In January I spent 10 days in Ghana. It proved to be the best travel experience of my life thus far. Despite it being a fairly brief trip and covering only a portion of the country, I definitely felt different after returning to the U.S., altered by the insights and friendships I collected along the way.
It was my first trip to Africa, and it came along with what I assume is the normal amount of pre-departure anxiety. Like most Americans, articles on BBC and NYTimes.com chronicling disease, war, genocide—the bad stuff, in general—shaped my perceptions of Africa. So the week before I felt a rollercoaster of thoughts. At first I felt apprehensive to step foot into Ghana and travel by myself for the first part of the trip. Then I came to the conclusion that these were just naïve Western fears, and that Accra would actually prove to be a modern capital, not much different from other cities I’ve traveled through around the world.
I had to laugh though, stepping off the plane and moving through the city to my hotel, because the mental judo I went through prior to arriving really didn’t matter, I still looked around me and had a “Holy shit, I’m in Africa” moment. Tall, bespectacled, and freshly pale from the New York winter, I definitely stuck out. It’s a very interesting experience to constantly be aware of your skin color. It just doesn’t happen if you are a Caucasian in America. When I ventured to Kaneshi, the crowded and somewhat chaotic bus station in Accra, I remember wishing that I were black so that I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
In other ways, being a tall, white, and friendly American was the best part of the trip. Ghanaians would often come up to me and want to know where I was from, how I was liking the country, if they could have my email address or Facebook name, etc. For the first three days, despite my smiling face and earnest conversation, I had a hidden guard up. In the back of my head I wondered if this person was trying to sell me something, trick me, or rob me. Granted a large number of people did try to sell me something, most just were being really nice, in a sincere way that was totally foreign to a New Yorker.
It was this process of dropping my guard—of letting go of the fear and paranoia that is drilled into your head as an American—that was especially profound. My new friend and unofficial tour guide Prince was the catalyst in the process. Following him through the dark labyrinth of apartments in Cape Coast to meet his family one night, I finally fully relaxed and opened up to the experience. I also felt something akin to depression on that side trip to Cape Coast, realizing that I had met some really kind, cool friends right next to a slave castle. The juxtaposition of kind, happy Ghanaians and the horrific legacy of the slave trade was haunting.
There were many memorable moments that I should and will record: playing drums in a Rastafari shack, being awoken from dreams by a late night religious experience at the Pentecostal church next to my hotel, passing sinewy hunters selling bush meat, listening to “Like a G6” in Frankie’s in Accra with new friends, and so on. But I’ve been busy, and so I’ve only gotten as far as the first day, which you’ll find below. Hopefully there will be more to come.
The plane sets down on the runway, with a small terminal on the left and red earth and overgrowth on the right. We exit the plane and are caroled into a shuttle bus—it moves about 100 meters and then stops, and I realize that it’s only purpose was to drive those 100 meters, as there is only one terminal. Strange. I cruise through customs with surprising ease and stop by the currency exchange booth. I receive around $100 worth of cedi, and I proceed to awkwardly remove the off-white and conspicuous travelers wallet from my bag and stuff the cash inside along with my passport. Then I hang it around my neck and hurriedly place it inside my shirt. As I walk away, the wallet makes a sharp square bulge in my shirt, and I look like I am either forced to wear some hidden medical device, or I am unnecessarily paranoid about hiding money. I realize that it’s unnecessary to carry this ridiculous wallet around my neck. Another $10 to Conair for no reason. I place some cash in my pocket and put the wallet in my bag as I exit the terminal.
I soon remember how confusing it is when you exit a foreign airport. Taxi drivers rush towards me, and I move through them and spot a short, bored-looking man holding a card with my name. As the first Ghanaian I will meet, I greet him with an enthusiastic and hearty hello, but he is rather terse, and he rushes me towards the parking lot where a rusted minivan is idling. I realize that the card holder is merely just that, not the man who will drive me to the hotel, and another man with some kind of a eye ailment and a friendly smile soon comes up to me, and welcomes me to Ghana, and mentions the my friend the card holder would really appreciate the tip. I take this as customary, and hand the cardholder 5 cedi, which is far too much and could almost pay for a cab ride to the hotel.
I enter the minivan and my driver say hello, and pulls out of the parking lot. As we drive though Accra, I am suddenly hit with the realization that I am actually in Africa. There Ghanaians are on their way to work, and women are balancing huge containers of various snacks and beverages on their heads, selling items to cars and pedestrians that pass by. The thought crosses my mind that this might not actually be the hotel driver, and I could be on my way to getting robbed. How funny that would be if it happened in the first 15 minutes. This thought, along with general enthusiasm, pushes me to converse with the driver, who is friendly and randomly mentions a group he met from Tufts University, as if to quell my fears. I soon relax, and push the paranoid thoughts from my mind, feeling a kind of internal embarrassment. We stop at an intersection, and a young man in a wheelchair asks for some cedi while his friend tries to sell candy. I don’t feel obliged to give away money out the window, so I say, “no, I’m sorry.” The man in the wheelchair says, “Come on my friend” and seeing that I am not budging, his friend says, “welcome to Ghana…whiteboy,” and laughs.
I arrive at the hotel a bit bewildered, thinking for some reason that it is the afternoon, when really it’s only 8am. The man behind the desk tells me that I can either wait until noon to check in, or pay an extra $30 (more than half the room charge) to check in now, and I make the easy decision to loiter around the hotel until noon. I take off my shoes and put on sandals, which I will wear for the rest of the trip besides the four hours I spend in the rainforest. I feel a bit awkward sitting on the couch in front of the guy who is making me wait until noon, so I grab my backpack and head down to check out the beach. Once I reach the undeveloped little plot of land in the back of the hotel that overlooks the beach, I look out at the Gulf of Guinea and am stunned at how beautiful it is. The ocean surface is glassy, and the morning light is sparkling off the top of small sets hitting the sandbar. I wish I had my surfboard. Fishermen are launching long wooden fishing boats off the beach, and farther out they are padding the same boats up the coast. I take in a deep breath and feel the strong sun, happy that I am out of the urban canyons of New York City.
I soon realize how tired I am, and I lie back on the wooden bench overlooking the beach. I see a young man approaching out of the corner of my eye. I say hello, and he begins to ask me where I am from, as he takes a seat in the grass. This is Joseph, the first Ghanaian I would get to know. Joseph seems keenly interested in New York, American politics, West African politics, why I am in Ghana, and so on. His face is kind, showing a perfect scar under his left eye that I will later learn distinguishes lineage, as well as scars from acne. He explains how poor most Ghanaians are, and how me must work and work, but still seems to have no savings. Joseph offers to walk me down to the Osu Castle, and I tell him that that sounds great, but I want to check in to my room and shower first. As retreat back to the hotel, enter my room, and collapse on the bed, I can’t help but to feel a strong emotion, a sadness in my heart when I think of Joseph—how kind and genuine he is, but how he feels so beaten down by poverty.
I return to the bluff overlooking the ocean and spot Joseph by the nightclub that’s been under construction for almost a year. He speaks to his boss about taking 15 minutes to show me around, and then we walk down to the beach. The sun feels very strong; I am dressed in conspicuously indistinct clothing: white t-shirt, khakis, and a generic Addidas hat. I could be either a recent California-to-New York transplant who never bothered to do shopping in the summer, or an up-and-coming Ukrainian arms dealer. Either way, people on the beach make an effort to come up and say hello. Joseph leads me to a fishing boat that’s just returned from a day at sea. Men with tank shirts and built of nothing but muscle are leading the boat through the small surf, while naked children are playing in the water and holding on to the hull for a free ride. The fishermen’s expressions show neither annoyance nor gregariousness, but just a patient tolerance for a curious Obruni.
Joseph and I continue on and reach a large derelict nightclub on the bluff with a military officer standing in front. He speaks to Joseph briefly and informs him that we can’t go any further towards the towering Osu castle, due to security concerns. Joseph apologizes for this news, and says that they’re probably concerned about bombs. On our way back to the beach, one of Joseph’s coworkers spots him, and yells out from across the beach. It’s clear that he’s teasing Joseph for walking the beach with me, asking if I’m a “special” friend, and Joseph replies that it’s just his job, which is partly true, but partly a way of deflecting the jab. We meet Joseph’s coworker, a Rastafarian in his 30s. When introduced, I shake his hand in the normal Western fashion. As we walk away, Joseph warns me of shaking hands in that way with Ghanaian men—in particular Rastafarians–saying that I should instead offer a fistbump. I ask him why, and he tries for a few minutes to explain how the men that I meet could “keep a bit of me here in Ghana with them, even after I return home with my wife.” I am totally puzzled by this bit of advice, and will go on to refuse handshakes, be laughed at for it, be told by other Rastafarians that Joseph was trying to “mess with my head,” resume handshakes, and finally, once back in the States, understand a bit of what Joseph was getting at, but still acknowledge that the phenomenon has nothing to do with handshakes. At least not all was lost in translation.