IMPORTANT NOTE: This article is part of a 12-chapter series on my trip to Africa: Ghana was the sixth country of twelve African nations I visited in December of 2016. It’s best to read the chapters in order, as they build on one another. To see countries number one through five, please go HERE. It’s best to read the stories/countries in order.
Ghana was the one and only country on this trip of 14 nations that I would travel to overland, by car. Check out Togo on the map, and you’ll see that its capital, Lomé, is but 10 kilometers from the Ghana’s line. It only took about ten minutes for Kokou (my driver) and I to arrive at the border in his Nissan Sentra with air conditioning that was probably two years overdue for a refill of Freon. Interestingly, it took Kokou much longer to cross the border than me. “Formalities,” he explained, as went from office to office at the border, to have his paperwork processed. Forty minutes later we were on our way.
I thoroughly enjoyed our drive through the countryside of Ghana; it turned out to be such an unexpected treat in so many ways. We rolled through several small villages and I never lost my enthusiasm for seeing the ladies carry various objects on their head. Up until this point, I’d seen plenty of baskets of fruit and even household utensils and bottles of soda, but it was in Ghana where I was wowed at the ladies with wooden and glass boxes of chicken on their heads. At least I assumed it was chicken.
Being in radio, I love listening to the local stations when I travel—especially internationally—where I get a break from the usual Justin Bieber and Ryan Seacrest of home and get to hear what the rest of the world listens to. I love hearing radio stations in other countries; not just the music, but the DJs, the promos, even the commercials. So I was disappointed when Kokou offered to play his “American” CD for me. Of course I had to be polite and accept his gracious offer. He was trying to make me feel at home, and had no idea that I was thoroughly enjoying his local radio station. How could he have known that “American” music was the last thing I wanted hear while in Africa. I was instantly bummed, but I knew saying yes was the right thing to do.
However, the marking on his disc looked like it read “Slow Jams.” Could it be?
I was in awe when the first track started playing, and in under two seconds I knew it was Blackstreet’s “Don’t Leave Me.” I turned it up and Kokou and I spent the next few hours jamming out to artists like Alicia Keys, R. Kelly, Michael Jackson and 3T. When K-Ci & JoJo came on, that was it…it was time for Carpool Karaoke!
At times I tried to put my seat back and catch some snooze time, but I was enjoying the music and scenery too much to keep my eyes closed for more than two minutes. We also had to show our ID to the police at a handful of checkpoints along the way. Ghana seemed serious about their security! The nap wasn’t meant to be.
The drive was awesome for the first three hours, but the last two sucked. We hit bad traffic in Tema, and were at a standstill for a majority of the remaining two hours. Traffic was worse than the 405 freeway at 8AM, and the sun was winning the battle against this Sentra’s failing AC. We simply sat and sat and sat. Then sat some more. No Slow Jam in the world could ease the frustration of just being at a standstill for hours under the African sun…it got pretty maddening.
We arrived at The Accra City Hotel just in time for me to put my bags down, freshen up, and shoot out the door for my 2PM city tour.
The Tour that Didn’t Happen
I walked about a mile in the blazing African heat, wading through masses of pedestrians and folks hawking goods on the sidewalk. I’d left my sunblock in Togo and could feel the heat searing by face. I finally approached the meeting point for my tour: Ussher Fort. No relation to the artist Usher, Ushher Fort was constructed in 1649 by the Dutch and is currently being restored.
It was 2PM, the meeting time for my tour, but my guide was nowhere to be found. The fort itself looked pretty abandoned and a security guard told me no one was allowed in. I told him about my tour and he had no idea what I was talking about. So I’d wait. I leaned on the building, my back against the wall to take what little cover I could in the three inches of shade, as I waited for my guide to arrive.
It was hot and miserable. I was drenched in sweat, my feet were sore from walking, and my body ached from the long car ride. My carefree vacation attitude was quickly turning into annoyed and downright pissy. 2:05. 2:10. 2:15. 2:30…no tour guide! As I hugged the side of the building for shade, I observed the locals. One kid caught my attention.
He must have been about four, no older than five. Dark skinned, shaved head, wearing flip-flops and shorts. He was across the street, playing all by himself. It took me a few seconds to focus in on what exactly he was up to. I squinted my eyes under the blazing sun and tried to figure out what he was doing with a black plastic bag on a string. And then the breeze kicked up, and the bag sailed up into the air like a kite. Wait a minute—this was a kite! His kite.
The time and the waiting suddenly became a non-issue. I wanted to watch this child’s skills.
I instantly remembered flying a kite for the very first time. I must have been about his age, too. Mom took me on vacation to San Diego, and taught me how to fly my new kite on the bay. I remember the feeling so vividly, and the excitement of feeling the wind tug at the string for the first time, and seeing my kite fly higher and higher. I witnessed and even felt this same feeling in the boy’s face, although his plastic shopping bag was struggling to fly higher than his head. Nonetheless, he never gave up. He’d help the little kite up and then take off running, trying to give flight to the crumpled bag. At times he was successful and he’d let out screams of joy. Other times the bag nose-dived straight to the sidewalk. He didn’t care, and he never gave up. He’d pick that kite up and attempt flight again and again, until it was soaring as much as physics would allow it to. I took out my iPhone and snapped some pictures, and then video. I never got tired of watching this. So many emotions came over me during his kite show: first I thought, “neat!;” impressed with how innovative the boy was. Then I was overtaken by a feeling of overwhelming of gratefulness. Then, the sadness came. I was taking pictures of this sweet child on an $800 iPhone and he didn’t even have a $15 kite to call his own. How could life be so unfair?
It was now 2:40PM. It was clear my guide wasn’t showing. And I was glad. I’d take a different kind of tour today. I hailed a cab. I was off to find a kite.
You’d think finding a kite in a city of 2.3 million would be easier, but this proved to be one difficult task. I sent my cabbie, Charles, all over town. First it was to my hotel to grab my money, then off shopping for kites. I even pulled up a picture of a kite on my phone and told him this is what I needed. 15 minutes later we arrived at a big store. I went in, only to discover it was just a grocery store. No kites or any kind of toys. Then it was on to a bigger store: another grocery store. This one had a few toys, but no kites. A worker there told us to try LaraMart. We did. No kites, no toys. I soon got the feeling Charles was as clueless as I was when it came to kite shopping in Accra. I kept asking, “Don’t you guys have a ‘toy’ store here?” He seemed confused. How could a city this big not have a toy store, I pondered. It didn’t make sense to me.
An hour had passed and it would be dark soon. I decided to head back to store number two and settle for some of their toys—no kites, but this was the best option I’d seen.
I picked out the two best remote-control cars I could find. There wasn’t much of a selection of toys at all, but I remembered at that age, how cool these cars were to me. My hope was that the boy might enjoy one (or two) as well. So I grabbed two, we found batteries, checked out, and then it was off to deliver the goods.
We arrived back at Ussher Fort, and parked; but the boy was nowhere to be found. I’d hoped to find him still running along the street with his little black kite, but this wasn’t the case. No boy, no kite. My heart sunk.
We approached a lady working at a roadside stand and showed her the photo of the boy. She’d remembered seeing him, but couldn’t tell us where he’d gone. I looked down at his photo on my phone to note his outfit, before Charles and I approached a group of kids playing in a vacant lot. No luck there either. I wasn’t sure if the kids knew who the boy was, but right away they knew something was up. Charles and I walked back out onto the street to ask someone else, and I noticed the kids had stopped their soccer game to follow us. There was now a happy mob of kids following right behind us—not sure why, but they were now attached to us. They seemed curious why a gringo like me was looking for a kid like them, I’m sure. Finally, we found a lady who told us she in fact knew the boy, and proceeded to lead us into an adjacent neighborhood, taking a left into a small opening that led us straight in to some sort of windy alleyway with tiny houses all around—a sort of urban village. It was the kind of place I certainly wouldn’t have ventured in on my own, but I felt safe with the lady and my cabbie, and of course the troop of children following right behind us.
The next thing I know, the child’s parents came out of the doorway of a tiny shack, boy in-tow. They all looked very bewildered; I’m sure they were curious why anyone–especially me–was “looking” for their child. The cab driver help introduce us all to each other. I didn’t know what exactly to say, or how to say it, but I basically managed to blurt out how impressed I was with the boy’s kite-flying skills, and I wanted to leave a Christmas present for him. I was a little nervous; after all, I was a total stranger and I didn’t know what they would think of this gesture. Luckily, they seemed very pleased with the whole thing and accepted the gifts. I didn’t hang out long…I wasn’t there for a photo opp or for any “recognition.” In fact, I make fun of people who do good deeds just to post them on facebook, that’s lame. As much as I would’ve loved to take video, or snap pictures of the boy holding his new toys, I didn’t–that’s not why I did all this. I just thought the young man would get a kick out of using a professional kite–and since I couldn’t locate one, a couple cool cars. He seemed pretty happy to receive them, and I did get to learn his name: Rasad. His smile and a handshake meant everything to me and was certainly a fair trade for the cars.
Oh, and I never did hear back from the tour company about why my guide was a complete no-show. But that’s okay. I’m pretty sure that no tour would’ve beat the experience I had that day in Accra. I planned a tour. God had other plans. I’d say things worked out just the way they should have.
Trips Two and Three
I’ve been back to Africa too many times to count since that first trip, and to some wild, wild places – like Somalia, Central African Republic, South Sudan and dozens more. So coming back to Ghana–definitely one of the “tamer” countries in Africa–wasn’t anything too adventurous. In fact, after posting up this time in such underdeveloped nations as Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, it was actually a treat to return to one of Africa‘s more developed regions. While it’s nice to be somewhere so “in the middle of nowhere” and downright antiquated, like Bissau for a while – as a spoiled American, I can only tolerate dirt roads, bad internet and limited food choices for so long before I start to get a little antsy. The welcoming sight of smooth highways and high-rise buildings that a city like Accra or Dakar (Senegal) offers, is always something that gives me kind of a little sigh of relief after being “away” from city life for some time.
In December (2020) and January (2021), I’d have two layovers in Ghana. I wasn’t expecting much besides some chill time at the airport hotel, but life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, right? I’d end up meeting a really great new friend in Accra–before even leaving the airport–that would make my time memorable there.
I’ll be brief on this serendipitous tale of meeting the right person at the right time, but it’s worth telling. Part of traveling the world, besides the things you see, are the people you meet. It’s part of the experience, and something that you can’t read about in a guidebook–and doesn’t always happen–It’s usually pure chance.
The Natives are Restless
It all started when I arrived at the airport in Accra from Sierra Leone. It was past 9PM and the arrival gate was an absolute zoo. Multiple flights had arrived at once and every single, solitary passenger was required to take a Corona test right there at the airport. This entire ordeal would be a lengthy three- or four-step process and the airport was not equipped to handle this many people at once. What shortly ensued was a combination of unorganized lines and ever-moving stanchions, with airport employees doing the best they could to file folks into the right line. It was like herding cats. It didn’t take long for passengers to not follow directions while one poor lady (employee) single-handedly tried to corral different groups into different lines. The whole “six-feet apart” rule combusted in a matter of seconds, and soon you had 600 sweaty and tired passengers smashed elbow-to-elbow, most of them completely ignoring the directions given by the one lone airport official.
A stoutly lately in a green dress, on arrival from Cotê D’voire, began yelling at the employee, refusing to take the test because she already took one in Abidjan. I understood her frustration at having to take a second test, but I’d studied the rules of entering Ghana, and you indeed had no choice. Everybody was taking a test on arrival, no matter what. The airport officer moved a stanchion to let some specific people filter into a newly opened line, but her attempt was futile: You’d have better luck at an orderly movement of a mob of midnight madness shoppers entering Wal-Mart for $19 TVs. One man hollered with disdain to the employee, pointing out that he’d been waiting for hours, while the passengers of a flight that just arrived were now getting moved ahead of him. Chaos ensued. It was a “running of the bulls,” but with humans, as the people broke loose from their assigned “corrals” to fill up the newly opened queues. I did not participate. I was the lone passenger who just stood still there, following the instructions to stay put, while the masses rushed passed me like a giant school of fish late for class. I just sat back and attempted an empathetic smile (behind my mask) to the poor worker that finally just shrugged her shoulders and sighed. We both realized there was no containing this crowd.
I too, under any other circumstance would have probably been just another angry passenger – but I was still on high from having escaped Sierra Leone. Just hours earlier, I was being denied entry into the Freetown airport for not having the right “test.” Just standing in Ghana at this moment was an absolute miracle, so you wouldn’t have seen me frustrated even if I’d ended up having to sleep in that damn airport – I was just so lucky to be in Ghana at all!
What happened next was something for the books. Perhaps it was my devastatingly good looks and charm, but more likely, a bit of karma quickly returned for being a patient passenger amongst the heathens. What was about to happen even had me bewildered and befuddled as to how a guy can get so lucky…
It happened so fast, and I’m not even sure how – but somewhere during my stop at the second “station” to fill out a health and travel questionnaire, one of the young ladies on duty dropped a quick “flirt” with me – something along the lines of, “I want to travel with you,” after seeing my long list of recent destinations on my form. I don’t even remember my reply, but before you know it, she was slipping me her phone number, folded up inside a tiny piece of paper. I felt good walking down the airport corridor, my ego slightly inflated. “I still got it!,” I joked inside my head. I honestly couldn’t believe any female would want to get to know me in this condition: borderline filthy, with mud on my shoes, dirt on my calves, disheveled everything, and sporting a shirt I’ve had on for three days that must’ve smelled like sour milk. “Who in their right mind would…?” I shook it off as a nice moment, and who knows, maybe I’d call this young lady tomorrow.
The good karma suddenly doubled down, as I was in the next line of hundreds and felt a tap on my shoulder.
“Give me your passport,” said the lady who had given me her number. “Follow me.”
Either I was about to be given the V.I.P. treatment or I was being hauled off to jail because they found the drugs (JOKE!) But I didn’t want to assume anything until I knew more. But yes, sure enough, this nice girl began taking me (and my passport) from window to window, bypassing each line to get me fast-tracked through a process that would’ve had me in that airport until 3AM.
Walk You Home
What would have taken hours, now lasted only about 12 minutes, and soon we were walking out of those airport exit doors, leaving thousands of passengers in line behind me. I couldn’t believe it – I was being treated like royalty and I had no idea why. My new friend–let’s call her Virginia–even decided she’d take a break from work and walk me to my hotel, which was a half-mile away. We soon said our goodbyes but met for breakfast at the hotel in the morning. The whole thing was just unbelievable, and besides the rock-star treatment getting out of the airport, Virginia was an absolutely sweetheart of a person.
I’d leave for São Tomé later that next afternoon and needed a fresh Corona Virus test, which Virginia hoped coordinate. I would’ve been lost without her! After the visit to the clinic to get a stick shoved up my nose, I headed over to the hotel to pack up and checkout. I enjoyed a nice flight to São Tomé that evening.
Ghana do it Again
My itinerary called for another 20 hour layover in Ghana – on the way home to the US from São Tomé. This time, Virginia met me right at the end of the jet bridge when I landed – she was standing by to grab my documents and give me the express service again. To be clear, this “service” I speak of cannot even be bought – it’s not an option for anyone! I felt so lucky…again! It was almost déjà vu as I cut though the crowds in seconds and was soon at my hotel, escorted by this friendly young lady, who’d never asked for anything in return. We had breakfast the next morning, but this time, it was her day off. Virginia and I spent the afternoon at Labadi Beach, enjoying music, the sea breeze, and food and drink from vendors working on the sand. I enjoyed getting a chance to see what the locals did on a Sunday, before heading back to the hotel to pack up once again and prepare for the onward journey. It was finally time to go home.
Dee Plane, Dee Plane!
I couldn’t wait to have dinner on the plane. No, not the plane that was flying me home – but the giant, old DC-10 that was parked out in front of the airpot. La Tante was a restaurant housed in a giant, retired jetliner – one of a handful of “plane-restaurants” around the world. There’s been a recent trend to convert old aircraft into dining establishments, and I’m for it. I noticed the first one in Afghanistan, and was actually pretty sour about not being able to visit it! I was not going to miss my chance in Ghana! So before my flight, I invited Virginia to join me for a meal at La Tante, soaring high above Accra at 35 feet. It was fun!
Girl, I’m Ghana Miss You
After the meal, Virginia and I said our goodbyes. I wanted to get to the gate early – I was taking no chances. The last two and a half weeks were filled with too many close calls: at least six or seven instances where I nearly became “stuck.” From border closures to visa denials, to having the wrong Corona Virus test…on one occasion I was even threatened jail by Le Commissaire! Many stops ago I’d abandoned the reassuring, “I should be good from here on out” thought – including tonight! Who knows what calamity awaited me at the check-in counter, immigration window or even simply the main entrance to the airport! Thankfully, there were no hang-ups getting out of Ghana, and I had a sweet direct route over to JFK. Wouldn’t you know it though, that arriving into New York, our plane’s wing flaps would malfunction. The first landing was aborted. We flew south to burn fuel, before circling back up to JFK and making a harrowing landing sans flaps – with over a dozen emergency vehicles all lit up and on standby for us. Truth be told, the plane’s wheel-brakes worked fine, and besides feeling a hard brake and short stop, we were totally fine. I just thought it a bit comical that problems and issues on this trip had arisen from the very first flight out of San Diego, all the way to the literal landing back in The States, with dozens of calamities and clusterf__ks along the way. Part of me was sad that this was the end – but I was more relieved than anything. The odds were against me this trip, in every way. A feeling of accomplishment swelled as I walked in the front door to my house that Monday morning. A super tight and fast itinerary through ten West African counties amidst a global pandemic, and not one stop was missed? Unbelievable. Do I recommend this challenge to others? Not in a million years!
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