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Luton by bus or Accra by ‘Trotro’?

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I know this may be a weird title but as you read on, I’m sure you would come to appreciate why I chose to give such a heading to cap my recent experience in the UK.  I could have given it a heading to reflect how cold the weather was but that would be rather predictable, and by now I am certain that readers know I am anything but predictable. If waking up one day in sunny Accra to decide to go to the cold winters of UK the following morning with no adequate preparations isn’t impulsive, then nothing is!

My first Virgin experience!

Ever since meeting Olympic medalist and Chairman of the Laureus Sports, Edwin Moses some years back, I have developed an interest in the Laureus World Sports Awards and nurtured a desire to cover the awards. But in spite of getting accreditation to cover the last two editions, I was never able to do so. When I decided within a short period to cover this year’s awards in London, Virgin Atlantic became the airline of choice as a result of a growing relationship with the airline in Ghana.

After writing severally about the various services that Virgin Atlantic offers both in the upper class and economy class, I was dying to experience it for myself and I must say I wasn’t disappointed. Onboard my Friday morning flight to Heathrow I knew my first experience with Virgin was going be good once I received my menu from the cabin crew. This was the first time any airline had offered me a menu to choose from in an economy class. Also, I was in premium economy class which means I had some much needed extra leg-room for my very long legs.  Back to food: for starters, I had the Welcome Cocktail, a tasty fusion of fruit juices served with or without vodka (hmm I went vodka just to calm my nerves). I stayed away from the beers, wines and spirits though. Then came the garden salad with shaved Parmesan cheese; needless to say, my palate was now ready for anything!

For my choice of a main meal with fresh bread, I opted for chicken thigh escalope with tomato stew, jollof rice and sautéed spinach and carrot. I enjoyed my meal I couldn’t help but wonder how the roasted chicken thigh served with barbeque sauce, potatoes and vegetable salona, or the beef massaman curry with white rice and mixed vegetables would have tasted. Yes call me Oliver Twist, I wanted them all.  Although the serving portions were small for a 6.4 ft African like me, together they filled my 6-pack belly just fine.  After a pause for the chicken thigh and jollof rice to digest, it was time for something sweet, vanilla mousse with sponge cake and strawberry.

With a delighted tummy, it was now time for some entertainment and virgin media/ entertainment gave me a wide array of some of the latest film releases, TV programmes and music to choose from. As a sucker for comedy my first option was ‘What’s Your Number’ and surely, I had a good laugh. After one movie I listened to some Rihanna and struggled to sleep till the afternoon tea before landing arrived. Normally afternoon tea in Ghana would be strange to me but I knew I was heading for the cold in London so it sounded only natural to play along. I still don’t do coffee so I had some tea with cheese and tomato sandwich, and a chocolate cake to seal the deal.  Before landing I also received some wine gums and mints to keep the mouth fresh and to conceal all the tasty food I enjoyed.

Cold welcome to London

Once we landed, the coldness of London winter stared me right in the face but luckily I came a bit prepared with some of my old warm clothes, even including a bubble jacket. In fact, I even had my winter gloves, though I wasn’t proud wearing them. They were smelly as I had turned them into gloves for my very ‘camp’ workouts back home, in my room.

The coldness of London almost got even colder for a moment when I was detained by immigrations because my passport was expiring in a few weeks time. I had to answer several question about why I was in the UK and when I was going back. I popped my colour and boldly replied, “I am I UK for 9 days to cover the Laureus World Sports Awards”. I surely made it seem like I was an important personality but the official wasn’t still not buying my bluff. She asked me to sit down for a while and then went into the office to find out if I could stay in the UK. She came back, asked for my return ticket and I showed it to her. Needless to say, she knew I had no cause to overstay in that cold weather.

With immigration out of the way I had to find my way to Luton where I would be staying with my friend and publisher of Ghanacelebrites.com, Chris. Got myself into the Underground train service to King’s Cross and connected with another train to Luton. If you guys read ghanacelebrities.com, then by now you would probably know that Chris is a bit loony, so I was surprised that he made me wait for him in the cold at the station for some few minutes before he came to pick me up. Needless to say I was happy when he showed up, and I quickly rushed into the warm car and headed to his apartment.  Although I was very tired I couldn’t sleep immediately as we chatted about our favourite and not so favourite Ghanaian celebrities. We ordered some pizza and drinks – a true welcome to ‘Aburokyire’.

I had an even colder welcome to the UK the following morning when I woke up to see that it was snowing as forecasted the previous day. But there was an eventful moment coming up soon that would make some people on the internet very happy. As Chris got ready to leave for work I was making a video of the level of snow in the car park and I thought it would even be better footage to capture Chris shoveling into snow to pave way for him to move his car. Unfortunately for Chris and a fortunate Kodak moment for me, he slipped on the ice and needless to say, the video because the first image I shared online. I uploaded the video unto YouTube and with the amazing internet speed it felt effortless – hmm how I wished my internet was that good back home!

Time to look crisp for Laureus sports awards!

The weekend in Luton was full of Doner kebabs and Chinese food, and also a trip to L.U Barbers, a Ghanaian owned barbering shop so I could get a nice haircut and look normal for the Laureus Sports Awards in London on Monday.  It was nice meeting the group of Ghanaian barbers and having conversations about Ghana together, of course from different perspectives. It seemed that Woyome and his judgment debt scandal was what everyone had on his mind back then. But what I had on my mind was how I would look after a haircut from barbers that seemed to have more Caucasian and Asian clients. Thankfully, I came out looking good and ready to face the awards.

On Monday, I got on the bus and headed straight to London late afternoon to have enough time to finalize my accreditation for the awards in the evening. I got to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Uniquely situated in the shadow of Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and the London Eye, and finalized my registration. I then had some launch and went into the press centre to catch up with some work as well as interact with some of the pressmen from other parts of the world.

Soon it was time to get ready for the red carpet event of the awards ceremony. With a transparent tunnel stretching from the car park into the hall for the awards, I knew I was in for an impressive event and I wasn’t disappointed. The pen in the tunnel was segmented into zones for the various media houses from all over the world to cover the red carpet. It was amazing seeing some sporting legends such as Arsene Wenger, Rudd Gullit, Edwin van der Sar, Boris Becker, Alex Fergusson, Lennox Lewis as well as actors Thandie Newton and Clive Owen a few centimeters away from me.

As I witnessed the over 2-hour red carpet event, I wondered if I would ever experience a red carpet of that magnitude in Ghana. Everything was well coordinated; there were even special assistants to take the warm clothes off the stars the moment they arrived so they would look ready and good for the red carpet. The clothes were well labeled with the names of the owners and then sent to into the main hall, where the ceremony was holding, and then placed on the allocated seats for the various guests, while they walked the red carpet for photos and interviews.

After the red carpet, those of us who did not have accreditation into the main hall had to move to the conference centre to watch the ceremony on live screens. And after winners were announced, they were brought to the press room for interviews and photos. I enjoyed my dinner while watching the ceremony on the screens and I was particularly happy there were two awards for Africa. The winners on the night were:

Sportsman  of the year- Tennis Player Novak Djokovic

Sportswoman  of the year – Long-Distance Runner Vivian Cheruiyot (Kenya)

Best Sportsperson with a Disability – Runner Oscar Pistorius (South Africa)

Action Sportsperson of the year – Surfer Kelly Slater

Team  of the year- FC Barcelona

Comeback of the Year – Golfer Darren Clarke

Breakthrough of the Year – Golfer Rory Mcilroy

Lifetime Achievement Award – Sir Bobby Charlton

After the ceremony I stayed in London and linked up with British-Nigerian singer/composer/producer Jiff The General and ended up crashing-in at the apartment of his friend for the night. Whew!

Now time for fun and humiliations in Luton

With my main agenda for coming to the UK over and done with, I could now look forward to having some fun back in Luton, of course only as far as the weather would allow me. With Chris having his off days from work, he was available to drive me through town and I saw a bit more of Luton. We went to the Luton City Centre often to places like the mall and cineworld cinema where we watched Adam Sandler’s comedy flick, ‘Jack and Jill’.

We also went to PC World, where I met my first mortification. Pretending to be a ‘big boy’ with my visa card I thought I could shop like a superstar for the absolute necessities.  So knowing how we both needed good photos for our websites Chris and I decided to buy a Canon EOS 1000D and Sony NEX 5 on my card. After the salesman had made us a good offer on SD cards and failed in a desperate attempt to get us to also buy cases for ‘our cameras’ we proceeded to his desk to make payments.  He took my visa card, swiped it into his computer and returned it to me saying the transaction couldn’t go through. We tried again and the result wasn’t any different. The machine I didn’t say that I don’t have sufficient funds so the salesman suggested that perhaps I had exceeded my daily allowance on my card.  But I knew that couldn’t be the case since it was the first time I was using the card on my arrival to the UK. He suggested that we should try billing just one camera to see if it would go through and it returned the same result.  Now completely ashamed, I told him to hold on to ‘our cameras’ while we dashed out to call my bank in Ghana to sort out the issue.

I called the bank and found out I had a daily allowance of only 500ghc and I had to increase the ceiling at the bank before leaving Ghana. With all my shopping ideas hanging in the balance, I tried frantically to get the bank to increase the ceiling for me, to forestall any future embarrassments. I was told to hold on for a confirmation call in a few minutes. The few minutes seemed like hours as I wanted to go back to PC World to redeem my image.  Of course by now Chris was making silly jokes about how broke I am back in Ghana and I needed to put him to shame as well. As we laughed at the whole incident and in particular the way a rep from Sony snapped a photo of me buying the Sony NEX 5 for his website, I got a call from my bank saying that ceiling had been increased and it would take effect the following day.

Now evident that I couldn’t buy my camera, we decided to go back to PC World to buy Chris’ Canon camera on his card. We explained the situation to the salesman, not because we needed to but just so he wouldn’t refer to us as some broke boys from Africa once we had left. We paid for the camera and went home with some of our pride redeemed. Chris was quick to try out his camera only to reveal his lack of technological savvy. Of course, I showed him how to fix the lens and all, and he was happy to test shoot.

Getting lost on the bus and missing Accra ‘Trotro’

So now, back to why I chose such a heading for this article. With Chris being off from work and taking me round town, I had not used much public transport within Luton, and with my experience with a ‘Black Cab’ in London, any kind of taxi was not was not a choice of transportation for me anymore.  However with Chris back to work and my days in Luton drawing closer to an end, I had to do some shopping for Ghana. This meant I had to find my way to the mall. I am terrible with direction so although I had been to the mall severally, I couldn’t find my bearings there and so had to call on Chris for direction and the schedules for the bus to the city centre.

Fortunately there was a bus stop in front of the apartment so I didn’t have to walk that long in the cold to wait for the next bus.  Once on the bus I paid my fair to the city centre and thank goodness, I didn’t miss it since it’s a popular stop. I wished the story would be the same on my way back. I got off the bus and went straight into the mall to buy some items for myself, friends and family back home.  After shopping, I grabbed a quick bite from an Indian restaurant before heading back to the bus station to find a bus back to the apartment.

I got on the bus and paid for the fair to street where the apartment was located but sadly the bus made a stop on my street and passed without me noticing. I started getting worried because I knew I had to get off a few blocks from L.U Barbers and we had already gone pass it. When it became clear that I was in an unfamiliar territory I called Chris to say that ‘it appeared I was lost’. The stupid boy laughed his head off when I told him I was near the Luton Hospital. He asked me to get off at that bus stop and head back in the opposite direction so I got off the bus.

 

As I waited for minutes without any bus in sight I contemplated grabbing a taxi even if it was metered because I was getting very cold, and I was looking like a refugee with my luggage. Finally a bus showed up.  I told the bus conductor the name of my street and pointed it out to him to alert me when we got there because I had already missed my stopped. As it turned out, it was the same bus that was making a return journey and so the driver could make me out. He told me not to worry and true to his word he took me to my stop this time around.

When I got home I quickly dashed into the bathroom for a warm shower. As I bathed, I said to myself that this would never happen in a ‘trotro’ back home in Accra.  In Accra, at every bus stop, the ‘ trotro mate’ (bus conductor) would scream out the name of the location to make sure if anyone would get off the bus.  Even in London, the buses make an announcement before the next stop and at each bus stop so why was it different in Luton? Yes, I guess I’m looking for an excuse for my daftness. In fact to show that I am not daft, I went to the mall the following day for more shopping and made my way home this time around.

Bye Bye Luton, hello Homerton!

If you are wondering why I had to go shopping in Luton when I knew I was going to stay in London for a few days before heading back to Accra, the answer is simple; I enjoy convenience and Chris had offered to drive me to London from Luton. So I didn’t have to think about carrying my heavy bags onto a train to London.

We grabbed some chicken and chips with some drinks for our joyride and keyed in the Homerton address of my friend, Ohene Darko into the TomTom Navigator and off we went to London.  After a few wrong turns we located Ohene’s apartment.  Ohene, a gospel musician that I did some publicity for a while back, assisted me to carry my bags inside after Chris had left. As it was my first time meeting Ohene, we spent some time catching up on Ghana and his music before I went to bed.

The following morning, I set off to Brixton to meet a family for some stuff to take back home to my uncle – typically African!  When I got back I ate some food and had some rest because I wanted to go to Dalston Street Market with Ohene later in the day.  When I woke up, I freshened up and got on the train with Ohene to go check out the popular Dalston Market and also to meet with another friend to collect more stuff for family back in Ghana.

At Dalston Market, I looked around just to check out some Ghanaian market and I was particularly excited to see Moni Matters music store, where Ghanaian music was buzzing out of the speakers and also on sale just like you would find it in Kantamanto or any music distribution outlet in Ghana.  I checked out the collection and I must say it was impressive. From the market, we went to McDonalds to grab something to eat and also wait for my friend to bring the items I was going to send to Ghana for her. After the tasty treat and the meeting I left with Ohene to see his music studio in Hackney.

At the studio, I met with Ohene’s collaborator, OT who is also a musician, producer, graphic designer and the man responsible for Ohene’s music videos including ‘Nsesa Beba’.  As Ohene worked on some songs he was producing, we talked about the music scene back home in Ghana as well as other matter. Soon I had to head the studios of Hot Digital Radio in Leyton for an interview with Teddy Abrokwa. It had been ages since I last saw Teddy, a good friend of my older brother.

While on air, we talked about Ghana’s entertainment scene, my work and more.  The Ghana Black Stars had also lost out on the third position slot in the 2012 AFCON to Mali that night so that was also a point for discussion in the studios. I certainly had fun and after the show, the producer, Daniel Swizzlebeats Cobbina drove me back to Ohene’s apartment. Surely my last night in UK had been eventful.

Time to go back home

So soon it was time to head back to Ghana and I packed all my stuff ahead of my evening flight.  It had been a cold short stay and I couldn’t meet as many of the people I wanted to meet, nonetheless I had enjoyed it. I seemed ready to go back home but I still didn’t have my camera following the shameful incident at the Luton PC World. I was determined to get a camera before going home so Ohene suggested that we go and check out the newly built Westfield Stratford shopping centre to see if I would get my camera.

We got on the train to Stratford and it was interesting to note that Ohene had not yet been to Stratford in spite of living just a few minutes away for so long.  So our visit to Stratford was as much of an excursion for me as it was for him. From the little information I gathered, the Startford Mall was build for the 2012 Olympic Games and so I wasn’t too shocked at the beauty and magnificence of the edifice, because I know London wants to make a grand statement with the Olympics and I hope that statement would be reflected also in the tally of medals.

Surprisingly, one of the first shops I saw was Black by PC World and I wasted no time to go in to search for my Sony NEX 5. Sadly, although the camera was on display it was out of stock in the shop and the only way I could get it was to order it from another branch and pick up the following day. However since I was leaving for Ghana in a few hours it wasn’t going to be possible.  So I had to go for my second option of a Canon EOS 1100D. This time there was a rep from Canon in the shop who snapped a photo of me with my new camera for their website. By the way I haven’t seen the photo yet so if you come by the photo on any Canon website send me the link.

With my camera issue now sorted, I went through the mall for some window shopping before heading back to Homerton to get ready for the airport. Had my last warm shower in the cold and dressed up to brace the cold from Homerton to Heathrow. Ohene whipped up his special vegetable salad with some French bread for us to eat before we left for the train station. Ohene helped out with my luggage till the final change in circuit to Heathrow Airport.  I immediately proceeded to check in when I arrived at the airport and made my way to the boarding gate once check-in was complete.

As I sat waiting for the boarding call I was just anticipating what my return affair with Virgin Atlantic was going to be like.  Well, I found out it wasn’t any less of an experience than my flight to the UK was. As usual I started with some cocktail and this time, I thought to make travelling at night and arriving in the morning less stressful I could do some gin and juice. Then I started the meal with Tomato and Cucumber with seasonal salad leaves, and packed it with Cape Malay Chicken curry with sweet potatoes and rice. Also on the menu was Braised beef cobbler with mashed and green beans; and African sweet chicken curry with mixed rice.   For dessert, I had Gu Chocolate and orange mousse served with tea.

My entertainment came complete with the humorous Jonny English Reborn and The Adventures of Tintin, both movies I was waiting to see at some point. I tried to sleep a bit but as usual with little luck. How at all do people manage to sleep in an airplane? Before landing, breakfast came in the form of fresh fruits, cinnamon Danish pastry, yoghurt drink and tea.

When we landed I felt the sharp change in weather almost immediately and as I went through the immigration I started sweating. Clearly I was back home in Ghana, home sweet home. Nothing said welcome back home like going through customs, feeling like you owed them a favour instead of going through standard checks. Any way I was back home and that was all that mattered.

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