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LONDON: DAY ZERO

Yes, London. At least, that’s where I am for now; in four days I’ll be in Paris – and yesterday I was not, as one might expect, in Seattle, but instead visiting family in Minneapolis. Thus begins my next adventure – an international melange of destinations that, when accompanied by the plane trips on either end, will end with me having circumnavigated the world.

To explain: Originally, there were to be two separate three-week trips – one to Europe, and one to India. The Europe trip was, until the end of 2009, a sort of floating exploration of the thing us Americans call “Euroland” or “the land of skinny jeans” – no specific destination was set, just a discussion about how I might be able to meet up in France with my friend –

Steven. Let me introduce Steven: many years ago, when I was still institutionalized in the school system at a small private school by the name of “Seattle Country Day School”, I met Steven. I don’t remember what our first class together was, nor what our first conversation was about – but what struck me first was that this boy was brilliant. At the time, that manifested itself as a predilection towards solving challenging math problems before they were halfway out of your mouth; but even now I stand firmly by that assessment as I have seen his talent spread towards writing, history, and (my personal favorite) board games. Now, I’m not talking about Monopoly, or Life, or Sorry!; I’m talking about board games not that you simply play, but that you seriously dedicated a few hours and a lot of pulled hair towards. They’re fun – but they’re hard.

The board games served as strong application of social glue; whereas during the course of my high school experience I fell out of touch with the majority of my SCDS friends, after the first invitation to play a game at his house (it was “Pandemic” – still one of my favorites) we started trying to make “game night” a little more regular. We even tried to expand it, once, but being the week before finals we had a small turnout (Alex, who, incidentally, got himself a copy of “Pandemic” afterwards); you would think that college students wouldn’t agree to any distractions before studying (in fact plenty of them rescheduled) so it’s worth mentioning that Alex’s last final was actually that day – and I should tell you now (or two paragraph ago) that Steven, much like myself, is taking a gap year.

Yes, in fact that does directly translate into “travel buddy.”

So as I’m getting ready to leave for, I believe, Frankfurt when we got on the topic of my travels, and the proposal to “plan something in Europe for a bit” was made. Time went by, and as I toured Frankfurt-Salzburg-Vienna-Prague (FSVP) (entries will be completed upon my return), Steven put together the “three-week budget dream trip itinerary” – and I cannot begin to thank him enough for doing all that work (not just the itinerary, but all the train and hotel bookings as well). How it shapes up is:

London: January 26th – 30th;; Paris: January 30th – February 5th;; Venice: February 5th – February 8th;; Florence: February 8th – February 11th;; Rome: February 11th – February 18th

It sounds amazing, and looks even better on paper – we have so many fun things planned, and I have my camera to capture every second. However, I have an eensy-weensy logistical error that could pose an issue, which has been the consternation of my mother and myself, as well as the reason behind those above-mentioned dates being a week earlier than originally planned:

India. My fourth and supposedly final trip this year is to India, with my mother, and I was planning on leaving for that trip somewhere around March 1st, and returning towards the end of March, or even April. We had those tentative dates at least set aside, but while I was on my FSVP trip my mother did some more research into my benefits, and we got a little concerned. Expect a side entry on how my benefits work, but the short explanation is that my benefits have two expiration dates – my 19th birthday (March 15th, 2010), if I’m enrolled full-time in college, or my 23rd birthday (March 15th, do the math), no matter what. We knew about this potential snag years ago, but we were hoping that with a physical letter of enrollment from my school, I would be permitted to continue using the benefits.

Well, 1) we don’t yet have our hands on a letter of enrollment from Willamette, 2) even if we did, processing could take a long while, 3) my benefits may be denied anyway until I actually physically begin attending classes in the fall, and 4) I’m not going to have any money left to travel with by the time India is over anyway. Since Steven’s schedule had been finalized, and I really liked it, we decided to move it up one week, and tack the India trip onto the end. Now, I’m beginning on a six-week London-Paris-Venice-Florence-Amsterdam-India-Nepal trip.

Please note, Amsterdam is a 22-hour layover where I simply meet up with my mother before heading on to Mumbai. Sorry to disappoint, but there will be no crazy Amsterdam stories – at least not of the variety that I’m guessing 90% of you readers are hoping for. But yes, India and Nepal have been added to my itinerary. I’ll go more into detail as those trips near, but in the meantime I have plenty more current events to discuss. The point is, I am coming home, and “staying home for a bit” (prepare to disregard that last statement when I figure out how to put myself on the next plane out of SeaTac) after my benefits expire on March 15th.

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If there’s one thing I like to do on a regular basis, it’s make people think. Well, not “make” – maybe, “encourage”? It’s a little hard to describe, what word or phrase would you recommend I use?

Yes, that was a cheap shot. Sorry. However, where this comes into play is that I have procured a set of mind-bending “Killer Sudokus,” a Sudoku variation that I recommend to people at every opportunity – you can check them out online. Another cheap shot – not so sorry this time. The point is that the man sitting on my right (we’ll call him Mr. 19C – can you guess where I was sitting?) began doing an evil Sudoku the moment he sat down. Naturally I invoked the above-mentioned rule of “Don’t Shut Up About Killer Sudokus”, which then spiraled off into a discussion about Sudoku (didn’t see that coming), plane travel, complex systems analysis, enzyme reproduction, technology, and business models. All before take-off. Better than the man sitting on my left – who we’ll call Comatose Carl. You can guess who was the pinata at our fiesta.

Actually, I joined the Legion of the Seriously Unconscious as Sergeant Pass-Out-on-Takeoff, a rank I proudly held until landing… in Minneapolis. Yes, Minneapolis, MN is a typical layover for trips to Europe, since it is a relatively major international hub – but I didn’t just have any layover, I had The Layover: Family Edition. Being located in the area where the rest of my Dad’s family lives, this special edition comes packed with genuinely fun extras like getting picked up at the airport by your aunt, visiting your grandmother, doing your grandmother’s exercises (my legs feel ten times stronger), and then getting the best gourmet pizza in recent memory at a place called “Black Sheep” – meatball, feta, and garlic, with an extra helping of incredibly delicious. And then, with two leftover pieces in hand, you get dropped back off at the airport for your flight later that evening.

Long story made semi-short, I got on my flight with no worries, and proceeded to fly to London. Upon my arrival, I grabbed my bag and decided to take the Tube to the hotel, the Royal Lancaster @ the “Lancaster Gate” station on the Central Line; I navigated this route with bravery and precision, arriving only a solid two hours after Steven and I agreed to meet (my plane was, in fact, delayed taking off) at the hotel.

The reunion having eventually been made, we promptly rested our weary feet in our wonderfully comfortable beds – I managed to completely pass out, while Steven rested for a bit and looked through guide book. By the time I woke up an hour later, he had some good suggestions for how we could spend the rest of our afternoon. The first idea, that we had discussed earlier, was to explore Hyde Park, a moderately-sized (relative to the rest of the parks of London) park across the street from the hotel; following this we would traipse to the Docklands, a new, vibrant social and business center by the Thames/ Tower Bridge.

Sounds easy enough, right? Well here’s how that actually happened: It’s just past dark (at five o’clock) when Steven and I cross the road and wander over to the giant map of the park. While perusing said map, I happened to mention how it looks like a beautiful park and I would like to walk around the lake (Serpentine, it’s called) – however, this is apparently the exact cue for some hitherto unknown source to send forth a car-mounted loudspeaker announcing that “the park is now closing” and to “leave immediately through the nearest gate.”

Next time, I’m going to say how much I hate the park, and maybe then it will stay open all night. Or we’ll just be accidentally locked in. Maybe I just won’t say anything, to be safe. So with Hyde Park having taken a good 99% less time than we were expecting, we headed to the Docklands, through a variety of subway stops to come out on Bank Street. For those that know London, you appreciate that, in fact, the Bank Street subway stop is nowhere near the Docklands. Map in hand, we weaved our way to the waterfront, in the dark, armed with cameras and giant flashing signs that say “tourists” – and, apparently, signs that said, “cars hit here,” London traffic being London traffic. As it was, we wound our down a back alley, up the same back alley, and across Tower Bridge. (good views!); hung a left at some crazy office building (it was either a tribute to, or in defiance of, Euclidean geometry; or both) and headed down the “Queen’s Walk.”

Keep in mind, the planning that was involved in this route was, “Hey, this looks good. Up here. Oh, how about there? Oops. Lets turn here. Oh hey, what’s this waterfront thing? The Queen’s Walk? Cool. Let’s do that.” We never did make it to the Docklands; but that doesn’t matter, because we found good food.

Remember, folks, I am a stomach on legs. The place was “Cote Brasserie”; the crime was a delicious mussel dish followed by a equally delicious set of salmon cakes. The mussels themselves came in a delicious red sauce, which was completely misleading since I can guarantee that it was more white wine than anything; but they were incredible. All fifteen of them. The salmon cakes were, as I mentioned before, also delicious; as expected, they were half potato (after all, they were huge), but extraordinarily flavorful, on a bed of heavily sauteed spinach, turning the whole thing into a sort of salad (except tastier). The piece de resistance, though, was the chocolate pot. When Steven ordered it, I think we were both expecting it to be, well, particularly larger than a ping pong ball. We were wrong; and initial disappointment was replaced by nothing other than relief when we had each tried our first bite, and realized that if it was any larger we would both be experiencing diabetic comas. Let me make sure you understand just how rich this little pot of joy was: two teenage boys, splitting it 50-50, could just barely finish it. I think the table partly buckled when the waiter set it down.

After that, however, and probably because of that, coupled with jet lag, we decided to head back; and now as Steven gets ready for bed I sit here detailing London Day Zero. Let the adventure begin.

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Ghana: Day Five

 

Up, again. Not that I was worried I wouldn’t wake up this morning, but I just thought I’d share that fact. I consider waking up as “starting the day on a good note” and always much better than the alternative.

I’ll be meeting Laura soon and we’ll be going to the internet cafe – facebook also counts as starting the day off on a good note. Or feeding my addiction. Either way, I’m happy.

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The internet cafe, although entertaining for me, is pretty much, for you, reader, an oatmeal topic – bland and mushy (I don’t know exactly how “mushy” fits into the metaphor, but it’s an entertaining visual); as such, I’ll skim over that part of my day unless something spicy comes up. Spicy oatmeal is worth talking about.

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Laura and I wanted to try something new for breakfast today, not because Celsbridge or ChurCheese were bad options, but we were thinking about going to a restaurant that maybe didn’t begin with the letter “C” – so we traipsed down the alphabet, via Laura’s guidebook, to “F is for Frankie’s.” Despite having been warned against it for reasons hitherto unrevealed, the guidebook said that is was a popular place with good food. For those of you that don’t know me, the fact that it’s a popular place is just a bonus on top of my only requirement: good food. We made our way down the street – Frankie’s is about a three-block walk down Oxford Street from Sharpnet. Keep in mind, however, that each block is already quite large; and there are three conditions that make each block into a caricature of a normal downtown stroll. Imagine walking down the street in the busy city center of your choice; for me, that is Seattle, where there are large and clearly defined sidewalks, and the walk is pleasant and possibly even calm. Take the idea of that walk, and add the first and most permeating condition – cars. There are cars everywhere – pulling in, pulling out, turning around, passing each other on the two-lane road, turning left, turning right, etc; and these cars don’t care much for pedestrians. For the majority of any walk down Oxford Street, one walks between the parking spots and the road, also known as “in between the cars and where the cars want to be.”

The next thing you’ll notice about the street is, as I said before, the street vendors; they fill in the gaps where there are no parking spots, and unlike the cars around them, they are quite interested in pedestrians. Selling everything you would ever never need, in a variety of aggressive sales techniques I have never seen before, they do absolutely nothing to either help you get to your destination or have enough money once you arrive.

With addition of the street vendors, total walking space is reduced to a neat corridor – cozy but manageable despite the fact that the walls are constantly shifting. Where things get tricky is with the addition of the Pit of Slow and Painful Death, which adequately sums up Accra’s open air sewer system – a series of open troughs (foot-and-a-half wide, and two to three feet deep) occasionally covered by dubious (at best) grates or slabs of concrete; add in the most putrid black amalgamation of rubbish, human excrement, and disease and you have a death trap. Fortunately, the gutters on Oxford Street are better than most of the rest of the city – but I’m still not planning on falling in any time soon. One of the Projects volunteers did, and the cuts on her leg seeped for days (I still don’t know if they’ve fully healed, but I saw the leg two days after the fall and it was nasty).

So add these conditions together and you get the idea; suddenly a three-block walk becomes a mile-long waltz with the culture. That’s not to say it’s incredibly dangerous – just know what to watch for, and keep in time with the music.

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So, Frankie’s. According to the Bradt travel guide: “Also on Oxford Street, Frankie’s has long been known for its high-quality pastries, cakes and ice cream, while the more recently opened first-floor restaurant and coffee shop serve an excellent variety of salad and grills in the US$3.50-5 range, as well as superb burgers (the best she had ever had outside the States, according to one reader).” (124)

To put that description to the test (after braving the aforementioned gambit) we sat ourselves down in the middle of a restaurant so nondescript on the inside I may well have been back home. As many tourists as natives, MTV music videos on the flatscreen, and prices on par with American restaurants, this was the full tourist experience; and in that spirit we both ordered burgers (although they had the largest menu of any restaurant we’ve yet seen, we were both craving burgers) for roughly 12 cedis apiece (roughly 9 USD at the time of writing). I’ll admit that the burgers were decent (the steak fries were great), but the amount of meat on these things has me on the lookout for anorexic cows. At least the bun was filling. Wait, did we just have burgers for breakfast? Yes. Yes we did. Go us.

After the meal we were supposed to meet up with Jasmin and head to Sunshine-to-Go, a diner popular among the volunteers; but not before my first showdown with a street vendor. This was not a particularly noteworthy experience in and of itself: I needed sunglasses, he was selling sunglasses (on a side note, the sunglasses vendors are a sight to see, carrying large, flat yellow styrofoam blocks through the street on their heads, probably 5′ by 5′ by 1′ tall, with easily 200 pairs of shades crammed on top) – and the vendors can smell “need” almost as fast as they can put a price on it. “For you, my friend, these are nice; haha no way; these then; what do you think, Laura?; yeah, they’re nice; okay, for you, 15 cedis; he’ll pay 8 cedis; I will?; no, no, 12 cedis, very good price; I’ll pay 10 cedis; okay; okay; okay – thank you.” Like I said, the process itself was uneventful; but it marked my transition into the system of the Ghana street vendors. It’s a fascinating system, actually, and I’ll go into more detail about it at a later date; what’s important is that this was another milestone for me personally, a metric with which I gauge my immersion into local culture.

At the tail end of these proceedings, Jasmin showed up; and as planned (I love actually being able to say that) we moseyed, waltzed & dodged our way to Sunshine-to-Go. Demetri, Henrietta, Alex and Chris were already there, having ordered already, and we just joined them. Laura and I got milkshakes (what breakfast is complete without one – and I use the term breakfast loosely here); or at least, Laura and I ordered milkshakes – Laura got hers, while I was stuck bereft of that pleasure. I thought maybe it was just taking a while, as most things in Ghana do; but towards the end of the meal when I asked for it again, I got an actual earful from our waitress about how she had to warm up the machine again. Sorry, ma’am, but that’s not my fault – you read my order back to me. Eventually, though, I got my milkshake, which I’m pretty sure at this point was just two parts chocolate milk and one part cold shoulder (and three parts delicious).

I don’t remember what Jasmin got, but I’m sure that both she and I would agree that it doesn’t matter; what does matter, however, is that it was at this meal that I learned about Demetri’s obsession with pop culture, courtesy of MTV playing on the television. And obsession is the best word for it; celebrity gossip, chart-toppers from whatever year, who acted in what movie, every song ever sung by so-and-so, etc – he knows it all (also, chances are that if they’re a celebrity, he knows them, especially if they’re Lady Gaga). Random tidbit.

Lunch went on past 3 o’clock, but Laura, Jasmin and I left around that time to withdraw some money and then head on to the orphanage. This was my good for me, because I learned where the nearest ATM is, as well as the place to change money on Oxford Street (yay survival points); but it turns out that rather than a routine withdrawal, this was an emergency transfer for Jasmin. With a little over two weeks left, she had run out of money, and without a debit card she couldn’t withdraw more; so her parents had transferred a sufficient amount of funds into Laura’s account (Laura and Jasmin grew up together, just FYI) to then be withdrawn by Laura and given to Jasmin. This went off without a hitch, except that Laura hadn’t told her bank that she was in Ghana, and this was a maximum withdrawal – and yes, after that transaction her account immediately froze. Fortunately, there is a second account that Laura has been using for a couple of days since.

The other “mini-event” that happened is that on to the way to the ATM, we passed a street vendor who knew Laura’s name and specialized in making bracelets with people’s names on them – he happened to have one with “Laura” on it that he had been trying to sell her for over a week. This is normal, and us obronis get used to being remembered by every street vendor; what I’m not used to, and will never e okay with, is when we’re walking down the street and a vendor grabs one of my friend’s arms using a significantly-more-than-sufficient amount of force, and tries to pull them into the shop obviously against my friend’s will; this does not sit well with me, especially when it’s not typical (that was the only time in two weeks that any of us were treated like that by a vendor, an the only incident that I’ve heard of like that). I think to say that I am uncomfortable with that makes sense; and to please ask the vendor to let go (both Laura and I asked multiple times) is a reasonable recourse; but when he only pulled harder, with no signs of letting go, I stepped in and forcibly removed his hands from her arms. I appreciate that that is a dangerous move, to get physical with even just one street vendor, but as I outlined above he was not responding to reasonable requests – unfortunately, as I was peeling him off of her, he started shouting something about being attacked and to “shoot this man, shoot the obroni.” However, that was the end of that: nobody go shot, nobody got dragged, and nobody bought a bracelet. It unsettled me though, and I’ve been on my guard every visit to Oxford Street hence.

On a surprisingly lighter note, the orphanage. Today was the beginning of a variety of new themes, each equally deserving of your attention, reader; up first is the discovery of Leon’s dancing, an act so interesting and horrifying that it can only be described by the act itself. As such, expect a link to the first video soon. You have been warned.

Second theme is that of education vs intelligence, broken into two sub-parts, and I would much appreciate you, reader, taking this seriously and reading this all the way through before making a judgment.

I’ve never been solid on my view about “nature vs nurture” – I rather enjoy playing devil’s advocate, but that does nothing to further my own personal views; or at least, it does nothing to help me realize what my views (and judgments) already are. I’m not going to sugarcoat this to save face:

I thought that the kids at the orphanage would not be intellectually on par with kids of a similar age back home, simply by the fact that they are being raised in an educationally inferior system. I say “inferior system” only after asking other volunteers their opinion, helping kids with their homework, and continually hearing stories about the beatings in school. Granted, there is a variety – everything from kids that are trying their hardest to kids that are what the aunties call “clowns” – but this a similar gradient to what I grew up with in the Seattle Public School system, and I should have realized that coming over. In both systems, some kids want to succeed, and some kids don’t; the difference is that here, it’s much harder, but there are equally intelligent kids – they just don’t have any semblance of the support system that we do.

The first part, the catalyst that got me thinking about this, was Spongebob Kid – Atsu – who was going through a battery of tests in school at this point. These tests are the same relative difficulty as anything you would find in the states (I’ve seen them, and compared them to the homework); and like a dedicated student from anywhere in the world, Atsu asked me to help him study for his math exam the next day – he told me his previous test scores, and how he wanted to make them much higher (they weren’t bad – B’s – but he wanted to improve) and when we sat down to do the recommended homework, he did all of it and then a bunch of extra problems; and then he got up and studied on his own from one until three in the morning. That day he was the first to finish his math test, with the highest score in the class. He did similar on his science test; and he got a perfect score on his English test the next day – decide for yourself, is he an inferior student?

The second part was the beginning of chess wars with Moses. This started out as Sudoku wars – unbeknownst to me my new phone had one game on it, and that game was Sudoku (which made me really, really happy); Moses tried one, on easy, and eventually got it, and then challenged me to beat his time. I did, but that only strengthened his resolve – and before I knew it he had pulled out a chessboard and we were getting ready to play. Now, I love chess, not just because it’s a fun game but because it can tell you a lot about the way a person thinks. Today, we played four games – I won three, but two of those were using a particularly nasty opening. Moses beat me one. I’m not a strong chess player by any means – I used to be on chess team, but I haven’t seriously played in well over three years (sad, I know, and I hope that changes in college), but I’m not so horrible either. My strength is usually that I have a strong, central opening; and that during the midgame and endgame I can coordinate aggressive attacks from across the board. However, I have a horrible time predicting my opponents next few moves, and after my strong opening I peter out to a strategically lackluster midgame where I make mistakes – not necessarily huge mistakes, but mistakes. The point is, Moses, who I can guarantee was never in chess club, and doesn’t know those terms, has a very strong midgame; but more than that, he adapted to my playing style much quicker and more effectively than a plenitude of my old opponents back in the day. Taken in conjunction with the fact that he’s a good, confident student, and a good actor, it’s my personal opinion that you could drop him in at least the Spectrum program (top 5% of the public school students) if not the Advanced Placement program (top 1%) and he would thrive.

The point that I’m trying to make here is one that I’m sure you’ve heard a thousand times, but now I can as a firsthand observer say, “Invest in these children’s futures.”

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The third overall theme, not having anything to do with education or intelligence, or logic for that matter, is the curious case of Leon and Jasmin. This is when Jasmine’s troubles started. For the past two days, Jasmine has been coming to hang out at the orphanage after her volunteer placement – and as we found out yesterday, Leon was instantly smitten; as I found out today, he’s serious (or at least pretending to be). This first played out in the form of monopolization – for the entire time the volunteers were at the orphanage, he monopolized Jasmine’s time, aggressively; and then, after he had found out that a group of us were going to get together tonight I had to convince him not to show up (which was harder than it should have been). I told him that I would put in a good word for him, though, if I saw her, which sort of satiated him.

However, I didn’t see her that night, nor Laura; they both stayed in, being tired and in Jasmin’s case, sick as well. The general plan, among a large group of volunteers, was to go to a pub called Ryan’s (which they do every Thursday) – but because neither Laura nor Jasmin were going, I texted the only other person whose number I had, Georgina. She said to just come on by any time, and gave me basic directions – these turned into much more explicit directions after the taxi, not knowing where Ryan’s was, decided to drop me off in front of Frankie’s. Oxford Street at night (it was around 10 PM when I got out at Frankie’s) is not the most reassuring place to be – a lot of people, loud music, crazy drivers; all in the dark, where obrunis are the only things that don’t blend in with the shadows – you feel a bit conspicuous to say the least. Needless to say, I started booking it (calm, fast-walk style), and in conjunction with Georgina’s directions I made it not to Ryan’s, but to a nearby bar called Duplex, owned by Bob the Big Friendly Lebanese Bartender (not his real name, just FYI). When I showed up, I ran into Georgina and two new volunteers, Emma and Jess, both from England; and they were “applying for a job” at Duplex by making shots for the house. Both Georgina and Jess, having worked in bars before, “applied” with what Bob declared unusual shots – but he said they both passed.

On that note of success we all headed down the street to Ryan’s, a surprisingly large, gated bar that was absolutely packed – with mostly guys in their late 20’s to early 30’s. I just made my way to where the rest of the group was (unnoticed because I entered with three ladies) and spent a few hours talking with Georgina, Lauren, and Floriane before heading home for some shut-eye. Needless to say, I was locked out of my room, again, and had to break in, again. I’m getting really too good at this.

Ghana: Day One

[6:17pm, Sunday, November 7th]

Okay, now that I’ve gotten “Sweat” out of the way I can tell you about the rest of my day, from the time that the plane touched down until now, and probably through the rest of the night.

The plane landed safely. This may seem an arbitrary and unimportant detail in my journey, but trust me when I say that without it there would be a serious problem; but fortunately my journey was free of serious problems, and even moderate and minor ones (except for the taxi fare, apparently paid in gold); I chalk this up to the distinct possibility of some more exotic expiration that gets me in the middle of the trip. Better notify REI.

Let’s skip to the part where we caught the taxi, or in financial terms, where the taxi caught us: leaving the airport. The first thing you notice when you step outside the airport (if you use the forbidden side doors that we had to ask really nicely to be let out of so we wouldn’t be trampled by…everyone) is that the airport itself is one of the tallest structures in the immediate vicinity. It is a vantage point – which is saying something because it’s no more than four stories on a hill. I counted five skyscrapers – seven-story buildings – on the way to the orphanage, and a plethora of small walled communities (not “gated-neighborhood” walls, concrete “let’s not get robbed” walls), open space, and burned refuse. In my limited experience in temperate Third-World countries, this is the signature, what I expected from the rural areas – not necessarily from the country’s capital.

My next tourist thought was, “Ghana is not a pretty country.” I admit, that thought crossed my mind a couple times. Here’s the first major issue with that judgment: Ghana is not a hilly, verdant landscape replete with middle-class homes in nice neighborhoods, nice sidewalks (or sidewalks at all), copious amounts of lakes and streams, public art, and a visible, solid infrastructure. For those of you who don’t know, that’s Seattle. Ghana is not pretty, in my opinion, because my definition of a pretty city turned out to be Seattle. Whether that’s because I am predisposed to like Seattle, or because that’s where I feel safe, my definition of beauty will have to change a little bit more – which is not a bad thing. I’m not saying that I’m going to decide that Accra, specifically, is a beautiful city when I wake up tomorrow – I’m just saying I need to better define my criteria.

Enough self-righteous self-wronging. We arrived at the orphanage; we forgot to check the price ahead of time and was hit with 15 cedis fee (todays exchange rate is 1.4 cedis per dollar) when the fee usually costs less than ten. We unloaded the bags and the fun began.

First, we dropped our bags off with Samul (all spellings are phonetic estimates, with which the accent doesn’t help), a young boy at OSU who watched them while we paid a visit to the head of the orphanage, a stout Auntie (as all the older women are called) who after neither asking for my medical note (one of the requirements) or background check, nor asking/telling me what my duties were, gave me a room (the room?) for a rate I have to discern. The room in question is exactly that: room. Roughly 6.5x5x10 (w,l,h; in feet), I have enough “room” to stand, lay straight on the bed, and sit on the upper bunk (next to where I crammed my stuff). Yes, there’s a bunk bed, which takes up more than half the room; a mini, mini fridge (electric icebox?), which isn’t cold but serves as a great end table for one of my bags; and an upright fan to serve as my air conditioning. It’s broken, which is why I know the fridge isn’t cold – so now I have the windows (3×1.5, w,h, in feet) open letting in the cool night air (about 75 Farenheit). I’ve never felt safer, though, since I’m in the inner sanctum of what I think is, in fact, a guest house – the walls are about four to five inches of concrete on the inside, closer to seven for the outside wall, with burglar-proof windows and two currently bolted hardwood doors. I have a key, which is the only reason I haven’t termed my room “The Cell.” I was thinking more along the lines of “Emerald Fortress” – not because it’s protecting the guy from the green city, but because the only light in my room is a dark, vibrant green that makes everything  bit trippy. Yes, my Emerald Fortress is nigh impenetrable except for its Achilles’ heel, namely the light switch being outside the door, enabling a switch-happy kid the ability to render the Emerald Fortress into a normal, boring one. On a side note, I managed to st up some clothesline and my mosquito net using one string of rope, the doorknob, and a bedpost – not quite MacGuyver, but the point here is that I’m sleeping on the lower bunk, hanging the mosquito net from the upper bunk. This reduces the overall efficacy of the net by roughly 130%; for those of you not familiar with new math, we minus 90% because the net is against my skin (not so great for keeping those bloodsucking festerpools off my skin) and the other 40% because I’ve effectively cocooned myself into smothering immobility (I’m thinking they made this net out of kevlar – great if the mosquitos are packing heat, no so great for moving, breathing, or surviving).

So I got my room! While they were preparing it (I’m not sure what exactly they were preparing) we gave bread and fruit to the collection of boys who had gathered around us, and this is when I stopped thinking and started learning. If you only notice one thing about the youth here, it will undoubtedly be that they touch. Everything. I had the contents of my pockets examined, and then returned to me; I shook hands, gave hugs, held kids, gave piggyback rides, and carried little ones around with me; each one probably a hundred times over. While you’re standing and talking to someone, they’ll just keep on shaking your hand (which for the record goes broshake-handshake-snap) for minutes. All the kids come and touch you, even though they don’t know you – I was constantly holding hands. As I found out later, if you at ll bend down, sit down, or squat, you’ll induce a dog pile. I say “induce” because it borders on being one of the laws of physics – probably even more reliable. What’s fascinating about the whole thing is that touching is almost subconscious here; whereas in America we try to not touch, anyone or anything.

We began by dropping off our bags at the office, and then toured the infant’s house. These children are by far the cutest things you’ve never seen, hands down; but they are in these moldy cribs (by no fault of the orphanage – they have gotten some new ones in thanks to some serious fundraising, but not quite enough) with torn mattresses. We then visited the younger boys’ (6-12) house, and stopped by the older boys’ (13 and up) house where they were getting ready to watch the Manchester vs. Chelsea soccer match (soccer is BIG here – I’ll probably end up getting a lot of practice). Finally, we took some of the boys and went to…

…Celsbridge, one of the places (specifically a cafe) that will end up being one of my staples outside the walls of OSU. See, I don’t get fed here. I completely understand this, since the food should be saved for the children, but that leaves me with the following options (as best I understand them):

Celsbridge (the cafe): open air, very relaxed, this place is about 300 feet straight out of the front gate and specializes in meat. Well, supposedly. We ordered chips (fries), two sausages and one beef something-or-other; they were out of beef so we ordered kebab; turns out they were out of kebab, so we got the spicy chicken – and when I say spicy chicken, I mean a little chicken and a lot of spicy. I don’t believe I’ve ever tasted meat that was so searingly spicy before – I’ve done hot satays, I love kim chi, and I do like wasabi, but this was completely different. Good, but definitely an acquired taste; and speaking of acquired tastes, I was introduced to the joys of Malt soda, a barley-based carbonated energy drink, supposedly healthy and tastes like it.

Churchie’s (the pizza place): the second best pizza place, and where I think I’m going for breakfast tomorrow morning. Limited options, remember? It’s out the gate and to the left, down the street an indeterminate distance.

Novatel (the hotel): where the crews lay over, also known as one of my two lifelines – the other being the the American Embassy. I don’t know how to get to either one, yet, but I intend to find out. the reason they’re on this list is because they supposedly have the absolute best pizza, ever. I may have to check that out.

Frankie’s (the greasebucket): a hamburger and pizza place that was warned in earnest against visiting.

The Mall (…): It may or may not be close by, but it’s definitely overpriced. Still, I might stop by and get something to snack on.

Street Vendors (the natural selection): I’ll try these out when I’m ready to expire in the most grotesque display of intestinal fireworks. I think they serve goat, might be fun to try. Once.

The other building of note is the bank, where I’ll be changing my money tomorrow; out the gate, take a left, walk a bit, take another left, and walk some more. People here are reeeeal precise, let’s hope that doesn’t apply so much to the money exchange.

And after seeing all this, and learning all that, and meeting all of them, I retired to my room at one in the afternoon to blog, take a shower, and pass out.