Wednesday, July 25, 2012

2 Wheels, 4 Wheels, No Wheels; Push!

When I was in training I wrote a blog about travel in Ghana. While everything I said still stands, I am convinced it's taken two full years of experience to understand what it means to 'Travel Ghana.' The difference? I'm no longer surprised. By anything. More importantly, I accept Ghana's transportation system for what it is and while we still have our disagreements, we finally have a stable relationship.

Before I continue, there are a few ground rules to consider:

1. If you are picky about seating, this will be a very painful experience.
2. Load up the Nook, charge your Ipod or make sure you're really well-versed in 'Sleep Mode.'
3. Go ahead and let your dignity slide for a day or two.

Of course, these only apply if you prefer to take public transportation. For all of you fancy VIP bus types, not only does this blog not pertain to you - you can go fly a kite. Good luck finding a kite ...

The first thing you should know defies all logic: In a country the size of Oregon, to travel from one end to the other takes at least EIGHTEEN HOURS. Yes, I'm yelling.

As you can probably guess, the roads are preposterous and most of the vehicles belong somewhere in the seventies. Many of them still have their original parts. The fact that they're still on the road is pure ingenuity - sometimes the only thing separating you and your feet from the moving pavement below will be a piece of metal welded to the edges of a gaping hole; sometimes you will look up and realize that the door you've been leaning against for two hours owes its existence to a piece of string tethered to the frame. Africa is the place seat belts, windshields and seat cushions come to die. If your Ipod can drown out the diesel engine abusing what's left of the vehicle around you, you're one step ahead of the game.

At least once you will fill an entire bus, only to find every person in the back avoided sitting in that crappy middle seat. You can't fool the bus driver - his eyes will not sweep over, and dismiss entirely, the missing fare that seat represents. He will sell that final ticket and one of two situations will unfold: everyone in between that person and the seat will file off the bus and back onto it or they will proceed to climb over everyone pretending not to notice that they created this problem. Someone's rear end will probably end up in your face, which leads me to my next point: bodily functions are tricky.

Stick a sick volunteer into a structurally-unstable hot box with shocks like ninety-four year old knees and you will test the strength of everyone involved. There are only so many drugs you can pump into someone before you have to throw up your hands and leave the next five hours to divinity. Just know that every pit stop you make will empty at least half of the car (requiring a human game of tetris to re-organize) and that, despite the number of pit stops you will probably make, someone will request to stop the car five minutes away from your final destination. Stay strong.

I'm sure it's fairly obvious that bad roads and broken vehicles are a bad combination; getting into a vehicle in Africa comes with the guarantee of one free viewing of your life flashing before your eyes. What you may not be prepared for is the risk of bodily harm from other passengers. I'm not saying Ghanians are violent, unfriendly travel companions, but when it's a Sunday and cars are scarce, that sweet old lady and her giant purse will maul your face if it's between you and the last seat in a car. It doesn't matter if you've been talking to her for forty minutes about her grandchildren - you're in Africa now and Grandma's about to teach you a lesson in natural selection.

At least one preacher will try to save you, at least one tire will pop, and at least one engine will over-heat. You will fully appreciate air conditioning, finally figure out how to travel light and the goat strapped to the roof will receive little more than a glance from you when it slips off the edge and is boosted back up by the passenger nearest the window. Travel in Ghana will try your patience, but it will also teach you what you can and cannot possibly hope to control. You will find that it's easier to  adopt Africa Time, that you're not above a plastic stool in the aisle and that the most important thing is getting there eventually.

If you can handle this, you can handle anything. And, just maybe, your fondest memories might involve watching that beautiful landscape slip past you because, really, you learned the most about Ghana when you traveled it.