Sunday, June 6, 2010

We stole one more week to travel up to the norther most tip of Ghana with two intentions: sit on Crocodiles and see Elephants. I am happy to say we accomplished both... except I didn't actually SIT on the croc, I rather hovered 2 inches above it.

The journey began Monday, waiting 3-4 hours in the bus station to finally leave at 4pm. Then we sat in that bus until 8am the next morning when we arrived at the boarder of Ghana and Burkina Faso in a small town called Paga. Throughout the night we froze to death because I had insisted we pay an extra 2 cedis for AC, which, to my defense, would have been wonderful had we been traveling under the sun. There were Ghaliwood films playing all night. And Ghaliwood tends to drive me crazy (no offense to any Ghanaians) for the tinny sound quality, and I'm sorry to say but, bad acting. Every few hours we stopped to urinate or buy food for whatever the hour was, a mere 9pm, 12 midnight or even 3am there were women with baskets of bread, trays of boiled eggs with small pepper sauce, bananas, mangoes or pots of fried rice balanced on their heads and sold by street light or oil lamps. People asleep on straw mats or nothing at all. 20peswas to use the loo. And the moon was a plump half above, lighting the scene, coming through my window to light upon my upturned face.

At a few points we let on enough head-scarved women and capped men to fill the isle. They sat on plastic stools stowed on the bus for just that reason, and the guy behind us grumbled about overload.

Arriving in the morning, munching on some left over crackers I'd brought, we find ourselves not 100feet from Burkina Faso. We sit down to enjoy some B&E&T, the most common breakfast/anytimeofday meal- Bread&Egg with Tea. Now, there is something I should mention about Ghanaian breakfast, and that is, they like their food heavy. "Tea" is what you take in the morning before breakfast, and it is either some chocolatey drink, Milo, Ovaltine, hot chocolate, or Lipton with lots of cream and sugar, AND bread. That is "tea". When I first came and drank only the liquid, they would ask me where the bread was. So anyway, there are "B&E" setups on every corner- like Starbucks in Seattle- and you just ask for however many peswas of bread you want usually 20 is ok, the egg is 30 and the tea brings it to a cedi or just above. The seller chops a bit of onion and tomato in the egg, fries it up and you have a nutritious, cheap and absolutely satisfying meal.

We met with the sister of a friend of a friend who was from Paga who got another friend to help her ride us to the croc ponds on their motorbikes.

So we get to the ponds and it just looks like a little flood area, and then we see the back of a crocodile emerging as the locals call it. So there are like four crocs surrounding us and that's not all, we are supposedly going to SIT on them. There was something about it that went against everything I had watched on those nature shows. One at a time we went and squatted by that prehistoric hunk of muscle and teeth and armor and claws. I could have sat on it, but resting my hand on its rough back was enough for me. As I hovered there the image of it's head just whipping around to snap me in half kept running through my mind.

The story of Paga is that there was a prince who was somehow exiled from his home and was wondering in the wilderness lost and thirsty when he sees a crocodile and it is wet, so he says to himself "well if this croc is here and it is wet, there jolly-well must be water near by" "hallelujah!" So indeed the crocodile leads him to water and in return the human is supposed to keep watch over the animal, which is why the two live in peace up to this day. The locals there estimated 200 creatures living in that pond alone and that they have swum with them. I mean I've thought swimming with dolphins and sea turtles is pretty cool, but CROCODILES? That's a whole other level.

After that we visited the home of the friend here in Accra. Her sister took us to a mud hut with straw roof, into a nice room with a couch, TV, a few faded black and white photos of people, and a bed of foam on the floor. Once we were seated she brought us water, which they had to go buy making us feel terrible. They asked us what we might eat, and offered a Nothern specialty called "tizet" which we gladly accepted. While waiting, a very old man came into the room and settled on his bed with his two grandchildren in their school uniforms sitting by him. He spoke to us of his travels around Ghana and outside, telling us he is Mamata's father. (Mamata is the woman here in Accra). I loved listening to him, his old, slow voice, he kept saying he was so happy to have us, that if we wanted to stay overnight it would be wonderful but he knew we had short time. At that moment I felt so blessed. Here we were with people we didn't even know in this small village, them treating us with such hospitality- it wasn't set up by AFS or family or anyone else, it was the beautiful outcome of doing exactly what I came to do- making connections.

They served us the tizet and let us eat alone. The three of us shared a pot of sticky corn dough that was different from the other Ghanaian dishes, more watery and less fermented, and a smaller bowl of okro stew with a tantalizing chicken flavor. After a day with no real food but bananas and crackers this warm, heavy meal was absolutely stellar, and it was all the better to be eating with my hands from the same pot as my two companions. After many thank you's and a few pictures they sent us off with pieces of fried guinea fowl, 6 hard boiled eggs and a tub of peanut butter big enough to last a year. We couldn't believe it, to say the least. Then they drove us on the motorcycles back to the taxi station to catch a car to Bolgatanga. All told I think that that morning was one of the best memories I will have of my stay here, our trips, Ghanaian hospitality, because as Adam said, it was completely "legit". And it was. It was exactly the reason why I don't want to just tour.

We got through Bolga and down to Tamale, back to where we had been in October with AFS- in fact we visited the same Belgin-owned restaurant we'd had wonderful pizza... only this time our wallets suggested we go for a coke, and it was mostly a guise to use the bathroom because well, it was a real bathroom with tp, doors, flush ability and soap.

Next goal: elephants. This led us back to Mole National Park, which we had also gone to with AFS... but you know, it is so much funner (and hotter, sweatier, stressfull-er, and longer) to go solo, to hop from trotro to trotro, figure it out, arrive in after dark and have to find our hotel, to bear the grit and live on bread and peanut butter. On Wednesday we arrived in another village called Larabanga rather late. It was at the end of a never ending road which had these awful ridges which made our bus rattle and shake so the racket made conversation impossible, leaving us to bounce on our seats, holding and praying that the whole shebang wouldn't go kaput right then and there. Absolutely beat, we step off the bus and are greeted by a tall man in a long white dress which the Muslims wear. He ushers us into a sweet compound, sits us on benches and without even talking about it convinces us to stay there in his guesthouse with his sheer friendliness. And the place we had thought about staying at he said had no electricity. Half an hour later we found ourselves bathed (bucket bath of course) and laying on foam on the roof under a cavern of stars, the hint of a plump moon rising, lightening flashing, soundless.

I wake. 3:21am I have to pee and it is rather cold. Leia, my sister, once told me that if you are holding urine in your body it makes you colder because your body is trying to keep the liquid warm. Hobble down the ladder and go to the pit in the floor used for such purposes. Back on the roof I stand. A baby cries in a house below. Roosters are crowing though there is no light.

We arise before the sun has shaken off the mist and hop on bikes towards the Park, some 6km away. Wheels beneath me for the first time in so long, the freedom of downhill, the panting of uphill in the still cool morning of wilderness. There are no words. I picked up a twig of a woman covered in so much colorful cloth on her way to some form of work, somewhere along this long dirt road. Little further, we pass two school children walking to class and, since the woman has alighted, we pick them up, a boy and a girl in class four in their yellow and blue uniforms. We pass a family of baboons. Warthogs. Monkeys.

We debated whether or not to splurge and spend the 40 cedis to go on a safari car tour, as we didn't see elephants immediately at the waterhole, over bread and peanut butter. A cheerleading quad of North Carolina girls in matching tops and mini shorts were also there getting ready for the walking tour... so they all had to rent Wellingtons becasue all they had were flip-flops. Hehe. Then one of the guides comes over and says the old man there wants to know if we would join his safari car because he is alone and there are four of us and it would be perfect- free for us. We thanked him profusely and hopped on. (We were four because there was another girl traveling alone, who we had happened to have seen down on Busua beach a month or two before. If I didn't mention Sofie didn't come one this trip, just me Marie and Adam). This lovely man was a retired writer from Toronto with a Scottish accent who had lived in Accra for some 13 years as a missionary. He was writing a book about literature in Ghana and Nigeria. (We scored a signed copy) . Truly he was a wonderful old man, liked talking, interested in us, had vast and rambling knowledge, and told us that a Brit once said to him that "Canadians are like Americans on decaf" which made us howl. We agreed on certain Ghanaian phenomenons, such as the use of the word "urinate" as the sole key to a place to piss- "bathroom", "washroom", "pee", or "restroom" result in nothing but confusion. Why are we embarrassed to say it?

And finally, after 2 and a half hours of nice conversation and woods, occasional antelope, warthogs, monkeys we arrived at the very same waterhole that we could see from the top where we saw two elephants. Now, besides the desire to go to Paga, the only real reason for this bang up trip was for Adam to see elephants. As he saw it, he couldn't go all the way to Africa and not gaze upon a true, wild African Elephant. And he got his wish. Two massive animals, half stained with muddy water, gentle yet fearsome less than a hundred feet away from us.

We biked home that night after dark, slept out on the roof again. The sweet man who owned the place awoke us at 1:30am telling us it would rain, so we got downstairs and not three minutes later do my ears fill with the crashing of water on a tin roof. I had never heard it so loud before.

The rest was a blur- driving from 4:30 to 11 along bumpy roads back to Tamale, then Kumasi and finally home sweet home to Accra.

All told it was beautiful. The north is mostly open, with many trees, villages of round huts with thatched roofs, traditional cloth exploding color, mosques, beggars.

We are left with two weeks. Saying goodbye, finding the last treasures, trying to figure out how to bring everything back, making sure my mental list is satisfied, preparing to take the leap back home and then to reperch again. As it is no secret now, my family will be moving to New Mexico come August.... just another adventure on this continual spinning earth, another home, another life. As I leave this one I get ready to embark on another. Is it a sunrise or a sunset?


  1. I simply happened upon your blog while doing research on exchange for my child. And as it is now time for you to return home I have to tell you that I have thoroughly enjoyed reading of your adventure. What wonderful memories and friends you have made this year. I can only hope that my child's exchange is as good. Thank you.

  2. I have thoroughly enjoyed your blogs all year, Justine. You beautifully capture details that I love to hear. And this most recent post ... oh my. I love the photos of course, but the final paragraph is just elegant and gave all three of us home-based Streeters an "ahhhhhh" moment. I look forward to meeting you someday. Take good care, Beth (aka Adam's mom)

  3. Hi Justine,

    Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreat! The story lines aren't too flowery and hyped, just with the natural feel as you experienced life in Ghana.

    I'm doing a project in Accra on Exchange Students who have been to Ghana. Please contact me: