Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Trip to Togo. . .

This weekend I had quite an experience traveling to Lomé, the capital city of Togo, with some of the other interns. The saga actually began with the Ghanaian immigration department. Upon entry to Ghana, the maximum entry visa they can give is 60 days, though my study visa is good for 3 months. What this means is that before the 60 days expires, I either have to apply with the immigration office for an extension or leave the country and come back. I tried to get the extension twice, but both times was refused for either failing to have the right paperwork/number of photos/money or for failing to submit my application during the correct hours, which are variable and determined pretty much on a daily basis depending on when you show up and how much the person behind the desk likes you. Anyway, some of us wanted to see Lome anyway and decided that rather than deal with the immigration office here and paying the fee, we would just go to Lome for a night and then come back and get another 60 day stamp on reentry into Ghana. The stamp is free and pretty hassle-free if you get it at the border, though the cost of the visa to enter Togo was pretty expensive. Anyway, we left Accra on a bus Saturday morning and arrived in Aflao sometime around noon. Lome is situated directly on the border with Ghana and Aflao is the town that adjoins Lome it on the Ghanaian side. Like any border town I suppose, Alfao is teeming with con artists and generally scummy people. I would not recommend Aflao to anyone. In fact, it is kind of the worst place ever.

We hadn’t changed money in Accra before leaving, thinking we would be able to exchange some on the border, and this turned out to be a pretty drastic mistake. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were swarmed by pushy taxi drivers, sales people, and whoever else who wanted us to charter a car, buy some of their crap, etc, etc, etc. One of the other interns mentioned we needed to change some money, and one of the strangers was FAR to eager to accommodate, and called over his friends who came rushing at us with large stacks of money offering to exchange our Cedis for CFA (the common currency of the former French West Africa countries). We had each brought just about enough cash to pay for the entry visa into Togo and intended to take what we needed from the ATM once we were there (ATMs generally give the best exchange rates, better than Forex Bureaus, and DEFINITELY better than con men on the side of the road). We fended those guys off and headed for the border, but got all the way through the Ghanaian side without finding a forex. Unfortunately, we had to pay for the Togolese visas in CFAs. Having little choice at this point, we went back and asked what kind of rate the guys on the side of the street would give us. They offered 500 CFA to the Ghana Cedi (the Ghana Cedi, or GH¢, is about equivalent to the US dollar). This was the first warning sign, as they were offering us a far better rate than the actual international exchange rate, which is about 420. I didn’t know that, but knew that 500 was close and fair enough, so we decided just to change money. This was of course a very stupid idea, but we were in the middle of town in the middle of the day, and really the worst that would happen would be that the guys would run off with my 50 bucks. Anyway, these guys had an exquisitely orchestrated scheme. Here’s how it worked:

At the rate they were offering, GH¢50 would be 25,000 CFA. There were 3 of these guys, so they had 3 of us exchanging money at the same time. My guy counted out the CFA and handed it to me, and I then handed him GH¢50. Thinking myself a savvy traveler, I counted the money immediately, and lo and behold, it was short by 1,000 CFA. This is only about GH¢2, and even without out it I still would be getting a good exchange rate, but a deal is a deal. One of the other interns who was exchanging money at the same time with one of the other guys actually noticed it first, he was also short exactly 1,000 CFA. The guy exchanging my money feigned shock, and took the CFA back to count it. Counting only 24,000, he admitted it was short, assured me it was only a mistake, but that he didn’t have a 1,000 CFA bill to give me. So said he would need to make change so he could give me what he owed me. He called over his friend who brought him a 1,000 CFA bill, and the guy handed me back the CFA he had taken from me and the 1,000 CFA bill, making a total of 25,000 CFA. I was satisfied, but he insisted I roll the money in smaller bills so that it would be “safer” somehow. The idea he was trying to convey was that if you put small bills on the outside of your roll of cash, it will look like a roll of small bills rather than large ones. This is stupid, of course, because it WAS a roll of small bills, but he was VERY insistent, so I took out a couple singles I had left and wrapped them around the outside of the cash and stuck it in my pocket. I then watched as each of these guys went through the same routine 3 more times with the other interns. Each time was exactly the same: The guy would give the money short by exactly 1,000 CFA; we would notice, and the guy would take the stack back, count it in front of us, and then call to his friend to bring him a 1,000 CFA bill; the guy would take the 1,000 CFA bill, and hand back the stack of money that he had just counted with the 1,000 CFA bill; he would then insist that a smaller bill be wrapped around the outside.

We each had just gotten our money in our pockets when an argument broke out among a few of the guys who had exchanged our money. There had been MANY indicators that there was some sort of racket going on here, most noticeable was the methodical and identical way in which each of the transactions had occurred, and I was sure the argument was also staged as part of whatever the racket was, but I still could not figure out how the scheme was working. Since we had all gotten our money from the guys and the argument heated up we obviously decided to just get out of there. Again, it was the middle of the day out in public, and we were 100 yards from the border, which is teeming with police and military, so I never really feared for my safety, but knew that we were getting scammed somehow. As we left, we noticed a guy in a bright yellow shirt very conspicuously following us all the way up to the border. At this point we were surrounded by police, so again there wasn’t really a physical threat, but we knew something was going on, which made us just try to get across to the border that much faster. We already had our departure stamps, so were able to exit Ghana quickly, and the guy who had been following us was gone as soon as we crossed.

We then arrived at the Togolese immigration office on the other side (and by office, I mean desk outside on the side of a building behind which sat a very rude immigration official and next to which sat a friendly Togolese police officer). The immigration officer gave us each our forms to fill out, and a couple of the other interns took out there CFA to pay the fee for the Togolese visa. Only then did they realize they were missing some of their money. The rest of us took out our CFA, and sure enough, all had 17,000 CFA-- 8,000 CFA short. This is what I figure happened:

When the exchange guy first gave me the CFAs I noticed that I was 1,000 CFA short and the guy took the pile back to recount it. He recounted it in front of me, but had his stack of money in one hand. When his friend brought over the 1,000 CFA he took the bill, added it to my pile, and then only handed me back only part of the pile. Because he had a stack of bills in his hand to begin with, I didn’t notice. I watched his hands closely the whole time, and watched him recount my money, but he must have just been good at his sleight of hand, and I didn’t see it—and I watched him do it 3 or 4 more times! He wanted me to wrap smaller bills around it so that I wouldn’t count it again right away. Once everyone had done this, they staged an argument so that we would get nervous and leave in a rush without taking our money out to count it again. The guy following us served the same purpose, and that’s why he was so obvious about following us—his presence made us nervous, so that we wouldn’t take our money out and count it until we were through the border.

Of course, once we realized what had happened, we were all obviously mad and upset that we had been conned. It wasn’t even that it was much money (only later did I realize how little it was) but it is incredibly frustrating and unsettling to be conned. After we got our visas for Togo (they had thankfully left us just enough CFA for a visa and a few bucks more) we went back and got some Ghanaian police officers, but the guys had obviously long since ran off. In the end, I figure I really only lost about $9 on the whole deal. They had promised us a rate of CFA 500 to GH¢1, but that is far beyond what the actual rate is, and they only offered us that to entice us into the deal. The rate I got at the ATM was about 417. Based on that as the actual and reasonable exchange rate, I should have gotten 20,800 CFA for my GH¢50. The con men had kept 8,000, but that left me with 17,000, so I was really shorted 3,800 CFA. Based on the actual exchange rate of 1:417, that would be about GH¢9.

In any event, the immigration officer at the border took over an hour pouring over each of our passports. As we waited, some crazy guy with a rubber band around his head and a piece of tinsel (yes, like from a Christmas tree) stuck to his face told us very loud and animated stories. When we finally crossed and got through the back up right at the border, we found ourselves walking along a palm-tree lined boulevard abutting the beach, which was actually pretty nice. Togo is noticeably poorer than Ghana, and as hard as I found it to believe, has even less infrastructure. In Lome some of the roads are so flooded as to be impassable and the streets are even less organized and more confusing than in Accra. We found an ATM and then wandered for about an hour and a half looking for a particular restaurant before we gave up and ducked into a pizzeria attached to an overpriced hotel near the beach. Being exhausted from our adventures, we went directly from dinner to the place where we were staying. We rented thatch-roofed bungalows for very cheap and sat at the bar and had a few beers before turning in for the night.

On Sunday we headed back into central Lome for lunch and then walked through the craft stalls, which were filled with the most obnoxious and aggressive sales people of ALL time. They did, however, have some killer prices on some pretty cool stuff. I would have bought a lot of stuff, because I had a few CFA left and there was no sense in taking them back across the border, but the salesmen were so insistent that I decided to just leave rather than deal with them anymore. We headed back toward the Ghanaian border and just stopped at a spot on the beach to have a beer and spend the last few CFA we had remaining. This turned out to be the best time of the whole trip. We were able to relax, the weather had cleared up, and the beach breeze was really nice. I ate a baguette with avocado, tomatoes, and onion that cost about 50 cents, and then we crossed back into Ghana.

I was at first relieved to back in Ghana, but unfortunately, this also meant being back in godforsaken Aflao. It took us about a half an hour to fend off all the taxi drivers who were trying to shuffle us into their cars back to Accra and get to the tro tro station, even though the station was no more than 200 yards from the border. The drivers kept telling us there were no tro tros (which was a lie) and some people even ran and got there own personal cars and kept driving up to us. They were all clamoring over the opportunity to overcharge us for our return to Accra. Once we found the tro tro station, we hopped into a tro tro for Accra that was set to leave, and each paid our fare. Somehow the man collecting the money misplaced (or pocketed) some of the money, and swore one of us didn’t pay. As exhausted and fed up as we all were, some of the other interns started arguing with the guy, and then I just gave him a few Cedi to shut up and leave so that we could get home.

I didn’t actually get back to my house until around 9:30 Sunday night, as there are always multiple police and immigration checkpoints along any road from the border. Thankfully, all the police and immigration officials were very friendly, and since we had just crossed and returned, we all had shiny new entry visa stamps. Luckily we happened to have running water when I returned, and I showered and fell asleep early. In total, the trip to Lome was a mess, but I have to say that just about everything that went wrong went wrong on the Ghanaian side of the border. As underdeveloped and difficult as Lome was, the people with whom we interacted seemed very nice (excepting the craft stalls, which is pretty consistent everywhere), and we actually had a pretty good time on Sunday. I think if I had been able to spend a couple days there I would have really liked it. If nothing else, the border gave us a handful of fun stories, though I probably should shorten them, as I imagine no one could still be reading this…

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Brian took a lot of pictures in Adanwomase...

Here are some pictures of the farms around Adanwomase, where they grow cocoa, plantain, and bananas. There are also some pictures of the Kente weavers and one pictures from the Guestline Lodge, which is where we stayed in Kumasi. That it's for now!

More pics from Adanwomase

Poop Beach and Kumasi

For those of you keeping up, sorry it’s been a long time since I’ve added any entries. I think there have been three weekends since I last updated. The weeked after my last entry I went to the beach at Kokrobite, just 45 minutes west of Accra. After so much travel, it was nice to go somewhere close just for the day. Beaches here are not exactly the Riviera; there is a considerable amount of trash everywhere and a 20 minute walk in the wrong direction led us to where the sewer from the town empties into the ocean (about as unpleasant as you would expect). We had a good time, but it was just a day trip and there aren’t really any exciting stories from that weekend that I can remember (other than the sewer that is).

The next weekend we went to Kumasi, which is the second largest city in Ghana and the capital of the Ashanti region. It is also home to the largest open air market in west Africa. We took the STC bus there, which is large, air conditioned, and shows movies! Ghanaian movies are hard to describe; they really are something that must be experienced. If you’re lucky, sometimes they’ll show a Nigerian movie, which is like a Hollywood production compared to the Ghanaian movies. Ghanaian movies are typically pretty hokey and always terribly sexist, and are serials consisting of several parts (anywhere from 4 parts on up). If the STC bus is good for nothing else, it at least forces you to have some exposure to local popular culture. We departed after work on Friday and arrived in Kumasi just after midnight. Luckily our hostel was next to the bus station and the 9 of us rented out an entire 8-bed room. On Saturday we headed out to Adomwomase , a small Kente cloth weaving village. The village has a community tourism project, and in order to attract tourists, hawkers are forbidden and people are discouraged from heckling travelers. It really made all the difference, and is probably the only place I have been in Ghana where I didn’t have to fight my way through crowds intent on selling me something. If anyone plans on traveling to Ghana, I highly recommend it, you’ll need a break from all the hassle and hustle of daily life everywhere else. We took a tour of the village and got to see the Chief’s palace, some Kente weavers, cocoa, cassava, and plantain farms, and got the history of the village. Apparently, thousands of years ago, a person was buried alive as a sacrifice to the gods and a tree was planted over top of that site. That tree formed the center of town and supposedly still stands today.

After buying some Kente cloth, we left the village and headed back into Kumasi. The group got split up, and a few of us just went and wandered the Kejetia market in the center of town. The market is massive and at first appears totally chaotic. There is, however, a certain order to the madness. It’s incredibly difficult to navigate, and the market is in constant motion, making it nearly impossible to stop moving and try to get your bearing. You just kind of have to move with it and see where you end up. There are different sections of the market for fabric, clothes, meat, vegetables, dry goods, cleaning supplies, and just about anything else you can think of. Somehow I always end up in the piles of rotting fish section and can never quite navigate out of it. We were there in the early evening, as the market was winding down, so it wasn’t actually to crazy busy and we had a good time just sort of taking in the sights…and smells I suppose. After the market, Declan—the Irish kid from the hostel I stayed at my first week—met up with us for dinner, and we went to a spot and had a couple beers to round off the night.

The next morning, most of the group stayed in Kumasi to see a museum and a ceremony for the Chief, while Casey and I headed out to some small villages in search of some less-touristy Asante shrines that we could visit. We arrived in the first village by tro tro and then a short taxi ride, and were immediately greeted by the curator for the shrine sight. Apparently the village had received some funding from UNESCO to develop the shrine into a sort of tourist attraction, and this guy had received a couple weeks training in cultural preservation and what-not. Unfortunately, the caretaker for the building that housed the shrine had left town for the day and taken the key with him. The curator was very willing to tell us just what he thought of the caretaker—they were clearly not friends. In any event, the curator instead took us to see the site where Yaa Asantewaa is supposedly buried. Yaa Asantewaa was a Queen Mother in the Asante who led a rebellion against the British in 1900. She’s pretty badass, read about her. The shrine we were trying to visit is where she went to communicate with the gods. Anyway, there is just some tall grass growing over where her remains are buried and a small shack close by. Nothing marks the spot, and the curator lamented the poor administration of the village that had failed to develop and preserve such a historically significant site.

The curator then told us he could go see if the village chief had an extra key to the shrine. We walked with him to the Chief’s house, and were greeted by a shirtless man who invited us to go in and sit while the curator spoke to the chief. We went inside and sat down, and the shirtless man went into a backroom. He then reemerged in full Chiefly regalia. Turns out that guy was the chief. Once he had his Chiefly clothes on, we could only speak to him through the curator, who relayed messages back and forth between us. There was supposed to be a ceremony that day where the Chief would pour libations to the gods at the shrine. The Chief said he would have liked us to have attended the ceremony, but that since he did not have a key to the shrine, he would not be able to perform the ceremony. He clearly was not terribly pleased with the groundskeeper either, though I imagine the gods were even more pissed since they didn’t get their schnapps. In the end, I gave the curator a few Cedi for the upkeep of the place, and he saw us off to a tro tro in search of the next shrine. The next shrine was only a few kilometers away, but we could only go part way by tro tro. We then walked up a dirt road for a couple kilometers to a small town whose name I don’t remember. Anyway, we got there and asked someone where the shrine was, and she told us the people we need to see were at church. Church is a multiple-hours ordeal in Ghana, and we were already pressed for time, so we didn’t get to see that shrine either. The walk was nice and it wasn’t too hot, so it all ended up being worth it anyway. Despite all of our efforts, we saw no shrines. We did, however, get to see the last resting place of a celebrated female Asante warrior, had an audience with a chief, and learned a little bit about small scale community-based tourism.

Unfortunately, there are no pictures from the Sunday trip to the shrines. The difficult part about pictures is that many people don’t like to be photographed. As a foreigner, everything is new and exciting and I want to snap pictures and be able to send them to everyone, but for the people who live here, it’s daily life, and not everyone wants to be made a spectacle. Because of this, sometimes there just are not pictures. Anyway, below are Brian's pictures from Adanwomase, the Kente weaving village. I will post pictures from the beach and Kumasi as soon as I can get copies of them.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


We can all thank the lovely Taylor Kalander that I now have pictures on my blog. She was able to post them for me. The first half of the pictures or so are of the Volta region, including the waterfall at Amedzofe, the Mountain Paradise where we slept (with the view across the valley) and the hikes in between. You can see the pickup truck in some of the pics and the group of tro tro drivers gathered around me while I am arguing with the driver of the pickup. After the last pic from Volta is a picture of the group at the Ghana v. Gabon World-Cup qualifier soccer match. Then there are some pics of our computers with no internet and interns shuffling cables, because that is what I spend most of my day dealing with. And finally there are some pictures of the canopy walk over Kakum National Forest that I wrote about a little while ago. Enjoy and comment often.