Category Archives: travel

From rice weevils to Miffy in Utrecht, in 24 hours

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Yesterday I was tidying the flat in Accra, taking out rubbish, packing bags for a work trip, while wondering what in earth the ants had gotten into this time. They show up now and then in the kitchen: after five weeks of truce, they were very excited about something invisible under the dish rack. I checked some storage boxes, just in case, and there were black specks crawling also there, in the rice. Arrrghhhh….  Rice weevils. Not great, but not a health hazard, so I sorted through 3 litres of rice by hand, and the rice is now in the freezer to kill the rest (and remaining eggs), reminding myself that insect protein is an upcoming protein source. Then I headed to Kotoka International Airport for the overnight KLM flight to Amsterdam. The new terminal there is not open yet, but it looks quite fancy, we are curious about that.

After a sleepless night of flying (Black Panther, Lady Bird and more due to seatmate whose elbows were on the invasive side – great films though) I caught the train to Utrecht (9.80 euro, 30 minutes) and was fortunate enough to get a hotel room even at 830AM. It was 11C this morning, and I was so cold. No problem, I thought: “I’ll go look at central Utrecht, get breakfast, and buy trousers! This is Europe, it will be easy! Then I’ll get some sleep.”  But no, most Utrecht shops open at noon on Sundays, so I ambled around until noon looking at Oudegracht  (central canal), the DomTor (tower), the very empty streets, and the plethora of bicycles parked everywhere. It is a pretty place.

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I had a nice cappuccino, was shocked over how many Pokestops Utrecht has (many parts of Accra are Pokedeserts),  then finally found some trousers AND a Birkenstock shop with summer sales. My goodness, after having various sandals go moldy from Accra humidity and after taping my last Birkenstocks with duct tape to get a few more months use out of them: it was like Christmas. Now I have a backup, if the sadly fraying sandals I packed for the meeting tomorrow break beyond repair.

Yes, it was a bit surreal  to see all the shops in Utrecht.  By lunchtime the streets were buzzing with people, lots of outdoor restaurants.  You might also bump into this:

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Miffy! You might not be familiar with the Dutch rabbit Miffy, but the author and artist Dick Bruno was from Utrecht. I was a child in Holland in the last 1970s, so Miffy is very familiar. Here Miffy is again: img_20180624_1108381

Now it is time to sort meeting files and check email before dinner with meeting organizers. Normally there is very little time to see local sights on work trips, so a Sunday morning peek at Utrecht was a treat.

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Two days in Cairo, no sightseeing: but kaviar!

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What a week…… After a bout of presumptive malaria and feeling like death warmed over, rapid treatment with Coartem did the trick. I recovered, and was cleared to travel a few days later – which was good, as I had a work trip to Cairo coming up. Still exhausted, though, so no sightseeing whatsoever. Just work, and back to the hotel to rest. Such a pity! Cairo is huge, and there is so much to see. Population of 9.5 million, massive concrete flyovers and neon billboards, many political as elections happen soon. Dense traffic, towering buildings with satellite dishes and A/C units with extensive external wiring. Friends in Accra recommended sunrise trips to see the pyramids, dinner Cruises on the Nile, museums…. Next time.

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The exciting hotel room view. The pyramids were only 30 minutes drive away, but they close at 4 PM (so I was told). Maybe I’ll need to plan a holiday later this year? We have friends in Alexandria, which is supposed to be lovely. Oh well, another time.

The second day, I got back to the hotel before dark, so I wandered off to look at the neighbourhood (Dokki) and to see if I could find fresh hummus. They had wonderful hummus in Cairo. I did find a excellent supermarket (Seoudi), but the deli counter was absolutely mobbed, it did look delicious. Asking for hummus in the shop got me dried chickpeas; despite trying to explain dried chickpeas + tahini and miming spreading and eating, no luck. The staff were super nice though, and I really need to learn a bit more Arabic. Shukran!

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But look what I found! Norwegian kaviar! I was SO excited!!! I hoard this when traveling from Norway, and try to streeeeeetch each tube out so until the next trip home.  It is smoked cod roe paste for sandwiches, not the fancy Russian kind, but delicious.

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Who does not love a foreign supermarket? I had emptied out workshop papers, so my suitcase was stuffed instead with rather random groceries going back to Accra —  blocks of feta, cream cheese, oatmeal, excellent crackers, mystery cake mixes, cereal, Fairy liquid, honey, and the precious kaviar  — all this for about 23 USD.  Cheese for everyone! My flatmates were happy.

Next trip to Cairo will be more cultural, I swear. People were really nice, and I definitely want to go back.

That which shall not be named

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This was a recent success/disaster of sorts: a UK food magazine recipe for “Chicken, greens and coconut quinoa salad”. I made it with chickpeas, quinoa, cucumber and the coconut-lemon dressing, and it was absolutely delicious. However, I used local raw spinach, and suffered the consequences for days…… I’d had spinach a few days before, and was really pleased to get some fresh greens. But no, wrong choice. Even after washing the spinach in iodine solution, rinsing it in clean water, and patting the leaves dry,  something lingered that had me ill and sprinting to the toilet for days. Not great, when your office sometimes has an unreliable water supply and you cannot just go home.

“Everyone loses weight in Africa!” said a doctor to me, cheerfully, before I moved to Accra. I am not a thin person, and she wanted me to lose some kilos, which I promptly did on arrival. “You look great!” said colleagues on my first trip back,  as I was slightly tanned and eight kilos thinner. Well, I said drily, “…..that is what six weeks of diarrhea will do to you…..” Life improved considerably once we got an apartment and started cooking for ourselves again, and many of those kilos crept comfortably back on again. Still, random bouts of mystery stomach bugs still strike: hand sanitizers only get you so far.

On holidays in Crete once three of us got food poisoning right before our flight back. Dodgy lamb kebab, we think. None of us had loperamide or anything useful, so I crawled to the closest pharmacy in the small village, and as I spoke no Greek, I had to mime something along the lines of “vomiting, cramps, diarrhea, going on plane, HELP”.  She gave me charcoal tablets and something that eventually worked (enough) and since then, I never travel without some digestive emergency medications. Generally you do want things to (ahem) run their course, not concrete your innards, but sometimes Immodium can get you functional enough to get on that next flight.

Back home I would generally not say much about suffering from toilet-related issues, maybe just admit to feeling a bit under the weather. Here, though, it is amazing how you get used to discussing digestive issues with friends.  “Is it normal, to, err……..?” newcomers will ask, timidly. “YES. Perfectly normal. What did you eat? Do you need some rehydration salts?” “Try plain rice, nothing fried. Otherwise I have some Cipro upstairs, and I know a pharmacy that will deliver to your house.” (See also Things Expat Workers Like #57: Talking about poop.)  We discuss where to eat out with the least chance of getting ill, restaurants with very nice or really terrible toilets, de-worming tablets, street food vendor hygiene and the open defecation problem in Accra. At least I have access to a clean toilet.

There are some vegetable growers here using cleaner water, and it is perfectly possible to eat vegetables here safely, if cleaned well, peeled and/or cooked. No more raw spinach for  me, though!