perjantai 25. maaliskuuta 2011

Epic travel fail brought me to paradise

Getting from Ghana to South Africa was chaos.

My last assignment in Ghana, at the Accra Planetarium, came to a close when I told the interviewee I had to start heading to the airport. He asked me if I've confirmed my flight beforehand and when I told him that actually my ticket already says "confirmed", he started ranting about how in Africa you always have to confirm the flight with the airline three days in advance or you'll be kicked off the flight if it's full. He went on and on about this for so long I, of course, got into a nice little last minute panic.

My heart started racing but I told this scientist it's no use calling the airline anymore, I might as well just go to the airport and check it out. But he wouldn't have it, he had to call someone. So we wasted a good half an hour trying to call numbers where nobody picked up, until he said with a smug face: "I think you should just go to the airport to check it out." So off I went - in the slowest cab in the world (the driver didn't know how to drive a car, he just learned the day before, he told me) - and eventually at the airport everything was confirmed and okay.

Buying the cheapest flight feels like the greatest idea when you surf through the options and realize you can save hundreds of euros. But if you're not careful in checking all the flight details you can end up with a flight like mine from Accra to Cape Town. The ticket said it would make a stopover at Windhoek, which made sense because the airline was Air Namibia. But what I found out at the airport in Accra was that it would first fly to Johannesburg, South Africa, then I'd need to change aircrafts for the rest of the flight to Windhoek. Then change flights again to Cape Town, that was making a stop at Walvis Bay, Namibia. I don't remember how much money I saved picking this flight but four take-offs and four landings later I thought for a moment it might not have been worth it.

Everything changed, though, when I settled in Cape Town. I fell in love. With the city, that is. It's beautiful like Barcelona or Paris and as vibrant as NYC. I never thought I'd find a city that would be able to compete with New York in my mind, but Cape Town has pros that New York can't beat. Like nature. I'm still a Finn so I miss things like forests and water. And in CPT I can have those, right along with the big city life I also love. And I'm living right by the impressive Table Mountain, how awesome is that?

Also, everyone here looks like a surfer. I don't know how that's possible. Even the business people and pensioners look like they just got off their boards. I wonder if that would work with me too? You know, I'd grow into a tall, slender blonde with a balance.

Looks like Cape Town is one of those places that has a reputation that makes people hyperventilate and not come and check out the place themselves (although now that I say this I'll probably be robbed at gunpoint tomorrow). But it's beautiful!

Sorry guys, I'll get a little cheezy for a moment now.

Walking down Kloof Street in the mornings I've stopped into small restaurants to have incredible breakfasts and had coffee in these old, New Orleans style buildings on the balcony writing articles. All the art shops and boutiques along Long Street look like the kinds even I as a non-shopper could empty easily. And having a smoothie at the beautiful V. A. Waterfront on a sunny day with +25°C and a clear view of the mountain and boats going about in the shimmering water... Takes your breath away. The other day I thought to myself do I really have to leave here, and oh joy when I realized that, well

no, I dont!

lauantai 19. maaliskuuta 2011

The unbelievables

When you go out shopping in Ghana, you will eventually run into two world-famous characters: God and Jesus. Pretty much every store, shop and office has a religious name here: Psalm 91 Car Repairs; The Grace of God Groceries; Hallowed Glory of Jesus Hair & Nail Salon; Don't Judge Communications Centre.

Religion is a tough subject for a non-believer in Ghana. I hoped I could've avoided discussing the matter until the end of my Ghanaian trip but last week someone brought up the good ol' Almighty. "Do you believe in God?" I know the easiest thing would've just been to say "Sure, we go way back!", but for some reason especially with this matter I feel like Jim Carrey's character in Liar, Liar: I. CAN'T. LIE.

So I told this gospel musician I don't believe in god, I am not a member of any church and like to consider myself as a sort of religious Switzerland. I have no stand and won't start a fight about it. He didn't seem to buy it, though, and looked at me like I was the devil itself. For a moment there I was afraid he'd start trying to convert me.

The volunteers I met in Kumasi told me about their host families' reactions to the same thing. When they told the families they wouldn't be coming to church on Sunday and they don't believe, the responses had been near furious. After that they decided to just attend the services. It says something about the situation that they thought it easier to go than to stay and argue, even though the services can last 5 hours.

I don't have a problem with anyone else's religion. Anyone who wants to practice, thou shalt be able to do so. But I do have a problem with someone having a problem with me not believing, because respect goes both ways. Trying to make anyone adopt religious beliefs is trespassing on their mental property. And I for one will be sure to have my verbal shotgun loaded and ready.

The most disturbing thing about that kind of patronising is that many eager converters seem to think no person can have moral standards without religion. As surprising as it may seem, even without spiritual guidance I have actually learned how to honor my parents and not to steal other people's things or kill anyone.

Thankfully the gospel musician didn't try and make me a believer, although I did get an invitation to his record release party (will be in South Africa then, though, so gotta skip it). And he was curious how do we get married then. "Well, we date first and if it gets serious the couple can get married. Kind of like how everyone else does it."

Love and religion are kind of similar. With both it either is there or it isn't. That's why trying to convert someone (in either case, actually!) is as bad an idea as going to the toilet with someone. First of all, the fuss will take twice as long. Second, it's private.

keskiviikko 16. maaliskuuta 2011

Ghanaian experiences

The heat is making me tired. Even the locals are exhausted so you can imagine how the ghost from Finland feels. And I really feel like a ghost. It's not just the constant "Obruni!" shouts and the children's giggles when they see me. Some people pinch my arm, as if to see if I'm real or not, and the sight of me has also made a few kids cry.

These guys smiled.
He cried. I was the first white person he'd ever seen, said his mom.

I've also tried to learn to live with my fear of spiders, because let me tell you, travelling around the world with arachnofobia is a bitch. Coming to Africa was a good start. Some of the spiders here can be fist-size. I was told to "only look out for the hairy ones". Gee, that thought kept me up one night in Kumasi. But progress has been made! Gradually I'm getting used to the idea not all spiders are out to get me.

One day I spent writing in my home here with a big one clinging on the wall. I decided not to mind it and everything went well (in all honesty, though, had it moved all hell would probably have broken loose). And - this is a HUGE step - I walked into a room with the spider in the doorway above me! Normally I'd call for someone to kill them for me, but these guys got to live. And that is why all this makes no sense whatsoever, since usually out of the two of us it's the spider that gets killed.

Cape Coast Castle.

This week I also visited Cape Coast and it's Castle, the central place of slave trade. Seeing the small, dark cells where the slaves were imprisoned before being shipped into new countries and the corridor through which they passed before being forced out of their home country for good was heartbreaking. Like our guide Oscar said at the end of the tour: "We must all think about what part we've played in the course of history and be better people today; never think any person is inferior."

Cape Coast - my favorite city in Ghana.

Cape Coast was the most beautiful place I've been to so far in Ghana! A relaxed, sunny city with a friendly vibe. It sort of looked like I'd come to the Caribbean. Fishermen, swimmers, a lively market place... I was almost robbed here for the first time during my trip, but people around me tackled the guy and gave me my money back. Right on! If I ever return here Cape Coast is where I'm going to stay.

I'll be in Ghana until Saturday and then I'm off to Cape Town, South Africa. Nice to go to a bit cooler climate (only a bit though) that won't mess with my head anymore. I almost tried to take a picture with the air conditioning remote just now.

perjantai 11. maaliskuuta 2011

Rush hour Africa

I've heard the most hectic traffic in the world is in India. Haven't been there but I think I have some good comparisons already from this trip. In China any public transportation - or any queue actually - is a hoot. There's no queue really, there's just a bunch of people rushing. And forget about giving room or a seat to an elderly or a disabled person. If you start having a concience, you'll never make it to your destination. A London rush hour Tube is also a blast. I almost fainted carrying my rucksack to the airport in the middle of crowds created by the Jubilee line delays. The Londoners were just fine. Apparently the Tube has taught them to breathe even when there's no oxygen.

In Ghana the local buses, trotros, have offered yet new insane traffic experiences. The trotros are minibuses that are usually jam-packed with people. You wait for one at the roadside and when the trotro stops the conductor, or "mate", steps out and shouts where the bus is going. And pay attention - for example, when your destination is Circle in Accra the pronounciation for it is "Sehk".

Trotro hopping.
The trip from my home in Amanfrom to central Accra is about 1-2 hours depending on the traffic, which is usually heavy. And it gets hot! It's a good thing the street vendors sell everything from sweat-wiping towels to drinking water on the way, straight through the open trotro windows, otherwise I probably would've been hospitalised a couple of times already.

So the trotro can get hot and it can also break. I've been on one twice as it's broken down in the middle of the road. The driver and mate usually start to fix it right then and there. My very first trotro ride was one of these unsuccessful trips and when the other passengers noticed the confused obruni (white person) they just told me to follow them and we walked to the next bus stop (only to be picked up by the same trotro they'd gotten fixed). Even if it's not your trotro that signs off you can usually see some on the roadside filled with passengers and someone changing the tyre on it or something. Normally in Finland people would be furious. How can this happen? On a public bus? Outrageous! But not here. People gather their things, buy a mango and wait for another trotro or the car to start.

Taking the trotro to the Children's Village in Kumasi.

And it's not just people you travel with in trotros, it's their possessions too. Last weekend I sat in the backseat between a car tyre and an antenna. I witnessed a massive fight on a bus when someone tried to move a piece of furniture in the small minibus. The driver got so upset he turned off the engine and went to sit on the curb and pout. He didn't start the car until the mover was out.

This is why Ghana uses both GMT and "African time". You can't really schedule anything very precisely because you never know when you'll get into a trotro not to mention your final destination. You never know when the door of your minibus will fall off. But it's all okay. How can anyone get upset with the cheerful African music playing in the background (it really does always play everywhere).

So the traffic is chaos but this is the most relaxed traffic chaos I've seen anywhere and the only fight on the road has been about furniture. So please, when entering the country please don't import fruits, meats or your road rage.

keskiviikko 2. maaliskuuta 2011

Traveling alone

There are ups and downs to both traveling with someone and traveling alone and neither one is better than the other. When you have company you have to make compromises and get used to living 24/7 with another person, but then again you can share all your experiences with someone. When you're alone you can do whatever you want, whenever you want but, well, of course you're alone.

When I was preparing for this year's journey people's reactions were still surprising. The most frequently asked questions were "Are you really going to do it all alone?" and "How will you handle it?" That got me thinking, are people that afraid of being alone? I've figured if you don't enjoy your own company, who else will?

Of course traveling alone isn't for everyone and like I mentioned it has it's ups and downs, but I thought I'd write about the good sides of it, because I think there are many excellent reasons to at least once in your life leave everything - and everyone - behind for a while.

Befriending new people is much easier when you're alone than if you have an old friend to talk to. Instead of the "where do we go next?" hassle you can concentrate on going exactly where you want to go and use your energy into meeting other people.

You won't have any fights with anyone you care about - other than maybe yourself for making stupid decisions. You can eat where you want and take a break whenever you feel like it and nobody else's break will spoil your groove.

The most important thing in my mind, though, is that you'll learn more about yourself than ever at home. You can rely only on yourself to take care of business and when you travel alone you discover just what you're made of. Problem solution, communicating with others (even though you wouldn't have a mutual language) and mapping your way through unknown territories. Doing all that even on a short weekend trip to the next village can make you feel mighty good.

And when you get back home you'll appreciate your friends and family in a whole new way. And the fact that you know how to use that old ticket vending machine at your local bus station.

Earlier I promised to tell you why my current location, London, is sort of an important city to my existence. My parents actually met here. So if there are any complaints about me or my brother, send them to the mayor.