Sunday, March 7, 2010

Up in The Air - Observations of a traveler

I’m in an airport again. Ran around like an absolute mad woman at the office today, delusional in the belief I would get all the loose ends tied up and leave early. Got home the usual time, threw the last things into my bag (realized the humidity in Accra is rotting the zippers of the luggage), and had a shower. Then ran around the house trying to organise food for the boys at home for the week, and had about half an hour to unwind. Now I’m sitting in Accra’s International airport. It’s 33 celcius outside and it’s 9pm. The air-conditioners are not working in the airport today. Little tickly beads of sweat are gathering into fluid streams, and find their way down my temples, behind my ears, under my bra. I feel soggy.

An hour ago I was fresh and clean.

This scenario plays out about twice a month. I travel a lot for work. Every chance I get, I travel for pleasure as well. Sometimes I like to combine the two. I probably travel too much but who’s to say what’s too much. Last month it was Sierra Leone, now it is Canada, later this month it will be Lebanon and Jordan (but that one’s for pleasure!), and then the day we get back, we’re on a plane to Nigeria.

Whenever I am in transit I find myself considering my identity, my place, my cultural constructs of the world. Where do I belong?

I’m looking down at myself. My t-shirt was bought in Houston while at an Oil & Gas exhibition. My jeans were bought last year on the trip to the PDAC show in Toronto. My shoes were bought when down in South Africa last year for a wedding. We got my watch in Los Angeles on Rodeo Drive (which was a bit surreal). My laptop from a mall in Germany, my phone on a trip through Dubai.

Living in Ghana, where adventures with local salons have led to disaster*, I even have a hairdresser in Dubai! Go to her every time I’m passing through. I think that might be an indication that I travel too much.

This trip is taking me via Heathrow, back ‘home’ to Canada. The term ‘home’ doesn’t really fit into my reality. Though Toronto is my birthplace and I grew up in the surrounding suburbs, I have lived in a completely different world for close to 15 years. I’ve spent 14 of the 22 years of my adult life (that’s 63%), on another continent in a world so far away on so many levels. My concerns are not the concerns of anyone I know in Canada. My day to day reality, something so different, so removed. And now that has become the norm for me.

I think the day I first realized the extent of my alienation was when I arrived at Pearson International some years ago, carried along by the drowsy crowds of arriving passengers, and noticed acutely the accents of the immigration officers. I picked up the certain nuances that characterize a Canadian accent - something I didn’t realize existed before I left her shores.

In the expat world of Ghana, I spend time amongst Ghanaians, Nigerians, British, Germans, Jordanians, Polish, Lebanese, South Africans, Americans, Spanish, Italians, French - and the odd Canadian.

For now, that life is home. Our house, a 70’s monstrosity, was once the Libyan Embassy. With company furniture and a few local nick nacks, we have no sentimental connection. Our next home will be a boat, and we will take it where our whims carry us.

Over past few years, whenever I arrive back in Toronto I find that I’ve lost the connection to the city. It has become like so many others – arrive one week, notice the new buildings, smell the unfamiliar air, off to another destination the next week.

With an outsider’s eye, the city no longer feels comfortable. It has no spark, no recognizable beauty. It is a suburb. Life goes on here, mothers take their kids to school in their 4x4s, each neighborhood has it’s chain store mall, the sidewalks are straight and the grass is cut. There are laws and rules and things work. Elevators go up and down, water comes from the taps. In winter a grey hue descends and covers everything. It wills people to hibernate against it’s grizzly embrace. In summer it is peeled away and people live more each day for those few ‘thawed’ months, when the sun visits.

All of this is a foreign world to me. At ‘home’ in Accra I dodge potholes in the road, look away at traffic lights, as the beggars push their thin babies to the car window. I argue with the house cleaner/cook about putting mint instead of basil in the spaghetti sauce and for forgetting that bleach isn’t to be used on the coloured clothes… I worry about the generator not starting or the water supply being cut off for weeks. I worry about the malaria spreading mosquitos every night when we’re out past 6pm. I consider 26 degrees celcius a cold day and 38 degrees a hot day – and I can expect the average temperature all year to be 30 to 34…

11 hours have passed and I’m in another airport. I’m surrounded by a whirlwind of colour and sound – undecipherable chatter and coats and bags and parcels and the swoosh of late passengers dashing toward gates.

I sit quietly and am very aware of myself as one among the many. Just another passenger headed to another destination.

But my trip is not like any other. I happen to be heading to Toronto. Though I don’t live there anymore, it is my family that draws me back. I am lulled by their welcoming arms at the airport. The delight and excitement in my mother’s eyes when she first catches sight of me among the crowd. I am attracted to the nostalgia, to the din of the family’s chatter on a Sunday afternoon, while my sister cooks up a gourmet meal. There is a tenderness and a level of comfort that has no equal. When I am back in Ghana I keep the memories of these visits in a place deep within me. Mementos. They remind me what the term home actually means.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Getting arrested, the Triple F cups and the Chameleons

Memorable moments from Makola market...

These days I’m quite careful about what comes with me on our indulgent Saturday market visits. After all, it is a crowded market in the 'developing world' and theoretically I and my friends would be walking targets... I usually wear a pair of multipocket pants that can house little wads of small bills. I don’t wear any jewellery and I leave my watch behind. Because of what we’re likely to step in, I wear the most basic chale-wotes (flip flops) that can be easily washed off, and most of all, I leave my iPhone behind.

This is all precautionary, since despite the swarms of people I find myself amongst, I’ve never had a thing snatched or stolen. In 13 years of Saturday market adventures.

This week’s visit started out more exciting than most. I drove into my trusted parking lot at the edge of the chaos that is Makola, lost in the stories of my market buddies T and J as we chatted in the cocooned world of my air-conditioned 4x4. Targets on wheels in this case...

As I came around the corner, a uniformed female police officer was in my path and made some motion to me. I assumed she was ‘asking’ if I was turning into the parking lot and I nodded and headed on in. I parked and we gathered ourselves, ready to head out into the heat and congestion, when at my passenger door there was the same police officer and her male colleague, faces pursed and annoyed. I knew immediately NOT to open or even unlock our doors, and feared we had a long tedious argument on our hands.

I rolled the window down half way. They immediately started with the verbal assault.

Female officer (indignant): “Madam, why?! I was arresting you, and then you kept driving! You didn’t mind me!”

Me: “Oh! Madam I didn’t realize! I was just parking. What did I do wrong?”

Male officer pushing forward with furrowed brow: “You are arrested for passing through the traffic light.”

Me and friends: “WHAT?!”

MO: “It was red!”

Me and friends: “No it was not!”

I knew this like I knew my own name. The truth is that though I have my Canadian driver’s license and I keep it valid, I haven’t updated my Ghanaian one since 2000. *Bows head and blushes*… Maybe I am lazy, or more likely it’s that I like living on the edge. Some bungee jump, I drive with a non-valid license… Anyway, for this reason, I make sure I do NOTHING wrong on the roads, lest I find myself in a situation such as this one!

For this reason I knew the officers had simply spotted a few obruni ladies and figured ‘easy target’ for a Saturday shake down… But we weren’t having it.

Just then, MO shoves his sweaty aggressive hand past my friend, indicating at me,

MO: “Where’s your license and registration? Give it!”

We ignore this demand the first time around, hoping the argument T has sparked with the FO about how she is sick of Ghanaian police taking advantage of obrunis, would sway his attention. But he asked again.

Me – really hesitantly: “Please I don’t have it with me”

MO – “Ah! Why?” deeply furrowed brow now… (I’ve given him some ammo!!! Oh no!)

Then the din of T’s indignant protest, assuring them we did nothing wrong and that they were unfairly targeting us, became quite loud. And a miracle happened. Their brows slackened and they backed down. No bribe, no demand that we be taken to the station for processing…

MO: “Do well and be honest. You passed through the red light, but I’m just warning you.”

Me: “I did not run the red officer, and thank you.”

And they skulked away, without a pesewa of bribe money. We felt proud and relieved and giddy. It’s not that often you get arrested and then let off with a warning!

And then we were free to start our market adventure. Phew! Ghana police 0, market mongers 1!

As we headed out of the parking lot on foot, J glanced to her side, to the mobile phone seller’s wooden hut a couple meters from us. She cringed and grabbed my arm.

J: “Oh my god! That was…oh… bad.”

T and I: “What? What was it?”

J: “The man in there that was petting a cat… he just squeezed it’s head and shoved it in a bag. Next came the hammer.”

Me: “Oh. I’m sure that was the meat for today’s soup. Sorry-o. They do eat cats here.”
J: “I know, just didn’t want to witness the slaughter…”

Ok, onto the street. Deep breaths. After all, this is adventure day!

And all around us life swirled and screamed and splattered itself across the pavement. Carried along with the tangible heat and jostled limbs.

We browsed the 'selection' clothes that the girls line the streets, selling by hand, and hid them when the AMA goons came by to whip them or steal their goods in a bogus attempt to 'clean the streets' of hawkers... I found a near exact replica of my favourite expensive perfume for GHC18 (about $12), down to the Made in France label. I opened it and tried it out... Exactly the same as the real one! Market bargain!! (That one made my day, really). I won't however, mention the little tied black plastic bag, literally full of shit, that T stepped in, since there was a trusty 'pure watah' seller on hand and a full on the spot wash of the chale-wotes was done...

I was struck by all the things around us that needed documenting! That needed to be photographed. But alas, in my caution of ‘traveling light’, I left the trusty iPhone at home. So it wasn’t to be.

I’ll have to leave to your imagination the transvestite in full yellow leotard in Rawlings Square, dancing for the huge crowds, his painted face melting through the streaks of sweat…

The huge bowl of dried, once alive, chameleons for sale, alongside buttons and brightly coloured cloth and Maggi cubes… just in case you need to cast a spell after cooking and sewing.

The triple F cup naked mannequin, proudly jutting out of the little shop selling cheap Chinese ladies clothes. She stood in front of two other less endowed mannequins, with a rack you’d find difficult to fit any shirt over… How, why?

The how and the why of the market are never answered, which is what gives it the intrigue and the charm. It leaves us all covered in dust and sweat and with fresh coconut juice pouring down our faces, slurped and gulped straight out of the coconut, sliced open for the parched, by a machete wielding seller. It leaves us with the deep desire to come back again the next available Saturday.
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