Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wednesday morning

A few images from Wednesday AM crit practice. The red "Ontario" jerseys were donated by in 2006. The Ghanaian team hopes to travel and race in Canada and the US in 2007.

Above: pre-practice group shot.

Above: It looks like an old 7 speed cassette (with a huge gap in the middle) mated to whatever changer was available. It works though. I think I'll be able to find a good home for all those used bike parts cluttering our basement.

Above: Nobody ever passes on the inside line. Wonder why...

Above: Two post practice shots.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Neighborhood crits with the National Cycling Team

What more could a wanna-be bike racer geek ask for?

As mentioned in the Ride fast.Turn right.Repeat post, I met up with the national team for an early morning crit practice session. 7AM just a few blocks from our house, but we never thought to look there/then. There is no online information available. Actually they meet on a street adjacent to the US Embassy that is currently under construction.

The course was short but with a brutal little rise that seemed to get steeper at 20 laps. I hung for 18, but had to rest for two.

Wednesday, I may meet them again to snap some photos.

In a country where soccer is king, these guys have decided to ride bikes.

If you need to call me,

my cell number code word is "ochopawalo". It doesn't mean anything, but has a nice ring to it.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Ride fast. Turn right. Repeat

Sunday morning I had an 8am invitation to race with the local road teams in Accra. Actually it was just a practice race for the season starting in December. A race none the less. No entry fee or race numbers to pin on. My last criterium race was back in July in the US - a rainy day on a twisty course, and overall not much fun. Although I've been riding a fair bit in Accra, I was unsure just what to expect this morning.

Criterium per Wikipedia:

Organizers in the US usually stage racers a few minutes before the start to restate any details about the event - distance, dangerous corners, special rules, sportsmanship reminders, etc... It can sound like a broken record after a while, but is necessary. Today there was none of that, or maybe there was, but I missed it due to the language barrier. So there was a 10 second countdown and we were off, without me knowing if this was a 10 or 15 lap race. There was a motorcycle escort for a lap or two, but otherwise the road was open to traffic, albeit light early Sunday morning traffic. Twenty or so starters settled into a good 23-24mph average speed for the first few laps. The pace was comfortable for a flat course, but I know that these crits generally pick up the speed after the half-way mark and again at the very end. On the final lap there might be only two or three guys that are real contenders for the win.

I rode at or near the front of the pack for five laps sharing the work of setting pace and breaking the wind. Just to see what would happen, I tried a one lap break away. Reality restored order and the pack caught me very quickly. About eight laps in I'm really curious how many laps we have to go. More conflicting information. Nine laps??? "To go, or completed" I ask. A small group that was resting in back for laps 1-8 has now moved to the front and is pulling away while I'm realizing I'm pretty tired. My group of six stragglers rotates through eventually dropping two riders. I'm completely out of water, when the consensus seems to be that we have another 4 laps to go. I'd really like to just pull over and stop, but the three other racers seem to want to race to the bitter end, so I keep going. Finally we get the bell lap - one to go. I take my pull early and settle in on the back stretch. The finish has a slight down hill to a 90 degree turn and 200m flat straight to the finish. I punch it into the corner in 2nd place, swing wide and grab another gear. The guy in first stays in front. We have a good sprint for spots 2-4, although I think I was nipped at the line. Not bad I guess.

Afterwards, the gentleman that was counting laps and keeping time introduced himself and a few riders that are on the Ghana National Cycling Team. We arranged another early Tuesday morning ride in our neighborhood.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Escape from Accra!

It has been over a month since we ventured out of Accra by car (another blog entry will expand on this some day). The bike club jaunts, although interesting and physical at times, never really satisfy the need to leave everything behind and see something new.

Last night our friends Dan and Giselle phoned to ask if SJD and I would be interested in checking out the Accra-Tema Yacht Club. I didn't really have any plans, but SJD was tied up with work and reluctantly had to decline the offer. Accra has some pretty swanky parts of town, with enormous opulent gated residences with pricey Mercedes, BMWs and Land Rovers parked in front. On the other hand, it also has it's fair share of people living in very substandard and unfortunate conditions. Could Accra really have a yacht club? Well, we must find out for ourselves. I always kinda cringed walking past the white yachts anchored in Georgetown on a Saturday evening while those on board ostentatiously sipped champagne. Well, the answer is yes - there is a yacht club in Accra.

Dan, Giselle and I headed east an hour or so beyond the suburban sprawl and into the scrub, before heading south a bit down rutted dirt roads through the fishing villages that line the Volta River where it dumps into the Gulf of Guinea at Ada Foah. After a few minutes of searching, we located the ATYC - the first patrons of the day. In the case of the ATYC, the term "yacht" may be a bit of an overstatement. I'm not exactly a sailor, but these yachts available for hourly rent did not exactly conjure up thoughts of caviar, huge wakes.
No, they were something you might expect to see tied down in the back of a pick-up truck barreling down the highway. Starfish. Laser. Ok, we really did know that we were going sail boating - not yachting. We were a bit surprised to be stuffed - the three of us - into the little yellow boat pictured behind Dan and Giselle. No signed and notarized waivers. No collateral driver's license. No map. Just life preservers and a shove away from shore. This is not the US afterall.

Dan grew up sailing he assured me. Giselle, his wife, seemed at ease so I sat still and let Dan pull rope, steer and instruct us when to lean or duck our heads under the boom. The Volta water was quite smooth and the winds were light. We headed down river passing several beachside mud walled, thatch roofed villages nestled under coconut trees. There were several docks, but not a single white yacht. Instead, lengthy wood canoes with motors lumbered from shore to shore loaded to the max with people and goods. The boat in the background is empty, but you can kinda get the picture. The blue and white boat in the foreground is for hire from a restaurant presumably for tourists.

Anyway, back to our little seafaring adventure. Dan is navigating quite well. We haven't capsized or rammed any boats. Eventually we pass a few sand bars and can see the ocean tide breaking at the mouth of the Volta - maybe a 1/2 mile ahead. As the gentle water begins to churn a bit, we decide it is best to swing 'er 'round and head back up wind and up river. Dan instructs us to duck as he whips the little boat 180 degrees with ease. The sail fills with air, and by looking at our wake behind the rudder it appears that we're really cruising. Looking at the trees on the shore it appears that we're standing still or perhaps moving backwards with the current. The constant river tide is matching our forward progress and soon enough is beating it. For about 15 minutes we monitor our lack of progress up stream as we drift closer to the shore. The ocean tide seems to be coming in behind us which it seems, logically, should give us that little push we need to get moving again. Instead it just seems to make us roll up and down in place. What would Shackleton do? What would Gilligan do? What would Dennis Conner do? Dan pointed the boat directly into shore. I'm happy to report that we're safe and sound, enjoying the sand and plentiful coconuts on a deserted beach opposite the ATYC. Come visit! Well, okay not quite.

We dragged the little boat around the horn of a sandbar and strategized for a moment before setting sail again. Our location would allow us to sail into the wind but perpendicular to the current briefly. Even if we drifted a bit we would be spit out into the calmer waters very shortly. Well, all worked just fine. The water was nice and warm - shallow enough at times to require a gentle shove.

Back on course we pulled into the ATYC a half hour later and headed to the local hotel/restaurant for some (what else?) pizza.

For those following along at home, the Bradt Guide page 214-218 has some good info on Ada Foah.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Susan and I hosted about twelve friends, spouses and co-workers last evening to a somewhat traditional dinner. We managed to procure three turkey breasts (or would that be six?)...well, the bodies of three turkeys in any case...minus the wings. The rest of the menu was kinda cobbled together with last minute trips to the three local grocery stores, two liquor merchants, the commissary and local vegetable stands. One-stop shopping seems so amateur :-) Next year we'll be prepared!
So here is the menu.

Wine and beer
Hommos and pita chips
Cheese and crackers
Carrots and celery sticks

Roasted herb turkey breast
Yams and apple casserole
Roasted potatos with garlic (lots) and red onion
Roasted green beans with dill and mustard sauce.

Famous chocolate wafer log
Ice cream
Apple pie
Pumpkin pie
Pound cake

We wish we could have shared the day with even more of our friends and family, but hope that each of you did the same someplace.
We're especially thankfull to report that everyone reported to work today without food poisoning.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Meet the Chain Gang

Here is our local bike club, The Chain Gang, getting ready for another Sunday morning ride. They meet at 8am, chit-chat for a while until someone decides to roll out - usually around 9am. First stop is generally 9:02 at the local gas station to pump up the tires. Around 9:15 we roll out in earnest. We were told by two Australians that 8AM GMT is also known as Ghana-Man Time. Makes sense.

Yesterday, Sunshine (white/blue shirt, shorts with yellow stripe) informed us that the ride would take us out to the former salt ponds area west of Accra. I've explored quite a bit by bike, but have yet to go many places alone - somewhat for safety, but also because maps detail is lacking.

Some more photos along the way.

Approaching Independence Square on the way out of Osu.

Passing through Jamestown.

A very determined and impatient driver.

Ah, the things that you don't experience speeding along in a air conditioned car. The blaring high-life music. Curious children.

Traffic jams. Weaving and rattling tro-tros loading and unloading passengers. The open gutters and odor. those tro-tros at Kaneshi Market.

The ride was dragging on and seeming more like a death race than a recreational ride. We decided to call it a day and meander back home on our own.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Kotobabi Soccer

A fellow dip husband and I had an invitation to play soccer on Sunday afternoon. Just the chance to kick the ball around. No keeping score. Certainly no full field or goalies.

It has been about five years since I last kicked the ball on the National Mall. At that time I was trying to balance my biking habit with something different - soccer. I suppose a more productive use of time would have been to read more books, create something, or brush up on a language. Well, each week I would limp home with sore knees and ankles. The high school soccer muscles had fully transformed into their current cycling muscles under a slight layer of 30-something body fat. That little experiment lasted probably six weeks.

This weekend, David and I met our Ghanaian contact Tirol (???) at nearby grocery store. During the phone conversation that lead up to the arrangements, Tirol used the words "friendly", "coach" that made David and I kinda wonder just what we were getting into. Certainly this was just a pick-up game. Maybe a practice at best. A short cab ride to the Kotobabi soccer pitch exposed the truth a bit more. As Tirol explained, he was sitting out this game recovering from malaria. The other team, he begain to explain... Wait a second. We wanted to assure Tirol that we were just two guys approximately twice his age looking to kick a ball, that had infact not kicked a ball in recent memory. I was trying to avoid embarassing myself by recalling one of the more basic rules. We hadn't even arrived, but realized we were in waaaay over our head.

We paid the taxi driver his fare at the edge of the lot, and sure enough at the soccer pitch there was a small crowd sitting in the shade watching the current game. I kind of whispered to David that the crowd would only certainly grow if the two of us attempted to play. I think he agreed, that although it might be quite amusing to watch to older guys trip over there own feet, that the game deserved more. We took a seat under the tree and watched.

The Kotobabi pitch is just a red clay dirt open space with a slight downward slop to the north goal. Chalked touch lines had long since been worn away by the previously played matches. There is no grass to be seen - just the gritty red clay. What could possibly grow in this heat and under the enless games afterall. There are no bleachers. No scoreboard. No soccer-moms with coolers and collaspable chairs.

Without any grass to slow down the ball, the ball movement is very fast to the point of seeming out-of-control at times. Bounces are big. Simply keeping the ball in bounds and under control seems difficult enough. The field surface does not provide much traction for making quick stops, starts or changes in direction. The gound is too hard for cleats to dig in, but too slippery for shoes to grip. Attackers kick up dust, then plant a foot and slide before booting the ball on goal. The goalie attempting to stop the shot, moves his feet until eventually gaining traction. My joints just ache watching the players twist, slide and bump chasing the ball. The local Dynamic All-Stars control the ball from the whistle, and pelt the opposing goal with shot after shot.

Tirol explains that this field is the home field of one of the current Ghanaian National Team - The Black Stars (Michael Essien?) that surprised so many major world soccer giants in the 2006 World Cup. Certainly the recent soccer accomplishments by the Black Stars must inspire the local players the way Michael Jordan or Lance Armstrong does in the US. There is definitely an enormous amount of athletic talent and determination displayed on the field this day - probably every day. Every player has the basics skills and a enough flair to be a standout on any team I've played on.

We'll be back someday.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Strange days

The day started out normal...for being in Ghana. Breakfast and coffee at 6:30 AM. Checked the tire pressure on the bike. Downloaded some NPR podcasts.

SJD had asked me to do some ironing since her week had been very busy at the office. No problem. Might as well get it out of the way before considering a bike ride or plans for the rest of the day. Recall our extra large house? I went to the Ironing Board Room and plugged in the iron. The IBR is next to the Room Without a Purpose Room. Anyway, I'm ironing away just fine. As I hang the first garment, I notice something small plop onto the floor, but don't pay much attention to it. After two or three more items, I'm done. I unplug the iron. Voila! Done. I catch a closer look at the something small that went plop on the floor and realize I've ironed one of our house geckos. Yes, less than two inches long and grey-green with four toes. Kinda like the commercials without the schmarmy sales pitch. Cute little guys, or girls. They wander around the corners and ceilings of the house silently and efficiently eating bothersome insects. We don't ask or invite them to do it. They just take it upon themselves to keep our place tidy. So now we're down one gecko. I guess he was hiding in SJD's shirt and didn't think to scurry out out when things got hot. To make amends to the remaining geckos, I stirred up the ants nest on the front porch in hopes of providing a special treat.

All chores complete and evidence of the ironing mishap disposed, I headed downtown for lunch. Nothing too weird there, except for the quicker than normal service.

Next stop, the Mapping and Survey Department for another map. You may recall from earlier posts that maps of Ghana leave a bit to the imagination. Somehow, the Canadians have managed to map Ghana in great detail. Sure the maps were original in 1974, and are not exactly sized for easy transport, but the roads and villages seem to jive with reality - something KLM maps (depsite all the tech available to fly planes) doesn't quite seem able to pull off. Michelin, for whatever reason, isn't even a player in the map business here. So, thanks Canada! I purchased another great big map for adventures another day. The guys at the MSD always seem to have exactly what I'm looking for right at hand. So the day takes a strange twist after that. I mapped out a short route to the near northwest side of Accra. Main arterial roads with wide shoulders. One or two turns to remember. I was headed to the gate of the Achimoto Forest Preserve since our guide book suggested it might be a viable place to ride bikes without having to deal with much/any traffic. Getting there is easy enough. There is a gate with people streaming in and out. A kiosk to the side lists hours, but has the fees scratched off, so I ride on through. As far as forests go, Achimoto is a bit underwhelming. Trees do not seem to grow higher than 15', but the vegetation is extremely dense. Several people are carrying books and plastic patio chairs and exiting the park on foot via dirt roads laid out on a perfect grid. Something isn't right. It seems as though people were making Achimoto home, and I didn't want to surprise anyone. Hey, folks call Rock Creek Park and streets all over DC home too, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised by this. I give it few more minutes before deciding that I'd come back another day with someone who has been here.

As I'm back-tracking my ride back into town, I pass a car and truck stopped at a busy intersection. Two Ghana Police and a few other people are standing on the island gesturing and talking on cell phones. Figuring it is just another minor fender bender it doesn't really catch my attention. Another glance over my shoulder, and I realize I know the woman (AKA Jane)involved, and I circle back around to ask if things are okay with her. Physically everyone is fine, even if clearly frustrated. Cars sustained only minor damage. The GP are directing both drivers to move cars from the turn lane. Jane snaps a few digital photos. With some reluctance, both drivers move the vehicles. (Where is the cop car? The badges? The radios? Back up? In DC, this would surely mobilize three or four squad cars.) In Ghana, well.....let's see... A call to the local station eventually got the attention of a dispatcher who recommended Jane call a cab to deliver two officers to the scene. No, squad cars are not very plentiful, but taxis are everywhere. Cops are on the scene, although I'm not really sure how they got there - doesn't really matter at this point. A minute or two later, the officer allows the truck to leave the scene. We ask the cop what is going on, but there is no answer. One officer is producing a nice sketch, but there are none of the normal exchanges of name/insurance/address/license. The other officer is growing impatient. More waiting... The cop launches into an exhaustive and wandering diatribe accussing the US and Jane of being arrogant, imprisoning the innocent, obruni this, obruni that... Finally, the officer instructs Jane that the investigation will occur back at the local sub-station, and that in fact that is where the other truck would be found (doubtful). Well, why didn't he say that 20 minutes ago? Of course, they need to hitch a ride back to the sub-station in a passing pick-up truck. Throughout the mini-drama, the street vendors continued to try to sell belts, dog leashes, plantains and other miscellaneous items to the cops and Jane .

As if the gecko, Achimoto and the police were not enough, I almost tripped over a sleeping night guard while taking out the garbage -- it must have been a friend of our guard, who was dutifully awake. That is enough for one day.