Friday, May 15, 2015

I wake up about 6:30, having slept well and feeling refreshed. Wash the face, brush the teeth (with bottled water), shave, and get ready for the new day.

We’re taking the overnight bus to Wa, which leaves at 8 pm. So we have the day to just rest, get adjusted to the 4-hour time change, and maybe do a little sightseeing in this bustling African city. I’ve told them to sleep in; as I sit in the living room writing this blog, the place is quiet. In a few minutes I’ll walk down the street to a small grocery shop and buy some shelf-stable milk and some dry cereal for everybody’s breakfast. I also want to visit the nearby chemist (that’s what people in former British colonies call a pharmacist) to pick up a few odds and ends for the first-aid kit. I’m thinking in particular of a couple of malaria treatments—packages of pills to take if you’ve actually gotten malaria. The likelihood of anyone actually getting it are really quite slim, but I want to be prepared if that happens. You get flu symptoms and feel like you’re just going to die; but you take the pills at the designated pace, and in 24 hours you feel pretty much fine.

I do my morning Bible reading in the quiet of the sleeping household.

Timothy has told me that the grocery store opens at 8. When the time arrives, nobody else is up yet—it’s still 4 am in their body clocks—so I quietly let myself out the locked door to the upstairs floor, down the stairs, and out the locked front door to the house. (In case you haven’t noticed, I’m trying to reassure you readers, especially you parents, about the security of your loved ones.) I walk down the driveway to the gate at the street. The gatekeeper, Muhammad, greets me with a word and a smile. I ask where the nearest ATM is; he says up Cantonment Street to the 6- (or so) storey building. How far? 1 kilometer? No, 8. 8?! Not to disparage my friend’s advice, but I don’t believe him. Africa has ATMs everywhere. I decide to walk up Cantonment and see what I find. Sure enough, just up the street, less than 1 kilometer (BTW, they say KIL-oh-meter here, not kil-AH-meter) from the house, is a 24-hour ATM. As is normal here, there’s a uniformed guard at the entrance, sitting in a chair and listening to his radio. I don’t see a weapon, so I’m not sure how much help he would really be in a confrontation, but I suspect that his very presence is a deterrence to the mischievous. (In Mwanza, our second location on this trip, the guards routinely carry automatic rifles. I assume they’re loaded. The rifles, not the guards.)

My card works fine—thank you, TD Bank, for your international presence—and I withdraw the maximum, 300 cedis (pronounced “CDs”). Last time a cedi was 50 cents; I haven’t noticed yet what the exchange rate is, though I’ve heard the local currency has taken something of a hit (I find out later it’s half the earlier value). Frankly, it doesn’t matter what the rate is, because I need to use local currency for transactions, and it’s not safe to use your credit card in most locations. And ATMs routinely have better rates than the forex (foreign currency exchange) shops. So 300 cedis it is.

The symbol for the cedi is our cent sign. That’s a little disconcerting; you get 6 50-cent bills, which doesn’t look like much.

I walk back toward the house, passing the constant string of little shops opening for morning business. Something I’ve noticed in a lot of developing countries, from China 10 years ago, to Ghana and Tanzania today, is the ubiquitous spirit of enterprise. Everyone has something going, a way to make a buck (so to speak). Little shops, or even tables by the side of the road, are hawking everything from fruit to butchered meat to cell phone SIM cards. And feel free to bargain; they know how much they need to get to make a profit, and they enjoy the action. But things are pretty quiet at the stalls at this early hour.

A block short of the house, I come to the grocery mart where I’m planning to buy breakfast stuff. They’re open, so I walk in, grab a cart and start to browse.

One of my favorite things is international food marketing. I love to just browse around grocery stores in faraway places, seeing what they have that we don’t, and how the stuff we do have differs here. This store, like others here in the tropics, has lots of liquids, from water to juices of all kinds, to the array of alcoholic beverages common around the world. There’s a meat counter at the back, as we’re used to at home, and chest freezers with frozen foods. I pick up what I’m looking for—shelf-stable milk and a couple of boxes of cereal (corn flakes and rice pops, as they call them), but I also get a few things on impulse. (My wife will tell you that it’s more dangerous for her to send me to the grocery store than for her to go herself.) I pick up a couple of fresh pineapple for 5 cedis—nothing beats fresh—and a couple of containers of juice, one tropical mix and one apple. I also pick up a package of cookies for the overnight bus ride. They call cookies here “biscuits,” following the old British colonial culture. One of the leading brands is Digestive, which doesn’t sound very good but actually is. It’s a hard, flat, round cookie, available in various flavors, with gingersnap being the most common, perhaps.

With tax, it all comes to 94 cedis. I’ll figure out how much that is when I can get the wireless router turned on and get access to the exchange rate. (Yep, 24 bucks.)

I walk back to the house, tell Muhammad about the nearby ATM, and take my treasures upstairs. Nobody’s moving. And that’s OK. I put the stuff away and then twiddle my thumbs for a bit, then decide to lie down until somebody makes some noise. I wake up at 10:30 to no noise. Walk around the place. Still nobody moving. Catch up on the blog. Finally faces start to appear around 11—Charity first, then Amber, then Emily, then Sarah. Good. We’ll have breakfast for lunch, and I’ll take ‘em to a local joint for supper.

After breakfast I ask if they’d like to do a little business. I need to go to the chemist to get those malaria treatments, and there’s a forex right next door for those who want to change some dollars into cedis. A handful of us head back out the door.

The chemist not only has malaria treatments, but he has preventatives as well. Since one of our crew forget hers, I’m glad to find that he has doxycycline on hand, and much cheaper than in the States. I pick up 60 days’ worth, then we go next door to the forex. On the way back we stop in to the market where I was earlier. We have a gluten-free person, and I’m surprised to learn that the rice pops are not gluten-free; they have barley malt for flavoring. Not only did I not know that was glutinous, but I couldn’t even read the ingredients list in the dim light of the store. So I have the youngsters check all the labels, and there’s not a single dry cereal in the entire continent of Africa without gluten. Well. In Africa you learn to be flexible. We’ll make other arrangements.

Back at the house, everybody’s moving and fed, so I ask if they’d like to go to the beach. They all instantly agree. (OK, I admit, it’s a setup.) So off we go, south down Abrebressem Street the 4 blocks to the beach. For 3 blocks, it’s a typical African city, with the street crowded with little shops (in East Africa they’re called “dukas”), a little gutter ditch running alongside, where you could trip and fall in if you’re not paying attention. Lots of traffic and blowing of horns. Back home a horn means “You’ve done something stupid, and I’m angry at you”; here, it means “Just letting you know I’m here, and I might be about to do something extraordinary!”

A block from the beach the slum starts. Little dirt roads crowded with squatters’ shacks, running with unidentifiable liquids, trash and garbage lying in random places, and a fairly intense olfactory experience. In Nairobi this would be called a slum; in Zambia, a compound; in South Africa, a township. It seems counterintuitive that the least valuable property in town is beachfront.

We walk gingerly to the beach, stepping around and over things we don’t want to step in. Where the street ends, there’s a 20-foot drop to the beach, so we turn left and walk parallel until we find a path down.

The beach is covered with trash. It’s literally the dump. It’s a lesson in cultural contrast, especially in the way some cultural contrasts are complex. This is a combination of colonial exploitation (this used to be called the “Gold Coast,” after all), poverty, pre-industrial subsistence lifestyle, and a thousand other things. I talk to the team briefly about these things, trying to encourage in them a respect for the variety of cultures, and a modicum of understanding about differences we find repulsive. We’ll need to learn to operate across these divides, with grace and lack of distraction. It will be an important lesson and life skill.

Timothy calls, asking if we want to do some shopping. Well, I’m not really interested, but the girls seem to disagree with me, so we head back to the house and prepare for a hike in the other direction, up to Cantonment Road, the local main drag, where I found the ATM earlier this morning.

When a large group of white people shows up in a public area like this, the hawkers come from every direction. “Rich people! Payday!” Soon we’re surrounded by people, mostly young men, selling sunglasses and cigarettes and colorful bracelets and carvings and watches and clothing and … so on. They’re very aggressive; saying you’re not interested doesn’t even slow them down. They walk along with you, showing you their wares, offering the “best price” because you are a “special friend,” and on and on. Pretty much every country I’ve been to, anywhere in the world, has this practice. I’m fine with the aggressiveness—you just keep walking—and even the occasional marriage proposal to one or another of the girls, but one young man grabs the hand of one of the girls and won’t let go, even as she tries to pull away; he wants to show her the quality of the things he’s selling. I put my face in his and say, “No, thank you” firmly, and grab his hand. He lets go.

I learned something new about these guys this time. One of them asks me what I do, and I say I teach in a university, and these are some of my students. He says, “So you are a professah!” Yes. We walk a block further down the street, and two other vendors call me “Professah!” Ah, so they network! “Psst! See that short bald guy over there? He’s a professah!” They do each other the favor of enabling one another to approach a potential victim on friendly terms. Apparently it’s a guild, where the competition is friendly.

We hit several stalls, where a few of us buy brightly colored dresses or (in Gershon’s case), trousers. He’ll be the team’s Mr. Fancypants. Then we come to table where a young man with a machete is serving up coconuts, and I buy a round. He expertly slices away at the top until with one deft cut he removes the last little plug holding in the milk, and voila! You have an all-natural mug of coconut milk. We all drink deep. It’s hot here, and we sweat a lot. We’re constantly hydrating, and this is a richer experience.

A little further down the street we come to Papaye Chicken, where we go upstairs (air conditioned!) and get 3 tables. The 8 team members are at 2 adjacent tables, and Timothy and I sit nearby. This will be a good chance to see how they interact without The Boss immediately present. Soon an outburst of laughter tells me that they’re beginning to meld as a team.

Some order fried chicken; others order fried fish. They’re both delicious, and I feed 10 people for about 60 bucks. I love Africa.

We walk back to the house, where there’s time for a couple of folks to get quick showers before we head out. We hire 2 taxis out in front of the house and load them and Timothy’s vehicle up with luggage and people.

With the traffic situation in Africa, it’s really not possible to stay together in a caravan, so you need to think about how to divvy up the people. We gets as many girls in Timothy’s car as we can; then we send a male in each of the taxis—I go in the one with the luggage—and fill in any empty seats with the last of the girls. And off we go.

You wouldn’t believe the traffic. I learned to drive in Boston, and I’ve driven in Mexico City and taken cabs in Shanghai, and I’ve never seen anything like this. There a large arterial overpass being constructed in the middle of Accra, and until it’s complete, the traffic works its way through the construction site in a labyrinth of 3- to 4-lane bypasses that intersect at apparently random points and angles. Did I say 3 to 4 lanes? Well, it’s anarchy out there; 6 to 7 evolutionary lanes, all jockeying constantly for position, poking their fenders into tiny crevasses in the traffic flow, honking wildly, and gesticulating and shouting to make their points. Of course, none of the noise helps at all; it just aggravates everybody around you, making it less likely that anyone will be cooperative.

I’m not done. There are those random merges, when 6 or 7 de facto lanes from over there try to merge with 6 or 7 de facto lanes over here. And during the merge, this guy merging from the left needs to cross 6 or 7 de facto lanes of traffic to get over to the right.

I’m not done. There are motorbikes everywhere, riding up between cars, crossing suddenly in front of cars that are trying to get a 1” advantage over the car next door.

I’m not done. There are PEDESTRIANS—hundreds of them—working their way foolhardily through the middle of this maelstrom, acting as though they’re doing the most natural thing in the world.

I end up just laughing—hysterically? maniacally?—at times when I should be very, very afraid.

And when we arrive at the bus terminal, the other taxi and Timothy are just minutes behind us, without a smidgeon of body damage. Very impressive driving by all.

But there’s similar chaos at the bus station. There are 8 or 10 very large tour busses backed into a lot just barely large enough for them. And other busses backing in. And taxis pulling in to drop off passengers. And passengers, and their luggage, strewn all over any free square inches in the lot, waiting to board the appropriate bus. There are 4 busses labeled as headed for Wa; the license number of our bus is written on our tickets. It’s after dark, so we use our cell phones to read the tiny numeric scribble on our ticket—since we know we’re all on the same bus, we can compare handwriting on different tickets to figure out the license number—and then we go to the front of each bus, shining our cell phones on the license plates until we find ours—the last one in the row, of course.

We drag our luggage over—I’m delighted that we left those 7 Ugly Boxes at the guest house for later pickup—and I pay the luggage fees to the agent, 100 cedis, or $25. Well worth it. Timothy tells me to watch to confirm that all 14 pieces get into the cargo hold, and I tell everybody else to get on the bus and find their seats. The crew has trouble fitting all the luggage in—the hold is full of a bunch of 5-gallon buckets of construction-related materials going to Wa—but they play Tetris with our luggage until it all fits.

The bus is full. I find my seat, the last one, and count heads. We’re all here. Whew.

The bus is quite comfortable. It’s a standard large tour bus, air conditioned, with just 3 seats across and a center aisle. The seats are well padded and recline considerably more than airplane seats, though the full recline obviously invades the space of the person seated behind you. I’ve encouraged the kids not to recline, even on the airplanes, as a consideration for their potential victims.

And off we go into the night. It’s 4 hours to Kumasi, the only potty stop, and then 8 more to Wa. I’ve suggested to the team not to overhydrate. 🙂 I’m thinking that since this is an overnight ride, and kids this age don’t usually have to get up at night to use the facilities, we should be OK.

We’re about 20 minutes late out of Accra and an hour late into Kumasi, where the team will experience its first African public toilet. Americans would think it looks like a shower stall; it’s just a bare concrete floor with a drain, and you squat and do your business. The women’s side has individual stalls with doors; the men’s side is a larger version, where we all go in and do our business like men. Culture, people, culture.

I wait outside the ladies’ area as each one comes out and gets back on the bus. Soon we’re all back aboard and off to the long haul. They’ve been playing African music over the PA system; for the first leg it’s all Christian, to my surprise; there are several Muslims on the bus. The second leg, which started about 1:30 am, they start with pop music but eventually drop the volume way down so it’s not intrusive on those trying to sleep. And they never play a movie.

Last time (2013) the night ride was a sensory nightmare, with music or movies playing all night, and lights on, and people talking, and smelling, and whatnot. It appears that management has decided that between 1 am and 6 am, people might actually want to sleep. Good for them.

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Dan Olinger

Chair, Division of Bible in the BJU School of Religion.

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