One Recollection of September 11th

In memory of this day seven years ago, I offer a clarified adaptation (pulled from frantic writings) of my personal account. The majority of this was written to reassure family and friends of my safety, to reach out to those I hadn’t heard from, and to attempt to process the day’s events in some way that made sense, if only chronologically.

September 13, 2001
Tuesday and Beyond

Hi all,
For those who have have written and called to ask if I was okay, I am slowly recovering. Thank you for your concern. Still, I am in shock, a state in which I know I am not alone.

I was glad to hear that most everyone I was concerned about is alright. I hope that those I haven’t heard from are safe and sound… Max, Dan, and the rest of the NYC contingent.

I can’t repeat this story much more than I have, so this is it in one big shot. I’m shipping this letter out to everyone on my email list.

On Tuesday I arrived at the Continental Training Center across the river from lower Manhattan at 8:30 a.m. My three hour drive from Albany that morning was basked in sunlight. Bands of fog, like webs of spun gold, stretched between the trees. By the time I reached the skyline of New York, it was shimmering with the warm hues of sunrise against a crisp blue sky. I cursed myself for leaving my camera on the kitchen counter.

Upon my arrival, I sat in the Continental Training Center’s cafe reviewing for the FAA’s annual training. As I tried to recall things not published in our manual or elsewhere, things like weapons identification and hijacking procedures, people approached the windows with urgency saying, “You can’t see it from here.” I asked what they were looking for and couldn’t believe what I was told.

I joined them and we ran to the nearest glass walled classroom. Others were filing in fast. From our position just across the river from the World Trade Center we faced the horrific sight of smoke and flames coming from several of the tower’s upper floors. Snippets of hushed conversation revealed the general and naive assumption that this plane crash was an accident. A dismissive fellow said, “Don’t worry. The Trade Center was built to withstand that kind of shock.” Insensitive jerk. I shot him a look of disgust.

The flight attendant in me felt an immediate sense of loss for the crew and the passengers. It took a slow moment to process of the scope of the tragedy, for the sense of loss to extend toward the people in that burning building. When I became aware of my own insensitivity, my heart flooded with guilt.

A television adjacent to the windows aired the news in Spanish through grainy bands of reception. Someone in the room was interpreting poorly. A plane hit the WTC… accident… building on fire. It was nothing I didn’t already know by looking at the scene. My chest clenched with frustration. I wanted information. I wanted answers.

My hands and knees were trembling when someone yelled, “There’s another plane!” My eyes shifted slightly to the right. Locking onto the oncoming jet, its trajectory automatically computed in my mind. My left hand, with a will of its own, shot up as if to say “Stop!” Impotent, impotent hand.

A picture etched in my memory, one of that hole engulfed in flames where the plane entered or perhaps (and I still can’t make sense of it) where the side had blown out. Mine is nothing like any news camera angle I’ve seen. I’ve spent hours watching perpetual loops playing across every TV channel trying to find the perfect match. I don’t know why I need to find it but I do. I still find myself continuing to search.

After the second strike, I heard someone yelp, “The plane is burning inside.” Several people dug for their cameras. I reached for the space in my handbag where mine typically resides. In that single moment my disappointment for forgetting it mingled with the sour taste of shame for wanting to preserve this moment forever. My thoughts did battle. How could these people! How could I?

The woman next to me said in disbelief, “Maybe that plane couldn’t see through the smoke from the first.” It made no sense. Nothing made sense, not to me, not to anyone.

Because those moments were inextricably fused in the heat of the situation, I learned just today that I had left a frantic voicemail with my friend Erin as the second plane hit. She recounted me saying, “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my GOD! NO! Oh Jesus…” Click. I don’t remember being on the phone.

I ran out of the room and tried repeatedly to call my mother. The line was perpetually busy. Stupidly, I imagined her sitting in front of the television in her apartment six blocks from the Empire State Building chatting away with a friend. A flash of anger charged through me. The more desperately I needed to talk to her and the more I hit redial just to hear a busy signal, the more out of control I felt. Of course my mother is smarter than to keep her lines tied up. It didn’t occur to me until a short while later that the lines were jammed. Selfish, selfish girl.

I wanted to talk with someone I knew yet I was surrounded by a mixture of hysterical strangers or people who were entirely too calm. I never felt more alone, disconnected, scared, and helpless.

I called my friend Sandy and couldn’t calmly tell her co-workers who I was, “Um, Sandy is going to be my roommate, I’m in New Jersey. I need to talk to her.” I was shaking and choking on sobs. I think I spit out that I had just watched the WTC in person. She made no inference of understanding. A suspicious voice replied with caution, “Um, Sandy isn’t available. Can I have her call you back?” I hung up.

My father wasn’t home. I left no message, had no words.

I dialed another friend. Robbin. I reached her hard-of-hearing father who all too slowly explained why she wasn’t home. She had taken her daughter shopping at the mall for a pair of new sneakers. He ended with “So, when will you fly out to see us?”

“I don’t know. I’ll call back later.”

“I can’t hear you, honey. Call back later.”

Okay.

I called my machine for messages. My mother’s voice. Continental wouldn’t tell her where I was in the name of security. While they reassured her that Continental’s planes were not involved, she knew I sometimes traveled through partner perks on other airlines. The final words on the tape were, “Call me.”

I dialed again. Busy.

The training staff entered as a collective to round us up for an announcement. Talking. Frantic talking everywhere. I remember yelling “Shut the **** up” in a highly unprofessional yet effective manner. The trainers nodded something between disapproval and gratitude.

They had just heard from Continental’s headquarters and were asked to have us stay put. They wanted to bus us to Newark Airport to help accommodate thousands of grounded passengers. We were, after all, on the clock. “Sit tight until we know if airport access is even possible.” I later found out that the airport was evacuated.

Hotel rooms were suggested for the night. We should book before they were gone. I added my name to the list.

Another man entered the room with a piece of paper. Finally. Information. One plane was an American Airlines flight out of Boston. The other was still unclear.

Each of the four pay phones had lines of seven to ten people. I overheard a clean-cut twenty-something explain to the girl behind him that he was trying to reach his father in the burning tower. He turned away when the secretary answered. Some words. He hung up and turned back with a look of deep concern. “She said that people are evacuating and she is leaving. She had hoped I was her daughter. My father isn’t there. She doesn’t know where he is.”

Back in the classroom, trainers passed out water and single serving pretzels. Ridiculous, but it was something. I was in and out of the room, unsure where to go or what to do. Entering once more, I heard the news. People were jumping.

I imagined the heat, having to make the choice to leap or burn. What kind of choice is that?

I ran out into a hall filled with so many people and still felt so very alone. Several women curled up in armchairs and cried. Others listened to snippets of their cell phone conversations in horror. I stepped over them on my way to… where? 

As the elevator doors opened, two young girls unburied their faces from the others’ shoulder. They were in a fit of tears. I entered. One the way down, the brunette said that she and the redhead had rebooked their friends from an oversold Continental flight to the American flight out of Boston. They were supposed to meet at South Street Seaport for dinner after class. She didn’t seem to be talking to me so much as convincing herself of their loss. An unwarranted but very real sense of guilt had washed over each of their mourning faces.

I entered the glass enclosed tunnel to the parking garage alone. Through the windows I saw a column of smoke and the outline of the building. So much was burning. Down to the base? How?… As I understand it now, the first tower had collapsed. I had never entertained the thought of it being gone, just on fire. Looking directly at the destruction, my mind still couldn’t embrace it.

A helicopter hovered overhead. I crouched behind a green pick-up in the parking garage. The last I had heard was that we are a nation under attack… all aircraft had been grounded… terrorists may be using remote controls. Who was above me? Us? Them?

In a panic, I left more hysterical, muttering messages on Erin’s voicemail. I threw my address book on the cement peeling through pages for anyone who would be home… Marty, Todd, Deb and Dana. My cell cut out and came back. Every line now came up busy.

In desperation, I thought of Tom, my ex-boyfriend. Being so recently exed and having him vacate the apartment just last month, I didn’t have his new number. I called his father to get it. He had to fire up his extremely slow computer to get the number off of an email. I was on speaker phone. I HATE speaker phones. I tried to joke with no success, “Don’t you keep a REAL address book?” Tom’s poor father was taken aback. My tone just couldn’t muster any lightening effect. For that I felt awful.

“Is Tom in New York City?” he asked.

He assumed I was in Albany watching everything on TV. He must have been scared out of his mind thinking his son was at a rehearsal in New York. It took a few attempts to clarify that circumstances were reversed. “Tom is in Albany, I am in New Jersey. I need to reach him.”

There were no windows between me and the scene now. More helicopters circled over my head and then disappeared. Sirens were sounding in several directions. What was going to happen next? What I gleaned from the news replayed in my head. Suicide bombers… hijacking… Was all of NYC under attack? I froze behind the truck under four floors of steel and cement.

Sitting crossed legged on the concrete between the truck and the wall, I finally reached my ex. He filled me in on the Pentagon and the unaccounted for planes in the air. I just kept pleading for an answer, “What the **** is going on? This is so ****ing BIG!”

“Breathe. Calm Down. You okay? The Pentagon was hit too. All they keep saying is ‘America is under attack,’ but not much else.”

I rocked back and forth hugging my knees like a scared child. “Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus.”

There was a long silence between us. I eventually looked up through my tears. A new plume of smoke. “Wait. Where did it go? Where is it?!?”

Nothing was more sobering than hearing, “It’s gone, Kim. It’s just gone.”

All those people in one fell swoop. All those souls. Unfathomable.

Gibberish. That was all I could produce. In hysterics, I relived coming in via Rt. 3 and how, near Giants’ Stadium, the view of Manhattan was glazed in gold light so glorious that I wished I had film. As I calmed myself, I realized that it would have been my last picture of the unaltered skyline, an opportunity sorely missed. I noted the failed and unbelievably ironic plan to review hijacking procedures on this particular day. I would have gone on but, just then, five people quickly fled from the training center. I followed their lead. I had to move, to do something.

Where do I go? Tom said the tunnels and bridges were closed so I couldn’t get to my mother’s. I frantically searched the garage in a hurry to nowhere. “Where are the ***ing stairs? I have to get out of here!”

The stairs were right where I had been sitting. Concerned for my sanity, Tom made me stay on the line until I found my car.

The roads were swamped and I finally got my father on the phone. f***ing @$$hole!!!” I could feel my father flinch. Some guy had passed me at high speed on the left shoulder of the road. Sirens went off. Flashing lights.

“This is crazy! Where is it safe? They hijacked a plane to PITTSBURGH! What the HELL is in PITTSBURGH???”

Misinformation or misunderstanding, it didn’t matter. My father understood nothing I said. He, like Tom’s father, thought I had seen it all on TV. He wanted to tell me about the geese he saw in the park that morning. I hung up.

People on cell phones drove by, some crying like idiots just like me. Small accidents and fender benders went unacknowledged. The definition of lanes meant nothing.

It took a half hour before I reached clearer roads. Distracted by the haze clouding my mind, I missed 287 and had to circle around. What had been at my back was now in my face, the hideous sight of a burning skyline minus two towers. Smoke. Everywhere. Erin called from her cell while waiting to hear on her land line from two city friends, people who worked in the towers. Worked. Past tense.

Gassing up at the nearest rest area, people flocked to pay phones. The news was filled with images of plane crashes. The newscaster said the first plane hit 4 hours ago. 4 hours? I was still stuck in that first minute. He then said that the planes struck within 5 minutes of each other. 5 minutes. Infinity.

Still wearing my Continental I.D., I got a few odd looks before getting back in the car. Driving as Howard Stern clammored for anger, retaliation, war, I jammed my finger into a random button. Shut that freak up. 

That’s how my father heard the news – on the radio. I learned later that he thought it was another War of the Worlds. My frantic message was his first clue that this was very, very real. Even then it didn’t sink in.

Life in the streets of Albany was going on as usual. Cops along 87 looked for speeding drivers. People laughed on the corner of Madison and Pearl. I wanted to scream “Don’t you people have ANY idea???” It was as if nothing had happened.

Sandy left work early to communicate with my mother. She then took me to Washington Park when I returned home. The gardens there were in full bloom, blossoms worshipping the sun and sky. The towers of Empire Plaza stood solid and white against deep blue. This place was untouched. I felt suspended.

I went to SUNY Albany yesterday morning where they held a memorial and a unity march. Erin took me. We only caught the tail end as students, faculty and locals sang “America the Beautiful.” A single tear streamed down my cheek. I shook. Unable to sing. Coming unglued.

Erin quickly escorted me to the health center and found a crisis counselor. Skeptical, I went inside. “I’ve never seen a counselor so I don’t know where to start…” and then my mouth couldn’t run through everything fast enough.

I was the first to have seen the attack and come back. Most people did it in reverse, hearing the news on campus and leaving for the city to be with their families. As more people return, SUNY plans to match us up even though I’m not a student there. I think that might be good, although I’m feeling less need to talk at the moment.

That night, all my friends met at Lark Tavern to debrief. They expressed relief having heard from loved ones, although one of those loved ones was nearly crushed by a falling jet engine in flames. As they quietly and personally celebrated their good fortune, I was inundated by images on the wide screen TV. It was too big. I was too close. I went home.

Later, planes flew over Albany. I sat up. Who is that? Aren’t all air carriers supposed to be grounded. Military? Enemy? I didn’t sleep.

I thought, my job is so screwed. I had no idea what the airline was doing for itself or what it planned on doing with me. After two days of voicemail tag, I got through to my supervisor, Joanna, the next morning. The most reassuring words I heard were not to think about coming back yet. Just keep in touch. I wonder how long I can keep that up.

The FAA’s position has always been that certain procedures and codes can halt a hijacking. Training films have always portrayed crashes as mechanical accidents. We studied previous mistakes and learned to survive from them. I prepared mentally at every take-off and landing. That’s my job. If your a flight attendant, you know what I mean. Terrorism was only ever at the very back of my mind.

Many questions nag at me now. How do you keep this from happening on any flight? How do you combat a suicide mission? If you can’t use reason, the only other option is force. Is this my new job? How do I do it? Will I be able?

I can no longer step into that uniform and carry the responsibility of what wearing it means. I had the hardest time just taking it out of my bag. The stripes hang in my closet and that’s where they’ll remain for now.

My father says, “Get back on the horse” but a horse isn’t being threatened by terrorists. Think about that, tough guy. The rest of my family isn’t as cut and dried. They’re scared to see me go back. It makes me feel much less stupid for being so afraid.

I was scheduled to fly into London today. I can’t be more thankful that flights world-wide are canceled. I’m on call for the next three days. If they call, they’ll just have to find some one else. I need  time to think. I’ve heard others are calling in sick. I might have to do the same.

How can I believe this is over? Last night my heart jumped into my throat as the Empire State building was evacuated for a bomb threat. Phone lines to NYC were jammed again. After 20 redials, my mother answered. They called off the evacuation right after that.

Not to be so untrusting but, well, I’m untrusting. I don’t trust airport security measures even after reports of improvement. They can’t fix things that fast. And who wants to man the planes??? Contractually, we aren’t allowed to speak about airline matters, the news can’t cover those who cannot speak, so I have no word on how the others in my field feel. I wonder.

My story is just one point of view. Everyone has been, is and will be affected in different ways. I imagine the terror of climbing through rubble to walk down flights of flooded stairwells in a collapsing building, those people on the plane, the flight attendants who had their throats slit. So many stories. All I know is that talking about it both helps and exhausts me. If you were involved in any way and haven’t unloaded your feelings, find someone to listen. Even if you weren’t in it, talk. Write me, call me, talk to somebody… and most of all, don’t think anything you feel is invalid.

Peace, health, safety, and much love to everyone. I’m going to go update my address book now. I hadn’t realized how out of date it was until Tuesday.

Kim

 

To conclude, I’d like to share something I read today. 

And on this anniversary of 9/11,  your editor [Benjamin Marvin at the College of Saint Rose] would like to share with you this thought from his daughter, a brand-new middle school music teacher in Indiana:

Today is the 7th anniversary of 9/11.  On September 11, 2001:
My 8th Graders were in 1st Grade.
My 7th Graders were in Kindergarten.
My 6th Graders were in preschool.
The 5th Graders here probably don’t remember it – they were about 3.

It’s so strange for me to think about the fact that 9/11 isn’t a current event for everyone – for some students, it’s a historical event that has little personal meaning.

To Fail at Failing

My apologies for the lapse in writing. I have worked extremely hard at what feels like “spinning my wheels” since my return from Ghana. The one thing I looked forward to most upon my return was writing yet it has consistently been forced to the bottom of the to-do list. For now, I offer you this excuse, I mean exercise, in frustration.

When I reached home on August 2nd, I was jumping out of my skin, ready to compile all I had learned. I was hoping to preserve my memories, sure, but I also wanted every one I know to live vicariously through me. Most of all, I was desperate to find a way to empower my new Ghanaian friends. To do that would require money. To raise money required hard work. I got right to it.

First, I made a video of my time spent with the children at Have’s RC Primary School. My hope was to show the enormous mount of need there in order to raise funds for a new building. I put this short film together in about three days. Having never done it from scratch, much of that time accounted for my learning curve. Still, it looked nice enough and I was feeling pretty proud. Once I had the clips, transitions and credits in working order, I decided the best way to get the word out is to use, well, YouTube.  I mean really, isn’t that the new evening news?

I downloaded some software to convert the file into an acceptable format and all was going well until…

 

You Fail at Failing

The first on-screen message had something to do with an incompatible codec, that thing that compresses the file from one format to another. Windows wanted nothing to do with it and tried to barf it up. When that failed, my poor, poisoned laptop suffered a complete system shut down. Before it went into a brief coma, up came the screen that all-too-calmly says, “Windows has unexpectedly shut down and will now attempt to find a solution to the problem.” Solution, my ass. Rather than offering up anything helpful, ANYTHING, it quit on me, shut down, died.

 

I nudged it with the power button. Nothing.

Then, slowly, it strained to get up. The OS rebooted with that other little message that says, “The previous session of Windows did not shut down properly. Would you like to restart in safe mode?”

“Hurrah! You’re back!” I selected normal startup, hit enter and watched events unfold with sweaty palms.

Getting one leg up at a time, the sign-on screen appeared. I fed it my password, logged in, and behold! Something! Oh yeah, we’re moving forward, Baby!… until that same false promise appeared about a solution. Another shut-down, restart, the message looping to infinity. It didn’t even need my input anymore. It had a will of it’s own.

With my information held captive inside the brain of a dying body, I sprung into action. Safe Mode. It’s like heart pills for hard drives. It’ll get you through a rough patch until real assistance arrives on the scene. Since the puter asked for this several minutes ago, I hoped it wasn’t too late… I cut the power, rebooted…

Seriously, how does this continue IN SAFE MODE?!!

My husband said to call tech support. I refused. Dell has trained me so well that I no longer need their help. My last computer died so many times that I could eventually troubleshoot or have the OS reinstalling in under two minutes. I have named each and every one of my computers Lazarus for their uncanny ability to rise from the dead.  

Obviously, I had to get inside the brain before the OS could spasm once more. I pressed F something (10 or 12, I forget now) and ran through every pre-boot BIOS test made available to man, or at least a good Dell customer. As those tests worked to churn out a diagnosis, I tore my house apart looking for the Windows Vista repair software on the misplaced installation disk. Finally… Found it! It was stashed with our Alaska stuff, because the hard drive fritzed in Alaska too.

When I returned, the tests had all come back negative. Lies! What a sham. Surely my installation disc would fix things. I popped it into the drive, booted from the disc and guess what… The vicious cycle started once more. AND, Vista has no repair mode. Nothing like removing crucial functionality from the likes of XP. 

In a heap of defeat, I grabbed the phone. From the other end, a bored woman spoke.

Dell technical support. This is Michele speaking. How can I help ya?

I told her all I had done, hoping for the warm, welcome words of hopeful and helpful advice. What I got instead was, “Seriously, that still happens in safe mode? I’m sorry. It sounds like you’ve done all you can. Are there any files you need to retrieve or should I walk you through a complete re-installation? Although, it sounds like you’re a pro at this. I doubt you need me.”

I declined her offer and hung up. I now feared that I could lose all of my Ghanaian notes and a large portion of my photos and video. I had made weekly backups until about my third week when sixteen hour excursions to the North or last chances to play with the children left me two options:

  • I could waste time backing up my technology and writing about the days I had already experienced, or
  • I could fully experience the time I had left, video everything, take a million pictures and hope to remember the nuances later. I opted to live the experience – technology be damned.

And so it was… damned that is. I suffered an anxiety ridden two weeks before learning that all my information had finally been rescued. Matt, my nephew at Best Buy’s Geek Squad, was able to move everything to my external drive and he threw in the little gift of an OS install with the latest updates. I spent three more days loading all my software and personal files. This entire experience had gone exceptionally well considering the alternative, you know, the one where I lose everything, obviously not the one in which it could have been fixed. 

My system and data was restored to normal for about a week and, since I needed more more room on my external drive, I deleted the 70 gig retrieval file. About a day later, tragedy struck once more.

While sorting through my photo files, I shrieked to no one in particular,

What the.. ? Where is my Brong Ahafo folder?!

No one in particular answered but I knew that the folder (complete with hundreds of photos of waterfalls, monkeys and monuments) was gone. I ravaged through every possible place it could be until the only place left was in the ginormous retrieval file I had just deleted.

I found some miracle software – the kind that finds and restores deleted files, a download that was going to save my life. I revved it up, searched my C drive and found nothing. In all honesty, I hadn’t expected to, but it was a smaller drive and would take less time to scan. Hey, you never know. Next up, the external drive. I selected it, filtered out which type of files I wasn’t searching for, hit scan and got that nasty little promise just before it shut down. I tried again. The program aborted. I screamed.

WHY CAN’T ANYTHING RUN THE WAY THAT ITS SUPPOSED TO??

I wrote to tech support asking for help. That was last week. I still haven’t heard back, nor have they responded to my request for a refund.

Another day, another dollar or two and a download later (this time a little goody called Handy Recovery), and I’m in. I hook it up and, two days later, it finished scanning through 44,812 deleted photo files – just in JPGS alone. Of course, none of these were retained in their original file structure. The names had all been erased and assigned numbers according to the order in which they were found. I had to manually open each one to search for what I had lost. 

Three days later… 

I have found and retrieved 928 photos, all but one. How do I know this? I had been looking for the rooster perched in some kind of fruit tree. You can see it in one or two postings below. One would think that if it resides in my post that I could just grab that version, but not so fast. The resolution for this blog has been greatly downgraded and could never print as a crisp, clear photograph. And hey, it’s a pretty cool picture.

I have to admit I was on a mission at that point, unwilling to be defeated even by a single lost file. I thought out loud, “If Windows Live Writer [the program I used to write the post] includes a resizable version of this file, it must have the original stored somewhere, right?” Tearing through every folder in the program and it’s shared files, I found nothing. But sure enough, I could resize the file without losing quality. Hmmm. I opened the post within the program, deleted everything from it but the picture, renamed it Rooster Rescue and posted it to my blog. Ta-Dah! There was the photo in all it’s enormous glory! I right clicked it, saved the sucker to a safe place, and tasted victory for the first time in weeks.

Then, of course, horror struck once more. The modified post, although I had renamed it to a new file, had been converted into nothing more than the silly rooster. A Hugh Grant line from Four Weddings and a Funeral came to mind,

F*CK-A-DOODLE-DO.

But hey, I just undeleted my entire life and this file was in the heap. I will take a bow now for successfully retrieving and re-uploading the original post. To my laptop, I have just one thing to say…

HUZZAH!!!

Don’t get too excited. Sure, I did, but I wasn’t as savvy as you, Dear Reader.

Next on the list of fritzes, Corel Photo Album 6 asked why it was installed on two computers. It couldn’t fathom that it might have been installed twice on one. When it slammed its door in my face, I tattled to tech support. As it turns out, they won’t support a program if there is a newer version on the market. But seriously, the new version came out three days ago. Couldn’t they help a girl out? Um, no. 

In my frustration, I begrudgingly bought the new version. Sure enough, the function I use at least 30 times daily has been stripped out. Seriously?

I wrote the nastiest letter explaining how they have turned a professional product (with the extremely useful and rare capability to visually arrange photos before a batch rename) into a dime-a-dozen, kiddy scrapbooking program. Their only reply was to send a refund form. 30 days from now I’ll have my money back.

As a last resort, I purchased a new key and downloaded the version I already own at a reduced rate. This time I bought download insurance, just in case. Being the last piece of the puzzle, I have finally restored my machine to the full function it was capable of before the meltdown (both the computer’s and my own.) Or so I thought…

Yesterday I tried to copy something but my laptop didn’t want to play nice with the scanner. I shoved a new driver down it’s interface and the two started talking again. Then, when I tried to print what I had successfully scanned, the laptop needed a bit more attitude adjustment before the two were back to being BFFs. 

All that said, I finally pumped out a post about my Ghana trip, complete with pictures, for the Village Volunteers Blog. You can find it below, because heaven forbid I’m able to do any work on my own stinking blog. For now, please visit:

Village Volunteers: Ghana: My Second Home.

Wait a minute. Could it be? Did I just successfully finish my own post??

July 9th: Immediate Immersion in Village Life

Straight to Work

EDYM.org Moringa Tea I suppose I didn’t have to do anything other than rest my first day, but instead, I joined a boy named Julius on the well-worn wooden porch bench. Julius was busy with a thin stick applying strong smelling rubber cement from a coffee can to a printed and die cut piece of cardboard. He told me that he was making bags for tea.

I asked, “Can you teach me how to make these boxes?” ever so gently correcting his translation.

He looked up from his work with a smile and a nod, appreciating the hint, and agreed to show me. Applying the glue to the cardboard himself, he taught me to wait until it dried to the right consistency before folding in the edges and forming the box. We then pressed doubly on the glued portion to ensure a good seal. Before stacking the the finished product, I rubbed away the external dried glue to keep one box from sticking to the next. It didn’t take long before we had achieved a certain rhythm working in tandem.

I wondered, as I dealt with the blank sides of the box, did they sell these to an outside tea company? Turning the product over to read the print, I then realized that production of this tea, a type called Moringa, is part of the EDYM Village program where I was to volunteer a portion of my time. What wasn’t clear was whether this household was part of the farm operation or had been subcontracted per se. These answers, I knew, would come with time.

We were joined by Jimmy and Salomé soon after my first stack of ten was complete. With a smile, Salomé watched me work through the corner of her eye as she methodically prepared her own box. “Goood! You are tryyying,” she said with a voice as thick and smooth as sweet molasses.

Salomé in her GardenSitting on a short stool with elbows braced on knees and her skirt draped up over her lap, every one of her motions was slow, careful and deliberate. With a slight tilt of the head she’d inspect her own work with the scrutiny of a skilled artist. I suddenly sensed myself mimicking her style, trying to achieve the same kind of patience, precision, confidence and grace.

This being their livelihood, I was concerned that my edges weren’t exactly straight. Sometimes, if I didn’t wait long enough for the glue to firm up, the folds would spring free and I would have to reset the ends. “Are these okay?” I asked.

“Yes, verrry nice.” The slightly upturned corners of her mouth and eyes offered confirmation.

It had grown quiet after we exhausted our small talk about me living in New York (but not New York City) and that my tea boxes were made well. Fluffy American conversation about travel and parties wasn’t going to fly here and I couldn’t immediately think how to adjust.

Finally, I asked Jimmy how old he was. When he told me he was 16, I thought he was pulling my leg. This boy looks no older than 13. Julius said he was 20 but he could pass for 16. Playing fair, I revealed my age of 37. Emmanuel offered up a proud 57 and then asked how old I thought Salomé was. I knew I ought to be careful. I tried for an accurate guess but, in the dark shadows of the porch, her sweet manner made her look very young.

“You must be 17.” I said placing great emphasis on the word must.

It seems I played this one right. I thought Jimmy would actually fall from his bench in a heap of laughter. Emmanuel too. Salomé, I finally learned when she recovered from her modest giggling, is 42. I suspect adults look so young because their honey brown pigment keeps the sun from aging their skin as quickly as mine. Sadly, I suspect the boys look so young thanks to a different and less desirable cause: poor nutrition.

Boiled Corn A young woman came to the porch with a large tray of wrapped corn on her head and I was offered a piece. It was luke warm, which was perfect in the scorching heat. Was this Florence, my cook, and was this considered lunch? In case it was, I didn’t want to ask as though it weren’t enough.

I carefully unwrapped the plastic bag and savored each kernel one row at a time. The cob had been steamed in saltwater and tasted divine. Fresh from the refrigeration unit Salomé also brought two cold waters to go with it. (Note: Rather than using water bottles with caps, you chew a hole in the corner of a half liter plastic bag and drink.) After perspiring in the heat all day, I was truly grateful for both the food and the water.

Taking a break from gluing by leaning back against the wall to enjoy their own food, Salomé asked, “Do you like mez?”

The Ewe accent on the word maize threw me, particularly since I’m used to saying corn, so it took me a moment to respond in the affirmative.

Jimmy added, “It is sweet, yes?”

This wasn’t the kind of sweet I know. The kernels were a bit overripe, somewhat tough and tasteless on their own, but I smiled and said, “I really like the salt” Apparently this was funny. I wondered, is the taste for salt an American thing or were they just pleased that I enjoyed it?  I decided that since they too liked the salt, they must just be happy to have pleased me.

We made about 30 more boxes while the family talked about their day in Ewe. At times some syllables sounded French and others Spanish. This offered no real recognition of meaning. I was just grasping at any inroad to understanding. Emmanuel eventually did break into English after a phone call. He told me that Florence had delivered lunch to “my” house and that Jimmy would take me there. This was good news on two levels. First, the corn a drop in the bucket after just toast and coffee 6 hours prior and, second, I doubted I could remember which network of paths took me back to my house. Thanking Emmanuel, I finished one more box and followed Jimmy “home.”.

The Introduction to Florence and Her Food

Florence (Smiling for pictures is considered unnatural.)Florence was waiting on my porch with Sampson (a boy of nearly 18 perhaps?) who she introduced as her grandson. I was excited to meet someone famous and told her so. Receiving her sideways glance, I explained that I had read about her cooking on the Village Volunteers web site. Straightening her back a bit, she asked, “I’m on the Internet?” ending the question with a pleased “Hmm.” Half smiling to herself as I unlocked the door, she followed me inside.

(Florence was not as unhappy as her picture suggests. I eventually learned that smiling for photos is considered unnatural by many Ghanaians.)

I unlocked my room to access the plates and water, followed by both Florence and Sampson. I hadn’t yet unpacked so my large bags were a point of interest to my guests. Seeing Florence stretch her neck to see inside the unzipped one, I felt the need to defend

At the table just around the corner from the front door, Florence took warm plantains from a cooler and placed them on the bowl that Sampson retrieved from the dish rack in my room.

With a slightly raised eyebrow she asked “You like them fried?”

“I don’t know yet, but they smell delicious!”

A flash of worry crossed her face. “Ah. You are a vegetarian?”

To her relief, I said that I would eat fish. I had a feeling this will be my best source of protein for the month.

Fried PlantainRed Hot Chili Peppers

After cutting the plantains just like a mother would for a child, Florence dished out a Ghanaian fish stew consisting of fresh fish from Volta Lake, cabbage, tomato, red chili pepper and a green vegetable local to the area. The food was delicious but every spicy bite elicited a bought of coughing which made it difficult to breathe. Before I gave up meat, I used to throw down hot, spicy Buffalo wings like nobody’s business. Once, on a dare, I even drank a bottle of hot sauce called Scorned Woman (as in “Hell hath no fury like a…”). I guess I’m long out of practice. I worked my way through anyway, enjoying the flavor if not the lack of oxygen. Florence continuously apologized and I tried to reassured her that I liked it. I’m just not sure she believed me through the choking and heavy perspiration pouring from my every pore.

I was the only one eating at the table. Jimmy had stepped out promising to return shortly while the other two sat on the couch and chair staring silently at the far wall. Florence’s head eventually lolled as she massaged one side of her forehead. I asked if she had a headache and offered some pain reliever. Sat sat up and gave a single nod of acceptance, not wanting to appear too eager. The mother had turned to child. Grabbing a trial size container of Excedrin from the toiletry bag in my bedroom, I gave her the bottle to take home. She lowered her eyes and accepted with a simple thank you. It felt good not only to help this woman who had fed me with such care, but to break through the weirdness of hearing myself chew and cough while others waited for me to finish.

Once through eating, Sampson filled my dish with a small bit of water from my room. At a long wooden hutch just outside the bedroom door, Florence soaped it up while Sampson retrieved more water. The soapy water was tossed out the main door and the dish was rinsed, dried and put back in my dish rack. All this effort was required for one bowl and a fork. I offered to help but was told to rest and feel free. Feeling free? I’m not sure I can ever get used to this type of service.

Getting acquainted, Florence asked how many children I have. I could tell from her raised eyebrow that having none was not the right answer. Of course “Why don’t you have any?” was the next obvious question. I tried to explain that I just graduated from college rather late in life and that I wanted to use my education without the commitment of having children. Had I started younger, maybe things would be different but Tim and I have decided not to disrupt the life we love with such a drastic change. Well, THAT was definitely not the right answer. Not only did I feel as though I had somehow disrespected motherhood in Florence’s mind, I had also made my husband out to be a villainous cohort in our selfish desires.

It was time to switch the subject. “What will you make for dinner?” I asked.

Florence suggested pasta, perhaps due to my trouble with the Ghanaian spices. She assured me that Jason, the previous volunteer, had loved her spaghetti. That was just fine. It sounded easy enough and I was so full that I couldn’t think of food for a while anyway. I did tell her that I was eager to try more of the local dishes so she gladly listed off the things she’d make next including fufu, banku, red red and abolo. 

Brimstone--Butterfly Jimmy and I made our way back down the hill and, before we arrived at a door adjacent to Salomé’s porch, he taught me that butterflies, in Ewe, are called what sounds like colcolch and the lizard is called a gecko. Gecko I understood. Colcolch is how I remember it now and that doesn’t mean it’s correct. I’m not too worried. There will be plenty of time to learn.

This was just the beginning of my journey…

July 9th: From Accra to Have

Leaving Accra

ghana-cedi After breakfast, Gunadiish and Christian lugged our bags into a vehicle, helped us to buy phone cards and exchange money. The nearest bank told me that only the main office in central Accra will cash travelers checks. Unfortunately, that was just too far away. I headed instead for the nearest ATM. Having tested my new Visa check card by making a purchase in the US, this was an interesting time to learn that my card has a different pin number than my husband’s with whom I share the account. Mine I do not know. Nothing could be done about it today, nor will there be an opportunity this week. With the vehicle loaded up as tightly as the night before (minus Gunadiish who wished us luck and said the seatbelts in this vehicle were working) we set off on a three hour journey toward the Volta Region… to a village with no banks or ATM’s. With a small bit of money on me, I’m not in too much trouble but I’ll need to sort this out by next weekend.

The Sights

After more than an hour of driving through similar scenery, Christian informed us that we were still in part of Accra. This city might not build upward, with a few multi-story exceptions, but it sure has built out. Structures lining the streets are typically one story, one room shops consisting of three walls and one open side. Behind those are people’s homes.

The landscape from Accra to Have

Most of life takes place out of doors for all to see. No matter where I looked on any street, people were working, selling or buying. Several blocks of outdoor chop shops employed men who hammered every part off the old vehicles on the street. The soot  and oil coated steel parts were then categorized and sold by different vendors throughout the car part district. Furniture, food, windows, mirrors, bicycles, anything you could ever want was set up in one shop or another. An hour of driving still had not exhaust the number of vendors. When we did finally get to the more rural areas, farmers worked in the fields, girls carried many mangos or bundles of cassava root as thick as my calf on their heads and men stacked clay blocks to dry in the sun. Although I can’t tell if the new building construction is moving forward or has been abandoned, overall, everybody was hard at work doing something.

The Law of the Land

police As we rounded a military compound, we came upon a road block with red, white and blue painted car tires and a movable bamboo fence. The police pulled over five cars in a row, ours included. Christian got out and showed his license and was led behind the vehicle for some time. When he finally returned, he wouldn’t speak. After minutes of silence he erupted with “Ahhh. Corruption!” and when I asked what he meant, he struggled for a calm voice. The police had taken Christian’s personal money, which is apparently a common occurrence. I couldn’t understand all he said as the wind screamed through my hair in the back seat, but I’m pretty sure a recent and very large shipment of cocaine had been recovered and then lost by the police. It seems they might now be using the guise of recovering it to harangue drivers for money. Christian thinks the public displeasure with this type of corruption will be reflected in December’s election. Having just heard about Kenya’s latest battle with corruption, I hope Ghana’s outcome will be far better.

My Arrival in Have

Have's RC Church 

Christian pulled up to a sign for Have’s Roman Catholic Church among the lush green trees at the foot of a mountain. We were to wait in front of the dusky colored building for someone to help with my bags. A few uniformed school children ran between the distant trees and a black hen was busy scratching in the dirt to my right. Foliage lined both sides of the street blocking any distant view. When nobody came immediately, we all got out of the vehicle. Having been been packed thigh to thigh in this heat and, after hitting many of the deep crevasses on a road nearly washed out from recent rain, we were quite ready to stand and stretch our damp, sore bodies upright.

Christian’s patience was wearing thin but his disposition remained jovial. He was running late with our unexpected police detour and still had to drop off the others a half hour away. While waiting, he took the opportunity to relieve himself. Upon his return from the other side of the road, he looked at his watch, shook his head, chuckled and said, “You’re on black man’s time now.” Having been warned that events in Africa happen later than planned, we all had a good laugh.

Time is on My Side

Christian’s comment reminded me of a quote Shana from VV shared from Kenya that reflects a similar philosophy. “White men have all the watches but black men have all the time.” I am so ready to have that kind of time. I vaguely remember, many moons ago, learning much more when moving slowly than when constantly rushing to accomplish many tasks. These past few years have been consumed with projects great and small but I’m ready to reclaim some inner peace.

Case in point… Observing my surroundings, I stooped down to show the others the “Touch Me Not” plant. Having first seen it at my previous home in Rensselaerville, NY, I ran my finger down the center spine of the leaves. Each small frond slowly recoiled and closed along the stem in response. The end result was an organism that looked like a pile of inedible twigs (below right) rather than a healthy, leafy plant (below left). It was something I would have missed had I not been stationary. (Follow the link to see the “Touch Me Not” or Mimosa pudica in action.)

Touch Me Not plant

The Welcoming Committee

JimmyA young boy about 13 years old ran top speed toward us with sweat pouring down his brow. He introduced himself as Jimmy. I shook his hand and said hello which was followed by his customary “You are welcome.” I introduced him to my travel mates and slowly worked through my own name since Paul, EDYM’s director, mistakenly told people I was called Kimberly. I said with my most gracious smile, “I’m Kim. Just K-i-m.”

“Kem? Ah, Kem! Kem! I see!” He enthusiastically shook my hand again. “You are  welcome.”

Jimmy was not going to be able to carry my bags, even with my help so we all climbed back in the car, Jimmy nearly on Emily’s lap in the front seat. Driving a few hundred feet up the road, Christian parked and unloaded my things. We were met by Emmanuel who I later learned is Jimmy’s uncle and Paul’s brother. A slightly older boy sharing the same name as our driver soon came too and, as they tried to navigate the rocky, uphill footpath, each with my 69.5 lbs (x2) of donations on duffel wheels, I said my goodbyes to the others and caught up.

EmmanuelMama 

The bench under the palm fronds and mango treeEmmanuel's Courtyard

As we ascended into the trees, goats and chickens eased themselves out of the way. We quickly came upon a lovely palm roof under a mango tree. There on a bench in the shade sat three older women of distinction, one of which was Mama, mother to Emmanuel and Paul. Emmanuel introduced me as Kem and asked me to spell it. When I did, the pronunciation changed completely. “Ah, Keeem! So sorry!” The women listened intently to the conversation, although it was clear that they understood little English. Once Emmanuel spoke a few words in Ewe with my name at the end of the sentence, each offered a warm and friendly hello saying that I was welcome. I had read that it is inappropriate to hug an elder so I was pleasantly surprised when they all embraced me. I hugged them back feeling like I just received a gift far greater than the standard greeting.

Emmanuel sent the boys to show me where I’ll stay, drop my things, and bring me back down the hill to talk more with Mama. (This would be interesting with the language barrier.) Jimmy and Christian had several questions for me along our way but I can barely remember what they were having been distracted by six passing school children no older than 7 or 8 years old. They walked single file with logs six inches in diameter and 4 feet long balancing upon their heads. All I do remember is my awe at this overwhelmingly beautiful and utterly foreign place.

Rooster in a treeTurning back to the boys, I helped to grab a handle in the back of the heaviest bag as we continued up the winding hill past curious goats, chickens and roosters. My help was met with resistance. The boys were determined to do this on their own. Not wanting them to get hurt, I allowed them to protest and then helped anyway. Along the way, I found that if I waved first, people would wave back from thatched roof kitchens and clay brick buildings, otherwise they just watched the ridiculous baggage queen stumbling through their village.

Home Sweet Home

  Home Sweet Home

Jimmy demonstrates the comfort of the couch The building where I’ll stay (a palace compared to other local dwellings) looks like a mix of Spanish and modern styles with graceful arches, traditional railings and linear wall supports. We keyed into the beautifully carved front door to the main area where there was a dining room table with two plastic chairs,  matching upholstery in the form of a chair, love seat and couch and a large china cabinet against the far wall. Transitioning from the absolute curb appeal of creamy plaster and the brick colored gate with matching landscaped blooms on the outside, it was interesting to shift into the echoing space of cool blue plastered walls and fluorescent lighting within.

Mosquito netting over my bedMy closetThrough a purple curtain to the right of the entry, I unlocked my black bedroom door and entered another room of smooth plaster walls painted a deep mint green. The room also featured a cement floor, desk, fan, plastic chair, dishes, 3 hangers in an alcove and a full size bed complete with mosquito net.

Off to the side is my bathroom. I do get a toilet, which is more than I expected. It doesn’t flush but it’s better than squatting. There is no shower, which I had braced for, but 7 big, colorful plastic buckets and a plastic trash can with a lid had been filled for me to bathe, launder and flush with. I can’t imagine how anybody carried all this up here on their heads but the colors are a nice decoration in blue, orange, black, green and gray.

The boys turned on my fan and asked if I was hot. My shirt was soaked through. I would have been fine but for hiking those bags up. I stretched out my arms and invited them to join me in the breeze. They laughed and said, “No, you. Just you. Dress down and we’ll take you back to Emmanuel.” With clarification I learned that I was to change from my skirt to shorts, so I put on some capris and was ready for the next adventure.

 

Walking through the paths with foot tall grass caressing my calves, I landed back in Emmanuel’s courtyard and met Salomé, his beautiful and charming wife. Salomé approached me with excitement, a huge hug and a smile, all of which I couldn’t help but return. “You are welcome!” she said as she put her arm around me and led me to a chair on her bright blue porch. From the hand prints at various levels on the paint, I could tell this place had been blessed by many children.

Salomé makes lunch

“Sit. Sit. You are welcome!”

Salomé's porchThe view

I took a seat looking out over the caladium, various shrubs and arborvitae to the mountain in the distance.

Salomé noted my contemplative state, nodded in approval and went back to the kitchen off the porch to make the children’s lunch. Emmanuel ate his meal explaining that  Florence, the volunteers’ cook, would come with mine very soon. Until then, I was told to make myself at home, relax and “feel free.”

To be continued…

Internet Access Gives Me Butterflies

I’ve finally found my way back online after two weeks with little withdrawl… or so I thought. Signing on actually gave me butterflies.

I have been writing a great deal and will begin posting soon. For now, I can tell you that I have been working hard AND playing hard. I sleep little, eat a lot and today I met the village chief for the first time. He invited me for a celebration on Thursday in honor of my presence and in gratitude for all the items you have sent with me. Tomorrow I will be making donations to the school but I have been working on the farm otherwise. Amazing work they do there!

 You wouldn’t believe how much I have been learning. I love it here and will certainly feel a geat deal of sadness when I go. More news soon.

I hope you all are well.
Love,
Kim

I Made It

Tim, I tried to Skype but you aren’t connected. Web service here is touch and go at best. I’m pasting this from the memory stick… Glad we planned for that. I don’t now when I’ll next be in touch. Cell phone is acquired (011 233 285 241 393) and I will buy minutes for it today. I’ll be in touch ASAP and I love you.

ArrivalI Made It!

As I write, I am in Accra at the home of Gunadiish, the In-Country Coordinator (an all around jovial and hospitable guy). Since he guarantees that I’ll pass out shortly, as most early morning arrivals tend to do, I won’t fight the moment when the exhaustion trumps excitement. For now, that hasn’t happened.

How It All Went Down

JFK’s Delta terminal was a madhouse yesterday, teeming with those who were stranded like me the day before. I found my way to the automated check-in kiosk but was told I had to see a ticket agent. That’s when I discovered that Accra has it’s own check-in area, with good reason. The number of bags people were transporting was astounding. One guy was charged nearly $500 with the new fees and he was less than prepared for the big surprise.

Once checked in, I met a family in security. Better stated, they met me. Two young boys going to Ghana had a million questions about where I was going and why. By the end of our conversation, I had been adopted. They were from Long Island so I scored points for having a husband from Brooklyn. When we got to the gate they were sure to tell their mom, “We need four seats, three for us and one for her.” I then heard stories about how their aunt and uncle owned a bank in Accra. “They don’t just work there, they own it. That means we’ll get FREE MONEY when we get there! FREE Money!” I didn’t have the heart to tell them anything different.

On the plane, I met Diantha, a young woman who works in international government aid. We talked so much that I never realized the plane hadn’t moved for an hour. She told me about living in Haiti for five years and how she would set out past the villages to live in peace for a month at a time, dropping all calls from her cell and having no access to email. I told her it sounded wonderful. She told me she’d come out a little weird… just like I would after this month.

Even with the delay, the flight time was ten rather than the typical eleven hours so we arrived on time. The first thing I noticed upon landing is how red the earth is here. The dusty clay-covered roads are so vibrant in contrast with the deep green trees along the edges of the city. The iron content must be very high. The city is also very widespread. I could see structures although not clearly from the center section of the 767.

The airport in Accra is easily navigated. I made my way through the orderly, well marked areas and was caught off guard only by the silhouette of a lizard crawling on a wooden wall just past the window. It made me laugh which always looks weird when standing alone. I got a cart, loaded my bags, changed some money (which is very close in value to the US dollar) and wheeled through customs with no issues. The only thing that struck me was the customs agent who inspected the children’s books and said, “I wish my child was going to get such gifts.” From the gravity in his voice I knew he truly meant it.

Gunadiish and Christian, his driver, were among the masses outside the gate waving Village Volunteers signs as promised. I pictured a more frenetic reception but we moved about quickly after friendly handshakes and hellos. They loaded my bags and whisked me away down the streets of Accra where, among the most lush and beautiful flowering trees, women carried enormous tubs of pineapples and bananas on their heads.

064

I got some historical context along with an introduction to Ring Road, the main drag adorned with billboards featuring Guinness products and beautiful Vogue-type Ghanian fashions. Street vendors stood between two lanes of crazy traffic holding items for sale up to passenger windows. Gunadiish took a book about Obama from one, cooly bargained a price and took his time paying before the light turned green. From then on we all engaged in a spirited political discussion. (VV warns against this but we were all safely on the same page.) The occasional goat stood watching this bustling world go by in the outdoor shops lining every inch of every street. Welcome to rush hour.

Once parked in Dansoman, a suburb of Accra, we passed behind the cell phone shop through a metal door with all my bags, followed the dirt path stepping over the open sewer, and entered into a dirt courtyard with several benches and a small dog tied to one of the bench legs. Here several apartment units converged and neighbors looked on with the yapping dog as Gunadiish keyed into his unit. I smiled and waved to them receiving timid smiles in return.

With shoes off and in through the single-file front hall, we passed through a kitchen and into an air conditioned living space. Once I dropped my bags and settled on the couch, Gunadiish said with outstretched arms and a great smile, “Welcome to my ghetto.”

494

Some Americans might see more truth than humor in this jest, but Gunadiish has made his apartment very comfortable. Off the front hall are two small rooms, one with a toilet, one with a shower, and the small sink is in the entry itself. The kitchen is a bit tight with plastic chairs stacked in the corner, cases of water stacked beside them and a small table accompanied by a stool. These spaces are not air conditioned but the important rooms are kept quite cool. Through the second kitchen door, railroad style, is a living room and then a bedroom both of which have walls and windows covered with light blue and tan drapes. These serve as decoration as well as a means to keep the heat out. Aside from a central compact fluorescent bulb, little outside light makes its way through the fabric and yet the atmosphere is cheerful with many photos of volunteers and family with Gunadiish encircling the upper portions of every wall. Great care has been taken to keep things very clean. The dark purple carpet hasn’t a spec of lint. As a final touch, an Obama tee is hung prominently next to the couch.

In the living room we enjoyed a stereo, CNN on TV, and internet, kind of. Internet “speed” here is an oxymoron. I’ve been showing my host around WordPress.com and Windows Live Writer as an alternative to Blogger when there is access. The power went out twice already so we’re taking it one step at a time. Gunadiish does web design and coding (as evidenced by his bookshelf), is on Facebook, and has Skype so we have been in total tech-talk mode. This also led to a discussion about the precarious condition of the dam at Volta Lake and thus the fragility of the nation’s energy supply. There are two units on the floor that protect his electronics from frying as the power surges create waves that would make the Honolulu surf jealous. I must admit, this makes me a bit nervous to plug in when I get to Have.

We meandered through topics such as Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, media filters and consolidation, capitalism and government. I taught Gunadiish idioms like “party pooper” and Gunadiish deciphered what specifically constitutes cursing in Ghana. (Taking the Lord’s name in vain in any way is off limits as most of the country is Christian. Everything else appears to be fair game, unless I misunderstood). All of this has been mixed with a LOT of laughter. At one point, Gunadiish turned to me and said, “You’re the volunteer and I’m learning more from you!” This is absolutely untrue, but I was happy to help determine that a US college asking for his help in searching for Ghanaian students was not a hoax.

The bathroom is an interesting adventure. The door is locked from the outside until you enter and lock it from the inside. A sign reads “Sit down before you pee. Do not stand.” When you turn around, you learn from another sign not to flush toilet paper but to put in in the waste basket. Before you flush, two drops of bleach get added to the water and then you can hit the handle. My favorite additional signs were those with philosophical text on the door:

256 Always be engaged in Pun’ya (virtue, those actions which lead to the cosmic goal) and always avoid Pa’taka (sin of commission and omission). Always try to be with those people who are engaged in Pun’ya. Never be with those people who are engaged in Pa’taka. This is because these Pun’yaa’ne people who are engaged in Pun’ya will give you outer suggestion, good outer suggestion, positive outer suggestion. Pa’takiis will give you negative outer suggestion, and their suggestions are detrimental to the progress of the human society.

- Shrii Shrii Anandamurti

Virtue and vice are temporal entities. These things have nothing to do with man’s relationship with the supreme father… High or low, upgraded of degraded, all are equal for him because the heaven is his creation; the Hell is his creation… He is in Hell also… You must not think that you are a sinner, that you are a degraded person. If you think that you are a sinner, it means you are meditating on sin… A man becomes just like his object of ideation, his object of meditation. You should think, ‘I am the son of a great father… and a day is sure to come when you will become one with your great father.”

- Shrii Shrii Anandamurti

128 Just after my arrival, I was introduced to my sleeping quarters for tonight. I’ll have a mosquito-netted bunk while a mother/daughter team arriving this afternoon will take the queen size bed to the left. Another volunteer arrives this evening taking the other bunk while Gunadiish sleeps on the floor in the living room. A rooster is crowing outside the window right now and I’m sure that he will serve as the alarm when tomorrow at 9 a.m. Christian takes us all out of Accra. I’ll get out in Have about 2.5 hours away and the others will continue on to Kpando (said Pandoo) about another half hour down the road.

Paul from EDYM Village just called to welcome me and make plans, although I heard from a little Rasta bird that I should be pro-active in choosing my activities or I’ll be at the mercy of others choosing for me. For now, all I want to choose is which bunk to nap in. I just hit the wall.

PS: Gunadiish just offered me a can of prunes. He got them from another US volunteer and laughed, “My friends all ask where I get this stuff. I am like an American… living in Ghana.” He followed this with another hearty laugh.

Oh yeah, this is going to fun.

Later…

After my nap, we left for the airport to pick up 3 more volunteers. On my way through the bathroom door, my finger caught the latch incurring a small but somewhat deep gash. Since we were in a hurry, I let it bleed hoping that the germs would be carried out with the flow. There was no way I’d find the small tube of Neosporin in my bags now. The throbbing and swelling was uncomfortable throughout the night and I hope for no signs of infection but there is always the Cipro if needed.

In our search for a taxi, every driver wanted 10 cedis (close in value to dollars) rather than the typical 7. Aggravated with them, Gunadiish turned to me and said, “It’s because of you.” I suspect that the assumption is that white people can afford more so should be charged more. I offered to stay out of sight until a fair price was agreed upon, jumping in the vehicle only after the money was settled. Gunadiish laughed but his stress would not subside. We were under the time constraint of the new volunteer arrivals. Pat and Nat, mother and son (not mother and daughter as I had expected. Pronouns here are often interchanged here), would arrive at 6:00 from London and Gunadiish feared that nobody would be there to greet them. After walking away from five or six stubborn negotiators, we finally stumbled upon a fair deal.

Hitting evening rush hour, I was brought back to my childhood growing up on the sandy shores of a small cottage town on Lake Erie. The smell of baked corn husks and burning refuse wafted through the air with the sweet scent of a Fourth of July beach party. Oil lanterns aflame on vendor tables flickered down the streets. Bullying our way into each turn through oncoming traffic, It occurred to me then that there were no stop lights. That morning it hadn’t stood out because it was daylight (and I was less than awake). With nightfall at about 6:30, I could see only the soft glow of headlights or the red brake lights, no green or yellow was anywhere to be found until we got closer to the airport.

Arriving a bit late, Pat and Nat were very pleased to finally see friendly faces. Someone had offered Pat the use of their phone, an act that appeared as kindness. She learned only after hanging up that it was for a fee.

We all had a bite to eat at the airport’s outdoor Chinese restaurant and I learned that Pat had held an auction of promises in order to fund the travel for several students at her school. She was meeting up with them and her husband already stationed at the Missahoe Orphanage in Kpandu. By 8:30, we met up with another volunteer arrival, Emily from the US, and Christian, our driver. An exhausted Emily wasn’t prepared for every Ghanaian who greeted her with a hearty handshake and “You are welcome.” Personally, I really like it.

All six of us and 7 enormous bags piled into a tiny five seater. When young Nat had to share the front passenger seat with Gunadiish, he asked for the seatbelt. Gunadiish said, “Don’t worry. We don’t use those much around here.” Looking behind me, I realized that there weren’t any. I later read a billboard saying, “Did you know that wearing a seatbelt is the law?” This is great in theory but too many vehicles just don’t have them.

Once back, I took my shower in the evening hoping to avoid early morning, Western style grooming. What I got was a frigid blast from the handle that was marked hot. It was difficult to force my head under the faucet but I had already committed to a head full of shampoo. So much for easing in to sleep with my heart racing from the shock. I’ll really have to get used to this.

Added the following day…

Seeing that Gunadiish was exhausted from his full day (his is no 9-5 job), I tried to sleep so he could also retire. With the bedroom air conditioning set to ice cold, my head sopping wet and no top sheet or blanket on the bed, I lay awake thinking about the sweltering heat radiating off the road this afternoon. It was of no use. I froze. (I knew I should have nabbed that Delta Airlines blanket.) I spent most of the night wrapping my warm fingers around my cold toes. I eventually crawled out from under the mosquito netting and grabbed my shower towel to use as a blanket. Still wet, it was only slightly better than nothing. Then, as I was finally about to fall asleep, Nat’s snoring began. (He had warned me that this would happen thanks to his upper respiratory infection.) Emily did a lot of shifting in the bunk above while talking in her half-sleep. By 5 am, when the rooster crowed, I had all but given up.

Breakfast with Pat, Nat and Emily Over a breakfast of bread and instant Nescafe with powdered cream an sugar already in the single serving packet, all four of us admitted to having the worst night’s sleep due to the cold. Nobody had said anything during the night because we were pretty sure everyone else was comfortable. So much for being polite, next time it’s all about being honest.

Ya know what though? No matter what the sleeping circumstances, I AM IN ACCRA ! I wish you could see my happy face.

 

Jamaica… It’s not Ghana but its close.

Early Morn

Today felt like most other days. I woke to the whirr of the air conditioner, the 14 year old cat who still wants to suck on my shirt and kneed my fleece, the dog who (once he actually got out of bed) spun in circles to be fed, and my husband, Tim, whose eyes were still no more than slits but whose smile was running at full power.

“It’s Africa Day,” he said. 

Then it clicked… and I cried (again) at the thought of not being able to share my amazing experiences with the person I cherish most in the witnessing of each other’s lives…

Up and Running

There was much to do by noon but nothing motivates me more than deadlines and lists. (Deadline dependence is a sickness. Truly it is.)

First up was to print a Dewey Decimal System summary to share with the newly renovated library in Have. Once on the OCLC web site I learned that printing the four volumes of instructions would require packing a tree. Another site said “You can’t learn this in a day.” Really? Holy crow, I would think not. As luck would have it, while saving some teaching documents from the Village Volunteers site, I read that Maia, another volunteer who will be in the village at the same time, currently works with the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland as a librarian.

Check.

I moved on to collect additional lesson plans at readwritethink.org. (Thanks for the tip Elliot!), and printed copies of my passport, license, credit cards and contact info for Tim. He got the address for the American Embassy and punched holes in my preprinted pages about farming, health, teaching, etc. I ran off photos of him, the pets and our home while he repacked the duffels so I wouldn’t break my back.

Packing up the last of the backpackAs the photos were stacking up in the print tray I jumped in the shower – my last for a long time – and had little time to enjoy it. Once relatively dry, we shoved the laptop, video and SLR cameras, batteries, chargers, adapter, transformer, USB and power cords, memory stick, 300 gig external hard drive, books, journal, malaria pills, typhoid vaccine, rain jacket AND a very important trial-size deodorant stick into the backpack. (I learned later that Tim also slipped in an envelope to “read on flight 166″ as I was putting my own little note on his pillow.) I’m pretty sure I did half of this in a naked panic , occasionally putting on clothes between steps. At 11:15 we were done, I was fully clothed and we were on schedule.

A Last Minute Good-bye

On the way to the airport, our friend Scott called to say he was at our house. His attempt to catch me was a total miss but he told me what his card said in a genuine and compassionate voice. I was so moved that I was unable to breathe.

I just want you to know that what you’re doing in Ghana is a great, great thing. Go over there and bring a lot of love to those kids and I know you’ll bring home even more than you left with.

Scott and I have been working on the basement in tandem over the past month, designing, playing with power tools, sharing stories and building a friendship together every day. Yes, Scott has been Tim’s building contractor for years, but that’s just the smallest part of their relationship. I’m glad I got to get in on that party.

Leaving Albany

Bye Mike and Lori! (I'm typically as tall as they are but the backpack is REALLY heavy.) At the airport, Tim and I met up with friends Lori and Mike but I couldn’t focus too much on talking about anything other than packing or I’d cry at another good-bye. (Sorry guys!)

I made a trial run of carrying the backpack while rolling the two huge duffels behind me. Team Ghana really came through on the donations. Thank goodness all this stuff goes just one way because we thought the handle might give. I had packed to make one bag “airline fee free” at 49 lbs. but the other was a monster. The airline refuses to take anything over 100 but at the counter we learned that bags going specifically to Ghana can’t be over 70. The big guy was 94.

Tim, Lori and Mike helped me to repack, weigh, repack again, weigh. We got both bags down to 69.5 lbs each and stuffed some clothing and construction paper into a spare canvas bag making it my second carry on. The only things left behind were some runny petroleum jelly with a faulty lid (glad we caught THAT), a bag of chalk, too fat for a blackboard, my partially used spiral notebooks, and a big fat dictionary (leaving 5 others that still made the cut).

When we did the final weigh-in, we told the the woman behind the kiosk that this trip was a graduation gift. She then said to Tim, “You approve of this, Dad?”  I couldn’t help but snicker as she tried to back-peddle by pointing out his “premature gray.”

I'm taking this heart and this hug with me. Tim and I said our “until next times” at security. After many kisses, hugs, smiles and tears, I took off my sneakers, waved, let the men in uniform swab my water filtration system, waved, held my breath, wiped tears and waved, put everything back on and together, waved, wiped more tears, blew more kisses and walked to my gate. Tim watched me go the entire way, waving every time I turned around. Eventually I rounded the corner and sat down to begin writing a one-sided conversation to him in my journal. Perfect. I had finally figured out how to include him in everything.

For the next hour everything was calm and good… until the delay.

JFK Airport

delta2 I’m far less anxious now, but on the flight from Albany to JFK I felt like a track junkie betting my last dollar on a horse that was never going to come in first. I had planned for 5 hours between connections but Delta recently adjusted my itinerary and left me only an hour and a half. When you miss something by an hour you think, “That’s okay, it wasn’t even close.” While the same inevitability might hold true, missing something by 10 minutes (like I did the only flight to Accra today) feels a whole lot different. That glimmer of hope as you concentrate on willing this beast of a machine into motion with shear mind power makes each moment feel like an hour, adding to what had already become a very long day. All in all, it took six hours to travel a mere170 miles. Had we driven, I would have made it in less time.

The Perks

Ah well. All was not lost. I met Maxine in Albany, a women whose friend Lauren works with US AID and is traveling to Accra for a month starting tomorrow. Maxine put us in touch via her cell and Lauren and I swapped info. I might try to meet up with her at the airport to kill some time together. My flight doesn’t leave until 5 PM so that would be a welcome connection.

Also, at JFK, I met Ghanaian woman who had missed the same flight to Accra. It was a real treat to learn that Have is pronounced Hahvay with the accent on the first syllable and that  the local language, Ewe, is said “aye way.” You don’t get this information from print and now I won’t sound like a such a goober when I get there. We talked about what I’ll see in the Northern Volta Region, the monkey sanctuary, slave castles, and the Central Region where she is from. I’m not even there yet and I’m already making friends and learning a bunch. I also had it confirmed that it very well might be an 8 hour drive from Accra to Have. Wow.

My husband was worried that I’d be disappointed about losing a day in Africa, but this detour is just as exciting as getting there. The next adventure was hopping the Air Link to Jamaica Station and catching a shuttle to the Fairfield Marriott. Once here, I woke a very disoriented Gunadiish (at nearly midnight in Accra) and told him not to pick me up for another day.

More good things…

  • Tim and I were able to iron out our Skype connection tonight, repairing the microphone issue and chatting over the Internet (with only a few more tears).
  • Shana from Village Volunteers suggested, last minute, that I ask to see the projects going on at Kpandu, meet the Dzidefo women’s group and visit the Fesi Potters. (I have already emailed Gunadiish and Paul to see if it can be arranged.)
  • We also brainstormed about Tim’s idea of initiating a proper battery disposal transport through the traveling volunteers until Shana’s solar battery program has fully taken hold.
  • AND Shana shared some quick thoughts on a local village business that could shred un-recyclable plastic into packing material while creating an alternative to burying or burning such material on the side of the road. We plan to talk about that when I get back.

Overall, it has been a very full and productive day with a wealth of opportunity busting at the seams.

Jamaica… It’s not Ghana, but it’s close.

In some ways being here isn’t much different than being in Ghana. I still have to wash my underwear in the sink along with my tired shirt and tank. The only difference is that if my laundry doesn’t dry by tomorrow afternoon, I’ll be blowing it with a hair dryer. There is an odd beauty in that there is nothing else I have to do. My two 70 pound bags may still be at the airport and the only clothes I have are on my back, but hey, I have the cameras, laptop and books… enough brain food for the mind to kill many hours. Besides, the hotel has me set up with free deodorant, shampoo, cookies, Alka-Seltzer Immunity Complex, Advil, a toothbrush and toothpaste. I was tempted to say, “Wait! I have 50 toothbrushes already!” Of course not a single one was on me.

I will concede that the hotel air conditioning, king size bed, full plate of Fettuccini and Shrimp Alfredo and the sparkling, white porcelain of the toilet are a far cry from what I will experience in Have. I was reminded of this when Erin, my niece, called last night to wish me well on my journey. Erin spent last summer in Namibia. When she returned, I ate her stories and photos whole and her insight has been a gift. Last night we talked about how best to squat without peeing on your pants. It’s too late now, but I should have been practicing.

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