fourth hot shower on the Continent and came down to beef, peppers and onions grilled on a pair of metal sticks (usually they are wood). The steak fries were also top notch (steak fries being what the French refer to French fries as). We also negotiated with a guide to explain were we wanted to go on Saturday. Luckily, my friend spent 11 years taking French and was finally able to put it to use. Didae agreed to take us up Mount Klouto and Mt Agou the next morning at 7am.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Dear Togo: Second Impressions

While we have indeed started off on the wrong foot, I have decided to come to terms and be thankful nothing more was lost as losing my Canon would have been devastating. Perhaps dinner out will start things anew, that is after touring some beautiful museums of African scripture and art (sadly, no photos allowed). But before we eventually sit down to a down to a delicious meal, let us begin with discussing your differences from my other lover; dear Ghana.

The obvious one at this moment is your AZERTY keyboards are difficult to use for those QUERTY users. Your Hotel de Galion is one of the best thus far with rooms for about 15 bucks and a first floor restaurant reminiscent of the outdoor/indoor cafes of your former colonial overlord (France). Your toasted sandwich on French bread with ham and melted cheese melted my tongue as my Ghanaian lover has no clue as to a sandwich (being a former English colony). Your omelettes are succulent and fulfilling. Wine is an of course instead of a rare treat. Beer options appear to be more broad than Ghana’s big five. Despite the inherent dangers of being helmet-less, your motorcycle taxis should make themselves available in Accra as their speed and fun factor would be most welcome there. You even have imported a precious few rickshaws from the subcontinent! My dear, you actually care about the condition of your beaches as seashells far outnumber the rare pieces of trash. I love well kept women. Due in part to your lack of tro-tros, lack of too many taxis and economic development, traffic remains a characteristic of only my Ghana lover. Your small size and lack of that urban renewal attitude of dear Ghana, you have kept your capital quaint, quiet and very pretty.

Despite those clear advantages, we have a number of differences of opinion. Let us not forgot you robbed me. Then, your taste in women and their obvious pairing with your advanced age; balding head, eyepatch, and other characteristics of a poorly aging Frenchmen, right in the broad daylight of the breakfast table is most disgusting. Could you not confine your ladies of the night to well, the night?

Your occasional rejection of pants is another turn off. I suppose I should not be surprised given your colonial heritage imparting the time honoured phrase that “they don’t wear pants on the other side of France” which you seem to have misinterpreted. Its roots lie in the fact that during the era of the Three Estates, one Estate wore pants so expensive and of such high quality that the term pants was woefully inadequate. Dear Togo, you do not seem to understand that they still wore something. While I am used to seeing young black males and some white ones wearing pants well south of their buttocks, that usually reveals a dilapidated pair of boxer briefs instead of bare buttocks. You even did away with the concept altogether at one point. Surely Togo you can afford to buy a pair of pants with my stolen funds?

While your food was great, your top restaurant experienced a change of ownership and name change, both of which for the worse. Two and a half hours, and then lost entrees beguiled us. Your seefa or CFA needs to loose some wait and could certainly drop at least two zeros. Your blunders thus far I think have impede what could have been a wonderful relationship.

Despite all oft those incidents, I am alive and even able to overcome the evil AZERTY keyboard (French of course) in order to pound out two blog posts. I have my health, a full stomach of delicious food, a nice hotel room, and a nice day planned. I even have a wonderful relationship with the real woman of my dreams to boot!!! (Sorry dear Ghana and Togo, you have no hope on this front).

Dear Togo: Welcome Matt

While dear Ghana has treated me well, insulated really from the realities of many of her 53 countries which I think may have contributed to my own vulnerabilities, I think that it may be time to expand my horizons. Abidjan is sadly out of commission thus nearer by Togo, yes you my dear Togo, may be a good option. Early Thursday morning, I acted on that impulse, finding Madina’s tro-tro to Aflao, Ghana which is just across the border from Lome, your capital. The ride across Ghana’s coastal plain was thankfully quick abite rough. My travel buddies were unable to resist dear Togo’s advances and had left a day ahead of me. My goal was to meet them at the Hotel de Galion at 12 pm noon on Thursday. Luckily dear Togo and despite many potential hurdles, this went off with out a hitch as after waiting in the hotel café, my travel mates found me enjoying a top notch omelette, the best I have had in Africa.

However Togo, your welcome matt stole 40 bucks from me. That was most mean and certainly got our relationship off on the wrong foot. Your scheme strongly suggests that an insecure obruni travelling by his stony lonesome utilize the kindly trans-border services of a friendly guide. I changed money what I am sure was a crummy rate.

Then, I followed the guide to Ghana immigration where the guide disappeared to look for a taxi which should have raised a red flag. I filled out dear Ghana's forms, my passport was scanned and information entered into a computer; and I added to my collection of passport stamps. I proceeded to your own customs facilities which were less technologically advanced as my passport was stamped and my name entered into your aging ledger by hand. Your unfamiliarity with a UN passport (complete with UN blue cover) almost denied a Nigerian UN representative entrance but we both made it through.

Though your guide, you informed me that your machine would see my foreign currency and that I should hide it between my cedis. Another red flag should have sounded the alarm as the border services was not even computerized but alas, the guide managed to slip away some 40 bucks and 10 cedis from me, the latter through a tip which was a kick in the pants. I realized my loss only when one of my travel buddies mentioned it me later. So my dear Togo, we have gotten off on the wrong foot at the very least. This may impede our relationship developing much beyond a thing.

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Mobile blogging, thanks Vodaphone. I am sitting in the back of a tro tro on my way to Togo! I cannot wait for the great food and beautiful scenery. I am meeting up with two of my friends who left yesterday. I received some great suggestions from a friend including fried wagashi cheese.Web access will be sparse and my won' work there so I will post on Monday at the earilest as typing with a 1-9 phone keypad is wicked slow.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Beach Break

Getting There

It was at least half the fun or rather battle in this case. According to the Bradt Guide, you can simply hail a taxi to take you to where the tro-tro for a certain destination departs. I got half of this after talking to a second taxi driver. He said take the tro-tro to Accra Mall, switch to one going to Tema, and upon arrival, there would be one to Ada Foah (pronounced Adafo). Sure enough, he was right and I found a tro-tro (never shortened to tro) going to Ada Foah. After about two and a half hours of driving through the extreme flat coast plain and many stops later, I arrived to an empty tro-tro park as the last remaining passenger. Not to fear, kindly Eric was there to guide me to a boat that would take me to Maranatha Beach Club. I coasted in on a small wooden canoe powered by a large sail make of rice sacks and a guy with a paddle.


Upon arrival, I inquired the room price which was 20 GHC, more than Bradt Guide’s 12 GHC. An immediate turn off, I wandered down the beach to another resort and ordered a soda which was more than twice what it should cost. Beer was expensive too. Back to Maranatha, I bought two nights in a tiny hunt with a sand floor. While each hut had a country flag painted on it, mine had a Ghanaian flag minus the star.

In front of the huts were a bunch of thatched-roof pavilions with chairs and tables and some chairs and lounge chairs near the water’s edge. When I say water, I mean Volta River water. When I boarded the canoe in Ada Foah, I sailed down the Volta River to Maranatha. A few hundred feet behind Maranatha, I could hear the waves thunder against the shore. It was great having to bodies of water as the Volta was a perfect place to wash after a salty and sandy swim in the ocean.


Of course, then entire point of this trip was the beach and swimming in the refreshing ocean. The first thing I noticed is how slanted the sand is relative to the water. Then, I stepped out into the waves and was almost knocked over by smallish swell. That never happens to me, particularly not for a wave that small. The bigger ones were even more intense as unless I drove under it or swam through the top, it would pick me up without so much of a thought and throw me onto the shore. This astonished me to no end. Perhaps this is because my beach experiences are limited, mainly Maine and New Hampshire with a little Cape Cod and Labadi Beach (Accra, Ghana) thrown in. While getting thrown onto shore was not fun, when the wave receded, it seemed to take half of the sand with it. While I made several successful attempts at bodysurfing, the last one ended up scraping my sunburnt stomach against the sand and then filling my hair and bath suit full of sand as it receded, a sort of “blank” you parting gift. While I did enjoy trying to not die in the waves and not get swept away by a strong rip tide, I found myself with more time to walk and read on the beach. One major trajedy of African beaches and many beaches worldwide is the trash. There were tons upon tons of trash scattered along the beach, mostly of Ghanaian origin due to the many discarded water sachets baring English script among the heaps of plastic bags, containers and other items. While one could by and large still feel the sand under one’s feet, it did provide a rather sad background to an otherwise gorgeous locale.


In Bradt Guide, two places were suggested as a side trip from the beach clubs. One was to Crocodile Island which is now home to basket weavers or at least it was went Bradt went to press as no one at Maranatha knew what I was talking about. However, the rum factory on Sugar Cane Island was known to them and I chartered a motor canoe to take me there. The kindly owner showed me his sugar cane crushing machine, made in India but sadly broken as is so frequent when many Africans use machines. In the meantime, he gets his cane crushed offsite. Then, we moved onto the actual cane fields. He showed me that the plant is divided into three parts. The middle is crushed for sugar cane juice. The top is then replanted. After being crushed, it can be recycled as they do in Accra into paper but he simply uses it for fire wood and other uses.

Upon extraction from the cane, the juice is set to ferment in plastic, 55 gallon drums. After about three weeks, it is then heated in a rusting 55 gallon metal drum and the steam goes through the top into a pipe and across to a vat of cool water. The steam condenses into rum as it slips down coiled metal tubes and eventually flows out of a spigot at the bottom of the vat as rum. He brews two types, clear rum and a reddish rum. Many of the Caribbean rums are reddish colored because they ferment in wooden barrels. Since wooden barrels are not used in Ghana, he gets the reddish color by adding mahogany chips into some of his plastic barrels.

We then sat down to free samples. He brought two water bottles which contained his produce as one could have easily been mistaken for water. I suppose having his own label is a distance dream instead of AquaSplash and BonAqua bottled water. I had never had straight rum before so it was a bit intense, feeling a burning sensation deep down in my throat. While my Ghanaian boat captain and colleague downed a full shot of the stuff, I was reduced to gentle sips and even then could only finish half. After the samples, he refilled the bottles and I bought both red and white rum for 10 GHC each. While I did come around to enjoying rum straight, in the future I may break my cardinal rule of not mixing alcohol with sweet things and add some sort of soda.

The Hut

At first glance, the hut was intriguing. After opening a tiny, old U lock, I found a double deck complete with a single sheet, two pillows, and a bug net, a chair and a table. There was a single incandescent light bulb controlled by a temperamental light switch. Ghanaians use the energy/money saving incandescent lights almost exclusively as it is part of the reason why six turbines at Akosombo Dam with an output of 1,020 MW can power 24 million Ghanaians with some to spare for their Togolese and Beninois neighbors. The walls were simply thatched palms and the roof was a thatched something else. Fishing nets ensured that the roof would not blow away and an upside down pot capped the peak. While a sand floor was a neat feature initially, I came to despise it as at least half of that sand migrated into my bed on the first night. This was compounded by not having a top sheet (Ghanaians seem to be stingy with sheets). The bed was similarly awful as some of its supporting ribs showed a disdain for staying in a supportive position, preferring to rest on the floor. It made for a crummy night’s sleep, augmented only by the sound of waves pounding the shore.

Despite those setbacks, I enjoyed my time alone. I did not have to talk to anyone, not even the obrunis (well, except for one gregarious Dutchman). I started and finished Gums, Germs, and Steel which even featured a chapter on why Africa is black and has only a fragment of their once formidable pygmy population ( Mind you, I agreed with Wikipedia and think the term is pejorative but an alternative has yet to be invented. I almost panicked Saturday as the tiny resort with maybe six paying guests was overrun by college students from Accra. It was interesting as it appeared that few had actual bathing suits, preferring to swim in whatever they had on yet many of those same students had digital cameras. Priorities I suppose. I did talk with a former Ghanaian who served in the army as a UN Peacekeeper in UN Missions in Cote d’Ivoire, D.R. Congo, and several other places. Since he goes to college in Labadi not far from Legon, we will certainly meet up for a beer to exchange stories (or me simply listen to his). All 200 hundred or so left by 6pm, leaving just their trash which was largely picked up by the time I got up this morning.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Let's Go Tripping

I would have blogged about this earlier in the week but it took half a bottle of cheap, crummy rosé to get the creative juices flowing. Luckily, even crummy rosé has a 12% ABV.

My Dad arrived late Thursday evening (March 24) after a busy business trip to Jo’burg. Instead of hanging around campus, I thought that a brief tour of Ghana would be more interesting. Cape Coast and Kakum National Park beckoned. Since we were pressed for time, my suggestion of renting a car made the most sense. We felt compelled to rent a driver too as neither of us had too much a clue as to exactly where we needed to go and a large hold on the parental credit card to cover damage was dissuading.

Our first stop was Cape Coast Castle. While this was my second visit, it was neat to hear some things I had missed such as that the dungeon floor we tread upon was compressed dirt and other unmentionables from the slave trade era, only having been excavated in one section of the dungeon. I also saw President Obama’s plague again. It made me happy as President Obama is very popular in Ghana as it was his first stop on his first trip to Africa, even before the donor darling Kenya. There is even a Hotel Obama, complete with a Michelle Obama room, a stone’s throw from the University. After the sobering tour, we perused the exhibits explaining the castle structure, complete with photographs outlining its many uses. The Castle Restaurant called and we sat down for cold beers at a table that faced the ocean. After taking in endless views of the large waves smashing against the rocks and their counterparts the sand, we hopped into the car for the final leg of the day.

We arrived at Kakum at around 5:30 when it was almost dark and under an ominous sky. Immediately, we were told that the park was closed but our driver mentioned we had a reservation to spend the night and we were let in. Earlier in the week, I had called and made a reservation for the Rainforest Hilltop Campsite. I was told that everything we needed would be provided including mattresses and bedding. I forgot to inquire the cost but it was printed in the Bradt Guide as 10 GHC. At the park headquarters, we were introduced to the woman in charge of tourism. She said that it was 50 GHC per person per night as it included guide fees. Guides were mandatory. When we came up short twelve Cedis, right in front of the hired car and driver of course, the kindly tourist lady gave us a twelve Cedis discount so that we could experience the canopy walkway the next morning.

After waiting for a couple of Peace Corps volunteers to finish their leisurely dinner, we donned flashlights and our backpacks for the trek into the woods. It was slow going and after half an hour of hiking, we stumbled to the base of a tree house. The forest immediately surrounding the park entrance is second growth so we had to hike to into the old growth forest where the trees are tall enough to support tree houses and canopy walkways. This was where we would spend the night, 35 feet above the ground in a gently rocking tree house as our reservation for the campsite was apparently void or at least the guides preferred to have all of the obrunis in one place.

After a short rest, we took a two hour hike into the jungle, looking for animals with flashlights. As our guides felt that a lack of animals would be unacceptable after two hours, the hike was extended by about 45 minutes, during most of which I plodded forward in a half sleepy daze. Therefore when an animal was finally discovered (a honey badger!), I only saw the tail vanish into the woods. We did find a turtle which apparently was unable to evade us.

I collapsed onto my double staked mattresses. Sheets were optional as there were only three for six people, Dad taking one while the female Peace Corps volunteers got the other two. Before completing blacking out, we set our alarms to 5:30a and I was even able to text my girlfriend as the 35 feet allowed for a cell phone signal.

Why 5:30a? We wanted to be the first ones out on the canopy walkway. We spent a good 45 minutes accompanied with only the guide. We saw some birds, took in the expansive view and even saw a tree move as a monkey hopped from one branch to another.

One thing one must always remember about the rainforest is how loud it is, especially at night. As we were waiting for the guides for the night walk, we were treated to the distance, intermittent sound of what vaguely reminded me of a baby crying. Other bugs and night critters made for a loud orchestra of finely tuned noise. While there were plenty of bugs, the mosquitos were scarce as a certain type of tree gave off a lavender scent that repels them.

After touring the canopy walk and eating breakfast at the Rainforest Restaurant, we turned back for Cape Coast to visit nearby Elmina Castle. I got to further examine the harbor at Elmina which houses well over a hundred fishing boats. After another delicious lunch at the Castle Restaurant, we drove back to Accra although unfortunate we missed the Boat Race due to traffic. I did however snap a photo of Ruth’s Fast Food.