I am an American, but in a way I felt that going to Africa was like a return home. Anyone who can trace any part of their ancestry to the North American slave trade came from some part of Africa, and since West Africa was the most accessible that is where the majority of slaves were culled. I usually have an idea of what to expect and how I will feel when traveling in another country, but in this case I just felt…unsure. Don’t get me wrong I experienced what I always experience when I embark on a journey to a place that I’ve never been: exhilaration, joy, anticipation, and a small amount of apprehension; a veritable cocktail of endorphins. But in this case, I was feeling like I was about to physically touch slavery and I had mixed feelings about that.
I wasn’t sure of the ATM situation so I arrived in Accra with ten $100 US bills in my possession. I had a few stops along the way, but hadn’t found a place to change money, so was extremely excited when I found a money changing booth on arrival. I thought the opportunities could be few and far between so decided to change $500 (a reasonable amount, right?); what happened next was beyond my wildest expectation. I was literally given a pile of money! The Ghanaian cedi at the time was exchanging 9000 cedi’s to $1US, so I now had 4.5 MILLION cedi’s in my possession. The money was bulked together with paper like I have only ever seen in movies when people are robbing a bank. I nearly panicked! I dumped out my backpack and quickly scooped the money inside, it BARELY fit. (I wish I had taken a picture, but was just too freaked out to even think about it). Just to put it in perspective the average annual salary in Ghana at the time was about $1100 US, which I didn’t know until well after the fact. An average meal cost 40,000 cedi, a cab ride was 35,000 cedi, most of my souvenirs were 30,000 cedi’s a piece, you get the idea. I was in a very poor country.
I was meeting a friend, the Worldy Traveler, who had made all of our arrangements, but she didn’t arrive! In turn we were meeting her friends, natives of Ghana. I had only met them once when they came to California for a visit several years before. When I realized she wasn’t coming I knew I was on my own and had to leave the airport. I walked out into the nighttime heat of Ghana and was met with a sea of people. I felt like I had a beacon telling everyone that I was the stupid American with a small fortune strapped to her back. I stood at the exit, unsure, looking for a taxi stand (yeah right!). It was then that I was approached by a man I vaguely recognized…maybe. He asked if I was the friend of the Worldy Traveler; I could have kissed him! Without question I left the airport with my Ghanaian champion, Amoah, he hailed a cab and took me to the Royal Palm Hotel. A veritable paradise.
So the cab was unlike anything I have ever seen. It was a beat up junker , with wires hanging from the dash (where the radio had been ripped out), huge chunks missing from the upholstery, the metal showing through in the ceiling, no A/C, no meter, and no door locks. I soon came to find out that all cabs were some variant of that first one. I would have NEVER gotten in that first cab on my own.
The hotel reservation was under the name of the Worldly Traveler, which would have been a problem in a more developed country, but in Ghana didn’t matter. I gave them her name, explained that she was arriving later and they gave me the key. I didn’t even have to give them a credit card! The hotel was beautiful. I slept like the dead, and awoke to find that my friend still hadn’t arrived. I had to make the most horrible phone call that I have ever made in my life. I called her family to tell them she wasn’t in Africa…
They thankfully told me, that she had called them already and would arrive in a couple days. Long story short, she got bumped off her flight and wouldn’t arrive for 2 whole days. Relief! I spent the day in the pool, drinking at the swim up bar, eating, reading and just watching the world go by and I was charging it all to the room. LOL!
I spent my first few days with Amoah and his friends enjoying the sights and sounds of Ghana. It is indescribably beautiful. The people are poor, but have a sense of contentment that I don’t see often here in the States from those living far more comfortably.
One of the most fascinating things I discovered was Ghanaian television. Our hotel only got local channels and CNN; I had escaped the outside world and refused to bring it with me so watched the local network. I sat transfixed. Every person in every show and commercial was black! It was shocking, and I was even more shocked at my own surprise. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was clearly expecting to see television like we see in the US, mostly white people with a smattering of color to give it diversity. Here there was no diversity at all and that was just strange…and kind of wonderful. Here were a people proudly showcasing their own, instead of emulating western society or just showing repeats of western television. I loved that they weren’t paying homage to the culture of other countries, but proudly displaying their own.
The trip was amazing and I got some of my favorite souvenirs while in Ghana, but I also got the closest to slavery I hope to ever get. You will have to read my next post about my visit to Elmina Slave Castle to get the full story.