Archive for March, 2007

What’s next?

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

The boat just didn’t pan out. Turns out all the boats traveling up and down the coasts of the States don’t usually make a turn out to West Africa. And the people here don’t know what sailboats are. To top it all, I met the cousin of the harbourmaster of the major port town in Ghana (Tema), and he assured me we could work something out, and then he disappeared. My boat has left without me.

So, I’ve got a plane ticket from Accra to Johannesburg, South Africa leaving on April 2, 2007 at 23h00. Johannesburg, for those of you who don’t know, has the distinction of being the most dangerous city in the world. Stopping at a red-light in Johannesburg is equivalent to asking a thief to steal your car. Stories abound about people fixing cars at intersections waiting for a victim to pull up. It is for this reason that I plan to be in Johannesburg for about 4 hours – I’ll zip from the airport straight to the train station, and take a comfortable sleeper train across the country to Cape Town. It’ll be a nice overnight ride, and I’ll be able to see a bit of the country. In Cape Town, I’ll begin investigations for taking a boat back to the States, and then I’ll take a sleeper bus up to Windhoek, Namibia. From there, it’ll be a 6 hour combi ride North to see my old friends, family, co-workers, and students.

Weekending in Togo with Seth Bennett

Thursday, March 29th, 2007

Shortly after I sent out the email announcing this site, a friend from my days in Peace Corps Namibia replied saying he was in Lomé, Togo. (Togo is that really thin country next to Ghana in West Africa, and taking public transportation from Accra, takes about 3 hours, US$4.) He was working for the embassy, had a car, and said I was welcome to visit. I was basically like “hell yeah!” 2-3 hours north of Lomé, there’s a rainforest and a small mountain to climb, so we planned to drive up there and see what we could find.

After obtaining a visa for Togo (took about 5 hours to process, US$21 = 6 months, multiple entry), I took a trotro over to the border town between Ghana and Togo. Border towns are always hectic, and full of people trying to rip you off in any way, but usually there are people who will help you if you put on a helpless face. A kind woman also going to Togo decided to help escort me through the border-crossing process, and within 20 minutes I was happily taking a taxi to Lomé’s center. From there, a motorcycle taxi took me to the new US Embassy building.

Seth came out and we had our reunion greetings. We got in his car and left. First stop – the DCM’s home (Deputy Chief of Mission, the guy immediately under the Ambassador). Far from thinking himself too important to mingle with underlings, Jack was a very friendly guy! We went to use his air compressor to pump up Seth’s tires for a couple days of driving, and we ended up spending a few hours just drinking a few beers and chatting how the family structures in Africa don’t lend themselves to capitalism. He also had a few tips on where to visit the next day, and provided what is becoming his specialty – a hand-drawn map of things to see while we were up there. Two other embassy guys came over around 7, and we all went out to dinner at a German restaurant that had excellent Weinerschnitzel (sp?) and great wheat beer. That stuff’s hard to find in these parts.

After dinner, we went to Seth’s house (provided by the Gov’t), and crashed. The next day, I got to see the generosity of the US Government to its foreign service staff. They’ve provided Seth with a beautiful and large house in which to stay, full of American appliances and things that made it more like home. When you’re inside, you have no idea that you’re still in a developing country.He has satellite TV that gets AFN (Armed Forces Network) which is a series of channels that shows all the up-to-date American shows we get at home. A massive generator automatically kicks in 15 seconds after the power cuts out (which happens often), and a good-sized backyard is ready for picnics and football.

We left in the morning for Kpalimé, where the mountains are. It was a pleasant drive (once we were out of town) through large expanses of green fields and by small towns. We picked up some FanMilk on the way (US$0.30 for delicious icecream in a bag), and made it in a couple hours. After some lunch, we decided to drive up Mount Klouto (video).

It wasn’t too high, but it was a beautiful area, and anyone used to a dry climate would have loved it. The top was nice and green, with a cellphone tower (video). I had heard that it was supposed to be rainforest, but it wasn’t quite, since it was just before the rainy season. (But then again, the definition of rainforest is that it’s rainy all the time, so lets call it a “wet semi-equitorial” region.) But once the rain hit, it’d be almost indistinguishable from rainforest. The locals said we missed the rainy season by a few days or weeks. The views were pretty – we could see the village of Klouto down below, and across a valley there was a holiday house for the President of Togo on the next peak.

Next, we wanted to find an old German cemetery labelled on Jack’s map to which he had never been. We drove in the right direction until the car wouldn’t fit on the road anymore, and from there we were hassled by some locals who wanted to escort us to the cemetary. All we wanted were directions, but these locals wouldn’t be helpful without receiving something. (People in Togo speak French, mind you, so our ability to negociate was limitied.) It turned out that directions wouldn’t have helped in this case, because after a 20 minute hike down a thin dirt path taking several forks in the path, we arrived at the cemetary. It was a simple place, having around 8 gravesites. It seemed strange that most of the people had only lived for about 30 years.

After the cemetary, we got a hotel for the night, and went out to get some dinner. Upon starting the car, the starter didn’t stop, and after shutting the engine off and locating the problem, the started started to smoke a lot. We pulled out various wires, and tried to cut the battery, but we didn’t do it in time, as the starter had burned itself to death. Awesome.

We wondered what to do. A crazy woman stood by talking to someone who wasn’t there, and a couple other locals came by to ask “having problems?” This was one of those African questions that don’t really need to be asked… the hood was up and two guys were standing around looking inside, and there was smoke coming from a place near the engine. Africans will also ask you things like “Are you there?” as a greeting, so I wasn’t too surprised to hear the seemingly rhetorical question.

A phone call to the DCM gave us the knowledge that if the glowplug was still hot (diesel engine), and we pushed the car, we could pop the clutch and drive back to Lomé that night, rather than having it towed the next day 2 hours back to Lomé. A guy named Wisdom helped push, and the engine purred to life on the first try. We got back after dark with no problems, got some pizza, and went out for a few beers.

The next day we spent going through the Lomé market, watching a soccer game between Togo and Nigeria (Africans love their soccer teams), and eating and drinking well. One place in particular had great burgers, and we also found a place with a hookah later on. Late dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and back home to bed (it was a work-night afterall!)

Inevitably Monday came, and I wished I could have stayed for some months, but the lack of internet would have made me a little crazy. Seth called for a driver to pick him up for work (because his starter was broken), and I packed my stuff. 4 hours later we were still waiting for that driver to come, and Seth’s housekeeper surprised us with a meal of spaghetti bolognaise. We were about to just take a taxi out of there, but after 4 hours, what’s another 30 minutes? The lunch was delicious, and the driver still hadn’t come, so we said goodbye to Kristine and walked to get a taxi. Seth went to the embassy, and I took a moto to the border. Sad to say goodbye, it was a great weekend!

15 days in Busua Beach

Tuesday, March 20th, 2007

My idea was to spend some time on the beach, doing nothing more than enjoying the beach and doing some programming. I arrived and checked-in to Elizabeth’s Homestay, a place I had been to about 1 month before, and was given a warm welcome back.

Elizabeth’s is set up like a compound – there is a central courtyard around which many rooms for family members (most of which are full), and in the one building that has two levels, there are some extra rooms for guests to stay in. Downstairs, there is a small chemical shop (Ghanaian English for “pharmacy”). It is situated in the middle of a small village called Busua, and its about 200 yards from the beach.

As a guest at Elizabeth’s, you’re automatically a member of the family – a feature which worked out very well when I fell sick with malaria/food poisoning (see the post entitled “This is what we have.”), and which you can’t get at a guesthouse or hotel. The operation side of things is smooth. You wake up, walk out onto the 2nd floor veranda, order your pancakes and fresh fruit or omelette sandwich. You’re on your own for lunch, but for dinner they’ll prepare any kind of local dish, or even foreign dishes according to your specs (provided the ingredients are available). Fresh lobsters can be obtained at a relatively expensive price of US$6/pound (you wouldn’t come to Ghana just to eat lobster, would you?), and Elizabeth or her family members will boil it up for you.

Busua Beach is on the brink of becoming a tourist town, but it doesn’t have many tourists. Many hotels are there, and you can stay in any amount of luxury (or lack thereof) you want – prices go from US$4 for a room with a bed to US$80 for a room with everything you could possibly ask for). You can rent surf boards (a project recently set up by a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Bolivia) and kayaks, lie on the beach and soak up the rays, or swim out the 45 minutes (my pace) to the island (be careful of the sea urchins!). If the beach can’t hold your attention for more than a couple days, you can also spend your time interacting with the locals. There’s a junior seconary school (grades 7 – 10) you could get involved with (maybe after school activities?), seemingly regular football matches in the “park” or on the beach, and few local artists and artisans producing paintings, carvings, and postcards. Or, you can walk 20 minutes over the hill to Dixcove and check out one of Ghana’s slave castles (sadly currently being converted into a hotel).

Busua is also home to a few Westerners who’ve become disenchanted with the routine of daily life in their home countries, and it’s even got a Peace Corps volunteer, and they help make you feel a little more at home, make excellent conversation, and help provide a Western understanding of events and situations that you might have seen. For example, one night at around 3:00 am I woke up to people singing church songs. I asked Elizabeth in the morning, and she said they were praying. I asked one of the westerners, and he said that Elizabeth told him that some people pray at night because everyone else is asleep, which makes it easier for God to hear them. (No room for time zones in this explanation though…)

As the beach never could keep me entertained for too long, I swam in the mornings, got breakfast, and got to work doing some programming. A lovely French couple who own the Busua Inn let me work on their terrace which overlooked the beach. That was wonderful, until I got malaria/food-poisoning.

The next 6 days were spent being sick, a miserable time in paradise described in the post “This is what we have.” The Busua Inn people provided me with medicine and advice, Elizabeth had been a nurse for 20 years, the chemical shop was right downstairs, and my homestay family provided food three times a day at the hospital when I finally went, so I was well taken care of.

After recovery, I got back into the swing of things. I took more control of my eating, of my daily schedule (it seems routine is good for me), and continued doing computer work. I found an internet café in Anaji (just outside the large town Takoradi) that let me use my own laptop on their internet, so I spent three days there doing computer work. (If anyone’s arrived on this page by searching for this sort of thing like I tried, the name is Nalex internet café, and the mobile number of one of the employees, Jordan, is +233 24 332 9841, or if you’re already in Ghana, 024 332 9841).

I also met a South African, Allen, who told me a couple shocking things about his home country:
1. The whites in South Africa currently pay between 53 and 58% income tax. This functions as affirmative action for apartheid.
2. Since he and his wife have lived outside South Africa for around 10 years, their resident status has been revoked. This effectively means they can visit their home country, but not stay forever. If they want to renew their resident status, they’ve got to pay income tax on 40 hours per week at the minimum wage for all the years they haven’t been in-country. This amounts to around US$20,000.00 – not some small fee.
3. Taking a boat from Ghana to South Africa is indeed a pipe dream, and that’s the last time I needed to hear it.

I returned to Accra to with plans to visit a Peace Corps Namibia friend in Lomé, Togo, and to fly to South Africa on a promotional fare from South African Airways (US$471, Accra to Jo’burg!)

“This is what we have.”

Thursday, March 15th, 2007

5 straight days of diarrhea and weakness earned me two nights in the hospital.

After self-diagnosing malaria and taking the 3-day drug course, I was left without malaria, but feeling totally weak, starving, nauseous, with stomach pains and seemingly constant diarrhea. I went to the hospital and described my symptoms, and the doctor suggested that everything was a result of the malaria medication’s side-effects. He prescribed some vitamin B and glucose powder for energy, and sent me home.

Obtaining the proper drugs is an adventure. You go to a chemical store, show them the script, and pray they’ve got it. You yourself can’t even read the script (which has proven true for the 5 scripts I’ve gotten so far), so you’re basically at their mercy… you take and buy whatever they hand to you. That is, provided they hand something to you. Finding vitamin B required a visit to the hospital dispensary plus two more chemical shops in a nearby larger town. Finding glucose powder required a trip to an additional chemical shop which was open at its owner’s convenience.

Still weak the next day, I tried convincing myself that if I wanted to get better enough that I should just start acting like everything was fine, and go about my day like normal. I went to the beach, went for a few quick swims, and said hello to some friends. This delusion proved successful until lunchtime when I had to think about food again. My stomach felt like there was a monster inside, tearing at the walls, and daring me to try eating something. I tried bread. Diarrhea again. The place I’m staying has a small chemical shop downstairs, so my caretakers provided me with something like Immodium to stop the diarrhea. Immodium is great for the first 4 hours or so, but it turns out to actually harm you in the long run – it destroys the good bacteria in your intestines which reabsorb liquids, thus causing more diarrhea. But, at this point I was ready to try anything, so I took it and laid down to rest. 15 minutes later I was dry heaving, and knew it was time for the hospital. I took a large shot of glucose drink to make sure I’d be able to make it there, sent a child to bring a brother, and we were off to the hospital again.

The family I’m staying with (it’s a home-stay) has proved very helpful during this time. They cook for me and help me navigate local places and culture. It’s a lot different than staying at a hotel or a guesthouse. Its not just a place to sleep and eat, it’s also like a temporary family. They provided people to help carry me to the hospital and brought food to the hospital for me for two days (the hospital doesn’t have a kitchen), and made sure that I was generally taken care of. It was really the best possible situation other than being with my real family. If I was staying at a guesthouse or a hotel, there wouldn’t be these kind of family-like “services”, and I’d be left at the hospital hungry and confused.

Upon stumbling out of the taxi at the hospital, and wandering over to the check-in, I did the requisite weight, BP, and temperature checks. I described my symptoms to the nurse. She told me that my face was thin and she could see the dehydration just by looking at my eyes. “Have you seen yourself in a mirror recently?” she said. “I’m afraid of the mirror these days,” I replied. She told me that it was time to be admitted to the hospital ward and get some IVs going. I was delighted to hear that someone had a plan for my recovery.

Buildings in Ghana aren’t like buildings in the States, primarily because of the climate. In Ghana (at least along the coast here, around 4.5 degrees North latitude), it’s warm all the time. They don’t need heat. And if some of the rich want to use air conditioning, they only need it during the heat of the day. So buildings aren’t insulated, and walls are made mostly of concrete and painted. The climate also affects the way larger buildings are laid out. In the States, a hospital is a big building with many floors, everything under one roof. Here, hospitals are more “open air” buildings. There are rooms or a block of rooms under one roof, but you walk outside to go between the each room. There’s usually a canopy above the “sidewalk” for walking between the rooms. And walking from one group of rooms to another, you follow a canopy-covered path. So going between reception, the doctor’s offices, the main ward, the operating theatre, and maternity, you’re protected from the noon sun and a light rain.

Arriving at the ward, I handed my sickness description card to a nurse (from the previous nurse), and sat and waited. About 10 minutes later my bed was prepared and I had an IV started. Three minutes after that, I was feeling great. The stomach problems disappeared and I could feel my blood warming up.

I should say that until this point, I was really disoriented at the time, and my friend/brother (the son of the mother of the homestay) was really doing all the work. He stayed focused and told me “sit here” and “let’s go over here” and what to do. Without him, it would have been a really difficult time.

The nurses were really friendly (and cute) and the doctor was friendly too. It didn’t strike me as strange until the next day that everybody working there was very young. Some enquiries revealed that the oldest person in the ward was 25. The head nurse, around 40, left some short hours after I arrived, and didn’t return until the work week began again.

Dixcove hospital was one of two hospitals in the area, it turned out. Since it was closer (10 minutes taxi ride as opposed to an hour of “tro-tro”* hopping), I went there. The other hospital, I was to find out later, was comparitively much more expensive, but had many more resources and could provide “better” treatment.

[* A tro-tro is a privately driven minivan, usually in poor to decrepit shape, which follows a popular fixed route and stops to let people on and off. They’re cheap, convenient, ubiquitous, and not too unsafe (any vehicle in traffic faces the same problems here)]

As the darkness descended, the clouds let loose and we enjoyed a torrential downpour for about 15 minutes. This cooled the air to a fine temperature. One side-effect of being far in the bush however is that electricity is often on precarious grounds, and rain and wind are all that’s needed to upset the balance. The lights went off around 7 pm. A child cried. A nurse came in soon after with a kerosene hurricane lamp and searched for places to leave it. She settled on hooking it to a bed-end, leaning against a foam mattress. “Good move,” I thought. As she brought in the second lamp, she proudly proclaimed what I like to think of as the hospital’s motto: “Dixcove Hospital: This is What We Have!”

Let’s have a summary of the situation. I was in a room with 14 beds, 4 of which were occupied, but one guy died from head trauma, so he was moved to the morgue. Another guy got into a fight and got cut with a knife between his eyes, along his nose, on his upper lip, and across one side of his neck. He seemed to be recovering well though. There was also a boy of 12 or so who was recovering from “I don’t know” as he said. And there’s me, dehydrated and supposedly recovering from malaria. (Did I ever really have it, or was it just food-poisoning?) There’s no electricity, but there is a large generator, but no fuel (“its not an emergency” – true enough). Remember about the open-air construction – although all the doors and windows have screens on them, mosquitos still sneak in. No mosquito nets on the beds. Seems strange really – they tell you to sleep under a treated mosquito net, and then when you go to the hospital, they don’t use them. Also, there’s no running water. Nowhere near the place actually, but most hotels and guesthouses use a water pump into a well. (“This is what we have…”) This means that showers and toilet facilities are of the traditional nature – a bucket and a room for a shower, and a hole in the ground for your toilet.

The first night passed by in 2 hour blocks. I only remember hearing one mosquito the whole night. When I woke up the fourth time, I had finished a second IV and felt pretty good, except for my stomach. When my family arrived with breakfast, the tea went down easy, but it was all I could do to force a couple slices of toast down.

As the day went on, I became bored and decided to walk around. Now on my third IV, and still attached to the IV pole, I picked up the pole and walked towards the TV room. The nurses, doctor, and standers-by were quite taken aback by this – they weren’t used to people walking around with their IV pole. I explained that I wanted some exercise, and that the IV poles in the States have wheels to make this easier, and that it was fine. I got a tacit approval, and continued on to the TV. The looks I got were quite funny on the way. “What is that white man doing out of bed with that IV pole?” they were thinking. Some people even tried to stop me, threatening to tell a nurse or doctor. “Let them try!” I thought.

My “family” brought lunch and dinner, and each successive meal went down easier. My stomach was becoming familiar with digestion again. Shortly before dinner however, I noticed that my left hand (the one near the IV) was becoming swollen. I asked them to take out the IV, as my veins were soft and the IV was likely to have slipped out after the past 24 hours. “This is Africa. We don’t have another needle… this is what we have.” So I asked them to just take it out altogether, and I could start on some ORS (oral rehydration salts – basically electrolytes). This also made mobility easier.

The second night passed without incident, and I awoke the next morning feeling pretty good. Breakfast was still a little shaky, but the doctor discharged me, and I paid the bill:

Two nights in the hospital: 52,100 Ghanaian Cedis
3 IV bags: 30,200 Ghanaian Cedis
1 nausea injection: 9,600 Ghanaian Cedis
1 worm tablet: 3,000 Ghanaian Cedis
2 oral rehydration salts: 3,000 Ghanaian Cedis
Total: 97,900 Ghanaian Cedis = US$10.62 (not bad)

Three days later my stomach is feeling perfect again, and I’m back to work on the computer. Thinking back on that hospital, with its friendly people and cheerful motto, I realize that despite the limited resources, the people there really do make due with what they have, and patients do get better. Not only that, but where in the States can you stay at a hospital for two nights and pay US$11, whether you have health insurance or not? Granted, for more serious issues, like the guy with the construction accident – a corrugated iron sheet fell from above and cut into his brain, who was to be airlifted out to the country’s capital Accra – this hospital just wouldn’t do. But though unnerving at times (I’m older than everyone there, and they ran out of IV needles, and the power went out), I’d choose to go back there if I had the same problem. They handled my sickness with professionalism, concern, and friendliness, and most importantly provided quality health care.

Something is also to be said for these homestay kind of arrangements that are not to be found in the States. Without an adopted family, I’d have been pretty screwed. Three times a day they walked hot food on a 20 minute walk to me, let me knew they cared, and that things were going to get better. One person even stayed with me for most of the time in the hospital to make sure I got along OK. It seems to me that in the States, since we are always so busy, our culture has put more importance on working and money. The “family” services I enjoyed here in Ghana are just that – “services” in the States, and we pay dearly (much more than US$5/day) for that. Which one is better? Neither, they’re just different. I’m just glad I was taken care of!

Out of commission

Wednesday, March 7th, 2007

For the record, malaria is not as fun as everyone makes it seem, and the drugs to cure it, though fast acting, come with their share of side-effects. Please consider me useless for a couple of days.

In terms of caring, I’m at the right place, and I’ve got a mother-like figure to care for me, so don’t go buying a plane ticket for a rescue operation or anything.

Why Travel?

Monday, March 5th, 2007

One thing traveling does is that it forces you to learn about yourself.  Oftentimes you find yourself in situations that you’ve never been in, or even have never imagined yourself being in.  Your sense of security, trust relationships, knowing what you really need to survive and be happy, and even your morals become liquid – everything you knew to be true starts to melt, and when understanding finally comes, everything solidifies again – the new you – or at least, the you that understands the real you a little bit better than before.