Tuesday, December 26, 2006

On the outside looking in...

Boxing Day -- Thanks to the lingering influence of the Brits, Boxing Day is a holiday here in Ghana. Can't complain about an extra day off. BEP and I decided to hop on our bikes for a few hours of local riding. The fact that we can and do hop on our bikes and zip around for several hours without having to consult a map or ask for directions (a futile exercise here in any event) suggests that Accra is becoming home. In many ways it is, but today's ride also reminded me just how "other" things still feel and how much more I have to learn about this place I'm calling home for two years. I see. I kind of know what I'm seeing. But I have only the most superficial understanding of it. A few examples might illustrate.

A few minutes after setting out from home, we passed the airport. Just outside the entrance, a mini-city has sprung up along the side of the road of vendors and people sleeping, praying and waiting. They are, I have heard, pilgrims taking part in the Hajj. Ghana has a significant Muslim population so it is not surprising that people take part in the Hajj. But what is the story behind this mini-encampment? Is it just the result of people caught in travel snafus that have left them stranded (that'd be my first guess) or some more complex story. We ride by.

At the next major intersection, we come across the usual array of hawkers selling food, auto parts, you-name-it, but mixed among them are people dressed in jumpsuits made of brightly colored scraps of cloth and rather frightening looking masks and wigs. They seem to be collecting money. I've been told this is a Christmas tradition (it looks more like a mardi gras outfit than anything I'd associate with Christmas) but what is the origin, who takes part, why? We ride on.

At the last major junction -- Atomic Junction -- before we hit some open road (actually it is a congested area that lasts at least two miles) , we find ourselves in the midst of the ever-popular relatively good-natured game of chicken that plays out on the roads throughout Ghana. We do battle with the tro-tros that are packed to the gills with travelers and weaving on and off the shoulder to pick up and drop off passengers with alarming irregularity. Somehow, everyone seems to know where the tro tro is going and when it will stop. I'm told that the hand gestures are the key -- they all look like frantic waves to me. Perhaps someday, I'll decode it all. We make it through unscathed and hit the open road. At last I feel at "home" -- on a bike, going fast and headed to the hills.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas ! ! !

Happy Hanukkah, Kwanza and Boxing Day as well.
Who on earth came up with that corny photo idea and what possessed us to actually take it (it took some doing to place the camera just-so for a time-delayed shot)? Chalk it up to holiday spirit in the tropics.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Second job offer!

I just received a call from my wife to tell me about a job opening. She was kind of rushed, but covered the specifics thoroughly enough and needed me to accept right then and there.

The offer seemed decent - free food and drink as well as a uniform. Alas, I had to decline to be Santa for a Day at an embassy Christmas party. No, winter coats, baggy pants, tall boots and hats just aren't my style in the middle of the day. Besides, it would be such a disappointment to see Santa wiping sweat from his brow with his fake beard and fighting off the early symptoms of heat stroke. Sorry for that visual. Sorry to decline.

"What about that first real job offer," you ask. Ah, that is story for another day.

Friday, December 15, 2006

What to do with that old bike?

This question was asked recently on the MORE forum. Being that time of year when many of us replace, replenish or replicate something that works just fine, I fully understand the dilemma of the bike crazed consumer - what should we do with that old bike or part (or just about any other object found in a typical house)? Be it buyer's remorse or simply a lack of storage space, we eventually clue in that it might be fine time to downsize.

Since arriving in Ghana, I've had a few email exchanges and phone conversations with various non-profit organizations promoting bicycle usage in developing communities. In my own words, the promotion and description of the programs list below would be entirely simplistic. They all collect donated bikes and parts for distribution and affordable resale through various means. They all need used bikes. Bikes can be just a means to obtaining a better life - not just a indicator of having already achieved it.

Best to skim the sites for yourself for the full story...

Bikes for the World

Village Bike Project

Chain Reaction Youth Bike Shop (DC)

Surely there are many other programs that operate domestically as well.

In my most recent phone coversation with a BftW rep back in Arlington, VA, we discussed how I might be able to provide a somewhat local perspective of the bike scene in Accra and beyond. What works? What doesn't work? What is the Government of Ghana doing to promote cycling (sorry, had to chuckle)? How are bikes being used? What do bikes/parts cost? Who rides bikes? Why?

I'm pretty excited have the opportunity to do something like this.

Oh, so don't scrap that old bike. Recycle it!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

New York to Accra non-stop on Delta

Delta Rounds Out Year of International Expansion in New York with Nonstop Flights to Africa


Good news!

Monday, December 11, 2006

Tafi Abuipe, Ghana - Kente

Biakpa, Ghana - Mountain biking

Day Two - All trails lead to Kpedze.

We weren't the first to rise. The local villagers beat us. They must have been up at 6am on Saturday morning. We could hear the faint singing and talking as they passed by on the road a few hundred yards away - perhaps going to a funeral or to market according to the MPL owner.

We finally emerged from our room around 7:30 for breakfast before heading out on a self-guided mountain bike tour. According to the topo maps, a combination of road, tracks and trails could link together four villages. Off we went down the road descending more quickly than any car - not that there were any, but simply the mtbs were in their element on the rocky bumpy road. At Fume, we headed east up a similar rocky road through Gbadzeme village. Although we pass through slowly and quietly, the sudden appearance of two freaky looking white people on bikes wearing helmets is reason enough for the local kids and adults to stop, turn, wave and(thankfully) offer, "you are welcome." It is such a pleasant contrast to the annoying "obruni" we encounter in Accra, and simply ignore. The road passes through the village center and into groves of casava, where there is a split. A quick consult of the map is confirmed by the local farmer who points us to the right. The road, now mostly just and overgrown road with a singletrack down the center rises quickly testing our legs a bit before topping out at Amedzope.

At Amedzope we were greeted in the town center by three teens who escorted us to the very oddly prominent visitor's center. We explained our route to the VC staff. One recommended that the trail is not worth riding to the next town - Kpedze. We had been assured by the MPL owner that the same route was ridden the week earlier. Another staff agreed that the trail does exist, and pointed us down the road. Before leaving Amedzope, we grabbed a quick drink. Shouldn't every tough climb have a bar at the top?

The next few miles of trail were all singletrack. Surely not recreational trails given the number of people walking with bundles of firewood or handsawn planks of lumber on their heads. Sweet trails none the less. We were mindful to control our speed and greet any locals we met along the way.

After another 45 minutes or so of gradual descending, we had to make another fork-in-trail decision. We chose left this time following the sounds of singing and drumming presumably on the fringe of Kpedze. The 1973 topo map was not so much help at this point, but we guestimated that the trail must lead to the village. The singing and drumming, and occasional kaboom that sounded alarmingly like a gunshot but was probably just a kaboom, was just the Kpedze "Kid Fest" wrapping up for the day. We managed to sneak through to the main road rather unnoticed.

The rest of the ride wandered to Dzolokpuita around the south base of the range. From there, we headed up a well maintained dirt road back up into the range through Vane, Biakpa and finally the MPL.

We were back at the MPL well before dark, showered but tired, relaxing and rehydrating ready for another nice meal. We're excited to return knowing that there are so many more trails and roads to explore on the bikes.

Biakpa - Kulugu River waterfall hike

With a few hours of daylight remaining after settling into the Mountain Paradise Lodge, SJD and I inquired about one of the local short hikes starting from the lodge. A guide would lead us down the road and into the forest, up and down trails to a series of secluded waterfalls for a small fee. Since we spend waaaay too much time at REI with the end result being a sense of being terminally over prepared, we grabbed our Camelbaks, laced up our hikers, slathered on sunscreen and bug spray, donned our sun hats and joined our guide - Princeton.

Princeton, who apparently has not read any Bill Bryson or Jon Krakauer, headed out in a t-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, carrying a piece of brown bread. Not TEVAs or KEENS. Blue rubber flip flops, without socks. He answered all our questions as we stumbled down the road to the trail head. My question: "Why the machete?" I didn't quite make out his answer, but kinda wanted to believe I heard him say, "Oh, to clear the path of branches and weeds." Into the woods we followed to a rock ledge with a dangling rope down to the first waterfall.

SJD drops in.

We're being watched from a safe distance.

Waterfall number one. Check!

Onward and up the trail we passed through a farmer's small plot in the middle of the forest. Apparently this is on Princeton's regular loop, so our five minute visit was not an intrusion to their privacy. The husband and wife grow bananas, cocoa, avacadoes, palm oil nuts, and yams. All non-mechanized farming up to the point when they sell it in the nearest village - 3 miles away by foot, plus 1 mile in the forest. He shared that the house may last up to six years depending on the weather. The thatch roof probably three years. The three sons have left home for school or work in Accra. We thanked them for the visit and pressed on to the lodge.

Princeton eventually lead us straight up the slope of the hill to the foot of the lodge. Clearly the trails are the shortest distance between two points - not necessarily intended to be scenic, sustainable or easy to walk on in boots, flip-flops, or bare feet.

Back at the lodge, tired and hungry, we ate a simple but nicely prepared Ghanaian dinner as the sun set.

Escape from Accra!

Feeling the need to escape Accra, SJD and I loaded up the car with the mountain bikes, maps, snacks and clothing for a long weekend in the Volta Region. The VR is the hilly and green sliver of land nestled between the Lake Volta and the border of Togo. The air was certain to be cooler and fresher than in Accra. We hoped to see some sites, relax, ride, relax, eat and relax. We ended up staying at the Mountain Paradise Lodge, about half way between the towns of Ho and Hohoe, near the village of Biakpa.

For our first major solo outing in our car here in Ghana, I wanted to make doubly sure we would not encounter any problems mechanically or navigationally. We copied all important insurance, registrtation and license docments in case we would be asked to present them. The car was topped off with fuel. Plenty of maps. I stowed a reflective traffic saftey triangle as required by law. All set. Three of for more trips later back inside the house to make sure we unplugged the iron, toaster, TV and computer we were ready to go. Oh yeah, Ghana requires a small fire extinguisher be carried in cars. Not entirely sure where to get one right now, I grabbed one from the house - the big one! The Ghanain gardner, Emmanuel, had a good laugh watching us. Finally we're off for the hills!

Traffic was light, and we were making decent time. Not rushed. Just crusing along getting a chuckle at the reaction and gestures of onlookers to a small car with two half-assembled bikes mounted on top. Certainly not an oddity in the US to see bikes dangling off cars, but in Ghana, oh yes, it grabs one's attention. Stop, turn, point. Kinda the same way I stop, turn, and scratch my head everytime I see a tro-tro or flatbed truck stacked high with oil barrels, couches or humans. Well, the Ghana Police Service apparently didn't think it was just simply amusing as we approached the check point north of Ashaiman. We were waved to the side of the road. I cracked the window as the officer approached the driver's side. He simply asked where we were headed, and for how long before politely wishing us a safe trip. The officers on the other side jabbered on and pointed to various stickers and the bikes on top. SJD just smiled. We pulled away a minute later feeling relieved but a bit annoyed.

Eventually the scenery changes from dry and dusty to greener agricultural plots. Tro-tros pick and drop passengers along the way. People are still walking great distances between towns. Two more police check points produce only curious stares, but no suspicion. An hour or so later we are deep into the Volta Region, passing through small farming villages at the base of a low mountain Akwapim Togo Range. Soon after we turn off the paved road, onto a three-mile gravel and rock strewn switchback road leading up to the Mountain Paradise Lodge.

MPL is the lone structure solidly perched on the top of a hill overlooking a lush valley near Mount Gemi, Amedzope, Gbadzeme, waterfalls, a monkey sanctuary and not much else. The MPL is off the "grid". Perhaps a generator supplies power, but it was not used during our stay. Solar and oil lanterns provided sufficient light for dinner and relaxing before bed. It is quite a pleasant place with attentive staff serving decent meals. The photo below is from the open air dining porch.

Maps - Accra and abound

Okay...you can skip this post if you're not planning to visit Ghana, or have no intention of venturing beyond Accra. By the way, you should do both. Yes, this is another commentary on maps.

We've been relying on the Bradt Guide (THANKS BOSTON PROPERTIES!!) to plan our trips. For the most part, information in the 2004 update seems correct and fair. Prices have naturally escalated a bit since printing. One collapsed bridge has been repaired. It is a good guide book specific to Ghana - or as far as we can tell, the only one available in the US.

International Travel Maps "Ghana - scale 1:500,000" is the only map we could purchase in the US specific to Ghana. It is fairly accurate. Togo is correctly indicated to the east. The ocean is correctly indicated to the south. Data to the north, as far as we can tell, should not be relied upon without verification as mentioned in the previous "Aburi and Back" post. A bike trip last week uncovered yet another mapping mistake - locating a hill top village of Larteh in a valley. No worries.

Before heading out of town last Friday morning, we made another visit to the local Department of Surveys (Airport and Gifford Road junction). Here you can buy the much more accurate scale: 1:50,000 topographic maps for any specific area you might want to visit. C50,000 ($5.40) gets you a 24"x36" multi-colored paper sheet that indicates contours, trails, roads, villages, water, structures. With surprisingly accurate for data gathered in 1973, we're only amending whether or not minor roads are still dirt, or have since been improved. Also, we're locating gas stations and police barricades.

Oh look, here is SJD below comparing, overlaying, triangulating and plotting our course.

I'm curious to read comments on GPS usage here. Anyone?