Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This Should Bring in the Tourists...

A little sticker-gem from the hotel in Kumasi that I stayed in after my bike ride to Ghana's second city.

Check back soon for more about that ride, including my successful search for Ghana's bamboo bike manufacturers.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Looniest Thing I've Done in Awhile

Last week I rode my bicycle 60 miles over Ghana's uneven roads, braving bug bites and speeding trucks, overflowing streams and tropical heat, to the riverside town of Akosombo.

But that wasn't the crazy thing.  The loony was what happened after.

See, on my way back from Akosombo to Accra, I heard a metallic pop from the vicinity of my rear wheel.  I looked down through the pannier-laden rear rack.  Broken spoke.  Crap.

I wanted to keep pedaling - the hill I'd been looking forward to climbing was just ahead.

"Lots of people in the world ride bikes with wobbly wheels," my brain reasoned.  But some sane advice from a friend convinced me to stop.

I flagged down a tro-tro, one of Ghana's go-everywhere, rattletrap, privately-run, minivan-style buses.  The driver hopped out to lash my bike into the scant rear 'boot' of his rattle-y contraption.

"No-no," I said, horrified that my bike might travel in such appalling conditions.  "I want to buy one seat!"

"Ok, one seat!" the tro-tro conductor said.  

And so, for my bike's safe and comfortable transport, I paid the equivalent of three fares to Accra - for it stretched itself perfectly across the front bench seat, just behind the driver, taking up the same space as three people.

And bike and rider were both safely home within two hours.

So, that was kind of crazy, treating my bike like three people.  But loonier far was what I did next.

I wanted that rear wheel fixed, and the only person I knew to turn to in Accra was Wisdom Toxla.  He's a local bike builder who I had met just the previous week doing an interview with Craig Calfee.  Craig is a US-based bike designer who built one of the first modern bamboo bikes, and I caught up with him in Accra where he was helping Wisdom and other local builders make and market bikes fashioned from Ghanaian bamboo.

So I called up Wisdom, and he said I should come right over to his shop.  Trouble was, that meant getting way across town to the market-neighborhood of Kaneshie, and I knew traffic would be bad.  I didn't want to sit in a taxi for an hour.

Then I realized, hey, I'm already in biking gear.  I've already got sunblock on.  I'll just ride over there.

But wait, you say, how could I ride my bicycle if its missing a rear wheel?  Well, I have a second bike, see, a 'beater bike' for running errands and such.  So, I popped that broken-spoke rear wheel off my mountain bike, got onto my beater bike, and took off.

And now, finally, here comes the loony.

For the uninitiated - and sometimes even for the initiated - simply riding a bike through Accra traffic is crazy enough.

Tro-tros are always pulling over in front of you as they pick or drop passengers at the roadside.  There's long lines of traffic stopped at lights, which means shooting between lanes of cars to advance.  There's side-of-the-road and middle-of-the-road street-goods sellers to dodge as they go car-door to car-door working the same long lines of traffic at the lights.  There's smoke-belching, dubiously-maintained trucks carrying huge containers from the Tema port with drivers who care not a whit about a peon on a bike.  And, in the general melee of Accra traffic-time, spaces between vehicles are sometimes so tight that not even a bicycle can get through.

Caught between tro-tro and motorcycle, this is how the traffic gets,
sometimes, in Ghana.

Now here I was, dealing with all this - plus I had a bike tire dangling off my left-side handlebar!

I had started out simply carrying the tire in my left hand and riding with my right hand.  But a bike wheel, I discovered, is much heavier than I thought.  So I soon hung the wheel from my handlebar, gaining also the advantage of steering with two hands instead of just one.

As luck would have it, I soon ran into some of the worst traffic Accra has to offer.  There had been flooding, just the day before, at the central Nkrumah Circle roundabout, and cross-town traffic was at a standstill for kilometers at a stretch.

So I launched my determined self down the long lines of cars and trucks, pedaling now between the lanes, now on the street-side shoulder.  I had to put my bike-bell to good use warning those street-sellers to get out of my way.  Several times I dragged my bike up on a sidewalk or median to get past a particularly snarled section of traffic.  All the while that bike wheel dangling off my handlebar.

Completely loony.

I don't know how many times that dangling wheel nearly hit a car's rear lights or side-panel as it swung back and forth from the handlebar with each cutting-through-traffic swerve.  But I loved the thrill of the charge, of going faster than all those four-wheeled beasts irredeemably stuck in the worst Accra-jam I've seen.

And, miraculously, within twenty minutes of my arrival at his shop, Wisdom had the spoke replaced and that rear wheel was good as new.

Wisdom truing my rear wheel on one of his bamboo bike frames.

Time to charge home.  Back into traffic.  Rear wheel dangling from that handlebar once more.

Edging my swervy, dangly way back through the snarl of cars and trucks and pedestrians at Circle, I spotted a guy selling some small foam blocks.  I remembered that I needed a couple for my Halloween outfit.  I stopped at the roadside and hissed at him.

He came over, dodging traffic.  I asked how much.  "Fifty pesewas for one," he said.

"Twenty," I said.

I leaned my bike over to let a motorcycle squeeze between us and a crammed-full tro-tro.

"Fifty," he said.

"Oh!  That is the obruni price," I said.  You're treating me like a no-nothing white man.

"No, no…" he started, slightly aggrieved.  Then he caught the twinkle in my eye.  He laughed.

A bus stopped on my left, its door right next to me.  Passengers had to dodge my bicycle immediately upon stepping down.  The bus driver didn't move.  The passengers didn't seem to mind.  I held my ground.  I bought two of the foam blocks.

Then I saw a ten year old kid peddling Fan Ice, a Ghana-made soft ice cream product sold in a small plastic pouch.  I hissed at him, or her, I wasn't sure which.

"One Fan Ice," I said.  He didn't say a thing, just dug in her pocket for the change he knew I would want then took the box of ice cream pouches off her head to hand me one.

I threw the foam blocks and the Fan Ice into my bike's front basket and took off again.

Through Circle, the traffic cleared.  It was time to eat my Fan Ice.

Now, you gotta understand, I'd been craving a Fan Ice since 10 in the morning, when I had been working up a sweat on my way back to Accra, before that spoke broke.  It was now four in the afternoon, and a lot of craziness had happened since that 10 am desire.

And so, with my left hand both steering and holding onto the bike wheel as it dangled from the handlebar, and with my right hand clutching the Fan Ice pouch, I glided over and around the potholes of Accra in soft-ice-cream-fueled bliss, insanely happy.

Sometimes, ice cream deferred is the best ice cream there is.  Even if it comes with a dripping topping of loony.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"I love you, my darling!"

I was on my way from Accra to Aksomobo on my mountain bike last week, some 60 miles by (mostly) paved road.

I had ridden safely through the congested 'suburb' of dusty Medina and pedaled my way across the gently rolling flats that followed, and was almost at the climb into the low hills north of Accra city.

Pulling past a tollbooth tucked in at the base of the climb, I looked briefly into the small knot of road-side sellers - hawking bread, or cell phone cards, or plantain chips - that alway gathers there.

I made eye contact with a teenage girl.  Her head was shaved, like most school-age girls around, and she wore a red T-shirt.  She looked back at my white, bike-helmeted self and laughed.

"I love you, my darling!" she spontaneously called out.

This is what I love about my long rides here: the love that Ghana shows to me.  The loveliest offerings - like the woman calling to me at the tollbooth - being the random encounters with people and things that simply tickle my randomosity-loving side.

Later, up in those hills, I heard a shout.  I looked up to see a young man hoeing a field on the side of a green hill.

"You are my brother," he yelled out.  I waved.

Then: "Take me to Europe," he cried.  He held up his hands.  "I am ready!"

He had no luggage other than his hoe, and I'm guessing no passport either.  But I don't doubt that, if I had said yes, he would indeed have been completely ready.

Not long after that, I happened upon a very yellow building, Victory International School.  But better even than the irony of a school in hill-country Ghana being called 'international' was the Disney-style decor hung on the yellow walls.

Evidently, Snow White goes to school in Ghana.

Then there was the taxi driver overhauling his engine by the side of the road.  His orange-hipped chariot parked on the shoulder, hood open.  Engine in ten pieces strewn on the pavement in front of the car, all the pistons out.  No repair shop needed.

The electric blue sky was a treat, too, more random love in a tropical country that most often thrives on a humid haze.

Another 'treat' was this freakish painting on the outer wall of a medicine man's compound.

I didn't stick around to see if the medicine man might give me some love or throw me a curse.

The next morning, pedaling back toward Accra from Akosombo, the random-ness started again with an 8 foot tall by 8 foot wide stack of speakers set out in a dirt courtyard, pumping hip-life music into the 9 am air, no party in sight.

Not long after, I passed a small roadside stall of shoes for sale.  The shoe-seller was polishing and putting out his wares for the morning.  He gave me a big, exaggerated wink as I pedaled past.  Just showin' the love.

Then a tro-tro (local minibus) showed me some love, too - in its own way.  It ran me off the road.

When I took exception to this, yelling at the young 'conductor' as I pedaled beside, he simply stuck his head out the window of the minivan's sliding side door and said to me mildly, "Don't fight, my man."  Ah, Ghana.

Soon I was treated to a tro-tro 'school bus' full of blue-suited schoolkids yelling "Obruni, obruni" at me.  "White man, white man."

And then, in a shop-wall mural depicting an idyllic country-pond scene, a painting of a rabbit riding a goose.

Later, the randomness continued as, pushing my sunglasses up on my nose, they simply disintegrated off my face, falling to the pavement in several pieces.

Apparently, they didn't love me.

Maybe my touch was simply more powerful than I knew.  Or maybe I had indeed picked up a touch of a curse when I stopped to photograph that medicine man's paintings.  Here's another one.

We'll hope the Ghana love wins out over the Ghana jinx.