Thursday, 31 January 2008

The Taxi Drivers

Being flexible is a wonderful thing. We arrived at the Miklin Hotel on Wednesday night after the Egypt v Zambia match to discover that we'd been assigned rooms in another hotel.

The receptionist explained that the rooms that had been reserved for us had developed terrible faults which hadn't been rectified during the day.

I wondered if the difficulties had anything to do with the Senegal football team and attendant delegates staying in the hotel and thus needing rooms which had been allocated to someone else.

Pierre sat down in the foyer and refused to go to another place. I felt it best to leave him there. I'd only anglicise his gallic strop and it would lose its potency.

I said I was going up to the studio to start working and told one of the in situ RFI people that I was more than happy to stay in the studio for a couple of nights.

The studio has a double bed and internet. I'm availing myself of the internet right now. And I intend to snuggle down as soon as I finish this.

Last night it meant that I could harvest a modicum of normality by listening to the BBC World Service through the night. Only thing was that I was too tired to take much in and there was no 23-month-old boy to wake me up for world news bulletins. I miss my little cuties.

I woke up and did some more work before asking Foster to take me to the airport so I could buy a ticket for Monday's Accra-Kumasi trip.

It was quite a long way from the hotel and the traffic seems immense. At jams like this I notice bad driving.

And I'm particularly impressed by the taxis which have scripture passages on the back window.

Unfortunately the more fervent the message, the worse the driving. The chap with: "Jesus is Lord" nipped hastily into a space and the car which undertook on a sandy bank to get ahead sported: "God Lives".

The subtext being, the way I'm thrashing this motor about you'll find out for yourself fairly soon.

I'm not too chuffed about meeting my maker due to a traffic accident in Kumasi. And in truth it's unlikely as there are so many vehicles around it's a virtual standstill.

Not helped by traffic lights being out on the approach to the stadium.

I would have thought that with a match at a soccer tournament, you'd have got a few traffic cops to sort the thing out.

No that's obvious. A few people from the Ghana Tourist Board dropped by at the hotel in Accra last Saturday and asked about my impressions of the place.

I was positive about my experiences outside the Africa Cup of Nations but the structural issues of the event leave a lot to be desired.

I've seen loads of matches. In this afternoon's one Senegal and South Africa played out a 1-1 draw here in Kumasi.

In Germany during the World Cup, coaches were laid on from the station to the stadium. There's nothing quite like that here.

In Germany I relied on taxis to take me around.

Thank God that's not the case here.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

The Living God

I was sitting on the steps outside the RFI studio at the hotel in Accra and a man came up to me.

He introduced himself and asked me for my name which I duly gave him. He then inquired about my profession. And again I obliged.

He told me he had been in touch with RFI a host of times to ask them to pay for his flight to France so he could spread the message about him being the Living God. And as I seemed to be connected with RFI, maybe I could help out.

Still feeling quite tender from a bubbly tummy, I said wanly that I was on the verge of a six hour drive to Kumasi so I wouldn’t be able to help out until at least Friday afternoon at the earliest.

As it was, we left 90 minutes later than planned for Kumasi, Pierre spent the time doing something. Ninety mintues? He didn’t say what he was doing and I did not ask.

I mean why not just say 10.30?

But the upshot was that we still had to be in Kumasi for a 5pm kick off and the road is very slow.

Pierre has got a cold – quite a feat with the searing temperatures that we’re in - so it meant the air conditioning couldn’t be on in the car. No problem for me, I’m a windows open kind of guy.

But he was an impatient passenger and felt that the route to Kumasi should be done by going along the coast to Cape Coast and then up from there.

Personally I think it is going to take a lot longer than the five hours we spent today but we will try this route out on Friday when we return to Accra.

And since we don’t have to be back in Accra for any particular reason it is bound to take longer. For example we plan to stop for lunch.

So it was a stressful ride because the driver, Foster, is not a speed merchant and the man who made us late was trying to get him to drive faster.

It all added up to a worried Paul in the back as Foster was egged on to overtake where he really didn’t want to overtake.

Ultimately I implored Foster to take it easy. And since I wasn’t the one who had held us up for 90 minutes I would have risked a frisson in the car by pursuing that line.

The stadium for the Egypt v Zambia match wasn’t packed at all. Strangely the noisiest supporters were positioned right in front of the commentary boxes, so I guess all the listeners to the broadcasts would have thought the stadium was full.

Oh the deceptive joys of radio. TV couldn’t get away with such subterfuge. The cacophony didn’t bother me as I wasn’t commentating – just watching and waiting for the mixed zone.

What impressed me the most was the way the rowdy bunch stopped making any noise when it was time for the national anthems. They stood in silence as the Zambian one was played and sang their hearts out when it was the turn for the Egyptian tune.

They then returned to their joyous uproar. Seeing that perked me up. Nirvana was attained as both teams came through the mixed zone. The Egyptian player who speaks good English, Mohamed Zidan, didn’t stop but enough of the Zambians did.

The Zambia skipper, Chris Katonga, had been answering questions for a few minutes when a burly policeman took it upon hiself to start hustling him though the mixed zone.

It was starting to look like harassment with Katonga analysing the state of Zambian football while being brusquely moved along by the long arm of the law.

Ultimately a very tall South African reporter told the copper to stop it because if a player wants to talk then he should be allowed to chat – especially a captain who scored a cracker of a goal to equalise.

The overzealous officer still hovered over Katonga. Finally the South African journalist said while pointing at a man with quite a few stripes: “If you don’t stop it we’ll tell your general what you’re doing and he’ll transfer you to Tamale.”

The policeman arrested his behaviour.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

The Towel

Only remembered to book my flight to Kumasi as the car wended its way to the Ohene djan stadium. Do I not like flying that much?

It's been hotter than usual today so maybe my brain was a bit more shrivelled than usual.

Watched Cote D'Ivoire dismantle a vapid Mali side. They looked so incapable against the Elephants.

And so it was 3-0. I thought after the match that the Ivorians are starting to ooze the sheen of champions. They simply beat the opponent. It's good to watch.

What wasn't good to observe was some of the so called journalists in the mixed zone;

Ever grateful to the players who stop and speak, the zones also double up as a place where mates greet and embrace and talk loudly over your interview. Best is the one where someone is so eager to ask a question they cut off the player's response.

Tonight a barechested Didier Drogba strolled through stopping to answer questions as his awesomely honed Ivorian trunk glistened under the lights.

He performed his functions with the French speaking journalists and just as he started to speak to the Anglophone pack, there was a surge and someone tried to take his towel.

Whether it was homoerotic adoration or not it was plain stupid and Didier trunk turned away in disgust. The fined muscled shoulders and the stitched abdomen barked: "I'm not a man for turning."

And so he left.

I'm not surprised the players are avoiding the mixed zone if that kind of thing happens. I never saw anything like that in Germany.

But things were organised there.

Monday, 28 January 2008

The Class Players

Ghana got through to the quarter finals. The crowd was happy. The football was good and I am back in Accra. At the Ohene Djan stadium, the mixed zone not only exists but also works.

The Ghanaian players came through and though some did not speak, a few did. The Moroccans who speak English, Abdeslam Ouaddou and Youssef Hadji, will always get my good wishes. I'm their new biggest fan. They stopped and spoke even though they'd lost. Class. Pure class. I'm starting to forget errant South Africans.

The Scrap

Regular readers will know that i'm not Mr Jet. But after having done five and a half hours on the Kumasi-Accra main road, even the usual horror of speeding along a cushion of clouds at 31,000 feet, becomes welcome.

The Antrak flight from Accra to Tamale is only 45 minutes or so and therefore not enough time for even someone like me to froth up to a frenzy.

While Philippe, my French colleague, was preparing for his match commentaries on Sunday morning, I got talking to Mark Bright, former ace footballer and now a BBC commentator.

I was looking at BBC World which was blaring out in the concourse lounge and it showed a feature on how some chap had filched billions from Société Générale.

Bright said the bank had closed in one country - he couldn't remember which - but he'd heard about it as one footballer had investments in it there.

Société Générale has my morcels in it and the accounts of my little sweeties back home.

I really couldn't get stirred up about it given my pre-flight disposition. I didn't think I'd be around to complain about the plundering.

Clearly I survived.

Though in retrospect oblivion would have been a more appealing place after the Tamale experience.

The matches themselves were excellent. Eight goals in total as Angola came back against Senegal to win 3-1 and Tunisia outclassed South Africa by the same score.

What happened afterwards in the mixed zone continues to baffle me. The zone is supposed to be a place where players can respond to quick questions from radio and TV reporters.

They're not obliged to stop and talk but as I understood it from my time at the World Cup in Germany in 2006, they are supposed to at least walk along the mixed zone channels to their team buses.

This was all implemented to avoid possible feeding frenzies around the dressing rooms or as the players headed for the buses.

The protocol has broken down in Ghana and reached its nadir when South Africa's players - the very same bunch who'll be hosting the World Cup in two years - avoided the zone altogether.

I tried to find the media liaison officer but he or she had left the stadium - probably with the fugitive South Africans.

A team no-show has happened now in Sekondi, Kumasi and Tamale.

Even I was looking forward to this morning's flight back to Accra.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

The Journey

I simply have to realise that I am not good as a passenger.

Planes I can just about deal with. But being driven is not good for my nerves. And here on this trip I am being driven around a lot.

The trip organiser feels this is the right thing to do. And he's right.

We set off from Kumasi and the 250 odd kilometres took something like five and a half hours.

The problems were speed bumps to prevent people zooming through villages. A natural precaution you would say but this is the main Kumasi to Accra road. The major artery has speed bumps.

Then there was the bit where the road was actually nothing more than stones and gravel.

Do I not like that as one hapless England football manager once said.

What I do like is the spirit of commerce. Because the traffic often comes to a grinding halt due to police checks and the occasional toll, there are hordes of women selling fruits and other goodies far too exotic for my weak constitution.

On the way to Sekondi on Tuesday we were at such a toll booth and we bought some bananas. They were very good and served as lunch as we just about arrived well in advance for the Nigeria versus Cote D'Ivoire showdown at 5pm.

The mistake was not buying food outside the stadium because inside it was just a desert.

Which more or less described the place where we stayed that evening in Takoradi. But I was a trooper and I adapted to such an extent that I was in Captain Hook's restaurant eating barracuda.

I'll have to review my diary for the trip to Kumasi from Takoradi. I recall seeing small children walking along the side of the road as cars roared past.

The Kumasi Accra trek is giving me nightmares.

And I haven't even gone to sleep.

Friday, 18 January 2008

The Farewell

I hadn’t been on a plane since the return from Boston with the children back in October. Ooh memories of the horror.

It was thus a feeling of carefree abandon that swept through Charles de Gaulle Terminal 2F.

I specify 2F because if you miss it, there’s a seemingly eternal runway which prevents you from getting back there.

We didn’t overshoot because the taxi driver knew what he was doing.

The trip started sadly. I said goodbye to just awaken daughters who clasped me as if there were no tomorrow.

These are entirely my sentiments any time I got near an aircraft. But I had to appear brave.

Even the boy added his dramatic tuppence worth – coming to the door and standing on his tiptoes - to proffer a pucker.

My sweeties.

All three offspring pressed their noses against the kitchen window to wave me farewell as I traversed the courtyard to the front door onto the street.

The taxi was waiting outside and Jean – whom I hailed en route to the World Cup in Germany in 2006 – was there to help me with my cases.

Thirty-five minutes later we were at the airport. I phoned home to say I was there. The girls were impressed. Usually the trip to CDG is an obstacle course of incompetent taxi firms and RER trains.

The flight to Amsterdam took off late but it arrived in ample time for an hour long wait in a queue to board the flight to Accra.

It too departed late - an hour late. When we landed, the stewardess announced over the intercom: “Welcome to Accra.”

There was a round of applause.

And the man next to me said: “Thank God.”

Ghana...... a land of mindreaders.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

The Scrape

Managed to get through the football match without any significant structural damage. But we lost 3-0. It was awful. The opponents weren't that great.

But they converted their chances.

And that's what counts. So my last game before Ghana ended in defeat. Woe. But at least I walked away from it. That was after leaving a bit of the skin from my knee on the astro turf.

Ooh that feeling of multiple loss.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

The Visa

I believe. Oh yes I believe. The trip to the Ghanaian embassy over in the 16th proved fruitful. I went there this morning and retrieved my passport duly embellished with a visa.

The chap behind the counter put on a little show for me - sifting through various other passports, putting down the box containing them and asking me if I'd been in before.

"I was here last Thursday .... Thursday morning," I replied.

Well it had to be Thursday morning really since the place closes at noon.

He lowered his eyes and continued his search. I watched him survey a few crumpled ones.

"Mine's quite a new one," I offered.

That really didn't speed things up but he found it, handed it over and urged me to check that all was in order.

As I've never had a visa from the Ghana embassy I had no idea. But there was a page in the document with an official stamp.

And I guess that's good enough.

The other bonus was bumping into a chap who's also going to be covering the African Nations Cup.

We had a coffee after he'd deposited his passport. Joachim told me he went to the embassy last week and discovered that his passport would expire within six months and therefore he wasn't allowed to travel.

He was able to get a quickie passport. And why not since you can get quickie divorces and within three days he was back.

I don't think Joachim was given a receipt. But he's been to Ghana three times already.

Feeling flushed that I have my travel documents I went to the department at the radio station dealing with expenses to hand over the receipt.

I apologised for the delay and explained why I hadn't handed it in earlier.

"Everyone else got a receipt Paul," said the assistant. "I think they were having you on at the embassy."

Just as well Thursday night is yoga night.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

The Call

I’ve been thinking about the film Running Scared as I prepare for the flight next week.

In it two cops from Chicago try to bring down a drugs baron before they quit and open up a bar in Florida.

They get so consumed by the future and the easier life they envisage that they can’t operate effectively as policemen. They stop doing the things they would instinctively do.

I’m so close to an important moment that I’m not functioning properly. I played tennis yesterday but thought I wouldn’t go for my shots in the normal way just in case I ended up in traction.

The fact that the court was a bit slippery may have helped me rein in my all action tendencies.

I said to my tennis partner at the end of our hour that I didn’t want to do myself a mischief.

I don’t want to do that at the best of times let alone nine days before flying to Accra.

Quite why I’ve signed up for football on Saturday beats me. Perhaps it’s because I’d like to contribute something before leaving for a month.

But if all I produce is an injury to myself then I’m going to feel a real chump.

There would be a gruesome irony about not being able to go and cover a football tournament in Africa because of an injury from football sustained on pitch in eastern Paris.

Or would that be delicious congruence?

I’m starting to make headway in the guidebook. The hotel where I’m staying in Accra is in the book and it receives a fair review.

As I plan to spend a week of downtime after the tournament finishes on February 10, I thought it wise to call up and reserve a room for February 16 as I fly back to Europe on the 17th.

But the number on the list provided by the trip co-ordinator didn’t actually work. Fortunately a number was in the guidebook.

I called and duly reserved a room. So at least the night before take-off is sorted.

I rang the number again today and it is in fact someone’s mobile. The chap said he was connected with the hotel.

I feel reassured. If the number from the list had been wrong I would have started to doubt the accuracy of everything else.

By which time I would have been sprinting scared.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

The Mind Meld

There's obviously something about me at the moment that is inviting people to test my faith in humanity.

After the incident at the Ghanaian embassy in which I was told to leave my passport without any proof that I'd handed it over, the exact same thing happened to me when I took my bike in for a repair on Friday night.

It had a puncture and needed a general spruce up to see it through the winter months. I said what was needed and the man said I could pick it up on Saturday.

I asked for a receipt and the man said it wasn't necessary.

The bike is now back with me and in the bike house downstairs. So if it can work for the bike it must be able to work for the passport.

Well that's the theory. Or as Mr Spock says in the Star Trek episode now running on the video ... "a radical alteration of our thought patterns must be in order.."

This is the one where they are dropped into the OK Corral and they all have to become convinced that they can survive the dream sequence that has been created for them by some fantastically powerful alien race.

Captain Kirk says Spock needs to perform the Vulcan mind meld on him, Scotty and Dr McCoy so they can elude the impending carnage.

While I don't expect a barrage of bullets during my stay in Ghana, an alteration of thought patterns does seem to be in order.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

The Faith

While waiting for the Argentina thing to take shape, I’ve got the chance to go to Ghana to cover the African Nations Cup for the radio station.

I leave in just over two weeks. To get there I have to fly. My dislike of flying is submerged by the excitement about going to Africa for the first time.

I haven’t got enough time to go native and learn the linguistic inflections of rural folk.

And that makes me sad.

But I do have enough time to read the Bradt guide to Ghana as compiled by Philip Briggs.

Leafing through the guide maintains my sense of anticipation at Yellow fever pitch and makes the five jabs so far seem a mere bagatelle.

It was also steeling my resolve for the interaction with the Ghanaian embassy.

I wasn’t in the habit of leaving my passport anywhere other than under the floorboard behind the third cabinet on the right in the larder.

But I’ve had to deposit it at the visa section of the embassy. I paid 50 euros too and when I asked for some kind of receipt the visa chaps told me: “Just come back next week.”


Feeling all sceptical and uptight, I looked quizzically as I started to leave the room.

I turned to go back to the counter and insist on some kind of proof but a Ghanaian journalist who was helping someone with a visa said: “No this is how it works here.”

And placing his hand on his heart, added: “This is the African spirit….”

Trying to subvert the ethos could be construed as racist. And besides if the visa boys are running some kind passport selling scam, then they’re going to flog mine irrespective of whether I have a receipt or not.

So I’ve taken a leap of faith. And next Thursday will be the shining apotheosis of this stance.

I’ll either be revealed as hopelessly jejune or unfurled as a culturally savvy smoothie.

In preparation I’ve been back to my yoga class.

How many times until next week can I press thumb and forefinger together and exhale: “Om?”

Or should that be: “Um?”

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

The Emptiness

I know I’ve been getting all existential of late. But the emptiness is meant to describe the roads in Paris. They were fantastically clear today. Perhaps all the revelry on New Year’s Eve left everyone a bit too groggy.

But the main hazard was the tourists who appear to be unaware of cycle lane etiquette.

I thought the sign for a cycle path was a universal motif. But the amount of people clogging up the way makes me wonder if the sign is different in Italy or Japan.

I particularly like those who decide to take pictures of the Eiffel Tower on the path. That I can understand especially when it starts to glitter and gleam in the evening on the hour mark.

As for the ones who try to get a panoramic snap of the memorial over the road where Diana and Dodi died in 1997, they seem to be oblivious to the cyclists and actually rather keen to join the princess and her chum.

But this is still the season of good will to all men. And that I guess includes tourists on the cycle paths.