Last night probably qualifies as one of the worst nights I’ve spent. When backpacking, especially in poor countries, one has to accept that once in awhile, you’re going to be stuck in a rathole. It happened to me in Vietnam, when I spent an evening in a windowless concrete cubicle where it must have been 100 degrees – the ceiling fan didn’t even make a dent in the heat, the walls were radiating it. The heat was suffocating, and I couldn’t sleep no matter how I tossed and turned. It happened to me in Antigua, Guatemala, when I checked into a room that (unbeknownst to me) had major roach problems: I woke up with a 2-inch roach crawling over me!
Well, last night was the worst yet.
I should hastily add that Aba House is not a rathole. It’s a perfectly clean, pleasant guesthouse, and the people there are extremely friendly. I would recommend it any day. But last night, between the heat, the humidity, the lack of running water, the blackout (no fan, no light), and the mosquitoes, it was the worst night I’ve ever spent while traveling. I scarcely slept, despite being in bed for 12 hours. A very long twelve hours.
But enough of my tribulations. You want to know about Ghana.
Today I made it out and about, with Eddie the weaver as my guide. We went to the main market, the Art Center market, the National Museum, an Internet cafe, and a couple of weaving shops along the way.
The main market was a bewildering warren of shops – lots of stuff, all in tiny little stalls with a huge crush of people edging their way past each other in narrow aisles. Acres of stalls. (Five acres, according to Eddie). Crowded, warm, humid, with a faint smell of sweat and stale urine, it reminded me of Chatuchak Market in Thailand. Sadly, though, they had little of interest to the tourist (at least, to this tourist), being more concerned with mundane stuff like T-shirts, shoes (new and used), shampoo and toothpaste and other sundries. Stuff people actually need, as opposed to touristy luxury goods.
The Art Center market, though, had a fantastic array of kente weavings, and the handspun, indigo-dyed dresses from northern Ghana. Kente weaving is strip-weaving, so named because the fabric is woven in narrow strips of 4-6″,then sewn together. Usually patterns alternate along the narrow strips, so the overall effect is like a patterned checkerboard, or a patchwork quilt – a good kente weaver can get the stripes to line up perfectly. I’ll post photos once I have some.
There are two main styles of kente weaving, which correspond roughly to the two major tribes of weavers, the Ewe (pronounced “eh-way”, with equal stress on both syllables) and the Ashanti. I’m still not entirely up on the difference between the two, although Eddie showed me both and I think I could distinguish one from the other in a pinch. (Ashanti weaving is slightly heavier and usually involves tapestry work – reminiscent of some Lao weaving – where Ewe patterns tend to be thinner fabric and relying more heavily on stripes and inset patterns.) At any rate, the kente are gorgeous – lots of bright colors and intricate patterning – and I do plan to buy some. (I’m thinking I may put a small one up on my cubicle wall at work.) I also browsed through some nice adinkra (complex stamped cloth with embedded meanings) and batik-dyed cloth. There was a lot more stuff – wood carvings, some pottery, various touristy items of clothing – but they were of less interest to me.
I didn’t buy anything – it was clearly a tourist market, with a lot of pressure to buy, which is (a) unpleasant and (b) means that prices are higher than, and quality probably lower than, buying direct from the artist. Since I’m going to be spending time with kente weavers, adinkra stampers, and (I hope!) indigo dyers and handspinners, I’d rather wait and buy from them.
Walking along a street in Accra: lots of people bustling by, mostly in Western dress, but here and there a woman draped in a traditional, colorful wrap-dress in bright yellow fabric stamped with black and brown patterns. Lots of street vendors selling everything from dried fish to used shoes to air fresheners, sometimes walking along long strings of stuck-in-traffic cars with their wares. Trash scattered about, sometimes in deep gutters. A woman walking with a big basket of green and yellow plantains balanced on her head. Two men with a cart of green coconuts and a machete, offering to hack open coconuts and give a refreshing coconut-juice drink for a mere 1000 cedis (11 cents). Taxis and tro-tros everywhere.
Tro-tros. I hadn’t mentioned them yet, had I? Well, there are four ways of getting around in Ghana, as far as I can tell. You can walk, take a private taxi, take a share-taxi, or take a tro-tro. (Well, for long hauls, you can also take a bus, but I haven’t
seen much of that, having stayed mostly in Accra.) Tro-tros are basically a 60’s era minivan with folding seats added, so that when 100% full, 20-25 people are packed into the van 5 abreast and there’s no room to move around. There’s typically a driver and a fare-collector, who signals to stop, collects fares, advertises the the destination to passersby and generally does everything except drive. Tro-tros are great and cheap (fare 1000-3500 cedis, roughly 10-35 cents) but also tend to be slow, especially since they have lots of regular stops and will also stop along the road to pick up/drop off passengers. (They also don’t leave the station until they’re packed completely full, which sometimes means a hot, stifling wait.)
A private taxi is just that – like taking a taxi in the U.S. except that fares are negotiated, not metered. This can be a problem for oboruni (foreigners) since obviously there’s nothing to prevent the taxi driver from cranking up the asking price for foreigners. The best way around this is to ask someone how much the taxi ride should cost, and stick to that. I haven’t tried this yet, but I may in a day or two. Private taxis are very expensive by Ghanaian standards, somewhere between $1 and $10 to get around Accra.
A share-taxi is like a cross between a private taxi and a tro-tro. Essentially, you pick your destination, and the driver waits until the car is packed with other people going to the same general area. It’s faster than a tro-tro (because it doesn’t stop along the way), but not as quick as a private taxi.
Eddie and I took all four ways of moving around town: we started by walking to the tro-tro stop, then took several changes of tro-tros into the big market of Accra, then walked to the weaver’s supply shop. Towards the end of the day, I was getting hot, sweaty, and tired, so we summoned a private taxi to take us to the Art Center, and from there we caught a share-taxi to take us back to the crossroads near Aba House. From there, we caught a moving car (another form of taxi which I haven’t yet figured out) to Aba House.
I mentioned in passing the woman with a basket of plantains on her head. Apparently in Ghana people carry things on their heads, not in their arms. So many vendor-women (the ones who walk around) carry their wares on their heads, a bowl full of dried fish, a wood-and-glass display case of bread, coming up to a tro-tro with a head-basket full of plastic packets of ice water. (The added advantage there is that the passengers – sitting up above in the van – can simply reach down into the basket on your head and get their water-packets, rather than you having to fumble for it and hand it up.)
I didn’t fully grasp the extent to which Ghanaians do this, though, until I passed the fellow balancing two suitcases on his head! I actually stopped and stared for a moment. Sadly, I didn’t get a photo.
(By the way, carrying heavy loads on one’s head is apparently one of the most ergonomic ways of carrying things (so I read, in a news article shortly before leaving). It keeps the spine straight and distributes the weight straight down – our habit of carrying things slung across the shoulder is actually colossally poor ergonomics. I don’t plan to give up my Western habits, but I can’t help thinking they have a very sensible system. Not compatible with wearing hats, though. 🙂 )
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It looks like I’ve got my plans set for the next few days. Tomorrow I’m going to an Internet cafe, where I will get these blogs posted if I have to read the text from my laptop screen and retype them into the cafe’s computer, dammit. (I have a thumb drive but computers here are mostly too old to take thumb drives.) I’m also going to the gold and silversmith, and checking out his setup. I am inclined to ask him to make me a silver spindle as well, to add to my Akha tribal silversmith’s spindles. I may hit up the basketweaver if I have time.
Wednesday, Bobo, who is a noted Ewe weaver, is coming in from the Volta Region and is going to pick me up and take me back to his place for several days of weaving lessons (I can’t wait to get my hands on that loom!). After that, I’ll return to Aba House, where Chuku, a professional guide, will meet me and take me around Kumasi and probably Tamale (northern Ghana), returning to Aba House a day or two before my departure. Chuku is being extremely generous and says that he normally charges groups $30/day (a small fortune in Ghana), but that since I’m going to have to pay for his room, board, transport, etc. and this gets expensive, he’s not going to charge me. “If you have money left over after paying for all that, you can give me some,” he says. “If not, I’ll do it for you as a brother to a sister.” He is, I’m told, an exceptionally welcoming and trustworthy guy, and so far I believe it. (Needless to say, I plan to pay him anyway.)
So I think I’m set. More as things evolve…