Friday, October 28, 2011

My Toilet is a Hole in the Ground

Latrines: rumor has it that some are quite high-tech; mine is not. When mum and dad opened the door to find a quaint little hole in the floor, they turned to me with wide, fearful eyes. It was obvious they didn't know whether to politely compliment it or wander off to pick out a bush instead. Having a rather humble, unassuming latrine, it expected neither (and I'd secretly expected less).

I've never fretted over something more than I did over that damned latrine before my parent's visited. How could I feel so self-conscious about a giant, empty concrete space? It's clean; I don't keep roaches; and it's not an entirely unpleasant experience - what could possibly go wrong?

A giant crack appeared in the doorway: Great, I thought, my latrine is going to swallow my mum whole. Each of my familiar roommates suddenly became a menace - What if the spiders tried to make friends with my dad? Or a lizard kamakazi'd him in the middle of the night? What if it was haunted by all the bugs I'd killed over the last year and they suddenly returned for their revenge? Clearly I wasn't thinking straight. I was afraid of the gross factor;I'd completely forgotten about the shock factor.

Until dad took not one, but six photos of it, I'd rather gotten used to the idea of my latrine. Perhaps it was the fact that he needed several angles, or the repeated exclamation: 'Paulette is not going to believe this,' but I suddenly remembered that most people I know don't use latrines. Like ever. I remembered my own first encounters - an irrational fear of the dark, followed by an irrational fear of what might fly into the light; my apparent shyness when it came to using something without a flushing mechanism to make it all go away; a frantic search for anything with wings, more than two legs, and pinchers anywhere near me or my backside. Having over a year to get used to my circumstances, I'd completely forgotten how this must look through someone else's eyes; in six different angles; with no flash.

So, for all you world travellers (and hopeful Ghana visitors ... hint, hint), here's a little list in latrine usage. Enjoy!

1.) If your latrine is more than five feet from your house - you may eventually have a problem.

2.) Be prepared for mosquitos to take full advantage of your vulnerabilities.

3.) Though a nuisance, flies aren't smart enough to take advantage of your vulnerabilities; with this in mind, be prepared for them to charge - without reason - at your bare ass anyway.

4.) There are some species of lizards that like to base jump. Onto your head. Consider them mostly harmless. (Extra points for understanding the reference!!!)

5.) If you do not have at least two back-up rolls of toilet paper (in the house and your travel backpack), you are an idiot and you asked for it. On most occassions ... I am an idiot.

6.) Someone else will eventually use your latrine. And they will miss.

7.) If you're travelling and you don't have to pay for it, I wouldn't recommend using it. Consider yourself warned.

8.) That boiled egg you just ate with pepe? You'd better hope your short distance sprints are up-to-par 'cause your latrine is lookin' pretty far away ...

9.) That is, indeed, a small child's eye ball in the crack of your door ... they can't see in, right??? IT'S TOO DARK IN HERE, RIGHT??!!!

10.) A toilet bowl is convenient, but squating is exercise. Choose wisely, grasshopper.

11.) Charcoal. Charcoal, charcoal, charcoal. There's only one place you can toss it and I suggest doing so.

12.) If your door, like mine, can only give credit for its upright status to an intricate web of strings tied around the frame, you may want to check the knots regularly. 'Cause that would just be awkward ...

13.) A mosquito net will only make midnight trips to the latrine even more inconvenient;  perfect your ninja roll.

14.) You are never above aiming: there's no room for arrogance when all you've got is a four inch radius.

15.) Remember: though surprising high-tech for anyone who regularly frequents the bush, visitors will most likely stare, take pictures, and talk crap about your poor, innocent bystander of a latrine. Remind your latrine regularly that it is, indeed, useful; perhaps give it a name to reassure it of its worth; and frequently pretend that you're living in a medieval castle. You're latrine will appreciate you for clinging to its novelty (however terrifying that novelty was in the beginning). It is always good to have a positive relationship with your latrine.

I'm sure there are more - many more - things I could say when it comes to my latrine and foreign latrine experiences. As a friend told me once, "always choose the bathroom you know over the one you don't." Ghana brings a whole new meaning to the phrase.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Mum Visits Ghana

I've been racking my brain for weeks attempting to write a blog about mum and dad's visit. Obviously I've been failing miserably, though I refuse to take any blame ... (combine an uncommonly unruly brain with four weeks of material to sift through and you've got yourself a pretty inconvenient personal situation). Having said that, last night (after brainstorming, imploring, and finally childishly ignoring my creative mind and it's ridiculous coup), I decided to do something I rarely do: I'm going freestyle. Apologies will come later.

PART I: The Much Anticipated Arrival

It was the eve of Peace Corps Fiftieth Anniversary - big stuff, for those of you who don't know - and volunteers from all over Ghana had gathered to 'prepare' (also known as Happy Hour). I was counting the minutes, trying not to fall on my face in a fabulous pair new heels, when suddenly it was time: mum would be landing in 30 minutes. I gathered the troops; Beth, Nikki, Catherine and I (taking one last swig) hopped in a cab and made our way to the airport. I think I may have bounced in my seat the entire way.
We soon found ourselves standing behind the appropriate barrier when, "SH*T!" I said (and much too loudly), "I forgot the sign!" How on earth, I reasoned, would mum know who I was without a witty sign? I mean, I'm a gnome! You can hardly see as it is! What would I ... [insert interruption by a large peice of paper in the face, here]: "THE MOST BEAUTIFUL MUM." It had been printed hastily at the airport internet cafe; it was perfect. (Thanks Beth!)

Next came the waiting ... I'd forgoteen about customs ... and as I madly shoved my clever sign in the face of every o'broni exiting the doors (man, woman, child - I cared not), I started to get restless. While I foolishly allowed Nikki to document the many faces of my impatience, Beth plotted with three random strangers to bum-rush their visitors as well as my mum. It seemed to take forever. And, though I vowed NOT to cry like a small child, the moment she came around the corner I squeeled, threw myself under that stupid rope barrier, and tackled her in a fit of tears. It was beautiful; even Beth cried:

We were immediately herded out of the way by airport staff (clearly we were expressing way too much emotional goo), while our impatient taxi driver rolled mum's luggage out the door. She'd barely had time to breath (shoved into the back of a taxi with three of us girls), but damn it - she was in Ghana.

PART II: Swearing-in and Mif Kits

Ignoring completely what must have been a killer case of jet-lag, mum (who'd stayed out for a few drinks and a bit of socializing) woke up with the birds to get ready for the Ambassador's house. The high-pitched shriek we heard from the bathroom told us her first experience in bucket bathing was a success, albeit a chilly one, and soon we were off to catch a free ride the the party. The ceremony was great and being able to share it with mum was even better. I surprised her by singing the National Anthem and, by the end of the ceremony, we were all a little caught up in the fiftieth birthday of the Peace Corps.

Even though I spent a majority of the reception gorging myself on what civilized folk call 'orderves' (we volunteers simply refer to them as "THOSE!!! OVER THERE!!!" before inevitably trampling innocent bystanders), lunch at Pizza Inn (it was 'two-for-tuesdays') immediately followed. Yes: I stuffed more food into my face. I'd be lying if I said I remembered where we waddled to next, but I believe it involved copious amounts of mirth and just the right amount of alcohol. With mid-service medical starting the next day, we were upgraded to a pretty posh hotel (thanks, Richard!) and proceeded to spend the next few days enjoying  the many luxuries of Accra (including, but not limited to: Captain America, shopping at the mall, real wine, the Embassy Marines' BBQ, and a night out on the town - until 5am - with the same Marines). By the time we left Accra, mum knew the city better than I do.

PART III: Ghana and Public Transportation

     Next was our day trip to the Volta. In one day, we were able to check 'acquired heat exhaustion while waiting,' '... we probably almost died back there,' 'was that the engine?' and 'I guess we're hitchiking,' off of her travel to-do list. It was an eventful day (and a crash course in Ghana travel). Though we'd given ourselves ample time, we rushed to catch ... THE NIGHT BUS

Those of us who live in Ghana know that nothing compares to the night bus. And, in order to save time, I subjected my poor, unsuspecting mum to the VVIP. Let me tell you a little bit about the night bus: seats, seemingly spacious and comfortable in the day, become gnarled, over-sized torture-buckets at night; loud Nigerian films, played back-to-back, are without subtitles so you CAN'T EVEN FOLLOW ALONG while they keep you awake (angry face); police check-points can be delayed for hours during the night ('cause the bribe's too small) ... I could go on, but I think you get the point. Needless to say, by the time we pulled into Tamale and found our way to the sub-office, mum was ready for a nap:

     I think I let her sleep most of the day; truth be told it was nice to relax. Tomorrow would bring Bolgatanga and I wanted to be well-rested; our hotel room that night had air-conditioning. BOOYA.

PART IV: Bolgatanga and the Most Expensive Party Ever

Our travel fell on a market day, so we were able to meet the new volunteers at a local hang-out; after some chatting, I decided to prep for mum's party. This involved hand-picking a goat to be slaughtered and buying more vegetables/ingredients than I thought possible to prepare. I named the goat 'Food,' but I suspect he didn't like his new name because he made me smell like him for weeks. I can only assume this was just punishment. Thanks, Food.

When we finally got to the house, my three-legged cat was in a frenzy - I'm pretty sure she thought I'd left her forever (she always does). She bonded with grandmum quickly (which basically means she tangled herself in mum's ankles, which immediately made them best friends forever) and we spent the rest of the night cuddling and unpacking; Gimpy was in heaven. Over the next few days we did our best to wander around town (mum even fetched her own water at the borehole), but everyone was so excited to meet her that it was hard to leave the house. Our party (marked by the early morning departure of a goat named Food) started late, but had everyone dancing past sunset. There was Pito, live drums, and lots of grub: it was a BLAST. They presented mum with her very own smock, forever making her an official FraFra mama and, in the end, it was worth every penny.

PART V: A Monestary and a Sanctuary

We decided to make our way back down more interesting than the night bus up - I'd heard wonderful rumors of the Techiman monestary (a Catholic Monestary built into gigantic climbable rocks), so we decided to give it a go. Mum braved the Metro Mass (seriously, I'm a travel-sadist) and we somehow found this beautiful, secluded, red-brick monestary. We celebrated immediately by taking a four-hour nap; it may have been the best nap of my life.

This place was amazing - quiet, peaceful, and secluded (three rare things in Ghana) - the monks grow their own garden, from which the homemade meals are stocked, and there was a library that SMELLED like a library. (If you know anything about me, you'll know that I drooled all over those poor books.) We arranged a taxi for the monkey sanctuary in the morning, planned an afternoon hike, and enjoyed a quiet dinner (seriously - they take a vow of silence) with four very nice monks.

Our taxi was miraculously early - he spent three minutes honking at a locked gate before we rescued him and negotiated a price; then we drove into the boonies. Seriously, this place could not be more remote if it boasted a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I thought we were going to get mauled by Velociraptors when the car broke down, but our driver (who'd obviously had this problem before) knew what part to shift before the imaginary pack of dinosaurs found us. It turns out all this place had was monkeys (I was overwhemed with relief - raptors know how to open doors) and we were able to enjoy a pleasant walk through the forest in our search for harmless monkeys. We did managed to see both kinds of monkeys (shy and unshy - guess which one is to the right), though visitors can no longer feed them, and I left town with yet another marriage proposal.

Of course, the day was far from over - a shower and a nap later, we took off into the wilderness to clambor over rocks (and clambor we did). We walked, me climbed, we took silly pictures in precarious places, and then we walked some more. It was everything it promised to be. Dinner, with a considerably chattier bunch of monks, proved to be just as entertaining.

VI: Mama Sewah and Cape Coast Castle:

This trip would not have been complete without a homestay visit so, naturally, it was our next stop. We matched our arrival with the Koforidua bead market (so I could sufficiently overload mum's senses and empty her purse - SUCCESS) and visited Mama Sewah for dinner. Though we surprised the family, it didn't stop mama from stuffing us with rice - watching, as a Sewah does - to make sure we'd finished every last piece. After two hours of great conversation, we were headed to Cape Coast; when I tell you we spent more time travelling than we did in the places we visted, I'm not exaggerating.

So is life (or, better put, travel in Ghana).

Our final destination was the perfect ending to a very satisfying (but hectic) trip. We visited a volunteer's site, enjoyed the ocean breeze and took a trip to the castle. This is the same castle Obama visted - once one of the largest suppliers of the slave trade. I think they can trace most decendents of the West African clave trade to this port and, while beautiful, the truth behind its walls was sobering. In fact, it was horrible (and I mean that in the best way possible). Mum and I were both sobbing by the end, having learned more about the slave trade than books could ever teach. I'm glad to have visited at least one historically relevant site during mum's travels, but once was enough.
THE FINALE: Mum Departs, Dad Arrives

We spent our last night in Accra before mum left for home, our goodbyes marked with the same emotional goo that began our three week adventure. A small family reunion was had as dad arrived just in time to say goodbye and saying goodbye was probably the hardest thing I've done in a long time. It's safe to say mum left Ghana a slightly different person than she was coming in, but that's the nature of Africa. It was possibly one of the best trips I've ever taken and, in short, we had an amazing time; I missed her before she got on the plane. I love you, mum.

[stay tuned for dad's visit ... of course, I've got to write it first ... so ... there's that ...]