Three in the morning couldn’t come soon enough. Walking out of the heat-encased hotel onto empty, breezy Tamale streets was a welcoming event. As dead as the city appeared, the street sellers never sleep. Women stretched out on their benches, drifting in and out of consciousness, with their torches still lit and mountains of bread loaves on tables for sale.
The bus station was desolate and the office for the Mass Metro line was still closed when we arrived at 3:30. Women walked around selling “toothbrushes,” or I should say, Ghanaian toothbrushes. These toothbrushes are long, carved sticks that they chew on and pick at their teeth with.
One egg sandwich and a cup of instant coffee later, the conductors began to show up. We entered their office and asked if we could buy tickets for the bus heading to Wa that morning.
“The bus is full,” they shot back at us.
“How? We came yesterday afternoon and they said we couldn’t buy tickets until today,” I replied.
Well, this is Ghana. This is the governmental-run bus system. They lie. They cheat. They rob you of your money and the last thing it is is dependable. They told us that we had to wait in line once the bus arrived at the station and hang around to see if we could get a spot standing.
And we did just that. Ghana has made me so much more aggressive in situations like this. Maybe it was my lack of sleep or that we were the first people at the station that morning, but I wasn’t going to let that bus leave without us on it.
We stood at the steps of the bus, money in hand, for at least an hour. People with tickets filed in between us. My backpack was on the bus steps. Various Ghanaian men tried cutting in front of us, but we weren’t budging. I literally pushed them back in their place.
The conductor came down the steps, about to take people’s money for standing and last-minute open seats. He looked out, Ruth and I first in the line, and grabbed a man’s money from behind us in the crowd. Still getting squished and thrown around, I held the money up to the conductor, praying for him to notice. He didn’t. He shut the door and the bus began to drive away. Ruth and I backed up in complete disbelief, now, four hours after we arrived at the station, and I cried. I cried angry, frustrated, hot tears.
“It’s okay Amanda. We’ll find something,” Ruth assured me.
I guess a white girl crying is the ultimate soft-spot in a Ghanaian’s heart, because not even one minute after I the water works began two different conductors were at our sides, writing us tickets to Wa.
Running after the bus, we started banging on the side, pleading for it to let us in. The driver opened the door and we jumped into the belly of the vehicle.
Once on the bus, we realized how… interesting… of a ride the next four hours would be, but I didn’t care. Ruth managed to grab an empty seat in the middle of the bus. I perched myself on a suitcase in the middle of the aisle, my backpack in my lap. And the trip began.
As soon as we turned out of the bustling city the surroundings drastically changed back into the rural Ghana that we saw on the boat ride up the Volta. Huts. Cattle. Barefoot children. Driving through the villages, the kids all waved to the bus as it carted down the orange dirt road, kicking up a tidal wave of dust behind it.
The continual adrenaline flow helped my mind to not fully comprehend that I was sitting on the corner of a suitcase, the handles in unfortunate places, with no back rest for multiple hours, and I stared out the window with my Ipod blasting into my brain. I felt like an adventurer. I felt free. I felt unstoppable.
When our bus stopped in Larabanga and I surged from the overcrowded aisle, I got attacked. No, not by a ferocious, man-eating lion, but by four Ghanaian men, hungry for a profit. Or so it seemed. They managed to talk Ruth and I into swinging by the “visitor’s center,” aka an empty room with several plastic chairs around a bare table, where the proceeded to tell us to stay in a center they built for children’s learning. By donating however much we’d like, they would let us stay in their house or on their roof top.
Something wasn’t settling right, and even after visiting the site and seeing that it would have been relatively safe, we didn’t feel completely okay with it. We left our bags there for the day locked in a room and rented a pair of bicycles to ride to the park.
And just like that, we were off. Not even stopping for a breather, it seemed, and it was absolutely thrilling. Steering my rusty old bike down the desolate dirt road towards Mole National Park, the sun beat down on our backs. I was covered- head to toe- in a layer of sweat. And you know what? It felt good. It felt good to be uncomfortable, to feel vulnerable and exhausted. Because I knew that one day it would eventually fade and I would settle back in my bubble of well-being.
Arriving at the park, it wasn’t what I expected. When I pictured an African safari, I pictured Kenya. Vast lands booming with elephants, giraffes, antelope and gazelles and lions. The park consisted of one look-out point and a pathway for a walking tour. We saw a few elephants around the artificial watering hole from the point, but by the time we got there they were gone.
Even though my dreams of befriending a wild elephant and riding away in the sunset on its back didn’t come true, it was still pretty cool. And not to mention, so worth getting out of the bustling city. The air smelled like country. Like nature. Pure. Fresh. Free.
In the Mole Motel’s office we spotted a flyer with options for the night. One was a “tree hide,” where you sleep out in the wild above one of the watering holes for just 10 cedis a night. We were immediately sold on this idea, and we rushed back to Larabanga to get out bags and tell the creepy men that we were leaving. After an hour and one overpriced taxi ride later, we were back, ready for our tree-hide experience. Well one thing I’ve learned here in Ghana- or just in life in general- is that there is always a catch. Always. So no, it wasn’t 10 cedis a night. Not after you pay the guard to escort you to the tree hide, stay there all night, rent a mosquito net and a bed. So that was out. We were without shelter for the night. And a storm was rolling in.
I think my favorite part of the week away was that night. You don’t get much more last-minute or random. During dinner at the staff canteen (The motel restaurant was to pricey. It’s just how we roll.) we met Magnus, a bartender at the grub hub. After talking for a while, I told him about our predicament- how we have to wake up at 3 a.m. for the bus, how the tree hide was a big dud and how we are, more or less, homeless for the evening.
“Well I have a room here. It’s just me and you two are welcome to stay,” he offered.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking. Sleeping… in a random man’s room… in the middle of an African safari… what were you two thinking. But for one, I usually have a decent gut sense when it comes to strangers. And two, it’s just that- we were in the middle of the SAFARI. If we stayed outside we’d probably get ambushed by baboons or something.
So we agreed and waited for him to close up the bar. We grabbed a pair of plastic picnic chairs and sat outside in the blackness. The sky lit up the surrounding fields with each bolt, illuminating swaying trees, the vacant watering hole down the hill and the emptiness surrounding us. Then it rained. Mighty, shattering drops of rain. We jumped up and danced in it for a few minutes while the Ghanaians huddled under the awning of the bar in complete bewilderment. Once again, crazy white girls.
“This is what I’m going to miss,” Ruth said to me, her arms raised in the air, twirling around like an eight-year-old ballerina.
That night Magnus offered us his bed as he unrolled a padded sleeping mat for the floor. After much protesting, we finally agreed. Lying in bed, I was about to drift off when Magnus broke the silence.
“We are all Christians here?” He asked. We confirmed.
“So someone needs to pray then,” he said.
And there, in a random bartender’s room in the middle of no where in northern Ghana, under a rainy sky, we prayed.