Friday, August 13, 2010

Safe Journeys

“Safe Journey” is what the Ghanaians say to you as you begin any trip. It gives me comfort as we begin our own travels through Ghana and Togo. Travelling brings out the best in all if us. It didn’t really hit us I think until we were clinking beer and Fanta glasses over lunch at a dockside table beside a swimming lagoon. We were in a gem of a place called “Meet Me There” where we wish all of our friends and family could meet us there. We very quickly fell into a cadence of relaxation in this little piece of paradise where we were treated to the eye candy of white, white sand and palm trees just beyond the warm lagoon, which was just the right size to swim across. Time stood still in the sun as I started a fabulous new novel and we took turns paddling in the canoe and jumping off the high board. The lagoon reminded us a bit of the Myra in Cape Breton where we spent some days with the O’Briens (minus the white sand and palms). We played checkers and cards and admired the pet crocodiles, hamsters, snakes and lizards. It was the perfect start to our travels and from there, we had one of our first very memorable modes of transport. All 6 of us crammed onto ¾ of a bench seat in an SUV, which had to travel over several km of sand because the paved road had been washed out by the ocean.

As we made our way to the Togolese border in our next trotro though, I was completely mesmerized by our surroundings. We clunked along, squished, driving on roads which had lagoon on one side and white sand, palms, farmers, fields of growing vegetables, clay houses and ocean just beyond on the other. I watched out the grimy windows as life moved along as usual in each of the sleepy little villages we passed, where the families work so hard throughout the heat of the day. Then we entered a whole new world as we crossed the border into Togo. Traffic actually moved in the Capital city of Lome (unlike Accra) as the roads buzzed with motorbikes more so then cars and we saw a beautiful white and blue waterfront stretch for miles on the palm tree lined boulevard. We were treated to fabulous French influenced Togolese cuisine which included baguettes, cheese, good ham, creamy sauces, amazing vegetable soups and rich Bordeaux to wash it all down. We stayed one night at a B&B where another couple from Luxembourg lodged. We visited in French and English with them and our host over bottles of red wine, couscous and veggie sauce, baguettes, gruyere and fresh pineapple while the kids got to watch Mr. Bean. What fun to be in a country again where we are forced to communicate in French for everything. Between Lili, Josie and I, we’ve managed very well in our communications for food, travel, lodging, booking excursions and bartering. By the end of our 7 days, we were thinking in French. I’m writing from Ghana now 2 days in and I’m still thinking in French, formulating questions for people we encounter before I remember that we are back in English Ghana. Language is a funny thing though because English in Ghana, like French in Togo is always the second language being spoken. We laugh at some of the English idiosyncrasies (“How are you?” “I am fine.” “How are you?” “I am also fine. And you?”) in Ghana and I’m sure it must be the same with the French, but in our own attempts to speak French, most Togolese speak better then us so it doesn’t sound odd to our ears. You can see how easily a language can get mangled when people are speaking to each other in their 2nd, 3rd, or 4th tongues. It was lovely though listening and speaking in soft French tones. What a gift to hear and speak French all around us.

The second half of our time in Togo was spent up in a mountainous region near the Ghanaian border further north from the capitol. This was a magical place of butterflies, waterfalls, small clean, quiet villages, a monastery/convent, and 20 shades of green creating walls along narrow roads and hiking trails. We also had our first moto taxi experience in the hills. After an overnight trek to a village, the 6 of us returned to our Auberge via 3 motorbikes which wound their way down the safe mountain road. Our most interesting and comical day of transport was yet to come the next day though when we crossed he border back to Ghana. We left the Auberge Nectar at 9:00 AM in an easy taxi which got us to the bus station by 9:45 AM. We knew we would have to wait for a mini-bus to fill up before we could leave and the one we came upon unfortunately was empty when we arrived. It also looked as though it was still on blocks in a junkyard. I asked smiling, “Est-ce que ca marche?” They laughed and said, “Oui, ca marche bien.” We thought it would be a 20-30 minute wait and I was hesitant at first even to go to the nearby market to spend our last Francs on fruit and bread for the road. Passengers slowly came and patiently waited in the shade on benches beside the old rust bucket. Finally after 2 hours of waiting, I knew I had some extra Francs burning a hole in my purse, so I asked how many more people were needed to fill the bus and depart. They said 3 people which meant 3000 Francs (about $6 Canadian). I offered to pay 2250 Francs which was all I had left. He took me up on my offer and suddenly everything moved and scurried into action as they began loading up the bus. Another 2 passengers arrived, so he gave me 1225 Francs back, but when they went to put us all on, the bus was in fact over full. He refused to give me any more money back and we hit the road once again packed like sardines. The mini-bus felt as though it could break down at any moment with it’s insanely heavy load.

The border crossing was a comedy as we stopped and all filed out (24 of us) to walk through customs, then slowly we bent our heads and crammed back in to travel a few more kilometers. At this point we stopped again, squished out at the Togo border where the border police meticulously printed out all our passport info. line by line in his hard cover battered up ledger book using his ruler. Our family takes the longest because we have to deal with Visas in and out. When we finally finish and walk across the line, we find our heap of a van sitting with it’s radiator out on the ground where a small crowd has gathered to watch the driver work on it and offer any advice they can. After about 45 minutes of the driver examining, screwing and banging the radiator into submission, we were given the signal to get back on. Nobody seems angry or frustrated or in awe of the situation; they all just accept this as usual and go with the flow. Then we travel along a red clay dusty goat trail of no mans land between the 2 borders with enclosures of 10 foot green grass and corn stalks on either side. After about 3 kilometres of this, we arrive at the Ghanaian border. Once again the driver stops, gets out on his side, walks around to the other side and opens the sliding door (it can’t be opened from the inside and normally there is a “mate” to do this, but there was no room for him and after trying to get on, a very large woman yelled at him in their local language and the driver beat him soundly so he was not allowed on, poor kid. We liked him too). So 24 people then find their way out between bags and seats that are too close together, being careful not to bang their heads on the way out. All of us show our passports again, this time to the Ghanaian border police who of course take more time with the family of 6 who have to fill out entry/exit cards. We are the last ones to cross the border line again heading back into Ghana. Everyone is waiting for us by the van and by now there is a friendly camaraderie that has developed among the passengers and they are all eating and handing out bananas. I never did find out where they came from, but we gladly accepted our share, then crawl back into the clap trap.

Ah free at last and travelling in Ghana about 20 km/hour with the driver stopping every 10 minutes or so to add water to the steaming radiator which continues to leak onto the road. Then we stop a little too soon after the last radiator fill and the driver gets out to confirm that yes, the front right tire is as flat as a pancake. He opens our door and we each get out 1 by 1 to sit on the road or watch him change the tire. I am again impressed that no one seems bothered or inconvenienced in any way. No aggression is shown towards the driver. It dawns on me that in fact there is a collective sympathy that everyone seems to feel for the poor guy who has to transport us in a vehicle which is falling apart. The driver remains incredibly calm as well. He manages to change the tire in remarkable time which leads me to believe he’s had lots of experience doing it. We get in again starting with people in the back row 1st, then the third row, then the second and finally the first, with the large woman beside Dezmond repeating like at every other stop, “Push. Push.” (the only English she seems to know) till Dez has just 1 butt cheek on the bench and the rest of his body on me. We are off for our final leg of the journey to Ho. I too am not frustrated even though the 35 km journey has taken us 7 hours. In fact I’ve been smiling the whole way as my boys are flapped in an x on my lap, my girls are chatting in French with a shy Togolese teen, we are surrounded by lush greenery on a mostly quiet road passing through small towns with beautiful women in their bright colored sarongs, carrying babies on their backs and any number of things on their heads, children are running, laughing and waving at us and I have the sweet taste of banana on my lips.

I’m so proud of our kids as we go through all the ups and downs of rough travel. Our girls are navigating squat toilets like pros at dirty bus stations, our boys are managing long hikes and bumpy nauseating bus rides, we have become expert players of 20 questions to pass the time when needed and we are all growing wiser together each day as we learn something new, taste something different, or try something exotic. There is not much set routine or itinerary and we take each day as it comes, relishing each novel experience. Every once in a while, I look around not quite believing what I see or where I am and I say to myself, “We’re in Africa”. It’s an absolute wonder, or as Terry likes to say, “This isn’t Forest Heights”.

Saying Goodbye

We spent the final 2 weeks of July saying bye to some of our favorite haunts in Accra. I think we have each developed a sort of love hate relationship with this city which has become our home in Ghana for the past 6 months. We also found a few new sights and activities to fit in before leaving for our travels to Togo and other parts of Ghana. We found the beach again in downtown Accra, but different from our first day in Accra, we stumbled upon a portion near Independence Square which was not so littered or crowded or intimidating. We spent a couple of afternoons there after mornings homeschooling, where we met Terry for “Happy Hour” on the water at days end. We had a particularly beautiful sunset walk on the beach which we dedicated to “Kookum”. Terry’s Grandmother passed away peacefully on Sunday July 18 and although we were very sad not to be home for the final celebration of her life, we managed our own recognition Ghanaian style. We walked along the beach collecting “Kookum Rocks”, (enjoying the double meaning that went along with the title, finding it suitable to Granny) and shared memories and stories about Kookum. Afterwards, we had a lovely dinner to toast this amazing, adventurous woman who has partly inspired the travels we love to do including this trip here in Africa. Terry reminded us that only 20 years ago on his travels in Europe, he met up with her in Edinbourgh where at the age of 80 she had come to trace her Scottish roots.

We’ve had fun buying souvenirs for friends, family and ourselves. The kids had drawing and painting lessons with the Ghanaian artist who lives below us. While they painted, I got to go into town to buy fabric for the seamstress who works across the little lane from our apartment to make matching dresses for me and the girls. The kids had their final “slumber party” with Jim and Sessi, the kids from downstairs, who we know they will miss like mad. They went to their friends’ school awards day/Jim’s grade 6 graduation at De Youngsters, the school we had tried for 1 day back in March. Then we had our own Home School graduation where the kids wrote French poems and stories, then performed and acted them out for their best buds who live below. The day before we travelled (“we are travelling” as they say in Ghana any time they leave town), I got to have my hair braided which is literally a scalp raising and at times painful 3 hour experience done by another neighbor across the lane who works in a metal shack between our seamstress and our tailor. Unfortunately the joy I felt with my new look became overshadowed by the sick feeling in my guts that came with the realization that while I was across the street getting my hair done, our camera was stolen. A case of “coulda, should, woulda” where a stranger came into our place the day before begging for money (actually scoping our place). I gave him a few dollars to get rid of him. The next day he was watching our house and when he saw “the Mom” getting her hair done, he walked into the apartment while poor Lilianna was in charge. She did the right thing and told the boys to get me while she kept an eye on this guy. By the time I came, he had run off and we thought we were safe until I discovered 3 hours later that the camera was missing. All our neighbors felt as sick as we did and said we should have called out the window to them even that first day when he entered our house. They would have all come together to help us get rid of him. It happened so fast though that even if we knew this, we may not have had time to act on it.

So we say goodbye to our camera, to Kookum, to Alliance Francais and their fabulous popcorn, to Accra Mall, and to yoga and all the kind acquaintances I made there. We will have many more goodbyes to come at the end of August which will be bittersweet. The kids spend much time speaking fondly of home and yet when it comes to goodbye, they are not ready to leave. Riley keeps saying, “We’ll come back here before we go right Mom?” I don’t have the heart to tell him “No”.