Friday, September 25, 2009

Volta Eco-Adventure Day 1

Sept. 23, Ho, Ghana
Chance Hotel

Today was by FAR the best day of the voyage so far, even considering my sore butt from 9 hours (fortunately not in one stretch) in our cute little Korean(!) bus on bumpy, often un-paved roads. Ghana - lovely, honestly friendly people, lush vegetation, fascinating villages of mud huts that look perfectly comfortable, somehow.

We traveled about 5 hours in the morning on terrible roads through beautiful scenery to the trailhead for Afadjato Mountain, near the Togo border. We did have one stretch break when we had to all get out and push our bus out of a muddy pot hole! The hike was STRAIGHT up - no switchbacks and about 850 meters (more than 2400 feet) gain in an hour - KILLER! I came close to not making it, but persevered in the end - yippee! And coming down was actually OK for me - my knees didn't bother me, and I didn't fall (luckier than others). The view, as expected, was grand, with Ghana on one side and Togo on the other.

Once safely down, we drove another 2 hours to the Agumatsa Forest Reserve, where we hiked a blessedly flat jungle trail, crossing 9 bridges in 45 minutes to arrive at spectacular Wli Falls. The falls were unlike anything I've ever experienced - 60 meters high, steep cliffs on either side, somehow creating gale-force winds directly in front of the falls. You have to back up through the pool towards the falls, since the spray felt like driving sand on your skin and the face is too tender for that. I didn't get very close to the falls - punishing! But completely exhilirating. The cliffs on both sides of the falls were covered with fruit bats. Thousands. Some flying, most hanging, upside down, the way bats do, you know. The forest we hiked through is full of tall bamboo, rustling in the breeze, scattered coffee trees loaded with berries, bananas and their larger cousin, the plantain, philodendron, palm, and lots of trees completely unfamiliar to me. Giant millipedes and tiny fire ants in a thick stream would cross our path periodically, and brightly colored butterflies were everywhere. Two students from Honduras said it reminded them of home.

I should point out that, although we spent a LOT of time on the bus, that was also an important and enjoyable part of the day. Sam Ametewel, our guide, taught us basic phrases in the local Ewe dialect (all signage is in English, and many speak English, but not with each other). We learned:
woezo - welcome
efoah - How are you?
emefor - Fine
Akbe - Thank you
va mijo - let's go
en ko de - what's your name?
We also learned a wonderful folk song from the region, which is essentially about knocking on the door of the king's palace, asking permission to enter (I think!). It goes like this:
Afi naii fiapemela, do ago
Afi naii fiapemela, do ago
Ago name, Ago name
Fiapemetor Ago!!
Ago name, Ago name
Fiapemetor Ago!!
Sam also regaled us with folk legends about the warriors of a town near Tafi Atome, the story of the sheep and the goat on the bus, and how the original tribes of Ghana were tricked or cajoled into leaving their original homes high up on top of flat plateaus to descend into the lowlands. He also clearly explained the colonial history of the area (Ghana is surrounded by French-speaking neighbors), and the nature of the somewhat arbitrary boundaries between countries. Apparently, the Ghanaian educational system has begun pushing students to learn French as a kind of good-will gesture to its neighbors.
One other important thing to point out about the trip thus far: These people are, in general, strikingly beautiful and almost unbelievably friendly. Children not only wave enthusiastically as we pass, they jump, shout, laugh, sing. People everywhere bid us "welcome", ask our names, extend a hand, and teach us their wonderful handshake which ends in a mutual snap of the fingers. They're curious to know what we think of their country. Only rarely does someone ask for money, even though they obviously have little, and even when they do, it's done quietly and with some dignity. Impressive. On a final not - not a single MacDonalds (or any other international chain) in sight!
Sept. 24
The second day of our big Eco-Adventure didn't disappoint either! During the 1 hour morning drive, we rehearsed our song some more, after Sam suggested that we sing it as soon as we got off the bus in the village of Tafi Atome. Which we did, much to the apparent delight of the guides who met us there. Once we realized there was a school across the field, we asked if we could sing it for the school children - what an experience! The kids sang with us, clapping in time, then sang it a few more times by themselves, speeding it up a bit, ending with us joining back in. For me, that's about as good as it gets!
Energized by this whole experience, we were then guided through the mud-huts of the village, watching as a woman prepared a meal over an open wood fire, observing teenage boys weaving intricate designs to create the colorful patterns that identify Kente cloth, learning about daily washing routines. The ever-present pygmy goats were here as well, but not running loose as they were elsewhaere. Everything was very clean. Apparently, sweeping the entire village is the first routine of the day. Then our guide led us into the forest, an area that is now protected by law. Calling to the monkeys, the guide headed to a densely shaded area (those monkeys are no fools - it's HOT out in the sun!). At first I could only see the palm branches moving, but finally I was able to spot the monkeys. They are a rare form of the Mona species and are only found in the jungle area around this village. As I held up a banana, one of the monkeys sped down a branch and, hanging on with his tail, reached out with one hand to hold on to my finger, while quickly peeling the banana with the other hand. Easy to see why we're so entranced by monkeys! Apparently, these monkeys actually come into the homes of the villagers every morning and evening to eat with the families before heading back out to the jungle. All in all, an unforgettable experience!
Miscellaneous facts:
Names of children I met: Ezekial, Immanuel, John, Moses, Gideon (60% Christian in this area)
Crops of Volta: Papaya, yam, corn, rice, pineapple, banana, plantain, mango, casava (used to make fufu), palm (used to make palm wine).
Woods: Teak, ebony, mahogany
Pulmonaria trees here are planted in cemetaries and are called "forget-me-not" trees.
Roadside signs worth remembering:
Use a condom every time you have sex! (Ghana is hard-hit by AIDS)
God Bless furniture work shop
Home Base Bar
Treat your Bed Nets here (anti-malaria)
Time Tells Cafe
Fear Not Book Shop
Prince Nab & Dab
Do Not Urinate Here!
Shine your eye (on a taxi - means "be alert")

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Students LOVED the Africa music selections played from my iTunes library before and after Global Studies this morning - Ali Farka Toure and Habib Koité & Bamada. Both hail from Mali - seems I don't have Ghanian music. Anyway, I've had to rely a lot on my personal music library, since the world music faculty who's supposed to get appropriate music to me is just SO disorganized! (Sean, wish you were here.) So, many thanks to David for helping me to broaden my musical tastes!
My current feelings about this ship environment are that this is a kind of mini floating colonial empire. The passengers (almost all American) are surrounded by quiet, smiling crew in pressed uniforms are all from other countries, and address us as 'sir' and 'ma'am', polishing and vacuuming and folding toilet paper ends into neat triangles, serving us food and drinks, turning down our beds magically. They're not allowed to 'fraternize' with us, but I still know that sweet Jeffrey is from India, and misses his wife and 10-month old son, and that he just discovered that he may be on the ship a month longer than was originally contracted - bet his wife won't be happy about that!
I don't know what to expect from Ghana, besides malarial mosquitos, beautifully colored clothing, and dangerous drinking water. I'm hoping to find music - street music would be fine. Looking forward to the Volta river and my 'eco-adventure' trip the second and third days.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fes, Ancient capital of Morocco

Sept. 11, Friday
On the train to Fes

After a challenging morning, we're well in to our train trip to Fes, the ancient capital of Morocco. Last night was late, starting out with a nice gathering at Rick's Cafe of Casablanca fame (created only about 5 years ago!), but ending on a sour note due to confusion about some belongings left unattended by students from the ship. One of those times when you try to do the right thing only to have those you were trying to help blow up at you. So, I started this morning tired and a bit discouraged. Then Joyce and I missed the 8:15 train by about 5 minutes, which meant a 2 hour wait for the next with nothing in the neighborhood open. We were able to find a bad cup of coffee in the Hotel Ibis next door, and at least sit out the bulk of our wait in relative comfort.

We're riding 2nd class, which is quite nice. The two women next to me are reading Koranic verse (Friday is the high holy day) - it is time for the midday prayer according to Naima, our wonderful guide for the city orientation yesterday. I can't help but be impressed by how much prayer and Koranic text are a part of everyday life here for so many. I'm glad we're here during Ramadan, even if it is inconvenient for us non-believers!

Later, same day.
We've settled in to our little hotel, Batha, only to find out that almost everything is closed on Friday afternoon. Holy day. The bartender at our hotel is reading Koran and chanting in between sparse orders - it's hard to interrupt for something as vulgar as a beer.

The concierge recommended taking a taxi up the hill to the five star hotel Merinides - good idea!
Joyce and I are sitting on a lovely veranda with a panoramic view of Fes with its medieval wall surrounded by cemetaries. We're enjoying that Moroccan staple, mint tea, while listening to the growing thunder - we could witness a grand storm, if we're lucky. Ahhh.... the big drops are starting. Funny, rain is just not something I associate with Morocco!
What fun! We watched it coming, and then it hit. Torrents of rain, lighting and thunder, big winds. The veranda flooded, big potted plants fell over, we had to move indoors. Very exciting!

Sept. 12

We ended up waiting literally 2 hours at the hotel last night for taxis to start running again after the "breaking of the fast" meal at sundown; in the meantime, we were befriended by a very nice Moroccan man,Taibi. Turned out he was staying at our hotel, having had the view at the Merinides recommended by the same concierge. He speaks a smattering of English, some Dutch, French, and quite a bit of German. We shared a taxi (20 dh = 2.50) back to the hotel, then he took me on a brief walk into the beginning of the Medina, which was quite calm on a Friday night in the middle of Ramadan. We had a good conversation about religion and Morocco's past and future. Nice to get to ask questions from someone living here.

Back in the train, first class this time (working air conditioning). 165 dh = $27 Joyce and I did manage a tour of the medina for 3 hours. It was pretty exhausting. Although I really liked our guide, Samira, she clearly works on commission - we BEGGED out of the embroidery and pharmacy sales pitches, after suffering through 5 others. I HATE sales pitches, no matter what country, no matter what language. Don't get me wrong - I wanted to buy a few things, but I so hated being corralled and harrassed, I only ended up buying a simple blouse (which I desperately need) for WAY too much. Sigh.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Port of Casablanca

And what a port! The ship is pulling up next to HUGE cranes - we could reach out and touch them. coming into port an hour ago, already the contrasts are striking - first, crossing a clear line in the water - on one side, the greenish-blue clear waters of the Atlantic, on the other, silty-sludgy beige water full of garbage. Then there was the escort of the fishing boats, rusted and well-worn next to the sparkling priviledge, wealth and size of the MV Explorer (that's our ship). Finally, the striking sight of the Hassan II Mosque, soaringly beautiful, with nothing but the relative chaos of the industrial port area around it.
Oh, and it's cloudy and misty - COOL! (literally)

On a personal note, I've finally found a travel partner to Fes, thanks heavens. Joyce is a bit older than me, is a life-long learner on the voyage, and has lived under very adverse conditions recently for some months in Bangaladesh, where she worked for a non-profit teaching English. After being told a number of times that a woman traveling alone in Fes is NOT a good idea, this is a big relief.
We watched a documentary film last night titled "I love Hip Hop in Morocco" - great introduction to youth culture in the country. Nice to think my bit of French will definitely be useful here! (Much of the film was in French.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Spain Photos Test

I'm trying to link my photos posted on Facebook to the blog. If any of you are not on FB, I'd love to hear if you're able to follow the link OK - from what I can tell, you should be able to.

Leaving Cádiz, Spain already!

These port visits will really be nothing more than a taste, a vague impression. Four or five days, particularly when divided into various “trips”, can’t be anything else. I was hoping to come up with a way of being less of a tourist, but that’s just not really possible – I am and will be a foreigner, an observer.
So, that said, Spain strikes me as an easy, fun place for us Westerners to visit – what a surprise! (Just joking) It’s been good to glimpse contrasting environments, from the busy streets of Seville where I joined throngs of tourists at the Alcazar, to the protected nature reserve of the Grazalema Park, and back to the local beaches of Cádiz. Although I honestly generally hate the idea of big tour buses, it is actually wonderful to have a good local tour guide who uses the travel time to tell you all kinds of interesting things you’d never get from the guide books. For instance, I asked why there were so few bicycles in flat Cádiz (where the traffic is TERRIBLE and the territory is small) and so many more in Seville, and he answered that the local governments are very different in the two places. Right-leaning Cádiz won’t fund the infrastructure needed to create bike lanes, whereas the leftist Green party in Seville has managed not only bike lanes, but a strong system of rental bikes (like in Paris and the Netherlands). Fascinating!
This south coast of Spain has omni-present moorish and roman roots, with Islamic, Christian, and Roman forms mixed even within the same structure, yet I haven’t run into a single obviously Muslim inhabitant. I’m curious. Leads me to believe that expulsion of Muslims must have been quite violent and final. The Netherlands looks so much more diverse.

I'm trying to post some of the pictures to Facebook, and link them here, but the ship system is VERY slow this evening, so be patient!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Water, water, everywhere...

It's interesting being out to sea for a stretch. I have worked a bit to quell feelings of being trapped with no escape, and it's a wonder to me that I can be completely out in nature and yet never go outside - how is that possible? I'm now making a special effort during my classroom rounds to take the few outside routes that are available to me. Today I had my first real "break", sitting on a lounge chair in the sun on the pool deck, listening to student conversations around me liberally laced with sexual innuendo - fun. My job is coming together, faculty are getting the hang of classroom systems so I can relax a bit and spend time looking forward to our arrival in Cadiz, Spain in 2 days. Then only one day of travel and we're in Morocco! Let the excitement begin! I PROMISE more pictures soon.
Fun dance last night (I provided the sound support) - basic disco, but students dressed in "mashed" outfits - mixed up, underwear outside, mismatched shoes, you get the idea. Very fun, and I dressed up as well to sit in the media booth. So far, it's a bit disappointing that the faculty and staff don't seem to know how to have fun - is that really what happens as we age??