Monday, April 11, 2011

Kumasi, Ghana

The taxi drivers had leapt at me when I'd disembarked from the bus in Kumasi last night, but they took it with good humor when I argued I didn't want a private taxi—I wanted a share. This saved me a small fortune, but it cost me in time. My taxi driver had no idea how to find the Royal Park Hotel, which I'd sniffed out on TripAdvisor. But after some discussions with other drivers and a hotel receptionist downtown, we did find it out in what seemed like the 'burbs.

Which was great, because the Royal Park Hotel was just the place for a rest and a splurge. A/C, 'fridge, wi-fi that worked sometimes, hot shower, and a decent Cantonese restaurant. And the breakfast! I'd been on a steady diet of baguettes and croissants since my first morning in Melilla, so it was exciting to be offered an egg along with my free breakfast.

I hired a driver on my one day in town, a nice guy the hotel clerk knew who tried very hard to find me an ATM that would take my Citibank ATM card. These bear the Mastercard logo, which makes them tough to use in West Africa. Tough, but not impossible. Ten years ago, they were quite difficult to use when I'd been traipsing around on the east side of this continent, but now there seemed to be one bank chain per country that took my card.

Finding this ATM wasn't always so easy, though. Most of the time, I was able to find a hint on message boards online, but this time, I found nothing.

My driver waited while I ran from bank to bank. Standard Chartered, Ecobank, turned out that when I was there was exactly when all the ATMs were getting their morning servicing. In the end, GCB took my ATM card and spat out money.

Which I was promptly relieved of at a crafts village. Kumasi is the center of the Ashanti Empire, and is surrounded by villages that specialize in traditional crafts. My driver took me to a weaving village when I asked him to take me to the "best craft village." I knew going in that wasn't getting out of there cheap. You don't go to crafts villages believing you can just browse. The best you can do is minimize the financial damage and try to buy souvenirs you like. My driver pulled up outside a weaving center. He looked worried as we were ambushed by two eager young men anxious to make my aquaintance and escort me into the single-story, shaded, concrete building. I assured him I'd be fine and exited the car. Amusingly, a young man asked my name and then started weaving a bracelet.

"No," I said. "I don't want a bracelet. Don't do that."

This protest had no effect whatsoever, and on my departure, he presented me with a woven bracelet for someone named Mary. I was thinking of giving this to Michael Kraiger. He'd make a good Mary if he were a woman.

Inside the weaving center, ten or so looms were set up, about four of them occupied by men. That's who does the weaving here. The men weren't actually weaving when I came in—they were resting. But they jumped to it, showing me how the colorful threads formed into meaningful tribal patterns on narrow sashes, which were left as they were made or else sewn together to make large textiles.

Finished pieces adorned the surrounding walls, and these were the final products I was invited to negotiate for. I did with good cheer, choosing a few colorful pieces that I liked enough to include in my souvenir program. We were able to read agreeable prices that made both the sellers and me happy.

I skedaddled quickly and decided I'd had enough crafts village. On the way out of town, a minibus passed us, young men hanging out of every window, barely hanging on.

The driver looked at me, shook his head, and started to laugh.

"This is very dangerous," he said. Next, we saw ten men carrying a container. On foot.

Then a station wagon passed us. Three sets of legs hung out from under the hatchback. I was gobsmacked, stunned. Then I grabbed my camera. We chased the station wagon, and when its occupants saw me, they lifted the hatch and waved.
I asked the driver to take me back to town and leave me at the museum.

We'd passed a few police checks on the way in and had paid the usual taxi fee to the policemen on duty. No me, I mean. I didn't pay anything. But it's a sad fact of life in this part of the world that drivers must pay, pay, pay for the privilege of driving. I have mentioned before that I can no longer distinguish between a toll and a bribe, but that's not really true. A toll usually involves a receipt. A bribe just involves an irritated taxi driver.

My driver pulled over abruptly. On the shoulder, he suddenly reversed the car. Puzzled, I looked at him, but I didn't need more than a second to see he was eyeballing a traffic cop up ahead. But reversing wasn't working. We had too far to go to find a way off the road.

"I'm out of small money," he explained. "Unless…do you have any?"

"I gave my small money to the guy who made me this stupid bracelet! I only have large bills from the ATM."

He weighed his options. He could either give the policeman a small fortune, risk both our lives by continuing to reverse down the highway, or he could hope he didn't get pulled over.

He put the car back into first gear and drove towards the policeman.

"TWWEEEEEEEET!" The whistle was followed by a pointing finger. That's the sign of "You, pull over."

My driver took a deep breath and pushed down the accelerator. We blew right past the cop.

I looked at my driver with new admiration. That was a ballsy move.

"What will happen?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Maybe next time he sees me, he'll take a lot more money off of me."

I hoped not. Maybe the policeman won't recognize his car. Surely my driver's not the first man to ignore the call of the whistle-and-point.

But he's sure the first one that did it when I was watching.

He took a lot of back roads—traffic in Kumasi is dreadful—to leave me at the museum, where I learned a lot about special Ashanti stools, then headed back to the hotel in a share taxi. Time for my Cantonese dinner. In the morning, the waiter would sweetly bring me a third cup of Nescafe when he saw I was working. I couldn't hack a third cup—I felt so guilty, like I should drink it to avoid disappointing the waiter—and instead hurried back to my room to eat yogurt with a spork. Then it was time. Time to head on, to find a minibus to Cape Coast.

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