Sunday, March 23, 2008

You're In Control, Is There Anywhere You Want To Go?

You're In Control, Is There Anything You Want To Know?
When I began my trip to Africa, my buddy George jokingly encouraged me to rip Africa a new one while I was out here. It sounded feasible enough; under his guidance I felt that's pretty much what we did in China. China, an enormous country of 1.6 billion people and wielding immense potential power as it becomes a developed country, for us was just a puppy that rolled over and allowed us to scratch its belly when we wanted to. It was an amazing realization to slowly realize that as tourists we were just short of untouchable out there. We could do whatever our collective creativity invented, and had free reign as we crossed the country. The experience gave me a dangerous ego.
I knew from my previous visit to Ethiopia and it was reinforced from from my first day in Cameroon that Africa as a continent isn't a tiny animal with big paws. The lion is a common symbol in Africa, and I had to confront Africa with as much caution and skepticism as the lethal savanna animal would require. I had my training wheels on when I traveled with locals in Cameroon, and I was on my own when I moved through Benin and Togo. There, I hit my stride and found that a certain level of daily caution was appropriate to guard me from the occasional chancers, cling-ons, scammers, surly locals and persistent kids. The caution protected me and when I chose to let my guard down, I was able to open up doors and get glimpses into local peoples' lives.

I arrived in Accra, Ghana with my shields still up, and thankfully so. The first things I saw in Ghana were rather shocking to me, considering where I'd been for the past several weeks. I noticed that there existed highway signs, traffic lights, billboards for things such as Blackberry-supporting mobile devices, Canon photocopier suites, Woolworths, and Toyota Camrys. The next day, in the light, I noticed garbage cans on some street corners, and I even saw people standing in a queue waiting for tro-tros (local taxis). There were still the open sewers and hordes of ladies with fish, pineapples, or the fixings for a small restaurant on their heads, but it was apparent that this giant city was pretty modern. It was as if my ears became unclogged after a flight as I began to realize that I could now understand a majority of the conversations around me. For the first time in years, I had arrived in a foreign country where English is the official language.

Boy in James Town

I have this tendency, involuntary a lot of the time, to gravitate to the hardest or poorest part of any city I visit. While I aimed to just explore the central Makola Market, I somehow wandered into Usser Town. Usser Town and the adjacent James Town are the two oldest neighborhoods in in Accra. They are situated on the coast, and somewhere in their bowels house two ancient forts which were crucial in the European gold and slave trade out of Ghana. I suppose it was the increasing number of crumbling colonial buildings, all painted pastel yellows, pinks and greens. Or maybe it was the textures of the cobbled-together homes with rusted tin roofs and walls, benches, and stools made of decades-old planks and rusted and bent nails. In any case, I had inadvertently found myself in a slightly dodgy part of town. The all-too-familiar white-man-in-Africa glare was being thrown my way just as I passed down the street, camera hidden away in my bag. I had become accustomed to these glares, and returned them with smiles. Just passing through, hope ya have a nice day!
When I realized I was in Ghana's poorest urban neighborhoods, where whites are generally treated with derision, it became apparent I would be better off with a little human shield, a friend to protect me and give me license to be there. I wound up allowing myself to be escorted around by a fast-talking chancer who was willing to listen to my rules: I was happy to give him a "gift" in return for his time, but we needed to nail down all the logistics and fees before we got going. American, as he called himself, due to the people of that category being his primary source of revenue, understood where I was coming from and was willing to play by my rules. American turned out to be incredibly knowledgeable about his neighborhood and explained the purposes and stories behind the crumbling buildings. American took me into a few colonial buildings where kids played on the dirt floors while mothers cooked large metal cauldrons of fufu over fires. He pointed out the construction and flourishes that are slowly fading, sometimes crumbling into the sea, often just worn down by the lives that continue on in these ancient structures. These homes also gave me stunning views onto the ports and harbors below. As dusk came on, I ended up chatting with a James Town family, sitting on their wonky wooden benches and talking until long past sun down. As American escorted me back to a taxi, we bellowed Bob Marley together with the music being blasted from one of the neighborhood chop houses. "Don't worry about a thing, 'cause every little thing's gonna be all right!" It was apparent that, just like Cameroon, the locals were tough on the outside, but once the door was open, we could have some great interactions together.

Accra's harbor from Usser Town

Regardless, I wasn't in the mood for the crush of Accra for long. After a day and a half, I headed east along the coast to Cape Coast and made several day trips to even smaller coastal towns such as Apam and Elimina.
Each of these towns are, like Accra, home to forts over 500 years old. First used for gold and spice trading as the European powers sought to combat the wealth previously controlled by traders on the Saharan spice trails, the storerooms in each fort were eventually turned into storerooms for slaves as their value eventually exceeded that of gold and spices. Each fort followed a similar theme: built on the water to facilitate getting product onto ships, lavish living and praying quarters, and horrific nightmarish conditions for humans being sold into servitude down below.
Outside each of these oceanside castles, life goes on with a simplicity that recalls what life could have been like all those hundreds of years ago. In each town, dozens of brightly-painted, hand-made wooden ships and pirogues resided in the harbors or on the shore, tattered flags flying in the wind. This was right up my alley. With my shields still firmly up, I ventured into these harbors, aiming to get an insight into the daily lives of the fishermen, and to get a few photos. It was quickly apparent though that my shields weren't really necessary. Sure, there were dangerous parts of each beach, or so the fishermen told me, but I slowly saw that in Ghana no one really wanted to give me a hard time, and people were generally curious or excited to see me there.

Harbor at Cape Coast

"Obroni (white), where are you going?" I would hear every few minutes, which seemed like a pretty accusatory question at first. Over time, I realized that it was just a difference in manners, that they were genuinely intrigued by where I was walking, and that a simple response such as "this way" with a smile was enough to satisfy most inquiries.
But there were plenty of people that I genuinely wanted to have a longer conversation with. When one woman called from a distance, saying "Obroni, come here; come to mama! Give me a kiss!" how was I supposed to say no? Over the course of a few days, I rode in fishing pirogues, learned about the rules of the fishing world in Ghana, saw how nets are mended, and saw how life proceeds in small, fishy-smelling villages. I sat on front steps, in hair salons, on wooden benches, and chatted with people, explaining what I was seeing in Ghana and how things compare and contrast with my home.

Net repair in Elmina

My time was running short and I wanted to move inland to see another side of Ghana. I knew I would have to go to Kumasi, a large city of over 1million people, and wasn't particularly looking forward to the crush of another huge city. Yet everything I had read said that people tend to love Kumasi, so I told myself I would give it one day. At the center of Kumasi is West Africa's largest open air market. It is in a huge depression in the middle of the city, the size of several sports stadiums, yet entirely contained and even somewhat navigable due to the visibility of the edges of the market up above the chaotic market itself. My first day in the market, I chatted with some ladies selling voodoo medicines, and several men pounding away at sheet metal to fabricate everything from muffin tins to barbecues. Pretty early on, I met a man who was making bags out of old inner tubes. I had seen people use these to carry water from wells in smaller towns and thought it might make a good souvenir. The sight of an obroni cruising through the largest market in West Africa with a water bag under his arm was something the locals couldn't get enough of. Everyone wanted to stop me and ask me what I was going to do with that bag. Carry water? One lady at a sewing machine saw me, drenched in sweat, and yelled out that I must be exhausted, perhaps from carrying water through the market. Before I could protest, she'd thrust her back into my gut and heaved me up onto her back. She carried me in a loop to a few shops near hers, wanting me to see as much of her market as I could.
As one day stretched into three, I became a bit of a fixture at the market. It got to the point that I had a solid map of the market worked out in my head, and had friends in every section. I could visit the slick kid in the used-clothes section, scurry past the fresh beef section, say hi to Amena in the medication section, and Hamza in the livestock section (he told me that the price for a dog was the same as a hen, though dogs are "the sweetest meat you'll ever have"), head west past the bottle-recycling section, check in with the crazy lady who carried me in the dressmaking section, talk hip-hop with the sandal makers, buy another frozen hibiscus tea from Annette near yam town, and then head out to see another part of the city.
What it boiled down to was a realization that I could finally let my guard down. Kumasi is loved by visitors because it is all of the bustle of the wildest city without any of the hustle. They say that Ghana is Africa for beginners, and I see what they are getting at, but it is not just for beginners. I feel I have seen some tough places and grown pretty calloused in the process. Realizing that I could just open up and fully engage with Ghana was relieving. It was a win-win situation with me feeling happy to be there and willing to take some time to share my life and stories with people that were fascinated and curious to learn. Ghana is humanity at it's kindest and most loving. That's something that appeals to anyone.
The ability to let my guard down and be free was something that recalled the feelings in China. I didn't have the ego to feel I had conquered Ghana or ripped it a new one, as I am not sure that a visitor should do that to Africa, but here I had established a great equilibrium with the place I was visiting.

Voodoo fetishes in the Kumasi Market

Everyone's Gone to the Movies
Last night I came across a cinema in a smaller city named Koforidua. In 45 minutes a double feature of Anaconda starring J.Lo and Ice Cube would be followed by Firepower, with some no-name stars. I had no plans for the night, so why not?
I hurried about town and knowing just what I wanted and how to get it, I got outfitted for a night at the movies.
One serving of mysterious grilled meat with chili pepper and onion, wrapped in a newspaper page. One apple. One packet of Mentos. One cold Coke in a can. One packet of orange juice. There is one thing that Africa's got down that we in the west don't have: alcohol packets. Serving the same purpose as mini-bottles, but somehow a lot cooler, I grabbed 4 shots of gin, 2 whiskeys, and one bitters. I was set.
The man that ran the theater was beside himself when I showed up, he couldn't stop grinning, giving me thumbs-up signs and shaking my hand. I got the impression that obroni never catch movies here. It's always been something that sounded like a boring idea when I've seen cinemas listed in my guide books, but in a town where I had nothing else going on, and where the movie would be in English, and in a country where I felt totally at ease, why the hell not?
The theater was dark when I arrived, Ice Cube and J.Lo already realizing that they'd need to survive a dangerous snake. I took my seat among the other metal folding chairs and munched on my mystery meat. The room was about a quarter full, populated solely by men. The movie was shown on a 28-inch TV, whose picture had faded to green in the top corners, using a VHS copy of a Chinese-subtitled version of Anaconda. With the hiss and distortion in the sound, coupled with the large fan struggling to keep the temperature reasonable, I could hardly make out what the actors were saying, and I could only imagine how difficult it would be for people who are supposed to speak English but who are all more proficient at their tribal languages. I didn't see a lot of the upper crust, well-educated types in the theater. But when the movie is simply a snake terrorizing a handful of people on a boat in a jungle, the words are really inconsequential, so as Anaconda and then Firepower carried on, the boys in the theater chatted away, particularly during the dialog.
I imagined that they were talking the same trash I might have with my friends, or that they were guessing at what could happen next. Would the snake sneak up on them? Would the cop have to fight the Swordsman to the death? Who would win?
The gasps of surprise at the most predictable and lackluster climaxes of the movies really made me wish that these people could see a more representative piece of Hollywood's output. Movies can really help one see new ideas or learn about the world, but here we were watching Gary Daniels fight Jim Hellwig. It wasn't meeting the full potential of the art form, but it was certainly serving as entertainment. As boys each returned from their own challenging day tending crops, fixing cars, building cabinets, or hawking clothes, the theater filled to its 65 person capacity and the audience cheered on every moment of action on the wavering TV screen.
And I, the one white man in the room, happily munched down my dinner and got drunk on plastic packets of gin and orange juice. No one made a big deal about my presence, and a couple of my neighbors leaned over to say "crazy movie!" or the equivalent before returning to the action.
I took a moment to reflect on exactly where I was. I've seen a lot so far on this trip, and taken it all in a really nonchalant way. Sure, there have been a few slips, such as the time I inadvertently let out an audible grimace as a fifth, large and sweaty man was added to my seat on a Cameroonian bush taxi, a grimace that became the topic of conversation for the next 15 minutes. And of course when I was tricked into handing over cash to a Chairman who really was just a man on a chair. But on the whole, I've smoothly handled every blow and figured my way through all of the situations I have found myself, to the point that I hardly take the time to realize how amazing some of these moments have been.
I've taken buses to the wrong city and coolly got back to where I wanted to be. I have sat baking in the sun at a tire-fixer's shop waiting for a min-bus I wasn't sure was ever going to come. I have figured out just the right amount and manner of interaction to open up an interaction with a local and get just the conversation or photo I was hoping for. I've turned annoying kids into singing and dancing hilarity. I've tried about every meal or snack available on the street. I've ridden in cars closer to my parents' vintage than to mine, with holes in the floor and sides so large that they actually let in some much-needed ventilation for the passengers that numbered multiple times the car's intended capacity, covering territory in a station wagon meant for a 4x4 with squawking livestock at my feet. I've changed people's understanding of America. I've challenged lying tour guides. I've met a man determined to sneak to the US on a ship. I've gotten over the smell of my own feet, the open sewers, and the incessant mosquitoes and flies. I've received incredible generosity and preformed the same for people I will never see again. I've seen tender, passing moments that no one else will ever see, and I have seen historic monuments that my loved ones will likely never see.
And here I was in a third-world movie theater watching schlock movies halfway around the world from my home, feeling completely at ease and welcome in a world about as different from my own as I could imagine. On the road, moments come at me so quickly that it is too easy to take them for granted, or to forget the details. But for some reason, sitting in that theater gave me the right moment to sit back and realize what I have done so far, and just how cool the world can be.
Tomorrow, I head to Sierra Leone. As with every place I have been, nothing I try to predict or imagine in my mind will ever approach what I will actually see there. I have to expect that it won't be as easy and gentle as Ghana, so tomorrow afternoon the shields will go back on. I am looking forward to having a best friend as a partner on this trip. There's no telling what adventures we will share, but I will do my best to slow down and take every moment in.

Children dancing and singing the "Obroni No (I Won't Give You Money)" song I made up

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