Monday, May 31, 2010

Empty as a Pocket

We just took a walking tour of a slum near Jonestown, in downtown Accra near the coast. I feel as if I’ve aged ten years in only two hours. Everything I’ve been studying for the past three years has just come alive in the most unimaginable sense. It’s amazing how few tears I saw – laughter was abound. I suppose that’s the culture and the coping mechanism at work. Kids were playing soccer, ping-pong, and foosball, and they showed off karate moves and gave us high-fives when we gave them some biscuits we purchased for them.

The atmosphere was hot at times and cool at others, the living spaces where people sleep (for those that are fortunate enough to sleep indoors) have no ventilation and few comforts of any kind. The people we met were sociable, warm, and welcoming. I talked to a girl who was waiting for her parents support to be able to afford college. She wanted to study Journalism. It made me feel horrible for abandoning that former dream of mine, if only because switching my field of interest was so easy to do. Because of the family I was born to and the place I happened to be born, I can do anything I set my mind to do. The people I met in the slum were all full of potential and dreams, but only lacked the capital needed to achieve them.

There is more to be said about today’s trip, but I’ve only just returned, and wanted to write some immediate reactions. I’m going to need much more time to process the sights, sounds, and smells of walking around an urban slum in the developing world.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Volta Region Day 2: You Could Just Be a Camel

We’re finally back in Accra after spending the weekend in the Volta region on the country’s eastern border with Togo. Last night’s digs were somewhat less than five-star, as our toilet gradually fell apart as the night went on and the room smelled inexplicably of must and urine.

This morning we had a chance conversation with a Ghanaian who told me his friends call him Kabila, because of his resemblance to the President of the DRC. He asked us our opinions of American culture, and more specifically, why we thought America was so powerful. I really had no good answer for the second one aside from military hegemony and economic superpower status. We talked of Ghanaian politics, and the consensus here is that, much like in the United States, there is too much apathy in the population. People don’t know their rights and don’t make demands of their government to deliver on the promises made during election season.

I told him that my biggest concern for Ghana after spending a few days here is sanitation. Not only the roadside toilets, but the refuse burning and the littering. I think it’s accepted only because there really is a lack of a well-developed garbage processing infrastructure here. Well-placed receptacles are few and far between and litter reigns. Not only does this detract from the immense tropical beauty of the country, it poses a very serious human health risk. Before coming here, I really didn’t expect this to strike me as emotionally as it has.

Other emotional moments have largely revolved around babies. Many women carry small children in a sort of backpack/satchel designed for this purpose, and the girls in our group tend to fawn over how cute they are, and they are cute indeed. However, my thoughts usually turn to the future of these children. They’re not going to be toted along by their mothers for long, and the Child Mortality Rate here is still far too high. Life expectancy is rising, but too slowly.

Finally, it seems nobody here is impatient or lazy. Things happen and delays occur, but there doesn’t seem to be the rage you’ll find on the streets of New York. I’ve always hated people that get outraged when a shop sells Pepsi but not Coke, and experiencing a culture like this is going to make that even harder to deal with when I get back home. Economically, everybody is producing and selling something. Small shops flank all the major roads, and women will come up to cars, busses, and taxis in traffic looking to sell anything from souvenirs to live crabs. Despite relative economic poverty here, everyone is trying to improve their lot. It’s very encouraging for the nation as a whole.

From our one-night hotel in Volta, we traveled to Volta Dam, and had lunch at a hotel which provided quite a beautiful overview of the Dam and the Lake. Hawks and Vultures flew overhead, enjoying the thermals provided by the intense heat and sunlight. I finally tried Guinness Malta, which is a non-alcoholic Malt beverage that tastes very smooth and very heavy.

IMG_0555 At Volta Dam

Volta Region Day 1: Throw Your Cedi in the Air!

A 2.5hr drive to the Volta Region was an experience all in itself. The distance from the capitol city and the quality of roads are directly related, as we got closer to our destination and farther from the city, we were navigating mud/clay/dirt paths littered with potholes and small ravine-like water damages. Speedbumps are very common as highways pass through villages, and they’re much, much more violent than back home. One particularly nasty one lifted me out of my seat and the ceiling of our bus whapped me pretty good upside the head. I felt the blow more in my neck than anywhere else, then promptly moved to an open seat where the belt actually worked. We stopped at the side of the road to walk into the bush a bit to use the Ghanaian bathroom, as they say.

At the Monkey Sanctuary, we bought some bananas and our guide made a kissing-like noise that attracted a large group of Roli monkeys. To feed them, we held the fruit firmly and they would skittishly approach, peel the banana themselves, take a bit of the food inside, then scamper off. This was about eighty times more fun than any zoo I’ve been to before.


Another 45-minute drive over unimproved roads and very beautiful mountainous terrain put us a 45-minute hike away from Wii Falls, the tallest waterfall in West Africa. The trek through the rainforest was certainly a sweaty one, but it was absolutely worth the trip.


Up in the air were hundreds, if not thousands, of fruit bats. I couldn’t get a good picture of them, but I did get a great one of this – an American proposed to his girlfriend at the base of the falls. She said yes. Which is good, because if she said otherwise, that would be a pretty shitty 45 minute walk back. This scene made me pretty pensive all the way back to base, where I bought the most delicious fresh mango I’ve ever had. I ate it with my knife, which was pretty much all kinds of badass.


Another hour or so put us at our temporary digs for the night. Tomorrow we get lunch at Volta Dam overlooking the Lake, then drive back to Accra.


Plant Medicine; Get Up, Stand Up

I type this from Hotel Freedom in the Volta Region. We’re sitting all together outside under a canopy in fan, Ghanaian Hiplife is playing from the bar speakers, and it’s a very relaxing scene after a day of being in the bus and hiking around. We’re really starting to come together as a group, and I’m glad of it. The room that Mo and I are sharing tonight? Not quite as great. I’m gonna need a beer or two before I can sleep peacefully tonight, but I think I’m tired enough that it won’t be too much of an issue.

Yesterday featured a lecture on medicines derived from Plants, then took a tour of a facility working on just that process as part of the Ministry of Health. In-between was lunch at the University, where I had Red-Red, which is a tomato and chili pepper sauce with black-eyed peas, served with chicken on the bone. I may have already mentioned it, but it’s delicious. I’m going to miss the food quite a bit. My major thought on plant medicine was worry that a large Western pharma company like Pfizer could come in and rape the land, while patenting their product back home and reaping major profits at the expense of the Ghanaian people and ecology.

We took a guided tour of the Aburi Botanical Garden, which served as a very peaceful and meditative oasis in the midst of poverty, sort of an inverted Central Park. I enjoyed it greatly, and for the same reasons I love Central – very calming, very relaxing, and you forget everything else around you while you’re there. We played in an old helicopter, smelled plenty of different spices, and touched a tree planted by Queen Elizabeth II.


Rockin’ them high socks, bein’ a cool kid


Dinner was at Chez Afrique, where the live band played Bob Marley tunes and Paul Simon/Ladysmith songs. A few rounds were had and group bonding occurred. We hung around our hotel a bit, then got around 4 hours of sleep before our weekend trip to the Volta Region.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Like Wearing a Raincoat in the Shower

I finally slept like a normal human being last night. Mohammad tried to wake me twice, but I didn’t roll out of bed until just in time for our 7:30 breakfast.

Our morning adventure was a bus tour of the University of Ghana. It’s the country’s major Uni, and has more or less any department you could think of. Tertiary education here is nearly fully subsidized by the state, but all graduates are required to do a year of national service following graduation. I think the Obama administration is pushing for a similar program in the United States, and I think it would be a great idea, but  it would be very hard to implement without increasing government subsidization of college costs.

IMG_0358 Dept. of Political Science. ‘Sup?!

The University has some elevation to it, and we were able to get out and grab a few pictures above the northern part of Accra.


After the tour was our first morning lecture on the topic of the Ghanaian health care system from Dr. Kofi Ohene-Konadu of the University of Ghana. He discussed the history of healthcare in Ghana as well as the major diseases and causes of those diseases that Ghanaians face. He recognized the connection between education and health care, while also acknowledging that a great number of people live in ignorance and simply don’t understand the risks associated with certain lifestyle choices. While Ghana has a comparatively low HIV/AIDS infection rate, he addressed this as a major problem, reporting that some men compare sex with a condom to a shower while wearing a raincoat or eating toffee with the wrapper still on.

Malaria was also a major issue, and the most interesting idea here was that of a “mosquito police,” which Malaysia uses to enforce laws which require citizens to pay careful attention to preventing mosquito breeding spots to form.

From 1985 – 2003, Ghana’s health care system was “Cash and Carry,” wherein patients at a regular hospital had to pay before being seen by doctors. This resulted in a number of Ghanaians sticking to traditional medicines (roots, leaves, etc) or not seeking treatment at all, and was replaced with a basic system of universal coverage which all Ghanaians pay for with an annual tax.

Lunch was at Chez Afrique, and I had chicken with fried plantains and Red-Red, which is a sauce based on black-eyed peas, which were Furgilicious.

On the bus ride to our second lecture of the day, we noticed garbage burning on the side of the road. There doesn’t seem to be anything like a city dump, so much of the trash probably gets disposed of in this way, contributing to environmental hazards here.

The second lecture was on the Bretton Woods institutions and the social welfare cost of conditionalities, something much more up my alley. Our professor was from the University’s Sociology department, and clearly fell on the left side of the aisle. I talked with him a while at the end about the Ghanaian view of the Bank and the Fund and he told me they have both largely been discredited. I don’t know if I fully believe that, because Ghana is widely portrayed as a very good student of the BWIs. However, we both agreed that Ghana, which stands to soon start making quite a bit of money from oil, stands to benefit from lessons learned in nearby Nigeria.

After coming back to our hotel, a few blocks of a walk to a busier street netted me a yardage of cloth and a Black Stars football jersey from sidewalk vendors. Bargaining and haggling is going to take some time to get used to, and I feel bad doing it, but it’s expected here. Another picture I took serves a second example of income disparity.

IMG_0381 Just because you own a Mercedes S-Class ‘Get Out of the Way, Poor People” doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a roadside mango

A quick lightning storm just passed overhead, so we ran out to stand in the rain and experience a coastal African lightning storm first-hand. It died down by the time we got outside, but some of the lightning was impressive.

If you can’t tell from the monotony of this post, I’m exhausted. The plan for tonight is to write a little bit more, do some laundry, then pass out hard. Tomorrow we’ve got a morning lecture followed by a site visit about an hour north of the city.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Accra, Accra!

Day one in Ghana. Today was mostly about getting our bearings; we took a bus tour around the city of Accra. Much credit is due to our driver, who somehow navigated laneless, half-paved streets lined with foot-deep sewage/rainwater drains of doom without once hitting anything.

IMG_0321Example of aforementioned Doom Drain

The level of income disparity was staggering, one block would be populated with Mercedes and Toyota SUVs, and the next would be a slum. I thought this picture captured that nicely…


It was market day in the Muslim neighborhood and the outer lanes of the street were filled with vendors selling everything from cell phone minutes to plantains and it took us about an hour to navigate a mile of road.


The women who balance various parcels on top of their heads are called Headporters, and are mostly very poor women from the north who come to the coastal city in search of job opportunities. Sadly, many of them live, eat, and raise children on the streets or in the slums.

That’s all for now. It’s time to drink seven gallons of water and then have a nap.

Alive in Ghana

Made it to the hotel in East Legon alive and well. My parents and probably Erin are gonna kill me because I won’t have internet or cell access until tomorrow.

The ride from the airport was unreal. Bobbing and weaving through haphazard traffic at nighttime with no geographic bearings whatsoever probably should’ve made me want to cry, but I was so emotionally numb after 14hrs of airplane travel that almost nothing would’ve been able to phase me. After a good meal and a hot shower, I’m ready for my first night of decent sleep in what feels like forever but is really only a day.

IMG_0316 Leaving Accra’s Airport via Suicidebus

We’re only in-country for a little over two weeks. Then it’s a few days in Amsterdam and back home. We’ve got individual rooms for tonight, so it feels a bit lonely right now, but we’re moving into doubles tomorrow.

Hopefully I’ll have WiFi access tomorrow and can start posting these updates. Breakfast is at 7, so it’s time for some sleep.

Somewhere Over Algeria

Roughly two hours into the AMS –> ACC leg of the flight. This one should clock in at just over six hours of airtime – slightly less than the JFK –> AMS flight. I don’t have any of that fancy midair internet magic available on this flight, so this won’t get posted until I’ve reached Ghana. That is, of course, assuming we have decent internet. I’m assuming we’ll take turns pedaling the bicycle which powers the 28.8kpbs modem we’ll have in our rooms.

I got up to use the bathroom as a result of overdosing on the Stroopwaffel I purchased in Amsterdam (I blame Joel) and the subsequent in-flight meal which consisted of shell pasta in a green sauce that resembled spinach. Luckily I filled up on Dutch pastries before boarding, so hunger is not an issue. The Heineken served on every KLM flight is a nice touch which helps one to forget they’re hurdling through the atmosphere at 650 miles per hour in a giant aluminum tube filled with aviation fuel, but makes you panic even more when you hear the pilot’s announcements in Dutch and, for a split second, think you’ve finally gone mad from 12 hours airborne.

IMG_0315 Our Boeing 777 for the AMS –> ACC leg

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Packing Up

Just about finished with all my packing. Scout is acting a 50/50 mix of concerned and lazy with a dash of tiny dog bark noises. I myself am 90% excited, 8% nervous, and 2% skim milk. I think I’ll be fine once airborne – sorta like the opposite of a kamikaze pilot. I’m headed out tonight with the guys for one last night of a regular LI summer before my 10PM departure from JFK tomorrow night.

Admittedly, this post was mostly filler to test out Windows Live Writer to see if I can write blog posts while offline then upload later. It seems like I can, so in a low/no-bandwidth environment, it should work out pretty well.

My next entry will be from either JFK, midair, or Schiphol Airport. See you on the other side!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Two Weeks

Would you always / Maybe sometimes / Make it easy / Take your time

There's exactly two weeks left until I leave for Ghana. Over the past month, I've gotten all the shots and pills I need, a new knife, a passport holder, and a water bottle that should hopefully mean I can drink the water without this happening:

Because that would be bad.

We've finally got a syllabus and itinerary for the trip. Some of the better parts include a trip to Elmira Castle, which is really more of a former slave processing facility/holding dungeon, one of the biggest in West Africa. We're visiting two preserves dedicated to Rhinoceros and Monkeys, and one dedicated to freaky hybrid Rhinomonkeys. We also get to climb across a rainforest canopy on a bridge made entirely out of rope and good luck. From the pictures I've found, it looks like something Indiana Jones wouldn't even cross. Unless he was being chased by a squadron of Rhinomonkey-mounted Nazis, of course.

There's a few free days on the schedule, so I'm sure I'll break free from the biology students and track down some more political or historical destinations, like Independence Arch, or call up Kofi for some lunch.

While originally the plan was to fly through Heathrow, it was much cheaper to fly Delta/KLM via Amsterdam. For a modest fee, Delta can delay my AMS -> JFK flight for a few days, so as long as the finances allow for it, I think I'll hang out in Amsterdam for a few days after Ghana to relax and partake in some delicious Stroopwafel. I'll visit the Anne Frank House, take a canal ride, and, if I'm lucky, see Van Gogh's earlobe.

I'll probably throw up one more post before I leave. Once I get to Ghana, I have no idea how the internet access will be, so I'm not sure how frequently I'll be able to update this. Pictures will probably not be an option until I get back home, but I think text updates should be a possibility.