Monday, May 24, 2010

Sea Shells

Two girls, feet buried in wet sand, skirts hiked around their knees, fingers swiftly searching. Double bent they prod the shore plucking shells, stones- glinting and salty. As a wave rocks the landscape, retrieving some of its bounty and producing more. Their eyes must be quick, fingers quicker lest that pearl is lost- but they are often lost- again and again their hands dart for one only to be swallowed by foamy brine and their treasure not yet grasped already gone. Skirts fall in the dash for glinting purple and come up sea soaked, but the girls barely notice. Sometimes she will take the chance after one over the other, there is only this time before the wave comes to decide, to chase, to try, and sometimes she comes up with diamonds, sometimes nothing but the salt and sand but there is no time for regret, the next wave is coming and the eye is already roaming for its next infatuation.

Can't we find these metaphors for life in every moment? Isn't the universe reflected in the contents of a teacup? I am searching for something. And even as I reach for it, chance comes to obscure, snatch or distort that which I desire, leaving me to blindly persue something I may or maynot manifest, and once taken, may or may not keep. Then there are those waves that come and not only sweep away the object of your desire, but knock you down, soak your skirt, leave you altered.

Sun scortched, hands overflowing yet minds stuck on those treasures lost, toes clean, thoughts expanded to exlposion from the sheer expanse of ocean. Knocked down on the cool shore, cold breeze, skin radiating pink heat, complete silence save for rhythmic crashing, is this freedom from the searcing? Momentarily.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Me Ye Ghanaba

Well, we've hit the books again. Sat through half a day at school and realized I was already sick of it. The sweat, the uniforms, the late teachers, the hard wooden desks. And at the same time, I felt such an affection for my class- now that I know each person's personality, their niche in the dynamic, how they fool around... and as always when I am with them I begin thinking about how school was back home, the way we interacted with each other as opposed to how they do here, so during math class in which we are learning exactly what I learned last year, how to calculate the circumference and area of a circle, I began to brainstorm what makes a Ghanaian a Ghanaian.

Note: please excuse my repetitions, for I have probably mentioned some of these in passing...

First is the hand shake, as that is the prelude to all relationships. The Ghanaian hand shake ends with a little snap, one person's middle finger against the other person's. I find it funny sometimes, as I see "secret handshakes" to be a gangsta thing to do, when I see two men in suits finishing off a business transaction with this gesture, or I greet a grandmother and she snaps my finger. Also, handshakes are much more common- on average I will do this 7-12 times a day. Its a way to greet, a way to have a smile, just a passing "eeee, Yao" and we shake and I keep walking (I mean to a friend at school).

1) The person who enters a room, or meets another person who was already in that place is expected to greet first. For my first few weeks I was always greeting people, whether they were coming to me or I to them and my family kept telling me it wasn't good.
2) The younger person is always expected to greet the elder, unless in the above situation. In that case, if the elder is entering they will either not greet, or do a general one.
3) Youngsters are not expected, and indeed shouldn't ask their elder "how are you". An elder asks you, and you can ask in return but you must add a "please" before it, in Twi.
4) When shaking hands with people in a room, always begin at the right side.

"Twinglish" is common. Every so often they through English words. in their Twi... eg. "ma me book, wii" (give me a book), which helps me stay abreast in conversations now that I also get bits of the Twi.
"I'm coming" - it means they are going away and will come back shortly
"You don't have to" - you can't or really shouldn't
"00000" / "paapaa" - added to anything to exaggerate: "I'm hungryoooo" or "it was hot paapaa"

When speaking to an elder one is constantly saying "please", but in Twi. It feels weird to do it in English, but it would be: How are you? Please, I am fine.

Moving on... One always invites others to eat their food, and, if you are invited and don't want to take any you say "thank you", and if you want to eat you just eat. I used to say thank you as I ate, which is improper.

When in the presence of elders: Stand. Remove cap. Keep left hand behind back. DO NOT CROSS LEGS. Speak when spoken to. Keep hands out of pockets. Of course that is all the traditional formal stuff... often it is unnecessary.

Pure Ghanaian:
People suck their teeth to show annoyance or disapproval. I find it completely condescending, and very hurtful.
Hiss and/or loud kissing noises to get attention which I find rude and annoying yet effective, especially when trying to buy something off of someone's head.

Going out: LOOK GOOD. Look "fresh".
Iron everything. Have outfits that match- EVEN GUYS! Guys will wear sneakers with red on them, jeans, red belt, red shirt, red cap. Or these awful pink and/or flowered starched shirts with popped collars and their fake-worn jeans, stiff caps tilted to the side almost falling off their heads. They are the fresh guys. Girls wear very color coordinated outfits too of course, one or two colors. I have seen completely yellow and completely pink outfits- I mean pink skinny jeans, shoes, shirt, belt, necklace, earrings, hair clip. I would never have the audacity.
On the other hand, those who are out working, hawking, selling, wear completely discordant outfits- skirt with blue and orange stripes, a shirt with Obama on it and a scarf with a dull flowered pattern that belongs on Victorian drapes. Lots of skirts. And shawls. SO MUCH COLOR. My fellow YESer Adam Streeter has done a wonderful bit on all the second - (or fifth) hand clothing, so I'll do some promo and say you should check out his blog:

(Adam, since I know you are reading this, I expect your next blog will feature a certain address... winkwink.)

Last but not least is GMT. Greenwich Meridian Time.... or Ghana Man Time. : )
I'll just say if the invitation says 3, come by 4:30-5.

And now I am listening to Hallelujah in Danish and drinking an iridescent red drink called bisab which we made ourselves from dried flowers after I trekked all over town and into a very cramped marketplace to find them. It is sweet and tangy, bit of ginger, hint of cloves... like sour apple cider, but more robust. Petal syrup.

Saturday, May 1, 2010



It's night, on a rooftop in the midst of some forgotten neighborhood on the edge of town. The air moves and the silhouette of a palm tree sways. A distant horizon glows with one neon sign flashing, and we wonder, what could it be? The stars are few, as they always seem to be here and there is no moon, but lonely street lamps shed yellow light on the world and we have sight. A radio is somewhere below filling the sleepy streets with reggae... "...there is no place like home, home sweet home, when I go far to (Kumasi) I will always come back home..." and we sigh. Night has covered the landfill with its charcoal smoke which sits between us and the rest of town to the west. This morning we trekked over those ashes in our chalewates (flipflops), past a family in their Sunday best, paid the 20 peswa toll to cross a wooden plank over a flow of water and waste, came out with blackened feet and blacker lungs. Night may cover it, but we all know what lies in the dark, empty space like a hole out in space waiting to suck you in, and your reggae beats too. Just below us in the dirt street outside the hotel is one lotto booth spilling yellow on the earth, one man inside reading the Daily Graphic, occasionally visited by long shadowed fellows, just doin' his thing in his little snippet of life. I try to teach Sofie to salsa dance, but reggae really is not right for salsa. We peel oranges and suck out the sweetness, remining, fooling, being.

Lying on the beach at night, the stars are finally brilliant here, away from the city, the smog, the dust. We lay with our heads on each other's laps in a little square- lucky we were four- getting bit by sand flees, the crash of waves, stories and little peeks into each other's lives, silence, constellations.


Driving in a cab, smooshed together four in the back heading towards the monkey sanctuary. The driver pulls over in a small town and tells us we should get down here or give him another 1.5 cedis each to go all the way. We didn't agree to that though, back in Sunyani he had said we could get there for 3.50 each- all the way. Each of us try explaining to him that it doesn't work like that, he had agreed to something but he just said it was a misunderstanding back at the taxi rink. It goes on and on. We disembark. Maire begins hauling our bags out of the trunk saying we should just leave, that it's not ok, which it wasn't. Some other men come over and we are quick to give them the story, us in English and the cab driver in Twi, schoolboys come, and finally a mediator who settles that we should pay him small more or let him take us to find a trotro. The thing is he could have been easily telling the truth- a lot of men had been directing us and giving us the options of how to get to the sanctuary, either taxi and trotro which would cost a little bit less but make more hastle or this, the taxi direct route, but we had been pretty clear with him before we got in the cab... But just as easily he could have been trying to make a little more off us because he had no better way to waste his time. So it turned out with us asking him to take us all the way for a little more than we bargained for, much to the disgruntlement of our wallets. After half an hour up a bumpy, dusty road, me sitting on Marie's lap we made it to a nice reception area with a mango tree dripping juicy yellow stickiness. The tour guide led us to the village through the forest and we proceeded to find families of monkeys jumping about us. We fed them bananas.... As we are feeding all the small ones they rush in, grab the fruit and stuff their mouths, until the Big Daddy comes over, saunter up to the man with the goods. He sits. The man offers him a bite. He peels the banana with the dignity of a king and breaks off a piece to nibble on. Then, when he is finished, he saunters away and all the little ones come rushing back to grab their little paws some chop.

My heart pounding, legs pumping, firm sand below, then waves then sand, down the strip of beach, early morning exercise, go go go till I feel I might drop, down to the end, touch the tree, turn around, beet red face, short breath, satisfaction.


Largest market of West Africa. The air is thick; sound, dust, movement, sweat, heat, color, a maze of THINGS a pulse of action, go or be run over by the cart too heavy for men to hold against gravity, step aside or risk bumping the girl who is carrying a load as tall as herself of boxes full of who knows what on her head, shout or don't be heard, hold on to your things or be picked, bargain or be taken, keep up with the rest or be lost forever in the twisting avenues beneath tin roofs or bare sunlight with crockery forests in one isle and bolt upon bolt of color bursting fabric and then caves of Accentuation- nails, polish, makeup, hair, jewelry, Excessoria to the max with a preacher pacing up and down yelling into his microphone repenting and amen, and hallelujah, and the man behind him reiterating everything again in his twitchy trance shaking his hands to the heavens until they get into an argument, a microphone yelling at a voice in some dialect and then they both go back to exactly what they were doing, and then you're thrown into the fray of hawkers, food, shoes, books, clothes, everything is there. We cross the street, a woman is breastfeeding her child on the median strip under an umbrella while cars go past on either side. I had to pee. Please ma'm, is there a urinal (they don't get "washroom" or "bathroom" once I used that and ended up having to squat to get the woman to understand. On the side of the road.). No, sorry the urinal is WAAAAAY over there. I walk away. tsss, tsss. I turn back, a big woman motions me over. You need to relieve yourself? I nod. She brings me into her little three walled shop, holds up a drape and gives me a little cup. Yep. TIA straight up.

We have a box of oats. Water. A can of sweetened condensed milk called Jago, spoons.... Hunger. No bowl. So, as water comes in little plasic bags here, we drink one down and slit open the bag to make a cup, pour in our oats, water, Jago, mix it all around, and mmmmmm it was delicious.


Night, again, in the trotro to the coast after a very long day. Today was the day of the monkeys, we'd roused at a blinding 5am to meet a friend at 6 to get a nice show on the road, had the whole shebang with the driver, fed monkeys for two hours, made it back red with dust in every crease of our clothes and pore of our skin, packed up and headed to Kumasi, 3 hours in a bumpy hot trotro, waited in Kejetia again for an hour for a car to Takoradi, everyone staring at the disheveled, dirty, tired, slightly cranky obrunis, learned for the first time that there is something even cheaper than water and that is mangoes, in mango season, they are 5 for 20 peswas, you do the math.... mangoes here are different, the local kind. You have to tear a small piece off the top of the skin and suck out the inside, just like oranges. it is either the cleanest way to eat it or the messiest depending on if you decide to, after sucking, peel back the skin and finish it off, then it leaves you with a yellow face and long strings stuck between your teeth. (Any guesses why I didn't take pics?). But back to the moment. We are driving along, finally in a trotro, but to the wrong town, no matter, it's only an hour from the right one, and we had to get somewhere. I am crammed between Sofie and Adam, my shin digging into the corner of a box and my other knee up against the seat in front of me. Freezing now from the rush of night air coming from the cracked open trunk (or boot as they call it here), my head bobbing with sleep and awareness against Sofie's shoulders as I try to cover her exposed skin. We fly over a pothole- the car gets a flat tire. Everyone files out and the men flag down some other cars to get it fixed. Middle of nowhere, still an hour or more from our destination, in the dark we could only pray and crack jokes, so that's about all we did. Obviously we got in safe and sound and slept at the same place we had gone to before in Cape Coast which was really rather nice, to have a memory of having been there before....

Bathing suits, sand, our bare bare feet, pounding together, running down the sloping shore and finally our feet hit the waves, warm and inviting, we dive in, wash off 8 days of nonstop travel, relax into the water, let it embrace us, oh the glory of that moment..... We swam all day for two days, three days? Sleeping in the afternoon when the sun was too scorching, reading and nibbling on little piles of fruit, local RedRed for dinner on the roadside, bean stew over fried plantains. Our hotel, Pete's Place was situated about a two second run across a strip of sand from the ocean and a minute walk from the town's only road where we could buy a meal for less than a dollar. The beach was not full of rastas, trash, whites, locals, anyone really, I mean they were there, mostly surfers both foreign and local, three little girls selling mangoes, cookies and water, but not in the annoying abundance as on other beaches we've explored.

Another trotro, this time on the way back to Accra. We barely speak, the traffic is bad, the sinking feeling of life setting back in. What we would do to take back those stolen days and steal them again and again, just us and the world. Arrived into Circle in the evening, bombarded by the guys hissing and calling, the air thick once again, fatigue, dirt, the city swallowing us whole.

Snapshot: A few days later:
My entire bodytan is peeling off and I am left as white as before the trip. Great.