The English? Let's talk about the English while we're here in London. What do we have to say about them? Hmmm...
Hold on, we're getting ahead of ourselves, let's back up and make an introduction to what you, the reader, will be reading here for the next five months (should you stick around that long) --then we'll get on to dragging these Brits through the mud and analyzing their weird little habits (like pancake day and…speaking funny english).
Ryan and Kirstin (further known here as "we") decided to ride their (further known here as "our") bikes through west Africa; it was Kirstin's idea first and Ryan decided he should ride, too. Why not? (no good answer to that one right now, we'll come back to it later if a good answer comes up - which Ryan is sure it won't - unless parasitic worms get involved - which they better not). Here's the basic rundown: planned departure date from the US is February 18th, or rather that was the planned departure date; February 18th has come and gone and, incidentally, taken us with it to London. Where. We plan. Or rather. Planned. To stay for a week. That too has already come and gone with loads of fun and pictures. Some of which you will be experiencing now:
Departing London on the 25th of February we land in Accra, Ghana where we meet up with local friends of Kirstin, Ryan learns about Africa & works on not using his begrudgingly-bought travel insurance, and begin the quest for visas into other countries. From the coastal city of Accra we head north to Kirstin's house, chase out the goats and pigs, spend a few weeks working on the place, then head out for two trying months on a bike ride to Africa's north-western coast in Senegal. We'll be back in Ghana by June 12th so that Kirstin can fly to the U.S. for ten days to export a group of amnesty international kids (a swell time to visit Ryan, smother him in chocolate and attention, and let him act out for you the many cultural faux pas of the region). We then all travel back to Los Angeles July 29th to try and find jobs.
At least that's the plan.
(Holy smoke! We're flying over the Sahara desert right now and let me tell you: it's big looking. Camels may be cute and cuddly but airplanes definitely seem like the best way to navigate the place.)
Right, so, anyway we're about to land in Ghana and haven't said anything here about England. So here goes...
It's a great place to cycle. We got off the train at Heathrow, unpacked the bikes, left some luggage at the airport and headed off down the road under the winter skies London is famous for invoking a pasty complexion onto its white folk. And what can be said about cycling in London? It's freaking sweet. Cycling lanes everywhere twist windingly through roads that swerve liberally around brick and stone buildings plenty old to make us both go, "oooooh". Incidentally, another common London bike lane practice that brings out a similar verbal response is the sharing of the bike lane with the city's buses. Who thought it would be a good idea to segregate all but the largest and most impenetrable vehicle with the smallest and most vulnerable? Don't know. Only that these gentle giants proved much safer than the average London driver.
Pasty average white folk are not who we visited in London: James and Sarah (who you may remember as stars from Ryan's previous blog entries) are, in addition to being rising Killer Bunnies fans, two crazy cats willing to make it their mission to see to it that we experienced a proper English lifestyle. Fish & Chips, televised rugby, guided London bike rides, porridge, funny words like "aubergine," must have shopping list items like: ‘Worcestershire sauce’ and ‘aubergine’, all were clues into English life. However, those these were good and telling Britishy things, it was Pancake Day that really got the culture moving.
"Happy Pancake Day..." our morning note from Sarah read, "James will pick up the ingredients on his way home". Pancake Day? Could it be? Do the English really? Do the English really, really, eat, celebrate, and demarcate an entire day towards pancakes? Tea and Crumpets Day, maybe, but pancakes?
Yep, and it was awesome. Spending the evening with the rest of the nation dolloping lemon and sugar on the sweet cakes and spinach, ham, cheese, etc. on the savory ones was no less a ritual then facial war painting, tongue piercings, and the standard cannibalism Ryan expects in those shady African nations to come.
Tea time stole the show in it's ability to induce culture shock and residual tremors of caffeine and sugar highs. Looking around the pink chinaware tea-room one wonders what little girl was allowed to decorate such a place, and what kind of society sees it necessary to consume, between lunch and dinner, a breathtaking supply of cream & sugar pastries, cream & sugar tea, and cake loaded with sugars & fats punctually every day? The decor aside, that's the kind of society grown up from indulging between trips to and from conquered impoverished African, Asian, or American colonies. Yummers.
In the middle of all that we took an indirect ride south out of London to the village called Haslemere: home to Alison (another star from Ryan's India blog) and family (husband Rufus and daughter Liberty -ahem, hippy alert-). London doesn't seem to fancy itself easy to navigate. Bollocks to roadsigns, we did manage to escape the grasp of the city and on to those squiggly small roads that squish across the map like a bowl of dropped ramen noodles.
By nightfall we made it somewhere; sometime after nightfall we made it to Haslemere. Dark, cold, and getting late mixed with not-quite-sure-how-to-roam-the-coutryside-toward-Alsison-and-Rufus's-house we conceded and holed up in a local pub with chips and booze. Not long after our savior walked through the door, whooed Kirstin with his charm, and drove us back to his place: Alison and his place. Ahhhhh, that was nice.
The next day Kirstin admitted her desire to see the quiet English countryside in daylight. We saw it, rally car style, as Alison raced us through the flooded narrow streets of tarmac oxcart roads. Whoo eee! that was good. Ryan was giggling in the backseat like a little girl on nitrous oxide the whole time. Destination: Guildford castle. Result: no castle in Guildford but...a Shopping Mall! Mentally prepped for chainmail, drawbridges, and plump tourists complaining of no elevator we instead shopped for stinky soaps, girly jewelry, expensive electronic devices, and a disco ball. Alison, you're as much of a wacko as you have ever been ;)
Back in London with James and Sarah we finished our England trip to visit their biggest stash of worldly stolen goods: the British museum collection, bought loads of chocolate and European cheese, and wound ourselves through the ridiculous high-security Heathrow airport and on to Africa. Thanks gang for a hotel-free and really amazing English trip and final indulgence in western society.
Friday, March 02, 2007
We’re sitting in the Mali embassy…for the third time in three days. The walls of the sitting room are concrete, the ‘windows’ are simply concrete blocks with decorative holes in them, which create a cross-breeze that is quite lovely when coupled with the ceiling fans. The floors are chipped terrazzo and the walls are a bland yellow beige. Not a bad place to pass 3½ hours, which is what we are set to do while we wait for our Mali visas.
(Vic and Eric, our hosts)
Compared to the American embassy (why we went there will be later discussed), the security of this building is nonexistent. Not that the US embassy has all that much to boast about, but at least they have a bunch of guys wearing snazzy uniforms, revolving gates and a metal detector. This place has a nice uncle-type sitting in a shed at the entrance, who greets you with a smile and ushers you into the main building, where another smiling auntie-type tells you that your visa is not yet ready, and to come back tomorrow morning. We came back tomorrow (yesterday) and they said to come back tomorrow morning (today) and so we came back tomorrow morning (today) and they told us to wait until 3:30 this afternoon. So we sit and wait.
We want to secure the visa here in Accra because rumor has it that if we wait until we reach the Malian border, there might be a considerable amount of bribery involved to enter. Seeing as we’ll be on bike, we don’t want to risk that possible scenario.
We arrived here, in Ghana, on Sunday night. On our first day in Accra, after a hot, sticky night with no ceiling fan (Ghana rations its electricity, blocking out entire areas once a week), we managed to ship the bulk of our stuff up to Bolgatanga by STC (a Ghanaian bus service) for the comparably steep price of about $60. The shipment included our bikes, and most of our large bags. We kept the electronics and our small backpacks with us. The rest of the day was spent lollygagging around the city with Vic and Eric, old friends of mine from my Peace Corps days, who we are staying with while in the city. We also bought a phone and now can be contacted at (011 233 249 236149), at least as long as we are in Ghana (until the end of March, and after June 1st). As it was our first day in Africa, but not our first day on the Greenwich Meridian, we were spared the jetlag but slammed with humidity, heat, and big-city pollution. By late afternoon, we were all exhausted. We stopped at Kaneshie, a huge covered market selling all manners of foodstuffs, bought ingredients for groundnut soup and banku (a delicious tangy (i.e. fermented = Ryan thinks it’s gross) dough-ball, consumed along with the soup). A cold bucket bath never felt so good. We are also delighted to report that the discounted natural bug spray that we bought 5(!) cans of at REI works like a charm; we’ve been relatively bug free so far!
Tuesday’s mission was to secure our Burkina Faso visas. I remembered (incorrectly) that the Burkina embassy only accepted CFA currency, so we spent the better part of the morning traipsing from Forex (foreign exchange bureau) to Forex, all of which seemed to be out of CFA at the moment. Desperate and running out of time, we took a cab to the expat neighborhood Osu, and found our CFA there. We then rushed to the Burkina Faso embassy with only half an hour to spare before the same day visa return cutoff time. The secretary here was exasperatingly lazy, probably stupid, and completely unhelpful. Although we were the only ones in the place, she found it necessary to make phone calls about parties and such, and to call her boyfriend. Each time we went into the office to ask a question, she could be found yawning and stretching, on the phone, or with her head down on the desk. The woman inside the office was professional, prompt and friendly, however, and she happily took our passports and money and told us to return in the afternoon. We did so, and happily received our passports with stamped visas inside, our $57 each having been devoured by the visa-money machine. Easy. And the Burkina Faso embassy, does, in fact, accept dollars.
Allow me to explain our passport situation. Actually, just Ryan’s. Mine is brand shiny new with lots of pages and pretty holograms. Ryan’s, on the other hand, is almost 10 years old, and sports a picture of him with what the woman at the Mali embassy describes as “woman’s hair” and what the man at immigration in London said looks “absolutely nothing like him”. It’s old, ratty, beat up and has been through the laundry, literally. There are visas from India, Nepal, Russia, Laos, Thailand, Ghana, and now Burkina Faso as well as entry and exit stamps from Mexico, Japan, England, and the Philippines. There is only one visa page left in the thing, not to mention that its long journey through space and time has caused the protective plastic coating on the important page to peel halfway off. We remedied that in London by peeling it all the way off, hoping no one would be the wiser. However, still everyone who gets their hands on the document eyes Ryan suspiciously before telling him that he should get a new passport. We could just envision the headache and bribery required to get over some of those corrupt African borders, and it was keeping me up at night just thinking about it. The lady at the Mali embassy was highly doubtful that the consular would issue a visa to a passport with no pages to stamp (apparently Mali requires TWO whole pages), so we went to the American embassy to get more pages stapled into the already questionable document. The lady at the US embassy also told him that he should get a new passport, and could, right there in Accra. $67 later, Ryan’s shiny, pretty holographic passport, full of pages, will be available for pick up at the embassy. Eric is going to do the honors of retrieving it, and will bring it to us when we meet again in 3 weeks at the Papa festival in Kumawu, my Peace Corps village. Ryan will have to travel with both the ratty old passport holding all his visas, and his shiny new passport, with all the blank pages ready for lots of bureaucratic stamps and signatures.
After we left the US embassy, we decided to give the Mali embassy another shot. We went there, this time talking to the secretary of the consular. She at first flat out refused to issue a visa to Ryan, on the grounds that his passport didn’t have enough pages, but after some stubborn insistence, Ryan managed to convince her that there was indeed (and there was indeed) a blank page. It didn’t look blank at first glance because the stamp on the opposite side had bled through. But on closer examination, it turned out to be a usable page. We returned the next day, only to be told to return the next day after that, which is today. We still wait in suspense, hoping and wondering if the embassy will find it in its heart to issue our visas. That brings us full circle, back to the beginning of this entry.
Other than visa stuff, we’ve spent our time snacking, walking, sweating, and riding in tro tros (the local transportation). Ryan is amazingly adaptable, it seems as if he’s been here for a long time. He knows his way around the city as well as I do, (it took me almost three years to get to where I am with Accra), and relies heavily on his “manly intuition” for matters of bargaining and buying. The house we’re staying at is in Accra, but outside of the center, and requires a smoggy, trafficky ride into town. Vic, Eric and their son Uncle are sleeping in one room, and have allowed us to stay in their bedroom. Evenings have been spent cooking, talking, listening to music, bathing, napping, and working on little projects. I’ve been crashing out at around 10 every night, 16 months away has erased my ability to cope with the heat here. But slowly, I’m adjusting. I have been dictating the meals, trying to introduce some of my favorite Ghanaian dishes to Ryan in a fish and meat free form, home cooked. On the road, almost all food is bought off the head of a teenage girl and sucked out of a plastic bag. The fruit is great, and we’ve had our fair share of pineapple, coconut, banana, mango, watermelon and oranges. Ghana is great for snacking. Fried plantain chips, doughy fried plantain balls, fried bean cakes, ginger-corn porridge, hard boiled eggs with hot pepper sauce, curried spring rolls, little cakes and biscuits, beans and plantains, rice and stew with salad and spaghetti on top, ground nuts, strawberry frozen yogurt, plastic bags of water, all abound and are happily consumed (mostly sucked out of a plastic bag. Note: steer clear of the meat, vegetarian or not, it’s pretty gross.
I should mention that Ghana is undergoing a great celebration on Tuesday, 6th March. Celebrating 50 years of independence is a big deal for any country, and Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African nation to achieve independence from colonial rule. It’s been a rocky ride for Ghana, with drought, famine, military coups, poverty, inflation (right now, $100 changed into local currency is delivered in a bag), disease and many other obstacles. However, as tough as life has been here, everyone is fiercely proud of being Ghanaian and everywhere you look (I mean EVERYWHERE) you can see red, gold and green stuff…from opulent fabric hangings to key chains, Ghana shaped car air fresheners, and pens with little banners that roll out and have red, gold and green calendars. You can buy a “Ghana @ 50” T-shirt, mug, hat, flag, button, magnet, keychain, bracelet, and poster all within a one block radius of anywhere. Good to know someone’s making money off of their freedom. We hope to be up in the north for the festivities, as far as possible from the mayhem that is sure to occur here in Accra.
Our big plan for what we will do next keeps changing. Originally we wanted to take a ferry boat from Akosombo to the north, but after finding out that it leaves once weekly, and that we’d be on the boat during the big day, and that one recently sank and everyone on board drowned, we decided against it (for now). Then we toyed with the idea of going to the Volta region (a mountainous area to the east) to check out the breezy beautiful stuff over there. However, the amount of energy, time and money required to do that don’t add up if we want to be in Bolgatanga by Tuesday. So now our plans had been to dash over to the Mali embassy in the morning, pick up our passports, and take a car to Techiman, and then head over to Boabeng Fiema monkey sanctuary for a day or two, before hopping in a car and heading home, to my friends, family, dog and house. Seeing as we’re still sitting in the Mali embassy, the plan remains a mystery. All we know is that we’ll be up north very soon, hopefully with visas in hand in a cooler environment and closer toilet.