Travel: Accra, Ghana and my first taste of Africa (July 20-22, 2017)

 

The Finger Post Travel (October 10, 2018)

 

The moment I stepped off the plane I could feel it…Africa.  I was finally here.  The one elusive destination had finally become a reality when I was asked to come out and cover the Isaac Dogboe vs. Juan Chacon fight in July of 2017.  I had been to Egypt and Morocco, but as I often heard in both countries: “Africa…but not really.”

But Ghana was different.  There was no question whatsoever that this was Africa.

After passing through customs I met up with Charles Dogboe, uncle of the main even fighter and right hand man to promoter and trainer Paul Dogboe.  It was late and I was hungry…and we had a busy day tomorrow at the weigh-ins.  I hoped in his car and we made our way to my hotel: the Oceanic Resort in Accra.  Although the Oceanic was a bit out of the way it made up for it in charm and the simple fact that it had a kickin’ pool and an amazing view of the ocean.  It also had great service.  Although late at night they opened up the restaurant for me and cooked me up a traditional Ghanaian meal of jollof rice and goat stew.

Now let me say this: there are a lot of cultures across the globe that take pride in their ability to dial up the spicy to 11 when preparing a dish.  As a Korean-American I often took pride in my ability to out-spice most of my Anglo friends in Michigan and I couldn’t help but notice Mexicans sort of took a similar approach with their food as well.  I quickly concluded that everyone outside of the British, Irish, Germans, and a few others had some local phrase that roughly translated into “Thai hot.”

Well, I don’t use the phrase “Thai hot” anymore.  No.  There is hot…and then there is Ghana hot.

In one of Isaac Dogboe’s earlier fights in Ghana his opponent, an undefeated Ugandan named Edward Kekembo, blamed his loss to Isaac in Accra on the “peppers” of Ghana, citing the spicy food.  It earned a round of chuckles with a few of my boxing associates and myself, as we ranked it up there with “I was poisoned by my hairspray” as one of the more interesting excuses for a loss in the boxing ring.

But at that moment I have to admit, the theory held a little bit of water.  This rice had a serious kick to it.

But damn if it wasn’t the best spicy rice I ever had…and I have to say, we Koreans know spicy rice.  I felt like a French wine snob who just tasted his first Malbec from Argentina…my world view had forever changed as I tasted jollif for the first time.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

The following morning I discovered that several of the referees and the main event fighter, Javier Chacon, were staying in the same hotel.  Charles picked us up where we made our way to the luxurious Kempinski Hotel, where the weigh in was set to take place.  There were quite a few people with both the promotion and with the World Boxing Organization (WBO) who were staying there and I would become a frequent visitor of the Kempinski Hotel in Accra over the next few days…and all I can say is wow.  I was able to use their gym, which was one of the better ones I’ve seen in a hotel, and their pool was absolutely amazing.  I won’t lie, everything there sort of blew me away…I felt like that old white guy from the barber shop in Coming To America admiring King Jaffe Joffer’s shawl.

“This is beautiful, what is that, mouthwash dispensers in the bathrooms?”

The weigh-in had an energy that was refreshing for those of us in boxing.  It felt like the nation (and the nation’s media) wanted to be part of the Issac Dogboe story early on and I couldn’t help but feel a little bad.  Those of us in the States only jumped on bandwagons long after the train had left the station.  Covering fights in Michigan in the early 2000s I knew that most of my fellow boxing writers tended to watch with curious interest in the rise of Floyd Mayweather.  He was a champion but we were waiting to see just how big he would become.  When he fought Phillip Ndou in Grand Rapids back in 2003 we were interested….but we weren’t passionate.  In Ghana they had an young future world champion and with it they brought an energy that we didn’t.  It wasn’t an improper bias they had, no, it was something else.  A determination to absorb everything that would make this story of Isaac Dogboe complete, regardless of how it ends.  The Ghanaian sports writers were invested in the story in a way that really impressed me.

But alas, this isn’t a boxing story, it is a story of Accra.

I finished covering the weigh-in and in the process got what may be the best boxing photo I ever took, of a stoic Javier Chacon in enemy territory as a nation looked on.

A warrior in enemy territory

By the end of the weigh in I discovered I would be in for a rare treat.  The fighters, media, and boxing officials would be heading to the home of former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings, one of the most respected former leaders in all of Africa and a well known boxing fan.  Rawlings was a former flight lieutenant of the Ghanaian Air Force who seized power in a coup in 1979 and proceeded to purge (i.e. execute) two former presidents (i.e. generals who also seized power by way of a coup) by way of firing squad.  Rawlings also purged other leaders of the Supreme Military Council (the junta that ruled Ghana from 1975-1979).  It was, as Wikipedia described, one of the bloodiest incidents in Ghana’s history.  But from that bloody beginning was something the world was not expecting.  Rawlings, many assumed, would simply be another Mobutu like dictator.  A military man who would rule with brutality, force, and possibly a cult of personality.  But Rawlings would ultimately surprise many when he built the foundation of a true democracy in Ghana.  Many remained skeptical when he formed a “National Commission on Democracy” and some opposition leaders complained loudly when he ran, and won, in the 1992 Ghanaian presidential election.

Rawlings would win re-election in 1996 but it wasn’t what transpired from 1992-2000 there that cemented his status as a beloved former president.  It was what happened in 2001.  Rawlings could have easily “suggested” that the constitution (that he pushed for) be amended to allow him to run for a third term.  He refused.  And when his vice-president lost the 2000 election to opposition leader John Kufuor Rawlings could have somehow stepped in and refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Kufuor’s victory.  Rawlings didn’t do that either.

No, instead Rawlings stepped down, and that simple act planted a seed of democracy that is still growing in Ghana.

And I was about to meet the man who emerged as not just the father of democracy in Ghana, but as one of the father’s of democracy in Africa.

Rawlings came out and met with the fighters, referee Tony Weeks, and several WBO officials before I was introduced to him.  I won’t lie, I was a bit star struck.  I’ve met a lot of fighters from Canelo Alvarez to Manny Pacquiao…but Jerry Rawlings was the first man who had me star struck.

After we left I realized I had the entire day off and I decided to use it to explore Accra.  I started to wander down the streets of Accra, where I emerged as something of a minor celebrity.  I wasn’t in the tourist section…I can’t even say where I was.  All I know is it teemed with life.  As I walked down the beach I was greeted by, well, by everyone.  From the kids waiting for the school bus to the fishermen wondering where I was going and what I was doing.  And of course by the hucksters and hustlers who tried to sell me whatever it was I was shopping for.

I soon made my way to what I was told was one of the more bustling marketplaces in Ghana, and although I didn’t stand out as much as I did on the way down, I wasn’t exactly blending in.  Gringos tend to be seen as a profitable mark in most marketplaces the world over and I got the sense Ghana was no exception.  But with that being said, after buying a homemade Africa dress for a reasonable $7 I assumed that if I was being ripped off I was still doing OK.




But as much as I enjoyed window shopping, there was something I really was interested and that was the street food in Accra. I knew fufu was high on my list and I did get the opportunity to see it made by hand, well, see it getting made by hand.  I was told it was a long and difficult process that required endurance and dedication.  But that the reward was very much worth it.

but I wasn’t really ready to sit down and experience it just yet.  No, watching fufu getting made was like watching a carpenter make a table.  You had to be ready to appreciate the process…and the labor of love that went into it.

Instead I decided to get some grilled meat on a stick from a street vendor.  After all, I seldom am disappointed from grilled meat on a stick wherever I am, and I assumed Accra would be no exception.  There were several choices and most look familiar…so naturally I picked the one that didn’t.  But as I bit into my skewer I quickly came to a disturbing conclusion: it tasted like someone emptied an ashtray in a bowl of cottage cheese…and whatever I was eating was the intestines of some small mammal.

Yeah, needless to say I don’t want to think about it too much.  As I made my way into what I quickly concluded was something of a “food ally” of Accra I soon discovered a woman and man running a small homemade stand in a particularly tight alleyway.   I was a little gun-shy over trying something new again but this looked different…it appeared to be a spicy fish stew…and there was no way the Korean in me was about to pass up on some spicy fish stew.

“What is this called?” I asked the man.

“Shito.” he replied with a smile, one that gave me the sense that he was messing with me.  After all, the first syllable of that word didn’t instill me with confidence, especially considering I could still taste the rat intestine in my mouth.

“Seriously?” I said suspiciously.  “You call this shito?”

“Yes, he said with unmistakable pride and enthusiasm.  “Please, try some.  It is very good!”

I decided to take him up on his offer.  Yeah, I was nervous, but I wasn’t about to let one grilled rat ruin my favorite part of travelling: the experience of trying something completely out of my comfort zone.

And I am glad I did…because shito is the bomb.  I bought a bottle for the road and then sat down and chatted for about half an hour with the shito salesman and his wife.

As I headed back I couldn’t help but notice that Ghana was above all a boxing country.  Now don’t get me wrong, Ghana is a football country first and foremost…but from the former president to the shito salesman I got the sense that every Ghanaian was more than just a casual fan of the Sweet Science.

I made a few more stops on my way to my hotel…tonight would be the fight and I wouldn’t have time to spend in Accra tomorrow, where I had hitched a ride with Tony Weeks to visit the Cape Coast Castle.  So this would be it…my time in Accra.  As I made my way back to the coast I noticed a small beach front village near the lighthouse and wanted very much to explore it.  But I also recognized I was out of time.

Before catching my flight to Ethiopia I was able to squeeze in one more stop thanks to Charles Dogboe: the Independence Arch.  One of Ghana’s most famous monuments I had seen it almost every day in Accra…but I hadn’t had a chance to see it up close.  Charles stopped long enough to allow me to explore…and yeah I suppose I can check that one off the list of things I saw in Ghana.  But deep down I know I’ll have to go back.  I only scratched the surface of Accra…but it still left a mark.  There is still so much more to see in Accra, and Ghana, and someday soon I plan to check a few more of those places off my list.

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Boxing: Ghana and Cuba meet in the ring in historic Havana Boxing Gym

Finger Post Boxing: Ghana comes to Havana at the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym 

October 24, 2017

It’s hard to pinpoint what would be the closest thing to boxing’s Mecca, but a strong argument would have to be made for Havana, Cuba. It is arguable that there is no other place on the planet where boxing has as strong a fan base, thanks in large part to Cuba’s success in the Olympics. Since 1968 Cuban boxers have won gold an astonishing 38 times, and almost all of those fighters have developed their world class skill in one of the most famous boxing gyms the world over: The Rafael Trejo Gimnasio de Boxeo in downtown Havana. It is a boxing gym that has seen their share of world class fighters over the years.

Well, you can add one more to the list.

Accra, Ghana’s Isaac Dogboe stopped off this afternoon (October 24, 2017) to do some pad work and breath in the atmosphere that is Cuban boxing. And after several rounds of shadow boxing and on the pads it was clear that quite a few of the local kids who gathered to watch Dogboe workout were now fans of the undefeated junior featherweight contender. And perhaps more notably, the coaching staff at the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym were impressed with Dogboe as well.

“He’s strong,” one of the coaches said as he watched Dogboe from ringside. “And very fast.”

Dogboe was appreciative of the opportunity to workout at the historic gym.

“This is a famous gym in Cuba,” Dogboe said after his workout. “The (WBO congress) general meeting and afterwards we landed in Cuba. We were touring around and we discovered this place and we thought why not? We have boxing gloves in our bag.”

Dogboe was nonetheless humbled to have worked out in such a legendary gym.

“Home of champions indeed. It’s no different from Ghana. I came here to try their system of training. That’s why the excel. It’s practice and repetition. I just remembered my father. You do one ting over and over and over again…that’s what makes you perfect.”

Travel: Transit Visa in Ghana (one afternoon in Accra)

The Finger Post Travel (September 24, 2017)

(Accra, Ghana, July 29, 2017)

I was coming back to Ghana for ten hours…and I didn’t want to spend it in the airport. This proved to be a problem since my visa was only a “single entry” visa and I had already used my one entry into Ghana on that visa. This left few options.

The first was the ever dependable clueless American tourist routine where I just act confused and hope that gets me into the country. I know it’s sort of depressing that an American can stumble into a country, act like he doesn’t understand how borders work, and somehow get in whereas a Syrian can be a physicist or brain surgeon and have to live in a UNICEF tent on the Turkish border. But that seems to be the current state of affairs. Nonetheless this option had some problems. First, it involved everyone who I interacted with at immigration going along. One border guard, coming or going, could lead to a nightmare scenario where I ended up living in the Kokota International Airport like Tom Hanks character from the movie “The Terminal”.

Trust me, it would have not have been nearly as good as the Tom Hanks version.

I did have a picture of myself with former president Jerry Rawlings the week before, so I did understand there was a possibility of showing that photo to the immigration officer and smiling and seeing if that got me anywhere.

But then I pictured what would happen if I flew into Houston with no visa and a photo of me with Bill Clinton and decided that was probably a bad plan as well.

So there was the second option: the 48-hour transit visa. Ghana is a country that doesn’t make it’s visa process particularly easy (although the consulate in Houston was awesome and I really was impressed with their professionalism). But there is an easy second option: the transit visa. Although there was almost no information online about the transit visa, I was able to ascertain from a most reputable source (a user comment on Travelocity) that I could in fact obtain a transit visa at the airport when I arrived. However, there seemed to be some dispute as to how much the transit visa cost. I just assumed high and hoped that this would not turn into a travel nightmare. I had already had a full day in Rwanda and a full night of travel from Kigali to Accra. I also had another ridiculously long layover in London (10 hours) coming up and I really wanted to sleep in a bed for a couple hours and get a warm shower.

Arriving in Kokota International Airport I immediately stepped into the “Visa On Arrival” office, where I noticed the prices posted on the window for Transit Visas: $50 USD. It was slightly higher then I was expecting but still in the ballpark. Athough the price were quoted in dollar I decided to pay in Ghanaian Cedis since I was pretty sure I would never be able to get rid of them when I got back to the States. The price went up to GHS 240. Interestingly enough, the service charge for paying in the local currency was about $4 USD. But at this point I wasn’t worried about that. I just wanted to get our of the airport and into my hotel: the Grand Star Hotel in Haatso Bohye, about five miles out of Accra. I booked the room on Hotels.com and at $28 a night the price was right and the photos looked promising. But first I had to get there. Even the seasoned traveler can be overwhelmed by Accra. As soon as you step out of the baggage claim area you are approached by dozens of taxi drivers, hustlers, and helpers all aggressively offering their services. I was under the impression that the hotel would pick me up, but due to a miscommunication, they were not there. Instead I had a taxi driver insist on helping me get to my hotel, much to my chagrin. He eventually called the hotel and they agreed to let him drive me to the hotel and they would pay him, a hefty chunk out of the already inexpensive room rate. I really appreciated it, as I knew that this was already a very inexpensive room and since I already paid for it they could have gone another route and said it was my problem.

Nonetheless, en route the cab driver voiced his displeasure with the hotel. Not because he knew anything about it (he didn’t) but because it was so far out of town. I was once again familiarized with a concept that was alien to Americans: five miles in Africa isn’t the same thing as five miles in America. The journey was somewhat longer than expected, perhaps thirty minutes (although to be honest I wasn’t really paying that much attention). But despite the long journey, by the time I reached the hotel I was certain this was going to be just was the doctor ordered. It was huge, luxurious, and in the middle of BFE. A quiet village with a beautiful hotel dropped in the middle of it.

Upon stepping in I was assisted by Fred, and let me just say, I was blown away by this place. Yes, it was mostly empty, but I could tell it was nonetheless a successful hotel. And its success was based entirely on service. Despite it’s out of the way location they more then made up for the inconvenience in getting there by offering five star service for $30.

I had a room on the third floor, and although there was no elevation I couldn’t complain. Fred carried my rather heavy bags up (hey, what can I say, souvenirs are cheap in Africa). I was already tired and could have fallen asleep right there, but there was one last Ghanaian adventure I had to undertake: fufu. I went down to the restaurant and asked if they could prepare some fufu, the one classic Ghanaian dish I had not tried while in Ghana the previous week. They told me they could. While I waited for my food I walked around the pool area and to the second floor of what looked to be either a bar or a guard tower at one time.

I could see a neighboring primary school with some sort of event going on, and I sat back to listen to a school full of local kids singing away as I soaked in my last day in Africa.

Soon my fufu arrived and I discovered that fufu is best eaten with goat soup. I took a pinch of the fufu to try it and I was quickly won over. This was awesome. Somewhat sweet, somewhat starchy, and delicious; even by itself. With the soup it was even better, and I realized this might go on to be the high water mark of my African cuisine adventure.

Nonetheless the meal was the final tap into my rapidly depleting energon cubes. I headed up to the room and was out before my head hit the pillow. By the time I woke up about four hours later I had a bone crushing headache and a recognition that I needed to head back to the airport. I quickly showered up, changed, and checked out. I asked Fred if I could change $20 so I could give him a tip but he declined. I then got into my cab and headed back to the airport. I arrived with over three hours to spare before my flight. I figured it was plenty of time to get to my gate. Except this was Ghana. The immigration line was a jumbled mess and I finally had to beg a border guard to let me cut in line because I was running out of time. He let me through and I made my gate with about ten minutes to spare before boarding. It was a very African end to my African trip, but even though I ended up spending close to $100 for what amounted to a four hour nap and a bowl of fufu, I didn’t regret it (although this post would have a much different tone in I had in fact missed my flight). In the end, the staff at the Grand Star Hotel and the chance to experience just one more day in Ghana made it worth every penny.

 

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