Sliding on to the cool leather seat, a cool rush of air fills the sticky-hot night and at last, we breathe. We feel an overwhelming calm as we sail through the streets of Accra, observing, through tinted windows the world outside as the BBC catches us up on a world seemingly a million miles away.
Ghana, is currently what I imagine East Africa (and perhaps South as well) to have been before the boom of large scale tourism and game reserves. In part, it feels a world apart, as if set in the books I’ve read based in Africa mid-century (minus all of the phones and internet of course). On the other hand, the lack of mass tourism means you have two options when it comes to seeing the country; pay exorbitantly for a private car, or take mass transit, as everyone who lives here does. Our first mistake was trying to beat this system.
The trip started pleasantly enough, Friday morning as Alex and his fellow volunteers went to work I wandered the rain soaked streets of Koforidua. Though a bustling city, it has a significantly different feel than Accra. The drive up is absolutely gorgeous. As you leave the traffic ridden streets of Accra, only a few miles out lush green hills appear, as you peak over them the valley opens up, revealing miles of rolling green hills, you would hardly imagine you were in Africa. The trees and plants give a more Caribbean feel, with colorful low-lying plants dotting the landscape. The air becomes clear, it’s fresh, yet vaguely sweet, from the mixture of rain and humidity. These are the hills, leading to Koforidua. The trotro flies past small villages and I feel a deep sense of calm.
After work, we had arranged a chartered car to take us to Accra, since our bus to Cape Coast was supposed to leave at 3:30pm. We thought, we were beating the mass transit system. And for a fee ($35) this car would give us peace of mind and all important leg room. About twenty minutes into the trip, plooms of steam rose up from the front of the car. The driver calmly pulls over, Alex and I exchange bemused glances-breakdowns are an everyday occurrence. He steps out, opens his hood, pours water somewhere, waits for the steam to dissipate and continues on. This happens twice more during the journey. It takes a quick hour to reach Accra’s city limits. Optimistic about making good time, we had no idea what was in store. The traffic we experienced was unlike any I have ever seen. A large roundabout leading to the STC bus station, which I now regard with a deep seeded hatred took about an hour to navigate, twice we sat in standstill traffic for at least ten minutes. The remaining time we crept at a speed so low it didn’t register on the speedometer.
Normally calm, I begin to worry, our tickets request we arrive 30 minutes early at 3pm, as we cleared the circle it was 3:10. Our driver pulls into a station, we ask where the STC station is. He tells us, across the street, but this place gets you to Cape Coast, “here, I’ll show you.” No, we wanted the STC and we’ll walk there if you can’t take us. And so, dodging cars across the freeway we walk/run what turned out to be nearly a mile. Sweating we run to the ticket agent at 3:25. She tells us, the bus has left, the last one was at 2pm, the online ticket system hasn’t been updated in a year. At first, I couldn’t imagine she was serious. I tried to maintain calm, but my voice likely betrayed my emotions. To get there, we would have to go back to the station we had come from, and get a trotro. Though livid, we trekked on. At the station we found the trotro and got in, waiting for it to fill. Three men behind us paid, then headed to the bar near-by to get drinks. This should have acted as a warning sign, but still hopeful, we waited. Nearly and hour later, it had yet to fill. As we our patience grew thin we decided to pay for the extra seats so that we can leave (cash rules all here). Of course, as we get up to pay, the last three people necessary show up. And we were off, the sun setting as we neared Cape Coast, an eight hour trip that should have taken five. Fortunately, the ride was pleasant and our driver agreed to drop us near Elmina (15km from Cape Coast) where we were staying.
The hotel I had chosen was perched sea-side next to the bridge to Elimina castle, which you could see from the patio bar. When we arrived, exhausted, the receptionist delivered the news that they didn’t have our reservation on file. Before we could panic, she assured us she would find us a room. We finally collapsed on the bed, in the air conditioned, hot water room (with TV!). The staff at the hotel had been exceptionally pleasant, and made us a late night dinner which we ate at the bar, stone beer in hand, decompressing from what was easily one of the worst days of travel either of us had ever experienced.
Fortunately, the rest of the weekend made this hellish-journey worth it. Elmina is a charming fishing town reminiscent of old towns in East Africa, with low-lying white washed buildings and colorful boats littering the dock. It was an almost mediteranean feel, and reminded me distinctly of Alexanderia’s coastline in Egypt. The town is absolutely abuzz, as the fish market hits full swing. We first visit Elmina castle, a trade castle around 500 years old, known primarily for it’s Slave Trade. The dungeons were of course, the emphasis of the tour, and true to their stories, horrendous. The worst, was a room with a skull and cross-bone deemed “door of no return,” and you can imagine it’s function. The view however was fantastic, overlooking the town and surrounding hills to the north, and sea to south, with the strong tide crashing over extruding boulders near shore.
The afternoon was filled with lying beach-side at our hotel’s sister resort just out of town, where we could use the facilities for free. We drank fresh coconut juice cut with a machete so close to the hand it made us both cringe. The sea was worth it all as every tension of the previous day disappeared. We ate lobster, which here is cheaper than shrimp, and meander around the grounds lined with impossibly tall coconut trees. The remaining time was spent wandering the streets of Cape Coast before dinner, where we intended to eat street food, and while managed to procure some the specifically mentioned locas in the guide book were gone or closed. Instead, we went back to Elmina and stoped at another reccomended spot. Though here, they told us, you must order in the morning, but if we wanted they would make us jollof rice (akin to fried rice, in palm oil)with chicken. We agreed, and for $4 total we enjoyed a home-cooked meal, simple, but delicious. We were joined by a litter of barley two week old kittens from behind the house, it took every ounce of my willpower not to take one with me, customs I’m sure, would not have been amused.
The next morning we set out early for Kakum National Park where we did the canopy walk, 70m above ground in the rainforest. It was stunning, to say the least, and the swaying walkways soon became second nature, through a fear of heights would likely make the trek nearly impossible. Because it was the daytime, there weren’t any animals, but the forest landscape was more than enough, with the forest stretching out, seemingly endless. A short while later we were back on solid ground, and ready to make our trek home.
We noticed, that we seem to be the only westerners, or nearly, utilizing mass transit, most others had hired taxis or other drivers (for a hefty fee). At moments we envied them, but given our budget, it simply wasn’t an option, and there is some satisfaction to being able to negotiate foreign public transportation. When we arrived at the STC station at noon we were informed the next bus would leave at three, so we waited, and waited. It finally arrived near four. And because it was nearly full we were crammed for the next three hours in the back. The resulting delay made it so Alex would not be able to go home that night, so instead he stayed in Accra and was dropped at the station early this morning, enabling him to not miss work. From the STC station in Accra we took an overpriced cab to the University where James graciously picked us up, got us dinner, and took us home where we ate, and immediately fell asleep.
I have heard travelers mention travel in difficult areas, often, west Africa (though Ghana us usually the exception) and how despite the trials and frustrations it is always worth it, and that travel to these places is much like climbing a mountain. You suffer, but you continue, if simply to see what few have seen and to do what few have done, and after it is always worth it. Though the weekend was tough, we are learning, and was absolutely worth it. And at least, LA traffic now seems laughable. Remove it’s street lights and regulations-and now you have Accra.
Perhaps next weekend we will stay closer to home.