ghana: the end

Unfortunately, before our arrival, we’d also already arranged with Big Milly to hire a cab and driver to take us up the coast for a day.  That meant another ride in the ghetto-rigged taxi rocket.  All day long.  And, as if we needed a reminder of its volatility, our driver had to stop for gas.  When the gas attendant climbed in through the hatchback and used a plastic bag to seal the valve, I decided it’d probably be a good idea to get out of the car.  Joey and I stood a few feet away and waited while the tank filled, but the smell of propane permeated the vehicle for the next half hour.  

The information I found said it would take about two hours to drive to Cape Coast from Big Milly’s.   So we arranged to visit Kakum, for its rainforest canopy walk, followed by St. George’s Castle in Elmina, and finally, Cape Coast Castle in Cape Coast.  Unfortunately, the information I found does not, apparently, take into account traffic.  After forty-five minutes on the bumpy road in the hot rocket, our driver told us it’d be another two-and-a- half hours to Kakum.  I’m not going to lie: I was exceptionally annoyed.  Four hours, unbuckled, in an un-air-conditioned car on exceptionally bumpy roads had just turned into seven, and had I known this from the get-go, we probably would have planned the whole trip differently.  But que sera, sera, and soon enough we reached the entrance of the rainforest and bought our tickets for the canopy walk.

I’m not really sure how I manage to take us on death-marches (as my husband likes to call them) every time we go on vacation, but sure enough, we faced a hike up the rainforest that left us sweaty and winded.  With my unique inability to put two and two together when they’re staring me in the face, I hadn’t realized that in order to get to the canopy walk in the rainforest, one must first climb to the height of the canopy.  Duh.  Somehow I also neglected to heed that walking through the canopy means walking over the tops of trees.  Really old trees.  Really, really tall trees.  And I am afraid of heights.  

What was I thinking?  Did I mention this canopy walk is a suspension bridge?   This means when you move, the bridge moves.  And the more people on the bridge, the more the bridge moves.  And the guy in front of me is tap dancing.  I so terrified of heights I don’t even enjoy sledding and I am suddenly on a swaying, rope bridge 100 feet off the ground.

And then it started to rain.

I get that it’s called a rainforest.  Who would guess that it would rain in the rainforest?  But seriously, why did it have to rain as soon as I climbed on the suspension bridge?  The first five minutes walking along the wooden planks weren’t so bad.  The view was breathtaking (in more ways than one) and the rain wasn’t coming down too hard. 

Then it really started to rain.  And we are still on the longest suspension bridge in all of Africa.  With a tap-dancing ranger.  It’s actually a series of seven suspension bridges, in total over 1000 swinging feet, and now it is freaking pouring.   My attempt to shelter my camera from the downpour was overwhelmed by my desire for pictures of the gorgeous, terrifying scenery (or maybe documentation of my bravery), so my repeated, one-handed endeavor of removing my camera from my purse, securing the strap around my neck, taking a picture, taking the camera strap off my neck and returning the camera to my purse every few feet, all while trying to balance on the bridge with one set of white knuckles firmly locked on the rope, ended up with Joey in hysterics and me looking like a five-year old who has to pee.

We finally made it off the bridge to the covered platform, but by then we were completely soaked.  At first we decided to wait it out with the other people who walked the bridge with us, but then they discovered we were American.

“OBAMA!”  One Ghanaian exclaimed.

“Yeah!  Obama!  Obama!”  The others chorused.

Then we proceeded to become photographic fodder, as all of the Ghanaians took their picture with Joey and me.  Then each Obama-loving Ghanaian posed for an individual picture with our soaked and bewildered selves.

After our wet’n’wild photo shoot, since the rain didn’t seem to be letting up any time soon and we were already drenched, we decided to just hike back down.

Oh. My. God. it was wet.  Any semblance of a trail before had turned into a rushing brook, and as if I already don’t have enough problems hiking down hills, I was faced with hiking through a stream down a hill.  The water ran into my eyes, taking with it my sunscreen, and the burning sensation that followed was an added bonus.  All I want to know is why we are incapable of having a normal vacation?  I mean, why, why, can’t we just go for one day without some crazy-ass adventure?  What is wrong with us?  Whose idea was it to vacation in the rainforest in Africa?  Just two dumb Iowans who think it’ll be such an authentic adventure! 

Finally we made it to the bottom of the trail and under the gable of a lodge.  We literally rung out our clothes as, lo and behold, the sun came out.  My soggy sandals squeaked beneath me as we waddled back to the rocket, and when we sat down in the taxi, I opened my purse to see how my camera had fared.

Apparently my method of alternating between taking a picture in the rain and stashing my camera in my purse was just as brilliant as going to an African rainforest and not expecting it to rain.  I unzipped my bag and there my camera sat in at least two inches of water.  I grimaced; the cab driver said, “Oh, shit!”

The last picture as shown by my screen.  Oh shit, indeed.

It took about forty-five minutes to drive from Kakum back to Elmina; during which time I pressed the on/off button on my camera at least two-hundred times.  That puppy was not working.  First the lens opened and then the lens wouldn’t open at all.  Then the lens opened and stayed there.   And the screen?  That thing was completely FUBAR.  We are driving past palm trees, white-sand beaches, crystal blue waters, with awesome African fishing boats and a freaking 15th century castle in the background and my camera is D-E-A-D.  Dead.  Are you trying to kill me?!

As we pulled up to the visitors entrance of St. George’s Castle in Elmina, I tried to remind myself that in the grand scheme of things, my broken camera was pretty far down the list of atrocities that took place where we stood.  St. George’s Castle was built in 1482 by the Portuguese as one of its African trading posts on the Atlantic.  Sadly, it was also where thousands of slaves were kept for months in filthy, deplorable, inhumane conditions before they were sent through “the door of no return.”  The castle tour was quite sobering; it’s just impossible to reconcile how human beings could treat other human beings that way.  But our Ghanaian tour guide remained positive.  He ended our tour by saying, “We keep this castle not to reopen old wounds.  It just serves as a lesson to humanity.” 

Meanwhile, my lens seemed to be responding, and although the screen was still black and worthless, the rest of my camera appeared to be functioning.  Using the viewfinder, I mimed taking pictures, with hopes that I might capture even a little bit of the scene around us.  We drove back through the town of Elmina, in which you could sense the European influences in the narrow streets and architecture, before driving along the Atlantic to reach Cape Coast and its infamous slave castle.

One of the views of Elmina from St. George's Castle

The tour guide at the Cape Coast Castle was decidedly less friendly.  Part of me can’t blame him; it was absolutely disgusting how those slave traders behaved.  But the second tour guide was so hostile that each description of the slave traders’ barbarity seemed to end with the entire tour group of Africans subtly turning and glaring at the two white scapegoats: Joey and me.  We were so uncomfortable that we left half-way through the tour.  It felt like a mob was going to punish us for the sins of our forefathers, and for some reason I didn’t think our argument that none of our ancestors had even stepped foot in America before slavery was abolished would suffice. 

From Cape Coast castle it was another three hours in the rocket back to Big Milly’s.  The dirt roads our driver took to circumvent the brutal traffic were both physically and emotionally jarring.  At one point I felt pretty sure we’d stumbled onto the set of the movie, “City of God,” as we drove through the maze of concrete blocks.  But we made it back safely, and just in time for dinner.  In between bites of fresh grilled rock lobster and sips of hand-muddled caiprinahs, with the sand beneath our feet and the salty ocean breeze in our hair, we swayed to the reggae music played by the band under the moon, and life was good. 

Our last day in Kokrobite was perfectly relaxing.  We walked on the beach, collected shells, drank fruity drinks and ate lobster and french fries.  One more ride in the hot rocket returned us to the airport in Accra, and in a few hours we were safely (well...) back in Abuja.   

Amazingly enough, all of my pictures turned out.  Here's the link.


ghana: part 2

Our hut
After arriving at Big Milly's, Joey and I were escorted to our room hut.  Now I should say this hut only cost of 34 Ghanaian cedis a night.  That is the equivalent of $25.  So for value for the money, we certainly got more than for which we paid.  Our little hut consisted of two single, vinyl mattresses covered by a flat sheet, each framed on all four sides by two inches of wood, pushed together under a mosquito net built for one.  The ceiling fan hung under the light fixture which created a lovely strobe effect when both were on at the same time.  Also by the grace of God, I had not peed my pants (actually since I was wearing a skirt that would have been an even bigger mess) on the long, bumpy and terrifying journey from Accra.  I scanned our hut for the private bathroom I requested. 

The hut only had two doors, so I opened the only other door which, indeed, led to our bathroom.  Which consisted of a toilet.  And a shower head.  Under a banana tree.  Under the stars.  It did have four walls, but it was conspicuously missing a sink and a light, and oh, a roof.  I sat and prayed that nothing would slither down from the banana tree while I quickly attended to my business.  Then I found the bar of soap in the hut and held the rest of my body as far away from the cold shower in which I washed my hands.  This certainly was going to be an adventure.

Joey and I decided that even though it was past midnight and we were both physically and emotionally exhausted, a night cap was in order.  Cold drinks in hand, we climbed the stairs to the beach overlook under the moonlight and listened to the ocean. 

Friday morning we slept in as late as the morning heat allowed.  Once our hut started baking we donned our swimsuits and headed down the palm tree-lined path for breakfast.  A thatched roof shielded the picnic tables from the sun; the open-air restaurant provided the perfect spot from which to observe the activity along the shore.  While we enjoyed a scrumptious vegetable omelet and some truly amazing fresh-baked bread, we watched the fisherman untangle their webs of nets and marveled at the rickety, wooden boats bouncing in the waves.

View from breakfast

After breakfast we deposited everything in our hut to walk along the beach.  In addition to the brightly colored sign painted on the tall concrete wall around Big Milly’s Backyard, I’d read on many different websites that while the beach was generally safe,  robbery was not uncommon, and I wasn’t willing to risk my good camera beyond the confines of Big Milly’s property.  So empty-handed we turned left down the beach and into a different world.   

Every few yards a line of workers pulled a thick rope to hold a bobbing boat full of muscular men and fish, while women adorned in brightly colored African fabrics carried away huge bowls full of thousands of tiny, gleaming silver fish and half-naked children chased soccer balls on the sand and into the surf.   All set against a backdrop of blue skies, white sands, crystal waters and the tallest coconut trees I’ve ever seen.  Each person had a role: young boys untangled the fishing nets while stronger, older boys held the rope, and the young men formed an assembly line to transport the freshly caught fish to from the boat to shore.  Old women cleaned and scaled the fish while the men sailed the wooden dhow back out to sea.  Never before have I truly understood the phrase, “it takes a village.”  And while I longed to take pictures of the flurry surrounding us, there’s no way my camera could have captured the hustle and bustle of an entire African fishing village at work.  

The best picture I could get from the safety of Big Milly's property

Sometimes I’m completely awed by the incredible experiences I’ve been so fortunate to have that I never could have even remotely imagined.  This was one of those times.  Is it worth living so far away from my family and friends and putting up with everything we do on a daily basis (not to mention cold showers and vinyl mattresses)?  I’m not sure, but it certainly makes me think.  It also makes me so thankful for not only those opportunities to travel, but for all the opportunities afforded me as an American.  

We turned around and walked the other way down the beach, past Big Milly's, all the way to the other end of the beach and turned around again.  We spent the rest of the day getting to know the locals around Big Milly's and the other expats on holiday, reading, swimming, eating fresh seafood and drinking tropical beverages (which cost $2 each).  That night Big Milly's held its Friday "Culture Night" show, complete with three hours of drumming and dancing.

ghana: part 1

This post is out of order, but I felt like blogging about our trip to Ghana while it was still fresh in my mind.

Two weeks ago Joey and I boarded an Arik flight to Accra.  Never mind that the flight scheduled at 5 pm, for which we departed for the airport at 2 pm, left at 7:30 pm and no one from the airline ever bothered to inform any of the passengers what time the plane would actually be leaving; I was just happy that the plane didn’t crash.   Seriously.

Immediately we were astounded by the differences between Accra and Abuja.  The airport had air conditioning.   A sign welcomed passengers to Ghana.  The immigration agent didn’t hassle us.  (Never mind the very prominent sign behind immigration stating sexual deviancy of any kind would not be tolerated in Ghana…)  The airport even had a currency exchange with stated rates and tour company booths.

We’d booked a hotel, Big Milly’s Backyard, about 25 km outside Accra, in a tiny fishing village called Kokrobite (pronounced “Coke-Row-Bee-Tee”).  Big Milly arranged a taxi to pick us up at the airport, so we scanned the taxi drivers who were standing quietly behind the designated rope.  Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!

Upon uniting with the taxi driver holding the sign, “Melissa – Big Milly’s,” we followed him out of the airport where we saw a bar with a patio!  And most of the cars driving through the parking lot weren’t honking!  While our driver paid for his parking we watched everyone else wait patiently in line – it was surreal.

Even two weeks later I still cannot comprehend how two countries that are so similar can be so different.  As we drove through the capital of Ghana we saw no litter and no one peeing or pooping on the side of the road.  The roads were well-lit and the power never even flickered.  The drivers were courteous, stayed in their lanes and actually stopped when the light turned red.  The cacophony of car horns to which we are accustomed was replaced by the soft breeze from the open window.  Not to mention the fact that Ghana is safe enough to ride in a taxi in the first place; in Nigeria we are never allowed to even think about using public transportation.  And driving with your windows down?  At night?  Forget it. 

We were certainly still in Africa and especially once we left Accra and entered the countryside I was struck by how much Ghana resembles Nigeria.  Vendors and their wares balanced squarely on their heads weaved in and out of traffic, selling everything from sticks of meat and gum to shoe racks, Tupperware, and brightly colored accordions of pre-paid phone cards that look like scratch-off lotto tickets.  Indiscriminate brown dogs and crowing roosters wandered  along the small one-story buildings made from concrete blocks built one on top of another with rusty tin roofs and stains from the perpetual dust and sand in the air that line the road.  The only thing missing was the piles of litter.  Gone were the discarded plastic bags, used water bottles and anything else no longer wanted or needed. 

I forgot to mention a very important detail.  When I climbed in the back seat of the 1980ish hatch-back taxi and reached over my shoulder for the seat belt, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a large tank directly behind my seat.  I fumbled with the broken seat belt for a while until Joey noticed the tank too and mumbled under his breath, “That seat belt isn’t going to do anything for you in an accident.”  To clarify, he struck up a conversation with the driver.

Joey: “Does this car run on gas?”

Driver: “Gas and kerosene.”

Joey: “Did it come that way or did you fix it to run on kerosene?”

Driver (proudly): “I fixed it!”

So for the next three hours (and only 25 km), every time a car brushed by ours, traffic quickly halted or we hit a huge bump in the road, I held my breath and braced myself to become a human RPG.

By the grace of God, despite the horrendous traffic; despite the rain, in the car, since it was too hot to roll up the windows without A/C (the driver used a chamois to clear the fog from the front window), and mosquito infestation that followed; despite traveling for at least half an hour along the darkest, bumpiest and most deserted dirt road I have ever seen in my life when the driver stopped the car to chamois the front window from the outside (at which point we were convinced we were going to be sold for our organs), Joey and I arrived at our destination relatively unscathed.  Some inner-thigh sweat and a few mosquito bites were a small price to pay for our safety.

The blue gates opened and we drove into a grove of coconut trees.  The car parked and when we opened our doors we heard the surf crashing into the sand.  Now we could finally relax.



The cruise brochure shows white-washed buildings of Santorini, capped in bright blue and overlooking the sapphire sea below.

The cruise brochure does not show the donkeys.

After spending our first full day on the cruise at sea, Joey and I were anxious to explore our first stop: Santorini.  But when we hopped off the ferry from the ship to the shore, over 600 donkey shit-covered steps stood between us and the picturesque town atop the hill.

There exists a cable car along the steep volcanic rock, but the line of would-be passengers wound around the port and under the powerful July sun.  We only had a few hours in port, so we opted to avoid the waiting and baking and brave the hike.  What we didn’t realize was that several hundred smelly-ass donkeys would be making the climb with us.

Each of the 600 steps involved avoiding the donkey shit, avoiding the donkeys producing said shit, and avoiding arriving at the top smelling like shit.  Massive.  Fail.

Herds of 10-20 donkeys ran in every direction up and down the steps, carrying powerless, flailing tourists or old Greek men with little whips.  While we sweated up the hill, the asses and the shit coming out of their asses monopolized the stairs and relegated us to hugging the wall in order to avoid being trampled.

By the time we arrived at the top, the bottom of my poor new sandals were caked in shit and hay.  Joey had sweat through his shirt and shorts and gone was my cute little side braid and attempt at make-up.  The amount of sweat streaming down my back, from under my boobs and in between my thighs was enough to cause some seriously uncomfortable chaffing.  

Hot.  Mess,

But we found the first bar, drank a cool, refreshing cocktail and made the most of our day.  We gorged on tasty gyros, shopped for cheesy curios and soaked in the incredible view.  We searched for the angle from which we could take the ubiquitous snapshot of Santorini’s blue domes, and Joey even scaled some of those white-washed walls with my camera to find the perfect shot (which then involved hiding from a Greek Orthodox priest and his congregation as they processed past my husband standing on some roof…).

The sun set on Santorini and it was time to catch our ride.  We went back down the way we came up, my anxiety of dodging donkeys and shit augmented by my lack of coordination and fear of tumbling down the hill.  At least the only hot part on the way down was the shower I savored as soon as we reached the boat.

Here's the link to the rest of my pictures from Santorini:  https://picasaweb.google.com/100586084762366858227/Santorini?authuser=0&authkey=Gv1sRgCIejjbeqiMrbPA&feat=directlink