Wednesday, January 31, 2007

“Where is madam?”

January 31, 2007


Without fanfare and very little ado Graeme and I are now married. No worries for you wedding aficionados out there (Nancy -- we promised we wouldn’t elope!), it’s an unofficial title only. Although for just a few thousand cedis (a few toonies and loonies) we could have made it official, at least on African soil, by tying the knot in a side-of-the-road shack in Accra a couple of weeks back. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending how you look at it, the woman inside the small house was asleep when we wandered by.

We’ve both found it much easier, and I more so than Graeme, to simply say we’re married. Husband meet wife, wife meet husband and ta-dah we’re McEstabrooks.

In Ghana, ones title, or one’s status speaks volumes. Being a ‘married woman’ has its advantages as does being a man who is seen to have enough riches to first court then marry and provide for a woman.

Being Graeme’s wife in Ghana has its definite perks. I can now tell him to use his sweat rag in public, I can chat with strange men and then shut them up by simply flashing my left hand where I’m wearing the Celtic claddagh ring he gave me last year, and I can also demand that he dispose of the huge cockroach that invaded our room last night.

The drawbacks… Number one, he sweats a lot, non-stop actually. He consumes water and literally as he’s drinking it I can see it coming out of his pores. Any bit of exertion means sweating here; for Graeme it means he has to change his shirt.

Number two, now that he’s part of my family he’s now included in my daily greeting ritual with some of my colleagues. A daily Ghanaian greeting includes a litany of questions first about your health, what you’ve eaten, how your sleep was, and then a similar roster of questions for all those in your family. I make sure to say Graeme has eaten and slept well as to fulfill the expectations of a dutiful wife in Ghana.

Speaking of duties, Graeme and I are revolutionizing how food is cooked at the compound where we’re living. One of the men who works/lives here asked Graeme this evening where I was, and why I wasn’t the one in the kitchen preparing the dinner. Graeme explained that we shared the cooking and the cleaning. Bismark nodded politely, commented he’d like a similar arrangement with his future wife and then admitted he did all of it by himself right now.

The Canadian ceremony is still a go in 2008. In the meantime we’re both enjoying married life in Africa! (Guess we need to learn each other’s blood types and our sickle cell counts, judging by the signs for betrothed couples about town.) T.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Not really down with these body lesions

January 30, 2007


Don’t know where they came from. Had’em before when I was traveling in Central America and sleeping in hotels and hostels of questionable quality. I always thought they were bed bug bites. But Trish isn’t getting these lesions all over her body like I am, and if anything she’s sweeter than me. If they’re eating me they should be eating her, but they aren’t.

So it’s not bugs in the bed (I don’t think). Could be the Larium. I seem to recall reading somewhere that a splotchy rash is one potential side effect of the malaria medication. Emmett got some pretty nasty marks from the stuff when he was in this part of the world.

Not really a cause for concern (I don’t think). Haven’t exposed myself to anything extraordinary, beyond the norm in Africa. The lesions are a little itchy from time to time, but that fades after awhile. Surely they’ll fade completely at some point. It’s just a question of whether or not I’ll bear them for eight months. If so, I’ll have to think up some names. Like Splotchy, and Scratchy. Could be a sitcom. We’ll call it Rashy Days. G.

I am a sweaty man

January 29, 2007


Let it be known: Graeme McElheran pumps out the sweat. Not just a little moisture under the pits during exercise or on a hot sunny day. We’re talking drenchville, 24/7, here in Africa.

It’s hot, sure, but even at nighttime I’m sweating through the mattress. I take a shower before bed and I’m sweaty before I hit the sheets. I take a shower in the morning and I’m sweaty putting on my clothes. I take a drink of water and a minute later it’s sweating out my pores. I’m sweating right now. It’s dripping into my right eye. Excuse me while I mop my brow.

It’s actually annoying me. It used to annoy other people, like dudes on the basketball court when I’d slide off them in the low post, or stuck up twits at the shi-shi bar when I’d spray them while getting my groove on. But here in Kumasi I can’t have a conversation or walk ten paces without pulling out the handkerchief. I’ve never used a handkerchief before.

We’re going through the water like mad. We’ve got a double filtration system going, Pristine droplets and a Scout pump filter, and a good thing too. Bottled water is relatively cheap, around 50 cents for 1500 mL, but together we’re consuming at least six litres a day (including for food, coffee and dishes). We’re mostly using treated tap water; so far so good.

I’m spending a lot of time pumping, like a sold 20 minutes each night. And of course, the exertion of pumping makes me sweat. So as soon as I pump some clean water I drink it to replace my fluids, only to feel it come beading out of my face again. WTF?

I need to find a swimming pool. Only through total emersion will I ever feel dry and secure. G.

This Ghanaian department store makes me feel like a salmon

January 24, 2007


Welcome to Melcom, where locals shop for less. On a tip from a couple of fellow traveling Oburuni (a harmless term in the local Twi dialect that means “white man”) we found the place to buy household goods, like a toilet brush. Melcom is an open-air labyrinth divided into different sections by the goods it carries stacked in rows. They sell everything from greeting cards and fake flowers to electric drills and bolts of cloth. We went to get stuff for a makeshift kitchen. But first we had to learn the rules, which are complex. Here are a couple:

Rule #1: Never stop moving.

There is a constant flow of human traffic shuffling along the narrow corridors between Melcom’s good. You can never stop for long. If you’re considering a purchase you have to get out of the way while you contemplate, and if there’s nowhere to escape you have to just keep moving. If you do find a little pocket — a back eddy at the current’s fringe — you can take a moment, but just a moment, before the stream pulls you away. This is where the fishy feeling comes from. You’re always swimming, there is no escape.

Rule #2: Keep your receipts.

Not because Melcom’s would accept a return — I doubt that, but have no evidence — but because you can’t buy anything without one. It works like this: you file among the goods with everybody else, and when you decide on a purchase you get one of the ladies standing by to write the quantity and serial number down on a little piece of paper. When you’re ready to pay you take all your little sheets of paper to the cash register. The cashier exchanges them for a receipt, once you’ve paid. Then you revisit your goods out in the store and pick them up. Then you take them to checkers near the exit, who go through your items and your receipt and make sure everything matches, before putting it all in a bag. The checkers stamp your receipt, which you must show to security on the way out.

That’s the way they do department store in Ghana. G.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

From CBC to LUV FM

January 25

Graeme sleeps in his make shift togo (and is still sweating!) while I type a report for JHR on how my first day of work was. The report will be brief. The news boss didn’t come in, there were two of nine reporters, and the station was in a bit of a lull after reporting on a by-election two days previously in a region just north of Kumasi. Although there were few reporters at LUV FM (looove, how that sounds) there was no shortage of discussion on the days events or those stories making the news (Koffi Annan’s return, a peaceful by-election, the first time in eight years that an opposition party member has stepped inside the president’s castle, and whether or not Ghanaian men want or should be entitled to paternity benefits.) There are obviously many differences between CBC Yukon’s newsroom and LUV FM, the similarities are in the passion of the people (those who showed up) for radio journalism. Have played the “I work for LUV FM” card with taxi drivers and folks we’ve met on the street, to much critical acclaim. Journalism is considered to be in a bit of a “golden age” here. For the first time ever reporters are free to say, write and think what they like and this, I’m learning is both beneficial and rife with controversy. Somehow it’s not acceptable to ask the president a direct, hard hitting question, but yet printing a photo of a dead traffic accident victim or a man whose testicles have enlarged down to his knees because of a hernia is.

Am loving having a place to call home. It’s a modest room, but full of all that we need. We fall asleep to the beat of frogs croaking and the reggae music from the radio downstairs and wake to the sounds of construction (the place where we’re staying is in a constant state of “sprucing up” in preparation for the 2008 African Nations Cup.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

I Must Take Issue With This Open Sewer Concept

January 23, 2007

Kumasi, Ghana

Now, people will tell you that I’m not the most hygienic person in the world. I’ve spent days on end in the forest without bathing. I’ve been known to keep a “recycling” pile of pizza boxes in the corner of the kitchen until it becomes a nest of ants. I once stood barefoot in a public latrine of questionable character, whilst taking a whiz. And the five-second rules applies, even in Africa. In general, germs do not frighten me. But I must take issue with this African tendency towards open sewers running alongside every street.

Pardon me, they are not sewers per se; they are storm drains, according to a recent news article in one of the local papers. It seems there’s a national push on to clean the “filth” that routinely collects in these drains.

Well, smack me with a bucket of feces and call me cholera: that is a capital idea.

Call the infrastructure what you will, the name won’t change the fact that streams of grey sludge carrying more bacteria than a field of fetid corpses wash perpetually down deep gutters on either side of roadways in urban Ghana, on a daily basis. It won’t change the fact that people can and do throw anything and everything, organic and non, into these trenches; that ‘water’ from the squalid market streets runs into them; that, men unbuckle and women squat to pee in them, albeit fleetingly; or that livestock — chickens, mostly — root around in them, looking for some tasty morsel, and in all likelihood depositing a few of their own.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, ‘Wee, another colonial wanker from the West pooh-poohing living standards in the developing world.’ (Pun most definitely intended).

Well, I’ll have you know I once watched a child drop a deuce outside his front door in Lhasa, Tibet. I also saw an old Tibetan man hike his robes up around his hips and do the same thing into a gutter. On both those occasions I refrained from taking photographs — that would be rude — but I did watch out the corner of my eye with a morbid fascination that was stronger than my respect for cultural propriety. No big deal: you gotta go, you gotta go. The call of nature can claim us all, at any time and in unusual places. It was interesting to see how publicly they do it on the other side of the planet.

What I saw on my first day in Kumasi made my stomach heave, and I could not watch.

It was high noon; it was hot. We had arrived the previous evening after a sweaty six-hour bus ride from Accra. We left the hotel and rounded the corner at the bottom of the street, to find the banks and the market, and there they were: two of them, both boys, both around six years old, crouched down next to the drains. They were in up to their elbows, fishing around in the grey filth for God knows what. One of them was using a flip-flop as a scoop, splashing the scummy water about and digging in the hideous debris that lay beneath the surface. I have to assume the other one was using his fingernails. They were both splattered head to foot with blotches of the rotting muck of civilization, drying in the noonday heat.

A better journalist would have stopped and asked what they were about, but I had to get out of there. It was a crowded street; who knows if their parents were nearby, or aware that their sons were rooting through a river of crap. I can’t imagine what they were looking for. Very few material things in this world would be worth that kind of exposure, without the protection of some kind of glove, or space suit. G.

The Bug Net is Vital

January 21
Woke to a mosquito whining in my ear and thought for a moment I was in Brackley Beach, PEI. We cursed ourselves for foolishly forgetting to put the mosquito net up before bed and then we were silently thankful for being awake to hear the Muslim chanting near where we’re staying. Was awoken again several hours later by a deep, steady drum beat accompanying Christian gospel songs, and the occasional crow from a rooster. What a morning welcome to this lively, throbbing city! We ventured into the market by foot today while folks were in church and we were able to walk with relative ease. Bought five tomatoes for 5000 cedis, two cakes for four thousand cedis and a plantain that I desperately wanted to be a banana for two thousand cedis. Am in awe of how well chickens transport; saw two being carried in a garbage bag, beaks pointing through the plastic, several sitting in baskets just steps from the traffic and others being loaded with surprisingly little squawking into taxis. T.

Arrival in Kumasi

January 20
Arrived in Kumasi earlier today by bus. It’s a five hour journey and a trip through a more rural part of Ghana. Was reminded again of contrasts; brilliant purple flower petals littering down upon heaps of smoldering garbage, urban goats scouring the bare ground for a blade of grass and me high above in a protected bus (I say protected because of all the vendors one encounters through open windows when leaving Accra and entering neighbouring communities and cities.) In Kotongo I saw the sun for the first time since arriving in Ghana. The smog was and is so thick during certain parts of the day, the fumes from the piles of burning garbage acrid and dense. Although tired from the previous night’s party (JHR country director turned 30) I wasn’t able to sleep as images of life in rural West Africa rolled by; small children doing the work of grown men, a girl of no more than ten years old running a sewing shop on the side of the Accra-Kumasi highway, rivers so thick with garbage they weren’t flowing, a boy showing off his skewered turtle to anyone who would look and big fronds and trees heavy with mangos. Ate deep fried yams at the rest stop and paid a thousand cedis to use the can.
Arrived in Kumasi just as the Kejetia market was closing for the day. We were jam packed between cars, chickens and housewares. What a market! Feels good to be where we’ll be calling home for the next eight months. T.

Arrival in Accra

January 19


Am overwhelmed…by the volume of people, the hustle and bustle, the smells of this city where so many people coexist under trees and flapboards, selling goods while others practice urban herding of goats and sheep. Am overwhelmed by the child who motioned he was hungry outside the shiny, western style grocery store, and the woman whose eyes I’ll never forget carrying oranges on her head. All of it is part of daily life here and everything is for sale. Spent the day with JHR folks talking then touring Accra. A human rights lawyer came to speak to us and briefed us on many human rights issues of current concern in the country. She says there’s much to do and I feel both inspired and shocked by the stories she shared. We were denied entrance to the parking lot of the country’s parliament and spent the afternoon by the Atlantic Ocean instead. T.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Of cell phones and cedis

January 18, 2007

Accra, Ghana

Everyone in Accra, the capital of Ghana, has a cell phone.

When you're traveling for a substantial period of time in West Africa, it seems pointless to go through the ringamarole of trying to figure out the whole telecommunications thing, with public phones and calling cards, what have you. Ghana, at least, is wired for wireless, so it's better to bite the bullet and buy a mobile for 530,000 cedis, at the lowest end.

That's right: 530,000 cedis. The local currency is ridiculously inflated. Cedis are trading right now at 9,200 for $1 American. So when I got $100 American bucks traded yesterday at a foreign exchange office, or "Forex" I got a wad of cash about an inch thick - 920,000 cedis, in 1,000 notes. Today I got more cash, 800,000 cedis. Suddenly, I am a millionaire.

But prices reflect value, so everything is traded in thousands of notes. With my first 1,000 cedis I tipped a guy at the airport who insisted on helping with the luggage. He told me it would not buy anything. "That's all I've got," I replied, and closed the taxi door.

A beer is worth about 8,000 cedis, or about 90 cents Canadian. A meal costs around 30,000 cedis, or $3 US. Tro-tros, which are vans fitted with enough seats for 22 people, cost around 2,000 cedis, or about 20 cents US, depending on how far you're going.

We're getting used to wads of cash, which are the norm in this part of the world. The Bank of Ghana is posting ads in the newspapers about its plan to hack four zeros off the currency come July. The new notes will come in lower denominations: 10,000 cedis will become one cedi, 50,000 will become five, etc. A million cedis will become 100. I'll be a millionaire no longer. G.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Codgers on the line

Tuesday January 16, 2007

Heathrow Airport, London

When we got off the flight from Toronto at Heathrow we were instantly dismayed. There were probably 80 people waiting in a queue (note the British lingo) for no apparent reason other than to enter Terminal 4, where we were also destined, or doomed, to go. Then we stepped round a doorway to get in line and saw several hundred more travelers waiting. I laughed out loud, as is my wont when helpless, absurd situations arise. It took a couple of minutes to walk all the way to the back of the line, and it kept growing after we got on. I stepped out at one point and looked back and forth; I would wager 1,000 people were waiting. A girl with a North American accent wondered aloud if this was hell.

Then the jockeying began. I saw this old codger come walking up the line, his mouth gaping a bit in disbelief, as everyone’s did when they saw this monstrosity. He seemed confused – seemed, I say, because after he got over his whinging and trudged to the back of the line, he returned with a woman – his wife, I think -- and somehow stopped beside us, to talk to the Dutch woman who we were following.

I know a graft when I see one, so I angled my body between the interlopers and the queue, using not-so-subtle body language to let them know I was hip, I knew what was going down and I wasn’t born yesterday.

But I was Canadian. Maybe they could smell it. They were Americans, white folks from the mid-West by the sounds of their accents. Their intentions were obvious to everyone standing nearby. Initially the codger wanted to know if he would be allowed to bring the little bottles of cheap white wine he had pinched from the plane (British Airways hands the grape juice out in 500 ml bottles, if you didn’t know!). “Will they make me throw this out?” How the hell should we know, was the answer he should have gotten, and I must say that at 7 a.m. in the longest lineup in the history of Heathrow, I wasn’t the only one feeling moody. Nobody knew what we were standing in line for; presumably security, so yes, in this day and age of air travel “they” will likely confiscate your wine, and will likely drink it with their friends later on. To the Dutch woman’s immense credit, she did not lambaste the codger — far too polite for that — but she did mention that we had all had to go to the back of the line at one point, and there was nothing for it.

We moved forward, actually fairly quickly. The interlopers were complaining that they had gone back and forth and did not know where they were to be, which was bogus, because officials would periodically walk by hollering about the lineup being for Terminal 4 only. The codger and his wife had it figured out all right. The moment of truth came in the form of a little fenceline, you know, that fat elastic tape the airport runs between waist high standards, to separate us all into functional, flowing rows like mice following a trail of cheese nibs, all the way to the X-ray machine. The codger’s wife, a bleached blonde doing a better job of preserving the illusion of youth than her husband, let the Dutch woman pas through the opening of the taped-off area, and cut in, right in front of us. “Bert!” she hissed at the codger, who was staring down the line at something with his mouth hanging open.

I stared at her. It was so obvious. The people behind us knew what was going on too, we all knew it. Everyone was tired too, and irritable, not falling for the disoriented senior bit and not apt to be forgiving for this transgression of etiquette. I stared at her, but she just looked past me, at Bert. Finally I turned to Bert, stepped aside a half-step and said, loudly, “Would you like to come in here, sir?” That got Bert’s attention. He stepped in, and offered me a mini-bottle of Chardonnay. I declined, and started taking notes.

The airline queue is the great equalizer, the one situation where gender and race and creed and even age don’t matter; everyone is treated the same. You’re old? So are a dozen other people standing behind you. You’ve got a flight to catch? So does everyone else. Yours is right away? So was the Dutch woman’s, and you didn’t see her cutting in line. One would hope that a pregnant woman might get different treatment in the airport queue, but I didn’t see any pregnant women at the Heathrow line, and so can’t confirm.

Is it being Canadian that prompted my cynically polite tolerance? Or was I just too tired to fight? In my analysis, it was thus: the antagonism that would have been necessary to tell this old couple to go to the back of the line was not worth the negative vibe it would have brought to me, at that moment, after seven hours on a plane and forty minutes in a lineup.

But not twice, dammit. A moment later a trio of small elderly Indian women dressed in saris tried to cut in just behind us. The first one went to pass me, perhaps thinking her diminutive stature was small enough to slip beneath my radar. I threw and elbow out there and she made some sounds about having a plane to catch. I shook my head and said, loudly, that we had just let the people in front of us in line and we weren’t about to do it again. The fellow behind us wasn’t having any either; if their situation was urgent, he said, they should locate an official, and not simply try cutting in line.

They wound up just behind him, though, and I’ve no reason to think the folks who did let the Indian women jump the queue were Canadian or any other nationality. They were just people like me, willing to let the rules get bent out of either sympathy or a desire to avoid confrontation, sine we are unavoidably all in this together. G.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Day One (or Day 46...)

January 15, 2007

After six weeks of family time, visiting with friends and a note pad filled with to do lists I think we're finally ready to fly to Africa! Well, as ready as a first time traveler to Africa can be. We've filled our heads and our hearts with information, with statistics, with knowledge about the culture and the people and then we've emptied our minds, erased the expectation (as much as we can; countering anticipation with an open mind of what awaits).

The time to read is over, the time to live out our latest dream is upon us.

Have spent final few hours packing, catching up with friends and family, (thank you to all of you who have been so supportive in our times of self doubt and what-the-hell-are-we-doing phase) and soaking in sights, sounds and smells of the big city. Toronto has never seemed so alive to me.

So here we are...our debut if you will, Whitehorse to West africa.

From where we've come to where we're going, we welcome you to our blog and do hope you can follow along.


It's a grey morning in Toronto, wet snow off Lake Ontario freezing to streets and buildings. The last six weeks have been a whirlwind -- driving out of Whitehorse to Calgary, flying to Chicago and Halifax, then another drive to Toronto, with visits with friends and family along the way. But the bigger journey has not yet begun. In a few hours we'll get on the Spadina streetcar with a backpack each, to ride the TTC out to Pearson airport. Then a layover in London, and then Accra, the capital of Ghana, in West Africa.

We like life best when it's full of contrasts. Too much similarity dulls the senses, I find, hence the desire to do things like this. You can't get much different than sub-Arctic to sub-Sahara in the dead of winter. We have some idea of what to expect, but none of what we'll find. Life is like that, if you want it to be. G.