Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hack, hack...

May 31

Africa part two was heralded in with much fanfare (as G described in detail) with veritable trumpets from the toilet, if you will. I now have joined this chorus and am wallowing in sickness, sweat and I daresay a healthy dose of self pity. To be frank (as we always are with our faithful blog readers), the grand adventure has lost its lustre, and is now coated with a thick layer of mucus.

Hack. Hack. Hack.

The clogged gutters, the choked motorways with cars sputtering black smoke and the perpetual roadside garbage barbeques have made breathing more difficult now that I have a steady, hack-filled cough also swimming about in my chest.

And so now I’m left to literally expel all that doesn’t belong in my body, this shrine of mine that I’ve carried from northern climes to a part of the world that I’m not convinced it can live in for extended periods of time.

Perhaps it’s because unidentifiable street meat is just so damn good and the bag water so cheap and does it really matter if there’s no running water to wash my hands with after I blow the trumpets again, that I find myself in this situation.

As I drink from a plastic bag containing cold ginger water and reach for my cough syrup consisting of plant mucus from Kenya, I muse about the healing powers of sorcerers, witches, wizards and traditional herbalists. Ghanaians have traditional cures for all sorts of ailments. Just last week an herbalist in Kumasi claimed he concocted a cure for HIV/AIDS.

And then there’s the strange and enticing world of witchcraft; which banishes those suspected of being witches (always women) from their communities and drives people I’ve met into sobs of tears fearing the witches will now take their life since they also took the life of a loved one. Despite Christianity’s firm grip on the minds and souls of Ghanaians, many mix a pinch of sorcery into their religious tonic, careful to not rouse the dead or offend the spirits. I respect what I can’t always see and am enthralled by this unspoken but understood force that emphasizes offerings and rituals rather than presumed sin.

Today, if a witch or a healer were to offer their services I’d gladly accept their offering. Between coughs I’m sure they could do something to rid my body of that part of Africa it can’t withstand and replace it with that which I embrace. (T)

Monday, May 28, 2007

“How do you find Ghana here?”

May 27, 2007

Three guys I had never seen before noticed an oboroni in the cook shack and came to investigate.

They were younger guys, students in their early 20s. We’d never met, but they’d surely seen other white people staying at the Silver Ring Guest House from time to time. They were friendly, and a little drunk. They asked me if I always serve myself, which might have been a dig for doing slave work when I could get the houseboys or, better, a woman to cook for me. One of them wanted some bacon, but it was still raw in the pan so I was able to dissuade him.

At first they wanted to talk football. I don’t follow the European Champions League that closely and so wasn’t able to commit to either Liverpool or AC Milan. I did slag David Beckham though.

Then came the question, as it always does from Ghanaians who are politely curious about foreigners in their country: “How do you find it in Ghana here?”

I’ve wrestled with this question a lot lately, halfway through our stint in Africa. There are several factors to be juggled in the answering.

First of all, the unavoidable: I’m Canadian; I’m polite. Ghana is nice. How is it nice? The people are very nice to me (I omit the fact that they’re not always nice to each other). Ghanaians are very welcoming and hospitable; that much I can conscionably defend as truth.

Second of all, the obvious: there are some problems with life in Ghana. Oh? Like what? Like the electricity shortage. I have a hard time understanding how businesses can survive with frequent unscheduled power outages. And of course that leads to other problems. Like what? Like the food poisoning I suffered last weekend that made me want to die. It’s hard to keep perishables, like meat, safe to eat when refrigeration is so unreliable, and that leads to public health concerns, etc.

Thirdly, the not-so-obvious and possibly avoidable, which I did not explain to the Ghanaians: my personality is in a clash over Africa. It’s a fight, a duel, a debate within my intellect.

On the one side, my sympathetic nature that extends compassion to all less fortunate people and is laden with a healthy dose of shame for the atrocities that my Anglo ancestors committed on this continent wants to focus on the best aspects of Africa and African society; to ignore or at least minimize the shitty parts and emphasize that which holds potential for humanity.

Weighed against that is my cold practicality that refuses to be cajoled into glossing over the voluminous nasty bits of African life and insists on brutal, simplified truth.

I’ve only just today come to the realization that my complaints about life in Africa, which are various and sundry and shall be listed (somewhat) forthwith, are products of my own negativity. I’m seeing things in an unfavourable light because that is how I choose to see them. So be it: I take full responsibility — or blame — for my impressions, negative or positive, of life anywhere on this planet, and I do not ask anyone’s indulgence or forgiveness. I can only be honest with myself about my own experience. To wit…

There are three aspects of this African life that must be scrutinized and criticized if we want to get to the meat of “how I find Ghana here”: Ghana the land, Ghanaians the people, and Ghana for tourists (because, let’s face it, that’s what I am).

LAND: Let’s pretend I’ve already written some flowery phrases about how beautiful Africa can be. Can be, when glimpsed from afar. Up close it’s hot, smoggy and clogged with garbage.

PEOPLE: I’m not partial to being a gawked-at racial oddity seen primarily as a conduit to material prosperity by an ultra-religious culture that lacks curiosity, insists on a monetary incentive to get anything done and barely pretends to the tenets of social equality, clinging instead to outdated feudal hierarchy that makes sure its poorest, least fortunate members stay right where they are.

TOURISTS: The hardest part about travel in Africa is that there is no escape from Africa. It is everywhere. Africa is not just the beaches and the jungle and the markets in the street that everyone wants to visit; it’s also the dogged taxi and its crazy driver in traffic jams on broken roads where street vendors shove their wares through the windows; it’s the hotel without power or water but plenty of bedbugs, some of which bear diseases that can kill you; it’s risky food and water at every meal, every day. African heat does not abate; African street grime does not get washed off; African food does not become more palatable; African sleep does not come easy. Africa is everywhere, always. There is nowhere that is not-Africa, and so no real relief from these trials, beyond taking a de-worming pill every few months.

And let’s face it, it is a trial, for me. I speak only for myself. This so-called trial is nothing compared to what the Africans themselves live through, I know, and I’m disgusted with myself, complaining like this, but it’s the truth, it’s how I feel. Africa sucks.

Or maybe after four months I’m just tired of being a tourist.

Of course, I didn’t say any of that to my three new friends. In conversation with Ghanaians I always emphasize the positive – unless someone really wants to know what I think. I’ve got a couple of Ghanaian friends well enough known to share these thoughts with, and they’ve helped build these impressions with their candor about conditions of life in Africa. But I don’t dump all this on strangers. That would be rude.

The boys said they were pleased to meet me and were glad that I was enjoying Ghana. I thanked them, and said I hoped we’d meet again.

And I do. G.

Monday, May 21, 2007

What’s a brother gotta do to kill some stomach parasites?

May 20, 2007

A sudden gut spasm jolted him from slumber in the dead of a silent night. He sat up; the spasm ricocheted through his bowel like a steel spring being slowly tightened. With a gasp he lurched forward, almost shredding the mosquito net that surrounded the bed before he found an opening in the filmy curtain and crawled through. His naked feet hit the floor and he slumped against the wall with one hand while the other clutched his belly, desperate to keep lodged a liquid torrent that was demanding sudden, imminent release.

What followed was not pretty. Thankfully, our hero made it in time, and won the ensuing Battle of the Throne, though not the overall War of The Rhia. Sleep proved impossible throughout the night for the stricken man and his worried lass, who could only cringe at the weird, horrifying sounds that emanated periodically from behind the closed bathroom door.

It wasn’t until past dawn that the enemy suddenly reversed direction and came surging upward from beneath a layer of partially digested pasta and Italian sausage – the like of which the man loved once, but may never stomach again. As daylight grew she ministered to him as he languished, shivering beneath bedsheets in the growing African heat that was nothing compared to the fever building within his twisted body. When he proved unable to hold down even water she helped him dress, and they made their way by taxi to the centre of town, to the blood lab.

He thrust their way wordlessly past the merciless street merchants hawking their wares on a Saturday morn outside the clinic entrance. Inside the technicians drew blood from his thumb; later, no malaria parasites were to be found. Crestfallen, unsure, the couple returned to their sanctuary, where sleep came in fits, interrupted by moments of liquid desperation throughout the afternoon.

By evening the fever broke; the torrents ceased, his body being emptied of its moisture. Again he tried drinking water, with success; oatcakes too stayed down, then vegetable soup. “It must have been the meat pie I bought from that street vendor,” he told her.” She advised caution, and vigilance.

They slept peacefully that night, the parasites seemingly defeated… or were they playing possum, merely biding time until his next attempt at a solid meal? (G)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

This is as close to liquid hot magma as I want to get

Mount Cameroon
May 2

It’s been seven years since this volcano erupted and that’s a good thing, because we wouldn’t be able to hike on the cooled lava like this if it had come spilling out of the earth much more recently. But we can’t ignore the fact that Mount Cameroon either exploded or erupted in 1998 and 1999 and again in 2000, which could mean another eruption is due soon; as in, at any moment, even as we pick our way around old craters and across ancient lava flows.

One thing is certain, however: this is as close to the fiery innards of Mother Earth as I ever want to get.

Spatially we’re not that close, I know. The bubbling magma is kilometres below our feet, through the Earth’s thick crust. The heat emanating from this black volcanic desert is more likely from the equatorial sun, not the planet’s superheated bowels.

Still, these pock-mark craters, like huge exploded zits, are a bit disconcerting: in 1999 they spewed inferno down the mountain, forcing the local town of Limbe to evacuate, and stopping just when it reached the town’s outer asphalt road at the volcano’s base.

Let’s move on.

Temporally we’re not that close to the burning either. The red tongues of magma last flowed seven years ago; it’s perfectly fine to walk upon them now, even pick up samples. Best to avoid the parts that are still smoking, though. And if the wind changes, mind the gaseous sulphur; too much of that in the nostrils could knock you down.

Yes, on the time-space continuum we’re quite safe; there’s lots of distance, both ways, between us and a glowing vaporization akin to biblical punishment.

But you see, that’s part of any concern one carry with one’s luggage when one spends three days trekking across an active volcano: it’s been long enough, maybe too long, since Mount Cameroon unleashed its hidden apocalypse. The molten Earth will rise again, count on it — and we’d best be off these slopes at that time.

Onward ho. Let’s get down. Last one to the treeline, where, in the event of an eruption, a living creature might have a chance of escape through the barrier of rainforest, is a rotten, sulphuric egg. G.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Of course, you will be sharing sleeping space with Ratus ratus

Mount Cameroon
May 1

Welcome to Hut Two. Been a long day, no doubt — eight hours, all up, weaving through tropical rainforest and across alpine savanna, into the clouds that shroud this mountain ridge. When the mists part… there… you can see tomorrow’s task. That’s the next ridge, where Hut Three is. Beyond that — you can’t see — is the summit ridge. And then the long way down. Tomorrow is the toughest day, so you’d best rest your weary legs, eat a hearty meal and get good night’s sleep.

Of course, you will have company tonight. Presumably veteran hikers like you — the sort who would travel halfway round the world to spend three days trekking up and down an equatorial volcano — have slept with rats before.

No? What, no rats in Canada? But it’s the most common, worldwide rodent. Ahh, squirrels, we have them too… well, the visitors you will meet tonight on your wooden sleeping platform are sort of like squirrels… big, hairy squirrels… with long naked tails… that don’t climb trees but nest instead in the straw and refuse that clutter the floor of your evening’s tin-roofed chalet.

Come again? What garbage? Oh, you mean all the trash… well, you know, that’s something to think about. Maybe you’re right: if we packed out all the trash — all of it, as you say, which would certainly take a team of porters several trips up and down the mountain — we might be able to get rid of the rats.

But that’s not likely to happen. It’s a pity, but people will just continue to litter. What’s the big deal, anyway? Granted, all this trash makes for a bit of an eyesore, but it’s not really hurting anyone. And the rats can’t hurt you either. Oh, you don’t need to stay up all night, on guard with a flashlight. Don’t be such a white Western wimp.

What’s that? Rabies? Never heard of them. What, like, germs? Everything has germs. Look, relax; the rats won’t bite you. The worst they’ll do is scuttle by your head all night, or crawl over top of you while you try to sleep. But you’ve got a good sleeping bag, donated by the Norwegian army. The rats hardly ever get inside.

Who do you think you are, anyway? Those rats were here before you, and they live here year round. This is their home; you’re just visiting. So pay some respect. And if you feel them start chewing at your toes, just pretend like they’re harmless Canadian squirrels looking for doughnut crumbs, and everything will be all right. G.

Friday, May 11, 2007

This customs official seems to be trying to tell us something

Accra, Ghana
April 26

Now hold on a sec here. Just let’s wait one moment and make sure we’re understanding one another. My French is not perfect and neither is this Togo customs official’s English, so I think we need to clarify what he just said. He kind of mumbled as he was leafing through Trish’s passport, but I thought I heard the words “give” and “me,” and I definitely heard the word “money.”

OK, yep, I heard correct. There’s a penetrating look in his eyes that he’s go zeroed in on mine. “You understand?”

I’m not going to nod, though, or say anything, but indeed I do understand. There’s no need for him to continue his lecture about how lovely it is for us to be able to go on holiday, and how hard it is for a Togolese to apply for a Canadian visa. We get it.

Tomorrow is Togo’s Independence Day and this embassy will be closed and our official friend, “John,” is well aware that in order for us to make our Monday flight out of his country’s capital city, Lome, we need our visas today, now. He’s not being very coy about it, either; planned to knock off a little early this afternoon, he says, get a jump on the celebration. And then we showed up at his office door. The wheels of bureaucracy are going to need a little grease.

But I must admit I’m at a loss. I have no idea how much to give this guy, or how discrete I need to be about giving it. He doesn’t seem to be in any rush, talking in broken English about us and Canada — which he keeps confusing with the United States, reminding us that we are from “the richest country in the world” — and how he’d like to go there some time, want to trade places?

We need a private conference. Fortune brings the chance our way when a couple of Germans who John knows show up at his window. He tells us to wait outside.

Trish and I agree to offer 20,000 cedis each, so 40,000, which is around five bucks. The visas cost about $50 together, so, I don’t know, 10 per cent? I put an extra 10,000 in my shirt pocket with the bribe, just in case.

The Germans come out all smiles and waves and then John comes out too, carrying a big red ledger, but he doesn’t look at us and instead knocks on the door next to his. He goes in there and comes back out a moment later and tells us to follow him back into his office.

There are two ledgers on his desk, the red one, which he keeps closed in front of him, and a purple one which he turns around and holds out to us as he gestures that we should sign. “As you can see, I have done my best,” he says, “and now I am waiting for your reaction.” Our passports are nowhere to be seen.

As Trish signs I lay the 40,000 on his desk. He doesn’t say anything. I sign the ledger and he still doesn’t say anything, or take the money. I add the 10,000. “It is okay,” he says, and opens the red ledger and there are our passports. He hands them back to us. The visas are inside. John opens a desk drawer and picks up the bills and puts them away.

Then he turns into a tour guide, telling us about other places in Togo we really should visit, but we’re not in the mood to make friendly. We got what we wanted and so did he, so when he stands to demonstrate on a large wall map behind his desk we stand too, thank him and take our leave.

There’s no handshake, no apologies and no hard feelings. Indeed we do understand each other — $5 is a pittance, and he’ll need beer money for the festival, I’m sure. But it’s greasy in here. Like the abrupt end of a deal politely gone bad, when you know you’ll never see this person again, and you’re thankful to get away cheap. G.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

From Mount Cameroon

May 1 to May 3
Mount Cameroon

Day one: “You are prepared,” says our guide as he looks up at 4095 metre tall Mount Cameroon peeking through the mist.

I appreciate and am fortified by the statement and its absence of an inflection at the end. “Yes,” I say, flexing calf muscles under my argyle socks pulled up to my knees, strapped into Chilkoot-worthy hiking boots. I am 30 today, I am woman, hear me roar. Peter, my mandatory porter, stands beside me in flip flops.

Day two: Roar reduced to a meow, a soft mewl actually.

Woke to rats by head and spent first four hours of today hiking vertically, bamboo stick firmly clenched in right hand. But ah! Mount Cameroon in all its glory -- as close to the sun as I may get, gloriously windy and now part of my bones and sinewy tendons of my left knee and blistered feet.

We trekked for 10 hours, up, then down summit, into savannah then onto the innards of Mount Cameroon; the earth’s revolt onto and into itself. This mountain is more alive than any other I’ve climbed.

The last crater erupted in 2000, the lava flowed almost to the Atlantic Ocean. Wisps of smoke still escape from gaping craters and bulbuous porous rocks give way to a fine, ashen layer of a sort of volcanic desert. I hobble to thatched hut and sleep soundly.

Day three: I am a sheep, hear me roar, er, bleat. Walked and thought like a
sheep today out of pure necessity. I feel 60, not 30.

Grateful for Nescafe, thick mists, cliff bars from Canada, and lush rainforests. Hiked for eight hours, down, down, down. Arrived in a small village to booming radios, dancing kids and many well wishers saying “a-shay-yeah” (translates to mean sorry, sorry you are sweating, my empathy is with you.) I soaked in their empathy just as freely as I soaked in the lushness of the rainforest. T.

Adventures in Broniland: Part I

April 26, 2007
Accra, Ghana

She was taller than me in her high heels and too much bad red lipstick made her mouth into rubber. Hair dyed an orangey copper. I made the mistake of eye contact as she and her friend made eyes at me from a nearby table. In Africa, from a white man, a meeting of the eyes is all it takes for anyone selling anything to make their pitch. So she did.

She was bigger than me too, clumsy almost as she stood and tottered over, all smiles, hips swinging. Really, too much bad lipstick. Horn-shaped tribal scars on high cheekbones; black marks on black skin beneath eyes gone boozy with liquid courage.

Hello. Hi. How are you? Fine. I’m here with my wife. Smile vanishes, eyes widen, frightened almost. Really? Really. Gesture over my shoulder to the bar where Trish is buying gin tonics. I’m sorry. It’s no problem. She melts back into the crowded bar.

It makes no sense that I’m here; we’re with friends who know Accra for an aperitif and live music, but it’s not for fianc├ęs. The place is half-filled with hookers; Africa-chic whores with fake hair and caked makeup and long false painted fingernails pinching cigarettes. Women smoking are never seen in the ultra-religious Ashanti culture of Kumasi, where we live, but this is an Accra drink hole, and nobody is talking about God.

Instead they’re drinking and smoking and dancing and soon many will be fucking, interracially entwined in a forbidden embrace like the yin-yang, but for a price. I never asked how much.

The other half of the bar patrons are oboronis, foreigners, white people — and they’re mostly men. And most of those men are middle-aged; slobbering geek losers from Europe and North America, with potbellies and receding hairlines and fat wallets, on a break from their jobs and their wives and their lives, wookin’ pa nub they’ve never had, that exotic chocolate love they’d never go for, let alone pay good money for, back home.

After almost four months in Africa I’ve never seen a higher concentration of whites, all of whom shelled 15,000 cedis at the gate of this open-air tavern to get in — not much, only $2, but enough to keep the riff raff who can’t afford highballs and hookers out of Broniland.

Broniland. Those places in West Africa where the oboronis go to get away from West Africa; oases of white familiarity in the desert of black chaos.

We are who we are, and we are not comfortable in Africa. It is not a place of relaxing comfort; it is an endlessly fascinating place, hot, noisy, colourful, smelly, never still. Music and laughter, machines and marketeers. Roasting meat parts and raw sewage and burning garbage. Arguments between complete strangers and loved ones. To step outside the door to your fanned room at the guest house is to invite the waiting blast of oppressive heat and the market culture that will be constantly in your face the moment you set foot in the street; people everywhere, conscious of you and the wealth your skin colour represents, for you would not be here if you did not have money to spend — so spend it on me.

It fascinates but becomes overbearing, a sensory overload, except perhaps for that rare specimen of traveler who becomes so accustomed to Africa that he no longer notices.

The rest of us escape to Broniland from time to time — some more frequently and deeply than others. Those ones truly relish lying greased on a chaise-lounge beside a swimming pool at an expensive hotel patio, walled off from Africa, where the only Africans to be seen are working behind the bar or sweeping up cigarette ash. This African experience has little to do with Africa; to shop at Woolworth’s where the blast of air con at the doorway almost stops the heart, and a basted chicken roast from behind the glass refrigerator door costs more than a month’s wages for a middle-income local. You pay oboroni prices in Broniland — that’s the point.

We discover such places now and then, but we don’t cherish them. No, we duck in for a breath, for the contrast of familiar difference, then head back to the street to wait for the tro-tro crammed with locals, to find meat-on-a-stick and ignore hawkers and try polite refusals against the more persistent beggars.

Broniland is not what we came here for. But we all return there, sooner or later. G.