In the city of Palladio

Even though it’s been home to a U.S. military base for several decades, Vicenza is thankfully devoid of pawn/gun shops, fast food and billboards for cheap divorce lawyers. Instead, it’s smattered with awe-inspiring Palladian architecture, exquisite churches (thank you, Catholics!) and of course, fine, inexpensive eateries. We toured the town and surrounding area, fittingly, in Clint and April’s Mini Cooper. Because early February is not a heavy tourism time anywhere in northern Italy (other than Rome, where all year is a heavy tourism time), we were able to wander around unfettered by crowds. April brought us to the Teatro Olimpico, the courtyard of which is characterized by aging sculptures and ivy-covered brick walls, and the Basilica Palladiana, in front of which sat dozens of brow-furrowing architecture students, all fiercely ignoring us as they sketched.

At a local restaurant, we savored tortellini in broth and breaded baccala with fried broccoli and crème brûlée for ten euro apiece, along with a local cocktail called a spritz. A spritz (or “the splitz,” as we began calling it, to make the men feel less pansy when ordering it) is, according to Wikipedia:

“The Spritz is a wine-based cocktail commonly served as an apertif in northern Italy, especially in the Veneto region and surrounding areas. The drink is prepared with white wine or Prosecco wine, a dash of some bitter liqueur such as Aperol, Campari, Gran Classico, Select or Cynar. The glass is then topped off with sparkling mineral water. It is usually served over ice in a lowball glass (or sometimes a martini glass or wine glass) and garnished a slice of orange, or sometimes an olive, depending on the liqueur. Another variation of the drink uses champagne with the liqueur rather than wine.”

It’s a complicated description for the most perfect afternoon beverage since the shot of tequila, and as it only cost, on average, two euro, we all partook willingly and frequently.

At sunset, April brought us to the top of Monte Berico, upon which stands the Vicenza Cathedral. During the day, she told us, it is where tourists and locals alike flock to see a panoramic view of the city, and at night, it is where teenagers flock to make out and smoke hash. While we were there, Wednesday evening mass was in progress, and we respectfully stood in the back, trying not to gasp too loudly at the cathedral’s gorgeousness. As the sun sank below the horizon, we piled into the Mini and went home for dinner.

In the courtyard of the Teatro Olimpico.

Statue, ripened with age, in the Teatro Olimpico courtyard.

At the top of Monte Berico.

Vicenza Cathedral


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Delicious in every way

The rest of our time in Italy was characterized by a blur of frescoed churches and museums, delectable food and drink, mind-blowing panoramic views, and the complete impossibility that is mental euro-to-dollar conversion. We city-hopped from Florence to Vicenza to Venice to Verona with my old friends from Army days, Clint and April, then finished the trip with an unexpected bang: a weekend in Innsbruck, Austria. I truly meant to continue being a responsible little travel-logger, but kept getting distracted by the traveling part. I’ve segmented the next few entries by city, beginning with Florence.

We stayed at the Relais Florence Hotel, a quiet little guest house so close to the train station that I hadn’t even fully gotten a grip on my suitcase handle before we were there. It was run by a friendly couple, Pietro and Marcella, who spoke perfect English and were unfailingly accommodating. We arrived right before dinner time, and when we asked him where the locals go to eat, Pietro listed a few recommendation.

“You like meat?” he asked us.

“Yes,” we replied in unison. He directed us to Trattoria del Carmine.

“Tell them I sent you, and order the Florentine bistec,” he said, adding, “Make sure the chef shows you the meat before he cooks it.”

Well, we saw the meat – a beautiful one-kilogram hunk of cow, ordered medium rare. We also saw the appetizers – thick minestrone soup and crostini misto, four different kinds of bruschetta – and the wine, the name of which I sadly can’t recall, although the bottle was well worth its price tag. I was full by the time our entree came out, and was forced to reason with my stomach, “Look, you’re only going to be in Florence on your honeymoon once – so don’t give up on me now. Eat like an Italian!”

We stayed at Trattoria del Carmine for three hours, savoring each bite and enjoying being the only patrons in the crowded restaurant who were speaking English. The owner knocked a few euro off of our bill at the end of the night, and as we lumbered back to our hotel, we compared notes. All future steaks will pale in comparison, we decided, and I toyed with the idea of becoming a vegetarian simply to avoid disappointment. In the end I ruled it out, concluding that there will always be a better steak out there, and that my mission was to find it. The search will be long and arduous, but I think I can manage.


The next day, my friend April arrived in Florence, by way of a train from Vicenza, where she and her husband are stationed. It had been years since we’d seen each other, and Erik patiently endured our chattering as he navigated us around the city on another whirlwind sight-seeing tour, Map of Shame in hand.

We began at the Accademia, where we visited Michelangelo’s David (ironically of goliath proportions) and the impressive musical instrument gallery, where I got my first gander at a tromba marina (a triangular-shaped bowed instrument with one string that emits a trumpet-like sound when played) among other medieval and Renaissance pieces. The gallery was, of course, full of larger-than-life paintings and sculptures, but it was also kept at approximately a couple hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and after an hour or so of sweatily appreciating the art gallery, it was time to move on.

When we walked into the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (the cathedral church, or Duomo, of Florence), my senses were instantly overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it. The gigantic fresco of the Last Judgment under the dome itself was enough to make my knees weak even from the floor, but Erik and I climbed the 463 steps to the cupola to see it up close. Leaning at a nearly ninety-degree angle to gape at the gigantic mural, I was convinced that nothing further could take my breath away so effectively. Until, that is, we reached the top of the steps and walked outside.

Erik had been to the Duomo before and knew what lay in store for us at the top, but I never had, and as I rarely like to spoil a moment of happy surprise by reading about sights in guidebooks as a precursor to seeing them in person, I had no idea that I was about to take in the entire city of Florence, bird’s-eye-view style. The sun was setting, and the sky turned pink and red as the wind whipped around our heads. “This is ridiculous,” I said to Erik. “Why can’t we ever go anywhere nice?”

We strolled across the Ponte Vecchio after sunset, through delightfully uncrowded streets, and made our way back toward the train station. After a satisfying dinner of pizza and gnocchi al quattro formaggio, we took to the rail: next stop, Vicenza.

The Duomo, from the ground.

The fresco, partially, from the cathedral floor.

Hellooo, Florence!

The fresco, up close.






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Hitting the ground walking

This entry was written on January 21. You may slap my wrist for neglecting to post it for so long. The rest of the Italy entries will be more distantly retrospective, as I was too busy/tired/full/drunk to compose them in a timely manner. Thanks for understanding.

Today is the start of our fourth day in Italy, and although I feel neglectful for not having written anything so far, I’ve only just started to feel rested enough to do so. Back in Ghana, we had set ourselves up for victory over jet lag by simply being on Greenwich Mean Time for two weeks, but screwed that particular pooch by sleeping maybe two hours the night before leaving Accra. This, it turns out, was Unwise.

Our flight the next evening was set to leave at 10, but it had been delayed indefinitely. Our gate was crowded and tempers were running high. A full-on fistfight was only narrowly averted after an exasperated (albeit very, very stupid) Frenchman grumbled out loud that “this country is shit.” Almost immediately, the Ghanaian men around him (of apparently every socioeconomic background) began yelling and shaking their fists at him. The group of angry men grew exponentially within seconds, shouting with indignation that “if Ghana is shit, why are you here? Eh? EH?! Why are you here? YOU are shit!” And so on. After about ten minutes of allowing the men to have their say, a couple of airport security guys ambled over and reluctantly escorted the offender to a separate part of the gate, looking somewhat disappointed that things hadn’t come to blows. I had to admire the restraint of the Ghanaians. Thankfully, the ordeal was mostly calmed down in time for us to board the plane.

By the time we were ready for take-off, my brain had settled in for a long night of infuriating activity.

“Don’t you want to stay up and think about stuff?” it seemed to say. “Not constructively or anything, just, think about stuff? For hours? Come on, it’ll be fun! Oooh, look, they have movies!” Etc. By the time we landed in Amsterdam for our layover, I was a veritable stew of delirium, shuffling like the undead through customs.

Because of the delay in Accra, we missed our connection in Amsterdam, and it was already afternoon when we finally arrived in Rome. We took a train and then the metro to our hotel, Il Passetto, which had been booked for us by my friends Clint and April, who had stayed there before. We had no idea what the place would be like before we arrived, so when the receptionist showed us to our room and opened the door to the balcony, we were pleasantly surprised to look to our left and see, across the piazza, the walls of Vatican City. “Hello, the pope!” we waved, and then set out to find some pizza.

We decided to spend the evening circumnavigating and then wandering around inside the Vatican, and specifically St. Peter’s Basilica, necks craned in an effort to take in as much impressive ornamentation as possible. It was too late to see the Sistine Chapel by the time we finished circling the walls, but we covered quite a lot of ground, constantly reminding each other that this particular ground has been this magnificent for hundreds of years omg and emitting a series of impressed gasps. We returned to our hotel room after dark, and after a late dinner of freshly-made sandwiches, pizza and Prosecco, we finally allowed ourselves to sleep.

The next day, we made a Plan.

We had considered trying to catch the Pope doing his thing that morning for Sunday mass, but peeking out our hotel balcony, we discovered that roughly seventy-eight percent of the world’s population had had a similar idea. They had formed a line which presumably began inside the Vatican, but which then wrapped around the walls and, subsequently, the block. Neither of us are particular into crowds (moving about in a herd of people tends to makes me react badly – I always end up loudly mooing at the folks in front of me), so the Vatican was off the list.

Pulling out the tourist map of Rome we had been given at our hotel (the Map of Shame, as we soon commenced to calling it), we put large circles around all of the places we wanted to visit during our one full day in Rome – which turned out to be all of the places on the map – and decided to do some walking. Eight hours of walking, to be exact.

Because it was Sunday morning, the streets were filled with weekend tourists and Italians walking to and from mass. Every church we passed had throngs of people around it, and every piazza was bustling with activity. Street musicians and performers leaked out of every brick, all equally dedicated to their crafts. In the Piazza del Popolo, a person made up as the Statue of Liberty stood motionless, torch outstretched, as tourists gathered directly behind him to watch a man doing silly magic tricks. Erik and I joined the crowd, feeling bad for the statue, but not bad enough to want to watch him standing there in his face paint and toga – the magician was, after all, riding around on a unicycle.

The weather was gray drizzly for most of the day, but we marched on, gelati and Map of Shame  in hand, following a well-worn trail of tourism to all of Rome’s most frequented sights – the Trinita Dei Monti, Fountain of Trevi, Spanish steps, Coliseum, Pantheon, all kinds of ruins, churches, piazzas and bridges. Fueled by espresso and pizza, we powered through the streets of Rome. “How come we never get to go anywhere beautiful?” we demand of one another every hour or so, usually whilst craning our necks to get a better view of some ancient building or other. “Gosh. This is stupid.”

We wrapped up our day in the capital the traditional tourist way, with an overpriced meal of pasta and wine, and used the raw carbohydrate energy to propel our heavy stomachs back to our hotel, where the lights of the Piazza Risorgimento sparkled outside our balcony. The crowds outside the Vatican had finally dispersed, but it was much too late to visit the Sistine Chapel. No matter – it’s just an excuse to return. Like we needed one.

Look at the gorgeous view! (And check out the pretty piazza behind him, too.)

I love these elegant-looking trees, but was unable to discover what they were called. Anyone know?

Mmm, deliciously hip-widening.

Goodnight, Roma!

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Winding down

Last night we all (with the exception of Jessie and Lucas, who took off for France a couple days ago) gathered in the gazebo behind our guest house and threw down for one last evening of music and cocktails. The party, as has been the norm, grew to include hotel staff and other passersby, and continued into the wee hours, finally burning down to a slow fizzle around the time the tequila bottle was emptied.

Over the past few days, our group has been slowly dispersing, each member finishing his or her studio time and setting out for home or other destinations. Some people plan to stay in Ghana longer; others are off to Europe, and some will continue on to other parts of Africa. We’ve all known each other’s plans for several days, but we’ve been too busy to notice the end of the group road fast approaching. We’ll all see each other in California before long, but as we exchange goodbye hugs, none of us can deny a slight twinge of separation anxiety. As Jeff said this morning before heading off to the beach with Kate, Bonnie and Eli, “Who am I going to play music with back home? I can’t just lean out my door and listen for instruments.”

For the last week and a half, we’ve gotten to know one another well: squeezing like sardines in cabs and tro-tros, creating music, telling stories, swimming and singing and dancing and sweating like stuck hogs. We’ve learned each other’s idiosyncrasies, strengths and weaknesses. If likened to a romantic relationship, we’d be in the stage where you’re not living together technically, but you spend all your time together, and probably there are some feminine hygiene products in his bathroom cabinet. We all know who will, for example:

– Be late for things (Kate and Bonnie)
–  Leave personal items irretrievably behind (Erik)
–  Eat your food if you can’t finish it (Murph)
–  Shamelessly distract you in order to steal your beer (Eli)
–  Have the implements to cut the mango (Armando)
–  Capture your most embarrassing moments and upload them to Facebook within sixty seconds (Jeff)
–  Listen unflinchingly to your problems (Jessie)
–  Never, ever be tired (Erin)
–  Provide hugs upon request (Lucas)
–  Be all-encompassingly easygoing (Ian)
–  Inform you that there has been a change of plans, but don’t worry, everything is under control (Nat)

There has been no interpersonal drama, no “if I have to be around him/her for one more second I’ll jab this fork into my own eye” moments, and no bickering. We’ve all genuinely enjoyed one another’s company, shared one another’s beers and meals (and even double beds, if necessary), and vicariously experienced one another’s happiness and sadness. Perhaps if this trip was longer, we might eventually beg to differ, but on the whole, we’ve all generally valued and cared for one another in a way that has made some potentially uncomfortable situations virtually painless.

One instance that comes to mind took place in Cape Coast, after our first night at the Oasis resort: a few of us were unhappy with various aspects of our accommodations, and there was talk of moving to another hotel. Nat brought the situation to the group; we discussed it together and collectively found a solution that satisfied everyone. No blame was placed (except perhaps on the resort staff), no voices were raised, and by the next night, each person was in a room that worked for his or her needs. As one who has seen similar situations very nearly result in Ultimate Fighter-style throwdowns, I appreciated the overall willingness on everyone’s part to seek compromise. Maybe it’s just what happens when the group is primarily comprised of mellow, considerate, creative types, but whatever the reason, I appreciated it.

At the risk of sounding sentimental, I have to put it out there: I’m going to miss these freaks. Thank you all, if you’re reading this, for a truly beautiful, unforgettable experience. Thank you, Nat, for instigating this adventure. And thank you, Bonnie and Kate, for my favorite harmonic refrain:

Tro-troooo in the morning, where we going? (I’m not ready!)

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Drumming and dancing and dungeons

This is the first time I’ve opened my computer since leaving for Cape Coast. Four days there seemed like four weeks; we packed so much activity into that time. I can’t even imagine where to begin. Perhaps, the beginning.

A three-hour bus ride from Accra brought us to the Oasis Beach Resort, a charming little place situated directly on the shores of the Atlantic. Within moments of arriving, I was making a mad dash into the ocean, whose waters were cool and refreshing and didn’t make me shiver in the slightest. The waves were the perfect height for bobbing up and down upon without need of a board, and although the sand invaded my swimsuit with relentless tenacity, I knew that I’d found my Happy Place. A glance down the beach over my left shoulder revealed the luminous Cape Coast Castle, the primary hub for the international slave trade before slavery was officially abolished by the British in the mid-1800s. Its monstrous shape towered above the crashing waves, a constant reminder that all beauty has an ugly side. It was our next destination.

After a quick beer (“quick” being a relative term; in Cape Coast, the shortest time we waited for food and drink service was forty-five minutes), we walked ten minutes up the beach to the Castle. We were to meet our teacher for the week, master drummer Okyerema and his troupe, and watch their drumming and dancing performance in the traditional Kpanlogo, Sitkye and Agbaja styles. The performance was held in an open courtyard of the castle, and a large part of the audience was comprised of local folks gathered around. The twelve of us sat in chairs directly in front of the dancers, and when they pulled each of us out to dance with them at the end of the performance, it was clear that we were providing just as much entertainment value as they were. The locals laughed and applauded. If I could read their minds, I’d imagine they’d be thinking Silly obrunis, look at how they flap like chickens! The dance steps were not complicated, but they were unfamiliar. I can speak only for myself, but at that point, having just ridden on a cramped bus for three hours, I would have had just as much trouble jumping rope.


For the next four days, our schedule ran more or less thusly: 8:30 a.m. to noon, dancing and drumming classes, then lunch for two to three hours (see above, re: Food, Taking For-damn-ever), followed by an hour or three of quality ocean time, a bit of sightseeing, dinner for umpteen hours, then music on the beach till everyone got tired. I woke up every morning around 6:30 and shuffled seven steps from my room to the beach with my notebook and camera, watching the sun ease its way up into the sky as the waves crashed onto the shore. The harmatan, the seasonal haze that settles in the sky here, ruled out any magnificent sunrise light shows, but each morning an orange sun would appear, almost as an afterthought, above the sea, shimmering on the water before disappearing behind the dust.

Our mornings began with a half-hour tro-tro ride (a tro-tro is a fifteen-passenger van with extra seats that fold down on the ends – the cheapest and most common form of public transportation) through the village of Cape Coast to the home of our teacher, Okyerema. The route took us past dozens of self-contained shops, mostly set up in revamped shipping containers that were painted by companies like Vodafone or Zain, stamped, in exchange, with the companies’ logos, as a way of cheap advertising. A majority of the shops here are named with Christian sayings or slogans (Jesus Christ is a big deal in Ghana, and naming a shop after a biblical excerpt or concept is very common), often with amusing results: “God Provides Electronics,” “Pray Hard Provisions Store” or “By His Grace Hair Cut,” for example. Like the alphabet game on a long road trip, it became a source of endless entertainment to gaze out the window and point out our favorite shops (It’s a Miracle Minimart, Except the Lord [not sure what that one was selling, although perhaps it was a church], Shalom-Shalom Enterprise, etc.).

It was already hot at 9 a.m. when we began our lessons, which were wisely held in a concrete open-front and -sided structure on a hillside, keeping us from melting. Okyerema and his three apprentices, Ruth, Frank and Samuel (whose Fanti names I am unable to spell), led us in warm-ups and dance steps, accompanied by drummers who effortlessly banged out fast, energized rhythms. We learned traditional dances and songs to go with them, the words of which we jumbled even after an hour of practice, moving increasingly gracefully around the cool, concrete floor as the drums pounded behind us. Water breaks were frequent and necessary; sweat dripped continuously down our faces as we focused on right, left, right, jump, turn, sing, right, left, right. After an hour and a half, we separated into three ability groups for our drum lessons.

I was in the beginners’ drumming group (no surprise to anyone who knows me), led by Frank, who at age 25 is the most patient and focused teacher I’ve ever met. There were four or five of us in his group each day, all of us as inexperienced as they come, percussion-wise, and if he ever felt any irritation with us, he never showed it. We repeated each pattern countless times, stopping the instant somebody dropped the rhythm (“Stop! We messed it!” Frank would say, as though he was just as much to blame as we were for the mistake), and by the end of the lesson, every person would be drumming away as though it was second nature. Every time we completed a pattern with no mistakes, we were rewarded with Frank’s huge smile and exchanged jubilant high-fives with our hand-cut drumsticks. After four days of drumming, our group was able to join the intermediate group, pounding multiple rhythms simultaneously with minimal stops. It was invigorating and gratifying, as one who has been told repeatedly that she “does not abide by the laws of tempo,” to challenge myself in this way, as well as rediscover the usefulness of my left hand. At the end of our final lesson yesterday, I resolved to continue my drumming education when we return to Oakland – my arms and mind haven’t felt this strong in years.


After the morning lessons were finished, our group headed to lunch at various establishments in the village of Cape Coast. We quickly discovered that it was best to order our food (usually fried rice or fried plantains, with or without chicken), then do something else for an hour or so while the food was prepared; otherwise we would be drunk on huge 750-milliliter Star beers (“Ghana’s favourite beer!”) by the time our meals arrived. (We later discovered that it’s not uncommon for a restaurant to put food on its menu which it doesn’t actually have, necessitating a visit by the staff to market or another restaurant to acquire the item when a customer orders it.) During one lunch in particular, at a Muslim vegan restaurant on the beach, a few of us went for an hour-long swim after ordering, then returned to our table to eat appetizers and waited for another hour for our entrees, a few of which never arrived, with no explanation by the staff. Fortunately, the appetizers were filling and delicious, but for anyone who is less than extremely flexible about receiving the food one orders, I would recommend you fix your own meals.


The afternoons were free for those musicians who didn’t have to rehearse for the album (which is being recorded locally as I write this), and since I was never needed for rehearsals, being one of the few non-musicians in the group, I used the time primarily for swimming, reading and writing on the beach. On our first open afternoon, Erik and I went with Jessie and Lucas on a guided tour of the Cape Coast Castle.

The Castle, as I mentioned before, is about 350 years old, and was used to house government offices and an Anglican church (after being taken over by the British) on the top floors, and two dungeons below, containing up to 1,500 slaves at one time. The tour guide, a Ghanaian woman who seemed to have recited her lines a million times, led us through each dungeon, one for males and one for females, each containing one or two tiny windows near the high ceilings, narrow trenches on the sloped floors for bodily waste, and nothing else. The slaves, our guide told us, would often be housed in these rooms for up to six weeks whilst awaiting the ships that would carry them across the Atlantic, and close to half of them would die there in that time. They were fed two meals a day, and they were never let out until the time came for them to pass through an underground tunnel to the Door of No Return, which in those days was only wide enough for a single person to exit at once.

“Once they passed through the Door of No Return,” our guide said, “they would leave everything they knew behind – their wives, husbands, children and homes.” She moved us along.

There was a confinement cell as well, which also had a sloped floor, but had no windows. It had  about forty square feet of floor space. Our guide informed us that slaves who rebelled or acted out were put in this room as punishment, to be kept there without food, water or ventilation until they died, either of starvation or suffocation. I wondered if, while they were in there, they were able to hear the church services taking place just above their heads.

The Castle was remarkably well-preserved and maintained, and we could vividly imagine the way it must have been during its heyday. Cannons and cannonballs from the 19th century still sat on its outer walls, the whole building made of bricks and stones that hadn’t changed since they were laid. The experience was disconcerting, especially as we silently left the tour and headed back to our incredibly cheap resort. On our walk back, every man, woman and child we met stopped us, begging us to buy whatever small object was balancing in a bowl on his or her head, the obruni tourists who had lots of money. I was bothered, at first because it was impossible to get anywhere without explaining that we really didn’t need or want to buy anything, but ultimately because it was clear that this was what this place had been forced to become, and there was nothing we could do about it. Buy a dried plantain from a child for one cedi? Sure, but what is one cedi going to do for that child – send him to college? Buy a shirt from a young woman for ten cedis? All right, but what will that money buy her, except another five shirts to sell? There are tourists at Cape Coast, yes, but there are not enough of us to support the hawkers of everything from plastic beads to large drums, and so there is a pervading sense desperation in the air, just as there was at the market in Accra: Buy my things, or nobody will. Tours of the Castle now, ironically, provided the largest consistent source of tourist revenue, at nine cedis per tour (plus an extra two if you bring a camera), with shops within its walls.

We walked quietly back to our room and I went down to the beach, the now-dormant Castle looming large in the periphery of my vision. The sand was littered with trash, and the ocean beside it sparkled in the sun.


There was a visit to Karkum National Park one afternoon, where our guide books had told us we would find the amazing canopy walk through the rainforest. The admission price was steep (at 30 cedis, the highest price we had paid for anything thus far), but we all agreed it would be worth it, and piled into a tro-tro for the ninety-minute drive. When we arrived, we were told that the canopy walk was only accessible by way of a guided tour, so we assembled and dutifully followed our guide through the woods up a short, cleared trail. He explained nothing on the walk, so I was unclear as to his purpose on the trip (other than, ostensibly, to keep us in line, and to inform us that we probably wouldn’t see any wildlife, as all the creatures except the constantly chirping birds were primarily nocturnal). Nevertheless, he led us to the canopy walk, assuring us that, despite all the creaking and swaying, it was certainly safe up there.

The five bridges across the trees were narrow, only wide enough for a single-file line, and they were lined on either side by netted rope that reached up to anywhere from waist- to chest-level. It was wobbly enough to confirm that yes, it was possible to fall over the edge to your death, but only if you exerted minimal effort to do so, such as leaning too far over to take a picture. Our guide offered no advice. The trees below and above us were beautiful, as was the landscape in front of us, but there was, as our guide had promised, no wildlife to be seen. The entire walk took less time to complete than it had taken to drive to the park from Cape Coast. During the drive back, the sun was going down, and we took our best pictures of the day of the increasingly silhouetted forest through the dirty glass of the tro-tro window.


In the evenings, as the sun went down and the air became ever-so-slightly cooler, our group would slowly reconvene for dinner, another two- to three-hour affair consisting, as per usual, of a variation on rice, chicken and/or plantains. Afterward, everyone would mosey back to our little room-huts, pick up instruments and gather chairs in front of the ocean for an hour or few of music and Star beer. Everyone swapped their instruments around, leading the group in each other’s songs as resort staff, other guests and random passersby stopped to ogle this group of loud, singing Americans (as well as, I should add, one Canadian). All were invited to stay, and some did, others politely declining before moving down the beach. There were two young Ghanaian men who wanted to sing Bob Marley songs. Bonnie gave one of them her washboard to play, and he and his friend sang for a while, chanting, after their knowledge of lyrics gave out, the refrain, “Ghana is better than America at football.” There were European tourists, all wearing white, who sat quietly tapping their feet for two hours, then thanked us and went off to bed. There was an older Polish man, who watched Ian and Erik trade banjo and dobro tunes for hours, grinning the whole time like a child at a circus. We never had a noise complaint.


We returned to Accra yesterday after our final drum and dance lesson, reviewing all the steps we’d learned and bidding fond goodbyes to our friends in Cape Coast, except Okyerema and Frank, who accompanied us back to play drums on the album. Our bus was packed to the brim with bags, instruments and people, and our driver blasted a nondescript reggae CD on repeat for four hours, the last two of which were spent in dense city traffic. During the final hour, we encountered a construction zone, through which there was no detour – everyone simply drove on the dirt, including our bus driver. It was unlike anything I’ve seen in even the most backward of U.S. states, bouncing along on roads intended for heavy machinery. When we finally arrived at our hotel, the Alade Guest House, and climbed out of the bus, I felt my body still vibrating. After a hearty dinner of fried rice and chicken, which thankfully took well under an hour to arrive, I slept deeply, dreaming of pasta and prosecco – in two days, we’re off to Italy.

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Early-morning Kerouacking

Up early again, the way I have been every day we’ve been here. This place wants me to write about it, but I haven’t had the time to think, much less transform those thoughts into words on a page. My days have been filled with some of the most memorable times I’ve had, each event flowing seamlessly into the next like colors of a rainbow. My orderly Virgo mind wants to arrange it all chronologically, to sort it all out in my mind and place it neatly on the page, but there’s too much, man, there’s just too much. All I can do is string it all together, Kerouac-style, streaming consciousness all over the place …

Late-night singing in Jeff and Ian’s room, packing everyone in with everyone’s instruments, I tap on Bonnie’s washboard imitating a percussionist Jessie Lucas Kate arrive in the middle of If I Fell, hugs and introductions happily accomplished … early rising, write write write, breakfast of egg and warm bread and porridge … learn Twi pleasantries from Steve and Sewah, two beings made entirely of light and love and cooking skills, they laugh as we botch pronunciations and repeat, repeat, repeat … stimulating lecture by John Collins he refers to the “first time I was ever tear-gassed” and plucks the strings of his guitar with expert skill, just getting over his recent bout with malaria he fills our minds with the history of highlife music and stories of his friend Fela Kuti … now stand up, move to the other side of the room, the palmwine band is playing, xylophone sepewa percussion percussion percussion bass bass bass, hips moving feet tapping turn the ceiling fans off for the video, sweat dripping down our pale faces as we join in, drinking palmwine from wooden bowls (it tastes like bacon we decide) you drink it allll the way down, no sloppy seconds in the palmwine bowl … outside now singing Pack Up Yer Sorrows in thankfully cool breeze, melodica guitar washboard banjo dobro mando all baffling the hostel staff, Joe the gate guard says he’ll bring us dinner at the bar … tromping through the village to the local dive, all instruments in hand, it’s getting dark, drinking Star beer as the locals stare, we relieve ourselves in buckets behind the bar, make friends with the proprietress, she was in the Ghana Army young like me she hates push-ups too, Joe comes through with joints for us two cedis each the charge, whatever it’s rolled with is effective, we can’t stop giggling singing acting silly, ten p.m. feels like midnight when you’ve been drinking palmwine and Star beer since four, fall into bed with a smile, don’t forget to take your Malarone the moon is nearly full … early rising, write write write, breakfast the same again and I don’t mind, three of us girls wear orange dresses and joke about psychic connections … pile into the tro-tro to go to the Boi village school, stop for water and fast-food playground down the slide we go, tro-tro won’t start up again, everybody push! success! … get to the school, kids screaming for us like we’re the Beatles and it’s 1964, plant some hedges paint a map of Africa on the wall for hundreds of children they crowd around I teach them to sing Down by the Bay and they go berserk, children love to sing in every country, finish the map hurry hurry! blue paint spill on Bonnie’s dress (my fault), the map is done now time to sing Keep on the Sunny Side the kids have been rehearsing they all want my camera Snap me! they say and crowd in like Iraqi children did except with better English, now ssshhhh! for the video and now sing and now group hugs and we are mobbed by adoring three-foot fans, bah-bye, bah-bye, meda se, thank you … walk through the village, tired and dusty, two young girls walk with us, eyes big speaking-when-spoken-to passing baby goats lizards dogs cats bananas and plantains hanging heavy on trees, villagers eyeing obruni with our instruments, eat Serwah’s fufu feast listen to ten-year-old Angela playing sepewa with expert skill and confidence singing my friend asked me for a dollah Erik playing banjo we drink Nescafe going into food coma … back to the hostel, shower again (so hot and sticky needing seven showers a day) take a breather … now back to tro-tro go to the university, Aaron Bebe’s xylophone music fills the only air-conditioned room songs of the past present future the gourds buzz with tones soft and loud at the same time we sit enthralled and unsure of what we heard … on to bambaya dance, sit in a circle learn the rhythm stand up stomp feet shake hips no do it this way keep trying keep moving don’t twist the waist spin move around the circle with fire intensity sweat pouring drums thumping the dance gets harder new steps new moves keep the feet moving keep the head subdued feel the music feel the dance now on our own step shimmy jump hop keep on moving music stops collapse … on to university canteen, drink Star beer with musicians, college students gawking drunk men trying to hit on me Erik says hey that’s my wife! they say respect respect apologies, walk away, more Star beer on the table we sit in an oval while darkness envelops laughing telling stories making friends loving life … ride the tro-tro back to the hostel, smoke the last joint while waiting for Eli and Bonnie to return with forgotten washboard, what’s in that joint? who knows but it’s tasty and hee hee hee! Jessie and Lucas off to bed we play duck duck goose in the lawn falling over with laughter and dizziness the day is done … now we must sleep, tomorrow the beach.


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Extreme Tourist: Accra edition

Touristing in downtown Accra is not exactly anything remotely like touristing in downtown Amsterdam. Not that I thought it would be, but I definitely didn’t think I’d need a two-hour nap to recover from it, both physically and psychologically.

Four of us decided Tuesday that it would be a good afternoon to do some sight-seeing, so we hopped into a cab (after a healthy amount of haggling with the driver) and set out for the National Museum. Almost instantly, we were stuck in traffic. The sweat poured down the back of my knees. Peering out the open window from my position in the middle of the back seat of the un-air-conditioned cab (as the short person in the group, this was my only option), I saw what could only be described as chaos. Cars and trucks were in every lane – as well as between lanes, on the shoulder, and in a few cases, jumping the sidewalk to cut across an unoccupied dirt lot – along with dozens of people in every direction, selling the most random assortment of items I’ve ever encountered, and impressively carrying most of it on their heads. Bottled water and candies made a bit of sense, but six-roll packs of toilet paper? Loaves of bread? Life-siz maps of Ghana? A five-foot-long tapestry that reads “IF GOD IS FOR US, WHO CAN BE AGAINST US”? Who is buying these things from their cars? I missed my bike.

After close to an hour of solid traffic from door to door – about twenty kilometers – the cab stopped in front of the museum, and we peeled ourselves off its leather seats, staggering dazedly inside. We were the only visitors in the museum, a two-story, nondescript building with concrete floors and beautiful, beautiful air-conditioning. Two women sat at the front desk, and gave us a smile as we walked in. We attempted to greet them in Twi, and they grinned to each other in the way adults do when a child says he’s going to be a submarine when he grows up. How precious. We paid the 7 Cedi admission price and got to browsing.

The museum was full of artifacts – or plaster replicas of artifacts, in many cases – in  Plexiglass display cases, inconsistently labeled and questionably genuine. There were a few photos of tribal rituals, lots of masks of various shapes and sizes, an impressive display of drums and masks, a replica of a bust of Marcus Aurelius (eh?), and a history of the slave trade, among other items, all in no particular order. Those pieces that were dated, simply said, “20th Century” or “excavated from X site, estimated between 1200-1800 AD.” The latter baffled me – a six hundred-year window? Really? Why not just make a sign that says “This thing is very old, or maybe sort-of old”? There were tribal benches and stools as well, and an elaborate-looking loom, but none of the items were dated or particularly well-preserved. The whole thing reminded us all of a high-school student’s history project – well-intentioned, but sorely lacking in organization, and possibly completed the night before. I appreciated the existence of the museum, of course, because the people of Ghana deserve to have their history preserved, but overall, the visit was entirely underwhelming. We thanked the nice ladies at the front desk before heading out (they were relaxing and chatting with each other; nobody else had arrived at the museum during our visit), an asked them where we should go for some lunch. They pointed across the parking lot to the right of the building, and told us to head for the canteen.

The canteen, marked simply “CANTEEN,” was about the size of a standard classroom, with seven or eight small, round tables arranged on the floor. A TV in the corner blared a Spanish telenovela overdubbed in English. The two women who were working there sat watching the television, and raised their eyebrows when we entered. Again, we greeted them in Twi and again, we received a smirk in return. Fair enough. We sat down and ordered four beers – Star, the self-proclaimed “favorite beer” of Ghana. There was a chalkboard on the wall reading “TODAY’S MENU: FUFU & LIGHTSOUP,” along with another dish whose name I can’t recall. Jeff told us that he’d had the second dish a few days before and wouldn’t recommend it, as it tasted fine but threatened to wreak havoc on our Western intestines. We all decided on fufu – we had heard it was a traditional meal, but couldn’t remember what it contained. Still, we were hungry from the hectic cab ride and less-than-stimulating museum visit, so anything would probably taste good, as had the other Ghanaian food we’d had thus far. Our waitress, who had the quietest voice I’d ever barely heard, narrowed her eyes and told us that fufu came with fish – did we want fish? Well, sure, okay. We washed our hands at the table, filling the plastic bowls she brought us with the soap and water placed neatly on the table. It had been a long time since breakfast.

Fufu, it turns out, is kasavas and plantains pounded together to make a kind of dough, and it was in a spicy soup. It’s a Ghanaian favorite, but for some reason my stomach wasn’t having it. It came with fish, still in its original fish shape, except chopped in half, and again, the taste was totally fine, as long as you peeled off the skin first. I ate about a third of my meal and was full, as did Erik and Jeff. Eli had told the waitress he didn’t want fish, so she didn’t bring him anything. He had beer for lunch. While we ate, Erik made friends with the other woman working at the canteen by engaging her in a spirited discussion about the telenovela she was watching. By the time the table was cleared, everyone was getting along, but it was time to move on.

The woman at the museum who had pointed us to the canteen had also given us directions to the Art Center, which was more accurately a huge open-air market filled with Ghanaians selling their wares: beads, clothing, fabric, wooden trinkets, picture postcards, percussion instruments and all the random knickknacks anyone could ever want. It was clear that this was a slow day for business at the market, because as soon as we walked in, vendors began swarming us, the obruni tourists who can’t haggle and can’t say no. As we walked past the various stalls, attempting to say a polite “No, thank you” in our stunted Twi (even though everyone spoke English, we thought we’d make the effort anyway), it became harder and harder to extract ourselves from each merchant’s grasp. They were very, very persistent, and it was obvious that business had been very, very bad. As I walked past stalls selling fabric, the women in each grabbed my hands and pulled me over to them, saying, “Look at my stuff – please, come over here and look. Just look. What do you want? Look!” The pressure was intense, and finally I stopped at one stall, where a young woman sat back in a chair, having her hair braided by her friend.

“Hello!” she said with a smile. “Do you want some fabric?” She didn’t get up from her chair, so I sat down beside her on a wooden stool.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said with a sigh. “I don’t sew. I don’t need fabric. Maybe a dress that’s already made?”

She grinned. “Yes! I have dresses. What kind do you want?” She motioned to another girl to go and get more dresses for me to choose from, and then asked me what I did for work.

“I do photography,” I said, in an effort to keep things simple. “Would you like to see?”

“Yes, you should snap me!” she said, smiling again. I pulled my Nikon out of my bag, where I’d kept it stashed in order to avoid attracting any more attention than necessary. I snapped a picture of her and her friend and showed it to them on the LED display.

“That’s nice!” she said. “Are you doing photography in Ghana?”

I said that yes, I was, but I was also here to learn about Ghanaian music. “My husband is a musician,” I explained, pointing at Erik several feet away at a different stall.

“Oh, a musician!” she exclaimed. “I am a singer!”

“Would you sing something for me?” I asked her.

She gave me a look of Oh, really, I just couldn’t, but after a moment of encouragement, she burst out with a song that was very familiar to me, one that I heard in church on a regular basis, back when I went to church on a regular basis. I had forgotten that most Ghanaians do go to church, and many of the Christian worship songs of America are actually the same here as they are there. Because I knew the song well, I joined in with her. A connection was made.

I bought a blue dress from the young woman, whose name was Abigail. As I stood to go, she asked me if I was on Facebook. I told her that I was, and wrote down my name.

“We can chat!” she said.

“Yes, we can!”

Erik came to collect me, and I waved goodbye as we walked out to meet the others in our group. Jeff and Eli had made some friends who were drummers, and they invited us to join their drum circle. We sat down on benches and they handed us djembes. leading a twenty-minute drumming session that I tried my best to keep up with. My hands were raw by the end of it. We thanked the drummers for having us, and stood to go.

“So, do you want to buy a drum?” they all commenced to asking. “Just a small one? These are good drums!”

We acknowledged that they were good drums, but explained that we couldn’t carry a drum around on our trip, no matter how good it was. I was ready to leave the intense energy of the market. Every friendly gesture was accompanied by persistent requests to buy, buy, buy and I couldn’t handle any more.

We walked out of the market, trailed by several men, some of whom wanted to talk, others, to sell. After ten more minutes of haggling with a taxi driver over the fare home, we piled in. Traffic had not ebbed, and the ride home took nearly an hour, once again. I leapt from the cab when we arrived back at the hostel and hightailed in to our room. I sat on the bed for a few minutes, attempting to process the day’s events, but finally, inevitably, simply passed out. I awoke two hours later, still tired, and if it wasn’t for the blue dress sitting on a chair, I’d have thought that the whole day had been a dream.


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