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.