Tema Fish Market

Today Steven took me to Tema, a port city just outside Accra. It cost 1 cedi (20p) to get there on the motorway and another to get back, I’m not sure why as this road is as full of bumps and holes as all the others seem to be! Tema was buzzing with industry, concrete and aluminium factories, tuna processing, lots going on here. We even seemed to drive past a spot where forklift trucks went to die, or maybe just be repaired, it’s always hard to tell here. Due to the volume of trucks going in and out of Tema I saw several truck drivers removing tyres from wheel rims right by the roadside. Here in the dusty African sun this looked to be an exhausting affair. As we approached the port the roads got busy and I commented to Stephen on the age of the boys selling water at the junctions. He tells me they are often taken from the villages, promised an education in the city, and instead made to sell products at the roadside.

The fish market was a tad intimidating. Before I could get out the car baskets of various fish were thrust towards the window and I had to ease myself out and through the crowds. Stephen took me to a lady he knows, just a case of trusting him in this instance! She was determined to sell me a much as possible, I had to admire her tenacity. Now, I have to confess, that usually when I buy fish I am used to it being filleted already so when she held a big Tuna up in front of me I didn’t actually recognise it as a Tuna. I guess this is an education in itself, I probably should be able to pick a Tuna fish from a line up. I was offered a seat on a wooden bench while they organised my order. I watched all the ladies at work washing and preparing squid. A man appeared, singing loudly and walking through the stalls, I caught the word God and Stephen confirmed that he was preaching. A little while later with my prawns all peeled, my tuna de-headed and some money exchanged we were ready to head off with our fish bagged up in some ice (time to invest in a cool box I think). The fish lady promptly asked when I was coming back and whether she could have my phone number, which I politely declined. She suggested that I take friends so that I could have a special discount, I told you she was determined!   I got my obligatory free item, a sole fillet to try, presumably to encourage me to buy some next time. Stephen also got his obligatory free fish along with my Tuna head, he can’t understand why I don’t want it but it has probably made his day!



A Week in Accra

In some ways I feel it might be too soon for an Accra post. Aside from my October trip, when I was visiting the city for a week house hunting, I have only been here a total of seven days. However, my head is buzzing with all these new experiences and details and as this is essentially my diary I feel the need to get them written down. Perhaps my caveat is that I reserve the right to change the opinions expressed here at a later stage as I get to know our new African home!

Due to the common difficulty of securing a property in Accra we are currently living in a hotel. Thankfully we have managed to get somewhere with some basic cooking facilities. For me being able to prepare some basic meals, immediately makes me feel more settled. On Saturday we went to three large supermarkets. I have to admit coming away somewhat dismayed at the high price and poor quality of the fresh produce on display. Some things I can get used to, like the fact fresh milk is nearly impossible to obtain (UHT it is then) and the meat, as you might expect, is not fantastic quality. So you can maybe understand that the expensive wilting vegetables were somewhat depressing, but I wasn’t giving up that easily. After a bit of research and a chat with our driver Stephen he took me down to a little local veg stall. Hooray! Fresh vegetables and at a really good price. I’m fairly certain I’m probably paying some elevated expat price but I’m ok with that, at least it’s going to the local economy, rather than into the supermarket’s importing pockets.  I also love the fact that my business earned Stephen a free pineapple. There are many, many unemployed people in Accra so often they buy items from these markets and then walk the streets with them balanced on their heads selling them on through car windows.

As much as I despise the idea of being driven around in our fancy car it’s the way it has to be here. Our 4WD, the type often relegated to the school run in the UK, is actually really useful here in Accra. One turn off the main highway can lead to bumping up and down an surfaced road full of pot holes.

I’m always intrigued by how the English language has developed in countries where they have a native tongue. My favourite phrases noted so far are when I was taken to see a photocopy of a house because the one actually available still had tenants living inside. Then there is the Carvery sign at breakfast which lists the styles of eggs that the chef can prepare for you, clearly the word Carvery has been misinterpreted to mean selection. I’m not criticising these idiosyncrasies, in fact I’m always impressed by the ability to understand exactly what they mean. We really do have too many words in English!

Dubai – Love it or Hate it?

I really don’t think that I understand Dubai. We were warned it was quite westernised but I’m not sure I fully comprehended how that would manifest itself. Our hotel was on Jumeirah walk, known for its beach side location, trendy cafes and restaurants. All of which are alcohol free. In Dubai only hotels and private clubs contain licensed bars. This lack of alcohol is about the only hint that you are outside Europe in this swanky corner of the city. The February weather felt just like London in early summer, a deliciously warm sunshine with a cool air in the shade. The people walking around the luxury marina and working in the restaurants were mainly European and Asian. Later that evening, when we eventually established where we could have a beer, we were forced to breathe in second hand smoke, another small indication that we maybe weren’t in the western world.
With just a day and a half to explore this busy transfer hub I had booked us tickets to go up the world’s tallest building. The Burj Khalifa is a statement, an 828 metre, five hundred thousand tonne statement. It towers high above the city as a mark of achievement. Like much of modern Dubai it glistens and glitters in the dessert sunshine. Its lightening rod spire is so far away it appears like a needle in the clear blue sky. So determined was Dubai to puff out its chest and show off to the world they even had to alter the flight path of Dubai International Airport, curving round this beautiful feat of engineering. If that isn’t enough to blow your socks off the world’s second largest shopping mall sits at the base, with over 1200 shops and what seemed like hundreds of restaurants. If you decide to pick up a guide to the mall’s mind boggling array of establishments you would spot some mall etiquette on the inside cover. This includes dressing respectfully by covering shoulders and knees and refraining from public acts of affection, so a quick snog outside Bloomgdales is a no go. These rules of etiquette didn’t seem to be displayed anywhere other than the brochure and either many of the mall visitor’s didn’t care about them or simply didn’t know about them. After two years of living in South East Asia and being familiar with Islamic values, I had, thankfully, dressed appropriately. 
Apart from the occasional couple walking around in local dress we were feeling quite dismayed at the distinct lack of culture witnessed so far. Determined we might be missing some other side of Dubai we headed out on the open top sightseeing bus. This may be tourist central but it does allow you to see a lot of the city from an excellent double decked vantage point. Sure enough old Dubai is where some culture is hiding, although we didn’t have time to fully explore on this trip. Here there is a museum, traditional markets and buildings and definitely some signs of local life. It does seem strange however that a short bus ride down the road there is a palm shaped island with fronds of luxury houses owned by a cast of celebrities. The palm may look stunning in aerial photographs but on the open top bus ride down the central ‘trunk’ highway we had no awareness we were on this rather oddly shaped development. 
I can see how people either love of hate this booming corner of the dessert. As an expat you get sunshine, tax free living and all the comforts of home, more perhaps with paid helpers and fancy cars very affordable. I sensed an element of keeping up with the Jones, not an aspect of expat living I enjoy.  As a tourist you get something similar with what might be just enough culture for some. The Arabic road signs (also in English), the beautiful mosques that line the roads and a small proportion Arab men and women in their distinctive dress. The service in hotels and restaurants, although provided mostly by ex-pats, is in general exceptional. For us however, something is really missing. Has Dubai sold out its traditions, history and integrity to try to be the crowning jewel of the Emirates? Is it reliant on oil to keep the skyscrapers growing or has it established enough business to survive when the oil money dries up? Watch this space I guess, as development is still going strong out there in the dessert. 

Sri Lanka

Our holiday to Sri Lanka was planned quite a while ago and when the time arrived to catch a plane to Colombo the focus was on finding some time to relax, a break from the upheaval of moving. Looking out over the beach at Tangalla on the south coast was the perfect way to achieve that. Our accommodation faced the Indian Ocean and with no glass in the windows (only shutters) and open rafters the sound of the waves crashing against the beach was part of the ambient noise. The southwest Sri Lankan countryside, viewed from the road, is rich, lush and green. Egrets line the rice paddies and water buffalo can be seen lumbering along the back roads as local farmers move them from field to field. Then there are the peacocks. Just like sheep wonder the roads in rural Scotland or kangaroos in Australia, in Sri Lanka the peacocks are in abundance – drivers beware!

Our fist bit of culture came in the form of the Mulkirigala Temples, also known to tourists as the rock temple. Even the drive to the temple is fascinating as you pass through a green forest of coconut trees. Tucked away amongst the greenery are basic homes for local families, looking idyllic nestled beneath the trees. Coconuts are obviously an important food source here as stacks upon stacks of empty shells lay in piles just off the road. The rock temples comprise of seven caves over five terraces. Each contains a large reclining statue of the Buddha with additional seated statues nearby. Perhaps the real surprise though comes from the images overhead, painted directly onto the rocky roof. It’s said that temples in one form of another have been present on this site for 2000 years although the one you see today dates from the 18th century. In 1826 a Pali manuscript was found in the monastic library which was used for the first translation of the great chronicle. This allowed Europeans to shed light on Sri Lanaka’s early history.  I studied a reasonable amount of Buddhism as part of my training to be a docent at the Asian Civilisation Museum in Singapore. Here at the rock temple Hindu Gods are depicted alongside Buddha and as is often the case the more you learn about Buddhism, the more you realise there is so much left to understand. Its spread across Asian was complex and by no means uniform!
A few days later we went on Sri Lankan safari, heading to Uda Walawe national park. Here the guidebook promised us Elephants, crocodiles, water buffalo, deer and plenty of birds. We saw all of these although sadly there were no elephant herds. We did see four individual elephants and we had a really fantastic time. What the guide book doesn’t tell you is that the safari jeep experience is quite memorable. As we climbed aboard this raised vehicle with no windscreen and headed across the entrance road we were blasted with cool morning air. Around us an atmospheric mist could be seen in the dawn light and almost immediately the looming shape of an elephant at the roadside. Soon we were bouncing around the park with our eagle-eyed driver spotting and pointing out wildlife. After an hour we had seen so many peacocks we were tired of photographing them! The springy suspension of the jeep on the rough safari tracks made the whole experience quite a giggle and I’m still not sure how our driver managed to spot crocodiles way off in the distance amongst the water buffalo.
Our final day of Sri Lankan culture was a trip to the fort town of Galle.  The first small fort built here was constructed by the Portuguese in 1589 but the Dutch later destroyed most traces of it and rebuild during the 17th century. Galle was the main Sri Lankan port for over 200 years and it remains the administrative capital of the southern province. It is also a world heritage site as it is the largest remaining fortress in Asian built by European occupiers. Galle is very much a working town and as our driver dropped us outside the court house we saw the day to day life was thriving. As well as the busy legal business afoot the quaint streets of the old town are lined with shops selling Sri Lankan jewels and other art gems from around the world. With trendy cafes and pretty hotels Galle is the sort of place you could easily immerse yourself for a few days.

Finally I cannot go without a mention of the wonderful Sri Lankan people and food. Tasty curries and vegetables, buffalo curd pudding and hoppers for breakfast, the perfect gluten free egg roll. We were well looked after by the house staff and I really didn’t come across any element of pushiness at the markets that is so often off putting in Asian countries. Perhaps that is down to the pace of life there, where a restaurant meal may take an hour or more to arrive and even waiting for a drink at a sandy bar is long enough for you to get eaten alive by sand flies and mosquitoes, but hey we live in Africa now, waiting for things is our normality!