Wednesday, April 15, 2009

March 4, 2008: Hey Bruni!!!

32 hours after leaving Los Angeles, I was flying over Africa and looking through the very dusty and dense air above Lagos, Nigeria. Seated next to me was Danny, my very fragrant and would-be husband had he not exited the plane upon landing. He even requested a "peck" as he called it before leaving. That was one of my first introductions to the "friendliness" of Africans. He was harmless and actually told me a lot of about Nigeria (we stopped over in Lagos to refuel on the way to Accra) and the African culture in general. The title of the e-mail is a common "call" that Justine and I get in the means "Hey Whitey"! Although Justine is half-black, she is so much lighter than the majority of Ghanaians that she is seen as a Bruni.

Over the past five days, I have thought this e-mail over in my head so many times because I don't want to be more verbose than necessary! This is a trip I cannot articulate briefly and still leave you with a sense of what every day has been like. So...I'll give it a shot and I'll tell you more when I get back. Today is our first chance to check e-mail (can you without e-mail for this long!) I've relished the break, but it is very strange feeling totally removed from the rest of the world.

Justine and I met up in Accra last Thursday night and left for Cape Coast the next morning. In the taxi from the airport to my hotel, I pulled a Bob Gallivan and asked about the country...the literacy level, if school was mandatory/free, what the typical businesses were in the capital, and yes, alas, I even asked if the banks were run solely by the government or if there were foreign banks ('ll have to wait for that answer until you get back from your trip!)

Driving in our taxi to the "bus station", I got my first impression of Ghana...there were people everywhere and all of them had the most beautiful ebony skin. Tourists, particularly, Europeans and Americans are few and far between. Roads are lined with small stalls where everything you can imagine is sold...mufflers, mattresses, tires, furniture, phone name it. Some are made of corrugated tin, some of mud, wood or cement. Since we have been here, I have yet to see a central supermarket or something of the kind. Upon arriving at the station, we spent three hours waiting for our bus. At about 9 AM the heat kicked in and sweat started pouring off our bodies. We finally left at about 11:20 (on the 11 AM bus) and arrived in Cape Coast 3 hours later. Mind you...the distance to Cape Coast is only about 100 miles...took twice as long as it would at home. And that was a lucky trip.

At Cape Coast, we walked the streets to visit the Cape Coast Castle, built by the Portuguese and later taken over by the Dutch and the British. The walk from our small pension was very eye opening. Justine had to remind me that we are in a third world country where infrastructure is minimal if any. Taxis and tro-tros (shared buses) represent about 75% of the cars on the road and they WIZZ past you giving a quick honk to let you know you better move your ass or get run over. Now, that would be fine if you could walk on the side walk; the sidewalk is actually the open sewage ditches that line the roads. They are where garbage is tossed, the water from the "street baths" trickles and of course where waste ends up. Many people try to burn the garbage that lies everywhere ( garbage removal) so that smell mixed with the open sewage smell took some getting used to.

Both the castle at Cape Coast and Elmina (both originally Portuguese built and eventually British occupied) were fascinating. Elmina is the oldest castle in all of Africa, built late 1400's. These forts, originally purported to host trading of textiles with the Ghanains, became the last stop for slaves being sent to the Americas, Europe and eventually Asia. I cannot even begin to explain the monstrosities that occurred at these forts and the conditions in which the slaves were kept. In March, it is 100 degrees and 100% humidity. The slaves...hundreds of them, were kept in underground dungeons with only slits in the upper walls to the exterior to provide air and basically no sunlight. We went in one chamber that was about 20 x 12 and 200 male slaves were kept in there for 2 months without ever leaving. The chamber had been excavated and several feet of "filth" had been removed that had accumulated over the years. The slaves were taken underground through a tunnel to the "Door of no return" where they were sent off in slave boats to their next destination.

The goal seemed to be to starve and torture the slaves so that only the strongest and most valuable survived. The captors saved money on food and only sold the "best". The skinnier, the better - they could fit more on the ships. I will spare the other gruesome details until I return. Needless to say, both Justine and I were horrified at what we experienced. A funny note was that the man at the "reception" to the castle told us he would give us the student price if we promised to vote for Barrack. Justine was in...and I had to claim my Republican status; he let us both in anyway!

After seeing the Castle and Fort in Elmina, Justine and I walked the streets, followed by all the beautiful children calling "Hey Bruni!" and "Hello! What is your name?!" We chatted with some people as they are very friendly, but the men/boys are a bit "overeager"...asking for your e-mails and addresses and if you have a husband and children. Justine and I are apparently both married but yet to have kids! Still doesn't really stall the attention. One guide book writer actually gave out his address to all who asked for it and upon returning home had 40 letters from Ghanains! They are a friendly group! They do also like to touch you, which is a bit disarming when in very crowded places. Both Justine and I had our faces grabbed today in Kumasi, while we were trying to move through this very hectic town.

Travel in this country is a big pain. As mentioned above, it takes forever to go a distance that we take for granted at home. Yesterday, we traveled from 8 AM to 6 PM to get a distance of about 200 miles. We were fortunate in Cape Coast to befriend our taxi driver, Papa. He offered to drive us to Elmina from Cape Coast and then we made a deal for him to drive us to Axim, the beach "resort" we stayed at for two nights. We paid him $55 for the entire day, which, in retrospect was a bargain. The time at Axim was fantastic! We stayed in our own private hut on the hill above the ocean and had the quaintest room and shell encrusted bathroom. There was AC but as it is run on solar power, we discovered you cannot have a light, the TV and the AC on at once. Most everywhere seems to run on generators so we've experienced several blackouts at our hotels and tonight we had dinner by candlelight...fortunately they cook with gas so our pizzas (YUP!!!!) were just fine!

We went running on the beach every day and lounged by the beach. The ocean was wonderfully refreshing (not too warm) and we didn't venture to find out if there are sharks! Lizards are everywhere including one that hustles along a few feet and then does 3 push-ups! He's my favorite...little muscle head!

We left Axim yesterday for Kumasi...that entailed first checking out of our hotel. An aside...everything here is done in "Ghanaian time". Our trip demonstrates what that means. Checking out took 40 minutes. 40 minutes for the lady to process my credit card and call a taxi. Right. Then the taxi took us into town along one of the bumpiest roads ever (typical...most roads are not paved) with the biggest potholes you've ever seen and took us to the tro-tro station. Tro-tro's (shared buses) only leave when they are absolutely full to capacity (with the helper crouching in the front). We waited about an hour for ours to leave, sitting in the hot tro-tro to save our seats. Imagine sweat just pouring down your body...that was us.

The Ghanaians sweat too, but nothing like this Irish girl. After an hour and a half tro-tro ride to Takoradi in which our butts fell asleep from the bumping along and lack of cushions in our 1980's (maybe) beat up tro-tro, we arrived in Takoradi. Having some foresight, we had already bought our tickets for the bus that runs twice a day to Kumasi (4 AM or 12 PM - we chose 12). We waited about an hour and a half for the bus to leave on our 5 hour journey. A side quiz: what's the hardest thing to find in Ghana? Answer: a restroom. So...although it is 100 degrees, you have to be very careful not to over-hydrate or you will have no where to go. Literally. Justine warned me of this so we've unfortunately been slightly dehydrated most of the trip...also, finding something simple for lunch is practically impossible so of the last 5 days, we've only had lunch once and otherwise have subsisted on the lara/odwalla bars and dried apricots and mangos I fortunately brought. Our 5 hour bus ride was filled with wonderful entertainment...they played Ghanain movies. Remember the last time you saw a Ghanaian movie win an Oscar? Exactly. Pure torture played at HIGH volumes. Apparently the actors think if you shout it translates to the audience. Not really.

The countryside is amazingly beautiful. It reminded me a lot of Cambodia and Vietnam...very lush and full of forests of palm trees, plantain and banana trees and high grasses. The scenerey stretches for miles and offers some insight to how traveling between Cape Coast and Kumasi (200 miles) took several months a few hundred years ago. Villages break up this scenery and are mostly mud or tin huts bunched together on the side of the road. One or two wells serve the villages for water and the poverty is rather striking. The people are so nice and very welcoming - taking pictures is something you have to ask to do, but most people are very inviting.

In Kumasi, we visited the cultural center and museum and then went out to a village to see the Kente cloth being woven. Today was our most exciting day overall. We had the most wonderful guide through the Kente village...he was kind of effeminate and very chummy...almost the Ghanaian version of a gay guy friend. We loved him. He took us all around and was very funny with an infectious laugh. While touring, he said, "I'm peeping." Justine, having been here for a month, said, "OK" and ushered me to the side. Apparently Christian had to use the restroom...right there. Another thing you see everywhere is Christianity. The stores all have names like, "God Bless you Business Centre" - although I didn't see a Xerox or Fax machine in the 4 x 4 stall that housed this sign. Or "May you walk with him Beauty Salon". It's all over the place. Literacy is pretty low so most signs are accompanied by a painted picture. At the herbal medicine doctor hut, there were images depicting all sorts of sexually transmitted diseases. I couldn't get a photo, but it was rather humorous. We verified that we're "clean".

I have left out so much detail, but I will send another e-mail from Germany if possible and of course have a million photos already. I've taken video too as that really helps you understand what we're experiencing over here. We are off to go home right now and shower and probably watch a movie before going to bed.

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