Friday, April 13, 2012

Revisiting Ghana

I had wrist surgery (minor) yesterday so I'm pecking at the keys one-handed. As such, I am re-posting the final, edited version of "Hey Bruni!" At one point, it looked like it was going to get published in the SFO Chronicle...that point passed so I am using this excuse to re-post it.

Hey Bruni!

“Hey Bruni!” they called in their sing-song cry, reaching to touch our sticky, dust-covered skin and pull our sweaty hair. “Bruni! Hello, what is your name?! Can I give you my e-mail?” Continuing our jaunt down the dirt street I peered at my travel companion, Justine, whispering, “Bruni?” She laughed, “Oh, it means, ‘hey whitie.’” Returning her laugh, I understood yet another unique facet of my Ghanaian adventure. Another new friend approached, inquiring, “Bruni, will you marry me?” Unrelenting, we conjured faux beaus who would be devastated by our acquiescence. Maneuvering the onslaught of mid-morning traffic past corrugated tin roofed mud huts and side stepping open sewage ditches in Cape Coast, we searched out the entrance to the castle just as the morning sun was beginning to kick up the heat.

Four months earlier, I was contemplating my safari attire after Justine invited me to join her for a week in Ghana. She was working at a NGO clinic for a month and I’d be meeting her to explore the country. Lions, Tigers, Giraffes, Oh my! I daydreamed. To my dismay, I quickly learned my wardrobe planning was a bit na├»ve. You see, Western Africa does not have safaris - no tigers, lions or giraffes for this hopeful explorer; however, what Western Africa lacks in wildlife, it makes up for in quirky norms, intense history, and genuine hospitality. With an updated itinerary, we endeavored to explore Ghana from mid-country to coast, discovering the intricate production of Kente cloth, the hum of 10,000 vendors in West Africa’s largest open-air market, the history that engendered the Emancipation Proclamation, and a beach sojourn.
Thirty-two hours and three air planes later, I was flying over the Ghanaian countryside, a scenic and flourishing landscape. The panorama is lush and full of forests of high grasses, plantain, cocoa, and banana trees. Palm trees, golden hued sandy beaches that stretch for miles uninterrupted and a refreshing sapphire blue ocean define the coastline. Villages break up this scenery in mud and tin huts bunched along the roads.
In an attempt to thoughtfully plan our trip prior to departure, I found that Ghana was not on any list for “must see” or “top ten places to visit in Africa” so our itinerary was based off several shots in the dark and the one Ghana guide book (the oft-pathetic Bradt guide.) Travel boards mentioned ex-pat B&B’s and beach resorts “worth the splurge,” but bookings were done via e-mail, suggestions for inter-city travel implied eyebrow-raising challenges, and while Anthony Bourdain prepared me for local culinary delights, he proffered no explicit destinations.
Driving in our taxi to the bus station, a stucco portico housing six benches and a lot of Africans, I got my first real impression of Ghana outside the Swisshotel where we’d stayed our first night. People strolled en masse through the streets, the sun illuminating their beautiful ebony skin. I was affronted by the poverty watching children bathe with buckets of water, splashing in the garbage strewn dirt streets shared with live chickens and dogs running amok. Unlike more popular African destinations, tourists, particularly, Europeans and Americans are very few and very far between. The most up-to-date statistics state that as of 2006, about 60,000 Americans visited Ghana and only 20% of all 497,129 International visitors (no breakdown by nationality) were there on holiday. That’s compared with the 254,000 Americans that visited South Africa that same year.
Kejetia Market
Roads are lined with stalls made of corrugated tin, mud, wood or cement. The vendors’ wares run the gamut as well: mufflers, mattresses, tires, furniture, phone cards, you name it. You can literally see the impact of years of missionary efforts in the pervasiveness of Christianity. The “stores” have names like, “He is Good Shoes” and "God Bless you Business Centre" - I didn't see a Xerox or Fax machine in that 4 x 4 stall. "May you walk with him Beauty Salon" proffered images of braided coiffes. Literacy is on the rise but still relatively low (66% as of 2008) so signs are accompanied by illustrations. The medical hut offered images depicting sexually transmitted diseases and ailments, illustrated with an almost cartoonish quality.
Mid-country Culture
Kumasi, located in the Ashanti region, is the second largest city in Ghana. Our accommodations were a bed and breakfast operated by a Canadian ex pat and his wife, a Ghanaian he met 25 years ago as a Canadian Peace Corps volunteer. Chris and Charity were wonderfully hospitable hosts, engaging a guide to take us through Kejetia Market and get to the Kente weaving village of Bonwire, which was first on our list.
Chris drove us into town where we caught a tro-tro, a shared van, to Bonwire, a half-hour drive from the center of Kumasi. Kente cloth, a type of silk or cotton ceremonial cloth is native to the Akan people of Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire, and Bonwire is known for weaving exceptional Kente cloth. Our wonderful guide, Christian, arrived to greet us donned in a red Che Guevara shirt; he was effeminate and chummy, defiant opposition to the revolutionary teachings his t-shirt advertised. He toured us around, educating us on how the yarn for the Kente cloth was spun, stretched, and woven, his commentary infiltrated with jokes followed immediately by his own infectious laugh.  

Christian allowed us to try our hand on the large weaving looms, requiring simultaneous use of your hands and feet to create the intricate patterns of the cloth. Christian demonstrated zooming the loom back and forth while shooting the spool through the threads at a staggering pace. While both athletic, Justine and I didn’t have the hand to eye to feet coordination apparently inherent to native ‘Bonwirians.’ Walking back into town, Christian grabbed a cocoa pod from the ground, cracking it open and offering us the seeds inside. They are slippery suckers but once in your mouth the seeds are succulent and refreshing, a perfect treat on a hot and humid day.
The following morning, we prepared to visit Kejetia Market, West Africa’s largest open-air market covering more than 12 acres (about 11 football fields). Chris had arranged for our guide, Comfort, to pilot us through the overwhelming maze of commerce. African music blaring from speakers lining the outer walls signaled our arrival. Once inside, I was overwhelmed. Everything was for sale and in such mass it was almost too much to absorb. There were corrugated tin roofs housing two-story “shops” and hundreds of thousands of people winding their way through the labyrinthine streets purchasing everything from fresh jojoba butter and school uniforms to bartering beads and machetes. Masses of people were bartering over carved wooden sculptures, grains and spices, shoes, you name it. We scurried along keeping close to Comfort as she knowingly ambled through the Kejetia streets stopping to explain things to us and introduce her "Bruni" to friends from her local village. Kejetia was hysterical, incredible, exhausting, and totally awe-inspiring.

Coastal Calamities
Knowing a new country means experiencing its culture and its history, a truth recognized recently by a relatively well-known American visitor, President Barack Obama. We’d also traveled to Cape Coast (and subsequently Elmina), to learn first hand about the slave trade, an unfortunate identifier of the Gold Coast of Africa. Originally constructed and occupied by the Portuguese and later British, both Cape Coast and Elmina castles memorialize horrific tales. Elmina is the oldest castle in Africa, built in the late 1400's. These forts, originally purported to host textile trading with the Ghanaians, became the last stop for slaves being sent to the Americas, Europe and eventually Asia. The captives were hunted in Northern and Central Ghana by their fellow countrymen and forcibly brought hundreds of miles to market here.

Hundreds of slaves were entombed underground with only slits in the upper walls providing minimal air and scant sunlight. If our group of 12 was suffering in the oppressive 100-degree heat and 100% humidity, sweat streaming down our bodies, we could only imagine the experience of the former occupants. We visited one chamber that measured about 20 x 12 feet and our guide explained that 200 male slaves were kept in there for 2 months without reprieve. The goal was to starve and torture the slaves so that only the strongest and most valuable survived, saving the captors money on food and reserving the "best" for sale. Our guide concluded our tour with an image, the last one the surviving slaves saw departing the castle. The fated few were led underground through a tunnel to the "Door of No Return" where they were loaded into slave boats destined for new lands and uncertain futures.
There are still boats outside the “Door of No Return”; today they are waiting for fishermen, not for slaves. The scene once dominated by European oppressors is now replaced with locally generated commerce. Hundreds of boats donning the Ghanaian flag rest on the shore awaiting sail. Fishermen sit seaside mending fishing nets. Men congregate on the beaches hauling huge nets out to sea on foot waiting patiently for the nets to fill before rhythmically tugging in their haul. We silently sat watching them perform their dance-like beat, contemplating the evolution of our surroundings.   
Leaving Cape Coast castle, neither of us was much for words. Before we could collect ourselves and reflect, we met a new Ghanaian friend, Gospel, reminding us that Ghana has more to offer than just tragedy. Gospel, a local artist, escorted us (I’m not sure we went willingly) around the town introducing us to locals. One young girl we met was preparing her family’s banku, a traditional dish. Her preparation consisted of pounding and fervently stirring heated maize flour, cassava and boiling water until it became a dough-like mass. Banku, is a typical Ghanaian dish served with a stew or protein. Famished after a long day, Gospel escorted us to Castle Beach restaurant, where we tried our own banku served with fresh grilled whole fish in a spicy pepper tomato sauce - absolutely divine.
Reflective R&R
Culture and History aside, a winter vacation wouldn’t be complete without some sun and sand. We prioritized a beach reprieve on the Gold Coast of Africa, renowned for its warm, blue waters and sunny sands. Still stateside, I discovered the charming Axim Beach Hotel. For $60 a night, (a splurge compared to our other $15-$30 accommodations) the resort offered our own round mud hut topped with a thatched roof, shell encrusted bathroom and a porch overlooking the ocean. Charming! There was AC but as it is run on solar power, we quickly discovered the light, TV, and AC cannot run simultaneously.
Axim Beach Resort
Relaxing on the beach, we reflected on the sensory overload of our week in Ghana. While Justine had been in country for a month, she’d been sheltered in a small village in the west. Traveling from town to town navigating public transportation, social interactions, deciphering directions and attempting to identify places to eat were cumulatively exhausting. Add to that my blatant foreignness (blonde, pale and green eyed), thus attracting immediate attention, underscored the rehabilitative bliss of hours on a semi-desolate beach.
There were no roars, stampedes, or kills in my first introduction to Africa, but my trip to Ghana certainly was my own unique safari. Images of Cape Town wineries and dramatic Victoria Falls were supplanted by UNESCO sites memorializing humanitarian atrocities and a cumulative cast of characters that seemed out of a comedy show. Every moment was its own story, every day an intricate journey. I found myself constantly bombarded with new sensations, emotions and observations, many I was unable to completely digest until weeks later. Returned to a familiar way of living where we were a natural part of the order of events as opposed to anxious observers, only then did I appreciate what I had just been exposed to, a unique world away from my circle of influence; a world that was home to new friends, Comfort, Gospel, and Christian.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

My Easter Basket!

Thank you to everyone who sent me a Peep picture over Easter...from the "Peep Show" to the "Peep Bouquet" to excerpts from the Washington Post Peep Contest...OccuPEEP DC was the clear favorite. "Power to the PEEPle!"

Apparently I've made it abundantly clear how much I love marshmallows. And after 40 days of no sweets and no alcohol (similar to last year), I was excited for my Easter Basket and Easter celebrations this past weekend.

Here's my Easter Basket! It had chocolate covered marshmallows, a dark chocolate bunny, a HUGE s'mores egg, and jelly eggs...all courtesy of See's Candies! Another West coast thing to miss. Thankfully they ship UPS. There is a box of Scotchmallow eggs blatantly missing from this picture...alas, it didn't make it through the 2-hour car ride. We devoured them. At 10 AM. Oopies. That $40 worth of Easter candy was well worth it!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


As I've mentioned here, here, and here, I love snow sports, especially snowboarding and skiing. I don't as much love the snow per se, especially when commuting to work or driving in a blizzard, but I'll take a day in the mountains anytime! I've been on the mountain since I was three years old starting with skis and no poles and adding snowboarding 13 years later. Always a 'good' athlete(I can play most any sport relatively well), I think snowboarding is the exception and consider myself able to hang with most riders on all terrains.

Vail, Colorado
People often ask me what I miss most about California. After almost three years, my answer is always the same: "Besides my parents and close friends, I miss the mountains." I used to drive to Mammoth most weekends, a lot of the time by myself, for a day and a half of riding all over that fantastic mountain. 395 miles door-to-door with a few books on tape and the radio to entertain me...and some of my favorite people too...was not abnormal.

Deer Valley, Utah

So, by the hair of my chinny chin chin, I'm making one of my 2012 goals come true this weekend. The boy and I are headed off to Beaver Creek for a few last days of skiing. I couldn't be more thrilled!

Mt. Baldy - Sun Valley
And the icing on the cake is, it's the end of Lent so I'll be having a margarita and a marshmallow apres ski (most likely not together, but you never know) AND, I'll be meeting the four-week old Tulley, daughter of one of my oldest and dearest friends. Oh...and the cherry on top is that a group of our friends will also be in town for the holiday so Saturday night should be a real hoot. Can't wait!

Mammoth Mountain