Sunday, March 4, 2007

A Bus Full of Bananas

Every hundred feet or so, we stopped to rest. I could feel my thighs shaking under the stress of the descent. The path was so narrow and the edge so steep that we dared not look anywhere but straight ahead. Decked out in hiking gear, and wearing sneakers for the first time since our arrival in Ghana, we were ready for the rugged terrain.

Suddenly behind me I could hear voices speaking a language other than English. I turned my head and saw two women walking quickly towards us. Dressed in skirts and light shirts, they carried large buckets on their heads and wore cheap plastic flip flops. They nodded a hello then sailed past us almost dancing down the path. We were on a well-trodden mountain path that connected two communities. The women were on their way from one to the other.

The town we were going to was Biakpa (pronounced Beeyapa). From there we would hiked to a waterfall. We’d spent the previous night in Amedzofe (pronounced Amedjopay), a small village on top of one of the highest mountains in Ghana. The prospect of cooler temperatures, fresh air, and hiking had easily lured us to this village five hours from the oppressive heat and pollution of Accra.

Amedzofe is one of the few towns in Ghana with a tourist information centre. It was set up by Peace Corps volunteers in 2003. Upon our arrival in the village, we were escorted to the centre where we met Jerry. A young boy of about 18 who’d just finished secondary school, he was thrilled to see us. We were the first tourists to arrive in two days so we quickly became his responsibility. We registered our names, learned of the ‘ecotourism’ activities available to us, and paid our fees for the activities we’d chosen.

Jerry, now our official guide for the weekend, took us on a tour of two guest houses. Mark and I selected a rustic lodge (i.e. sparsely furnished guest house badly in need of repairs with a large open common room and friendly atmosphere, but with running water) on the side of the mountain where two American missionaries were living. The rest of our group went for the more upscale guesthouse five minutes closer to the main square. Their rooms had fridges, nice furniture and was very clean but the taps weren’t running so the group had to settle for bucket showers.

One of the activities offered to tourists is a visit to the local waterfall. Jerry said we could walk into the waterfall, but because we were approaching the end of the dry season, there would be no water. Our only other option was to visit a waterfall a little further away, outside Biakpa - a village 45 minutes by foot down the mountain from Amedzofe. He warned us the trek would take about 5 hours, beginning to end. We agreed we would attempt it the following morning before heading back to Accra.

Thirty minutes into the journey, we started showing our lack of conditioning. I was amazed to feel my legs actually shaking as I tried to maintain balance, and support my weight while traveling along the bush path. The path itself, well worn from frequent travel between the villages, provided a stunning view of the valley and surrounding hills. Jerry pointed out mango trees, cocoa trees, and cassava plants – some growing wild in the bush while others clearly part of a plantation. We also saw dozens of colourful butterflies. Ghana apparently has ten times the number of species of butterflies to what’s found in North America.

We picked up another guide in Biakpa who led us to the waterfall. We loved the walk through the tropical forest. Vines hung from the tops of trees and we grabbed them to help us maintain our balance along another steep, narrow trail. During the final descent to the waterfall, we had to rappel down a steep rocky cliff while holding on to a rope. Mark grumbled about how unsafe it was and would only climb down once the rest of us had. We made it safely, but all agreed Parks Canada wouldn’t accept the liability for this last maneuver.

We made it back to Amedzofe in just less than five hours. As buses don’t travel to small villages on Sunday, we’d made arrangements with the local taxi driver (the only one) to take us into the closest city, Ho, where we would catch a bus back to Accra. We agreed he would pick us up at 2:30 at one of the guesthouses.

A one-taxi town

At 2:30 p.m. there was no taxi driver. We tried calling him on his cell phone, and learned he’d gone to Ho earlier in the day with another group of people. He was 30 minutes from Amedzofe he said. At 3:30 p.m. the taxi driver still hadn’t appeared. We called again. He’d had some trouble with his car, he explained, but would be there in 30 minutes. Finally at 4:30 he called to say he was just leaving Ho and would meet us in one hour. We learned later that he’d waited until he had a return fare before setting out for home.

At 6:00, twenty minutes before it gets dark, the taxi driver finally appeared. We were pretty upset because none of us wanted to travel down the mountain road in the dark. It is a steep narrow road, and definitely not advisable to attempt in anything but clear daylight. The taxi driver knew he was the only way out of town, and doubled his fare.

We made a quick decision and chose to stay an extra night in Amedzofe. Most of us had work commitments the next day so needed to get back to Accra as soon as possible. We learned the first bus of the morning left at 6:00 a.m. so agreed to be on it.

At 5:45 a.m. we were huddled in the village square waiting for the bus to appear. We were afraid the bus would fill up so dressed quickly, gathered our bags and hurried to be one of the first in line. We were the only ones in the square. Villagers started emerging from their homes, and a few people were sweeping walkways, but there was no sign of the bus.

Finally, a man we’d met the day before who was also traveling to Ho early on the bus arrived in the village square. He told us to follow him as he’d seen the bus. We followed him around a corner and came upon our bus. It was sitting in the middle of a narrow side street being loaded with three huge crates of bananas. The crates were being hoisted up on top of the roof and tied down with netting.

We were a bit concerned the banana crates might make the small bus top heavy especially as it plodded its way down the mountain path, but we knew that this bus was the only thing that was going to get us back to Accra, so we all boarded the bus and found our seats.

Twenty minutes later the bus moved to the town square where two men stood with five large boards. They also planned to load their supplies on the roof of the bus. The wood was too long to fit on the roof, so we sat in the bus and waited for another 20 minutes while the men sawed through the pieces of wood to shorten them so they could fit alongside the banana crates.

Finally the bus was loaded, and the seats were filled. We moved out of the town square towards the road leading down the mountain. Just before leaving the village, the bus stopped again near a group of people who’d gathered beside the road. The back doors opened, and more people pushed into the bus. Before we knew what was happening, men and women had squeezed their bodies into the bus, and some were squatting by our feet. There was no way to move, and the bus was so full it was almost hard to breathe.

I looked around and decided there was no way I was going down the mountain on this bus. “I’m getting off,” I said. “This is completely unsafe.” The others agreed, but as we began voicing our concerns, the bus driver started to close the back doors telling us to stay where we were. Luckily a local man sitting near us, recognized our growing panic, and yelled at the man to open the door. Soon the entire bus was complete pandemonium. Some of the passengers yelled at those crouched on the floor to get off so we would stay on, while others yelled at us for wanting to get off.

We fought our way to the back of the vehicle and jumped away from the bus. The remaining passengers scrambled to take our place. The bus filled up immediately and took off down the mountain without us.

Thankfully, our helpful friend, who’d shown us where the bus was hiding earlier that morning, jumped off with us. We protested, but he insisted saying he’d show us how to walk to the next town to find another bus.

Giddy with happiness that we could breathe, were in one piece, and no longer squashed into the bus, we started the long walk down the mountain.

Five minutes later, an empty bus used for collecting timber from nearby forests drove by. Our friend signaled for him to stop, and he agreed to drive us to the closest town.

We hopped onto the bus – each of us with our own seat - stretched out, and leaned back ready to enjoy the beautiful view. Without the load of banana crates, and wood, our bus moved along at a good pace. Ten minutes later we caught up with the first bus and passed it. We waved.

By noon, the increased traffic and the strong smell of diesel indicated we were almost in Accra. The sound of the waterfall, the clean mountain air, and the bus full of bananas, was completely left behind.

- Janet


Jack said...

I think I'd have been the first off the bus once you'd decided to leave it. One thing that came to mind immediately was the possibility of needing to meet the call of nature. Am I correct in imagining that the noise level on the bus must have been quite high too?
It might be interesting to point out that in Rothesay, where Mark comes from, there hasn't been a bus service for years. However, service is going to be started next September. Perhaps you could mail a few pointers to the local bus service here just so they don't make any mistakes. That's something for you to anticipate when you return and plan to visit relatives.

I like your story about descending to the second waterfall, but you mentioned nothing about climbing up again. Was it so painful?

Trevor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Trevor said...

Hi Janet -

Just saw a piece now on BBC World about Ghana's 50th I took a few minutes and looked on their website if they had it for download. You and Mark might want to look around there as well, but if not here's what I found...

The report was quite positive... covered north and south Ghana... primary school enrolment has risen to 92%...."thriving" economy off the back of gold mines.... but may be overdependent on gold. Now trying to develop and diversify exports including things like textile factories set up under gov't job programme... workers make about 70$ per month. But everyday basics are still a challenge - guinea worm is still a tough battle - through infected water... vital water supplies are often polluted. Basic problems still holding it back.

Other links below - I've broken them up so you'll need to piece them back together.

1. The correspondent's bio - if you or Mark are interested - Peter Biles.

2. Recent announcement about a BBC reporting program for youth in Ghana.

3. A report on a recent debate held in Accra.

4. Finally - take this link below and put it into Windows Media Player - it will launch a recent one-hour interview with the President of Ghana by the same BBC correspondent.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mark and Janet,

How are you doing today? I'll bet you are still sore from the hike!! I definitely agree that you made a wise decision to leave the overcrowded bus. You may decide to write a novel about your Ghanian experience...I think it would be a fascinating read.

Keep well!


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