Thursday, April 3, 2008

Buses, Taxis and Flat-bed Trucks

It all started so innocently. I arrived at 6:30am for my 7:00am bus departure time at the STC bus station. The bus left at 7:40 for Tamale, which was not a terribly delayed departure time. The trip was supposed to take 12 hours, but I decided to assume that I would be likely to arrive at 10pm. Fifteen hours on a bus sounded like an insane undertaking. It was all in an effort to see elephants and hippos and since it was Easter weekend and everything would be closed in the Christian south of the country, what else did I have to do that day. As the departure delay seemed imminent and I had awoken at dawn, I sat next to two other white girls who seemed to be traveling independently. The STC staff began calling passengers over to weigh their bags. Passengers pay by the weight of their luggage, excluding carry-ons. I was carrying War and Peace and my computer, so although my bags were ridiculously heavy for a weekend, it wasn’t due to bulk so I could just put them under my feet.

We loaded up the bus and sadly I was in seat 44, the second to the last row. I sat next to a Japanese medical student who was coming to Ghana to study how the Asian Development Bank is helping to eradicate Guinea worm in northern Ghana. We were off on our long journey and the first stop was to be Kumasi. Surprisingly, the bus driver stopped right outside of the city at a roadside market. I’m guessing the bus driver has some sort of relationship to the market people, because people loaded up on yams, plantains, and jugs of palm oil which were able to avoid the luggage weight fees. The passengers loaded up the aisle of bus with all of these goods. Interspersed between the fruits, tomatoes and oil were large bags that would not fit under the seat. This made for quite the obstacle course getting in and out of the bus. Under normal circumstances, a bus would only stop every two to three hours. However, this bus ride was to stop far more often.

Once we arrived in Kumasi, the bus drove off for a mechanic inspection. It was somewhat reassuring to know that the bus would be checked to verify that everything was working properly before entering the more remote areas of the country. As I stood there with my coke, bananas and groundnuts, a few of the other young foreigners gathered around. It was the first time I had been in a group of foreigners since arriving. Although it was nice to be able to share similar frustrations about cultural differences, it was also rather discomfiting. Ghanaians were all around us and I would imagine wouldn’t appreciate the commentary on their daily lives. Throughout the weekend I realized how beneficial it is that I am doing this experience as a solo undertaking. Group dynamics seem to elicit a focus on complaining. I don’t have anyone to complain to here, so I have no choice but to move on and not think about the problem for more than five minutes. There is of course the other side to this in that when I see or taste wonderful things that experience is usually heightened by sharing it with others who are also experiencing it for the first time.

The bus returned after about thirty minutes and we were off again. I noticed a peculiar noise coming from the engine and asked my Japanese neighbor what he thought of the sound. He didn’t seem too concerned, so I put my headphones on and figured that it would be just too cliché to break down on a bus. Most of the blogs and travel books talk about buses breaking down rather regularly, but I assumed that was all an exaggeration. Well, I was wrong. It started with a high pitched beep. My #44 seat didn’t seem so bad at this point because the beep was very loud in the front but only mildly loud in the back. We pulled over. I had assumed the driver couldn’t take the noise anymore and needed a respite. Since it is still very hot here and you need the engine at least partially on to power the A/C, most exited the rapidly warming bus. I found a few of the foreigners who were sitting near the front to ask what had happened. They complained about the beep and said that at some point the dashboard controls all switched off. The driver was apparently forced over, but not because of the noise. This sounded a little more serious than just an annoying beep. One Ghana blogger I read talked about his bus breaking down just north of Kumasi and, despite the fact that it is a large STC hub, they refused to send a bus to rescue the passengers. This knowledge was a bit worrying considering my current situation.

I forgot to mention that when I first got on the bus I noticed a swarm of mosquitoes in the back. I sprayed on the DEET, but the mosquitoes gained in strength and numbers as the food began to spill and night descended on our stopped and well-let bus. I’m not sure at what point the belt came out, but after a series of starts and stops, the bus driver asked if anyone had a spare belt. I didn’t want to even see how he was about to fix the engine with this accessory. Eventually after the third, fourth or fifth stop though curiosity overcame me. The driver and few other mechanically inclined passengers had wrapped the belt around one part of the engine. Apparently we kept stopping because the belt would come lose and they would have to tie it up again. There was also a towel used for some purpose, but I couldn’t quite see. The belt seemed to hold for about fifteen minutes before giving way. The low point on the journey came when the 2nd Tamale bus passed us. It had been delayed in Accra until 12pm, which at first made me delighted to be on the 1st bus. So, this bus that left four hours after we did was now going to get to the destination considerably faster. Building off of this low moment, at the point when the driver finally realized that the bus was inoperable, he called to the 2nd Tamale bus to pick us all up. The bus was full, so it was going to have to drive the remaining two hours to Tamale and then turn around and drive two hours back to pick us up. We waited by the side of the road in the dark. We had broken down in the middle of nowhere, but the middle of nowhere contained a radio playing hip-life and a prostitute lying on the side of the road waving a white flag as cars drove by. Eventually, as more and more passengers exited the bus and rested on the side of the road, the prostitute moved away from the crowd. Thus, for a few hours we sat or lied down on the warm pavement of the road and looked out into the darkness of the African countryside.

The bus arrived a few hours later and we all boarded sleepy and excited to get to our next destination. So much for arriving in Tamale by my “I woke freak out if we don’t arrive before...” time of 10pm. It was 1:30am when the bus stopped at the station. A few other foreigners reserved a room in the same hostel as I did and an American guy and a German girl who were traveling together followed me there. The taxi brought the group of us there and dropped us off in front of a completely dark hotel. I had been calling through the bus debacle to assure them that I would be coming and to not give my hotel room away. The hotel told me that everything would be fine if I arrived before midnight. I explained that I was on a bus and did not have much control over when I arrived in their city. Well, apparently they decided not to wait up for me. One of the guys in the group of us standing outside the gate jumped over the fence to locate an employee. After walking around for a bit, he managed to wake someone up who came over to the gate and let us in. He asked how many of us reserved a room and two parties out of the three said that we had. He said that they only had two rooms left. It was sort of an odd coincidence and it definitely seemed that had we said all three of us reserved everyone would have gotten a room. I invited Fanny and Graham, the German girl and American guy respectively, to come to my room so they could call a few hotels to get a room. The hotel room was quite grim and I was not looking forward to sleeping for three hours before getting to the tro-tro yard at 4:30am to catch the first bus to Mole. They called around to no avail. I offered to let them stay in my small room. Eventually, we decided that we should just ditch the hotel room and ditch Tamale altogether and get in a taxi that night to take us to Mole park. The guidebooks said that it would cost about $60 a piece, which, when divided by three, was about what I was paying for the icky hotel room. It was now about 2:30 and we quietly left the key in the door and hopped over the fence to find a taxi.

It was very quiet out and there were only a few cars on the road. Eventually, a taxi pulled over and said that he would be happy to take us to the park for $60 and, yes, he has made the journey several times in his car so his car can definitely navigate the rough roads. Fanny and Graham hopped in the back and I got in the front and looked out the cracked windshield at the road in front of us. I was kind of hoping the journey would take us enough time so that we wouldn’t be arriving at the park at 4am – there are lions there that come out at night. Fanny went to sleep and Graham and I stayed a wake listening to the hip-life music the driver was blasting through his radio. The windows were also rolled down all of the way too, so my hair was all over the place. I was sure to have dreadlocks by the time we got to the park. Despite the cracked windshield and intense wind, the drive was amazing. The countryside was so picturesque. The north is known for having Sahel-style mud and stick mosques and perfectly circular mudbrick homes with palm frond roofs. The latter dotted the landscape and made me feel like I was back in time. The sky was very clear too and since there were no lights on, it was completely unobstructed by light pollution. It felt pretty magical to be driving along the African countryside in the middle of the night. It was sort of like a rougher version of that VW commercial with the kids in the convertible and Pink Moon playing in the background.

Despite the lush landscape and bright stars, the magic didn’t last more than an hour. At one point the driver stopped to run into one of the mudbrick homes that was lit to ask about the conditions of the road in front of us. I had been told that the road was “rough by Ghanaian standards.” I didn’t quite know what that meant since all of the roads I had been on here were quite smooth. I had a feeling though that I was in for something interesting. The driver returned and said that the road was clear enough for us to pass, but was very rough. I kind of imagined large boulders and big potholes. Instead it was small grooves that gave the sense of driving over rumble strips. The driver wanted to get through the rough section quickly, and even though I told him that we weren’t in a rush, he insisted on driving fast. The car shook furiously. I couldn’t keep my feet on the floor because they kept going numb from the vibrations. After about 45 minutes of this, I started being able to nod off, but it wasn’t easy. A particularly large rumble would shake me away. I couldn’t believe the taxi driver was willing to put his car through this for $60. It felt like the car would not survive and would certainly not survive the trip back to Tamale. One funny thing we saw repeated on the road over the course of the night were gangs of lambs and goats in the middle of the road. They very slowly moved to get out of the way of the car and I thought for sure we would drive over some. There was a rather big lump in one area but Graham assured me that he looked back and didn’t see a dead lamb on the road so it must have made it. An African jumping mouse passed in front of the car and Graham and I both swear that we saw a black rhinoceros, although I was told in Wechiau that rhinos don’t exist in Ghana and I probably saw a large warthog. The jury is still out as far as I am concerned. At some point. when it was starting to get light, something fell off the car. The driver told me that a few of his shocks broke. Yeah, no kidding. Thirty minutes later some part of the front brakes let go. The driver got out to look around and came back in to say that he thought we could make it but he wanted more money because it was rougher than he anticipated. We were pretty beholden to him, so we agreed to $20 more. It seemed pretty fair to me considering what we had gone through. Just outside of the town Damango, something happened to the steering. I think his front axel broke or was at least compromised. The left front wheel was no longer responding to the steering wheel. This brought our trip to a halt. We were about 20 miles away. So close, but still so far. Someone stopped to help direct us back to Damango to find a mechanic. It was 6:30am and I couldn’t imagine any mechanic working or interested in helping us that early in the morning, especially since it was a Saturday.

The taxi driver assured us that it would be a quick fix and that it would maybe take 30 minutes. I knew that if all of the fates in the universe conspired to help us, there was no way that a problem this serious would be fixed in 30 minutes. I felt the overwhelming sense that we had to get out of there otherwise we would be stuck in Damango with a broken down taxi and its driver who would undoubtedly ask us to pay for the repairs. The taxi driver walked off to find the mechanic. When a truck drove by, Fanny flagged him down and just said “Larabanga.” The driver nodded and motioned us to the rear of his truck and then headed for the town about a mile and a half outside of Mole. We tucked $60 in the side of the taxi door and I hoped that he would not chase us down for the remaining $20 since he technically did not get us to our destination. There we were though, sitting on a wooden platform looking out at the dirt road, getting blown around again and so, so close to the elephants. The first tour of the day started at 7:30am and I was thinking that we were just going to make it. Having left 24 hours before, we were so close. The driver brought us to Larabanga, which is about a mile and half from the park, and then said that he would be willing to take us all the way to the park. I naively looked at Graham and said, “Wow, we should really give him something to thank him.” Little did I know that our gift of $15 would be completely scoffed at. He told us that it meant nothing to him and we should give him $40. $40 for a half an hour of driving seemed a bit extreme and having been up all night, I was in no mood to be ripped off. I said that we were being more than generous and that I would give him $10 more but that was it.

No comments: