Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Field Trip Fiasco, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Dirt Roads

It’s been an exciting few weeks for me. After a busy week of more language and more technical training, Halloween kind of snuck up on us. We had intended to have a big party, with costumes and more, but the following morning we would have to be on a bus at 5.30 to head north for our sector-specific field trip. We had to settle for a couple of hours at our favorite local spot, with a few impromptu costumes thrown in (and lots of funny looks from the few non-Americans who happened to be there).
The big story I have to tell is that of the field trip itself. We’re now halfway through training and the Peace Corps wanted each sector to travel together to get some more hands-on practice amongst current volunteers. The Environment crew head to the Upper West region, while SED (Small Enterprise Development) went to a site not far from Kukurantumi in the Lower Volta. WATSAN however is a larger group and is somewhat divided from within between those assigned to the Northern Region to on work primarily on Guinea Worm Eradication (that’s me) and those going to the Nkwanta District in Upper Volta to work more closely on Health and Hygiene. We therefore divided into two groups for field trip, with those of us assigned to the north going to a site not far from Tamale and the others going to Nkwanta.
The problem with this plan was that WATSAN had the same budget as the other two sectors even though we were doing two separate trips. We were told we would have to make due with just one car for both groups as Peace Corps couldn’t afford to give us two. Here’s the thing – while if you look at a map, it’s technically shorter mileage wise to go from Kukurantumi to Tamale through the Volta Region than it is to go through Kumasi, the roads in Upper Volta are ABSOLUTE SHIT. It actually ends up taking a lot longer to go through the Volta, unless you have a private car. We were in a privately hired tro, but not one that was equipped to handle dirt roads of this level. But we had to go this way anyway, so that we could drop off the Nkwanta group before heading farther north.
When Martin (are technical trainer) gave us the schedule for the trip, I laughed. He had us scheduled to arrive in Tamale at 4 pm. Having already traveled in the Nkwanta training during Vision Quest, I knew that it would take AT LEAST seven or eight hours just to get to Nkwanta, and that was only halfway. Even though we left close to on time on Saturday morning, we didn’t get to Nkwanta until about 3 or 3.30. We had taken way too much time to eat lunch in Hohoe due to Martin’s insistence that we eat at a restaurant instead of a chop bar (Ghanaian fast food). After we dropped the others, we continued on towards Tamale, covered in dust already and getting hungry again. What we didn’t know was that we wouldn’t arrive in Tamale until 10 pm, and it was another hour from there to get to the place we’d be staying the night. Let me just say that traveling down dirt roads late at night is not a pleasant experience, no matter where you are.
I had a cool person sitting next to me for most of the ride – Sub Chief Larry, one of my new neighbors once I get to site. He’s an older volunteer, working as a SED PCV in Daboya, northwest of Tamale. Because he’s older and male, he gets a lot more respect from his community that I can ever hope to get. They even went so far as to enstool him as a sub chief. He’s also one of the few PCVs who has studied Gonja, so we talked about that and my extensive plans for cooking once I have a place to set up a kitchen. I get the impression he’ll be visiting me a lot after all the tasty meals I described. How many of you can say that you’ve entertained royalty?
Anyway, by the time we reached Tamale, we were all orange from the dust, absolutely starving, and ready to pass out. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stop at the Tamale Sub Office (TSO) – all the sleeping mats had already been moved to Mike’s site (where we’d be staying) and our meal had already been paid for and prepared by his Assemblyman’s wife. We had to continue. Back on the bus we went and a little over an hour later we finally pulled in for the night. After we got some cold TZ in our bellies (think really thick grits smushed into balls and eaten with peanut soup) and actual showers thanks to Mike’s polytank, we sprawled out in his courtyard with a couple of mosquito coils and called it a night.
The actual bulk of the trip was pretty cool. We spent time with a few different volunteers, helping with their projects and seeing their sites. We played a football (soccer) match against the town team at Shawn’s site as part of an AIDS education thing, but Martin had failed to mention we’d be playing, so we had to play in our Chacos. I wiped out at one point, much to the delight of the three hundred some-odd children standing along the sidelines. We also learned a lot about the Guinea Worm projects, even taking samples of the dam water in Savelugu and going house to house inspecting and replacing filters. We spent the last day at Johnnie’s site, which is somewhat close to my own (which I’ve yet to see).
We tried working out someway we could go home by a different route, but another vehicle could not be found (or, more likely, they just didn’t want to pay for one). We HAD to go back the way we’d come to get the others. Instead of staying at Johnnie’s site again like we were supposed to on our last night, we headed to the TSO after dinner, so that we could get a head start and leave at 4.30 on Wednesday morning. (We also had the slight ulterior motive of wanting to be at the TSO so we’d be able to look up election results on the computer as they came in). We ended up passing out pretty early though, since we knew we’d have a long day on Wednesday. Inez called me at 3 am to give me the news about Obama (woohoo) and the day began with a slight boast, a boast that was soon shot down by many long hours of bumpy, dusty roads. About 2 hours in, the clutch on the tro started going out, and every time we stopped to let someone pee in the bush, it would take us 20 minutes to get going again. As we had discovered the previous evening, the vehicle was actually infested with cockroaches – the little baby ones that are so annoying were crawling over everything, including our legs. I didn’t know that cockroaches bite but these ones did. Eck. The similarity to Little Miss Sunshine was striking, as the bus was yellow and our crew a motley one. Fortunately, unlike the movie, we had no dead grandfather to deal with – just a bunch of very irritated Peace Corps Trainees, including one slightly OCD nurse.
By the time we limped into Nkwanta, I thought people were going to strangle Martin (he had stayed behind with the Nkwanta group while Braimah went north with us). We stopped at the guesthouse the others had been staying at while the driver (the poor guy who’d been with us the whole time) went to “fix” the clutch. No amount of caffeinated beverages or cookies could make us feel better. Then JJ had a brilliant idea – why not turn the last half of the ride into a celebration?! Just as any celebration in Ghana isn’t complete without the traditional pouring of libations, so was our trip in complete without libations of our own. Mixing gin and tampico (think Sunny D) in a nalgene bottle and passing it around amongst the group may not sound very good to you; it might even sound nauseating. But to us, it was heavenily. And more importantly, it allowed us to indure the final leg of our journey – dust, roaches, and all. Because we decided not to stop for meals, instead buying food on the road along the way, we made it back to Old Tafo in slightly less time than it had taken to get to Tamale. After leaving at 4.30, I finally got back to my house at 9.30 in the evening. I’ve never seen my host mom’s eyes so big. The first thing she said to me after “Welcome Home!” was “I will get you water for your bath.” I was absolutely disgusting. It took me several hours to wash all the clothing the next morning, even with help from my sister (who was nice enough to even wash my backpack and pack pillow for me). I almost feel human again today.
I decided to forgo going to Koforidua with the group today. A bunch of people wanted to visit the Bead Market that is held there every Thursday. I had found time to go last week, so I didn’t really feel up to it. I did however get Kymberly to look for some earring for me, to match the new Ghanaian dress I just had made by Consuelo’s host mom.
A note on beads. One of the things women do with beads here is tie strings of the little ones around the waist. I’ve heard someone say that one reason is to keep track of weight, a reason I believe, especially when I see that every small child is wearing a string or two. But the interesting things about waist beads is that they are part of foreplay for Ghanaian women. Having waist beads exposed is somewhat similar to showing your thong in America. Good girls just don’t do it. As my host mom said to me, “Only let your husband see your beads.”
I bought a few strings when I was at the market last week. They were very cheap and most are beautiful. Being the UTD nerd that I am, however, I couldn’t resist buying a string of orange and green waist beads. Gotta have a little school spirit every now in then.
Okay, now I have to go prepare for tomorrow. Phuong and I are giving a presentation on Ghanaian pop music. Time to make a playlist….