OMG, Ghana. For as much as I dislike those silly online acronyms, I feel that that is just about the only thing I can say to accurately describe my trip thus far. Here goes:
We left the Peace Corps bureau early Thursday morning, only to get to the taxi station and wait two solid hours for the car to leave. I can't complain, though: the taxi never had more than four passengers, so our ride was comfortable. The Benin/Togo border was relatively painless, though you have to get out of the car and walk across the border, and customs officers are often in hard-to-spot places. The short drive through Togo is beautiful since it hugs the beach the whole way, though Lome, their capital, is a pretty dismal industrial city that remided me a bit of Gary Indiana, yuck. There are also TONS of police checkpoints, way more than in Benin, where the taxi driver has to bribe the policemen. At one particular checkpoint, the police complained that they were thirsty and needed to buy a sachet of water (which costs 25 francs), to which the response of my driver was to coo how sorry he was and give them 500 FRANCS. How ridiculous!
Arrival at the Togo/Ghana border was a crazy whirlwind. You are literally dropped off ON the beach, amidst thousands of people trying to get you to ride in their car, let them be your luggage porter, change money, etc. After getting a bad deal on some currency exchange, we finally found what we thought was a man taking us to a car that was going to Accra, the Ghanaian capital. Turns out he was only a porter, and he had to stand around and wait for us while we went though a fairly thorogh customs process. Walking into the office was shocking: men and women in nice uniforms, sitting behind sleek computers, SPEAKING ENGLISH. (As opposed to the Benin/Togo border, where there were no computers, only a few men sitting in a dusty shack with a pad of paper.) And not the crappy, Nigerian English I am used to... flowery, grammatically correct British English. The women who dealt with John Mark and I were ironically having a discussion about how to say certain things in French, for when non-Ghanaians cross the border.
When we emerged from customs, we were immediately accosted by about 20 men, each trying to take our bags from us/our porter and physically dragging us towards thier cars. We're used to pushy people in Benin, but we've never experienced that level of physical force before. Finally, a Ghanaian police officer saw our predicament came to shoo away the men and directed us to an air conditioned bus that was soon departing for Accra. Before getting on the bus, we reluctantly tipped the porter, but he became enraged at the "small" amount (apparently he doesn't know that we live in Benin and that we know full well that we gave him a MORE than generous tip for the maybe twenty minutes of service he rendered us). Once again, the police officer had to shoo the man away.
The bus ride was beautiful, though very long and slow. Driving through Ghana was pretty incredible; we IMMEDIATELY started noticing the difference from Benin and Togo. First of all, there are no illegal gasoline stands in Ghana, but rather a real, legitimate gas station in almost every village. The roads were all paved and smooth, there were national lottery booths all around, and people were selling things like sliced watermelon and mushrooms everywhere you looked. It was evident when we started approaching Accra: we started seeing tall, modern-looking buildings, highway overpasses and cloverleaf interchanges, a mall/movie theater.
Driving to the bus station in the heart of the city was unbelievable. I kid you not, Accra looks like it could be any medium-large American city, complete with city parks, street signs, public trashcans... you name it. Upon getting off the bus, we realized we were absolutely terrified to ask non- French speakers for directions! How funny. We got into a taxi (nicer than most American taxis); there is no such thing as a zemidjan in Ghana. Indeed, I have seen a grand total of maybe five motos since I have been in Ghana, and all of their drivers have been wearing helmets. And 95% of the cars on the road are nice and less than ten years old! (Whereas your typical Beninese car is from roughly 1970 and is falling apart.) On our way to the hotel, we passed a beautiful public sculpture park, and no less than three artful fountains bubbling on the lawns of buiildings such as the National Theater of Ghana.
Our hostel was nice, on par with any hostel in Europe. We decided to shower and then head out to Monsoon, hailed as the nicest restaurant in Accra. It was a chic place and could have belonged in any city in America. We ordered cocktails, then sushi from the full sushi bar, and finally high-end Japanese dishes. It was DELICIOUS and super expensive for Peace Corps standards, though our total for the meal was $63.
We continued living it up the next day. After an odd English-style breakfast at the hostel (Ghana was formerly a British colony, so instead of the baguettes we are used to in Benin, you have red beans and wonder bread for breakfast) we headed to the mall.
This mall was as nice as any I have come across in America, and loaded with stores like the Apple store, Coach, and tons of high-end boutiques. There was also a movie theater showing current American films, and a food court. It was really good seeing so many Ghanaian people at the mall; in Benin, it is more or less only the expats who patronize high-end (though much less high-end than here in Ghana) stores. The people there were such a hodgepodge of ethnicities, it was really nice to see. We ate lunch at the food court (pizza and ice cream, naturally) and in the afternoon saw Clash of the Titans in a theater that would rival any of the nicest in America. We also walked through a market that day where ot ONE person gave a damn that we were white and left us alone, only talking to us if we approached their stall and had a question.
That night we chose a spotsbar for dinner. It had maybe five flat-screen TVs, broadcasting sporting events from all over the world, and we ordered a pitcher of beer and nachos! As we were finishing up our meal, the young couple that I stayed with the weekend of Kate's memorial walked into the bar!! It was SUCH a weird coincidence. They were in Ghana for a short vacation. They sat down with us and ordered us some more drinks, than paid for the whole tab at the end of the night! It was so nice of them, and really fun talking with them for a few hours. How can this wonderland of civilization be less than 150 miles away from Benin??
The first reminder that we were still in West Africa came that night when we complained to the front desk at our hostel that our air conditioning was barely working. The women simply shrugged and said "It's the fault of the white man who installed it." Yes, she really said that.
On Saturday we left our hostel in the morning and had our first experience on a tro-tro, the mini buses that Ghanaians use instead of bush taxis. And no, they don't pack them full of people, but rather only seat people where a full seat actually exists. For the first 20 minutes of the ride a preacher stood up and gave a sermon (though in local language), and then lead the whole bus in prayer. Of course, John Mark and I didn't relize this until we noticed we were the only ones talking and that everyone else had their heads bowed in prayer. Oops! The ride was beautiful. Not only was the road smooth and orderly, but the landscape turned mountainy and thickly forested. We once again noticed the lack of motos on the road, and also that taxis and tro-tros here don't stack billions of things on top of their cars.
We arrived in Kumasi mid-aternoon, where the PCVL (PC volunteer leader) met us and took us to the Peace Corps workstation here. It is really nice, and HUGE compared to the ones we have in Benin. We spent the rest of the night just hanging out and chatting with the Ghana volunteers, who are all really nice. Ironically enough, the one I've been talking to the most went to OSU! It has been funny talking to the Ghana volunteers, both because it is interesting to compare our two countries, and because John Mark and I realized just how many French/Beninese-isms we throw into our conversations!
Yesterday, Easter, was REALLY laid-back. We ate a typical Ghanaian breakfast of red beans and then watched the Godfather, which took up most of our day haha. We couldn't go into town to see any of the sights since it was Easter and everything was closed. For dinner we went to one of the few hotels we found that was open, only to be told that they had almost NOTHING that they listed on their menu, including basic things like soft drinks. Mind you, this was a nice, upscale hotel. We were finally informed that they had all of their pizzas available, so we ordered that and a salad. Our pizzas finally came about 45 minutes later, with no salad. We asked for the salad, the waitress apologized for forgetting, and presumably went to get it. In the mean time, we discovered that our extremely expensive pizzas had no cheese on them, and were so undercooked that most of the dough was still raw. When the waitress walked by again about 10 minutes later, she had STILL forgotten the salad, and when we complained about the cheese, she just said "Yeah, wer're out of cheese." We argued that we shouldn't have to pay so much money for a pizza with no cheese, but she just looked at us, bewildered. She also wrote the wrong amount on the bill, then proceeded to give us incorrect change (incorrect by a LOT). Turns out that our waitress was also doing all of the cooking. Once again, a reminder that we're STILL in Africa. It will be an Easter dinner I will never foget, that's for sure!
Today we're seeing the brass casters that I worked with, which I'm REALLY excited about. We're also going to check out Kumasi a bit, which is supposed to be a nicer version of Cotonou. Tomorrow we head to Cape Coast to see the slave castle there, than it's on to the beach for a few days before heading back to Benin. Overall, I'm having a GREAT time and don't want this vacation to end! More to come :)