Tuesday, 10 July 2012

"Cape Crusading"

On Friday I went on the first of my travels and took off for the Central Region (though less central than the Ashanti Region due to interesting but currently irrelevant colonial history). So I bought my ticket for the Kumasi-Cape Coast bus. On the dot of 09.53, we pulled out of the station and started the five hour trip to the coast. As is inevitable, I was squashed in between a coughing woman of sizeable proportions and a guy who slept with his head on my shoulder for the majority of the journey. It was a fairly straightforward blast south, interspersed only by some truly savage speed bumps.

I arrived in Cape Coast mid-afternoon and headed to (or should I say found) a hostel to drop off my bag. On the walk through the middle of town, it immediately became clear that obrunis  are far more commonplace than in Kumasi. The Central Region is arguably the most popular area of Ghana for tourists. Cape Coast itself has a wonderful, slightly decaying atmosphere to it. It's quaint, it clearly has a colonial past, and is compact enough to be able to walk everywhere. On the first evening, I went out on the balcony to watch the city as darkness fell: the taxis screeching, horns blaring, children shouting, and music playing from every other house. In my room, an inspired piece of design meant that the fan was right underneath the lightbulb - the resulting strobing effect certainly added to the sense of place, though it should have come with an epilepsy warning. 

The following day I visited Cape Coast Castle: a World Heritage Site that is said to have been the largest slave-holding site in the whole world during the colonial era, with up to 1,500 slaves awaiting shipment at any given time. The building is an astonishing mix of incomprehensible cruelty and spacious luxury. There are three separate slave dungeons - no windows, unbearably hot, and with walls and floors that have been scratched by iron shackles. The upper floors of the castle however were built for the British colonisers, are filled with spacious rooms and halls, and have windows looking out to incredible views and white-washed courtyards. The contrast is disturbing.

A short walk from the castle, I checked into another hostel (the previous night's was fully booked for the weekend). I followed tradition and booked a couple of nights in a dorm - something I always do when travelling solo: not only is it cheap, but it's a great way of meeting people from all over the place. But no matter where I go, I always seem to get the dorm with the German girls.  The place itself had a great outdoor restaurant/bar and was on the sea-front, leading right onto the beach. From here you could watch the family of pigs wandering over the sand, or, more impressively, the fishing nets being pulled in by dozens of locals, or the furious paddling through the breakers on the large and heavy wooden canoes. I spent the afternoon playing football with the children on the beach - fantastic fun - with moments of hilarity and an inexcusable Hand-of-God-style goal (erm, I won't mention names…).  

That night, a group of us (some volunteers from Sweden and a girl from Ireland) took a table outside and chatted about everything, from how to transport a dead dog to the vet, to practising questionable toasts in Swedish. It was a really fun and interesting group. (In contrast to some Canadian girls the next night: "I hate beer, but it's so cheap here I have it anyway.") The compulsory drumming started up and went on for what was unanimously declared as two hours too long. We clapped loudly and for a long time simply so that we could extend the relative peace between rhythm-bashing. When we finally turned in to our respective dorms, I was carried off to sleep by the sound of dogs barking, waves crashing, gravel shovelling and, best of all, an old man chuckling and talking to himself outside, before turning his inebriated ramblings on to some poor girl on the other side of the wall, doing her best to sleep.

On the Sunday I visited Elmina, a small but very pretty fishing town, a few kilometres to the west of Cape Coast. It's essentially a town split in two by a harbour area that leads to a lagoon. It's also home to St George's Castle - arguably the oldest extant colonial building in Sub-Saharan Africa (but you'd have to argue pretty passionately because it's been rebuilt and added to so much that there's little to be seen of the original structure). This trip ended with notching up far more conversations with locals than actual trips to the sights and attractions. I got on with a guy called Perry so well that he introduced me to his friends and gave me a tour of the recording studio they'd set up together. And they'd made some great music!

Heading back to Cape Coast, I spent the late afternoon chatting to people I'd met on previous days - not other volunteers, but the water-sellers, children on the beach and other locals. There was something to be really enjoyed about being able to greet them all on first name terms, in Fante with typical Ghanaian handshakes. I really felt comfortable - and what's more, like I belonged here. Even more so, when I saw a group of Americans who had obviously just arrived in Ghana: whilst we were all in swimming shorts and T-shirts, one poor boy was traipsing along the beach at midday wearing a bush-hat, a khaki shirt, green trousers with thousands of pockets, and great clumping walking boots. Fine if you're doing reconnaissance patrols in the DR Congo, but it did look a little out of place in the laid-back atmosphere around the beach.

It was an early start on Monday morning because I wanted to visit the nearby Kakum National Park before I had to head back to Kumasi at around midday. Kakum is famous for its rainforest canopy walk - seven rope bridges that total over 350 metres, 40 metres above the forest floor. It's unique in Africa and provides views otherwise inaccessible to us mere humans. I had heard stories about tourists being herded across it, queuing up, and generally spoiling everything that one might possibly enjoy. So I got there early. In fact I got there so early that the Park hadn't even opened. But this didn't matter - I joined a small group from a school in Derbyshire of all places, who had organised an early tour. We had the whole place to ourselves. The sounds of the rainforest were all around us, the humidity was soaring and the occasional five second rainfall would cool us for just a moment. The canopy walk is certainly not for those who are scared of heights. These are Indiana Jones-style rope bridges: swaying, creaking, and making the occasional loud crack. We got off to a good start when our guide told us: "It's almost always safe". Well that's okay then. But it was great fun - though the teacher in the school group was adamant that the students should go first to 'test' the bridge.

I was back in Cape Coast in no time - a quick pop back to grab my bag - before heading to the nearby square to get a bus back. The buses here have no timetables: they work on a 'it leaves when it's full basis' - so I had an uncomfortably long wait in a very hot bus. But after negotiating for street food in Fante, walking in the heights of the rainforest and challenging Ghanaian kids at their own game on home turf, I reckoned I could manage this one…

Ghanaian Vehicle Moment of the Week: Having a minibus door slammed on my hand and yet feeling absolutely nothing at all, with no damage done whatsoever.

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