First trip abroad: Phones in the post office and travelers checks and stamped mail
Phones in a home or hotel and a credit card and travelers checks and stamped mail
Phones in a home or hotel or calling cards for pay phones and a credit card and stamped mail
Phones in a home or hotel or calling cards for pay phones and internet access at a friend’s house and a credit card and an ATM card that works for local currency and stamped mail and email
Cell phone with a local SIM card and internet access at a friend’s house and a credit card and an ATM card that works for local currency and and email
Cell phone with a local SIM card and wireless access at cafes and at my neighbor’s house (and eventually at mine) and writing checks(!) for local currency at the cashier at work and email (and stamped mail if ever I get to Timbuktu). (Too much fraud for ATM and credit cards to be safe and most of what you buy is from small vendors). Sometimes the old becomes new.
Since the day my bed was packed out of Chicago not even four months ago, I have lodged/lived in seven places, and I am not yet in my “permanent” home. That will hopefully happen in mid-July. Of those four months, about a month of that, some solid and some sprinkled, has been living out of suitcases. I guess it is good practice for a peripatetic lifestyle, but right now I just want to re-setup a home, even if it is just for a couple of years.
I did quite a lot of purging before I moved; several people figured I could purge more but by the end I just didn’t have the energy. When all of my stuff gets here I will probably realize there are things I don’t need. When my “consumables” shipment gets here, I will probably realize I bought too much of some things and not enough of others. I will try not to acquire too much more. The short time period bodes well for managed acquisition; being in a three-bedroom house, though, may just cancel that out. Time will tell. One thing is for sure—I must figure out how to keep my checked baggage under weight and my carry-ons to to something carry-able. I’m still recovering from the plane trips.
As I learned when I was first hired (and even earlier when I was hired to work the Census), government jobs have a love affair with paperwork—on paper. This week I dutifully and diligently attacked the task of getting all the boxes of a page-long-two-column-small-print checklist which was as much a scavenger hunt as anything. Every time I went to be briefed and hand in some form, I was presented with more forms to fill out. It appears paperwork breeds paperwork. The salutary aspect of the task is that I now know where many of the different offices are, to whom I need to speak if I need certain information or services, and how (now that I have been e-connected enough) to do most of what I need electronically from now on. I finished my checkin within my first week, only to learn that most people take much longer and some people never finish “checking in.” I guess as a teacher I find it hard not to finish my classwork or homework. At least the management folks like me . . . this week.
I decided to go the pay-as-you-go route for a Ghanaian cell phone. That’s what everyone does. First after finding every store closed last Saturday I ended up at a Vodaphone place and asked for a SIM card with some amount of time on it. I learned they call it a chip here, and then you buy little scratch of cards with certain denominations to add money or “Top off” your card. You can top off your card in the store or buy the scratch-off cards from little kiosks of even guys sitting on a chair under a big umbrella (red for Vodaphone) like the guy a half a block from my house. My friend Nana’s sister told me most people have chips from all of the companies and top off according to which company has the best deal at the time. Vodaphone now has a bonus 2 for 1 credit going for the next couple of months. Buy 10 cedis worth of time which expires in about a 3 months, and get 10 cedis worth of time which expires in a week. (I’m finding 10 cedis is a little over an hour of calling to the US, which, at the current conversion rate is about $6.67, so it’s about 10 cents/minute.) At another time MTN will have a deal where it’s unlimited calling to another MTN phone, and some other company will come up with another deal. I’m glad I have an unlocked phone. Meanwhile, someone should design a little SIM card/chip wallet so I’d be able to keep all my chips straight (including my USA T-mo one).
When my un-air-conditioned car gets here I am not looking forward to driving certain places and certain times of the day. I have never seen traffic jams like this—it’s worse than the north side of Chicago. In comparison Chicago traffic actually moves. It’s also more like Rio, where there are four lanes of traffic in a two lane road. Yesterday we were on a two-lane street with three lanes going north and one going south. (And the outer “lanes” are scary given that the edge of the road is a two foot wide by five-foot deep trench for water run-off that sometimes doubles as a urinal.) I suspect I’ll be living in first gear and melting in the car and will have to freeze gallon jugs of water for the 45 minute 2-mile trip to the grocery store. Or maybe I’ll tag along with someone who does have air conditioning. Or maybe I’ll just start walking with my little red wagon until I get hailed by a purple and yellow taxi.
Looking out of the window of the plane as we flew over Côte d’Ivoire at midday, I noticed the towns and cities sparkled—like the lights were on in the middle of the day. I’d never seen that before, and knew it couldn’t be lights, but I wondered what the sun could be reflecting off of: windshields? I was stumped until our descent over Ghana, where I noticed that many of the houses were covered with corrugated metal roofs. Eureka—my stars! I am now living in one of those midday stars, and last night I was treated to quite a symphony by one of our tropical torrents. Considering I love sitting in my truck during storms, I enjoyed this rhapsody in rain.
Here in Accra, you don’t hail taxis. Taxis hail you. I noticed that whenever I was walking on the street cars kept beeping their horns at me. I asked the guards at the embassy if I was walking wrong on the street and they just laughed and told me it was just the taxis trying to get a fare (silly naïve foreigner). Today as I was walking one block and then waiting for a friend for about five minutes, I was constantly shaking my head “no” – I probably turned down at least 25 taxis.
The taxis are all two-toned. Their front and rear fenders on both sides are a yellow or an orange, and the doors and hood and trunk are all another color—any other color. Of all the combinations I’ve seen, my favorite so far was a purple and yellow one. I’ve yet to take a taxi. I have been lucky to have embassy transportation and very warm and welcoming co-workers and neighbors. When I do take a taxi, I’ll probably choose by color. I’ll have to bargain with the driver beforehand for a price, preferably not too exorbitant of an obruni price (obruni are we foreigners), and I hate bargaining, but I guess I’ll get over it faster if I get to ride in a purple and yellow taxi.
In January of 2010 amidst a “mid-course correction” (my friend Carl’s positive spin off of the usual “crisis”) I learned that a long-held dream to join the Foreign Service was still and option, and I decided to put feet on the dream. I studied for the exam for two months, took it and passed it in March, wrote a series of essays (relying on some pretty tight editor friends) in April, received an invitation to the Oral Assessments (OAs–very involved interview/evaluation) in June, worked with some great fellow candidates to prepare for the OAs throughout the summer, took and passed the OA on September 7th (with several great folks that have either finished training or will soon start), uncharacteristically flew through medical and security clearances (not without thinking I had had or was having a heart attack in the process), had an offer on November 10th, sorted and weeded and packed out my worldly possessions acquired over several decades, and started training on Valentine’s day 2011 with the 159th A-100 class of Foreign Service Generalists (FSO — O meaning Officer) for the United States Department of State. Many weeks of training later, I landed in Accra, Ghana for my first posting as a consular officer–almost a year to the day that I learned I’d been invited to the OA. I’m still reeling.
Accrabatics are my impressions of being a new FSO in Accra, Ghana.