Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Night Out on Oxford Street

In a previous entry, I delved into my lack of both a social life so far in Accra, as well as interactions with other obrofo (white people). As I had also mentioned, I was invited to dinner a little bit ago on Oxford Street (the ex-pat/aid worker area) with two (white) guys around my age working for the Clinton Foundation, one of whom I had met at a conference. So, I would like to take this opportunity to tell you a little about that night.

Allan, the guy who invited me, and I had actually communicated previously (via phone and email), when I was exploring my options for working abroad. I still had no idea what he looked like, let alone that he was in Accra. So, to say that I was surprised (or that it is a small world) when we met in person, is an understatement. Allan was to meet a colleague for dinner on Saturday night at 7pm, at a sushi restaurant called Monsoon on Oxford Street, and he asked me if I’d like to join. I tried not to be too excited when I said sure, but the prospect of having a social engagement for the first time in a long time, let alone with two other white guys close to my age, was a nice feeling. It was like a guys night out.

That was the extent of my knowledge about dinner. According to my trusty Ghana/Accra tourist book and pull-out map, Oxford Street was the center of a very happenin’ upscale neighborhood called Osu with some of the best shopping, restaurants and night life in the city. I was also able to see that the street was about 1 mile long, located in the southeastern part of the downtown area. As the crow flies, it looked to be about 10km (6 miles) from where we lived northeast of downtown, but in terms of navigable roads, it was more like 15 (9.5 miles). So, I needed to consult with Dennis about my transportation game plan.

He told me that from where we lived, and how cabbies’ rates worked, it would be cheaper to take three group cabs from where we lived: the first one straight west to a high-traffic spot, the second one straight south into the city to another popular junction, and then the third one to my destination. He explained that with cabs, you have two options: group and individual. The color of my skin being what it is, he said cabs would automatically assume I wanted an individual ride, so I had to insist it was group. Group meant that they would pick up other passengers on the way, and it would be a fraction of the price. As I was completely deferring to him on this one, I said group cabs were fine with me and agreed to do whatever he thought was best.

So, at 5pm on Saturday night (I was giving myself plenty of time for a worst-case/ getting lost scenario), armed with map and camera, Dennis drives me to the main drag where I would catch the cab. Right when we get there, one of those “private “vans I previously mentioned (It is a conversion van that seats about 16 comfortably and commonly squeezes in 20. Run by a driver and a door guy/cash man, they run specific routes to fill the gap for the lack of public transportation, and are a very big private transportation enterprise in Accra.) skreeches to the curb, and several things happen at once: Dennis shoots me a quick glance, says that it will be a lot cheaper than a group cab and I can take the same 3-stop route we mapped out, I shrug my shoulders to tacitly say “Sure, what the heck”, he negotiates the fair (75 pesues = 55 cents) and the door guy gently shoves me into the front row of seats behind the driver and next to woman cradling an infant.

a typical private van

It becomes immediately clear that this is a very smoothly-run operation. The driver is the most aggressive on the road, swerving in and out of traffic, on and off the actual road, while the cash man hangs out the door yelling the final destination of the van for those on the side of the road who might want to get in. Sometimes the door is closed and the cash guy hangs out the open window, but most of the time he keeps it open for ease of exit and entry. At each stop, he gently pushes some on and some off, continuously haggling fares with multiple potential riders, never forgetting to yell the van’s destination (Accra Mall) less than 100 times a minute. When the van pulls away from a particularly busy stop, he closes the door and turns his attention to the riders inside, snapping and pointing to collect the agreed-upon fare and dole out the correct change. It is a well-oiled machine, to say the least.

As the day turns to night, the traffic into the city gets worse, and the exhaust from all the vehicles that floats in through the windows causes many to cough. The heat, however, makes closing them a non-option. Halfway to the mall, the baby next to me starts screaming, and the woman quickly pulls out her bosom to feed. Baby stops crying. No big deal. I exit at the mall with many others and have to cross a highway of sorts to get to where I want to catch another van going south. After waiting for a lull in the speeding cars, I am able to cross and another van pulls up in no time. “How much to Sankara?” “40.” “30.” “Fine.” It seems silly to be haggling over paying 35 cents or 25 cents, but for Ghanaians it would be silly not to. Plus, it is fun and gets people smiling.

This time I am in the back row, next to two police officers with AK-47s. Thankfully it is not as crowded, and then guns are able to have their own seat. At this point I am into unknown territory, and I continuously steal furtive glances at my map, which I have folded many time to make as small as possible. Hospital should be coming up on the right…there it is…good, not lost yet. I get out at my next stop, look at my watch (5:45) and my map: Oxford Street looks to be only about ½ a mile away. Pretty happy with myself that I just paid about 75 cents to go about 10 miles in 45 minutes, I start walking. About halfway to the top of Oxford Street, I see a big white building across the street on the left, and notice the sign “UN Headquarters”. I never really stopped to think about why this area had become the pale-skinned haunting grounds, but then the fog lifts and it all makes sense.

UN Headquarters in Accra

At the top of Oxford Street, I see two big groups of signs for some of the things I can expect to find. The sun has completely set, as I turn the corner. In a word, the street is busy. It’s one lane each way, with a good amount of traffic. Vendors of purses and soccer jerseys and food hug the road, backlit by the neon signs from the buildings behind them. Bank, restaurant, clothing store, bank, restaurant, bar, bank, clothing store, bar: I am seeing a pattern. It is very clear that this is the North Michigan Avenue, the Georgetown (M Street), the Newberry Street of Accra. After about 5 minutes of walking and getting heckled by salesmen, I come across the huge neon blue letters of Monsoon. Next to it is a sign declaring: “Now Open: Sushi, Pan-Asian, Seafood and Steak.” I call Allen to let him know that I am quite early. He has some “conference calls with Vancouver” to take care of, so I tell him no big deal, I can certainly entertain myself for an hour. He says “You gotta at least go to Frankie’s, and I’ll see you at 7.” Having no clue what Frankie’s is, I agree.
maybe 1/3 of the signs at the top of Oxford Street
Wrangler store on Oxford Street....supposedly "The Authentic Western Jeans"

A little further on, I see exactly what Frankie’s is: an oasis is the desert. A bakery and Gelateria. People sit on stools and chairs on the outdoor patio, licking and crunching and biting happily. Cool air conditioning blasts me in the face, as I open the door and try my best to close my jaw. Glass display cases boast shelves of sugar coated pastries on top of loaves of fluffy and crusty breads, reminding me of Paris. And then of course there is the gelato, bringing back memories of Italy. I might have shed tears, I’m not sure. Dinner is in less than an hour, but this is GELATO! I don’t even look at the price before ordering two scoops (espresso and cookies n’ cream). It could have been $20, and I would have paid gladly. It happens to be 3 cedis (about $2.25), and it is delicious. Not Rome delicious, but North End of Boston delicious. I deliriously walk outside with cup and spoon in hand. The heat melts it quickly, so I am forced to inhale it, as I actually tend to do with desserts anyways.

croissants, muffins and other European-influenced pastries

I still have about 30 minutes to kill, and knowing that the Chelsea vs. Man City game is on, I find a little bar to grab a Ghanaian Guinness and watch. (Guinness has a brewery in Ghana, where it manufacturers a beer called “Guinness Foreign Extra”. More alcoholic than the regular stout (over 7%), it looks and tastes like a regular Guinness on first impression, but the finish is a lot more hoppy and bitter than the smooth stout you find in the US. It is a great combination and VERY good.) The beer is a little more than $1 (dangerous), and I go outside to where a dozen guys sit on plastic chairs surrounding a TV. The score is 1-1, as the second half is just starting. I talk soccer with some of the guys, and sip on my beer. In general, most Ghanaians love Chelsea, because their countryman and most-famous Ghanaian soccer star in the world, Michael Essien, plays for them. So, 10 minutes after I sit down, when the star of Man(chester) City – Argentenian Carlos Tevez – scores a fantastic goal on a free kick from 30 yards out he puts UNDER the wall and inside the far post to take a 2-1 lead, they are not too happy. I stay as long as I can, but am forced to leave for dinner in the 70th minute.

random shot of Oxford Street

As I walk into Monsoon, I get a call from Allen that he is running late, but that his friend, Isaac, should be there. I spot a 20-something guy at the bar, with a Katrina Relief t-shirt on and ask him if he is Isaac. He is, and we get to talking. He works for the Clinton Foundation at their West African HQ in Lome, the capital of neighboring Togo. He is here only for the night, catching a flight out for the US in the morning. We order drinks and get to talking. He is from Belmont, Massachusetts, a stone’s throw from Tufts, went to Brown and starting volunteering for the Foundation after college. Allen shows up and we get a table.

The place is a swanky rooftop, very big with several bars, big bay windows overlooking the street, arched doorways and a very Mediterranean feel, like something you would find in Casablanca. Non-Africans of all kinds are everywhere, and I am a little overwhelmed. Moustached, pot-bellied Middle-Eastern business types stereotypically smoke cigars at a table with their much younger, skinnier female counterparts. At the next table, a group of overdressed girls sit, and Allen makes a comment about regretting not wearing his glasses. Couples are everywhere.

Allen, an Accenture-trained business consultant type from Vancouver says that it’s the best sushi he’s found in Africa, and being from Vancouver makes his somewhat of an expert. One look at the menu tells me I am going to spend more tonight than I did all last week. With a decidedly why-not attitude, I join them in ordering bowls of noodles and sides of sushi, as we discuss our common experiences. Allen’s craziest stories come from time he spent in Nigeria, and Isaac talks about life in francophone Lome, with a Togolese girlfriend he has acquired. I find it surprisingly refreshing and fun to share stories, commiserating about African frustrations and acknowledging African virtues. Dinner takes quite a while, but time goes quickly. The noodles I could make better myself, but the sushi is truly good. Before we know it, it is 9:30 and we are asking for the check. Allen has to go back to his place to do some work, but Isaac and I decide to go to a bar for bit.

We hop in a cab to an ex-pat bar Allen tells us he has heard is good, but after deciding to not pay the 15 cedi ($10-12) cover charge, we end up back where we started. Isaac asks me if I like to smoke hookah. “If been known to from time to time” I say. He says his hotel is a few doors down from Monsoon, and there is a good hookah bar in the lobby. “Let’s do it” says I, so we do. (Sorry mom and dad, but I didn’t inhale). It turns out to be quite fun, and we chat some more, unsuccessfully playing the college “Do you know…” name game, as we smoke apple-flavored shisha. Before I know it, it is going on midnight, and I have a lot longer to travel. Wishing Isaac a safe flight and exchanging contact info for when he is back in town, I bid him adieux.

This entry has been long enough, so I will wrap it up. Needless to say, the vans do not run that late at night, so I have to spend 10x as much money to get home as I did to get there. As I lay down to sleep, I feel quite satisfied with the night: gelato, Guinness, sushi, hookah, and new friends. I can’t have nights like that all the time, as I had spent a non-negligible fraction of my monthly budget in one night, but every once in a while, it’s fun to let loose.