Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Bye, I'm Going Canada!"

“Bye, I’m going Canada!” These were Finn’s final, jolly words to his teachers as he waved goodbye and left Little Acorns for the last time. While he does not fully appreciate the gravity of the departure or the weight of his farewell, the rest of us do…even Materia. Her last remark, whimpered to Carmilla as her eyes welled up and she made her way from Little Acorns was, “I’m holding all my crying inside.” I’m sure the rest of us will not be so strong as we prepare to depart Ghana, if not forever, then certainly for a very long time.

It has been everything we dared imagine, and oh so much more. From the moment we stepped off of the airplane at Kotoka International Airport and saw the word “Akwaaba!” sprawled across the airport walls, we have felt just that, welcome. The things that others said about the people of Ghana were absolutely true and there is an overall tendency towards goodness and peace here that is unsurpassed in any part of the world that I can think of (though a few pockets of Canada come quite readily to mind). At first when Douglas the driver, Matthew the security guard, Diana the housekeeper, or even the plantain chip seller referred to us as their brothers and sisters, it felt like an awkward joke, but I have learned that they meant it. And now we mean it too.

There is a song by Arrested Development called “Africa’s Inside Me” that keeps looping through my head and is swiftly becoming the title song for soundtrack of our exit from Ghana. It is taking on new meaning as I reflect on our time here (and as it plays in the van while we bob and weave through and past the pulsating streets, vibrant markets and red-earth trails of this colour-drenched country!) and despite the fact that I have long-resisted the urge to think of Africa as truly being mine, I’m starting to feel that it is. For as long as I can remember dreaming about traveling, I have felt a kind of an inertia drawing me towards Africa, and I think Carmilla would agree. I would like to believe—and choose to believe from this point forward—that it is something primal, a hearkening back to a beginning I cannot fathom, but can certainly feel in the heartsong siren call of the African drum. This, the red, yellow and green of Ghana, this black star, is very much our Africa.

And so, we are on to the next adventure that will include a return to Canada’s great north. This blog has been rewarding and the feedback has been both generous and wide-reaching—every writer loves readers (especially theirs!) and I am no exception. As this year has contained its fair share of challenges (very little of this was Ghana’s fault!), this blog was also a sustaining force in my ability to chew on every moment and every experience, and I sincerely hope that it continues to be useful and enjoyed. For now, I too am holding all my crying inside, right next to the place where I will keep Africa. Bye, I’m going Canada!

Africa’s inside me

taking back her child

she’s giving me my pride

and setting me free

(Arrested Development)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Where to Eat in Accra

Okay, I must confess at the outset that I am no food critic. One glance at my rather "robust" frame, however, will soon reveal that I am an experienced enjoyer of food so I feel at least somewhat qualified to make a few recommendations regarding "Where to Eat in Accra." I should also admit that we were a little slow to get around to a number of the better restaurants, as fine dining is not generally the answer to the question "What should we do for fun?" when you have four young children (sorry kids...we don't love you less for it!). That said, once we had a child-minder we could trust and some good friends to break bread with, we were into local gastronomic scene with mucho gusto.

Top prize has to go to Osteria/Michelangelo's, a remarkable little Italian restaurant in Airport Residential with several different names. If it were a lesser restaurant, the apparently obsessive tendency towards re-naming itself would be unforgivable, but since the owner is attentive, the menu a masterpiece, the wine list unparalleled, and the ambiance the stuff of wedding proposals, it is easy to forgive such indulgences. Considering the meal that was laid before us--inconceivable in Ghana on many fronts--and the ever-crashing cedi, this restaurant is a bargain and a must-eat in Accra. The appetizers--some of which included imported buffalo mozzarella--made us feel we had won the food lottery and when the main course came, it was like...well, winning a bigger lottery after winning the lottery. (Pretty fancy use of language, eh? That's why I am an English teacher and a sometimes poet.)

Prior to our trip to Osteria, Monsoon was the first real stand-out for us and we were quick to return for heaping helpings of some of the tastiest sushi we've ever had. I can't honestly say whether the sushi was so much better because we were in a serious state of withdrawal, or because it was actually that good, but memorable meals are as much about company, context, and craving as anything else, and our first trip to this little culinary heaven in Osu delivered on all three fronts. I'm told that other things on the surprisingly varied menu are as good or better than the sushi, but we haven't been able to bring ourselves to order them thus far.

Our regular, most consistently dependable lunch hour haunt is Josie's Cuppa Cappuccino in Airport Residential. There are other excellent lunchtime eateries including Melting Moments and Sunshine Salads, but Josie's always won for us for its location (close to work and tucked into a quiet residential street), for its very reasonable prices, and even for its art (including paintings by local artist Borlabie). It will surprise most of our readers that we mostly opted for delicious, fresh pineapple-coconut-banana smoothies over the also-delicious coffee. Our favourites were the bacon and avocado burger and the chicken, bacon avocado sandwich, but it's all good!

A family favourite and our "local" restaurant on Spintex was La Galette. Do not let the traffic on Spintex scare you away from this little slice of Paris in Accra! The baguettes and croissants are the best you'll find this side of France and the seafood pasta is to die for. This was a regular weekend morning treat where we would spend a little quality time with one or two of the kids. Of course it was always a bit of a verbal tug-of-war to see which grown-up would get to go and have an Americano and a still-warm-from-the-oven chocolate croissant!

There are a surprising number of pretty good restaurants in Accra and I know I have overlooked many, but these were the ones that served us well during our stay in Ghana. I feel I should pass along a few honourable mentions, so here goes. La Chaumiere on Liberation is easy to get to and serves up old world France in a pretty little converted house, that fills up in a hurry. Our "best pizza" award would have to go to the Shangri-La as we had it every Tuesday at the school while waiting for Brontë's ballet class to end. Papaye quickly became our family's equivalent of McDonald's, especially since we passed it every day on the way home (they have at least one other location that I know of). You will not, however, find anything like their grilled fish skewers and fried rice on the McD's menu for roughly the same price and there is no need to super size--the portions are heroic! In the mall, Frankie's is a good bet (the original is in Osu) and Rhapsody's is pricey but reliable, but the Nigerian eba and egusi in Tante Maria gets our vote! Bon appetit!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Taekwondo at the British Council

While the title speaks for itself on most levels, it does not convey the surreal nature of witnessing such a spectacle, particularly when it involves one's very own children. As part of the Cambridge Examinations exhibition, Tall Oaks was invited to stage a couple of demonstrations. As Taekwondo was selected and Brontë and Cohen are members of the class, they became a part of the show at the British Council. We headed out on a recent Saturday morning to infiltrate one of Britain's inner sanctums here in Ghana and we were not disappointed. There were a number of British-affiliated schools represented at the event and overall it went very well. It was especially nice to see how excited Materia and Finn were to get to see their teachers on a Saturday! What is it that happens to the young mind that shifts their perspective from "teacher as rock star" to "teacher as plague"? These are the questions recurring for a high school principal...

The Council (as I understand it) is the public arm of the British Embassy here in Ghana and they describe their mission as building "engagement and trust for the UK" which is a rather interesting and telling pursuit in a post-colonial nation. I shouldn't poke any fun as I think the work they do in Ghana and other countries is valuable, and I think Ghana has--at least to a great extent and quite generously--forgiven past invaders for many of their historical transgressions. From what I could see, the Council serves as a resource, education and development centre in Accra, and I think they have an office in Kumasi as well.

I am honestly amazed at what Cohen and Bronte (both yellow belts now) have learned after a year and I hope they want to continue in our next community, assuming it's available. The level of focus and discipline they showed was commendable and Cohen even got to break a board for the audience, so he was especially pleased. Sorry, but the pictures I took of the board-breaking were mostly of other people's heads (the pictures, not the breaking!) so I couldn't use them here--you'll just have to visualize! The demo was so well received that they were called upon to do an encore in the back garden so that the Council representatives could also witness it. Alas, all the boards had already been broken, so the climax lost a bit of its punch (pun intended!), but that didn't stop the kids (and their parents) from looking pretty darn proud. This was another one of those "things I never thought I'd be seeing or doing in Ghana" kind of experiences, that I'm glad we all had.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Unique Ceramics

Akwaaba! As part of a friend's birthday celebrations, Bronte, Materia and Carmilla had a chance to visit Unique Pottery to turn clay into creation. The workshop is located behind the Unique Pottery shop in Accra, which is very close to Wild Gecko, and it is possible, I think, for anyone to book the facilities for some hands-on fun. As I was not there to witness events unfold firsthand, this entry may be somewhat limited and highly inaccurate, but the pictures are good, so I'll give it a go. I have it on sound authority, however, that good times were had by all.

Everyone at the party got a chance to use the wheel, some molds, and Maxwell was the instructor for the session. Due to the fact that I am simple-minded and completely immature, I could not help but picture scenes from Ghost For a two hour session, including all materials, the instructor, and firing, it was four cedis per child, which is pretty darn reasonable. It should be noted that in a true Ghanaian turn of events, we were warned that we may not get our pottery before we leave Ghana because they do not currently have anyone to fire it!

I think the owner's name is Happy Ideall (wow, Ghana has hippy love children too) and he is a friendly guy. He apparently has another shop in the area that he runs with his wife, though the name escapes me at the moment. The area where the facilities are located is called Okponglo (try saying that five times fast!) and it is home to a number of local arts and crafts shops where goods are made and sold on location. Most notably is Wild Gecko Handicrafts, where imported (from all over Africa) and locally produced, high quality goods are sold. Most of the shops in the area (and in Ghana, for that matter) will fill custom orders for little or no extra money. Most are run as collectives, with the artisans and craftspeople directly involved. It is always a bonus when you can spend a Saturday morning having a little birthday fun, while spending money sustainably!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Accra's Best Kept (Family-Friendly) Secret

As you peruse this blog entry and scan the pictures, you will undoubtedly say to yourself: Big deal, another petting zoo and playground…whoop-de-doo! This may be an appropriate response in most parts of Canada, but in the context of Ghana, and more specifically in the big, stinky, family black hole of a city that is Accra, the Botanical Gardens at the University of Ghana are nothing short of a miracle. Open every day but Monday, there is much to see and do for the whole darn clan! There is a lot of thoughtful development going on at the park and before long it will be the crown jewel of Accra, at least for families. (Especially since the zoo was bulldozed--some say it was relocated but we haven’t found it yet--to make way for the Presidential Palace!)

Admission to the gardens was a mere two cedis per adult and one cedi per child, conjuring memories of, and comparisons to, the ever-so-reasonable kiddie rides at Kinsmen Park in Saskatoon. A ten minute horse ride garnered an additional one cedi, which is roughly ninety-nine dollars less than a trail ride in Canada will cost you. The petting zoo had Guinea pigs, rabbits, ducks, Guinea fowl, horses, donkeys, egrets, a fish hatchery, baby alligators, rats (Carmilla's hands-down favourite), and apparently a bush rat, though we did not see on this trek. We like to think of ourselves as petting zoo connoisseurs, having graced the manure trodden pathways of dozens of such parks across three continents, and on this day I can only say that while we have seldom felt more gratified (think glass of murky ditch water after two weeks in the desert without!), we chose, on this fine Sunday, to keep our eyes on the potential, rather than solely on the comparative reality.

Top prize for the day simply has to go to the playground. It has actual, fabricated, safe, fun playground equipment that has not been made by a roadside hawker with a couple of trees, a machete, and some leftover paint. It also has, as the photos will surely reveal, a few grown-up sized bits o' fun that ensure everyone is engaged and included. To give you a sense of how starved we are for parks, playgrounds and city infrastructure of any kind, we'd have paid double and waited in line just to play in the playground!

At least somewhat ironically, the botanical side of things seems a bit worse for wear but we didn’t venture too far into the park, so there could be gems of the flora kingdom tucked further in, as yet undiscovered by our family. There was a sizable lake that also serves as a lively fish hatchery and favourite haunt of about a zillion egrets that loom nearby, hoping the hatchery nets suddenly disintegrate as if by hope alone. There are boat rides available out across the lake, though we did not enquire as to the cost or nature of such an excursion, since the boat man was thoroughly engaged in Ghana's hot-part-of-the-day national pastime (pictured below).

Our time was capped off with a good meal at the restaurant inside the gardens and in keeping with a Ghanaian sense of Murphy's or Sod's Law, the food was exceptionally fast due to the fact that our children had an enormous, well-equipped playground and various free-roaming animals to keep them occupied.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lou Part Two

Akwaaba! As we are not long for this country now, this will undoubtedly be one of my last blog entries for Ghana. It was probably inevitable that the number of entries would diminish as time wore on, and that there would be some repetition, so I hope you will indulge me as I re-visit LouMoon Lodge. Unlike so many sequels, our second trip to LouMoon Lodge at Axim was every bit as fulfilling as the first and I dare say that it outshone on many levels, particularly since our good friends were along for the sun and sand. We booked months in advance for a national holiday weekend, and even though it was the rainy season (theoretically, I'm pleased to report...more on the weather in a bit), I think we were wise to have done so, as it seemed to be fully booked.

Last time we stayed in a "Hillside" chalet which was a little more private and had two separate rooms, but it was away from the beach, had little in terms of view, and didn't have an outdoor lounging area. It was, in its defense, less expensive. This time round we booked the two lower rooms in the Bayview Chalet and were all the happier for it. Despite the fact that there were twelve of us in two rooms (our friends also have four children), the rooms were so large that we fit comfortably. These rooms had the added perks of hot water, individual patios, breathtaking views of LouMoon's private bay, and the chalet is just steps from the private beach, the beach volleyball court, and the restaurant.

In practical, plain, family terms, this meant that at any given time we could pretty much see the children and we didn't have to venture too far for pee breaks, band-aids, time outs, naps, wine refills, snacks, or forgotten beach toys. I must be forthright and admit that our enjoyment hinged on the cooperation of the weather, which was pretty darn reasonable for the duration of our stay, despite being warned when we booked about the threat of the rainy season. Due to the fact that the kids could always be outside interacting with one another, it made for some quality time for the grown-ups. It also meant that all the wee ones were completely tuckered out and were sound asleep (for the most part...remembering that there were eight children ten and under!) shortly after supper. The big people would convene under the stars on the patio, accompanied by the rush of the ocean and one or two refreshments, like the signature Bailey's Moon that was at least as delicious as (I'm sure) it could be dangerous!

We were at LouMoon for a little less time, but we spent almost all of that time on the beach. The water can still be a bit rough, even in the bay, but the current shifts often enough that it tends not to last. The tide also brings in its fair share of garbage, so it is rather handy that LouMoon has a "back-up" private beach some 150 yards upsand, and that the two beaches never seem to be under seige with debris at the same time. The highlight for us this time was that we spent a good chunk of our last morning snorkeling in the rocks near the other beach and were rewarded for our efforts with an ocean full of life and colour. We also made good use of the sea kayaks and Finn is always game when there is a soccer ball to be kicked.

If the weather was poor, I could see someone feeling that the five hour journey--littered with enthusiastic police ready to "process" you unless you "give them something"--was not worth it, but we have been very lucky in that the trip was worth it, twice! Friends we met before Christmas (now in Nepal) had said that LouMoon was one of the things they'd remember most fondly about their time in Ghana and I think we will have to agree. It was exceptional, affordable, and breathtaking.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ghana on Stilts!

The village of Nzulezo in the Western Region of Ghana, is one of the country's best known tourist attractions primarily because the entire village--church, bars, schools and homes--is on stilts. Add to this the fact that we had to first slosh in through muddy, warm, standing water to get to the canoes that we then had to paddle (our four not-so-enthusiastic children in tow!) in to the village for about forty minutes, and you've got a recipe for family fun and lasting memories. To be fair, given the infinite number of things that could have gone horribly wrong, this little excursion went off pretty smoothly.

We embarked for the launch point from the Ankasa Wetlands wildlife office (conveniently located next to Beyin Beach Resort where you should go for lunch and stay!) and as it was the dry season, we had to drive in a ways to get to the canal that opens onto the lake where the village is. After some good, old-fashioned mud-bogging (my Lundar brother would have been proud) and a few tests of the credibility of the guides who were urging me on, we arrived at what would have looked like a boat launch, had there been any boats! You can imagine Carmilla's delight (having read in several places about the horrors of standing water in Africa) when we were told that we had to wade to the boats. Of course in true Ghanaian-style, this little tidbit was reserved for this moment, rather than for the moment before we paid! We spent a moment gazing at one another thoughtfully (and lovingly, I'm sure) before we took a collective deep breath and hit the water.

To save you some cheap suspense, no one fell in. In fact, the canoe ride through the forest and then out across the lake was tranquil, stunning, and pristine. There were a few children fishing along the shores and the children took turns paddling as we approached the village. The climb up into the village was a bit precarious and I'm never sure they had my particular physical build in mind as they assembled the ladders and walkways, but we spent some time walking down Main Street in the village on stilts. Children followed us around and we met the Chief's representative so we could sign in and we made a small donation to the school fund.

I have read and heard of several people who count this as a singularly memorable experience and it is to some extent if for nothing other than its uniqueness, but for all intents and purposes it is just another village once you get past the stilts. Unlike some of the eco-village tours, there aren't really any demonstrations, and much of the history of the village has been lost. While there is some agreement about the inhabitants being displaced from another country, no one is exactly sure how or why the village came to be on stilts. When we were there, it was mostly only above ground, but during the rainy season, it is essentially surrounded by water.

I have to say that I also felt even more like an intruder than I usually do, and I couldn't say there was a feeling of welcome (though Finn's always received like a rock star wherever we go!). I suspect that the village has been told that they must do this, and I'm sure it brings some money into the village, but there is nowhere to escape the prying eyes of tourism, and I'm sure it is a relatively constant irritant. If we hadn't been enjoying ourselves so thoroughly at Axim, and if we hadn't been able to do this as a fairly reasonable day trip from our home base at LouMoon, I'm sure I wouldn't be able to recommend it. That said, if you plan to be in the area, it is worth a look (and a little paddling/wading).