the old man and his flip flop

People of the webs, I’m back.  I didn’t really go anywhere.  But I took a blog break.   Got lazy.  Got busy.  But here I am.   Back, in small part, by request.  It turns out that my mom, dad, and sister aren’t the only people reading my blog.  Weird.

For those of you that can only stand to read what I write for more than a minute or two (I don’t blame you, though perhaps I like you a little less than the others), here’s the executive summary: 1) went to Tamale for a IPA conference 2) kicked it with crocodiles 3) ate apple pie on the 5th of July and 4) made it back to Accra (just barely), just in time to drink beers on the beach.

So, first things first, I went to Tamale.  Tamale is in the north of Ghana a couple of hours south of the Burkina Faso border.  It’s a trip times two. It’s a trip because it takes 10-17 hrs by van/bus (more on the hour spread, later).  But it’s also a trip because it’s so strikingly different from Accra.  Accra is a sprawling metropolis with everything you could imagine: fancy grocery stores, slums, pizza joints, tin shacks, shit roads followed by pristine pavement etc.  It’s difficult for me to describe in part because it’s so varied.  If it were a regression, its error term would be heteroscedastic.  The u’s vary with the x’s.   Oh snap.  I went there.  Anyway, think pockets of Cambridge pinned next to pockets of Chad.

Tamale, by contrast, is more uniform (though that’s no doubt an opinion formed over the course of a couple weeks, with most of my days spent in an office or a conference venue.  So what do I know, really? But this is a blog—so I’m about to get my generalization on).   It’s a small town defined by its markets, at times its overwhelming smell (folks burn their trash, and because people live closer to one another, it’s more potent in Tamale than Accra), and surrounded by miles and miles and acres and acres of subsistence farmers.  Mud huts, thatch roofs, kids without shoes playing in dirt, others twirling a machete as they walk to the field to work (either instead of, before, or after school), women balancing more crops and goods on the top of their heads than I could carry in a hundred trips, rains so hard and so sideways that they knock whatever is balancing on top of your head, off, flood farms and uproot informal businesses.

Anyway, the conference itself was a lot of fun—really enjoyed getting to know the rest of the staff, learn about all of IPA’s projects, went through some RCT training etc. Then, wait for it, we went to a crocodile pond!  In a town called Paga, which sits on the Burkina Faso border, there are three crocodile ponds.  As the story goes, if you feed a crocodile a live chicken, you can sit on it and it won’t do a damn thing.  Makes sense right?  I mean, anyone can do just about anything to me if I eat enough Chinese food, and I won’t mind.  I’m that content.

So when you arrive to the crocodile pond, the chief of the pond (a 75+ year old man who speaks little/no English) tells you about how the pond came to be—it’s some mythical story that involves crocodiles helping his great, great grandfather (or someone else like that) swim across the pond and away from danger.  I wasn’t really paying attention, truth be told.  I kept thinking to myself “What the hell am I doing here? I’m at a crocodile pond.  I’m at a pond full of crocodiles, and walking toward them.”

So the old guy leads us to the first crocodile.  We all gather around and then it starts.  One by one, everyone in our group sits on the crocodile, holds up its tail, kneels next to it, and it doesn’t move.  It just sits there.  Calmly.  I start to think that it’s sedated—that the old man drugged the crocodile, and this is all some sham.  But then, it moves toward us. We, predictably, freak out—I start to climb up the nearest tree (that’s no joke, though my climbing skills were a bit comical).  It probably only moved a couple of feet before the old man raised up his hand, and the crocodile stopped in its tracks.

Anyway, up until the last minute, I was adamant I wasn’t going to touch this crocodile.  “Hell to the no.  Ain’t happening” I said a number of times.  I ate crocodile once at the ‘Bite of Seattle’ (tastes like tough chicken), and this crocodile would surely know so.  He would smell it, feel it, sense it.  I ate its brother or sister and this would be payback.   Putting all sense to the side, I kneeled down next to the crocodile, put my hand on its back, and smiled as best I could for a couple of pictures.

I thought we were done—we conquered the crocodile! Bam! Take that, crocodile!  We’d be YouTube sensations.  It would go viral by night.  It would be all over the Google.  But we weren’t done.  The old man takes us to the actual pond, where 7-10 crocodiles have come out of the water, knowing they would likely be fed.  So the crocodiles were situated in sort of a semi-circle surrounding us.  And they would get up and move a couple of feet closer, one at a time, in a strategic, offensive, quasi-military maneuver.  And each time, we freaked out for a minute or two until the old guy held up his hand, and they would sit back down.

Until one crocodile didn’t listen to the old man.  He wouldn’t sit back down.  It kept walking toward us.  It was going rogue.  Then the old man takes off his flip-flop and throws it at the crocodile’s head.  It hits the crocodile, and the crocodile returns to the pond.  At this moment I realize that the only thing between a bunch of crocodiles and a bunch of researchers is a 75-year old man and his flip-flop.  Bad life choice.  Anyway, so we fed a couple of crocodiles live chickens and went on our way.  On to the pie!

So the 4th of July came and went.  I didn’t do a whole lot.  The morning call to prayer woke me up (just about everyone in Tamale is Muslim and the daily prayers are blasted over the loud-speakers, beginning at 4am).  I spent the morning wandering around town—went to the internet café, walked around the markets, grabbed some food, and then played ultimate Frisbee with some co-workers, friends of friends, and a couple of Ghanaian kids.  It only reinforced the fact that I haven’t been able to work out since I’ve been here.

Then came the 5th.  My bosses and their bosses got to Tamale (they were coming up for the conference I was planning and to take a couple of meetings with different partner organizations), and we all went out to dinner.   A taxi took us to dinner—it was pouring and pitch black and the car didn’t have lights or windshield wipers.  He would reach out his window (letting in rain) to wash the windshield off with a cloth.  Anyway, when we got to our destination he demanded 10 cedi.  The fair fee for how far we went was 3 cedi, so that’s what we said we’d pay. I had taken nearly the same drive the night before (back from Frisbee) and it was 3 cedi.  He flipped out.  Got angry and adamant.  We upped it to 5 cedi because we didn’t want to deal with it. Then he grabbed my boss’s arm so that she wouldn’t walk way.  She calmly said he needed to let go.  I said the same, though less calmly.  At roughly that moment, maybe 10 or so locals came running over to sort of adjudicate the situation.  We explained what happened, he kept yelling, the locals started arguing with the driver, we added 1 more cedi and left.  (I should note that this guy was a nut—he’s not at all representative of the kindhearted folks I met in Tamale) And then I gorged myself with an entire pizza  (a theme of my trip, it seems) and apple pie!  If engulfing 2000 calories in one meal isn’t American, I don’t know what is.  On the ride home, Celine Dion came on in the car, and the office manager, Agatha (who I adore), belted out every word.  She’s amazing—during work she would stop by my desk, tell me a joke, and then ask me if I thought she was funny.  I couldn’t not laugh around her.

Anyway, I left Tamale on the 8th after the conference.   On the way up, IPA rented a van—and the drive took about 10 hours with a couple of pit stops.  On the way down, I took a bus, which took 16+ hours.  By 7am, 30minutes into the drive, the bus broke down.  It took awhile for the company to send a replacement.  But then we were off.  13 hours later, the bus sat maybe 7-10 miles from Accra.  So close, yet so far.  It was a parking lot.  The road wasn’t a road.  It was a sandpit.  A wet sand pit full of cars and trucks and vans acting like off-road vehicles.  It turns out that a huge truck had overturned, prompting the nutty traffic.  Anyway, I got home 3 hours later, watched an episode of the West Wing (more for the feeling of comfort/familiarity than anything else), and went to bed.

Accra felt like home yesterday.  I knew where I was walking.  I knew what I was doing.  I knew people!  And after work I met some colleagues and friends for drinks on the beach.  It. Was. Amazing.  This sounds ridiculous—but I never quite internalized how close I am to the ocean.  I can see the water from work, but it was always in the back of my mind—never really thought about it all that much.  But now I’m hyped to spend my nights drinking beers on the beach with only the ocean in my way.

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13 Responses to the old man and his flip flop

  1. Emily says:

    1. glad to have you back on the interwebs.
    2. mom is not going to be happy about the pic of the alligator with an open mouth.
    3. agatha sounds awesome.
    4. i thought accra would feel like home once you got back – familiarity is powerful like that.

  2. Winston says:

    “I ate its brother or sister and this would be payback.”

    “Now I’m hyped to spend my nights drinking beers on the beach with only the ocean in my way”

    LOL! Keep the stories and quotes coming!

  3. Winston says:

    “I ate its brother or sister and this would be payback.”

    “I’m hyped to spend my nights drinking beers on the beach with only the ocean in my way”

    LOL. Keep the stories and quotes coming!

  4. KEP says:

    tell me the Celine Dion was “My Heart Will Go On” – Titanic is really huge here, and the commonality will make me happy (seriously, the ice cream carts in Kabul blast a ring-tone rendition of it).

  5. Your sister is right, I could do without the crocodiles!! But I must say, it makes for a good story. Much more tame here, interesting however–we have sun, two huge sailing ships are out on the lake and they are shooting cannons off at each other in a “battle”. Dressed as pirates, singing and cheering they have been shooting away for at least an hour! Large enough explosions that the houseboat reverberates!
    Glad to hear you are back in Accra, on the beach and that the conference went well–interesting times…

  6. Patrick Corrigan says:

    LOVED this update. The crocodiles were my FAVORITE part. That 75 year old man sounds like the coolest person ever.

  7. Jenna says:

    LOVE IT.

  8. pamela says:

    I suddenly have a craving for chicken.

  9. Misa says:

    that’s so crazy that the cab driver was wiping off the windshield with a cloth! scary!

    you paint a great picture, char char! but you must update more often 🙂

  10. kate says:

    look at me! reading your blog!

    • charleyj says:

      woah, crap. hey kate, remember that time when i asked you out in the 5th grade with a note–the check yes or no type–and you checked no? still stings kate, still stings.

  11. Terry Johnson says:

    Must say that I prefer my chicken barbacued…and have tried gator tails before — actually pretty good — but I will pass on anything to do with the crocodiles. Would like to see a video clip of you climbing the tree…

    Glad to hear you are back in Accra and found the beach…Beers on the beach (take a pizza with you) sound like a good way to spend the nights over the remaining couple of weeks… Enjoy

    Given the number of replies it looks like your blog readers missed you…Keep it coming…

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