Cedi’s in my pocket

A pocket full of Cedi’s

Finding myself alone in Kumasi, one afternoon when the rest of the group were resting, I had two choices, put my feet up and snooze away the afternoon or go and explore. I figured that I probably wouldn’t be back in Ashante again, so why waste an afternoon, when I only had five left. I scrawled a note for my travelling friend,
Gone to the market to buy a fat pig,
Home again, home again jig-a-d-jig
and set off, the hotel doorman rushed to ask if I needed anything,
‘Would you like someone to collect shopping for you Mummy’? If it’s possible to be impish and solicitous as the same time, that’s what his face displayed.
‘No-no, I’m fine, which way to Kejetia, can you point me?
‘Is a confusing place, better go with someone’, he said, ‘let me call a guide.’
I hesitated for just a few seconds, then seeing the market three or four hundred metres away, ‘I see it now, thank you’, and dashed away before he could ‘help’ me any further.
I was bluffing of course, in the very pit of my tummy, I felt a tiny bit vulnerable. I was stared at. I was ‘hello’d continuously, and I still had to find a way across the road which became busier the further I walked from the hotel. Busier and more stagnant, alternating between lanes, with an overwhelming stench of diesel and sweaty bodies, mine included. I stood back, waiting for a chance to cross the road, watching as pedestrians bravely dashed through gaps, as if they were aiming for a winning goal in a cup final.
I felt the softest flutter on my hand, and a reflex made me stuff it into my jeans pocket to check where I’d put a bundle of a hundred Cedis. A plump woman reprimanded the deep brown skinned girl standing between us, who only wanted to feel if my skin was the same. The mother wore a wrapper and matching boubou in bold printed fabric and had a baby, whose face was all eyes, on her left hip. The girl reminded me of myself as a child, I smiled at them and the woman must have guessed my road crossing dilemma, because without stopping her phone call, she gestured with her shoulder that I should follow her. We crossed diagonally dipping and diving, both racing and in slow motion, and we made it to the other side. Panting from holding my breath, I turned to thank her, but I’d already lost her to the market.
I’d only been walking for twenty minutes, but already I felt myself dehydrating and I scanned the nearest stalls for something cool and refreshing . I could see bicycle tyres, mobile phone cases, umbrellas lots of Rolex watches and Chanel bags, but nothing to drink, until a couple of teenage girls came towards me drinking coconut juice straight from the nut.
‘Hi, can you tell me where I can buy this please’? they giggled and gestured, making me feel silly in the way that only teenage girls can. I was already glowing red so they wouldn’t notice my blush, and never mind, I watched as a boy chopped the top of a nut with a blade that would take his hand off in a flash if he misjudged by an inch. It was the best few pence I’d ever spent.
I walked with purpose, less people called to me that way, but I skimmed every stall at the same time. I knew what I wanted, but didn’t have a clue if it would be in a packet or a box. Everywhere was different, but everywhere was the same. Chickens, dead and alive, mobiles, Apple of course, CD’s and DVD’s, genuine Italian handbags, crocodile shoes, mountains of yam stacked up like breeze blocks and probably almost as dense to cut through.
I soon realised the area I was in wasn’t right, snake skins were draped over roughly hewn wooden cages containing live chicken, the layer below had piles of small undefined creatures, some like giant rats, others more like squirrels, gutted and with bared teeth intact. I turned to retrace my steps, but got it wrong, mesmerised by the sights, I’d broken my own golden rule, take note of things on the way.

The strangest were the heads of lots of small monkeys, stacked up like the red onions on an opposite stall. The eyes were closed and they still had teeth and skin, brown and shrunken, a lot like the salt fish that was on every market street in Africa. Presumably it was preserved in the same way. One for the cooking pot, the other for some bizarre voodoo practice.
I passed row after row of fetish items, it made me feel increasingly anxious and even though I was greeted with smiles everywhere, I briefly wondered what I was doing on my own. I turned away quickly when I came across some young men arguing in Asante, time to move on, my search for shea was getting nowhere and the argument was getting ferocious. I didn’t notice the shiny metal until my feet slid sideways and I very nearly fell. The railway line led off into the distance, and people were walking all over it, perhaps they were hoping to reinstate the service, anything is possible in Ghana.
A flash of the brightest colour caught my eye, a middle-aged lady dressed in the finest Kente cloth stood beside me.
‘Hello young lady, are you looking for something, I am Celestine Ahimah and I’m sure I can help. I was educated at Oxford University and worked in London for ten years, now tell me all about yourself’, she was clearly very proud of her 1960’s BBC English. She locked her arm in mine, marched me off, and didn’t stop talking for a moment.
‘Shea butter, do you know where I can get some? All I’ve seen is Chinese imports, dried up lizards and monkeys.’
‘Come along now follow me quickly,’ she shooed away one man selling ‘designer sunglasses and another selling Mackeson. I was tempted to linger when I smelt fried plantains, but Celestine wasn’t having any of it.
‘Ori, that’s what you want, and this is the best, she pointed at a rusty, charred dustbin that looked like it should have been discarded a century ago. I peered in, at a pile of grey grease, it was pickled with nut shell, yes, it was the real thing, raw and totally unprocessed. Celestine looked at me, her expression one of anticipation. I didn’t know what to say, ‘Uh how can I get it home?’
They pulled a meat cleaver from under the table and set about hacking into the bin, ‘This much? More?’
‘That will last you three years if you use it everyday’ said Celestine, ‘fifteen Cedi.’
My market day was over, I left a very happy Gilly, with a bag full of Women’s gold.

Kumasi market is the biggest in west Africa, it sprawls over a vast area, confusing for the outsider. I was there in 2007 and have never forgotten the experience. I wrote this for my writing group.

 

Jaisalmer, Camel Safari at the Worlds End

Khuri is a little desert village with a hotel of whitewashed huts.

Khuri

We had cold drinks, and then went to meet our camels and make a decision, to camp in the desert, under the stars with a bed roll, or sleep in a hut with beds. We had several things to weigh up, what the food would be like – I don’t eat meat so didn’t fancy chicken, goat or camel roasted over an open fire! I’m joking of course, but no-one could tell me what the possibilities were. And what if pennies needed to be spent in the middle of the night? Let’s face it, there were no trees to hide behind. What swung it though was the possibility of scorpions. Who remembers a James bond film where one was climbing up 007’s chest? We chose to come back to the hotel.

Camel Saddles

It’s really quite difficult to get onto a camel, the saddles look good, well padded, but your legs are spread wide apart. Anyway, they are reluctantly in their lowest possible position, to enable you to climb on, then you have to time it just right and lean backwards, when they get up. That’s a very unnatural position, given that they sway as they do so. You soon get used to the motion; it’s a bit like a Space Hopper on legs. But then you go downhill, and not only do you need to lean backwards again, but also you have to squeeze tight with any muscles you can find in your thighs. So we were off into the dunes, to seek the sunset. That same still silence and heat that we experienced in Khuldera, something almost tangible, wrapped itself around us, lulling us into a state of euphoria and creating an inner glow, a bit like a meditation.

Unrepentant!

I could have been riding around for hours, travelling miles, or round in a figure of eight for ten minutes, because I had no sense of time or bearings. We reached a crest where a dozen people had already parked their humps and settled down to wait. This is where it went wrong. I dismounted and turned to where travelling friend was doing the same, just in time to see it get back up as she was getting off. Result – she fell, luckily there was no real damage but she was shocked and disorientated for a while and didn’t want to ride the pesky thing back.

We eased our hump shaped legs down onto the sand and waited while the sky became sky-blue-pink, it was beautiful but was like looking through a veil of micro fine sand. Travelling friend did ride back, very bravely. We couldn’t help thinking of what might have happened, of course it was hideous, scary and even embarrassing but thank heavens nothing was broken because Devon Air Ambulance was a tad out of range.

We were the only non Germans at the hotel, sitting around listening to some musicians, and dancing in the dark. We shocked Mr Singh again, with our capacity for Tiger, it comes in quite large bottles over there and well, it was very hot, even after the stars came out.

Excellent entertainment

Quite well lubricated, we headed for our hut. It was clean but very basic, with a loo in a cubby hole. Help came very quickly when I screamed. Spiders. Lots of very large spiders. We were laughed at but rescued. I insisted on checking under the beds for any that could be waiting for some fresh, juicy, English or American woman to feast on. The trouble was, checking when the light was one little dangling bulb, was pretty difficult. Attempting to push a bed aside, we found that it was a mattress, on planks that rested on piles of bricks! We didn’t find any more octopods, but didn’t sleep well either for worrying about them. The lesson – we would probably have fared better risking the scorpions.

I would highly recommend a camels safari, there’s nothing quite like the perspective you get aboard a foul breathed, bottom burping beastie with long eyelashes.

Don't I look the part?

Jaisalmer – maybe and a ghost town!

Jaisalmer

To safeguard the fort at Jaisalmer, places to stay are few and as much as the romanticism is appealing we stayed in a hotel outside the walls. I think comfortably, because I remember nothing about the first night there. We threw a spanner in the works of Magan Singh by saying that we wanted to go on a camel safari but bless him, a couple of calls and it was planned, so we stowed our bags at reception and set off for an overnight adventure fuelled by masala omelette, coffee and lassi. By nine we were pedal-boating around Gadisar Lake.

In India a lake is quite often a tank, a masonry lined reservoir for irrigation, and Gadisar is one of the most beautiful. The lake was full of fish, a bit like sterlets, large catfish and in the centre an island inhabited by cranes, herons and cormorants.

At points around the edge there were shrines and little summerhouses built for wives and courtesans of princes past. We spent an hour there and never have we been so thankful for our dupattas. We would have had sunstroke without them as the sun boiled us like potatoes in the water.

In town we had one of the few problems of the trip – we had been advised to take travellers cheques – a mistake! We went to cash some and  the first bank told us they didn’t do travellers cheques, so we went to the Bank of Jaisalmer and Bikaner, with a really grumpy cashier, where we were told to go to the Bank of Baroda, the first one! This was probably what had given Jaisalmer a reputation of not always being welcoming to travellers. Magan to the rescue, with a bureau de change that had a good rate and free bottled water. A ten year old boy charming a cobra from a basket blocked our way; do they have their nasty stuff milked? But it was worth battling past to reach Natraj, a rooftop restaurant beneath the fort where lunch and lassi (yes I was addicted and I’ll leave it to you to wonder if it was Bang lassi) for 200 rupees.

Off to the desert, so this sand-as-far-as you- can-see sauna is not desert? stopping on the way at an ancient deserted village, Khuldera, where 400 years ago the entire population upped sticks overnight, never to return again. The legend says that a dignitary from Jaisalmer coveted a young girl, the jewel of the village, and wanted to whisk her away to his harem. They thwarted his plans by leaving. Khuldera was in quite good condition, with well built homes and temples, as silent as the grave and you could just imagine them, camels laden and disappearing into the night.

I still haven’t told you very much about Jaisalmer, but you will have to wait until after the camel safari.