“It was the worst of times, it was the best of times”

On my About Me page, I alluded to the possibility of writing about my experience traveling in Africa – to add an entertaining counterweight to my more analytical rants and musings on the events unfolding on the continent. The following is a story about a particularly miserable travel experience that ended up being pretty rewarding:

A few weeks back, some friends from college, “Amy” and “Chris” passed through town. Over drinks, we reminisced about our trip to Ghana a few summers ago when Amy had a fellowship at a teaching hospital in Accra.

At the end of the summer, her boyfriend Chris and I joined her for a rather hectic 10-day itinerary. We’d planned to land in Accra and take an overnight bus to Tamale, which is a jump off point for Mole National Park to the west. There, we would go on a nature walk, where we would see elephants, antelopes, baboons, etc. We would then continue down to Cape Coast to see Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle before heading east towards Tafi Abuife and Tafi Atome. Our plans fell apart almost immediately.

Bus tickets from Accra to Tamale had sold out, so we decided to take the bus to Kumasi that night and then find a bus to Tamale from there. We arrived in Kumasi without incident, but for a variety of reasons (i.e., we couldn’t find the correct bus station, couldn’t ascertain when/if a bus was traveling to Tamale that day, couldn’t determine if/when the bus would fill up and get on the road before dusk, etc) we were unable to get out of Kumasi for the next day and a half. I tried to relax, but after a while it occurred to me that it was not meant to be for us to head to Tamale by bus. I proposed that we either skip the north and continue down to Cape Coast or simply hire a taxi to drive us the eight hours to Tamale. The next morning, we hired a taxi to drive us north, intending to catch a bus from Tamale to Mole that afternoon.

The drive to Tamale was like entering a whole new country; as we headed further and further north, you could really see the transition from sub-Saharan Ghana to Sahelian Ghana. When we finally arrived in Tamale, we stopped for lunch. Amy, who had spent two years in Boghé, Mauritania as a Peace Corps volunteer, ordered chicken and jollof rice. I ordered the same. I soon began to feel queasy, but shrugged it off as a side effect of being in the car all day. Plus, Amy was fine, so it couldn’t possibly be the food. (I think we all know where this is going.)

Soon, we discovered that bus tickets to Mole were sold out, so we hired another taxi to drive us the four hours towards Mole. I think in our rush to get on the road before dark, we disregarded what the travel guidebook said about needing a 4 x 4 for this road. Since we had been delayed two days, we were no longer able to stay at the Mole Hotel, so we headed to the Salia Brothers guesthouse in the town of Larabanga, a few kilometers from Mole. We had barely left Tamale when I became very, very ill. Use your imagination. We pulled into a gas station, I got myself together, and we continued on the road to Larabanga.

We quickly realized that there was a reason the guidebook said we should take a 4 x 4 to travel this route. The road was uneven, unpaved, and it was rainy season. There was literally a river running alongside the road. On top of this, we had hired a 1990s model Toyota Camry that was literally bouncing up and down the road because of all the holes. On top of that, I was literally sick to my stomach the entire four hour trip, and became utterly convinced that I was going to die. (This is a recurring theme for most of my travels abroad, since I get sick if someone even looks at me the wrong way.) And even though we’d eaten the same exact food, Amy was fine. For this, I still resent her to this very day.

We finally pull up to the guesthouse and the owner, Al-hassan Salia, comes out to welcome us. By this point, I am dehydrated and slightly delirious, but I’m able to mumble “Excuse me, kind sir. Where is your bathroom?” He points to a room in the corner of the compound. I poke my head in and see a hole in the ground. Yes, I know we’re in a fairly remote area, but can’t a girl hope for running water after being thrown about a car for several hours while vomiting into a plastic bag?

He then shows us to our room, but recommends that we sleep on the roof. Amy and Chris are game and start arranging their mattresses and mosquito nets on the roof. I take one look at the ladder I’d have to shimmy up and decide against it. Lacking the requisite energy and balance to hoist myself up, I see visions of falling to my death.

Instead, I pass out on the mattress in the room, and Al-hassan tucks the mosquito net around me. Some time passes and he comes by with some tree bark steeped in water. He tells me it’ll make my stomach feel better, so I drink it. Seeing how weak I am, he advises me against going on the nature walk at Mole the next day. But I’m like “Aw-hell-naw-I-did-not-just-survive-that-trip-just-to-miss-out-on-the-damn-elephants.”  So we compromise. Amy and Chris will rent bicycles to ride over to Mole in the morning and Al-hassan will hire someone to take me via motorbike.

The next morning, I’m still weak and disoriented, and my ride shows up at the guesthouse. I’m on the bike for a few minutes before it strikes me that not only have I never been on a bike (these were my pre-boda boda days), but I’m being driven by a 12 year old boy. But it’s okay because he’s taking me to see the damn elephants.

By some act of God, I’m able to make it through the nature walk and am finally able to consume solid food – peanut soup and rice. Amy and Chris return to Larabanga by bicycle and I await my chariot. To my surprise, Al-hassan himself shows up on his motorcycle. He takes me to another guesthouse run by his twin brother Hussein, and we all sit and chat for a bit. They tell me the story of how they started the guesthouses in the 1990s, when Ghana was transitioning to democracy. They saw this as an opportunity to improve the standard of living in the community, and sought to benefit from the concurrent development of Ghana’s ecotourism industry by establishing guesthouses, arranging tours of the town (including the Larabanga Mosque), and arranging meals and transport for tourists to/from Mole from others in the community. Revenue from the guesthouses went into a school they had founded because there had not been one nearby before.

Al-hassan’s son amuses himself while we chat

Al-hassan and Hussein’s children are at the guesthouse as well. I notice a particular sadness about Al-hassan’s son, who entertains himself by climbing on his father’s motorcycle. In spite of his sadness, I consider him lucky for growing up in a socially conscious environment with such a kind family.

We eventually return to Al-hassan’s guesthouse, where Amy and Chris are frantically pacing back and forth. They’d left me over an hour ago at Mole and had no idea what had happened to me.

Les coming down from the roof like a pro

Having summoned the strength to shimmy up the ladder, I’m on the roof setting up my mattress and mosquito net as the sun starts to go down. We hear the call to prayer in the background as the neon lights from the storefronts across the street flicker on.

A few hours later, Al-hassan is in the corner eating a fish stew. He motions for me to join him. I’m still skeptical of food at this point, but realize it would be rude to refuse. As I plunge my right hand into the steaming bowl, he tells me about the boy.

Beautiful sunset over Larabanga

He had been married to the boy’s mother. They had been childhood sweethearts, I think. Her family had pressured her to marry another man – I can’t recall why. His son had come to live with Al-hassan’s brother and his wife a few years earlier. I think the sadness I sensed in the boy was because he missed his mother.

Later that night, Amy, Chris, and I try to ignore the music from the nightclub next door as we drift off to sleep on the roof. We have a long journey to Cape Coast via Tamale the following day, and the bus departs at the break of dawn.

The moon and the stars are bright over Larabanga, and the sky is perfect and clear. I feel so isolated under my mosquito net, yet so connected to my environment as I think about Al-hassan’s hospitality, his family, and his role in the community. Had he not nursed me back to health, I doubt I would have learned as much about my surroundings. I’d been able to connect with a kind, remarkable individual and learn a little about his community as a result of this most miserable journey north. And I think that’s what made the journey worthwhile.

2 responses

  1. Loved it.

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