When Your Christmas Flight Gets Cancelled Twice

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Monday, December 19th, while my sister was on a flight from Amsterdam to Accra, we got the call that Starbow Airlines had cancelled their Christmas Day flight from Tamale to Accra.

This was unfortunate because approximately two months prior we had purchased three round-trip flights between Accra and Tamale heading north on the 22nd and back south on the 25th.  We were staying at Zaina Lodge in Mole National Park, and at $500 a night, we didn’t really want to extend our stay until Monday. But with the promise of elephants, infinity pools, and relaxation, we didn’t really want to cut our trip short either.

Lucky for us, both the lodge and the airline were accommodating and we moved our reservations to the 21st to the 24th. My sister was going to have one less day to adjust to jet lag, but we figured she could do that just fine in an infinity pool with a mojito in hand.

Our flight up to Tamale was a breeze – they even served us our favorite local juice, Blue Skies. And I promise my next blog will be about our actual stay at Zaina Lodge (still haven’t gotten through all my photos yet!). But, unfortunately, our time living it up in luxury had to come to an end, and at 12:30pm on Saturday, December 24th, the lodge drove us back to the airport.

We arrived at 3:00pm a full hour and a half before our flight was scheduled to leave and were surprised to see only one line in the airport. We were under the impression that multiple airlines flew out of Tamale. We got up to the front and asked where the Starbow check-in was (everyone behind the counter had AWA – Africa World Airlines – gear on).

They were surprised to have to tell us that Starbow had cancelled their flights for the day. We then found out that it was AWA’s last flight of the day and it was booked. We were put on the wait list at numbers 12, 13, and 14. Promising, right?

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My sister visited me in Ghana and all she saw was the Harmattan

Ok, slight exaggeration. However, the Harmattan has affected most of her time here in Accra. Tonight, for instance, I’m up well past midnight…a rare occurrence, I can assure you, simply because her flight was delayed for an hour (I’m assuming because of poor visibility) and I was too anxious to sleep.

We spent an extra day in Northern Ghana – that’s a story for another blog – and didn’t get back to Accra until Christmas Sunday. Monday was filled with grocery shopping and, luckily, a pool day. And then the Harmattan hit. Tuesday we woke up to downright chilly weather (think mid 60s) and the poorest visibility I’ve encountered since I was caught in a sand cyclone in Ethiopia (or the week I spent in LA!).

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We tried to make every moment count, but found ourselves only able to brave the dust storms to shop at Global Mamas and eat lunch at Buka on Tuesday. I’m a big fan of Global Mamas, a fair trade organization working with women here in Ghana and around the world. Buka, less so. Poor Brittany wanted to try some more Ghanaian food – we’d had groundnut soup and jollof rice up north – so we took her to the highest rated Ghanaian restaurant on Trip Advisor. Our school had taken us there when we first arrived and I remember the food being pretty good…now I know just how much influence our school had on the menu that night. Our lunch was less than mediocre. It was incredibly oily, fishy, and arrived about 3 minutes after ordered, not exactly fresh.

Day two of the Harmattan we decided we wouldn’t let a little sand get in our way. We set off for Artists Alliance Gallery – an interesting set-up where everything is for sale from the $2 postcards to the $250 carvings to the $8,000 paintings. We spent about 2 hours wandering around that place looking at everything from the intricate, the bizarre, the antique, and the ugly. We loved it.

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Field Trips & Taking Action

A short while back, second grade went on our first field trip. We went to the Kokrobite Chiltern Centre, an organization that’s building local school classrooms out of plastic bottles.

They got the idea from an organization in Guatemala doing similar work. We showed the students the video below to get them excited and they immediately wanted to know how they could help.

We spent the next few weeks collecting plastic bottles and were able to donate hundreds by the time of our visit.

The organization in Kokrobite collects the bottles, but instead of filling them with trash, fills them with sand, something we have an abundance of here in Ghana.

The bottles are then held together with a clay-like substance that is created by mixing a certain kind of sand with water and then stomping around in it – easily the students’ favorite activity. Once the clay is made and the bottles are filled, the laying begins.

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This was just a small example, the beginnings of a playhouse for the center’s after-school activities space. But after learning the process and getting to play a small role in it, we took the children to the town school where a classroom had already been built.

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Bead-Making in Ghana

Let me start by saying, if someone were to ask me the biggest difference between Ghana and Ethiopia, I would have to say the heat. I’m sure that sounds clichéd, the climate in Ethiopia was almost always so comfortable, but I’ve only experienced heat like Ghana in SE Asia (and they seemed to have much more reliable electricity and air).

Most days, this heat is totally manageable. The school has generators and so does our apartment. The only time we’re without air is in our taxi rides to get groceries each Sunday. But this past Saturday was brutal.

After an hour and a half on a bus, we arrived at TK Beads and immediately experienced scorching heat. We were shown how local powder glass beads are made. No part of them is made indoors.

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The first thing we encountered was heaps of glass bottles. Those are broken down, smashed with a crudely made giant mortar and pestle. Once the glass has become dust, it’s mixed with various ceramic dyes to achieve the desired color. It’s then poured into molds.

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Inside each mold is a straight twig from a special kind of tree (and of course I’ve forgotten the name of this special tree!). This tree has been chosen because once the molds are filled, they are placed inside a furnace and the twigs burn out at the precisely right time – not too soon and the bead hasn’t formed and not too late that part of the twig remains in the bead. You then have a perfect hole.

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And God said, “Let there be spiders.”

I just finished reading Anansi Boys. Which, you might think, is an odd book for me to have read, given my moderate to severe arachnophobia. Because, you see, Anansi Boys is, essentially, all about spiders.

However, it’s the sequel-esque to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I recently read and could quite possibly be one of my favourite books I’ve read this year. You see, Anansi is an African folktale character who most often takes the shape of a spider. He is the spirit of all stories. Legend has it that all stories used to belong to Tiger, but Anansi tricked him and now, instead of the drab, sad world that Tiger had created, the world is now filled with Anansi’s funny, trickster stories.

But, Anansi is a spider. And his boys are Fat Charlie and Spider. And there is literally a scene where thousands of spiders: “the great spiders and the small spiders, venomous spiders and biting spiders: huge hairy spiders and elegant chitinous spiders,” come and save Spider from Tiger.

Despite all that, it was a pretty decent book. Not one of Gaiman’s best (those awards would go to American Gods, The Graveyard Book, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane) but pretty good nonetheless.

But, I think, had I been reading this book a few weeks ago, things would have gone much better for me…

It all started at Frenchman’s Farm, a small accommodation with no website where we were told we could get away for the night, do some hiking in the Ankasa Nature Reserve and really unplug.

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One thing I can say for the farm, it was beautiful. We arrived at noon, fairly starving after a 3 ½ hour ride from our previous accommodation just outside of Elmina. And we proceeded to be served cold coconut milk – from coconuts, of course, while waiting about 3 hours for lunch.

Ok, that’s fine. Coconut milk is pretty good and the flesh is delicious, so we waited. We finally got fed about 3 o’clock and then we made our way to the Ankasa Nature Reserve. Then this happened:

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Kakum, Elmina Castle, and Trump

Our base for the first half of the trip was Ko-Sa Beach Resort, about 20 minutes west of Elmina. We love living in the city – access to more goods, events, and people – but every now and then it’s nice to escape, and Ko-Sa provided a perfect location.

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From there we drove to Kakum National Park, a tropical forest reserve. The park is quite a ways from our school – about four hours one day and another hour and a half the second day, but yet we found ourselves crossing paths with one of my students. Moments like that always make Ghana feel much smaller than it should be!

After a short hike into the reserve, we found ourselves at the park’s canopy walkway. It is 350 meters long and is suspended between seven treetops. Ranging between 40 and 50 meters high, it offers incredible views of the surrounding foliage.

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Then, because all trips seem rushed at the beginning, we were off and headed to Elmina. We had driven through the town the night before and now were back to tour St. George Castle (also known as Elmina Castle). The Portuguese built this castle in 1482 and it was the first trading post built on the Gulf of Guinea. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was one of the most important stops on the route of the Atlantic slave trade.

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In Everlasting Memory…

The first thing I noticed as our guide shut the door and locked us in was that it was instantly more difficult to breath. Which sounds like an exaggeration, nothing changes instantaneously, but by closing that door, he had cut off the circulation of air in the room.

I peered around in the darkness, trying to make out the shapes of the 10 or so other people locked in with me. The room started to feel smaller and I couldn’t imagine trying to fit another 20 people inside the small space. And then the door opened and after only a minute inside, we walked out to fresh air and our freedom.

No African ever put in that room walked out. Their bodies were carried out – the cell was used for any slave who had attempted to escape, woman who refused to be raped, or anyone else the soldiers felt like making an example of. This cell was above ground. The Male Slave Dungeon was below.

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Built in 1653 as a wooden structure, the fort (now Cape Coast Castle) changed hands many times. Originally built by the Swedes, it was temporarily in Danish and Dutch hands before being reinforced and rebuilt by the British in 1665.

The underground cells were split into three rooms, holding up to 200 men in each at any given time. Two rooms were in nearly complete blackness. The first housed the strongest and most able-bodied men and usually remained locked the three months the men were kept there. On a rare occasion, the men would be allowed out to be fed while the room was cleaned. Over time, this happened less and less and eventually, those in charge stopped cleaning the room at all. Instead, they merely tossed sawdust over the food, feces, urine, vomit, and blood and brought in a new roundup of slaves.

The third room housed the youngest of the boys, often between the ages of 10 and 25. This room also remained locked to “protect” the most valuable merchandise. It was the only room that afforded enough light to see. The middle room housed the rest of the male slaves.

Above ground was the Female Slave Dungeon. Up to 400 women were held in that single room any given time.

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Slaves who died during captivity at the castle were simply tossed into the sea. When those in charge died, they were given a ceremony and burial.

The following photo shows the graves of Governor George Maclean and his wife, Letitia Landon, (rare for a wife to accompany her husband) who died while at the castle. Castle rumor has it that the wife committed suicide after she discovered her husband’s African mistress. The story has, of course, never been substantiated. It is known that her husband died of malaria.

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From up above, you’d never know of the terrible things happening below. The whitewashed walls, beautiful ocean views, and bright, smiling faces masked the human cruelties going on below. Additionally, there was a church above the underground cells.

We spent about 30 minutes in the various dungeons and cells that slaves spent up to three months in. The rest of our time at Cape Coast Castle was spent above ground, breathing in the fresh air, enjoying the architecture, and marveling at how human beings could so degrade other human beings.

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Even the storage rooms allowed for better ventilation than the slaves quarters. They had plenty of light and airflow, as well as wooden ceilings. They were also washed on a regular basis.

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