Friday, April 4, 2008


The bus to Wa hit the same bumpy roads as the taxi, but seemed to be able to navigate them better. Although the bus shook furiously, it was tempered somewhat compared with the car. My legs at least didn’t fall asleep and I wasn’t as worried that the bumpiness was going to cause my computer to malfunction. The young guy that I sat next to was incredibly polite and told me a bit about his neighborhood. He had been traveling to attend school, but tried to return most weekends to visit his family. He got out at a village that looked like it had limited, if any, electricity. All of the houses were expertly made of mud meaning that, despite their building material, they appear similar in shape and size to small homes in the US. They are the ultimate “green” houses. The religious leader got off a few stops after the boy, leaving me with three seats to myself.

I had noticed several foreigners get on the bus and I thought I heard them say they were going to the Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary. When the bus stopped in Wa, I went over to the lone female of the group and asked if they would want to share a can or coordinate travel together. Really, I just didn’t want to be alone in the tro-tro station surrounded by aggressive taxi drivers trying to get my money. They were all British university students and were more than willing to let me tag alone with them. There was Daisy, two Peters and a Paul. I never quite figured out who was who amongst the guys, but usually assumed I was talking to Peter. We negotiated a fee for a taxi to get us the 50km to Wechaiu and the additional 17km to the hippo sanctuary. I felt a little guilty because, although I was helping them out a bit monetarily, I also became the fourth person to squeeze into the back of the taxi. They didn’t seem to mind too much.

Although we were now entering a very remote area of Ghana near the Burkina Faso border, the roads smoothed out. They were still dirt and we had to veer off in parts to avoid road construction, but they didn’t have the jolting bumps of the earlier roads. We drove past small villages that had to be populated by no more than 30 or 40 people. Children ran out to wave at us and everyone in the car excitedly waved back. At one point, a child who had been standing with his friends on a bridge crossed in front of the car. The driver honked and then stopped his vehicle to get out of the car and slap the child. He hit him about five times before a woman from the village came over to tell him to stop. It was pretty horrifying to imagine a stranger beating a child who had let his own excitement get the better of him. It seems like the system in the US of slowing down when you are driving by children is a pretty good general rule. I don’t quite understand why some people here feel that children should inherently understand the danger of cars. I wondered if we could tell him that we were going to pay him less because of his violent outburst.

We arrived at the reception area of the hippo sanctuary. The beauty of this project is that, like the Kakum canopy walk, it was started by outsiders but now runs by locals. The profits are all reinvested into the community. Also like Kakum, it had an environmental motive. Hippos were discovered by a fisherman whose fishing net had been destroyed by a hippo. He had used a microloan to buy the net and now would not be able to pay it back. He wanted the town to help him. This was the first they had heard of hippos being in their neighborhood, although it seems that poaching and hunting of hippos had occurred in the area for some time. Once the town verified that hippos existed there was a lot of debate about what should be done about them. Eventually, someone proposed a community supported sanctuary and a Peace Corps volunteer came in to get all of the neighboring villages to agree to the various rules of the sanctuary, including harsh penalties for anyone responsible for killing a hippo. The volunteer helped to construct the motel and from then on the sanctuary has expanded and hired more people to support it.

The little reception building was like a hippo shrine. The community is very proud of the presence of hippos there. The reception employee greeted us and robotically detailed all of the important information for our stay at the sanctuary. He reminded us that hippos were wild animals and he could not predict whether we would see them in the morning or afternoon or at all. I am not sure why so many people in this field feel the need to tell people that elephants or hippos are “wild animals.” I wonder if many foreigners come to these sites not understanding that fact. We were told that all of the hippo hideouts (where you could sleep elevated above hippo feeding grounds) were taken, so we opted to sleep on the tree platform.

Children confronted us outside the hippo reception site asking for my plastic bottle of water. I told them that I hadn’t finished it yet, but would give it to them when I returned the next day. I am not sure what people use the plastic bottles for but all of them disappear when I leave them near the dumpster at my hostel. It makes me feel a little less guilty about consuming so much plastic. The taxi driver shooed the children away from us and reluctantly drove us the rest of the way for which we had bargained. A hippo guide joined us for our stay at the sanctuary. He was also responsible for helping us to start a fire to cook our food. The taxi driver dropped us outside of a stone and stick structure. There wasn’t much to it and certainly not a lot of electricity. I had been told that only bucket showers were available, not a problem after my months of bucket showering, and there was no food for sale, so we had to bring our own food. Although I had lots of Luna bars and peanut butter crackers with me, I hadn’t thought to bring a flashlight. The group of British university students got their flashlights and headlamps out in preparation. They also brought Ramen noodles for dinner. I was impressed. After a quick walk down to the banks of the Black Volta River, we went back to camp for dinner.

Although somewhat self conscious, I got the crackers out and ate my second Luna bar of the day while my companions feasted on undercooked noodles. During our walk, the guide set up mats on the tree platform and fastened mosquito nets around them. We chatted for a bit, but as night descended and we all needed to be up early the group staggered to bed. I discovered my little key-ring flashlight and brought that to bed with me in case I needed to find a bathroom in the middle of the night. I desperately hoped that that would not be necessary. Daisy, the lone female of the Brits, and I had attempted to use the bathroom facility. It was a wooden outhouse structure with a large wooden box to potentially sit on. The set-up was incredible awkward and there seem to be noises of bugs or geckos falling from the ceiling. I told Daisy she could go for it, but I was going to find a bush. As we sat up in our tree platform, fires from the little villages dotted the landscape. There was no noise. It reminded me of an evening in Joshua Tree when I first discovered what real noiselessness sounded like. It didn’t quite remain that silent through the night, however. I was awoken by an owl that made noises like an alarm clock. A few hours later I realized how cold I was, a first during my time here. I willed the cold away not wanting to venture into our dark luggage storage room. Around 4:30am, the local soccer team began the daily workouts and chanted songs. At that hour, I imagined it was a band of rogue Burkinabe coming to cause a ruckus in its neighbor. I hoped they wouldn’t find us in the tree.

We woke up at 6am to head out on the water and see what the hippos were up to. The guide couldn’t tell us which time of day was better for hippo sightings, but since the elephants were more active in the morning, it stood to reason that it would be the same for hippos. We walked down to the river and watched two other guides struggle to get a motorbike started so they wouldn’t have to walk to the river. I put on my well worn and smelly lifejacket and entered the wooden dugout canoe. There was quite a bit of water in the canoe, but it seemed to float without a problem. We pushed off from the shore with someone on each of the canoe seats. The motor cycles guides were in their own canoe off to get the people who stayed in the hippo hideouts. Several fishermen were out on the water and the guide asked if they had seen any hippos that day. I was so happy to hear that they were around. Despite the risk or imagined risk of the boat ride, I didn’t want to come to such a remote area of the world and not see this fascinating creature. I had come too far.

The guide sat behind me and an oarsmen stood behind him. The guide was incredibly soft-spoken and I felt a little guilty joining the Brits and then being the only one to benefit from this guide. The oarsmen switched between a rounded paddle and a long stick to move us along. After about 45 minutes, I could see them in the distance. Their ears were just peaking above the water. It was clear though that there were enough ear-shapes that it couldn’t be a collection of rocks. I pointed toward the ears and asked the guide if those were the hippos. When he nodded, I felt like a kid at the circus for the first time. We were going to get to see them! After a bit more paddling, we stopped about 100 feet from them.

The hippos were quite relaxed, which was a good thing. They bobbed up and down and in and out of the water. When they came up for air, they would snort out the water from their noses and wiggle their ears to shake the water out. There were about ten hippos in all. There was one male who kept an eye on us the whole time. He seemed to go under the water and then come up again hoping we had disappeared. He was surrounded by a group of female hippos who also went under the water a lot, but seemed to be less concerned with us. There were also several baby hippos. Baby hippos have to be one of the cutest babies of the animal kingdom, maybe even cuter than puppies. The little ones went up and down a little more frequently and shook their eyes out a little more vigorously than the adults. For about an hour, we started at the hippos and they stared back at us. It was pretty fun with nothing else to do but float on the river and look at the hippos.

The guide told us to signal to him when we wanted to paddle back. Comments like this usually end up resulting in a change of action, so the Brits agreed that they were ready to head back. Before finishing up our journey, we paddled over to the Burkina Faso side of the river and entered the country illegally and just long enough to take a photo. Amazingly, considering the proximity of the hippos, children had been swimming from the banks of this part of the river. The water was a pretty muddy brown. Even without hippos, I don’t think I would want to go in there. I nearly had the opportunity to try it though because, as I got out of the canoe, I stepped on some slick mud and flailed around a bit before finally falling back into the canoe. The guide had even said not to step where I was stepping and I just don’t know if I was overconfident in my own abilities or in the mud’s to hold me. Regardless, it was a poor calculation on my part and I just hoped to not turn too red from my mortification. The memory of the little hippos helped me to forget my clumsiness as we returned to the camp.

A driver picked us up a few hours later and returned us to the sanctuary reception site. I handed over my plastic bottle to one lucky child. The “tro-tro” was just a few paces ahead and we were told to rush over before it left. I am putting tro-tro in quotes here, because, while I am comfortable with old VW vans serving as an informal bus system, it does seem to be appropriate to fashion a few wooden benches to the back of a truck and charge money for this service. I felt better when the Brits told me that had ridden in something similar in an earlier part of the trip. If I survived the trip from Dalamango to Mole National Park at dawn, I could make it the 50km in the back of this truck. It did seem far though. There were about 14 of us in the back and another three in the cab of the truck. I don’t understand what happened, but at the first village we passed, several irate women were yelling at the driver. They wanted to add another four in the back along with three children. The 6’3 Peter/Paul of the Brits was asked to move down and when he said he physically couldn’t move, they bumped him to the cab and someone else joined us in back. Several people got on top of the structure covering the truck that also contained most of the luggage.

One thing I really loved about the north of the country was the population’s use of bicycles. There were more bikes than cars and you would see people of all ages riding bikes around. It was great. This trend needs to catch on in Accra. We stopped outside of a market for a bit. There were bicycle repairmen working on about 10 bikes. Several others were selling bikes. A group of children gathered around the truck to look at us. They waved and then we waved back and then they waved again. Daisy couldn’t believe that they could just stare at us like that and enjoy watching us do nothing. I realized this was sort of what we were doing in the canoe that morning and said to her, “Do you think it is kind of like we are the hippos and the children are us staring at the hippos sitting in the water?”

We arrived in Wa and I continued to follow the nice group around. I booked a room in the same motel they wanted to stay in. My room left a lot to be desired. I had turned down the first room because the mattress sat directly on the floor. The second one was better but I didn’t understand why the walls were so dirty. I imagined that it was similar to a room in a white collar prison. I also paid only for a shared bathroom. The toilet and shower were in separate rooms. The best part was that the toilet had no seat. It seemed that any hotel, even a budget one, would opt for seatless toilets. It was only for one night though. It was kind of ironic though when I yearned for the freedom of being able to just go outside in Wechaiu. Outdoors seemed much cleaner than this toilet. The shower was also interesting and I definitely kept my flip flops on. The group decided to splurge a bit and go to the nicest hotel in Wa and get dinner there. I was up for it, especially since I didn’t really want to eat alone. The tables of the restaurant at the Upland Hotel sat beneath a gazebo. It seemed to be a popular hangout for Peace Corps volunteers. I ordered the “authentic” Caesar salad. Nearly an hour after ordering, the food finally arrived. I was confused by the hotel’s need to include “authentic” since it was anything but. Heinz sells a product here called salad cream. I think it might be a form of mayonnaise. This was the dressing for my Caesar salad. I had assumed that parmesan was just a typo for parmesan, but no cheese was found on the salad. My hopes had been high because I had recently had an incredible Caesar salad at Monsoon, an upscale Accra restaurant that served Ghana’s only decent sushi. Upland’s Caesar was not as good as Monsoon’s, but it was pretty nice after eating Luna bars and crackers for the last day and a half. I also ordered penne all’arrabiatta. It was really nice. I hadn’t eaten pasta in so long I forgot how pleasurable the texture is to bite into.

The next day, the Brits came to get me to join them for breakfast. I thought our egg breakfasts were pretty nice, but they all seemed ready to go back to English food. It seemed ironic since I had struggled to find good food in England and found Ghanaian food to be much better. We walked around a bit and then headed to the bus station to board one of three buses during the week to departs for Accra. It left a little late, but I was fine with that since I was told the bus would arrive at the capital sometime between 2 and 3am. It didn’t seem like a favorable time to arrive a city alone. The tall Brit sat next to me. I lucked out and got the window seat and was a little sad to say goodbye to the interesting landscape of Ghana’s north. It had been so nice to sleep outside and be in nature for a few days. Timing was everything on the trip too. If Fanny, Graham and I hadn’t taken the taxi, I might not have seen the elephants. If I hadn’t seen the elephants, then I might have stayed longer and not seen the hippos. Maybe it was a fortuitous that the bus broke down because if that hadn’t happened, the weekend might have turned out quite differently and not nearly as interesting. Just like the bus earlier in the weekend, the Wa-Accra bus arrived a few hours late. I pulled into Accra at 5:00am and caught a taxi to get home and try to get a few hours of sleep so as not to pull my second all-nighter in four nights. Not that my bed here is anything special, but being away and sleeping in some funny places made it seem like a temper-pedic. If it felt like good to return to my modest hostel room, I can only imagine what returning to Boston is going to feel like.

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