Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mount Afadjato: Standing on top of the world (er, Ghana)

Two days after Christmas, I got the most exercise I’ve had since I arrived in this country.  Our plan for the day was a hike to the highest point in Ghana, the top of Mount Afadjato, a staggering 885 m above sea level (just over 2900 feet, for those of you who aren’t good with the metric system).  Thanks to the advice of Mr. Tagboto’s driver, Benee took a shortcut on a well-maintained dirt road, getting us to the start of the hike in less than an hour.  After checking in at the visitor center to pay our fee for the hike, our guide hopped into the back of our SUV for a three-minute drive to the start of the hike.  Our group rather quickly segmented into three pairs of hikers: Markus with the guide in front of him, Steffi and me in the middle, and Benee and Dorella bringing up the rear. 

The hike itself was a grueling trek up a steep slope, with the last hundred meters or so being a scramble up a particularly rocky section.  Our guide negotiated it rather easily in his cheap flip-flops, the same footwear worn by a few local kids who passed us on the way up.  Unbeknownst to Markus, he was being raced to the top by a few kids from a Kumasi church group—very “cheetah-like”, as they would sprint past him and then wait until they saw him to sprint again.  Turns out that Markus won the race even though he had no idea it was a competition. 

About halfway up, our guide came back down to check on us.  We sent him below to check on Benee and Dorella.  When he came back up, he said that they had decided to head back down the mountain, which seemed like a reasonable choice given the difficulty of the hike.  Steffi pulled away from me towards the top of the mountain as I stopped a few times to rest my weary legs and arms.  Finally I crested the summit of the mountain with photographic proof of my summit taken by the resident group photographer, Markus.  With how tiring it was, it still took less than an hour.

Standing on top of Mount Afadjato
 Not too much later, the rest of the Kumasi church group made it to the summit for the group photo shown here.  Steffi and I each ended up in quite a few pictures taken by “Charles”, the guy in the church group who owned a camera.  The group stayed for only five or ten minutes before heading back down.  The trek to the top was too exhausting for me to want to hurry back down, so the four of us (Steffi, Markus, the guide and I) hung around at the top for a while longer.

 And it’s a good thing we did, because eventually we saw the most unexpected sight: Benee and Dorella coming up the top of the rocky trail.  After pausing at a rest stop about halfway up, probably where our guide found them, they pressed on to make the summit.  I was both surprised and happy for them to have conquered the trail.  I was reminded of my long, exhausting Longs’ Peak hike many summers ago in Colorado, in which I was the one who stopped along the way but then summitted the mountain to the surprise and joy of my fellow hikers.  While on top of the Mount Afadjato, I was struck by how much it seemed like the perfect spot for a commercial, prompting me to get Markus to take a picture of me with the Voltic water that made the hike possible.  

Kumasi church group
Setting off down the mountain, I told everyone not to wait on me, as I knew that descending would be a much slower process for me, mostly due to the many years of wear and tear on my knees from ultimate.  Benee ended up hiking down with me, which was a very good thing.  Maybe a third of the way down, my tired legs allowed me to wander too close to the edge of the trail, where suddenly my heel caught some gravel.  I slipped off the edge of the trail and started sliding down the mountain.  While watching my slide, Benee’s first thought was of how far I would slide down the mountain before I stopped falling, followed in quick succession by wondering how he would help me get back onto the trail.  After only a few feet, my fall was arrested—by thorn-covered vines that grabbed onto my pants and bare arms.  I’m glad I had the forethought to put the bottom half of the convertible pants back on or I would have ended up with some really nasty scratches on my legs in addition to the few I got on my arms. 

My hands and heels scrabbled for anything that would allow me to push myself back up.  I managed to kick my way back up close enough to the trail that Benee wanted to help.  He reached down to grab my hand, but I told him, “Grab onto the strap on my backpack,” leaving my hands free to continue pushing my way back onto the trail.  With Benee pulling me up, I crawled back up onto the trail, much wearied from my efforts.  At that point, we both took a short but sorely needed break.

Our downward journey continued, broken by a couple more rest breaks to allow our shaking legs to recover enough to continue the descent.  After what seemed like an eternity—but in reality was probably less than an hour and a half—we reached the trailhead where Steffi, Markus and Dorella were waiting.  Using my arms to pull myself up the slope was the only way that I was able to summit, but I paid for it dearly when I woke up the next morning.  I felt like I had spent hours dead-lifting in the weight room.  My legs were no better off and felt like I had played an entire Frisbee tournament.  This experience was an all-too-painful reminder of how little exercise I’ve gotten since I got here, but was still well worth the effort for the views (pictures linked here).

Our Lady of Lourdes: 4th Station
After the hike, we dropped Dorella back at the house and drove to the Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine, located 8 km from Kpando in Agbenoxoe.  Upon an east-facing hillside, there are a series of fourteen sculptures related to the crucifixion of Christ (known to Catholics as the Stations of the Cross) and a massive statue of the Virgin Mary.  The resident priest was there with a group of mourners who were walking through the stations in honor of a lost loved one.  The silence of the shrine was a peaceful respite from the hustle and noise found throughout most of my time in Ghana.  The late afternoon light gave a beautiful glow to some of the sculptures, with one of the best examples being the fourth station (Jesus Meets his Sorrowful Mother) shown here.

After our time at the shrine, we found a little bar and had a couple drinks while waiting for sunset.  Benee drove us a little ways down the road to Torkor to take sunset pictures, which were less than impressive due to the hazy cloud cover.  After returning to the house for showers, we drove to Ho for dinner at a little place recommended in both the English and German guidebooks.

Given our busy day on Monday, we slept in on Tuesday and had a lovely breakfast around 9.  We packed up our things, took a few pictures in front of the house with Benee and Kofi and Mary and started on our journey back to Kumasi.  Around 12:30 we arrived at the Adome Bridge, “a massive suspension bridge that forms one of only two places where cars are able to cross the Lower Volta” (as described in the Bradt guide).  The bridge is rather impressive, especially when a large truck crosses the bridge, causing it to shake on its rails.  The views from the Volta Hotel the other day made us want to return to show Steffi and Markus.  We enjoyed a long, leisurely lunch on the large veranda with the view overlooking the dam.  After a long but uneventful drive, we arrived back home at the house in Kumasi, tired but relaxed from our non-traditional Christmas.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

MV Princess to Dodi Island: A 5-hours’ tour

This trip on the day after Christmas has a smaller cast of characters than the other holiday posts.  Steffi is not a fan of boats, so she and Markus decided to spend the day around Kpando and Torkor, leaving the trio of Benee and Dorella and me to take a pleasure cruise on the Volta Lake.  The MV Princess ferryboat is scheduled to leave at 10:30, but given that it was a holiday weekend, we decided to leave the house around 7 to get us to Akosombo with plenty of time to spare.

Since we had made this drive in the dark on the 24th, I enjoyed seeing it in the daylight.  Every little town looks identical in the dark, but in the light of day, the differences become more apparent.  The roadside stands were selling varied and sundry items that were different from the Ashanti region (of which Kumasi is the regional capital): pottery in some places, drums in others, and even pillows in one particular town (perhaps it’s near a distributor of Ashfoam, the major brand of foam that goes into beds and other upholstered furniture).

Upon arrival in Akosombo, we stopped in at the Volta Hotel to inquire about tickets for the Dodi Princess… and for Dorella to get a much needed coffee.  We were told that the tickets had to be purchased at the dock.  While in the hotel, I saw a sign for the brand-new website for the Dodi Princess at  Unfortunately for us, this website doesn’t show up in the first couple pages of a Google search on “dodi island cruise Ghana”.  The Volta Hotel might want to redesign the website to get their site higher in the rankings, especially since it offers the ability to do online booking, at least for anyone with a Ghanaian bankcard.

Arriving at the dock, there was a long queue at the ticket booth for the boat ride.  While waiting in line, we saw some pretty bad examples of queue-jumping, e.g., one person standing in line until he arrived at the ticket booth when ten of his friends joined him buying multiple tickets each.  This sort of line-jumping is pretty common since almost everything in Ghana requires waiting in long lines.  Benee handled the purchasing of the tickets for us while I wandered over and watched some boys fishing from a wooden boat.  Finally we got our three tickets and headed onto the ferryboat.

After checking out the upper and lower levels of the boat, we staked out three wooden deck chairs on the back deck of the boat, shaded by the upper deck.  The proximity to the splash pool meant that we’d probably be surrounded by screaming kids rather quickly, but it seemed a better choice than the excessively loud band upstairs or the boring indoor area. 

We sat down to relax in the shade of the boat and waited for the rest of the passengers to load onto the boat.  The crew of the boat filled up the splash pool with water from the lake and about twenty kids jumped right in.  Somehow, no matter how I dress, I always look like an American, but this time it led to a conversation with a fellow American from Georgia who had brought his wife and kids home to Ghana to see the extended family.  I noticed a guy with a couple of digital camera bodies, including a Canon 5D Mark III, and learned that he’s a professional photographer and videographer.  (More of my pictures from this trip can be found here.) 

Somehow the boat left the dock only fifteen minutes late, which even the US airlines consider an on-time departure.  The festive holiday atmosphere was evident from the happy smiles on everyone’s faces.  Dorella, Benee and I took turns watching over our seats.  The band was loud but not overwhelming, as we could carry on conversations on the lower deck.  Since we were cruising north towards Dodi Island, our seats were in the shade for the first half of the journey.  I enjoyed standing at the deck railing, watching the land go by and entertained by the antics of some of the young men dancing.  Dorella seemed to have a great time talking with a few different people on the boat, including a lady who runs tours for fellow Ghanaians.  Benee was in full videographer mode, taping some of the scenery and the people around us.

Around 11:30, Dorella came back to the seats with a plate full of food.  The buffet had opened up but not too many people had realized it yet, at least not when she went through.  I quickly went inside to find a line of people building.  Being aware of the queue-jumping earlier, I was alert to any more instances of it.  Unfortunately, I made a mistake in thinking someone was queue-jumping when it turns out that it was just a less-than-organized line.  After a somewhat long wait, I got my plate of rice and tilapia, the latter of which is caught right there in the Volta Lake. 

Dodi Island dancers
 The stop at Dodi Island is the halfway point of the cruise.  As the ferryboat went around to the north side of the island, we could see many people waiting at the ferry landing and could hear the drums and singing.  Due to the late start, the stop was cut down from an hour to thirty minutes. Quite a few of the disembarking passengers started dancing with the welcoming group.  The dancers aged in range from girls as young as eight or nine up through adult women, while the drummers were mostly young men. Due to the short stop and the need to hold onto our seats, Dorella decided to stay on the boat while Benee and I joined the passengers heading onto the island.  Looking back on it, maybe I should have stayed on the boat, too.

Visiting Dodi Island ranks up there as one of the saddest experiences in my time in Ghana.  As soon as we left the ferry landing, where the celebration had made me happy to donate a few cedis, we encountered a steady stream of ragamuffin children.  They would shyly reach to hold our hands in the hopes that few minutes walking with us would lead to a few pesewas for them.  Others were less reserved and just put their hands out to beg.  For once, the children saw no difference between the locals and the obrunis.

As we started up the hill, we saw an impromptu fish market underneath a concrete shelter.  Continuing up the hill, there was another set of drummers who were allowing the visitors to play, albeit very badly.  My heart started breaking when I saw this five- or six-year-old boy shaking a bead-covered gourd with all his might, hoping that we visitors would give him some money for his efforts.  We kept walking with the trail of sad little children following us.  On the other side of the island, another group was dancing to a different type of music, which Benee said was from the northern part of the Ewe (pronounced “a-way”) region.

Boy with gourd noisemaker
 On our way back across the island, the beginning children started following us again.  I almost started crying at the sight of a ten-year-old boy who was obviously suffering from a number of serious ailments, as evidenced by the hunched back, stunted fingers and flaky white skin condition.  I had resisted the begging of the other children, but his sad condition compelled me to press a few coins into his hand as we walked past on our way to the boat. 

Benee and I discussed whether or not all these people lived on the island.  We came to the conclusion that they must paddle over for the arrival of the ferry every weekend day and holiday in the hopes of making money off the tourists.  I was pretty distraught at the thought that these small children would grow up thinking that this was the only way to survive and wished desperately for a happier life for them.

On our return trip, I felt a bit more subdued due to the encounters on Dodi Island.  The hot African sun beat down on us as the boat cruised south back towards the dock.  Dorella and I spent some time giving travel advice to a couple of Austrians who were planning to visit Kumasi in early January.  While was I taking pictures of the late afternoon sun breaking through the clouds that had finally cooled things off, I talked to a very nice Japanese girl who was living in the Volta region for three years working as a music teacher in the schools as part of  the Japanese version of the Peace Corps.  As we approached the dock, I could see a large group of people waiting for the boat to return.  The ferryboat pulled into the dock as people pushed their way to the exits from the boat.  We waited for the crush of people to subside, then gathered up our things and disembarked from our pleasure cruise on the Volta Lake.

Sun over Volta Lake

Monday, January 24, 2011

Settling back in….

Amazing how quickly the new and novel can become the old and familiar.  I’m already settling back into the familiar routine of life in Kumasi.  Weekends are still somewhat the same, with Nela coming into town to spend the weekend here at the house.  Saturday night is for dinner out at one of our favorite haunts, like It’s My Kitchen (wide variety of food, including Chinese, noodles, pasta, and local dishes) or Moti Mahal (fantastic Indian food).  Saturday or Sunday during the day is usually laundry day, with the other day often spent at the university pool.

Side story: I was not one of those kids who got a pass to the local pool and spent my days splashing around and catching rays with my friends.  But here the university pool makes for both a relaxing afternoon and a way to get some sorely-needed exercise.  On my stopover in the Sydney airport, I bought a pair of swim goggles, which makes the experience of swimming in the heavily-chlorinated pool much more acceptable.  Swimming laps followed by sitting underneath the shade of an umbrella, sipping on an Alvaro while reading a book on my Kindle… very nice way to spend a lazy Sunday.

While there’s a familiar rhythm to my Kumasi life, there are a couple major changes to the routine of the past three months.  Change #1: we have a new cook.  Lisa found herself long-term employment managing the kitchen of a small hotel, a much better situation for her from a career standpoint than cooking for us.  She quit the job here during the week after Christmas, so I knew that she would not be around when I got back.  Since Benee runs a few guesthouses, he already had Dinah lined up to take Lisa’s place when Lisa quit.  While I do miss Lisa and her cooking, Dinah is doing a fantastic job.  She’s obviously done this for a long time, as evidenced by many little things, from the amount of time she took to reorganize the pots and pans in the storage cabinet to the white chef’s uniform that she often wears when she comes to cook.   

Change #2: I am living alone for the first time in my entire life.  I knew coming into this program that Steffi and Dorella’s Pulse assignments were set up to do a three-month project in a group of Kumasi hospitals followed by the same three-month project in some Accra hospitals.  They moved to Accra while I was on holiday, leaving me to come home to an empty house.  Since Benee and Ellie live downstairs and Dinah comes to cook, it’s not like I’m completely without other people around.  But I’m the only one living in the upstairs part of the house during the week.

In my life so far, I went from living with family to some great roommates in college and grad school to moving in with my husband.   Even during my four months in Australia in grad school I had a flatmate, making me think I might never end up living alone.  Strange to think that my first experience living alone is in a culture that I still don’t really understand.  Oddly enough, I think I’m more comfortable living alone here than I would be in the US.  Ghana is an extremely safe country, especially as it regards violent crime.  With regards to petty theft, Akmed does lock his car doors but leaves valuables in plain sight with no concerns that someone would break a window to get them.  While I do lock the door to my room at night, it’s more from habit than from any real fear of intruders, something that I can’t say when I’m back home in the US even though we live in a very safe Cary neighborhood.

So we’ll see how living alone goes.  I’m guessing (and hoping) it may lead to more involvement with some of the Ghanaians I know, at least if the past few days are any guide.  I’ve had longer conversations with Ellie since I got back than at any other point in the last three months, and Dinah has already invited Nela and me to come to her wedding next month.  If nothing else, all this solitude will likely give me more time to blog. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Wli Waterfalls: a bit of Christmas magic

Ghana and the US have something in common at Christmastime: everyone and their brother (and their sister and their cousin and their cousin’s sister’s friend) are on the road on the 24th of December.  Our trip got started on Ghana time, meaning that for our 10 am start, we began the trek from Kumasi at 12:30.  Leaving Kumasi took the better part (really, the worse part) of an hour to move a few kilometers.  But once we were on the road it was mostly smooth sailing with the exception of a few slowdowns in the larger towns on the road.  Around 5:30 the road to Kpando split off from the Accra road.  The good news is that the traffic noticeably lessened.  The bad news is that the roads got noticeably worse.  We weren’t quite at the level of tarmac-deficient sections of road to Tamale, but there were some very pothole-ridden stretches.  The pitch-black of this mostly uninhabited region made for slow going, getting us in to Benee’s dad’s house in Kpando after 10 pm.

Much like any other day in the tropics, Christmas day dawned around 6 am.  We breakfasted on pan-toasted bread (thanks to Dorella) and scrambled eggs (kudos to Markus), accompanied by fresh oranges from the back garden, harvested by Kofi (the caretaker) and prepped by John (butler is probably the best way to describe his role at the houe).  Around 9:30 we started the 1.5-hour drive from Kpando to Liati Wote, the closest town to the waterfalls.

After paying our 6-cedis-per-person to see the waterfalls (discounted from GHC8 for being volunteers), we headed along the gently-sloping trail towards the falls.  In past times, one had to wade through the meandering stream a total of ten times, but now there are sturdy wooden bridges for all the crossings, making it much more tourist-friendly.  A leisurely 30-minute walk through the woods took us to the clearing at the base of lower Wli Waterfalls, the highest waterfall in West Africa.  (The walk to the upper falls was a much more grueling trek and, according to the Bradt guide, was not allowed during the rainy season, which they defined as 1 July to 31 December.)

Lower Wli Waterfall
Even at the start of the dry season, the volume of water passing over the 50-m drop of the second fall was impressive.  I laid my backpack down on a bench, grabbed my camera, lenses and tripod and wandered off to find a good vantage point for my waterfall pictures.  But I quickly got distracted by the butterflies that were swirling above some damp ground where the water puddles up from the falls.  Anyone who has been on a hike with me knows how much I love butterflies.  I stood in the middle of the butterflies, mesmerized by the colorful beating wings around me.  Utter joy and peace mixed with a tinge of sadness brought tears to my eyes as I realized that I was experiencing an almost-perfect Christmas moment, one that would have been perfect if I were sharing it with LJ.

After a few more minutes, I put the zoom lens on the camera and started snapping away to try to capture a bit of the butterfly magic for posterity.  Some of the butterflies were nothing like I’ve ever seen before, even in all the butterfly houses I’ve visited all over the world.  (More pictures of the waterfalls and butterflies can be found here.)  Eventually the butterflies seemed to tire of me, so I wandered closer to the water with my tripod to capture more pictures of the waterfall.  Markus and Benee both took a dip in the shallow but chilly water at the base of the falls, a feat all the more memorable since Benee had never ventured as close to the falls as he did that day. 

"Beautiful butterflies"
 When we showed up, there were only a few people, but as the day wore on the crowd grew much, much larger.  A group of Indians showed up, followed by about 15-20 locals.  On our way out, we watched as numerous other locals passed us carrying the makings of a great party—coolers full of food and drinks, a stereo, a generator, and a speaker the size of the guy carrying it.  Things were going to get really loud since they would have to crank the stereo to 11 to hear over the noise of the waterfalls and the generator.  Arriving back in the town of Wli Agoviefe, we headed to the German-run guesthouse, Waterfall Lodge, where Dorella was having a nice rest in the shade with a great view of the waterfall from the peaceful outdoor seating.  After some cold drinks, we strolled back to the parking lot of the visitor center, which was overrun with buses and cars and people as the party continued.

For dinner, Benee tried to find a particularly nice restaurant he remembered in Hohoe (pronounced “ha-way”, much to the detriment of this Christmas-themed post), but that didn’t quite work out.  Instead, we ended up in the tiny restaurant of the newly opened Cede’s Hotel in Kpando.  I was excited at the prospect of pizza for Christmas dinner, but unfortunately, even though pizza was on the menu, it was not available that night, a not uncommon occurrence in the restaurants we’ve frequented in Ghana.  I didn’t end up having “Chinese turkey” (reference to “A Christmas Story” for those you of you who missed it) but the chicken and rice I had might be the Ghanaian equivalent.  We spent the end of Christmas evening sitting on the veranda of the house in the cool evening air, talking with Kofi (Benee’s dad) and his wife Mary, an enjoyable end to a peaceful Christmas day.