Tuesday, March 29, 2011

“If we took a holiday…”

Five months into my stay, LJ had the opportunity to come see me here in Ghana.  Due to our busy schedules, he unfortunately didn’t have time to come up to Kumasi to see where I’ve lived for all this time, but instead we spent a long weekend along the Ghana coast.  It was a last hurrah for Nela and Steffi and me as well, as they are both leaving at the start of April. 

Getting LJ here took way more effort than I would have expected—and not because he didn’t want to come.  Obstacles were thrown up at every turn, starting from the inability of the US Post Office to deliver “overnight” mail in less than four days.  LJ sent his passport out at the beginning of March by overnight mail, but due to the USPS’s incompetence and a poorly timed Ghanaian holiday celebrated on March 7 (Independence Day, March 6, fell on a Sunday), the passport took a week to get to the Ghanaian embassy in DC.  Perhaps surprisingly (given “GMT” meaning Ghana Man Time), the Ghana Embassy processed it within the 72 hours rush job that was requested.  On the way home, it took the post office only three days to send “overnight” mail, so at least they’re improving.

His trip over here was also a mess due to a 2.5 hour delay on the RDU to Dulles flight that LJ needed to take before the Dulles-Accra leg.  LJ travels enough for work that he knew how to get himself put on another airline (Internet tells me that it’s based on Rule 240 from many years ago)—but that one landed in Reagan National, not Dulles.  A $65 cab ride got him to the correct DC airport with maybe a half hour to spare.

After the craziness of his travel planning and of my intense workshop teaching weeks, I was glad that we had planned a very relaxing, lazy holiday at the seaside.  I caught a flight to Accra on Friday morning.  Our driver for the trip, Eben, picked me up at the domestic terminal and we headed into the city, where I killed some time doing gift shopping, before heading back to the airport to pick up LJ.  He finally arrived mostly on time and I happily greeted him at the arrivals hall.

Eben took us to the Afia Beach Hotel to pick up Steffi and we were on our way.  After an uneventful trip, we arrived at the Coconut Grove Beach Resort in Elmina.  We were in no rush to get up the next day, so we arranged for Eben to get us at 10 am for our trip to Kakum National Park.  That evening, we had a nice dinner at the restaurant overlooking the beach.

Saturday we headed off to Kakum National Park, which is considered one of the premier tourist stops in Ghana, primarily due to the canopy walk high above the rainforest floor—40m high, that is.  Steffi had been there in January with her father and Markus on a weekday, with the place practically to themselves.  That wasn’t the case on this weekend day.  The place was swarming with school groups and other tourists when we arrived around 11 am.  We paid our 30 cedis each and queued up for our walk in the woods. 

If I had realized what 40m would feel like before I went on the walk, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gone.  I was expecting that the walk through the “canopy” would mean that we would feel surrounded by the trees.  Not so.  I could definitely see all the way to the ground—way, way far down below me.  My fear of heights kicked in something awful.  Each of the seven bridges of the canopy walk got scarier, or maybe I just got more freaked out.  By bridge five I was really ready to get down from the walk.  LJ wanted me to take a picture of him in the middle of the bridge but I wasn’t willing to let go of the ropes and turn around to take it.  I didn’t really enjoy the walk as much as I would have hoped but at least I survived it.

We spent a leisurely hour or two over lunch before heading to Elmina to visit one of the slave castles, St. George’s Castle, the oldest European building in sub-Saharan Africa.  Since Steffi had seen the castles back in January, she opted to go back to the hotel to hang out at the pool while Nela, LJ and I continued our journey to the castle.  Getting out of the car, we were mobbed by people trying to sell us all sorts of trinkets.  But the surprising thing is that ignoring them actually worked and they left us alone.  We went into the castle to pay our entrance fee (9 cedis) and camera fee (2 cedis per camera).  We were ushered into the “museum”—really just a collection of pictures and the history of the place—and asked to wait a few minutes for our tour.

Our tour guide took us all over the castle and told us the history of the slaves that lived in that place—and the Europeans who put them there.  The descriptions of the slave dungeons were both powerful and terrifying.  My eyes are watering as I remember the stories he told of the slaves passing through the Door of No Return, the tiny doorway that led to the slave ships that took them to the Americas.  We were given the tiniest taste of what the rebellious slaves experienced when the guide locked us in the slave cell for a minute or two.  The stunning scenery around the castle was such a contrast to the horrific things that happened there.  But my melancholy mood was slightly lifted when LJ reminded me that even though there are still atrocities happening around the world, everyone around the world is more aware of them and more willing to push for change.

Leaving the castle, we headed up the hill to Fort St. Jago.  As we were walking up the steep path, three little girls started shouting in unison, “Ghana Ghana one cedi!”  It would have been cute… if hadn’t been so sad to see three-year-olds already learning how to beg from the obrunis.  Reaching the top of the hill, I was apprehensive to see so many young men hanging around with nothing to do, as I was expecting them to pester us, but they left us alone as went into the fort.  The man watching the table on behalf of the caretaker allowed us to wander around the fort on our own.  After a few minutes, the caretaker came and found us to ask if we wanted a tour and to tell us that we owed 2 cedis each on the way out. 

On our walk down the hill, more of the local children followed us.  Apparently one of the little girls grabbed LJ’s hand and started dancing with him.  She didn’t even ask him for money.  Unfortunately, I missed this moment of joy because I was focusing on not encouraging the children to beg from me by not interacting with them.  Probably a mistake on my part.

We met Eben at the base of the hill and drove back to our beach retreat.  More relaxation time was followed by dinner at the hotel restaurant again and drinks near the beach.  The next day, we spent the morning at the hotel and left around 12 to go see the other major slave castle, Cape Coast Castle.  This tour started off immediately with a tour of the slave dungeons, including rather graphic descriptions of the conditions experienced by the slaves.  Since this castle had been converted to a trade site, the Door of No Return had been significantly expanded to allow for large carts to pass through.  This change made it possible for the guide to take us out through the Door of No Return—and then back through it, making the other side the Door of Return.  That nomenclature was formalized a few years back when the remains of two slave descendants were exhumed from Jamaica and NYC and passed through the door, effectively breaking the chain.  The new meaning of the door is also symbolized with the large sign saying “Akwaaba”, Twi for “Welcome.”  Since Cape Coast is more well-known than Elmina, there is a marble plaque memorializing the visit of Barack and Michelle Obama on 11 July 2009.  On the other side of that same doorway was a plaque that read:  “In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors.  May those who died rest in peace.  May those who return find their roots.  May humanity never again perpetuate such injustice against humanity.  We, the living, vow to uphold this.”  After the guide read the inscription out loud to us, our tour ended and we were left to wander the castle on our own again.

We met Eben outside and asked for a restaurant, to which he replied that there was one right next to the castle.  We headed down there, where three of us had a wonderful curry while the fourth had garlic chicken.  (Bet you can’t guess who had the chicken.)  Then we took Steffi and Nela to the mini-bus station—a station for mini-buses, not a small station—where I said my final goodbyes to Steffi, as I would not see her in person again here in Ghana.

LJ and I then started the journey to Busua, described by the Ghana guidebook as being “a great place to chill out for a few days”, known for its sandy beach that is among the best and safest in Ghana.  After a two-hour drive, we arrived at the Busua Beach Resort, reputed to be one of Ghana’s top beach hotels.  Upon arrival, we told Eben that we wouldn’t need him again until Tuesday and headed to the check-in counter.  The porter led us to our suite—all the way at the end of the row of cottages that made up the resort.  As we were walking….and walking and walking, I pointed out to LJ that this must be Ghana’s answer to the monstrous Hilton resort on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The resort had all the modern amenities, from free bottled water to wifi throughout the resort.

The next day and a half was spent doing lots of nothing, which was something that we both needed.  We had a long, leisurely lunch at a restaurant just up the beach from the resort where we were graced with the presence of one of the only monkeys I’ve seen in Ghana.  During dinner at the resort each night, we were surrounded by lots of kitty cats.  They were being fed the leftovers from the guests’ meals, as well as anything they could beg off the guests.  Some of them were rather vocal and persistent about what they wanted. 

On Tuesday our all-too-short visit was drawing to a close.  Eben came to get us at 11 and we started the long car ride back to Accra.  Unfortunately, we forgot to tell him that we needed to go the airport rather than the Afia, which led to an extra hour of driving through tiny streets and traffic in Accra.  LJ and I had an early dinner (or maybe a late lunch) in the Holiday Inn right near the airport.  Then he grabbed his things from the car and we left him there to start the car trip back to Kumasi, which wasn’t too bad, other than the hour that we spent in stopped traffic in a village called Nsawam just north of Accra.  His trip back to the US was pleasantly uneventful, especially as compared to the process to get here.

I had to get back to Kumasi that night because we had our last monthly Head Teacher meeting the next morning.  I can’t believe that I’m at the point of using the word “last” to describe events here.  Given the number of schools in the program, I already have to start my final visits to the schools this week.  But that long weekend was just the break I needed to get me geared up for this final project work.

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