Monday, May 17, 2010

The Long Journey Home

I'm alive. I'm also back in the states. I think that's a good thing, but I'm not sure yet.

The last two days were a trying ordeal. On Thursday morning I was laying on a bed in agony, not sure what I would do in 20 minutes when we checked out of the hotel. Last night we had planned on taking a taxi to Labadi Beach and locating a few surfboards, which would have been amazing. Now I just wanted to know how I would make it through the day without dying somewhere. My friends helped me pack my luggage and we slowly walked to the temple dorms where Marissa would be staying for the next few weeks to work on some projects.
I stumbled into the bedroom and crashed in a heap while everyone else went out for a day on the town. I had to decide how I would make it through two days in Amsterdam and two more days flying. Four days like this...I cried silently for a few minutes. Every shallow breath brought a stab of pain that made me gasp. The dull ache in my shoulder was a constant companion. And for some reason I was starting to feel that glowing itchiness that signaled oncoming hives.
After a few hurried, gasping conversations on the phone with Alisha we decided to pay the $250 fee to move up my flight and bypass Amsterdam. Now I just had to survive 24 hours in the air.
After a few hours everyone got back and we made our way to the airport. I shuffled in line with everyone else and prayed I would be able to sit down, as we braved the third-world equivalent of a ticket-desk queue. Gratefully, no one stopped us to tear apart our luggage or make us deal with customs--we were waved right through and made the plane without incident.
I was covered in hives and panting in pain. A few travelers gave me a wide berth. After we were in the air a flight attendant, probably concerned I was carrying some deadly contagion, politely asked me if I was healthy enough to make the connection. I said I wasn't contagious and had a doctor at home. He said they might have to ground the flight if I got any worse. I said "Where you gonna land everyone? The Sahara? I'm sure the facilities are great in Niger, but I need to get home." He gave me the card for an airport doctor in Amsterdam, said the visit would be covered, and gave me an extra bottle of water.
I found that if I sat in just the right position, with my head at 10 o'clock and pointed up, the pain lessened a little. I also wrapped myself in one of those little blue airline blankets so people wouldn't see the hives. Why couldn't they just dump me in the Sahara and be done with it?
We finally arrived in Amsterdam. The doctor wanted to charge me $50 but couldn't run any tests, so I politely declined. I said a sad goodbye to my friends, who would be staying in Amsterdam, and moped over to the next connection: Detroit. On the way I stopped by a restroom and happened upon a group of Algerian men wearing spotless Shalwar Kamees in the middle of wudu. They chatted pleasantly in their peculiar Arabic dialect while washing their feet in the sink--one of those funny little moments when you realize you're still surrounded by culture.
The flight to Detroit was a little better. The benadryl and ibuprofen started to kick in, and both the pain and itching lessened somewhat. I started to enter this numb, stiff, hypnotic state. I was exhausted, bored, and in pain, but was starting to forget all three. Time passed unnoticed as I stared at the seat in front of me and drifted in and out of shallow sleep. Seated next to me was a gangster kid from inner-city Detroit who had never flown before. He laughed hysterically at episodes of Sponge Bob before falling asleep to a rap album. After a few minutes he put his head on my shoulder and every once in awhile would elbow me in the ribs.
Hour after numb hour, I listened to the drone of the plane. Pain came and went in cycles, but gradually improved. My rash was mostly gone. The antibiotics must have done their job, because by the time I touched down in Salt Lake I was 80% better. I consider it a miracle (or a series of them) that I made it home.
This last month has changed my life forever. I will always be grateful for the experience, and can't put into words how it has affected me. Since Ghana I have felt a newfound drive to get out into the world and change it for the better. I think back often on that beautiful place halfway around the world, and its beautiful people, hoping to return someday soon.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Accra: Sick

Last night was our last in Ghana. We had a big party in one of the hotel rooms. At one point during a particularly exuberant drum solo by Ray, the hotel staff knocked on the door. They said that many of the other hotel visitors were very upset that we were playing drums. Turns out that for a week out of the year the Ga people outlaw drumming, in order to ensure a plentiful harvest. Reactions can even get violent if the ban is violated. So we ended the party and went to bed, making sure to be quiet and lock our doors.
Some of the girls had started to feel malaria symptoms. Nicole was achy and really cold, and Marissa started to feel the same. I had been feeling some back and abdominal pain since dinner, but I thought little of it, because cramps are common over here. I had also gone swimming that afternoon, and maybe I had pulled a few muscles or something. The pain started to get worse as the night progressed. I woke up at 2:00 am in excruciating pain. My right shoulder was throbbing, and every time I breathed in I would feel a stabbing pain in my side. My abdomen was also aching, and it started to spread to my neck. I was taking quick, shallow breaths and moaning every time I had to move. Pretty soon I started to feel chills and was drenched in sweat.
I lay in agony for hours, drifting in and out of shallow bouts of sleep. When 6:00 AM finally came around we called a nearby doctor. He said that it was not malaria, since I didn't have a splitting headache, and that I should just tough it out until I get back into the states.
I'm miserable: stuck in Africa, immobilized in bed, with hotel checkout in a few hours. I have no idea how I will make it through the day--I can barely move. We're going to the airport this evening and flying all night to Amsterdam. After a night there we'll fly back to Salt Lake. I don't know what to do.
I did some digging around online, and there's a strong likelihood that I have amoebic pleurisy. Amoebas are common parasites that live in the water here. You can even get them from eating stalky vegetables like lettuce. The amoebas can inflame the lining of your lungs, causing pleurisy. Symptoms are excruciating pain when breathing, dull shoulder and abdomen pain, chills, and sweating. The pain can lessen when you lay on your side or apply pressure to your rib cage. For some reason I have that Piggies song from the White Album in my head, and I know that's a symptom as well. It's really starting to get me down.
I just took four Artrin for malaria, two albendazole for worms, and four secnidazole for amoebas. If that doesn't knock it out, I don't know what will. Let's just pray that I can breathe and move around by the time we check out of the hotel.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What Not to Bring to Ghana

I put a lot of thought into my packing for this trip. Turns out I may have been a little too prepared, but that's much better than being underprepared.

mosquito net: everywhere we went was either enclosed, or provided with a mosquito net. Even the huts we stayed in had them.
Tang packets: I had so much Fanta and Coke everywhere that water was a relief. I definitely didn't need additional sources of sugar water.
Spam: still disgusting, even in Africa. You can throw a rock in any direction and hit a chop bar. You don't need Spam.
6 changes of underwear: I did all of my laundry in the sink, two or three items at a time every night. There's no need to lug around so much clothing.
iodine pills: You can buy water almost anywhere. For our four-day trip to the bush we packed in enough bagged water for a few days.
Deet wipes: I'm kinda reckless, but I didn't use the deet. It burned my skin and didn't work anyway. It also leaked out and made an ugly brown stain on my bag.
Laundry Detergent sheets: a nifty invention, but didn't work as well as plain old bar soap.
camp towel: you have towels at the hotel, and out in the bush it feels good to be a little damp. Besides, who knows what kind of bacteria grow in that thing.
Step-down: it burned up the second day of the trip. All I needed was the adapter, since my laptop and battery charger handle 220 volts just fine.

I brought way too much clothing. Here is what I actually wore on the trip:

four shirts - I bought two of them on the trip.
jeans - wear in the evening when the mosquitos are out
slacks - for church and meetings at embassy/ngo's, etc.
khaki shorts - one pair is enough. You wear them most days
old black loafers
sandals - didn't need tennis shoes.
3 changes of underwear
2 pair black socks - you could get away with one
1 tie
1 white shirt

Monday, May 10, 2010

Foods of Ghana

Once you get used to the mechanics of swallowing balls of starch whole, the food of Ghana is quite enjoyable. In most restaurants you can buy rice and either chicken or fish, but if you have a more traditional meal you might not know how to proceed.
Ghanaians typically prepare some kind of starch, usually either corn or cassava, which they eat with a meat stew. You may or may not be provided utensils. If not, use your right hand (never your left) to pinch off a ball of the starchy stuff, dip it in the stew, and swallow it whole. You can pick at the larger meat chunks with your hand and eat them alone. That's the basic idea.
Fufu - pounded cassava. The "soft" preparation is pounded longer than the "hard" version, and is pretty sticky.
Banku - Cassava flour mixed with corn flour, and prepared like fufu.
Kenkey - Corn flour prepared like a mexican tamale, but fermented a little. It's kind of an acquired taste. I enjoy it, but prefer young kenkey, as its texture is softer and the flavor isn't as pronounced.
The stew is usually made with tomatoes, onions, palm seeds, and Ghanaian peppers (they look like habaneros, but are much milder), with whatever meat is available.
There is also a dish made with black-eyed peas, that tastes Indian. Ghanaians do use Indian-style curry in some of their dishes.
Most restaurant meals include fried plantains. They are like heavier, starchier orange bananas, and they are delicious. I would recommend cooking them in the states. You can buy them at any hispanic grocery store.
Ghanaians eat a lot of fruit: white or yellow pineapple, mango, watermelon, papaya, and bananas are the most common things I've seen. Vegetables are another story--you normally have to go to a nice hotel to get even a salad, and they aren't very good. Vegetables are expensive and can contain parasites in their stalks.
There is a very cheap ice cream called Fanice, that you can buy on any street corner. It's about 40 pesewas (26 cents), and it comes in a little plastic wrapper kind of like Gogurt. I like the vanilla best, but the chocolate is good also.

The Languages of Ghana

I had to talk to a lot of people to actually figure out the language situation. Ethnologue claims that there are over 60 languages in this small country, but I think that number is more a product of bored linguists splitting hairs. I don't know much about the northern half of Ghana, but here is how the southern half breaks down:

Akan Group:

Twi - This is the lingua-franca of Ghana. Just about anywhere you go from Accra to Kumasi to Takoradi, people will understand Twi. It's not too difficult to pick up: Twi speakers have generally dropped much of the tonality, due to the influx of second-language speakers.
Fante - This is the high-falutin version of Twi spoken in the Cape Coast vicinity. Think Twi with tones. Fante speakers understand Twi fine, but they have their own way of pronouncing everything. If you try to speak Fante to them, they will smile and laugh at your pathetic attempts. The consonants are very complicated.

Ga/Dangbe Group:

Ga - This language is spoken in parts of Accra and east to Tema. Just like Twi, it is Dangbe stripped of tones.
Dangbe - Spoken in the south-eastern part of the country, up into the lower Volta Region. It seems much easier to pick up than Fante--I haven't noticed too many places where tones are crucial, but my knowledge of the language is limited.
Krobo - Spoken in Koforidua. I haven't noticed much difference between this and Dangbe, and they seem to tolerate my Dangbe phrases just fine.

Ewe: Is its own language, and I only know a tiny bit of it. They use it in the Volta Region and in Togo. It sounds kinda Frenchy to me.

English: Is supposedly the official language of Ghana, but if you want to conduct more than the basic touristy conversations with the rank-and-file Ghanaian, you will need either an interpreter or some language training. English is much more common in the cities, so you might get by there, but English seems rare in the villages. Don't be too concerned: in general, most things that an obruni would be interested in, the Ghanaians have figured out the English required to make the transaction work.

Brong: If for some reason you travel west of Kumasi, you will need Brong. I'm not sure if it's close to Twi.

North of Kumasi you start getting into completely different stuff: Wolof, Frafra, Dagaare, some Hausa, and who knows what else. Most travelers to Ghana don't go north of Kumasi, but if for some reason you do, you'll need to do a little digging.

This is what I've learned so far. There's a different language in every village, but they're generally a dialect of either Twi (west of Accra) or Ga (east of Accra).

Monday, May 3, 2010

Kumasi: Dark and Alone

It's my anniversary tonight. I'm sitting in the Engineering Guest House at the sprawling University of Kumasi, listening to Elliott Smith in the dark. LED lights are great and all, but I'm really starting to miss some nice, bright incandescent lamps. I'm feeling a little gloomy. I was supposed to Skype with Alisha, but the network is down and there isn't any internet. I spent three hours last night in Accra trying to get Skype to work, and for some reason the call would end every 23 seconds. I guess African inefficiency must run like clockwork.
We left Burro as the sun was setting, and had a long, bumpy ride from Koforidua to Kumasi. I don't know why Ghanaians have to build speedbumps in sixes and place them every mile. Maybe they miss the bumpiness of a dirt road. There are also police checkpoints every few miles: bandits in uniform, is how I heard them described. Fred, our driver, told us he tries to make a rule not to drive after 8:00 pm. I found out why that is: it's impossible to get anywhere. Between the traffic, guys on bikes, goats, chickens, and the rest of the zoo crossing the road, you spend most of your time riding the brake and honking. Our 120-mile journey took five bumpy hours.
My body is starting to feel the effects of Africa. I usually have stomach cramps after eating, or when I go out in the heat. I have these waves of exhaustion and dizziness throughout the day. Maybe I caught a bug with a long Latin name. For some reason the kink in my back from a week ago hasn't gone away. Every bounce of the bus brought a wince of pain as I drifted between half-sleep and bored consciousness. I like to travel, but I hate traveling, if you know what I mean.
Maybe I'll be able to talk to Alisha tomorrow. I'm running out of money, this trip was a little longer than I expected, and I'm getting worried about the situation back at home. We haven't sold our apartment contract yet, don't have a place to stay in DC, or money to get there, and I don't know if I have enough cedis to make it another week in Ghana.
I'm really glad right now that I'm not a drinker, because tonight would be a bender.