Monday, March 31, 2008

Less than 30 days to go...

For the last week or so, I have been attempting to document my big Easter weekend trip to the North to see elephants and hippos. Fate has been conspiring to not allow me to type either due to logistical challenges or emotional. I like to write all of my posts in the right frame of mind. When I am sweaty and irritated, I would imagine the posts would come across much more negative than when I am freshly bucket-showered and sitting in front of a fan. Over the last few days while reflecting on the fact that I have less than a month to go, I am finding myself following various experiences with either “ready to go home” or “wish I could stay longer.” Tonight, just as I was about to sit down and get some typing done detailing my 25 hour long drive to see the elephants and sleeping outside on a tree platform, I was about to eat some Wheat Thins when I discovered thousands of ants inside the box. OK, ready to go home. This was also after watching an episode of CSI, so I was particularly bug sensitive. Soon after I discovered two small piles of what looks like dirt on the floor outside of my bureau. I was never able to open the bottom drawer to this bureau and as I see some mysterious substance emerging from the cracks, I am quite fearful of what it inside or what will soon emerge from the drawer. OK, ready to go home.

One other challenge of my living situation is that I have no weapons with which to attack these bugs. In Boston, I would quickly whip out the Windex and paper towels. Here I have the choice between dish soap and Raid. I tried the dish soap and it seems to have had little effect. I really can’t stomach the idea of spraying Raid next to the chair I am sitting on. The fan sits between me and the ant chair, so essentially I would be downwind of the Raid. Although I have succumbed to spraying 30% DEET on my body in order to protect myself from malaria, I can’t justify breathing in the toxic fumes of Raid just so that I don’t have to sit next to some ants. If it is not already obvious, I did remove the box of Wheat Thins to the outside garbage, but quite a few who didn’t make it into the box yet remain. So, as I am typing, ants are hanging out on the arm rest of the chair next to me. They seem quite busy. Perhaps they are still looking for some wheaty morsels left behind.

One reason that the ants congregated in such high numbers in my Wheat Thins is that I have been away all weekend. It was planned trip to Cape Coast, but the timing worked out perfectly because the power went out at the hostel the night before I left. This was supposed to be my big night of typing, but Mother Nature or the power company had other plans. When the power goes off here, it gets very dark and very hot. It has been in the low 90s most days and only cools down a few degrees at night. My room is typically 86 degrees, so the fan is pretty essential for sleeping. OK, ready to go home. The good news though is that the hostel provided me with a flashlight and my mini DVD player lasts six hours, so I was able to entertain myself enough in the dark until I was tired enough to sleep in the heat soaked room.

My weekend in Cape Coast was great. It had a mix of OK ready to go home moments as well as plenty of I wish I could stay longer moments. Cape Coast lies about 2 hours west of Accra. It is the usual first trip out of Accra that most people take, but I guess I never got around to it and the times that I planned to go got postponed for one reason or another. I got on the 4pm bus to Cape Coast around 6pm – OK, ready to go home – and arrived in the midst of a bunch of taxis awaiting my arrival at about 8:45. One graciously offered to drive me to my motel and only ripped me off by about twice what a local would pay. I get to the hotel and, even though I called that day and spoke with the manager to reserve a room, I am told that there was no information left by anyone about my reservation. I repeat that I spoke to the manager and he reserved a room for me for two nights. For some reason, the hotel employee seemed to take everything personally and started raising his voice at me saying that what did I want him to do, no one left any information about a reservation in my name and all of the rooms for $11 a night were full. At this point, I had really had it after sitting at a bus station for two hours and then sitting in traffic on a bus next to a smelly baby, then getting overcharged for a 5 minute cab ride; I didn’t need this clown yelling at me for no reason. Normally, I have really tried to be sensitive, but I am starting to see a strange pattern that these hotels employ. Actually there are two patterns 1) they all overbook and 2) they often say they are full even when they are not and are magically able to find rooms if you are willing to wait an hour or so. #1 I understand because credit cards are not used here so there is no way to guarantee that anyone will show up for the room that is reserved. However, this happens so often that there must be a better system or perhaps they should start measuring the attrition rate and then overbooking only by the average attrition rate just like airlines. #2 though is completely baffling to me. I asked another foreigner who had seen this before and she said that the hotels like to have the appearance of being full to customers. I guess it is like the trendy club theory in Los Angeles with the long lines out the door when in reality the bar is pretty empty. This seems like a strange business model for a crummy youth hostel though. All of this went through my head as this joker is yelling at me about his problems as a hotel employee. I held up my hand in a “talk to the hand” kind of fashion to get him to quiet down and calmly stated that I did not understand why he was yelling at me and that he should stop this instant and figure out what he is going to do for me since I had already spoken to his boss earlier in the day. He said that the manager went home a short time ago and how could he know for sure that I really spoke to the manager (what a bizarre thing to say to a customer, as if this was the Four Seasons I was trying to sneak into). I said that we should call him then and that I knew he would remember me… because we had to whole conversation about my last name being Wind or enframa in Twi. At some point in this crazy exchange, and really I was just fighting because I desperately needed a room, he again states that all of the $11 rooms are taken. I said well what other rooms do have then. He said I have a $14 room that has its own bathroom (the $11 one I reserved only had a shared bathroom). Immediately I responded with, “I’ll take it.” $3 more and I get my own bathroom, the choice was obvious. It was also in the “new wing” of the hotel. The room was totally fine, especially for $14. The toilet was unusually high because it was on some sort of concrete platform and when I leaned on the sink briefly it pulled away from the wall. It was pretty clean though and seemed safe, my two priorities at that point in the evening. I had not eaten yet, so when I asked about the hotel’s restaurant, the hotel man told me that I better rush up there because they stop serving some time between 9 and 10.

I dropped my things and ran up the five flight of steep stairs to find the waitstaff with theirs heads resting on a table and watching TV. I walked over to them and asked if there were still serving dinner and they nodded yes. I then asked for a menu and one of the staff slowly produced one from under her head. I walked myself over to one of the open tables and looked through the menu. I had heard that Cape Coast is known for its shrimp so I anticipatorily decided on the shrimp and fried yam and walked myself back to the TV watching servers and narrated my order. It was met with a shake of the head and the words “no yams, no shrimp.” Hmmm, fantastic. I begrudgingly settled on the French fries and fried fish. Despite the various frustrations of the day, when I sat down to read my book (Guns, Germs and Steel which, by the way. is a fabulous read and quite timely considering my current living situation) in the breezy, warm air of the coast a lot of those negative experiences kind of melted away or at least felt less bothersome. It was a little bothersome though to watch this waitress slowly saunter back and forth. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone move as slowly as this waitress. I ordered a straw just to make her apathetic body have to make the trip to the kitchen and back one extra time. My food would be cold by the time she picked it up off of the oven and brought it to my table. The food was fine though. Despite ketchup from China and fish with bones in it, everything tasted fine for 10 o’clock at night.

On Saturday, I woke up fresh and excited for the busy day ahead. I ate a Luna bar instead of going to the restaurant for breakfast in an attempt not let a lazy waitress delay the start of my day. Off I went to Kakum National Park. I was told that the best time to see animals at the park is first thing in the morning, although most of the guidebooks warn you not to get too excited about seeing animals because they no longer linger around areas where people tend to go. It didn’t really matter to me because the big attraction of the park is the canopy walk. Kakum has Africa’s only canopy walk and it hangs 40 meters above ground. It was constructed in 1995 by a Canadian and several Ghanaians and was clearly an attempt to protect the park and its inhabitants using an economic strategy. The canopy walk is a huge draw of both tourists and locals and has succeeded in reducing deforestation and poaching. It’s considered an economic success and has provided considerable financial resources to the surrounding communities. Since I was traveling alone, just getting to the canopy walk was a bit of an adventure. I took a cab to the tro-tro station and even though he charged me $1.50 when he would only have charged and Ghanaian $.30, he helped me find the right tro-tro to take to the park. I hopped aboard and crammed in with the locals and off we went in the rickety bus. People hopped on and off the bus and somehow the door operator was always able to remember who paid and how far each person had ridden. At a few points there were so many people in the bus that his rear end was sticking out the door and he clung to the front passenger seat to stay in the bus. They dropped me off in front of the park entrance and I paid my $.20 entrance fee to walk in on foot. I walked up a steep hill to finally get to the reception area of the park. It was quite stunning. They really did a great job with the design and construction of the building. There was a small museum to the left of the reception area and a Rainforest CafĂ©, sans animatronic animals like the restaurant chain, to the right. A tour was about to start so I quickly paid my student rate and walked over to the sign that said “Wait here for your guide.” I waited there. A few minutes later a group of Ghanaians arrived and a smaller group of Germans who were attacked by the large ants they were standing above.

We started our ascent up to the canopies. I usually like to be near the front of guided hikes to hear the information from the tour guide. My experiences at Mole National Park the previous weekend made me realize that local guides tend to be soft-spoken and don’t always wait for the entire group to arrive before talking. Somehow I was relegated to the back of the Ghanaian group, however, but it allowed for interesting observations. One thing I noticed was that while I was in my sporty American clothing, several of the women were wearing their traditional African dresses on the tour. The ascent was steep and rocky and must have been incredibly difficult for them to navigate in their tight long skirts. Some of them had heels on too. I was impressed with their dedication to fashion, but assumed I was much more comfortable in shorts and sneakers. Another cultural divide became apparent at our first stop. Ghanaians seem to like soundtracks to accompany their lives. As I have mentioned before, radios or TVs are often on during meetings and often at volumes that strain normal conversation levels. One hiker decided to play the BBC radio on his cell phone as we were walking through the forest. At some point he must have noticed the snide glances from me or the Germans or the sign that stated “Do not make unnecessary noise in the forest” which was posted at our first stop because the BBC was at last turned off. Although, I think he may have switched to just listening to it over headphones. Who needs the news that badly? We were only out there for an hour. Regardless, it was a small initial annoyance in what was otherwise a truly incredible experience. The forest smelled wonderful and had lots of interesting plant life. The guidebooks were right in that we didn’t see any animals, but there were many interesting butterfly species and a huge millipede. The butterfly species that I saw included one that looked like it was flying with thin, white feathers and another landed on my hand that had eye-like dots on the tips of its wings. The dots are used to confuse predators into thinking that side is the head of the butterfly. The millipede was probably about 6 inches long and had a dramatic red stripe across its head. I guess one of the patterns of the Ashanti kente cloth was inspired by this marking.

The canopies are tethered from one very tall tree to the next using just ropes and cables. There is a narrow wooden platform that you walk on as you cross from one tree to the next. The guide had us go 4 at a time across the platform and again somehow I got stuck at the back. This time though the guide was also back with me so I could ask him questions about the canopy and the forest. Apparently, night is the best time to see animals such as the forest elephant and, while at first not all local tribes were in favor of the canopy walk, all of them wholeheartedly support it now and work collectively to ensure its success. I walked across the first canopy and as I do with any situation where I am quite fearful, smiled the whole way. The rope handles are at about eye level and the walk area gets pretty narrow as you step into it, so it makes for more of an awkward walking experience than a scary one. It does sway and bob up and down as people get on and off the canopy. The ropes seemed so secure though that at no point could I even imagine them breaking or slipping. The view from the bridge, if you could stomach it, was spectacular. It is a pretty odd sensation to be above the tree tops and looking down at a forest. There were so many different greens and you could see mist hanging over one part of the forest. Little platforms existed at the end of each canopy that about 6 people could rest on. Looking at the cables connected to the trees and the ropes hanging from the cables, I was thinking that the canopy architect may have used to same physics that go into suspension bridges. Regardless it was still high enough to be scary, but secure enough to make me exited to get on the next canopy. It took about 20 minutes to walk through all of the canopies and then we were all back safe and sound at the museum. The museum was a nice little museum that included information about the park as well as biodiversity and the importance of protecting the rain forests. It also housed the skull of a forest elephant, which is considerably smaller than the elephants I had seen at Mole. I guess they are quite rare to see in the park and only a few photographs exist of these small elephants.

Outside the park, I attempted to be quite travel savvy and wave a tro-tro down to take me back to Cape Coast. After 15 minutes of waiting and swatting away flies, a local girl and a few local guys said that I should walk with them to try to find a tro-tro because none were stopping there. After the usual questions of where am I from and am I married, (actually, this was the first time that, after I responded “yes,” a guy said to me “your husband let you come all the way to Ghana?” I said “well, I don’t need his permission and he didn’t have a choice.” I don’t think they quite understood though.) then we got into what has now become a tedious conversation to have with complete strangers and that is about my name. Heather is just not a common name here and even when I say that it is like “weather” but without the w, it takes people multiple tries and they keep trying even though I say, “sure, that’s pretty close.” Since they were helping me to get a tro-tro, I thought I would throw them a bone so that they could stop trying to pronounce my name correctly and tell them that my last name is Wind like enframa in the local language. This caused outbursts of delight from everyone. It was nice to find some common ground for a bit. At that point, conversation topics had pretty much been exhausted so we continued on in silence until they waved down a tro-tro that let me on board. So, it seems that being travel savvy is really a matter of finding nice locals to help you out. While the marriage and name conversations are kind of annoying, for the most part everything is very innocent and in the end they are just as likely to help you get to where you are going even if it is clear there is no chance of a future between the two of you. They all waved me on and wished me safe travels.

I had planned on going back to the hotel to shower, but, again in attempt to be travel savvy and find my way around the small city, got lost and ended up at Cape Coast Castle. It is one of the main sites of the city, so I figured that since I was already there I might as well just go in for a tour. The castle is a former slave prison, although it had first been used as a storage site for goods other than people at one point. It seems that trade in humans became more lucrative than trade in pepper and tea and so slaves from all over Africa, as far as the Congo, were brought to this site and held for three months before being shipped to the Americas. Looking at the castle, one has the dual feelings of awe and horror. The building itself is quite beautiful, especially since it is a stark white color and overlooks a Caribbean blue ocean. The rooms that held the slaves were quite horrifying. There were small and dank and only had a few small windows that let in air and oxygen. Right above the dungeon for the men was the castle church. Women were held in another section of the castle and apparently rape was quite common at the castle. The guide said that this is why there are Van Dycks, Johnsons and Jacksons now living in Cape Coast. Because so many children were born at the castle, the British officers opened a small classroom which actually became Ghana’s first classroom. We also got to see the spacious accommodations of the general in charge of the castle. His rooms were quite large and airy compared to the tight, airless quarters of his prisoners. The castle also contains a nice museum with the history of the area from ancient times to modern traditions and gives some explanation to cultural traditions of Ghana, with a particular focus on the Ashanti traditions.

I was joined on the tour by a young fellow that Bernard knew. He had been concerned about my traveling alone and wanted to connect me with a friend to help take me around to all of the sites. He was a darling 19 year old kid who was a definite low-talker. When you combine his low audibility with his accent and typical teen inarticulateness, it was pretty much impossible for me to understand anything he was saying. I had to tell him several times that I simply could not hear or understand what he was saying. I also asked him to try saying things a different way if possible in an attempt to understand him. Finally, I would occasionally end our conversations with, “I’m sorry, but I just cannot understand what you are saying.” This was the beginning and it did seem to get easier to converse as the day went on, but I never quite understood why he was so terribly soft-spoken. I am not sure if he dressed up because he always wears formal clothes or if he wanted to look nice for meeting me, but the two of us were quite the odd pair. 30-year old me with my sweaty tank top and adidas shorts and 19-year old him with his black dress pants, black shoes and button down shirt. We were quite the odd couple, but luckily he seemed pretty up for doing anything I wanted to do. I didn’t make him walk to the top of a nearby hill to see Fort St. Jago, but it was quite steep and with the heat I felt a little bad for him in his nice clothes. The views of the ocean and city were great though. The water is a gorgeous tropical green and gondola-like fishing boats dot the coastline. Larger fishing boats fill a small canal that bisects the city. We couldn’t do anything more at the Fort since it isn’t open to the public, so little Bernard (his name was also Bernard) suggest we head to Elmina while it was still light out.

Elmina is a small fishing village just a bit west of Cape Coast. It houses the country’s largest slave castle and has a thriving fishing economy. Somehow the city has maintained a lot of charm compared with its busier neighbor. We went straight to the Elmina castle. This slave dungeon was built by the Dutch, but in many ways was quite similar to Cape Coast castle. It did have a moat and a drawbridge and a large chapel in the middle of the castle. Oddly enough, although I can’t recall ever being at a slave prison, I felt like I had seen one before. Perhaps all the years of learning about what happened during those horrendous centuries of the slave trade created a rather vivid picture of what it might have been like, although it would be difficult to imagine the actual size of the space that would fit 200 men for three months. The tour included a look at two prison cells, one that would hold misbehaving Dutch soldiers and one for resistant slaves who were termed “Freedom Fighters.” The cell for the Dutch had a nice large window, while the cell for the slaves was nothing but a small dark closet. Gifts have been sent to the castle from African Americans and a plaque was issued that promises that Africans around the world are committed to ensuring that this type of injustice perpetrated on so many will never happen again. One thing that was quite puzzling for me is how the local leaders agreed to participate or facilitate the slave trade. It is not clear whether they were duped or were complicit in the trade, but the local leaders were involved in allowing it all to happen. Local resistance against the British especially happened after the Ashanti king, Prempeh I, was captured and imprisoned at Cape Coast Castle. The uprising against the British became so great that they eventually exiled Prempeh I to the Seychelles along with the Queen Mother of the Ashanti kingdom. After the tour of this impressive structure, Bernard and I walked over a bridge to get a little lunch at a place that Lonely Planet described as “the best place in Elmina to watch the activities of the fishing boats.” I was all excited to have some seafood, but was again heartbroken by the statement that they had no calamari and no shrimp. I was starting to wonder if the local shrimp were suffering the same fate as salmon in California. I decided on the Red Red with fish and fresh pineapple juice. The pineapple juice is heavenly here and will be sorely missed when I have to leave. Bernard ordered a Smirnoff Ice and fried rice with chicken. The food was excellent and it was fun to watch the boats sail back and forth through the canal. After a delicious lunch, we walked over to look at the boats a little more closely but dried fish stench shortened that walk considerably. We walked a bit through town as well and I noticed a lot of old buildings with big windows and antique black shutters. The details on the buildings were striking but were just slightly dilapidated looking. There is a great opportunity to preserve these buildings and I am sure little Elmina would attract even more tourists.

Little Bernard and I took a tro-tro to his university where we caught a shared taxi to Cape Coast. Traveling by taxi is dramatically cheaper when you are with a local. The University of Cape Coast looks really beautiful with palm tree lined roads and lots of green open spaces. Forty thousand students attend the university and most of the classes are taught in English. One unusual aspect of the education here though is that students are tested on how well they know the professor’s opinion about a subject. Students are required to purchase the professor’s book(s) for each class and are instructed to memorize his opinions. Students are not tested on how their opinions, but on how well they can regurgitate the professor’s opinions. Little Bernard assured me that while they must know what the lecturer thinks because he has been studying the field much longer, the lecturers do encourage the expression of individual opinions.

At night, after a long overdue shower, I went up to the restaurant again and watched the same waitress slowly walk back and forth to get me an orange Fanta. No dinner was necessary after the big lunch. I read a bit more of Guns and then went back down to wrap myself in the sheet that I had brought. The next morning I went back up to the restaurant for a little Sunday brunch and had eggs, toast and Milo. The eggs were great but the toast tasted like bland croutons. It was so over toasted that it was pretty inedible. The Milo was nice and they gave me two packets of Milo so I had two cups! I walked over to Cape Coast castle hoping to buy a few knick knacks, but after some unsuccessful bargaining, left empty-handed. The stores were mostly closed anyways. I sat for a bit at the entrance waiting for little Bernard to meet me again. I closed my eyes and listened to the waves lapping against the rocky shore. It was so nice with the breeze blowing through and drying off my sweaty limbs. I wish I didn’t have to go home so soon.

After waiting for quite some time, I called Bernard to find out what was keeping him. With the language challenges, I finally said, “How many minutes?” He replied, “18.” Although unusual, I figured 18 minutes would give me enough time to walk back to my hotel and check out. The hotel seemed pretty adamant about the 12pm check out time and even posted a sign that said that room needed to be inspected before check out was possible. I thought that I ought to get the inspection over as soon as possible and get my things. No one needed to check the room and since I had already paid, I just gave my key to a cleaning woman. It seemed a little sketchy, but I didn’t want to wait around just to turn my key over.

Little Bernard was very excited to see an ostrich farm that was located just outside of Cape Coast and near the Hans Cottage Botel. I had asked a few people if they had been and none had, so I was a little leery about where we were headed. We took a tro-tro to a small town and Bernard asked around for the ostrich farm. There seemed to be a lot of debate about the exact location and finally a taxi driver told us that we had passed it but that he could take us there. I agreed to $2 and off we went to see the big birds. We turned off the road and wound around a small dirty road that was very muddy in parts. I had two fears. The first was that the cab driver was taking me into the middle of nowhere to rob me and then leave me there and the second was that if he didn’t end up robbing, then we would surely get stuck in the mud en route to see the ostriches. Miraculously, the car made it though and we arrived at the edge of the ostrich farm where about eight birds were standing around doing ostrich-like things. They really are quite big. The wings are basically the size of a large human arm with lots of feathers coming off of them. One sat down while we were there, but other than that there wasn’t a lot of movement or activity. I guess ostrich meat is rare here as in the US, but this farmer has done well enough to have expanded his farm in the last few years.

The taxi driver then took us to the Hans Cottage Botel, a place I had considered staying for its unique set-up but ultimately decided against it because of it distance from the city center. Hans has built a little hotel over several man-made lakes, hence the botel distinction. The lakes contain quite a few crocodiles. Apparently, monkeys and other wildlife live around the botel. While Bernard and I drank our cokes, a crocodiles wandered near a few of the other tourists who were sitting in the garden area of the restaurant. They quickly rushed out and the hotel staff gated off the area around the crocodile. He wandered all around and was about 8 feet away from me at one point. It was easy to see the interesting patterns on his back and his sharp teeth. He eventually grew tired of us all staring at him and taking photographs so he plunged back into the water and swam under the restaurant. That was about all the excitement I could handle, so I told Bernard that we should get going to try to find a tro-tro for me to take back to Accra. All of the STC buses were full, so I had to brave the bush bus. A shared taxi brought me to a tro-tro station. I unfortunately got the fold-out seat over the wheel. Luckily another young woman offered to hold one of my bags. Despite the bumpiness and swerving to pass slower vehicles, most of the passengers slept. I spent much of the trip trying to keep my toes and legs from falling asleep. A short taxi ride to Bonjour to get a pizza, and I was feeling back home again pretty quickly. Sitting by the A/C was quite soothing and I walked the 25 minutes to the office. Sadly the electricity was out there as I guess the power companies have been doing rolling blackouts recently. Fortunately for me, when I returned to the hostel with bated breath I was ecstatic to see that the power was back on. The manager told me that the power had just come on yesterday afternoon, so it seems that it was a perfect weekend to make the short trip to Cape Coast.

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