A Travellerspoint blog

Prologue

Read this first.

Welcome to my blog about my travels in Ghana. It's been by far the most wonderful, terrible, exhilarating, stimulating, unbelievable trip I've undertaken thus far: mostly good, but there have been some pretty low lows too. I've retro-fitted the dates to make the blog read in chronological order if you click 'previous' or use the Table of Contents (as opposed to reverse chronological order which is the typical blog structure), but along the way I've added copious footnotes regarding useful little details that we discovered as we went: some of it is included in the 2007 Bradt guide, quite a lot is not. I've also added extra bits that the Bradt guide got quite painfully wrong in the hopes that someone may read this and not have to repeat our mistakes (although said discoveries will be submitted to the authors of the guide in the hopes that they may help the next publication). If you're reading this in preparation for your own journey, you may want to skip the descriptive narrative and cut straight to the footnotes.

It's testimony itself that I arrived home and felt 'culture shocked' again by the environment I know so well... Ghana has a way of absorbing and permeating you, as does life on the road with its very different routine and set of priorities. I am, however, already wishing to go back and missing the friendly faces and weird quirks: despite not being my native SA, I felt at times more at home there than I have here in the UK. Perhaps this is completely psychological, given my excessive afinity for the continent, but that does not diminish the reality of the experience for me, nor the myriad of others who have expressed similar sentiments.

If you're thinking about going to Ghana: go! If you're not, start thinking about it. I say this against my selfish desire to keep Ghana free of massive hordes of tourists, even though I find my ability to enjoy a new place and to establish unfettered relationships with local people diminished severely when surrounded or preceded by large groups of visitors. But if each tourist goes to Ghana open-minded and conscientious of building a positive and respectful relationship with Ghanaians of all walks of life, then increased tourism can only do Ghana good. I'm sad to say that there is already evidence that not all tourists undertake their journey in such a manner, and we did encounter negative precedents and expectations in those places where visitors had not thought of the consequences of their actions. I do ask that if you find this blog useful and you wish to prevent another beautiful country from becoming yet another over-priced pushy packaged-tour tourist trap, that you bear this message in mind on your journey.

Happy reading!

Nanti ye

Posted by Sarabi 13:08 Archived in Ghana Comments (0)

Arrival: Descent into the capital

A glimpse in the darkness

overcast 26 °C
View Ghana on Sarabi's travel map.

So I arrived in Accra tonight, my first impression of Ghanaians given a massive headstart by my most amicable travel companion all the way from Heathrow. What had promised to be a dreary day of airport hopping (budget tickets are a bitch), turned out to be a pleasant ride getting to know such a nice person who was just great company--a casual queue conversation about shared grievances over airport bureaucracy turned into many shared interests and even a common vocation. Thanks to Eb, Ghana received me in a far better mood than my normal post-flight grumpiness.

Said good vibes were enhanced by a very friendly customs official who was ever so enamoured that we shared a first name--this credential alone was sufficient to ensure that I didn't even need to open my bag. My mood was still improving... S (really my fiance but for the purpose of my trip, refered to as my husband), was waiting for me outside the security barriers and all my anxieties of being stranded alone in a West African airport in the middle of the night dissipated.

Just as well--outside the arrivals terminal in the gloominess of the street lights and the glow from the windows, lay an ambush of well-meaning but determined taxi drivers all vying for the precious cargo that the plane had ejected. One hustler quoted us a price of 6Ghc (6 new Ghanaian cedis--pronounced 'seedies'), claiming the extra cost (4 is the normal price, S informs me) was due to 'parking fees for waiting etc'. Having agreed to 6, he promptly whistled up a guy who was waiting on the street--parking fees my ass. Then he had the gall to ask for a tip. S politely told him to bugger off.

At this point I'm just trusting S. He's been in West Africa for almost 2 weeks now, crossing 3 border-posts and fending for himself amongst the bartering and the hustling. Not only that, but he's cycled 3000 miles through East Africa too, compared to my 4Wd tourism of Namibia, and I defer to his better judgment. I feel like a rabbit in caught in headlights: I'm vaguely aware of the volume of activity around me by sound but cannot quite see what is going on. Once inside the back of the taxi, my sense of hearing is blocked too by the thundering speakers in the back seat, blasting an interview on local radio as to how the current 'top hit'--a tribute to Barrack Obama--was composed through divine intervention when the musician realised in a dream that a song he had written 6 months prior fitted perfectly to the new US president's name... "Barr---ack, Barr----ack Oh-bar-mah!"

S says something to the driver--I only know this because I see lips moving. I gaze out the window, trying to get some bearings. My vision compliments my hearing--that Ghana is indeed Obama-bevok, revelling in its hysteria in the week post his 24 hour visit to the country. Massive billboards line the highway with pixelated, over-blown-up pictures of Obama photoshopped next to John Atta Mills, each backgrounded by their respective flags, headlined with 'AKWAABA!' (WELCOME!) and captioned with 'Together, yes we can!'.

"Barr---ack, Barr---ack Oh-bar-mah!"

I tried to follow where the driver was going, getting some sense of bearings and direction that vaguely resembles the map in the guide that I'd studied on the plane. But the driving on the right-hand-side of the road throws me completely, as to all the buildings and landmarks that make a place look so different to how you imagined it (damn maps--why can't they convey all this?). We get to the hotel S has booked for us for the night, painted lime green with a stoep on the left surrounded by a bead-curtain, and the rooms to the right, accessed by a short staircase. S greets the nightwatchman at reception who obviously recognises him, and turns to explain to me that the restaurant only runs during the week, not on weekends. I just nodded and followed him up the stairs where the first room on the left is ours.

It's spacious enough, with pink and baby-blue curtains, and the shiniest mismatched off-white tiles on the floor. The water supply is erratic, hedged against by a massive bottle green plastic 17litre bucket in the shower which S has filled in anticipation of the next cut. I finally got the hug I was angling for, and pretty much am ready to collapse into bed. I haven't a clue what lies outside the hotel. Accra will have to wait until morning.

Posted by Sarabi 21.08.2009 16:00 Archived in Ghana Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Day One: Trying to get to grips with Accra.

A little bit culture shocked.

semi-overcast 25 °C
View Ghana on Sarabi's travel map.

Breakfast this morning was a pleasant surprise. S had deliberately gone out and searched for all the things he knows I like and bought them for me as my first meal in Ghana! Fresh sweet tea-bread (1), a croissant (not easy to find on the streets of Accra!), and sweet ripe juicy mangoes (2). Alright, I concede that continental pastries are not what one should look for when travelling to a different culinary destination but I definitely appreciated the gradual introduction to strange food rather than a rude awakening first morning after a fair-to-middling night's sleep.

Ghana wasted no time in informing me about her rules regarding noise production. From pre-sunrise to late into the night, all forms of music, animal noises, shouting, blaring TVs and radios etc. are perfectly acceptable and frankly any complaints would fall on confused (and somewhat ironically deaf) ears. Nonetheless, I was determined not to bring my rather British upbringing with me and jettison such expectations of peace and quiet I did.

To top off breakfast, S--with his usual mischievious grin--whips out a beautiful piece of olive-green, blue and yellow fabric he chose for me in Nigeria: 'Ta Da!'. The interlocking designs are enhanced by the offset of each colour from the others... the pattern designed to fit perfectly, but deliberately printed to look like the yellow and blue printer cartridges are out of alignment, gaps of white peaking out in between. Of course, being a textiles nut, I squeaked with delight. My friend T had warned me about bringing half of Ghana's fabric supply back with me. Looks like she might have been right.

S attacked the new Bradt guide-book I brought with me (up until this point he'd been figuring his route across from Abuja using only a continent-wide, rather bulky Lonely Planet. You can imagine the lack of detail in a book that aspires to cover Africa in its entirety). I expressed an interest in the Accra museum for the morning's excursion, but errands had to be run first: S had spent the last 2 days walking the length and breadth of the inner city and had discovered a Stanbic ATM where he wanted to try his Maestro card for Standard Bank South Africa. I had concerned folks to contact and assure of my safe arrival. So we got dressed and off we went to the main Ring road just north of Assylum Down.

The first thing you can't miss when walking around Ghanaian cities on foot is the open gutters. Wits are required to ensure jumping over them at the correct moment to avoid being knocked _into_ them by a passing taxi (any of which will ALWAYS assume that a white person on foot must want a taxi!). The smell emanating from said gutters is far from pleasant, but there are regular cross-over points and fortunately on the more busy roads they tend to be covered over. The streets are lined with various little stalls and plastic tables with wares for sale. S shows me how to spot a 'pure water' vendor--a cooler box perched on a table or crate on the side of the street contains (usually) ice cold 500ml sachets of purified water for only 5 pesewas each (3). Apparently the plastic packets with no stamp on them are dodgy, but we only found the printed, supposedly safe, ones. At 5Ghp for half a litre it's a steal, although they taste awfully chemically if you let them get warm. Drink them while they're cold.

After a successful visit to the Stanbic on Ring Road, we ventured westbound towards Nkrumah Circle to Busy Internet Cafe, a huge modern building with the cars of more affluent Ghanaians parked outside. Along the way, we encountered a hand painted advertisement board with approximately 12 cartoon figures depicted suffering the most graphic ailments, from a man with a lumpy wart-covered penis to a lady squating with blood and guts coming out of her behind. The claim was that this traditional healer could cure all these ailments, from incontinence to 'waist pain'. Ghanaians do not share Western prudishness, and seem to discuss any bodily functions and ailments bluntly and without skaam (shame). In a way, I found it refreshing, not having to pussy-foot around topics that frankly, everybody knows about.

Busy Internet was just that--busy. Good speed, plenty of machines and pretty nippy aircon, given the temperature outside. But at 2 Ghanaian cedis (Ghc) an hour, it's the most expensive place in Accra: the standard fee is around 60 Ghp for an hour (4). We sent relevant emails using S's remaining time, and ventured back to Assylum Down, crossing the main highway and taking the back route along the 'river' (read 'open sewer'). S has obviously made acquaintances with many vendors who he greets along the way. Most point at me and he responds 'my wife!', which draws many nods of acknowledgement. One or two men who are cycling past stop and ask me my name, telling me they want to be 'my friend'... I point at S and ask if they want to be my husband's friend too, to which they just smile and say goodbye and cycle/walk off.

On the corner of Samora Machel road, just on the southern edge of Assylum Down, S introduced me to fresh, soft coconut. A street vendor with a wooden, flat-backed trailer piled high with coconuts selects one, carefully rotating it to check for some unseen signs of ripeness. Then THWACK went his panga (machete), THWACK THWACK THWACK... thinning the top of the coconut hull with each successive shave until the bald core is exposed. One final THWACK lifts an inch-wide lid cleanly off the top, bar a small hinge carefully left in tact. He folded the lid back to reveal a creamy white lining and the internal cavity brimming with clear fluid, handed it to S and received 50 pesewas in exchange. S gave it to me to drink--YUM! I still can't believe how rich the liquid was, it seems so watery. Exactly the way coconut milk would taste sans the sugary sweetness and creamy texture. We marched up the road, I looking very pleased with my newfound refreshment. (5)

I was thrilled to see evidence of the Adinkra symbology all over the place, from Vodafone billboards to gate-designs, fabric prints and even as part of the backing on plastic chairs in restaurants! One stands out as dominant, outnumbering any others 10 to 1: Gye Nyame (http://www.adinkra.org/htmls/adinkra/gyen.htm). While the website says 'except for God', Ghanaians interpret it as 'I served God'. Christianity was everywhere in Accra--most posters on the street lights and walls were advertisements for some kind of 'supernatural connection with God, every Sunday!', or 'come and see Apostle Daniel liaise with the Holy Spirit!', to funeral advertisements, showing the deceased in their best kente garb titled 'CALL TO GLORY!' with a long obituary, all printed on A3 colour spread. It's quite apparent that my atheism will prevent me from accessing a very important part of Ghanaian society.

Samora Machel Avenue became Barnes road... we continued south until we reached the Accra Museum. (6) An eclectic mix of Ghanaian history and culture, coupled with a shop at the back (watch out for the mosquitoes! They leave the fans on in the main area for a reason!) and a strange second floor with more generic West African art history combined with some other interesting artifacts such as a cast of an Egyptian pharoah burial mask. Unfortunately I found the captions provided for each exhibit a little low on detail and lacking continuity, but the exhibit made for some interesting reading nonetheless.

After a quick visit to the restroom (7), S suggests we get lunch at a spot he discovered the day before called ?. On the cliff-edge just before Fort Ussher, next to the Cadbury's factory (when we got there the whole parking lot smelt of Nutella! And was filled with the shouts of 2 games of football in the dust--one junior game, relegated to the 'kiddies pitch' and a match between adults of varying ages). The service was great, the waitress friendly, the price not half bad and the view + setting super! I tried my first plate of traditional Ghanaian food (commonly called 'chop' when served from fast food places on the street). A mound of jollof rice with coleslaw, 2 pieces of fried chicken and 'pep'--a spicy dark brown sauce added to most plates of food. Jollof itself is already quite tangy---great if you love hot food as I do. Unlike Nigerian jollof, Ghanaian chefs do not mix bits of meat into the rice itself, but serve it on the side. Most chicken is fried and do not have anywhere near the amount of flesh on them as what you'd buy in Sainsburys or PicknPay (most are free range and a bit more scrawny). Jointing a chicken seems to involve randomly whacking it with a machete... most of the bones were splintered (perhaps to allow for eating the marrow?) but this made eating a more delicate procedure than normal. The coleslaw was an interesting addition, as was the offer of ketchup with the mix. Almost every menu seems to serve this combination (8) and it seems a pretty good staple.

After lunch I was feeling pretty whacked, so we started a slow walk back to the hotel for an afternoon kip. We past the Kwame Nkrumah (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kwame_Nkrumah) Mausoleum on the way which obtrusively stuck out in its opulence and pristine maintenance amongst the decay and dust of Accra. Photography was not permitted and we did not go into the grounds, although I think it speaks volumes that the one major public facility that is so rigorously maintained is a grave: not only about the near-idolatry that Nkrumah incurs (for good reason!), but also to the importance of the afterlife in Ghanaian society.

We paid a brief visit to the Novotel on the way, an opulent and very popular hotel on Barnes road with the best forex rate we found (1.45 Ghc to 1USD). I was struck by the glaringly apparent extremes of class inequality present in Ghana as it is in my native South Africa: well-heeled Ghanaians demonstrate their status as publicly as any other nations elite and seemed like they were from another planet to their compatriots hawking products outside in the heat. Unsurprisingly, they are also a lot less friendly and approachable, but again, this is not unique to Ghana. C'est la vie.

The rest of the day was spent catching up missed sleep. Another meal of chop was procured for dinner (the same jollof rice with chicken and pep) and we've decided to go to Cape Coast in the morning. I'm finding Accra quite intimidating, with the street sellers, gutters and constant calls of 'obruni!' (white man!). Being tired no doubt doesn't help, nor does my sore throat that had kicked in on the flight. I can't help but feel slightly ashamed at the initial repulsion I'm feeling towards the open gutters and general sprawl, so perhaps a slightly smaller city which is less over-bearing? S too has also seen enough of Accra, so Cape Coast it is.

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1. In Ghana you seem to get two main types of bread on the street (other than the expensive western sliced stuff you can buy in the super markets of Accra): sweet 'tea' bread and salty bread (both white). They look identical, and the sweeter version is by far more common--most Ghanaians seem to view bread as a pudding, unless served with eggs for breakfast. When eating a street breakfast you can ask for how much bread you want with your eggs: 20 pesewas worth or 30 pesewas worth. They are cut in doorstop slabs and are very soft: the closest thing I can think of is a white bap. The loaves also go mouldy very quickly so don't bank on keeping it for very long. No Ghanaian bread is made with a crust--although you do start finding more continental crispy 'baguettes' as you approach any of the Francophone borders. We encountered brown bread twice, but it's still pretty refined and has no texture to speak of.

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2. One of my favourite things about Ghana--fresh, ripe juicy mangoes on the streets. Quality dictates price: expect to pay about 1 Ghanaian cedi for a medium sized mango of good quality, and up to 3 Ghc for a humungous one. Anything less than 50 pesewas is probably better for making juice out of than eating, and half of it may already be fizzy. Try to select them yourself, as the vendor will always try and get rid of the ones that are a bit 'past it' first.

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3. Some people have claimed that pure water sachets are still dubious: we had no problems with them, other than the chemical taste which became more unpleasant as they warmed up. Pure waters can be found almost anywhere and frankly, you sweat a lot more than you realise in the humidity--its critical to take on about 2-3 litres a day, even if you're not feeling thirsty. I got dehydrated quite badly and didn't realise--very unpleasant. The price- 5 pesewas-- is standard throughout the south of Ghana so no need to haggle, or even ask. Pure water sachets are also very useful for brushing teeth--a good habit to get into as the tap water is not safe.

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4. Most Ghanaian internet cafes have a very sensible and convenient system for purchasing PC time--by far the best I've found anywhere. You buy a coupon with a unique code on it which you use as your login credentials. Log in and out as many times as you like, using your coupon, until your time runs out. This means if you only want to use 10min to drop a quick email home, you don't have to pay for a whole hour. And you can come back and use your remaining 50min any time you choose. 60 pesewas is a good rate per hour, although if you really fancy aircon, then pay a bit more and go to Busy.

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5. 50 pesewas is the high end of the price range for a coconut... we paid anywhere between 30 and 50 during our stay. Be sure to ask for the SOFT one, as these have the best liquid. If you fancy, you can take your empty coconut shell back to the seller and ask him to crack it open with his machete for you... then you can scoop out the soft lining using the 'lid' as a spoon and eat it. It's very tasty but has a very slimy texture which I could not quite get use to. Coconut is VERY filling: I'd recommend sharing one between two for your first try rather than buying one each.

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6. Photgraphy in Ghana was surprisingly tricky. Most formal tours or museums ask for a fee per camera: about 50 pesewas each. Some say no outright. Permission is required before taking any pictures of people and Ghanaians can get quite upset if you do not ask. Be careful not to point your camera indiscriminantly at people and try to be more subtle, taking photos of a whole scene from a distance rather than human subjects up close.

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7. Public toilets in Ghana: phew. Whatever you do, try to ALWAYS carry a roll of loo paper with you (in Ghana, it's called T - roll). Most public facilities, even the ones who charge, do not provide. Also try to open doors with your sleeve over your hand or your elbow as often the water is not running from the taps or no soap is provided. Washing your hands is critical: especially before you eat! (9) And ladies: always wipe the seat down first. When asking for the loo, just say 'toilet' or 'urinal': 'restroom', 'washroom', 'ladies', 'gents', 'facilities'... these are not understood outside fancy hotels who serve lots of obrunis.

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8. Unlike in the West, a menu is a list of what a Ghanaian restaurant would _like_ to offer. Be prepared to be told that your choice is not available, and have 2 or 3 backup options. It's frustrating sometimes, especially when you particularly fancied something, but it seems restaurants like to create the impression of a wide variety, even if they do not have stock of the required ingredients. This is more common in the rural, out-of-the-way places outside the main cities, but we even encountered a pretty respectable hotel in ACcra that had run out of fruit juice.

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9. Relating to footnote 7: most chop is eaten with your hands. It is perfectly acceptable to ask to wash your hands at a restaurant, and your waitress will bring soap, water and washing bowls + a towel to your table. This is always a good idea.

Posted by Sarabi 19.08.2009 17:01 Archived in Ghana Comments (0)

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