This past Wednesday, July 6th, was my 22nd birthday! To be completely honest, I was a little nervous for the day to arrive since I have had a pretty bad birthday streak running to date (and I seem to have a knack for spending the day away from family and friends), though from the minute I woke up the day was better than I could have even imagined.
As soon as I opened my eyes, Mariana started screaming, “Happy birthday!” She found a “Happy Birthday Rachel” song on YouTube and was quick to gather the girls and teachers to sing along. They sang through the song several times (all to my joy/embarrassment), and then Mariana gave me a gift of a jewelry set from Brazil. She told me that she had brought the set in case she met someone special that she wanted to give it to, and she thought that I was that person. So cute!! Of course I did not expect a gift from the girls, though I did ask if they could make me something small: I wanted them each to draw quick self portraits so that I could have pictures of them to bring home and put on my wall. Emmanuella was home with her family for the holiday, but Alice and Peace agreed. Unfortunately this activity sparked many fights between them as Peace continually “copied” Alice’s drawing, though in the end they both came up with super cute drawings that I cannot wait to take home.
After a quick breakfast and a cold shower, Mariana and I put on our bathing suits and headed out to Labadi beach. Labadi is the most “famous” beach in Accra, though I should really mention that this really means it is the most touristy. Regardless, Mariana had never been and had always wanted to check it out, so I was more than down to join her (“When in Accra,” right?). It proved a little more difficult to actually get there than we had thought, but after three tro tros and about an hour of traveling we finally made it to our destination. We paid the 10 cedi entry fee and walked in.
As expected, the beach was a total tourist trap. While our time at Gamoah Fetteh beach had been clean, peaceful, and virtually undisturbed, Labadi starred many vendors who were quick to bug us about buying their clothes, jewelry, artwork, food, etc. I even got harassed by a guy after I took a picture of his sandcastle, an interaction which concluded in me reluctantly coughing up a cedi “tip.” As Mariana and I strolled along the ocean edge, we were approached by many more vendors—so many that we could not help but graduate our “no thank you”s to “how many times do I have to ask you this? Please, let us be.” Other downsides to the beach included the excess trash (which, to be fair, I was heavily warned about) and the fact that the weather was quite cloudy/foggy that day. Regardless, we had a nice stroll on the beach and eventually took up one of the vendors on their offer to eat at their restaurant.
The restaurant was beachside and had a large umbrella we could sit under, which was perfect since it had started to drizzle. Mariana ordered a beef kebab, and I committed a cardinal restaurant sin: I ate food I had purchased elsewhere. Just before we had sat down, I noticed a man selling popcorn and had to buy a bag. I was really feeling some popcorn and Apple Drink (a carbonated apple juice that is popular here) and it was my birthday, so why not? Thankfully, the restaurant did not seem to care (or notice), so I happily munched on my snack as we watched an amateur soccer game being played on the sand.
Many vendors approached us as we sat and we turned down most of them, though humored a few “art dealers.” Though I have no clue where they each got their large stacks of painted canvases, some of the paintings were actually quite good. Mariana bought a beautiful painting of an African lady carrying watermelon slices on her head, and I bought a similar painting of three women—painted in beautiful warm tones—who were walking away with baskets on their heads. We were both able to negotiate pretty well for our art, as we were originally asked to pay 90 cedes and 80 cedes respectively, but each got the price down to 30.
From the beach, we tried to make our way to Artist Alliance: a large gallery that Elisabeth had told me about. We could see on Google maps that the gallery was quite close to the beach, though weirdly enough each person that we asked had no idea what we were talking about or where it was. Mariana eventually called the gallery and, after a long exchange, we figured out which direction to walk. The walk wasn’t far, maybe about twenty minutes, and it was nice to walk along the coast. On the way we saw many interesting things, like a man praying in front of a pile of trash (he looked so incredibly at peace) and a beautiful looking pool that we vowed to check out later.
Eventually we found the gallery: a beautiful, three story building filled with paintings, drawings, furniture, jewelry, and clothing. The entry was free, but most of the art could be purchased. We saw a plethora of beautiful artwork and both agreed that it was nice to see the range of styles that Ghanaian artists represented. Small misadventures in our visit included Mariana and I accidentally using the men’s bathroom (and getting yelled at for it), and me “accidentally” using my camera when there were no pictures allowed at the gallery (and getting yelled at, multiple times, for it). I have no regrets because at the end of the day I have two things to take home from the experience. First, I have the pictures by which to remember all of the amazing art. Second, I purchased a small Akan “death mask” pendant for 5 cedes, which I was so excited about. I had recently learned a lot about death masks at the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Experience Africa” exhibition, and knew them to be beautiful, handcrafted masks that Akan tribes traditionally placed on their ruler’s faces after they died. Though I suppose a bit morbid, the little mask was beautifully made and super cute (and cheap) so I was happy to have found it.
Mariana and I had originally intended to go back to our room to change before dinner (since we were in beach garb), though we considered the logistics and decided it made much more sense to go right from the gallery to dinner as it was almost 5PM, the gallery was quite close to the restaurant, and we were starving. I had hoped to wear my new dress at the dinner, but since Elisabeth could no longer make it and Mariana and I did not care that much, we thought it ok to just go as we were. We took a taxi to Osu and, to kill a little time, walked into some shops on Oxford Street. Mariana found a beautiful wooden mask for quite cheap, and I tried to find a string to put my new pendant on though I was not able to. After walking around for a bit, we headed toward the Shop Rite.
On our way in, a woman approached us to ask if we would mind being interviewed for a project. The question that they wanted each person to answer was if they did or didn’t think that Jesus was coming back, and why. I told her that perhaps she did not want me to be interviewed since I am Jewish and do not think he is coming back, though she insisted that this was even better because she “wanted Ghanaians to be more open minded about other religions.” I was really hesitant to do it because, ironically, I hate being on camera, though Mariana pushed me into it. While I had warmed up to the idea of educating the video’s viewers on the similarities of our two religions, this isn’t exactly how the video panned out. After the interviewer asked me the question, she asked this very strange follow up question, “But, if Jesus was coming back, why do you think he would be coming back?” This threw me for a loop, and I tried to reiterate that I don’t think he is coming back, though I suppose if someone did it would be because they think he is God’s son/part of the holy trinity, or whatever. Weirdly, the interview ended right after this question, making my answer seem a bit inconsistent and giving me no opportunity to talk about the similarities of the religions, only the major difference (regarding whether Jesus is or is not returning). This kind of gave me a weird taste in my mouth, though it didn’t seem there was much I could do so we continued into Shop Rite. I bought a birthday cake in the bakery to bring back to the kids and teachers, and I also bought a bag of candy to give out to my classes during the week. Then, Mariana and I walked to the restaurant.
Burger & Relish is an extremely beautiful, modern, trendy spot. Its front was entirely glass paneled, and its walls featured beautiful graffiti-style paintings. It was air conditioned (which is pretty much a first for me here), and the restaurant had an amazing playlist (The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, The Foo Fighters, and more… it’s like they knew I was coming). The menu looked amazing, and I was able to convince the waiter to let me build my own burger—combining a cheeseburger entrée and a nachos appetizer to create a burger with cheese, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, and jalapeños on it. It was obviously delicious. In fact, after it was brought out the manager actually came over to compliment my creativity. He told us that he was originally from Chicago so he was a major fan of street tacos. He came over several times to check up on us as we ate and, in these subsequent conversations, I found out that they actually have a Philly Cheesesteak on their “Specials” menu and that, despite never living in Philadelphia, he is actually an Eagles fan! I definitely did not expect to meet another member of the Bird Gang in Ghana, so that was an awesome surprise. Mariana and I devoured our delicious burgers: an amazingly generous birthday gift from my amazing parents. With bursting bellies, we treated ourselves to a cab back to the school (because we really did not feel like taking three different tro tros).
When we got back, it was around 8PM. The kids were so excited to see us because we had been gone all day (and because we came bearing cake). Mariana led the students in another several rounds of Happy Birthday, and I then cut and divvied up the cake between the five students and three teachers that remained at the school. The kids gingerly ate their pieces, patiently savoring every bite, and when they were done we had a “dance party.” Mariana was smart enough to have the foresight to pack portable speakers, and we danced the night away to Shakira’s “Waka Waka” (the kids love the line “’Cause this is Africa”) and Taylor Swift’s “22” (fitting, considering the day). We tired ourselves out after a few renditions and then prepared for bed. At this point, Auntie Lilly came in to wish me Happy Birthday again before she fell asleep. Though she had already gotten me a pancake the day before, she came up to me and whispered that she had tried to find me a card but sadly couldn’t; as she said this, she pressed a 5 cedi bill in my hand. I was genuinely overwhelmed by her generosity (5 cedes is approximately a half a day’s worth of her salary), and repeatedly insisted that this was too nice and she should take it back, though she maintained it was her pleasure. I fell asleep feeling so incredibly thankful and loved.