Saturday, April 6, 2013

Surf's Up in Ghana

April 6, 2013

We pulled into port this morning just after 9am, and there was a set of drummers and dancers on the pier to greet us.  They were all done up in matching African outfits and going nuts on their drums.  The dancers were barefoot on the black asphalt of the dock, but it didn't hinder their passionate moves.  Many of the passengers were out on the decks waving.  It felt very welcoming.

Matt and I were given the day off, and we heard that our friends Tori and Kevin were headed to Busua beach to get their surf on, and Matt, with a wild hair, thought it would be fun to join them.  Neither of us have ever surfed before, but both of us were very excited to try it out.  Kevin has been surfing since he was little, so he's really good at reading the waves and said that he would give us some surf lessons.

We waited around until the ship was clear, and excitedly packed our bags with only towels and swimsuits.  It felt really good not to have a massive camera or tripod strapped onto us.  We met Tori and Kevin at the gangway, and then walked the 15-minute walk out of the commercial port to where the taxis and street vendors with their crafts were waiting for us.

When people say the phrase, "Oh man, it's Africa hot today," I know completely understand why it exists.  The weather said that it was 95º but feels like 105º.  I think it's the humidity or maybe it's the dead-on equatorial sun, but we were pouring sweat by the end of our 15-minute walk.  The cabbies and street vendors swarmed us, but we had decided to walk into Takoradi rather than pay the 3-5 Ghanaian cedi that it would cost to ride there.  The exchange rate is about 2:1, so you cut their cost about in half to get USD.  It would be like $1-$2.  We found out it would have been worth it.  It's so hot here.

We walked up a winding road and found the main strip of Tokoradi.  I had originally thought that the city would be a lot like Ho Chi Minh where there were rougher parts of it, but with good development. I'd say it's at a lesser level than the Indian cities that I saw.  The built up buildings, like offices and banks, have electricity, running water and air conditioning, but the streets out front are a tad neglected and the outside of the buildings were never really cared about, I think.  It's just a difference in culture.  Why put time into making the outside of a building look good?  Not worth the time or effort.

We were in search of an ATM to get some cedi before heading on our 20km taxi ride to Busua Beach, and we found one about eight blocks away.  Every one that we had gone up to along the way was either out of order or sketchy.  We decided not to risk anything and go for the ATMs with the line of students at it.  We pulled out our cash and then walked down the street.  People greet you and talk to you and ask your name, and after being in India, I assumed they were either begging or wanting to sell me something.  I was actually pretty rude at first because I didn't trust anyone.

We met a fruit vendor selling mangos, powpows (or papayas) and avocados.  Holy yum!  Kevin asked her if she could recommend a place for us to eat lunch.  She pointed down an alleyway and said we could get authentic Ghana food there.  Again, we were still in distrust mode, so we cautiously went down the alley.  People were greeting us.  They were friendly and most of them just hanging outside their shops.  I took one look at the "restaurant" and the vats of reddish liquid boiling with fish parts in it, and I decided that after just getting over a bout with a bacterial infection of the stomach, affectionately and medically termed "traveller's diarrhea" (I can't wait to get home and have normal bowel movements again...not to get too detailed, but it's definitely been three months of abnormality for just about everybody.)  I was going to opt out of the street food.

Matt and I waited outside as Kevin picked out his fate from her little cart, and started up a conversation with a man who was a Professor, originally from Ghana, but had been living in Michigan for the past 22 years and just moved back to Tokoradi.  His name was Greg.  He was very kind to us, and we had a nice conversation with him about what he does and what we do, and we told him that we wanted to get to Busua beach after finding some lunch.  He got a friend to go and negotiate a taxi for us which would take us to lunch then over to Busua beach.  He recommended a hotel, Akorama, or something like that, where he said we could get a nice meal of Ghana food.  We got in our cab, and he took us to the hotel restaurant and said he would wait for us.

It was nice inside, and we found mostly American food on the menu with a single page of Ghanaian food.  We each picked out a different thing so that we could try it all.  Matt got a fish stew with fufu (pronounced foo foo), I got steamed yam and plantains with Palaver sauce and chicken, and Kevin and Tori split fried plantains with a goat, spinach and black-eyed pea sauce.  After a very long wait, the food came out one by one.

Without offending my dear Ghanaian friends, I now realize why there are no Ghanian restaurants in America.  It's definitely an acquired taste.  Fufu is a thick, white paste made of plantain and another grain or sometimes corn.  It's like a grittier and slimier version of sour bread dough that you pick pieces of and dip into stew.  The stews are red-colored, oily and with bits of meat swimming in snot.  The consistency is so slimy that you could lift the spoon out of it about a foot, and the slime would stretch and goop off after a few seconds.  I tasted it, and I was done with the texture for life.  My yams and plantains were very plain, and my chicken Palaver sauce was okay.  Spicy, but with a weird flavor that's almost like fish sauce, but not.  The fried plantains were amazing, but their goat stew was pretty bitter.  It made for a good experience.  One cannot knock a thing until one has tried it, and I've tried it, and I'm knocking all over the authentic food.  We decided it might just be the place, so we vowed to try it again somewhere else for dinner.

Our cab driver patiently waited for us.  In Africa, they do things on a different schedule, and the restaurant ended up taking and hour and a half.  The waitress wouldn't bring our bill, she just kept saying that she would in a minute, so we decided to finally just get up and force her to allow us to pay.  It was expensive for Ghana standards and really not that great.  Kevin had the right idea with the street food.  His little yam and sauce treat was pretty good, and it only cost 1 cedi (or 50 cents).  We probably should have just gone with it.  Oh well.  We got back in the cab and drove for about 30 minutes before reaching the town of Busua.  He dropped us in front of some houses, and we walked down the alleyway between them which opened up to the ocean and the surf shop we were looking for.

There were a bunch of SAS students already there, and there was a man putting on a magic show on the deck in front of the surf shop.  He was surprisingly good, and they had the music cranked, so it was a fun atmosphere to walk into.  Kevin got us a couple surf boards and we decided to leave one person with our bags on the beach while the other three would go play.  I went first for my surf lesson, and we stayed in the white wash attempting to stand up.  It was a total blast.  I can't wait until we can go again and try some more.

Matt headed out there, and he was a brilliant beginner.  He got up on the board within a few tries, and then headed out to the real waves to try and catch them before they broke.  Tori and I watched him get lifted up on the wave, stand up and ride it all the way through the white wash before crashing into the water.  Tori said to me that she thought he should be proud of that ride, and then we saw Matt's head pop up out of the foam and his one arm go straight in the air with a fist pump.  He was proud.  I was glad I caught him in all his glory!  We switched off for a few hours, and whoever was out without a board just got to play in the waves.  It was exactly the break that we needed.  It was so fun!

The beach was full of locals since it was a Saturday, adults and kids, all playing soccer or volleyball and dancing with the students.  It was a really fun atmosphere of people, but, of course, there were the people peddling their wares to the foreigners, and I was offered a bracelet.  I declined, and the man shook my hand and asked what I was doing tonight.  I wasn't sure, I told him, we had only gotten to surfing.  He grabbed my hand again for another crazy handshake, leaned in close and said, "Do you like black magic?"  "Is that drugs?" I asked.  "No problem, sista, I'll hook you up," he said with final handshake and went running off down the beach.

Uh oh...I think I just ordered myself some black magic.  Luckily, he never came back for a visit, and we weren't spending the night there at the beach where the bonfire and late night stuff was going on, so I thought I might be safe.  When I recounted the interaction to Tori, Matt and Kevin, we laughed through all the things that black magic could mean, other than drugs.

We wrapped up our fantastic surf day with some beers on the beach as the local kids started a dance party.  We sipped our beers and watched the sun go down over the ocean and the palm trees.  It was purely magical.

Tori wrangled us up a taxi to head back to the ship, and we hopped in with Steve.  We liked Steve right away, but after about five minutes of driving, he pulled off the side of the pitch black road and said that he needed to deliver some fruit.  He pulled a plastic bag out from under his chair and hopped out of the vehicle and ran off down a dirt road.  We sat in silence for a moment, then someone said, "ummm, should we be concerned?"  We considered many different scenarios, and finally stopped on the fact that he actually was delivering fruit to a friend.  Ghana, so far, is a very friendly and relatively trust-worthy place.  They're straightforward here.  I feel like a lot of it is African culture.  They're to the point and pretty blunt about information, but still have a good sense of humor.

We heard footsteps running on the dirt, and there was Steve running toward the vehicle.  "Okay - we go!" he said and hopped in the car.  Yep.  Delivering fruit.

We thanked him for waiting for us at the beach because we negotiated him then had our beers, and we said that since he waited, we could wait for him to run his errands.  We started talking about what his life was like, and he said that he liked to sing songs in his taxi.  In fact, he had a song that he wrote in his taxi and recorded in the studio with the taxi money he saved up.  It was during the Ghana election a year ago, and he called it, "Why Africa" and it was meant to promote peace across Africa and around the world.  He asked if any of us were singers, and I was volunteered, so he taught me the lyrics, then cranked up his phone and we all sang along.  You can meet Steve, hear his song and watch his music video on YouTube.  It's actually pretty good.

He asked Matt if he had a girlfriend, and Matt pointed to me as his wife in the back seat, so Steve decided to dedicate the love song that he wrote to me.  He said it was hip-hop, but here they call it hip-life.  He played us the only other song he has recorded right now called, "Give it to me."  It's a bumping club song, and about exactly what you think.  Steve is talented with many genres.

His signature move in all of the songs was to yell, "Hey, Steve!" during any sort of breaks.  If you watched, "Why Africa" (above) you'll hear it a few times.  In the love song dedicated to me, it was our job to yell out, "Hey Shawn" whenever that part came up.  He said that we could write any song at any time and that we could write one right now.  He sang one about surfing, then asked if anyone had their heart broken.  We all said yes, but it still got dedicated to Shawn.  "Hey, Shawn!"  Matt laid down a beatbox track while Steve freestyled our new heartbreakers song over it.  It was pretty catchy and we all sang along with the chorus when it came.  Matt titled it, "Only Good Love," and Steve vowed that it would be the next track he would lay down in the studio when he got up enough money.

We got back to Tokoradi, and we asked Steve to take us to a place where we could get some local Ghanaian food.  He brought us to a line of single lightbulb carts with plastic chairs behind them.  The sauces were on stoves, so we felt good about the fact that the liquid we were going to consume from this place was boiling.  Steve showed us how to wash our right hand at the table to prepare for dinner. We learned that you never, NEVER use your left hand to shake hands or eat in Africa...that's the wiping hand.  Very disrespectful.

He ordered the dinner for us, and it was corn fufu with some sort of chicken stew.  The slimyness was there, and he said it was a plant that they boiled in with it.  He slurped his down, loving every bite.  I was a little lighter on the amount of lukewarm fufu that I ingested, but the sauce tasted okay and I had the chicken that was sitting in the boiling hot liquid.  It's hard to eat with your hands when the sauce is too hot to touch.  That didn't slow Steve down, so we jumped in.  It was pretty dark in the place, so we all just hoped for the best with what we were snarfing.  We were hungry from surfing.

We found out at dinner that he's 23 and was going to college to become an engineer, but his dad died in a car accident, so now he's taken in his brother and is paying for him to go to school.  He's such a bright, friendly guy, it's hard to hear about that tough time they went through.  He wrote another song that he wants to get out about suicide called, "Hang In There."  He wants to let people know that they can get through the tough things in life, and you don't have to commit suicide.  He said he sings it to himself sometimes when he's sad and it motivates him, so he wants to share it with other people.

He said he had a friend who had to drop out of school and take in his brothers and sisters and decided to kill himself, but Steve taught him how to drive and got him a taxi to start making money to take care of his family.  He felt so good about helping his friend that he wanted to help more people and thought his music would be a good way.  We all agreed.  It was a nice song and fun to hear a capella.

I wasn't able to finish my fufu, but they didn't seem to mind.  The total came out to be a third of what we paid at the other restaurant, and we bought Steve's dinner, too.  It was a fun experience to eat with the locals and have Steve as our tour guide.  He spoke the language and handled everything.

We wrapped up our meal and drove the final ten minutes to the ship.  Steve sang a final song about how sad he was that his friends were going.  "My friends are leaving today, and I'm sad they are going away, but they'll be back to Ghana soon, or I'll go to America."  Catchy.  Gave us all a great laugh.  He's just too cute.

We were dropped at the port gate and swarmed by late night street vendors.  We said goodbye to Steve after tipping him an extra 15 cedis for how awesome he was and jogged through the crowd of sellers to get to the safe side of the port gate.  We were groaning at the walk back to the ship when a man in a big white truck pulled by us.  He asked if we were going to the ship, we said yes, and he waved for us to hop in.  The crew was like, "should we get in?"  I blurted, "No!" but they had already jumped in.  I got in, thinking it wasn't a good idea, but the nice guy was on his way to the night shift at the ship past ours and knew that we were a part of the students who needed back to the SAS ship.  Good guy.  Has been married for just over a year and hates leaving his wife alone at night to work the night shift.  You do what you've got to do.

We said goodbye to our other new friend, made it past the vendors at the bottom of the gangway and boarded the air conditioned palace that is the MV Explorer.  There were not really any showers or legit changing rooms at the beach, so we were sandy and crusty with salt and ready for a shower and some more dinner.  We showered and then found Danny for a 7th deck story swap.  It was fun to hear about his crazy day, too.

In hearing about his day, we also heard that Evan, who was supposed to be shooting an SAS field lab tomorrow decided to stay the night out with Protei who had rented a car and gone a couple hours away from the ship.  Danny had to shoot the field lab, so he made his way back to the ship under crazy sketchy circumstances and was glad to be alive.  All that said, I was chosen to take Evan's place and shoot the field lab to the village on stilts the next morning.  Change, change, change.  It's the name of the game.  Better get some sleep.