The last Ghana hurrah

I used to spend Sunday afternoons watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. It wasn’t just that Sunday afternoons were slow. I was also entranced by The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and I loved it when we’d watch wildlife films at school. I think I was in fourth grade when we all went to the library to watch the National Geographic’s Secrets of the Gobi Desert and I still remember specific scenes.

Given that context, you can imagine my delight when I discovered that, despite the fact that West Africa in general and Ghana specifically are not known as safari destinations, there is a national park in the north of the country where a variety of wildlife – most famously, elephants – can be seen. Mole National Park is not truly difficult to reach or terribly far away by U.S. standards (408 miles from my house to the lodge where we stayed, according to Google maps), but it’s certainly the most complicated Ghanaian trip we’ve taken. We had initially hoped to drive there over spring break last year, taking a few days to get there and a few days to get back and visiting some other destinations along the way. Unfortunately, consular section activity doesn’t slow down for spring break and since several officers have kids at the same school, in the end the leave time had to be split between them and Andres could only take half the week off. We postponed the trip.

I can hardly whine about the fact that we’ve used our larger blocks of Andres’ vacation time to attend a wedding in Poland and to spend Christmas with treasured friends in Saudi Arabia. But that did leave us with a shorter timeframe for the trip up north, and necessitated flying. The folks at Zaina Lodge, which bills itself as “the only luxury safari lodge in West Africa,” know that in order to get visitors from Accra to their lodge they have to make it (relatively) easy, so they offer to book flights for guests and provide transportation from the airport to the lodge (a 2.5- to 3-hour drive) as part of their various safari packages. Thus we found ourselves at the Accra airport at 8:30 on Friday morning waiting for our 11:00 am PassionAir flight to Tamale (which, I had to be taught, is pronounced TA-ma-lay), where we were to be picked up and driven to Zaina.

The harrowing stories we’d heard of domestic flights being overbooked and tickets being sold out from under people who weren’t standing ready to check in during a very narrow window of time mercifully proved to be quite unlike our own experience. We ended up twiddling our thumbs at the airport for a few hours waiting for the orderly, timely boarding and departure of our smooth-as-silk flight. I was not initially thrilled that we were booked on a brand-new airline (Ghana only has two domestic airlines—Africa World Airlines and PassionAir—and PassionAir just began operations in October of last year), but I guess the upstart is especially eager to impress at this point, and that certainly worked to our advantage.

One tremendous disappointment for me about flying the bulk of the way to Mole National Park was that I would miss my chance to see more of Ghana. The road trips we take are partly about the destination and partly about the journey. The nature of our life here doesn’t afford me the opportunity to experience what life is like for most Ghanaians, but at least on road trips I can see more than I generally see in my daily travels between an all-embassy-affiliated housing compound and the embassy itself and various shops in this neighborhood populated entirely by expats and wealthy Ghanaians. At least the drive from the Tamale airport gave me a small opportunity to see northern villages and towns, albeit all through the window of a van.

The first day at Zaina we didn’t really do much other than settle in. We arrived just minutes before a group (including some Accra friends we hadn’t known would be there! Bonus!) set out for a safari drive, so we missed that chance. And we’d just missed lunch. So we got situated in our room and checked out the property, which was quite impressive. And even without any wildlife on display the view from our deck was incredible. The photos really don’t do it justice. It was lush green as far as the eye could see.

The next day the first drive left at 7:30 and we were there. Our guides, Daniel and Adam, spent two hours taking us through the park. Every safari walk, every safari drive, they explained, is a gamble. Sometimes you see a lot. Sometimes not much of anything. It’s park that measures over 4000 square kilometers, it’s not fenced, and the animals aren’t tracked in any formal way. You get what you get. Lucky for us, that first day we got plenty. We met an elephant the rangers have named People’s Friend (actually, he’s People’s Friend 2, as the original People’s Friend passed away some years ago). I’m sure the rangers find his presence especially friendly, since his preference to hang around near human beings probably takes a bit of the pressure off. As much as everyone acknowledges that they understand these are wild animals and that there are no guarantees, I’m guessing guests are much happier—and tips are far better—when they get to see elephants.

That first morning we saw elephants, baboons (another easy sighting, as they love the easy food they can get hanging around the rangers’ barracks), warthogs (I love how these two are snuggling), three varieties of antelope, and an array of birds. While it’s not really known for safaris, Ghana is known (among people who are into this kind of thing) for its birds, and there are over 300 species at Mole.

We stopped about midway through the drive for a breakfast picnic. I think Marisela enjoyed the Milo (something like Ovaltine) as much as she enjoyed seeing the animals.

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After the drive we returned to the lodge for breakfast and, we had thought, some down time before an afternoon drive. But then we learned that a van would be leaving shortly to visit the nearby town of Larabanga and its historic mosque. It was built in 1421 and is the oldest existing mosque in Ghana, and one of the oldest in West Africa. In addition to its age, though, it draws visitors because of its truly distinctive appearance. Andres and I had wanted to see this mosque since we first started learning about Ghana, so we weren’t going to let a quick turnaround time prevent us . . . we gulped down our (very tasty) breakfast and were soon on our way. Thankfully some kind fellow guests we had met on the morning drive offered to be Marisela’s backup if she needed anything in our absence. She has never been a huge fan of visiting historic sites of any kind, so we didn’t push it. The three of us enjoyed the visit, and we were even able to bring back a jar of shea butter we purchased in Larabanga (though not a fan of historic sites Marisela is an enthusiastic fan of shea butter). Shea butter production is one of the ways the women of the community earn money. There seems to be relatively harmonious coexistence between Muslim and Christian citizens of Ghana, but the young man who showed us the mosque did say that the government in Accra neglects the Muslim north.

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We went on another two-hour safari drive that afternoon, and by the time we left yesterday we had been on three two-hour drives and two two-hour walks. We had seen about 12 different species of mammals, several Nile crocodiles, a Nile monitor lizard, and countless birds, among them several enormous Abyssian ground hornbills, Bateleur eagles (our guide, Adam, loves these birds and his affectionate enthusiasm for them was contagious), and many, many guinea fowl.

We also spent many happy hours enjoying the beautiful grounds of Zaina Lodge. The swimming pool overlooks a watering hole popular with the elephants. One afternoon nine of them were frolicking in there—spraying each other, dunking each other, and generally acting like vastly overgrown kids moving in slow-motion. The food was delicious, the company was great—both the friends we ran into there and the people we met made the experience even better—and there was even plenty of time to read (although how Isaiah finished a 1000-plus-page book is still beyond me).

I am often a save-the-best-for-last kind of person. But of course in the case of this experience there’s just no way of knowing what each foray into the park will bring. We were really lucky, then, to have a final outing we could not have topped if we’d been able to custom-order it. Andres and I opted to have our last safari on foot. The kids were safari’d out and opted to stay in the room. Andres and I met the guides at 7am and found that we were the only ones who had chosen a walking safari that morning. The drives definitely cover more ground, and if word goes around the guides that elephants are in a particular location, it’s much quicker and easier to get there in a car. They’re by far, I think, the more popular way to to see the park. But we’d really enjoyed our walk the morning before, and wanted to have a last walk before we left.

Not long after we started out one of the guides pointed out some elephant footprints Andres and I had to use our imagination to see. He showed us the outline, how to tell which way the elephant was going (look for the imprint of the toes . . . which again we only saw when he pointed them out), and then also showed us signs the elephants leave behind when they feed. That last part was a lot more obvious since they basically leave a path of destruction. We followed him on what seemed to be a meandering but very pleasant path through a stretch of the park we hadn’t yet seen. It was overcast and relatively cool (by which I mean we were only sweating lightly), and just a pleasant morning to be out hearing birds and seeing the occasional kob (antelope) or bush buck (another antelope). Then our guides both stopped and signaled us to do the same. We hadn’t been making much noise, but once we stopped we realized we could hear something ahead. “Elephants,” the elephant-footprint guide whispered. He pointed toward trees ahead. We could hear them, and could vaguely sense something large there, but couldn’t see them quite yet. The guides very deftly guided us forward to a point where we could see them well.

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We stayed in the vicinity of five grazing elephants for about 15 minutes, the guides periodically directing us this way or that to get a better view or to be sure we weren’t keeping the elephants from going where they wanted to go. The elephants were definitely aware of our presence, but seemed mostly tolerant until finally the largest one took a few decisive steps through the green border between him and us and stared us down quite sternly. The message was clear: “Enough of you creatures!” We left them to their grazing.

In a manner similar to his tracking of the elephants our guide then tracked a buffalo, which we were able to follow for quite a while but never photograph (we were warned that buffalo are not at all friendly, so we kept our distance). We also saw warthogs, more guinea fowl, vultures, and the incredible, huge nest of the hamerkop (we didn’t see the hamerkop on this trip but we’d seen them earlier).

The last stop on our walk was the watering hole, and on our way there we saw yet another group of elephants. We were separated from them by an impassible little valley, but the guides assured us we would meet up with them at the watering hole—and that likely the elephants we’d seen at the beginning of the walk would be there as well. Apparently elephants can detect each other’s movements and actions over a range of about 12 kilometers, and it seems “Meet us at the watering hole” is a common message to send.

We saw a juvenile Nile crocodile and a crocodile nest on our way there (we’d seen a 15-foot crocodile the day before – thankfully on a drive and not on foot). And our timing turned out to be impeccable. We arrived at the watering hole just as the two groups of elephants arrived, and we were able to witness the incredible sight of these creatures climbing into the water one by one.

It was quite a let-down to then have to pack up and prepare to leave the park, but somehow we did it. And we rode back to the airport, checked in, and boarded our plane home (the ride back, and a general pictorial on my love for the Ghana I see from car windows, will feature in my next post). It was as smooth and uneventful as our trip north had been, and coming home always has a comfortable sense of peace to it, I suppose, though this time not without some wistfulness. We will surely have at least a few more quick trips in Ghana, but this was the last big adventure. It was big in every way, and an adventure in every way, and it was an experience the little girl hanging on Marlin Perkins’ every word back on those Sunday afternoons in Las Cruces could never have imagined actually having: my very own Wild Kingdom adventure.

 

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You Get What You Get

I can’t remember now where I first heard it. It may have even been before Isaiah was born, attending various tiny kid things while visiting my sister and brother-in-law and our nephew Ethan (who is now somehow about to graduate from high school). Or maybe it was at a playgroup or at vacation Bible school or in Isaiah’s preschool classroom. At that time, at least, it was a common chant among the pre-kindergarten set: You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.

I’m good at overthinking things—always have been—and I’m sure I’m overthinking this, but I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this little saying. On the one hand it can be interpreted as simple crowd control and an affirmation of the fact that little kids often just don’t get much choice in life. “I am handing you this [snack/party favor/handful of crayons that probably won’t include your favorite color] and it might be different from what you were expecting but I don’t want to hear any whining or complaining. Your opinion is not needed here.” I always heard it said (and said it myself) with a cheerful, upbeat, aren’t-we-having-fun tone, but the meaning felt more like “If you cry because the kid across from you got the one you want I will not be sympathetic and you may well land yourself in timeout.”

This entry is not just a musing on preschool discipline. Bear with me. I’m actually making my way around to something relevant to adults. Foreign service life has a strong You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit theme. You get the post you get. You get the house you get, the compound you get, the neighbors you get. Your kids get the school they get and the schedule they get. At some posts I hear kids are picked up for school before six in the morning and return home late in the afternoon because of traffic problems (in Lagos it seems the kids will be riding a boat home from school for the same reason). And, as I’ve learned this time around, you get the experience you get with the limitations that may entail, and you really don’t have the chance to start fresh or do it over, except in a new place with new people and new circumstances.

Thinking about all of this, and particularly about that last part, is what has me mulling over the old preschool rhyme. How am I, as an adult, supposed to respond to “getting what I get?” Is the grownup version You get what you get and you don’t feel regret? Maybe. But I’m finding that difficult. Ghana has been a tough post for me. Ghana itself is wonderful. I absolutely love it here, open sewers, hectic traffic, unpredictably stocked grocery stores and all. The humidity took some getting used to. The lack of distinct seasons still has me perennially amazed to see friends’ Facebook pictures of snow or fall colors or spring flowers emerging. But Ghana is a wonderful place to be, and the quirks of living here have been easy for me to accommodate.

The part of our time here that leaves me feeling like a preschooler who was given celery sticks for snack instead of a graham cracker is the fact that my personal life has felt like nonstop hurdle-jumping and wheel-spinning. Conventional wisdom about two-year tours is that it takes about six months to settle in, get your home and life organized to your liking, meet people, adapt to your new environment, etc. Then you get a solid year of relatively settled enjoyment (interrupted somewhat by the bidding process) before you really have to turn your mind to your next post. Not that you can’t still enjoy where you are, but during those last six months you increasingly have to deal with both the practical and emotional realities of your move.

You’re applying to the next post’s school, figuring out where you’ll spend home leave, completing and returning the forms needed for housing at the next post, and starting the bureaucratic processes required for exiting the current post. You’re making your lists of healthcare providers you need to visit and things you need to do and buy and people you need to see while you’re in the U.S. You’re trying to figure out how to remove evidence of thoughtlessly placed nail polish remover bottles and hot pizza boxes and condensation-covered glasses from the ridiculously fragile finish on the embassy-issued furniture.

You’re sorting through your belongings and deciding what needs to come along for home leave, what should be in the limited-weight air shipment for quicker access at the next post, and what can go in the slower shipment.  Of course ideally also you’re getting rid of things that you’d rather not unpack at the next post, wondering how they’ve followed you for years despite having no possible use. (We have lots of things like this, even though we always try to purge. I’m pretty sure we have a few Tupperware lids with no matching containers that have followed us since our days on Clinton Ave. Maybe since Albuquerque. Marisela being part of our family means we have at least three times this category of stuff than we’d have otherwise. Lots and lots of 1/4-full tiny paint pots seem to move around with us. And dried-out markers.) Sifting through stuff, I guess, bridges the practical and the emotional sides of moving. Stuff is connected with memories, of course, and also just the act of starting to sort things makes the move feel more real and more immediate.

There’s a point in moving from post to post at which it feels hard to become involved with new things and new people. It’s all coming to an end so soon, and there is so much else going on, that it’s difficult to engage, even if you aspire to remain connected to your current post until you step on the plane. Join a committee to decide on food vendors for the Fourth of July event? Sounds interesting, and I like a lot of the people involved, but we won’t be here anymore at that point. Voting on the May book club book seems fair but I don’t feel like I can vote on the June book. I’ll be gone. A new family at post, and they’re in the consular section and seem wonderful. I’ll certainly do everything I can to welcome them, but I know that even if I go all-out to befriend them it probably won’t be a lasting relationship. They’re in that settling-in phase now. They have their own emotional work to do adjusting to this place and this life and I’m working in the opposite direction. I remember meeting a colleague of Andres’ when we first arrived in Juarez who very matter-of-factly said something along the lines of “Welcome and I’m very pleased to meet you, but I’m leaving in three weeks so, no offense, but I’m not going to make the effort to get to know you guys.” I actually appreciated his candor and think of that conversation often. It’s a reality of this life that sometimes feels unfair, but you get what you get.

That cycle being what it is makes a two-year tour challenging enough. When everything lines up perfectly it’s still a very short window of truly settled, productive, comfortable time. And things just have not lined up perfectly for me here. Within a few months of arrival I had the beginnings of the very distracting health problems that landed me in Cleveland for a medevac adventure lasting nearly three months. And since my return just over a year ago it’s been one thing after another—and by “thing” I mean nothing huge, and in several cases not even anything bad, just things that have diverted the attention and focus I would like to have placed on getting properly settled here.

On the positive side I’ve had a year of tremendous professional growth and accomplishment. I’ve worked on a contract basis for the same publishing company for close to 20 years, but always on relatively small, time-limited projects. A project working with an author to develop a new textbook from almost nothing—a proposed table of contents and rough drafts of a few chapters—turned into an unexpected year-long adventure. I’m very proud of the book and supporting materials that resulted, but it was a far more involved and time-consuming job than I’ve ever done before, and it seriously reduced the amount of time and energy I had for building a social life and exploring Accra.

On top of that we’ve just had bad luck with health situations. My health has stabilized, but not long after I returned health concerns arose for one of the kids, which we spent several months worrying about (all is basically well, although I feel like we were possibly close to a medevac there, too . . . and we have some further investigation to do over home leave). And there has been a sort of anxiety hangover looming in the house since my medevac. Everybody made it through that event beautifully, but now it feels like every little thing is just harder and scarier than before. We’ve had lots of missed school, lots of fear and worries, lots of emotional struggles that I think just come from everybody’s realization that there are no guarantees. Unpredictable, scary, and potentially dangerous situations can just materialize out of nowhere, and life can change suddenly as a result. Everything turned out OK, but I guess it made us all more keenly aware that sometimes it doesn’t.

The positive result of all of that: we have had a year of real family bonding. We’ve traveled together, explored together, cocooned together . . . we have needed time to ourselves, even more than this family with serious introvert streaks has generally needed, and that time has been regenerative for all of us.

The negative result of all of that: I have a pretty significant list of people I would love to have known better, groups I would love to have become involved with, and ways in which I would have loved to develop a deeper connection with the community outside the walls of our home.

The people are what I think about most: the friends who have been incredibly supportive, unfailingly kind and generous, and who probably feel as if I have kept them at arm’s length. And I have, in a way. Not because I don’t appreciate them and not because I wouldn’t loved to have known them better, but because our circumstances have dictated a fairly inwardly-focused life on this tour. It’s the whole putting-the-oxygen-mask-on-yourself-first analogy. We have needed to retreat a bit, as a family, in order to recover and to manage the challenges we’ve continued to experience. If we had another year here, there’s nothing I’d love more than to now turn outward and build the life here that I was never quite able to establish. I’m done with the book and back to piece-by-piece work that’s neither as time-consuming nor as intensely personal as that project felt. I’m healthy. We’re continuing to build the kids’ confidence that their lives are secure, or perhaps it’s better to say we’re continuing to build the kids’ confidence in their ability to cope with life’s insecurity. It would be a good time to strengthen the bonds to the wider circle around us, but there’s only so much that’s possible with two months left.

And now back to You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. Yes, there is the “Accept this situation and don’t bug me with your whining” aspect of this saying, but there’s something else there, too, when I (over)think about it. Maybe a few layers of something else. First, there’s the idea that flexibility and acceptance are important. Throwing a fit about the circumstances of life will not improve anyone’s situation. It’s not that your preferences or desires or hopes or wishes are unimportant, but there are certainly situations in which they are irrelevant, and getting your mind around fact that can be liberating.

The other layer I’m seeing is a bit more of a stretch, but I think it’s at least as important. Approaching life with this mindset can mean being ready to not get what you’re hoping for and yet to receive it with gratitude. That gratitude, however, does not have to negate the value of what you had been hoping for. I think there is room for regret. Even as I’m thankful for the personal, professional, and familial growth that has marked our time in Ghana I regret that I didn’t get what I had hoped for. I know the celery is good for me, but that doesn’t mean the graham cracker wouldn’t have been delicious. Maybe You get what you get and you move past regret would be the better, more productive adult version of the rhyme.

And so I will not throw a fit. But I will allow myself to regret the fact that I wasn’t able to let friendships blossom as fully as I had intended. That I didn’t find more opportunities to know people outside the embassy community (no offense intended, awesome people within the embassy community). That I didn’t do more to know what Accra is really like, what Ghana is really like, outside the very privileged circles in which we move. Then I’ll move past that, and I’ll build my hopes and make my plans for the next post. You get what you get, it’s true, but you can also work to make the most of it.

 

2018: the not-so-stable year of stability

2018 should have been the year for us to really feel settled and just enjoy Ghana. The initial adjustments were behind us, the chaos of moving on still too distant to consider. I had imagined it as the golden year of exploration and enjoyment. And it has been that. Our lives have not lacked adventure and travel opportunities, and our initial appreciation and affection for Ghana has deepened into what I know will be a lasting sense that this is now one of our places, one more true home among many.

That attachment was not as naturally and easily won as we’d anticipated, though. I rang in 2018, not with Andres and the kids in Accra, but in frozen-solid Cleveland, sharing a toast with my parents in a hotel restaurant.

I was mid-medevac, still not yet aware that I wouldn’t be returning to Accra for more than two months (see this post and those that follow if my various health scares are news to you). So while I was bundling up and trudging through ice and snow to get to my medical appointments, Andres and the kids were living their daily life without me. Andres got up every morning to make the kids breakfast before heading to the embassy. He made the most of weekends, taking the kids to see the local sights, visiting neighborhood coffee shops for breakfast, making burgers on the grill. Life wasn’t normal but he kept it as normal as he could. Everyone pitched in and just made it work.

The days stretched into weeks. I had been ready for a break from heat and humidity, but this was a little ridiculous.

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I was really ready to go home. And then, of course, I couldn’t. And I didn’t know when I would. And while I was feeling good, I was taken aback by the fact that my health was more fragile than I had ever wanted to acknowledge. I still get emotional looking back and seeing how much I missed: everyday things like radio check and floor-mopping. Fun outings like dinner at Accra’s one-and-only Mexican restaurant. The arrival of our car (finally!!). Events at the embassy and the kids’ school, like Marisela’s Ellis Island reenactment. I’m glad I have the pictures Andres so carefully curated but every time I see them I’m saddened by the time I missed.

Of course I had meaningful times of my own, and I’m thankful for them. I got to visit with my dear friend from Dallas, celebrate my nephew’s birthday with him, attend my niece’s play, and help my parents when my dad was hospitalized with a GI infection. I got to hang out with my sister and shop for the elusive dog toy their Lab pup couldn’t destroy in minutes (never found one) and watch the Olympics and X-Files and enjoy more time together than we’d had in decades.

Everyone made it through just fine. The kids hung in and did well in school and helped Andres with housework and ran errands and were just phenomenal. Our amazing neighbors gave rides and invited our kids over and took them to the movies. Andres somehow managed to be there for the kids, to feed them, to keep everyone’s clothes clean, and to maintain the crazy pace of work in the consular section. I did everything I could to get well, stay well, and enjoy the unexpected time I had with my stateside crew. And then, mid-March, I was finally able to come home. I still haven’t taken this poster down.

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I’m taking up a lot of time here with something that I realize for many families is a matter of everyday life. I know military families, and diplomatic families with parents at unaccompanied posts, and plenty of others have periods of separation far longer than the not quite three months we experienced. I am all the more grateful now for the sacrifices those families make. It’s not easy. As resilient as our family proved to be, it was a traumatic event for us all. Reconnecting was easy. Moving forward with life felt easy. But the real impact of the separation, and the anxiety we all experienced about my health and about when and where and how we would be able to reunite is something we’re still dealing with. It made the year feel a lot less settled than we’d expected it to be.

We’ve done well with moving on. My health has been great. It was a bit of a hassle bidding for our next post with my new restrictions (restrictions imposed by State Department on where I can go; day-to-day I just have a few more pills to take), but at least there hasn’t been any further trouble with my blood or my heart. I’ve established some routines now: started playing tennis again after a long break, initiated a weekly get-together for other spouses in the embassy community who work from home. Now that we have our car we’ve done lots of exploring in Accra and beyond. We had two incredible international journeys, first to Europe over the summer and then to the Middle East in December. I’ve acted as developmental editor for a brand-new book at the company I’ve worked for the last many years, and it’s almost done.

We’ve celebrated birthdays and milestones like Isaiah’s completion of middle school and move to high school.

We’ve enjoyed our wonderful community and built friendships and said some sad goodbyes.

We’ve developed new skills and sought out new experiences. Isaiah programs video games, and he and I continue in our sporadic attempts to develop our mediocre tennis skills. Marisela and I have enjoyed batik-making, beading, and sewing. Isaiah and Andres joined friends for a boxing match honoring the 60th birthday of local hero Azumah Nelson (regarded – at least by Ghanaians, and I think by the rest of the sporting world – as the best African boxer ever). Marisela took part in a soccer camp. I tried my hand at painting.

Once school was underway again this last fall the inevitability of routine gave us the structure we needed to feel like life was truly getting back to normal. Isaiah started high school, Marisela her final year of elementary. Seasons don’t bring much change here, but the events still march along in predictable fashion. Fall break brought a week with friends our favorite guest house (well, for the kids and me . . . I could work pool-side, but Andres, sadly, could not). Halloween brought homemade costumes and ridiculous amounts of candy we’d all ordered months before to ensure the successful celebration of this holiest of kid holidays.

As the year neared its end there was the usual Calderon crush of birthdays (three of the four of us within a month, with plenty of extended family/close friend birthdays packed in as well), and also the fun of holiday teas and galas – although we’ve been doing this foreign service life for a few years now, it all still feels (delightfully) like a grownup game of dress-up to me.

We spent Thanksgiving day at a beautiful beach and then shared a delicious meal prepared by friends who will also be posted in Lagos with us.

It’s hard to express why, despite this embarrassment of riches, this incredible, beautiful, ridiculously privileged life we live, the words that come to mind for 2018 are unsettled, uncertain, and bittersweet. It’s hard to acknowledge those feelings, knowing as I certainly know how very, very fortunate we are, and considering the many once-in-a-lifetime experiences we had this past year. But as the year began, I was adrift without the solid ground that is our little nuclear family. Things I took for granted, like their presence and my health, were not guaranteed. I wasn’t as bullet-proof as I’d felt. And my memories of the year, I’m guessing my memories of Ghana overall, are now indelibly marked with that uncertainty and that unexpected sense of vulnerability.

I’m not doing a great job at the classic, upbeat year-end roundup. Angst is not something I’m comfortable with, but this is the honest year-end roundup. We all had an amazing year. We did incredible things I had never expected to do in my life, and met people and visited places that have brought us joy and kindled wonder. We also fought hard to keep life normal when it simply wasn’t, and that has taken some time to come back from.

It took us a while, but we mostly caught up on missed celebrations. About 1/3 of a continent and an entire ocean separated us on our fifteenth anniversary, but we finally managed to celebrate (at a guesthouse up in the hills outside Accra that’s startlingly evocative of New Mexico, where we met and married).

We’re excited about 2019, whatever adjectives it may bring. There will be plenty of unsettled, I know, as even now we start the process of tugging up the thin Ghana roots in preparation for the move to Nigeria. There will be more uncertainty, maybe not in the form of alarming health issues or unexpected separations of unknown duration, but later this year we will be moving to an entirely new city and doing the whole new house, new friends, new job, new school thing all over again.

I have a friend from a book club several cities back who was always wary of books with bittersweet in the back cover blurb or reviews. That was an automatic pass for her, as it usually translated to maudlin and melodramatic. My discomfort with sharing my thoughts on our bittersweet year is touched with a fear of tipping over into that territory. So I’ll close with the acknowledgement that there is certainly more bittersweet ahead, and that’s OK. Because while our year hasn’t been perfect and it hasn’t been particularly settled, it has been memorable, and it’s been an opportunity to discover our strength, and to be thankful for the strength of those around us.

Vegas East

After leaving the Browns Marisela just wanted to go home. Saying goodbye in Riyadh felt like saying goodbye in Juárez all over again. It was like ripping the scab off a healing wound and although we all felt it, the kids felt it most keenly, I think. The only thing that kept Marisela going was the promise of more shopping.

When I had booked hotels for our trip (a few months in advance), I found that between our first single-night stay on December 21 and our five-night stay that would include New Year’s Eve hotel rates skyrocketed. So while we paid more or less the same amount per night for both visits, the first time around we were in a two-bedroom suite in what I would call a luxury hotel and the second time around we were in a single room in a very clean, efficient, and pleasant but decidedly non-luxurious “economy” hotel. So the accommodations were a bit of a let-down for Marisela but the advantage of this second hotel was that it was directly connected to a mall. And not just any mall. It wasn’t as vast as Dubai Mall. It didn’t have an indoor ski hill like Mall of the Emirates. But it was lavishly decorated and had all of Marisela’s favorite stores. It even had a Borders Bookstore and a cinema complete with a near-life-size figure of Newt Scamander, so as malls go it was even tolerable for Isaiah. But it was unlike any mall I had ever seen. The Mesilla Valley Mall of my childhood did not have anything on this. Not even the Sunland Park Mall.

The only thing we’d seen even remotely close to this mall in terms of over-the-top, ridiculous ornamentation were the malls on the Las Vegas strip. Like the malls of Las Vegas, this one had periodic shows and game-show type events. We’d turn a corner and find a row of people in robot costumes performing a dance number, or we’d see a clearly British young man decked out in full Arabian garb hosting an elaborate scavenger hunt game for a group of children. The mall was named for an adventurer named Ibn Battuta and had wings decorated to evoke the areas of the world where he traveled. When we left for this trip Marisela had quite a stash of birthday and babysitting money.  That’s all gone now. And so are several hours of my life spent wandering the Persia, India, China, Andalusia, and Egypt wings of Ibn Battuta Mall.

I start with the mall because in significant ways it encapsulates our Dubai experience. Dubai has mastered the art of manufacturing impressive experiences with little or no connection to anything genuine. I admire this, actually, in ways I don’t think I would have or could have, say, in my idealistic 20s. Not at all unlike Las Vegas, Dubai has created a space in which an incredible array of people from many different cultures and walks of life can come and feel completely removed from everyday life. It is an escapist destination par excellence, an environment engineered for spectacle, entertainment, and little else. I can enjoy places like this now in a way I did not before. I watched a movie on one of our flights called Puzzle. It was slow-moving, character-driven, thought-provoking, and a bit heartbreaking. As a family we all went to see Aquaman at the Ibn Battuta Mall. It was larger-than-life, noisy, largely pointless, and fun. I enjoyed both movies. Dubai is like Aquaman.

It even has its own Atlantis. On our first day we did some shopping, got the lay of the land, and paid a visit to the Atlantis resort. This vacation behemoth includes a mall, a water park, a private beach, an aquarium, several celebrity-chef-associated restaurants, and goodness knows what else.

The Atlantis is located at the furthest reach of the Jumeirah Palm, a true feat of engineering (and, let’s be honest, environmental havoc-wreaking). The Palm is an entirely human-created island/complex of peninsulas covered in luxury housing and high-end hotels and resorts. An elevated train carries hotel guests and tourists out to Atlantis and back (it’s also possible to take a taxi, but where’s the fun in that?) It is, in fact, shaped like a palm, and condominiums that line the fronds have their own little manufactured beaches, with the condos the next frond over sharing the same bay. Marisela’s money would definitely not stretch far at the malls on the Palm and the attractions carried hefty fees or were reserved for hotel guests, so once we’d eaten and gawked a bit, we headed back to our hotel and ended our day with a movie and a shockingly high-quality meal at the mall.

The next day was dedicated entirely to a hit-the-highlights tour of Abu Dhabi, the emirate neighboring Dubai. United Arab Emirates became a nation just a few days after I was born, and it’s a union of seven emirates, Dubai and Abu Dhabi the largest among them.  UAE’s founding father and first president was Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (though, despite the democracy-evoking sound of that title, the ruler of UAE is not elected; the nation is an absolute monarchy). His son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, is now president, and will eventually be succeeded as president by another son, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of UAE, and among our sightseeing adventures was a drive through a portion of the presidential palace grounds. It was, as one would expect, enormous and elaborate. And no pictures were allowed. Our guide made it clear that someone is always watching in the UAE. The highway is dotted with pillars that encase speed-tracking radar equipment and cameras, ready to send tickets to speeders or to drivers talking on mobile phones. The cab driver who took us to the elevated train for the Palm had shared similar stories, and warned us that plainclothes police officers are at the ready to issue tickets for jaywalking and other minor (to us) infractions. The order, efficiency, and cleanliness was impressive, but it definitely comes at price.

Our tour was a bit of a whirlwind, as we could have spent a week seeing sights in Abu Dhabi. We made brief photo-op stops at Ferrari World (which we accessed via a view of Abu Dhabi’s formidable Formula One racetrack) and Abu Dhabi’s Louvre (the name purchased and artwork sent from Paris’ Louvre at a price right around a billion dollars). We had a bit more time at Heritage Village, a museum intended to showcase the pre-oil, pre-tourism traditional lives of people in the region. Marisela particularly enjoyed watching artisans carve designs in wooden chests, weave kilim style rugs, hone knives and swords, and work with ceramics. The replica fishermen’s huts made us a bit nostalgic for Ghana.

We had a few skyline photo stops and drove by an enormous (and apparently incredibly expensive) hotel, and finally landed at the crown jewel of the tour: the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. According to our guide, there’s no record of how much it cost to build this mosque because it was funded entirely by the Sheikh’s family as a gift to the people. It took years to build (completed in 2007) and is impressively vast and opulent. It’s also an absolute tourism machine. The crowds and lines reminded me of Cowboys games at AT&T Stadium – they move a lot of people through this place.

img_3360 It is a mosque that’s used by the faithful (there were several areas visitors could not enter), but it’s also an enormous tourist draw. And even here I was struck by the prevalence of fake authenticity. Though here I had to wonder what constitutes authenticity. Is it age? Can something new be as genuine as something old? I’ve been to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul – 400 years old and breathtakingly beautiful. Beside that, this did not feel as real, but that might say more about me and my interpretation of authenticity than it does about the mosque.

It is, unquestionably, a beautiful place and the level of intricacy and artisanship was awe-inspiring. It’s home to the world’s largest hand-tied carpet, covering more than 60,000 square feet, weighing in at 12 tons, made by a team of hundreds in Iran, and flown to Abu Dhabi in its own airplane. The same room also contained an enormous German-made chandelier encased in Swarovski crystals. Although our tour guide touted it as the largest chandelier in the world, I felt a bit cheated to discover it’s only the third largest in the world. It does, however, contain something like 48 kilograms of 24-karat gold. Sheikh Zayed and family truly spared no expense. (The flowers in the picture below, by the way, are not painted. They are stone, and they’re inlaid in the marble walls and floors. It is truly spectacular.)

A quick word on attire for the female members of our family during this trip. In general, I felt more comfortable wearing an abaya (fully-covering robe) and head scarf when I was in public and outside the diplomatic quarter in Riyadh. I just felt less conspicuous. In general, though, I felt more conspicuous with my head covered in UAE. It’s an incredibly diverse place (more than 80% expats – the workforce of the nation) and while it’s not unusual to see women entirely covered, it’s also not unusual to see women in sundresses or short shorts. Most days I chose long skirts and shoulder-covering blouses, but female visitors to the mosque did need to be covered to the wrists and ankles and to keep their heads covered. Marisela was not a fan of the dress code, and you can imagine her relief when it was confirmed that she is young enough to be exempt from that particular requirement. We were just queuing up to enter here, and some women waited until the last minute to cover up.

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We didn’t get home from Abu Dhabi until fairly late, so it was a quick dinner (room service pizza for the kids and a trip to a fantastic Indian restaurant in the mall for the adults) and off to bed. Life tends to be very nocturnal in this part of the world, I’m guessing due to the fact that for many months out of the year the outdoor temperatures are nearly unendurable. When we would find ourselves eating dinner at 8 or even 9pm we were definitely still among the earlier diners.

We went to bed as early as we could that evening because the boys had to get up at quarter to six the next day – they had 7am tickets to go up in the Burj Khalifa, which at the moment is the world’s tallest building (a new world’s tallest building, topping a kilometer, is planned for construction in Dubai this year). Marisela had no interest, so the girls slept in. The boys enjoyed their ride (smooth and quick, they report) and their view.

The main event of the day was the pinnacle of fake authenticity: a bit of tourist-drawing showmanship typically called a desert safari. There was no wildlife involved (only decidedly domesticated camels), but it was enough of an adventure to perhaps merit the name. We were picked up mid-afternoon at our hotel by a guide who very much dressed the part. The vehicle was a Land Cruiser reinforced with roll bars – I’ll get to the need for those in a moment. Three other guests were already in the vehicle: guys in their mid-20s, we’d guess, on vacation from Azerbaijan (which was one of the posts that could have been, actually  – had it not been for MED saying no).

It was a slow start to the afternoon for the Calderón family. One of the optional (i.e. offered at an extra charge) activities was quad biking – basically riding the dunes in an ATV. The three young men were all over that opportunity, but we opted to just watch. There were, at least, camels to admire.

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Once our Azerbaijani friends were back (elated), we moved on to part two. Our guide released a good deal of air from the Land Cruiser’s tires and we headed out onto the dunes for a ride that had us clutching the roll bars in no time. For about 20 minutes we careened over, around, and along the top of the dunes, spraying sand, tilting at improbable angles, and plunging downward only to turn and nearly as quickly arc back up. The kids were terrified, but exhilarated. Once we had survived the experience they decided it had been incredibly fun. The Land Cruiser parked, hood popped, and coolant topped off, we spent some time admiring the view from the top of a dune. There was a snowboard available for sliding down dunes (ah . . . reminds me of childhood trips to White Sands!), and our guide engineered what may be my favorite family photo ever:

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The thrill you see on the kids’ faces here expresses their true joy at having survived the dune bashing. I was not appropriately attired for sliding down the dunes, but everyone else enjoyed that, and the guys even managed to remain standing all the way down (it’s steeper than it looks – I was really impressed).

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A few more photos, a few more sighs of relief, and we were back in the Land Cruiser. The route back was not quite as acrobatic as the route there, but there was still plenty of sand-spraying and tight turning. Grips on the roll bars were a bit looser this time around. We stopped long enough for our guide to vacuum out the car and reinflate the tires, and then we were on our way, as the sun set, to the final event of the tour: camel rides and dinner at a fake-authentic Bedouin camp.

We didn’t ride far on the camels, but for a day already filled with adventure, it was far enough. Getting up and down was the real ride . . . to my great surprise camels are not equipped with smooth pneumatic lifts. To sit down, first they buckle their front knees (or whatever you call that part of the body on a camel) and the front part of the body crashes down. Then they do the same in the back. Reverse that process for standing up. So while it was fairly easy to hold on as the camel stood, we had to keep our wits about us and our grips tight when the ride was over and the camel sat down again. (Isaiah is pictured here with one of our tour buddies from Baku.)

The day’s only real disappointment came right after the camel ride: our camp lost power. This is probably not something that would have posed a problem in an authentic Bedouin camp, but this version definitely needed the juice. After about a half hour of waiting and hoping, the guests at our (relatively small, quaint, and charming) camp were reloaded into the waiting Land Cruisers and moved to a camp that was definitely more of a machine, and clearly not lacking in electricity.

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We enjoyed a Vegas-caliber show that included belly dancing, fire-related stunts and acrobatics, and a whirling dancer. Food was plentiful and tasty. Marisela and I had our hands painted with henna.

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The entire day was a series of manufactured events, packaged to send tourists home feeling like they’d had a culturally relevant experience. I don’t believe that for a minute, but we did have a lot of fun.

And when we got back to the hotel we had more fun ahead. Andrés had booked us entrance to the hotel pub’s New Year’s Eve party, an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink event complete with live music. We were even able to help out our new pals . . . in what might be typical 20-something male fashion, they knew of plenty of parties going on around town but hadn’t taken any steps to make sure they could get in, and the city was *packed*. Our guide seemed quite uncertain as to whether they’d even be able to get close to the Burj-Khalifa-centered fireworks and party due to closed roads. We mentioned that our hotel had an event going on, so when we were dropped off, they checked it out, were satisfied that it would be a good time, and stayed on.

Andrés and I said goodnight to the kids and headed for our hotel’s fake-authentic British pub, Mr. Toad’s. (If the kids had it in them to make it until midnight at all, the early start to the day for Isaiah and the sheer nerve-wracking excitement of dune bashing had taken it right out; they didn’t put up a fight.) An aging British rocker kept the crowd-pleasing tunes coming while we sipped drinks that were surprisingly not watered down (it’s not Vegas after all!), nibbled food that was surprisingly tasty, and enjoyed an atmosphere of multicultural conviviality.

We shared our table with Bogdan and Julia, whom I assume hail from Central or Eastern Europe. Our Azerbaijani friends took up one table. There were a few tables of Africans (and we also had a Kenyan waitress, who was both surprised and delighted by Andrés’ Swahili). A few tables of Brits. One family I couldn’t place – the kids sounded 100% American, while the parents were speaking Arabic, if I’m not mistaken. Everyone was happy, everyone was singing and dancing, nobody was rude or drunk or out of control (yet another pleasant difference from Vegas). And when we rang in the New Year together there were warm greetings all around (and Andrés and I were luckily not nabbed by plainclothes police when we shared a new year’s kiss . . . public kissing is illegal in Dubai, we later learned).

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We had one more day remaining. When we were planning the trip I had gathered lists of things to do and places to go, building a tentative itinerary based on recommendations from other foreign service families who had visited. And then, before finalizing the agenda, I asked the kids if there was anything in particular they wanted to do or see. To my surprise, Isaiah piped up (he is not usually the one who pipes up). “There’s a Legoland in Dubai, isn’t there?” Indeed there is, and it had been my mistake to think that our boy, now firmly into his teen years, would no longer be interested. He was very, very interested, and in fact that was (other than seeing the Browns) his single wish for the whole trip. He was perfectly content to join us for sightseeing tours and go up the Burj Khalifa, and he was even patient enough to go to the mall a few times (if the bookstore could be part of the deal), but what he really, really wanted was this:

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And so we spent our last day in Dubai at Legoland. We saw LEGO re-creations of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Burj Khalifa and even of a “desert safari.”

The kids built LEGO cars to race down ramps and did a programming session with LEGO robotics kits.

We rode a number of rides, and Isaiah even went on his first roller coaster (the tiny one he preferred at the Texas State Fair does not count). He bought two LEGO sets, one of the Burj Khalifa and one a Doctor Who melange. It was a delightful time, and a great way to end our time in Dubai. It was early to bed that night, and up at 4:15 the next morning to catch our morning plane home. We were in our house right around 1pm . . . though 4:15am Dubai time is 12:15am in Accra, so it felt a lot later. Still, it wasn’t long before I stepped into Isaiah’s room and saw this:

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I guess one is never too old – or too tired – for LEGOs.

A few days at home now and our suitcases are unpacked, our lives largely back to normal (well, Christmas vacation normal – the kids aren’t back at school until next week).  On Sunday, Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season and we will have our little Calderón family Christmas celebration, opening the gifts we couldn’t pack and take with us on our trip. But as we sit around the tree opening our gifts we will have this gift from the Browns, nestled between the chile from New Mexico and the cross sent by friends in England, to remind us of the first day of Christmas, and the joy we shared in another corner of the world. Nothing fake about that.

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Tamales in Riyadh

The time had come: we had made it through birthday season, having successfully celebrated the three that fall so conveniently within a month, and right before Christmas (Isaiah’s, mine, Marisela’s). I had managed to get a reasonable number of holiday packages assembled and mailed. Homemade cookies and notes of thanks had been distributed to teachers, bus drivers and monitors, and compound guards. Andrés had wrapped up loose ends relating to his temporary assignment to the American citizen services section and I’d even managed – with tremendous work from my colleagues, as well – to get a draft of the book I’ve been developing ready for review. Now the trip that we had first discussed before leaving Juárez was actually happening: we were leaving Accra for Riyadh, where we would spend Christmas in the company of Tim, Kim, Josiah, and Alina Brown.

We met the Browns (well, two of them) in Washington, D.C. when we first jumped into this new life. Students in the orientation class were seated alphabetically and BROWN and CALDERON landed next to each other. The kids met Tim and Kim at a Super Bowl party and were immediately drawn to their kindness – they treated the kids like people worthy of conversation and engagement, which is not universal behavior with adults. The Browns connected with Isaiah and Marisela at a time when their known world was shifting entirely, and I don’t think the kids have ever forgotten that. So we were pretty excited when Flag Day landed us all in Ciudad Juárez together.

Over our time together in Juárez Tim and Kim basically became the kids’ foreign service aunt and uncle. They were the cool grownups who would have them over to play games, eat delicious meals, and even spend the night. We watched football together, live and on TV (especially Packers-Cowboys games . . . which generally ended better for the Packers fans than for the Cowboys fans; but at least we got to eat brats). When the Browns learned they were going to be parents, Marisela knew before they did that they were going to have a little boy – she baked the blue-tinted cake for their gender reveal event, having received the sealed news from the doctor’s office. We were delighted to welcome Josiah when he was born. And when we all received our next post assignments, it wasn’t long before Andrés proposed that we plan on visiting the Browns during their first Christmas in Riyadh.

Much had happened since we said goodbye to the Browns at Taquería Aaajiji, across the street from our home in Juárez. We’d all met briefly in D.C. in the days before moving the Ghana, but then went our separate ways. Tim learned Arabic at the Foreign Service Institute. Kim prepared for a new arrival – Josiah’s little sister was due in March 2018. Meanwhile we settled in to life in Ghana, went through my medevac ordeal (Alina Brown was born the day I left the U.S. to return to Ghana), we settled in more, and then finally we found ourselves on the verge of a trip to Riyadh.

The story of acquiring our visas for this trip could be a blog post all its own, but suffice it to say it took at least five separate visits to the Saudi embassy and visa processing center, the presentation of various documents we hadn’t realized we’d need to present, and the payment of some mysterious last-minute fees, but we did, in the end, get our visas. We gathered travel documents, packed suitcases (carefully – Christmas is illegal in Saudi Arabia so nothing was wrapped in Christmas paper and the Ghanaian nativity set we’d bought for the Browns was in as inconspicuous a spot as we could find in our luggage) and left for the airport.

It was going to be a serious journey: there are no direct flights to Saudi Arabia. We had an overnight flight to Dubai, and rather than waiting seven hours at the airport and then boarding an afternoon flight to Riyadh, we had planned to spend one night in Dubai, rest up a bit, and then continue. We didn’t want to waste a day, though, so despite sleep tallies ranging from zero (me) to just a few hours (Andrés), after depositing bags at our hotel we took the very efficient (and entirely machine-operated!) Dubai metro to Dubai Mall for a day of aquarium-viewing and (for Marisela’s benefit) shopping.

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Our vacation would take us back to Dubai for four days on our way home, but this was a nice start. The aquarium was startlingly reminiscent of the Dallas World Aquarium, even down to the otter habitat and bat cave, but we had no complaints about that. Isaiah is a nostalgia fiend, so if anything that was a plus for him.

After a solid night’s sleep (really, really solid . . . it was not easy to get up!) we made our way back to the airport and before the end of the day had been warmly welcomed to our friends’ new home in Riyadh. We met Alina, got reacquainted with Josiah, and enjoyed the comfortable sensation of feeling at home in the company friends we love – an essential experience in foreign service life.

I had never expected to find myself in Saudi Arabia. I honestly still can’t say I know much about the country, but the brief glimpse we got was intriguing. On our second night the younger members of the Brown family stayed home with a sitter and the rest of us went to a restaurant serving traditional food in a traditional setting. The food was amazing, the setting beautiful. I found myself forcefully (and surprisingly) reminded of New Mexico as I looked up at what we would call vigas and latillas. The architecture and design was definitely evocative of pueblo design. We sat together and shared a sumptuous meal starting with dates and aromatic coffee brewed from green coffee beans and spiced with cardamom and other flavors I’d be hard-pressed to identify. Again reminding me of New Mexico we shared puffed, fried bread that tasted like a whole wheat sopaipilla with honey baked in. There was meltingly tender lamb, delicious chicken, and hummus and other side dishes that left me full all too soon.

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One thing I found interesting about this experience, and would go on to ponder throughout our time in Saudi Arabia and in the United Arab Emirates, was what I’m going to call the fake authenticity of it all. That sounds disparaging, but I don’t intend it to be. The experiences we had at this restaurant and in UAE gave us an opportunity to witness and participate in a facsimile of something that would be unattainable to us otherwise. We aren’t going to be invited to dine with a Saudi family (and Saudi families don’t dine like this, anyway), and we won’t see a genuine seaside fishing village in the UAE – oil made the hand-to-mouth existence of fishermen irrelevant to Emirati some time ago. These opportunities were essentially immersive museum exhibits – not “real,” but informative and valuable nonetheless.

And although the restaurant itself was a relatively newly-built approximation of something old and authentic, our evening as a whole was probably the one time we came close to experiencing something genuinely Saudi – a taste of genuine modern Saudi life. The restaurant was part of a large complex of restaurants and shops, beautifully built and elaborately landscaped. The vast majority of the complex’s patrons were Saudi families. There were men, women (most of them wearing garments that covered all but their eyes), and children, all out together, all enjoying family meals, picnics, ice cream, and the delights of an evening outside in beautiful, mild weather. To my great surprise I even saw groups of women smoking shisha together (hookah pipes). Apparently it was only earlier in 2018 that restaurants and other public spaces in KSA began to allow shisha – previously it was only to be enjoyed at home. And presumably by men. I have neither the knowledge nor the desire to engage in discussion as to whether the changes recently initiated by Saudi’s crown prince amount to actual reforms or Machiavellian window dressing, but I can say unequivocally that the Saudi people we saw out on this evening were thoroughly enjoying these novel experiences.

In fact, there were so many people seeking to enjoy an evening at this complex that we had quite an adventure getting there. When we were getting quite close we found the road blockaded. We were diverted to a different road and – at the end of that road – told we’d have to get out of the Browns’ car and take a bus. We weren’t so sure about that, so we turned around and attempted a different approach.

It’s merciful that at this point Marisela had fallen asleep, because she would not have been a big fan the path Google Maps chose: a labyrinth of barely-wide-enough roads, surrounded by walls and with a very limited sense of where we were headed or how long it would take to get there. Periodically we’d emerge into a clearly residential area, then plunge again into the maze of alleyways. At one point we came into the open to find a group of men smoking shisha around a campfire. We briefly pondered asking them for directions (Tim speaks Arabic, after all, and actually most Saudis speak English), but instead we opted to turn around. At which point we discovered that these alleys were either officially one-way or, at the very least, one-way in practice. We encountered a car coming the other way and had to back up for quite a while before finding a spot wide enough to turn around. I believe I mentioned in my blog, long ago, that foreign service officers have to take a class (called FACT) in which they learn survival skills that include evasive driving techniques – Tim finally got to put his FACT skills to use.

At this point we realized we had little choice but to figure out the bus situation. We returned to the parking lot and this time asked a few more questions. How much did it cost to ride the bus? Free. How long would we have to wait for the bus? Never more than a few minutes. How often did the bus return? I am not making this up. The beleaguered attendant shrugged, moved his hands in a wheel-like motion and half-said, half-sang “Rolling, rolling, rolling.” So we parked, boarded the first of something like 10-15 lined-up shuttle buses (along with about a dozen Saudi women and kids), and made it to the restaurant after about a 5-minute ride. Definitely much easier than the path we’d attempted.

That evening was pretty much it for venturing out of the diplomatic quarter and into something resembling real life in Saudi Arabia. We were there primarily to spend time with our friends and share everyday life with them once again for a while. It was lovely. The kids read to Josiah. They played with Alina. Tim and Marisela cooked. Andrés gave JJ juggling lessons. We went for walks.

We ate Tim’s delicious chili on Christmas Eve with friends we’d met when Andrés was studying for the foreign service exam back in Dallas – now posted in Riyadh as well. For the first time ever the Calderón kids got to play Santa, helping Tim assemble a kitchen on Christmas Eve after guests were gone and the kids were in bed.

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Christmas day had all the joy one could hope for. I was even able to watch Christmas Eve services from our little church in Dallas thanks to the wonders of the internet. We opened presents, ate the cookies we’d been baking over the last few days, and shared a true feast (illegal in so many ways – Christmas and ham and wine to wash it all down).

The next day we had a full-on Juárez reunion: Ross, an officer who also had been posted there with us, along with his wife, Cristal, who had been a local staff member at the consulate, joined us for tamal-making. Led by Cristal, we kneaded masa (and kneaded it, and kneaded it – in the end we had it kind of floating), spread it on the corn husks, filled them, wrapped them, and set them steaming. I could hardly believe I was going to taste tamales again. There are many things I miss about Mexico, and food is not at the bottom of that list. The results were incredible. Cristal vowed she will never again make tamales from scratch, but the whole thing left me determined to give it a shot here in Accra.

There was more fun had on tamal-making night: Cristal braided Marisela’s hair while Marisela held Alina. Baby-holding and fancy hair all in one package . . . a definite high point for our girl.

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Isaiah had his moments, too. He read a book Tim recommended to him in its entirety within the first few days, then I’m pretty sure read another book, and also was able to present to Tim and Kim his Christmas gift of a video game he had created himself. Another big moment for our boy: he held Alina on more than one occasion. Isaiah loves babies, maybe even as much as his sister does, but he does not share her comfort with holding them. By the end of our visit, though, he was a pro. Alina thought he was a pretty fascinating character.

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After Christmas and tamales our time in Saudi Arabia was nearing an end. Our hosts’ hospitality was generous beyond compare, but we know that predictable routines and a bit less novelty make life easier with small kids in the house. The feeling of being with our family-away-from-home again was wonderful, but we knew it was time to move on to the next stop.

On our last day we once again took advantage of the Browns’ generosity in spending time with our kids, and had a “date morning” amidst mind-blowing opulence at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton buffet. The kids, in the meantime, were taken to IHOP. Everyone was happy.

Then we were in the airport again. More than a year in the works, our visit was over. Our hearts were happy. We look forward to meeting again, somewhere in the world.

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The highest waterfall and the tamest monkeys: a Farmers’ Day adventure

One thing I never expected to experience in Ghana: cold so intense it literally took my breath away. The day wasn’t cool, either. I think the high temperature was in the mid- to upper 90s, not even accounting for humidity. But the water cascading down Wli Falls was cold. Crazy cold.

I’ll back up a bit. For our Founder’s Day adventure we had visited Boti Falls, a few hours’ drive from Accra. Our next big excursion was to Wli Falls, considerably further away in the Volta Region, nearly at the Togo border, and (according to signs posted onsite) the highest waterfall in West Africa. I haven’t sought to verify that. I’m just going to choose to believe. It does look pretty high.

We visited Wli Falls with friends over the Ghanaian holiday Farmers’ Day. The kids had the day off school and Andrés and his colleague Jeff took the day off work and our families headed out. We were booked to stay at German-run guesthouse within walking distance of the falls trailhead, purportedly with a view of the falls from the guesthouse dining area. The journey was relatively uneventful once we got underway (though the pre-departure hours were marked by a GI virus scare in the Birschbach family – which thankfully never materialized – and a too-close encounter with a concrete pole at a filling station as the Calderon family fueled up, which thankfully did not do serious enough damage to affect our vehicle’s roadworthiness).

Jeff and Andrés had actually made the same trip a few months earlier on a guys’ weekend and had taken a different, and apparently far more adventurous, path (adventurous being a euphemism for unpaved, remote, and heavily rutted). There were only a few suspension-rattling, teeth-chattering portions of pavement-free roads this time around, and we were almost always fairly sure we were going the right way. And indeed we did get the guesthouse on schedule to enjoy a relaxing afternoon and evening. We could see the falls from the dining area (though too distantly to show in pictures, I’m afraid). And the grounds of the guesthouse were lovely – green and lush as everything in Ghana tends to be, with views that encompassed not only the falls in the distance, but also the closest Ghana has to mountains.

While our dinner was being prepared we took a walk through a nearby village, headed for what we had been told was a stream not too far along a path that passed through farming land. I’m sure there was eventually a stream – the terrain was increasingly green and dense – but we never quite got there. We didn’t like our chances of navigating back in the dark and the light was fading, so we turned around, but not before we had a few interesting encounters with village residents surprised to see a long line of foreigners on the trail. At one point a small vehicle was coming along the path from the stream back to the village and all pedestrians had to step aside to make room – not an easy task as tall corn was growing all around. A Ghanaian girl I’m guessing to be about Marisela’s age, or maybe a bit older, was right next to me as we waited, and she smiled, hugged me, and proceeded to pat me down far more effectively and thoroughly than the average TSA agent. I got the distinct impression she was satisfying her curiosity as to whether obroni women have all the same parts Ghanaian women have.

The next day was our hike to the falls. There are lower falls and upper falls, and originally the notion was to have an upper falls crew and a lower falls crew, but in the interest of togetherness we all decided to stick with the lower falls. (The upper falls involve a 3-hour hike, which is beyond the endurance of the younger trekkers.) To get to the lower falls we only had to walk about 30 minutes through flat, beautifully wooded terrain, periodically crossing footbridges that spanned a babbling stream (probably the same one we were trying to find the night before). It was wonderful to be hiking again – though this New Mexican never expected to be hiking through tropical forests. We saw bats, spiders (lots of awesome spiders), ants, and many other creepy-crawlies I couldn’t identify.

Once we made it to the falls we all had the intention of wading all the way in. Though the walk in hadn’t been strenuous, it wasn’t exactly chilly outside, and the notion of standing under a cascade of cool water was quite appealing. But it turned out that cool was not exactly the word for that water. As we were wading in, a man wading out warned us: that water is COLD! But Ghanaians tend to wear warm jackets and knit hats when it’s 70 degrees, so I figured his sense of cold and mine were calibrated differently. I smiled, thanked him for the warning, and kept wading. It felt great!

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It didn’t seem that cold, really. I waded further. Up to my ankles. Up to my calves. My knees. It didn’t get a lot deeper, and I still wasn’t that cold. Until the spray from the falls started hitting me. Or was it slicing in to me? Now I believed the guy – this was some cold water. A few steps further, though, and something happened I’d never experienced before: the cold actually took my breath away. I had to consciously draw breath. And then do it again. And again. It was a constant effort. I always thought that expression was an exaggeration. Apparently not. It was clearly not dangerous. I was still fully capable of breathing. But it was definitely a strange and alarming sensation and one I was not fond of. Given that the spray alone left me gasping, I decided to turn around and not stand under the waters of the purportedly tallest waterfall in West Africa.

Isaiah and I both turned around, experiencing the same breathtaking sensation. Andres and Marisela plunged on, and eventually made it to the finish line. For their efforts they were awarded with what I can only imagine is the sensation of being flash-frozen. There were many shrieks and hoots and hollers. They definitely earned the day’s bragging rights (Marisela is not pictured here but Andres carried her in later – and apparently I was off photographing bugs or something).

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We frolicked around the waterfall for some time before the return hike took us back to the visitor’s center. There are two major lodges in the area of the waterfalls, often referred to among embassy folks as “the German place” and “the Ghanaian place.” We had lunch at the Ghanaian place and it was delicious. The views at the German place can’t be beat, but the red-red and plantains here were worth a visit.

DSCN4845 It wasn’t long before I could have used a splash of cold water again. The afternoon involved reading, football-tossing, and general relaxation. Marisela had been conducting Rainbow Loom lessons for all interested parties throughout the trip, and that was a popular activity. We spent that evening enjoying Andrés-made cocktails (for the grownups . . . lemonade for the kids) and playing Uno. We’ll be in Lagos with Jeff and his family, and I’m guessing there will be many similar evenings ahead for us.

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The next day was the trip home, but by way of another popular tourist destination: the Tafi Atome monkey sanctuary. The village of Tafi Atome has lived happily with several bands of mona monkey for generations. Though there are plenty of Ghanaians who hunt and eat monkeys, the original inhabitants of this particular community reportedly migrated to the area from Ghana’s central region with a monkey talisman that they believed to embody a protective spirit. When they encountered the monkey population at the site that is now the village they believed the monkeys were there to protect them. Though the beliefs that initially forged the amicable relationship between villagers and monkeys have largely given way to Christianity, the villagers have continued to protect the monkeys and have created a sanctuary open to visitors.

To say these monkeys are habituated to humans is to understate how very enthusiastically they approach and ask for the bananas they know visitors will have. Within seconds of holding out a banana (very firmly, with arm fully extended, per our guide) a guest will have a monkey perched on his or her arm. A few seconds later the banana is eaten and the monkey has jumped down and is on the hunt for the next banana-holder. It was a bit alarming, to be sure. And the monkeys weren’t particularly well-mannered. But they were fascinating, and it was incredible to see them at such close quarters. Once our banana supply was depleted the monkeys backed off, but not too far. We could see them watching us, hoping.

Our monkey sanctuary visit was topped off with a short hike through the forest – beautiful terrain and dense, gorgeous greenery. It was very much a worthwhile diversion.IMG_3077 We’ve entered the stretch of our Accra tour where each trip feels a bit more poignant . . . we still have months to go, but there is far less ahead than behind now, and the time we have left will be partly filled by preparing for our move. Applying for the new school, sifting through our belongings, coordinating shipments, etc. can all be extremely time-consuming. And though we’re not going far (Lagos is closer to Accra than Lubbock is to our former home in Ciudad Juárez – and that didn’t feel far at all), travel opportunities in Lagos will be far fewer, and more likely to be part of an organized group trip, so we are cherishing every travel opportunity we get.

One of the things I like most about meandering through Ghana is the opportunity to glimpse a world beyond our very privileged and insulated life in Accra. We won’t be able to experience that in Nigeria. On this trip I was interested to see what must be part of an NGO/governmental campaign – Canada is involved somehow, it seems. Murals throughout the villages and towns we traveled through in Volta Region promoted the notion that family responsibility can be shared across gender lines, regardless of traditional roles. Usually we were driving by and I couldn’t get a picture, but this one was in Tafi Atome and we were on foot, visiting the monkeys (and yes, women are definitely the traditional load-bearers . . . not just of food items or babies and children, but of bundles of wood and other heavy, bulky things).

IMG_3057Tafi Atome was the last Volta Region stop for our trip. We started home, pausing long enough to have a lunch of delicious Korean food in the port city of Tema, about a half-hour from Accra. It’s always a bit of a let-down coming home from our adventures, but we had some serious preparations to do. The next day was a big one in our household and there was work to be done . . .

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Let’s Go Lagos!

There are places that conventional foreign service wisdom says people should want to go and places that conventional foreign service wisdom says people should avoid. European posts, YAY! African posts and border posts (well, let’s be honest, southern border posts specifically), BOO! Of course there are the “desirable” African posts: Capetown is pretty universally desired. And Zimbabwe is widely reputed to have the best houses in all of foreign service, with a correspondingly high quality of life.

The posts we’ve had so far, though – Ciudad Juárez and Accra – generally not the ones anyone is jockeying to land. In fact, more than one person asked us in stunned disbelief why would would use our “Juárez equity” to go to Accra. Thanks to a lingering sense of Juárez as a dangerous and challenging place to serve officers coming out of Juárez are among the first to bid on their next posts, receiving a degree of preferential placement due to the “hardship” they’ve endured. But we loved Juárez. And we really, really wanted to go to Africa. So we were happy to “waste” our Juárez equity to get to Ghana.

We’ve been delighted with life in Ghana. Yes, it gets a bit old bleaching our produce. The roadside open gutters and lack of sidewalks can be a nuisance. The need to visit several shops to collect ingredients for a single meal is exhausting at times. But honestly it’s easy enough to build routines that minimize the inconvenience. I can get the bowls of bleach water and rinse water ready before I go to the store so I can start cycling the produce through as soon as I get home. The gutters are easy to hop, and plenty of Ghanaians are walking along the streets – it’s easy enough to follow their lead. As for food, a little flexibility goes a long way. Yes, every now and then – birthdays, holidays – a very specific menu is required, but usually it’s possible to plan menus around whatever happens to be available.

So when bidding time came up again, we weren’t necessarily intent on going to a post that has a strong positive reputation. We knew that, for our family at least, many of the less sought-after posts could make wonderful homes. But we also had some complicating factors: I now have a “Class 2” medical clearance – meaning the medical office in DC has to approve any post I go to – and Isaiah will be graduating from high school at our next post. Those considerations would make some of our decisions for us: no English-language high school in N’Djamena, so no Chad for us; MED says no to Kampala, so we are not Uganda-bound.

This was our first crack at mid-level bidding. A foreign service officer’s first two tours are called directed tours. Our preferences are noted, but ultimately we go where we’re sent. Third tour is the first mid-level tour, and bidding is far more complicated. From a list of projected vacancies Andres had to select ten to bid on, and it was up to him to contact those posts and lobby for the jobs. Except in our case we had to receive MED approval before we could be assigned to a post, so we needed to submit lists of potential posts for approval (not more than 15 at a time) before bidding.

Also true for our case: we had no idea what we were doing. We followed the official instructions for third-tour bidding, but by the time we started the process in earnest it was – we now know – too late. MED quickly responded to our first list of approval requests, but then was so bogged down with requests that we didn’t hear back on our second list until after the bidding deadline had passed. Between our late-to-the-party bidding, our complicated medical situation, and our need for a post with a decent English-instruction high school, we initially ended up without an assignment. We were assured that we were not the only ones in that position, and that it was not a reflection on Andrés as an officer, but it was still a frustrating and discouraging situation. We’d invested a lot of time in the process, carefully researching schools and medical care, following the rules as we understood them.

Once initial offers have been made, each day there’s a list distributed with unfilled positions remaining. The overseas positions were at posts officers are not generally clamoring to staff. That’s not necessarily a problem for us, but there was quite a lot of overlap between the “undesirable” posts and the list of posts MED would not approve or the list of posts without an international school for high schoolers. We were encouraged in some quarters to consider boarding school for Isaiah (which we grudgingly may have done had he been interested . . . we’re not in a hurry to say goodbye to our awesome kid). We were encouraged to consider D.C. jobs. We had, in fact, resigned ourselves to a D.C. tour. It’s unusual in consular, given the demand for consular services around the world, but in this particular bidding season there were fewer overseas posts than there were bidders, and the third-tour bidders were facing stiff competition from more experienced officers.

Andrés interviewed for various D.C. positions and was essentially guaranteed a job in the children’s issues section. He would be using his Spanish skills to deal with situations involving adoption or abduction in Mexico or Central America. It sounded intense, but potentially very rewarding. I started researching neighborhoods and schools. We started considering the family budget implications of a D.C. tour – a small cost of living adjustment, but no housing allowance, no hardship differential, and no help with school. For the first time we would truly feel the pay cut Andrés took when he left EPA-OIG and joined State.

Then Andrés decided to just submit a list to MED of all the posts remaining on the overseas list that would work with our timing needs (China was out, for instance, because a year of D.C.-based language training followed by a year of China-based language training followed by a move to our actual post would mean Isaiah finished 10th grade in D.C., 11th at our training site, and 12th at post . . . we couldn’t do that to him.) We didn’t hold out high hopes for any of the remaining posts. They were predominantly in Africa and in less-developed areas of South America. They didn’t seem likely Class 2 posts, which is why we hadn’t included them on our list in the first place.

But then something surprising happened: MED approved Lagos, Nigeria. Lagos was still on the list for a reason. I’d venture to say it’s one of the least-desired posts in the foreign service. Lagos is the most populous city in Africa. And although the capital of Nigeria is Abuja and Lagos is home to a consulate rather than an embassy, the Lagos consulate houses what I’ve heard is the highest-volume consular post in Africa. It’s a high-fraud post in addition to being high-volume. And the security concerns in Nigeria mean we’ll be limited in our movement: no unaccompanied access to areas outside the islands where the consulate housing and the consulate are located. That amounts to an area about the size of Manhattan, from what we hear. But MED said yes, and we love Africa, and better yet, the job was one that would typically not be easy for a third-tour officer to get. Andrés would be chief of the immigrant visa section in a huge consulate – an excellent opportunity.

So the “Gotta Go to Ghana” of our last bidding cycle gave way to “Let’s Go Lagos!!” Andrés had an interview for the position and the interview went well. He had some encouraging email exchanges with the position’s incumbent and that person’s supervisor. An Accra friend who has moved on to Lagos reported that he had been contacted for a reference (and had said good things). It was looking good.

But then a day came when Andrés received the list of available positions and Lagos was not on it. He hadn’t received the offer. It looked like D.C. was our fate. I redoubled my research efforts and resigned myself to a tight budget and probably every cent I earned going to rent. The email came late that afternoon, once D.C. was up and moving. Apparently Lagos had been removed from the list because they’d found their candidate: Andrés was offered the job. He took it enthusiastically and we are excitedly anticipating our next adventures.

It will be different. The freedom we enjoy in Ghana, the ability to travel anywhere and everywhere without restriction or particular concern, will be a thing of the past. But we’ll live in an all-USG apartment building, which is reminiscent of Marisela’s favorite place ever, Oakwood – the corporate housing we were in during initial training. Both of our kiddos have serious homebody streaks and they will probably be quite relieved to not be dragged all over creation every weekend. The school is supposed to be excellent (American International School of Lagos, aislagos.org), and Lagos is a real center of Nigerian and African culture – music, cinema, art, literature . . . Lagos is the epicenter of it all. So we’re pumped. We are on board. Let’s go Lagos!!! Bring it on.

Our first freshwater adventure

September marked the one-year anniversary of our arrival in Ghana. We shared cake with the folks in the consular section to celebrate. It didn’t really feel like a year to me, but of course I had missed nearly three months of it on medevac. And actually it did feel like we were settled in the way a year’s stay can settle a family . . . the kids were back at school and weren’t “new” anymore. Our neighbors and our neighborhood and our community felt comfortable.

After a year, though, the kids and I still hadn’t done any traveling that didn’t involve the Ghanaian coast. Andres had been to the area around Kumasi once for work, representing the U.S. at the opening of a vocational school built with U.S. assistance.DSCN4214

The rest of us, though, had only ever been to various beaches and seaside forts. So for Founder’s Day, the late September holiday honoring the first Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah, we joined another Embassy family for a trip to Ghana’s Eastern Region, home to scenic waterfalls, lush greenery, and one of Nkrumah’s most important infrastructure projects, Akosombo Dam.

Our first stop was Boti Falls. Having grown up in desert environs, I never tire of green. Nor of water. Boti Falls during rainy season has an abundance of both, so I was delighted. The falls were so overfilled that it wasn’t possible to wade or swim in the pool beneath. The water was all churning, splashing, roiling aquatic chaos and we were drenched just standing on the shore.

After walking down to see the falls and walking back up the 250 or so stairs to the visitors’ area above I wasn’t sure I’d ever be fully dry again.

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After the falls we headed for our hotel, which was right on Lake Volta (created by the building of the dam we’d visit the next day). We didn’t do any swimming, thanks to the possibility of acquiring a parasite-borne illness from freshwater snails, but we did thoroughly enjoy the view.

Our families shared a set of rooms with a dock and riverside porches. Dining was on a series of platforms jutting into the water. It was a lovely place to unwind.

Ghana could really do well as a tourist destination. It doesn’t lack for natural beauty or sites of historical and cultural interest. But certain things are lacking . . . like the ability to clearly communicate where to go, when to be there, and what to do. We called the dam office, asked how to get there from our hotel, and were told just to go toward the Ghana National Bank and we’d see where to get tickets for our tour. We asked at our hotel, to confirm, and although the person we asked had no idea, she did confirm the direction of the bank (we were just a few miles from the dam, so it seemed surprising this question seemed to be a first for her).

Both the woman at the dam and the woman at the hotel had mentioned that we would pass a tollbooth on our way there. When we arrived at the toll booth there was no sign of anyone inside. Andres stepped out of the car to see what was up and found the guard napping. Andres was roundly criticized by the freshly-wakened guard for not having pulled over and parked if he wanted to get out and ask questions. But he wouldn’t have gotten out of the car if we’d seen someone in the booth in the first place . . . of course this is the kind of thing it’s best not to get worked up about here. Not much point to it.

We did eventually find the bank. And beyond it what appeared to possibly be some kind of municipal building. What really gave it away, though, was a bus and a group that looked to be organizing itself for a tour. We parked nearby and Andres and our friend Cathy eventually found the right office and filled out the right forms and paid the right fees. We were instructed to go up to the dam gate and wait for the rest of the tour participants and the guide, which we did, and we finally did have an extremely informative tour.

Kwame Nkrumah was a forward-thinking leader and took seriously the goal of building Ghanaian independence. He was a pan-Africanist and believed that those nations that had been ruled by colonial powers had to establish themselves as self-governing and self-sufficient entirely on their own terms. He turned down any offers for funding assistance that had strings attached and preferred incurring debt to being beholden to foreign notions of how Ghana’s development should proceed. He personally oversaw the project, living in a hilltop home overlooking the site. The project was a real success, and the hydroelectric power generated by the dam still provides about 70% of Ghana’s electricity.

The view of Lake Volta wasn’t bad, either. Looks here to have inspired an entertaining comment from Isaiah’s friend Dexter . . . entertaining, perhaps, to our kids, but not necessarily worthy of notice by Dexter’s own sister.

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We had one more night at our lakeside hotel before heading back to Accra via Shai Hills nature reserve. It’s hard to believe we’d made it a year in Accra without ever having visited this place. As we approached we started to see woodland scenes like this . . .

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It was my first glimpse of what I’d call truly exotic wildlife. Accra has its share of interesting birds and lizards, and massive colonies of bats, but birds, bats, and lizards I’ve seen many times before. It was a real thrill for me to see baboons in the wild. Shai Hills is full of baboons. Before we’d even started our proper tour we’d seen dozens of them. Marisela’s sock monkey was clearly delighted to be in home territory.

We knew we still needed lunch and needed to get back to Accra at a reasonable hour so we took just a short tour. Tours at Shai Hills involve paying a guide to come along in your car and tell you about the sights you see. Our guide, Timothy, was a true asset to Ghana’s parks system.

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He was friendly and informative from the outset, and when (remember, it was rainy season) our car got stuck in the mud, he was patient and extremely helpful. Andres, Isaiah, and Dexter ultimately pushed the car out, but with a huge assist from Timothy, who found and placed branches under the tires for added traction.

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Getting stuck was Big Adventure #1. As we worked to get back on the road again, though, we enjoyed the view of the hilly countryside. Looking closely, a few small antelope are visible under the trees in the bottom left quadrant of this picture; they’re probably wondering what ridiculous things the humans were up to now.

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Big Adventure #2 involved some very mild but exciting rock climbing. There were several ropes set on a trail that took us to the top of a rock outcropping for a beautiful panoramic view. I had expected at least a bit of push-back or hesitation, but both kids leapt right to it and scrambled up very efficiently.

Thanks to Timothy’s guiding skills, we were able to feel like an hour’s tour was very much worth doing. We hadn’t been sure such a quick stop would be worth the effort. (About a month later Andres was back at Shai Hills with some different friends and they did not have Timothy as a guide. And it was not so much worth the effort.) On the way back we needed to stop for lunch, and it needed to be somewhere relatively quick so we could all get home and settle in a bit before work and school resumed. It was a Sunday, and there wasn’t much to be found. Until we landed at this place:

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There are places that embassy folks frequent and then there are places where foreigners are just not generally seen. This place falls firmly in the latter category. More than a couple heads turned to see a table full of non-Ghanaians, but Ghana is a very live-and-let-live kind of place. The food came quickly and was tasty and – by the standards of our U.S. pocketbooks – very affordable. We had chicken and rice and yam and palava sauce (a stewed greens dish), pepper soup and fufu. So delicious. Quite a memorable way to end our weekend.

We’ve been back to the beach since this excursion. And also back inland. We’ve heard the occasional foreigner say there’s not much to see or do in Ghana. We feel differently. We have our assignment now for our next post and we’re starting to feel the clock ticking. We want to see it all.

 

Takoradi Tales

I took a whole course on Chaucer when I was an undergrad. I love me some Middle English. And I have fond memories of chats with Fr. Roger, the rector of the little English-language Anglican church I attended in Prague, who was planning to retire after his stint at St. Clement’s and write a book about The Canterbury Tales, which had always fascinated him because – as he put it – it contains all of life.

From high to low, The Canterbury Tales includes a cast of characters and range of stories that paint a vibrant picture of human existence. And that’s what came to this perennial English major’s mind as we drove – for a last-gasp-of-summer-vacation hurrah – almost as far west as we could go and still be in Ghana.

Lou Moon Lodge is a popular destination among expats in Ghana. It’s past the largest western coastal city of Takoradi, close to the border with Cote d’Ivoire and nestled on an isolated little bay. It’s a great place to do next to nothing, eat delicious food, and marvel at the vastness of the sky and sea. But getting there isn’t quite as tranquil as all that. According to Google Maps, Lou Moon is 178 miles from where I sit (on my balcony) as I write this. On a U.S. interstate highway that would take maybe two and a half hours, possibly three if you want to stop and stretch your legs or get a cup of coffee. Friends here are surprised to hear we made it there in under six hours. It’s widely considered to be an all-day journey.

And this is where we get back to Canterbury Tales. Roads across Ghana aren’t superhighways. They’re much more than just platforms for vehicles. That’s part of it, of course, but they are also centers for commerce and community gathering places and thus a tableau of every kind of everyday life. Once in a while, between villages and towns and cities, there will be a stretch of road that looks like this:

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But this is by far the exception and not the rule. Because even along seemingly wide-open expanses like this there is plenty of non-vehicular activity. There are people among the trees harvesting fruit or cutting firewood. There are people on their way to or from somewhere on foot, often whole families, usually carrying things to sell in the next town over, or bringing home their wares after a day at market.

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And every time the road passes through even a small village there are plenty of what in the U.S. maybe we’d call makeshift shops but what here are just shops lining the road. Portions of shipping containers, scrap wood, and corrugated metal are common construction materials, and typically there are small grocery/household goods shops, little “chop joints” (restaurants), hair salons, and – the further you get from big cities, the more common this is – stations for milling grain. Most towns and villages also have places of worship right along the road (like the mosque below . . . if you look closely you can see the speakers for the calls to prayer) and – usually – a police station and associated checkpoint (which, thanks to our diplomatic plates, we are waved through).

IMG_1690Another reason a journey to Takoradi and beyond takes a while is the fact that trucks here carry all manner of cargo and human passengers in a way that wouldn’t necessarily work on U.S. interstates. Loads of wood, of charcoal, and of people sometimes require a pretty – let’s say moderate – pace in order to maintain control.

Also, livestock. I have yet to fully answer the question of why the chicken (or goat or cow) crossed the road, but that’s not for lack of having seen it in action. Chickens and goats and sheep are commonplace on the roads even here in Accra. Every now and then there will be a seemingly random cow or a young man with a herd of cows, even on major thoroughfares. Away from the big city it’s a far more common sight.

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So this is why it takes in the vicinity of six hours to go 180 miles. There are also less photogenic things like frequent speed bumps, sometimes made of asphalt, sometimes of very fat rope – surprisingly effective – or just piled-up dirt and rocks. And something I haven’t taken a photo of because we’re usually trying to get through as unobtrusively and quickly as possible – the entrepreneurial freelance roadblocks. Young men will station themselves either on roads that are known access points to popular destinations or on roads in particularly bad repair. In the latter case, a few of the men will be working to fill in holes with shovelfuls of dirt and rocks while others wave palm fronds to flag down passing cars for donations toward their repair efforts. The former situation is less civic-minded. A few guys will hold a rope across the road and claim there’s an access fee to pass. This is generally only tried on obvious foreigners, and I’m guessing enough will pay that it’s worth their time. But official Ghanaian toll roads are very clearly and officially marked, so we know there really isn’t an access fee at these freelance stops, and because Ghanaians are good-natured people, when we point out that we know there’s no access fee, they concede pretty quickly and move the rope.

But I have to say, as far as I’m concerned, all of this just adds to the experience. There is so much of life on display. We see kids going to school or families going to church or to the mosque. We see the incredible entrepreneurial spirit of Ghanaians – some 80% of whom don’t work in the formal economy – doing engine repair or selling plantain chips or pounding fufu to sell to people passing through their towns and villages. It’s not always as idyllic as I’m making it sound. The speed bumps get annoying. And our red plates shield us from this, but the police checkpoints – so I’ve heard – are sometimes venues for some less welcome entrepreneurship on the part of officers who might also charge fees that don’t exist. Certainly there is a point at which we just want to get where we’re going. But that’s part of life, too. Frustrations, irritations, impatience, dishonesty, corruption . . . definitely all part of the human experience.

At the end of the journey Lou Moon Lodge awaited. It’s the kind of place the very firmly middle class gal in me still finds a bit uncomfortable. But somehow I managed. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves, for the most part. We read, relaxed, kayaked, played in the sand, ate incredible food, I had a seaside massage, Marisela and I did early-morning yoga on a platform overlooking the bay . . . it was a beautiful time in a beautiful place.

Most of the time during this vacation, as shown here, we were engaged in various leisure pursuits. But because we were so close by we couldn’t not visit the fort in the town of Axim, known either simply as Fort Axim or Fort San Antonio. The fort was built in 1515 by the Portuguese, then held by the Dutch in the 1700s and finally ceded to the British in the late 1800s. Like most of the coastal forts in Ghana, Fort San Antonio has a dark and bloody history. It was central to trade in stolen resources like gold and timber, but also to trade in stolen human beings. The matter-of-fact way in which our guide (mother of Tara and Grace, girls Marisela befriended, as shown in photos below) described the separate rooms that held the “patient males” and the “rebellious males,” the “patient females” (in other words, the ones who submitted to their captors’ assaults) and the “rebellious females,” brought tears to my eyes. I’ll link back once again to my post from our first fort visit, Irreconcilable, because I know I never will be able to find a way to hold harmoniously in my mind both the beauty and the horrific past of this country.

Though I’m certainly a fan of supernatural tales, I am not an actual believer in such things. I have to say, though, that these forts do feel haunted to me. The dark, dank chambers are heavy with fear and sorrow the likes of which I am fortunate enough to be unable to truly imagine. It overwhelms me and leaves me helpless. I know the kids felt that same depth of anguish on our first visit. I see it in their faces when I look at our pictures from that time.

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On this visit, Marisela chose to not pay much attention to the tour or to where we were standing and the history beneath our very feet. She was unimpressed by the sundial that told the time to the fort’s occupants some five hundred years ago. Instead, she played. She quickly befriended the tour guide’s daughters (as she will quickly befriend children – and particularly babies and toddlers – everywhere) and spent our time there playing patty cake with Grace, the toddler, and comparing notes on school with Tara (who is in fourth grade, one year younger than Marisela), and tossing a rubber ball with both girls through this landscape that was so many things at once: a monument steeped in the worst kind of history, a source of shelter and revenue for the girls’ family (they live there and their laundry was spread to dry along the stone paths), a place for our worlds to intersect. It was all of life. All of humanity. And Marisela chose, this time, to embrace the better side. I certainly don’t blame her.

 

Rest, relaxation, and refrigeration

I had a break from tropical heat during my months in the U.S.A. – in fact, when I arrived in Cleveland it was so cold I was missing Ghana heat within mere hours. Summer here also provides a bit of a break, with cooler temperatures, less sunshine, and a bit of rain here and there. But what really cooled us down was our R&R trip to Europe. We honestly weren’t properly equipped, despite having packed sweatshirts and rain gear. We landed in Berlin and shivered that night as we ate our dinner of currywurst within sight of the Brandenburg Gate.

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Berlin was just a quick stop, though, and the next day we were on a train to Bavaria for tourism about as stereotypical as it gets: castles, mountain lakes, beer, sausage, and pretzels. We were still cold.

I’m not sure how much of Bavaria Marisela actually saw. She was really, really in to a book (only happens for just the right book, which comes along only occasionally) and read it – as seen above and below – in beer gardens, beer halls, on the metro, and pretty much everywhere we went.

Every time we stopped for a beer (this was fairly frequent – we were in Bavaria) we would order water for the kids. And every time we ordered water for the kids – not kidding, every single time – the waiter would glance at Isaiah, confused, and then back at us, and ask if we didn’t want a beer for him, too. So finally we did share one with him. When in Munich . . .

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Cafes and views from church towers also featured prominently. The kids were enthusiastic fans of the pastries and hot chocolate, less enthusiastic fans of long walks up steep stairs with a dizzying view as the reward. Also got a wee bit tired of the over-the-top tastes of Bavarian royals. I think they can go a long, long while without seeing another heavily gilded room full of really breakable stuff.

When our livers and cardiovascular systems had had about as much Bavaria as they could take, we headed north again, and then east, and made it to our true destination: Poznan, Poland. I have to wonder if anyone posted at the U.S. embassy in Ghana has ever used R&R leave to visit Poznan. Perhaps not, but I highly recommend it. Poznan is a delightful town with a picturesque square and a significant role in Polish history. We enjoyed seeing the sights – couldn’t miss the head-butting goats that embellish the town square’s clock or the tour of Cathedral Island, once a seat of power for Polish kings and bishops. Weather had improved slightly (by which I mean warmed up – I may complain about the Accra heat sometimes, but I maybe prefer it to having to wear multiple layers to stay warm in the summer.) And the food in Poznan was a real delight. As much fun as we’d had eating schnitzel and wurst, it was lovely to see vegetables again, and cooked beautifully and creatively.

Yes, we had made it to Poznan, but this was all still just the opening act. The main event – the reason we had foregone a London trip (our default R&R location) or a trip to the U.S. – was yet to come. It was the moment for which Marisela had been planning her outfit for months and the moment for which Isaiah had been dreading his outfit for months. It was the much-anticipated wedding of “Cuncle” (my first cousin, thus feels more like an uncle to the kids, thus cuncle) Steve Higley and Emilia Jurzyk. Steve and Emilia had honored the kids by asking them to be ring-bearer and usher, and both took their duties very seriously. Marisela, in consultation with bride and groom, had picked out a beautiful dress and accessories. Isaiah, under duress, had selected a suit, tie, and a dress shirt that actually fit. They looked wonderful, and they did a wonderful job. It’s a cliché, of course, to say that a wedding is like something out of a fairy tale. But really. This one could not have been more fairy-tale-like. It was a true delight and honor to share this time with Steve, Emilia, and our extended family and the friends who came to celebrate. This goes on the list of lifetime highlights in a life that I am thankful to say has been pretty packed with awesome experiences.

The reception was a party to beat all parties. Even Isaiah danced. It was magical. And the food. It just never stopped. Course after course of delectable offerings from start to (post-midnight) finish.

Kind of hard to believe that wasn’t the end of it. After the wedding we headed back to to Berlin, this time with some time to look around. We were reunited with Andrés’ good friend Tim (from a high school year in Germany many years ago) and met Tim’s wonderful wife and daughter. Tim treated us to an insider’s tour of the Bundestag, where he works for the Green Party, complete with a chance to sit in on parliamentary debate and to visit the headquarter rooms of various parties within the building. We also played tourist again, taking a river tour and visiting the much-publicized (and very entertaining) DDR and Spy Museums. Those highly interactive excursions were a nice break for the kids from palaces and halls of government.

Alas, the visa line was calling. Two weeks was about all we could spare, so it was with fairly glum faces that we boarded the S-Bahn for the airport. I guess it’s good to call it quits while you’re still having a great time. We packed a lot into those weeks. And I have to say, we’ve done some pretty spectacular things with our weekends since our return, but that will have to wait for the next installment. Coming soon!

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