Thursday, April 11, 2013

Binging on Plantains in Accra

April 9, 2013

Falling in Love with Plantain
Ghana, oh Ghana You have not a clue
That I've fallen in love with your plantains, but not stew
Your stew is so slimy and snotty and fishy
But your plantains are sweet and salty and crispy
I've had them grilled, fried and also seasoned with ginger-pepe
So good I've had four servings and gotten a food baby
Take me away, you underestimated little fruit
I'll miss you so much once I go back to ship food. 

Today began with a comedy of errors. When people flush something other than the very blunt three P's (pee, poo or paper) everybody suffers on the ship. Our toilet was backed up and our shower drain was clogged for our morning duties, which threw a bit of a wrench in getting ready. Regardless, Matt and I made it in time to catch the 8am breakfast and got a little caught up in fun breakfast conversations. With the delay and delay, we had 15 minutes to pack our gear and supplies for the day in Accra and get out to catch the 9am shuttle.

Matt needed to find a working bathroom, so we split up to get ready to go. You would be surprised how difficult it is to find a person on the ship once you've parted ways. I went to our room which was being cleaned by Jesse, our awesome cabin steward and barged in to grab my stuff. He was working on the issue with the plumbing, so I had to work around him a little to get all my things. 

I had five minutes to get to the bus which is notorious for leaving early, and I booked it down to the gangway. I didn't see my day's team, Mark and Larissa, and Matt was nowhere to be found. I saw Matt's subject for the day, Tendekayi, who was headed out to the bus, then found Mark and Larissa. We decided to jump on the bus and hope that Matt would make it. We had the bus wait a couple minutes, but at 9:02, it was time to go. The irony here is that nothing else in Africa keeps a schedule, but they were insistent on keeping this one.  The bus made its hour-long, bumpy way to Accra from our Tema port.

Meanwhile, Matt had been doing laps around the ship looking for a working bathroom, ran to our room, grabbed his gear and popped out of the ship at 9:03. The bus was gone, we were gone and we hadn't made a plan B.  Tende didn't have to meet his people until 11am, so we figured that if Matt caught the 10am shuttle, he might just be able to arrive before Tende goes. Otherwise, we would send Mark and his camera with Tende and then have Matt as our b-roll escort for the day whenever he arrived.  Without communication, though, each of us just had to figure out the logic of the other and hope that our assumption we were to act on was correct.

All in all, we waited long enough to go with plan A and left Matt with Tende and headed for b-roll. We first climbed the Citizen Kofi building to the top balcony to film some high angle shots of the city.  We took a couple photos of one another while we were up there.  Here I am modeling over the city of Accra.

The building is under construction, so the club isn't running, but it was being used by a film crew to hold auditions for a narrative feature being shot in Accra soon.  We met some of the actors and actresses lined up to audition and also met the film's producer.  They let us in to the side of the building that led up to the top balcony and we made our way up there through paint buckets and cloths.  It felt scandalous to climb through the closed building.  Quite fun.

We climbed down the stairs and headed for the streets to find a taxi to get to the market in downtown Accra.  What we didn't know ahead of time was that the taxi driver took us to the local market rather than the more touristy crafty market where we would have been more welcome.  We drove and drove and he let us out in a mass of Ghanaians who were selling everything from vegetables and fruits to housing goods and toothbrushes to clothing and shoes.  The women carry their goods on their heads.  There are some that seem straightforward like bags of fried plantain chips on a platter.  They seem light enough and also easier to balance than the women who are carrying bags of water on their heads.  Other women are carrying soaps, toothbrushes or clothing on their heads.  One woman was carrying three tomato-crates stacked up on her head.

Walking through this crowded market was very difficult.  Most of the people were balancing their goods on their heads and trying to squeeze through all of the same places we were trying to get through.  We were definitely the only foreigners there and we got many stares and many people grabbed us.  One man grabbed my arm and stopped me completely to have me look at the belts he was selling, then got offended when I pulled away.  He was very aggressive and it seemed like he was looking for trouble.  I got another older woman between us, and she allowed me to hurry away.  Another group of three men stopped us and asked Mark if I were his sister.  Mark said no, and he eyed me up and down and said that he liked me very much.  He shook my hand, asked my name and told me how much he liked me.  I kindly thank him and said that my husband liked me very much, too, and the three of us hurried away from them.

We got high enough to see the market
from above. It was so crowded!
We found a nice-looking woman with fried plantains on her head.  We bought three bags to snack on and to have something to do because it felt so awkward being there.  She asked if we were part of a big group, and we said that it was just the three of us.  She looked concerned, looked around and said, "be careful."  It was all over a disconcerting place to be.

It didn't help that we had brought the tripod for our camera.  People in Ghana have decided that a white person with a camera is a form of oppression.  We come and get photos and video of them and then make money off of it in our country.  There is now a very widespread disdain for any person, especially white, to take their photo.  If someone doesn't notice their getting a photo taken of them, a person nearby will yell to them and warn them.  The children will scream at you if you have a camera out, "no photo, no photo!"  We were extra unwelcome because of our professional-looking gear.  We asked a couple people if we could take their photo, and all of them declined.

One woman was selling grilled plantains with little bags of peanuts that you're supposed to eat together, and we decided to get some of those, too.  She frowned at us as we walked up to her, and said, "no photo."  We assured her that we just wanted to buy from her, and she perked up and became very friendly.  She sold us three sets of two plantains and a baggy of peanuts.  She wrapped them up in original welfare documents complete with fingerprints and happily took our money.  She smiled and waved us away.  We stood in the shade of a tree behind some women selling pineapple trying to figure out how we could shoot this market, and we thought we should walk down out of the main area and maybe vendors would be happier to allow us to film them without so many people around.

We walked to the other side of the market to the main street and asked some women if we could film them selling melons.  We could if we paid them.  We declined, but now they wanted money just for the request.  We hurried away.  We asked another cell phone vendor who also declined.  "Are you going to pay me?" was the most-heard response.  One man explained how we were going to make money on it, so he'd better get some of it.  It was definitely time to leave.  We bought some snacks from a convenient store and then caught a cab back to The Hub.

We found the rest of the film crew hanging out in the air conditioning and joined them.  Moments after walking into the building, a giant wind and rain storm pelted the city.  We were glad to be dry and safe.  The air had cooled down, and we felt like we weren't able to capture what we wanted for the day, so I split off from Mark and Larissa and joined Jessie, Evan, Danny and Patrick to find some palm wine for Patrick's birthday.  We had heard about palm wine and decided it would be important to taste it.  We walked the much friendlier streets near The Hub which is in a suburb of the city and found a bar and restaurant that was technically closed, but allowed us to come in and have some palm wine.  They handed us five bottles of "Palm Drink," and we figured we'd all test it out. We sat in the back of their building in an air-conditioned room that had satellite TV piping in The Sixth Sense.  We laughed about our situation and how weird it was to be enjoying this moment in Ghana.

With an hour killed, we headed back to The Hub to see if Matt was back.  Our plan was to all meet there so that we could go to dinner together to celebrate Matt's birthday.  It was 4:30 and we had until 5:30, so the fiance of the fellow running The Hub decided to take us to try her favorite street food: kelewele. (pronounced like killy-willy).  We walked down some back alleys to the main highway, crossed over and found a bunch of stands selling street food.  We all ordered up one cedi's worth of kelewele with a bag of peanuts and dug into my new favorite Ghanaian food.

Kelewele is fried chunks of plantains with ginger and pepe seasoning.  They're greasy and hot, sweet and spicy and a little bit chewy because of the ginger crystalizing with the sugars in the plantains.  When you mix in peanuts (which they call groundnuts here) it's a delightful snack. This was now my third helping of some form of plantains, and I was in love.  I brought some back for Matt hoping that he would find his way back from his adventure with Tendekayi to meet us for dinner.

We got back right around the same time as Matt did to The Hub, and he was so excited to see us.  He had been through quite the day.  Their main form of public transportation is called "tro tro" which is a fleet of 15-person passenger vans that they cram at least 25 people into which seem to have no structure of stops.  Matt, Tendekayi and their connection in Ghana named Sam all traveled together to get to a deaf school across Accra.  They made multiple tro tro transfers and crammed in with all kinds of locals.

One thing that I personally noted was how racist they are here.  They are not huge fans of white people coming in and wanting to pay local amounts.  They feel like we are all rich and we should not pay what they have to pay.  They up-charge everything because we are white, and with all of the corruption in the government and police force, check points and public transport punish everyone if there are any whites in the vehicle.  This is the same for street vendors and cab drivers.  They'll charge 40 cedi for something that should cost 17-20.  Matt was the only white person in the tro tro, and people were angry with him because all of them had to pay more to get from point A to point B.  Matt said that it was the most uncomfortable and vulnerable he's ever felt.  He made sure to keep his camera tucked away in order to avoid any further upset.

Buka's for birthday dinner.
With our whole crew together, we headed for a restaurant called Buka for Patrick's birthday dinner.  We walked quite a ways in the evening heat and arrived dripping sweat and ready for some cold brews and hot African food.  I ordered up a guinea fowl and, of course, fried plantains, and both were über delicious.  The guinea fowl was spicy as all get-out, but I couldn't stop because it tasted so good.  I gobbled down the fried plantain with salt.  Our evening couldn't be complete without birthday ice cream, so we found a place called the Creamy Inn and had some soft serve to celebrate with Patrick.

It was 9:30pm at this point, and we were afraid that the 10pm shuttle would leave early, so we headed for the stop.  It left five minutes after we got on, so we were glad that we didn't assume it would keep its schedule this time.

Matt and I had a goal of getting a djembe from Africa, and we had checked out the selection next to the ship the day before.  We pulled out extra money, and when we got back to the ship, we headed for our friend, Mohammed who we had met the day before, with intent to buy.  He was sleeping between his drums, and a friend of his woke him up to let him know he had customers.  He had shown us the drums the day before and we had our drum picked out already.  We played hard ball and talked him down 50 cedi's (or $25) and got our djembe drum and bright red and yellow carrying case.  They come with a certificate of fumigation, which is very important for getting it back into the States, so it was an overall good purchase.  We are so excited to have it.  It's a purchase that we both love and will both use.  It has real cow skin on the top, it's hand made and there are two symbols carved on the base.  One is (phonetically) sankofa, a bird that's biting a round circle in it's middle which means "go back to your roots," and the other is a lion which is the symbol of Ghana (phonetically) "akraaba" which means "welcome."  We thought it was the best message of all of them.

It was time to call it a night, and we said good-bye to sleeping Mohammed and got on the ship with our new loot.  Tomorrow's our last day in Ghana and we'll see what adventures we get ourselves into.