The village name Busua means ‘I have overcome you’.
It is a small, quaint town with a deeply engrained touristic vibe. For a community its size it is odd to see so many hotels, drinking spots, and seafood restaurants (small patios with plastic furniture attached to someone’s kitchen) dotted along the shore. That is until you find your way onto the beach.
The long sandy coast is clean (of trash and defecation) and safe for swimming. Even more, Busua is a hotspot for watersports- chiefly surfing. Ghana’s long history as a destination for shredding waves first featured in the cult classic 60’s surf movie The Endless Summer. Today the torch is carried by a few entrepreneurial surfers from around the world. The Black Star Surf Club has got to be one of the only places in Ghana, if not most of the West African coast, where you can buy or rent surf boards and swim gear. Mr. Brights is another surf school and shop that offers relatively inexpensive beginner to advanced lessons. The small, slow rolling waves of Busua make it an ideal spot for newbies.
It is great to see that the foreign surf influence in Busua has included the community as much as possible in its success. Residents, mostly children, are given free lessons and use of equipment. A few young guys have even been sponsored in international surfing competitions. In a community of a couple hundred that is pretty gnarly.
We happen to spend a few very lazy week days in Busua- apparently more tourists come on the weekends. We have a thatched roof hut and an entire beach to ourselves at $20 a night.
It is easy to fall into the slow silent rhythm of each day. Early morning stretching on the beach and floating in the sea as fishermen cast their nets and villagers haul them in. A stroll down the main drag through the village for some rice, eggs and fresh fruit. An afternoon passed out in a hammock or reading an old worn biography of Thomas Jefferson on the sand. Delicious fresh swordfish cooked by “Daniel the Pancake Man” (who also boasts about fresh Lobster pancakes). A couple of Ghanaian beers as the waves break somewhere out in the darkness. We would sleep right there on the patio if not for the mosquitoes.
We have two days left and no qualms with continuing our lazy ways but the allure of a new destination has us pack our bags. The world is quite save the oceans breathing as we walk towards the cliffs at the end of the beach. There is a new member to our group, Lea, a German traveler back packing in Ghana for a few weeks. On the other side of that cliff we hope to find the village of Butre.
Halfway up the cliff we fall upon the “Lion’s Den”. Very cool but also kind of creepy. Not sure who frequents this out of the way spot.
We stop to take in the views from the top and catch our breaths in the increasing morning heat. Here is a shot looking back over the beach. Busua is all the way at the beginning.
After a short walk through jungle we emerge out of a narrow gorge in the red mud earth to this spectacular view. Butre!
Butre is a small fishing village located on a sheltered bay and surrounded by dense forest. The Swedes settled here from 1650 to 1652 as part of their attempt to establish themselves in the Gold Coast. Fort Batenstein (seen up to the left on the hill in the picture above) mainly served as a service fort and a safe haven for Dutch ships needing repairs.
At the edge of the village is a rickety bridge crossing over where the lagoon meets the sea.
On the other side we slip off our sandals and a short distance down the beach stumble upon the Hideout Hotel. Several construction workers walk by with cinder blocks balanced on top of their heads. We toss our packs down and ask to speak to someone about a room. A man in a weathered red collared Comcast Technician Supervisor shirt greets us. As he sets us up in the family suite I wonder who might have worn that shirt in a different life. Once again, the beach is all ours.
Exhausted from our hour plus trek between the villages we decide to take it easy for the rest of the day. Taking it easy is also our only option.
We know that it is our last day before heading back to Accra so we spend hours floating in the salty green water. We also head over to the lagoon to take a dip. No crocodiles are in sight.
Butre proves to be the perfect last stop on this mini vacation. The morning we leave I take some mental snapshots. I will remember these as the stress of the new semester kicks in.
Several hours and four tro-tro rides later concludes our journey back to Accra. We shower, we eat, and we watch the 1984 sci-fi classic Aliens as a last hoorah.
The next morning I see Winter and Matt off to Togo. It has only been about a week together but travel has a way of making people close, fast. From the great conversations we shared, to the excitement and rawness of travel in a foreign land, to remembering how important it is to relax when you can, I was sad to see the two of them go.
Close my eyes, hear the waves. Time to work.
But don’t forget to play.
I step into the front seat of the taxi. The driver’s English is small small (one of my favorite expressions here). Luckily he is only taking us five minutes to a nearby station so that we can take a much cheaper tro-tro down the coast. Or so we think.
On the way he explains to me that the station is closed because it’s Sunday. He says that there are no tros leaving to the junction we want to go to. I tell him to bring us to the station anyway so that we can see it with our eyes. The station is very deserted.
He does not stop but keeps driving, saying that he can bring us. I ask him if there are any other tros and he says no. So I ask him how much and he says 20. Inside I think that’s a great price but I know I always need to negotiate. I shoot for 15 but he only concedes to 18. It’s a small price to pay for what I thought was quite a distance away so I ask him how long it will take. He says about an hour after the first police check point. Ende is his name.
It’s going on a half hour and we haven’t reached the first police checkpoint. I am getting worried that this price he has quoted is very wrong. I open up the guidebook and look at the map of the coast. The junction we are going to is easily 3 hours from where we left. I turn back and talk to Winter about the situation. She agrees that if he keeps confirming the price as 18 then that is what we’ll pay. My gut says that Ende has messed up big time in our favor. I confirm a few more times that the price is 18, total.
Eventually we pull over under the shade of roadside palm trees and Ende reaches under his seat for a pair of shoes. He smiles as he puts them on and I realize that it must be illegal to drive barefoot. At the police checkpoint the officer looks into the car and then exchanges some words with him. Ende pleads and the officer lazily waves him on while looking the other way. As we pull away Ende starts laughing. The cop wanted 5 cedi.
A few police stops, failed bribes, and hours later I sit uncomfortably in my seat wondering how we still haven’t reached our destination. Ende has mentioned numerous times that this is a long trip in a way that tells me he is going to ask for more money. But how much more is what concerns me. I tell him that we will pay 25 if he brings us past the junction right to the hotel. He agrees and confirms that he knows the Green Turtle Lodge at Akwiiba beach.
Green Turtle lodge has been described to me as paradise. A British couple bought a stretch of some of Ghana’s most pristine white sand beaches about ten years ago with the dream to establish an Eco-lodge for visitors. Remote, gorgeous, and fantastic for the local environment and community, Green Turtle is a place where some people go to purposely miss their flights home.
After the junction it becomes immediately clear that Ende has no idea where he is. He makes a turn that I question but he says it is the right way. We drive through a couple of villages and are gawked at and taunted by the local children. The road eventually becomes a travesty. My anxiety is through the roof as the car scrapes across solid rock, dips into massive holes, and brushes past unruly bush.
Ende pulls over at the sight of every local to ask where the hotel is. At one point, two young boys on bikes tell him that the road is flooded ahead and we won’t be able to pass. We turn around and head back until we see two old men. They tell us the boys have lied. We turn again and head back until we run into the boys, who again, convince Ende that the road is flooded. We turn again.
Once we are back on the original path the road improves. We drive through the busy little fishing village of Dixcove, a sure sign that we are close. Encouraged by a sign that says “Where are you going? Green Turtle Lodge ahead” the three of us relax a little bit. At this point we all thought this place might be a myth.
The short road from Dixcove to Akwiiba beach is one of the most miserable I have encountered in West Africa. My chest hurts as I imagine myself in Ende’s position driving this heap one methodical foot at a time. His demeanor has changed and his focused face silently screams that he wishes he never agreed to this.
Paradise is deserted.
Green Turtle Lodge is completely rundown. The place where dreams came true is boarded up. I can hear the waves sniffle as they crash into the lonely white sand beach. Back in the car again. I take the backseat this time.
We don’t have a ton of daylight left so we have Ende take us to the village next to Dixcove called Busua. He gets us there. Winter and Matt check out the scene at Hotel Alaska while I figure out the payment situation. Since the road was so treacherous and we had him take us back to Busua I have decided to give him 40 cedi. That is 15 more than we last discussed. When I hand it over he shakes his head. The first word out of his mouth sounds a lot like 300.
All of a sudden Ende’s English completely fails him and he goes to the older gentleman at the reception to explain his plight. The clerk becomes the middle man, relaying Ende’s claims to me and my claims to Ende. It’s fairly simple. Ende says he wanted 200 originally and I say we agreed to the number 18 and confirmed it many times. The clerk agrees that 300 is way too high but also says that my price is way too low. He also doesn’t understand why Ende told us there were no tro-tro’s. There are always tros.
Ende is not leaving despite the fact that the three of us tell him there is no way we can pay that fee (and we literally cannot). He goes down to 150 eventually and we still say it’s impossible to pay. I raise our price to 60 and say that it is final. He is not satisfied. Feeling like I knew this was coming all along I throw in another 20 and notice a flicker of victory behind his eyes. I put the money on the front seat of his taxi. He grabs my wrist so that we can keep negotiating but I pull away. “It’s finished” I proclaim (an expression usually used by market women).
Ende made a big mistake or was outright lying to us from the get go. It was still a bargain price ($40 for a 4+ hour taxi ride) but we found ourselves in an unpleasant situation. Communication breakdown can be a terrible thing while traveling- we are fortunate for the clerk’s help and that it transpired as it did. It was a long, bumpy road to paradise but we made it safe.
Cheap street food and Ghanaian beer never tasted as good as this night.
As I peel my face off of my mattress I realize that it is already 11am. My body says put some food inside me or pay the consequence. I eat cold leftover jollof rice and start to make a mental list of things to pack. Another part of my brain tries to recall how last night got so crazy. Weeks alone on campus with only my books and research had me hitting the bottle hard in downtown Osu with two American friends. It took its toll.
I toss a few things into my orange backpack and vaguely reminisce over the fact that it carried me all the way to Timbuktu in 2010. It was an earthy dark brown after that trip.
The taxi drops me off and I reluctantly thank the driver even though I paid Obroni price. Winter (my friend from UVM) and her friend Matt are staying at a little hotel tucked away in Accra. Both of them are in their second year as Peace Corp Volunteers in the neighboring country of Togo. This week long trip to Ghana is their first vacation. They don’t look to be in as rough a shape as me this morning- maybe because I didn’t get home until 7am.
15 Ghanaians and us three Obroni pack into a small transit van with four rows of seats, called a tro-tro. Winter and Matt store their packs in the boot (trunk) and one of the station guys asks us for a 4 cedi luggage fee. I tell him we can sit with them instead and he smiles and asks again. I smile back and tell him that he is a “very dangerous man”. He puts the back of one hand in the palm of the other and says “I beg you” and I return the same gesture and expression. Then he smiles and calls me a “very dangerous man”. The false luggage fee is avoided.
It is a 3 or so hour ride to Cape Coast, where we plan to spend the night and tour the infamous Cape Coast Slave Castle the next day. The straight metal back of my seat forces me to lean forward, my forehead sweaty against the plastic cover of the seat in front. It’s been awhile since I traveled such long distances via tro-tro. This is Ghana at its finest (though not safest).
The sun has already started its descent as we pull into Cape Coast. The salty air, narrow winding streets between old colonial style buildings and sound of the ocean surf in the distance immediately relaxes me. The noisy-busy-dirty chaos of Accra is forgotten so easily.
The Baobab Hotel, just a stone’s throw away from the castle, was converted from a decrepit old colonial administrative building by a German NGO. It is staffed by local students of the program (often orphans) learning how to cater, cook and practice their English. They also prepare delicious healthy vegetarian meals, snacks and juices including tofu, oyster, and fresh Pineapple-Moringa juice. Our rooms are furnished with cane and bamboo furniture, batik bed sheets and three breezy windows with views of the sea. Tonight we treat ourselves to a pricey but healthy dinner and remind each other “it’s for the kids”.
Winter and Matt explain to me that Moringa is a cheap, easily grown green leaf super food especially beneficial for undernourished children. The illustration above shows off it’s impressive stats!
After two nights together our trio starts to solidify. Most of the conversation surrounds the Peace Corps, either through my relentless interrogation of them for the down and dirty reality of their lives or through their sincere praise of Ghana’s relative luxuries when compared to Togo. (For example: a movie theatre in the capitol, plastic spoons, and “thank yous”) I realize that it’s been incredibly easy hanging out with them and reason that it’s comforting to be around white people so adjusted to life in West Africa. They are Peace Corps hardened. Despite many of their frustrations with their experiences in Togo the both of them are still happy they decided to volunteer. For them, home is only 8 months away, but the sparkle in their eyes makes it seem like next week. A rush of American pride swells inside me knowing that we have such great citizens around the world representing America.
We wake up early and set out in Cape Coast Castle led by an unofficial tour guide- me. Being my third time to the site I feel relatively steeped in its history (but mostly it just beats being herded around by a legit guide). Originally built by the Swedes as a timber and gold trading post this structure became one of the grimmest sites of the trans-Atlantic slave trade out of West Africa. It was converted to a castle by the Dutch in 1650, then expanded by the Swedes in 1652 and captured by the British in 1664. Crowded, dank dungeons were carved out underground and used to hold slaves before they were loaded onto ships and sold in the America’s. It is amazing how beautiful something so haunting can be.
This is known as the “gate of no return”, the last door slaves walked through before a long arduous journey by wooden ship across the Atlantic.
Today it opens up to the sight of dozens of long, brightly colored fishing boats, their trademark flags fluttering in the ocean wind. The fisherman sit nearby, busy concentrating on repairing the sea foam green nets that feed the town.
We are still digesting the castle experience as we check out of the hotel and hop into a taxi. The plan is to make our way a few more hours to one of the nicest beaches in Ghana, Akwiiba. None of us have the slightest clue that we will be in this taxi for the rest of the day…
In my first blog post I talk about the moment the hour glass turned over and this adventure in Ghana began. Four months later I have successfully finished my first semester of graduate school.
This time I am not surprised at all when I exit the plane onto the runway, get herded onto a small buss, and driven to customs. I have my documents in order and my Non-citizen resident card in hand (alas it serves no purpose other than making the government more money) and I quickly make it through the line. The customs officer wishes me a happy new year in Twi- “Afeyiah pa”. I learn it quickly. Before I know it I am back in my dorm room, sweating profusely.
I go to change into lighter wear and feel the last of the trapped bitter winter cold escape out of my luggage. I am back in Ghana. The sand pours on.
It is a new year and I am ready to milk the next seven months for everything they are worth.
I have a month until classes begin. I suppose it is no more surprising that classes are yet to be chosen than it is that no grades for the first semester have been posted. I never did like grades though.
These are a few of the things on my agenda for this semester:
1) Get started on my thesis early (Political Culture and Democratic Habits in Ghana)
2) Co-found an Environmental Club at the University with a friend in the Natural Sciences
3) Visit the Ayombil family up north and thank them again for the greatest Ghanaian buddy
4) Get my department more involved with the graduate senate
5) Start a more serious undertaking of the Twi language
6) Remember to relax and travel outside campus
7) And when I can, make art
I come home with no real plan, no car, and no working phone. In a lot of ways that makes me more pathetic than most high school kids, let alone in a position to be a good friend.
Despite this I am able to meet up, catch up, and enjoy the company of so many of the people I consider my extended family. If putting up with my last minute crap doesn’t make a friend, what does?
From a one night pit stop in Burlington jam packed with Switchback, tequila, Jaeger, long islands and of course, center stage dancing at Metronome-
To a crispy cold morning hike through the woods of New Jersey with two friends home for the holidays from their own great adventures out West-
To an epic New Year’s Eve started in Jersey City, celebrated in New Yorks Gotham Hall, and spent in the company of (and funded by) some of my oldest friends.
To finally ending up on my back porch hours before my return flight eating ice cream sandwiches in the snow with a friend who twice now has seen me off to Africa. This time presenting me with departing gifts of deodorant and garlic powder none the less!
(Picture was lost in second computer crash unfortunately)
You all made every moment of being home so special.
Not one of these people did I spend enough time with or catch up with nearly as much as I should have, but every single one I am glad to have seen at all.
My guard comes down around you all (and not just when the booze is flowing, though that opens up all kinds of additional fun).
I never feel more myself than in the company of good friends.
Seeing where everyone is at this point in their lives, where they live, who they are daily becoming (when the hell did we cross over into adulthood?) and witnessing the enormous potential that lies ahead in 2014 is nothing short of inspiring. I would not be where I am today without the encouragement, faith and abundance of laughs that you have given me over the years.
For that and so much more, thank you.
All of you deserve 2014.
I’ll meet you again halfway.
When the last of the family leaves it dawns on me that my stomach is not just digesting- it is in a full-fledged civil war with my body.
Four months in Ghana and I am fine. Two days in America and I am curled up in a ball.
The treacherous gastro-intestinal virus keeps me wrapped around a toilet for the better part of the night. At 3 am the brightly lit Emergency Room, two IV’s, and no longer having a 102.7 fever feels heavenly.
We miss our morning flight to spend Christmas in Canada.
After some medicine and rest we load up the van and hit the road north. The Claeys clan always prevails.
Nine hours later I wake up as the van slows and I hear the slight crunch of snow under the rubber wheels. I might have been delirious several hours ago, but the Old Quebec City that now surrounds me is like a European fairytale. I cock my head back to look up at the tallest towers of the massive brick castle looming above.
“That’s the Chateau Frontenac. That’s our hotel!” exclaims my Ma with glee.
Over the next few days we bundle up and brave the cold as we wander about the city. The uneven brick roads wind here and there between buildings that make old Boston seem modern. Every shop, restaurant and house warrants a plaque out front elucidating its history. Or at least the inner nerd in me wishes that they did.
Christmas morning we attend mass at the Notre Dame. It is the oldest Catholic Church in North America. The sermon is entirely in French but I kind of like it. It is very bon apetit.
This door signifies how important this church has been historically for Catholicism’s reach in North America and will soon be shut forever. People line up outside to walk through one at a time in a symbolic act of crossing over into the church. Yesterday, before I knew any of that I opened the door from the inside, felt the piercing cold sting my cheeks, and quickly heaved it shut. A nearby priest smiled a sad French smile at me.
Christmas dinner is a tasty buffet- lobster, salmon, smoked meats, sushi, London broil, and more. But most importantly, the four of us are together for the first time in months.
The sky is bright blue today and we all decide that a horse and carriage ride will be a great way to see more of the city. Bundled up, a blanket covering our laps, and our toes frozen through boots and socks we find out from our driver that clear skies means an even colder day.
However, the driver turns out to be a 20 year veteran of Quebec carriage rides. We are pulled along by his horse named Cocotte. He translates this as a name for a prostitute but later a female bartender tells me that it is an endearing name a grandfather might call his granddaughter. Odd.
Despite this, I don’t think we could have had a better tour guide and he helps satisfy all the curiosity Old Quebec stirs in me. Eventually we can feel our toes again.
By the end of the trip I cease to be on antibiotics and triumphantly raise a glass of beer to join in on the first Claeys family cheers.
Don’t always believe what the camera captures. This day is nothing but outrageous fun.
We walk around, gawk at old buildings, sit in church, overeat and drink to our health but the best moments are short and simple. Four months of catching up on life and laughs. I love these people.
Years of serving French Canadians in Vermont has left me jaded when it comes to anything to do with Quebec.
But this really is a wonderful city and a Christmas that I will not forget.
At 4 am the cold world outside the windows of the air train from JFK to Brooklyn looks completely abandoned.
When I packed up and flew to Ghana four months ago I did not anticipate seeing this winter. But here I am with a duffle bag between my legs and dead green presidents back in my pocket.
My wool hiking socks itch inside my woven leather boat shoes. My second pair of pants rides up my waist. My black sweater reads “Make Fufu, Not War” and conceals the fact that I am actually wearing a three piece linen suit. With my tan suit jacket over the sweater I feel like I belong in a lame 80’s music video. The cheap, flashing green and red lit Santa hat that I impromptu bought in 90 degree heat traffic the day before really ties the outfit together.
But I feel completely normal.
Even at this time in the morning catching awkward looks from New Yorkers on the A train through Brooklyn hardly feels strange. I get the same looks no matter what I wear in Ghana. I feel both common and spectacle. In a peculiar way, this is the perfect welcome transition home.
The next day I am surrounded by the people I love most- my family.
I might have missed the Oktoberfest but today I get to drink the last few remaining good German beers. I may have missed Thanksgiving but the honey glazed ham smells just as good as any turkey ever has.
I answer questions and ask my own. I shake hands and hold on a second more during hugs.
The sound of familiar laughs echo off of familiar walls and it sinks in- I am home.
A 25th cake is placed before me and my family purposely sings me the most dreadful rendition of happy birthday that they possibly can.
As I blow out the candles I consider my wish already granted.
Thanks for bringing me home Ma and Pa.
You have given me the world.
Between the end of the semester and finals, traveling over the holidays, and a twice crashed laptop I have fallen short on keeping up my blog.
Here’s to looking forward to the adventures of a new year.
(This was a birthday present from a friend. Traditional wear in Northern Ghana. So comfortable.)
Hopefully the following pictures will help you to find it in your heart to forgive me.
Finding Ben and Jerry’s in Ghana was a surprise. Finding “The Vermonster” blew my mind.
I felt bad leaving Joe for two weeks over the holidays so I shared my pint with him.
He is now officially a fan of maple syrup.