Wednesday, September 17, 2008

wet and dusty

You'd think that one would be able to adjust to cold showers. With the heat here, sometimes the water is a welcome reprieve. But usually, it still takes a few seconds for the skin to cool enough to adjust. Since arriving in Africa, we've had only about 5 warm showers, and those were only in hotel rooms during the first weeks of travelling. In Ghana, hot running water is a rare luxury. Heck, even running water is scarce. Despite the frequent thunderstorms which pour buckets of water upon the city, indoor plumbing among the shacks and mud thatched homes doesn't exist, so many residents make a daily commute to a nearby dam or a local burst water pipe for their drinnking water, fill buckets with rainwater for showers, and make their local ditch their toilets.

It is now rainy season, and the lush vegetation keeps the roaming goats and chickens constantly eating and the maize and rice fields growing (that is, for those fields protected from the goats). The rains here accelerate the deterioration of the dirt roads, etching rivers and softening potholes, leading to natural speedbumps that keeps traffic below 30km/h amongst the livestock and the children.

Despite the moisture, dust permeates everything, from the inside of our home to the insides of the computer classrooms. Each day, the classrooms are swept, raising clouds of dust which are then sucked into the computers. It's amazing the machines don't overheat more often. However, it isn't the dust that is the greatest threat to our hardware, but our fluctuating power supply. The 230V is generally stable, but is known to spike and burn out electronics. When the power goes out, which has happened twice at home and a couple times at school, it is standard practice to turn off the power switches connected to the outlets to protect against the spike that will inevitably follow when the power returns. I watched a monitor blow up last week when its wall power was not turned off properly.

I've now taught 5 classes, and with any class in any country, there those who are keenly learninng, and there are those who just want the certificate. It's quite easy to tell who from who by their attention in class as well as where they sit. But all are grateful for my teaching, and tell me so. As with Dora, I struggle with their trisyllabic local names, and their family name may not necessarily be the last name. Not only do I need to match the name of the student to their face, but also how to pronounce their name, and what name they would like to be called. Not that I actually need to know their names to teach, but in this relatinship driven
society, being able to call them by name would increase my effectiveness as a teacher.

Geek talk: there are two viruses here that propogate prolificly: one that abuses autoconf.inf to run viral code that is copied to pen drives (which in turn will execute automaticly when inserted in most Windows computers), and another that hides all folders and creates .exe files with the same name as the folders and an icon as a folder in the hopes that the hapless user would incorrectly doubleclick the .exe .

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mr. Tim

That's what they call me. The students, I mean. A bit of of a mix between formal and informal. It's nice. And many students want to learn DOS. But half of the class has never used a computer before. Only a handful have email addresses. And only 2 have computers at home. But most are very eager to learn. And nobody has an umbrella, so when it rains, people stay home. Most of the computers are infected with various viruses, and I'm trying to get antivirus software installed on them all. Which is a bit of a chore when none of them are networked and I need to use USB keys to do it (which in turn get infected upon insertion).
Dora's Random Rantings on School:

Today was the third day of school, and things are sooo different here. Students show up randomly almost. In our class we are suppose to have 31 students. On the first day of school, 16 showed up, yesterday, 19, and today, 21. Because of the African concept of time, NOTHING starts on time. The kids play in the playground for almost an hour in the morning (until all of the day's students show up), then at around 9:30-9:45, class starts. Recess and lunch is almost just as random. None of the teachers wear watches and there are no clocks in the classrooms. But that is the norm not only in this school, but all schools in Ghana, and for everything (other than flight times) in this country. I've heard about the phenomenon, but experiencing it is another thing. CRAZY!

I'm partnered with a grade 1 teacher, and thank God we get along well. The kids are pretty good though. The pastor, who's also principal (or we call him director here), is from Hong Kong, so the kids are well disciplined. However, the behaviour of the new students (new acceptances) are atrocious. Today I broke up a fist fight. Two students got into some argument, then they started hitting each other. Then a friend of someone who was in the fight came along to "help" by hitting the other person. Then another friend of the other party came along to "help" by hitting the other. It was a disastrous chain that spread to about 6 kids. While I was breaking up the fight with one pair, behind my back, the other kids started to hit each other. It was too much for me..I was only able to talk to 3 of the students after the whole thing stopped because then it was lunch time, and the rest ran out. Usually I would want "justice served" for all the kids involved, but they all look alike to me!

That's my other struggle. All the black kids look alike. Especially the girls who have their head shaved. So it is a challenge to learn their names.

Another challenge is their accent. I'm having a really hard time understanding what they're saying and vice versa. Makes classroom management and teaching challenging. Two kids would be arguing about something right under my nose and I wouldn't be able to tell what they're saying or who's right/wrong.

Next Monday, hopefully all the students will arrive so that we can actually start teaching. I'm going to train a few teachers what little I know about starting a school-wide reading program (though this only involves 3 classes for now), so I hope it goes well. There are so many cultural differences here to get used to, understand and accept, so hopefully I will be able to be sensitive to their cultural differences when I'm training them so that the reading program will be acceptable to them. Especially since I have heard that the teachers here are a bit reluctant to try new things.

Friday, September 5, 2008

In Ghana

Dora and I have arrived in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. We got here two days ago via a hectic day of flying and waiting in airports. Our flight was delayed by over an hour, but fortunately Pastor Nambu and his wife, a local pastor here, waited patiently for us at the airport to pick us up.

Pastor Siu and his wife Caterina will be our hosts for the next three months. They just arrived yesterday. Today, we load up on groceries and supplies for our 10 hour drive up north to a small town called Tamale, which will be our home. As it is a small town, there is not very much variety in terms of groceries, and what variety they do have is expensive. We stop by a Chinese supermarket where the Nissan instant noodles are $1.50 each. Dora buys me one as an early Christmas gift.

Differnces between Ghana and Tanzania:
- everyone speaks English here. No more Swahili lessons for us.
- Back to the right side of the road for us.
- More courteous drivers. Not courteous by Canadian standards, but here, they give more than 30 cm clearance to pedestrians and cyclists.
- More honking. Despite the aggressive driving in Tanzania, the only honking I heard was to alert pedestrians and cyclists of our approach. Here, the tqaxis will honk at pedestrians just to get their attension, producing a cacophony of honking at any major intersection.
- People selling everything at intersections, from plastic bags filled with water to snacks to toilet paper.
- Haven't encountered any street touts. But that's probably because we haven't visited any tourist areas

We've had two people ask us to read Chinese for them already. And there's a fairly common perception that all Chinese know how to fight. I've had one person ask me to teach him martial arts already.

Dora now has a new favorite insect-the preying mantis. We've spotted four different species since coming to Africa: one that looked like a brown dried leaf during the safari; a black one mimicking a large black ant; a green one that we saw briefly before it flew off in Zanzibar, and at the missionary guest house an inch long green one that moves slowly, swaying from side to side if disturbed to mimic a blowing leaf with a head that curiously pivots its large eyes and antennae around. In their natural surroundings, they would've been invisible, but so far we've seen these crawling on walls, chairs, and tables making them easy enough to spot.


Last night, Pastor Joshua drove us up to Tamale. It took us a full 12 hours, and we stopped only for a bit of food and bathroom breaks. I don't know how he has the stamina to stay awake-Dora and I were snoozing in the car, and we were still tired when we spilled out of the pickup truck.

This morning, Dora and I visited the school where we'd be teaching. We were introduced to the local pastor and some of the teachers. A strange thing that I'm sure we'll be getting used to-when it rains here, as it did this morning, nobody ventures outside. In fact, when we arrived at school for our meeting with the teachers, only 2 of the 9 or so came before us, and the rest didn't come until the rain stopped. We were told to expect the same from the students here.

The teachers are all very friendly, and I was anxious to start the school year with them.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

In Accra/Killi detailed blog

We've arrived in Accra, Ghana, and have a bit of an internet connection. Here's a more detailed writeup of our hike.

More Photos at (will eventually add more when the connection is better)


We arrive after dark. Airport small. We pay $50 each for a visa. Our driver who was arranged to pick us up from the airport (arranged through our hike company) is absent. We get a bit suspicious of the company we hired, as they've already accepted our money. We manage to give them a call via a taxi driver who lends us his phone, but only after purchasing a phone card for $2 US. Ake, our contact with Summits Africa, responds that the driver is on the way. Driver is courteous and friendly. Roads are unlit and terribly dark. A bit frightening to be introduced to left-side driving in the dark, as every pair of headlights coming the other way seems to threaten a head-on collision. A half-hour drive later, he pulls into a dirt road with small dimly lit shops on each side. He drives further and further up the road, and again I get the sense of fear that he is about to turn the car off, gesture to his friends in the shadows to come out, and rob us. We are happy this doesn't happen.

The L'Oasis hotel is very much an oasis-it is very well kept, the employees speak decent English, and is relatively clean. We are glad to have a place to rest after more than 2 days of flying and sitting in airports.

Day 1

This was our only "free day" for the next two weeks. We used it to walk into the town of Arusha to take a look around. We feel relatively safe for most of the walk, although we do get lots of strange looks of curiosity. Find a restaurant to have lunch, where we get our first taste of African food. Walking around, there are plenty of street touts (sales people) looking to escort us around. We eventually are approached by one who assures us that he'd be happy with whatever we can give him, such as 2 or 3 dollars. He tells us that having him around will keep us safe from stabbings (something I doubt), and that he'd tell us where we could take photos (something I'd value). So we let him tag along.

After a short 20 minute tour of the town, he changes his tone and asks for $10, which I adamantly disagree to. After a bit of back and forth, and realizing that our time is running short, I unhappily give him $8. Fortunately, this lesson in negotiation is the extent of our unpleasant experiences in Africa. Nothing stolen yet, no corruption experienced, no bribes needed yet. Dora thinks of this a little more seriously, thinking we've been ripped off.

We return to the hotel in time to meet with our contact with Summits Africa, Ake. He introduced us to our lead guide, Sam who previewed the hike with us. Found out later that despite being owner of a company that employs several hundred people, Ake still makes time to personally meet with the clients.

Kilimanjaro Day 1
Crew of 21 meets us in a bus at the hotel. Overwhelmed by the support staff needed. As bus heads off, they sing a song of welcome. We are introduced to Ashley, assistant guide. Talkative guy.
Bus makes a stop for the grocery store. sam gives them 5 mins but one straggler hops on just as the bus pulls out of the parking lot.
Bus ride takes a couple of hours before winding up a forest road. Young kids wave to us on the street.
We arrive at gate, where crew unloads a large supply of bags which I assume are our food and tents.
There is a slight problem with our bus which was supposed to return to arusha but was booked by someone else. One of our porters needs to accompany our baggage back to arusha while we hire another porter (there are dozens waiting at the gate for the chance to work. We have to wait about an hour during which we sign in and we get served tea and biscuits. Other clients from other organizations look on with jealousy. Sam then takes the first of many measurements of our heartrate, oxygen level, and breathing, notes it in his data, then gives us the ok.
Before long Sam introduces the crew of 17 porters,the cook "Chlli sauce", and the campsite chief "Sorrow" (meaning crazy in Swahili). We shake their hands,then start our expedition. The crew take off ahead of us and it's just Sam and Ashley escorting us up the mountain. Ashley studied wildlife in school, and is passionate about animals. He shares his philosophy with us of the balance of nature and how people are animals too. We stop for our lunch break to a table nicely set up in the woods. The food is more than enough as the table is covered with plates of cold cuts,veggies and bread. We are also introduced to Milo, a chocolate flavoured powdered drink mix similar to Ovaltine. Sam's favouriate way to make it is with 2 spoons of milk, one sugar, and one spoon of Milo. He spends lunch and subsequently, all meals with us together. We set off again, asking many questions about the fauna and looking for common North American house plants in these woods.

We see many others on the trails. Tourists like us in group sizes of varying numbers, from 2 to 15. Many porters dash past us, carrying huge loads of canvas bags, chairs, or buckets on their shoulders or top of heads. We must have seen almost a hundred people on the trail, but Sam says that this is not the busy season yet.

We hike through what seems to be a rainforest. Despite it being the middle of the dry season, the air felt quite cool and damp, and it even drizzled a bit. Apparently the weather around the mountain is independent of the plains in the surrounding areas,

Clearing where table set up for us. Other groups are saying "hey look, they have a table". Food is good. Porters hold umbrellas over our heads to shield from rain while eating.

We know we will have a lot of time with our guides, so we determine to learn some Swahili on the way. We learn the numbers 1 to 10, but it takes much longer than anticipated, mainly because of the unfamiliarity of the language. In about 20 minutes, we get it. But Ashley is able to learn 1-10 in Cantonese in under 10 minutes.

We finally arrived at our first campground after going "polei polei" (slowly). We head straight into the registration cabin where we sign into what looks like a very worn school exercise book. The air is significanly colder and a thick mist hangs in the air. Sam says that we are camping below the cloud line which makes this campsite perpetually foggy.

We are shown our tent, then are invited to wash up, and have tea in the mess tent while we wait for dinner. That routine continued everyday at the end of each hike. Though in the beginning we felt really spoiled to have our tents set up for us (and our sleeping bags laid out), hot water boiled for washing, and a 3 course meal all prepared for us, by the 3rd day when our bodies grew weary from hiking so many distances everyday, we felt so grateful to come "home" to some rest and comfort every evening. Even in the morning when we were given our wake up call, we were served hot tea in our tents.

Each day revealed different terrain to us. By the second day, we ascended out of the forest into a moonscape of rock and very little vegetation. A fine dust puffed up around every step we took. The volcano in the mountain was becoming more and more evident.

One thing we noticed about Africa was that the sun rises and sets very quickly. In the evening, twilight lasts for about 30 minutes before a flashlight is required. The night sky and thin atmosphere offered us our first glimpses into the southern constellations. At this latitude, the big dipper only visible during certain times of the year, and Polaris lay beyond the horizon. I missed being able to orient myself by the night sky.

Day prior to summit: about 6 hours of hiking ending about 2 in the afternoon. We try to sleep for 2 hours, a difficult task given that we camp in the same place as other campers who've just descended kili and are alert, talking, and packing. Tim also has a runny nose forcing him to mouth-breathe, and the dry mountain air dries out the mouth in a minute. Tim ends up not really sleeping. We wake at 5:30 for dinner, eat for an hour, then return to bed around 8pm and sleep until 11pm. An hour later, we begin our trek up the mountain.
Day of summit: We are fortunate to hike during a full moon. We have headlamps, but they are not needed. We follow a snakelike procession of headlamps of the dozens of other hikers heading to the top. Around 3am, our minds are tired, and our bodies are just mechanically putting one foot in front of the other. We eagerly await the daylight that might psychologically wash away our tiredness.

By 6:30, the sun pokes above the horizon. I mentally wake up knowing the peak is not far away. I quickly check on my camera battery and find it expectedly frozen. I place it into my glove to warm it up, hoping it won't let me down for the glorious souvenir photo at the top. It is not terribly windy, but it has been well below freezing for about 4 hours by now. At the top, I'm guessing it's -12C. Not only are our batteries frozen, but also drink tubes from our camelbacks. We've been drinking from some bottled water in the backpacks of our guides, which also are frozen though not completely. The landscape up here is beautiful, with jagged glaciers majestically rising out from the black of the mountain,

We finally reach the peak, where we take our quota of photos before the next group takes their turn at the sign. Dora is looking quite miserable at this point, freezing and cold, and immediately turns around and heads down. I continue to take photos knowing this is once in a lifetime, but do so guitily knowing that my pausing to take photos is extending Dora's suffering. She is tired, she can't feel her feet anymore, and two porters and Ashley who come up with us escort her back down the mountain.

The way down from a hike is always worse for me than the way up. Going down, the only thing to look forward to is the bottom. There are few new views and I'm too tired to be interested in taking more photos. Dora has already been whisked away, almost carried down by her porters while I'm hiking down with Sam. Knowing my knees can't sustain repetitive pounding of running downhill, and being tired enough to collapse should I take an incorrect step, I quietly endure descending slowly. About 9am, Sam grants me my request to take a 10 minute nap, during which I sleep instantly upon lying upon my backpack.

After hiking down for 4 hours, we are back at base camp. We negotiate a snooze for about 3 hours (we wanted to sleep longer, but doing so would've put our arrive at our next camp after dark), we have lunch, then we continue to the next camp (the current one does not have a water source). It totals about 16 hours of hiking in the last 24.

On the way down, we get passed by a group of porters rushing a climber down on a stretcher. He apparently has succumbed to some form of altitude sickness. Dora had joked earlier that she'd fake altitude sickness to get the porters to carry her down. After seeing the bumpy ride on the one-wheeled cart by the sick, she changed her mind.

Souvineurs taken from Kilimanjaro:
- small pieces of obsidian rock found on the slopes
- a cut on Dora's index finger from closing the hatch on the outhouse door
- a permanent tingly feeling in Dora's toes from being frozen for 7 hours during the hike to the summit. (Don't worry, it's just frostsnip).
- a sun burn on Dora's nose to her upperlip from catching a cold, and blowing her nose too much, consequently blowing off any sunscreen applied in that area. (Makes her
look like a man with a really bad PM shadow).