Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dead Man Dreaming

Ghana didn't get a lot of my time. I didn't have the patience to scour the countryside for craft villages around Kumasi, and I didn't go to Mole National Park at all. I don't regret the latter—I lived in Murchison Falls National Park in the summer of 2005 and it's hard to follow up that kind of access to wild animals with a safari in an area without a lot of game. I do like looking at animals, and if the chance comes up further south, I'll take it. But I'm not going out of my way and spending a lot of dough to do this.

I do regret not having more time to see Ghana's sights and cities, but I was getting anxious. I'd intended to be in Brazzaville at the end of April to meet a friend who was there working on a story, and I was a week late. I probably wasn't going to make it. And I was keen to get through Nigeria already. Nigeria has such a bad reputation that I was nervous. I wanted to get in and out into Cameroon and have the part making me nervous be behind me.

And I was tired. The fun of semi-ordeal travel is in the struggle. It's also the bad part. I have a love-hate relationship with horrible bus rides. Without them, I'm observing from afar, and a little bored. With them, I'm uncomfortable and unhappy...but I'm also really seeing how it's done, experiencing what local people have no choice but to put up with. If you want a truly local experience, you're not going to be comfy in West Africa.

Except in Ghana. These Fords--you get a whole seat to yourself. The vehicles are new and the A/C works. The doors are not opened with coat hangers. Roads are paved and smooth, with painted lines and real shoulders. Ghana: You're swell.

But it was time to move on, to hurry on to Nigeria, then eventually to the Congos, where I didn't have any idea how I was going to get from A to B. And Angola--people were struggling to get even transit visas at the moment. How was I going to get into Angola?

Before I had to worry about all that, though, there was one thing I wanted to see in Accra.


You might have seen these in a travel magazine, or maybe on a documentary. On a strip along the coast, just east of my hotel, there are coffin-makers.

And not just any coffin-makers. These guys specialize. Are you a photographer? Perhaps you'd like a giant camera shaped as an SLR as your coffin. Always wanted a Mercedes but couldn't afford it? No problem. You can spend eternity in a wooden Mercedes.

I left my packed bags behind the hotel front desk and went outside the gate to hire a taxi for the coffin-viewing field trip.

The taxi driver was Graham, the same man who'd taken me to the Accra Mall last night.

"You again!" He was surprised. He listened to the BBC and whatever news radio was on in his taxi, and loved to discuss the wider world and politics, both Ghanaian and international. Last night, I'd found myself explaining to him that Obama and Bush were in fact not from the same party. In return, he'd explained the intricacies of the current Ghana primary elections.

Graham was not a hustler taxi driver. He was really calm, didn't negotiate, and didn't barge his way through traffic in his modern, ding-less taxi. I secretly wished I'd found a speed demon in a decrepit heap, but this kind, patient driver would have to do.

We drove down the coast to the museum first. This place had top-end coffins, some of the best that are frequently featured in magazine articles on Ghana.

Confused, I asked the museum attendant where these were made.

"I thought I'd see them in workshops," I said. "Where are the workshops?"

She motioned across the road.

"I thought you wanted to see just the coffins," said Graham. He seemed disappointed. I shortly worked out why.

Construction. There was road construction between the museum and the workshops. It took ages for our taxi to inch its way down to the workshops.

But they were marvelous. Graham parked his taxi and we both went in together. He seemed to be enjoying the excursion as much as I was.

We wandered around coffins shaped like fish, pineapples, pastries, cows, beer bottles, Coke bottles, and a Canon.

And then it was time to drive back to the hotel. Into the traffic. Which wasn't moving.



Argh again. 

Eventually I worked up the nerve to quietly say "Is there another route?"


Graham calmly sat there, the taxi not moving. The traffic annoyed him but he wasn't going to let it dominate his thoughts.

I watched other cars darting around, seeking a way out. I also watched the clock. I was paying by the hour.

Maybe that explains the difference in our attitudes.

We spent an hour barely moving from the coffin workshop back to the museum. Then, finally, the traffic moved normally. Ten minutes later, we were at the hotel.

Graham drove me then to the center of Accra, to the bus area. After we drove into the wrong lot and struggled to get back out, I gently suggested I walk into the next lot. Graham wouldn't hear of it.

"I have to make sure you are safe."

He turned into a dense, chaotic bus park.

Oh dear. 

We were surrounded by passengers, touts, vendors, cars, minibuses, mopeds. In short, this pristine, dingless taxi and its relaxed calm driver was in way, way over his head.

"Let me walk," I suggested again. "If you go any in any farther, you'll never get back out."

Graham looked around at the mobs of people and cars, and this time he nodded.

"I agree."

I shook his hand, grabbed my bag, and dove into the throngs.

Instantly, a bus tout sussed out my needs, lifted my bag over his head and said "Follow me!"

I would have lost sight of him as he ducked and squeezed through the crowds, had he not had my backpack over his head. He deposited me at a van bound for the Togo border, squished my bag into the rear of the van, and smiled at the one cedi tip. Good man, did his job well, as bus touts frequently do when you're not trying to avoid them.

Accra traffic is awful, and once the van driver maneuvered his way out of the bus park like a seasoned pro, we still had a lot of sitting in front of us. The sermon about sacrifice on the radio didn't help.

The drive was short once we were out of Accra, though, and it wasn't long before I was standing in front of two Togo border officials, paying 15,000 CFA for my visa, and then walking into Togo at sunset.


"How much?

"You're going where?"

"Lome. Cote du Sud guesthouse."

"I know it. Let's go."

"How much?"


"Ha. No way. 1,000."

The driver thought for a minute.

"The price is 5,000. You will find the same if you ask everyone. But for you, I will do it for 3,000, though the price is 5,000. Because of God."


I nodded. I had doubts this had anything to do with God and everything to do with it getting dark and this driver wanted to stop hanging around the border and go home. But either way, I didn't want to hang around all night to save a few bucks either.

Darkness fell as we headed to Lome. But the time we got to the hotel, the city was a mix of headlights and engine roars. I saw nothing that wasn't lit by the taxi's lights.


  1. Hi Marie, just discovered your blog whilst researching Kumasi as I'm off there shortly - you seem to be covering a lot of the same ground as me! I'm enjoying reading your blog and wondered if all's OK with your travels as this last post was in Accra on 14th April and it's now 22nd May! All the best, Mary.

  2. Mary, feel free to send me an email if you need any advice. marie (at) mariejavins dot com. I didn't really post that on April 14th. I posted it yesterday. I'm just behind on my blog. If you look at the Twitter stream on the lower right of the page, that is always up-to-date.