Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sabbatical Day 12

Friday, 16 June 2017
From Elmina (Central Region), to Accra and then to Tema (Greater Accra Region)

Over-speeding and Standing Still

The calls from Gershon began mid-morning, but by this time my cell phone was again needing to be topped up. So, the front desk sent someone down at 9AM to tell us that he had called to say, he and the driver had just left Accra. That should put them in Elmina at noon.

About an hour later, another message came: Traffic was slowing them down. Much as they might try, Gershon did not think that they would reach us much before 2.

Meditation on a Cash-based Economy
We took the luggage to the front desk at 2 o'clock, and I settled up with the receptionist on duty. She told me the total, which accounted for the food and drink of our meals charged to the room over the last four days. I handed her the church's debit card, and she said, "Thank you, but I should inform you that using a card entails a five percent usage fee." Although I was a little shocked at the up charge, nevertheless I had no other means of payment, and costs otherwise were remarkably inexpensive, so I told her all right.

It now began to dawn on me that I had paid in cash for literally everything else in Ghana, thus far. Furthermore, when I had received the bill for our first non-breakfast meal at the Coconut Grove Beach Resort, which included breakfast in the room charge, the bill had only listed the charges for food. There was a space at the bottom for one to calculate the 15% of taxes and any tip (unlike in Paris or London where the value added tax and service fee were calculated into the bill). So, I calculated 15% more and another 15% for Moses our server, signed it with our room number, and handed him back the folder with the bill in it. He looked at the paper in something like horror and said that, if I simply charged the bill to the room, he would not receive from the management the full amount of the tip. So, I subtracted out the tip from the total and told Moses that, once I had some cash on hand the next day, I would tip him. He served us at supper also, and I kept my promise on Wednesday with regard to both meals, after we returned from Cape Coast Castle.

Having done so, I could not help but notice that the staff, which was already quite attentive and helpful, became much more attentive and helpful. My grandfather's old saying, that "tip" stands for "to insure promptness," began echoing in my head. But moreso than just the matter of tipping was my realization, at the front desk with the receptionist demanding five percent extra, that we were experiencing in its blooming fullness a truly cash-based economy. (By the end of our two weeks, it would be obvious that this was really a paper-based economy, but more about that later.)

The Road East
Gershon arrived at 2:45, apologetic and concerned about our timing for arrival at our next destination, a spa near the city of Sogakope which ought to be - in good traffic - about five hours away. The hope had been to arrive in time for supper, but obviously we were looking at a very late supper if that would be the case.

Our driver makes a point.
Gershon introduced us to our driver. "This is E-vonce," I heard him say. I repeated the driver's name and shook his hand. I imagined that his name would have been spelled, "Yvonce," but pronounced as if there is a plural to the Russian pronunciation of Ivan. Yvonce was about five feet and eight or nine inches tall, probably in his early twenties, and fit. He wore his hair close cropped (not shaved like Gershon), and looked neat in a t-shirt and jeans. Yvonce's command of English was arguable, and he was a bit shy about it. English is taught in school, and in most schools it becomes the language of instruction. I never asked Yvonce about his schooling, but I have come to assume that he must not have finished high school.

Our transportation
Yvonce came with a 9-passenger van, a 2008 Ford E-Series that had been made in the U.S. I'm sure of this, since its speedometer was marked in miles per hour, rather than kilometers. It had seen better days, and the interior was worn in places and not terribly comfortable, but the air conditioning worked and was zoned, according to the control panel, front and back. It seemed a bit large for our needs. But we knew that Gershon's wife Pamela would be joining us for a portion of the tour, and, besides, it would be nice to be able to stretch out should we need naps between destinations. It was also remarkably inexpensive, coming at a cost - including Yvonce's services, food, and lodging - of only $110 a day, plus fuel. (Gershon said that the merchant who rented him the vehicle was a member of his home church, so that may explain the bargain.)

Once all our luggage had been loaded - Gershon and Yvonce very impressively making it fit in a space that seemed more designed for seating than storage - we were off!

Yvonce took a different route away than we had seen with Emmanuel, through a more affluent-looking section of Elmina. As we rounded the first corner, in fact, we passed a palatial estate on a hill overlooking the resort. Gershon pointed out that this was the residence of a former Ghanaian presidential candidate, Papa Kwesi Nduom, the owner of the GN (Groupe Nduom) Bank from which I had conducted my first ATM transaction. Emmanuel, pointing at the home from a different direction a few days before, had noted that this was the home of the owner of the Coconut Grove Beach Resort but had said nothing about Mr. Nduom also owning the resort.

Rather than taking us through Elmina, as I say, Yvonce circled around it. The point was to avoid delays. And, indeed, the moment an opportunity presented itself to hasten our journey on its way, Yvonce most certainly did! I am comfortable saying without reservation that I have never traveled at quite that rate of speed before. In areas in which there were no vehicles in front of us, our driver seemed to have no qualms at all increasing our speed to 80, 90, even 100 miles an hour!

Yvonce was in the driver’s seat, of course. And although Gershon had offered me the front passenger seat (shotgun), I elected to sit in the first row in back. This was a couch designed for two people – one at the window and the other in the center of the vehicle (where I was). Gwen and Coco sat in the row behind me, also designed for two, while some of the luggage inhabited the final, three-person row and the rest took up the narrow space for storage between the back row and the back doors.

When Yvonce would hit top speed, the second or third time, he did so passing another vehicle and with oncoming traffic visible maybe a quarter mile ahead. He would duck in front of the car we had just passed and continue on, his velocity unslowed.

Now I will tell you, I have passed many a vehicle on a two-lane highway, and no few of those times I have accelerated to a speed I thought unwise – especially if there was oncoming traffic, but always I would decrease speed once past the vehicle I was rounding. Not Yvonce. No. And just when I would convince myself that, in fact, he had found a new, more reasonable speed at which to travel, the engine would surge and the pointer would swing round. And I would look back at Coco with a helpless look, as she looked at me questioningly and with maybe a hint of panic. Thankfully, Gwen either slept through all this or became so concentrated in a video game on her iPod that it seemed she was not paying attention.

All the while, he and Gershon carried on what seemed like a carefree conversation in (I learned later) Yvonce’s native Twi dialect. (Gershon, it turns out, is quite the Ghanaian polyglot!)

It may be helpful at this point to note a few things about driving in Ghana. The first is the sign I noticed on that night journey from Accra to Elmina. As I watched Emmanuel’s speedometer slip past the 80 kph speed limit, there came a roadside warning, “OVERSPEEDING KILLS.” (“Not just speeding,” said one American breathlessly when I spoke about it with them there, “overspeeding!”)

The second thing is that one of the first stories I heard about Ghanaian drivers was in the documentary on PBS about Maya Angelou. There, it is told that her son was injured horribly in an accident in which he was the passenger on the back of a motorcycle in Accra. That someone might be injured riding a motorcycle comes as no surprise, considering the way bikers bob and weave through traffic whether it is standing still or moving. Trust me, that he survived was practically miraculous.

The third thing that it is helpful to bear in mind is that Gershon’s father – and the loved ones of many with whom I spoke – died in an auto accident in Accra. In Gershon’s father’s case, his death came just three weeks before Gershon was set out for Eden Seminary.

Needless to say, I suppose, between Yvonce’s overspeeding and an almost complete lack of police barricades, though speed bumps and humps tended to slow us somewhat near intersections and villages, we arrived in Accra in much less than the standard three and a half hours. On the east side of Accra, amid industrial sites and new home developments, the highway became four lanes, divided, and limited access, like an Interstate. And for about ten miles, it seemed as though we were going to make it to Sogakope in time for a late supper. In fact, Gershon called ahead for just that purpose. ("We'll arrive around 9PM," he told them when he placed the order.)

Then, we began noticing that traffic was slowing and becoming heavier. Gershon attributed this to the usual Friday migration from out of the cities to the country, where Ghanaian funerals customarily take place. I had heard of the opulence of Ghanaian funerals, often with special, personalized coffins and celebrations that can last for days. Gershon lamented that funerals, even for poor people, will be like this. As we drove, he noted billboards and posters memorializing people with phrases like "A Life Well-lived" or "Gone Too Soon." Such words usually were accompanied by a photo of the deceased and occasionally a brief biography or obituary. The printing and display of these announcements could themselves run the family of the deceased hundreds of dollars. Add in the cost of embalming, coffin, transportation of the body, venue, catering, music, and sundry other additions, and a funeral could cost you a year's wages or more!

The average life expectancy of a Ghanaian is between 66 and 67 years. Add to that the number of accidental deaths, and the desire to pay exorbitant tribute to the dead, and you have quite the funeral industry. And quite a migration on the weekends, when the celebrations of life would take place.

At Tema, a major port and a city immediately adjoining Accra, traffic simply stopped. We had just passed through a toll plaza. Between that bottleneck and an unidentified event ahead, the road to Sogakope became a parking lot. Yvonce attempted to skirt the traffic on a couple of occasions. Familiar with Tema, on one occasion he followed an exit only to rejoin the standing traffic, entering again after crossing the road at the end of the exit. On another, he actually followed some other ambitious drivers through what may or may not have been an actual, designated roadway, then through the neutral roadside area of a filling station where he re-entered the roadway, a bit farther along. There is truly nothing like cutting off another driver (or two or three) on your way through a truck stop! But nothing worked to shake us loose of the standing traffic.

An hour passed, and we had not moved. Yvonce dutifully kept the car idling and the air conditioning on. Eventually, at 8:45, he determined that he would take advantage of his knowledge of Tema's streets. Waving to other drivers, especially a couple of buses alongside us, Yvonce cut across the snarl of cars, motorcycles, trucks, and buses, from our position in the right lane. At the encouragement of some pedestrians in the median, he found a bit of pavement. Across, he waited for the westbound traffic to clear and sped off back in the direction of a major intersection we had crossed, a couple of miles back. Once there, he took us into Tema.

I think I have mentioned before that the major thoroughfares in Ghana tend to be well-paved and fairly passable. Side streets, however, are another story entirely. And so it was now, as we bounced and rocked our way through neighborhoods on our way first to the north, then meandering to the east where Yvonce hoped to find another cross street beyond the traffic jam. The next one was blocked with traffic trying to enter the highway and backed up. And the one after that.

It was now 9:30, and Gershon turned to me. "I think we need to stop for the night and try to get to Sogakope in the morning, because I am sure, no matter how we try we will not get there before midnight. And it might be later. Is that all right?"

Coco and I shrugged, to say that if they thought that this was our best choice, that's what we would do. "Can we get some food?" Coco asked, as Gwen complained of being hungry.

"Oh, yes. We will find a hotel with a restaurant," Gershon assured us. That turned out to be the Kowa Naso. And notwithstanding an unfortunate lack of sheets there, we were all grateful for the grace of a place to end the day and stay and sleep.

The next morning, I spoke with Gershon before Yvonce arrived with the van, and expressed my concern about his speeding as lightly as I could. "You know, I noticed yesterday that Yvonce was driving much faster than I feel comfortable. I'm clear that the van must have been made in America, because it has a speedometer that measures miles rather than kilometers per hour. He is clear, isn't he, that the speed limit signs are in kph, not mph, right?"

Gershon followed my jest and laughed. "Yes, I am sure he just wanted to make up for the lost time in traffic," he said.

"I think if it was just me," I said, "I would have been concerned about his speed but could have overlooked it. But my family is with us in the car, and I'd appreciate it if he would drive what's posted, even if we are running late."

There was no point at which I could identify that the two of them discussing Yvonce's speeding, and maybe Gershon was right and Yvonce simply wanted us to arrive on time. But I can say that he drove the posted speed limits, everywhere we went thereafter, and thereafter I think I have never felt safer or more confident in anyone's driving than I did Yvonce's.

Oh. And it turns out his name is Evans.

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