So I finally made the long trip to Northern Ghana and the Ashanti region. It was quite extraordinary...some amazing moments and some rough spots. But all in all, I made it back unscathed (even if I'm sick yet again...cursed contaminated food/water), with plenty of pictures and great memories.
Monday: I left the house a little after 12pm to go to the bus station. The bus left at 3:30, remarkably only 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time. I quietly braced myself for a grueling 12-hour bus ride, but was ill prepared for the blaring Nigerian movies for a good part of the trip. Thanks to these movies (please, never, never, NEVER subject yourself to them, I repeat, never), and the riotous laughing of the passengers to many of the comical scenes in the movie (which unfortunately I wasn't "getting"), sleep was virtually impossible. But the bus was modern, fairly comfortable, air-conditioned, and made several rest stops along the way.
The arrival time in Tamale, the main city in the North, was slated for 5am, but we made such good time that we got to Tamale at 2:30am! This was much earlier than I had planned, so I ended up reading/shutting my eyes on a bench at the bus station. It was not a very pleasant start to the trip, and I found myself wondering what in the world I was doing in a completely unfamiliar area by myself at 3am. Luckily several other people were in the same predicament, and a police officer was nearby (even if he was dozing off), so I felt safe, although tired.
Tuesday: At about 6am, when it got light, I started to walk around the city of Tamale (aka "T-town"). It has a completely different feel from the daunting urbanization and modernity of Accra...there is minimal traffic since most people ride bicycles and motorbikes, and overall the city has a much more provincial feel (to paraphrase from the guidebook). I had an amazing breakfast of bread/butter and tea, which tasted so good you can't even imagine, due to hunger and fatigue from lack of sleep. I walked to the city center, through the central market, past the Grand Mosque, caught a glimpse of a brand new football stadium, and met a girl who took me to her clothing store where I hung out for about an hour. Somehow I found a library, a rarity in Ghana, that was cool, quiet and had a small collection of good books.
My next step was to board a bus to Mole National Park, about 4 hours from Tamale. Luckily I met a fellow traveler from California, so we passed the time chatting while we waited 2 hours for the bus to arrive. Even though there were assigned seats on the bus, and tickets had to be purchased before boarding, it was mayhem boarding the bus. People were shouting at the conductor and driver even after we finally got going. The ride was pretty bumpy and unpleasant but we made it to the park at about 7:30pm. I was able to get a bed in a 6-bed dorm for $7. It had running water and a ceiling fan, and taking a proper shower was a huge luxury for me!! I slept very well that night.
Wednesday: I awoke early in the morning and was greeted by a troop of baboons that live nearby the motel. Then I went on a guided safari walk which lasted about 3 hours. It was pretty amazing...it started slow, as animals were scarce, but soon I saw plenty of birds, including a group of huge vultures, warthogs, waterbuck (large deer), and 3 elephants!! I was about 200 feet away from the elephants, who went for a swim in a watering hole. I've seen elephants in the zoo before, but this had a much more "raw" feel to it. After a complimentary breakfast, I went swimming in the pool (this also felt quite luxurious). I met a group of 10 travelers from Denmark who had hired a car/driver and were going out for a safari drive in the afternoon, so I tagged along. On the drive we saw lots of waterbuck, a huge herd of buffalo (which apparently was a rare sight), and another elephant. Pretty sweet.
That night I relaxed at the motel. It had a very different feel to the rest of my time in Ghana, because I felt like a genuine tourist. Most of the people at the park were "obruni" travelers, and I met a man from Holland, 2 guys from Sweden, 15 people from Denmark (who were all super experienced travelers), a group of 4 girls from US, UK, Canada and Australia, and 4 girls from Germany. All were really cool people, but I felt a bit detached from them, because I've had such a different experience from the standard "tourist" or volunteer. But everyone was really interesting, and the group from Denmark miraculously was going to the same places as me on Friday, which meant I could ride with them in their hired van.
Thursday: So instead of traveling back to Tamale (partly the wrong direction), and then spending a night in Techiman, I got to stay at Mole Park an extra day since my Denmark friends were leaving Friday early in the morning. In the morning I walked 6km to Larabanga, a nearby village that has a famous mosque. I hung out with a friend I made the previous night (who's even mentioned prominently in my travel guide), and we shared fufu made from yams, played checkers (called "drafts" in Ghana), went to the famous mosque (built in the 15th century by a traveling Saudi), saw the magic stone, relaxed at a bar, and walked back to the park together. Later in the day I went canoeing with the Denmark crew, but the mosquitoes and dirty river water was too much for a prolonged trip so we only were out for 30 minutes. I went swimming again and relaxed that night at the motel.
Friday: Early in the morning I departed on the hired van with my friends from Denmark. We stopped at a nice waterfall and made it to the "monkey" village at about 1pm. In the village we took a guided tour through a forest where two species of monkeys lived: mona and black-and-white colobus monkeys. The monkeys have thrived in this village because the villagers believe they are sacred animals, and they even bury the monkeys with the same care as a human. The mona monkeys were friendly and some came down to the forest floor, eating bananas thrown to them by the guide. The black-and-white colobus monkeys stayed in the trees but were beautiful animals to watch. It was great fun but far too short: I would have liked to spend the entire afternoon in the company of monkeys, quietly observing them. Also, I got slightly perturbed by our group, who seemed to only want to take as many pictures as possible, then move on to the next "thing", instead of taking their time to enjoy nature with their eyes and not with lens.
Once again we got in the car and arrived in Kumasi, Ghana's 2nd city and capital of the Ashanti kingdom, at about 8pm. It was a long day of driving. I was supposed to meet a friend who would come from Accra and show me around Kumasi over the weekend, but he couldn't come due to money issues. And thanks to my phone inexplicably not working for 3 days (AAAAARGH!!!...it's maybe seriously bad how much we rely on cell phones now) I couldn't call some other friends of mine who could help me out in Kumasi. I ended up spending the night in the motel with the group from Denmark, and at first I was to be in a dorm room but got moved to a single room. What seemed like a nice treat ended up being a disaster: the single room shared a door to another room, and even though I was exhausted from a long drive I was unable to sleep due to my neighbors having a party until 4am, and very very loud noises coming from a nearby building (some strange religious gathering?).
Saturday: I woke up feeling tired, miserable, and unsure of how to proceed, since I couldn't get in touch with anyone to take me around Kumasi. I decided to bypass traveling around with the group from Denmark (they were leaving Sunday, and at all costs I didn't want to spend another night in the motel) and another group of girls I met at Mole who were also in Kumasi (they were leaving that day at 12:30pm, which only allowed 4 hours to be in Kumasi). So I checked out of the motel and went around myself, shouldering my trusty but heavy backpack. It was quite stressful at times, but also enjoyable. First, I walked through Kejetia Market, the largest open air market in West Africa. It was chaotic and hectic beyond belief...crowds of people push and shove in all directions to enter or exit the narrow passages just outside the market, and once inside it's a labyrinth of twisting passages, with sellers of all types of goods summoning your attention.
After briefly visiting Kumasi Tech, a university set on attractive grounds outside the city center, I attempted to get to the Manhiya palace. I must have asked over 15 people how to get there, and got all sorts of conflicting answers and advice. Most Ghanaians are, unfortunately, terrible at giving directions, and won't ever admit that they don't know where something is. Instead they'll say "go this way" overconfidently, even if they have no clue, or confuse you with strange advice. But eventually I met someone who was nice enough to take me via shared taxi to the place (even if she asked for my phone number after we got there, and called me several times that day), and I made it to the Ashanti palace. It was surprisingly low-key, and after I took one quick picture two security guards shouted at me that pictures were forbidden. But I did see several peacocks that reside on the palace grounds, and nearby I saw an Ashanti funeral where traditional dancing and drumming was taking place.
It was getting late, and I was getting tired, so I got on a bus back to Accra and despite the inability to sleep due to yet again blaring Nigerian films (did I mention to never, never, NEVER watch them?) and a 30-minute outbreak of shouting from virtually everyone on the bus (I'm not exactly sure over what), I made it back to my place at about 11:30pm.
Sunday: My relief and happiness at being home was tempered by sickness and no running water. In fact, in the evening tensions between my neighbors/landlord over the 6-month overdue water bill exploded into a violent shouting match. I think it's been cleared up, but this is one aspect of Ghanaian culture I will never understand: many disputes end up becoming shouting matches where no one really listens but just keeps yelling.
Today: After 17 days of no flowing water, it came!!!!!!!!!!! I filled up all of my buckets and am recovering from sickness. I'll be fine tomorrow, and I'll have 10 days to tie up lots of loose ends and make the necessary preparations for my departure on March 12. I'll make one final post before I leave. Can't believe it's almost over.....I hope you are all well and that I get to see you soon.