Archive for the ‘Journal’ Category

It’s my life!

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

It was someone’s birthday – really that was just an excuse. It seems that this particular crew always finds an excuse for a party on Wednesday nights at sea. We were in the middle of the Atlantic, on a container ship, with not much else to do. We, as well as everyone else on board, were invited to the crew lounge for a party.

At the appointed time, Scott and I sauntered down to the lounge. Fortunately, not many of the crew on this ship smoke (mostly it is the officers that smoke), and with the crowds people, it would have been very uncomfortable if too many of them were smoking in the small room.

The cook prepared some special treats for the party – chicken wings and other finger food. Upon walking in, the crew showed their delight at our joining them by  immediately offering us drink – beer, wine, whatever we wanted. I don’t know who paid for the alcohol for the party, but we were honoured guests so it wasn’t us. In hind sight, I think it was the person having the birthday that paid – opposite to our tradition, in the Philippines, where most of the crew are from – it is an honour to buy your friends drinks.

So, with drink in hand, we joined in the festivities. This group had karaoke setup and were pretty good at it. We sang some songs we recognized as well as many that we didn’t. I had to get up and do some Brian Adams – they didn’t have Brian Adams as a karaoke CD, so you just sung along to the CD – in the crew lounge any CD could become a karaoke CD. We even tried singing some karaoke in Tagalog (the language spoken in the Philippines). Scott was OK at it; the German apprentice onboard was very good. Clearly he has been practicing!

For many of the crew, karaoke night is not just a chance to party, it is also a chance to practice English. During the party, one of the ship’s mechanics watched the karaoke with a notebook in his hand. Anytime he saw a word he didn’t understand, he would write it down so he could look it up later. I was amazed at how a particular crew member could sing along to karaoke without an accent, and yet he could barely string together a sentence in English.

By midnight the party started to get pretty roudy – with lots of loud singing and dancing. I was the only female in the room, but that didn’t stop some of the guys from table dancing – it was that wild. Of course, when the camera came out, everyone had to jump into the picture – and then see the picture in the camera window – you have to love digital cameras!

A particular vivid memory was when they put on a Bon Jovi CD. Imagine, the whole lot of us, in the middle of the Altantic Ocean, on a very dark night, screaming “It’s My Life” at the top of our lungs.

It’s my life
It’s now or never
I ain’t gonna live forever
I just want to live while I’m alive

(It’s my life)

My heart is like an open highway
Like Frankie said
I did it my way
I just wanna live while I’m alive
It’s my life

That sound will forever be imprinted in my mind, with the image of all of us dancing and screaming out the words as if we were the only people on earth (we were in the middle of the ocean after all).

That was four years ago, and every time I hear that song, and I hear it often as it is the third song on my daily exercise track,  I smile (and sometimes I even scream although I try to keep the scream inside). It’s my life!

 

Ghana – Green Turtle

Saturday, June 9th, 2012
Our last four nights in Ghana were spent at Green Turtle lodge on the coast near the Cote D’Ivore (Ivory Coast) border.
Much of the four days was spent relaxing by the beach, reading and napping. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get Internet (no MTN coverage, had we had an Airtel or Vodophone SIM, we would have had coverage). This is one reason why people in Ghana have more than one SIM card for their phones – some areas are only covered by one or two carriers. No one seems to cover the entire country.

We had our own little hut. We opted for the less expensive hut that didn’t have built in facilities. Instead we used the shared composting toilets, which were kept very clean. The outdoor showers were definitely highlight, with lots of space and enough water pressure to rinse the soap and salt out of your hair! Our rooms, however, did not have fans. Each room had a solar panel that provided enough electricity to run the light. There was no outlet or other electricity in which to run a fan. We were, however, able to charge our varioius devices using the bar power strip (which was also solar powdered). This was quite adequate on sunny days, but on cloudy days they need to use most of the power to charge the batteries for the fridge (cold beer being a priority)!

 

Shortly after arriving, we met a group of medical doctors (or soon to be medical doctors) who had been studying International Medicine and doing research placements in Ghana. They were finished their work and on a well needed vacation before heading back to the UK to finish their schooling.

The first morning, we went to try out swimming in the surf. It was a relatively calm day, such that we were able to get past the breakers and enjoy bobbing up and down – although we did notice the tendancy to drift out – so we kept an eye on how far we were from the shore. Swimming back in afterwards, Becky was reminded of the force of the waves when she was knocked down in the shallow waters and bumped both her knees on the bottom (ouch).

The next mornings swim didn’t go without incident. The waves were certainly more powerful. We were not able to get out too deep as we kept getting pushed back in. The force of the breakers and the accompanying undertow were a reminder of how powerful things were. One of the doctors got out a little too deep, and then got stuck with too many breaking waves too close together. She would barely get her bearings and get hit again by another wave, with each wave trying to pull her out further. Fortunately, the water wasn’t too deep where she was that Scott was able to still reach the ground. He quickly swam/walked out to her and helped pull her in past the breakers and back to shore. From that point on, we were very careful not to get in too deep (actually, Becky choose not to go in again, as she had been knocked down unexpectedly a couple times that morning in the water that was only waist deep).

One morning Scott and the doctors went out for a canoe tour in the nearby mangrove (operated by some people from the nearby village). Becky was finding it difficult to sleep at night, and the early mornings was the only time she slept well, and she didn’t want to give up the sleep for a canoe trip. As she enjoyed some uninterrupted slumber, everyone else enjoyed a canoe trip.

It was a peaceful and placid paddle, with all of us in a big dugout canoe. It felt a bit tippy, but would only tip a little ways and was quite stable – good secondary stability.  We saw some interesting trees in the mangrove, and heard some birds, but most were too deep in the forest to catch more than a glimpse.

In addition to lazing about, we had the material we bought in Benin tailored. Unfortunately, the local town only had a men’s tailor, so Scott got two nice shirts. Becky got a couple of other things made, but they didn’t look so good. She did, however, get a nice wrap (made from the same material as Scott’s shirt).  This village didn’t have electricity, so the tailor used a treadle-powered sewing machine.  The shirts were quite well tailored, and all for $10 CAD.

Our final adventure in Ghana was our return to Accra. Our flight wasn’t until 10pm, so we didn’t leave Green Turtle until the morning of our flight. Getting back to Accra involved a 45 minute taxi drive on rough roads (the picture shows one of the nicer sections), followed by a 3-4 hour tro-tro ride. We had hoped to take a nice air conditioned VIP bus, but when arrived at the town there were no buses in sight. Scott quickly arranged seats for us on an almost full “air-conditioned” tro-tro. Becky, quickly thought to purchase an extra seat, so that we had the entire back row to ourselves. Within 5 minutes the tro-tro was full and we were on our way. Unfortuantely, the air conditioning rarely made its way to the back of the tro-tro. We boiled most of the trip. At one point when we were stopped, Becky was able to purchase a couple of bags of cold water – this is the water that the locals drink which is cheap but not as certain in its purity – but it was cold, and served well as an icepack to help us cool down. Our tro-tro experience emphasized how good of a decision we made when we decided to hire a car and driver. Trotro’ing around for a week would have been both inconvenient and uncomfortable!

Back in Accra, Becky hatched a plan to go to the Movenpick hotel in Accra and enjoy a swim before heading to our flights. The Movenpick is the most expensive hotel in Ghana – at about 350 Euro per night. We certainly could not justify a night in the hotel, but for 25 Euro each we could enjoy a refreshing swim in the pool. Of course, this was before Becky remember that swimming pools in Ghana are anything but refreshing. After dismissing the idea of a swim, we found out that as long as we had our own towel, we could use the swimming pool showers for free. So, we each took a refreshing shower, changed into clean cloths, and spent the rest of the day enjoying the free Internet in the air conditioned lobby. We did buy dinner at the Movenpick before taking their free shuttle to the airport. It was $30 well spent!

Our flight home was uneventful, but landing in Washington’s Dulles airport was surreal – bright lights everywhere, concrete, glass and steel, self-driving trains, masses of people who looked like us… It brought to home just how easily we can get accustomed to our surroundings, and how much luxury we live in, just by virtue of being born in North America.

Ghana Day 6

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

We were a little surprised to learn that we had 7-hours of driving ahead of us today. Most of the day would be spent in the sweaty bumpy Land Rover. We did, however, pause to take a few photos whilst driving.

We had seen a few of these smokey compounds along our journey, but didn’t know what they were. Apparently, they are making palm oil. The process is very dirty and smokey. I can’t imagine the health hazards associated with living in one of these compounds.

In every village we pass through, there are signs on the side of the road celebrating someone’s life. If the signs are any indication, life expectancy is Ghana is pretty high. We often see signs with people who passed away in their 80s and 90s.  It is a sign of wealth and respect for the deceased to put up an expensive funeral board, so many of them are brightly coloured and professionally printed.

Even the police need sponsors in Ghana. Each of the road checkpoints (quite frequent, as we passed through 3 or 4 each day), has an associated advertisement. This one is for foam mattresses.

We did pause briefly in our day of driving to have lunch at a vegetarian restaurant in Cape Coast. In the picture above you can see the “white washed” Cape Coast slave castle. It was last restored in 1992. More recently, it is famous for the visit by Barack and Michelle Obama. Michelle’s ancestors left Africa through the gates of this castle.

We ended up with a personal tour because we couldn’t wait for the scheduled one. We didn’t want to be too long as we wanted to get to Green Turtle before dark. We had a really good tour guide, who told us about how the slaves were sold to the colonists by the warring chiefs. We did, however, hear of other guides that told a totally different version of events, that involved the colonists rounding up slaves and oppressing the local people.

It felt very odd being led into each of the dungeons. What was especially weird was the voodoo shrine setup at the end of the male dungeon, as if this were a holy place. In each of the dungeons there were many wreaths of remembrance left by descendants of slaves.

Just like in the time of the slave trade, just outside the gates of the castle, there is an active fishing village. Life outside the castle gates couldn’t be more normal.

After three more hours of driving, we finally arrived at Green Turtle. Here we said goodbye to our driver, Fofo. He hadn’t really signed up to taking us on a week long tour, but he did the job, and never complained about the change in plans. Overall we were happy with our decision to spend six days on a tour, and with the services Jolinaiko Eco Tours offered.  They were very flexible in adjusting to our requests, and we got to see many places in Ghana we otherwise would have missed.

Ghana Day 5

Monday, June 4th, 2012

Breakfast at the butterfly sactuary was our most exotic yet. They just kept bringing us food. We pretty much rolled out of breakfast into a morning hike.

Again our day began with a hike. Actually, this was more like a walk in the woods, as the terrain was rather flat. Becky had expected the guide to be telling us about butterflies, but the interpretive talk was more about the different kind of trees in this forest. The area is protected, and several scientists are carrying out experiments on the growth patterns within the forest. Several times, we walked through taped areas where scientists were counting everything that grew.

With a full belly and some fresh air, Scott needed a nap – and you know, he can sleep anywhere!

Becky hiding being the interesting root of this huge tree.

After walking through the forest, we returned to the lodge via a road. At that point, we saw many different butterflies enjoying the sun on the road. The colours were often rather vibrant.

We had only a short drive to get to our destination for the evening, so we asked Fofo to bring us someplace where Scott could get a haircut. We ended up on the edge of Kumasi, where Scott had his cheapest haircut ever – less than $2 including a generous tip. The stylist really wanted to shave a pattern in Scott’s head, but Scott resisted. Unfortunately, this place was not open – we were very curious about the brass band. The people in the shop were very interested in coming to Canada, and wanted to know how to get in.  Scott explained that going to school and becoming a doctor or engineer was probably the easiest way, which didn’t really excite them.
Tonight’s logding was at Lake Bosomtwe – Lake Point Guesthouse. We had a nice little cabana, with a ceiling fan (which was unfortunate as it often just pushed the hot air down). The rooms were clean and quite nice. The food at the restaurant was pretty good too. More importantly, there were MTN towers nearby so our Internet felt lightening fast!
Lake Bosomtwe (also Bosumtwi or Bosumtwe) is Ghana’s only large natural lake, and was created by a meteor impact.  It is currently about 80m deep, and the size varies dramatically with rainfall and evaporation. In the warm afternoon, we thought we might enjoy a swim in the Lake. Given its size and depth, we expected a nice cool swim, unlike swimming pools in Ghana which are too warm to be refreshing. Just before we began to wade in, some German tourists mentioned to us that it was “like a bathtub”. Now, this is a term we use to describe a swimming pool that is luke-warm, or warmer than it should be for a refreshing swim. We waded in and found the water was actually HOT. It was almost warm enough to be a jacuzzi!  A very odd sensation, wading in a huge lake of hot water!
We saw many people fishing from wooden plank boats, which looked quite tricky – we learned later that the local religion forbids metal touching the lake, so fishing from metal boats is prohibited.
Since there was no chance of a refreshing swim in such warm water, we headed back to our room for a cool shower, and spent the afternoon enjoying the fast Internet. The resort itself didn’t have Internet, but there was an MTN tower close by, so Becky’s phone was getting remarkably fast Internet, such that both of us could use our iPads on the Internet at the same time, using Becky’s phone as a Wifi hotspot.

Images of Rural Ghana

Monday, June 4th, 2012

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Most of the vehicles in Ghana have arrived here from somewhere else, after they ended their ‘useful life’ there. This one is clearly from Korea based on the stencilling.

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Using older vehicles is a good form of re-use, and is cost effective, but it also means breakdowns are common. Repairs commonly occur along the side of the road, although I did see one tow truck a few days ago.

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As you can see from some of the earlier photos, main roads in Ghana are often quite good, paved with asphalt,. Holes and cracks are common though, and are often patched with dirt rather than asphalt. Seeing a steamroller being used to tamp down dirt patches is a bit surreal, but I’m guessing some road engineer did do some analysis on this at one point. We have seen it in more than one place anyway…

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Many of the side roads are considerably worse, without a proper road-bed, drainage or grading.

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Ghana is a very religious nation, with many Christian churches present, especially evangelical and charismatic denominations. Many businesses names have religious connotations, which can make for some interesting advertising.

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I’m not entirely sure what this business is selling, but it sure sounds interesting.

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As with other tropical countries we’ve visited, markets are on the streets, with small huts at the roads edge used for more expensive merchandise, and mobile vendors walking around and hawking their wares.

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At stop lights, toll booths and other stops, vendors approach cars offering anything from food and produce to shoes, coat racks and sun glasses.

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Outside of town, people set up along the road, either in permanent stands or just sit with their goods. This was one stand among many selling identical looking clay pots and wooden mortars along one stretch of highway.

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In areas growing lots of palm trees, palm oil was popular at the roadside too.

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There are many more taxis on the road in Ghana, if you see a car, there’s a good chance it will be a taxi.

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Some taxis are packed with more interesting goods than others.

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And even with all the taxis, hand carts are still frequently used for larger goods.

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Painting a house is expensive, and companies will offer to paint the house as long as they can decide on the color scheme, then use it for advertising.

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Fan makes yummy frozen treats which are sold by bicycle with a freezer compartment on the handlebars. My favorite is the Fan yogo, Becky likes the vanilla ice cream better.

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And yes, the kids are cute in Ghana too, with many of them waving or shouting as we pass by.

Ghana Day 4

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

We awoke before breakfast started, so we decided to walk around the resort and take a few pictures.

The resort had a swimming pool that would have been really nice when it was new. It was definitely showing signs of disrepair as many of the tiles in the mosaic and along the steps were missing. The pool was thoroughly cleaned in the morning, but all the missing tiles made it look dirty. We have found that pools don’t get much use. We initially thought a dip in the pool might be refreshing, but with the consistent 30 degree weather, the pool is too warm to be refreshing. Unfortunately, they would need to invest in a lot of ice to make it cool enough for a swim.

For breakfast, we enjoyed sitting on the patio looking out onto the lake. One challenge they have with it getting dark so early (6 pm, before supper is ready), is that various insects are attracted to the lanterns. This one was sitting by our breakfast table – not exactly appetizing.

Our destination for the day was the butterfly sanctuary, which involved a lot of driving. Before we left town though, we stopped in at the Cedi bead making factory. Here they handmake beads out of recycled glass. In the picture above, the owner of the factory demonstrates how the different types of beads are made.

This type of bead is made by first marking the basic shape in a mold by melting small pieces of glass. Then paint is made by pounding down the glass into a fine powder, adding dye, and water to make a paste. Someone then paints the pattern onto each bead individually. Once the beads are painted, they go back into the kiln for a final firing to set the paint.

The kiln itself is made out of clay from termite mounds. The termites do a really good job of mixing up the clay into an equal consistancy and their saliva makes the kiln clay more heat resistant. In the picture you see many molds read to make round beads.

After the bead factory, we had hoped to visit a fair-trade cocoa farm (one of Ghana’s largest export products). Unfortunately, it was Sunday and the farm was closed. This meant the long drive to our final destination was not broken up with any stops.

At one point, Fofo pulled over quickly. The Land Rover had blown a fuse. He pulled out the toolkit, made a few repairs to the wiring and after about 15-minutes we were back on the road.

Dinner at the butterfly sanctuary consisted of – you guessed it – groundnut soup and chicken. Again, it was delicious and completely different from the other varients we had tried. Dinner also included semi-cold (they called it cold but it was verging on warm) Star beer (cheap Ghanian beer that is actually pretty tasty) and bottled water.

The guidebook listed our room as a “fan” room – and indeed our room came with floor fans (our favourite type). But what the guidebook didn’t mention was that the guest house was not on the grid. They only had electricity when they ran the generator from 6-9pm. Again, we were grateful for our headlamps! Unfortunately the lack of fan meant it was a warm night. The room, however, was by far the largest we stayed in, and it was both clean and cheap.

At this point Becky had an ah-ha moment. She realized that if she thought of travelling through Ghana as “camping” with the mosquito nets as the tent rather than vacationing or travelling, then her expectations for accommodations would be more inline with reality. It is only too bad that this didn’t occur to her sooner like when she was packing for the trip, as it would have likely changed how she packed – and made for a more pleasant experience. It certainly did help for the remaining week.

 

Ghana Day 3

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012

Since palm wine is mostly harvested first thing in the morning, this is how our day began. On our way towards breakfast, we followed our guide through the paths beyond the village to see the palm wine harvest.

Palm wine is extracted from recently felled palm trees. The farmers cut a hole in the base of the tree and set a jug under it to collect the sap that pours out. When it can be sold within 12-hours, it fetches a good price, but often they can’t get it to market fast enough. The alternative is to let it ferment, and then distill it into palm gin. We were given an opportunity to try some of the wine, which we each took the tiniest of sips (it was a pretty unsanitary operation). Becky definitely did not like the taste, and certainly would not be seeking out further opportunities to try it!

We enjoyed our breakfast on plastic patio furniture at “Stella’s Inn”. It wasn’t exactly as we had visualized it when Cindy at Jolinaiko recommended it.  Plastic tables were set up out front for the tourists, allowing you to watch the world go by. It made for a uniquely Ghanian experience. Breakfast was the usual spread, made especially for tourists (fried eggs, toast, fresh fruit, and hot water with your choice of instant coffee, tea, or milo) but also includes pieces of fresh avocado and pineapple.  The locals were eating a more traditional breakfast of stew with rice, which Scott was more interested in.

After breakfast we were assigned a new guide to take us on the hike to the waterfall, as our guide from yesterday was taking the students who arrived yesterday on a longer mountain climbing hike before they went to the waterfall. The trail itself was relative flat and the trees provided a pleasant shade in the morning heat.

Along the way, this land crab crossed our path. Our guide picked it up so Becky could take a picture. She implored him not to kill it and just return it to the jungle. She would have be just as happy to take a picture of it in its natural setting. This is an aspect of eco tourism that the guides haven’t really grasped yet.

The waterfall was gorgeous. It reminded us of the waterfall that we flew into on our helicopter ride in Kauai several years ago. The water was so inviting! There was a no swimming sign but our guide ensured us that it was there for the locals, as many of them don’t know how to swim. He said it didn’t apply to tourists 😉

Given how hot and sweaty we were, and how much we had been looking forward to the refreshing swim, we decided to go for it. We had heard from the other tourists staying at the guesthouse that it was very refreshing. One of them mentioned that the water was clean enough to drink, but we didn’t buy that! It was, however, very refreshing after the hike there, and we both very much enjoyed the brief swim.  Scott did look around for the snails which carry Schistosomiasis, and didn’t see any, but we found out later that no fresh water in Ghana is safe from the parasites.  Whups!

We had hoped to also get a chance to take the “village tour”, but alas, we were out of time. We wanted to see the Akosombo dam, and the last tour of the day was at 3pm. As it was, our hike took a good chunk of the morning, and we needed to get back on the road. At this point, there was no sign of the new driver and vehicle, so it looked like we would be spending another day in Fofo’s un-airconditioned Landrover.

Our guide (the girl Scott is talking to) seemed quite knowledgeable and was able to talk a lot about the dam and where the power was used.  It was completed in 1965, and can produce 1020 MW of electricity, about 10% more than the Kenney Dam in Becky’s home-town of Kemano. Since this is the largest dam in West Africa, and backed by the largest man-made lake in the world, we expected it to be significantly grander.  Power is proportional to the height of the water fall though, and the water falls 800m in Kemano compared to just over 100m at Akosombo, so in Kemano the same power can be produced with only 12% of the water flow.  The height of water thanks to the Coastal Mountains in Canada makes a big difference.
This visit really brought home the difference in electricity consumption between Ghana and Canada.  Akosombo produces about two thirds of Ghana’s electricity, and much of that is used by the VALCO aluminum smelter.  The Kenney Dam produces less than one percent of Canada’s electricity.  Canada produced almost 600 TWh of electricity in 2011, compared to about 6.75 TWh in Ghana.   After spending time in Benin, we began to think of Ghana as pretty modern and well-electrified, but this puts some of the disparity into numbers.
The guide also talked about how 80,000 people were relocated and adequately compensated when the area was flooded.  If true, that’s better than we did with the relocation of the Innu for the Upper Churchill Falls dam.
Unfortunately, Scott was pretty animated when he was discussing something with the guide and when he went to put the camera in his pocket he dropped it onto the rocks. The screen shattered on the corner, but fortunately, it was still usable. This wasn’t a good trip for us from a camera perspective, Becky’s camera died on the third day (it was the same one she bought in Greece during our GoingEast trip, so it had a long life). The camera that Scott dropped was bought only a week before we left for Africa!

We were amused that many of the signs for the workers were in Chinese. China is providing a fair bit of funding and much of the skilled labour for the refurbishment project.

After our tour of the dam, we stays at a resort (with air conditioning) located on the river just below the dam. The restaurant had a beautiful view.

Since we’d skipped lunch, we figured we try out a pizza for a snack. It was perhaps the oddest pizza we’ve ever had! What we did learn was what food they had for dinner. They had a pretty impressive menu, but when the waiter arrived,  he listed the three dishes they actually had. So, rather than making us guess (which is what usually happened), we knew that we only needed to choose from the three specific things.

For dinner, Becky had shrimp, and Scott had fish with banku – a white paste made from fermented corn and cassava dough. Banku is fermented in a similar way to Sourdough, so he was looking forward to trying it.  It definitely smelled well-fermented, and had a gluey consistency reminiscent of severely overcooked porridge.  We both tried a bit, and found it to be acquired taste, putting it mildly.  Scott will eat almost anything, but all but those first two bites stayed on the plate.  He doesn’t plan to acquire a taste for Banku any time soon.  It was so memorable, we forgot to take a picture!

 

 

 

Ghana Day 2

Friday, June 1st, 2012

Our day began with a hike through the tropical rain forest. The area was rather hilly, so the hike involved a lot of ups and downs.

On our hike we passed through areas were farmers had cleared to make fields. The most common crop in these fields is cassava, which is used to make fufu and banku. These are two starchy foods that are staples in the Ghanian diet.

Our guide used his machete to cut a path where plants had grown over the path. He also banged his machete against his walking stick on regular intervals. He said the metallic sound was to scare away snakes.

In case you ever wondered what a wild pineapple looks like. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before.

We passed through a cocoa farm, where the farmer was still sleeping on her bench. The “farm” consisted of about 10 or 12 trees in a small grove. When we initially walked through the farmer was sleeping, but on the way back she was awake and talking to someone on her cell phone! When the cocoa pods are ripe they turn yellow.

We had seen these huge snails in the market, but I couldn’t get a picture then. I wonder if they taste anything like the escargot we get in a can at home?

The hike involved a few too many hills for Becky’s knees, so she stopped for a rest and skipped the last 5-10 minutes, while Scott and our guide continued down the steep trail to the waterfall.

 

When we returned from our hike, we took advantage of our room at the lodge to take a shower and put on some clean clothes. We heard from our tour company that the air conditioned truck was still broken, and that Fofo would continue as our driver for another day. Our next night’s destination was Liate Wote, an eco village that is set up to allow tourists an opportunity to experience different aspects of Ghanian village life. The tour company owner said that we should be sure to sit on the patio at Stella’s Inn and enjoy the view of village life. This certainly put an image in Becky’s mind that didn’t align with the reality when we got there.

Before heading to Liate Wote, we stopped in at the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary. Becky was really skeptical of this plan. She entered the village expecting it to be a bit of a tourist trap. It does feel a little like some of these “tourist” things are set up to separate foreigners from their money. This may be our jaded view though – none of the little tours were very expensive, and they do provide some hard currency in areas which otherwise focus on subsistence agriculture.  In the case of Tafi Atome, tourist dollars have resulted in some significant improvements to the village.  Also, there is so little tourist infrastructure in Ghana, it needs to start somewhere. These small tours are at least an attempt to create a tourist economy.

The monkey sactuary turned out to be a pleasant surprise. We began with a nice walk in the woods. Unlike this morning’s hike, the trails were all very flat, which made it quite relaxing. As we walked along the trails, another guide walked through another area of the forest, both guides making calls to the monkeys. The guides kept in contact with one another over cell phones as they tried to find the monkeys – it took about 30 minutes of walking before they found some monkeys for us to visit (and feed).  Because we were there at noon, rather than early morning or late afternoon, the monkeys were far from the trails, and likely resting.  Given the heat, they were smarter than we were!

Our guide demonstrated to us the correct way to feed the monkeys. The monkeys in this forest are protected. The locals belief they are some kind of spiritual beings, and as such have protected this area. There are no banana trees within the monkey sactuary, so the monkeys get a treat whenever tourists come to visit.

Unlike the monkeys at the Batu Caves in Malaysia, these monkeys are tame and not aggressive. They are happy to grab a banana out of your hand if you aren’t holding it tight enough. If you do hold it tight, they will peel the banana skin back and pull out the banana – all rather quickly. Their hands do not have claws and they never hissed at us or showed their teeth.

Overall, we really enjoyed the visit to the monkey sanctuary.

Along the way to Liate Wote, we passed by this very large baobob tree. Fofo said it was the largest one in Ghana. We jumped out of the truck to take a picture. While Fofo was taking a picture of us around the tree, a local man came and told him he couldn’t do this without permission. After some lengthy discussion, we ended up paying the local man a 2 Cedi “tourist tax” to be permitted to take pictures of ourselves around the tree.

As we approached Liate Wote, we could see that some thunder storms would soon hit. We pulled into town and ordered our supper.  It was between 2-3 pm – but supper is usually ordered well in advance, so people can get ingredients if needed). They didn’t have a menu, and Becky’s stomach was a bit uncertain, so we ordered what we knew – groundnut soup with chicken. We headed to the visitor centre to see about a hike to the famous Tagbo waterfall. When we arrived, they said the storm was coming soon, and suggested that we check into the guest house, and if the storm doesn’t arrive, then we could hike. Otherwise, the hike would need to wait until the morning.

As soon as we got to the guest house the rains hit. It poured. We started to think about food and wondered how we would get our supper. Not soon after that thought occurred, a young boy of about 10 arrived with a basket containing our dinner, including cutlery, napkins, cups and everything else we needed. The groundnut soup was quite different from the previous version we tried, but still very good.

Our room was simple, but clean, and had a floor fan and regular electricity. We find that we prefer floor fans, because we can place them inside our bed net – creating a pleasant breeze through the night. The guesthouse did not have towels, so we were glad to be carrying a travel towel with us. The shared washrooms and showers were clean and we seemed to never run out of toilet paper. Overall, a great accommodation choice (at it only cost 15 cedi for the night).

Once the rain let up, we went on a tour of a mushroom farm. Apparently this was originally created as a women’s cooperative development project. This man was now trying to keep the farm alive in a much smaller form that it was when it was directly supported by development money. One issue is that that the mushrooms need sawdust to grow, but they didn’t have a road to the farm.  This meant there was no way to deliver the large volumes of sawdust needed. They also needed to order the spores from overseas. In many ways, it seems like a poorly planned development project (of which there seem to be many in this part of Africa).

Before leaving the farmer (and making a donation to support the farm), we were asked to sign the tourist book. This is a common practice in Ghana, and we found ourselves signing these logs everywhere we went.

We had hoped to do a village tour before dark, but just as we finished the mushroom farm tour a group of students arrived on motorcycle taxis. Our guide needed to go find them a place to stay, as the guesthouse didn’t enough enough empty rooms for the new group. Overall, a nice day in Ghana – and we did several things that we otherwise would not have had we not had the truck and Fofo to take us there.

 

Touring Ghana – Day 1

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

We had a week to kill before our reservations at Green Turtle Lodge, and no idea what to do with it. We don't really like big cities, and there is very little “tourist” infrastructure in Ghana, so getting around and finding places to stay wasn't easy. Inspired by Marie McCarthy's kindle book Travels in Ghana, we decided to hire a car & driver through one of the tour companies. We requested quotes from both Easy Track Ghana and Jolinaiko Eco Tours. In the end, we choose Jolinaiko largely because they had a much better price and seemed a little more flexible. Since we were returning from Benin, we wanted our tour to start in Aflao (the town at the Ghana border with Togo) and end at Green Turtle Lodge, where we already had reservations. The tour would serve the dual purposes of allowing us to see parts of Ghana we otherwise would not see, and it would allow us to get to Green Turtle Lodge without having to go back to Accra! In the end, we booked a 6-day tour, that involved visiting a Kente weaving village, an eco community, hikes to the second highest “mountain” and a couple of waterfalls, a palm wine brewery, a monkey sanctuary, a bead factory, the Akosombo Dam, a Lakeside lodge, and a slave castle. It was a busy 6 days.

Day 1 – Aflao to Mountain Paradise

We took a car taxi from our hotel to the Ghana border. It wasn't far, but with all our gear it certainly made it easier to avoid all the border chaos on the Togo side. The actual checking out of Togo and checking into Ghana went smoothly. Just as we had arrived at a the border, we recieved a call from our driver, Fofo, saying that he had arrived in Aflao. So all we needed to do was walk away from all the touts at the border and find him. Having already arranged transportation made it much easier to get away from all the drivers offering rides to Accra.

We found it interesting that the border staff on both the Benin and Togo sides asked why we didn't speak French. In their experience everyone from Canada speaks French. We found ourselves repeating in our very broken French that only about 30% of Canadians speak French, and that most, are Anglophone. We suspect that because Benin and Togo are French speaking, it is more common for French speaking Canadians to visit here. English speaking Canadians are more likely to visit Ghana.

Initially, we couldn't find the meeting place, but we were pretty obvious – two yovos standing looking at their phones – so it didn't take long for Fofo to find us. Soon, we were introduced to Fofo's beat-up 4×4 Landrover (no air conditioning). We had been informed by Jolinaiko Tours that morning that the air conditioned 4×4 we had been promised was broken, and that instead we would be using Fofo's Landrover for the day – with the other vehicle and driver to meet us that night.

Before leaving Aflao, we stopped at the bank machine to get some Ghana cash (Cedi). This time we used Eco Bank. At first, Becky couldn't get money, but soon discovered that it didn't work when she tried to enter a dollar amount, but worked fine when she just selected one of the values from the screen. The machine only let us take out 400 Cedi at a time (about $200). Since we had to pay the tour company in cash, and almost all our expensense would also be in cash, we each widthdrew 400 Cedi, and realized that along the way we would need to find another bank machine. In hindsight, we should have each done multiple widthdrawls (which we later discovered was possible). The Ghanian Cedi bills are thicker than the Canadian Dollar, so $200 in Cedi (mostly in 10 Cedi notes) makes for a crazy thick wad of cash!

Our first tour stop for the day was at a Kente cloth weaving village. It wasn't really a village so much as a warehouse just off the main road. Becky was struck by how all the weavers were men. We paid a small fee to take pictures, and Scott took the opportunity to talk to some of the weavers. It takes them a long time to make a swath of cloth. Becky was surprised to learn that the cloth was made of a rayon-cotton blend. She expected it to be more of a traditional handmade thread.

It was 1:30 pm and we had not had lunch yet. Becky was starving. Our driver, Fofo, decided to take us to a museum before lunch. Since we paid an entrance fee for the not very impressive museum, Scott used that opportunity to ask the man there more about Kente cloth. After our quick museum visit, we headed out to a hotel restaurant for lunch. One thing to remember about restaurants in West Africa, when you order your food you can wait 60-90 minutes before you see it. Even if what you order is a “simple” dish. This certainly has put our local (Ottawa) Ethopian restaurants into perspective – since we are accustomed to North American restaurant time standards, we always thought the service at the Ethopian restaurant was really slow – now we realize that it was just authentic timing!

After our late lunch, our day was not over yet. We thought we were headed towards our hotel as the day was getting on, but it turned out we were making our way to the village nearest the second highest mountain in Ghana – Mount Gemi. The drive up to the mountain village, Amedzofe, reminded us very much of a trip up to Monte Verde cloud forest in Costa Rica. The roads really needed a 4×4 to traverse. There were a lot of hair-pin turns and rough patches, but as we climbed the views were spectacular. When we arrived in the town the weather was looking rather threatening, with thunder storms approaching. Rather than stop at the visitor centre, we picked up a guide and headed straight to the base of the trail. We would do the hike first, and then return to the visitor centre to register. Our 4×4 made it most of the way to the top, leaving only a short 10-minute hike.

The hike and the discussion with the guide turned out to be the highlight of our day. The guide told us about his community and the neighbouring communities of the same “tribe”, six in total. They shared a language and were lead by the same chief. There were no trotros (mini-van buses) between the villages, and although you could see them all from the mountain top it was not easy to get from one to the other. To visit a neighbouring village you needed to hire a car and it could be over an hour drive.

Our final destination for the day was the Biakpa Mountain Paradise Lodge. Unfortunately, the open air bar that overlooks the valley, which they are famous for, burned down the week before. It was a shame, as we could see the charred remains of the deck and the hillside that had burned. Fortunately, the restaurant was still operational and had a nice atmosphere. Upon arrival, we were asked to place our order for dinner. We would soon learn that this was a normal practice – ordering your meal several hours before you wanted it. After ordering and confirming how long it would take, we recessed to our room for a nice cool shower before supper. For supper Scott ordered ground nut (aka peanut) soup with chicken and fufu (ground cassava). Becky ordered stirfy vegitables with rice. When the food came, we both got ground nut soup with chicken, Becky got glutenous rice, and Scott got fufu. We would soon learn that even though something is on the menu doesn't mean they actually have it! Although this was the only place where they didn't tell us they didn't have it – they just substituted for what they had. Fortunately, the groundnut soup with chicken and rice was delicious.

It was our first stay in a “budget” range hotel in Ghana, so we didn't know what to expect. It was certainly adaquate for our needs, but we were happy to be carrying our own bednet. This was the first night that we felt we actually needed it (we had used it at Marianne's but she also had netting in the windows and it wasn't really necessary there). In highsight, we would rate the hotel poorly. Compared to the other budget places we stayed in Ghana, it was expensive and not particularly clean.

The Kente clothe villiage. This particular place seemed to be the place where several different guides brought their guests – as there was another group of yovos arriving just as we left.

A weaver at work.

Becky climbing into the backseat of the Land Rover.

A typical Ghanian school house. We found it amusing that the buildings were painted using the same colour scheme as the children's uniforms. The tan/brown uniforms were worn by students of the government run schools.

Standing atop Mount Gemi, as the weather moved in.

If you look closely, you can see the cross at the top of Mount Gemi on the left side of the picture, and the rains moving in on us.

The charred remains of the bar at Mountain Paradise alongside a large terminate hill.

Our hotel room with our bednet hung.

 

Compared to Benin, the Internet we received from my phone was “high-speed”. When the phone is acting as an Internet router, it eats the battery, so we had to plug it in while we used it.

 

Crossing Togo and relaxing in Lomé

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

Since we were almost at the Togo border, and didn't want the inflexibility of the bus, we decided to take a taxi from Doutou to the Benin/Togo border and then take some form of local transport (shared-taxi) across Togo to Lomé. In many ways that sounds more challenging than it actually is. Marianne arranged the first taxi for us – her usual driver picked us up and brought us right to the border. Since we'd been through the border in the other direction, we didn't find this border crossing at all challenging. We also saw the official price list for Togo Visa for Canadians and discovered that indeed we had not been ripped off. Our visas were 20,000 CFA each (a bit more than $40 CAD).

From there, we had learned from both Logan and Marianne that after clearing customs we needed to just keep walking until we reached the area of shared taxis. We had many people offer us rides to Lomé, so getting there wasn't going to be an issue. The issue was getting there without overpaying too much. So, we walked away from the border and the rush of people offering us rides, after about 300 meters the crowd became less, and then after about 500 m a shared taxi with two people in it asked if we wanted a ride to Lomé. Since it already had people, we could confirm that we were paying the same price as the other person in the back seat (1000 CFA, or $2 each) for the ride from the Benin/Togo border to the central area in Lomé, about 50km and 1.5 hours. At one point the driver stopped to pick up another person for the front seat (so two people pretty much sitting atop one another). We were a little worried about getting a fourth in the back seat, but we may have paid a bit of a premium to have only 3 of us (it was 1000 instead of 700 or 800). It worked out remarkably well.

When we arrived in Lomé we were dropped off at the intersection of the coastal highway and the central market. We were immediately swarmed by Zem drivers wanting to take us to our hotel. One of them promised not to drive to fast, and we negotiated a reasonable rate (300 CFA each). Becky had hoped for a real taxi, but we were not sure if they existed in Lomé – expecting that much like Cotonou, car taxis were few (in the end, we discovered that car taxis were more common in Lomé). The Zem drivers did indeed drive slowly, and since we had packed light, it wasn't a big deal to hop on the back of a motorcycle with all our bags.

The coastal highway through Togo was better than we remembered. The first few km were a morass of dirt and mud due to construction, but the rest of the road until Lomé was paved and in pretty good condition. At the Lomé port, we hit some more road construction, and a messy detour, but it only added 45 minutes or so to the drive.

In Lomé, we stayed at the Hotel Belle-Vue. We quickly discovered that the promised wireless internet was lightening fast compared to our internet connections in Benin. We took advantage of that, and the fact that the hotel had one of the best French restaurants in Lomé to enjoy a couple of days of catching up on writing blog posts, and organizing our remaining week and a half in Ghana.

Our sense of accomplishment the first day did lead to a pretty major “mistake”. After dinner, Becky was so focussed on not forgetting her phone on the table that she forgot her purse! At the time, her purse contained both our passports and Scott's iPad. Fortunately, one of the waitresses at the restaurant brought it to the front desk of the hotel. Once we discovered it was missing, Scott retrieved it and we found nothing missing. Amazing. Note that although the hotel had a nice French restaurant the place was pretty basic. From a North American perspective, it would be comparable to a mid to low end motor hotel (thin towels, doors that closed but didn't quite seal). Great by African standards (our room had AC after all) but not by North American standards. This makes it all the more amazing that the purse was returned in the condition it was left!

We did venture out of the hotel compound for a brief walk to get a sense of how far the Ghana border was (not far, under 1km). The walk was long enough for Becky to buy a beaded necklace. Scott was not comfortable walking around having read the guidebook warnings about the beach, but the people we met were really friendly. Probably the guidebooks have us a little too paranoid, although walking at night is likely still a bad idea. One young child even sang us the Yovo song as we walked along her street.

Before leaving Cotonou, we had successfully booked our last four nights at the Green Turtle Lodge on the coast in the western most province of Ghana. Whilst in Lomé, we managed to setup a six day tour with Jolinaiko Eco Tours. We rented a car and driver (actually a 4×4 and driver) to pick us up in Aflao (the town on the Ghana side of the Ghana/Togo border) and drop us off at Green Turtle six days later. The tour company also booked our hotels and helped suggest an itinerary based upon our interests. It would mean we could go from Aflao to Green Turtle without having to go through Accra.

Gassing up the taxi in rural Benin. We saw many “gas station” that consisted of bottles of fuel put out on table tops on the side of the road.
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Scott walking just after crossing the border from Benin into Togo. We walked along this road until the shared taxi found us.
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The hotel restaurant in Lomé at night (as we were about to have dinner).
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The beach a block from our hotel in Lomé, Togo. You can't see the surf in the picture, but it was huge. There was at least a 20 foot drop-off from the sandy beach to the area where the huge waves were roaring in. There are few if any safe places for swimming on the coast of Togo.
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