Sunday, March 16, 2008

Umbrella Rock, Cactus Palm Tree, and Boti Falls

The World Ed team, which included me, Bernard and Augustine, arrived in Koforidua on Friday evening. We had little success meeting up with the Red Cross team that day or the subsequent days, so there was talk of going sightseeing. I relished the opportunity to see more things, especially in the region that is known for waterfalls. On Saturday, we awoke early to embark on our journey to the “far far away” Boti Falls, I am finding that most people describe places in Ghana as being “very far away, very far” even when it is just an hour’s drive. The reaction I got when I ask how long it takes to get from Accra to Techiman was a collective gasp and an exclamation that it is “way, way up north” when in actuality it is in the center of the country and only a few hours drive from the capital. The roads do make the travel more difficult, but it is definitely not the extreme distance that people seem to make it seem. Of course, traveling is all relative. In Connecticut, no one would dream of going the 40 minutes from Old Lyme to New Haven for dinner, but in LA 40 minutes was pretty much how long it took you to get anywhere in the city.

We spent about just under an hour winding through the backroads of Koforidua, passing villages with homes made out of mud bricks and roofs of palm leaves. There were also tall trees with smooth white bark and mud created ant stalagmite-like homes that were taller than I am. I thought it was interesting that both the ants and people were using the same resources from the land to provide shelter. There were some crumbling houses missing sections of a wall or slowly sinking back into the ground. While it is not easy to see people living in these conditions, their houses have much less of an environmental impact than wooden Western-style homes whose treated wood and copper pipes will last long after the home has been torn down. It creates a bit of an ethical dilemma in the effort to develop the “developing countries.”

We arrived at the lush grounds of Boti Falls and were told that there is no water. The Hemattan winds from the Sahara had evaporated so much of the country’s water that the waterfall was nonexistent. There was some debate about whether to walk down the 250 steps to see where the waterfall would be, and after I stated that I was going to go with them or without them that the team decided to descend. Really it was only Bernard’s concerns about being too out of shape to make the journey that comprised the anti-journey contingent. The steps were stone cut-outs, some narrow to the point of just being able to put your toes down and others requiring two steps. One of the best things about Ghana is the diversity of butterflies. Quite a few fluttered by, with black and white polka-dotted wings and others with turquoise and tan wings.

We arrived at the bottom of the steps and I realized how difficult the climb back up might be. It was akin to the Santa Monica steps only steeper, longer and more dangerous. The other park goers were right, indeed there was no water coming down. There was a pretty little lake where the water would be falling. The cliff creating the waterfall was also nice to look at and had long vines hanging down. There were weathered tree trunks at the edge of the lake and an abandoned fishing net made from dried palm fronds. The signs strongly discouraged swimming, which made sense since the water was a muddy brown. I’m sure during a rainier season the water is probably much clearer and full of plant and animal life. After taking a few photographs and preparing mentally for the ascent (really just Bernard), we began the walk back up. Mary decided to sprint up 10 steps at a time and then rest, Bernard paced himself by counting each step and the rest of us just went at our own pace. At the top, I was invigorated by the exercise. My heart had not been so challenged since the one and only time I attempted to go jogging around Accra a month ago. When Mary finally finished, she asked me if I was ready to have a beer. She was asking seriously even though it was only 10:30am. I said that perhaps I would start with some juice and then see how I’m feeling.

After resting for a bit in a large gazebo and eating some crackers, another debate ensued about whether we should walk to the umbrella rock. Not surprisingly I was in favor, while Bernard thought it would be too far. We were told it was a 40 minute hike there, which sounded like the perfect distance to me. The travel theory of relativity apparently applies to hikes as well. I again said that I was willing to walk it alone if no one else would go, two of Mary’s friends who were fit young guys wanted to go and Augustine was up for it too. The majority won out and we began our walk to the rock formation that provides shade and a great view for villagers in that area. I was excited by the signs early in the walk that said “do not litter on the path,” but was a bit disheartened for the disregard to the signs. Although it wasn’t a large amount, there were water bags and ice cream bags scattered on the path. I was told later on in the day that there is often talk about improving the parks so that there are paid guides and maintenance crews, but that nothing seems to ever get implemented. It seems like a void in a region that could use more jobs. One other thing that was striking was the amount of land that had bee consumed in a recent fire. It wasn’t clear if it had been started by humans or was of a natural cause, my guess was that people were to blame since the vast majority of fires in the country are set deliberately either for disposing of garbage or hunting or clearing land for agricultural purposes. Lions were hunted to extinction in Ghana in the early part of the 20th century and I worry that other animals may follow the same path. Although, to be fair, if you look at Google Earth, the vast majority of this country is covered by forests and that is what I have seen on many of my car rides. Grass was peaking above the blackened earth and several of the taller trees survived the fire that consumed nearly an acre around the path.

While the first five minutes of the hike were nice and flat, the terrain quickly changed and we found ourselves stepping carefully down rocks and using our hands to help propel us up others. Mary was doing this all in clogs which I couldn’t imagine and others had jeans and long pants on. I looked like a typical American hiker with khaki shorts on, gray sneakers and a tank top. The first rock formation we encountered was a cliff that hung over the path. There was enough room for about 30 people to stand under it and a bench was created by the rock for a convenient rest area. It reminded me of the weeping rock of Zion National Park minus the weeping part. All along the path there were little lizards running away from us and bright red beetles. Upon our arrival at the rest area, several children were sitting ready to greet us and show us the enormous snail they found on the path. Luckily for me, the snail was hiding away, so I could only see his fist-size shell. The path winded around a forested ravine and looking across from the path we could see more rock cliffs, but with long vines hanging down from them.

After a few minutes of rest, we continued and after going up and down several times encountered an American who said that it was still pretty far and the hike back was harder than the hike to the Umbrella Rock. He looked pretty fit, so I was a little nervous about what the group was heading into, but Mary and the two younger guys had completed this at least once before so I knew we could make it. We finally saw it in the distance on top of one of the larger hills in the area. It jutted out from its base and was easy to spot amongst the green trees surrounding it. After spotting our destination, we descended for some time down a step path. I definitely used my hands a lot and squatted down to ensure surer footing. My goal is to not have to go to the hospital during my time here. One thing I noticed on the path was how quiet it was compared with other hike I have been on in the US. We rarely encountered any other hikers and there was none of that white noise that is typically generated by nearby roads or commercial areas.

The journey up the mini-mountain to the Umbrella Rock seemed to be at about a 60 degree angle and required lots of hand over foot stepping. I made a conscious effort to not look down. Bernard and I ascended first while the others stayed back to help Mary make it to the top. The naturally formed rock was quite amazing, akin to one of the formations at Arches National Park. It was about 20 feet tall from its base and perhaps the wind and water created a narrow midsection that allowed for people to sit beneath it – for shelter from the rain. At the top around the rock sat a group of children and a few adults selling water and coconuts. I had carried my water, actually one of Mary’s friends helped carry it at times so I could have both hands free, but the businesses at the top were quite clever. Unfortunately, there were so many coconut shells around that it looked littered and they made the path a little less safe because we had to step on the unstable shells at times. The group of sellers constructed a bamboo ladder to climb on top of the rock. I felt like I was high enough as it was so neither I nor anyone in the group ventured up. The vendors had little fear of moving around the cliff and leaning over the edge. This group knew little about the history of the rock, but a little while later we encountered an elderly man who told that the rock was found in the early 20th century by a hunter from the region. He returned to his village to tell everyone about the rock. Perhaps there is an opportunity here for a few villagers to talk about the rock for a donation in addition to or opposed to selling products. We could across several hills in the region and in the middle of one was a small village. The rest were covered in trees and other less interesting large rocks.

One of the school groups that passed by informed us that there was a palm tree in the next village that had a tree that was actually three trees in one – three trees growing out of a single trunk. Augustine, Kwame (one of Mary’s friends) and I wondered off to find the tree while the others stayed back to catch their breath and rest. We wound around a bit along a flat dirt path and came upon an elderly man sitting on a tombstone. The tombstones that I have seen in Ghana include more than the traditional headstone popular in the US. The stone extends down to the feet so that it looks sort of like a twin bed with a headboard and the mattress. There were two there and then three dirt mounds that looked large enough to be more recently buried bodies. It was a little creepy how fresh the dirt seemed to be placed there and, although I had seen similar things on TV or in movies, it is a little disconcerting seeing it in person. I was told that it was the village’s cemetery. He was also the one who told us about the history of the Umbrella Rock.

We continued on and came upon a wooden fence and several men looking for “donations” to go through to the tree. Augustine commented that the elderly man and the fence workers should collaborate on their business and the man could give tours which might generate more funds and then they could all share the money. We gave the men some change and then went through the fence toward the village. The three-in-one tree stands right at the center and is surrounded by a little fence. The village itself consisted of two or three mudbrick homes, a few lambs, several chickens, the tree and then one family (there may have been more but I only saw one family). I tried to speak Twi with the little ones, but was told that they speak a different local language called Korbo. Kwame could speak it, so he talked with them and then tried to teach me a few words. It seems to be a language that utilizes a lot of throat sounds which I am not especially good at deciphering or emulating. The family was excited to join us in our observation and interaction with the unusual tree. It looked a bit like a cartoon-rendered cactus tree. Three equally large branches emerged from the base creating three separate tree tops. The village built a bamboo ladder and this time I felt comfortable climbing up it to get a closer look and stand between the trees.

We returned to the rock to find the group well rested, one had dozed off, and well hydrated. The sky was starting to get dark and stormy-like so we got a move on. The descent went quickly, but as suggested by the other American on the hike, the ascent back up was pretty challenging. Throughout one man was helping to pull Mary up while another was pushing from behind. I thought it was fun though and despite Mary’s challenges I think she was enjoying herself too. We got back to the cliff and found the children excited to show me that the snail was now “walking.” I looked down and saw the huge slimy thing moving around with its antennae things, screamed and moved on quickly. The children seemed confused by my reaction. It started raining a bit which was nice but made me a little nervous that we were going to get stuck in a serious downpour like I had seen on my way to Kumasi. I started hustling a bit to get through the hike, figuring survival of the fittest. We made it back without anyone getting wet from rain – just sweat since it was a toasty 88 degrees out.

Mary was excited about finishing so that we could all start drinking. I opted for a fresh orange sold by one of the local women. They eat oranges here by peeling all of the rind off and much of the pith and then you sort of suck and squeeze out the fruit from the top part which has been cut off. I didn’t quite get it and made a mess so I gave up on the Ghanaian way and sectioned the orange and ate it that way. The woman selling the oranges was accompanied by several other girls. One of the girls was 16 and had a one year old son. She told us about how she got pregnant at a funeral and is no longer in contact with the father of the baby. Bernard told me that funerals are creating a lot of opportunity for teens to get pregnant because a lot of new men come into the town for the funeral and the girls hope or they do get money from the guys and there is often alcohol involved and then one thing leads to another… It also seems like a recipe for spreading STDs quite quickly throughout the country. It is unfortunate that the funeral culture is having so many negative side effects on the country. The other girl had a baby, but at twenty. Mary said that by twenty “it is ok to bring forth children” they say “bring forth” for having a baby here. I said to Mary that I thought that any age was too young if you don’t have the means to take care of the baby. The women collected 5 cents for every orange they sold and it was not a busy park and Saturday was likely the busiest day there. Mary also thought that the women could be working for someone else and would collect only a fraction of what they sold. Bernard asked the girls if they would use a condom the next time and they got very embarrassed and just laughed. It seems that talking about condoms and private parts is all very difficult for the girls but they are getting pregnant so they seem to not be embarrassed about certain things.

On our way home we were following a Volkswagen Beetle that was leaking fuel. The group flagged them down to pull over. The car was full of children, perhaps driven by their father. He pulled over and the minute he pulled over, a fire broke out beneath the car. Mary yelled, “Fire! Fire!” Augustine pulled over and everyone ran to try to put out the fire with handfuls of dirt and water. Images of exploding vehicles held me back and I just watched everyone scramble to put the fire out. Everyone was very courageous. I was impressed. I don’t think I would be prepared to put out a fire near a car. The collective effort was also nice to see. A few people started waving palm fronds to warn approaching cars. Others pulled over to help and a few came by to make sure that everyone was OK. One man came over to me to ask me to buy him some food, which was the first time since arriving in Ghana that I have encountered an adult asking for assistance. Although it was an odd moment to be asking for help, it definitely struck me that I have not encountered the kind of begging common in other parts of the world that I have traveled such as Jamaica and touristy areas of Europe. After everything, the car and the family were saved!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You should keep all these entries and write a great book :)