Thursday, September 29, 2011

Final thoughts

As my days in Ghana draw to a close, I thought I'd put some thoughts down about the experience. First and foremost, on the whole it's been positive. This sort of short assignment is a great way to break the monotony of an otherwise dreary eight months doing IVs in Manila. Sure, NIVs in Accra aren't the most fascinating thing in the world, but at least they're different, and that counts for a surprising amount in this line of work. One of my favorite things about TDY assignments is that you get to meet an Embassy full of new people. The connections you find to them are a vivid reminder of just how small the Foreign Service is - virtually no one is more than a degree or two removed from any other given person. I'm sure I'll come across some of these people again, and hopefully I've left a good impression here. Even if I don't meet the same people again, I've expanded my "corridor reputation" - name recognition, in other words. And of course that glosses over the obvious positive of spending time with new, interesting people. As for the work itself, it's not all that different than NIVs in India or Manila, but it's immesurably valuable to hear new perspectives on the same questions you've asked a thousand times in a different place. India and the Philippines are both known as high-fraud countries (as far as visas go), but west Africa takes it to a whole new level. And even the people who are honest in their interviews have been found to be far more likely to misuse their visas than Indians and Filipinos. This gives the officers an entirely new slant on their evaluations, and results in an extraordinary level of jade and bitterness by the end of two years. Nevertheless, on the whole they leave this post with a positive impression of the place. I had never spent much time thinking about Africa, and I've found that I like it here more than I expected. One of my new friends here asked today whether I found Ghanaian culture more interesting than Philippine (which, to me, is relatively uninteresting, particularly after two years in the cauldron of wonder and mystery that is India). I wasn't sure what to say. Am I more interested in African culture? Not particularly. Yet I find the city a more interesting place to live, for a month at least. Perhaps that's because it's easier here to escape the chain-store sterility that pervades Manila. Perhaps it's because, while Filipinos are an outrageously happy people who never stop smiling, I've found Ghanaians more prone to start a conversation. So - a positive experience? Definitely. Would I do it again? Maybe. It's tough being away from home and family for so long. I think a month is the long end of what I'd do again on a voluntary basis; two weeks is probably a better amount of time. Having said all that, there's no better way to make you appreciate what you've got than to be away from it for a while. Absence, as they say...

the Floating Embassy

It's international news - my embassy was totally flooded on Tuesday by Typhoon Pedring. Go to google maps and check out our location: landfill granted to the USgovernment by the emerging Philippines government in 1939 (or was it 1936? I'll have to check my cheat sheet at the office). The chancery building was completed in 1941, well before modern architecture practices.

On Tuesday we had a big surprise. In the past, typhoons dumped a lot of rain, and the fresh rain water deluge came at the embassy from the east, causing a mess, but nothing like this time. This time, the rain was comparatively minimal, but the winds were unexpectedly strong - right at high tide. I was driving into the office along Roxas Blvd, and it seemed the promenade and disappeared and the sea waves were washing onto the road. Traffic police started a detour a few blocks further inland.

I continued to drive, to try and get to work. After all, living only a mile away, I figured I would have the easiest time of it. And, if any visa applicants managed to make it in,they deserved to be interviewed, given the expense and trouble. So, I continued meandering through the red light district of Malate, learning more about the embassy's neighborhood than I had before ...

I was about two blocks from work when a text came saying the embassy was closed and anyone en route should go home. Not really enjoying driving in flooded streets, I was only too happy to comply with instructions. Thankfully, my friend Caroline was with me, so we had a nice chat while continuing turning this way and that to keep heading towards home, but also trying to avoid steers with deep flooding. We saw an open bakery and stopped for some pandesel (sweet yeast rolls) just in case we were stuck for a bit.

When I got home, I had a text from a friend who left for work about 5 min before me that he was stuck! The bay had come over the wall and water was waist high in the embassy compound. Eventually, they figured out how to get a motor pool van close enough that people could wade though waist deep water to the shuttle home; most people, understandably , did not want to attempt to drive their cars out.

Some people lost shoes - either from the current or water damage - and a few people had some abrasions and rashes (from polluted water), but given recent news about attacks on our embassy in Kabul, this flood is no big deal. Still, With sudden storm surges, one worries about the worst ....

Life was back to normal at the consular office today. Not so much for other offices which sustained flood damage, but our brand new annex building held up for the storm.

I was amazed at the great job the city government did cleaning up the main streets. On my way in today, all the trash was cleared and dirt and paving stones were separated and piled on the side of the road. By the time I went home. The broken parts of the retaining wall had been sandbagged, and vendors were already out selling drinks and snacks along the promenade. Quick recovery, given that part of the city had been under 3 to 4 feet of water with who knows what washing in from the bay.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Monkey Business

I'm the easy part. All these visa applicants I talk to every day pay my salary, at $140 a pop. Funding for my position? No problem. But what about all this "development aid" that goes abroad? What happens to all of that? I got a close-up look today.

I went with a couple of other Embassy people to a town a few hours' drive from Accra, in Ghana's Volta Region. The low scrub of the flatlands was ringed by lush, green mountains (small mountains, yes, but the biggest this country has to offer). There were plenty of villages, but not a city to be found, and not many people at all in between the villages.

The goal was a village called Tafi Atome, where we had heard that the monkeys eat right out of your hand. That turned out to be no exaggeration. In fact, it could have used some embellishment; I assumed you just handed the monkey a banana and watched it eat. But the first time I tried that, our guide admonished me for giving the entire fruit to the greedy monkey. He showed us how to hold the banana tightly in the middle, so the monkey had to work to get the peel off and eat it. The right way, he showed us, was to hold the banana in a hand extended at a right angle, with the arm two to three feet from a tree - just far enough that the monkey couldn't reach it from the tree. The result: the monkeys, just a bit smaller than a house cat, jump from the tree right onto your arm and sit there as they dig the banana out of your fist.

I was a bit nervous about this at first. Most of my monkey experience, after all, is in India, where they are foul, obnoxious beasts that steal and attack at every opportunity. I still enjoy repeating the story about the Delhi deputy mayor who died after he was pushed from his balcony by a pack of angry apes. But these Ghanaian monkeys, called mona monkeys, were so cute you could hardly imagine them being mean. They were clearly not quite certain that we meant well, but they also clearly weren't threatened by our presence, and never seemed inclined to strike at us. I was surprised that, even with the whole weight of the animal on my arm and its mouth and hands digging into my hand, I never felt a claw or a tooth. The hands and feet felt more like a person's, where there's a nail instead of a claw, and the part that was touching me was soft as a human finger or toe. It was a unique experience, and all three of us had a lot of fun with it.

What does all of this monkey business have to do with the US government? The monkeys have been in the village for generations - but it was us (along with several other countries) who helped them turn it into a business. "Ecotourism" is a well-known word in that part of Ghana. We paid about $5 for a guide to take us through the woods behind the village, where the monkeys live. They were selling tshirts and other knick-knacks to the tourists. And of course we never would have been there in the first place without the monkeys, so whatever food, fuel, etc, we bought was driven by tourism. The villagers seem to get that.

Back in the 1990s, a couple of Peace Corps volunteers, supported with stipends from the US government, worked with the villagers to set up the paths and other infrastructure to allow them to run the program. USAID money assisted to form the community-supported organization that administers the sanctuary. And on the way back we saw a sign thanking the US Millennium Challenge Corporation for funding for the smooth paved road connecting the village to Accra, without which no tourist would be able to reach the place. All those Americans working on the project have left a village that appreciates the assistance it's received from the US, and looks more favorably on us as a result. Coke, Shell, and the other American and western companies that sell in the region have more tourists as customers and more locals who can afford to buy their products.

Visas are great, but every once in a while it's nice to see that we're actually doing something really good.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Learned at school

Wm's been at his school for 5 months now, and seems to be in the swing of things. After some false starts in HYD, we landed at Sloka which we loved - and still miss! Wm's school here is pretty good; really the only thing I'm not so wild about are the birthday parties with presents required at school.

I am still, surprised, though, at some of the things Wm has picked up. For instance:
- if you're upset about something, next time that happens, you can try laughing and see if it makes it better
- if you practice material with teacher every day, you'll get better at it
- it's a good thing to have your mom and dad proud of you and you should try not to disappoint them

Usually these thoughts of his are prefaced by "Teacher told me..." so I know where the new ideas are coming from. Right now, I can tell he's really wanting to figure out letters and words and must be a bit frustrated, because that's when he made the comment about "practicing new material" and working with the letter box. Kudos to his teacher for turning the frustration into positive work effort. Hopefully that will stick with him.

The respecting parents bit is ok, but definitely stronger and with a more Asian slant than we'd come across in a WASPy preschool in the US, I think. Hopefully it won't leave him with a complex. I'm no where near being a "tiger mom," so home life will mitigate any concerns I have there, I hope.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ballet in Manila

I had heard at an event here that the Philippines is crazy about ballet and I was sure to have ample opportunity to see ballet. The season didn't start until July, though, so i couldn't get started on the project right away. Then I was in India for the start.

In August, we scored a fee pair of tickets through work. While each piece was enjoyable - the evening was a bit disjointed and it felt a bit like a recital, than at a professional event. One piece by a local choreographer to power ballad music was danced well and offered a great view into adapting a Western art form to local preference - the audience certainly loved it. Personally, I couldn't stand the music.

After slight disappointment that evening, which ran about 45 minutes too long, I wanted to try a different company. Every morning we drive by the CCP, Manila's main theatre - when Cinderella was advertised on the event board, I wanted to go. It took some time to find a "date", since Saturday was the same night as a big charity cabaret fundraiser. But, one friend came through. We had a fun ladies night out to dinner and the to the ballet.

I came home to google who wrote the music (Prokofiev) and fine more about the dancers (not much luck there). What I did discover,though is that this city has three ballet companies, two of which preform at CCP. I'm sure there's a story there!

The real moral of the story is to always get someone's business card. Had I done that at the event I was at in April when I was first told about the ballet scene, then I would know someone who knew the answer.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Plugging in

I've been trying for a week and a half to get Armed Forces Network to work on the tv in this house. Until now, I thought that it would be as simple as plugging in the box to the television.

Sadly, the plus on the wall doesn't match the one on the box. So a standard cable is out. I spent the better part of an hour last week trying to find something that would fit. My wild goose chase took me to tiny roadside shacks, sketchy electronics stores whose wares I'd rather not know the provenance of, and one slightly alarming occassion in which I was directed to a windowless room several doors and an alley removed from the street. Somehow or other, though, that room contained someone who pointed me towards a shack where I was certain to find the parts I needed. That shack didn't exist, but a shop around the corner did, and there I found Daniel, who, after a solid twenty minutes of explanation, finally understood what I was looking for. Ok, even Daniel needed two tries to get it right. But in the end I walked out with exactly what I asked for. I had even found a Ghana Black Stars soccer jersey in XL. It had been a good day.

I walked in to the house in a good mood. I got out my cable. It fit perfectly into the box. Then I went to plug it into the wall and - blast! I had gotten the wrong piece on the end. Oh well, I thought to myself, at least I found a Black Stars shirt. I tried it on. At least two sizes too small.

A few days later I went back to Daniel. He was nice enough to replace the connector at no cost (I gave him the wrong one back, and he was probably eager to get me out of his shop anyway). I took my newly repaired cable home and plugged it in. I turned to the box-tv cord. Having secured it to the box, I turned around to put it in the tv and - blast! Wrong kind of plug again!

Back to Daniel I went. It was 4pm on a Friday, so I have no idea where he was but my friend was not in his shop. In fact, the whole place was locked up. Maybe he had anticipated my return and fled the scene. I have no idea. But, armed with the cable he had already made me and needing an exact replica, I felt certain that I could just show it to people and get the right thing made. Indeed I could. This time one of the roadside shacks did the trick. The guy even demonstrated the quality of his handiwork by putting an electrical current through the copper coax and using it to light up a bulb mounted to a piece of plywood. It was an impressive sight. Almost as impressive as the hen and chick pecking around on the sidewalk, or the herd of goats that rambled down the street, or the mysterious fellow in a Penn hoodie who walked down the other side of the road as I waited for my cable to be assembled. (Was he an alum, or did he find a used sweatshirt in a shop in the market? This will forever remain a mystery.)

Bringing the cable home, I was optomistic this time. I knew it would fit, and it did. I turned on the box. Lights: a good sign. The tv started to warm up, and - blast! The television answer to the blue screen of death. Nothing.

At least I'm now the proud owner of a XXXL Black Stars shirt.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Back at the home front

It's pretty quiet; we're settling into a good routine. The day's go quickly since Wm has decided he needs to be asleep by 7, which means start brushing teeth at 6:30. Tonight, when Patch was having difficulty settling down, I heard through the bedroom door: "Patch, it's nighttime. you need to sleep so you have enough energy to play tomorrow."

I laughed- Greg and I had said that almost verbatim to Wm countless times over the years, back in the days when Wm used to scream himself to sleep every night. thank goodness we have kuya (big brother) to help settle Patch down and avoid those terrible bedtime fits. (knock on wood!)

The only real difference is that Patch is starting to put a few words together into thoughts. Like Wednesday when he came to pick me up from work. I climbed in the car and he asked, "No Dada?" it was kind of cool to see that he expected Greg, recognized he wasn't there, and figured out the words to express what he was thinking. The baby days are gone for real now, I think. Especially since this evening, he went and sat on his potty and told me, "close door" like Wm says. When he knocked on the door a few minutes later, it was a successful trip. Maybe it's time to try potty training for real...

We have a vegetable garden that Lea and the boys are tending. Okra and squash, I think, are our first experiment. The seeds sprouted, so hopefully veggies will come! And some basil and mint growing by our front door.

We're fully moved in now - I had the living room painted sage green, and it looks great. I might see if I can convince someone to add some shelves in the laundry room and more towel rods in the bathrooms, but otherwise, we're done settling in. Now to enjoy the next 18 months before we pickup and start over again in some unknown location.

It's more lonely being home, I think, than being the one traveling. Abroad, there's always something new to see - whether grascutters at an African market or rows of silk at an Indian expo. At home, though, I think more about missing the usual routine and chit chat after toe boys go to sleep. It's quiet!

Plunging in

Remember yesterday I was impressed by how many foreigners there were around here? How the food was served in holes-in-the-wall? I was cured of this today - today some impressions of what one might call "the real Africa".

I went to the Makola Market today. I'll admit, it was not quite was I expected. I'd been to markets before, in India and the Middle East. If I might say so, this one put them to shame. First of all, it's far larger than any Indian market I've been to or any souk I've wandered in the Arab world. I took a taxi there and he took me to the edge of the market, then asked where I was going. "No idea," I shrugged. I paid my fare and got out. I saw a sign that said "Makola Mall". In I plunged. Finally, the crowds I expected. The exoticism I imagined. Strange and unexpected things around every corner. To be clear, a "mall" it was not. Instead, there was aisle after aisle of stalls, at first selling the junk you find in many developing-world markets. Cheap dishes, cloth, pots, beaten-up electronics.

Eventually I reached the food section, which seemed even bigger. Happily the ground was mostly dry; I can't imagine what it would have smelled like had there been pools of stagnant water. There were plenty of fish, but not a shaving of ice. The crabs came in several varieties, and were still alive, climbing on top of each other as they tried to escape their prisons inside plastic tubs. Piles of pink pigs' feet and more stacks of an unidentified red meat. I slowed down to take a closer look at those; I stopped when I got to the snails. They were also still alive, crawling around on top of other snails' fist-size shells. No, I'm not exaggerating, and no, I've never seen anything like it. "Do you eat them?" I asked. "Yes, want to buy some?" the hawker replied. "No, thanks, but can I take a picture?" She wanted money from me. I took no pictures. Still, the snails were probably only the second most shocking things in the market.

I only saw it once, but I couldn't keep walking when I saw the pale brown rodent the size of a small cat (for the Indian readers, it was about the size of an Indian bandicoot, complete with the giant front teeth). The creatures were dead, to be sure - hacked in half by one clean cut from what must have been a rather large machete. Seeing my stare, the vendor asked if I wanted to buy any. "What is it?" I asked. "Bush meat: grasscutter." I kept staring. The vendor's friend laughed at her and said, "You asked him if he wanted to buy any, now he's going to stare for a while longer." I've eaten bush meat before - nice big animals like kudu, ostrich, wildebeest. I shan't be sampling the grasscutter any time soon.

Sadly, I didn't get any pictures, even though I had my camera in my pocket. I had read and heard several warnings about how Ghanaians don't like to be photographed. I had also been warned that the police will come quickly if they see someone photographing a government building, and of course I had no idea which were government buildings. Most significantly, I was alone in the middle of a big crowded city. On one hand, the crowd made me feel safer - no dark lonely alleys here. On the other hand, crowds in poor countries like this can become mobs quickly. I had no desire to be at the center of one of those, so I kept as low a profile as my white skin would allow. Luckily, I'm not the first one to visit the place, and there are plenty of pictures online. Oh, and foreigners? None. It was about as much Africa as I could take for one morning, and after about an hour of wandering, I found a cab and returned to the relative comfort and familiarity of the posh side of town.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Under African Skies

After not coming within 10 years or 1,000 miles of Ghana in 2011, I've now been in Africa for just over three days, so it seems like as good a time as any to put down some of my thoughts. First thing: it's definitely a step behind both India and the Philippines. Ghana is generally known as one of the more successful and progressive of the sub-Saharan African countries (excepting South Africa, which "Africa people" don't seem to consider a proper African country at all). Still, the first thing that struck me on landing at the airport was that, within just a few miles of the capital and largest city, half the roads appeared unpaved. I went to India for the first time in 2005 expecting to find unpaved roads, candlelit homes, and streets filled with cows. Err, ok, so the bovines are there in herds, but unpaved streets in or around a major Indian city? Not a chance.

The biggest thing to happen in Accra this month was the recent opening of a KFC. As far as I can tell, this is Ghana's first outlet of a western fast-food chain. I also struggle to recall seeing a local equivalent, a west African Jollibee. Instead, there are tiny streetside restaurants galore, little more than holes in walls with dusty floors and rickety wooden tables and chairs that look like they're about to fall over under the weight of a plantain. (Incidentally, I sampled the fare at KFC and was pleasantly surprised to find that it tastes like KFC. Not bad.)

On the flipside, while it was often difficult to find a face from outside South Asia in India, central Accra has no shortage of foreigners. I ran into Lebanese, Pakistanis, Filipinos, and various types of white people in just a couple of hours today, not to mention what I'm sure were a dozen different flavors of Africans whose nationalities I'm unable to identify. (I know I'm still an Africa newbie because half the men here still look just like Hakeem Olajuwon to me, especially the ones with moustaches. I'm not bad at this point at picking South Indians from North Indians, Sri Lankans from Bangladeshis, etc. Africans? Not a chance.) Most people were interested but not shocked to find an American in their midst. I admit, however, that when I went into the carpet shop and found myself alone with a slightly sketchy-looking Pakistani, I professed that I was a Filipino. Sometimes it's nice to look like you could be from anyplace.

Finally, a word of advice to anyone traveling to Africa: learn enough soccer/football to have a five-minute conversation about it. All you really need to be able to do is name two or three players from whatever country you happen to find yourself in, but should you happen to be capable of really discussing how much better Arsenal looked before Frimpong (a Ghanaian, conveniently) was sent off against Liverpool and how awful they were without him against United, you'll find that it elicits huge smiles from the locals, and breaks down barriers exceptionally quickly. And if you're American and really in a tight spot, simply mention your nationality and remind a Ghanaian how much you hate it when our team plays the Black Stars, their national team who has beaten us the last two World Cups. I've tried this twice, and was greeted with howling laughter and claps on the shoulder. Actually, the first time there was no shoulder clapping - the Ghanaian was on the other side of the visa window. But there was plenty of laughter. And why not? For a country as small and relatively poor as Ghana to be genuinely better than the US at something that they really care about is something they should be proud of.