Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Eat, Drink, Pedal 2

For the last few blog posts I've written about my early-November (time flies!) bike ride from Accra to the Lake Volta region about 60 miles north of the Ghanaian capital.  Here is the fourth, and final, post about this journey.

Recently I wrote about my cousin Glen teaching me - on a three month bicycle ride across the US in 2002 - not only to pedal hard, but also to take care of myself while riding.  He taught me well, and most of the time I follow his wise advice.

But, we wouldn't be human if we didn't want to do things our own way - and forget our lessons - now and again.

My three-day bike trip to Lake Volta and the Akosombo Dam was coming to an end.  I had pedaled hard for a day to get there, explored the area another day, and now only the 100 kilometer (60 mile) ride back home to Accra remained.

I slipped out of the Afrikiko Resort early, just after sunrise, hoping to beat the day's heat.  Though my muscles ached from two days of riding, it felt good to get back on the bike.  That reminded me of Glen: he'd always find joy in 'saddling up,' bad weather or sore body be darned.

As I hit the road thinking about Glen... I realized that I was completely disregarding everything he had taught me.  I was setting out into an equatorial day with no sunglasses (broken), no breakfast (cook wasn't up yet), and only a few drops of liquid in my water bottles.

How daft!  You're supposed to eat and drink, then pedal.  But I knew that, though Glen is gone now, Ghana would provide.

I definitely needed some water.  Get dehydrated in this land, where the sun is darn near straight overhead, and you're toast.  So, in the nearby town of Atimpoku, I pulled over at a small watering hole.  The owner took awhile to acknowledge me, and he looked quite sullen at my request for water.  But suddenly he was running over to the shop next door to find me a bottle, since he was all out.

Water, check.

At the road-side 'bars' where I stop for water and a cold drink,
there's often chickens underfoot...

Eggs always appeal for breakfast, and in Ghana it's normal to find egg sandwiches as street food.  So, in the next town, Kpong, I stopped for one.  I sat on a low wooden bench in the dirt at the side of the road while a woman fried up some egg on 'tea bread' for me from her tiny open-air stand.

Here's the tasty result.

Breakfast, check.

Sunglasses were harder.  Here, they are not sold in shops.  Instead, you've got to find an itinerant salesman.  You'll see him sitting under a tree, or walking around a market, carrying a foam block with dozens of glasses stuck into it.  I guess these guys like to sleep in, though, because my sun-dazzled eyes just could not find one of those bright yellow foam blocks.

After asking around, I finally ran into a sunglass-guy at a local bus 'station.'  Unfortunately, I was too intent on my purchase to fully appreciate the irony that it was a blind guy - I think - who first helped me out when I pulled up.  A shirtless-but-seeing man showed up, then, to do the deal, and I finally had my eye protection.

After taking time for all those errands, I had to put my head down, then, and get some kilometers covered.  Around noon I looked up and there was the big roundabout at Tema, the port city just east of Accra.  Ah, only 20 more kilometers to go.

But those were some long kilometers.

A couple local riders had advised me to, on my way home, simply use the motorway to get from Tema to Accra, since it is the most direct route.  But wait a minute now, the motorway, I find, is a four-lane highway, and when I took their advice I instantly regretted it.  The shoulder was rough and strewn with glass, and when I tried to ride the edge of the better-surfaced main lanes then I had trucks whizzing by at 60 miles per hour, scant feet away.  But I was too tired to turn around.

And that's when the final lesson from Glen kicked in: sometimes, it's enough to just keep pedaling.  You've pedaled hard, you've tried to treat your body right, but now the sun is high and passing cars are going frighteningly fast.  Your muscles are screaming at you and your butt hurts, and home is another eighteen kilometers ahead.  Now you just gotta spend enough time in the saddle, with your legs goin' 'round and 'round, and you'll get there.

I thought, then, about the first 'century' (100-mile) ride I'd ever done.  Glen and I had made it to Columbus, Ohio, on our cross-country trek.  We decided to try to reach Goshen, Indiana, before a friend left town, which meant we had to cover over 200 miles in 2 days.  I didn't think we could do it.  But we got on the bike early, and pedaled till it was dark, and we made it.  Thank God the American midwest is flat.

I did get off that Ghanian motorway, then.  When I realized I was chanting, "Just don't get dead," to myself as I tried to keep my legs going, I knew I had to find an alternate route, even if it was less direct.  Glen always hated riding the high-traffic roads more than I did, anyway.

And I made it home safely.  Thanks, Glen, for those bike - and life - lessons.  I'll do my best to live them.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Afrikiko, Atimpoku, Akosombo, Dam!

In the beginning of November, as referenced in preceding posts, I rode my bicycle from my home in Accra, Ghana's capital, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north to the Akosombo region at the southern end of Lake Volta.

My route took me from Legon at the northern edge of Accra, through the jam-packed 'suburb' of Medina...

...then on to the towns of Dodowa and Somanya until I arrived on the banks of the Volta River at Kpong.

A few kilometers further I came to the town of Atimpoku.  Here there is a bridge across the Volta...

...giving access to the towns of Ho and Hohoe and the hills on the eastern shore of the lake, next to neighboring Togo.  According to my map there's only two bridges for what must be a 75 mile stretch of river between the lake and the ocean.  Maybe that's why Atimpoku had the looks of a small transport hub, with a hoppin' tro-tro (mini-bus) stop where women by the dozens flocked around any stopped vehicle trying to sell bread and bananas through the windows.

Not far above Atimpoku, then, I found the Afrikiko Water Front Resort.

Tired from a long day of riding in the sun, this place felt like paradise.  A little room with a colorful bedspread...

...and an AC unit kept me cool while I rested.  Then the waterfront deck and restaurant gave me exactly what I wanted: a cold drink and a good meal with great views over the wide Volta River and the forested hills on either side.  A little European football (soccer) on the satellite TV didn't hurt, either.

The next day, I got out to explore.  Other than the river and the lake itself, the main attraction of the area is the Akosombo Dam.  This 1960's construction formed Lake Volta, the largest human-made lake in the world.

Approaching the dam, the view from the road made it worth the trip.  What was even better: due to recent rains in the north the lake level was very high, and so the dam's spill doors were open.  Long columns of white water thundered down the spillway, sending up a roar and a plume of mist like Niagara.

Someone pointed me down a dirt path...

...which I was able to ride to the water's edge, getting even better views of the dam.  Lots of locals were out dam-watching, too, and I later learned that the spillway hadn't been opened in eighteen years.  I felt lucky to be there, by chance, at just the right time.


I rode a little further north, then, through the hills to get above the dam to the edge of the lake itself.  There I found the dock for the Dodi Princess, an excursion boat kept by the posh Volta Hotel for weekend picnic cruises on the lake.  Workers were extending the boat pier's gangplank, which had been overtaken by the rising water.

I confess, then, I didn't do too much more exploring.  In fact, I was back in my comfy room at the Afrikiko by 3 - it was just too hot.  But I was really glad I had made the trip.  Finding this little forested, lake-ed, and river-ed corner of the world was nicely satisfying.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Butterfly Kicks Man's Butt, Flies Away

From our local correspondent in the lower Lake Volta region, Ghana
Friday, November 5, 2010
When the obruni couldn't get close enough to the butterfly to take
a photo of it, he snapped these seed pods instead

It was reported that, yesterday, near Lake Volta in the Akosombo Region of Ghana, an obruni (white man) on a bike ride had his butt kicked by a butterfly.

"I was just pedaling along," the man said mournfully, "and out of nowhere this beautiful, teal-winged butterfly passed me from behind.  I tried to catch up to it, but it just left me in the dust."

The obruni tried to follow the butterfly up a hill, he said, but couldn't keep pace with it.

"I was feeling completely worthless," he continued, "getting passed and then beaten by such a small and delicate creature.  Then, on a downhill, it was suddenly just in front of me again.  I pedaled frantically and even gained on it, but on the next uphill it completely left me behind and disappeared.  I was so dejected, and I never saw it again."

This story was told to me later that day by the obruni himself.  I had gone to the dock of the "Dodi Princess" picnic boat on Lake Volta to cover the rising water levels on the lake.

I found the man there, sitting dejectedly under a tree, fiddling with his sunglasses.  The incident with the butterfly, he indicated, had completely sapped his strength.

"I was planning to explore a bit around the lake then ride back to Accra today," he said,  "But I couldn't even make it out to the end of the lake road to Gyakiti, not far away."

The obruni had ridden his bicycle from Accra through Dodowa to Akosombo the day before - given the heat, a feat of either incredible fortitude or stupidity, we're not sure which.

The man attempted then to explain away his poor performance against the butterfly.  "I've heard that the water from Lake Volta gives insects in this region special powers," he said.

Bystanders immediately questioned this assertion.  "But I heard this reliably from a local herbalist," he insisted.

"I'm not at all making it up to make myself feel better."

We think the equatorial sun has probably gotten to this obruni's head.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Eat, Drink, Pedal

If the recent book and movie Eat, Pray, Love can link Italy, India, and Indonesia, then maybe my eating, drinking, and pedaling can connect Ghana, Afghanistan, and America.

When my cousin Glen Lapp died in Afghanistan in early August, I gave one of the eulogies at a memorial service in his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the United States. In that speech, I told how the phrase "pedal harder" was Glen's mantra for a bike trip we did in 2002, and how it expressed his approach to life.

He didn't just live this phrase himself, though. Glen also had a way of convincing others that, at least for a time, this could be their motto, too. Since his death, it's been no different.

Glen's go-hard-at-life approach has become inspiration for those who wish to carry his spirit forward. There's been a "Let's go!" editorial, a Pedal Harder bike ride through late-October Lancaster countryside, a blog post from a fellow hiker on a years-ago Chile trip, and people from teachers to artists to adventurers telling how Glen's persistent endurance and caring sacrifice has encouraged them.

But, while he taught me to pedal hard on our 2002 bike ride across the US, Glen also shared the value of being good to yourself. Early in our trip, soon after we rode out his front door in Lancaster, Glen taught me a catchy little phrase: "Eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty."

Newbie bike-tour rider that I was, I blinked twice at this. I'd always thought you should listen to your body, not indulge it.

Glen explained that, with the high energy output we'd be daily asking of our muscles, our minds might have trouble keeping up. And so, if we waited until our brain cried out "Thirsty!" or "Hungry!" that meant we were already past the point of need.

It's like you're a newborn, and if you're already crying then milk should have been at your lips twenty minutes ago. Sometimes you have to baby yourself.

A couple weeks back, since I don't live in Lancaster, I did my own Pedal Harder ride here in Ghana. I cycled about 60 miles north from Accra, Ghana's capital, to the Akosombo region at the bottom of Lake Volta.

There were no Amish buggies to pass, no autumn leaves in reds and yellows, and gloves weren't necessary against the morning chill. No, in this nearly-equatorial land it was so hot that my "drink before you're thirsty" catch-phrase meant my two water bottles were always nearly empty. I did get to ride through acres of mango orchards, though, take in the reds of drying chilies, sit in blessed shade along the lazy Volta River, and enjoy forested hills rising from an expanse of dark blue water.

Along the way, I stopped (before I was hungry, of course) to eat at a roadside shack, the By His Grace restaurant. Stepping across an open ditch, I entered a room barely ten feet square. A rusty refrigerator hummed beside shelves that held a row of metal pots, next to two small tables with a few chairs squeezed around them.

Just the kind of place Glen might have appreciated.

I sat and ate a plate of chicken, with a spicy sauce and rice, out of one of the pots. As I ate I thought about my three month ride with Glen across the US. I remembered the frigid day in North Dakota, in the middle of nowhere, when Glen insisted we pull over for a snack. It was too miserably cold to stop, I thought, but Glen knew our bodies' need.

We ate some graham crackers and peanut butter, then, shivering on the windswept roadside. And the peanut butter made it better.

Later in my ride to Akosombo, my water bottles needing a refill, I pulled over at a small storefront. Sitting in a dusty plastic chair on a dusty concrete patio, I drank a cold Sprite and watched the store owner nap under a nearby tree.

As I sipped I thought about the late November day when Glen and I had just finished pedaling a 16 mile trail along California's Lost Coast. It had taken two days to do this hiking path with our loaded bikes, not one day like we had hoped. The night before, for our Thanksgiving dinner we had eaten a cup of rice each, with soy sauce. We were completely out of water, and the nearest store was still miles ahead.

Glen, ever resourceful, flagged down a passing pickup. He artfully coaxed the driver, then, into giving us a little water.

So, here's the lesson: Eat, Drink, then Pedal. And while you're pedaling hard through life, remember to reach for the peanut butter before your body screams for protein. Don't be afraid to ask someone for a drink. And, now and then, baby yourself.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Obama's Dairy Policy Reaches Dakar

Caption: And what tasty flavor of ice cream is this? A fine cinnamon, perhaps? A dainty dollop from the sea for a nautically Dakar-ian twist on the icy treat? No no, it is the flavor of an American president!

Today I had an Obama-flavored milkshake. Chocolate, with crumbled cookies - slightly gooey - and a hint of caramel.

Classic Obama, for sure.

Caption: All that Obama-flavored goodness, in a cup. Sip that through a straw!

I'm in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, for a week, enjoying good food, a lively street and architecture scene, and the furthest west coastline on the African continent.

There's an ice cream shop just around the corner from my hotel. It's called N'Ice. Very nice. So nice I've been going just about every day.

Caption: She scoops up Obama with the greatest of ease.

I might actually need that Obama health care plan soon.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Performance Art-vertising

Walking down Oxford Street the other day in Osu, Accra's shopping-and-restaurants area, I saw this guy all painted up and advertising for Zion Thai Restaurant.

I guess performance art, of a sort, has made it to Ghana.

And if performance art and advertising have already dovetailed here to help this guy create a little business opportunity - for himself and for the restaurant - then that's saying something about Ghana's level of development.

It's amazing what a little peace and stability can do. Next thing will be graffitti and Segway scooters, punk rock and mock political rallies.

By the way, if you live in Accra, do check out Zion Thai - it's in Osu down the Papaye street. And if you like things spicy, order the papaya salad: it'll turn your cheeks the shade of this guy's ankles.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Bike, with Basket

I am now the proud owner of a bike with a basket on the front.

Yes, a proper ride-your-poodle-around-the-neighborhood kind of basket. Thank God it doesn't have a daisy printed on it.

Here in Accra, I don't want to take my shiny new Trek mountain bike - lovingly hand-flown in from the US - out around town on errands, leave it locked up outside stores. Plus, I need a bike with some cargo capacity for easy grocery transport. Thus, for the last couple weeks, I've had "buy beater bike" on my to-do list.

So a few days ago I set out from my house, flagged down one of Accra's orange-paneled taxis. This driver was a piece of work. "Six dollars," he said to my "how much," an outrageous price. But I bargained him down in Ghana cedis (the local currency), and off we went to the used bike markets along Nsawam Road, just north of the city's central Nkrumah Circle.

Along the way, this guy played his horn like it was a musical instrument and Accra traffic his band. "Boop, boop!" his thumb danced across the steering wheel, telling two pedestrians: go ahead, please, cross in front of me. "Beep boop-boop," get out of my way, to the car trying to cut him off. "Beep-bop," speed up in front of me, people!

Stopped at a traffic light, he bought a lollipop from a teenage girl pedaling candy down the long row of cars. He unwrapped it and licked it noisily. "It is nice sucker," he said to me gravely, smacking his lips.

He dropped me on Nsawam Road. This is a four lane, gritty, roarin' avenue, the main artery north from the city's center. And, in Accra, it's the place to buy a used bike.

Wandering the sidewalk rows, an alert shopper can find everything from beat-up local coasters to what were, five years ago, the latest mountain bikes in Europe or the US. Here they have a second life, shipped over to "the third world" and ending up in the street markets of West Africa.

Here's a beauty that I found, for instance.

This street-slicks mountain bike had a notably lighter frame than my brand new Trek, and what appeared to be a nice set of shocks and components. Although, just now I've been googling the "Lakes" brand and can't find much about it. So this one is either an awesome machine or the best fake I've ever seen. Either way, it was too expensive for me - even used on the streets of Accra - and so I moved on.

I considered buying one of the local coasters, then, the kind that still have the cute little curved handlebars, the curving dip of the center bar so that you can step easily onto the bicycle without having to swing your leg high and over. The kind that have the rear rack and the front basket and the fenders and the bell and the generator that rubs on the wheel and powers a little headlight - all standard.

Completely take-your-poode-for-a-ride ready.

I ended up, though, settling on an old Giant brand (a respected make) street-rider - complete with rear rack, fenders, and kick stand - something that probably saw many miles in the bike lanes of Oxford or Amsterdam.

I had fallen in love, though, with the image that presents itself often on the streets of Accra: a muscled Ghanaian man, in greasy clothes, barrelling through traffic on what we in the US would call a "grandma bike," that little poodle-basket on the front. And so, I asked my street-side seller of choice, nickname of "Tokyo," to throw a front basket into the deal.

Here's Tokyo attaching that basket...

...while I sit on a wooden bench and watch life go by.

Nothing like a hammer, a metal punch, and a rock to complete a bit of delicate basket-hanger modification!

And so, basket add-on complete, I now had a bike with all the errand-running cargo capacity I could wish for. And I put it to use right away.

I went to the local Wal-Mart-style store. I bought some floor mats. I strapped the three-foot-long mats to my rear carrier rack, and took off under soggy skies.

I stopped at a little side-of-the-road rope shack and bought some string. I put the string in the basket. It started drizzling.

I stopped at a home decor store and bought some hangars and a light bulb. I put those in the basket, too.

And, in the rain, I biked home happily, my daisy-less bike basket full of shopping goodies.

Next thing I'll be putting a poodle in there.