Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ghana Stories

Girl hairstyles in Ghana
Almost all the young girls or school age girls keep their hair very short (like the boys) while they are in school.  Our guide in explaining the tradition related that the headmaster at his daughters school requires all girls to keep their hair very short, almost shaved.  When they get married, the women traditionally start wearing headscarves to cover their hair.

Self-guided Sheep & Goats
On the outskirts of town and in the villages herds of goats and sheep are seen walking around, crossing the roads, and generally walking with a purpose.  However, usually they have no human or animal supervision.  The goats are trained to follow a certain route and take themselves out to pasture and come back to the house later on, all automatically and without supervision.

Cell Service Carrier Advertising
In Ghana he war between cell phone service providers is heating up and advertising has become a major competition between the different brands.  All the major brands advertise: MTN, vodafone, Tigo, Zain; but it seems the most intense battle is between vodafone and MTN.  Their battle has spread from the airwaves to the fabric of people's clothes (incorporating both small and large logos), as well as the color of their house and business.  Walking down the street in some areas it seems that the houses alternate red (vodafone) and yellow (MTN).

Garbage Man Jingle
Around 5am i was woken by the sound of what I thought was the ice-cream man driving through the streets of Accra.  It was a meandering thin tune played endlessly over speaker, just like an ice-cream man who sells from a truck common in North America.  The reality couldn't be more opposite, because this tune in Accra announced the coming of the garbage man, and people would rush to bring their garbage out.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Accra International Marathon

Accra, Ghana
26 September 2010

I got up at 3:30 in the morning so I could catch my ride to the marathon shuttle start point at the Salvation Army Hostel. At the hostel I linked up with the Peace Corps volunteers who had assembled from the neighboring countries to run the marathon. The shuttle bus arrived an hour late (scheduled for 4:30) and after a tumultous hour long ride through the city dropped off the 1/2 marathoners at their start point and then continued another 13.1 miles to our start point- a dashed line spray painted across the road in the middle of nowhere. With no portapotties and only small bushes around lots a white rear ends were visible in the grass as people used the bathroom before the start of the race.

A few brave Africans had run the Milo Marathon the day before lined up at the start line again, some boasting about their accomplishments the day before and bragging they were going to win today (mostly exaggerations in my opinion- one guy claimed to have run a 2:10 marathon the day before). About 50 of us toed the starting line, including 20 Africans, and after four false starts, because the starting pistol kept misfiring, we were off- over an hour after the scheduled start (actual start at 6:45).

The Africans were off like a shot and quickly out of sight and the westerns started plodding along the road. I, like a couple other runners, carried a hydration backpack since the marathon had received terrible reviews last year for not having enough aid stations and running out of water half way though the race. I was happy to find many aid stations along the course and even at some spots a case of water dropped so you could help yourself. However in some of the more congested locations i think the locals may have walked away with the water.

There was a light cooling mist as we ran through the hills in the first half of the marathon and i reached the midway point in just over two hours (2:02). I grabbed a couple bottles and refilled my 2 liter hydration pack and started to alternate short walks with my running. The sun came out and it got hot and humid and by mile 16 i was dehydrated and getting sore. My walks got longer and my running shorter and within a couple miles my stride was extremely restricted.

I was already regretting my decision to run the full marathon- my longest training run was only 14.25 miles and the heat in Dakar had forced me to walk at the end of that run too. My buddy, Brad, had talked me into running the full marathon with him, but then bailed on me a couple days before the run. So i had to run alone, but I passed the torturous miles thinking of him and how I would get my revenge.

Around mile 20 we ran up a hill into a village and people coming home from church dressed in their Sunday best. Many churches were still in session and played a variety of music- some just singing loud into their speakers, others accompanied by trumpets, handsome with full rock bands- seemingly in competition to be the loudest or heard above the rest. Some of the locals yelled encouragement to my shuffling steps, yelling "fast, fast!". Others just read my face and told me the truth "you look tired."

A couple miles later we emerged from the village onto the main commercial street that lead into Accra and had to weave our way through traffic. The sidewalks were full of vendors and walkers, the side of the road had buses and taxis zooming in to stop and pick up passengers, and heavy traffic dominated the main lanes so making forward progress became a lot more difficult. Sometimes i had to stop and wait for traffic or people to move aside so i could try to stumble forward, but with only three miles to go i had hope.

We finally got clear of the market and most of the foot traffic with two miles to go and i decided to do my best to run the rest of the way in and finish strong. I figured it was only two miles to go, and i had run that distance many times before- it should be easy. I made it one mile before i fell apart. I couldn't lift my legs anymore and walking even hurt so bad i wanted to stop and lie down in the dirt on the side of the road.

At that point of desperation the race director pulled up in her car and handed me a bottle of water and cheered me to keep going. I kept going forward. I had to grit my teeth and limp along as my left leg froze up and wouldn't bend anymore and my right foot felt bruised and i could only step with my heel. It took me 25 minutes to walk that last mile and if felt like it was going to last forever under the blazing sun.

Finally i reached some large banners flying on the side of the road and a cut through some high grass that led to the finish line. I manage to shuffle and almost broke into tears as i crossed the finish line, five hours and sixteen minutes after i began.

My first priority was water and i wasn't the only one suffering. The girl that finished after me collapsed at the finish line and had to be carried to the first aid tent (I felt a little envious). Others were lying in the shade and medics were walking around pouring water on people or rubbing them with ice. The race director even collapsed and was helped into the shade and given ice.

A couple liters of water later i was feeling better and an hour or so later lunch was served. It seemed like a riot was going to break out when they started to run out of food, but eventually i got my plate of chicken and rice. It was pretty good and quickly wolfed it down local style using my hands as no forks were provided. Later on they handed out goodie bags and finally the race medal! I then retreated to my hotel and ended up sleeping six hours before dinner and heading to bed again.

People in the hotel kept staring at me as i limped around, and didn't seem to believe that i had just ran a marathon.

Exploring Accra

Accra, Ghana
25 September 2010

We spent the day on another driving tour of the city and getting ready for the Accra Marathon on Sunday. We found the US Embassy, the Kofi Annan Peacekeeping Center, W.E. deBois center, the LDS temple, and then spent a couple hours trying to find the shuttle pickup point for the marathon and the marathon headquarters (very poorly marked on the third floor of a building in back alley).

I decided to take it easy that afternoon and ended up taking a nap before going to a pre-marathon pasta party with a bunch of expats. A group of about twenty women were excited to run the 1/2 marathon the following day (husbands were going to watch the kids while the wives ran) and only one other guy was going to run the marathon with me. Mad dog is 72 years old from Florida and had run 335 previous marathons in 105 different countries ( holds world record for number of countries).

The Accra International Marathon director was also at the dinner and was already worn out. I had spoke to her earlier at her office when I was looking for directions to the marathon shuttle and her office was packed and she was trying to get all the last minute preparations complete. To add to her agony, several local runners had showed up the day before to demand a refund of their race registration fee so they could run in the Milo Marathon recently scheduled for the day before the Accra International Marathon. According to her, Milo announced their decision to move their marathon to 25 September on the first of the month while her marathon had been scheduled for several months. They also quintupled their prize money so she couldn't compete and she felt obliged to let the athletes compete for the bigger payday. We had seen the Milo buses following driving around town earlier in the day and their awards ceremony on tv where they had claimed over 5000 runners.

Leaving Liberia

Accra, Ghana
24 September 2010

On our way to the airport this morning we stopped to get some snacks at a local market in Monrovia. The store had decent variety of items imported from Europe and South Africa and the first Gatorade I had seen in Africa for about $3.20 (for a quart size bottle). Surprisingly the traffic was light so we got to the airport with plenty of time to spare. Luckily the driver had connections to Firestone and brought us onto the farm and to the commissary.

The firestone commissary was stocked with the largest verity of western foods i have seen so far in Africa. The had boxes of tortilla chips, kraft mac and cheese, A&W root beer, whatchamacallit candy bars, as well as all the western brands of shampoo, deodorant, and personal products. Unfortunately i didn't have room in my suitcase for a case of tortilla chips (impossible to find in Dakar).

We made it to Accra without any issues, rented a car, and were off exploring the city within a couple hours. The University of Ghana is an outstanding university- the campus is beautiful and set on a hill across the valley from the government headquarters. The campus is huge with lots of large buildings, a medical school, law school, large sports fields, and blocks of dorms. We got to stop and watch part of a women's soccer game with a couple hundred spectators (the light blue team was doing pretty well).

After the tour of the university the rain started to come done again and and it started to get dark so we headed out for dinner. I got the red red with beans and beef (called "Red Red").

Liberian Stories

Monrovia, Liberia
23 September 2010

"neighborhood watch"
For the second day in a row our friend in Monrovia was woken up in the middle of the night by calls for help from his neighbors. Two nights ago his neighbors home was invaded by a robber wielding a cutlass (machete) in the early morning hours. One of the family members was able to text for help in the confusion and quickly word spread to all the neighbors. Within minutes a group of friends stormed the house, grabbed the robber, and dragged him into the streets where the angry mob began to beat him. Eventually the police arrived and were disappointed that he was still alive, the robber was beaten nearly to death, but was happy to get away from the mob and get to the safety of the jail.

Last night, around 2 am, another call went out to friends and neighbors for a house fire. As soon as the got the call, everyone grabbed their buckets or large containers of water and ran to the neighbor in need. Even with the help of the fire brigade they couldn't save the mud hut and the fire spread to several other huts which also burned to the ground. Right after the fire brigade extinguished the last of the smoldering rubble, the torrential rains began again. The fire was caused by the mother who left a lit candle in a bedroom and when she went outside to talk to a friend. Luckily no one was hurt.

"smell, no taste"
A small town in a rubber forest has a local name i couldn't pronounce (like most villages with local names). Loosely translated, the town is called "smell, no taste." During the war the relatively well supplied peacekeeping troops would cook their food over open fires while the rubber farmers hiding among the trees could smell it, but had nothing to eat for themselves.

"marriage problems"
My Liberian friend was telling me about his problems with his wife. He started by stating he didn't think he could be a polygamist, like many Africans, because dealing with one wife was hard enough. After he had been married for four years or so he felt his wife didn't love him and he wanted to get rid of her, so he got another girl pregnant. Eleven years later he has the daughter from the other girl, and the same wife. She stuck by him even though the mother of his child gave him the child and walked away and he adopted another kid from the neighborhood. The kids live with his parents (their grandmother), but he and his wife still share a house in the city. Both work, but both are on the road all the time. When he is at home, she kicks him out and sends him to the club or has his friends pick him up and take him away. What she does at home he doesn't know.

Visit to LAC

Monrovia, Liberia
23 September 2010

The day began in the driving rain at 0630 am driving a Nissan Patrol 4x4 from Monrovia to Buchanan. The roads were great until 17km past the airport when the smooth Chinese made road came to an abrupt end and the bone jarring five hour torture began. We covered 150 km in five hours as the rain gradually stopped and the sun came out. About half way into the trip we reached an old rusty iron bridge under repair and had to wait for an hour while the bridge was put back together. Heavy traffic had pushed the 1/4 inch steel plates off some of the iron girders over the mocha river so a work crew was spreading out the plates and welding them to the girders.

The bridge work was being done by a maintenance crew from Liberian Agriculture Company (LAC), a rubber company located outside Buchanan and competitor of Firestone. We visited LAC and took a tour and the guides told us that they agreed to maintain the roads since all the rubber they produce has to be trucked to Monrovia over the same road in semis carrying 20 foot trailers weighing several tons each.

The LAC plantation was nice, but the rubber tapper villages and schools weren't as nice as the Firestone plantation and recently the workers protested the LAC headquarters to demand benefits comparable to Firestone.

After the tour of the Liberian Agriculture Company rubber plantation we drove back to Buchanan to check out Buchanan Renewable Energy (BRE). They harvest the rubber trees that are too old to produce any more and chip them onsite and truck them to the port in Buchanan. At the port the wood chips are loaded on boats to Europe where the wood chips are burned as fuel instead of coal.

Red light district & rubber plantation

Monrovia, Liberia
22 September 2010

No rain today, but still seas of muddy water throughout Monrovia.

Today we cruised around town checking out the red light district (named for the the blinking red traffic light that has since broke and been stolen). The place was slammed- overflowing with people, cars, motorcycles, and mud. It took a while to crawl through the slippery mess but it was interesting, as always, to watch the people in the colorful market.

Liberia is famous for it's rubber plants and today we visited the Firestone Rubber Plantation near Roberts International Airport. It's a huge place that is a community unto itself with schools for the children of the plantation workers, a supermarket, health clinics, post office, and several housing areas. The rubber trees are the main attraction, all planted neatly in orderly rows, like corn in the Midwest.

The trees are planted in groves and take about seven years before the new plants start producing rubber. Once mature the trees produce for about seven to ten years then the production drops and the trees are of little use to the plantation. Due to the war many trees are over 15 years old and aren't producing very much anymore and need to be cleared so new trees can be planted. One solution that is being explored is to collect the trees and burn them as biofuel in a power plant since there is a great need for electricity in Liberia.

The system for collecting the rubber from the trees is pretty simple. The bark of the tree is cut or penetrated to allow the sap to come to the surface and collected in a cup. The process is similar to the maple syrup process back in New England. The rubber is collected and brought back to the collection point and processed and shipped out.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Liberia Day 2

Monrovia, Liberia
21 September 2010

Heavy rains all night long flooded the roads his morning- I should have brought my goretex jacket. Today we drove around my friends Nissan Patrol with a snorkel kit and had a blast plowing through axle and deeper ponds.

Most of the roads aren't paved so we had to use the four wheel drive capabilities to get through some deep sand too. We checked out the port and a city beach, which was covered in trash washed in by the heavy storm overnight. Some of the port was blocked by sunk ships sitting on the bottom of the harbor.

UN vehicles are everywhere. The locals ride their little 100cc motorbikes around or drive the demolition derby taxis, but most people just walk. Turns out that most of the bikes were purchased by ex-combatants after the war with their war settlement funds. Many are used as moto-taxis or for delivery services. We saw one being used as an ambulance, transporting the victim of an accident in the arms of passenger on the back of the motorcycle.

Welcome to Monrovia

Monrovia, Liberia
20 September 2010

I flew all morning, leaving Dakar at 1am and after a five hour layover in Accra, arrived in Monrovia at 1pm. I flew Air Nigeria and the service was great- I was pleasantly surprised with the free socks and toothbrush. It was all still marked Virgin Nigeria (Air Nigeria recently broke away from the Virgin family to become a separate airline) but was very clean and professional.

Flying out of Accra we flew over some awesome looking long breaks but the water as we approached Monrovia was a nasty dirty brown with no waves. Roberts International Airport is a good hour drive from Monrovia over some pitted roads and some heavy traffic. For dinner we ate at the Golden Beach restraunt on the beach just down from a decent break. Waves were waist to chest high and the water looked pretty clean but i havent seen any surfboards and the shops are limited to the bare necessities- no luxury items or stores around here.

I haven't had to change any money yet. The places I have visited listed all their prices in US Dollars and gave change in US Dollars too.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Carmel Market

This past Thursday i went exploring with a group of friends and visited the Carmel Market in downtown Dakar.  The center of the market is a huge pavilion with several inner rings of vendors under the vaulted roof selling everything edible that you could think of.  They were arranged in sections with produce in the outermost ring, then meat, and finally seafood in the center of the pavilion.

The market was packed with people rushing to buy last minute items to break their Ramadan fast, but also the vendors were in a hurry to make a deal as the following day was a holiday to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

Since we were in a large group the vendor trippled their regular asking prices.  I was able to negotiate the price of the this 18"x 24" giraffe carving from 120,000 CFAs down to 20,000 CFAs (from $240 USD to $40 USD).

Nairobi Layover

Flying back to Dakar from Lilongwe I had to stay overnight in Nairobi, Kenya.  I was able to make a reservation at the Hilton and a shuttle picked me up from the airport and carried me to the heart of Nairobi in relative ease.  The hotel was nice but only had wifi in the lobby or the resident lounge.

I had a wedge shaped room in the ninth floor of the cylindrical tower overlooking the city.  It was a nice view and later that evening a rain storm blew in and drove all the people away.  I was surprised how crowded the city was for Saturday evening. 

The next day we tried to leave on time, but when we finally boarded our Kenyan Airways flight two hours late one of the passengers was suddenly too sick to continue and the stewardess called for a doctor to come to the plane.  Since we were now delayed more than three hours we had to offload the plane and wait for a new flight crew to arrive. 

By now it was lunchtime and the airline brought us all (over 100 passengers) up to the airport resteraunt and served us lunch and three hours later we were finally able to load again and get underway.  I arrived five hours late in Dakar to pounding thunderstorm and made it back to my apartment by 11pm. 


After spending a couple days in Zambia we flew down to Lilongwe, Malawi.  The first place we passed on our way from the airport to Lilongwe was the school that Madonna is building and later several chinese construction projects.  The Chinese government has just built a new parliment building for the Malawian government and has a giant space dome structure hotel in progress. 

We stayed at the Sunbird Capital Hotel the first couple nights- its located across the street from the new chinese hotel and in a decent location.  The Sunbird Capital was ok, but when we checked in there was a couple at the front desk complaining that there backpack with passports and credit cards had just been stolen from their room.  The place was dingy, worn out,  and just didnt have a good vibe. 

One day for lunch we asked a taxi driver to take us to a relaxing place for lunch and he delivered us to the Sanctuary Lodge just a couple blocks away from the Capital Sunbird.  It was like walking into the garden of eden- it was clean, quiet, calm in a nature preserve and surrounded by green trees.  We ate lunch on an open veranda and i was amazed by the tranquility.  We immediately checked out of the Sunbird Capital and moved into the Sanctuary Lodge and stayed in a cabin/hut that had wifi access, but no tv. 

The next day we decided to drive to Livingstonia on Lake Malawi and rented a VW Polo sedan (like a VW Jetta) from Avis.  Unfortunately we couldnt find a good map and ended up navigating off the map in the Lonely Planet guide and missed the turn for route M14 to Lake Malawi (wasnt marked either).  We ended up traveling 20 km up route M1 and turning on the only paved road we could find outside of Lilonwe.  The asphalt quickly turned into a dirt road but since the road was in good condition we decided to keep going.  The road paralleled a new road construction project and started winding into the mountains and 30 km later we arrived in the town of Dowa.

We found ourselves on the map again and saw that the road we had followed, the route M7, continued south and eventually linked up with the M14 to Livingstonia so we decided to push on.  The road south out of town wasnt as nice as the previous road and we climbed over a ridge to discover it quickly became more and more rutted.  We decided to push on started to scrape bottom a couple times, but kept the hope that soon it would improve again.  The VW Polo wasnt made for dirt road travel (no 4x4 vehicles were available when we went to rent a car) and about 6km and 30 mins of nail-biting travel later we almost high centered the vehicle and decided it was time to turn around.

After a dicey nine-point turn on the side of a steep cliff in the middle of nowhere and out of cell phone reception we started to make our way back up the hill to Dowa.  We almost didnt make it out- several times we scrapped over rocks, ledges, and drop offs and said "We shouldnt have made it this far- what were we thinking?"  The people in Dowa looked at us like we were crazy when our dusty faces rolled back through town and 60 km later we were back in Lilongwe and were able to find the M14 to Livingstonia. 

As we cruised along the M14 we passed the point where the M7 connected and the road looked like hell and traversed many rocky ridges back to Dowa, out of sight behind the mountians.  There was no way the tiny VW Polo could have made it through. 

On the approach to Livingstonia we saw more and more mosques and the people began to dress more conservatively.  We saw several wearing suits even though it was just a Thursday afternoon.  Livingstonia was an average town and we quickly drove through to the lake and ate lunch at Sunbird Livingstonia on the lakefront.  It was a beautiful sight, and the resort was plush.  The food was good and it was nice to relax on the shores of Lake Malawi. 

We eventually tore ourselves away from the relaxing scene and drove back to Lilongwe with no incident.  We did stop to check out what the kids were selling on side of the road-

Later that night the Sanctuary Lodge held a silent auction as a fund raiser for a local wildlife refuge.  A local artist contributed 40 wildlife paintings and a large crowd had gathered.  I was quickly outbid on my favorite painting of an elephant crossing a river and most painting sold for over $300 USD.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Victoria Falls 1/2 Marathon

Livingston, Zambia 29 August 2010
Before the Start of the Victoria Falls 1/2 Marathon

This morning i was the second person across the bridge into Zimbabwe and by the time i had cleared immigration i could see the marathoners running down the hill from the start towards me. The were moving fast and i had to sprint up the hill to the start of the half marathon. Luckily there was a wheelchair division before my race so i still had time to stretch and chew a couple shot blocks before i had to get going.

There were about 300 people lined up for the 1/2 marathon and about 3/4s of them were white. Every race number had your country of origin annotated and i saw Canadians, sweeds, South Africans, and many white Zimbabweans. Once the gun ford to start the race, the black Africans took off like rockets and the white folk plodded after. We rand down the hill from the Ecobank, through customs and immigration, then out on the Victoria Falls bridge to the Zambia gate before we turned around and ran back across the bridge to Zimbabwe and then along the Zambezi river into a park. I saw lots of baboons in the forest and every half mile or so there would be a soldier or policeman with a rifle ready, I suppose to protect us from the animals. You had to keep an eye on the road to avoid the frequent elephant piles on the road.

There were many aid stations along the route (about every 2-3 km) handing out small sacks of water or an electrolyte drink. I thought the sacks were a huge improvement over the cups of water you usually find on the race course. I was able to tear a small hole in the corner of the sack and squeeze the water into my mouth as well as fold the sack over and run with it for a while without the fluid sloshing out. Some of the aid stations even had sprinklers to run through to cool off.

Around the 10k mark we turned around and ran into and up the hills outside of Victoria Falls. Only near the end of the race did we come back into civilization and finished in a nice athletic compound by running around a polo field. I was worn out by the end and finished in 76th overall with a time of 1:46 for 13.1 miles. I got a nice finishers medal, a T-shirt from the beer sponsor of the race, and a bottle of warm water. Within 10 minutes of me crossing the line for the half marathon the winner of the full marathon strode into the field and won with a time of around 2:25. He was flying and I didn't see anyone behind him, I figure he won by several minutes.
The bridge from Zimbabwe to Zambia

After stretching a bit, i was able to bum a ride back to the race start in the back of a pickup truck and walk back across the bridge into Zambia. After a quick shower we drove back to Lusaka (I slept in the back of the car) and got to the hotel in time for dinner and a good nights sleep.