Monday, February 26, 2007

Adventures in Ghana, Part I

Major road Trip! Cooper had last week off school, so we took the chance to grab Duke and go see more of the country.

Ghana does a pretty good job of building and maintaining roads, but it's a struggle nevertheless with labor being easier to provide than working paving equipment. There are countless major roadworks projects, but they all proceed very slowly and most of them won't be finished during the years we spend here.

The road from Accra to Kumasi is one of them. It's only 130 miles from here to there, but it's at least a four hour drive, and then only if everything goes smoothly. Large sections of the road are unpaved or viciously potholed so progress is sketchy. Sometimes we would be on wide new smooth sections of multi-lane highway and sometimes we would be tilting along a washboard road with axle deep potholes that kept Duke's steering skills finely tuned.

Cannibalized hulks of terrifically bad accidents are a common sight on the sides of Ghanaian roadways, but this picture of a truck on its side was a first for us.

That's a semi-trailer blocking most of the road, and the cab is at right angles to the trailer, pointing at the sky.


Cooper snapped this quick shot out the windshield while the rest of us went "WHOOOOOAAAA!".

Anyway, we got to Kumasi in the early afternoon and checked into our hotel- we were hot and dusty and the hotel had a nice pool with a small waterfall, so we went swimming and Duke joined us on the pool deck.

From his lounge chair, Duke reiterated his assertion that the day I gave swimming lessons to our employees he would be calling in sick (snort). He has a major fear of water and does not wish to spend time encased in it. We continue to work on his phobia, though, being firmly convinced that knowing how to swim is a practical skill no one should be without if at all possible, and he just smiles and chuckles.

But I think he's weakening. :-)

The next morning we headed to Kumasi central and the market there. We parked the car at an apartment building near the market and walked down the hill.

This tro-tro parking lot is a perfect slice of African reality- there are just thousands of them in all makes and colors, some of them 40 years old, none of them less than 10 years old. They move hundreds of thousands of people from place to place every single day, just in Ghana and they are found in every African country we have visited so far (six of them!).

Once we got to the market our aim was just to soak up the atmosphere, see the sights, and smell the smells.

It's an endless crush of people and things, just like Accra Central, but instead of alleys off of main streets, it's just a maze of alleys covering more than 10 acres of land. No walkway was wider than six feet, yet at one point we had to squeeze into merchandise to avoid a reversing taxi who had incredibly driven into the market to drop off a customer!

The smells alternated between tantalizing whiffs of grilled veggies and the overpowering odor of decaying fish in a section of the market dedicated to fish- fresh, dried, spoiled, you name it, they have it- and thus incredibly smelly.

This is the place you go to get whatever you need to live day to day- plastic buckets, shoes, cloth, air fresheners, diapers, underwear, batteries, fire extinguishers, whatever. If you think you need it, and they don't have it at the market- you probably don't really need it.

After wandering for an hour or so we were impossibly hot and sweaty and on sensory overload so we burst from the market onto the sidewalk of a city street and hiked back up the hill to the car.

On the way I took this picture of the Kumasi bats hanging from the trees.

Accra has the same bats, in the same stupendous numbers, but our trees have too many leaves to get a shot of them this good. All the things you see that looked like large dried leaves hanging down from the branches are actually bats. They hang there all day and then fill the skies at dusk to eat their fill of flying insects.

It's fascinating, and given the sheer numbers of them in Ghana it's a wonder there are any mosquitoes at all!

After lunch we went to the Palace of the Ashanti King (Kumasi is the "county seat" of the Ashanti Kingdom).

The Palace grounds contain new buildings that are currently being used by the King and the original Palace is a historical museum now. After paying an admission fee to the Palace (which is a two story colonial building built as an apology to the Ashanti King Prempeh for exiling him to the Seychelles) and grounds, you walk down a wide drive with lots of trees and peacocks and are picked up by the man who will be your guide for the duration.

His job is to make sure you are impressed with Ashanti history, that you understand how rich and important the Ashanti King is, and that you do not, under any circumstances, try to take a picture of the Palace.

He is serious about his job and you will just have to use your imagination and my description above to picture the building in question.
Our guide was earnest, unintentionally amusing, and completely serious about the history and present of the Ashanti Kingdom- parts of which are impressive for their excess if nothing else (the King always wears the symbols of his wealth for public appearances and these take the form of six inches of gold bracelets on each arm, gold rings that even a Gabor sister would find gaudy, and enough gold chains and medallions to sink Mr. T.), and parts of which are laughably cute (for instance, the "King's Chair" in the official sitting room. A ratty black naugahyde Lazy-Boy just like ones all across America from which men rule their tiny kingdoms in suburbia...including Archie Bunker.)

Our guide was also notable as the first person since we moved here to chastise me for accepting something from him with my left hand. It's customary in most all of Africa to never use your left hand to accept an item or to eat with, however, in my experience it's overlooked almost all the time.

I have tried, while we live here, to be aware of what my left hand is doing, just as I have tried not to show the bottoms of my feet or shoes to people who are facing me (also taboo), but given that I am left-handed body and soul, and am, at best, awkward trying to do anything with my right hand, it's mostly a case of "take me as I am"- and so far everyone has, until that day in Kumasi.

When our guide abruptly told me that in his country it was considered very ill-mannered to accept something with your left hand I briefly considered telling him that in my country it was considered ill-mannered to correct a guest on their behavior. But then I remembered that I was a guest in his country and simply apologized for the lapse in etiquette. Tolerance is too often a one way street.

Inside the Palace the displays include wax figures of former Kings some of which are adorned with Ashanti gold (and protected by cameras and alarms donated by a local bank), and many examples of the former Kings' furniture and ceremonial swords.

The Palace itself made Ted and I both think of our respective Grandma's houses. It's dim and musty and has creaking wooden floors and lots of knick knacks and dark wood.

It was an interesting glimpse into the Ashanti kingdom and history, and once we were through with the tour Duke (who is of the Ashanti and who had been asking questions the whole time) began speaking with the tour guide, asking about the Golden Stool- the investiture seat for Ashanti Kings (the British had tried to confiscate it almost a hundred years ago and as a result the Ashanti have hidden it) and was told that its location was never disclosed to anyone.

Duke also queried our guide about taking pictures, and since he was Ashanti and evidently showed this man the respect he thought he was due, got permission for us to photograph the peacocks on the grounds and a large tree that the guide thought would impress us.

(that's Duke with a couple of the Palace peacocks...)

By this time we were overdosed on the traffic and crowds and hustle of Kumasi (please note that the driving habits of Kumasi-ans makes the drivers of Accra seem timid and polite, so if you have been following our driving adventures in Accra you will need some powerful imagination to envision just how nightmarish driving and traffic is in Kumasi...) and made plans to leave early in the morning for more rural parts of Ghana to the north.

Stay tuned!