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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Search for cheeseburgers and chocolate ice-cream in Ghana!


Long before I ever entertained being a professional anything I was a traveller. Just bumming my way around the world with a camera in my hands and lots of Kodachrome film in my backpack.

My first big overseas trip was 9 months travelling through Africa from North to South. Through the kasbahs of Morocco, the sands of the Sahara, the jungles of the Congo and the game parks of East and Southern Africa.

And a little black book. Full of messy writing readable only by yours truly but full of details and memories of what a wonderful time I had. An invaluable piece of (and I use the term very loosely) literature that later helped me to recognise what photos were, and remind me what life was like pre-marriage, children, mortgage and responsibility! :)

I thought I might share an adventure from that little black book. An adventure that happened in the country where this photo was taken - the West African nation of Ghana. It doesn't involve any photography or mind-blowing feats of daring - just a great night out in a far off part of the world.

My diary tells me that it was the night of April 12th 1994 in the capital city of Accra. A couple of friends and I were feeling really hungry so we wandered down to a hamburger place recommended by some local friends we'd met while staying at the 'Hotel California'. We entered a darkened little restaurant to find it absolutely deserted but figured it was just a little early. The waitress brought over our menus and they were fantastic. After weeks of local food bought in rural markets and prepared ourselves we were ready for some home -grown fare and they had burgers, lasagna, tacos. You name it, they had it. So we all ordered cheeseburgers and fries all round and the waitress cheerfully took our order.

Only after about five minutes she came back to tell us that she didn't have any bread or meat. And out of everything on the menu all she had was chicken and rice or chicken and chips! The night was still young so we headed out into it to try our luck elsewhere. And our adventures began.

We hopped into a local taxi, which already had a customer in there who just about died when 3 foreigners jumped in! The driver dropped off the local guy in the middle of nowhere in the pitch dark and we asked the driver for some eating recommendations. The conversation went a little like this. "Do you know Variety Chop Bar?" (a place I'd been to before). "Yes", assured our driver. "Can we go there?" To which our driver replied, "Yes, it sounds very good. Where is it?" So we told him to take us to a good chop bar. I kid you not this bloke drove for nearly half an hour through all these pitch black streets to God knows where. Every 5 minutes we would lean forward and ask him how far it was and the guy would say "Not very far, Is very, very good!" Well with that sort of a recommendation what can you do?

We were just pissing ourselves laughting and we finally ended up outside a place called Papaye - a McDonalds look-a-like apparently created by Woody Allen. We walked in and the place was so bright in the surrounding darkness, all red and yellow. Even the staff were in these horrible red and yellow uniforms! They had the first electric mozzie zapper I'd seen, although by the number of mozzies I saw it wasn't working too well.

We picked up our menus and a sat down in a plastic booth and a waiter came over to take our order - at last cheeseburgers and chips (fries) all round. Now the kitchen was totally open and the women cooks were standing only about two feet behind our helpful waiter but he got on his microphone and yelled the order into it, even though we could have whispered our order to the cooks and they would have heard us.

And the speaker was so muffled they couldn't understand a thing he was saying so in the end he wrote it down on a piece of paper and handed it to the very bemused looking cooks - obviously this happened a lot. We thought it was great. Our meal arrived pronto minus about half our chips because as they passed it from the kitchen to the restaurant it had to go through a curtain which knocked half the food off the plate. :) But it was yummy and a welcome change from beans and rice.

Now our search was on for some ice-cream. It started off at the Maharaja Restaurant down the road. The door was opened for us by a dwarf - the first one I'd seen in Africa - with a giant gold hat taller than he was, with white trim and a fantastic uniform. Nothing unusual there but it definitely helped the ambience of an interesting night. We sat down and the maitre d' brought us the menus, while the other ex-pats in the pink and white decorated restaurant looked at us very strangely. (Looking back on it this is probably because we were all dressed like your typical backpackers) We looked at the menu to find only coconut ice-cream. Dilemma. Do we settle for this or press on to find chocolate. Off we went.

Next it was on to Dolly's Hamburger Bar where the guy on the door assured us that they had chocolate ice-cream. Yeeha. Our joy, however, was short lived when we asked the guy inside and he opened a waist-high freezer chest to show us tonnes of vanilla ice-cream! As we walked out the door who should walk in but three more dwarfs. I was beginning to feel like I was in an episode of Twin Peaks.

Over the road we went to the Golden Lily Chinese Restaurant. We climbed up the stairs to find three closed wooden doors, one in front, one to the right and one even further to the right. It was like a labyrinth game. Which one led where? I managed to choose the right door (the middle one!) and into a fancy looking restaurant we went. We'd learnt our lesson and didn't bother sitting down - just went right up to the head waiter and asked if he had ice-cream. "Yes" "What flavours?" "Strawberry and Vanilla" By this time it was a matter of principle and we moved on.

After another couple of restaurants we were finally saved by a supermarket selling everything from Mars Bar ice-creams to Diggable Planet CD's (might have to Google that one!). So after two glorious chocolate ice-creams each, a memorable burger meal with Woody Allen, more dwarfs than I usually meet in a month and a very long and funny taxi ride we'd turned a dinner into an adventure.

Looking back on this little adventure that happened more than fifteen years ago in a country so different from my own I am reminded of how wonderful travel can be. How it can open your eyes to a different way of living. Of how you can make an adventure of the simplest of tasks. And how writing these things down is one of the most important things you can do. Next time you head out and panic about forgetting a spare battery or CF card don't forget a little black book and lots of pens so you can write down and later read all about your wonderful time away.