The weekend oddessey begins

...an international feel

At the end of the first week in Ghana, Liz has got a couple of days off, her boss has lent her the car, and we borrow the driver.

I see I haven’t mentioned the drivers’ names so far. The guy who picked me up from the airport at the beginning was Michael, but the next day he had to depart for his Mother’s funeral – which as we have seen absents him for some time. Since then, (and for this weekend) we have Yelbert.

The drivers don’t belong to Liz, nor do the cars. These guys have a number of duties to perform, driving and otherwise. We can borrow them if they aren’t otherwise engaged.

The day starts with a major hassle – Wells Fargo online page has decided to not recognize our sign-in. This isn’t the first time here, but it worked after a few attempts before. Now we can’t get through at all, so we head into Liz’s office instead of beginning our journey, to see if the computer in the office will work any better. It does not. A long, expensive, and frustrating phone call follows, the gist of which is, this is an intermittent fault with customers outside the US. WF tell us “It’s not your problem, it’s ours.” We politely point out that the fault may be at their end, but the problem most certainly IS ours. We find a convoluted way around the money matters we need to arrange and we are finally off.

Our first call is several hours drive away, on the Cape Coast, at Cape Coast castle. The drive is very interesting, along roads about 50% are very good. Whenever traffic is held up for any reason (congestion, traffic lights, toll booth, police control point), a stream of people passes by offering to sell you stuff. It can be anything – chewing gum, footballs, lottery tickets, steering wheel covers, mango, table-cloths, shampoo, pottery, bread, you name it. When the queue moves forward, the vendor (if in the middle of a sale) will run after a customer to complete the transaction. Running while balancing half a shop on your head is an interesting sight. Toll booths especially attract these vendors, and there is a notice just before the point at which the toll is collected on the George W Bush Highway reading “No Hawking Beyond This Point”.

Poor Stephen, I think, as if he hasn’t enough problems without a travel ban to add to them…

There are many posters along the road – some relating to the recent elections, some for funerals. Some commercial ads. At the bottom of some of the billboards are inspirational phrases, suitable for a fridge magnet or a facebook meme, exhorting behavior and attitudes of various sorts. Most are fairly vapid, or religious. One that I do like says “Dreams won’t work unless you do”.

After a while, we come to the first hills I’ve seen in Ghana – called Mcarthy Hills. From this point on, although we see no real heights today, the flatness of the Accra area is broken up but a certain amount of up-and-down.

The advertising/admonitory hoardings gradually thin out as we enter more rural areas, where the quality of the roads also drops off. Instead, every few hundred yards we are greeted with “Overspeeding is dangerous”. Below this is a tally, “4 deaths have occurred here”, or “10 deaths have occurred here”, or “More than 12 deaths have occurred here”. They seem to stop counting at 12. The statistics are easy to believe. Over the weekend we pass three overturned lorries. When you look at the way they load the lorries with too much cargo, and then go too fast along unsuitable roads, you can see the reason why. None of the incidents involve any other vehicle. Once we pass an overturned car, which had obviously happened very recently because a lot of people are milling about. It doesn’t seem that adding three more people to the crowd would help, so we pass by, hoping that nobody is badly hurt and more practical help will arrive soon. The car is upside down, but otherwise seems relatively unscathed.

Another thing beside the road as we travel is termite mounds. These are amazing structures, often taller than I am, sometimes much taller. I had a mental image of these occurring in groups, probably from some old wildlife documentaries - but so far as I can see, each is at least a few yards from any others, usually further. Later I learn the material of these mounds is immensely strong (formed from the local red earth, bound with termite spit and poop) and they are often ground up to strengthen pottery and building materials.

We pass through many towns, villages and townships on our way, of varying size and prosperity. In some smaller places, everything seems to be constructed from bamboo packed with a clay mixture (no doubt including some termite mound). This doesn’t look very sturdy, but some buildings look like they’ve stood up to the climate for some time. I guess the other advantage of earth as a building material is that, if it falls apart, you’re surrounded by plenty more of it.

Each settlement has at least one church, often many more. These can be anything from a mud shack to an impressively large building. Several times we see enormous gathering places being built, probably for one or more of the enthusiastic evangelists which thrive here. Did I mention around half of the TV channels have names like “Praise TV”? Apart from the evangelists, we see (as well as the standard Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Jehovah’s Witness, Presbyterian, Baptist, Mormon, and 7th-Day Adventists) Church of God, Church of Christ, Holy Church of Christ, Lighthouse Chapel, Apostolic Church, NEW Apostolic Church, Church of the Apostles, Christ Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Victory Bible Church, and more.

There are mosques, too, of various sizes in some of the settlements, all of which seem to be built to a standard model. I don’t know what flavor of Islam they represent, or whether they are all the same, because I don’t read Arabic.

typical settlement

Everywhere, just everywhere, is lightly covered with red dust.

Each settlement has their own stores of various sorts, many along the roadside to attract passing trade. On the way in and out of each village there are a few people, either with stuff just piled up for sale, or with a table set out – sometimes a grass canopy held up by bamboo will give the vendors some shade. Many sell various foods – smoked fish, fresh coconut, grilled bananas, sliced mango, or the stodgy local specialities. Now and again, someone will be standing by the roadside holding up some sort of freshly-killed bushmeat for sale.

All but the smallest and meanest towns boast some sort of eatery/drinking place (not all sell alcohol though). They have various names: a “chop bar” will sell local foods plus perhaps more (not chops… “chop” is a word for “eat”). A “Spot” I think is a bar, possibly with food. Then there are the places that call themselves “pubs”. These seem to sell alcohol to drink there and to take home too. Most seem to also do food. A “bar” can mean just about anything. From what I see, all are pretty exclusively male hangouts.

After a few hours, we arrive at our first stop - Cape Coast castle. This was the administrative centre for the succession of European countries that set up trade in the area. Many things were traded, but the most memorable, and shameful, was slaves. I have read much of the slave trade in the past, when studying history. But never before have I seen the conditions under which these poor souls were kept.

Inside Cape Coast castle, looking out at the defences

We take a tour. The most memorable part is going down into the male slave pens. Dark, cramped, and getting uncomfortably hot from the body heat of even a handful of tourists. In a room less than twenty feet by twenty, over a hundred captives were kept, chained, filthy and in the dark, with totally inadequate sanitation, eating with only their hands once a day. Those that died (and disease caused by the appalling conditions took many) would just be dumped in the sea. The slaves would be taken, after waiting perhaps several months, to their final destination, often Brazil, North America or the Caribbean. The conditions in the ships were even more appalling, and huge numbers never made it. Ghana was a main centre for the slave trade. Sweden, Demark, Britain, Portugal, the Dutch and others were all part of this disgusting business at various times. The shame doesn’t fall only on Europeans, though. The castle (and others like it) were built with the permission and support of local peoples, and rents paid. Many slaves were sold to the Europeans by the locals, mainly prisoners of war. And those wars were often fought between various of the Akan tribes specifically to have access to the coast to benefit from the slave and other trades.

Out through Cape Castle's "Door of no Return"

A couple of hours at this site is a sobering experience.

Before we move on, we drive a mile or so down the coast to take a walk on the beautiful beach. In most parts of the world, this setting would be lined with tourist hotels. Maybe it will be yet.

the magnificent beaches of Cape Coast

From here we drive north to our overnight stop, the Rain Forest Lodge. There is no evidence of rainforest in its immediate vicinity, although this whole area was such a few hundred years ago. The Lodge is a fine place, and although the menu is not varied (and, of course, not everything is available), my Thai Chicken Salad is a delight, though I’m not sure anyone from Thailand would claim it as their own.

A party of young teen schoolchildren are also staying here, no doubt on their way to the same destination as us the next day. They are having a fine time, with much giggling and charging about. By coincidence they turn out to be from the school in Accra which is near the supermarket where we shopped.

The finest thing about the Lodge is the outdoor pool. After a long hot day, it’s the most refreshing thing ever. Not just a token pool like many hotels have, either. There’s a kiddie bit, a mini waterfall from the bridge which arches over the middle, and at its deepest I can’t touch the floor with my feet. We spend a blissful half an hour in the pool, getting out the kinks from the long car journey.

blissful swimming pool at the Rainforest Lodge

In the reception is an attempt at an international air – three clocks give the time in New York, London and Tokyo (London is on the same time zone anyhow). However, with the lack of follow-through I have often noticed here, all have stopped, and at completely different times.

There's a picture of this at the top of the entry.

And so to sleep, ready for day two of our odyssey. Looking forward to entering the actual rainforest.

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