Tuesday, April 12, 2011

East of Eden


I wake up early, on the floor, under Dean’s dining room table.  It’s hard to sleep when the heat is so intense and the sun is up at 6:00 am every day.  And besides, I’ve got somewhere to go today.  Dean’s house is a mess; Angela is going to be pissed.  Dean, a crazy ex-marine helicopter pilot whose day job is – we think – piloting the President of Ghana, J. J. Rawlings, around the country, and whose night job is alternately entertaining and terrorizing everybody at the embassy club, is back in the States for the holidays.  Angela is trying to look after his house while Dean is gone.  All of us Peace Corps volunteers found out that his house was available and free, so we invaded it like so many army ants.  Last night I was up late playing chess, drinking wine (where did we get wine?), and listening to Billy Bragg with Keith and Tom and Craig, and after we fell asleep we let the candles burn down until the wax melted onto the table.  Yes, Angela is going to be pissed, but Dean won’t be back from The States until next week, plenty of time to clean things up. 

I pack up my backpack silently, step over the still-sleeping forms of slumbering Peace Corps volunteers wrapped up cocoon-like in batik print cotton sheets in the slowly gathering light, and leave Dean’s house without waking anybody else or letting them know where I’m heading.  It’s just that way around here.  People come, people go, there’s no set plan, but ironically meetings and get-togethers are scheduled months in advance, because there’s really no way to RSVP or confirm reservations.  And I’m heading to just such a get-together; I’m going to Tim’s site in Atiavi to meet some friends, a plan made a week ago and unconfirmed since.  I hope he is there when I arrive because there’s no way to confirm, but I don’t really give that possibility a second thought.

It’s a short walk down a nice Accra neighborhood street to the main road.  Dean lives just down the street from the Cuban Embassy, which is sort of cool and kind of creepy all at the same time.  The Lybia, Iran and North Korea embassies are a couple of blocks away.  I feel conspicuously American, and far from home.  I consider that I would have an easier time getting to Havana or Tehran from Accra than from anywhere in the USA.  I also consider I might have a difficult time coming back to Accra from Tehran.  It’s said that the Libyans and the Russians own a lot of the nice hotels in Accra.  I idly wonder if they bug the rooms in those hotels as I reach the main road and stick my right index finger out, straight up into the air at each passing taxi.  Always use the right hand of course. 

There’s a code to picking up the correct taxi.  Finger up means “Accra” or downtown, in lorry sign-language.  Technically I’m in Accra right now, but kind of on the northern outskirts.  “Accra” in this case means the old center of town.  Most of the main destinations have special signs, for example a clockwise motion means “Circle”, which is downtown also, but another part of downtown.  And just to make things more confusing, most of the main intersections in Accra are called Circle-something, like Danquah Circle, Circle 37, etc., but there’s only one “Circle”.  I wonder what the sign is for “I don’t care, just get me out of this city.”  I think I’m suffering from Accra fatigue. 
The reason I have to make the special sign for my desired destination is so that passing taxis know where I want to go before deciding to pull over and pick me up.  And of course the reason it matters is that all regular taxis in Accra, and everywhere in Ghana, and likely everywhere in Africa for that matter, are shared taxis.   So if and when a taxi does come along to pick me up it will already be over-stuffed with other Ghanaians who are already heading to the same place as I.  It’s actually quite efficient.  But crowded.

It doesn’t take long before impatience sets in, and the suspicion that maybe I’ll be here all day, standing in the heat without a hat, waving ever more frantically at each dilapidated  lorry as it rushes on by, the stoic drivers refusing me passage.  Westerners don’t always really care if they are heading in the right direction; we just like to be moving somewhere.  It’s the movement itself that’s important, it makes us feel like we’re accomplishing something.

And I do move eventually, into the cramped environments of a lorry heading to “Accra”.  While I head south I debate my choices: Go to “Accra” straightaway and catch a lorry to the town of Abor right now, and be assured of a seat on the daily bus, or gamble and drop early at Circle 37 (I don’t know the sign for that one!) and grab some American-style breakfast and American company at the embassy club.  Aaah, it’s Africa; who’s in a hurry?  I decide on breakfast, much to the delight of my stomach and the annoyance of my wallet.  I don’t know where my watch is, which doesn’t bother me, or where my lucky traveling batik sheet is, which does concern me slightly more.  I must have left it at Dean’s house.  Never travel without a sheet. For starters, you can’t really trust bed-sheets at the crappy hotels us Peace Corps volunteers can afford to patronize.  Also they have a 101 other uses, from a quick-drying towel to a handy instant sack.  I get the feeling mine might be getting abused by Angela right now in her efforts to clean up Dean’s house.  It’s a fair trade.  Since Circle 37 is on the way to “Accra” I simply wait for an Accra-bound taxi to pick me up, and once in tell the driver to drop me at 37.  Smaller fare, too.

I enjoy breakfast with CNN on the television and more Peace Corps Volunteers looking tired and unshaven.  It is three days after Christmas today and pretty much all of the Peace Corps Volunteers have converged on the capital, lured by the promise of a home-stay on Christmas day with an expatriate family and a home-cooked American-style Christmas dinner, so the capital is just silly with us volunteers right now.  After breakfast I head back out to the main road, poking my white finger at the sky; “Accra”!   

A lorry eventually picks me up and I memorize the buildings on the way to main station:  The Dutch Embassy, The West African Exams Council, The Accra Theatre, Novotel (one of the Russian ones maybe?  Nope; French.  Très boring).  Nice places, all.  Of course interspersed between them are the lottery shacks and taxi stands and street-side hawkers of plastic bags of water, semi-peeled oranges, and cheap plastic watches, all hoping to sell off their inventory.  It makes for an interesting contrast between rich and poor, Western and African, as we plod ever closer to “Accra”.

Walking downtown is crowded, smelly with open sewers and strange foods, a place where you find yourself constantly checking your wallet, trying not to look like you just got to Africa.  None of the streets have names, and even if they did it would be meaningless because there are no reliable maps.  Everybody is selling something, with blankets spread out on the ground, offering a surreal assortment of fairly useless goods for my shopping pleasure.  I bought a small mirror here once, with a wooden frame.  I’d been in Ghana for four months before I bought a mirror.  I learned to shave without the aid of mirror as a result.  I still to this day do not shave with a mirror.  When I bought the mirror I was very proud of myself for talking down the price from 1,000 cidis to 600 cidis (from one dollar to 60 cents, roughly), but later I found out that I still got ripped off.  But at least I tried.

The lorry station here is enormous, with everything from small vans to gigantic inter-country travel busses.  This is a major transit hub and it is crazy.  The busses and lorries are organized by some sort of pattern, but nothing is marked.  I have to ask around for the bus to Abor.  Abor is the closest bus stop to Atiavi, but discover that the bus for Abor has already left.  Great, now what?  I guess I should have skipped breakfast.  But I really had no idea when the daily bus was leaving because there are no time tables.  The once-daily bus to Abor leaves when it becomes full.  But all is not lost.  I can easily catch a bus to the next large town down the road after Abor, called Aflao, and simply “drop early” at Abor.  Sort of like my taxi strategy dropping early at circle 37. 

So I ask around for the next bus to Aflao instead of Abor.  Everybody now assumes that I’m going to Togo, Ghana’s French-speaking neighbor to the East, because Aflao is right on the border with Togo.  So they try to point me in the direction of a huge travel bus that is going all the way to Lomé.  I politely explain that I’m going to Atiavi instead, which makes no sense to them because there is no reason for an obruni to go to a backwater village like Atiavi.  But they politely tell me that I need to catch the lorry to Abor, not Aflao, and then catch a lorry to Atiavi from there.  This, of course, was my original plan.  I wait with some diminishing patience while they check to find out if the Abor bus has left yet.  They don’t want to hear it from me, of course, even though I just told them that the Abor bus has gone.  They regret to tell me that the Abor bus has departed.  Saa.  I explain my idea about dropping early at Abor on the Aflao bus.  The lorry park people think I’m a little nuts but they’re not idiots – they can spot an extra fare – so they agree that it is an excellent idea provided that I pay the fare all the way to Aflao.  Agreed. 

Thirty minutes later I’m out of the city heading East through the dry Ghanaian coastal plain towards Togo.  I’m lucky – I get to sit in the front passenger seat of the bus, and I have legroom and space.  I can even roll the window down, something Ghanaians usually don’t care to do. I’m probably annoying all the other passengers by rolling the window down, but I really enjoy the fresh air and the breeze.  The Ghanaians and I just have different conceptions of heat and its relative comfort.  99 times out of 100 I’m the only one in the bus who is uncomfortably hot.  Now for once, I am the only one who is comfortably cool.  Let’s call this cross-cultural exchange.  I’m sure this will be the last time they let the obruni ride up front in the passenger seat!  And from the seat I have a rare uninterrupted view of the countryside as it unfolds east of Accra, east of Eden even?

But the road itself disturbs me here.  All over Ghana the roads are insufferably curvaceous, following their own form of ancient logic as they do their best to dissuade you from getting from point A to point B.  But not here.  Driving East from Accra is like driving West out of Salt Lake City, except that instead of a big lake on your right-hand side, you look out on the equally salty but much warmer expanse of the Bight of Benin.  The highway itself is straight, beautiful, new.  It’s so new and straight and nice it feels like it can’t possibly be in Ghana.  Who put all these straight roads here?  Africa just doesn’t tolerate anything linear, even from its roads.  But aside from the straight road, I find the landscape itself rather arresting. I retain an expectation that the coast of Ghana is going to be heavily forested, green and drooping, not this dry salty scrub plain.  And most of the coast of West Africa is like that, thick with ancient forest.  But for some reason the coast from Takoradi to Lomé is bone-dry instead.  A geography teacher in Accra explained it to me once, why it was so dry here.  Essentially this part of the coast is a sort of rain-shadow.  Storms and rain showers track along the coast from the West but get bounced at Cape Three Points west of Takoradi and go north towards Kumasi, or south into the Atlantic.

The ground is baked into a ceramic brown, not dusty, just hard heavy dense earth.  Old earth.  Pre-Cambrian ground.  There is vegetation, stout trees with few leaves and wide trunks, like pigmy baobab trees, with leaves like pale green leather.  Many shrubs, and in the occasional depression, palm trees, cling stubbornly to their dominion.  It’s quite hot, and not breezy.  This is the doldrums, for real.  No wind, no rain, nothing.  And that damn straight road.  It’s all very unsettling.

We cross the great river Volta North of Ada, and I begin to get suspicious that every town we pass will begin with the letter “A”.  Must be a Ga thing.  The ride is bland, ultimately, with very little to see, and eventually I pull out my book and read.  I wile away the time with Steinbeck, who seems to be telling me that people are essentially good or evil. I figure it’s high time I figure out which one I am before I get to Atiavi.  At least I’ll know how to act. 

Once at Abor I find I’m in luck – there is a lorry at Abor waiting to fill and go to Atiavi.  I instruct a small boy to save me a place and to come get me at the bar when the lorry is full.  I’m drinking cokes today.  The beer is usually colder but I’m not in the mood to drink beer alone in a bar today.  I end up getting into a heated discussion between two local school teachers and another two border guards about the new proposed school system.  Ghana has decided to move away from the colonial British O-level and A-level school system to something closer to the American system.  We all agree that the old system was better, but I ruffle some feathers when I predict that the new system will take 10 years to stabilize itself.  The teachers agree with me, the border guards do not.  They all give me their addresses and I lie and promise that I’ll write and visit.  I think I’ll be evil, Mr. Steinbeck.  I finish my cola and wait for the small boy, who somehow has problems finding the only white man in town.  More handshakes and empty promises all around and I am off in a taxi on the short trip to Atiavi. 

Twenty minutes later and I’m on my feet again, near a bustling market, next to a dusty ill-used and circular fountain, surrounded by reed mattresses.  Atiavi seems to specialize in the manufacture of these items.  I around ask for the “white man teacher”.  Actually I ask for the “Obruni”, but they don’t speak that language here, so I end up asking for my “white brother”.  That does the trick.  It’s a short walk through sandy streets to Tim’s house.   

Tim, Buffy, Leslie, Chip, and Jon are all there, sitting around, happy to see me.  Tonight there will be drinking and general silliness, but for now it’s just some quiet, lazy, pleasant conversation.  And Jon brought his Jurassic Park soundtrack cassette tape.  I’m glad I came to Atiavi.  I think I’ll be good.


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