Irreconcilable

It’s been about two and a half weeks now since Isaiah, Marisela, and I went on our first out-of-Accra trip with several families from the Embassy. Andrés, unfortunately, was not able to join us because we left on a weekday and work was too pressing. We all pooled funds and rented a bus from the commissary. The commissary bus rental includes the cost of a driver, which felt like a tremendous luxury. He had made this trip many times before and we were never lost or in any doubt about how to handle police checks, etc. It was nice, for our first trip, to not have those concerns.

We had four destinations: two of the so-called slave castles, Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle, a beach-side hotel/resort in Elmina, and (the following day) Kakum National Park, the closest national park to Accra and home of the locally famous rainforest canopy walk – 700 meters of suspended rope-and-board walkway through the upper layers of Kakum’s rainforest growth.

Going in to the trip I had misgivings. I was excited to get out of Accra. I’ve enjoyed getting to know our immediate surroundings but I was ready to see more. I had hardly glimpsed the ocean yet, and was eager to hear the waves – notoriously strong here – crashing on shore. Kakum was one of the first tourist sites I’d read about when we first learned of our Ghana assignment and I’d been looking forward to a visit ever since.

But the slave castles. I both did and did not want to visit the slave castles. Of course I had to. Ghana/Gold Coast was not the only African nation to suffer the brutality of the slave trade but it was an epicenter of commerce in general and as the transatlantic slave trade burgeoned human beings became yet another profitable export. The slave castles were fortresses where captured people – those who had survived the trip to the coast – were held for months at a time waiting for ships to take them on the Middle Passage, stories of which are certainly among the most harrowing and shameful in human history.

I know that it was essential to visit these places. But then, and still now, it was hard to reconcile, impossible to reconcile, the enormity of suffering and inhumanity encountered there with a trip to a beach resort and an exhilarating, dizzying nature walk. I had thought about writing this blog entry in two parts – one for the slave castles and one for the rest. But I’m leaving it as I experienced it. You may also feel discomfort at the contrast, but then I suppose I will have more accurately conveyed the reality of my experience.

We visited two castles, Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle. At both, we visited dungeons where – in room after room – men, women, and children had been held in the dark, crowded together with nothing but crude canals in the ground to divert their wastes. They had been stolen or sold from their homes and forced to walk to the coast. At the coast they could be held for months waiting for a ship, which of course was just a new kind of hell. There were separate dungeons for men and for women and children. There were also punishment rooms for women who resisted the castle officers’ assaults and claustrophobia-inducing chambers where anyone who dared attempt escape would be sealed away until death came.

I challenge anyone who feels race has too long continued to be a charged issue in the United States to visit these castles and continue to hold that belief. The degree of inhumanity, the vastness of the moral violation that occurred there is palpable still today. Atop the men’s dungeon at Cape Coast Castle is a chamber that used to be an Anglican church. The English officers would worship there while their brothers in Christ stood, sat, or lay, many of them deathly ill, in their own waste in the dungeons below. I just can’t think of Matthew 25 (“I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”) and imagine how these officers could purport to worship a loving God who created us all while simultaneously brutalizing these stolen human beings. How many generations does it take to be truly free of a mentality that allowed this to happen? I don’t believe we’re there yet.

We were fortunate to be visiting the castles during an ongoing art installation by artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo. It is called In Memoriam: Portraits of the Middle Passage, In Situ and consists of 1300 sculptures of heads, a contemporized version of a traditional funerary sculptures, that were displayed throughout the dungeons. These sculptures were haunting and terrifying and beautiful all at once. As we left one room in the men’s dungeons I was stopped in my tracks by one that looked like a teenaged boy. Certainly my teenaged boy, tall and broad-shouldered as he’s become, is as much a man, physically, as that boy was. As many boys were who passed through those rooms.

The Middle Passage – the journey from Africa across the Atlantic – claimed at least two million lives. For every one hundred people who made it across alive (to yet another hell) forty had died at some point along the way – whether during capture, on the way to the castles, in the castles, or during the journey.

The final room we visited at Cape Coast Castle included information on the Akoto-Bamfo installation, some of the sculptures themselves, and several poems. Among them:

 

SEASIDE MEDITATION

I feel left at shore

right at the cursed spot

where our black bodies

dissolved into the blue

nothingness of the

ocean.

Where waves

conduct the

symphonies of

stories that

drowned untold.

They slave me to carry

them home

in my palms

bury them

in the gaps

on their family trees.

-Hakeem Adam

 

To move on from this to our beach resort was . . . I’m sitting here watching the cursor flash and waiting for the right word, which simply isn’t coming. Irreconcilable is the best I’ve got. The resort was lovely. Far, far nicer than anything our personal family unit would likely have chosen (for which Marisela was quite thankful – she has never been on board with our rustic preferences). We sipped coconut water from actual coconuts as we watched the waves crash. The kids waded and splashed, then later swam in the beautiful pool. We ate in the open air with the ocean breeze sweeping through. And bit by bit this luxury washed away enough of the memory of all we’d seen earlier in the day that we could talk again, and laugh again, and open a bottle of wine and take cheer in each other’s company. I’m not sure it should have been that way, but then I’m also not sure how else to respond to that kind of horror than to be in, and be thankful for, the presence of human warmth and friendship and kindness. Not to let those lovely moments erase our experience with the injustice and terror but to be reminded that there is also good and there is also beauty, both in the world and in people.

We spent the afternoon like this, and then the evening. Enjoying the company and enjoying the place and feeling grateful to have the chance to be there together. And the next morning, after breakfast, we headed for Kakum and the rainforest. We left Cape Coast behind, not forgotten – I hope never forgotten – but removed, for the moment, from immediate thought, because otherwise there could be nothing else.

I should mention the kids at this point. They were along for all of this – for the unflinching descriptions of what happened to the prisoners of the slave castles, including the stomach-turning fates of the women who were assaulted by the officers or of the others – men, it seems, mostly – who tried to run and were locked up and left to die. We had visited the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. right before coming here and that really provided a perfect context for them to understand far better than they would have otherwise just how closely those castles and their terror is tied to the history of our nation. As for me, though, and for the rest of us on the trip, the hours spent in beautiful surroundings with good company had eased the intensity of emotions for Isaiah and Marisela.

But then we went to Kakum. Before this visit, I’m fairly certain that our flight from the U.S. to Ghana was Isaiah’s most terrifying experience. He is not a fan of airplanes even in the best circumstances (best for him meaning a short and entirely non-turbulent flight that takes off and lands on time). Our flights here were long, quite turbulent at times, and the flight from Brussels to Ghana ran about an hour late. But given the choice between reliving that experience and reliving Kakum, I’m guessing he might be ready to put his tray table up and his seat in the upright position. Those rainforest walkways were definitely not something he’ll be eager to experience again.

There were seven of them, each about 100 meters, and they were suspended by a network of ropes between treehouse-type platforms. Although we got there relatively early most of the wildlife there is nocturnal, and there were already crowds and crowds of tourists (which is the case every day, I’m sure), so we didn’t see as much as a single bird. But the rainforest itself was spectacular, especially to this desert-dweller’s eyes. Shades of green I’d never seen before, as far as the eye could see. We could see the ground in places, or imagine we could see the ground, if we were brave enough to look down, filtered through layer after layer of leaves and branches.

Isaiah says he doesn’t feel proud of having made it through the walkways because he didn’t have any choice, but I’m proud of him nonetheless. He did it and he did it without complaining, protesting, or even grumbling. He even looked down. It may not have been an experience he would have wished to have, but he recognized it for something worthwhile and he made the most of it, and I’m very proud of him.

Marisela was not particularly bothered by the heights, or the swaying walkways. She was several walkways ahead of me, with a group of other Embassy kids. Isaiah and I were bringing up the rear. I would love to visit Kakum again and stay the night. There’s a “treehouse” where visitors can camp and hope to see some of the park’s wildlife. Maybe that would be a more palatable way for Isaiah to enjoy the scenery there. He and I could hang out in the treehouse while Marisela shows Andrés the walkway.

The trip back to Accra was uneventful – unless traffic is an event. We stopped at a very chill beachfront restaurant for lunch (which took a while – there were 25 of us, after all, which is a lot to accommodate) and ended up getting a later start than we’d intended. At first we were making great time and it seemed we’d be home on schedule. Then suddenly we weren’t. We were at a series of dead standstills for several miles, and what had been a three-hour trip on the way out to Cape Coast turned into about a five-hour trip on the way home.

Our short excursion made me all the more aware of the fact that there is much to see and do here in Ghana, and our two years will fly by, I’m sure. I came home with a new determination to find a car and start having our own adventures. I even scheduled a time to view a car we were interested in – it was for 10am last Friday. So if you read my blog you know that, rather than test-driving a Hyundai Santa Fe last Friday morning, I was having blood drawn and an ultrasound done on my right leg. Tomorrow I’m looking at a Honda CRV. I was waylaid for a bit, but I haven’t lost my determination altogether. Just crossing fingers that I can keep the appointment this time.

I went back and forth about how to share my pictures. In the end I decided that, rather than putting them with the appropriate part of the written description, I’d put them all together at the end, in chronological order. That way you can read about the whole experience, and then see the whole experience.

Next time I will finally tackle our epic home leave road trip, complete with maps to demonstrate just how crazy we are (the trip was undertaken in a Ford Focus hatchback with all four of us AND all of our belongings that we didn’t have shipped straight from Mexico to Ghana).

 

 

 

 

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Well, that was unexpected

So you may have noticed it’s been a while. And also that I never did (yet) write about our trip to Cape Coast. Still haven’t reached back into the summer memories and written about home leave, either. Both of those posts are in the works, but it may be longer than I’d anticipated before I get to them.

A week ago Friday an unpleasant bit of the past came calling. I had awakened Thursday with my right calf feeling tired and achy. At the time I wasn’t terribly concerned. The day before had been parent-teacher conference day at the kids’ school, and I had visited all of Isaiah’s teachers and Marisela’s home-room, French, music, and art teachers, often standing around outside classrooms waiting for my appointments. The veins on the back of my right calf haven’t been in the best shape since I had a DVT (deep vein thrombosis/blood clot) more than 15 years ago. So I did what I generally do when those veins complain – I put a compression sleeve on that calf and went about my day.

At bedtime I took the sleeve off and was irritated to find that my calf still hurt, and that it was maybe even more painful than it had been in the morning. The full day of compression made it hard to see if there was swelling, but it seemed to me that perhaps there was. And Friday morning there was no doubt – it was painful, red, swollen, and hot, the exact combination of symptoms someone with a history of DVT does not want to encounter. I was off to the health unit at the Embassy as soon as the kids left for school.

To the credit of the medical staff at the Embassy, I was treated quickly and efficiently. The doctor and I agreed that it didn’t seem quite like DVT – we could see and feel hardened veins right under the skin, and the inflammation seemed much more immediate than it had when I had the DVT – but given my history it was still quite concerning. I was taken in an Embassy motor pool vehicle to have lab work and an ultrasound done. By noon the diagnosis had been made: the long saphenous vein, a superficial vein, was pretty much entirely clotted up from behind the knee down. It was a clot, which is never good. But it wasn’t DVT, which is good. But it was really big. And I’d had DVT before. And I most likely have a clotting disorder (more on that later). So the wise course was to treat it as if it was DVT, because in something like 40% of cases like this (superficial clotting with DVT history) the clotting ends up turning into DVT.

I want to emphasize that now, more than a week later, I am in a good place, health-wise. As good as can be, given the circumstances. I’ve been on two different blood thinners since this was discovered and had my blood tested every other day to make sure the dosage is properly adjusted. I’m in the right therapeutic range and between the medications and the constant wearing of compression stockings the symptoms are resolving nicely (at night I just wear the calf sleeve but during the day I wear the full pantyhose version . . . a lovely garment to wear when it’s 88 degrees and 80% humidity, let me tell you).

More than any physical discomfort this incident has caused, it’s been a psychological blow, one from which I feel I’m now slowly recovering. If you’ve been reading the posts I’ve made since our arrival you know that I’ve been loving life here. I’ve been doing what I can to get engaged with our surroundings, to meet people, to experience what life here has to offer both within and beyond the Embassy community. For a time, at least, my clot brought all of that to a screeching halt – to a certain degree out of necessity (until the most acute phase resolved the doctor wasn’t keen on me walking my usual 3-5 miles a day, and frequent visits to the medical unit for blood draws kept me occupied), but also because it was so discouraging that it felt like it robbed all the momentum I had built up in our first several weeks.

I need to backtrack a bit. When I had my first clot, the DVT, back in 2002, it seemed to come out of nowhere. I was young and healthy. I wasn’t a smoker or overweight or sedentary. I had recently taken a road trip in the backseat of my parents’ VW Beetle, but that alone still seemed like a stretch as a reason for the clot. In the end my hematologist postulated that I had a particular variety of a particular clotting disorder, called protein S deficiency. Protein S is something that inhibits clotting – or perhaps it’s better to say that it’s one of the proteins that regulates clotting. Because clotting is a good thing when you’re bleeding and need it to stop, but it’s a bad thing if it happens spontaneously in your veins. And my protein S levels were fine overall, but apparently were somewhat lacking in activity. My protein S was present and accounted for, but not as busy as it should have been.

Given that situation, there were certain things I needed to keep in mind, I was told, for the rest of my life. First, if ever I were to have children, I would need to be take a daily injection of a pregnancy-safe anticoagulant throughout pregnancy and six weeks  postpartum. Second, for the rest of my life, any time I flew overseas (or any flight over four hours) I would need to use that same anticoagulant (at least one shot beats daily shots for 9 months). Third, I would need to be aware any time I took road trips or was on a bus or train for a long time that I should get out/up and walk frequently, and probably also wear compression hose to aid circulation in my legs.

And so it went for 15+ years without incident. Two awesome kiddos born – no trouble. I was terrified at first when I was pregnant with Isaiah. Then that went fine and I was less scared when I was pregnant with Marisela. Then years and years passed and not a single incident. I had really stopped thinking about blood clots, although I did still follow the precautionary rules. I wore my stockings. I made my frequent walking stops during road trips. I told doctors about the protein S deficiency and was periodically monitored by a hematologist.

Then came my medical clearance for the State Department. It was 2014 and after we submitted our initial clearance papers, it was no surprise that the medical unit in D.C. wanted a hematologist’s report before deciding what kind of clearance I should receive. We were in a hurry to get our clearances done and the hematologist I’d been seeing in Dallas was not available for an appointment on short notice. I’d never really developed a great relationship with her anyway, and didn’t feel particularly loyal, so I made an appointment with someone new. He ordered the blood work, looked at my history, and told me something I was very excited to hear: not only did he feel my DVT history wasn’t a particular concern, he wasn’t at all sure that I even had protein S deficiency. Of course, he said, I should use the anticoagulant when I take a long flight. And wear the stockings. And stretch my legs. But that was just because I had a DVT history. He was quite dubious of the protein S deficiency diagnosis (my levels of active protein S were always almost in range).

I’ve heard a lot recently about confirmation bias. This was confirmation bias in action. I’d gone years without any clotting incidents. The shock of the original DVT and the fear I’d felt during that first pregnancy had receded into the deep past. How many long road trips had I taken without incident? How long had it been since there was even the shadow of a fear of another clot? This guy seemed to have it right. I was on board with his un-diagnosis. And I ended up with the coveted Class 1 medical clearance – worldwide available.

Two years in Juárez. No overseas flight, but a five-day road trip from D.C. to the borderland without incident. So many road trips to Lubbock and Dallas and Santa Fe during those two years I’ve lost count, plus trips to Big Bend, the Davis Mountains, and Tucson. Nary a twinge in that calf. The home leave road trip extravaganza from Juárez to Arizona to New Mexico to Oklahoma, down to Dallas, back to Oklahoma, and to D.C. via western New York. The flight from D.C. to Brussels to Accra. Nothing. I was fine.

And then I wasn’t. And it felt like a knockout punch when I didn’t even know I was in the ring.

I’m getting back on track now. I have a determination, at least, that I didn’t have last week, to not be stopped by this unexpected development. There’s no reason, physically, to let it stop me. In the years since my last clot the idea that people need to be immobilized in the wake of a clot diagnosis has gone away. For superficial clots, in particular, mobilization is supposed to be part of the treatment. So I’m walking again (dang it’s hot with those stockings, though!) And today I went back to church. Next weekend is the Marine Ball and we’re going to that, and this weekend has been packed, between neighborhood happy hour, a dinner at the Ambassador’s residence for new officers and spouses, and a few birthday parties. I’ve been working again, and I’m loving that.

But it’s been a real blow. And it’s the first time since we started our foreign service adventure that I’ve found myself feeling homesick and melancholy for the comfort of having old friends surrounding me. I’ve had moments, of course, those blues that come and go as I think about the things I’m missing in the lives of those I love and the things they’re missing in mine. This felt different, though. Because I had been feeling pretty immortal. Pretty in-control and in charge of my destiny. Which of course is always an illusion. It’s not an altogether bad thing to be reminded of one’s own limitations and reliance on others. And there are people here for me to rely on – Andrés, of course, and the kids, and neighbors and friends I’ve met here, and my amazing house helper, Rose, whom I had providentially met and hired about a week and a half before this happened.

This is part of foreign service life. It’s the kind of thing we know we’re signing up for but can’t really grasp until it happens. It’s part of why making friends amongst the foreign service community tends to be so fast and so easy – we all know what it’s like to feel so far from home and we all know that we need to create home here in order to make it through.

So friends, family – I miss you! But I am fine. I’m surrounded by my fantastic husband and awesome kiddos and new friends and by the love I know you all send. I’m getting back out on my well-worn paths. I’m getting healthy again and have a new appreciation and awareness of the continued reality of my clotting risks. My own health is definitely something I had come to take for granted. I’m very thankful that my wakeup call wasn’t as dangerous as it could have been. And also that I didn’t get med-evac’d. London is a lovely city, but I’d rather see it under different circumstances.

Coming soon: the Cape Coast trip. Within a week, I promise!

 

A visit from the fishmonger

Last Wednesday a man named Moses brought a couple of buckets like this to my kitchen:

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On its own this doesn’t really do justice to the size of these creatures, so for scale . . .

Underneath the snapper and grouper there was also an octopus, but most unfortunately my phone and a new operating system weren’t getting along on fish day and I found myself with a dead brick when I wanted to take a picture of the octopus.

So this is how things went down: I had heard from a number of people in the Embassy community that if we like fish (which we do) and we anticipated eating a lot of it (which we did), particularly since we don’t currently have a car, we might want to contact Moses. Moses has made a business for himself taking orders for fish/seafood, acquiring it at a nearby port, then bringing it straight to people’s homes to clean on-site.

We still have a month or so to wait before we get all of our things, so it seemed like the perfect time for Moses and his assistant to pay a visit to our as-yet-uncluttered kitchen. We placed our order – one grouper and one red snapper for us, one of each for a neighboring family, and an octopus (we miss the pulpo we ate frequently in Mexico), and Moses told me he’d be at our house “in the afternoon” the following day.

The following day I was spending the morning helping a friend (well, helping makes it sound like I was being really useful, so maybe keeping a friend company would be a better way to phrase it) who was receiving her household effects shipment when I received a call from Moses that he was at our compound gate. It was about 11:50am. I have to admit that when Moses told me in the afternoon, I was expecting mid- to possibly late afternoon. So I found myself in a bit of a panic. My friend’s house is within easy walking distance of our house, but I felt badly about leaving Moses waiting the 10 to 15 minutes it would take for me to get home. Our first idea was that I could ride one of the bikes my friend had just unpacked, but the tires were deflated and the handlebars not aligned. Maybe a cab? Cabs are definitely easy to find and inexpensive. But then Simon, an all-around helpful guy my friend had hired to help her unpack, offered to take me home on his motorcycle. It was an awesome day of firsts for me – first-ever motorcycle ride to come home and observe my first-ever home fish delivery and cleaning. It was a great way to get home quickly and I’m very grateful to Simon for his quick thinking and helpful nature, but I’ll stick to a bicycle in the future.

Once home I opened up our back kitchen door so they didn’t have to cart the fish buckets through our living room, let the neighbor know we were ready to get started, and the fun began. First the fish was weighed. Each snapper was in the vicinity of 10 kilos (22 pounds). The “small” grouper was 12 kilos and the larger one was 14.5. These are fish of an altogether different scale from what we catch at the pond in Oklahoma. Somehow the 3- or 4-pound bass I had been so proud of over home leave doesn’t seem so big anymore. The octopus was weighed last and it weighed in at eight kilos. We had wanted a lot of fish and we got it.

Once everything was weighed, the cleaning began. Moses and his assistant had clearly done this a time or two before. Although I had cleared a vast area of counter space for them, they chose to work in the small area next the sink so they had easy access to the water for rinsing. The small space didn’t slow them down much. They beheaded, gutted, and filleted our neighbors’ fish, then ours, and the neighbor and I had our work cut out for us bagging the fillets quickly enough to keep up with them.

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When the last octopus tentacle was bagged and labeled and stowed the men had been in our kitchen for only about an hour. Moses told me he had provided fish not only for people within the U.S. Embassy community, but the British High Commission, the Japanese Embassy, and various Ghanaian dignitaries. He’s been buying and selling fish for over forty years, he said, and spends so much time around fish that he doesn’t care to eat it himself. I enjoyed talking with him. This picture really captures his amiable nature, I think:

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As I’ve noted before, picture-taking isn’t always welcome here, but we did ask Moses and his helper permission to photograph them. That’s actually when he told us about his far-ranging client base: he’s done business in so many different places, often among curious foreigners, that he’s often been photographed and it doesn’t bother him.

That evening we had pan-fried grouper. I also cooked the grouper roe, which Moses had told me was edible as well (I looked up how to cook fish roe and found that pan-frying would work fine for that as well). I was the only one in the family who wanted to try the roe, but I’m telling you – the others are missing out. It was delicious.

Last night I made fish stock with some of the bones and then made a fish and octopus risotto. A pretty tasty Sunday dinner, and all the better for having seen the fish arrive at our back door just a few days before.

My tantalizing papaya tree

Before arriving here in Accra I had heard of foreign service folks having the good fortune of moving into homes blessed with fruit trees or already-established gardens or even egg-laying chickens. So I was delighted to find that previous inhabitants of our house had, in fact, left several basil plants and a few hot pepper plants that were surviving – if not quite thriving – in the little dirt perimeter outside my kitchen door. With some minimal attention they’ve perked up and we’ve been enjoying their bounty.

Even more exciting, though, was the papaya tree in the back corner of our yard. True, the papayas are about 20′ – 30′ up and true, there are such minor obstacles as a coil of razor wire and our enormous water tank complicating the matter of reaching the height of the fruit but – still! – it’s a fruit tree! In my yard!

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In the month or so that we’ve been here I’ve discovered that the papayas regularly fall down, and they seem to be appreciated by the insects and maybe the lizards that live in the yard. Appreciated so much, in fact, that every time I saw one, even if it initially appeared to be intact, it turned out to have already been made into somebody’s meal (or, more likely, many meals for many somebodies).

So I was thrilled today when I went out with the trash and saw a whole, beautiful, and perfectly ripe papaya just sitting there next to the water tank. Never mind that I can buy papayas for about 50 cents each at any of the half-dozen fruit stands within 500 meters of my home. Never mind that every single one of the many papayas I’ve bought at these stands has been perfect and delicious. I wanted my very own (US government-leased) papaya from my very own (US government-leased) tree. I snatched it up and brought it inside and washed it.

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Then I eagerly sliced off the ends and some of the skin. Hmm . . . some odd streaks. Before skinning the rest, it seemed sensible to cut it in half and have a look.

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Dang.

So much for home-grown. I guess I’ll leave these for our yard critters. Unless I can figure out a way to get up there and grab them while they’re still a bit green. I’m thinking it’s probably easier to go to the fruit stand.

Stay tuned . . . tomorrow I am participating in an Accra expat rite of passage: a visit from Moses the fish guy. Moses is an enterprising man who has created a business for himself going to the fish market in Tema (about half an hour away from here), buying whole fish to order, then bringing them – whole and apparently enormous – to people’s kitchens, where he weighs, cleans, and fillets them. The price is reasonable – not a bargain exactly, but reasonable – for fresh-caught home delivery and filleting service if you’re judging by U.S. standards. I was encouraged to do this, should I wish to do it, before all of my kitchen things arrive and while the large freezer in our garage is still empty, and that certainly makes sense. Another newly-arrived neighbor and I each ordered off his list and I think we have something along the lines of 50 kilos of whole fish coming tomorrow for our two families to split. Plus some assorted shrimp and octopus for Casa Calderón. I’m missing pulpo a la brasa.  I’ll fill everyone in on the details later this week. Should be an adventure.

That smells . . . like ginger and deliciousness

So a favorite local side dish here has an entertaining name. And it’s entertaining on a couple of levels. First level, it’s just fun to say. Second level, in Spanish it means something pretty funny. The name? Kelewele.

This sounds a lot like que le huele . . .something along the lines of “that smells.” And it does smell. It smells very tasty. It’s plantain, sliced and marinated in spices, then fried. It’s a frequent accompaniment to red red, a scrumptious stew of blackeyed peas and tomatoes seasoned with ginger, onion and garlic sautéed in palm oil (two reds – the red of the palm oil and the red of the tomato).

Last night was my second attempt at making these two dishes. We first learned of our Ghana assignment right before Father’s Day last year, so for Father’s Day dinner I researched Ghanaian recipes and did my best to replicate a few. I made red red, jollof rice, and fried plantains. Google had somehow neglected to let me in on the kelewele secret: that plain old fried plantain may be tasty, but fried plantain that’s been sitting in a bowl with a paste of ginger and chile is even tastier. Also, I could really only make singular red in Juárez – if palm oil is available there it wasn’t for sale at S-Mart or Soriana, my usual grocery haunts.

So I really should perhaps count last night’s efforts as my first real stab at Ghanaian food. And it was pretty good. It made me realize, though, why I find both ginger and chile peppers sold in the supermarkets here shrink-wrapped in what initially appeared to be wildly excessive quantities. It takes a LOT of ginger to make red red and kelewele to taste right. And apparently a considerable amount of chile. I peeled and grated three significant chunks of ginger and chopped up one of the habanero-like local peppers and the resulting dishes were good, but bland compared to what I’ve eaten at restaurants here. Given the amount of ginger processing involved I am now really eager to get our kitchen stuff – I think I spent 20 minutes grating ginger with the mediocre welcome kit grater last night, all for a somewhat lackluster result. My immersion blender will be a handy thing to have around.

In other food news, I’m definitely getting more accustomed to the rhythm of shopping here. Being in Juárez was no different from being the U.S., really, in terms of food shopping: there were vast supermarkets selling any and everything I could want, and there was even a Costco and a Sam’s Club. And should I ever just feel like shopping in the U.S. (say I felt a burning need to just spend a whole lot more money), I was only a 30-minute drive away from a Sprouts and a Super Target. Between the fact that we don’t yet have a car here and the fact that even mega-supermarkets here aren’t as consistently or predictably stocked, I shop a lot more frequently.

One thing I enjoy about this is that I buy a lot more fresh food. At the roadside stands here I’m often asked if I want a particular fruit “for today or for tomorrow.” The notion of buying stuff that I won’t use for a week is just something I’ve pretty much thrown out the window. I buy produce, I bring it home and clean it, and then I process it right away. It’s time-consuming but I have to say I have never had more delicious pineapple or papaya (actually called pawpaw here – and it’s tiny compared to the giant papayas I’d buy in Mexico). The bananas here taste like some different fruit entirely. They taste so much fruitier. I’m thinking it will be tough to go back to the starchy, green-picked bananas sold in U.S. supermarkets. I do miss the Mexican avocados, though. The big smooth ones here are still quite yummy, but way more watery than the creamy Mexican ones.

I’m sure you’re eager to be kept posted on my progress in developing my Ghanaian culinary skills, so I’ll let you know when I try something else. There are a couple of sauces here – a spicy tomato-based sauce and a dried fish-based sauce – that I’m interested to learn more about. I have yet to even try kenkey, the fermented and steamed corn dough that’s a popular accompaniment to stews and meats. So much to try and so much to learn. Good thing we still have almost two years to go.

 

 

 

The confusion of year-round summer; and, diving in to road-side commerce

I’ve never lived somewhere without distinct seasons. I’ve seen the opposite – the dark, long chill of Prague winter followed by the mud of spring and the glorious shine of summer. And I’ve seen plenty of New Mexico-Oklahoma-Texas unpredictability (snow in May in the mountains of New Mexico, for instance, or 90-degree October days in Dallas followed by a cold wind that brings in a 30-degree temperature drop). But I’ve never been anywhere with relatively little change from day to day and month to month.

There is some variation here. When we arrived it was relatively cool (highs around 80) and it rained most days. It’s getting drier and sunnier and hotter now, a trend that I’m told will continue until January, at which point – so the stories go – I will one day open my front door to go out, promptly change my mind, and decide to stay put in air-conditioned comfort instead. But even considering this change, we’re talking about rainy days with highs in the low 80s giving way to sunny days with highs in the high 80s. Lots of humidity pretty much all the time, which makes it feel considerably hotter.  But still, nothing like the range from below freezing to 100+ degrees I’ve experienced pretty much everywhere else I’ve lived.

I didn’t think this would matter. I’m used to hot. I’ve done hot, pretty much all my life (my two years in Prague and one year in Santa Fe being the only exceptions). And – so far, at least – the heat is not the problem. It’s the disconnect between the temperature and the season. Even in Dallas, where I so clearly recall sweating profusely at the State Fair and my cousin laughing when I had just moved to Dallas and told her I still needed to get some cold-weather maternity clothes (I was due in November), and telling me I’d be just fine with a light sweater – we still had seasons. Here I’m already finding it hard to remember that it’s October – October! – and I need to start thinking about kids’ birthdays and Christmas presents and ordering Halloween stuff from Amazon with enough time for it to arrive. As a tiny kid Isaiah loved the Australian children’s band The Wiggles, and was fascinated when they talked about their Christmas beach parties. I guess this year we could do the same.

So I’m realizing now that the year-round summer may be more disconcerting than I’d originally expected. And I’ll miss watching the Cowboys while wrapped in the awesome Cowboys Snuggies my sister and brother-in-law sent us for Christmas a few years back. Of course in Juárez (as in Dallas) we were well in to the football season before we needed anything like that, but eventually we got there. Something about hot weather and football just don’t match.

In other news, I’ve finally made some larger purchases at road-side stalls. I’d bought eggs and I’d bought produce and I’d bought cards to recharge our cell phones, but I’d only eyed other items of interest, and put them on a list of eventual purchases to be made: a few sundresses to pad my wardrobe until our full shipment arrives from Mexico; a laundry basket so we can stop collecting dirty laundry on the kitchen/utility room floor; a set of shelves for Marisela’s bathroom (because as fate would have it Isaiah’s bathroom has a very nice cabinet for him to put his two or three bathroom items in and Marisela’s has nothing but a sink on which to array her collection that rivals the inventory at Sally Beauty Supply).

In all my walking I had identified places to buy all of these things, but I was hesitant to stop and shop. How did I know what to pay for these items? What was reasonable? Was I expected to bargain? Would I be insulting the vendors if I did? If I didn’t?

Thanks once again to the Social Sponsor Extraordinaire, Diosa, for getting me going. I messaged her yesterday morning to ask where she buys baskets, and of course within the hour she was walking with me to her favorite vendor. She told me what she’s paid for baskets in the past and what this vendor had told her she charges for baskets like what I wanted. And she helped me negotiate a deal on two baskets – one for dirty laundry stowage and one for carrying laundry up and downstairs. Most of all, she helped me feel like I can do this.

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So later in the day I made my first solo purchase – a sundress – and it made me feel ridiculous for having walked by the dress stall many, many times wishing for the courage to stop and not stopping. There was a dress I especially liked on display so – high on the successful basket purchases – I stopped and asked how much it cost. The answer: 48 Ghana cedis – not quite $11 at the current exchange rate. This is a hand-sewn dress made from the beautiful Ghanaian wax print cloth. I have no idea if I was supposed to make a counter-offer to that price, but I couldn’t honestly imagine even asking. The proprietor of the shop – I learned that her name is Fortina – helped me try the dress on over the dress I was wearing and we found, to my great disappointment, that it was way too large. But she very cheerfully showed me several more and we eventually found one that fit beautifully and was a cut and fabric I liked. I told her I’d be back – and I definitely will be.

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So the next purchase will be something for Marisela’s bathroom. There are several vendors who make and sell furniture on the side of the road near our home and I’ve seen several simple bamboo shelf/drawer pieces perfect for the purpose. Today I’m sitting home waiting for plumbers and for delivery of our air baggage shipment (still waiting for most of our stuff but it’s a start!) but maybe tomorrow I’ll venture out to visit the furniture guys.

 

 

Now I just need a sewing machine

Monday was my first visit to Makola Market, the largest marketplace in Accra. I went with a group of Embassy ladies, and also had the unexpected joy of inviting Zoe Treuer, a colleague of Andrés’ from his initial foreign service training, to come along. She’s currently posted in Bamako, Mali, but is in town this week for a first- and second-tour officers’ conference going on here in Accra. I had always appreciated Zoe’s kindness and warm presence, and it was a real delight to have her with us for the day.

Makola is a huge market selling, from what I could tell, pretty much anything you might want to buy, and probably several things you may never have thought of buying (coils of nylon rope in a rainbow of colors, anyone?)

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Side note: I took limited pictures and they’re sometimes of even lower quality than my usual pictures (so no comments – I’m looking at you, Dana LaMure) because I was taking them while trying to appear that I was not taking them. I’m torn when I’m in these spaces because I want to share my experience with friends and family who aren’t here with me, but photo-taking is considered rude and intrusive. I tried to photograph scenes and capture the general atmosphere rather than taking pictures of specific individuals.

Our primary focus was fabric, and I’m fairly certain that, despite wandering close to five miles over the course of the day (much of that, granted, in circles around the fabric-y areas), we saw only a small fraction of the entire market. I came home with about 15 yards of wax print fabric (see the stacks in the photo above – these incredibly printed fabrics are worn by both women and men, usually sewn into dresses or skirts for the women and matching pant and long-sleeved-shirt sets for the men. It’s an everyday thing to see women in these skirts and dresses. The men wear the outfits less commonly, but I’d say I see at least one man every day dressed in this way, and saw more in church on Sunday). As soon as our household shipment arrives I have big plans. I’ve discovered a few Ghanaian YouTube channels with directions for making skirts and I’m eager to give them a try. I am in constant awe of the creations I see every day – and they all appear to be home-sewn.

Once I had bought my fabric I just enjoyed the market. I enjoyed the sights and sounds, the smells of food sold by vendors either situated with a small stand or selling out of baskets and bowls carried on their heads. We periodically had to stand aside as women came through with stacks of merchandise on their heads to restock booths – delivery trucks could not make their way through most of the narrow alleys and streets. The most impressive feats of balance were accomplished by the women carrying stacks of PVC pipe – 10′ or 12′ lengths bound together in bundles and balanced with the center on a woman’s head.

What I enjoyed most about the market was something I have found so far to be a hallmark of Ghanaian life: an atmosphere of friendship and happiness. It’s a bustling place with a tremendous amount of activity, but it’s also, strangely to me, a warm and welcoming place. As a group of us sat in the shade waiting while others made purchases we exchanged smiles with a small group of women and a little girl, maybe 18 months old, who was, bit by bit, gathering the courage to approach us. The girl would stand several feet away and smile, then run back to her mother and the other women, and then come a bit closer the next time before running back again.

A few minutes later we found ourselves in a courtyard lined with vendors of fabric and various sewing notions (I’ve never seen so many zippers in my life), and there was a PA system with a woman singing and someone playing a keyboard. People – the cloth vendors, snack and water vendors, and customers – were singing along and sometimes breaking into dance. One vendor in particular was dancing enthusiastically while still carrying a large plastic bowl packed with bottled water and other beverages on her head. At one point a woman grabbed me by the arm and danced with me as she walked by. One of our group started dancing and was immediately and very blatantly laughed at and talked about (in Twi) and pointed at – we couldn’t understand, of course, but it felt like whatever was being said was in kind spirit and good fun.

Ghana is predominantly Christian, but there is a significant Muslim minority, and that was visible in the marketplace. Although the music we heard was in Twi, we did catch the occasional exclamation of Jesus! or Hallelujah!, so I’m guessing most of the music was gospel tunes. That said, the Muslim vendors and customers were right in on the festive atmosphere, sitting beside their Christian countrymen and coworkers. With extremism and sectarian violence a serious problem in many West African nations, it seems that at least among everyday people in Accra there is a live-and-let-live approach. Long may that continue.

I’ll insert my other random, taken-on-the-sly pics here, before I go on to the rest of our day:

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When we’d done all we had the energy to do, fabric-shopping-wise, we made our way back to where we had parked – a place called the Art Center, which is itself an impressive, but much smaller and more specialized, market. The Art Center caters to tourists and foreigners, and is made up of stall after stall of Ghanaian and other regional arts and crafts, from clothing made from local fabrics to hand-carved wooden bowls to woven baskets and trivets to elaborately beaded jewelry and home decor items. Some of the items are sold by the artisans themselves, some are sold by dealers who purchase the work elsewhere in the country or region and sell it there. No pictures from Art Center as it’s a much more intimate setting and it would have been impossible to take photos without being obvious about it (also it would probably have obliged me to buy something – the sellers at the Art Center, unlike those at Makola, tended to be aggressive and tenacious, though in a strangely friendly manner).

I’ll definitely have to plan a trip (or several) back to the Art Center when I haven’t just emptied my wallet buying fabric. I did buy a mud cloth messenger bag from the stall run by Kadir, a man we had hired to help guide us at the market (he has a reputation among Embassy people as a knowledgeable guide and he definitely lived up to it). Now I just need my bike and I’m set for grocery runs. Before we shopped we put an order in at the Art Center restaurant – red red and kelewele for everyone. That’s a blackeyed pea stew with spiced fried plantains, and it was delicious – all the more so, perhaps, for the miles we’d walked and the wait for the food to arrive (which turned out to be about twice as long as the 20 – 25 minutes they had estimated when we ordered).

The acquisition of the fabric, which now requires a sewing machine, and the messenger bag, which now requires a bike, makes me all the more eager for our things to arrive. I was almost disappointed when our stuff made it to Juárez. We had been doing just fine with the things we had and our stuff just meant a lot of work to find places for everything and get settled in. Maybe I’m just more eager to make a home here. Juárez, close as it was to where I’d grown up, already felt very home-like. I was back in my desert southwest, back among the food and scenery I’d grown up with. My mountains were even just a 45-minute drive away, as were my home church and elementary school and favorite restaurants. As much as I love Ghana so far, I guess I am eager to build my own place within it. Though once those boxes arrive and the hard work of getting settled is real, we’ll see just long my enthusiasm holds out.

Kwabena, Abena, Kwasi, and Adwoa

Isaiah and I caught a ride with a few other Embassy folks to the Anglican Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity on Sunday. It was our first visit since we arrived. We had heard, well before our arrival in Accra, that church in Ghana is an experience like nothing we’d known before. A typical Episcopal Sunday service, complete with hymns, tends to last between an hour and – at the very outside, say with baptisms and/or a lengthy sermon – an hour and a half. I had heard that services here were said to last maybe three hours, but that three would be on the short side. That was confirmed once we got here. Over and over we heard that Sundays are a great day to go places and do things because Ghanaians are in church pretty much all day – leaving the roads relatively traffic-free.

In all honesty, while I definitely wanted to find a church home here in Accra, I was not entirely sure I wanted an all-day event every Sunday, so I asked around the Embassy community to see if anyone knew of something a little more similar to U.S. expectations. As it turns out, at 9:00 am on the cathedral grounds – but not in the old cathedral building – there is a Eucharist service generally celebrated by the Rev. Akua Boabema Ofori-Boateng, one of West Africa’s few female priests. The service is in a parish hall-type building and lasts about two hours, which is very swift by Ghanaian standards (I’m working to incorporate the word swift into my vocabulary more – it’s a word I find is used a lot here where in the U.S. we’d say fast or quick, and I like it).

True to the word of our Embassy connection, the service lasted almost exactly two hours, and it was essentially a combined Eucharist service and Bible study. Up through the second reading the service went exactly as I’d expect from experience, but then, instead of a gradual hymn and the gospel reading, we broke for Bible study. Rev. Boateng asked for volunteers to read scripture on the theme they’d been studying (skills and talents), then would lead discussion. She’s a gifted teacher and a natural facilitator. Isaiah and I both thoroughly enjoyed the study and got a lot out of it – and then we were back to the service.

Rather than dive right back in to the liturgy, though, we first had an offering/singing session, during which a band played (electric bass, traditional drums, a drum kit, and an organ/keyboard), people sang songs, mostly in Twi (the most common local language), and everyone could go up and make an offering for the church’s development efforts, depositing the money according to their day of birth. I had no idea what day I was born, but I remembered well the day of Isaiah’s birth, so I gave him some money and told him to go put it in the Sunday basket. What he didn’t realize was that he would be pretty much the only one going up not dancing. Once the music started, most of the congregants, the priest, and acolytes, and, well, everybody except a few of us random obroni (foreigners), started dancing, and dancing was how most folks went up to deposit their offerings.

Dancing and singing subsided as everyone made it up with the offerings, and we settled back in for the gospel, sermon, etc. All proceeded pretty much according to Episcopalian expectation until the peace, at which point everyone formed large circles holding hands – not quite everyone in one circle, but maybe the whole congregation in three of four large circles. Then while Rev. Boateng announced the peace hands were all raised and lowered in rhythmic unison – except for the patches where Isaiah and I were. We had no idea what the rhythm was supposed to be but nobody seemed to mind that we messed it up. Then there was a lot of hand-shaking and hugging. A lot of very enthusiastic hugging, especially, from a group of women who were seated in several of the front rows of the church. They were all dressed in white dresses with purple headscarves bearing the words Anglican Women’s Fellowship and an image of St. Ann (with the inscription, “St. Ann, Patron Saint” – I’m not so great at saint recognition that I could tell who it was, so I appreciated the hint). I don’t know what all good works the Anglican Women’s Fellowship of Accra gets up to, but they are wonderful at hugging and making a person feel welcome and, yes, making this obroni get all teary-eyed with their warmth and kindness.

The rest of the service zipped right along with U.S.-like swiftness. At the end, along with the announcements and recognition of birthdays, there was a report on the offerings, both the regular offering and the day-of-the-week offering, complete with applause from the “winning” team of Sunday birthday people. Isaiah had helped push the Sundays over the top!

I’m glad we learned fairly early on of the importance of knowing the day of our birth. When I got home and looked in to this a bit, I learned that most Ghanaians have, as part of their names, one element that indicates the day on which they were born. Our priest has the name Akua, which is the name for a Wednesday-born female (it’s also Marisela’s teacher’s name). Kofi Annan, I now know, was born on a Friday. The miracle of Google allowed me to learn that Andres and I were both born on Tuesdays. Marisela was born on a Monday. That makes us Kwabena and Abena (male and female Tuesday-borns) and Kwasi and Adwoa. Just today I had a street vendor ask me what my Ghana name is. I was delighted to be able to tell him it’s Abena. So next time we’re at church the Tuesdays can give the Sundays a bit of competition.

 

 

Is Accra expensive?

I have to preface this by acknowledging that my perspective on the cost of living here is an incredibly privileged one. As in Mexico, we are seeing things from the very advantageous viewpoint of a family functioning on a solid U.S. salary. Our housing is provided for us. The kids’ schooling is covered. All of that means we are in a position of real wealth by any conceivable standard, for which we are thankful. To not acknowledge that would be unfair. When I talk of things being expensive or cheap here I realize it’s a true luxury to be able to think about these things from the comfortable vantage point we have.

Accra is a COLA post, meaning that we receive a certain amount of extra money each month to account for a higher-than-average cost of living. I can’t recall the exact calculation, but State figures a family spends a certain amount of the officer’s salary on food, groceries, household expenses, etc., and we get – I believe – a 15% increase on that portion of Andrés’ salary that they calculate goes to daily living expenses. Before we came here we read on post report after post report that Accra is expensive. That food is expensive, restaurants are expensive, services are expensive. Knowing our habits and tendencies – that we aren’t loyal to particular brands or even types of household products, that we try not to eat too many convenience foods or processed foods, that I cook and bake from scratch more often that not, that we are open to learning to cook and eat local dishes – I was curious to see if we found that to be the case.

We’ve been here two weeks now and my sense is that it definitely can be very expensive in Accra, and that even without wanting or needing very specific U.S. products we will still not save the kind of money we were able to save in Mexico, but that we won’t be needing to watch every pesewa either (cedis – pronounced SEEdees – is the denomination and pesewas are the coins). I’ve been truly amazed at the prices of some U.S. products. When we first visited the nearest grocery store we needed laundry detergent. I bought a local brand at a cost of about $3 for a bottle that will probably last me a few weeks. I could have spent $40 (!!!) on a jug of Tide that may have lasted me a month or, at the most, two. Yesterday I bought some locally produced paper towels. They cost about what I’d expect to pay in the U.S., maybe a bit less. They were about $1.50 a roll for pretty fat rolls.  The same store had a large package of Bounty paper towels, I think 12 rolls, for (the magic number!) $40 or so. I just can’t imagine loving Bounty that much, quicker-picker-upper though it may be.

So that’s one realm of super expensive grocery products – U.S. brands. Certain processed foods, regardless of their origin, are also quite expensive. Marisela ate way too much Nutella in Mexico but we won’t have that problem here – Nutella costs something like $8 a jar. Doubt we’ll ever buy it. And if you want Jif or Peter Pan the peanut butter here is not cheap, but if you don’t mind buying Ghana-produced groundnut paste, it’s quite reasonable. I bought the groundnut paste, made the kids’ sandwiches for their lunch boxes, and only heard how tasty it was – no complaints.

Services, in our experience so far, are widely varying in price. Taxis aren’t expensive by U.S. standards. Getting to and from a store that’s about 4 or 5 miles away last weekend cost us about $6. But dry cleaning, which Andrés needs as he wears a suit every day, is about the same cost as in the U.S. and with a far longer wait time (no 24-hour turnaround – more like three or four days). Cell service is quite inexpensive here by U.S. standards – as much as we use our phones on wifi and as little as we actually use them out and about, I think we’ll pay about $5 a month, maybe $10 for my phone. Even when I accidentally called my mom using my cell service instead of one of the many wifi-based options we have I only used a bit more than a dollar’s worth of my credit for a nearly hour-long call. We went ahead and activated a phone for Isaiah so he can call us or the Embassy if ever he needs to when he’s out and about, and we have a backup phone activated since power surges and theft are definite threats to our phones here. We’ve never had multiple lines before, in part because we just couldn’t justify the cost.

As relatively inexpensive as cell service is, though (including data), internet service is not a bargain. We were advised to have two providers – one a DSL service through our phone provider and one a 4G connection with a wireless router – since outages are very common. Between the two services we pay about $150 a month. (Having a backup was a good idea – we’ve been about one week now with one of the two services not working). That’s a stark contrast to the $20 or so we paid for phone and excellent internet service in Mexico, especially given the unreliability of the service we’re paying so much to maintain. But I think the difference reflects the fact that cell phones are very common here – I would venture to guess that far more people have cell phones than landlines – and so the cost is accessible. Internet service is still a luxury of the wealthy, and the prices reflect that.

So I guess the verdict is mixed – if we wanted to use Bounty and Tide and eat Jif peanut butter and spread Nutella on everything we’d run through that COLA and then some. I didn’t mention produce, but it’s what you’d expect: if we want to eat berries and peaches and veggies that don’t grow here (or just aren’t generally eaten here) we would blow through our grocery budget very quickly. But pineapples and pawpaws (papayas) and the tastiest bananas I’ve ever eaten are extremely affordable, as are cucumbers and tomatoes and green beans and spinach and lettuce. So we definitely won’t lack for delicious food. The tomatoes I’ve eaten here taste like they’re straight out of a backyard garden and I’ve never had such sweet pineapple. We have yet to visit any fine dining type restaurants but the few everyday places we’ve eaten have what we’d consider everyday prices in the U.S.: lunches at $7 – $10 a plate or so, dinner a bit more, drinks for a few dollars, etc. It’s not our dear Taquería Aaajiji, where we could eat dinner with drinks, desserts, and any extras we might have room to eat and spend $25, but it’s not Paris or Tokyo, either. It’s not even Bishop Arts or Santa Fe. I think we’ll be just fine.

 

 

 

Life on foot

We are, for the moment, car-free and loving it. We briefly pondered bringing Andres’ Ranger over here, but a relatively short family trip from Juárez to Hatch, NM (for green chile cheeseburgers, of course) made it clear that, extended cab or no, our 6’+ kiddo was just not going to be comfortable in that vehicle. At least not with the seat pushed up enough for Marisela and me to fit in the back seat. The trusty Focus was sold in Virginia. I see cars as small as the Focus on the roads here, but they are generally operated by taxi drivers who make up in confidence and bluster what they lack in vehicle size. I just don’t see developing that kind of commanding vehicular presence. So we’re biding our time, watching the listings of cars for sale in the diplomatic community, and using our feet, taxis, and neighborly goodwill to get where we need to go.

On many, many counts I’m thankful to have landed with the social sponsors we have (thank you, Diosa and Rob!). During our first week our sponsor cheerfully showed me store after store – not just the big supermarkets but the fruit and egg stands she likes the best, the craft supply store, the telecom offices, the dry cleaner’s, her favorite coffee shop. So now, thanks to her, I have a good idea of where to point myself when I need something. What I didn’t realize at first, between my jet-lagged fog and the intensity of Accra traffic, was how close by most of these places are. I find myself once again in the happy condition of having most of the necessities within walking/biking distance. A little throw-back to my Oak Cliff days.

Both yesterday and today I got out and walked. Yesterday it was to go pay the phone and internet bill (another shout-out to our social sponsors for making sure we had backup internet – our internet was there, and then suddenly it was gone; now that I’ve paid, well, it’s still gone. Working on that, but since the kids both have daily online homework, I’m extra thankful for the backup.) I also went to get the poster board that Marisela came home Monday insisting that she HAD TO HAVE RIGHT THAT MOMENT but then turned out not to actually truly need quite so urgently. Today I walked to a multi-floor supermarket/department store/food court.

I love walking and biking because it’s such a different way to experience my surroundings. Even after two years in Juárez there were stretches of the very street we lived on, Gómez Morín, that I craned my neck to inspect whenever someone else was driving because the shops and restaurants were so densely packed I never got a full view as I zipped by in the car. I love being able to see everything.

Then there are the smells. Not always a plus, granted, but always an experience. Here, in addition to exhaust on the larger streets, there’s sometimes the smell of burning trash, and then there are the (often open) gutters that line most of the streets, not always emitting the most pleasant odors (more about those later). But there are also lovely smells. Right around the corner from our house is the “Eat and Smile” food stand – a kind of improvised outdoor restaurant with a tarp-covered seating area. On one corner after another are vendors grilling plantains or frying what look like beignet-type doughnuts. Other vendors have what look like pasties or empanadas. The fruit is sometimes so perfectly ripe that the stands smell tropical and sweet as I walk by. All of that is lost in a car.

Walking means I don’t have to contend with aggressive traffic, but it does carry hazards of its own, and it’s a different kind of walking here than anywhere else I’ve been. The primary concern just from a physical point of view is that there’s little consistency and many obstacles. By which I mean that there may or may not be a sidewalk. And when there is not a sidewalk there may or may not be a worn footpath. And when there is no footpath there may or may not be some reasonable amount of space on the side of the road that isn’t already occupied by cars. And then there are the gutters. Most of the roads are lined by open gutters, often running with water of varying degrees of nastiness. The ones that are running, actually, are the more pleasant ones. It’s the ones where the water seems to just be sitting there that look and smell the least appealing.

So clearly this is no place for staring down at a phone or being otherwise distracted while walking. I feel perfectly safe leaping from path to sidewalk to street and back to path, but it’s essential that I watch where I’m going. Sometimes the gutters are covered with concrete or steel grates, and then suddenly they aren’t. Sometimes the grates are loose and don’t look wise to step on. So it’s all about being on the alert and keeping an eye on what’s ahead.

It seems to me from my few days of walking that lots and lots of Ghanaians walk, but in general foreigners do not. And that accounts for another unique aspect of walking here – the constant taxi honks. Taxis are everywhere, it seems, all the time, and in such volume I don’t know how any one driver makes any money at all. Every time I’m out walking pretty much every taxi that passes slows down and honks to see if I want a ride. I don’t, so I keep walking. And they keep passing and honking. I clearly look like an excellent business prospect, but they don’t know my crazy walking ways.

Lest anyone become concerned about my safety: I did attend a very thorough security briefing at the Embassy. I am well aware that in addition to being a good business prospect for the taxis, I’m a good business prospect for thieves. And unlike in Juárez (or at least in the parts of Juárez we frequented), there is substantial petty crime here and it definitely does target foreigners (who are perceived as wealthy because, well, by Ghanaian standards we definitely are). In addition to being well aware of my physical situation with the gutters and pathways and such I am well aware of my vulnerability to purse-snatching. I only carry the bare necessities, I walk well-used paths where other pedestrians and vendors are walking, and I never act lost or tentative. It probably helps that I have to stay alert to the physical side of walking because I am unlikely to ever be ambling along in a distracted daze.

What I enjoy most, probably, is walking among all the street-level commerce. I’m not sure that I’ll ever get tired of seeing people carrying things they’re selling on their heads. As I walk I see people (mostly women, but not all) carrying bananas, shoes, peanuts, papayas (called pawpaws here), combs and brushes, kettles of food, all stacked and balanced perfectly. There are also roadside stands selling everything from freshly prepared foods to mops and buckets to clothing to hand-woven baskets to scratch-off cards for cell phone airtime (this is how cellular accounts are managed here – when you’re running low on credit you buy a card, scratch off a strip, and enter a series of numbers into your phone). I have yet to visit the huge market here but on the way to the supermarket/department store today I passed a market that’s maybe the size of a city block or so. I love it. I love the energy and people and chaos of it all. Something about being surrounded by all this action and life just makes me happy. So we’ll probably get a car. We want to get out of the city and see other parts of Ghana. We want to go to the national parks and the botanical gardens and the beaches. But even once we have some wheels again, I think a good part of my daily life will still take place on foot (or on two wheels rather than four).