Three days after my arrival in Accra, I went on a road trip to a whole ‘nother part of the country — because that’s a reasonable thing to do shortly after you’ve just flown halfway around the world.
My sister-in-law already had the trip planned well before my arrival. Her parents are currently staying here, and she’d wanted to squeeze in some sights from Ghana’s more rural coastal areas before they departed.
Sure, she’d given me the option to opt out and spend the weekend resting up and settling into my new home, but when you’re offered the opportunity to go to a place called Cape Coast — with the transportation and hotel stay someone else’s treat — can you really say no? No. So I didn’t.
And that’s how I found myself a part of one crazy caravan. Picture this:
My brother, sister-in-law, her mom, my two nephews ages one and two, their nanny, and me packed into a Toyota Highlander, along with our many bags of luggage, snacks for the kids, a beach tent, and a cooler full of booze — including a couple bottles of champagne and two six-packs of Southern Drawl, a beer by Great Raft Brewing that my fabulously forward-thinking sister-in-law had imported herself all the way from our hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana.
And that was just the first car.
The second and lead vehicle was a taxi driven by our designated guide for this weekend adventure, Esenam, who goes by Miss Taxi and is one of the first female cab drivers in all of Ghana. Not to be outdone by our own overstuffed occupancy rate, her five-passenger car contained her two well-behaved, shy, mostly silent sons who looked to be in their preteens, and, in stark contrast, my sister-in-law’s highly talkative father who carried with him an arsenal of Southern stories that was bursting at the seams in response to the revelation that the car held a fresh group of listeners for his — er — their enjoyment.
Off we went on Friday afternoon. The trip down was supposed to take three to four hours.
In total, it took seven. Traffic was terrible getting out of Accra, due in part to construction and in part to God knows what. We sat with our cars in park for probably a good thirty minutes while hawkers walked by selling their wares to a completely captive audience. My two-year-old nephew took great pleasure in waving to each one who passed, unknowingly inviting them to solicit the shit out of this carful of Americans. (Though, to be fair, that probably would have happened anyway. And, also, my sister-in-law ended up buying a book for the kid, so it wasn’t like they were wrong to think they could get some Ghanaian cedis out of this golden goose.)
When we finally got out of the city, the two-lane highway revealed itself to be wholly terrifying. Cars and trucks passed one another with reckless abandon. Chickens and goats roamed the roadside, threatening to “cross the road to get to the other side” in a way that was anything but a joke.
I became convinced early on that were all surely going to die on the outskirts of Accra, and with each passing moment that conviction solidified into a certainty. One brave Billy goat finally went for it, jumping out in front of our car with no warning. I shut my eyes and shrieked, bracing for impact. When I opened them, inexplicably still alive, everyone else in the car was laughing at me. The goat had jumped right back. And they all seemed to have just assumed that would happen and all would be fine. Which was completely crazy…and yet, I envied that alternative conviction — the conviction that we would all come out of this unscathed and live to sip Southern Drawl on the shoreline.
I made a decision then and there to lose what shred of sanity I had salvaged after making the choice to move to Africa in the first place. Obviously, it was only holding me back. It had become clear to me that I had to go full loco if I was to have any chance of enjoying this place. Go big or go home, as the saying goes — and I had no intention of doing the latter just yet.
We traveled onwards. At a certain point, the paved road gave way to dirt, and the city traffic thinned out to a slightly more bearable level of congestion. In stretches, the scenery was either countryside or country village, though the villages weren’t like what I think of when I think of the word village. Not cobblestone cottages, but cinderblock structures low to the ground and mostly open in front with sheets or rugs as partitions in many cases. It was difficult to tell houses from businesses, at least to my eye. Maybe some of the spaces functioned as both.
I tried to imagine what it would be like to call a village like that home, and couldn’t. I knew it was highly likely that none of them had A/C, or hot water on demand, or regularly scheduled trash pickup — essential comforts for spoiled Americans like me. But it became clear pretty quickly that these communities cared a good deal about their villages, particularly about keeping children and livestock safe from the threat of cars speeding on what was to us a thruway and to them their Main Street.
I say this because many of the villages we drove through had created their own speedbumps. How, you ask? By digging deep potholes and dumping the excess dirt elsewhere in hard-packed mounds.
While highly effective for that purpose, these manmade speed traps were hell on our cars. It didn’t help that as it grew dark they were nearly impossible to see until we were right up on them. Not that it would have made a difference had we been able to see them better; their proximity to one another made them completely unavoidable. The only thing that could be done was to hang on tight and pretend the bumps were some sort of unconventional chair massage. (See what crazy can do for your perspective?)
And as it grew dark, a second threat appeared on the road — multiple police checkpoints. We went through no fewer than five. And though not every vehicle was required to stop at these checkpoints, they flagged down Miss Taxi every. Single. Goddamn. Time.
In her chosen career path, Esanem’s no stranger to adversity. It took her months upon months to get approval to join a Ghanaian taxi union — the men in charge kept telling her she had no business doing a man’s job, that she would be taking away fares from her male competition, that she should just quit and do something more conventional. But she persevered until she secured membership, and then got out there on the road despite the jeers she would hear from male peers on a daily basis.
She was a true professional with each undeserved police interrogation, though I wonder what the outcome of each might have been if she hadn’t been traveling with us.
Because my sister-in-law works for the embassy, their car has diplomatic plates. At each police checkpoint, the officers tried to wave us on through, but we stubbornly stayed and repeatedly told them the cab driver they’d stopped was with us until they finally listened and let us all pass.
Each stop was nerve-wracking. I’d never been through a police checkpoint in my life, and then it seemed like we would be going through one after the other until we got tossed into Ghanaian jail or until the end of time, whichever came first — and with each new stop the latter seemed a greater possibility. What security was having diplomatic plates, really? The security of an agreement between two countries? Everything I’d learned in history class and seen in recent headlines was screaming at me: Agreements can be broken in an instant.
Of course, this agreement held. As we made it through each stop without incident, my anxiety decided to redirect its focus from the now deemed unrealistic concern of being thrown into Ghanaian jail to the seemingly more likely possibility of contracting malaria on this third day of my trip.
Let me explain. Though I’d been religiously taking my malaria meds up until this point, the pill is supposed to be taken at the same time each day, with food. The pharmacist in the United States had been very insistent on both points. So, I’d set an alarm on my phone to remind me to take my pill at the same time every day — a failsafe plan, right? Wrong! When my alarm went off in the car, I realized I’d made a massive misstep in the execution of my carefully concocted don’t-die-from-malaria strategy: My pills were packed in my bag…in the back of Esanem’s taxi.
If we’d arrived at our destination anywhere near our designated time, I would have been fine, but because we were running so late, I was made vulnerable to this deadly disease. (Dun dun dunnn!)
And, unlike the city where mosquitos are not as major a concern, the Ghanaian coast is true mosquito country. Situation seemed dire. I needed to get to my meds the second we got out of the car, or I would surely contract the illness, thus ending my trip — and maybe even my life — before I’d even begun to fully enjoy myself! (Anxiety is such a killjoy, ain’t it?)
A part of me knew I was making a mountain out of a molehill, and so I kept quiet about my plight, lest my family make more fun of me, the apparent nervous ninny of this trip.
As we crept toward our destination, I continuously checked my phone for the time, counting the minutes that had passed since I was supposed to have taken my pill. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
We went on like that for what seemed like forever, each minute made longer by my mounting worry about what horrible fate would befall me if I were to legitimately contract malaria — until my two-year-old nephew revealed our true emergency.
Nico announced with much urgency, “Poo-poo coming!”
We frantically called Esanem, and she said we were in luck, there was a gas station just up the road. My brother flew down the highway toward it — thankfully this stretch was free of manmade potholes.
Goil (short for Ghana oil) actually doubled as a night club. My sister-in-law had been told it was the hot spot for Ampeni locals to be of a Friday evening, and by the looks of the neon lights flashing through the open door and the sound of high life music spilling out of its entrance, it surely was. But we weren’t there to enjoy the high life — we had bidness to take care of.
We pulled up, and my brother asked the gas attendant where the washrooms were. She answered his question with a question: Was for a lady or a gent? He said gent. And for this reason, we were directed to pull the car up to a half-built cinderblock construction to the far right of the gas pumps. The cinderblock structure was the men’s restroom. Alongside it, a handful of men were hanging out listening to their own music and either cooking or burning trash — it was impossible to tell by the smoke’s smell, oddly enough.
Eric got out with my nephew. Thankfully, the gas attendant saw their plight. My nephew the gent was, in fact, a little boy, who was terrified of the dark room he was being led to. She took pity on us and led Eric and my nephew back toward the main building back where we’d come from, and where there must have been a ladies washroom he could use.
Unfortunately for those of us still in the car, we were parked right in front of the bathroom with the headlights shining directly on it. Grown men went in to piss with abandon, not worrying a lick about the show we were about to receive. I took the opportunity to keep my eyes on my phone, tick-tock, and to wonder whether or not I could stand the idea of massively inconveniencing everyone further by asking them all to get out of the car so that I could exit the backseat, retrieve my bag from Esanem’s trunk, and take my life-preserving medication.
I’d finally decided the answer was, “No, I’d rather risk death,” when Eric and Nico came back. In true potty-training two-year-old fashion, he hadn’t poo-pooed at all. Little shit. (He’s lucky he’s so darn cute.)
We hit the highway and were on it for about twenty more minutes (tick-tock) before we finally made it to the road that would take us into the hotel, Ko-Sa Beach Resort.
It was an unlit, single-lane dirt road with tall grass on either side fighting to overtake the path. Despite the impending certainty of my death (or maybe because of it) I couldn’t help but cut into the oppressive silence that had overtaken our travel-weary group by loudly whispering, “This is where Miss Taxi turns on us.”
We all started laughing.
“And then we’re surrounded by her friends waiting for us in the bush!” Eric added.
“Any minute now…” I warned ominously.
We finally made it to the hotel, and when we parked, a team of men was waiting to take our luggage back to our rooms. But I had to get those malaria meds! Tick-tock, tick-tock, the clock was running out. Was that a mosquito I’d felt brush my leg? DEATH!
I found my bag, threw it open on the ground, and dug out the life-preserving medication. I popped the pill right there, using my last swig of water to get it down. And then a new clock began ticking…I needed food, and fast.
My pharmacist had told me in no uncertain terms that to take antimalarial meds without food was to basically ensure the most violent of vomiting spells. We were supposed to have dinner upon arrival and had ordered it from the car, but standing between food and me was the annoying song-and-dance of being shown our rooms.
I walked with the guide to my hut and tried to be patient as he carefully explained to me how to operate the very standard key, and to remain patient when he then walked me in the dark to a public restroom that I knew I’d never in hell be able to find my way back to since I’m terrible with directions anyway, and in the pitch black I could barely make out my hand in front of my face much less my surroundings. But this was all part of the process. I was in the middle of it with no way out, only through. Through was the way to dinner.
The tour ended at the hotel restaurant where we finally sat down to eat. The food was delicious and came with a much needed drink, both of which I, mercifully, did not upchuck.
It was finally time to go to sleep, and I successfully made my way back to my room, a clean, simple space with concrete floors and two twin beds equipped with mosquito nets.
Here are some interior/exterior pics taken in the light of day:
It wasn’t air-conditioned, but I found that if I opened my curtains, the screened windows let in the ocean breeze. Sure, my unobstructed view into the courtyard meant that any passerby could peer in and get an eyeful of this exhausted American lying in shorts and a tank spread eagle atop her sheets. But, in consideration of the oppressive heat I would suffocate from if I were to close those curtains, I opted to sacrifice modesty for the sake of comfort.
I was so exhausted from the journey — both my original one to Ghana and then this one to Ampeni so close on its heels — I fell asleep right away and slept like a log. At least, until I woke up to the sound of rain and the urgent need to pee.
As predicted, I had a terrible time finding that damn restroom, my flip-flops sliding in the mud, mouth emitting curses just as filthy while I searched. Eventually I found it, successfully relieved myself, and made my way back to my room — which I found right away, I’m thinking due to a combination of desperation and dumb luck.
I changed out of my soaking wet clothes and instantly fell back asleep, lulled blissfully to dreamland by the sound of raindrops on the rooftop and waves crashing against the nearby ocean shore.
I couldn’t wait to take in the view the next morning, and to see what the new day had in store.
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