Cooking Up Surprises

SPENDING ten months travelling around Africa on a big yellow truck was always going to throw up a healthy number of surprises.

And our final week in Accra certainly lived up to that with some or all of these events falling into the tales of the unexpected:

  • For the first time since my teenage years, my hair is now long (and thick) enough to get coated in sweat.
  • Girls were queuing up to get in my room (certainly a surprise to me).
  • My cooking skills – normally reduced to throwing something in a wok, heating something which somebody else has created to stick straight in the oven or heading out to a takeaway – have somehow been elevated into the chef of our latest cook group.
  • A lengthy game of beach volleyball saw me throwing myself about, actually managing to return a few shots and, most surprisingly, not receiving any lasting injuries.
  • Two marriage proposals coming my way.
  • My knees hurt (as predicted, not all of these events are that much of a surprise).
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Freshly showered – A nightcap at Big Milly’s with Karla, Ale and Linda

All this took place on familiar soil as the weekend retreat back to the beach at Abanze was followed by a return to Kokrobite and the welcoming surroundings of Big Milly’s Backyard – and the equally welcoming bed which had been home for the previous week – as we settled in to wait for the final visas required before heading to the border.

The sojourn to Abanze rather ruined our plan to spend a leisurely afternoon producing a potato bake, which instead was constructed after dark and fighting with a new recruit from the other truck for space on the fire while sweating over a white sauce.

Having had no idea how to create a white sauce before we headed off (you buy them in a jar, right?), the prospect of me bemoaning how difficult it is to get one to thicken with limited heat while using Blue Bird margarine will have anyone who knows my lack of culinary expertise reeling in shock. Especially when someone keeps shifting it off the heat to cook his sausages.

But it all worked well and, once we had dug out the pots from under the coals, it disappeared in rapid fashion.

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Beachfront dwelling – The front garden of our campsite at Abandze

There was less surprise about my decision to spend the next day making the most of our chilled surroundings, until the outbreak of a lengthy game of beach volleyball which made up in enthusiasm, diving around and sand in strange places what it lacked in any form of skill. Splashing about in the waves was needed to shift the sand and cool down.

Our weekend chilling out on the beach was replaced with… well, to be honest, more chilling out by the beach as we returned to our hangout at Big Milly’s.

And so we, largely, fell back into our routines.

Plenty of playing cards, sitting around the bar, convening at 12.30pm when the restaurant reopened for lunch (and waiting as the African idea of fast food is considerably different to ours) and wandering up to the newly-discovered internet cafe in the village (handily situated next to the building showing both Premier League and African Cup of Nations football).

With more visa forms and trips to the mall for food and supplies thrown in – the distinctive yellow bags from the Shoprite supermarket are scattered around the truck – some also headed further afield, although not the intrepid party we dropped at the mall to catch taxis into Accra to catch a local football match.

Only as the truck pulled back onto the main road did we notice them running after us, the taxi driver having kindly informed them the match had been played the previous day.

Back at base, there was also the attraction of having a bed to chill out on – and actually stretch my legs out properly – in my room (my only planned upgrade before our hostel in Cape Town, when that hair will finally go under the clippers).

The bed may have been a major attraction – to say nothing of the ceiling fan in the soaring temperatures (at least when the power was on) – but my shower proved just as big an attraction to some of the girls who were sleeping in their tents and making do with a bucket shower.

Really should have charged. Or stayed.

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Meeting the locals – One of the younger children at the orphanage. Unruly hair partially hidden by sunglasses, rescued from eager hands of the children

But it was not all lounging about at Big Milly’s and one excursion out provided a truly memorable day.

Three years ago, Karla spent time volunteering at an orphanage near Accra and keen to catch up, she headed off with me in tow as a curious onlooker.

A shared taxi to the main road and two tro-tros – the minibus-type vehicles of varying condition which plough back and forward along fixed routes, picking up and dropping off at a very cheap rate – dropped us at the Good Shepherd Orphanage and we wandered across the barren ground past the neighbouring school.

Any worries Karla had that nobody would remember her were dispelled as Gloria, one of the women from the kitchen, spotted us from some distance away and shouted out her name – a wonderful moment, which not only brought a smile to Karla’s face, but rates as one of my favourites of the trip.

Gloria’s welcome was echoed throughout the afternoon, a string of children not only swooping on the pens Karla had brought along with her, but reintroducing themselves, three years older and taller and delighted just to say hello.

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Decent proposal – Gloria and her son

And not just to Karla. Many were just as keen to say hello to me (after all, how often do they get to meet a large white man in a bright orange shirt?), two of the younger ones opted to cling on for dear life (although think the one in the Celtic shirt just wanted me to lift him up so he could get at my sunglasses) and my first marriage proposal came from one of the older girls who sat and chatted to us about life at the orphanage and what had happened to some of the other youngsters from her previous stay.

We wandered up to the school which, sadly, seems to be in a state of disarray. Having sat in the back of one geometry lesson, the children seem keen to learn, when they are actually in the classroom and not wandering in and out without anyone batting an eyelid.

From what we saw – and the background from Karla – the school and orphanage are in need of some tender, loving care and strong, disciplined leadership, but one does doubt whether cash injections are enough with the distinct impression that not all the money would make it down to the children who need it most, particularly not in the way they need it.

But with people like Gloria – who fashioned my second marriage proposal of the day, despite already being married and feeding her young son at the time – there is hope these children are getting some of the care and attention they need.

And on a trip full of surprises, this whole experience is one which will go down as one worth holding on to.

Even if it may have ended with me being betrothed. Not quite sure.

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