Monthly Archives: May 2016

Back in Action

This is the story of how I took six flights in three days, slept in a five-star hotel and the Abidjan airport, talked my way onto an EgyptAir flight to Accra, almost got deported from Ghana, and finally made it safely to my current position under a thatched roof restaurant as rain thrashes into the reeds above my head and lightning zaps the hills around me.   I have ridden the highs and the lows, but at last I am employed, well rested, and back in Africa.

I began my journey in Philadelphia, because I was there to celebrate my sister SWG’s graduation from Haverford College.  It is clear that Haverford’s standards have improved considerably since I was a student there, because they are turning out a far superior class of graduates these days.  Not only did SWG receive high honors and several distinctions in Latin that I personally cannot read, she also did so while maintaining an active social life in her sorority.  Congratulations on rushing Phi Beta Kappa, kid!  They are lucky to have you.

My first inkling that I was in for a rough trip came on Friday at 22h10 in the Philadelphia airport, when         the man checking me in for my British Airways flight to Accra via London asked to see my Ghanaian visa.  This surprised me.  My employer, several friends based in Africa, and a woman in a British Airways call center (the connection sounded like she was speaking to me from a mailbox underwater) assured me that BA would not check my visa to board, and I could purchase a visa upon arrival in Accra.  The guy did the airline-employee-shrug and told me he could put me on a flight to London but that there was no guarantee that I could travel on from there.  I called my employer and he assured me that I should go to London and from there they would find an alternate way to get me into Ghana; he would arrange a visa on arrival.  I was at a decision point: would I board a flight knowing that I had no next connection, no visa for my final destination, and no experience entering or working in Ghana?  I thought about it.  I eventually decided that I’m an American, not an American’t, and this was worth a try.

So.  I checked my bag to London, boarded the plane, and divided my time between reading technical specs for Tailing Storage Facilities on gold mines and watching the latest James Bond movie.  The Bond movie was good, but maybe it just shines by comparison.  I arrived in London and checked my email to see that I had a new itinerary.  After a six-hour layover I flew to Casablanca, and from there I traveled to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.  That night I stayed in the only five-star hotel in Burkina, which has absurdly good security and very strong water pressure.  The next day I boarded a flight to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, with the intention to transfer to a South African Airways flight to Accra, Ghana.  Disaster struck.  The South Africans asked for my visa as well, and refused to let me board without one.  I was trapped: no way to travel to my destination, and no Ivoirian visa to allow me to leave the airport.  I spent the night on an airport bench, and on Monday convinced an EgyptAir gate attendant that I would definitely be able to acquire a visa in Ghana and if I didn’t then I would not be their problem.  I evidently demonstrated more confidence than I felt, because they let me on the plane.

When I got to Ghana I was met by a man named Paul who was to be my fixer in the visa process.  When I explained that I had a letter of invitation from my employer, the price of the visa in US currency, a complete disembarkation card and a valid visa for another ECOWAS member country he grimaced and told me this would be difficult.  Apparently to buy a visa on arrival you need to have obtained in advance a letter from Ghana immigration services which says “We know that Sam wants to buy a visa upon arrival.”  I approached the immigration counter, presented all my documents, and was told to wait.  I waited an hour and a half before being told that it was impossible.  I would have to leave Ghana.  Calls were made.  My employer spoke to the immigration officer, then connected to a colleague in another department of the airport.  Nothing.  A high level member of the Ghana immigration services was contacted.  The immigration officer spoke on the phone with him.  I was given a form to fill out.  Then I was given a visa.  I really don’t know how it happened, but I was in.  I hustled away to catch a flight on a propeller plane to central Ghana, then was met by a driver and carried on.

I do not recommend this means of travel to anyone.  Please don’t walk away thinking that you can negotiate your way into any African country: ultimately my entry was fully legal and documented, although some paperwork was filed at the last minute.  In every other African country I’ve visited there is an option to purchase a visa on arrival; you just fill out all necessary forms, pay in cash, and get the stamp in your passport.  I honestly admire the fairness of the Ghanaian system.  If a Ghanaian can’t pay cash for an American visa on arrival in the US, then why should a US citizen be able to do that in Ghana?  It was an immensely stressful three days of traveling, and I’m so glad that ultimately I was able to legally enter Ghana with all of my baggage and some of my sanity intact.  I slept for 11 hours on my first night here.

“But Sam, what are you doing there?!?  Why did you even do this?” you may ask.  Basically, I work for a gold mine now.  I’ll give more details when I understand them myself.  I look forward to sharing more updates from West Africa—don’t change the channel.

Alps

“The snow was good only in the early morning and again in the evening. The rest of the time it was spoiled by the sun. We were both tired of the sun. You could not get away from the sun. The only shadows were made by rocks or by the hut that was built under the protection of a rock beside a glacier, and in the shade the sweat froze in your underclothing. You could not sit outside the hut without dark glasses.”

-Ernest Hemingway, An Alpine Idyll

I’ve recently returned to France after spending two days and two nights outside.  On Wednesday I drove with my friends PM and GS from Alsace, France to Ossasco, a tiny town in a deep valley in the Italian part of Switzerland.  I had last visited Switzerland five years ago and I had a mixed experience, which is a polite way of saying that I didn’t like it very much.  On that trip I visited Geneva, a city where diplomats go to live and fun goes to die.  I recall being chastised by a Genevan for traversing next to a crosswalk instead of walking within the painted lines, and I remember a fruitless search for a bar that had fewer than five men wearing suits drinking there, and I came away with the impression that Switzerland is a dull, law-abiding, preposterously expensive kind of place.

My eyes have been opened.  It turns out the trick to enjoying Switzerland is driving right through the cities and heading for the hills with all due haste.  Our road trip through Switzerland was amazing.  The Swiss are masterful designers and engineers, and I was  impressed to see how well they’ve integrated their infrastructure into the countryside.  We drove on roads that perch on trestles running along the flanks of huge mountains, and drove through a wide, well-lit seventeen-kilometer-long tunnel that bored right through the heart of a mountain between two valleys.  The weather changes dramatically from one canyon to another.  When we entered the long tunnel the trees were budding around us, the river in the valley was swollen by snowmelt from the peaks, and wildflowers were blooming in the hills.  When we emerged on the other side the mountains were still shrouded in snow, all of the grass was dead, and it felt as if we had driven two months into the past.  A few hairpin switchbacks brought us into the tiny village of Ossasco, where we pitched a tent and lit a fire by the river.  On our way to the campsite we passed a truckload of Swiss militia soldiers doing training exercises, and just as dusk fell they illuminated the valley with a fusillade of magnesium flares which threw eerie balls of light above the crooked pine trees.

The next day we woke early to begin our push for the top.  We crossed the river that runs through the lowest point of the valley and headed up a rooty path through the pine trees on the lower slopes of the mountain.  By the time we had gone half a mile I had already shed all of my outer layers, and with few pauses we scrambled up through the woods, along a narrow switchback road, and reached an isolated dairy farm where we changed into our climbing snowshoes.  The snowpack was three feet deep and once we got above the treeline we could see the soaring peaks above us mirrored by the crenellated ridge on the opposite side of the valley.  The mountains have a very clean and striated feel.  At the bottom is the lush river valley, then the deciduous trees beginning to bud, then the pine trees that get smaller as you rise, then the snow line, and finally at the very top the stretches of glacier and permanent snowcap crowned by black jagged rock.

It was extremely hard once we got out of the cool woods.  I felt like Daedalus flying too close to the sun, except instead of waxen wings I had a massive backpack that chafed against my sweating back and drove my spiked snowshoes deeper into the snow.  I cannot overstate how steep and bright the Alps are.  I climbed with toe spikes and two ski poles, leaning forward into the hill that rose mercilessly in front of me, and churned across snow that had rolled down from the peaks in avalanches.  Even with sunscreen I could feel my face and arms burning, and it required a lot of willpower to keep my legs moving up.  At the base the snow had melted and flowers were beginning to sprout, but at the top of the mountain the snow was 3-5 feet deep.  The views around us were indescribable.  We rose through a tremendous bowl of imposing rock, passed over an avalanche field through a col, and continued planting one spiked snowshoe in front of the other.

There’s a reason that the sport is called “climbing” instead of “summiting.”  It’s hard, and you have to carry heavy gear with you and deal with rapid swings between heat and cold, and your legs burn and your breath heaves and it’s beautiful.  There are helicopters and funiculars that can take you to the top of these peaks, but you would miss the struggle and the majesty of seeing the mountain slowly unfold itself before you.  I’m very happy to have visited some great cities on this trip, but nothing can compare to being outside and feeling like you can coexist and thrive in the snow and the rocks.

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