Friday, June 27, 2008

Executive Bathrooms, Money Woes, and some Beautiful Rainforesty Gardens!

When I got up at 6:50am on Sunday June 1st, I felt pretty beat up. I also realized in a panic that 40 minutes was not enough time to do all the computer things I needed to do. I rushed, rushed, rushed and was able to at least pay my tuition bill and find an address for the US Embassy in Accra. I had a bunch of emails I wanted to send, but those would have to wait. When I got home I quickly did the dishes I had left sitting in the sink for several days. I figured that was pretty important as coming back from Ghana to 10 day old dishes was not going to be a good plan. Leanna and Lorinda came and picked me up and drove me to the airport.

I got to the airport at about 7:45am and it wasn’t even open yet! So I had to wait… I saw a woman I thought I recognized with a friend she was clearly seeing off at the airport. She turned and started to talk to me, and I was immediately able to place her as Embassy staff. In fact, she drove me home from the first Bunco Night I ever went to! She introduced me to her friend who was going back to Accra. She worked for the Embassy there and was just up for a visit. We ended up chatting the whole time in the airport as we waited to board the plane. She was a very nice woman and had led a very fascinating life!

When they called us to come and board the plane I was starting to feel skeptical of my choice to fly an African airline… However, as the bus bringing us from the terminal to the jet rolled to a stop, most of my fears subsided as the plane looked newer than most of the domestic planes I have flown on in the US. Indeed, when I boarded I saw that the plane was practically brand new. That was the first good sign. Next, I was in the bulkhead row. Score. And I had the row myself. Excellent. The not so great thing was I was starving. No time at home meant I all I could do was grab a power bar and hope for the best. I wasn’t expecting anything on the plane, but to my surprise they did provide us with a lovely morning meal. Again, I was impressed. The flight was a little over an hour and it went by very quickly.

Before I knew it we had touched down in Accra and I was walking with my new friend through the airport. When she found out I didn’t have any local currency and that I didn’t know where I was going exactly, all I had was the name “Baptist guest house” and that it was in Osu, she offered to ask her driver if he knew where it was and if not she would be able to bring me back to her house with her and then I could go from there. I was more than happy to take her up on that offer. Side note, as I was filling out my landing card for customs these two guys started asking for me help because they didn’t know how to fill it out. It was no problem, but I was in a bit of a hurry. As is the norm, they wanted to keep talking to me and in overhearing their conversations I knew they worked for Marina Market in Ouagadougou. I think they were on a business trip to see about opening them up in Ghana. I entertained myself by thinking maybe they will give me some free groceries the next time I go shopping, but then I realized that was a ridiculous idea! Second side note is that I didn’t go to the bank in Ouaga before going to Accra. I had 20,000CFA on me that was it. I figured I would take money out of an ATM. However, I had the same problem as in Mali. No one took Mastercard and my Bank of Africa account would be more accurately named Bank of Burkina Faso, as there were none in Mali or Ghana! So I changed what money I had and hoped that would last until I could transfer money between accounts and get myself set again…

Leaving the airport we headed to this nice lady, Kate’s, house. The first thing that struck me was that we were traveling on what seemed like a normal highway and that the airport had dual departure and arrival levels like in the states! Accra is much more developed than Ouagadougou. However, I would learn later that developed does not always mean better…

Kate helped me find an address to a Baptist guest house in Osu. However, before I headed off in a taxi we walked over to the Embassy and she took me on a tour. It was so cool! The compound is much larger than the one in Burkina, and it is practically brand new. There is a Marines house that houses the high security people. I got to see the main areas and then she brought me in to see her office. Well she works as a secretary for the Ambassador so we are walking around and she is opening the door to the storage room, the office kitchen, and then wham! The Ambassador’s office. I am not kidding you. It was so cool. There was a picture of her dancing with President Bush during his visit to Ghana in 2007. There were full size flags on either side of the desk. It just felt super cool to get to see that. Then, as if that wasn’t enough she showed me that the ambassador has her own private full bathroom because she has to be able to get ready for any range of things on short notice. As we left, it definitely felt like one of the unreal moments, like “Did that really just happen…?”

Anyway, I took a taxi to the guesthouse. There was no one at the reception and I didn’t recognize any of the names that keys had been left for. I started to talk to the several people I saw sitting around and about. I explained my situation, all too aware that I was likely not in the right location! They were all there for the WHO Household Water Treatment and Safe Storage (HWTS) Conference as well, so they were inclined to want to help me which was great. The internet wasn’t working so I couldn’t even go and try to find out more information. My lucky break came when one of the ladies there mentioned she worked up in Tamale. I asked her if she knew Mary Kay from Pure Home Water. She did and offered to call her for me. I was saved! Mary Kay came and got me and brought me to the “Mid-Baptist Guesthouse”, slightly different name, but very different location. I was relieved to finally be hooked up with the group I was looking for. Susan Murcott, the MIT professor who had helped me sign up to come, was already at the guesthouse and I was quite happy to finally be there myself! I said hi, but since she was working hard on a presentation and I was about to collapse from exhaustion I retired to my room. I unpacked my bags and tried to sleep.

There were two problems with this plan. 1. I was hungry. By now it was 3pm. Airplane breakfast, no lunch = not a happy Sara. We were planning to go to dinner at 6:30, so I was hoping to just wait it out. Well, I realized if I had any aspirations of sleeping I would have to shamelessly go and ask if there was any food in the house I could eat and then pay for later. I was able to find a small yogurt. Something is better than nothing! I also made myself some Propel water thinking the vitamins couldn’t hurt either. 2. The curtains in the room had the thickness of bed sheets and the room was not dark at all. To remedy this I pulled out my AirFrance eye cover thing and hoped for the best. Still a bit restless and probably inspired by my quasi state of consciousness due to lack of sleep, I sat up and wrote out a business plan for the photo taking venture I dreamed up last summer. Only this time it seems like it might actually work and the details of how it would function were crystal clear. It was bizarre to say the least. However, not wanting to lose this clarity during my nap, I took out my notebook and wrote it all down! Once I was satisfied that I had developed a plan that would make me rich, muahahaha, I went to sleep. When my phone alarm went off at 6:15 I couldn’t really believe I had to get up again. But I pulled off my eye mask and got dressed. I was hungry and that need trumped the sleep need. The weirdest thing happened though. My left eye wouldn’t focus. It took a while for my right eye to be able to focus objects at difference distances, but it was 3 hours before my left eye was back to normal. Needless to say during that time I was convinced that I was losing my vision in my left eye; sure that my lack of sleep, lack of food and water was taking its toll by taking my left eye. This is how my brain works. The smallest disturbance of my otherwise normal health and I jump to the most dramatic scenario. It isn’t on purpose; it is just my natural response… I was just so thankful when little by little it was improving. It is fine now.

For dinner Susan and I joined Mark Kay and her family for a dinner at Frankie’s. It reminded me of a 50’s diner, but without purposely trying to be a 50’s diner. I ended up sharing various Lebanese dishes with Susan and Mark Kay. It was frustrating because I was so hungry and they forgot to bring my plate out. Judging by the size of the other plates I was a bit skeptical and worried I would still go home hungry. However, miraculously, there was enough food for all of us. When we got back to the guesthouse about 9:00 I went straight to bed. I slept for 10 hours and it was glorious! Final sidenote, the guesthouse had wireless internet which was awesome, but it wasn’t working! This was not good since I really needed to set up a transfer of money between accounts. But there was nothing I could do about it and I was just praying it would be up and going in the morning.

Monday morning I got up and had a nice breakfast with Susan. She really likes breakfast. I had toast and jam which was fine for me… We got in a taxi to go to the conference center. Mary Kay told us it was like 5 minutes away. After 40 minutes in the taxi we finally found it! This guy had no idea what he was doing. Thankfully here you pay a flat fee you decide on beforehand. The fact that the guy had to drive around forever cost him money, not us. We were late getting there, but it all turned out alright. They were still just starting. Oh, Africa! The morning of the conference was interesting. They had an opening addresses and the panel of important people who are there for the first hour and don’t see another minute of the conference. They had a ribbon cutting ceremony to open the poster exhibition which was cool. There were in total 5 sets of 5 presentations scheduled over the next two days. Here is a collage of several pictures I took...

The first set of presentations was given before lunch on the first day. Lunch was okay. I felt a bit like a loner the whole time I was at this conference and that feeling was exacerbated at meal times. I ended up sitting with two Vietnamese guys… and a Ghanaian. When I sat down they were all eating in silence. I had two options I could join there silence or I could say something. As I was sitting down I knew my window of about 20 seconds to naturally start a conversation was coming to a close. So, took a deep breathe and went for it. I said hi and introduced myself. What followed was not a stellar conversation, but one infinitely more desirable than sitting in silence.

The afternoon was even better than the morning. We had another set of presentations and then were given time to explore the poster exhibition. I really enjoyed talking to people about their projects. Several projects I want to mention include a very nice one by Samaritan’s Purse. I am continually impressed by this organization. There were also great presentations on a new design for a ceramic filter, a siphon filter, and a really neat model for educating women and empowering them to treat their water using community groups that are already in place.

That night I met two MIT students who had just arrived. They were really nice and welcoming to me. Since they just got into Accra, they wanted to stay in for dinner. Susan and I on the other hand were in search of a Chinese restaurant. We saw a sign for one on the main road nearby. So we decided to venture out. We had to ask about 6 people before we were able to track it down and it was much closer than we originally thought, but took us forever to get to because we had gone such a round about way getting there. Anyway, we got there and told the guard we are looking for Chinese food. He pointed us up the stairs on the right side of the building. We went up and were greeted by very impressively carved heavy wooden doors. Upon entering, getting a table and looking through the menu we come to realize we are in at the Heritage Indian Restaurant, not the Noble Chinese Restaurant. Turns out it is a two story restaurant complex with Chinese downstairs and Indian upstairs. I guess the guard was friend of the Indian Restaurant people since we told him Chinese and still pointed us upstairs! The mix up was really no problem though. We had a nice meal of Indian food and it was great to discuss with Susan much of the impressions and questions that were floating around in my head after the first day of the conference. I have to admit, I am working on getting used to the Indian spices. Wow. The food is spicy!

At home that night the internet was still not working… I was getting pretty anxious to let my parents know I was safe and really needed to fix my bank stuff as I was running out of money. It was a very stressful time actually. I went to bed and finished reading Utopia. Check another one off the list. It wasn’t a scintillating book, but it was interesting and now I can place and compare any reference to a Utopian society with the original context.

Tuesday before going to the conference I went with the two students, Kate and Derek, to an internet cafĂ© to go online. I was so happy they suggested that! I won’t have access to my money until Friday, but at least I will have it eventually which makes me feel like I can ask to borrow some. While the first day was new and exciting the second day of the conference was really quite exhausting. My brain was going a mile a minute. I had met all of these really prominent people in the field of Point of Use Water Treatments, learned a ton of new information from 20-plus presentations and observed from a non-invested point of view the dissensions and weaknesses within the field. Wow.

In my own work, I came across the problem of the percent reduction measure as not being descriptive enough. However, the WHO indicates that is the best measure. I was pleasantly surprised when this topic was brought up by others. It gave me confidence to question the norm. Here I had observed the same thing they had. However, I thought that since the WHO said something else, I must be wrong. That I learned is that is not the case. I can and should challenge the norms. I really wanted to talk to the main guy who brought up this point at lunch. The problem was, I was having trouble introducing myself and joining his conversation while waiting in the buffet line. It was rather awkward, and I ended up feeling a bit like I had butted in.

I went and sat down on my own feeling like it was a lost cause, but he ended up sitting at my table. I was able to better introduce myself and explain my situation and why I was interested in the prior conversation. I talked to him at lunch about “scaling up” versus “scaling out”. I feel they are using the wrong term to describe what they are trying to achieve. I would better understand later that afternoon that within the context of household water treatment scaling up is scaling out. However, I think this term masks the end goal of wanting people to have piped water which in my mind constitutes scaling up. I also noticed the guy sitting directly to my left had the same last name as the company that produces the Lifestraw and other fancy textiles. Turns out he was the CEO. Funny. To my right was a rather unassuming looking woman who turned out to actually be the chair of the afternoon’s presentation session and who works for the US government in the Earth and Ocean department in some capacity. After talking to the measures guy for a few minutes most of the rest of my lunch conversation was with this very nice woman.

In the afternoon it was tough to stay interested. I had kind of hit information overload. But I did my best to stay engaged. I was so happy when they had a coffee break… It was actually quite divine, in fact, because I was able to meet a Peace Corps volunteer who was there with her father. We had a great time talking about the conference and our observations. We were both coming from similar mind frames on a lot of the development issues and were able discuss some very interesting points.

After the last presentations there was supposedly a cocktail hour. Kate, Derek and I stuck around for like 10 minutes of that and then took a taxi home. We stayed in for dinner eating whatever hodge-podge of food we could put together. I also met the other MIT student named Vanessa who had just arrived. She seemed really nice. That night the internet was finally working in the guest house. It was wonderful to get to talk to my Mom. We talked for quite a while which was totally what I needed. I was able to vent my frustrations, shed my feeling of exhaustion, share my concerns about my money issues, and figured out what to about Wednesday. Why was Wednesday a problem? Wednesday was not the same symposium style program as the other two days, but more a meeting of the network. From the start, I was under the impression that these would be closed meetings so I made other plans for Wednesday; namely to go to the Botanical Gardens and hour and half from Accra in Aburi. So what was I to do? Should I now go to the meetings because I could, and resent not going to the gardens? Or do I go to the gardens and potentially feel guilty about not going to meetings! And I didn’t have enough money left. Do you see the problem here? I decided I would ask Kate to borrow enough money to get me through until Friday and ask Susan to pay the Guesthouse fees. I would pay them both back when I cam up to Tamale on Monday. I planned go to the conference center in the morning and get a feel for things. I would be ready to head to Aburi and make a decision at that point. I went to sleep that night in such better spirits after reconnecting with my family. I also started reading Freakonomics. Awesome book.

Wednesday morning I got up early and went running with Kate and Derek. Kate is training for a marathon so when I heard that, I offered to go run with her in the morning. While it was only 3 miles and pretty slow paced, I really enjoyed myself. Just to get out and run was great. After breakfast we went to conference center. The three of them stayed, but I poked my head into the room and decided to peace out. I had contemplated staying for like 30 minutes or so, but I saw that the meeting was going to suck me in a not let go. So I didn’t go in. From the conference center I walked to the tro-tro station. A tro-tro is the Ghanaian term for a taxi bus. I thought I knew where I was going, and I did get there eventually, but I ended up taking a very long way around. It wasn’t all a loss though… I got to see a lot more of Accra than I would have otherwise. I also noticed that by myself in the market I do not attract as much attention as when I am with a friend. This is interesting. I bet they figure if you are comfortable enough to be there alone, you aren’t likely going to be taken in for a scam.

When I was finally at the tro-tro station, I had to ask about 5 people to find the right one headed to Aburi. I wasn’t sure how much it would cost, but it was only 1 Cedi for the 1.5 hour ride. I sat in the very back next to the window. I am very adamant about sitting by a window. If I am going to be crammed into a vehicle like a sardine, I want my window. FYI, the Ghanaian currency is the Cedi. It is roughly equivalent, maybe slightly less than the dollar. They just went through a redenomination of the Cedi last year and so the people still quote you the old prices. Essentially 1 new Cedi is 10,000 old Cedis. So when some tells you something costs 2000. What they really mean is 0.20 Cedis, or 20 pesos as they call the change!? It was weird and I am happy to not have to live in that economy. In fact, I have enjoyed Accra, but am so thankful God put me in Burkina Faso. I am much happier there than in Ghana. In a side note, there were two adorable twin sisters who sat in front of me in the tro-tro. They were eyeing my camera and when I asked them if they wanted me to take their picture they were really excited. Since it was just he two of them, afterwards I showed them the picture. They love that! I also bought a FanChoco while we were waiting in the station for the vehicle to fill up with passengers. There are no scheduled leavings. They simply fill up and go. And FYI, a FanChoco is frozen chocolate milk like a FanYogo, but even more delicious. I had been wanting to try one ever since I went to Bianca’s village and the other Peace Corps Volunteer bought one. Mission accomplished!

I was able to sleep on the way there which was odd, but I didn’t fight it. The mountains were beautiful! You could look out and see the valley that stretched to the sea. You couldn’t see the ocean, but you knew it was there. The Botanical Gardens were great! They really felt more like a rainforest in some areas, which was really cool. I took tons of pictures! Also, when I am traveling on my own, I tend to talk to the local people more, especially the kids which is totally cool. When I was there I found out about a sweet mountain biking company. You can pay for a by hour trip or you can do a one way distance trip where they pick you up at the end and drive you back. I really want to do this next time. Oh and at this place, there were these amazingly energetic cute girls who went wild over my camera and actually asked me to take their picture. I happily obliged and got two of probably my favorite pictures from Africa ;)

I ended up waiting for a long time to get a ride back into Accra. While I was waiting I bought some awesome fresh pineapple. It was great, but the experience was bittersweet because I had terrible mouth sores from the stress of this trip. I took the tro-tro from Aburi only as far as the ring road and got a taxi to the STC bus station to buy my ticket for Cape Coast. I was pressed for time, but it didn’t look far on the map. Oh, but there was traffic like you wouldn’t believe. I had 40 minutes to get there, buy my ticket, get back to the guesthouse, shower and be at the Accra Toastmaster’s Club meeting. The first not good thing was I misunderstood the price the taxi guy told me and had to renegotiate while in route which was less than ideal. Then we literally waited 10 minutes stopped at the major traffic circle waiting for our turn to go. At the bus station, the lady was super rude about my paying with a 50 Cedi note. It was literally all I had. And if any business could change it, they could! Anyway, I got another taxi back to Osu. This driver was much nicer, but it frankly amazes how little they know about the city…I got home to shower at the time I was supposed to be at Toastmasters. I showered super fast, got dressed and got into yet another taxi. Frankly my taxi expenses were the most stressing on my budget. Surprise surprise, the taxi driver didn’t know where he was going. We drove for quite a while and had to ask 3 people before we found it. When we did finally find the “Ghana International Press Center” The driver didn’t have change, but luckily Regina, my contact at the Accra Toastmaster’s Club was able to help me out. It turned out not to be a big deal that I was late. They had me answer a table topic question and also evaluate Regina’s educational session. It was good. It was certainly different than our meetings; much more informal. I like Club 2iE ;)

Regina took me home after the meeting which was much appreciated. I had more bread and eggs for dinner which seems to have become the staple. After dinner I talked with my mom online and bought a ticket to see Caroline this summer! Yeah ;) Wednesday night I had to move into Susan’s room because the Guesthouse managers said more people were coming. This was a hassle, but Susan was so nice about it and it helped me go to bed at a decent hour. In the morning I found that they were wrong and I could have stayed in my room. My Goodness!

Thursday morning, I had a terrible time waking up. Wednesday was a busy day and I guess it took more out of me than I had realized, that and I still hadn’t made up my 16 hour sleep deficit. In the morning we left to go on a field trip to the Ceramica Tamakloe factory where they make the ceramic pot filters. This is one part of the trip I was really looking forward to. After having expressed interest in establishing a factory in Ouagadougou, seeing an operation in action was very important to me.

When the van Mary Kay had arranged pulled up at our guesthouse Susan indicated Derek and I should sit in the back. We moved to the back, but another guy moved so I sat in the next available seat. I talked to the guy sitting next to me who seemed very nice. Just random development work stuff, ect. Anyway, we get to the factory and Susan pulls me aside and tells me on the way back she has to sit next to the guy I was sitting next to. Apparently he is in charge of some major funding. She needs to be able to talk to him about future collaborations and the opportunities were limited. She was obviously a bit ticked I had sat next to him, but I had no idea. She could have asked me to move, or told me ahead of time. I felt bad at first, but I had done nothing wrong and the rebuke was a bit out of line. Paraphrasing and reapplying the words of Anne Shirley, “Lucky for her I have an imagination and can imagine how horrible it must have felt to need to talk to someone and have that opportunity taken away.” So I let it roll off and went on with my life… I just think it is funny because I was talking to this guy and had no idea he was some big wig of sorts. I may have even been critical of the kind of development work he supports. Good for me, right. You have to say the tough things, and he was clearly enjoying our conversation, so I figure it was fine…

The factory was cool, but somewhat intimidating to think we have to come up with something like that in Ouaga. I had borrowed Susan Strand’s video camera and was able to get some great video footage of the factory. This will be very helpful in showing the ceramist in Ouagadougou, just what the filter making operation entails. It requires a lot of space!

Since I had to sit in the back on the trip back from the filter factory I felt a little car sick. Luckily not too bad and since I was not engaged in any conversation I was able to check out after a while and doze off a bit. After dropping Derek off at the guest house Susan, Mary Kay and I all had lunch at Papaye. Papaye is like a weird African fast food type place. They have take out downstairs, but upstairs it is order in, but still fast… I ordered a hamburger which hit the spot. While the food was good, I have to say the most interesting part of the meal was when I went to the bathroom to wash my hands before eating. There was someone in the bathroom so I had to wait. No big deal here. But the young woman who came out of the bathroom didn’t just walk past me. She started talking to me, asking me if I was student there. It was just plain weird. When she finally stopped talking for a second I indicated I really didn’t know what she wanted and then she proceeded to tell me worked for Plan International Ghana as a scriptwriter. Apparently they were going to be shooting a skt and she thought I would be great to act in it. I can’t lie, I was pretty flattered. I figured nothing would actually come of said encounter, but I did give her my email address and phone number. I honestly think it was because I walked into the restaurant with some sweet stunner shades on which, let’s be honest, do lend themselves to a Hollywood personality… even if it is somewhat of an inaccurate portrayal.

After lunch we went back to the guest house. The Pure Home Water people had to have a business meeting so I hung out with Kate and Vanessa. In fact, we walked over to a really neat artisan boutique that my taxi driver the night before had pointed out and highly recommended. I bought a sweet bookmark for like a dollar. I have decided I think I will start collecting bookmarks. One, they are useful. Two, they are inexpensive. Three, they can bring back great memories of exciting travel every time you open a book! Anyway, the rest of the afternoon I squandered online. When it was finally getting to be about dinner time, I offered to go out in search of some bread. Funny thing is there are bread ladies on what seems to be every corner until you actually want to find one! I ended up walking almost all the way back to Papaye. I wasn’t upset though, it was nice to stretch my legs, and the store I had stopped in right after lunch was still open. I decided to go ahead and buy the imitation Kente cloth that had the colors Susan was looking for (Purple and Green). Kente cloth is a type of hand woven fabric native to Ghana with very distinctive patterns. The real stuff is majorly expensive, but you can buy imitation, i.e. printed fabric with the Kente patterns, for the price of any other type of fabrics. The only time I would be back in the area was on Sunday and the lady already told me nothing was open on Sundays in Accra, which is really true!

Before dinner I asked Susan if she could cover my guesthouse expenses and I would pay her back in Tamale. It is really humbling asking for money…She was so nice about it though. I know it must have felt like a bit of gamble to her, but when I asked the guesthouse manager if I could just pay for all the nights on Sunday when I get back from Cape Coast he wasn’t to keen on that idea. I don’t blame him. I know I would have paid him, but there are certainly innumerable people would have just not come back! After a dinner of soup and bread and eggs, random I know, I spent more time on my computer and then started talking to Ryan and my Mom. We opted to pause the conversation for a little while and I worked out and then chatted with the girls about the project they were going to start in Tamale. After getting done with those two things I was able to talk to my Mom online for quite a while. What a difference that makes… Before I went to bed I made a new to do list and outlined this post. The only thing I didn’t do was get directions from the airport to the Pure Home Water house in Tamale; I would later regret that oversight! So there you have it; Ghana Part 1.