On our only free day in Ghana, Mark and I hired a car and driver to take us to the Cape Coast and Elmina Castle, where, during the slave trade, recent African captives were held before being crammed into ship holds for the Middle Passage. It’s only about 100 miles from Accra. We had all day to make the trip. We never got there.
Why not? At first, it was traffic. It took 45 minutes to get out of Accra, driving along potholed dusty streets crowded with people. Adults and even children balanced heavy loads on their heads: washbaskets full of clothes, wooden crates of hardware, trays of peanuts or candies, each burden seeming wider than the next, but we never saw anyone drop one. The road was bordered by shops with handpainted signs, lots of them Christian: Jesus in Heaven Motors, Everlasting Joy Hair Salon, Praise God Grocery. Behind them stretched colorful shanty towns of constructed of concrete blocks with tin roofs. The car moved slowly through the streets. Women and children came up to the windows offering food or toys for sale. Everyone looked industrious, busy at work. We saw no one begging.
Once we got out of town onto the highway, let’s just say Joseph, our driver, was an aggressive passer of other cars. He flew right up on their bumpers, then jerked out into the other lane with inches to spare, into the face of oncoming traffic. By the side of the road, men waved at the cars with some brown things in their hands.
“What are they selling?” we asked Joseph.
“Bush meat,” was the best explanation he could come up with.
It looked like road kill to us, large flat rats. Later research confirmed that the animals were akrantie, or canecutter rats, which are now cultivated as well as hunted.
Joseph suggested we stop at the Kakum National Park before going on to the Cape castles. “It’s only twenty minutes,” he promised. Really, we should have known better than to accept this time estimate. Ghana time is more relaxed than our American precise scheduling. We’d waited over an hour for the “five minutes” it would take for our room to be ready at the hotel. But Joseph said we’d love the canopy walk there (and we did), so we barreled over the rutted and potholed dirt road to the forest.
The wooden buildings clustered around the park entrance reminded us of camps we’d stayed in while hiking in the Amazon years ago. Kakum is virgin rain forest; tall trees loomed overhead. Some of the greenery looked like office plants on steroids.
“How long does it take to do the canopy walk?” we asked at the ticket booth.
Terrific. We could do the walk and still get to the coast. Except, of course, that we had to wait till a group assembled and our guide showed up. And then you have to climb up a trail to get to the canopy walk. And once up there, you’d be crazy just to scamper through and not look around. We gave up on getting to see the castles and gave ourselves over to the present moment.
Our guide introduced himself as “Still Alive.” Maybe that’s an American phonetic pronunciation for his Ghanaian name, or maybe his mother was just delighted he’d made it through her pregnancy. Still Alive told us about the building of the walk, and warned us not to expect to see animals in midday. The best time for that, he said, was to camp nearby and book a night walk.
Still Alive was assisted by Valentine.
When he discovered that Mark lives in Northern Virginia, just a few miles from Valentine’s cousin who lives in Annandale, he rang the cousin up on his cell phone so they could chat.
I’ve walked over rope suspension bridges while hiking, so the footfeel of the canopy walk was familiar: a low bounce when you stepped onto the first board, then a springy, slightly swaying sensation when walking. The rope bridges are strung 40 meters (about 130 feet) above the ground. But I didn’t feel any fear of heights; we actually couldn’t see the ground because everything was covered in dense green foliage.
I admired the design of the ropes supporting the plank boards. They looked as though a giant and very clever spider had woven them into an elegant narrow web.
Sadly, by the time we’d walked out of the rainforest, soaked by sweat, not rain, we had to tell Joseph to head for home. We had a plane to catch that night. We’d missed any vestige of lunch, so Joseph took us to a crocodile refuge for a quick snack – French fries, not crocodile. On the way home, we passed open sheds where coffin makers built coffins in the shape of fish, cars, pineapples and beer bottles. These coffins supposedly represent the passions of the people who are buried in them. One coffin we saw was covered in glittering mirror, perhaps for a Ghanaian disco queen, we wondered?
And, even though we needed to get back to Accra for our flight home, Joseph asked if we could stop and buy plantains at one of the main roadside markets. They cost much less here than in town, he said, and his wife would be pleased. He slung two huge branches of plantain into the trunk. Meanwhile, we chatted up the kids who offered us platters of fresh fruits and vegetables, none of which we could buy, and most of which we didn’t even recognize. But okra, that we both know, since Mark’s from Texas and I’m from Louisiana.
“You fry the okra?” we asked.
Fry okra? Of course not. It’s for stews. If you were allowed to take vegetables home on international flights, I would have filled my bag with the stuff.