Wednesday, April 20, 2011

My Friend With HIV is Still My Friend

I have found some new friends - fifty of them, in fact. Sometimes their numbers ebb, sometimes they swell, but my friends are always there to meet me every Sunday at 2:00pm. My new friends are all HIV positive.

Most of them are punctual, arriving even before I do - all of them always greet me with a shining smile. We start with an opening prayer, always led by a different friend, and then I proceed to teach a lesson. The lesson is different every week and while I fake it really well, I'm just pretending to know what I'm doing. I teach straight out of a book.

Like any class, there are the same few 'students' (though I'd rather call them friends) who actively participate, but all of them are always listening. I can't quite figure out why they, so faithfully, hang on my words (and Joe's), but I'm grateful that they do. I am humbled, in fact, every minute I spend leading these lessons - floating above this capable, commanding, knowledgable person I become every Sunday at 2:00pm.

You see, we started a support group, Joe and I. The capable, commanding, knowledgable teacher exists because she needs to - she provides them with the answers to their questions without judgment (a commodity in a country with such high stigma). Sometimes it's hard to believe the stories I hear, the way they are treated by the very people who's job it is to help and educate. They look at me and say, "If you saw me on the street, you'd never know I was HIV positive. You'd treat me like a normal person."

I suppose that's why we're friends - I do consider them normal people. And I guess that's why they're so eager to meet with me every week - they get to be free. There's no stigma amongst friends: my friend with HIV is still my friend, as the saying goes...

Friends exchange stories; friends laugh and smile with each other; friends seek answers and advice from one another - there is nothing friends do that we don't, every Sunday at 2:00pm. I am convinced it's not a support group they need, anyway. The word 'support group' suggests an inequality between us - the helper and the lesser fortunate who are helped. I am learning just as much from them as they are from me and, if that isn't a friendship, I've been wrong for most of my life. All any of us ever needs is a friend.

Lucky me: I've just gained fifty.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Is that a ... Snail Kebab?

I’m a firm believer in travel buddies. In other words, I believe the success of any trip depends on the people involved. In Ghana, where traveling anywhere can take a few hours or a few days (and neither is predictable), this rule has become my golden.

A close friend of mine, Chris Adams, had been organizing his town’s first Kente Festival for quite some time. Being that I’d never been to the Volta Region, I decided to do two things: 1.) Support his fabulous efforts and 2.) Finally visit the region so many of my friends inhabit. To my delight, I realized my road-trip would be complemented by three girls – Katie, Kimmy, and Zoe – all of which can make anything sound fun, even ‘travel-ankles.’

I met Katie first, showing up late to Tamale, to share a bus to Kamasi. What seemed to be bad luck – an empty independent bus, which prompted an ill-fated attempt to find a quicker-filling metro bus – turned out to waste the perfect amount of time. The independent bus, upon our return, was no longer empty – in fact, we were buying the last few seats available. Score one: out of Tamale by 2:00pm.

Travel in Ghana is usually supplemented by terrible Nigerian films. This can either be endlessly amusing or unbelievably frustrating (both of which largely depend on whether or not sleep is involved). They tend to be played loudly, badly recorded, painfully acted, and terribly long. Katie and I hardly noticed. In fact, if I were ‘a betting man,’ I’d say it’s highly possible we annoyed the Ghanaians around us by ignoring (and talking over) both films accompanying our seven-hour, air-conditioned cruise. I don’t know about you, but I think not noticing the same seven hours your ankles do is a pretty great experience in travel-buddy-ism … Score Two: time-travel.

A small side-note: I have to say that Kamasi is my least favorite city in Ghana. It’s half the size of Accra and yet, as quickly as I figured out Accra, Kamasi makes no sense to me. I usually avoid it at all costs; unfortunately, it was unavoidable. We ended up spending too much money on a cab to take us straight to the sub-office - there was no way I was getting lost in Kamasi.

The Peace Corps Sub-office, as well as being a place housing bunk-beds and a kitchen, offers an endless supply of stimuli. I usually become temporarily insomnia-tic and this visit was no exception. After meeting up with Kimmy and Zoe, checking our watches and realizing it was already after midnight, we decided to pull an all-nighter – departure the next night would be at 6:00am. Of course, I ended up falling asleep at 4:15am, face-first in a triple-sized coffee mug with American Tale playing in the background ... Kimmy was stronger than all of us.

Kamasi, as well as having streets I’m convinced rearrange themselves at will (think stair-cases at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry), is very close to Accra. This means incoming traffic is plentiful and, in the case of tro-tros, seriously lacking empty seats. In order to get to the corresponding tro-station, we finally flagged down another expensive cab and bumped our way through NYC-worthy traffic to 2-Pac (which ended up canceling each other out, making Kamasi startlingly neutral on the hate-scale).

Once the tro to HoHoe (Ho-hoy) was identified, tickets and breakfast were bought, and we were effectively squished in, I glanced over and made a startling find: the book. You’d be mistaken to assume this book is ‘good’ or otherwise related to the Christian religion. It is, in fact, the source of all awkward love-texts sent by Ghanaians to PCVs and Ghanaian love-interests alike. I have, on several occasions, wondered how Ghanaian men (who supplement their text-vocabulary with things like ‘2,’ ‘4,’ ‘dis,’ and ‘eva’) seemed so suddenly eloquent and rhymed. Apparently this was how.
Zoe: “OH MY GOD! You found the book!! KIMMY!! BUY ONE!!”
Kimmy: “I’m buying TWO!!”

Naturally, we spent the next hour reading all manner of inappropriate paragraphs out-loud. I was certain (though they secretly had to be enjoying the ridiculousness of it all) we’d gain a tro full of enemies by the time we reached Kpandu. Thankfully, I was wrong. For the remaining seven hours, we (and our elephant ankles) managed to entertain the entire tro; they couldn’t get enough of our stories, our strange ways of stretching the not-built-for-travel-o’broni-muscles, and enjoyment of everything (from Volta cuisine to being rained on through the open back door). I think Zoe racked up a few marriage proposals getting out, while Kimmy had managed to convince the driver to back-track on command (we missed the drop). As we waved them off (and scrambled to find somewhere, not public or bush-like, to relieve more than seven hours of water consumption), we dodged traffic and caught the next tro. Tro, private car, and a short walk later, we arrived at Chris’s site just past night-fall. The drumming and dancing had begun – perfect timing.

If you know anything about me, you know I love any kind of sporadic beat-related movement. If you know anything about Africa, you know that, as a continent, it is perfectly suited for any number of beat/shaking/Emma duets. Katie was first (something we’ve all come to expect, after many-a-dance-sesh during training), Zoe was next (quite the natural, she knocked the socks off of every Ghanaian there), and then me (as I enticed almost all of the remaining volunteers to join in the boogie). The well-planned drum-circle attracted a big enough crowd to air Chris’s debut as a rather convincing travel host in his short tourism film. After which, having a large screen and projector at their mercy, the Ghanaians decided to hold a private screening of The Passion of Christ.

It’s right about then that we took our leave … you know … because there was a lot of catching up to do (not because my skin was itching in an almost-guaranteed explosion of human combustion). After several hours of catching up, half of us snuck back to Chris’s house for some much needed rest. I haven’t slept so well in a long time – seriously, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

As most PCV events go, the O’broni sets a schedule and the Ghanaians sleep in. Considering we had some time to kill (and Chris seemed okay with it), a dozen of us decided to visit the Monkey Sanctuary down the road (after we watched Chris, donning a traditional Chief’s outfit, walk with the Chief’s procession through the town, of course). The monkey sanctuary was filled with adorable displays of desperation-for-banana, a pleasant stroll through a forest housing trees larger than my house, and, New Orleans worthy brass from the very large funeral procession being held. After seeing tie-dye batik (and wooden penis carvings) at the gift shop, we returned to the festival just in-time to see it kick off.

The festival, complete with a speech from Country Director, Mike Koffman, and closing comments from Christopher, himself, was fantastic – I really enjoyed participating in his success. Afterwards, we were offered some amazing southern Banku (which, if prepared right, tastes like cheddar cheese) and relaxed. Our game of Phase Ten was rudely interrupted by some seriously ominous-looking thunder clouds, and so the party moved to the safety of Chris’s gargantuan home (with the promise of more fabulous southern cooking). Once again, my head hit the pillow after I was asleep as my body (and almost-normal-looking ankles) prepared for another long journey back home. This time, Katie and I would try to make it to Tamale in one day.

Perhaps it isn’t only the travel buddies you bring along, but the collective luck they bring with them – we had pretty amazing luck again. Catching two tros almost immediately, we were on our way to HoHoe by 7:00am. Because it was Sunday, the car to Kamasi was attending church with its owner, so we snagged four of the last seats in a tro for Koforidua – our old haunt during training. Eating a typical Ghanaian breakfast – a mixture of beans, rice, noodles, and hot sauce – we were on the road again by 9:00am. Over the next four hours I played hide and seek with Zoe’s toddler-neighbor, took-in enough greenery-includes-mountains scenery to last me a few months, and tried the local finery: snails a la’ kebab (which kind of taste like mushrooms, if you ignore the fact that, in addition to rubbery bodies, you’re also munching on the same squishy snail eyeballs you used to poke repeatedly as a child).

Kof was exactly as I remembered it, though the love affair was short-lived as we were hussled into a surprisingly plush tro. Aptly named a ‘hit-it-and-quit-it,’ we were hurtling down the highway in the direction of my nemesis, Kamasi, within five minutes.
(Sorry, Kof, I’ll call you soon: I promise!) 

Much quieter this time, we passed the hours with gossip and PCV-catch-up, until Zoe and Kaming (Kimmy had business in Accra) went in the direction of The House of Excess Stimuli while Katie and I continued to the Tamale station. Mixing the stations up, we arrived just in time to buy the first two tickets of the next bus leaving for Tamale (Damn you, Kamasi, you thwart me again). We hunkered down, refusing to sit until we absolutely had to, and made small-talk with anyone within ear-shot. By night-fall (8:00pm, and three hours after we’d arrived), the bus was finally full (mostly with Kayayo) and we calculated we’d be in Tamale by 3:00am. Much more boring by comparison, this bus ride involved lots of uncomfortable-napping attempts (thank God there was no TV – no Nigerian films) and, right on the money, we arrived in town by 3:30am. Which was just in-time to see people waking up for morning prayers, but not late enough to warrant cheap cab-fare. By the time we walked in the door, no amount of stimuli could keep me from passing out immediately (and practically in the doorway). We’d made it – there’d be plenty of stimuli to process in the morning, elephant ankles and all.