Thursday, April 17, 2008

Wli Falls

Traveling alone definitely has its pros and cons. The cons are obvious – it is cheaper to split things between several travelers, you get to share the experience with people other than guides who are paid to take you places, you get photos with more than the same person in them over and over again. The pros, at least the ones I experienced this weekend, mainly centered on Ghanaians’ invested interest that I arrive safely at my destinations. The STC bus arrived an hour late in Hohoe, which is probably the second largest city in the Volta Region and very close to the Togo border. A nice guy about my age overheard me talking to the woman next to me about where I should stay and said that he was going in the same direction. We walked about 10 minutes to the first lodge whose five rooms were all booked for the weekend. I had tried to call them to reserve a room, but no one answered the phone throughout the day. We walked to the next motel recommended in the guide which was another 10 minutes away. I was definitely feeling guilty about making this guy walk around the city with me. The Pacific Guesthouse said that they had only “chalets” left which were $32 a night compared to the $12 rates given in the guide. It seemed expensive compared to what I had been paying throughout my stay, but ultimately was worth it not to have to walk around anymore that night.

The chalet consisted of a living room, a bedroom and a bathroom. It even had a new bar of soap which was pretty exciting. I did have to ask for toilet paper though. I found out that the A/C didn’t work, neither did the TV, and the drain was clogged in the shower. It seemed like I had a case to bargain the price down. Instead the manager moved me to another “chalet” with a working drain and TV, but still no A/C. The fan would have to suffice. The manager had turned the TV on to show me that it worked and left the room. I thought I would flip through the channels to see if there was something nice to have on in the background while I was reading. Only one channel seemed to be working and it alternated back and forth between black and white and color. The program was sort of like a Ghanaian version of MTV. Musicians were singing near the ocean as the camera panned around them. It did the trick as background noise, while I was reading.

Saturday was to be a big day, so I woke up early to get breakfast. The Taste Lodge, which had rejected me the night before for a room, welcomed me to breakfast. The served scrambled eggs, toast and Milo (my favorite). I definitely ate more shell than I am used to in the eggs. There were a few bites that were unusually crunchy. From the lodge, I ventured out to find a tro-tro to the falls. The tro-tros are staffed by a driver and another person who manages the door and the money and calls out the destination to passersby to attract more customers. One spotted me and asked if I was going to the falls. Typically, everyone in the tro-tro needs to wait until it is full, but luckily I was one of the last to enter. We left soon after. After a few people alighted for a funeral at one stop, a man offered to share the front seat with me so I could see out the window. At first I thought this was great, but after a few close calls with some lucky goats I realized that it is probably better to not know what is going on up front. The man sharing the front seat with me offered to point out the reception office of Wli Falls. It was rather obvious with its large sign and bright red arrow, but he insisted on accompanying me to “make sure that I found it.” Of course, after we arrived he asked for some money. I felt a little put on the spot with the Wli Falls staff watching my every move, so caved and gave him a cedi. When the pesky man finally left, I paid for my tour of the falls. This is another eco-tourism project run by locals to benefit both the community’s environment and its inhabitants. The falls are staffed by people of the Wli village and tour guides are drawn from the town and paid monthly. It is not necessary to use a guide to get to the lower falls, but because my own silly determination I opted to hike to the upper falls which required a guide. The beginning of the hike to both sets of falls was mostly flat and well-maintained. There were seven bridges that had all been built by Wli’s inhabitants that crossed small rivers created by the falls.

The turn off to the upper falls suddenly narrowed and looked more like a jungle. It was clear that this was not a well-traveled path. The guide was a few steps in front of my and let out a loud “eeyee!!!” like exclamation. I asked him what was wrong. He looked at me wide-eyed and said, “Big snake, very big snake!” In general everything is bigger in Africa, especially when it comes to bugs and reptiles. When an African guide says ‘big snake’ I can only imagine what it must have looked like. He then said, “cobra.” I responded with a loud “oh, wow!” He could see the look of bewilderment on my face and assured me that the snake had gone off into the woods. What had started out as an adventurous little hike, now seemed like much more than I had bargained for. In no way was I interested in a Crocodile Hunter encounter. We ventured on, but I was sure to stay quite close to the guide and keep my wits about me.

Most difficult hikes I have done in the US, include at least some switchbacks so that hikers gradually ascend the mountain. This hike was practically straight up. It reminded me of climbing a ladder in parts and then eased up a bit to be more like climbing a steep staircase. The guide looked completely unfazed by the trek, forcing me to announce each of my needed breaks so that he would stop running up the mountain. The views were incredible as we advanced. Most of the mountains around were covered by trees and the little villages in the area stood in sharp contrast to their hunter green surroundings. The village of Wli looked very far away. At some point though, I realized that I was no longer enjoying the hike and was more focused on what would happen if I did finally make it to the top and then didn’t have the energy to come back down. I was sweating profusely and breathing heavily (I told the guide that I do far too much sitting in Accra) and thought that maybe I could make it if the guide said that we had gone further than half way. He responded that no, we were not at the half way point. Hmmm. We finally arrived at a spot where the upper falls were visible. They seemed pretty, but not enough for me to strain myself to get there. The falls were a narrow band of water from a high point on the mountain. I didn’t get to see the source, but figured this distant glance was good enough. I also wanted to climb Mt. Afadjato, so thought I would concentrate my energies on that next hike because it was supposed to provide better views of the valley including Lake Volta. Once the guide told me that many people get to this point (and, no, it is still not half way) view the falls and then opt to turn back, I opted for that plan. While it took 45 minutes to climb up to that point, it only took 20 to get back down. We safely crossed over the cobra’s path and emerged onto a flat path that leads to the lower falls.

Wli’s lower falls are actually the more spectacular of the two sets of waterfalls. They are longer and fuller and end in a wider pond. Spray hits viewers on all sides of the lake. Thousands of fruit bats hang upside down from at the midpoint and compete with the crashing of the water for noisiest element in that particular spot of Ghana. The bats fly around the falls which looks especially creepy. The butterflies on the trails were more pleasant to watch.

A group retired Americans from the west and Midwest stopped at the falls. We all took some photos and then headed back to the reception. As impressive as waterfalls are, once you see it there isn’t much more to do. I remember thinking this same thing at Niagara Falls. People drive great distances to see it, but can you really enjoy it for much longer than five minutes? I did sit down on the bench for a few minutes to try to dry off and enjoy the bits of water hitting my face. The guide was ready to start heading back and since the other Americans were going I agreed. After a few minutes of talking with the group, my guide came over to me and said, “Please continue walking with you group, because I have to go make my poo poo and I will come back to you.” He rendered me momentarily speechless with these words. Although, a few thoughts went through my mind at this proclamation. First and foremost was that this was entirely too much information for me and my prudish ears. Secondly, we were in the middle of the woods and he wasn’t carrying toilet paper. I was also wondering if he was going to want to shake my hand at the end of our tour. I also felt the kind of sympathy you feel for someone who has been completely honest about themselves and their situation in a way that you might never be with anyone. So, despite all of my issues, I hid them all and told him to take his time and that I would be fine.

This American group was quite fascinating. They had just returned from touring Benin and Togo and told me how happy they were to be back in Ghana which has far more developed facilities than either of the other two countries. The group had traveled the world together and some of the members had been to more than one hundred countries. You would never know that they were such adventurous travelers by looking at them. Many were from Wisconsin and Minnesota and looked exactly like someone you might meet there – pale, slightly chubby, big smile, high-waisted pants. They did not look like the kind of people who could wax poetically about their time in Cameroon or Laos. One woman told me that she tries to travel with this group at least four times a year and her favorite places so far are Kenya and Cambodia. The group leader had just returned from Nicaragua and also told me a bit about his time in Burkina Faso, of which he said that Ouagadougou might be the worst city that he has ever been to. Not that there is any need to further prove how small the world is and that we truly are connected to everyone by about 7 degrees of separation, one of the women knew a shaggy member of Sig Tau who is the son of a colleague. For those of you reading this not from Pomona, Sig Tau is the pseudo-fraternity that Mike was in at Pomona. The group waved goodbye as I went to find a way to get to Mt. Afadjato from Wli. I was determined to climb the next mountain.

The guide told me he was going to get me a motorbike and I told him, “No, thanks.” He insisted saying that it was only 8km and would not take long on the bike and that it was very safe. After drinking a coke and waiting for about 15 minutes, the bike showed up and asked for $8 to take me there. Insulted by the degree to which this guy wanted to rob me, I refused and told him I would pay no more than $5. He said that was no good for him. I looked around and saw no other tourists anywhere in the vicinity. In fact, I had been the first all day and the day was more than half over. I understand the need to set a fair price considering the expense of fuel in this country, but he was willing to lose potentially his only customer of the day. Finally, he asked me if expected him to wait for me as I climbed the mountain. I told him that that was not necessary, so he then said he would take me for $5. Even though I had used that number a few minutes before, it still felt higher than I needed to pay considering a tro-tro was $1. Perhaps this starts seeming a little silly, but when you know what the locals pay (I found out later that it should have been the equivalent of 60 cents) it is easy to get stubborn about not getting ripped off. While this negotiation was taking place, a taxi with several people waited for me to decide whether I was going back to Hohoe with them or take the motorbike. One of the passengers finally said to me, “Obruni, let us go.” I took that as my cue to hop in the cab and take my chances with finding a tro-tro to the mountain. It was early in the day and I had nothing else to do.

Several people directed me to the makeshift tro-tro station in the small city. A man called me over to ask where I was going. He was selling tickets for the tro-tros which were small scraps of paper that he scribbled numbers on. He pointed to a rather broken down taxi and told me that that was my tro-tro. I think it was a Honda from the 1970s, perhaps one of the originals. They told me that I was the first to arrive to go that direction but that I was welcome to pay to cover the remaining passengers. Knowing that this would have brought me back to the $5 that I had refused to pay the motorcyclist, I said that I was fine with waiting. I got out the Sudoku book that is starting to get a little tired looking and wrote the little numbers in while the tro-tro team watched with curiosity. People came and went and I couldn’t quite tell whether they were joining my cab or not. After 45 minutes of sitting there, I was starting to question my stubbornness in refusing to pay the $5. I so did not want to be wrong in this situation. I passed more time by taking pictures of the people who worked in the area. If I ventured too far from the taxi, the tro-tro ticket person would call me back and tell me to sit back down. Nearly two hours passed by the time we were one person shy of a full cab. The ticket man turned to me and asked if I wanted to pay to cover the one remaining seat. I asked him why he only asked me, seeing as there were 4 other passengers currently signed up. When I suggested that we all split it, he laughed. I did not see what was funny, but was again starting to question my tyrannical stubbornness at refusing to pay an extra few dollars to get going. Luckily for my sanity, another man showed up and we were off – 4 in the back and 2 in the front, not including the driver. At some point on the road, we picked up someone else who managed to share the driver’s seat. It was a packed car on a hot day. It was a hot day, but dark clouds were fast approaching. I again started hoping to not have to regret my decision not to pay the $5 because of weather I would have missed had I just paid.

The driver dropped me off and called over a friend to be my guide to the reception office. He seemed nice, but I was wary of being asked for any more money to walk my towards a well marked landmark. Mt. Afadjato is another eco-tourism, community-building project. This particular one was started by the Netherlands, but is now completely run by the townspeople of Afadjato. A few of the employees were sleeping when the guide and I arrived and were happy to wake up, take my money, and allow the guide to take me up the mountain. He promised me that he climbs the mountain nearly everyday and leads groups to the top often. We began the ascent and I was soon breathing quite heavily. He had assured me that this was much easier than the Wli Falls hike, but perhaps that was an exaggeration. It was not as steep, but it still did not have many switchbacks. Every once in a while, the guide would look back and me and tell me what a great job I was doing. It was nice to hear, but also made me feel old and fat. I wondered if he really meant that or was just hoping it would speed me up so we could get this hike over and done with. I took a few breathers and snapped some photos. There were many butterflies fluttering around us, which were certainly worth taking a moment to look at. I assured the guide that I would take less time descending and he replied with more reassuring comments such as, “You are doing a great job. You are climbing a mountain which is not easy.” It could have been considered pandering if it had been an American, but this Ghanaian seemed genuine in his encouragement.

It felt like we were in the middle of a dense tropical forest. There were cocoa and mango trees and the pathway was only wide enough for one of us to pass. I grabbed onto trees and strategically placed wooden stakes, but not before looking to make sure there were no insects crawling on them. I had made the mistake earlier in the hike and let out a slight scream in an otherwise completely silent space. The area was quiet enough that an antelope came close enough for us to hear it walking around. I kept looking up to see whether I could tell if we were near the top. The coverage was so thick that it was impossible to tell. I vacillated between telling myself that it was probably just a little bit further and that I should just relax because I am probably only half way. The top finally came though. I had made it to the highest peak in West Africa. In theory, one can see all the way to Lake Volta, but the evening fog had rolled in blocking the distant views. The town of Afadjato looked very small and very far away. The surrounding area was predominantly covered in green leafy trees interspersed with small clusters of brown houses. It was worth all of the fuss it had taken to get there.

As predicted, the trip back down took far less time and was much more fun. It was easier to enjoy the fresh, clean air and the interesting flying insects. Cicadas broke the silence in several parts of the trail. We emerged from the thicket and found the trail employees still resting where we had left them. One asked me to sign the guest book before leaving. The guide walked me back to his town where he assured me that I would get a tro-tro back to Hohoe for the night. The town was pretty well consumed in funeral related activities. Music was playing and people were dancing. I was offered some palm wine, but the intense smell was enough to get an idea of the taste. A taxi apparently passed while we had veered off the road to take a closer look at the people dancing. Many wore red and were dancing in a spiraling conga line. There were some adding hand and hip gestures which made it more of a Ghanaian conga line. We returned to the road and watched and waited as no cars passed.

No cars passed for well over an hour. Not one. I was still told, “Oh, a tro-tro will come” and “Don’t worry, you will get a ride tonight.” There were many people there for the funeral, so I just assumed that cars would be arriving rather frequently to shuttle people back to the town. The low point came when the guide told me that although many of the other people waiting for a taxi were probably just going to sleep in the village that night and that I was the only one who needed to get back to the city. I figured that I wouldn’t get worried until it got dark, which it did about 15 minutes after I had decided on this. There was no electricity in the town, so it got very dark. Torches and generators kept visibility a bit higher. I was starting to regret not paying the $8 to get the motorbike to take me in and shuttle me out. The situation was looking a little bleak. Adding to the stress was the fact that my things were left in the expensive $32 a night chalet. I did not want to have to pay for my luggage to stay in the chalet, while I slept in a small village on the side of a mountain with no electricity and no transportation. The young guy who had been my guide had stuck with me the whole time. He only ventured off occasionally to see if he could find anyone who was driving to a more populous town. This is where the benefit of traveling alone comes in. It really becomes everyone’s mission to make sure that you are safe and secure. The little town had quite a few people who were working hard to find a way for me to get to Hohoe. I was so tired from the day of hikes and the lack of food that I couldn’t do much more than sit and watch. At one point the guide told me that this is actually a rather common problem. He said that transportation is one of the town’s greatest challenges and, as a result, everything takes longer to get done and sometimes things do not get done on the day they are supposed to because people are waiting so long for a car that never arrives. I couldn’t imagine, although I sort of could since I was now temporarily in the situation. It must make working outside of the city nearly impossible and college age students could not live with their families.

At long last a private tro-tro shaped vehicle arrived. The driver said that he would not take any other passengers than the ones who had paid earlier in the day for transportation. The guide pleaded and negotiated to get me on board. He asked me to wait a ways away and then called me to quickly board the bus. The bus moved a bit and then stopped. The guide told me to get off. I didn’t understand and really didn’t want to get off the one vehicle I had seen in four hours. He was pretty insistent though. Apparently, there were enough people for a second bus to Hohoe. The current passenger group was not going that far and the driver planned to drop off this group and then return for all of the Hohoe bound passengers. It took a lot of trust and faith, but I got off the bus. It left, but returned about thirty minutes later. It was a happy site and I was one of the first to get back on. The driver asked each of us for $2.00, which seemed entirely reasonable to me. People started getting off of the bus though, saying that it should be no more than $1.80. They were jeopardizing our one potential escape for 20 cents. I tried to be understanding and social worky, but really had a hard time with it in my tired and exasperated state. The driver started saying that he would not drive us if there were not enough passengers willing to pay the $2. The guide stood by the window reassuring me that he was going to go eventually; they were just all working out the payment. I don’t know what was said but everyone got back on the bus and we left the nice little town that I ended spending more time than anticipated.

The tro-tro was quite the party bus because of all of the funeral attendants. Several had beer and wine and were passing it around the bus for everyone to enjoy. I abstained, but joined in the fun when they asked what my name is. I said it once and then decided to switch to the Ghanaian name. This threw them all into hysterics. For some reason, it is incredibly easy for me to be entertaining here. The windows were all open, which was nice except for the fact that my cotton shirt had not quite dried. The cool air was chilly. The large Ghanaian woman next to me was squeezed in next to me so that we could fit 4 people in a seat built for 3. I moved closer to her hoping that her soft rolls could keep me warm. She didn’t seem to notice and even accidentally put her wrap over my goose bump covered knee a few times. I asked her if she thought the tro-tro could drop me off near the hotel. She asked the driver and he gave a wave that he would. Someone turned around and asked me how I would know my way there. I said that I would just look for the sign. He said that we were on a side without a sign, but that he would be able to point me in the right direction. That seemed helpful. I hadn’t anticipated not being able to find my way.

The tro-tro stopped, the man pointed, and the bus gave a collective wave with a honk and shouts of “bye-bye.” I was a stranger in a strange land, but the hospitality of Ghanaians always made me feel like I was amongst friends. It was so late and I was so famished that I put off showering for a little while longer to get dinner. I ate an unusual variation of mac and cheese with mud covered ankles and calves. I think a few dead bugs were encased in salt on my legs. Dinner was actually perfect. I had macaroni with a cheese that was a cross between parmesan and Swiss. It tasted heavenly and was so relaxing. The only odd thing about dinner, besides for the fact that I was alone in the restaurant, was that they appeared to be playing the same song over and over. The music here tends to be a bit repetitive. I must have listened to the song ten times over the course of dinner and it was still playing in my head the next day.

At the hotel, I asked if the light could be fixed in my bathroom so I wouldn’t have to shower in the dark. The hotel employee told me there was a problem with the light in this one bathroom and shrugged his shoulders at me. Despite the darkness, the shower experience overall was very nice. The water was above room temperature and I did not have to hold the shower handle. I think I got most of the dirt off. After reading for a while, I fell asleep with the light on only to be woken up when I felt something land in my hand. Hmmm, that is odd. I opened my eyes and realized that the light was on and that bugs had come through the window to get close to the light source. They were all over my pillow and sheets. I didn’t have my contacts in so I couldn’t tell how many were on the ceiling, which was probably a good thing. I made some erratic sweeping motions and turned the light off and willed them all away. By morning they had gone, but that feeling of the bug landing in my hand was permanently etched into my memory. I went back to the Taste Lodge for my last meal in Hohoe, an omelet and Milo. Both were delicious. It walked to the main tro-tro station with transportation to Accra. I ended up walking more than twice as far as I needed to, but managed to find a tro-tro nearly half filled. It wouldn’t be too long of a wait. We left forty five minutes later and the tro-tro shaved two hours off of the trip back to the capital. A short cab ride later and I was back at home sweet hostel.

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