Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sabbatical Day 8

We arrive in Ghana

12 June 2017

Some, including my Kirkwood-based travel agent, have asked just why it was that I had elected to have our itinerary go first to Paris, then to Accra, next to Dakar, and finally to Oslo. This made for an expensive round of airfare. We would spend over $13,000 on flights by the time we would be done, and well near $15,000 including travel insurance! Why not, instead, go first to Accra, then to Dakar, Paris, and Oslo? That itinerary, including the flights out of and back to the States, would have cost closer to $10,000 or even half if we'd done it right.

But I had spent a week and a half during January 1985 with other students from the University of Evansville touring Haiti. What I had learned from that experience was that the developing world is sufficiently different by contrast with the condition of the developed world that we would probably need a week in Europe at each end of our three weeks in Africa.

The travel from Kotoka airport in Accra to the resort where we would stay in Elmina was enough for me to feel justified in making the greater expense.

We were picked up from our hotel in Paris, just before 7 o'clock in the morning. It had seemed extraordinarily early to me, when I read it, but travel agents being wise in the ways of traffic and airports, I was grateful. Traffic on the day we arrived (Whitmonday, the day after Pentecost which turns out to be a national holiday in France) there had been comparatively little traffic at noontime. The driver said that this was because of the holiday. But the following Monday at the start of a workday found us moving slowly through the streets until we got to the highway. We arrived at Charles deGaulle, a little before 8.

British Air put us on a commuter flight to London which left at 10:30 and arrived at 10:55 at Heathrow (London is an hour behind Paris.). For those of you who will be using Heathrow as a connection, or - likely - any airport in Britain, be prepared for a very thorough exam. And, for your own sake, please be sure to empty your pockets entirely(!), remove your laptop from its case, your belt from your waist, your shoes from your feet, and your pride from your conscience - especially if you have had a hip replacement like Coco's.

Interestingly, although we had prepared for it with official documents, we were never questioned about our family's unusual color scheme. Apparently, if it's on file with the Immigration Department in Washington, you're good to go.

Anyway, the layover in London was just under three hours, which turned out to be the perfect amount of time for us to transfer by bus from one terminal to another, go through security, have some lunch and look around (the play equipment is for children up to 9 years old, not 10), render Gwen very uncomfortable about the Dolce & Gabbana ad that played incessantly on what seemed like every video screen in the airport ("Why do they show her starting to pull down his pants?! Why do they think we'd want to see that!"), and stroll somewhat casually to our gate where, as we got closer and closer on that long walk, we became increasingly aware of the shift in perspective and culture we were about to experience, if only because of Gwen becoming more and more in the majority, at least as far as melanin level was concerned.

It may seem as though I am stating the obvious. But I have to be honest with you that the transition from White to Black in London is a genuinely palpable and visual experience. I wish that I had thought to take photographs, because this really is remarkable. More than just the people change. The gates at the Africa end of the terminal have fewer merchants nearby. The surroundings seem more stark. Maybe it's because you are walking to the end of the terminal, but it feels a little as though you're walking to the end of the world.

Our flight would take six and a half hours, departing at 1:55PM from London and arriving at 7:25PM in Accra. Accra is an hour behind London for the portion of the year that London is on Daylight Saving Time. Sunlight lasts just about twelve hours a day, no matter where you are in West Africa because you are so close to the equator. So, why observe DST? No reason. 

They served us what they called lunch, about an hour into the flight - fish or chicken with jollof rice, a curious pasta salad with a large grain couscous and carrot slivers, and "caramel custard" (flan). I had the fish. Gwen and Coco had the chicken. Gwen didn't seem to eat much of it. Later, they provided a light snack to eat, I guess, as supper. Having left our boulangerie leftovers behind in Paris, I was kind of concerned that we were all going to be hungry by the time we got to Elmina.

I had measured the distance between Accra and Elmina, and I knew that there was a new highway running between them, according to Gershon. It is 157 kilometers, about 95 miles; so, I figured we would traverse it in about ninety minutes. But no, said our travel guide, it would be something more on the order of three and a half hours. Ninety minutes was closer to the amount of time it would take to get us through Immigration and Baggage Claim at Kotoka.

It was dark in Accra when we arrived. Streetlights glowed a familiar amber or blue below us, and one could see that there were cars and people and buildings down there, but it was darker than most cities and certainly not as illuminated as American cities are at night. Almost regardless of the city in the States, there is a radiance that render the nighttime, especially with monuments and public buildings, as if daylight began from the ground up. In Accra, it was definitely night.

The captain set us down hard, and immediately reversed the engines. If any of us had been sleeping before the landing, we weren't once we'd landed. Slowly we approached the terminal, and then I noticed we'd stopped out in what seemed to be the middle of the tarmac. Trucks now converged on our aircraft, two with staircases on top, others with baggage trailers following behind. I have become so accustomed to the passenger boarding bridges, familiar in developed world airports, that I thought for a moment we had set down hard enough that they were having to unload us with emergency equipment. But no, there were "Cobus" vehicles waiting for us too. And once off board, you could clearly see that Kotoka did not have passenger boarding bridges. This was how you got from the plane to the terminal. And we did.

Stepping out into the night air - 75 degrees and humid so that Coco and I exclaimed that it felt like St. Louis - we could see that there were some wet spots on the tarmac from rain earlier in the day. The air was also pungent with an odor we came to realize was the Volta River. I'll explain more about it in a later post (Day 15, I think), but let it suffice for me to say here that Ghana near the Volta bears a certain, unmistakable funk.

Our guidebook advised us that we would be met at the airport by a driver holding a sign with the words, "AFRICA EASY," on it along with our name. Emmanuel would be his name. Exiting Kotoka what we saw was a throng of people, all of whom were very enthusiastic that they should be the ones to drive us somewhere. Off to the right stood one with a sign that said "DENOON Family." That was good enough for us.

"Are you Emmanuel?" I asked.

As if he knew that everything we possibly could want would be to get clear of the crowd, he said, "Come on. Walk with me." We pressed through the crowd to his minivan, which was just big enough for our luggage to go in back, Coco and Gwen in the middle, and me up front with him.

"We're exhausted," I said as he set the car in reverse. "We've been traveling for fourteen hours now, and the information I have says that this drive is going to take another three and half. Can that be right?"

"I think I can get you there in three, but it depends on traffic and stops," he said.

I now realized that the highway we would be traveling must be a two-lane, full access highway rather than the four-lane, limited access roads I am used to traveling. Well, yes, that also was the case...

Traffic inched its way from the airport to the main road, winding through what seemed to be markets that lined either side of the street. Women with big basins on their heads rushed toward us at intersections selling everything from soft drinks to snacks to fruit to hair care products, some with children trailing behind them at what seemed an awfully late hour of the night. I mean, forget the fact that the night before we had had Gwen out until midnight in the City of Lights, now she was sleeping with her head in Coco's lap. And the children, besides, seemed very, very little indeed in the lights of the cars and trucks and veering motorcycles. Then, the light would go green, horns would blare (though not at the sellers), and sellers would dodge out of the way.

We entered the highway (in Accra, it's four-lane, limited access), and off we went. Street signs posted the speed limit at 40, 70, even 100 kph, and when we finally reached a stretch with that last number on it, I thought we were home free and that the drive would take maybe two hours altogether.

Then we came to Buduburam, a small town not far out of Accra. There was a police barricade and a contingent of officers in the Ghana Police Service, all of them with automatic weapons slung over a shoulder and pointed at the ground and one of them gesturing with a downturned palm of the hand that we should stop. My thought when we had seen the nighttime airport tarmac was, What have I gotten us into? That same thought arose again when we exited the airport, looking for our driver. Now, it came a third time.

But I reassured myself that our host the Rev. Gershon Dotse and the former General Minister and President of the UCC the Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Black and my church's recent former Student Minister and a crew of other students and faculty at Eden Seminary would not have spoken so highly of Ghana were we going to run into hopeless difficulty at a police checkpoint. Surely, that had to be true!

Emmanuel obeyed the signal of the police officer by slowing down to a crawl, then turned on the dome light to show that he was carrying tourists (I'll leave it to you to guess how it would have been apparent that we were tourists), then that same officer raises the palm that previously was downturned and pointed it with a slight circular motion over the same shoulder, and we proceeded back to 100 kph and on to the next roadblock.

There were easily a dozen such checkpoints between Accra and Elmina. That is the primary reason why a trip that should by my calculations - even with the road two-lane rather than four-lane and full rather than limited access - have brought us to our destination in 90 or so minutes took twice as much time in fact. Occasionally, the slowdown would include a pause on the road as Emmanuel and an officer would chat briefly in a language that was not English. Also, at some of the bigger towns along the way there would be toll booths: always cash followed by a receipt and a resumption of speed like a race horse leaving its starting gate.

Americans with whom I have spoken since this experience have offered the suspicion that the Ghana Police Service is on the take and must have had to be bribed at each roadblock to let us through. But I can say comfortably that this is not the case. Emmanuel explained that roadblocks are set up, especially at night along the better roads, because people will attempt to smuggle valuable goods out of or through the country - especially gold and guns. The vigilance on the part of the police is for the sake of controlling those who are transporting such items. He explained that the Ghanaian government is presently cracking down hard on locals and Chinese whom they have discovered mining and panning for gold without authorization. Gun running in Ghana is like gun running anywhere, and many of them are supplying the unauthorized gold diggers. (It's helpful to remember that Ghana's colonial name was "Gold Coast," and its accumulation and export of gold has continued uninterrupted since independence.) I would learn later that these aren't the only reasons for the GPS needing to be out at night slowing traffic, but I'll let that suffice for now.

About two-thirds of the way along our route, Gwen needed a bathroom break. Remembering the roadside urination and defecation that I had seen in 1985 Haiti and the peeing that seemed ubiquitous along this highway, I was afraid that my daughter's first Ghanaian rest area would be a ditch. I was pleasantly surprised to have Emmanuel pull into a well-lit filling station. The experience of the trough in the slanted concrete floor behind a cement w all but under the stars of Ghana was disorienting enough for the girl ("Mom, what am I supposed to do?" she asked. "I was glad," Coco told me later, "that I'd been to Italy in the 1980s, because the accommodations were very familiar.").

Forty-five minutes later, we left the highway by a surprising little off ramp in Elmina that took us to the seaside road. It was surprising because it was so steep. Two days later, when we traveled to Cape Coast, I discovered that it was so steep because it crossed over an inlet that provided for a fishmarket where boats were moored. But at night only the ramp itself was lighted, and the boats that I would see below on Wednesday either were not there now (and they might not have been), or else they were invisible in the darkness.

The remainder of the trip was not long. This pavement led to a dirt road with a directional sign at its head pointing to our resort and others. I will tell you now, up to this point in my life, I had only ever encountered roads this bad in rural Colorado, and even there I don't remember them being this rutted. Emmanuel seemed to inch the vehicle to the gate of our resort. There, with the gate still closed, two security guards in full uniform inspected the vehicle under and through, then waved us on.

Here we were, at midnight, arriving at our residence for the next four days. Emmanuel, evidently familiar with the facility, upon finding the door to the office locked, disappeared down a walkway and reappeared at the door to let us in. A rather grouchy seeming fellow, whom I would later learn was named Moses, found our reservation and some key cards for us, then signaled for Emmanuel and one of the security guards to accompany us to our room.

We had entered the resort from the northeast. Our accommodations were at the southwest corner of the resort. Emmanuel and the guard hauled our luggage on a cart with our backpacks, as Coco, Gwen, and I followed them. Now, we could hear the ocean pounding against a beach; Gwen thought for a moment it was a thunderstorm and worried that now she wouldn't be able to get to sleep.

Emmanuel told us that breakfast would be served from 7:30 until 10:30 in the morning, and that we could find him at the office, any time we wanted a tour. 

Fumbling for money but having only euros, not the local currency, I said, "After that trip, Emmanuel, I have to tell you that I have no idea how to begin to tip you. We are all so grateful to you for getting us here safely, I don't know if this is too much or too little, but here are thirty euros. I doubt we will be feeling like driving anywhere tomorrow, but I will see you in the afternoon, and we'll talk about where and when we might go on Wednesday and Thursday."

"And you will go to Accra, in a couple of weeks," he said. "Do you have a ride from your hotel to the airport?"

"Our friends who are meeting us on Friday will be delivering us to the airport in a couple of weeks. But if there is a problem, I know I have your number. I'll see you, tomorrow."

Read my Sabbatical 2017 postings.

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