Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Bit of Turkey Before Thanksgiving

We come home from the market in our little town of Gundogan on Turkey’s Bodrum Peninsula, laden with sharp and mild goat cheese, olives, pomegranates, fresh and dried figs, heavy grape vines, sweet peaches in season and freshly picked watermelon. Our knapsacks are filled with garden tomatoes, cucumber, potatoes, beets, spinach, dill, carrots, lettuce and zucchini. We’ve discovered a Mediterranean chicken spice for our kebabs, Turkish homemade tortellini, thick, soft flatbread for our pides (Turkish pizzas) and huge rounds of freshly made filo pastry which Mom uses to make spanikopita pies. One of our favorite stops is the gal with nuts where we get samples, then treat ourselves to the freshest almonds, hazelnuts, and corn nuts we’ve ever tasted. Then it’s a heavy box of fresh Turkish delight. We make sure to sample all flavors so we know which ones to buy from the friendly vendor who gives us drinks of cold apple, cherry and lemon “sweet teas”. We walk back up the mountain to our gorgeous villa which overlooks the Aegean Sea. We bought spanikopita from the same vendor who sold us nuts, which we then eat poolside for lunch along with our other bounty from this weekly market excursion. We also have access to a BBQ which we use to cook up all these fabulous vegetables in the evening. As you can see, a big part of our Turkish experience has been the incredible food.

What a way to live, to heal, to finish our 8 month odyssey. For our first week in Turkey, Terry and I both felt a bit restless, perhaps guilty, not exactly sure what we were going to do here for 30 days. It’s like anywhere we’ve been, it always takes a few days to adjust to the new language, the different currency, routines that revolve around finding a place to get groceries and determining a time table for work and play in this new culture. The kids were more immediately able to jump in and be at home, thrilled to unpack and set up a semi-permanent place to live. Our third day was market day which I think was the catalyst for us being able to finally settle into relax and enjoy mode. We also got into a fairly regular routine of homeschooling in the mornings, then going to the beach or hanging out at our pool in the afternoons. I was in heaven going for early morning runs which alternated between travelling up various mountain roads/trails, or heading down to the sea, or both in one run. On my runs I found a couple of good local hikes to do with the kids, but unfortunately on one of them I carelessly sprained my ankle about half way through our month here. My running wings were clipped, but it has forced me to spend more time in the pool and I’ve finally made a breakthrough: I think I have discovered the relaxing zen of swimming that I ‘ve been envying in others for so long. The kids are all big endurance swimmers now too. Lilianna often swims with me and is faster and more efficient in the water. She is up to 40 nonstop lengths of the front crawl in our little pool.

By the second week we began to break up our homeschooling days with excursions to ancient ruins, a boat trip, a day at the waterslides and even a Turkish bath. The kids are learning so much. They’ve each decided now that they want to be archeologists when they grow up. Dezmond and Riley’s latest make believe game has them working in an office as tour operators in Turkey selling trips to various ruin sites, Kos, Greece and Istanbul. They use air conditioning remote controls for their phones and have arguments about whether or not a one day excursion to Ephesus should cost 50 or 100 Turkish Lira. There are so many images that will stay with me always: Josie’s grin as a young Turkish man in a towel sings and gives her a bubble massage on a warmed marble slab; the boys’ jumping from ancient stone to column to pillar in the 3000 year old Temple of Athena, oblivious to their stirring surroundings, as they chase a grasshopper; finding a family of turtles in a 2000 year old Roman bath, the youngest turtle crying as it knocks his shell against and climbs up onto his Mama’s shell; Dezmond and Riley lying side by side for their massage at the Hamam (Turkish Bath), wide eyed as they get a slap on the bum to indicate it’s over. We’ve been blown away by the ruins here. I get tears in my eyes as I walk over ancient rocks imagining people who labored on these sturdy structures and lived their lives over a thousand years before Christ was born. The temple of Apollo with its huge columns, defines the true meaning of the word awesome. Terry is finally able to see the sights he dreamed of when he worked on the Greek isles picking olives and was unable to see Turkey because of the outbreak of war in Iraq.

It’s our last week in Turkey now and we are savoring every moment of it. The weather in this place couldn’t be more perfect. Every day we wake up and it’s sunny and warm with a slight breeze, about 29 degrees which at night cools to 23 or 24 degrees. I’m going to miss our evenings walking home from town still warm enough for no sleeves, smelling the fragrant pine trees. I’ll miss the moon we see rising each night from our mountain perch in different shades of orange. The Muslim call to prayer here is exotic compared to Ghana as it echoes hauntingly, artistically through the valley between the mountains and the sea. I’ll miss reading or playing “President/Janitor” with the kids outside on our patio before bedtime. Mostly I think I’ll miss our family time together with no pressures, responsibilities or stress. We’re not ruled by work, school, or the clock. It will be wonderful to be home again with family, friends, school, work and a regular routine, but it will be hard to replicate ever again the time we’ve spent here on the Aegean sea. The other night I reminded the kids, “You have no idea how lucky you are to have this”. Riley very innocently yet wisely replied, “Yes we do, cause you keep telling us that”. So now I think I’ll just leave it at that and let them experience it and hold it in their hearts as I do, each in their own individual way.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Moving On

I’m sitting here on the balcony of our little apartment, on the Greek island of Kos. It’s 9:30 PM and still bare shoulders warm with a breeze that keeps it comfortable, and carries the scent of eucalyptus. It’s much dryer here then Ghana, although nothing like Edmonton. Terry and I wondered if perhaps we might have been ready to fly back to Canada on August 29th instead of coming to Greece and Turkey. After getting fever chilled to the bone on transit through London yesterday and overhearing parents talking to their children about starting school this week however, I knew we made the right decision. We got off the plane in Kos, exhausted from our overnight flight (Accra, Ghana to London), and from a day spent in airports, then we let the warm air kiss us as we pulled off layers of clothes, breathing a sigh of relief.

We are going through culture shock of a different sort here as we walk in bare feet on white tiled floors that don’t turn our feet black. Or as I go 2 doors down from our apartment and have a wide choice of breads, cereals, salty snacks, cheeses, granola bars, yogurts and fruit. I can buy grapes, wash them under the tap and eat; no peeling, cutting or salt water soaking required. It makes one want to buy and eat everything in sight. We’re remembering part of what motivated us to volunteer in Africa in the first place, the pit of consumerism and indulgence. We can drink tap water and walk along quiet sidewalks. In London I was struck by how clean, shiny and modern everything was as we made our way between airports so easily (and expensively). We are in a very touristy town filled with large, white Europeans, not unlike our past holiday visits Mexico, filled with large white North Americans. Sadly, our kids get glared at and judged at times rather than welcomed with open arms like everywhere in Ghana. We need to relearn the boundaries of personal space and noise here compared to Ghana where everything and everyone is loud and up close. We’ve become accustomed to it and have taken it on ourselves, but many people here are taking offense. We are discovering all sorts of beach etiquette that we seem to keep messing up. Also we had to explain to the kids about why so many women were without tops on the beach and how we will be seeing many more smokers here in Europe (virtually non-existent in Ghana).

In spite of the culture shock though we are quickly falling in love with Kos and its constant sunshine, breeze and turquoise blue sea which is salty enough to float easily in deep water. Today was spent taking in all the newness and beauty, trying to figure out where we fit in, still carrying the dust and fatigue of Africa on our shoes. Flying is such a strange way to travel because you get thrown instantly into completely different cultures with little time to adjust. There is a big part of me still in Ghana. Riley lost a souvenir necklace which he has been mourning for a few days now and I found myself in London yesterday thinking, “Oh I’ll just go down to the Paloma (a hotel near our apartment in Accra) next time I have a chance and surprise him with another one”.

It was hard leaving Ghana and I had many moments today of not quite believing we’ve left. It went so fast, not just the final days of packing and getting ready to fly, but the entire time we were there feels like it is gone in the blink of an eye. Already I feel it becoming a faded photograph, something distant and getting further each hour we’re away from our African ‘home away from home’. As we drove out of our neighborhood in Kokomlemle, we waved to our neighbors and local acquaintances. As kindly as everyone treated us, we were really just a short and interesting diversion in their lives, like the World Cup on a miniscule scale. We drove past the places that were part of our daily life and which we were likely seeing for the last time. I tried to drink it all in, those final moments and not let my tears spill out as they had been threatening to all weekend as we packed up our apartment and did our final wanders through the neighborhood for provisions. I held back tears saying goodbye to “the fruit lady” (whose name I finally found out was Agnes) as she gave us God’s blessing and an extra pineapple. She was also teary wishing she could see the kids again (they weren’t with me this time). I finally lost it in church as they sang many of our favorite songs and the congregation swayed together, singing loud, smiling and waving their hankies. I was also touched by the readings about humility, the first being last and the last first. One of the women who did laundry and cleaned for us is a mother of 3 young children. As she sits on the ground scrubbing our clothes, her baby is drinking milk from her breast and the other two fend for themselves nearby. When I pay her, she always bows reverently and thanks me. I wanted to tell her it wasn’t necessary to bow (she has no English except thank you), but it seemed to come from a place deep within her, something cultural or ancestral and essential. Before church she helped me with the final cleaning and when I paid her, I also gave her some leftover food and household items. She selflessly and cordially accepted, then later made a point to come back up with a translator (our neighbor), to thank me and give us God’s/Allah’s blessings. I got emotional when she left and in church couldn’t help but think of her in her humility and graciousness. It also made me think of my Auntie Agnes who spent most of her life working as a nurse in Tanzania. She has a similar gentleness about her and has never made a big show of the good work she’s done and continues to do now in Canada. Nor did she ever criticize the overindulgence of our lives in the West when she came to visit. I hope I can emulate, in some small way, these 2 very different and both wonderfully strong, kind, important women who have touched our lives so profoundly. I want to always carry Ghana with me, but not try to elevate myself in any way for having been there.

Our time in Africa was short, but I feel thankful and incredibly lucky to have had those 6 ½ months with my family. We know we are spoiling ourselves with this final leg of the journey, but I think it will help us in our transition to real life in October when it will feel particularly cold, busy and overwhelming as we begin our adjustment. That’s when the biggest culture shock will hit, but then at least we will be home where everything is familiar. Hopefully our lives will be changed as a result of our experiences here so that we don’t simply fall into old patterns and habits, but allow the changes to filter into our old lives and make them new. I pray that each day we may continue to find joy, surprises and peace in the people and situations around us as we fall back into our Canadian routines and identities living in our Holyrood, Forest Heights and Edmonton communities.

Final African Travels

After finally making it back across the border into Ghana, we stayed on the top of a mini mountain above a small village called Biakpa in the Avatime Hills. We drove up a steep, rocky, deep rutted road to get to Mountain Paradise Lodge, which enchantingly lived up to its name. We arrived in time for the first of several “Happy Hours” of beer and Fanta in a large, open, bamboo hut overlooking a magnificent vista of lush green mountains, including Mount Gemi, the second highest in Ghana, which we would climb on our final morning before returning back to Accra. We also did an adventurous hike which started and finished from the lodge in a loop travelling down to Kulugu Canyon and up again. Our kids have become great hikers and this one was particularly fun as we rappelled down ropes to a couple of waterfalls, one of which we swam in. For the full 3.5 hours the boys were singing and humming the theme song to Indiana Jones. We’d watched parts 1&2 of this movie on separate movie nights here and the kids, especially the boys, are pretty enamored of Harrison Ford as Indiana (who happens to have a striking resemblance to our Parish Priest Roger Keeler). Every hike we did became a Jones jungle adventure.

Another adventure was eight kilometres from Biakpa to a village called Tafi Atome which is known for its monkey sanctuary. We half walked, half taxi/motorbiked to this place where we got to see and feed Mona Monkeys. As we made our way towards this village, I took in the beauty around me and thought of Larry Yakimec, a great actor and friend. While heading down the mountain that day, I got a call, from our friend in Ghana, Anna Hughton, who knew Larry from her days in Edmonton when she sat on the board for the Phoenix Theatre. She let me know that he had passed away and I imagined him walking with us in this stunning locale, knowing he would have loved the place.

After Biakpa, we made our way back to Accra where we took two days to heal and celebrate Lilianna’s birthday early with Jim and Sessi from downstairs. Riley had a bad fall on a sharp rock before we began our travels in August, which split his knee wide open sending us to hospital for 7 stitches. It was a parent’s nightmare seeing the deep layers of white flesh exposed to all the city’s germs while trying to keep him calm. Although it didn’t hurt him so much, he saw the exposed sinew and feared the worst: stitches. He screamed all the way to the hospital where Terry met us and it took both of us to hold him down while the doctor did his work. We had a similar ordeal to face each time we had to change his dressing every two or three days while on the road, as he pleaded, cried, thrashed and screamed for us not to do it. We had hoped to take the stitches out ourselves at the appropriate 10-14 days time, but ended up waiting 3 weeks so we could return to the clinic in Accra to have it done. Thank goodness we did, because infections happen so easily in the tropics and his unfortunately lacerated knee was no exception. Poor Riley, not only did he have stitches removed, but the infected pustules around his wound and on other parts of his arms and legs where he’d had several scrapes/falls/itchies, were popped, drained, and dowsed with alcohol. Dezmond struggled with infections of his own: pustules pock marked his legs up and down where he always seems to have “itchies”. Both he and Riley went through the roof with the alcohol in their open wounds and because they were septic, each had to begin a course of anti-biotics. We made a game out of the horrible tasting liquid though, calling them shooters which we let them chase with a piece of chocolate bar (a very special treat in Ghana). After torturing the boys that afternoon in the clinic, we prepared a surprise birthday party for Lilianna in the evening, which included music, dancing, cake, presents, and movie night.

The next day we left for Cape Coast and Elmina to continue our Ghanaian travels. We visited castles where slaves were kept before being hauled onto ships and taken away from their African homeland. Learning about this piece of European history was as disturbing as it was informative. Such a horrific tragedy is hard to understand for adults and children alike. They built churches and worshipped in these same castles which housed unspeakable atrocities. It’s impossible to fathom how they managed to do this work and not see the human suffering and degradation. The European influence did however create 2 beautiful towns (Cape Coast is actually a city). This is a tribute too to the natives of Ghana who survived and whose descendants are full of forgiveness as they continue their lives rising above their dark history. Elmina felt like Venice; its canal filled with colorful pirogues for fishing, which made their way in and out of the harbor under an arched bridge. Cape Coast felt like Florence as we wandered its hilled streets lined with orange and yellow hued European style architecture. The setting sun created an Italian fresco from our vantage point at the top of one of the fort mounts. It was a treat to explore both towns on foot. We stayed at a place called “One Africa” in an ocean side bungalow where the powerful Gulf of Guniea waves crashed against the rocks below us. It was stunning.

From there we headed up to the second biggest city in Ghana, Kumasi. Terry had some final work to do at a volunteer conference, so we got spoiled in a nice hotel and were able to have a final visit with all the VSO volunteers (the kids’ Ghanaian aunts and uncles). We were lucky to be in such a comfortable accommodation too because it was here that Terry’s health deteriorated (he was diagnosed with his second bout of malaria), plus he, myself and the girls became infected with the same pustules which plagued the boys in Accra. My ankle was swelling quite a bit from the infection and it was causing me to limp, which was somewhat alarming. Being a large city we were able to find a good clinic for anti-biotics and a course of malaria treatment for Terry. So while Terry spent most of his time in Kumasi horizontal in the hotel room, the kids and I got to learn about the Ashanti culture of central Ghana at the Cultural Centre, the palace, the museum and the zoo (which had a particularly active and funny performing chimp).

The final leg of our Ghanaian travels was at the surfing beaches of Busua and Ezile Bay. Terry was still on the mend in Busua, but did manage to get up on a surfboard one afternoon. The kids and I boogie boarded to our hearts content. I think the highlight for us all though was Ezile Bay. We stayed in a rough bamboo hut with only beds, no electricity and the odd ant crawling across our clean sheets. We shared a toilet and an outdoor shower which had a view of our little bay with other travelers. The kids were skeptical at first after our last two places which had hot water and air conditioning. This changed quickly however in the evening as dark descended: we were given kerosene lanterns at dinner and torches were lit along a path that led to our hut. We slept beside the ocean and fell asleep to the harmonies of waves crashing and crickets and cicadas singing under a full moon. During the day, we hiked to a couple of other similar eco beach resorts, to nearby villages and to a lighthouse on the southern most point of Ghana. We also had ideal safe, fun waves for swimming and boogie boarding on our private bay which we shared with one other French family from Brussels. It was a woman and her 2 sons aged 8 & 10 and her brother, his Spanish wife and their 11 year old son. It felt like we were in one of those French films where families are holidaying together at some beautiful pastoral place eating great food, drinking wine and getting into all kinds of romantic and silly antics. When not playing on the beach, the kids were catching geckos with their new friends, then grasshoppers and other insects to feed them. On our last night, beside a beach bonfire, we played a simple version of charades in both English and French. We were surrounded by unparalleled loveliness and tranquility at Elzile Bay, the likes of which I doubt will ever be matched in my lifetime. I kept saying to Terry and the kids, as we sat at the breakfast table under palm trees overlooking the beach and bay, “look around you, remember this, we are so lucky, savor it.” We did. Even when I am old and losing my memory, I feel sure I will come back to this place in my heart and mind, a million miles away from the loved ones that I hope are still visiting me, perhaps feeding me and loving me in my frailty.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Safe Journeys

“Safe Journey” is what the Ghanaians say to you as you begin any trip. It gives me comfort as we begin our own travels through Ghana and Togo. Travelling brings out the best in all if us. It didn’t really hit us I think until we were clinking beer and Fanta glasses over lunch at a dockside table beside a swimming lagoon. We were in a gem of a place called “Meet Me There” where we wish all of our friends and family could meet us there. We very quickly fell into a cadence of relaxation in this little piece of paradise where we were treated to the eye candy of white, white sand and palm trees just beyond the warm lagoon, which was just the right size to swim across. Time stood still in the sun as I started a fabulous new novel and we took turns paddling in the canoe and jumping off the high board. The lagoon reminded us a bit of the Myra in Cape Breton where we spent some days with the O’Briens (minus the white sand and palms). We played checkers and cards and admired the pet crocodiles, hamsters, snakes and lizards. It was the perfect start to our travels and from there, we had one of our first very memorable modes of transport. All 6 of us crammed onto ¾ of a bench seat in an SUV, which had to travel over several km of sand because the paved road had been washed out by the ocean.

As we made our way to the Togolese border in our next trotro though, I was completely mesmerized by our surroundings. We clunked along, squished, driving on roads which had lagoon on one side and white sand, palms, farmers, fields of growing vegetables, clay houses and ocean just beyond on the other. I watched out the grimy windows as life moved along as usual in each of the sleepy little villages we passed, where the families work so hard throughout the heat of the day. Then we entered a whole new world as we crossed the border into Togo. Traffic actually moved in the Capital city of Lome (unlike Accra) as the roads buzzed with motorbikes more so then cars and we saw a beautiful white and blue waterfront stretch for miles on the palm tree lined boulevard. We were treated to fabulous French influenced Togolese cuisine which included baguettes, cheese, good ham, creamy sauces, amazing vegetable soups and rich Bordeaux to wash it all down. We stayed one night at a B&B where another couple from Luxembourg lodged. We visited in French and English with them and our host over bottles of red wine, couscous and veggie sauce, baguettes, gruyere and fresh pineapple while the kids got to watch Mr. Bean. What fun to be in a country again where we are forced to communicate in French for everything. Between Lili, Josie and I, we’ve managed very well in our communications for food, travel, lodging, booking excursions and bartering. By the end of our 7 days, we were thinking in French. I’m writing from Ghana now 2 days in and I’m still thinking in French, formulating questions for people we encounter before I remember that we are back in English Ghana. Language is a funny thing though because English in Ghana, like French in Togo is always the second language being spoken. We laugh at some of the English idiosyncrasies (“How are you?” “I am fine.” “How are you?” “I am also fine. And you?”) in Ghana and I’m sure it must be the same with the French, but in our own attempts to speak French, most Togolese speak better then us so it doesn’t sound odd to our ears. You can see how easily a language can get mangled when people are speaking to each other in their 2nd, 3rd, or 4th tongues. It was lovely though listening and speaking in soft French tones. What a gift to hear and speak French all around us.

The second half of our time in Togo was spent up in a mountainous region near the Ghanaian border further north from the capitol. This was a magical place of butterflies, waterfalls, small clean, quiet villages, a monastery/convent, and 20 shades of green creating walls along narrow roads and hiking trails. We also had our first moto taxi experience in the hills. After an overnight trek to a village, the 6 of us returned to our Auberge via 3 motorbikes which wound their way down the safe mountain road. Our most interesting and comical day of transport was yet to come the next day though when we crossed he border back to Ghana. We left the Auberge Nectar at 9:00 AM in an easy taxi which got us to the bus station by 9:45 AM. We knew we would have to wait for a mini-bus to fill up before we could leave and the one we came upon unfortunately was empty when we arrived. It also looked as though it was still on blocks in a junkyard. I asked smiling, “Est-ce que ca marche?” They laughed and said, “Oui, ca marche bien.” We thought it would be a 20-30 minute wait and I was hesitant at first even to go to the nearby market to spend our last Francs on fruit and bread for the road. Passengers slowly came and patiently waited in the shade on benches beside the old rust bucket. Finally after 2 hours of waiting, I knew I had some extra Francs burning a hole in my purse, so I asked how many more people were needed to fill the bus and depart. They said 3 people which meant 3000 Francs (about $6 Canadian). I offered to pay 2250 Francs which was all I had left. He took me up on my offer and suddenly everything moved and scurried into action as they began loading up the bus. Another 2 passengers arrived, so he gave me 1225 Francs back, but when they went to put us all on, the bus was in fact over full. He refused to give me any more money back and we hit the road once again packed like sardines. The mini-bus felt as though it could break down at any moment with it’s insanely heavy load.

The border crossing was a comedy as we stopped and all filed out (24 of us) to walk through customs, then slowly we bent our heads and crammed back in to travel a few more kilometers. At this point we stopped again, squished out at the Togo border where the border police meticulously printed out all our passport info. line by line in his hard cover battered up ledger book using his ruler. Our family takes the longest because we have to deal with Visas in and out. When we finally finish and walk across the line, we find our heap of a van sitting with it’s radiator out on the ground where a small crowd has gathered to watch the driver work on it and offer any advice they can. After about 45 minutes of the driver examining, screwing and banging the radiator into submission, we were given the signal to get back on. Nobody seems angry or frustrated or in awe of the situation; they all just accept this as usual and go with the flow. Then we travel along a red clay dusty goat trail of no mans land between the 2 borders with enclosures of 10 foot green grass and corn stalks on either side. After about 3 kilometres of this, we arrive at the Ghanaian border. Once again the driver stops, gets out on his side, walks around to the other side and opens the sliding door (it can’t be opened from the inside and normally there is a “mate” to do this, but there was no room for him and after trying to get on, a very large woman yelled at him in their local language and the driver beat him soundly so he was not allowed on, poor kid. We liked him too). So 24 people then find their way out between bags and seats that are too close together, being careful not to bang their heads on the way out. All of us show our passports again, this time to the Ghanaian border police who of course take more time with the family of 6 who have to fill out entry/exit cards. We are the last ones to cross the border line again heading back into Ghana. Everyone is waiting for us by the van and by now there is a friendly camaraderie that has developed among the passengers and they are all eating and handing out bananas. I never did find out where they came from, but we gladly accepted our share, then crawl back into the clap trap.

Ah free at last and travelling in Ghana about 20 km/hour with the driver stopping every 10 minutes or so to add water to the steaming radiator which continues to leak onto the road. Then we stop a little too soon after the last radiator fill and the driver gets out to confirm that yes, the front right tire is as flat as a pancake. He opens our door and we each get out 1 by 1 to sit on the road or watch him change the tire. I am again impressed that no one seems bothered or inconvenienced in any way. No aggression is shown towards the driver. It dawns on me that in fact there is a collective sympathy that everyone seems to feel for the poor guy who has to transport us in a vehicle which is falling apart. The driver remains incredibly calm as well. He manages to change the tire in remarkable time which leads me to believe he’s had lots of experience doing it. We get in again starting with people in the back row 1st, then the third row, then the second and finally the first, with the large woman beside Dezmond repeating like at every other stop, “Push. Push.” (the only English she seems to know) till Dez has just 1 butt cheek on the bench and the rest of his body on me. We are off for our final leg of the journey to Ho. I too am not frustrated even though the 35 km journey has taken us 7 hours. In fact I’ve been smiling the whole way as my boys are flapped in an x on my lap, my girls are chatting in French with a shy Togolese teen, we are surrounded by lush greenery on a mostly quiet road passing through small towns with beautiful women in their bright colored sarongs, carrying babies on their backs and any number of things on their heads, children are running, laughing and waving at us and I have the sweet taste of banana on my lips.

I’m so proud of our kids as we go through all the ups and downs of rough travel. Our girls are navigating squat toilets like pros at dirty bus stations, our boys are managing long hikes and bumpy nauseating bus rides, we have become expert players of 20 questions to pass the time when needed and we are all growing wiser together each day as we learn something new, taste something different, or try something exotic. There is not much set routine or itinerary and we take each day as it comes, relishing each novel experience. Every once in a while, I look around not quite believing what I see or where I am and I say to myself, “We’re in Africa”. It’s an absolute wonder, or as Terry likes to say, “This isn’t Forest Heights”.

Saying Goodbye

We spent the final 2 weeks of July saying bye to some of our favorite haunts in Accra. I think we have each developed a sort of love hate relationship with this city which has become our home in Ghana for the past 6 months. We also found a few new sights and activities to fit in before leaving for our travels to Togo and other parts of Ghana. We found the beach again in downtown Accra, but different from our first day in Accra, we stumbled upon a portion near Independence Square which was not so littered or crowded or intimidating. We spent a couple of afternoons there after mornings homeschooling, where we met Terry for “Happy Hour” on the water at days end. We had a particularly beautiful sunset walk on the beach which we dedicated to “Kookum”. Terry’s Grandmother passed away peacefully on Sunday July 18 and although we were very sad not to be home for the final celebration of her life, we managed our own recognition Ghanaian style. We walked along the beach collecting “Kookum Rocks”, (enjoying the double meaning that went along with the title, finding it suitable to Granny) and shared memories and stories about Kookum. Afterwards, we had a lovely dinner to toast this amazing, adventurous woman who has partly inspired the travels we love to do including this trip here in Africa. Terry reminded us that only 20 years ago on his travels in Europe, he met up with her in Edinbourgh where at the age of 80 she had come to trace her Scottish roots.

We’ve had fun buying souvenirs for friends, family and ourselves. The kids had drawing and painting lessons with the Ghanaian artist who lives below us. While they painted, I got to go into town to buy fabric for the seamstress who works across the little lane from our apartment to make matching dresses for me and the girls. The kids had their final “slumber party” with Jim and Sessi, the kids from downstairs, who we know they will miss like mad. They went to their friends’ school awards day/Jim’s grade 6 graduation at De Youngsters, the school we had tried for 1 day back in March. Then we had our own Home School graduation where the kids wrote French poems and stories, then performed and acted them out for their best buds who live below. The day before we travelled (“we are travelling” as they say in Ghana any time they leave town), I got to have my hair braided which is literally a scalp raising and at times painful 3 hour experience done by another neighbor across the lane who works in a metal shack between our seamstress and our tailor. Unfortunately the joy I felt with my new look became overshadowed by the sick feeling in my guts that came with the realization that while I was across the street getting my hair done, our camera was stolen. A case of “coulda, should, woulda” where a stranger came into our place the day before begging for money (actually scoping our place). I gave him a few dollars to get rid of him. The next day he was watching our house and when he saw “the Mom” getting her hair done, he walked into the apartment while poor Lilianna was in charge. She did the right thing and told the boys to get me while she kept an eye on this guy. By the time I came, he had run off and we thought we were safe until I discovered 3 hours later that the camera was missing. All our neighbors felt as sick as we did and said we should have called out the window to them even that first day when he entered our house. They would have all come together to help us get rid of him. It happened so fast though that even if we knew this, we may not have had time to act on it.

So we say goodbye to our camera, to Kookum, to Alliance Francais and their fabulous popcorn, to Accra Mall, and to yoga and all the kind acquaintances I made there. We will have many more goodbyes to come at the end of August which will be bittersweet. The kids spend much time speaking fondly of home and yet when it comes to goodbye, they are not ready to leave. Riley keeps saying, “We’ll come back here before we go right Mom?” I don’t have the heart to tell him “No”.

Friday, July 2, 2010

World Cup!

It is a particularly hot Saturday morning. People are moving slowly under the oppressive, hazy sun. Most are laid out on benches in the shade of their roadside shelters or under trees. There is a sense of anticipation. Not much is being said, all are simply waiting for 2:00 pm to arrive. The vuvuzela blowers start making their noise as early as 8:00 AM, but they get more frequent after noon. I go to the market and it is bustling as usual, but even there, one finds a different kind of excitement in the air. As I head home the vuvuzela blasts are getting more frequent, louder, and a buzz begins to fill the streets more and more. There is a constant hum which comes from television sets locked on to the sports networks - a hum which has become synonymous with the games - the drone of the vuvuzelas in South Africa, which apparently keep the athletes awake at night.

Finally 2:00 PM arrives and small crowds of neighbors are huddled around TV’s in Spots (little local street bars), apartments, houses, local grocers, churches, shanties, and anywhere that someone owns a TV. The 3rd and final group play game, Ghana vs. Australia, finally begins. Early in the game however, Australia scores and there is a sick silence which pervades Accra, the capital city of Ghana. The game continues and Ghana has a good chance at the net. Some fans go hide, some open their doors in readiness, most remain glued to the screen. Finally Ghana scores, everyone screams, jumps up and runs out of their houses, apartments, churches, shanties and street corners blasting horns, waving flags, hugging, kissing and cheering with their neighbors, coming together as a passionate community. The game continues and there is nervous anticipation again, waiting for that next goal, that next break in the game. So many chances, so much good passing and amazing play, but in the end, it is a tie. A very quiet end to this game that we have waited nearly a week to watch since Ghana’s first game where they beat Serbia 1-0, scoring a goal with a penalty kick late in the game. Nothing will ever erase the memory of that win in our little neighborhood of Kokomlemle where large groups of children paraded with huge Ghana flags, blowing horns and whistles. People dressed in banners, flags, football jerseys, hair paraphernalia, crazy hats and jewelry all bearing the Ghana colors of Red, Yellow and Green.

We feel so privileged to be able to experience World Cup in Africa with the tournament being hosted by South Africa. The fact that Ghana is excelling in the World Cup however has been extraordinary and beyond anything we could have hoped for. Historically, I have never followed World Cup too closely, but here you live and breathe it. It brings everyone together, united in a love of something beyond themselves. Their final game of the group play was a loss to Germany, but even that carried a bit of joy as we discovered that we would still go to the elimination round. On Saturday June 26th, we were at the beach in Kokrobite with other VSO volunteers, all cheering for Ghana as they played the USA. I was completely stressed out. You want them to win so badly and they have all been incredibly close games. It was a real party atmosphere at the beach after that win. One of my favorite parts of the USA game though requires an explanation of a certain courtesy people practice here in Ghana. Any time someone trips, bumps their head, falls or experiences any sort of pain or accident here, the person beside them or the people around them say, “ohh, sorry, sorry”. At first we thought they were apologizing for having caused the hurt, but we soon realized they are simply expressing sympathy. They empathize with you in your pain and let you know how sorry they are for you. So, as the game against the Americans was coming to a close and it seemed very likely that Ghana would win, every time the TV cameras panned over or focused on the dejected American fans with their painted faces and drooping flags, the Ghanaians around us said in complete sincerity, “ohh, sorry sorry” to the TV.

Terry and the kids and I really need them to win this Friday July 2nd, against Uruguay, because we will be in our neighborhood of Kokomlemle again watching with our friends who live downstairs, one of whom lost her voice from cheering on the weekend. As everyone says here, “By the grace of God”, please just one more win!!!!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Rhythm of Living

In my last blog I said we were putting our heads down to get through to the end of June. I don’t think that sums it up well enough though. Our first 3 months here were a bit of an adventure. Everything was fresh, exciting, scary, fun and very different from the world we know. Even when we thought we were living, it was more like “playing house”. So what’s happening now is not as bleak as I made it sound; it is simply real living and it just happens to be in Accra, Ghana. We dread Mondays and live for the weekend, which is not so different from home. We have wonderful times at the pool, the beach, playing soccer, visiting friends, going to school functions and birthday parties, movie night, going out for dinner, going to cultural events at Alliance Francais etc. But each weeknight we still have to walk home from school, do homework, make lunches, cook supper, clean up, brush teeth, and go to bed. Essentially, this is not dissimilar to home, even if there are vast differences in the circumstances and amount of time we have to spend. We have fallen into a rhythm where we find ourselves functioning well in our new life, even if it is no longer all fun and games.

We still have our “blue days”, just like at home, but they seem to be different here. I don’t know if it is the heat, the early mornings, or the weekly Larium drugs we take for Malaria, but I have noticed that when I am down, it is profoundly unique in Ghana, almost like a panic attack. It only lasts a day or two and comes and goes along with certain days where I feel overwhelmingly tired and sleepy, accompanied by guts that aren’t quite right and funny little aches and pains. I see the kids and how they respond to various things and I think they must be having similar reactions although they are not always able to express it in words. Terry too has distinct melancholy times, which is unusual for him even to share. Terry and the kids still have horrible “itchies” from the heat as well. All these odd little days and things have become part of the rhythm of life here in Ghana though, which is beginning to feel like the norm. Just as walking in busy traffic and along sewers is nothing now compared to before when after ten minutes we were ready to hit the shower. We used to feel like we needed to jump in a pool every other day, now when Terry and I suggest the pool, the kids often say they don’t feel like it, they’d rather stay home and relax. 2 hours at Church feels only slightly longer then the 1 hour Masses in Canada. Sleeping with a fan is normal now and we are able to wake up to the alarm instead of the roosters, sweepers, crying babies or the Muslim call to prayer. Twenty six degrees Celsius has us putting on sweaters and blankets in the morning, and cool showers actually feel cold sometimes.

We have a rhythm in boiling and filtering water, cooking with 2 propane burners, losing power/water every other week, going to market once a week, then to the farther grocery store on the other day for milk, meat, cheese and a few “Western Treats”. There is something to be said for routines. Once a week, I get to do yoga under the stars doing sun salutations as the sun goes down with a cool breeze gliding over me as I watch the clouds move and I breathe deep. Terry gets to play tennis once a week at the Alisa hotel where he runs his butt off with young Ghanaian pros. Every Friday after school the kids get out early and we go to the pool excited for the weekend and Friday Movie night. It’s funny too how there are beautiful things here in the busy city of Accra that I never noticed before like some incredibly striking plants and flowers, the layers of tall trees, palms and hills in the city scape, some colorful buildings, interesting architecture and nicely landscaped boulevards. It makes me think of coming into Edmonton from Calgary for the first time and only seeing the industrial ugly landscape. Once you get to know Edmonton and become part of its rhythm, then you see the beauty of the river valley, neighborhood yards teeming with gorgeous flower gardens, snow blanketing the city in white and a prolific arts and culture scene.

One realizes that no matter where you live, you will have adventures and fun times, loving family/friends, sad days, boring days, exciting days, times you wonder what is this all for, times you wonder how you can escape and times you wish you could stay in this life you have built for yourself forever. Terry made a good point recently that he always finds joy when people here (friends and strangers) greet you with the biggest smiles to say “hello” or “how are you”, “how is your family”. It sounds trite, but one will always find happiness in the people they are with or connecting with those that surround them. So this is what we are working towards as we make our way over the next 4 weeks in this Rhythm of Living in Accra, Ghana.