Wednesday, 22 June 2011

My recent travels

It has been almost a month since I got back from the UK and, the London buzz is now almost gone out of my head and I am almost all mentally in Liberia in now although I do have to pretend I am sitting in a UK university library so I can focus on reading for the masters which I intend to finally complete September this year while simultaneously co-running a business. Alas, what mental games one has to play to achieve one's goals and compromise with reality.
The 20-day escape from Liberia was overall quite healthy, expensive and results-oriented. 

Results achieved in no order of importance:

1) Got the UK visa
2) Convinced SOAS to let me finish the masters this year
3) Picked up all my books and clothes that I had to leave in a hurry when I came back to Liberia in Sep 2009
4) Met my siblings after almost two years
5) Introduced Haresh to my siblings and my SOAS friends
6) Did a bit of shopping and had my fill of caramel frapuccino's 

Detour in Ghana: Kakum National Park, Elmina Castle; Getting Chased by a Mad Man on the Streets of Accra

The 10-day detour in Ghana was the really expensive bit as I did not estimate I would end up staying that long to get a freaking UK visa. To read about it, go to: Visa Rage.

Haresh and I spent more than a couple thousand bucks on hotels and food and sightseeing. At least I got to slap my fear of heights in the face by doing the highest canopy walk in Africa - the one in Kakum National Park along with a couple hundred Ghanaaian students on Labour Day. It is bad enough to feel shaky climbing flights of stairs which are wide and the rails do not give you a sense of security or to feel dizzy on top of the Jomo Kenyatta Conference Centre and wanting to hug the floor but the canopy walk was something else. 

The steep walk up the hill to the canopy walk itself was so exhausting to begin with! And we were surrounded by all these bouncy, cheerful, camera-clicking adolescents. Teenagers are the same everywhere - sporting the latest look, posing to take photographs for Facebook and flirting all around. And then there's Haresh who makes a loud announcement from the outset that he needed to be right at the front of the group along with the guide. So there was everyone calling my name - the whole group of kids got to know my name - looking for me as I had been wandering around the shops while we waited for the guide to take the next group. After I got over that irritating moment of being singled out, we began the most scary walk of my life!

There are 7 platforms suspended between the tops of cotton trees that sway when you walk over them and even creak making one feel quite light headed. It would not be so scary if it were let's say in a play ground of a primary school but it is 130 feet high. I really do not know how I did it given I am pathetically-nay-embarassingly scared of heights but as it is with any phobia, you have to somehow convince your brain you will not fall down from that height and plummet to your death. I crept along on each hanging bridge holding on to dear life biting my lips in deep concentration and trying not to look up or down or sideways. Haresh's joking about falling down and breaking a couple of limbs of course made me laugh. The local kids though were annoying in their complete joyful abandonment - singing and screaming and bouncing up and down on the bridges heightening my sense of dizziness. I really wanted to throttle them but once I finished the walk, I was exhilarated - not to mention drenched in sweat. Haresh and I casually walked back down the hill again confronted by the same sweet-sour smell of coconut juice that was being sold along the way. 

After we were done with the walk, we headed off to the Elmina Castle for a tour. This was the third "slave castle" I have visited so I am pretty familiar with how shocking the experience can be. Haresh was thoroughly enlightened and kept asking the tour guide, "Doesn't this make you really angry? Does this not make you want to invade Europe and enslave white people?" Haresh is not known for his subtlety.

The slave castle was not first built as a slave castle but as a trading post by the Portuguese in the 15th century but soon became an important stop in the Atlantic slave trade and was later taken by the Dutch and lastly by the British. It is massive and even boasts a moat. It overlooks the fishing town and ocean from all its sides. We started the tour from the main courtyard noting the small chapel/trading hall in the centre and went into the various dungeons - some for males and some for females. The dungeons are dark and oppressive and used to hold a couple hundred human beings at a time who were forced to sleep, eat, urinate, and defecate in one space. Belligerent men were locked up in a lightless/airless space where they most likely died. Female slaves had to endure being paraded around in a courtyard and the governor would pick out one he wanted for his pleasure looking down upon the yard. The females were led through a staircase leading directly to his bedroom. Children born out of such unions and even favoured women slaves were housed in separate houses at the back of the castle where they would live for the rest of their lives. There was a door of no return (similar to one I have seen in the Goree Island, Senegal and Cape Coast, Ghana castles) - a narrow hole in the wall which goes out towards the sea from where slaves were loaded on to ships destined for the Americas. Apart from seeing the horrors down below, there was also the disgust of exploring the space right above these dungeons where the officers would eat, sleep and pray (no I am not thinking of the Julia Roberts movie). The guide was pretty sarcastic shall we say when pointing this out. I think he did a good job. 

Apart from canopy walking and slave castle explorations, the stay in Ghana was pleasant. We stayed at a nice hotel close to the airport which we found purely by accident and the owner became a good friend who would take us out every night on a drive. We also recommended his hotel on the Liberia Expats Google Group. 

We also spent time with an old time buddy of Haresh's who was really fun to hang out with. He punctuates every sentence with "over there" and this had never been pointed out to him until I did! Apparently, he's been doing it for all his life and no one noticed. I also met up with the daughter of one my dear friends from Liberia - I have known this kid since she was about 14 and it is nice to see her coming into her own. 

We met up with Edwina in Accra Mall and decided to drop her home first before we went back to the hotel as we wanted to see where she lived. Was it a smooth ride? Of course not, we being we had to end up as extras in a Hollywood-style car chase across town and see a skinny-but-good-guy taxi driver get almost beat up by a psychopathic bad guy. What happened was that our taxi driver broke the side mirror of another taxi as he was trying to squeeze through some heavy traffic. We did not even realise what happens until our car was stopped by a very angry taxi driver who came over to our car and started messing around our taxi driver. Now our taxi driver was very skinny and keep trying to righteously prove a point verbally while the other guy just wanted to fight it out. He was not even interested in having a conversation, forget about reasoning. Our poor guy kept trying to stand up and the other guy kept pushing him back on his seat while towering above him. In less than a minute the psychopath's T-Shirt was off and I guess he wanted our taxi driver to do the same. I thought our little guy was a goner - he stood no chance against the psycho who from the looks of it clearly spent good time pumping iron and looking for excuses to fight. I kept telling Haresh to find another taxi but he wanted to watch the show so I was pretty much stuck. Pretty soon onlookers came and a fight was averted long enough so that our taxi driver made a get away! And whaddya know? The psycho was closely following us. This went on for miles and miles and we were doing 80 or 100 km/hour at least! At one point, the psycho managed to get in front of us and blocked the whole road. He again got out of his car and started to approach our car again (to pummel our guy) but before that, our skinny but smart taxi driver managed to get away and started speeding again and there was the psycho, close behind us. Neither Edwina nor Haresh seemed to be the least bit worried about the whole situation except for me. When we were quite close to the police station, we actually passed a police car and excitedly stopped him. In our cars, we all started screaming for help! "Officer, officer, help us, we are being chased by a madman!" Thankfully he listened to all of us yelling at him at one time and, escorted us to the police station. The senior officer in charge there listened to us patiently and when he asked the psycho his version of the events, he denied everything, even lifting off his shirt. We all started shouting again and Haresh said he had even recorded the violence on his camera (slight exaggeration) and the police officer was convinced to throw the bugger in jail. I guess he had seen his fair share of criminals to know one and did not quite need our enthusiastic pleas but thanks to him for at least hearing us out. 

Return to the UK

Liberia suffers from such a lack of development that visiting any other country is culture shock. Have you ever been outside of Monrovia? There's nothing out there except for jungle. Villages passing for towns have vegetation-covered-abandoned structures that pass for buildings. Dirt tracks pass for roads. Monrovia is passed off as a capital city. Corruption is passed of as a way of life or my favourite line passed by outsiders, "This is Africa." One hundred fifty years of colonialism is passed off as the oldest republic in Africa. I could go on and on about the bizarre state of Liberia. All states have historical amnesia but Liberia takes the cake.  

Going to the UK, of course, is the ultimate mind twister. One might as well be on a different planet - it is so developed, clean and orderly! I enjoyed being back in a space where I could indulge in shopping, going to the cinema, enjoying public transport and eating at some really classy restaurants. London is overwhelming with its choice of places to go and explore public spaces like art galleries and museums and can be a nice escape from Planet of the Apes.

It felt like decades had passed since I was last there. I met with almost all the people I wanted to see. My friends were thrilled to see me again and meet the new man in my life. And they actually liked him!

I was also lucky to meet a friend from SOAS who has been through a personal tragedy as well and it was wonderful to see her and her husband again and, to compare notes. They also found out who their real friends were at a time of crisis. 

My siblings also took a liking to Haresh, too. They had to - Haresh specially got a hair cut in Accra for their benefit.  My favourite moment with the four of us was at Dishoom, an Indian restaurant in Leicester Square. It was quite a funky place with vintage Indian art everywhere. We were served by a very cute Johnny-Deep-look-alike waiter and my sister and I went ga ga over him who showed off his knowledge of various kinds of naan. The food was amazing including the various flavoured kulfis. Haresh kept getting stared by another Indian man whom Haresh thought he knew from Nigeria but just turned out to be a staring kind of a fellow, you know how much South Asians like to stare at each other. Saira won a bet with Tariq over the nationality of some chicks sitting at another table. So yes, it was a nice group time for us.

Everyone seemed to be happy to see me well and having moved on with life after the murder of Wesley in September 2009. 

Going to SOAS was also quite pleasant but also gave me pangs of nostalgia as I left Liberia to come do a masters and that whole year ended up in such a disaster. My department though was very cooperative and really encouraging in my attempt to complete this masters. 

It is actually going to be a pain in the ass to finish it - it was hard enough when school was on and I struggled to make the readings, write the essays and make sense of it. And the whole reason for doing it is also now obsolete. I am not looking to move up in the bureaucratic/dinosauratic organisation that is the UN (and pass it off as saving the world) any longer. Nope, I do not ever intend to 'land a white whale' (a high-paying UN job) ever again. I work for myself now! So now I have to actually do the masters for actually learning some critical analytical skills and not to increase my pay scale. As the head of department said to me: most people get the development masters degree to get into the UN but you're getting it to leave the UN. So yes, it will be a pain in the ass but it'll be a nice sense of achievement and close that chapter. 

I met with a student who is finishing the masters this year too who was planning on coming on to Liberia for some research on labour conditions in the rubber industry. I agreed to help him out if he brought me books and articles and so on. So he is actually here, staying with our neighbours next door. It has been nice to talk about SOAS, bitch about the same badly managed courses and our favourite professors. He has been really helpful and who knows maybe he can even write the dissertation for me?

Haresh's reactions are always amusing. He was impressed with the free hare krishna food served during lunch time at SOAS and we both had it sitting on the steps of the Brunei Gallery. He was even more impressed to see a bar that served alcohol in the middle of a university and wondered whether drinks were also free!  And he doesn't understood how people who do oriental and african studies can ever get jobs. What can I say. 

We stayed with a friend in Canary Wharf which was quite nice as I got to see and shop in a different part of London. And it was good to have Haresh around to carry my shopping bags. He does have his uses.

We also got to go out of town to a town near Bath - we were hosted by a dear friend we have made friends with in Liberia. We met in London for dinner as he was in town for a meeting, had dinner in - guess where - Brunswick Square near SOAS, and took a train to Bath. It was a full train but Haresh shooed off a fellow who had occupied one of those seats next to table for four, you know what I mean. So we got these four seats thanks to Haresh's subtle manners. And is any journey complete without some games? No and, so Haresh and Nigel solved some sodoku puzzles.

We got to Bath and got into Nigel's car in the car park and drove to Bradford on Avon where his house is. It was night time but we got a sense of how pretty and country-side-ish it must be. We got to his house, checked it out, had a cup of tea if I remember correctly and went to sleep.  We could not get over how quiet it was at night and how fresh the air was. Nigel served us a delicious breakfast the next day (he was so sweet he actually telephoned us the day before to ask us what we would like for breakfast).

We walked around in Bath, ate at a fabulous sea food restaurant and marveled at the Roman baths.

I also wanted to see a friend who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer on the way back from Bath but he was in and out of chemotherapy and I couldn't see him. He was very cheerful and brave on the phone and it made me appreciate how important it is to live one's life with a positive attitude no matter what one is going through. 

So the UK trip went well and I have made a plan on how to proceed with completing my masters. Haresh tagged along, met my friends and siblings, I did some shopping and he renewed his passport. 

Accra On the Way Back

For the record, Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport is amazing. The modern check in is something truly to marvel at (compared to the taxi stand that is RIA). 

So we had to stay in Accra for a couple of nights on the way back from London. We spent most of the time with Haresh's same old-time buddy. We had a 4-hour lunch at his house where we met his famous uncle whom he had been complaining about the whole week we had been with him going to London. The uncle turned out to be the most fit, charming and energetic 75-year old I had ever met. His family has been in Ghana since the 50s. He started every second sentence with "I don't want to blow my own trumpet but...." With that we got to know about his 2 million pound house in Belsize Park, his vintage Rolex and the fact he can perform the Shirish Asan yoga. He was a gracious host making sure we were stuffed until we couldn't eat and drink until we could not stand. 

Sindhi is a nice language to listen to - it has so many words similar to Urdu and Punjabi but somehow sounds sweeter than Punjabi. But then again, all Sindhis I meet say Punjabi sounds sweeter. They are also nostalgic about their roots in Pakistan - their mothers have told them that they owned the biggest houses, were rich as can be, and the bathrooms had gold faucets! And the interesting thing is that the Sindhis in India read and write in the Urdu script. 

We had to get up around 5 AM on a Sunday to catch our 8 AM Air Nigeria flight to Monrovia. Because we had about 100 KG in excess weight (we were only allowed 20 KG per person), we wanted to get there extra early to sort out excess baggage fees. The owner of the hotel where we stayed (the same one) dropped us at the airport himself. Nice guy. 

Haresh struck a deal with the airlines to let our excess baggage go through - he had to part with $ 170.00 which is not too bad. Our flight was delayed for an hour but we passed a pleasant time at the Accra airport drinking tea and eating croissants. I bought the latest Time issue "Why the US is Stuck with Pakistan" - what an insulting cover!

No self-respecting national of any country likes titles like these which paint such a terrible picture of one's nation. Likewise, I do not mean any disrespect for my Planet of the Apes comments towards Liberia which has been my home since 2003. Liberia has its set of dysfunctions but it is no less retarded than any other country in the world. The self-proclaimed greatest country in the world - USA - was built on the pillage and murder of the Native Indians and blood and sweat of African slaves.

We also met an Indian businessman whom I thought was a Pakistani army man - tall and a thick moustache with a very confident air about him. He was a Punjabi - no wonder! - who started waxing lyrical about his roots in Rawalpindi and Lahore and the misadventures that the Pakistani state has embarked on since its inception. I don't know whether he was serious or not, but he said he had instructed his sons to marry Muslim girls and not demand they convert in the spirit of inter-faith harmony. 

I love airports! They should be the scenes of all diplomatic meetings. Not to mention I have met both the men in my life at airports. 

We landed in Monrovia at 11 AM on a Sunday. As the plane swerved around in the direction of the airfield, we got a majestic glimpse of the coastline and the lush forest that covers the majority of the country. We truly live in a jungle. Figuratively and literally! 

Some More Thoughts

The UK is like a common destination for me now (apart from Liberia and Pakistan). After many years of not particularly liking the big-city feel, grey weather and sense of alienation, I think the UK is as part of my life as any other. I have undertaken both my undergrad and grad there. I have a lot of memories in that place.  I can more or less navigate my way around and am familiar with it. I have a history with London (we go way back!) but I can safely now say that I actually sort of like it. Progress! 

It was nice to have Haresh tag along with me and help me get all my stuff done. Thanks Haresh! 

I think I  like the idea of having my foot in at least three different worlds any given moment: the UK, Liberia and Pakistan.

So I am glad I am back and have some good memories of this trip. 

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