Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Day 1 (May 19/20): Akwaaba to Accra

We arrived in Accra, Ghana this morning at about 8 am local time (4 am our body time). Stepping off the chilly plane, the thick, humid heat instantly engulfed my body. The African air felt exactly like a sauna and I was almost immediately drenched with sweat.
After a relatively easy exit from the airport (much unlike our departure) we were met by Eric and Felicia Annan of the Sovereign Global Mission, our driver (also Felicia's brother) George, and another VCU Grad student, Cameron. Cameron is in the school of social work and is in Ghana for 1 month. It was definitely nice having her advice before and during the trip!

We climbed into an old VW van (our transportation for the entire trip), slid the windows open and melted onto the old leather seats for the drive. On the way to the hotel there was a lot to see and the driving itself was an adventure. Ghanaians’ driving style is a mix between New York City cab drivers and a crowd of excited young kids trying to siphon through a single door to get candy. I was amazed that there were no collisions but instead cars stopped inches from one another, with lots of honking and yelling. Other than the traffic, there is a lot to look at in Accra. There are huge gated homes and buildings next to straw huts and makeshift stands. The women carry their babies tied to their backs by beautiful pieces of fabric. Many of these women also carry anything and everything from water to tables balanced effortlessly on their heads as they navigate gracefully around other people, cars, goats, chickens and uneven surfaces.
The air in Ghana has a distinct smell. Sometimes it smells foul and sometimes its delicious. The air is a mixture of burning garbage, sewage, butter for frying food, car exhaust, body odor and spicy food.

Arriving at the Hotel President, we peeled our sweaty bodies from the van’s leather seats and were welcomed by rooms with air conditioning and fans and a mini-fridge! Jessica and I shared room #2 and began to settle into what would be our home for the next two weeks. The bed was two twin beds pushed together with a single sheet over top and one loose sheet folded at the end of the bed. Our corner room was situated directly above the Hotel Restaurant and there was always a lot of activity outside. One window looked out the back of the hotel to where the kitchen was located and the other looked to the driveway where we had entered. The décor was simple with dark wood furniture and long, dark merlot colored curtains. The tiny bathroom held a toilet that only halfway flushed and a shower that offered only a trickle. But, we were happy to be here and had prepared for much worse.

Climbing back into the van with George, we drove down the street to exchange our American dollars and cents into Ghanaian cedes and pesewas. Once we had money we could spend, we went to the internet café so we could check in with our families and Stacey could buy a phone. This is where I came to realize it would be impossible to stay in regular contact with my family. The café was crowded and overpriced, and being chained to a computer instead of taking in the culture was not why I came to Africa. Stacey purchased a phone with which we could call home and we would rely on this instead.

We then drove to buy water and boxed wine before heading back to the hotel. While stuck in traffic, a small child came to our van window begging for food. We had studied how giving money to these children perpetuates the begging problem and we had learned how adults exploit children to beg for them. I could not look at the child when she was at my window. I had nothing to give her and we were told not to do so. I watched her as she circled the van - her bright eyes shone under the desperate expression and layers of dirt she wore on her face. There are individuals selling everything at your car windows – gum, mentos, coke, bagged water, shoe polish, peanuts, fried plantains, hankerchiefs and cell phone minutes. Among all of this, starving children are begging to survive. My heart hurt and I knew this was only the beginning.

Once back at the hotel, we had a chance to shower under our trickle of cold water and change our clothes. Our meeting place became the hotel patio, where you could hide from the heat in the shade and slight breezes were often. I had bought a book the night before leaving home and had a while to do some reading in “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles” by author Richard Dowden. I discovered this book at the last minute and have discovered in it the words to describe many of the feelings I would have. Dowden’s ability to explain Africa’s ordinary horrors and joys is insightful and written with tender detail.

We had dinner at the White Bell Restaurant, where I had jollaf, a spicy rice. We then sat and talked on the hotel porch, enjoyed some of our boxed wine, and planned our next day. We went to bed early, exhausted from the long trip and our bodies had not yet fully adjusted to the time or the heat.

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