Saturday, August 30, 2008

$100,000 and a Bottle of Schnapps - Ghana Day 7

While my previous Ghana posts were written while in Ghana, this last set is being written a good week and a half after the fact, which is to say I've probably forgotten everything that happened and will just make some stuff up. Actually, I took some notes each day to try and make this easier and to capture some things I wanted to mention.

Sunday morning was our last meal at the hotel. Breakfast was some dry french toast, then the return of the cute spreadable cheeses because they were out of jam. I put some cheese on the french toast - it was edible.

We loaded up our luggage and got in the bus. Our driver drove like a crazy man, honking the horn the whole way and creating his own lane through the traffic. It was equal parts exhilirating and frightening. The driver said that people would assume we were a UN delegation. Not sure we deserved that kind of priviledge, but it got us to church on time. One of our group shot some video and put it on YouTube. It doesn't quite convey the speed at which this was happening, but it's something. I've embedded that video below, but the same person (and I'm not sure who it is?) has also posted some other videos from our trip. Click here to browse them.

Church started on time, which was surprising, and it wasn't long before a full-on dance party out, which was fun to see and hear, though I'm not so much for participating in dance parties myself. There was some singing, some scripture, Pastor Jeff from our group preached a short sermon in which his attempts at humor were completely disregarded. AC sat up front with the pastors. There was a very good "singing band" that did 2 or 3 songs. We presented the church with some banners, and they presented us with some outfits. The girls had been measured a few nights before and knew something was coming, and if I recall correctly it was a top and a separate skirt.

The church has their own fabric: with a drawing of the church and their logo.
In writing this I realized I had never tried mine on. I'm surprised how well it fits. The men also got cufflinks with the same logo.
At the end of the church service, the congregation broke into "birthday groups", in which you meet briefly with other people who were born on the same day of the week as yourself. This wasn't a total surprise to me as earlier in the week I had been asked by a few different people what day of the week I had been born on. I have no clue and tried to explain that in the US it's just not an item of concern. In Ghana though, it's a pretty big deal. I'm a little fuzzy on the details, but many people are named, at least in part, after this day (the whole naming system in Ghana is very complicated and they all have very long names). So, for purposes of church I just picked a group, and pretty much all they did in these groups was take an offering. I'm not sure for what.
So that was the end of church and then we were served lunch, which was another large buffet similar to the one they had served us a few nights earlier. One item we hadn't seen before resembled hush puppies, but may have been made from yams. There was also a salad that had some beans and hard boiled eggs in it, as well as the customary fried chicken, rices, etc...They also gave us a very good fruit drink (bottled).
While lunch was being served Pastor Clint had the unenviable job of assigning us all to host families that we would stay with for the rest of the trip. He initially assigned AC and I to a family, but then AC was claimed by one of the pastors that had taken a liking to him, and I was re-paired with Brandon, which was fine. My biggest fear was going somewhere alone. Many of the men in the service had been wearing toga-like outfits, and the man we went home with, a tall older gentleman named Yeow (sp?), was one of them. We got into his truck and drove about 15-20 minutes to a very nice house in the city. We pulled up outside a fenced & gated residence; he honked his horn and one of his nieces, nephews, or grandchildren came out and opened the gate. The front yard had a nice lawn with beautiful plants and flowers, and a porch with some deck chairs, 2 dogs, and some chickens running around. We were ushered inside and introduced to his wife Sarah, a very nice woman who walks with a cane (we later found out she had had some surgery). We put our luggage in our room, which was a simple room with 2 beds. Mine was much more comfortable than the hotel bed. We made polite conversation for awhile until our host suggested we take some time to rest (while they ate their lunch).
Yeow and Sarah were very friendly, but we weren't given a tour of the house, shown where the bathroom was, or introduced to the teenagers that we kept running into (nieces, nephews and grandchildren). We weren't completely ignored, but weren't fawned over either.
After resting for a couple hours (I napped), Yeow informed us that he had to go to a meeting and we could come if we wanted. As best I could understand, it was a town council meeting for the village Yeow came from, in which he was still and elder. Yeow was a retired government electrical engineer, currently running a consulting business, and he helps the village with various public works type projects. I was somewhat enthused about the opportunity to go the meeting, though I'm not sure Brandon shared my zeal. We drove to the center of Accra, which we hadn't seen yet, to a hotel/conference center where we went into a small conference room. Two men were seated at a table up front and maybe 20 or so people were in the "audience". We were introduced and given seats in the front row, while Yeow joined the 2 men at the table. I was asked to say a few words. I made some comment about greetings from Presbytery of Chicago and the kindness of our host. I was brief.
The meeting opened in prayer, which surprised me a bit. One of the men up front was clearly the chief, and ran the meeting. The other man seemed to be the secretary, taking some notes and struggling to stay awake at points. Yeow was mostly silent and never laughed when the chief was making some kind of joke. He was deferred to occasionally. The meeting was mostly conducted in Twi, with some English woven in and out. They all had a tiny yellow booklet which was apparently the town constitution, which they were in the process of revising. This day's meeting concerned death benefits, I think to family members of the city council. This was confusing because they kept speaking in terms of millions of Cedis (Ghana's currency), which we understood to have an exchange rate of about 1:1 US. I was ready to sign-up for the town council. At one point Brandon and I are fairly certain we heard one death benefit as "$100,000 and a bottle of Schnapps". We both heard this twice, so we're pretty sure that's what they said. After the meeting Yeow clarified the monetary issue - Ghana recently revalued their money, and they were speaking in terms of the old currency, which was more like 10,000:1 US, so they were really talking about hundreds and thousands of dollars, not millions. We didn't ask about the Schnapps.
When we got back to the house we were given dinner. We ate with Yeow and were served by the children, who seemed to do most of the work around the place. I was excited to see something that looked like a fritter, but disappointed when I found out it was "yam cakes". Not horrible, but I didn't ask for the recipe to take home either. There was also white rice, a cabbage/carrot/green pepper mix, and some shredded beef in a greasy red sauce that had a very fishy taste to it. Dessert was chocolate chip ice cream that had some kind of yellow stuff in it we weren't able to identify, but was pretty good.
After dinner we sat and talked and watched TV with Yeow, Sarah, and one of their older nephews who didn't seem to have to do any of the housework. Occasionally the younger ones would sit down, but back at the dining table, away from us adults. There was news on the television (in English), then a replay of a large political rally that had taken place earlier that day or the day before. Ghana has elections in December and I believe the rally was for the encumbent party. There were many celebrities there and it greatly resembled an American political rally.
We went to bed pretty early.
Sorry this is so darn long.

Life in A College Town

I was ready to enjoy my favorite brunch this morning at Dixie Kitchen, my favorite Evanston restaurant. Wanting to read I was a little grouchy about being seated right against a group of four college students when there was plenty of room elsewhere, but was relieved when I saw they were paying their bill as I was sitting down. Got to enjoy a mostly peaceful breakfast until another group was seated at that table and I looked over and it really looked like the same people who had been there before. I then heard them explain that upon leaving the restaurant they had sought a place to go drinking (it was about 10:15am when they left) and, surprise surprise, couldn't find anywhere open at that time, so they returned to Dixie Kitchen, which was ready and willing to accomodate their early morning alcohol needs. Sounded like they were in town for the NW football game, possibly with the other team as they didn't seem to know the area very well. I did my best to block out their fascinating discussion of which lite beer they like best...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Ghana Recap - Day Six

So if these posts seem matter of fact and less than reflective, it's due to the fact that they are written late after long days and the internet connection is insufferable, so by the time I get things loaded to where I can blog, I'm out of patience.

Breakfast this morning was the usual - eggs, toast, rice porridge. The only new twist was some pineapple jam that was surprisingly good.

We departed early for our day out to the coast. Our driver was in downright crazy mode, creating his own lane and pushing everyone out of the way. Kind of fun and scary. After a few hours of driving we arrived at Kukum National Park for what would be a brief tour of a rainforest. We took a short walk through a pretty forest up to a "canopy walk" which involved a short walk across two wobbly rope bridges high up in the trees. It was scary but the view was pretty. We didn't see much in the way of wildlife - a crazy long worm, and a pretty butterfly or two, but none of the elephants or monkeys we were told were around.

From there we drove to a nearby hotel for lunch. The hotel restaurant was surrounded by water and there were a few crocodiles roaming around. The food was the usual rices and meats. The only new additions were some beans, which were very good, and some excellent sangria. They had a large screen on which they were projecting an Olympic basketball game in which the US was slaughtering Spain. 

From there we went to Elmira Castle, which is a castle right on the coast built by the portugese in the 1400s as a trading outpost. It quickly became the center of the trans-atlantic slave trade, with slaves being held in horrible dungeons for months before being shipped out. Later the dutch took it over. Now it is a fairly well preserved reminder of our horrible past. A sobering, important experience.

From there it was time to make the long drive back to our hotel. Tonight is our last night in the hotel. Tomorrow we go to church and then we'll be parceled out to host families for our last 3 nights. I'm quite apprehensive about this. This may be the last time I'm able to blog before coming home, as I have no idea whether my host home will be internet capable, but am guessing probably not.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ghana Recap - Day Five

 Today started as the others have with breakfast at the hotel (scrambled eggs with some onions, and a slightly different, thicker, oddly tasting toast).

When we arrived at the worksite some of us wandered over to a few nearby villages different from the one we visited yesterday. More huts, children, animals, pictures taken. In the first village they told us we were the first white people to ever visit. We saw one villages' well, which is dry when there isn't enough rain. One village had a large corn harvest neatly stacked up, and some cucumber bushes (trees?) which I had never seen before and had the hugest leaves I think I'd ever seen.

Back at the work site we moved some bricks, but it was more of mostly being unneeded. We played with the kids - baseball, soccer, crafts. Rev. Clint organized a bit of a passion play in which AC got to play Jesus.

This was our last day on this worksite, so there were many tears and goodbyes as we headed back to the hotel for lunch (more of the same, but some good mango was a new addition). We cleaned up and got ready to head to the Keneshie Presbyterian Church for the first time. While we were waiting to leave it rained considerably and another group of Americans arrived at the hotel - "Engineers Without Borders" from Univ. Wisconsin Platteville. The electricity was out when they arrived, but their electrical engineer refused to get involved. 

It was an hour long ride to the church with their ridiculous traffic here, but it was interesting to see some other parts of the city. We passed a bad accident that had apparently involved a coke truck - there were hundreds of smashed coke bottles all over the ground.

The church is large, modern looking, and quite beautiful. The Manse is next door and also quite large and modern. We were fed a large dinner outside - there was green salad, some kind of potatoes which I decided was a version of potato salad, fish, some excellent chicken, the usual rices, some tomatoey beef, and a fish soup I didn't try. Dessert was an unexpected surprise - very rich vanilla ice cream with pound cake, watermelon, mango, pineapple, and papaya.

After a leisurely dinner we were brought into the sanctuary. I was a little unclear of what our purpose was. I thought we were going to be part of some regular youth service, but it was more of a presentation for our sakes. There was some great dancing and singing. The bulk of it was an hour long dramatic play, in English, but almost indecipherable due to the combination of accents and bad PA. I was tired which made it harder to focus on what was being said. After the play ended and there were a few more dances, AC was asked to come up and close in prayer. 

Tomorrow we're off for some sightseeing.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ghana Recap - Day Four

Today began a bit earlier than the previous day. Breakfast was some type of french toast, some tiny sausages, and rice porridge. The french toast was okay with some strawberry jelly. I don't care much for white rice so I don't touch the porridge, and I took one bite of the sausage but didn't care for it. We were encouraged to bring lots of snacks on the trip, and these come in handy this morning. Coffee here is what I expected - powdered Nescafe, which is what passes for coffee in much of the world. I had a cup yesterday, and it is passable if I think of it as a wholly different beverage than coffee, but this morning I didn't see any value to it. I had considered brining my french press and some ground coffee, but though better of it.

We drove to the work site again and were immediately diverted to walk down to the village, where the chief gave us a tour. Everyone had their cameras ready and it felt very voyeuristic to me, like we were being toured around some kind of oddity that was there for our amazement. It is odd to us, and it is essential that we see how the people were are working for and with live (something many tourists to Africa may never really get to experience), but something about it still feels unsettling to me. I took a few select pictures (I'm not of the "oooh, it's a kitty, in Africa, I better take a picture" type). We were shown an idol they used to worship, which was strange and not what I expected. It was human size carved in stone, seated, dressed, face drawn on, smoking a pipe. Apparently there are others, but we didn't see them.  A young boy was sent up a very tall coconut tree to shake down large green coconuts for us. We were offered sips of the milk, which was sweet and light, and slimy pieces of the flesh, which were good. Pastor J warned us though that it was somewhat of a laxative, so most of us partook cautiously. 

Work this morning was about the same as the previous day. I moved a few bricks then migrated back towards the kids activities. They sang beautifully for us and were led in a craft and a lively soccer game.

Katie got the good news that her luggage was finally at the airport and, as it was actually checked in my name, she and I left for the airport before lunch. We were first driven to the hotel in a jeep with a few Ghanian young adults. We chatted with two young ladies who were journalists of some sort (and connected to the church somehow). A song about Obama came on the radio and they spoke of how much they like him and how Ghana is very in favor of him. The conversation turned to the naming of babies and we were "interviewed" on tape about American customs. Apparently in Ghana the man gets the naming rights and a naming ceremony is held on the 8th day after the birth. These ladies were not real happy about this situation and were fascinated by the more democratic method by which most children are named in the U.S. 

The trip to the airport was long through much very slow traffic. Vendors were all along the rode, coming up to our car to hawk their goods. We saw people selling bread, eggs, peanuts, water (it is common here for purified water to come in plastic pouches), and some things we didn't recognize. We passed some areas where there were very nice looking homes. We got to the airport and fairly easily got the luggage. Upon returning to the hotel, another nap, then dinner.

After dinner AC was in charge of the Vespers service. Katie led an activity, AC read a verse, I initiated a discussion of the days events. We ended by singing the doxology. I then played some Euchre for the first time in ages.

Tomorrow we will go to the "work" site in the morning, then to the large Presbyterian church that is hosting us for the first time.

Ghana Recap - Day Three

Got a good night's sleep and awoke for our first full day in Ghana. Breakfast consisted of toast with spreadable individually wrapped cheese, and some excellent omelettes that would have passed muster in any American restaurant. 

After breakfast we got back on our bus to head out to our work site. I quickly noticed that many businesses had Christian names. For example "Jesus is Lord Drinking and Chop Bar" or "God is Good Block Makers". It wasn't just a few businesses, it was almost all of them. There was one area we went through that almost felt like a Christian theme park. Very strange. We quickly got off the paved road onto the dirt road and through some fairly primitive villages. Chickens and goats roamed free, children waved to us.

Our worksite is to be a school and church for a small village. The children currently walk about 6 miles to school, so there is a great need. Upon our arrival the site consisted of the foundation for much of the building, with most rooms having at least a few layers of bricks. One room had a small big-top like tent over it and we were shepherded in there for a little ceremony with the pastors of the Kaneshie Presbyterian Church (who is sponsoring our visit here), as well as the village chief and religious leader. They had agendas printed up and everything. I ashamedly dozed a bit, though it wasn't too long. 

After the little ceremony, we headed out to work, which started slowly. There were already a large number of locals on the job, and it was pretty clear that we were inessential to the whole operation. Lest we really insert ourselves into the work, we are not called upon to do much. It is mostly mixing cement and laying blocks, and there are only a few shovels and a few trowels, so our scope is limited. The building work is exactly what I spent the summer doing in Tanzania in 1991 with Teen Missions, so this trip is really taking me back. Last night I dreamt of people from that summer.

We were also swarmed by adorable children at the worksite. Kids were held, games were played, balloons were passed out, songs were sung. 

Upon the urgings of the church leaders, we took a short day and headed back to the hotel for lunch and rest. I napped. We had a short Vespers service before dinner, then I read a bit and went to bed. I've been pretty tired.

Some general observations - most people here speak excellent English, and most of the signs around are in English. It is very easy to be a tourist here. The weather is gorgeous. Humid, but breezy, a bit rainy now and then, but not often. The church people have been wonderful, taking great care of us and attending to our every need.

At the end of day three, Katie still has no luggage but has not complained. I loaned her a shirt which I'm not sure she wanted, but she wore anyway.

Ghana Recap - Days One & Two

To label this post Ghana recap is a bit misleading, as day one found us nowhere near Ghana. Monday morning began with me checking our flight status online shortly before I was set to leave the house, and discovering that our flight out of Chicago was cancelled, and eventually discovering that we were rebooked to depart at 4:20pm (rather than 11:30am) and go through Cincinnati then Amsterdam (rather than NYC to Ghana). We phoned Delta and got nowhere, but under considerable pressure from the rest of the group that we were supposed to meet in NYC, we headed to the airport anyway.

We got through ticketing and security okay and were booked standby on an earlier Cincinnati flight. When we walked up to our gate we did a double take as there was the rest of the group who were supposed to already be on their way to NYC. They had been put the plane, sat for 2 hours, then got taken off. We didn't get to talk long though before we were called for standby on an even earlier Cincinnati flight than the one we thought we were standby on. Unsure of what the future held as far as meeting up again with the rest of the group, we got on the Cincinnati flight. The flight was brief and full of anxious people afraid of missing their connections because apparently that flight was getting out late. Upon arrival, a fight almost broke out getting off the plane when someone was blocking the exit, talking to the pilot or flight attendant.

We had a long time in Cincinnati and lingered over a late lunch, looked through shops, had a Chick-Fil-A sandwich. I called Linnea to say goodbye, she just went on an on about some coupon they had for pizza they were getting that night. Often on the phone all she does is describe what she is doing at that exact moment. She did ask if we could walk to Africa.

The flight to Amsterdam was long, but relatively comfortable and uneventful. Twice I tried watching Iron Man on the personal video system, but became too tired and turned it off. I did manage to watch an episode of 30 Rock I'd never seen.

Day Two:

We arrived in mid-morning in rainy Amsterdam. We had to visit the ticketing desk where we were attended to by the most stereotypical looking gorgeous Nordic blondes, who told us we weren't actually booked on the flight to Ghana. They got us on no problem, but this was a bit of a letdown as Delta had told us we were booked in business class. A few moments later the rest of the group arrived, having ended up flying directly from Chicago.

After a few hours in Amsterdam, pretty much sitting doing nothing, we had to go through a long security line to get on the flight. AC and I were seated next to each other in the last row of the plane. I had the aisle seat which had a large metal box attached to the floor in my legroom under the seat in front of me. I was miserable. I don't even understand how they can sell that seat. I asked the flight attendant if there was anywhere I could move to and she thought not. Sometime later she came back and told me there was one aisle seat farther up in the plane. I sat next to a Ghanian woman who sang quietly for much of the trip. I managed to watch all of Dan in Real Life which was okay, and dozed on and off, listening to some music. I had a headache most of the trip due to dehydration and too much air conditioning.

We arrived in Accra, Ghana and exited the plane onto the tarmac, which was a little humid, but not too hot. Katie's luggage did not arrive, so we were there quite some time trying to work that out. Next was a fairly long bus ride to our hotel, on which I quietly took in the sights for awhile before falling asleep. We didn't get a very good sense of the city in the dark that night.

Our hotel is amazing and completely unexpected. It's kind of a closed in compound. There are a variety of rooms with most of us having 2 people in a room with 2 beds and a private bath. Some have air conditioning, but ours does not and is plenty cool with a ceiling fan. We pretty much have the place taken over and the "restaurant" is more or less our personal chefs. We ate dinner that first night before heading off to bed. Dinner consisted of some Uncle Ben's type long grain rice with some onions and seasonings, fried chicken, some kind of beef with onions and gravy, salad, and delicious fried plantains. Other lunches and dinners here have been slight variations on those dishes. It's all fairly good.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Makes My Brain Hurt

I never keep water on my nightstand because I'm afraid of spilling it. Last night, for some reason, I put a big full glass of water on my nightstand for no good reason. I wasn't particularly thirsty, it wasn't a thought-out reasoned exception to the rule, I just did it. Every night I climb into bed, remove my glasses, and with reckless abandon place them on my nightstand. I can afford to do it recklessly because I don't keep water on my nightstand. Well, you can see where this is going.

What hurts my brain though is that I don't keep water on my nightstand because I'm afraid I'll spill it, but the only reason I spilled it is because I don't usually keep water on my nightstand. A catch-22 I suppose (which reminds me I've been meaning to place that book on my "to read" list).