Escape from Africa!
The universe tends to unfold as it should. That's kind of been our running slogan for our last couple of weeks in Africa. It's like we've been given one last crash course in African patience and fatalism. You know...just to make sure we got it.
The original plan was something along the lines of getting to Cotonou, Benin on Wednesday night (the 19th of March), go to the Ghanaian Embassy on Thursday and apply for visas hoping to get them either that day or Friday. We were then going to spend a day or two in Grand Popo, Benin before zooming on to Ghana to relax on the beach and eat good food and drink good beer until we fly out of Accra on the 28th. There were also some waterfalls and hikes we wanted to go see on the way. That was the original plan.
So we get on the bus at about 2:30am Wednesday morning and of course it was not the air conditioned one with good shocks but rather a refugee from the seventies. Needless to say the ride was less than enjoyable. There were several roads that were so bad that we were literally tossed out of our seats. Atleast we didn't have to watch the same awful Hausa videos the whole way down. Eventually we made it to Benin, got our hotel, and started to feel better about the trip as we planned to go get our visas for Ghana the next day.
Cue the first SNAFU. Yeah, we kind of forgot about the fact that Ghana is a Christian nation. They actually care about that whole Easter holiday thing. They care about it to the tune of a 4.5 day weekend starting thursday afternoon in fact. So there was no way we could collect our visas until the following Tuesday. This essentially killed Ghana as a site seeing excursion, as our flight was on Friday morning. At best we could get maybe one full day that we could either go to the beach and feel rushed, or just chill in Accra. We were not pleased.
But, when life hands you lemons. We suddenly found ourselves with 4 days to spend in Grand Popo where we could not be productive even if we wanted to. We couldn't do anything until Tuesday. It was like enforced relaxation and I think it was exactly what we needed. Those four days with the A-team and Djimi were probably some of the most enjoyable days I've had in Peace Corps. We celebrated Easter by going to the Lion Bar, which is run by this big happy rasta guy. We showed up and ordered a round of sodabi (distilled palm wine) shots to toast our completed service. When the rasta saw us do our toast he gave us the rest of the sodabi bottle for free. Djimi and I proceeded to get absolutely wrecked. We're convinced the rasta was trying to kill us with sodabi. Luckily we met some friendly Benin volunteers who helped us carry Djimi back to the hotel. I was at-least capable of carrying myself...barely.
Fast forward to Tuesday. The girls left us on Monday to go to Lome, Togo to try to get their Ghana visas. Djimi and I returned to Cotonou on Tues morning hoping to collect our visas and then go to the SNTV bus station and take that night's bus to Accra, getting there sometime the following morning. Well...we get our visas, no problem. But there's no bus on Tuesday night. Learning this, we went and got lunch while we weighed our options.
Here was our situation: It was Tuesday and we were in Cotonou, Benin. We had to be in Accra, Ghana by 4am Friday. The next bus would leave around 11pm wednesday night and get to Accra by around 10am Thursday. Do we wait? Do we ditch the bus and go find bush taxis? We knew the bus line was relatively reliable and it had the advantage of getting us to the SNTV station in Accra where we had some bags waiting for us that we had shipped ahead. If we took the public transportation we would have to find the station once in Accra. Also, when we thought of public transport, the Nigerien bush taxis are what came to mind, which are not at all reliable and it seemed like that would just be a very stressful way to travel. Once on the bus we just let it go and hope it doesn't break down. Even if it did, we still had over 12 hrs worth of delay time before we would miss our flight. So...we chose to wait in Cotonou until Wednesday night and take the bus.
We showed up at the SNTV station in the afternoon after checking out of our hotel, and killed the day doing some laundry and hanging out speaking Zarma with all the Nigeriens there. Around 9:45 the bus shows up from Niamey. Sure enough it's the shitty seventies bus again. Oh well, we can cope with that. Oh yeah, and it's broken. Won't go until the morning. Argh! Well, we were still hopeful that maybe it would be fixed quickly in the morning. Being the hard core PCV's we were we said screw it and just slept at the station. They atleast had mattresses for that purpose. However, it wasn't much of a sleep as there were lights, and people milling about, and we were just sleeping exposed on the ground. So that's where the lack of sleep began.
The next morning, we awoke around 7. The mechanic didn't show up until about 7:45. Now, we thought about going and taking bush taxis...but all of our CFA was tied up in the bus tickets, cause we had changed all our money to pounds and cedis the day before. So we hung around waiting to see if they could get the bus fixed. Around 9am they got it started and told everyone to get on the bus. Excitedly we did so and felt so relieved, knowing we were going to catch our flight.
Ten minutes later everyone is getting off the bus. Something went wrong and now they needed to wait for the mechanic to go buy a new part or something. What made the whole morning really hard was that at no point did it not seem like they were on the verge of fixing the bus. So we were never able to convince ourselves to go ask for a refund and run to the bush taxis. Also, the bus had inevitability on it's side. We had no clue really about the bush taxis in this country, but if we waited long enough, the bus would get us there.
So we waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, after some cheap lunch across the street, someone finally told us that the bus was not going to run that day, but that we could wait until the next one came from Niamey that night. Sorry, that just wasn't going to work, we had a flight to catch. But we were already pretty sure it was too late to catch a car that would get us to Accra in time. At this point we were resigned to the fact that we would miss our flight have to eat the cost of another ticket. Or so I thought, until I'm coming out of the toilet and Djimi flags me over. Apparently this big Nigerien guy who lives in Ghana is going to go get a bush taxi, cause he doesn't want to wait either. Turns out if we left right then (aobut 2pm) we would get to Accra around 8 or 9. Brilliant! Let's go!
So we follow our new friends to the bush taxi post, and they hire a car for only 4 of us (yes! extra comfort!) that will take us to the Togo, Ghana border. On the other side we'd have to find another car to get us to Accra. Suddenly we went from absolutely missing our flight to having a comfortable ride, and a guide to get us through the borders and hopefully find the bus station at the other end. The universe...
So began our mad dash through 3 countries to catch our flight. The ride through Benin and Togo was actually quite nice and largely uneventful. Almost relaxing even. The Ghanaian border, however was less nice. It was easily the most complex, bureaucratically to get through. Also, the Ghanaian side was awful. It was like the worst market in Niger, except that we were not familiar with it. We lost our friend going through, and so had to find a car on our own, loaded with all our stuff, while people constantly came up to us and harassed us about their car, or grabbed at us. Mostly it sucked because it was impossible to stop and collect ourselves and figure out what we needed to do.
There was one guy who we sort of ended up following. One of the unpleasant side effects of being a PCV in Niger is that it makes you, by default, untrusting of anyone trying to help you. Or at least that's what it's done to me and Djimi. Invariably, once they finish helping you they will demand compensation. It doesn't matter that you didn't ask for their help. So we were loath to actually commit to letting this guy lead us around. But after turning down several offers for bush taxis at prices we knew to be inflated (Genghis had warned us of what it should cost), the guy asked us how much we wanted to pay and then he found us a car for that price. He even asked us where in Accra we wanted to go and seemed to be setting us up to end up near the SNTV station. Once he turned out to be trust worthy we gave him some of our remaining CFA (we needed our cedis now that we were in Ghana) and felt bad for not trusting him.
Ghanaian bush taxis, way nicer than Nigerien ones. For one, they actually enforce the 4 person per seat standard. They are also in much better repair than the ones we were used to. The roads however, were about on par with Niger. So it was not the most relaxing ride, but it was going to get us there. We didn't get to see much of the Ghanaian country side as at this point we were traveling after dark (something we were not supposed to do as a PCV, heh). Though we did get stopped many times by police. At one stop they actually pulled us out and checked our passports. Turned out they just wanted to document us passing through. The guy was also very friendly and nice. Again...the universe tends to unfold...so I figured I'd give something a try. I asked the guy if he knew where in Accra we could find the SNTV bus station. He told us that if we just stayed on our bush taxi until the last stop we would be in the neighborhood and should be able to ask the locals. Fantastic! I knew we had been pulled out at that stop for a reason.
Accra is rediculous. As we road through we could not help but look with dropped jaws. It is a real city. I can't even really begin to describe how much it is not like Niamey. It had highways, and overpasses, and pizza places, and a mall! We saw an add for an honest to god shopping mall! Irikoy Bere!
Anyway, eventually we go through all the nice built up districts and end up in a quarter that looks a little more like what we were expecting. Still nicer than Niger, but looking more like an African town with street sellers and people carrying stuff on their heads and lots of taxis trying to get us to take them. We oddly felt more comfortable. But...it was also 10:30 at night and we had to find a Nigerien bus line in a town we didn't know. So we started asking. Eventually, despite our best efforts we picked up a guide who wanted us to follow him.
Now, we knew full well that we were blatant targets. Two white guys with lots of bags, clearly not knowledgeable about the area. Totally dependent on someone helping us. But we didn't really have any other option. It was in Allah's hands at this point. And we started to get worried when our guide started leading us into what was clearly a market that was closed up for the night. As a rule, a market after dark is probably one of the least safe places you can go in an African capital city. But...again we were out of options and running out of time. So we swallowed the lumps in our throats and carried on.
Our guide stopped to ask a bunch of guys sitting around eating dinner if they knew where the SNTV station was. What was that greeting I heard? Was that a fofo? Ha! They were Zarmas! As soon as Djimi and I were speaking Zarma with these guys we felt one hundred percent safe. We had instant friends and they would take care of us. I love that about West Africa. Even though the station would be closed for the night they knew the guy who could open it. When we got to the station, it turned out they were actually open cause they were waiting for the same bus that we had been waiting for that morning (was that really the same day, insane). We told them our situation, that we needed our bags that night, and they called the boss with the key to the office and he came and let us in. There was a brief moment off panic as our bags were not in the office, but then they took us to another room and we found them. Alhumdulilahi!
After further chatting with the Zarmas they asked us how we were getting to the airport. We said by taxi. They told us we should not do that because a lot of the taxis on the road at that hour would just take us to their friends and clean us out. So they found one of their friends with a car and arranged to take us and our bags to the airport for 10 cedis (about 10 dollars). Done and done! We made it to the airport by around 11pm. We were gold. So we sat in the airport cafe and had an the best sandwiches ever and beer and fries. We had made it.
We spent the next couple hours washing the road off ourselves in the bathroom and changing some clothes and just relaxing. We had intended to sleep, but it didn't happen. But we got our flight to Morocco and that's all that mattered. We were getting off the continent and now it was just up to the airlines to not screw us up.
Now, we're in London, staying with my cousins and generally being overwhelmed, but in a good way. We've pretty much spent the weekend just recovering from our mad dash out of Africa. It's been nice, and now we're ready to go really explore the city.