Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ax les Thermes + more snow = more pain

"Stop! She's only going to march you up a hill, until your feet are cold and wet."

(I've heard stories of SJD and cousin Sheila snow hiking in the Italian Alps, yet I still followed.)

A quick break to down some sausage, cheese and fruit before things get steep and deep.

The next day we rented snowboards at Ax les 3 Domaines (the ski area near Ax les Thermes) yet another recent TDF mountain stage climb. Markings of "Armstrong 7" as well as many other rider names can still be read on the pavement of the winding ascent.
I'll just say two things about this day. The French are completely tolerant of two hopelessly inept adults tumbling down mountains with a board strapped to their feet. After two failed attempts to master the pommel lift, we resorted to walking to the top of the bunny slope. Oh what fun that was. After that we went straight for the big stuff, simply because the chair lift was less intimidating. We proceeded to tumble down a large portion of the runs without interupting too many kiddie ski schools, but leaving nice divets. I recall a few well executed surfy turns, but they were usually followed by an even more spectacular digger. Yeah us! The mountain scenery was worth all the bruises though. Bikes...stick to bikes...
(It just occured to me that you're probably reading these entries in reverse order of which they occured. Sorry. Perhaps you can turn your monitor upside down.)

XC race in Ghana?

Why not?

We're just brainstorming right now, but feel we could pull this one off before May '07.

The Aburi Fury 50K

We need to GPS a few routes and coordinate dates with the Tour du Ghana.

Get yer shots and come on over!

Updates will be cross posted here.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Ariege part deux - caves, castles, cheese

All that XC skiing really had us rethinking our skiing plans for the day. Perhaps a bit more leisurely pace, exploring the remnants of castles perched on the rocks. Most had some association with rather horrific tales of religious persecution of the Cathars.

On to Montsegur ruins perched up high on a hill. Quite a view from up top. The fortress housed, at times, nearly 600 Cathars seeking refuge from Pope Innocent III's persecution for heresy. When they came down, they were burned unless they renounced their "heretic" faith. Hard to imagine all that on a sunny peaceful day a few hundred years later when you can climb up without much of a struggle to snap a few photos of what's left.

SJD is standing inside the walls. You can just make out the foundation of a chamber to the right of her head. Best guess is that the structure was at least two stories high, as evidence of beam pockets can be seen. Still, how did 600 people manage to live here?

On up the road to Roquefixade. Another short but bracing hike to the top.

This castle is more ruin than castle but, again, the view over the valley and the coming dusk made the scene seem like a painting...almost.

We continued our historical tour on subsequent days. About an hour from Foix is Carcasonne - an assertively restored medieval city. Well, restored in the sense that it is now chock full of shops selling plastic coats of armor, foie gras and post cards...and the windows now have caulk sealants. I mean, we only popped into a few, but just to get out of the pouring rain.

Carcasonne in the rain -- no doubt it is more appealing when the sun is shining and the flowers blooming....
Going back even farther in time, we visited the Niaux cave - a deep, dark and cool cave with stalagtites and paintings of horses, buffalo and dating back 12-15,000 years. It is one of many caves in the area, which has yielded a rich trove of pre-historic paintings and artifacts. As the tour was conducted completely in French, I am very likely completely wrong on some of the facts. I can assure you it was very dark inside though and there really were paintings -- along with names scrawled on the walls by visitors from as far back as the 1600s. We weren't allowed to take pictures in the cave so no photographic evidence.
Fearing we might break some bones on one of our skiing expeditions (OK, that was just an excuse...), we'd been upping our dairy intake - mostly through the consumption of goat cheese. We followed signs for a good 30 minutes over the river and through the woods to pay a visit to Wyon fromagerie. It was noted in some tourist flyer we picked up someplace. Seemed interesting. Why not pop in for a tour? Mr. Wyon and his goats were a bit puzzled but pleasant enough to show us around a few minutes. My guess is that most people give up the hunt long before SJD and I do. Twenty goats produce milk for many thousands of kilos of cheese per year. The goats produce new goats every 14 months. We just missed a birth by an hour.

SJD and Mr. Wyon

The girl goats.
After that we visited a farm where goats were raised for mohair wool. On a drizzly day, the temptation to buy a lwarm, soft blanket was strong but given our present home in the tropics, good sense prevailed and SJD settled for a couple of small skeins (SJD's Zia may be getting a knitting request). We stopped in at a few small out of the way crafts galleries before heading home for a relaxed evening in front of a warm fire.
Had enough? There's more!

Heading into the Hills - the Ariege

We took the smooth and very fast TGV from Paris to Toulouse. Toulouse would simply be a place to pick up a car and head further south to Foix, in the foothills of the Pyrennes. We booked a gite outside Foix, further up some windy narrow roads in the Ariege to a village called La Mouline, Serres Sur Arget in nice wet, green and mossy hilly farm country dotted with those charming old stone buildings. Hens running around. A boulangerie within walking distance. Two rooms and a basic kitchen. A comfy bed. Very pleasant proprietors. Piles of wood to burn in the fire place. Not much else though. SJD likes to tend fires and walk briskly uphills. This location was just perfect. La Scierie Gite

Although Foix is in the foothills, it is still a decent drive to the snow capped peaks higher in the Pyrenees. We decided to explore the Foix farmers' market, picking up a few dried sausages, cheese, and local organic wine. Foix, like many of the towns in France, boasts a castle. This one is quite spectacular in that it is still mostly intact. It was regarded as being inpenetrable at the time. In fact, it was closed for the lunch hour when tried to visit, but at this point we were already kinda overloaded with castles and entry fees.

If we all had to draw a castle, I bet it would look something like Foix castle.

Next day we headed up to La Plateau de Beille to do some XC skiing. We had been snow-and mountain deprived for almost 12 months, and were looking forward to cold, crisp mountain air. Snow was a bit thin in some places, but the higher we went, the better the snow and the views across the valleys. SJD, as usual, packed snacks to keep me moving along the way.

SJD in her element.

Why do the words "...and the agony of defeat" come to mind. Why don't these skis turn left?

Me looking somewhat more competent. Probably best to stick to bikes though.

Despite not fully grasping how to actually steer or stop XC skies, it was fun. The tired muscles at the end of the day stewed up nicely over night into fully aching and mostly useless limbs by the next morning. Hmmm...oh well.

(TDF note - Plateau de Beille will once again be a 2007 mountain-top stage finish. Oh my. Yes, these climbs seem longer and steeper in person than on OLN. Will have to check our DVD stash to see who won the stage in past years.)

On the way home we stopped at a full size supermarket to stock the refrigerator for the week. I had almost forgotten what a fresh vegetable department looked like. An aisle dedicated pig parts. Another for cheese. Forgive me...


Here is a brief recap of our nice little trip to France. For now, just pretend that we arrived at CDG without any flight delays, cancellations or having to deal with terrible customer service from Lufthansa.

Upon touch down in Europe (Frankfurt) we made a bee line to the nearest cafe to treat ourselves to a nice bowl of (restrain your excitement) cold fresh milk and cornflakes. And coffee. And bacon (Brian). And eggs. Oh what a delight it was. We didn't even wait to exit the airport or reach our final destination.

We now had just two days in Paris, but made the best of it. We stayed at a small hotel that I stayed at once before several years ago. The staff is still very pleasant. Rooms are clean, simple and cheap. The location is great for exploring central Paris on foot and Metro.

Despite several trips to Paris previously, neither SJD nor I had actually been up the Eifel Tower. Weather was actually quite nice at the bottom. We took several photos before paying a few Euros to walk to the top. Elevators are for wimps...according to SJD. Personally, I think they're somewhat convenient. The wind was really howling above the first level. We were not allowed to climb beyond the 2nd level (oh darn) because the wind and rain was probably really stinging up there. Not just kinda stinging like while we were taking in the sites on the 2nd level.

Sturdy tower I reckon.

Looks good close up.

Looks even more spectacular at night.

(Bonus! I'm slowly reading a really good book The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. It recounts events in Chicago during the 1890's leading up to the World's Fair. Lots of Chicago architecture history is covered in an entertaining way. There is a serial murderer element as well. All good Chicago stuff. Oh, also there are quite a few references and comparisons to Paris and Eiffel Tower. A big thanks to a former coworker, Mike Holland, for turning me on to this book.)

Somehow we managed (not intentionally) to not step foot in a single museum. Ok, we kinda walked around for half a day in a daze looking at all the storefronts full of things to purchase, but really didn't need in Accra, or in DC for that matter. Wool blazers? Nah. Shoes? Sandals do just fine here. Bike parts? Oooh, that was a tough one, but we resisted. Instead, we sampled chausson au pomme, salade chevre chaud and vin bon marche at every given opportunity. Oh, just for good measure we popped into a few of the well known sites like St. Chapelle, Sacre Coure, Jardin du Luxembourg, and a few markets along the way. We're tourists don'tcha know?

We took a boat tour up and down the Seine. Even bought tickets for an evening ballet performance at the old Opera House for 7 Euro apiece. I did this once before. The view was highly obstructed, especially if you actually sat in your seat. You could hear the performers jumping around on stage, and every now and then get to see them exit stage left. But to see the building itself is well worth the price of admission. Experiencing the lengthy bows and ritualized curtain calls is also amusing. (SJD note - BEP suggested the lengthy applause for one piece was due to relief that it was over...I made an effort to find a better view and actually found the dancing to be quite good)

We were settling into a lifestyle of exuberance rather nicely despite a weak exchange rate and the disappointing realization that my French speaking skills have almost all but disappeared. I kinda toss out the correct words, pause, hope that the French speaker can put them in the correct order, turn to SJD (whose French was only marginally better) for translation assistance, then point and gesture. I try...I really do.

Alas, it is time to head to Toulouse and Foix on the TGV.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

We're back

We were off hopping around France enjoying cooler weather, snow and fancy food.

I was denied gastronomic asylum. Again.

SJD was content to have fresh milk with her cereal for breakfast.

In any case, we're back in Accra.

All the best,
SJD and Brian

Friday, February 09, 2007

Fashionistas - PEW and SJD

Princess Butterfly,

meet your kooky aunt, Queen Landfill.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Monday, February 05, 2007

Bears post mortum

Jillian (SJD's workmate who also hails from Bear country) and I are quoted in the Chicago Tribune. Just for the record, I didn't really say there wasn't much to do here; I said that I had been watching lots of football because there isn't much else to watch on TV --or something to that effect. Didn't mean to suggest Ghana was dull or uninteresting.

Party Of Three from Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune

Cantonments Roundabout - Part 2

I received the following email today, perhaps somewhat related to a previous post.

From: "Kelly F."
Subject: Saving Accra's Roots
Date: Mon, 5 Feb 2007 06:01:13 -0800 (PST)

Please spread the word ! Dear friend, In recent days, a family of centuries-old Niim trees
have been cut down on the Cantonments Roundabout island. These trees provided both beauty and shade from one of the city's highest elevations. Many citizens of Accra have expressed dismay. The artists of the Foundation for Contemporary Art would like to commemorate the death of these trees and voice concern about the increasing destruction of trees on public lands.

They will stage an event to be entitled 'Art in the Garden-12: Saving Accra's Roots' on Saturday the 10th of February from four pm until seven pm at the Cantoments Roundabout. If you support this, please come on Saturday. Wear red and black, the colours of funerary mourning. Foundation for Contemporary Art Accra Ghana.

Virginia Ryan
Via Costarella 6 Trevi (PG) 06039 Italia>00393397557854 c/o Foundation Contemporary Art,
Dubois Centre, Ghana.

The Usual Suspects

A group of the usual suspects is forming for weekend rides at Aburi. We number about eight in all now, after adding Scott - a recent arrival from Atlanta.

Yesterday we coordinated a much shorter ride than the previous week. Probably only half the distance, but connecting a few villages and valleys via buff tight and twisty singletrack. SJD, Chris and I had ridden this loop before. Chris took tumble in some soft sand as he was preparing to deal with a plank crossing just ahead. No real harm done although he looked like he'd been rolled in whole wheat flour (the dust sticks).

About mid-way, we tacked on a few more Ks out of curiosity. The extra loop was quite technical with steep rock drops, narrow grooves, and tight corners. It reminded us of riding bits of Gambrill, the Watershed or Michaux. Just barely rideable, but certainly worth the effort.

Here is a link to Chris' GPS data.

My rough and tumble super jock wife took a rather hard tumble, hitting her backside and forearm on log and boulder. It happened so quickly that we guess she veered into a stump just beside the trail. This will generally flip you and your bike around 180 in an instant.

(Note from SJD's slightly different (aka more accurate) version of events: my dear husband was rolling along just behind me as we went through a casava field. He decided it was a good time for a botany lesson and called out " is that casava on the right?" Distracted -- and trying to be helpful -- I turned my head. As we all know, the first rule of mountain biking is to look where you want to go. Unfortunately, just to the right was exactly where I didn't want to go. There was a nice sturdy tree stump that sent me flying... Lesson learned: tune out the botany questions until break time.)

The ride ended without much more calamity. Chris and his wife invited us over to his house for snacks, beer and a dip in their pool.

Ahh...guilty pleasures.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

A Day at the Zoo (and reading the fine print)

The previous week was somewhat busy, and Sunday promised to be a three event day, so SJD and I decided to stick close to home on Saturday. We slept in late, made french toast for breakfast, and then got around to making plans for the day. And what did we come up with? The Accra Zoo!

I was a bit surprised to learn that Accra had a zoo proper. Actual living animals housed and cared for. Off we went to see for ourselves.

After a few minutes of getting lost, refound, lost and eventually rolling into the empty parking lot, we were greeted by, no not a ticket taker or even a human dressed as a chimp, but what appeared to the grounds keeper. He walked around back of the ticket kiosk and proceeded to exchange C10,000 for a stack of entry tickets. We were either the only two people at the zoo, or in fact, it may have been closed for the day, or forever. Not entirely clear. We entered anyways.

First stop: Animals on the mend exhibit. A few species of monkeys, a bird or two all recuperating from various ills or abandonment. Not exactly the most cheerful place to regain some strength, but probably safer than the wild. The animals are locked in cages (sometimes) with a few branches, platforms and waterbowls for entertainment. The padlock on the cage below was actually unlocked.

"Hey fuzzy, why don't you give that pad lock a jiggle and make a run for it."

Second stop: Large Chimps Lucy and Martha. Lucy and Martha reside in separate very sturdy cages, perhaps for good reason. When we approached, Lucy and Martha were minding their business - picking at their toes it appeared. I waited patiently for a minute or two for one them to swing from the trapeze or move, or something...anything frankly. Sure enough, a young boy pushing an empty wheel barrow, running actually, and making quite a racket came around the corner. He completely lost control of the wheel barrow and sent it crashing to the pavement on it's side. The commotion certainly got things going a bit in the chimp cage. Lucy and Martha both charged around their cages, swinging from the ropes and tires. I watched. The boy, for whatever reason, simply left the toppled wheel barrow and kept running. I continued to watch Lucy really violently swing her trapeze bar hard against the roof of her cage.

Had I been reading the posted signs a bit more closely, I would have perhaps clued into what might happen next.

I sort of saw something out of the corner of my eye and flinched an instant before feeling a nice THWACK on my shoulder! Yes, Ms. Martha seemed a bit displeased with my presence and decided to share her breakfast with me. Bananas likely. Boy, it would not have been quite so alarming if they had been fresh bananas still in the peel. Do I need to go into more detail? Ok good. Let me just say that for a girl AND a chimp, she has an incredible arm. Well, I did scream and jump around a bit before being escorted off to the nearby water hose for a quick clean up.
SJD, from that moment on, made sure I clearly understood all the other signs in the zoo.

The rest of the zoo trip wasn't nearly as exciting, thankfully. It does house a modest population of lions, ostriches, snakes, turtles, raptors, rodents, and small antelope all appearing healthy, if a bit eager to get to their newer home.

The Accra Zoo is moving to a new location up near Kumasi. A zoo helper napping outside the refreshment kiosk mentioned that some of the animals were being housed temporarily at Achimota Forest Preserve until Kumasi is ready. Something makes me want to go up to Achimota FP, but something also says, "just stay far, far away."

Friday, February 02, 2007

Driver's License

Now we're really confused.

We arrived in Ghana 'round about September. Even though we were carless well into November, we submitted paperwork back in September to start the licensing, insurance, and registration process, assuming there would be a bit of bureaucratic red tape to cut through.

The car was eventually sprung from customs. Fine and dandy. We inquired about the status of the Ghanaian driver's license. The conversation was more or less as follows.

Me: "So, all paperwork is cleared? What about the Ghana Driver's License?

Expediter: "Yes please, it will be ready in 3 months, maybe."

Me: "Three MONTHS??? From September? Why so long? Am I okay to drive with my US license?" Too many questions at once...

Expediter: "Yes, three months. Yes, your license is good."

Me: "That is amazing.... Three hours max in DC... Ok, whatever. So I can drive?" The Ghanaians waiting for me to just move along chuckled at my growing disgust.

Three months would be January 2007 more or less.

We've been driving worry free on a DC license. Weaving through police check points and toll booths without a care all because the expediter said we could.

SJD received her official Ghana International Driving Permit this week. It was an exciting moment to hold the very official looking document - a small book similar to a passport. She is licensed to go out an drive like a nut to her little hearts content. Toot that horn. Drive on the wrong side of the road with your flashers on. Remove some lug nuts, and throw a oil drum on the roof. Let's go for a drive with the lights out.

We flipped past the cover reading GHANA International Driving Permit to the first page listing 80 or so countries honoring the GIDP. Next page: the photo, taped on. Name. Incorrect DOB. Futher instructions on page 38, yes page thirty-eight of your GIDP...

According to P38, SJD is allowed to drive type A, B,C private cars in all 80 or so countries. Not bad. EXCEPT GHANA. The biggest stamp in the entire GIDP states "NOT VALID IN GHANA".

So apparently SJD can still drive anywhere EXCEPT Ghana while we wait for Ghana to process their own version of a driver's license. I, on the other hand, have been informed that my paperwork for either license was never submitted by the expediter way back in September. So maybe sometime in June... Then again, maybe not.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Running is good

Taxis are better though. I misplaced the post National Milo Marathon coverage of King Tony.