Thursday, November 30, 2006

Getting around in Accra

Accra, which is the capital of Ghana, is a sprawling city of about 3 million people. Everywhere you go, there are teeming crowds of people—going here and there, working, pushing carts, riding on flatbed trucks, carrying merchandise on their heads. The scene is chaotic to my western eye. I have obviously seen large crowds before—say, in New York City when you encounter people walking en masse in Times Square, or at a college football game when fans swarm into the stadium, and then equally swarm out after the game. But the crowds in Ghana seem more random to me. That does not mean the people are purposeless—it has more to do with the open spaces, and the lack of sidewalks, and the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of streets. Look at a map of Accra, and you get the false impression of order. What I experienced was constant disorientation (although places did begin to look familiar after traveling over the same roads for several days).

While Ghanaian people seemingly walk everywhere, I was less likely to walk, not because of reluctance, but simply because where my hotel was in relation to places I wanted to see required getting transportation. Enter taxis. Taxis—taxis in Accra. Well, let’s just say that in my opinion while the Accra drivers could hold their own in New York City, the overall experience of a taxi ride is most interesting, unlike anything I have ever experienced.

First, there are the vehicles themselves. Many taxis are small cars. Most have multiple bashes and dents. (In fact on one ride, the taxi I was in got rear-ended in a minor bump, the driver got out, looked his bumper over, then drove on.) Almost all I rode in had cracked windshields (or windscreens, as the Brits would say). Many had fancy windshield wipers that at night were lit up with multiple color—sort of a neon wiper. And then there are the signs on the taxis—more on that in a bit.

Next, there is the whole ritual of getting a taxi. My daughter has mastered this routine. I wrote it down the first day and read my description to her. Her response was that while she hadn’t noted that she had such a set dialogue that I got the details right. First, as you stand along side the road and see a taxi coming you wave your hand with your arm down—almost like shushing the ground. The taxi pulls over—my daughter looks in the window saying to the driver—Hello, how are you? (Can you imagine asking that of a New York cabbie). The driver responds, I am well. Then she says—we are going to the restaurant (or wherever your destination is). The driver may look knowing or puzzled. She explains, It is near—and then gives a landmark or nearby establishment. By now the driver might say, I know where it is. He may or may not (I saw only male taxi drivers). Then she asks, How much? Remember the hyperinflation factor. So the driver might say, 40,000 cedis. To this, she says, Oh no, my friend, it is too much. It is close. I go there all the time; it is only 20,000 cedis. Once she said—you are asking obruni (white) price. Meaning, we are white and look like tourists, so presumably we wouldn’t know how much the ride should cost. If the driver persists on 40,000 cedis, she says, OK we get another car. And we walk away from the taxi. Sometimes, the driver relents, sometimes not. (No doubt, you have figured out the taxis are not metered, so the whole price interchange MUST occur before you get into the taxi.)

This entire exchange is most amicable. It is just a necessary precursor to actually taking a taxi somewhere. Once in the taxi, it is acceptable, perhaps even polite, to inquire of the driver, How are you? Or to exchange some pleasantry.

Of course, there is another form of readily available public transportation. These are the tro-tros. The best way to describe of tro-tro is to picture first a mini-van, with the usual interior seats removed, and in their place a double row of seats, very much like bus seats. Tro-tros are like miniature buses. There is even a large tro-tro station in Accra, a kind of traffic circle, where the interior of the whole circle is filled with tro-tros. Tro-tros go everywhere, both within Accra and to outer areas. They go between the towns. There is obviously a driver, but he is assisted by a mate who collects the money and who calls out the approximate stops. I did not ride in a tro-tro, so I am dependent on my daughter’s experience and the description at
this site. One of the most entertaining things to do while riding in a taxi is to read the signs on the back of the tro-tros. Seemingly every tro-tro has some sign, homemade, posted on the back. Most of the signs are religious, many are in English, and a fair few at utterly incomprehensible—example, Beware of Friends.

In fact, the religious signs are sprinkled all throughout Accra, on tro-tros, on taxis and on many business establishment and advertisement signs. The best example I have of a religious sign (having spent only a week in Accra, my experience is limited, and had I stayed longer, I am sure I would have a new “best”) was the taxi I took back to the hotel one night. The driver knew where I wanted to go, and my daughter had negotiated the price, but then the engine was reluctant to start. Finally, it sprang into life and off through the streets of Accra we went. The taxi sounded as though it would die at each intersection. Before I had gotten in the taxi, I saw the homemade sign on the back—IN GOD WE TRUST. Below it was a picture of Jesus, the shepherd holding a lamb. Of course, I got the hotel safely, asked the driver if I could take a photo of his sign. But as he pulled away, I thought—well, trust in God; yeah, that and a good mechanic!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

First Impressions

Having grown up in southern Africa, I very much looked forward to a chance to return to somewhere on the African continent. Admittedly, my husband and I were in Africa this past summer--for two days in Morocco, but that didn't feel like Africa to me. So with my daughter on a work assignment in Ghana, I took the opportunity to visit her. I realize that there will be differences between my childhood experience of quite some time ago in another part of Africa, and my adult visit to a country in west Africa.

Hence--I offer first impressions as my visit to Accra, Ghana began. I am struck by the extravagance of Africa. Riotous trees, people everywhere, cars, trucks, buses, tro-tros, a jumble of buildings, ditches along the road which are for both rain run-off and daily sewerage, women walking with all manner of goods on their heads, at every intersection where the taxi must stop, there are vendors pushing wares. Everything from air fresheners to fruit--apples, bananas, papaya--to pens to toilet paper to sun glasses to jumper cables to water in plastic bags, to maps of Ghana, maps of Africa to flags to key chains to bathroom scales!

Even the air is extravagant. As I first stepped off the plane into the night air at Accra airport, I was hit with a wave of humid air. Past 9 o'clock which made it 3 hours after sunset, the air was so moist it felt like a steambath. During the day, as we ride anywhere in taxis, the air hangs blue redolent with wood fire smoke and vehicle emissions from all manner of traffic belching unfiltered fumes. But the smell is one I remember. The pungence of wood fire smoke that bites my nose is completely reminiscent of childhood.

The monetary system is extravagant. Of course, one needs to change U.S. dollars into local currency, which was one of the first things my daughter took me to do. We tried two established banks intially. In the first, we sat for some time waiting for someone to deal with us, until finally someone said--no, they did not change money here. We could have been told that to begin with! The second bank was faster on the information, but the information was the same--only service for customers. So we went off to a local currency exchanger. He happily handled the exchange. For some $300 U.S. we get back about 3 million cedis (pronounced CDs). So, when calculating the price of anything, I simply removed 4 zeros and got the approximate U.S. price. The hyperinflation is a little disorienting, and since the largest denomination paper note is a 20,000 cedi, one walks around with a stuffed wallet.

Finally the people are extravagant. They are wonderfully friendly and welcoming. They are quick to say hello, to ask how you like Ghana, and to ask when are you coming back. Upon first encountering someone, it is expected that you will go through a brief interchange of--hello, how are you--before you get down to business. Very relational. Everyone asks your name--and if you have looked it up in advance you can tell them your name which correlates to the day you were born (more on this later). And they shake your hand--an interesting variation on which I, as an American, had to be instructed. First you shake as one would in the west, then leaving go of each other's hands by dragging the fingers apart, then finally snapping your thumb and middle finger. It takes a bit of practice, and I don't have it mastered yet.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Going, going Ghana

When our daughter, who is presently in Ghana, decided to write a blog about her experiences, she asked for name suggestions for her blog. She settled on Gone to Ghana, and has been regaling her readers since then with some of her experiences. Of the names suggested to her, one she did not pick was suggested by her brother (our son) and I have decided to use it for this entry.

I do not have much to say today, excepting that I will not be blogging for a week or so, while I take this trip. I have been busy doing all the things one does before undertaking such a trip. I previously wrote about all the immunizations I needed to get. In fact, today I begin taking my anti-malarial drug.

I have also been assembling a proverbial raft of material to take along--for myself and for our daughter. Things like computer flash drives and printer ink cartridges, mosquito nets, magazines, hard candies and soaps (for the occasional gift). I have been piling up clothing on the guest bed. Of course, a country in equatorial Africa is much hotter than central Pennsylvania, at this time of year (maybe at any time of year). So I have short sleeve cooler clothing to help, hopefully, with heat and humidity. I have swimsuits, hats and flip-flops. And I have sunscreen with as high an SPF as I can get--being a red haired, fair skinned, blue-eyed woman.

I have plane tickets, a passport, an entry visa, a yellow-fever certificate, photo-copied pages from various travel books describing Ghana, and a map of Accra.

I have reading material--oh, lots of reading material--to help get me through the layover in Heathrow going over and coming home.

Now I need to get it all into one suitcase, and hope the suitcase doesn't tip the scale at more than 50 lbs. so I stay under the limit.

And so, I must sign off and go PACK!

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Eyes Have It

From the time I have any recollection of my paternal grandfather, he was considered legally blind. He had developed both cataracts and glaucoma in a time when medical science had not sufficiently advanced to make those conditions curable. With the cataracts, his vision clouded, and with glaucoma it narrowed. Eventually he could no longer read, see to drive, or do anything which required precise vision. I distinctly remember him pulling out his pocket watch, which he always carried, flipping it open, and then carefully moving the face of the watch around until it caught in one small window of sight he had. That way, he could tell the time.

To compensate for his loss of sight, he had various capabilities and skills to fall back upon. In his youth, he had memorized a great many poems, and vast amounts of Scripture, so he could call up from memory these beloved passages. I have another vivid recollection of him—he and a friend, William Meikle (who for years taught at Messiah College and was himself a remarkable man: he lived in Harrisburg, some 15 miles from the college, and walked from his home to the college and back again!) would get together and entertain each other by reciting poetry.

My grandfather, who was a minister, also compensated for the loss of his sight by memorizing the number of steps he needed to take to get to specific places. Since he was sometimes called on to preach as a visiting minister, he memorized how many steps from the back of these churches to the pulpit in front, so that when he entered he could stride with purpose to the front. He always carried the quintessential blind person’s cane—tipped with white—and swung it back and forth in front of him, but always with purpose, never with hesistancy. When he moved to a retirement home, he and another elderly man would go for walks. My grandfather loved walking and would stride along. He compensated for his diminished vision by linking arms with this other man, who was unsteady on his feet, but clear-eyed. Thus my grandfather and his friend supported each other, together making a grand walking pair.

He was an inveterate letter writer, and continued to hand write letters to family and friends by guiding his pen along the paper with his non-writing hand, feeling where the edge of the paper was so he would stop writing. When his writing became too slanted, as he tended to write “up hill” using this method, and also began to overlap, he determined to learn how to type. So, blind and in old age, he taught himself to type. Tapping out on a manual typewriter, he resumed his letter writing. He put that typing skill to good use, as when his first wife (my grandmother) died, and he decided to “court” a woman who was a practical nurse at the nursing home where my grandfather lived, he did so in part by typing poems to her that he composed. I found some of these poems among my step-grandmother’s possessions after she died (I was the executor of her estate).

Several years ago, I wrote a biography of my paternal grandparents. In the course of doing research on them, I came upon a story about a conversation my grandfather, John, had with a brother of his, Laban. They were both in advancing years, and as they sat on a porch visiting, they had this interchange:

John: It's not so bad to be blind. I'd rather be blind than be deaf.
Laban: Oh, no! It's not so bad to be deaf. I'd much rather be deaf than blind.

What struck me about this marvelous conversation between two old men is that they had each accommodated to the infirmity they had. Neither begrudged his limitation.

I have been thinking of my grandfather lately and his ability to forge ahead in spite of diminished eyesight, partly because I recently had surgery on my eyelid. I had a small red spot that had stayed put for almost a year. After asking three doctors about it, I finally was treated by an oculo-plastic surgeon who removed the spot, had it tested by a pathologist, and determined that it was a basal cell cancer. It has all been removed, but the presence of such a growth so close to my eye freaked me.

As someone who majored in literature in college, I know that the loss of eyesight is frequently a metaphor for gaining knowledge. Take, for example,
Oedipus. He pushes and pushes for knowledge, trying to unravel the secret of his background as well as the cause of the curse that afflicts Thebes. Time and again, he is warned to cease his quest, that it could only end badly. One of the most urgent cautioners is the blind prophet Tiresias, who Oedipus accuses of lying. When Oedipus eventually discovers the truth, and learns all that he has done, albeit in ignorance, he cannot stand what he has learned, and seizing his wife/mother’s Jocasta’s brooch, he blinds himself. Once deprived of sight, he can fully see his predicament.

And, of course, there is
John Milton, the famous poet who having become blind continued to write poetry composing it in his head, and then dictating to his daughter and aides who faithfully recorded it. Thus was Paradise Lost, Milton’s great masterpiece written. Here is the sonnet he wrote when he first became blind.

Sonnet: On his blindness

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best, his state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Oh, yes, folks, the eyes have it.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Falco peregrinus

Just as I was heading out today to run some errands (with my dog in tow--she LOVES to go for rides), I caught sight of a bird soaring overhead. I stopped to watch, and to my great pleasure realized it was one of the peregrine falcons that makes Harrisburg its home. (Photo at right credit: Joe Kosack / PGC Photo)

Ever since peregrines began nesting on a ledge outside of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection building (!), I have become obsessed with peregrines. In a wonderful twist of situational irony, the name of the building where our Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is housed is the Rachel Carson Building. Had it not been for Rachel Carson, a Pennsylvanian, and her prophetic book
Silent Spring, we might not have peregrines and some other raptors around these days.

When the peregrines first began nesting on the ledge, the DEP set up a
webcam, which I now watch each spring. When the eyasses first hatch, they are lovely little fuzz balls. Miraculously, they walk back and forth on the ledge, some 15 stories above the ground without falling. Finally they fledge, and each year I hold my breath hoping that none dies in the attempt. The customary mortality rate in the wild is between 25 to 30 %, so with 4 to 5 eyasses each year, I should expect some deaths. But I always hate it.

In fact, the peregrines are the reason I no longer put out bird seed in feeders around our house. The peregrines discovered the various bird feeders in our neighborhood (and, no doubt, other neighborhoods), so they would make periodic raids swooping in for easy kills. I don't mind that they eat street pigeons in the city, but my cardinals are off limits.

Anyway, there I stood with my patient dog by my side wondering why I was gazing sky-ward. The peregrine dipped and swooped, then hung seemingly motionless on a gentle updraft. I like to think we made eye contact, and that I, being a tad too large, was bypassed as a meal, but recognized as a fan!

OK, OK--so it's a bit slurpy, I know, but I do love peregrines.

Vox populi

As I began to write this blog, the election of 2006 had concluded, but the Senate races in Virginia and Montana had still not been decided with certainty. They were leaning toward the Democratic candidates. Now that outcome is known: both seats have gone Democratic, and with that determination, the control of the Senate.

And the House of Representatives will be Democratic controlled for the first time since the so-called Republican revolution. As a registered Democrat, I am happy. But I temper my enthusiasm and remind myself of that great concept from the medieval era:
the wheel of fortune.

Tonight, in my literature class, I have asked students to bring a favorite poem, and to explain it. Also, I asked them to provide copies of the poem, or submit them to me, and I would make copies. One student has picked “O Fortuna” the marvelous text that Orff uses in his opening number in
Carmina Burana. That choice couldn’t be more apt.

The medieval concept was that fortune is determined by a great wheel that spins arbitrarily and either casts one up or down. When I was in graduate school, and studied Chaucer, each of the students in the seminar class had to select one area of concentration. I happily selected Religion and Philosophy. Consequently, I ended up reading huge swaths of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.
Boethius devoted major portions of his work Consolation of Philosophy to the vagaries of fortune. Fittingly, he wrote the work while he was in prison awaiting execution. Boethius had been an adviser to the emperor, but was charged with treason and sentenced to die. Almost sounds like some of the political folks we just threw out. . .except for the execution part.

So, why did the people voice their displeasure and throw the Republicans out (for now)? Well, as the pundits have explained, there are many reasons. But, I have my own theory—the arrogance of power. Sadly, when our political leaders assume office, they suddenly become quasi-imperialists: they believe in the divine right of rulers. They delude themselves that they can do no wrong. All too often they become corrupted by power, and forget that the genius of our system of government is that the PEOPLE get to speak. (Never mind all those times the people have become voiceless idiots).

I recently read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful account of President Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. What truly set Lincoln apart was that, once he had won the election, he set about bringing in to his cabinet the very men who had run against him for the presidency. He sought men from both parties, and included them in his team. As I read this book, I couldn’t help but wish for such political genius today, or political humility. What a welcome change that would be from all the vaunted chest beating we have witnessed over the last several years.

Of course, another result of the 2006 elections is that with the Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, we will have our first ever woman Speaker of the House. The day of the election, I had to make an emergency trip to a local garage to get a new battery in one of our vehicles. There, along with other mechanics, was a young woman mechanic. She had greasy hands, wore the heavy flannel plaid shirt that seems a virtual mechanic uniform, and looked as tough as any of the young men. I was heartened to see her, and since it was Election Day, I chatted casually about the opportunity to vote. Oh, she said, I ain’t voted; I don’t watch the news, and don’t know who’s running. Besides, she continued, I don’t care who wins.

Oh, oh, oh! Vox populi. We have the right to vote—all of us. That right was hard fought, and won by inches through the course of our history. Who is in power may change, but the right, no the responsibility, to vote does not. So, keep in mind, that great wheel of fortune! And may those who rule be guided by the genius of Lincoln.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

An Anniversary Trip

Several years ago, for our 35th wedding anniversary, my husband and I decided to take a trip to Spain. Since we had gotten married on December 28, this trip would fall between Christmas and New Year’s. We offered to take our daughter along, as she had studied college level Spanish for several years and could serve as our interpreter and “tour guide.”

We booked our flight for Christmas Day. When Christmas dawned, the skies were leaden grey with a strong threat of snow. Predictably, it began snowing around 10 a.m. and continued to snow steadily. Since our flight was out of Philadelphia at 6 p.m. and mindful of the two hour window for advanced check-in, we left Harrisburg around 1 p.m. By now, there were nearly six inches of snow covering the roads.

Our trip along the Pennsylvania Turnpike was uneventful until thirty miles from Philadelphia. My husband suddenly yelled “Watch out” as a Tracker went zipping by us in the passing lane. The car fish-tailed, then struck the medial barrier, slid back across the right lane, rolled twice and came to rest on the side of the road. Incredibly, no other car was hit, but we were shaken. We quickly pulled off to the side of the road, as did several other cars. We ran to the Tracker, resting on its side, not knowing what we would see. The driver was completely alert, unzipped his window and climbed out.

Once back on the road, we chattered about the “close call” of the careening Tracker. Finally, we arrived at the Philadelphia Airport. The rest of the customary steps to traveling to Europe proceeded uneventfully. We checked our luggage, went through security ourselves and waited for our flight on Delta airlines.

Perhaps we should have seen the Tracker accident as a harbinger of future events, for when we boarded our flight, a short one to JFK, we took off and proceeded to fly for TWO hours. The usual flight time is thirty minutes, so we were attuned to some discrepancy. Finally, the pilot came on the public address system and announced that we were returning to Philadelphia as JFK was snowed in.

We spent the remainder of Christmas day in the Philadelphia Airport, rebooking our flights with overwhelmed ticket agents who had no idea a plane was returning to Philadelphia. With our new tickets in hand, we rushed to secure an overnight room at a local hotel. The following morning, we boarded an Air France flight to Paris, with a connection to Madrid. We endured one more setback when we missed our connecting flight in Paris. The Air France gate attendants were completely imperious, haughtily telling us “Sorry, even though it is early, the plane has left the gate and you cannot board.” Rerouted once more, we finally arrived in Madrid.

By now, we were on “Plan B” for our vacation. We had originally intended to stay overnight in Madrid and take an early morning train to our first destination, Granada. Since we obviously weren’t going to be staying in Madrid overnight, we were able to change our train time until late afternoon.

When we reached the Atocha train station, we were primed for our vacation to begin at last. The next challenge was reading the train schedules with little time. Not only were we in an unfamiliar train station, but reading destinations in Spanish took a little longer. When we figured out which track we needed to be on, we descended to the lower level where our train would depart.

I charged ahead, off to find the correct track. I was loaded down with a wheeled suitcase that I was dragging behind me, a backpack full of my immediate travel needs, a plastic bag with just-purchased soft drinks and snacks, and my purse slung over my shoulder.

When the train pulled into the station, we had five minutes to board. We located the correct car for our reserved seats, and I began to push my way onto the train. Suddenly, a woman got in front of me. With every move I made to go to our seats, she blocked my way. I was vaguely aware of her fiddling around in my plastic bag. My daughter, realizing this was very likely a gypsy woman, said, “Mom, yell at her to get out of the way.” So, dutifully I began saying, in English “Excuse me, EXCUSE ME.” Just as suddenly as she appeared, she vanished.

We found our seats, relieved, and sat down. Then, almost casually, my daughter said, “Are you sure you have everything?” I said, “I think so” but opened my purse to check anyway. My wallet was gone! I was stunned. Even though I knew the gypsy woman was doing “something” I was na├»ve enough to believe she was only fiddling with the plastic bag of recently purchased foods. Of course, that was a diversion for her real aim—unzipping, then reaching into, my purse and skillfully removing my wallet.

The events of the two days washed over me, and I excused myself and went into the bathroom. There, I sat and cried, out of frustration, and out of sadness. I did not mind losing my money, and I knew we could stop any charges on credits cards. What made me incredibly sad were all the family photographs I carried in my wallet, including a one of a kind photograph of my mother who has been dead for more than ten years.

I had to shake off my sadness, and focus on the happy family celebration ahead of us. The rest of the journey was blissfully uneventful. We marveled at each of the lovely Spanish cities we visited. We reported all the credits cards stolen, and made a police report of the theft. Even though we returned to the Madrid train station, authorities had found no sign of a stolen wallet. Somewhere, a gypsy woman was $300 richer, and had in her possession a much loved photograph of a white haired woman.