Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Lapse in Travel-Confidence

April 10, 2013

We assessed today that as a team we had gotten what we needed from Ghana.  Matt and Jessie were assigned to shoot the African drumming and dancing field lab for Semester at Sea, so they had their last day full.  The rest of us decided that we would head over to the swim beach outside of Accra and take some time to relax and play in the ocean.

We gathered together and rode the shuttle from the ship to the outside of the port where there was a huge group of taxis waiting for the people from the ship.  We had asked our driver to negotiate us two taxis to the beach and so he headed over with us to the group and got it worked out.  We agreed on 20 for each taxi, and the seven of us split between the two of them.

Our taxi was the crappiest car I have ever ridden in.  The seatbelt bolts had been pulled out of the wall of the car, so they were dangling with the bolt and scrap of metal daring us to get in an accident.  There wasn't much upholstery and the ceiling had no cloth.  None of the gauges worked and the windows were all stuck in various positions of down.  We giggled a little at the state of the vehicle, but it became less funny once we realized it shook back and forth once it got to speed.  It wasn't a pleasant half hour in the car especially because it was more than 100-degrees and we were squished together in the back seat.

The driver took a u-turn on the highway to get to the entrance of the beach, and as we turned something clunked out of the bottom of the car and we started dragging the metal down the highway.  The man pulled over and he and Evan jumped out and assessed the damage.  Apparently it was still drivable because we took off again at a slower speed dragging the metal along the road.  We pulled into the beach area and each paid our fee to get in and they let us through the gates to a large dirt parking lot behind a couple buildings.  We could hear the ocean and were excited to unfold ourselves from the car.

Rosa was the only person who had cedi left, so we had agreed to pay her back with American dollars later.  She handed him the 20 cedi that we thought we had agreed upon, and the man flipped out.  He started yelling at us that we were offending him with such little money and something about 1,800 cedi is an insult.  He wanted 20 US dollars.  We made the mistake of arguing back.  Why would we have agreed on US dollars when their country's currency is cedi?

He wouldn't take the money.  He went around the back of his car and said he wasn't moving an inch until we paid him $20 and started trying to fix the dangling pieces of his vehicle.  Meanwhile, the other cab driver saw the commotion and came over.  He was fine with the 20 cedi because he knew we had agreed upon it, but once he heard that his friend was upset, he decided to be upset, too.  He gave back the 20 cedi he was paid and said he wouldn't take that either.  Neither of them would take any money we were trying to give them and they had now ganged up on us.  Larissa got stern and put the money on the car and said that they can either take it or leave it because it was what we had agreed upon.  This set them off.

Our taxi driver, who had the worst temper, lunged for Larissa grabbing her backpack and screaming profanities and saying, "give me my money!"  We had gathered a crowd of locals at this point, and they were trying to figure out what was going on.  Some were on our side trying to help, others heard that we were trying to get a free cab ride so they were yelling at us.  It became a huge group of people, and then many of them turned on us.  They started using excuses about the fact that there was traffic and that meant we had to pay more.

Our taxi driver was still grabbing and pulling on Larissa's backpack, so I tried to gently touch his hand that was on the backpack and I said, "calm down."  "I won't f**ing calm down! You f**ing thieves! What?! Do you think I'm a little man? I can take all of you," he screamed in my face.  At this point he had let go of Larissa's backpack, and we had two of the gate officials who were trying to calm the situation.  There were at least 20 people in this huddle of screaming madness at this point.

The two officials from the beach had moved between us and them and started trying to reason with them.  Our taxi driver lunged through them again grabbing Larissa, and they pulled him back again.  The people finally turned to us and said we needed to pay them something.  We were so scared and fed up with the whole situation, but we didn't have enough money to pay what they wanted.  We had just planned to go to the beach and get some lunch, and we hadn't pulled out more cash than we thought we needed.  We scrounged up 10 more cedis per cab driver, and they finally settled down and stormed back to their cars.  This apparently sufficed.

We hurriedly walked away from the madness and the locals dispersed.  We walked for the beach and then were bombarded with the beach sellers who wanted to sell us their necklaces and shirts and little drums.  After our encounter, I had nothing but disdain for these people.  I was very shaken, and I know it was visible because my face was all twisted up attempting not to cry.  My knees were shaking and I had a rush of adrenaline that I was trying to get under control.  It felt so terrible to be in that situation not knowing how far this guy would go to get his ten more dollars.

Maybe we should have just given him his money, but part of the frustration is the fact that this only encourages the racist, asinine behavior of these people taking advantage of foreigners.  He absolutely knew that we had agreed on 20 cedi at the beginning. We all stood around in a circle and we confirmed with both drivers that it would be 20.  We learned from this experience that it's important to specify which currency you're negotiating in even though I feel like it was an excuse to have an altercation.  I suppose he was also mad about his car falling apart and maybe he was just taking this out on us, and wanted the extra money because he knew he needed to fix it.  Regardless, a 250-pound man doesn't physically assault a small-statured woman and try to steal money out of her backpack outright.

I liked Ghana, and I liked many of the people, but the disdain for people who are white is palpable.  I know it will take generations and more global business being done there and giving them more positive experiences with foreigners for any of this to change.  We had heard from two different people that they believe that the US needs to give reparation funds to repay what the country lost during the slave trade in population.  They believe their country is behind because of this dip in their population and if the US paid a bunch of money, they could kick-start their development and catch up with a lot of the world. An interesting point of view that I had never thought about as an American.

We found other members of the film crew already there swimming and joined them at some covered tables at a restaurant.  We confirmed ahead of time with the owner that we didn't have to pay them to sit there so that they didn't have to hassle us when we decided to leave.  They said it was free.  We started to settle in and put on sunscreen when a fight broke out about three tables away from us.

People gathered around two men who were whipping each other in the face and chest with small sticks with ropes on the end and yelling at one another.  Women would jump in and they would get slapped or pushed away.  People who were surrounding them were fighting and yelling at one another.  It escalated to the point where we were ready to grab all our stuff and head down the beach further, but then, they apparently worked it out because one of the men walked away, and the group dispersed still talking loudly and yelling at one another.  I was done with aggressive activities for the day.

I headed out to the ocean and bobbed in the waves for a good hour.  Don't worry - I lathered on the sunscreen.

A view of the ocean and fishing boats
from the window of out taxi.
After bobbing, we decided to go and get some lunch at a nice hotel down the beach.  We were all out of cash, so we couldn't find a local spot on the beach for grub.  I was glad that there was a nice hotel that would take credit cards and have foreigners. I had kelewele and french fries for lunch, mostly as comfort food and to say good-bye to my favorite fried treat: plantains.

We talked about what was next for everyone, and it's crazy to think how close we are to the end of this trip.  It feels like a year ago that we were walking on the beach in San Diego looking out to the West talking about the fact that we were about to embark on a journey around the world in that direction, but it also feels like just yesterday that I was homesick and wishing the trip wasn't four months long.  People have many emotions, but on average it's a fulfilled excitement ready to set foot back home.  I know this last push to finish all of our videos and shooting will help wear us out completely to the point where we'll want nothing more but to be home.  I feel like anything's possible, though, when I can see the light at the end of a tunnel.  We'll get it all done.

Reflecting a tiny bit, this has been an amazing, perspective-changing project.  I think it's going to take me a while to let it all soak in and be able to articulate exactly how it's changed me, but I'm sure I've been changed.