Monday, July 26, 2010

Travel in Ghana: Not For the Light of Heart

A rooster, a screaming child, and 24 random strangers pile into a Tro meant for 15 ... Stop me if you've heard this one before ...

There's nothing like dangling your feet out of the back window of bus you suspect was made in the seventies (just having noticed the faded blue and white flower pattern printed into the ceiling), squished between your hiking pack, the wall, and another volunteer (with what you think is a rooster flapping around two rows up) to remind you that you are no longer in Kansas.

This is travel in Ghana.

Being that I am quite 'bite-sized,' it's no wonder the ticket operators take one look at me and decide today's the day they sell three extra seats. This also means finding myself shoved into tiny spaces, usually in the back corner, and conspicuously located next to the other O'bronis on the bus. It is during these moments, I find myself grateful for having such compact limbs and often remind myself to thank my parents for their perfect planning ...

Taxi experiences are not much different - unless you want to pay for all of the open seats, it's stuffed to the brim with passengers ... some picked up along the way. Depending on where you're headed, these can be much more uncomfortable and require a certain finesse in the art of 'Short-term Storage.' I have yet to experience travel with any animals larger than a fowl, but I am sure the day will come when I am sharing my ride with none other than Bessie, the family cow.

Most of the vehicles we climb into have a certain kind of charm ... the kind of charm that can only be credited to a lack of well-paved roads. Like most taxi drivers, their skills here in Ghana are unique ... the rules of the road being largely interpretive. There are a few things you do need to know:

1. Avoid the front seat at all costs - there is a noticable absense of seatbelts at any given time
2. Choose the lesser of two cracked windsheilds
3. Avoid night-time travel  

Of course, if we didn't set our standards relatively low, we'd never get anywhere. This is why it's sometimes useful to close my eyes and pray that a stray goat doesn't meander into the road as we fly by (there are an awful lot of meadering goats in Ghana). I have been pleasantly surprised on a few occasions, finding myself on a bus complete with air-conditioning and a 6 hour movie (no, I am not exaggerating), but the most difficult thing to get used to hasn't been any of the above. It is what we affectionately like to call 'Ghana time.' 'Ghana Time' refers to the fact that there is no schedule. The bus/tro/taxi will leave when it is full: whether that be five minutes or four hours after you've bought the ticket (yes, I have waited four hours for a five hour bus trip). Once the art of 'Ghana Time' is mastered, I have been told that one is well on their way to integration ... this is a common goal amongst the volunteers and I suspect I'll be a great deal more patient once I return to the States.

If anything, travel in Ghana is an adventure: tros and taxis honk at each other intermittantly as they pass back and forth (it's a little game we like to play, counting how many times the same three tros have continuously passed each other along one stretch of road). Sometimes these honks are used to alert the people walking of car's presence - to which the response is almost always said pedestrian throwing themselves into the eight-foot grass lining the road at the slight sound of a honk (this never fails to be terribly amusing). Animals are also warned, by honks, that they are dangerously close to becoming dinner, but seldom listen and seem to appear at the most inconvenient times. I've only seen blinkers used on a handful of occasions and I credit the skill of 'weaving' I picked up as a cocktail waitress for saving my life on several street-crossing experiences.

I promise it only sounds scary in writing, for the most part, it's quite easy to get used to - I've even found myself shouting various things at passing taxis, whether it be for the open seat I've spotted or the fact that I almost took off their mirror with my hip. The radios inside blare loudly enough that conversation is non-existant once the doors are slammed shut (with two people in the passenger seat and at least four in the back) and the engine sputters to life. I'm often reminded of my gratefulness for the invention of windows ( as air-conditioning has become a luxury and surprisingly overrated).

I am loving that everything in Ghana is an experience. An example of this is the much feared 'night travel.' The reason we don't like to travel at night is that most drivers turn their headlights off to conserve their batteries ... I won't tell you, then, how late the Ghana-Uruguay match let out ... or the state of the hatchback taxi that 6 of us shoved ourselves into when it ended. Despite the match loss, this was the night's one redeeming quality, as we giggled ourselves into tears and recited, "I think we might die" and "Where's the 'oh shit' bar?" at various points during the fifteen minute ride home. It's really all about the little victories ... like the fact that our driver had his headlights on (and so did the other cars that night), as living on the equator doesn't leave us but 12 hours of daylight, so headlights are a must.

Most of the time, the only thing running through my mind, despite the occasional 'I think we may have almost died back then,' is almost always 'I'm in Africa.'

I'm in Africa. Sharing a tro with a rooster and 24 random strangers, one of which has a child who is screaming out of sheer fear of my pale skin. I'm in Africa. With my feet dangling out of the side window of a bus that should have had it's last trip years ago. Thank God for this open window. Is that a rooster up there?Where's the 'oh shit' bar, because, holy shit, I'm in Africa!?