Last weekend we went to Elmina, a 3-4 hour drive from Accra (really only 1 ˝ hours, the other time was spent getting in and out of Accra. Blah). We stayed at a lovely beach resort where we had our own 2 bedroom 1 bath bungalow. We arrived late afternoon Friday and so just swam in the pool and played on the beach a bit before dinner and TV/reading before bed (the hotel had DSTV (DSTV means cable TV) – 4 channels – with which the kids were thrilled). All day Saturday we spent in Elmina, which is a neat little town. (Really, you’d have to see it to appreciate how much I’ve come with my culture shock to call it a neat little town. But really, it was!). It boasts the oldest castle in sub-Saharan Africa, dating from the 1400s, originally built by the Portuguese and later taken over by the Dutch. Originally it was a trade outpost for goods (not slaves) but when the Dutch conquered it (it took 3 tries over 100 years) it became mostly a slave castle. We learned a lot about the horrific conditions in which the slaves were housed before shipment through “the door of no return”. Anna was nervous when he put us in a cell and shut the door at one point. It was an important history lesson for us all, although I think we were all a bit shell-shocked after the tour. Tough stuff. Then we walked up the hill to the other castle in town, on the hill from which the Dutch finally launched their successful attack against the Portuguese. After the Dutch took over they built a castle on the hill, to ensure no one else would do the same to them! Both castles are in terrible disrepair – literally falling apart. I was glad to see that UNESCO was supporting both of them with funds for their restoration, plus they were also collecting money there in addition to the tour fees. The kids thought it was wildly unfair to have much higher entry rates for non-Ghanaians than Ghanaians (10x?) but we explained that they are important sites for all to see, and a foreigner by virtue of being able to even be there would have more money to be able to help support the restoration (which was actively in progress in both castles). They agreed. After the castles we had lunch and then I drove Fox and Grace back to the hotel, where, believe it or not, they spent the afternoon in their room doing homework (the workload is substantial at Lincoln, especially in the higher grades)! Anna and Steve and I did a “walking tour” where we saw the Catholic church on the third hill of the town, the Methodist church, lots of “shrines”, and lots of local color (and smells). Elmina and the next town over have salt ponds where the local salt is produced – we bought some of the local (very coarse grained) salt at the market. It was clear that they don’t see a ton of white people there. We also learned (perhaps) that the kids are taught how to greet foreigners – I say this because most kids who chase after us call to us, “Hello Obruni, how are you today?” Usually the same exact wording each time. During our walk around Elmina we saw a very young child who clearly didn’t know what the sounds he was making meant saying “he-yo obruni how a you tade fine tank you” over and over, as if it was a rote phrase he was being taught. Interesting (and cute!) The kids love it if we will just give them a wave and a smile, or even shake their hand – it seems to make their day. I wonder if this is how movie stars feel walking around – it’s really quite strange to be so popular with people you have never met. As an aside, I have also gotten to know people on my walk to and from work – generally I see many of the same people, at first I was a curiosity, and often we would politely greet each other, but now I have come to be on friendly terms with two general classifications of the people – first, the merchants along the way from whom I have made purchases, and second, the, shall I say, people who tend to have alcohol on their breath no matter what time of day it is (as well as the less than mentally able, I would say). The few of these second types are quite friendly, seem to have a lot of time on their hands, and will often walk with me part of the way as we chat. I politely ignore or decline requests for my address or phone number, or “can I come to your house?”, but will tell them my first name, what I’m doing here, etc. I have learned that it’s not just a random set of people and houses and businesses I walk by every day, it’s a community, with all that that entails.
Back to our Elmina trip. Sunday we spent the morning on the beach – Steve and Fox and Grace spent hours (literally) in the water jumping waves – I did some but was more cautious – once I got seriously tossed around several times in a row, I took a break – so I was only in a couple of times for maybe 10-15 minutes each. I’m “in shape”, right? I was seriously winded after just 10 minutes of wave jumping – I couldn’t believe Steve could last more than an hour out there. Wow. Anna had an adventure that was somewhat scary – mostly she has not gotten in the water past her knees since the surf is SO STRONG here – but on this beach the undertow more pushed you toward shore than carried you out, so it was better. Also on this beach the sand was coarse and loose up toward shore (so you sank into the sand – no firm footing), then there was a trough that dipped several feet, also of loose sand that was maybe chest/neck deep, then farther out a shelf where the water was again just waist deep (getting deeper gradually as you moved out) but with fine, packed sand so you had a nice firm footing. It was on the “shelf” that we would jump the waves, but it was hard work getting to the shelf, past the trough – the waves were crashing and huge and powerful and working against you, so you had to “fight” to get out to the shelf. Well, Anna observed how much fun they were having jumping waves on the shelf, and saw that it wasn’t so deep out there (and heard about the shelf with firm sand, etc.) so she wanted to try. So, I brought her out – no small feat getting past the shelf, b/c she couldn’t stand in the trough that we had to get past, it was quite some work, with waves crashing on us, but she was a trooper. So, we jumped waves for a few minutes, but it kept shoving us towards shore, and I had to keep dragging her further out between waves. Eventually we ended up at the edge of trough, and as I was pulling her back in she said no, she was ready to go in. Well, I hesitated through a crucial wave and we ended up being tossed by a wave into the trough, with a close series of huge waves behind, and while I could have gotten myself out of it I was helpless with Anna – turns out the current in the trough was a bit of a riptide, carrying us parallel to the shore but also towards shore, but unfortunately into rocks. And, I learned, the trough led right to the rocks, no gradual sand leading up to them, so we were in trouble. Luckily the lifeguard and a Dad on the beach saw we were in trouble and came and got on the rocks (we were just on the edge of the rocks, not fully entangled in them yet) and pulled Anna out, and then I was able to get out. In my telling it may not seem to make sense exactly what the problem was, but imagine 6 foot waves crashing down on you, one after the other, a few seconds apart, while you’re in an area where you can barely stand, for a few seconds between waves, in soft sand, in a strong current with a 65 lb skinny girl who can’t stand at all, and you’ll have the idea. So, it was a valuable lesson for us both, and we got away with only a scary memory and some minor cuts and bruises on our feet.
Unfortunately, I got sick upon our return. At first I thought I was just car sick from the ride back – very bumpy roads for much of it, and then stop and go traffic on the way into Accra for hours. But, I learned later that I was not carsick, it was something I ate. I was up all night Sunday night in the bathroom. Terrible. I’m SO THANKFUL we brought medicines – both over the counter stuff and antibiotics – I don’t think it would have been possible to get any medicines on a Sunday night – the hospital would have been the only option. I was back to normal Wednesday and back to work even on Tuesday. Anna also was sick, commencing about 24 hours after mine, so she was home 2 days from school this week. But, really, it was the first time any of us were seriously ill, and we had the drugs we needed, so not bad at all.
The other big thing that happened on the trip was that I started driving. I had only driven around our neighborhood, not in traffic, up until the trip. But, it was too long for Steve to drive the whole way, so I drove the second half each way – into Elmina on Friday (so Steve got all the Accra traffic) and into Accra on Sunday – I must say I am not a bad Ghanaian driver – assertive but not aggressive, and I learned the limits of the Patrol and can maneuver in traffic leaving millimeters between cars just as well as the next guy. Again, you may not have such an idea of what we mean when we say “traffic”. Imagine the gates to a concert open and there’s no reserved seating and there are thousands of people funneling into one or two doors on the side of the building. THAT is bad traffic in Accra, and what we encountered both leaving Accra on Friday and entering on Sunday – people will make tons of lanes/paths on the left, right, middle, through the dirt on the sides of the road, etc., and then at one point due to a car broken down, or a merchant stand in the way, or tro-tros stopped, or an intersection, or whatever, they can’t get by in the makeshift lanes anymore so they all try to merge back into the one lane. Add a few traffic lights or roundabouts to the mix and jumble it all together. It’s amazing (and very tiring to drive in!).