Week Seventeen

The Jetlag travel guide to Phaic Tan: Sunstroke on a Shoestring.

This is the second Jetlag travel guide, coming on the heels of last year’s spot-on paradoy of an Eastern Europe guidebook: Molvania (link below).

If you’ve ever read a travel guide in anticipation for a trip, you’ll appreciate the humor and the level of detail in the Jetlag books. Why hadn’t someone thought of this before? Check it:

Many western visitors to Phaic Tan are terrified of the possibility that they may— even accidentally —end up eating dog. A good test when served any roast meat is to look closely at the animal’s head. While pigs and goats will traditionally have an apple stuffed in their mouth, dogs tend to be cooked holding a tennis ball.

Phaic Tan is all about a fictional country that is quite obviously a mix of Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Among the sights along Thong On’s “Mildew Coast”, one can “settle back in a lazy deck chair under a shady coconut palm and, on any given day, take in the sight of an overloaded passenger ferry slowly sinking in the glittering azure sea.”

Can’t really say enough about these books, and I can’t wait for the upcoming titles in the series. I mean, they actually came up with the phrase “after his former career as a Khmer Rouge Information Officer.” Check this:

If you think Phaic Tan’s heat and humidity are hard to take now, spare a thought for those who lived back before the arrival of electric cooling. In those days rooms were kept ventilated with a ceiling fan pulled by a young servant boy (mataak) who customarily sat outside. With the coming of electricity in the 1920s this system was modified; the young servant boy still sat outside pulling the fan but he had a wire cable attached to one toe and was given a jolt if he slowed down.

Phaic Tan, by Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, and Rob Sitch, A.

And don’t forget:

102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers, by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

This book is a meticulous account of what happened inside the World Trade Center from the time the first plane struck until the second tower collapsed, 102 minutes later. From the authors’ note:

Like the passengers on the unsinkable Titanic, many of the individuals inside the World Trade Center simply did not have the means to escape towers that were promised not to sink, even if struck by airplanes. In the struggle to live, those who survived and those who did not sent out hundreds of messages. They gave us the history of those 102 minutes.

The level of detail holds your attention, and even though you know how the story ends, the writing invests you in the final fate of a variety of characters: firemen, businesspeople, and even the lowly security guard who stays at his post on an upper floor helping people evacuate. This book brings the horror home:
They peered out. Debris had rained onto the plaza— steel and concrete and fragments of offices and glass. Above them, they could see the east side of the north tower, and also its northern face. Instead of the waffle gridding of the building’s face, they now saw a wall of fire spread across ten or fifteen floors. Then they saw the people coming out the windows, driven toward air, and into air. The plane had struck not two minutes earlier.

The authors of this book are reporters for the New York Times who had previously covered the 1993 bombing attempt. As they recount the final moments of the Twin Towers, they also shine light on the various ways the towers were built on the cheap, with safety features being removed in the name of more rentable space. Also interesting is the NYFD response, and how inter-agency fueds may have contributed to the high death toll among firefighters.

This book puts you into the buildings, and with each turning page you are frantic, knowing the end is closing in:

The word to leave finally got to Steve Modica, the aide to fire chief Paolillo, who had watched, uncomprehending, as police officers pounded down the stairs at the 30th floor. A fire captain, coming down after the police officers shouted at him.

“Evacuate! Evacuate! I want everyone to evacuate the building.” Then the captain continued down. Modica tried to reach Chief Paolillo, but couldn’t raise him. He switched to all three channels used by the department. He still could not get anything. He considered the circumstances, and would recall thinking: “We were doing nothing. Nothing. What’s the plan? Nobody had a plan.” He started down the stairs.

102 Minutes, A.

Reading this book, I kept seeing a comparison to the early days of computing and the early days of punk rock. Andy Hertzfeld’s account of the design and engineering of the Macintosh computer certainly takes you back to early 1980’s California.

I remember going to computer shows back then with my dad, who seemed to buy any new product that showed any promise. I mean, we had a laser printer in the house when most people still had typewriters. To switch fonts, you had to shove in a new font cartridge (and those were like, $100 each). And I’ll never forget how we put our name on the waiting list for the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man. The day we picked it up, my parents also bought the family an Apple II computer. I woke up at 5am to play with it before school, where all the other kids thought I was a liar for claiming to have Pac-Man and the computer.

Back to the book, you have to admire Apple’s then anti-corporate approach- like when the engineers rigged up a pirate flag over their building. Okay, that seems pretty tame, doesn’t it.

Bottom line, if you’re into computers and software design, this book will be interesting. Fans: B. Others: C.

An Exploration of the Last African Wilderness, by Peter Stark, Grade: A

Peter Stark’s account of a trip kayaking down Mozambique’s Lugenda River is an amazing tale. The previously uncharted 750-kilometer route is filled with rapids, waterfalls, crocodiles, hippos. And throughout the river adventure, he recounts the tales of historic explorers and wanderers throughout history. “Why are humans compelled to explore?” he wonders.

As I was raised on the European version of world events, it’s always fun to find yourself seeing the other side of the story. Hearing about Stanley and other explorers as a child, watching cartoons, Tarzan movies, and reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, I always thought that the Africans and their menagerie of beasts were the most dangerous things to encounter in Africa. Now that I’m older and have learned more, the most deadly thing to meet up with in Africa was probably the European unless you had a load of gold, rubber, or diamonds to give to them.

Stark recounts from da Gama’s visit:

The local king offered da Gama a ransom of gold plus the delivery of the Muslims whom he alleged were responsible for the grievously mistaken attack on the Portuguese trading post. Da Gama would have none of it. Instead, he captured eight or ten trading vessels coming into Calicut that did not realize the Portuguese fleet was anchored there; ordered his men to chop off the hands, ears, and noses of their crews; and sent the body parts in a boat to the King of Calicut, telling him to make a curry of the cargo. Da Gama had the still-living handless, noseless, and earless victims bound by their feet and their teeth knocked down their throats so they couldn’t untie the knots with their mouths; he had them piled in another boat, set it afire, and sent it ashore, too. When three members of one late-arriving Muslim crew pleaded that they wished to convert to Christianity before they were killed, da Gama showed them the mercy of having them baptized and strangled before they were hauled aloft and shot full of arrows like their fellow crewmen. Finally, the King of Calicut sent a large fleet against the Portuguese. Da Gama’s artillery blew that to splinters, too.

“No wonder the people we had just passed fled into the trees.

There is also in this book a great pair of river guides who embody every white South African macho archetype. These two are the only ones with the knowledge, skill, and physical ability to make the trip a success, and the author’s attempts to reconcile his own personality to theirs is well written with honesty and candor. His attempts to spend more time with actual Africans that they pass on the river is usually met with derision by the others in the group, who see little to learn from the locals and their often primitive ways.

Stark:

“We don’t have a word in our language for ‘wilderness,'” a native Mozambican villager would later tell me. “What you might call ‘wilderness’ we call ‘the place where no one lives and you are free to gather things.'”

What more can I say? Great book, A.

Though it won’t be published for another eight months, you’ve got to check out the preview to photographer Andrew Faulkner’s book, Midnight Train to Warsaw.

Night, Elie Wiesel, Grade: A

“If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one.”

This new translation of Wiesel’s Night is a masterpiece in 120 pages. I know my holocaust books, and this is one of the most chilling I’ve read. This story of the young Elie being taken from a Hungarian ghetto to Auschwitz and Buchenwald is full of despair and horror. And as events unfold, unspeakable events, Wiesel recounts the death of his faith in the God he was raised to believe in.

I’ve been to Buchenwald and Auschwitz. There is a feeling there that cannot be described in words. The rare book like Night imparts a little of it, just enough to break your heart.

Remind me to send this book to the guy who made sure to tell me that Jews owned Werther’s Toffee company. He needs to read it and suck on some hard candy.

State of War: The Secret History of the C.I.A. and the Bush Administration, by James Risen, Grade: A

Written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who broke the Bush domestic spying scandal, this book is amazing. Filled with secret details about the mismanagment of the war on terror, the distraction of Iraq, the complete lack of WMD intel. Wow, this is how we’re going to look back on this era of American history, provided we open our eyes. Read it.

One thought has come to mind as to why the Bush administration refuses to go through the FISA courts. I wonder if they are monitoring way too many communications to get a warrant for every call/e-mail collected by NSA computers. Can’t wait to see what this is all about, once the secrets come out.

Read a lot this month, eh? Must be winter in Utah.

Ghost. Truly dreadful. If you want to read about a guy who rescues women from being raped to death by terrorists and then rapes a girl before saving the Pope from being nuked by Al Qaeda (I am NOT making this up), you will love hating this book. F

Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq. What can I say, it’s another look at the life of a soldier in Iraq. Why are all the books about Iraq post-invasion written by soldiers and all the books about the actual invasion written by journalists? The author of this one is another blogger, like Colby, who gets busted for having a blog. Also like Colby, he got busted in high school for publishing an underground newspaper. Wonder why Colby thinks he’s a dick? The book bogs down after a while, but it’s got its moments. B


The UN Gang. Is this the bitchiest political book I’ve read in a while? Yeah. Hilarious. Pedro Sanjuan comes across as this grumpy old man, and the funnest parts of the book are when he’s snapping back at some incompetent UN official. He certainly doesn’t suffer fools. Still, would need more bitchiness and less oh-my-gosh can you believe it? to score higher. C


Mandela, Mobutu, and Me. Love it. Great stuff about some of my favorite places: Congo and South Africa and some others. Lynne Duke provides some great insights and behind-the-scenes descriptions to some of the world’s momentous, though ignored, people, places, and events. B



Talking Back. Unfortunately, this book fails as both a primer of recent White House history and an insider’s look at the same. While there are some interesting insights into the Reagan presidency and the Clintons, it’s not enough to sustain interest. C



My War. Colby, you pulled it off! This book is a great read, putting you into the life of a soldier in Iraq. This book is what I assumed Jarhead, C, would be. Colby has a real eye for detail and irony, and this is a hard book to put down. And it’s so nice to see another suburban punk actually create something that will last. Ranks with some of the best combat writers of the past ten years. A


A Dirty War. Wow. Russia fights this horrendous war with a ruthless spirit and total disregard for collateral damage, and you’ve got Anna Politkovskaya (the author) running around writing stories about Russia losing its soul due to the unbelievably cruel disregard for the Chechen (Russian) population. Imagine Aunt Bea writing scolding articles calling George W. Bush to account for the continuous missteps in his Iraq policy. That’s this book for the second Chechen war. Highly recommended for Chechnya/Russia/War junkies. A



Chechnya Diary. A great look at Thomas Goltz’s trips to cover the war in Chechnya, and the unintended consequences of his friendship to the Chechens he met. It’s close to an A, but I’ll reserve that for a couple other Chechnya books that I’ll list in the blog. B



The Tenth Circle of Hell: A Memoir of Life in the Death Camps of Bosnia. This is a chilling book, and should be required reading for all. The atrocities committed in Bosnia should be studied and understood. We must figure out how to put an end to the violence of mankind. A



A Sniper’s Journey: The Truth About the Man Behind the Rifle. A cool read, tailored more to the issues of dealing with unspeakable acts you’ve committed that you just can’t tell your friends about. I can relate. C



Nuclear Showdown, North Korea Takes on the World. This book, on the crazy-weird North Korea, is so scatter-brained I couldn’t take it. I quit on page 194. D

American Hardcore, A for fans, B for anyone else.

Thanks to Grayson, I ended up with two tickets to a showing of the punk documentary American Hardcore at the Sundance Film Festival. The film re-lives the eruption of the often brutal underground scene from 1980-1986.

From the start of the film, when the frantic Bad Brains track “Pay to Cum” is blasting away, it was striking. Hearing that music in a movie theater, or anywhere out in public, was a completely novel experience.

American Hardcore follows the growth of the hardcore scene with a spotlight on bands in LA like Black Flag and Washington, DC’s Minor Threat and especially the Bad Brains.

The movie starts brilliantly, contrasting the feeling of the times- the saccharine 80’s, Ronald Reagan as president, skinny ties- with the alienation so easy to feel in such a conformist era. The political similarities to today were amazing, and in fact it’s scary how today it’s so much worse. I remember wearing an anti-Ronald Reagan button around in high school. Today it feels almost illegal to make the same statement against Bush. Maybe that’s just the mood in Utah, but I doubt it.

So they mix all these clips of the fine and dandy 80’s with interviews with Vic Bondi and Keith Harris who have so many great lines about rebelling and the need to be different. The need to scream at the rest of society. It’s a great entrance to the film.

A bunch of other bands are featured as the movie hops from one thought to the next. Bands that quickly appear and vanish include MDC, DOA, Zero Boys, 7 Seconds, Agnostic Front, and a bunch more. At some points, it feels like they’re just cramming people in, as many as they can. And since this film is twenty years late, and there are so many bands worth mentioning, that’s exactly the idea. Not like there will be another in depth movie about 80’s hardcore.

The film doesn’t really explain how amazing the growth of the scene, across the United States, really was. There wasn’t any MySpace for bands to promote themselves and their shows. Hell, there wasn’t any Internet at all, let alone cel phones. Too bad the film didn’t spend more time on fanzines and other people who documented the scene. The only two ways to keep up on things were going to shows and reading cheaply-made fanzines, often xeroxed illicitly at someone’s parent’s business office.

There is one glaring hole in the movie. Almost no mention about San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys. The DKs were a huge band from that time. They put on an amazing show. But the recent history of the band has been very ugly, including a court case where control of the band’s recordings was taken from Jello and given to the other band members. After the film, during a Q&A, the film-makers basically said that Jello wasn’t talking and getting rights to the DK music was way too difficult. So leave it to the DKs to tell their own story. It will never happen.

The cut we saw clocked in at 98 minutes. And after an hour or so it started to drag. There are some segments that just don’t fit. Like, who ever liked the band Flipper and why are they in this movie? The film-makers say they left out the Misfits because they weren’t a real hardcore band. Okay, then take out Flipper. And that horrible Nig Heist segment is just stupid.

A short segment on gangs in the punk scene goes nowhere as well. It comes and goes so quickly that you just get confused.

As the scene klunks along into the mid-80’s, the film claims to record the death of the scene. Their position is that the scene just burned out and was over by 1986. Bad Brains had stopped playing hardcore in favor of reggae. And clips of Black Flag in their awful metal stage seem to offer proof that things were over. But the film misses the point.

I came into the scene around 1985. The fact is that the scene didn’t die. The legendary bands that were going strong in 1983, like Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains, were all pretty much broken up or past their prime by 1985. They had made their amazing contributions and were done.

Let’s face it, you can’t blame them. How much longer could they go on making no money, touring in broken-down vans, sleeping on the floors of fans. It was a hard life.

But the scene lived on and evolved after these original hardcore bands died out. Bands like RKL, SNFU, Ill Repute, picked up the flag and ran with it. I could name a hundred more. It was crazy how many good bands would play a single show at the Farm, the On Broadway, even Ruthie’s Inn.
The point is, the scene evolved. And it’s easy for it to leave you behind as new kids flood into the scene and write music that comes out of their lives.

Throughout the film, I thought to myself that this is finally the movie that explains how I feel, where I come from. The way these bands were just exploding with energy, how everything was built from the ground up with an amazing passion. That’s how I’ve tried to live and create. But the film encompasses so many bands and so many people that I could hardly claim these feelings as mine alone.

American Photo

11.27.2003

Profiles of People Who Gave Me a Job
Part Six – American Photo

My first semester of college, fall of 1986, was a disaster. Then my grades got even worse in my second (and last) semester. I had discovered photography. All of my time was spent reading about it or driving around southern Idaho doing it. Returning home to California after school let out I decided to find a job in photography.
I applied for and got a job at a one-hour photo lab in the local mall. It was one of a chain of photo labs owned by a Korean businessman. It was called American Photo and the place reeked of toxic photo bleach, which, along with the other chemicals, was dumped straight down the drain.
First day on the job I was taught to cut and sleeve negatives and put customers’ prints into envelopes. You had to look at each print before stuffing them to make sure they looked good. One of the first sets of photos I saw were from a party for a woman leaving her job. Here she is unwrapping presents; A watch, a handbag, and what’s this gift she’s holding with her eyes bugging out? Oh, it’s a dildo.
Photos like that came through all the time. And it was common practice to print out an extra print of anything funny, unusual, or nude. This happens at every lab. I used to have a great collection of images: dirtbags smoking pot, a topless overweight woman raking and burning leaves, a drunk woman at an office party dancing on a pool table to the delight of men in suits.
At American Photo they kept copies of these photos in a photo album. A thick photo album with a floral patterned cover stored safely in the back room held a collection of images probably years in the making. Bachelor parties, bachlorette parties, parties, drunks, strippers, amatuer nudes and more parties. One of the guys I worked with told me about it.
Of course, you can’t keep things like this secret. And somehow one of the mall security guards heard of the photo album. He would come by several times a day begging our manager into letting him peruse the photographs. He didn’t want to bust the place and confiscate the album, he just wanted to drool over the skin pix.
Finally, after a few weeks of this guy whining, they agreed to let him look at the book. Anything to get him off their backs. They take him into the back room, and he starts gleefully going through the book. He’s getting off on seeing all of the drunk and/or naked women pictured in their amateur snapshot lack of glory. He turns the next page and anger clouds his face. He turns to the manager, shaking his finger towards one of the photos.
“That’s my girlfriend!” he shouts in a rage.
The book was quickly disposed of. I should mention this happened before I started working there, so it’s a story I got from one of the old-timers.
When I was hired, there were about eight employees, including this weird manager who kept telling me how many cameras he owned (9) and how much money he made selling his photos of Napa vineyards through stock (a lot). I bought it, though now I’d bet it was all b.s. There was also an assistant manager and a bunch of other experienced printers. Within a month, all of these people were gone.
It was like the Khmer Rouge took over. Before we knew it there were just two employees left, neither of us with any real experience. Me and an thirtysomething guy named Julius. With everyone else gone we were forced into working everyday. The store was open from 10am to 9pm every day of the week, so we were going non-stop. About this time I met the district manager, this witch who basically ignored our complaints that there was no store manager and that we were working all day, every day. I remember they brought in a part-timer but it didn’t cut down much on the workload.
We were getting behind all the time. People always expected their photos to be done within an hour but it was impossible with just the two of us. We started giving out discounts to keep people happy. We’d give somebody 10 or 15% off their order, even if they were cool about things being late. One night alone we gave out over $150 in discounts. This really pissed off the district manager. But they still didn’t do anything to help us out. With all this going on the store absolutely had to be open on time and we couldn’t close early. If the store was ever closed the mall administration would fine the store around $150 an hour.
I remember driving home late at night, getting up, going back to the mall to work the next morning. I remember listening to loud and fast punk rock in the car and driving fast with the madness of it all. The job was killing me.
One day at the end of my wits I was scheduled to work a full shift alone. I was not looking forward to this garbage continuing. A shift alone was like hell. The district manager and owner were doing nothing to fix our problems.
So I just didn’t go in. It was great. Julius and I went into San Francisco together so there was no one for them to call to fill in. And I was the only one with a key so there was no way they could even get the shop open. The store racked up over $1,200 in fines from the mall before the district manager got someone to drill the lock off the door.

Part Five – The Country Scoop

11.24.2003

Profiles of People Who Gave Me a Job
Part Five – The Country Scoop

Through my friend Ted, I got a job at an ice cream shop around the corner from my house. It was a very strange situation. While the owner of the place didn’t work there, he lived right down the street in eyesight of the shop so you were always looking over your shoulder to see if he was coming in for one of his surprise visits. His name was Ed.
On my second day there I was working with two girls. In the middle of this busy Saturday they decided to take a break together, leaving me alone at the helm. I think the most instruction I had gotten up to that point was a ten minute primer you could have titled, “How to make a single scoop ice cream cone.” So when they left me all alone and the next customer ordered a hot fudge sundae, I knew I was screwed.
I can still see the sundae I made for this guy. The whipped cream looked like a dog turd sitting on top of the ice cream. It was ugly. And I guess it’s burned into my memory because right then the owner, Ed, walked in making one of his surprise visits. He comes in just in time to see my mediocre scoop-work and hear me tell the customer, “It looks ugly, but it will sure taste good!”
Ed pulled me aside and said, “Boy, you need to learn two things: how to make a hot fudge sundae and how to ask for help.”
When I started at the Country Scoop they had me doing the ice cream stuff. That was the easy job. But after I while I was “promoted” to the grill side of things- cooking fries and hamburgers. This was a good thing because you can only eat so much ice cream during your shift in the back room. If you know how to cook burgers and fries, too, you’re able to sneak a much more balanced meal into the back room. Instead of a huge oreo shake for dinner it was now huge oreo shake, fries, and burger for dinner.
Since Ed lived down the street, you had to be very careful about sneaking food. The bathroom was a good place to hide out, and if you were working with someone cool, you would take turns covering for each other.
I always thought it would be fun to work with Ted, but it didn’t pan out very well. We had too much fun. Ted would be in the back inhaling the propellent out of the whipping cream cans, or turning off the radio with a solid kick from his foot. One night we changed the radio station from its usual quiet soft rock to a cranked and frantic mexican station. Of course, this was the moment of Ed’s second surprise visit to one of my shifts. I’ll never forget it. He walked in, calmly went to the radio, turned it off, and walked right out without saying a word.
We were never allowed to work together again.
Ted had been hired by the previous manager, who knew him from church. To hear Ted tell it, she was always going on about her yeast infections. I was never around for any of that. I was hired by a pair of co-managers, Kevin and Sarah.
We were supposed to close the store at 9pm. No exceptions. Then you’d put up the chairs and start mopping. So one night, at 9:05, this guy starts knocking on the door and is begging me to let him and his kids in. They had just attended their school concert and he wanted to buy them ice cream. At first I told him no, but he wouldn’t let up. So I figured I’d get him his cones and get him out of there quick. I was all alone, so I figured if Ed didn’t look out his window no one would ever know.
The guy comes in and starts ordering banana splits- stuff that takes a lot of time to make, and now I’ll have dishes to wash, etc. Big mistake letting him in. He even starts pulling chairs down off the tables so they can eat in the shop. All in full view of Ed’s house!
Just then co-manager Kevin walks in to check on me. What a nice surprise I have for him- some jerk with his kids waiting for their sundaes. I remember Kevin being upset, but he actually rolled up his sleeves and helped me make the sundaes and hurried the guy along while I finished closing the store.
I kind of liked Kevin after that. That’s why, when I decided to get a mohawk, symbolically giving the finger to society, I did it right before I was working a shift with the other manager, Sarah. We never really hit it off, and I knew my new six-inch mohawk was going to be a big deal in the sleepy suburban ice cream shop.
Joey and Aaron cut the mohawk right before my shift. It looked awesome. I was so excited to stick it to Sarah. She was going to be so pissed off at my surprise.
I go down to the shop, walk in with a big smile on my face, and there’s Kevin. He had switched shifts with Sarah. His jaw drops and he says nothing. He just stared at me for a long, unbearable moment.
The rest of the night was very uncomfortable. All the customers who came in were seriously freaked out at my haircut. You could really feel the vibe. After an hour or so, word had gotten back to my parents. We all laugh about it now, but they loaded my sisters into the car and drove over to see my hair. They pulled up and sat in the car watching me through the window, heartbroken and bawling that they’d lost their son.
First thing the next morning my dad got me out of bed and took me to a salon and had them cut off the mohawk. The nice lady convinced him to leave a little stripe of hair, maybe a quarter of an inch high. “You don’t want him bald,” she told him. It looked ridiculous.
After the forced haircut I went in to work. Kevin gave me the news. He, Sarah, and Ed had talked it over. I was fired.

1998: Africa – Ghana Airport

February 14th, or is it the 15th now? I’m too tired. 1998

I walked off the plane into sensory overload. Piercing hot darkness. This was definitely Africa. It was very humid and a pungent tropical smell (a mix of sweat and coastal breeze, unlike anything I’d ever smelled) filled the night air. The dark of night was nearly complete. Just a few post-midnight lights marked the city of Accra.

Inside, the terminal was dimly lit with fluorescent lights that were only 20% as bright as you’d see in the West. It made everything seem darker, older, and dirtier than it really was. From a group of plainclothes guys with ID badges, a man approached and asked for my immunization records. He took mine and Peggy’s to a counter where another guy stamped them.

He took our passports and led us ahead to a series of lines labelled “Ghana Nationals,” “West African Nationals,” and “Other Nationals”. The “Other” line was very long. The guy with our passports led us into the “West African” line and then started talking money. He said he would get us through quickly and we would give him ten dollars. We grabbed our passports back and got in the long line, while he went off in search of a new mark. After a long wait we got through.

I went to exchange currency. We would need walking-around money. I exchanged $100 and got a very thick stack of Ghanaian Cedis. Their largest bill is only worth $2.50, and I didn’t get any of those. My $100 was exchanged into 100 red 2,000 Cedi bills. The wad of cash was so thick it bulged out of my pocket.

While Peggy waited inside I went out to see if our local contact was there. In front of the airport there was a huge crowd of people gathered, and seeing me, they began hollering. “Are you okay?” “Need a taxi?” Others tried to get my attention by hissing sharply like snakes, “SSSSSSSS!!!”

I walked out trying to project confidence, as if I knew what I was doing and where I was going. In reality I was thoroughly confused and overwhelmed. In my mind it played out like those scenes in movies where the Marlboro Man westerner walks through the chaotic exotic marketplace, all calm and serene. The reality was not even close.

I didn’t see any sign of our ride, anda guy named Frankie started following me around. He led me to a guy selling phone cards out of his wallet. Frankie acted like he was helping me out and asked for money. I told him I would get him later. Since the shops were closed I bought a phone card for an outrageous sum.

Back inside, Peggy went to call our ride with the phone card. I laughed when I saw a man behind her, reaching in to push buttons. Another helper! Peggy managed to wake up one of our local contacts, but the call was useless. She could hear him but he couldn’t hear her. We were on our own for transportation to the hotel.

The Ghana Airways flight with my hard-case was due soon. Miraculously, the case arrived intact with the film scanner and photo equipment safe and sound.

We waded back into the sea of “helpers” outside the airport and Frankie was on us immediately, along with a bunch of other guys. We figured we might as well have Frankie take us to the hotel.

He led us to a van in a very dark parking lot. There were a couple cars labelled TAXI, including one with a shirtless man sleeping on the hood. Frankie threw in our luggage and another guy got in to drive.

They kept insisting that our hotel, the Golden Tulip, was too expensive and offered to take us somewhere “more affordable.”

“Take us to the Golden Tulip, now!” Peggy ordered.

The Golden Tulip turned out to be only about a half-mile from the airport. And for that short drive they wanted $20. I was so exhausted I just handed them the money without argument (20 red Cedi bills).

As we started to get out of the van they said, “You can leave your baggage in the van while you check in.”

I smiled. At least they were being polite about conning us out of our belongings (possibly). We took the bags, checked in, and slept. In only a couple of hours, the phone would ring and it would all start.

Links to the rest of this series:

Africa