From Tamale we move to Bolgatanga, or Bolga, as almost everyone calls it after a few days. We go by TroTro, or “Tros,” as the Peace Core kids call it who are gathering from across Ghana for a 4th of July party. Bolga is known for its marketdays which happen every three days, which rotate between three villages of the area. Generally the town has a pretty laid back friendly feel to it, where if you look the least bit confused, someone will ask you “where are you going?” and then cross the street to help you, and unless you insist otherwise, will walk you to that place. But today it feels different, more intense. It could be the rain, it is the rainy season, and for the last few days it has been painfully hot, and dry, even the locals were suffering, but then a few hours before dusk, the storm that had been gathering all day blows in from the north. Huge blasts of hot dry dusty wind leaving the market traders scrambling to pack their goods before they got wet or blew away. No one minds the rain, it’s a blessing for everything that brings income into this area depends on it. Indeed this area is the breadbasket of Ghana, where much of its staples like tomatoes, okra, peanuts (or groundnuts as they are called), and cassava are grown, and without the rains, food would become very expensive in Ghana.
If you have seen these woven African Baskets at Whole Foods, or in catalogs, this is where they come from. Baskets are everywhere, and scratchy straw hats. They are woven from Elephant Grass that is grows during the rainy season, and then is harvested and dried to for baskets. In the lorry park we see ladies walking around with huge bunches of elephant grass.
About a 30 minutes drive from Bolga is the village of Paga, located on the boarder of French speaking country Burkina Faso. Paga is the home of the sacred crocodiles, where crocs and villagers share a relationship that is mutually beneficial. Stories exist that tell of how certain of these crocs have protected humans through the years, and in return villagers protect them in the Chief’s pond. In fact our taxi driver, pointing to the Chief’s pond said, “in there, there are maaaany crocodiles.” So you do not swim there, I ask. “I can swim,” he says, which surprises me as most Ghanaians are deathly afraid of swimming. “I can swim, but me they will not pursue.”
So Anna and I are taken to visit the oldest croc, they say 89 years of age, as counted by the stones. There are two questions we get asked by many people, the first is about my relationship with Anna. “Is she your wife?” is the most often asked, though daughter, and sister are close seconds.
The second question is about my age (50), and our guide, Al Hassen, tells me he is 55, so I am his junior brother. Al Hassen is the one that the guide books warn you about, to have no dealings with him as sometimes he over-represents himself and instead of seeing the eco-tourism site that is beneficial to the whole village, you see his family compound, which benefits him. Of course I don’t realize this until days later when I meet him in Bolga and I collect his contact information. He wants pictures.
I guess this goes under the heading of things you won’t see in the US, and frankly I’m a little embarrassed that we did this, it was so tacky-touristy, so out of character for our usual adventures.
The old croc, I didn’t get a name for him, hardly moves, and his eyes are dim. Still everyone approaches from the back and when we are sitting on him, or holding the tail, he hardly moves. There are two handlers on either side, just out of camera. I feel him reposition himself, the strength of moving that mass, belaying the safety I feel. This is indeed a dangerous animal.
The legend is that through out history, at least from the 1600s, crocodiles have saved the descendents of this town, be it while escaping enemy forces when a crocodile beat its tail so hard it parted the waters of the raging river, or a when a hunter became trapped and it was a croc who showed him how to save himself, or when a hunter became trapped between a lion and a raging river and pleading with the croc, the hunter was carried to safety. After each incident, the saved reaffirm their pledge to the crocodiles that none will be harmed, and years later that pledge is broken, until the town of Paga. Paga is the third of such towns started, and it is said that no person has ever been harmed by one of the crocodiles of Paga, and “human residents traditionally view killing a croc to be as sinful as homicide.”
[That blur you see in the croc’s mouth was a chicken moments ago]
When we are done posing with the old croc, a young chicken is tossed in his direction and SNAP, the old guy springs to motion, rising up to catch the poor bird, maybe 18 inches in the air. I figured he was blind, but that reptile can move lightning fast. CRACK, bones shatter. He flips the jaws back, CRUNCH, the bird, still trying to escape, falls deeper into his jaws, feathers drop out his mouth, he jerks a few more swallows and the bird is gone. He returns to his motionless rest, and as we walk away, his wife shows up, silently moving along the shore.
Next we see Al’s family compound, but is just a dusty old tourist trap that rather sours me on the rest of the day. We had hoped to see the Paga Pia’s Palace, but got this instead. Most of the time we seem to bless into good tours, seeing interesting things, hearing fascinating stories but this wasn’t one of them.
Anna and I wanted to visit Burkina Faso, the country north of Ghana, and this being the border town, I want to pre-arrange the visa, and see if it would even be possible. So we head to the border, and our taxi driver comes with us the whole way. Leaving Ghana, they wanted to take our passports, something I’m not inclined to do because I want to get a visa. I go round and round with the officer, and finally he takes me to the Big Man, who I go round and round with until he smiles, and says “You go come.”
I had not anticipated the language barrier to be a problem, after all, Anna and I seem to get along fine, but once we leave Ghana and walk the half mile of no man’s land, English goes. At the Burkina border we wait to speak to the official and it turns out the $35 visa I could have picked up in Accra is going to be $180, something I’m not prepared to do. So its back to Bolga.
Its been a hot dusty day.