Tuesday, March 23, 2010

All roads lead to Kumai

I hit the road Wednesday, March 17th (HAPPY ST. PATTY'S DAY) to make my way north with the ultimate goal of reaching Mole (pronounced like guaca-mole) National Park, Ghana's largest wildlife sanctuary. I knew this was going to be a rough trip, but even having spent over two weeks learning the ropes in transcity travel in Ghana didn't prepare me for what was to come.

I left the house at 7am, and, of course, waited for a trotro out of the village. Wednesday was a market day, so there were tons of folks waiting with their wares with me. And I finally saw a grasscutter, albeit a dead one. A grasscutter, also known as a cane rat, is a rodent, sometimes weighing up to 8kg, that is popularlly eaten as bushmeat in Ghana. One lady had one in a bucket (covered in flies) that she was bringing to the market to sell. I had to politely walk away and hope that the bucket of dead rat was going to be put on the roof of the trotro and not in the cabin with us.

We made our way to Ho, and there I paid two boys 10 pesewa each to lead me through the market (mayhem) and to the main station. In Ghana, having someone navigate the market for you is a very good investment. There I boarded a trotro to Accra...a 4 hour trip. It's gotten so that 4 hours in a cramped non-airconditioned dirty minivan doesn't even phase me. I arrived in Accra around 1pm, and thought that this was good because my guide book said that there were hourly STC buses to Kumasi leaving Accra until 2pm. No such luck. No more buses.

A bit heart heavy I started to walk to the center of the city. I had really hoped that I would have made it further. This delay would cost me nearly a day of travelling. And I really don't like Accra, so the idea of having a whole day and night to spend there wasn't appealing. As it happens, though, while walking the road I came upon a lot filled with buses. This was not marked on my map nor mentioned in my guide book, apparently because it is relatively new. I asked if any of the buses happened to be going to Kumasi, and voila! I'm on my way!

The private buses here are much much nicer in everyway to the public buses (Mass Metro). The one major drawback is that they play movies, badly made African movies (Nigerian I think), at an absurb volume. EVERYTHING here is loud. EVERYTHING. The people, the radios, the horns...its infuriating. A bus driver will blast the radio even at 4am. I think there must be an innate hearing deficit country-wide. And let me also point out that every male I happen to sit next to on a bus will ultimately ask me for my phone number. Without fail, every time. I used to tell them that I didn't have a phone, but then they would ask for my email or my home address. Now I just plainly tell people I don't give out any contact information. When they ask why, I simply tell them its because EVERYONE asks for it. I've grown tired of being overly polite to people who don't deserve it.

For example, last night I got on a trotro headed for Adaklu Mountain at 3:45pm. There are 50 some odd villages around Adaklu Mountain, including Abuadi. All the villages are first named Adaklu. I live in Adaklu Abuadi. Before boarding the tro I made sure to ask the driver if it was going to Abuadi, and he said it was. I then sat in this deathtrap for an hour while the driver ran paid errands in town. He stopped to pick up lumber and building supplies to be delivered to a village in Adaklu, then went back to the station and picked up more passengers before we even got on our way to the mountain. We arrived at Adaklu Helekepe around 5:30pm and everyone gets out of the tro except me. The driver then tells me that this is the last stop. Helekepe is about an hour's hike on a dirt road through the bush (which is home to deadly snakes) to Abuadi.

This driver didn't seem to understand that to tell me that he was going to Abuadi, to drive me around for two hours, and accept my payment to only leave me an hour away from my home just before dusk was obscenely unacceptable. He then demanded more money. I told Mr. Driver, who must only be a teenager, that he was not going to get anymore money, but perhaps a punch in the fking face if he didn't get back in the truck and drive me to Abuadi. I don't think he understood a word I said, but clearly my anger, indignation and refusal to backdown translated because he got back in the truck.

He drove me within in eyesight of my village, all the while telling me that he was hungry, an orphan and needed more money or food from me in exchange for driving me. Once out of the truck I ripped into this kid and told him that I would be sure to tell the people in my village, including the chief how he treated a volunteer. I then threw the bag of bananas I was holding at him and walked away. In hindsight, I should have thrown the pineapple I had, it would have hurt more. When I got back to my house and was greeted by the kids, I literally ran up to them and bear hugged them all. Its good to be home, and back in the village.

Back to Kumasi...I arrived around 7pm, got to a hotel, barely had enough energy to bath and eat before I passed out. Awake a dawn, as usual, I set out to explore Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city and the modern capital of the Ashanti Region. Holy crap. Kumasi is ridiculous. My guide book says its perfectly, so I won't try: Today, contrary to any expectations conjured up by the epithet "Ancient Ashanti Capital," your first impression upon arriving in Kumasi is less likely to be rustic traditionalism than daunting developing world urbanity. Kumasi is one of the most hectic cities...and the mood is emphantically modern: the surging throngs of humanity and constant traffic jams that emanate in every directon from the market and lorry station feel positively overwhelming...

Kejetia Market is reputedly the largest open market in West Africa. It is estimated that over 10,000 vendors set up shop in this market everyday, with many more spilling out onto the surrounding streets. It is amazing and terrifying at the same time. I ventured into this labrinth and was certainly dazed by its busy enourmity. Every kind of product possible is found here: radios, toothpaste, fish, batik, vegetables, soap, clothing, shoes, tires, and meat. There is a buther's block that is too awful to write about. But try to imagine piles of unnamed meat from various animals on bloody newspaper, covered in flies, baking in the African sun. Then try to imagine the smell.

There are so many things here that I would like to photograph, but can't. I stick out so much, I can never be just an observer. Things seem to stop when I walk by. People sometimes just stare. Others say hello and want to talk to you, or usually sell you something. Then others yell. OBRONI! WHERE ARE YOU GOING? YOU, WHITE PERSON, COME HERE NOW! HEY, YOU, GIVE ME MONEY!

Making my way out of the market (by a small miracle I am sure) and out onto the street to get some air and sense of direction, I walked to a corner to catch my breath. A girl selling water tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to another white person standing in the street not too far away. I shook my head "no," thinking that this girl had assumed that I was with the other white person, and then realized I KNOW HER!

I had first met Maaike in Elmina. We were on the same tour of St. George's Castle. She then walked passed my dinner table on the beach in Cape Coast the next night. We had dinner together that night and travelled up to Kakum National Park the next day. We then parted ways, having exhanged contact information. Maaike is from Holland and has been volunteer teaching in a school in Burkina Faso for 5 months. She was travelling a bit in Ghana before she headed back to Burkina, and then home.

What are the chances that she and I would be standing on the same street corner in Kumasi, at the same time weeks later? It must be fate! Or is it that all roads lead to Kumasi? Kumasi, in the center of the country is a major trasportation hub. To get most anywhere north, you have to go through Kumasi.

Needless to say, I was very happy to see Maaike's smiling face. She and I, along with a friend that she picked up on Kokrobite took on Kumasi together that day and night. We hit the market, again, Manhyia's Palace which was built in 1926 following the return from exile of Prempreh I, Kumasi Fort built by the British in 1897 and is arguably the oldest building in the city and now home to the Armed Forces Museum, and the National Cultural Center with a craft market with goods made onsite. Kumasi is also home to a very large bat colony...like, thousands. The hungry bats flock over the city sky at dusk. Its really a sight to be seen, and heard!

The three of us travel to the bus station at 4am to catch the early Mass Metro bus out of Kumasi north to Tamale. This 7 hour leg of the trip is really quite awful to recall. To me, the Mass Metro buses are like giant trotros. They are old, delapidated city buses filled to capacity with people and their luggage. The conductors pack the aisles and exits with bags and boxes. It is law suit central! Of course, a giant man sat next to me, and on 3/4 of my seat. And yes, he asked me for my phone number, several times.

Much of the road to Tamale isn't paved. You can see that they are doing work to make a highway, but completion seems a long way off. There is obviously no air conditioning, so the windows must be kept open and the dirt flows into the bus. This still isn't even the worst of the trip.

We arrive in Tamale and I see Maaike and her friend off in a trotro headed for Bolgatanga, on the border of Burkina, another 3 hours from Tamale. I get a ticket and wait for the next Mass Metro bus to Mole National Park. I wait for four hours, in the disgusting bus station, in the blistering sun. Now, a bus station is Ghana is nothing like a bus station in the States. Most buses leave from and park in the same lot as the trotros. There are vehicles of every axle count possible: bikes, taxis, trotros, buses...goats. And there is no order. Everything is a mismash. There is always music blaring from multiple spots, people are always yelling, and hawking their wares, horns are honking, and the sun is always blazing.

I literally had to talk myself out of crying right there and then standing in the middle of this mess. After travelling for hours and being dirty, and sweaty, and overheated, and pushed purposefully by two people: one a woman who didn't like me making a two minute phone call in front of her shop where she was taking a nap on the floor, and the other a Mass Metro employee who didn't like that I was standing too close to the door to the bus office, I had just about had it.

Finally the bus arrives, two hours late, and everyone and everything piles on board. I sat next to a woman, two coolers filled with god knows what, and had a small child sitting on my lap...on a dirt road for four hours. And this is the worst road I have ever been on. I'm not even sure it can be called a road. The woman next to me happened to be a saint, so all wasn't lost.

In Ghana, you have to ask people very specific questions. For example, when you ask the bus ticket vendor when the next bus to Accra is, she will tell you 10am. She won't tell you that she means 10am tomorrow, or that it is already full. Or when I called Mole Motel, the only hotel in the park, and asked if they had any rooms available, the man at the reception desk simply said no. What he didn't tell me was that there was plenty of room available in the dorm. So, I consult my guide book and locate a guest house in the village of Larabanga, approximately 3k outside of the park and select that as my destination.

Talking to the woman next to me, Amina, she tells me that I cannot stay in Larabanga. CANNOT. She said it was NOT safe and she was very emphatic about it. She even consulted a friend on the bus, who lives IN Larabanga, and he agreed. A lone white girl should not go there, especially at night. Now I'm freaked. Amina makes a phone call, and just a few seconds later, I have a reservation for a room at Mole Motel! HOW DID YOU DO THAT?? Turns out, she dates the manager. She and I exchanged numbers and she made sure that I got into the hotel ok, and called me everyday to make sure I was doing alright. Where do people like this come from? I can surely tell you that I will be much more patient with tourists in NYC when I get back. I promise!

Upon check in, I meet three girls: Amber from Florida, Tonya from England, and Sabina from Denmark, and we sort of adopt eachother for the weekend. These girls are great, and all three are volunteering in Koforidua. The more volunteers I meet, the more I am sure that I got a bum placement. Other people cannot believe that I am in a village alone. Nor can they believe that I have no training or anyone to work with. Quite frankly, sometimes I can't believe it myself.

First thing in the morning, leaving my room, I encounter a warthog. Holy crap. Seriously, there was a warthog right in front of my door. I came to the park to see animals, but I figured I'd have to go INTO the park to see them. I didn't know that they would come out of the park to see me. Having no experience with the nature of warthogs besides multiple viewings of Disney's The Lion King, I stood still and tried not to be noticed. The warthog, which turned out to be a mommy warthog, trotted by and was trailed by 5-6 babies. Wow!

We weren't 10 mintues into our morning safari hike when we came upon an elephant. I stood maybe 100 feet from a wild African elephant, and have the pictues to prove it! I think I said "HOLY CRAP" maybe 300x times this day. The elephant didn't too much appreciate us interrupting his breakfast and made it known by stomping its feet, grunting, and ripping branches from a nearby tree in protest. As it turns out though, elephants, for the most part are alot of bark with little bite. As soon as the armed park ranger threw a rock in the animal's general direction, the beautiful beast would back off. In all, we saw three elephants that morning.

The girls and I paid a bit extra to take a 4x4 deep into the park for the chance to see the other animals that don't come to the exterior where the walking tours take visitors. We got to see bush buck, water buck, kob, green and red monkeys...and baboons. The baboons are a menace. They are quite habituated and not afraid of humans at all, so it seems. At lunch, one rushed a table full of people and stole the sugar bowl. Another chased me and grabbed my backpack, which was ON MY BACK! HOLY CRAP!

That night we opted to stay in the park's tree hide. Yup, we slept in a tree house. Well, it was more of a deck than a house, and about 2k into the park. A great majority of the animals in the park are nocturnal, so while we couldn't see any in the dark, we could surely hear them...including hyenas! Don't worry, we had Christopher with us, a rifle carrying 14 year veteran ranger of the park. Christopher was actually our guide all day. Lucky him.

At 2:30am Christopher led us through the dark out of the park so we could catch the 4am bus to Tamale, the only bus that day out of the park. Hiking in the the middle of the night, or early morning was really strange, and a bit scary. While we could not see anything but the few steps ahead of us, you were certain there were many pairs of eyes watching us from the bush. We hiked at breakneck speed...even with Tonya and Sabina wearing ill-fitting boots rented from the park because you can't hike in sandals, and me carrying my backpack like a sack of potatoes because both straps had busted during the trip.

We just made the bus, and Amina, my lil angel, had saved me a seat next to her. The bus ride back to Tamale was just as bumpy and crowded, but not as hot thanks to the early morning departure time. But this time, we were running on near zero sleep and without a bath. Upon arrival in Tamale, we find that the next and only STC buses out of Tamale to Accra and Kumasi are sold out, and we grudgingly buy Mass Metro tickets for the next bus to Kumasi. A security guard at the station told us that an STC bus from the north stops in Tamale at 11am to drop people off, and we could board then. This is great news, so we wait the 2+ hours until the bus arrives only to discover that the bus is full and there are no seats for us. Oh, and our Mass Metro bus had already left. We were stranded.

Without another option besides calling the day a loss and getting a hotel in Tamale, a local helped us negotiate a taxi to Kumasi for 200 cedis. This may have been the best 50 cedis I ever spent. Wait, no, I am SURE this was the best 50 cedis I ever spent. The taxi however, was filthy (which is par for the course in Ghana), wreaked of gasoline, and had windows that were permenantly stuck open. At the end of that 6 hour car ride, I couldn't have been more dirty if I had just rolled around in the dirt. We were really a miserable mess when we boarded a trotro for Koforidua.

At trotro was mostly full, but the driver sold us tickets and expected us, with our bags, to sit in a spot barely big enough for two people. So, this tro driver fought with the next tro driver while we sat helpless and the other passengers began yelling...at us, and the drivers. When it comes to tros, the first tro there must fill up before the next can start taking passengers. So, the first tro was nearly full, but only had room for two of the four of us. Since the four of us wouldn't seperate, we had to go to the other tro, which angered the first driver. Eventually they settled their dispute, we boarded the other tro, waited for it to fill, and departed for K-town.

Upon arrival in K-town, we were a bit disconcerted to see the lorry park completed desserted except for the small groups of people that presumably live there who were gather around small trash fires. There was a big football match that night, so even though it was a Sunday night, maybe revellers were out, including teenaged boys who see it proper to harass white girls.

We made it back to the girls' house, ate, showered, and hit the sheets (or lack of sheets for me) around midnight. I've never been so happy to see a bucket shower or unmade bed in my whole life! In the morning the girls, my new best mates, shared their breakfast with me and dropped me at the trotro station on their way to work. Three hours later, I arrived in Ho and went to the Bridge Office only to learn that their internet was down. Patience...

I went to the Vodafone Internet cafe to catch up on a week's worth of emails. I am so cut off from the outside world. I haven't see a tv or a newspaper in a month! Jess told me that the healthcare bill passed! Yippee! This is great news to me, although obviously just one of many steps to be taken towards healthcare reform...but it is a start! It is then that I decided that I have had enough, and I booked a ticket home. I leave in a week, making it one month that I lived in Africa.

I know that I will visit Africa again. And I know that I will volunteer again. But I know that I will never do either one of those things alone, again. It is not that I can't hack it here. It's that I don't want to. I am really disappointed with my volunteer assignment and the NGO Bridge, who I have had near zero interaction with. I am very curious to see where my money went, because I don't believe it went towards helping anyone but those at Bridge. We'll see. I feel like I can do more to help Abuadi from the States, honestly, and I will. You can't do much here without a working phone or internet connection...and no funds. I haven't seen or told Anani yet, and I am sure that he will be disappointed. But then again, so am I.

1 comment:

  1. all i can say is "wow".... what an experience.... your words paint a very detailed account and it seems amazing/scary/thrilling/annoying....looking forward to the accounts in person!