Friday, October 31, 2014

AFRICA: GHANA DRIVING, ELMINA TO AXIM

I just finished reading Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck's memoir of his 1960 circumnavigation of the United States in his truck with his poodle Charley by his side. Steinbeck had a great deal to say about travel in general in this book, and one paragraph in particular seems relevant to our drive from Coconut Grove Resort in Elmina to Axim.
Steinbeck wrote:
Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us. . . . [A] journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

Every day of our Ghana journey was full of surprises. Every day was dripping with its own personality, temperament, individuality, and uniqueness (and perspiration).  A good example was our 160-mile round-trip drive from our lodgings in Elmina to Fort St. Anthony in Axim. That distance in the United States might take one-and-a-half hours one way and contain a few things of interest, but in Ghana every trip takes much longer than expected, which is just fine because there is something new and fun to see around every bend in the road. For example:

As in Kenya and Tanzania, there is a thriving microfarming industry in Ghana. We would drive past six or seven stands like this at a time, all selling the very same thing. Someone needs to teach these farmers about diversification.

It wasn't until I cropped this picture that I noticed that man sitting in the grass and the decrepit condition of the wagon. Is that sugar cane they are gathering? I'm not sure.
When I was a little girl, I practiced walking around with a book on my head. I had heard it helped create good posture, and didn't Audrey Hepburn do it in My Fair Lady? In spite of all that practice, I could never ever hold a candle to these African women. The one on the left had a bag or purse and some food in the bowl on her head, and the one on the right had a plate loaded with at least one complete sliced watermelon on her head.
"Rest stop" establishments, like the View Point Pub below, were sprinkled along the roadside like our McDonald's are in the United States. A sign on the roof of the little yellow and red stall (McD's colors) on the right reads "Fast Food Point."  By the way, McDonld's has yet to invade Ghana. In fact, in all of sub-Saharan Africa, I think only South Africa has McDonald's.
Coca-cola, on the other hand, is everywhere, including in the soda machine on the pub porch above, at a distribution center in Takoradi (below left), and in every gas station (below right):
We made our way through lots of small-ish villages like these. The contrast between the cleanliness and colorful dress of the people and the conditions in which they lived was always hard to reconcile:
Lush, tropical fields filled in the gaps between villages:

One of the many unplanned events we had along the way was a "friendly" encounter with the Ghana Highway Patrol. Although Russ was driving carefully and was being regularly passed by other cars on the road, a pretty aggressive and humorless policewoman pulled him over and told him that her radar had clocked him going 60 km in a 50 km zone. It was pretty clear right away that one does not argue with the police in Ghana. I was very impressed with the way Russ handled things. He was very polite and friendly, treating the officer with exaggerated respect. 

"I am a missionary serving in Accra with my wife," he said. "We are here on a special outing and won't be able to return to this area again to appear in court. I could, however, pay my fine right now if that would be convenient. How much would it be?"

"What would you suggest?" the stern policewoman replied, suddenly interested in his inability to return.

"How about 100 cedis [about $30 US]?" Russ replied. [According to this source, minimum wage in Ghana is 6 cedis per day.]

After a short pause, the officer held out her hand, received the bill, and walked away.  I'm sure that money will never make it to the general traffic fund.

I can't remember if Russ suggested that amount because he didn't have anything smaller, but whatever the reason, we did stop at a bank in the next large town of Secondi-Takoradi (twin cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul, but the similarity ends there) to change some bills into smaller denominations.

By chance, the bank was near this war memorial:
I didn't know anything about West Africa's involvement in either World War I or II, but Ghana, known then as the Gold Coast, was definitely involved in both. They lost 16,200 troops in World War I. I haven't been able to find casualty figures for World War II, but during those years, Takoradi was an important British airbase for staging aircraft bound for Egypt, and an African air force squadron was also based in Takoradi. It makes sense that there would be a war memorial there.

 Isn't this a wonderfully expressive statue? I'm so glad we stumbled on it:
At first I thought these must be military ships out in the bay behind the statue, but they were probably oil tankers (there is lots of oil in this region) or some other industrial transport.
We got back in the car and resumed our drive, the road now veering away from a point in the coastline to create a hypotenuse short-cut.

About 41% of the people of Ghana are Christian, and all along the way we saw many humble Christian churches. This yellow one is The Church of Pentecost:

Every now and then we would see a shockingly familiar-looking church:
Yes sirree, I've seen that architecture somewhere before:
Other times we just saw a sign like this pointing down a dirt road. Practically every village had one:
We saw two or three sets of these as well:
Hey! LDS missionary mom! I saw your son and his companion working awfully hard on a muggy mid-day near the southern coast of Ghana. I wish I knew your name so that I could send you this picture:
Sorry we couldn't give you a ride, Elders. Our car was full.

"Wow, that's an interesting place to have an auto showroom," I thought to myself as we passed by this glass-front building.  However, then I noticed the sign on the eave that read "Parker's Casket," and I looked a little closer. Now that's something you don't see every day when you are meandering through rural neighborhoods in the States:

Now I come to one of the biggest shocks of our trip to Ghana: the chocolate.

Cocoa cultivation began in Ghana in 1895. Between 1911 and 1976, Ghana was the world's leading producer of cocoa. Due to various economic and environmental issues, prices plummeted in the late 1970s, and many Ghanaian farmers stopped growing cocoa. In recent years cocoa growing has picked up again, but where it used to account for 66% of the country's foreign exchange, it now accounts for only 35-40%.  However, even at the lower rate, it is still the country's main cash crop, and according to Wikipedia, Ghana is second only to the Ivory Coast in cocoa production. Growing cocoa is very hard work in return for very low pay. A recent article on nbcnews.com has a lot more information for anyone who is interested.

Anyway, I had tasted Ghanaian chocolate several times before. The Ghana chocolate brand is very popular in Japan, and I'd tried both milk and dark chocolate bars there.  I knew how good they were--rich, smooth, and intense--and I was looking forward to a few episodes of chocolate over-indulgence on Africa's West Coast.
Japanese versions of Ghana chocolate bars
Every time we stopped somewhere that had food for sale, I looked for chocolate.  Gas stations in the United States aren't a source of gourmet chocolate, but they are a source for some chocolate. However, European gas stations typically have a pretty decent selection of chocolate, and I expected the same in Ghana. Finally, we hit a convenience store attached to a gas station, and there was one lonely box of chocolate bars next to the cash register. Yippee! (FYI, Since coming home, I have learned that Kingsbite by Golden Tree of Ghana is a premium chocolate brand.)
Well, it's not so premium if purchased at a Ghana gas station. Nope. This chocolate bar was either 100 years old or it had been heated and cooled a few too many times. How unfortunate.
I kept looking, but I never found any other chocolate bars. While cocoa beans may be Ghana's biggest export, I think heat, humidity, and lack of refrigeration make the end product a not-very-sought-after commodity in Ghana itself. Such a disappointment.

The final part of our driving adventure involved (no surprise) the weather. Many adventures in Ghana seem to involve some extreme or unpredictable weather. The last leg of our drive, the shortcut hypotenuse part, wasn't really a shortcut because as far as we could tell, there was no coastal road leading to our destination of Axim, and in addition, we were slowed down by a torrential downpour, the kind that I've only experienced in tropical climates.
But that's not all. The hypotenuse road was under construction, so we spent most of that segment on a dirt road trying hard not to become stuck in the spongy, chocolate-colored bog that had taken over. Blobs of mud spattered our windows as Russ drove cautiously along:
It was nice to follow this van and its rainbow-lettered reminder:
The rain came and went, and work on the road continued regardless. If the crews stopped every time it rained, I'm sure nothing would ever get finished, and it's hard enough to finish anything in Ghana as it is. One advantage of having workers on the road was that if our ox (car) got stuck in the mire, there would be someone to help get us out:

School children on their way home for lunch didn't seem to mind the rain too much:
A group of women (and one man) were chatting during a break in the deluge. How do they keep their beautiful clothes so clean and bright when they have to deal with so much mud?
There are two babies slung on their mothers' backs in the picture above. One is easy to find, but the second is a little harder. Hint: Look for his leg.

We spent several hours in Axim (see next post) and then headed back to our lodgings at Coconut Grove Resort the same way we'd come. Lucky for us, there wasn't much traffic. We did see one tro-tro (a small bus crammed with passengers) that had slid down a short embankment, its disgorged riders standing in the mud with their hands on their hips looking at the vehicle and discussing their options, and later we saw a delivery truck that had slid off the road, a large hauler hooked up to it and pulling it back into a more appropriate location:

It was one of those days when I couldn't have been happier to be a passenger and not the driver.

By the time we got back to Coconut Grove, the clouds were gone, the sun was out, and the mud on the car had transformed into a coating of dry dirt that leapt from the chassis onto our clothing any time we walked within about two feet of it:
Just another day in paradise, right?

4 comments:

  1. That chocolate story made me laugh. So disappointing you have to giggle or you would cry!

    I never tire of looking at the beautiful, colorful people of Africa.

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  2. I do believe that chocolate was the worst I've ever eaten. Ironic that it comes from one of the leading cocoa bean growing countries in the world. They just don't like sweet things there. The relatively short drive was very long and it was difficult to find things. It gave me tremendous respect for Ted and Janath Cannon living there in the late 1970s.

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  3. Wow--that chocolate had some bloom on it! (But what did it taste like?)
    I'm still impressed with the head-carrying talents of the women, coupled with their Keeping Clean skills. And that's quite a story about your drive!

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    1. The chocolate was horrible, but I don't know if that's because it really WAS horrible or because it was just older than Moses. I quite like the Ghana brand chocolate available in Japan, and there must be a reason they are one of the world's leading chocolate producers, so I suspect it's the latter.

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