Archive for August, 2010

The past week I’ve been lounging on the beach doing absolutely nothing. Well, maybe not nothing since I’ve been fending off the amorous attention of unwanted suitors. About two weeks ago, I began to make up an imaginary boyfriend, thinking that would deter the constant marriage proposals. But how could a boyfriend allow me to travel alone to Ghana! Why don’t I have a Ghanaian boyfriend while I’m in-country? This is the logic of Ghanaian men. Ghana is either super-Christian or super-Muslim. Both religions don’t really take kindly to gay people, so I’ve been pretty closeted with locals.

I spend five days in a lovely beach town, Busua. Unlike many hotels that practically sequester tourists, I am right in the middle of this fishing village. Young men play soccer on the beach. Young girls and women sell peanuts and fruit for pennies. Men bring the catch of the day to sell to the hotel, including squirming lobsters and mammoth fish.

There is one main street and I meet many locals, including men. The constant complaining about being single and wanting a woman gets old, fast. They all want a foreign girlfriend, which also doesn’t sit right with me. There are some men I begin to avoid, or always make sure another male friend sits between me and these frisk, almost desperate men. I become friends with the hotel manager, and he is always bemoaning his single status. My friends decide to set him up and after the leave Busua, email me photos of the intended woman. He seems excited to meet her, and starts to plan their life together. I head off to another beach town, and he promises to visit me on his day off. The day I leave Busua, he suddenly starts to send me romantic texts, I am the one for him, I will make his life perfect, He will give his life to me, on and on. I almost wonder if it’s a joke since it’s totally out of the blue. After consulting with my friends on the etiquette of coming out via text, I break the bad news to him. He still doesn’t get it and continues to beg and plead with me. I repeatedly tell him not to visit me, and almost alert the hotel security guards. In a display of sheer cowardice, I leave my phone off on the day he had originally planned on visiting me, worried about getting into an uncomfortable conversation. He doesn’t contact me and the crisis is averted. However, awkward moments are on the horizon since I’m returning to his hotel next week! Fortunately, I’ll be with a friend and she’ll ensure the boundaries are crystal clear.

I laugh at the wackiness of it all. The irony is I’m finding it harder to call myself a lesbian since I’ve had so many attractions to men in Southeast Asia. But how the heck do I explain all of that to these crazy Ghanaian guys? For now, it’s easier to tell them I have a fake boyfriend or that I only date women.

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Faith in humanity

 It’s so soon since my last blog posting because I have to write about my day, share it with others. Somehow get it out of my system. I’m in Cape Coast, Ghana, one of the big tourist centers of the country. There is a beach and a national park, and most people visit the fort/castle. It’s a strange word, since it was a hub for the transatlantic slave trade for 400 years.

I psyche myself up for the visit, since I know it is going to be intense. As always, I make friends with the tour guide. He is wearing a shirt plastered with President Obama’s face. Obama visited the fort in 2009, and he was also his tour guide. I ask him what the President said to him and he replies, “Many things.” After the 2 ½ hour tour, I can’t even imagine what Obama said to him.

The tour immediately starts in the male slave dungeon. There are about 25 people in our tour group, including Europeans, Americans, Africans and Ghanaians. We feel our way through the dark, slowly edging along the bumpy stone paving. There are two small windows twenty-feet high, but they don’t provide much light. After groping our way through the dark for a few minutes, the guide turns on the light switch – he just wants us to get a glimpse of how people lived for many months. There are several rooms that housed thousands of slaves for an average of three months, while they were waiting for the ships to take them across the Atlantic Ocean.  They were kept in deplorable conditions, with feces and urine that would pile up one foot high.

The guide shows us a small cell for slaves that were troublemakers. And then he takes us to a room with no windows. It is a small room that they put the persistent agitators, a room that is deathly still. They didn’t feed people and just waited for them to die. I feel a shiver as I imagine someone sleeping on top of a dead person, waiting to die. Female slaves were kept in separate quarters, with a special entrance for soldiers to enter and rape them.

And above the dungeons, they built a Church. They sang hymns while thousands of people were beneath them. Unfortunately, religion and exploitation has a long and uncomfortable history in the world.

There were 38 slave forts in Ghana, and hundreds in West Africa. There were an estimated 12 million to 25 million slaves over 400 years in the Americas. One-third were sent to Brazil, one-third to the Caribbean and one-third to the rest of the Americas, primarily the United States. I curiously asked how much slaves were sold for, or how they valued a human life. I learned they didn’t deal in currency. It was the beginning of a transatlantic triangle – Europeans brought goods (gold, spices, used clothing) to Africa to exchange for slaves, slaves were brought to the Americas as laborers, slaves produced goods that were sold to Europe. The guide pointed to a young man, said he looked strong and healthy and he would be sold for 12 guns and gun powder. And then he turned to me, sized me up, did a quick valuation probably similar to being on the auction block, said I was young and beautiful and would garner six guns (women were worth half the amount of men).

There is a sign that states, “The point of no return.” This was the exit for the slaves onto the boats. We go out the door, and now it’s a thriving fishing port. There are men and women steps away from the door repairing their nets. They have all moved on.

After the tour, I feel like a total wreck. I stumble out of the fort, buy pear soda and walk down the street towards the fishing boats. Every few feet, a child or grown man asks for a sip of my soda. This just breaks my heart. To survive slavery, live in poverty and be demoralized into asking foreigners for a sip of soda.  

But then I meet a Rastafarian. We stand in the sun talking for a long time. He wants to start an NGO for street youth. So many children drop out of school to work for their families. We talk about politics, self-help and selflessness. He sings me a song about determination, helping others and not sitting around like a baby waiting for help. I feel renewed and inspired. Hours later, a friend’s co-worker’s brother calls me. He lives in Ghana, and has been trying to reach me for days. He wants to be sure I am doing well, and offers to have me stay with him and his wife, or he can travel many hours to come and see me. The perfect Ghanaian gracious host. Later, I am standing on the street waiting for a taxi. A car pulls up, but the driver doesn’t know my destination. He points up the road, telling me where I should stand to catch a taxi or tro-tro. He can see I don’t know where to go, and asks me to wait while he runs an errand. A few minutes later he loads my backpack into his car. Before I get into the car, I ask him how much the fare will be (taxi’s don’t have meters and you always want to agree on the fare in advance). He tells me not to worry, and I ask him a few more times but he says to wait and see. So I climb into the car. And it takes me a few minutes to realize he is not a taxi driver and I’m not in a cab! He is just another friendly Ghanaian wanting to help me. I am laughing at this discovery. An American would never drive a stranger on the street to an unknown destination. He drives me quite far to the next city, and refuses my attempts to give him gas money. He writes down his phone number, and I know if I call him tomorrow for anything he will be there to help.

This morning, I glimpsed into the total depravity of man. But this afternoon, I spoke with three Ghanaians gave me faith in humankind. I’m going to pick faith and hope every single time.

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Defiance and Endurance

My last days in the village were so sweet. Most of the cooking occurs behind my bedroom. I listen quietly as women sing songs while they were preparing our food. I will always remember the sounds of the village, like women humming while working, wind rustling through corn and bleating goats and clucking chickens. The village elders come to formally welcome me and say goodbye. Fortunately, two other volunteers have arrived and will carry on my work and the elders greet them as well. They present us with beads and tie them onto our wrists, reminding me of the Baci ceremony in Laos.

I head north with a friend to Mole National Park. The journey takes us two days, and I receive various wedding proposals along the way. Most of the proposals are made before men even know my name. But one proposal has stuck with me. Everywhere I go, children and girls are laughing at me. I don’t think walking along the streets is very humorous, but my presence is somehow hysterical to people in Ghana. A group of girls start talking to me at the bus station.  Later, they signal for me to join them, I thought it was to meet their mother. Instead, it is another suitor who asks my name, where I’m from and immediately proposes. I take these proposals lightly, and laugh telling him he is too young for me. He shows me his ID and we are actually the same age. So I tell him I would make a very bad wife since I’m so independent and want to do my own thing. He doesn’t mind my protests. Finally, I tell him I live in Vietnam, not the United States and don’t think he would like to live in Asia. He tells me he wants to be wherever I am.  Wherever I am sleeping, he will crawl up beside me and be very happy. Somehow, I find him to be very earnest and totally authentic. Although I refuse to give him my phone number.

Everyone always asks for my phone number! Girls I meet on the road, shopkeepers, students on tro-tros, men selling paintings. They ask where I’m volunteering or which hotel I’m staying in and promise to visit me later. I really don’t understand the culture and wonder if they really would call or visit me? I don’t know but think it’s very sweet to even make these promises.

The final leg of our two-day journey to Mole National Park is the most expensive and the absolute worst. Our tro-tro is late, so we miss the last bus to the park. We haggle for 30 minutes to take a 3-hour taxi for $70. The rear window is totally shattered, and once we hit the dirt road it starts to fall apart. Every few minutes, I have to delicately brush dozens of shards of glass from my seat. I can’t believe we’ve paid so much money for glass in my ass! It is so comical that we laugh most of the ride to the park.

The next morning, we go on a safari walk. Our guide has a rifle and I ask him why. He says it’s for eminent danger but doesn’t expand. Could be animals or poachers? We walk for hours and see so much vegetation and wildlife, including warthogs, waterbucks, bushbucks, baboons and elephants. I’ve seen elephants before, but never outside of captivity. It is absolutely awesome to watch the elephants eat, as we crouch low in the bushes. Later, we see another herd of 11 elephants bathing in the pond.

In the afternoon, we take a canoe ride. The river is a still and brown, but there are women with buckets to carry water. Our guide tells us the village uses the water for drinking and cooking, and they don’t boil the water, just strain it with cloth. Every day in Ghana, I see women carrying buckets of water and I’m just awestruck by the lack of infrastructure. I feel so lucky in the United States.

The sexism in Northern Ghana is more apparent. I’d noticed that women tend to sit in the back of tro-tro’s and men occupy the front which is more comfortable. Yesterday, I asked if the front seats of a tro-tro were occupied and was immediately dismissed with a brusque, “The front seats are only for men.” I was frankly  shocked he was so direct. So we pile into the very back seat for the 7-hour journey. And underneath our seat are five goats. They are constantly scuttling around our feet and it’s another humorous ride!

Today, we are in Kumasi, the heart of the Ashanti people. We visit the National Cultural Center and there are artisans everywhere. We talk with textile weavers, woodworkers, metalworkers, basket weavers and painters. My favorite purchase is a painting by Joel, a 32-year old wheelchair-bound man that paints with his mouth. The painting is the Ashanti symbol for the fern. It is the symbol for defiance and endurance and means, “I am not afraid of you.”

Tomorrow, my friend returns to her volunteer work and I start my solo travels. I have been travelling with friends or become friends with locals and haven’t travelled alone for many months. It feels good to have some time for more reflection. And I am not afraid.

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