Wednesday, 16 May 2012

"Drive Hard with a Vengeance"

When imagining the five hour journey from Accra to Fumesua, I had all sorts of ideas about what could lie ahead, built up from a little previous experience, accounts from others and, for the most part, stereotypes: would we tip over on every corner? Would it be so hot that we end up discovering the melting point of 'human'? Would the ride render me unable to sit down for months after? The answer was most unexpected.

I ended up on a bus with air conditioning blasting out from every angle, huge reclining seats and a widescreen TV that was showing an oddly gripping and wholly outlandish drama in Twi.  As a result these five hours absolutely flew by (and the two sisters were reunited at the end, both living in luxury, and only one man was left speaking in tongues).  I was met at my stop in Fumesua by Eric - a teacher, my new guide and all-round nice guy - and we travelled to the house where I would be staying for the duration of my time in Ghana.

A very good room was made great by the fact that my pillows (which are actually the right shape, unlike the French ones I've been dealing with this year) are covered with cartoons of penguins, reindeers and snowmen. A token bit of unpacking was followed by some Ghanaian-sized portions of rice and a delicious stew, before I headed to bed for an early night. And that was when the storm hit. The power went out and I lay on my mattress in the pitch black, my room illuminated by flashes of lightning every other second. I just listened. The sound of the rain hitting the roof and the ground outside was biblical. I fell asleep with a huge grin on my face…

Mornings consist of waking up at 05.40 or so and jumping onto the rickety school minibus to do a few rounds around the surrounding villages to pick up the students. These journeys are great fun. Key features of the minibus include: half the casing of a television in the passenger footwell, presumably to cover the exposed wires/gaping hole in the floor; the sliding door that excels in reaching its resonating frequency at dual carriageway speed; and the ability to tilt what I'm sure is well over 45˚ without rolling.

It doesn't take long before you're completely unsurprised by anything during these journeys. Today our school minibus drove along the hard shoulder on the wrong side of a dual carriageway, towards oncoming traffic. It's all about the excitement. Anyone can drive on the correct side of the road. We are also taking strides in finding out how many children can fit into a minibus (I'm afraid a punch-line doesn't follow). We managed a good deal over forty today (five of whom were wedged between the passenger seat and the dashboard - and I was sitting in the passenger seat). This all well and good until you go around a roundabout, your entire bodyweight pressing against the passenger door and you suddenly ask yourself: just how trustworthy is that piece of rope that long ago replaced any semblance of a door handle?

Whilst bouncing along, you suddenly realise that half of your brain is constantly churning out contingency plans and escape routes. One such moment came when we were parked on the hard shoulder of the dual carriageway, rain thrashing against the windows. I was standing up in the passenger seat, facing the rest of the seats in the bus, having had to manoeuvre myself to open the door.  It was at this moment that we heard that urgent and unmistakable sound of a huge lorry's horn, again and again, coming towards us. Or should I say two of them. Looking out of the rear windscreen, two pairs of headlights, side by side, loomed out of the sheets of rain. I felt like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive when the bus is lying on the railway tracks and he looks up to see the light of a train coming straight for them. Two trucks barrelling down the road, one trying to overtake the other. There's that moment where you're acutely aware of everyone tensing and the pulses quickening. You find yourself measuring distances and spotting where the soft landings are…

But this stayed purely theoretical. In a rare moment of sanity one of the huge trucks (and these things are absolute behemoths) seemed to have realised that trying to overtake another oversized vehicle whilst straddling the hard shoulder in the pouring rain was probably not going to do anyone any favours. The trucks passed and so did the moment.

One last thing to add on the topic of driving in Ghana is that if you believe that someone has overtaken your vehicle too recklessly, is travelling too slowly or has a generally disagreeable driving style, you (and more often the not any passengers you are carrying) must take the following action: 1) Catch up/slow down until you are alongside the perpetrator (no matter the impracticality or the downright danger to yourself and other road users).  2) Take your eyes off the road for an inappropriate length of time in order to death-stare at your opponent. 3) If this action elicits little to no response, then you are well within your rights to hurl some abusive phrases in Twi at the offender. 4) Keep on staring. 5) Now take both hands well away from the steering wheel in order to gesticulate wildly at everyone and anyone. 6) Return to normal driving style, but - and this is an important point to note - be sure to complain incessantly and at volume about the idiot in said vehicle to the next person with whom you talk. Note: Hours may pass between the aforementioned incident and the latter conversation - but you won't forget and everyone needs to hear about it because it has pained you so.

Happily, life at the school is rather less manic. A topic for the next post I think...

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