Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Gods Don't Work On Tuesdays

Sorry it's taken me so long to get my April posts up! My internet went on an unexpected vacation and only just came back.

The social norms in Ghana are a little bit different than they are in the Western world. For example: I went to the Green Turtle Lodge a couple weeks ago with Rudy and Julia, and ended up befriending a group of Norwegians (primarily because the Germans I had befriended previously couldn't figure out what country they were from and enlisted me to go ask). Christian, Wilhelm and Ragnhild had only been in Ghana about three weeks at the time, and are staying three months. Halfway through his six month stay, Simon is the oddball of the group as the sole Swiss volunteer and the only long-termer. They're staying in Eastern Region, decently far away from me.
Not an hour after I sat down- uninvited- at their table, they learned that I didn't have any plans for spring break and promptly invited me to go up north with them ...And to think we westerners are hesitant to even ask for someone's phone number the first time we meet them under normal circumstances! Naturally I accepted and we met April 4th in Kumasi- minus Wilhelm, who had some work commitments.

Day One: Will There Be Water At The Waterfall, Ferguson?
Our first stop was Techiman, an easy tro ride north of Kumasi. Techiman itself has little to offer in the way of tourist attractions, but there's a small village just outside called Tanoboase that boasts the site of a grove sacred to the Akans. The grove is a huge rocky area that forms a natural fortress, a solid basin with high walls perfect for scanning the rainforest for enemies and accessible only by a small crawl space. The Akans used it as a safe place to hide their king during wars.
We had a great afternoon scampering up and down boulders and steep rock faces, rewarded periodically with spectacular views. The basin is surrounded by a forest that is swarming with bats. I have never seen so many bats in my life- and I've seen plenty of bats before. I'm not sure I even realized so many bats existed in the world, much less in one place. And whoever said bats are nocturnal has clearly never met these bats. Their screeching and squalling could be heard continuously echoing from one end of the forest to the other, and they often erupted out of overcrowded trees to circle the sky in a dark cloud.

From there we went to Buoyem, another village on the outskirts of Techiman, to see African Rock. Which is... a rock shaped like Africa. Which is pretty much as exciting as it sounds. However, much more interestingly, it's situated right by an overgrown, mostly abandoned reptile breeding farm. Which is pretty much as absurd as it sounds. On top of that, our tour guide was a 14 or 15-year-old junior high student with the irritating habit of rushing us completely unnecessarily.
As a subtle revenge for this, Christian and Simon began asking the most absurd questions.
"Will we see lizards?"
"Yes of course."
"Did the owner eat the lizards?"
"No, no! He exported them!"
"Oh...then did he eat them?"
"No, he sold them."
" you eat them?"
"No, no!"
"Oh...So who does eat the lizards?"
"No one eats them!"
" what do you do with them?"
When Julia was still here, she loaned me a book by Mark Twain called "The Innocents Abroad," a partially fictionalized account of a steamboat trip to Europe and the Holy Land that he took. In it, Twain talks about how he and companions gave up trying to pronounce all the foreign names of their tour guides and decided to call them all Ferguson. And when the Fergusons drove them crazy, they would ask stupid questions to turn the tables, amusing themselves and driving the guides crazy instead. With that story fresh in my mind, I got extra amusement out of the boys' antics.
We also saw a small waterfall called Bibiri Falls. It's a good 30 minute trek into the hills outside Buoyem, and felt much longer when were constantly being harangued by our guide's frantic urging that we should "Hurry. Please come. Let's go. Please, let's go." But of course the first question out of Christian's mouth was, "Will there be water at the waterfalls?"

Day Two: Shake It, Tamale!
Another tro took us further north to Tamale, hands down my favorite of Ghana's major cities. In some ways, northern Ghana is much more yevu-friendly than southern Ghana. We, a group of four white people, could easily walk for 10 or 15 minutes in Tamale without a single person calling out to us or approaching us for some reason. That would NEVER happen in the south. The taxi drivers gave us fair prices without haggling. People barely gave us a second glance really. For maybe the first time in 8 months, I felt like I wasn't being treated a certain way based solely on my skin color. It doesn't matter that Tamale has the worst tasting water sachets in Ghana and the most heat-absorbent hotel on the planet, it's a winner in my book.
Perhaps Tamale's only true shortcoming is that it has virtually nothing for tourists to do. We browsed a shop that teaches skills to disadvantaged women, and eventually ended up at the Culture Center in a misguided attempt to find a fetish market. A man there explained that there wasn't a fetish market (the first of many times our Bradt travel guides would be proved wrong), but he could show us some magicians the next day. We spent the next two hours watching a drum and dance group practice. Predictably, all four of us were pulled up one at a time to dance with the instructor. As a longtime dancer, Ragnhild nailed it, but the boys and I held our own too...sorta. In any case, I very conveniently have no pictures of myself attempting their traditional dances. If they'd ever seen me at the salsa lessons we had in Spanish class, they would have let me stay seated...

Day Three: The Gods Don't Work On Tuesdays
Per our agreement, we met the man from the Culture Center the next morning to go see the magician. As we walked, he vividly described everything the magician had promised to show us: killing a chicken and resurrecting it! Cutting out his own tongue and healing it! He could even change into a lion! Now I'm more open-minded about juju and traditional mysticism than pretty much any volunteer I've met, but not even I believed that what we were about to see was actually going to be magic. I did, however, anticipate an impressive illusion. Ha! Silly me. The magician proceeded to turn several cigarettes into money, light a ball of cotton on fire with a simple command (while holding a lit cigarette, but ignore that), and make food appear in an empty wooden box. To add insult to injury, he wanted 40 cedis for his lame parlor tricks. When we protested, asking to be shown the amazing feats we'd been promised, the magician began throwing baby powder all over his idols and insisting that the gods wouldn't respond on Tuesdays and what day would we be leaving? On Thursday? Well, if only we could come on Sunday, then we could see the big things. Now, 40 cedi please.
Neither impressed nor amused, we told him he should turn more cigarettes into money if he wanted to be paid. Ready with an answer for everything, he told us that the gods required that he only use the charmed money for charity. Right. Naturally. I'm sure they're unavailable on Tuesdays because they're off working at the soup kitchen themselves. We paid him significantly less than he demanded and left, eyes rolling and muttering about gods' schedules.

Day Four: What A Wonderful Day To Be 19 In Wa
We made a last minute decision to see Wa, the capital of the Northwest Region, instead of spending another day baking in our hotel room with only the nasty sachet water in Tamale. So Wednesday found us up at 3 a.m. so we could be at the station at 4 for the 5 a.m. bus that left at 6... sigh. I don't think I've had a birthday begin that early since the very first one.
Wa is little more than a city-sized village. It can essentially be summed up with the words low-key, rural and taxi-less. So we didn't have very high expectations for our accommodations, except the faint hope that they would be less reminiscent of an oven. And here's where I throw out my whole-hearted promotion for the Kunateh Lodge in Wa:
Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay Kunateh!!!!!!!!!!!
The receptionist told us that all the single rooms were occupied, and a double room was 35 cedis- a little high for our budget. We asked if we could all sleep in one double room for an extra fee, a fairly common practice. Their double beds are enormous, so it usually doesn't even feel cramped and can be a real money-saver. The receptionist agreed...and then repeated that the price for that would be 35 cedis. Overbooking without an extra fee? What kind of place was this?!?
The kind of place where you open the door with sweat streaming down your forehead and pooling in the small of your back and see an AC unit on the wall. Ok, not too unusual. The important question is not "Is there air conditioning?", but "Does it work?"
And at Kunateh Lodge, the answer is yes, ladies and gentlemen, the AC works!!
Then Simon discovered that we not only had a fridge, we had a working fridge.
I collapsed on one of the beds (our "double bed" was really two obese twin beds pushed together) and shouted, "This is the best birthday present EVER!!!"
I don't know who the owner of Kunateh is, but I'm finding out and naming my firstborn after them.
In great contrast to the south, the population fo the north is predominantly Muslim. We spent the day touring two mosques. We were allowed inside the modern one and even got a good view of Wa from its roof. We also saw the outside of a mud-and-stick one from approximately the 15th century.

My traveling buddies then took me to a real restaurant and bought me a birthday dinner that didn't contain rice- I almost feel like I'm bragging when I say that, so I might as well also tell you that I had a steak, in fact. Well...the menu said it was a steak and it tasted good, so that's good enough for me. Afterwards we bought some drinks- which we stored in our cold, working fridge- and watched a Disney movie in our AC.
Most volunteers who have their birthdays here get pretty homesick. I understand; it's a rough day to be away from your friends, family and traditions in a more personal way than Christmas or another holiday. I thought I might be a little down, especially being away from even my Ghanaian friends and family too. But they spoiled me rotten all day, and even sang to me in Norwegian and Swiss German. I couldn't have asked for a better birthday.
We decided that obviously the gods work on Wednesdays.

Day Five: Is That How You Behave In Your Country??

About three hours after we arrived, we had run out of things to do in Wa. So Thursday we managed to find one of the few taxis and charter it to explore a nearby village called Nakori. We saw another ancient mud-and-stick mosque, and simply wandered for a while to get an close-up view of the circular mud huts characteristic of northern West Africa.
Back in Wa we took a brief look inside the surprisingly modern St. Andrew's Cathedral and decided to also check out the Wa Naa's Palace just across the street. After staring at the outside for a while, we went over to the soldiers lounging nearby to ask if we could take pictures or maybe go inside. We approached the first man and Simon asked, "Do you know if it's possible to go inside?" He shook his head and then suddenly told us to ask his boss, sitting about 15 feet away. So we moved over and Simon repeated, "Is it possible to go inside?" Apparently someone was having a bad day, because that sparked a searing 5 minute lecture. "Is that how you would address your superior in your country?!? Is that how you should behave? What's wrong with you!? You come here and look down on Ghanaians! Go away!! Go now!"
I've dealt with my fair share of irritated government officials in Ghana, but GOODNESS GRACIOUS.
Jumping straight into asking questions without greeting him was admittedly a social blunder on our part, but I've been here long enough to know that our oversight was no where near serious enough to merit that kind of lecture. Of course my hackles went up, but my friends simply turned around and left without saying another word, so I grudgingly did the same. It's always good to travel with people who keep you from yelling at overly-aggressive soldiers in foreign countries...

Day Six: Hakuna Matata
Around Tuesday, Simon and Christian became inexplicably obsessed with seeing "The Lion King." (I feel like this movie comes up a lot...) Luckily for them, DVD stores are quite common. For 2 or 3 cedis you can get a disc of up to 24 poor quality, often hilariously subtitled, probably illegally burned movies. You can find everything from the hottest Nollywood hits to "The Best of Mel Gibson." About five stores and two duds later, we managed to procure Lion King 1, 2 and 1 1/2 on DVD. Appropriately, we watched the first one the night before we set off for Mole (Mo-lay) National Park on Friday morning.
Northern Ghana relies almost entirely on buses for transportation. In many ways, I liked the north better than the south, but I very quickly started missing the tro-tro system! Especially when we got up to catch another sinfully early bus from Wa to Tamale, with the intention of getting off about halfway in Larabanga- best known for its somewhat questionable claim of having the oldest mosque in West Africa and being the gateway to Mole.
By Thursday afternoon the tickets to Tamale were already sold out, but we had been told to go to the station anyway to try to snag standing tickets. When we got there around 5 a.m., the tickets for the next morning were already selling out. (This is what happens when you cut tros from the equation!)We joined the desperate people fighting for a spot close to the doors. As the buses began to fill, the crowd swelled and became borderline violent. It seemed like all of Wa was trying to squeeze into those three buses. About the 20th time I was knocked off my feet only to find that I hadn't fallen because there was no where to fall, I began to worry that we were going to get stuck in Wa. The mayhem peaked when they started actually selling the standing tickets and after all that waiting and shoving I ended up running in the opposite direction just to avoid getting crushed. I'm all for a good mosh pit, but not before breakfast.
Dejected, we discussed our options. Well, option, singular. Really we had no choice but to take a tro-tro to Sawla and try to pick up a ride to Larabanga from there. Unfortunately, the travel guide strongly advised against this, considering official transportation from Sawla to Larabanga doesn't actually exist... So off we went in a pathetic little tro, supporting the roof with our heads. Things looked pretty bleak: no taxis, no tro-tro station to speak of, and the buses had already come through. About 20 minutes after we arrived, a man suddenly came up to us and asked where we were going. When he heard we were headed for Larabanga, he immediately said, "Let's go!" And so we spent the next 2 hours riding in the back of a lumber truck.

Which is SO uncomfortable but SO fun. The landscape of the north is what I think most people imagine when they picture Africa. It's scrubby and desert-y, but at the same time vibrantly alive. The sun beats down relentlessly on the brown chest-high grass. Kilometer after kilometer, the savannah was only broken by small clusters of circular, thatched mudhuts. Cicadas droned from their hiding places in the twisted trees. I caught myself repeatedly thinking, "Wow, I'm really in Africa!" - a somewhat humorous reaction considering how long that's been true.
The Mole Motel, the only accomodation in the park, is built on a huge hill overlooking a waterhole. It's a paradise for animal lovers. Ghana doesn't have the same big game animals that make East Africa so popular- no giraffes, no rhinos, no zebras, no hyenas. Lions, crocodiles and hippos are rare and only appear occasionally near the borders. But for someone who as never seen any African animals outside a zoo, Mole was a very memorable experience. Before we even checked into our room we went to the viewing platform and saw our first elephant! Ok, so we just saw a miniature version of his butt half hidden by trees far below, but you would had thought he had appeared right in front of us in his best suit by the way we went on about it. Then no sooner had we dropped our bags in our room when someone glanced out the window and shouted, "Pumba!" A small group (herd?) of warthogs were grazing around our back porch. Used to ridiculous tourists, they didn't even glance up from their curious half-kneeling position as we hung over the railing to get closer and closer views.

Personally, I think Pumba is more handsome than his real life counterparts. But that didn't make seeing a wild warthog up close and personal any less amazing.
Between the awesome ending after the extremely stressful beginning to our day and all the wildlife sightings, we were in spectacular moods. Naturally we all denied it, but all of us spend the afternoon singing "Hakuna Matata" under our breaths.

Day Seven: Take A Walk On The Wild Side
We woke up Saturday morning to a troop of baboons outside our front door. Slightly less tame than the warthogs, they nonetheless let us get within 20 feet of them as they played tag, groomed each other and picked at the sparse grass. One of the best things about visiting Mole in the spring was that we saw babies of all the animals we encountered except for elephants. (Note the baby baboon hiding between its mother's legs in the first picture.)

Wilhelm and Caroline, another Norwegian I hadn't met, joined us Friday night. All 6 of us managed to get up and out the door just in time for the 7 a.m. walking safari in the morning. For the first hour of the two hour tour the best sighting we had was an elephant mostly hidden by trees as he ate breakfast, and I began to lose hope that we'd see anything very noteworthy.
Then we arrived at a swampy area and lo and behold- there was an elephant! Pretty as you please in the middle of a clearing, calmly taking as a mudbath. We were able to get within about 40 feet of him, give or take. It was absolutely incredible. Here's the world's largest land animal, which could easily outrun and trample us if it had wanted to, letting us come paralyzingly close to it in its natural habitat. Just as we were about to leave, two more elephants appeared out of the brush behind the first and joined him. We had to back up in case they decided to get rowdy. (Boys will be boys in in every species, I guess.)
Been within a stone's throw of wild elephants- check on the life goals list.

We decided to go on the driving tour in the afternoon and had just enough time to go to the pool first. I was the last one to get ready, so everyone else had already left the room. I was right in the middle of changing when I looked up to see a baboon watching me through the window. He was standing on his back legs with his hands cupped by his face to block glare and his nose pressed against the screen- exactly like a human. I started laughing...and finished changing in the bathroom.
Aside from baboons, there is another type of monkey commonly found around the Mole Motel. I think it's called something like a "Patas" monkey, but I probably misunderstood the Ghanaian pronounciation. These smaller monkeys are even bolder than the baboons (if you can get bolder than pulling a Peeping Tom...) and have the mischievous habit of stealing food right of guests' plates. I ended up filming one culprit in action instead of swimming- and the tourist who hadn't quite figured out that, yes, monkeys do bite...
One of the coolest things about the driving tour is that you can ride on the roof of the Jeep. Caroline, Ragnhild and I got the roof, uh, 'seats' for the first hour, and Simon, Christian and Wilhelm switched places with us at the turnaround point.

We saw five different kinds of antelope, including bushbuks- an animal I got to introduced to as a pet when Julia and I went on vacation in the end of November. We also spotted more baboons, herons and two kinds of storks. Most of them were close enough to see clearly, but too far to get good pictures of unfortunately. I don't think I'll ever be satisfied seeing animals in a zoo anymore!

Sunday, April 17th, we got up in the middle of the night for the third time on our trip to catch a bus, this time a 4 a.m. one to Tamale. We spent the night in Kumasi, and the next morning I said goodbye to make the grueling 12 hour trip from Kumasi to Accra to Aflao by myself.
In many ways I preferred northern Ghana to southern. I like the more obvious African vibe. I liked the landscape; it reminds me of New Mexico, whereas the south is more like a combination of Florida and Arizona. I LOVED that the people didn't harrass us very much. My first day back in Aflao I was walking down the street and it seemed like every third person was competing to lose their voice yelling, "Yevu! YEVU!" I just thought, "Yup, I'm back in the south."
The end of my trip kicked off my last month in Ghana. It was strange, and sad, driving through Accra and realizing the next time I would see these buildings, I would be on my way to the airport.
However... My first morning back, Worfa, Victoria and I were relaxing in the shade of a tree in our front yard. In her broken English, Victoria made the effort to tell me, "I felt something missing the entire time you were gone. When you go (home to America), I will keep the room for you. You will always have a place to come back to."
Suddenly coming home- to whichever home that might be- doesn't seem so bad.

1 comment:

  1. Nice shot of straw-coloured fruit bats (Eidolon helvum). Would you add your photo as a citizen-science observation to the AfriBats project on iNaturalist?:

    AfriBats will use your observations to better understand bat distributions and help protect bats in Africa.

    If you do, please locate your picture on the map as precisely as possible to maximise the scientific value of your records.

    Many thanks!