David Thompson is an International travel writer and prolific traveler who has been writing professionally since 1996. California raised, he co-founded a collegiate Solar Racing Team which designed & built a solar car from scratch. Since then, he’s been adventuring all over the world and sharing his words of wisdom at Dave’s Travel Corner. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Dave’s Travel Corner as he travels through Western Africa.
This post was originally published in 2010. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.
Sunday morning is the best time to be on the road in large urban areas, especially at 5am when there is absolutely no traffic! After the early 5 hour flight from the west coast I soon find myself walking along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC just down from the White House. Then after a 10 hour flight to Accra, the capital city of Ghana in Western Africa I am whisked away to the middle of the rural countryside far removed from the hub of activity I had experienced in the two nation’s capital cities.
I welcome the warm sun, heat and humidity that only the tropics can deliver. Somehow, I am among the first ones off the plane and quickly breeze through customs. That’s the easy part. The interrogation is the fun part though. In order to avoid tourists getting sucked into scams at the airport, cars carrying westerners with locals need to stop at the police station before exiting.
I am with John, the director of YCC Ghana (the organization I came to volunteer for). He is taken into a small room by himself and asked about me. Then I am summoned from the vehicle and two officers proceed to ask about my business in Ghana and why I am in the vehicle with the other men. After a few questions I figure out they are doing this for my own protection, trying to make sure I’m not becoming part of a larger scam. The interrogation ends on friendly terms with one of the policeman showing me how to handshake….Ghanian style ending with a snap of the fingers.
Upon leaving the airport we are bombarded with walking toilet paper vendors. Apparently this product is a hot item in the streets of Accra?!
I am staying with YCC Ghana out in the country near the edges of the great Volta River – about 40 minutes from the Togo Border. This organization was started by John Glidden 6 years ago and today is directly helping over 250 children and families with education, water sanitation and identifying “slave masters” and notifying the proper authorities and or taking the children away and placing them in orphanages if appropriate. Talking about slave masters and child slaves at a modern western mall in Accra seems so incongruous to the realities a few hours away.
I’ve been trying to improve everything about their online presence but the Internet situation is quite grim. This is a perfect time to work on this as I have no outside distractions and can devote my entire attention for hours on end. However with a pitiful download rate, I’m afraid additional work will have to wait until I can find a much faster connection.
I walk to work each day – it’s about 20 minutes through green fields, mostly corn along dirt paths and dirt roads, past small crudely constructed residences eventually crossing the main highway that continues to the Togo border. Their office also serves as a classroom so I find myself working literally in the middle of the classes as that is where the electrical power source is!
Music is a big part of the Western Africa culture – the director is taking his first trip off the continent in August and is preparing 13 students for this. As a result every mid afternoon just under my window the students line up with drums and sticks and cowbells and their voices and burst into song for 3+ hours until the sun goes down! ‘
The small building where I’m staying is literally surrounded by agriculture – men are out in the fields plowing and hoeing by hand – the ground here is very fertile as its been brought in by the Volta River over centuries.
There is nothing like working on a computer in a corn field! With the modern wonders of usb wireless modems to connect into the mobile phone’s network and the added benefit of having a netbook which inherently has a long battery life, I can perch myself, seated Thai style on the fertile ground among the corn plants, communicating with half the world (albeit agonizingly slowly at times). I compare the Internet speed here to the speed at which these young green plants are extending their vertical reach.
The concept of Ghanian time is refreshing – work, but have fun and take your time.
The food is good – I am eating authentic food as you find in the Ghanian countryside. We eat with our hands. Lunch today is a very nice flavored Okra dish with a large piece of meat inside and some sort of sticky grain that makes it easy for sopping up the main dish.
I came here without knowing what to expect in terms of geography. Sometimes I prefer to travel that way. My brother who is on Google Earth at the moment informs me I am only 10 minutes from the Atlantic Ocean where the Volta river empties and only 45 miles from Lome, the capital city of neighboring Togo. I will be testing Togo’s visa-on-arrival policy at some point. I’ll bet 95% of the world’s population has no idea Togo is a country on planet earth.
Bernard from Border Jumpers calls me this afternoon – I was supposed to meet them in Abidjan, Ivory Coast – but now it looks like I’m going to try to meet them in Burkina Faso. Will try to get a visa on the fly in Accra!
The ENTIRE country is ALIVE! I’m sitting out on the darkened porch fighting mosquitoes like no tomorrow and Ghana just scored – major noise coming from all homes nearby – every type of noise imaginable, cheering, screaming, yelling, crying, chanting, horns, whistles and metal bells clanging! I hear this sustained noise everywhere across the countryside. Now the music has started and people are singing. Uruguay has a long history of appearances in the World Cup, but Ghana does not and has the power of the entire continent behind them as they are the only African team left in the tournament.
Today we tour the countryside visiting small projects and schools that YCC Ghana is directly involved with. We end up in Aflao, the border town with Togo and Ghana. Everyone is wearing Ghana flags and Ghana colors, some have been obviously partying all day and are quite drunk. “We are Africa’s team” they yell. “Ghana, Ghana, Ghana” they keep chanting!
If these, the crumbling, decaying walls at Fort Prinzenstein could talk, the sustained pain of the people they housed would power the simultaneous detonation of 100 nuclear bombs. These walls should be left to rot and crumble and turn into the sand that surrounds them yet at the same time they should be left standing to serve others as a grim reminder of what happened in this part of Africa. The fort we visit was built in 1784 by the Danish to house male and female Africans before starving them (so they would be weak for the trip and theoretically would not mount a revolt) weeks prior to putting them on small boats and taking them to what is now the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. Bathing was done in small concrete walls built into the fort; after bathing the water was saved for the slaves to drink. Seeing the small dungeon and chains built in the floor combined with the brutality described by our guide, is enough to make one sick.
After 19+ years of writing my first Pen Pal friend, I meet up with Kwesi, a journalist in Accra. I’ve been staying with him and it is amazing to finally meet him in person after all this time. I had re-read all his original letters before this trip. Today I wake up in Accra without any real plans other than I am going to leave the country for some additional exploration of West Africa.
After a few phone calls I decide I will fly to neighboring Cote d’Ivoire, to their capital city of Abidjan. I already have the visa as I was planning on meeting Bernard and Danielle of Border Jumpers there. But their plans changed and they found themselves in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and it was too pricy to catch a ticket at the last minute as well as secure a visa.
Finding out the flight is at midday on Emirates Air, I scramble to buy the ticket and arrive at the airport just in time to catch the flight. On the way to airport we pass the Holiday Inn where US President Obama stayed during his 2 nights in Ghana. The entire hotel was shut down for him and his staff. With the confusion of my issued visa showing the US standard of day/month/year I am initially denied boarding. After some explanation and back-and-forth between employees I am allowed to proceed. Then they catch the fact that my ticket is one way and that requires further explanation before being allowed to board. I’ve always wanted to fly Emirates ever since seeing the exotic uniforms of the flight attendants while in Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok. You can use your cell phone while airborne – how cool is that?!
Abidjan is the world’s largest French-speaking city and for someone who only knows a few words, getting around is a challenge. Not to mention getting money – it takes visits to 8 different banks before finding one that works for my ATM cards!
Today I awake at dawn to explore Abidjan. Thank goodness for some European-styled food and salads with vinegar – I have been craving salad ever since I arrived in West Africa! Abidjan is the world’s 4th largest French-speaking city and my English doesn’t go too far here, although I’ve met a few Ghana ex-pats and Ghana travelers who speak English.
After sweating up a storm and walking around the entire downtown I find nothing much to pique my interest. I am cursorily looking for an Internet Cafe and much to my surprise find one after about 4 hours. It is called “Cyber Cafe” – I walk upstairs and ask to use one of the computers. They reply is given promptly, “sorry we don’t offer Internet access here.” Agggg!!!
Prices are high for taxis, lodging, food and most everything else I find. This is a city surrounded by water. I walk away from downtown and find a small ferry to the other side and end up in the slums. 4th world to the max. Garbage is strewn everywhere and anti-malaria drinks are sold like water, right among the hard alcohol from small wooden stands. A gentleman who tells me he has been out of work for 10 months offers to be my guide. The poverty is extreme. I find nothing inspirational about Abidjan and I will be leaving tomorrow.
I arrive in Ghana’s Cape Coast for a few days of much needed R&R. The bus travels with an armed guard. I’m not an expert in high caliber weaponry but the gun he’s holding sure looks like an AK47. Here we are cruising through the jungles of the Cote d’Ivoire with a bunch of 25KG bags labeled “Uncle Sam” rice from Thailand strewn all over the floor. I soon find out this rice is for a humanitarian mission; apparently public transportation is used for these missions!
Unlike Abidjan, Cape Coast is set up for tourism. Guesthouses dot the landscape. The Kakum Rainforest is definitely a highlight of a stay here and is one of Ghana’s true natural unspoiled treasures. My taxi driver keeps saying, “I hate traffic” over and over. He makes a mad dash as fast as he can drive to the forest. His car is a piece of junk, the mirrors are broken or missing, the seat belt doesn’t work and most of the windows are either shattered or badly cracked. The exciting parts are trying to avoid huge potholes without slowing down. He runs over a large rock on the side of the road trying to avoid a pothole and the engine dies.
The Kakum Rainforest contains Africa’s longest rainforest canopy walk. All entry into the rainforest is with a guide. The walkways are made with rope and metal cables situated 20-30 meters above the forest floor; all around you is a sea of green vegetation.
So that is seven days in West Africa – just a slice of my trip in this unique part of the world. Enjoy!
Dave will continue to explore Western Africa, visiting countries such as Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Togo. It’s an open-ended trip without a return ticket, and additional destination this year will include Jamaica, Bahrain, Egypt, South Africa, Portugal, and as with every year, several months in rural Thailand.
You can check out his (and other travelers’) adventures and glean some travel tips at Dave’s Travel Corner .com. Dave is also a partner in MyVideoVisa.com, a new online personal travel video promotion site.
His latest endeavor is The Napa Wine Project which has taken 4+ years to date and is expected to be an initial 8 year project that involves wine tasting at all Napa Valley commercial wine producers. He has spent over 3000 hours on this project and has personally visited & tasted with 600+ commercial Napa wine producers to date. His first book titled “The Freeways of Los Angeles” was published in early 2010.
~ Ownership of most things is overrated. Ownership of worldly experiences is not. ~ Dave