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Saturday, 21 May 2011

Travels Without My Laptop

Mat and me at the proposal of Richmond Hill...Saturday 2nd April

Home. It's nice to see you again. It has been a while.

Arriving back in Heathrow on a cloudy day, it was comforting to note that very little had changed. It took much longer to land than it had in any of the other international cities I'd visited over the last three months. And as we emerged from the plane, bleary-eyed and weary-bodied we could rest assured that it would be at least an hour or more before the baggage handlers stirred themselves from yet another tea break to unearth our luggage from the plane and onto the conveyor belts. That is, for those of us lucky enough to have baggage to claim.

Mat "just checking" that we are where we're supposed to be. Brecon Beacons.

I had played out in my head over and over again seeing Mat again and spending the day together revisiting some of our favourite local places. Initially I felt extraordinarily shy and self conscious, seeing my husband - of a few months - but partner of nearly six years again, after so many strange places, and cultural and work experiences apart. After finding that my wreck of a car had successfully made it to the airport it was soon back to the serious business of catching up together, planning where to eat burgers for lunch (The Teddington Arms...I have yet to find a better burger in west London), where to go for an afternoon walk (through Ham and Richmond Park to Richmond Hill, and home again, and what to drink (a delicious glass of rose) while attempting the Guardian prize crossword.

Living in a climate where the lowest temperature is 28 degrees on a very cool morning indeed, I loved the medium-strength warm weather of the UK in April; being able to complete an easy 10 mile walk through Richmond Park with no other fear of traffic than the odd passing stag (or buggy) felt tremendously freeing. The cool breezes and the budding trees were the familiar spring time signs I had been expecting to see for so long, and were with me at last. Stranger to me now was the continuous stream of consciousness I experienced comparing every sight and sound to the Ghanaian equivalents so recently left behind. Gone "JESUS IS LORD" plastered in bold, large letters across the back windows of aggressive-horn-honking taxis; no more stripy lizards darting between my toes. Back to midges, not mosquitoes. Home.

I've now been back nearly two months, and have been on holiday and, after that, at home in London awaiting my next assignment - perhaps even in London for the first time. My own bed again. Running along the Thames again, rather than sweating it out for 10 miles on a treadmill. Power Yoga where the poses actually do something than make me wonder who taught the teacher. Baking with implements other than a metal slotted spoon and two metal saucepans. Home comforts. Ah.

At the top of the Sugar Loaf in Abergavenny. So happy to be at the top, and about to eat crisps to celebrate!

Mat and I embraced our holiday time together with a mini honeymoon trip to the Brecon Beacons. And as the icy sleet cut my cheeks at the top of Fan y Big (yes, it is genuinely, without irony, called that) and I shivered to the bone in my waterproof jacket and trousers, and I lovingly called out to Mat, "Who the bloody hell's idea was this?" I thought to myself: it's good to be home.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Black Star All Stars

Some of the people who made this experience possible... Thank you!

Dela (right hand side) who organised our apartment, and is generally the woman who Gets Things Done. The women are wearing kabas and slits for Friday - everyone dons traditional Ghanaian dress for this day.

Mawuli, one of the mentees for the programme we designed. A lovely man

Eric "Digit" McGaw...grand master of the Accra Hash. Here he says 'I would like to point out...' and another 'true' story begins...

From left, Abena, a lady we never met properly (sorry #1), Amanda, Jackie, me and Prissy, all posing in front of the sign CARE had made especially to celebrate 100 years of International Women's Day

Lydia the seamstress and me, again, as she was so brilliant. Made me a replica of my fab purple silk Elie Tahari dress in Ghanian cotton, and all for 10 cedis!

Returning from the door of no return at Elmina. (The door is the star here. This was a harrowing and momentous experience.)

BBStone (Godfrey) at St George Castle. Big man, shyest Ghanaian I met. Drove us all the way to Cape Coast and back, and was very gracious about losing at cards EVERY game we played that weekend.

Gideon, our guide at Elmina, takes us around the courtyard outside the female dungeon. Please note woman to left wearing RIDICULOUS stilletoes for walking around a world heritage castle. She and her male friend were apparently in some passionate love affair as her driver told ours they kept making him pull over / ignore their incessant smooching. Seriously people. Get a room (and not at Elmina).

Birthdays! Cakes I made for Fred (left) and Matty (right)'s birthdays, celebrated at Friday tea. In Ghana, when you have sung 'Happy Birthday', to the same tune you sing "How old are you now?" and the response has to be "I'll tell you la-ter!"

Leaving Ghana open house. (from left) Antoine our friend from CARE and in charge of IT, another CARE friend whose name I can't recall...sorry..., Amanda, Fred, me, Charles our fantastic driver and Brenda, aka Highland Fling!

Last night in Ghana. Amanda and I are SHATTERED after delivering the project but celebrate with a daiquiri and margarita respectively, before an early sushi dinner and crashing out at home. Cheers!

Ghana be days like these

Photos and memories of Ghana...some highlights from 2 months in the Black Star country

School wall outside our apartment. One day someone drove into a section of the wall. Four weeks later the new wall is up and plastered.

Taxi?! Hand gesture (half formed here) and incessant horn beeping as if, only when 1/2 metre away might you finally realise that a taxi is nearby and that you desperately need one.

Sunset in Tamale, second week in Ghana

Shangri-La Hotel Loos. Just in case you didn't understand the signs

Mankoadze beach, 7am. Bounty advert eat your heart out...

Shoe store stock room at Makola. When you want another size it takes 20 minutes 'cause they have to run to the other side of the market to get it. You had better be a serious customer!

Ghana Lizards. Cute, multi-coloured and always entertaining. At La Palm and Labadi Beach hotels they run under your legs whilst you're relaxing and then stop and stare. Small scale entertainment when you're chilling out with a beer. Lovely.

Labadi Beach Hotel - Oasis of calm, tranquility, wi-fi and club sandwiches

Road to Labadi Beach. Sponsored by Vodafone. Many people are paid (once) to have their houses painted with the slogan of one of the mobile phone networks. We saw Vodafone towns.

Ghana! T-shirts for sale...outside Barclay's looking onto Oxford Street. Bargaining is a must, or you'll pay at least a 70% mark up.

Care colleagues...the neighbouring chickens and roosters who are particularly vocal during conference calls

The worst shower / shower pressure in the world. Bucket fills. Drips are incessant. Cue increased insomnia. And that's before the call to prayer starts at the mosque across the road...

Makola Market...just seen but never forgotten

Friday, 1 April 2011

Ghana Miss You

The last day is here. I'm all packed and listening to Frou Frou's "Let Go" which has been the theme song for my project out here, played driving in the dark along the long road to the Cape Coast, in the office when I needed a boost to keep working through the hot afternoons when the air conditioner in our little office decided to spurt out shards of ice rather than any cool air.

We're expecting Charles to come and pick us up in an hour's time to hit the Friday night traffic. Traffic here is superbly congested, and unlike London where one can weave one's way onto side roads to cut traffic lights and get moving, here there are only the main routes, and everyone is in their car off somewhere.

Reflecting back on the last two months I honestly cannot believe how fast the time has gone, but when I think of the massive amount of work Amanda and I have got through it makes sense that Monday would soon turn into Friday, and so on through the weeks. We had our final review call yesterday and said our goodbyes to our friends in the office today. It has been a very warm and friendly experience to spend time with the friends made at CARE, on the hash and at the gym.

Things I'll miss:

  • Pippa's Gym being 1 minute down the road, and opening at 5:30 for insomniacs like me
  • Sunshine Salad Bar. The best wraps and hygienic salads in Ghana. Fact.
  • The sunsets, sunrises and palm trees especially at Makoadze on our hash weekend
  • CARE Friday morning tea time, complete with cornish pasty-like pies to start the end of the week in style
  • The fact that you can get spring rolls pretty much everywhere
  • Kelewele, the wicked and delicious snack that makes a portion of chips feel like a green salad
  • The fact that a new dress costs £12, made to measure
  • The handshake 'snaps'
  • Having my bed made for me every day. Oh wait, I'm a consultant, that happens all the time
  • Working for CARE. What an awesome organisation.
  • Wearing flip flops to work
Things I won't miss quite so much
  • The AC at Pippa's, or lack thereof. I have attractive chafe marks on my upper arms where my t-shirt has rubbed away the skin because you can only sweat *so much* before that happens
  • The open sewers
  • The smell of the open sewers
  • Chickens scratching around in the open sewers
  • Ghana time. "I'm coming" you hear. Just don't expect them to arrive any time soon!
  • Ghana administrative bodies. Much head shaking, bribery and corruption.
  • Taxi drivers beeping their horns at you incessantly, and refusing to believe that you don't require their services
  • Proposals of marriage. The first one's flattering, the tenth one is a bit wearing.
  • Having to brush my teeth with bottled water. Hassle. (I know, I'm so spoiled.)
  • Bars with extensive menus that don't actually have the ingredients to make any of the drinks
More from England. Akwaaba and goodbye! xx

Friday, 25 March 2011

Prostitutes, Slaves and Seamstresses

Sign above prison for condemned convicted guards and soldiers

This post is long overdue, but better this than blog written but project deadlines unmet. Last weekend began what I now think of as the Great Ghana Experience, and it included all characters from all three categories in the post's title.Thursday night is the new Friday in my opinion, and I like to celebrate with a toast to the week with Amanda. This Thursday we were lucky to be able to dine with a new friend and colleague I've met through CARE who happened to be in Accra to act as facilitator on a week-long training program. We met at the Shangri-la hotel, which is nothing like the chain hotels it shares a name with.

Bywel's bar

Outside near the large pool we sit in the outside dining area surrounded by packs of small, predatory cats. Their small size makes them more disconcerting if anything, as they look stunted and the hungrier for their petite forms. Around our legs they miaow at us whilst we eat our houmous and spring roll (!) combination of appetisers, as if they've never been fed. It's not the best advertisement for an eaterie, but the food at this strange mix of African, Chinese and western cultured hotel is actually not too bad, and it's great to have a chance to catch up with friends.

St George Castle, Cape Coast

Onwards at around 10 Amanda and I head to Bywel's, a bar I haven't heard of so far. We almost don't go as both of us are shattered from another week of hard work, but when we turn up we're glad that we did. An outdoor bar hidden among a quiet suburban street in Osu, Accra, Bywel's is a real den of iniquity, or probably would be, given half a chance. Loud Afro-beat and local music is played live by a menagerie of musicians, and before them on the small dance floor men and women of all ages and nationalities move their bodies to the casual rhythms. I'm struck by the prevalence of white middle aged men, and lovely black young women. And gradually I realise why this combination has more significance. I'm here to meet Vince, a friend of a friend from home. Unfortunately I have no idea what he looks like, he has no idea what I look like, and since I know he's "coming with friends at 10.30" I worry that 10.30 = 10.30 Ghana time. Which could pretty much be any time before the same time next week.

After my first embarrassing query of 'Are you Vince?' is met in the negative I try a different tack and start asking people for the time instead. When a German or French accent replies, I know I'm still no closer to finding Vince. And luckily these punters are much more interested in the females for hire than the random white woman who needs to buy a watch. I finally strike gold - literally - when I spot a man with a wedding ring and he turns out to be Vince, and we spend an hour or so soaking up the music, night sky and courtship (or courtesan) rituals around us. This bar doesn't care for high class glamour, cocktails or neon lights. (If you don't believe me, risk a visit to the women's toilet. Actually perhaps it's not worth it...) The music's loud, the beer's cold. The women are pretty and the chat is good. Cheers Accra.

Cape Coast from Prospect Place Hotel

On Friday Amanda and I have decided to head west for the weekend to the Cape Coast, another Ghana 'must-see'. This was the original capital of The Gold Coast, and its two main towns Cape Coast and Elmina are sites of former trading posts, first in goods and later human traffic. Getting out of Accra on a Friday night, with the incessant traffic seething down every narrow road, proves a challenge and we arrive around eight on Friday night after a three hour drive. Everywhere in Cape Coast town is open for business, though and we navigate through very narrow streets heaving with merchants and the locals selling, buying and chatting - seemingly all at the same time.

Our hotel Prospect Place lives up to its name, and in the morning when we rise early to start our sight seeing tour we can see Fort William on the hill ahead, one of a large number of look out posts in this part of Ghana, now used as a lighthouse. Cape Coast is quite hilly in general, good for spying the mix of corrugated iron roofs over the simple shacks, in among the sleeker cream-painted business buildings and the crumbling ruins of centuries past. As we head out of the town farther to the west, again the town is heaving at 8 in the morning as people go about their business - a boy brushes his teeth and spits into the sewer; a woman carries freshly smoked fish, beautifully arranged on a wide flat circular platter, on her head; children run among the cars, half dressed and women lay out their small market stalls side by side by side.

'London Bridge' in Cape Coast

First to Kakum national park to take on the canopy walk, some 40 metres above the rain forest. This was fun, even for someone as frightened of heights as me. Being hemmed in by the entwined ropes helped, and we were kept moving by the classes of uniformed school children waiting to follow us out. Not much wildlife to be seen. Apart from the children! But stunning to see the density of trees and shrubs humming in the heat of the day.

School traffic on the canopy walk

On from the green forest to the white walls of Elmina and St George Castle, our first experience of historical Ghana other than the museum. Learning the torture, rape and starvation slaves endured within the castles' walls was very harrowing, particularly at St George Castle, which was run by the British. Two thirds of the slaves being held prior to transportation died before they ever entered the 'Door of No Return' and the waiting boats. Through the door of no return only one slave could pass at a time, shackled with heavy chains to the others.

The female slaves who became pregnant after being raped by the guards at the castles were the luckier ones. In Elmina they often escaped transportation, and after giving birth in the town rather than in captivity, their children were raised locally and they became domestic slaves. Those in St George Castle also gave birth outside of the castle, but then were brought back to complete their original purpose as transported slaves.

At Kakum on the canopy walk

From the stark white walls and blazing heat we hit the road again early on Sunday and returned to Accra, just in time to avoid the traffic for one of the many popular football matches taking place at the stadium. Time for a long sleep before Monday's work came around once more, with the faint cries of thousands of football fanatics humming in the distance.

The door of no return, Elmina

I at last got around to buying fabric for more lovely clothes, made by Lydia, the local seamstress whose tiny purple hut is situated across the road from the CARE office. Lydia seems to work miracles with clothes. Not only did she produce stunning Ghanaian outfits for us, but she can copy clothes and make replicas in different fabrics for you, so I just couldn't say no. For 10 cedis (£4) you can have a brand new Reiss dress in a Ghanaian print, with the only additional cost of the fabric (about another £6-7!) BARGAIN! Hoping to post pictures in future posts when I've collected my new African wardrobe. Watch this space.

Lydia the dress maker and me with my shiniest forehead yet

Friday, 11 March 2011

Coastal Hashing and International Women's Day

Morning walk along the beach, Mankoadze

On Saturday morning Amanda and I set out on our adventure up the coast to the hash weekend, beginning, naturally with some lunch to set us up for the journey. We're heading up the coast for this once-a-month weekend away, which we're able to enjoy all the more since it's Independence Day in Ghana on Sunday, and everyone is taking a public holiday to celebrate 54 years of independence.

At Asanka Local, Chop Bar

Asanka Local is a 'chop' (food) bar in central Osu, a massive dance hall-like place with a very high ceiling and simple wooden tables and chairs. It seems it's a local institution, mainly for lunch, and fills up on Saturdays with a mixed crowd of couples out on a date, construction work men taking a break, and of course, the token white travellers. We are here to meet Neil, hash name Sleepy Dick(!) who is a Canadian-born farmer living in Accra, where he and his Ghanaian wife have a farm. Within the open kitchen we saw massive stainless steel bowls filled with dark red stews. They look very similar to me - in colour at any rate - but we're asked to choose between goat, chicken or tilapia, pepper sauce or soups and banku, fufu or rice, so in fact there are many different choices available.

Banku is a dense maize-based pattie shaped like a fat beef burger. With your right hand, you break off a piece of this and dip it into your bowl of sauce, soup and meat to scoop up some of the liquid and eat with some meat. Rather like the Ethiopian injera, the custom is to eat with your right hand and leave your left hand dry; unlike injera, however, the sauces accompanying the banku are runny in consistency, and only a Ghanaian old hand (no pun intended) would be able to eat this without getting sauce everywhere. Wearing a white t-shirt, I decided to opt for a safer option of redred with plantains, which I ate with a fork, but I tasted the banku and sauces, which were spicy and tasty. Most Ghanaians eat this sort of meal for lunch or late afternoon, as the density of banku will challenge the digestive system (and put even the most caffeinated individual to sleep for the rest of the day).

"Sleepy" drives us through Accra to the outskirts, where we sit in traffic jam after jam. Driving, incidentally, is not quite a blood sport in Ghana, but certainly an adventure in playing chicken. Lanes are poorly demarcated, if at all, and one needs to drive with a derring-do attitude that any Londoner would respect. Driving at cars or buses seems to be a necessity if one wants to change lanes or come off at a roundabout turning, in the hope that the cars threatened by this manoeuvre will be valued at a higher price by their drivers than being one space ahead in the endless stream of crawling cars.

The shore, Mankoadze on the second hash run

The outskirts of Accra seem endless; the newly constructed road leading all the way to Takoradi (some 200km away) and beyond has created new business opportunities along the way, and so we pass by a steady number of shops and buildings on our way, lining the street. Beyond them, back from the road, there are rarely more than a handful of houses. The life and industry of these suburban outposts is on the highway, where the vendors sell their fruits, packets of super glue and water bottles to the traffic-jammed travelers, or perhaps fix a flat tyre or provide a cold beer to those staying for a little longer.

Keke's Beach Resort, Makoadze

We head through Winneba to reach Makoadze, a town named originally 'Windy Bay' which then loosened by the Ghanaian accent morphed into Winneba. It's a university town, the buildings of which contrast with the simple roadside huts and grey concrete houses with their manicured lawns and fresh cream-painted stone and glass exteriors. On through this, though, we turn off the road some 10km farther, into the red-dust road leading to Mankoadze and Keke's, our weekend destination.

Setting out on the first hash run

The hashers are already kitted out for the first run when we arrive, so quickly into our trainers and down to meet them and we're suddenly running along the beach, 'On on!' along the hash trail. It's 4pm so the heat has died down from a temperature that could melt glass to one that might mere singe one's hair, and luckily the sea breeze takes the edge off. Over the next two days on the three runs that we do I develop an impressive range of scratches, mosquito bites and sporadic sun burn by running like the mad English woman that I am through the beautiful countryside. Thankfully at the end of every run there's hash circle time where stories and jokes are shared, and beers and ground nuts available in plentiful supply, and we can also run for a dip in the sea, still in running garb, to cool down a bit. Then food, time to chat and relax and read for the rest of the weekend, whilst the gigantic presence sea roars softly in the background. The photographs of Keke's speak for themselves.

Second hash run, where we pass boys paddling furiously out to sea to catch fish

On our final run we have a checkpoint (a chance for the walkers and runners to group together before running off on the next part of the trail) at a skeleton beach cottage a few hundred yards from our hotel. This is actually a cottage begun by none other than child star and sometime political candidate Shirley Temple, who was US ambassador to the Republic of Ghana, I learn, from 1974-1976. Unfortunately given the short length of her tenure, this little cottage was never completed and is probably one of the only reminders of her time spent in Ghana nearly four decades ago.

STC - Shirley Temple's Cottage by the sea

Refreshed after our holiday weekend, it's back to work in the office. Tuesday is International Women's day and the women of CARE Ghana's office have decided to 'warm the seats' of their superiors - most of whom are men - by taking over the desks of their line managers for the morning, whilst wearing traditional Ghanaian dress. Amanda and I have been primed for this activity and are escorted to buy fabric from Oxford Street in Osu, and then to a local dress-maker who keeps a tiny metal hut only a street away from our office, so that she can measure us for our outfits.

Modeling my traditional Ghanaian outfit

The dressmaker is a tiny woman, deafening herself with the religious pop hymns blaring out from her ancient stereo as she churns out vibrant-coloured garments for her clientele. We select our styles from a poster where a variety of styles and fabrics are modeled, and it's as simple as that. Returning from the weekend away to a quiet Monday afternoon, only four days after our first meeting with the dressmaker and our colourful outfits are ready to wear! After practising our walking - the skirts are cut tight traditionally, restricting movement - we head into the office decked out like peacocks for our day celebrating the women of the world. It feels great to be in Ghana contributing to CARE's strategic mission to lift 10 million women and girls out of poverty by 2015 on this day.

Celebrating International Women's Day

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Exploring Accra

Oxford Street, Osu - quite quiet, for once, on a Sunday

Arriving back from Ethiopia, the temperature in Accra seemed even hotter than before, if that was even possible, and I spent most of the week in a jet-lagged haze. Waking up at 4.30 I would have about 2 hours' worth of buzzing energy...sadly not sustainable into work...and thus requiring a large quantity of caffeine, and then a larger quantity of sleep to get through each day.

This sleepiness and heat goes well with sitting around doing not very much, and this seems to be a favourite pastime. In the neighbourhood where we live, for example, there are security guards outside a few of the buildings. The walls around are high, with metal gates hiding the houses or offices for the most part, so it's hard to tell what's going on - if anything - behind. The guards, if they are indeed guards rather than men of ages ranging from between 20 to 60 just hanging out and playing cards, also seem engulfed in the sleepiness of the heat. It really is just too hot to move much. The greatest movements to be seen come from the occasional thrust of a playing card down in a winning move. Or the lizards, darting out from underneath a shrub and quickly skittering into hiding again across the grass.
A lizard out for a stroll

Only a few streets away the life of the city deafens every passer by. "The street is a roadway delineated on both sides by an open sewer. There are no sidewalks. Cars mingle with the crowds. Everything moves in concert - pedestrians, automobiles, bicycles, carts, cows and goats." So writes Kapuscinski describing Accra. In the late fifties and sixties. Apart from slightly fewer goats and cows to be seen, very little has changed as you walk down Oxford Street in Osu.

On Saturday afternoon Amanda and I venture out to explore Accra culture. We plan to visit the national museum and two galleries in the Asylum Down area of Accra, and take a taxi to the museum to get us over to that side of town. The museum is a two storey plastered building, where, if you wanted to perform Bikram yoga or take a free sauna, I can highly recommend as a place to spend some time. I have no photos of the inside of the museum, as it cost an extra two cedis for the privilege to take them, and apart from a few fragments of excavations and some samples of Ghanaian patterns there actually wasn't much to photograph. Oh, and my camera battery has run down, my 'universal charger' seems to be universally broken and my iphone isn't letting me download pictures to my PC. So no photos for this blog post - until I sort it out.

The most interesting part of the museum describes aspects of the slave trade, dating the history back to the first influx of travellers from Europe, and then more, Portuguese, Danes and English to name but three. Looking at the buildings where slaves were held, and also held before transportation out of Africa, I begin to understand that the castles and forts here in Accra, for example Osu castle, are remnants - and reminders - of this time.

Unfortunately the sleepiness of Accra appeared to have been infectious, and we missed out on both galleries as we were too late for one and the other was closed. We wandered through the main streets of Asylum Down towards the ringway road, instead looking at the exhibitions of local stallholders - very much awake and touting for business by the roadsides. You can buy anything by the road - eggs, bread, phone cards. We even spotted an enterprising young man selling massive, DJ-style headphones in among the plantain chip vendors. Everyone is out and about on Saturday travelling around in the tro-tro shared buses looking for a bargain or catching up.

We finished our walk at Champ's sports bar, evidently an ex-pat haven as we suddenly found ourselves watching Man U with a smattering of other white folks in this heavily air conditioned bar. The highlight of this day came following the match, though, when suddenly a silver haired woman approached our table, and asked, "Amanda and Jessica?". No, we're not wanted for any series of crimes here in Accra. Instead this turned out to be Brenda - better known in hash circles as Highland Fling - whom I had contacted by email the week before to figure out where the running (and beer) action was in Accra. "I thought, there are two white girls who look like they're new to town, so perhaps it could be Amanda and Jessica," Brenda tells us when she joins us for a drink. A retired teacher who has lived in Ghana for 38 years, Brenda is 'a character' alright.

Apparently Accra - which still has the open sewers mentioned above, by the way - is now 'too comfortable' as you can get everything. Plus the traffic is dreadful. Spending time with Brenda could be the best 'exhibition' of the day - we're learning about the culture, the people and the life with a beer to hand. Perfection.

We're off this weekend to join other hashers on a trip slightly up the coast to a beach-side hotel for more running, beer and talk with Brenda. I'm pretty sure she'll be featuring in posts to come!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Faranji in Addis and Awassa

Getting a lift to the mercato

"Faranji" is a common cry in Ethiopia. It means "white person" and it's easy to imagine how many times I heard this during my stay in Ethiopia if you link the eternal fact of my tan-free complexion with my propensity to wear factor 50 sunscreen, and add to that that Ethiopia is vast, so the tourists that are around tend to be quite sparse.

Me drinking a macchiato (though it looked a little too milky to me) at Tomoca coffee house...In Ethiopia I had to put aside my anti-coffee views and try it!

I felt suddenly overwhelmed by the foreignness of everything on arriving in Addis late on Saturday night. I didn't speak a word of Amharic, and even though the hotel was situated across the road from the CARE office, it seemed very isolated. The roads dusty, the streets dark and the smells unfamiliar, and the hotel rather uncomfortable and extremely dingy. That and the powercuts. No internet, phone or light / heat for several hours and I did feel rather desperate. Power cuts are very common in Addis. Not so in much of the rest of Ethiopia. They don't have power at all there. I was suddenly all too conscious of my reliance on technology and felt frustrated and ashamed of my frustration in equal measures. Luckily the power would eventually come back on. I would just learn to use Ctrl + S frequently during the week!

Looking out of the window of the Addis hotel, there are office buildings far in the distance, but immediately outside are many more being built. Instead of uniform metal scaffolding, everywhere are elaborate constructs of wooden poles, covering the skyscrapers to be and several storeys high. I feared for the safety of the climbers, who have to scale their way to the top of these wooden poles, but the skeleton structure of wood which forms the cages around these building sites is intricate and almost beautiful, and I suspect, strong.

View from the hotel window of the intricate scaffolding

This is much the way of scenery in Addis. Either you're driving past a collection of building sites in various states of completion, or past a range of corrugated iron or stone hastily built huts selling clothes, tourist paraphernalia or maybe a butcher or a liquor shop thrown into the mix. There are throngs of people everywhere, so many people walking the streets day or night. Some are laughing together as they sell fruit from their street stalls; some are on their way to church / the mosque, carrying or leading a small army of young children close behind them. There are more homeless people around than in Accra, sprawled on the central verges of the streets or begging - children, mothers, grandmothers and men all together - on the pavements and around the tourist spots.

In Awassa - five hours south of Addis - there were also pelicans, vultures, donkeys, goats and a menagerie of other creatures thrown into this mix. On the way there camels grazed by the side of the road, and there were frequent stops as a donkey or other lone animal wandered carelessly into the road and paused, oblivious to the trucks zooming toward it at alarming speeds. The colours by the roadside were vivid, especially in the small towns where thousands of people gathered for market day, and we were held up by crowds in the road shouting to us to buy their wares.

The best way I found to see Addis was in a taxi - and what taxis they do have. Ladas are the taxi brand of choice here, usually with no seat belts, although their dashboards are ornate with velvet coverings, complete with tassels. In such a poor state of repair was my first taxi that it conked out repeatedly - no wonder given it was very frail and yet still trying to tackle to steep hills of Addis to take me around. By bargaining like a pro, you can enjoy a couple of hours sight seeing for as little as £8 (and I suspect this is a steep price, aimed at other faranji like me).

Negato and me - and his taxi!

On my last full day in Addis, Negato my taxi driver drove me and escorted me around the mercato and the piazza. The mercato is where the social and work sides of Addis combine, with thousands of residents swarming together to sell or buy spices, clothing, oil, soap, shoes, rugs...anything at all. So large is the mercato that there are 'districts' such as you might find in a city. "It's this way to the spice market", Negato directs me, and then "Would you like to see the traditional clothing market?" Picking my way over the uneven cobbles and past the smells of burning incense and loud laughter and banter, I would be lost in this other world of Addis without a guide.

Injera being served at a little (albeit touristy) haunt in Addis

My greatest fortune in Addis was to make some new Ethiopian friends who showed me Ethiopian culture their way. Maaza, working for CARE, who lived in Ethiopia as a child, showed me the sights and introduced me to her friends.

Me 'enjoying' a glass of red wine with my dinner

I met Maaza in Awassa, south of Addis where I visited a field team of CARE staff. There I ate injera for the first time - and then proceeded to eat this for pretty much every lunch and dinner throughout my stay. A spongy pancake made from teff, injera is the carbohydrate of choice for Ethiopian food. You eat it served on a large round platter, covered with any filling / range of fillings you like. Lentil daal-like mixtures, bean and cabbage salad, potatoes with spices, chicken, lamb and boiled eggs are all spooned in dainty portions onto the platter for you to dig in. (To eat this you break off pieces of injera and scoop a small portion of a different item onto it and then into your mouth. Every bite delicious.) Most of the CARE team I spent time with were orthodox Christians, and therefore fasting for several of the days I spent with them. Luckily for them, Ethiopian fasting food is a treat rather than a trial. Injera with fasting shiro (chickpea stew, cooked with oil rather than butter as dairy products are banned during fasting) was delectable.

Sharing injera, watching dancing, drinking beer (see picture of me trying the red wine...not good) and then dancing together all part of a fun, relaxed night out in this vibrant city.

At the Addis hash, downing a (small) beer as a forfeit for leaving (right after I joined!)

Maaza also introduced me to my first Hash meet. A Hash is a club, more precisely a drinking club with a running problem. Perfect! Meeting at The Hilton in Addis, about 30/40 people meet up to drive out of the city and run or walk for an hour or so, followed by drinks, a lot of ceremony, and the 'on-on'. The run was rather tough. Not only did I fall down the hill side - almost - about twenty times, hearing gasp upon gasp from those behind me as I slid over the dusty gravel, but running at the altitude of Ethiopia felt like the world's strongest man was holding my shoulders and pushing me back. Over hill, down dale, not having the faintest idea where we were supposed to be going, a crowd of ex pats and Ethiopian nationals traipsed over the hillside, pursued often by the nimbler feet of children from the nearby kebele, screaming and giggling at the ridiculousness of it all. We followed paper trails (or were supposed to - the paper was in absence most of the time!) in a loop over a river with very non-health and safety stepping stones and back over a metal chain-link bridge to the start. Feeling like I was about to expire but proud to have finished first of the women, it was time for beers and catching up in half a dozen languages. Sunshine, running, friends, beer. Happiness on a Saturday.

I feel like I haven't covered even a fraction of what I saw here. The scenery dwarfed me; the food was a delight and so different from everything I've tasted before; the people I met wonderful. I left wanting to come back again.