February 14, 2010

Travels in Ghana: the reality and hilarity

Alright. If you’re reading this line, you’re still with us; you’re planning to visit Ghana. By now you may have mentioned this plan to family or friends and they may have given you that funny look and fallen silent. And they may have given you that certain fascinated stare as if you’re some kind of fearless traveler or, if they’re your parents or children, they’re freaking out. ‘West Africa,’ they utter, imagining all the conflict they’ve seen on TV.

If you have been to Ghana you smile knowing that the ‘scary Africa’ myth is, well, a myth. You remember hanging out on empty beaches with some of the friendliest people on earth, eating fresh fish and coconuts. You remember dancing on the side of the street in front of six-foot high speakers that blast the latest highlife hits with whomever randomly joins you and, invariably, someone does. You remember navigating the country in an ingenious system of cheap, if death-defying, trotros that reach all corners and often generate the best travel stories. You remember arriving at midnight in an unfamiliar town and asking the young man sitting next to you, who’d been debating the democratic process in Ghana with his neighbour for the past six hours, the way to your hotel—and him showing you the way and not asking for anything but your phone number or address.

You wonder why Ghana is such a big secret. Of course, it has its downsides like everywhere else. It’s not for the impatient, as you now know, that’s for sure. On balance, though, Ghana has a lot going for it, particularly for the nervous first-time traveler to Africa. In fact, in our experience, 99% of people don’t want to leave when the time comes. Saying that last goodbye may prove to be the most difficult part of your journey.

What Ghana is NOT: Ghana is not the Africa you see on TV—war, famine and disease. While that Africa exists and its story must be told, it is just one part of the story. And it’s not all lions and giraffes and safaris either. It’s somewhere in between. One-third of the world’s nations—fifty-three actually—exist in Africa. More than two thousand languages are spoken across the continent. Ghanaians alone speak over forty. Most individuals speak three or four languages on average and English.

In addition to being a useful and helpful guide for your journey before and after arriving in Ghana, we hope this guide also helps to dispel some myths about “Africa”, and sets you straight on some of the unspoken aspects of travel, and put you (and friends and family) at ease and perfectly prepared for your journey. Once you’re here, it will help you avoid the pitfalls that many travelers hit, and save you a lot of money, heartache and time too.

In fact, we intend that the inside information in this guide will take ‘the great unknown’ out of traveling, volunteering or living in Ghana.

(This is part of the Introduction to the Insider's Guide to Ghana...the second half continues below from Philosophy...)

Philosophy behind the Guide

We decided to write the kind of guide book that would let visitors benefit from our inside knowledge and experience. A guide that is:
·    Up-to-date on prices, names and numbers
·    explains clearly how to get from A-to-B
·    includes only the best-of attractions and accommodation
·    that also explains what Ghana and Ghanaians are really like
·    with extended culture, costs, preparation and dangers sections
·    and includes our insider’s tips throughout every section

We do love our other Ghana guides, but we feel they don’t give you a sense of Ghana. We’ve heard the same sentiments expressed by other visitors too. We also feel they’re a bit confusing in terms of organization. We also felt the guides needed to be more up to date—they are published every few years. Even when they’re freshly published, the research itself is already about one year out of date. Things change by the month in Ghana. We wanted a guide that was as up to date as possible.

We also made a decision to only include the best value for money establishments based on our own experience and the accumulated feedback from others over the years.

Indeed, our guide is quite different to the standard travel guide book. In addition to being up-to-date, it’s more personal and it’s written by us: A Ghanaian who’s traveled or worked across all ten regions, and myself who is heading towards 4 years in three different areas of Ghana and also traveled to all ten regions and taken close to100 long-distance trips on public transport across the country.

We made a decision not to include localized street maps. There is a very good reason for this: no one reads maps in Ghana. Coincidentally, a few days after writing this section I read Elizabeth Ohene’s story at BBC online about this very issue. It’s quite illuminating in regards to the whole navigation challenge in Ghana as well as life in Ghana itself. She said, “I was excited therefore by recent newspaper headlines in Ghana that district assemblies in the country have been asked to name streets and number houses by 2010.” (That may be so, but we advise that you don’t hold your breath.) We do, however, urge you to read the article. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8402047.stm
Just to make it very clear, we’ve included a scenario that may help you understand our reasoning a little more.
Imagine approaching your average male on the streets of New Jersey/Newcastle/Melbourne/Paris and asking them, “Could you please show me how to dance?” I mean, would you expect a demonstration of dancing other than, say, the Macarena—if you’re lucky? On the other hand, if you approached your average Ghanaian man with the same question, most would and could dance for you on the spot, very skillfully.
But if you approached the same Garden State/Geordie/Melbournian/Parisian male with a street map of the area and politely asked, “Could you please point out the way to the best pub in town?” there’s a 95% chance that all the men you asked would and could do just that. They’d direct you using the map.
However, if you approached your average Ghanaian man or woman with a map, oh boy. Just as dancing is not part of your average western male’s culture; map reading is not part of Ghanaian culture. Roads and locations are better known by nearby landmarks and street vendors than by their actual name.
We’ll put it bluntly. Almost no one reads maps in real life situations except in academia. When virtually no one knows the names of roads, anyway, maps become somewhat redundant.
It’s much, much simpler to ask how to get somewhere.
However, when you do ask someone for directions verbally, there is often a contradiction between what your helper says and what they demonstrate with their hands. “Go straight” is the standard verbal response that accompanies hand signals that may well indicate left and right turns. Fortunately, sometimes some people do say right and left. You get used to interpreting this.
To put you in the picture, here is a standard response if you asked someone how to get to, say, the “In Him We Trust drinking spot” (we made the name up, but you’ll soon see the extent to which business names embrace religious expressions).
So, “Can you please tell me how to find the In Him We Trust Drinking Spot?”
“Oh. Ah! Ok, you go straight for some few minutes. When you see a blue lotto kiosk you curve right and go straight and keep going then you meet a big niim tree at a round-about. Then you curve right again then keep going straight aaaaaahhhh, and you see a big green house. Then in front of the house you will see the Guiness sign. It is there.”
Godwin insisted we mention that if you hear the speaker say “aaaaaah” as in, “Go straight aaaaaah” it means the place is far. “Aaaaaah” emphasises distance.            
Landmarks are the keys to navigating in Ghana.

We usually follow directions up to the point, then we ask someone there for more directions, and so on.
When we had to go to an obscure part of Cantonments in Accra, there was absolutely no use using a map or street names. I used the closest well-known landmark, Adwoa Wangara Hotel. Most drivers could get to that hotel. Luckily my destination was next door.
On that note, distance in Ghana is measured more in time than space. There are so many obstacles between A and B that to assume how long a trip will take based on kilometres or miles is a mistake—unless you have your own vehicle. It’s best to think in terms of time alone. Accra to Cape Coast is a three hour journey. It should really be about an hour and a half, based on kilometres: about 150 kms. Accra to Kumasi is anywhere from 4-6 hours. However, we have included a distance chart for distances between cities in kilometres, which you will find at the end of the guide.

So this is why we chose not to include localised maps and, rather, provide longer explanations about how to navigate and how to ask for help.

We chose to create large country maps that show various options for planning a route around the country. You will find these at the very end of the guide too. We based some on themes such as crafts, others on beaches, others on a particular region, and we included several monster trips including everything you could hope to see in Ghana. We also included one map showing the interconnections between major towns and cities. You’ll see these maps under the Journeys section. These maps give you a good sense of how each area and attraction is connected by public transport. If you’re driving, fortunately roads are reasonably well sign-posted, as are attractions and hotels. Ghana is nothing if not overflowing with signs. All you have to do is follow the signs and have faith and eventually you will get to your destination.

We have included a few smaller maps showing localized areas where finding transport might otherwise be a problem, such as “Kwame Nkrumah Circle” area in Accra.

Guide Conventions:
Telephone numbers: In all cases we have included the international country code in case you are calling from overseas. All our numbers follow the same pattern:
·    country code/area (or mobile) prefix/number.
·    as in: +233(0)21-233-244.
When calling from overseas you omit the zero (0). So you would dial +233-21-233-244. However, if you are calling from within Ghana you drop the +233 (Ghana’s country code), and dial the entire number and always include the zero. So, if calling from within Ghana you would dial: 021-233-244. To use a different example, this number +233(0)244-123-456 dialed from outside Ghana would be +233-244-123-456. In Ghana it would be 0244-123-456.

GHC: Stands for Ghana Cedi

We sometimes quote prices as ‘about’ because the cost of fuel increases by around 5% a month, routinely increasing prices for goods and services across the country. Basic foodstuffs like rice, fruit and vegetables and share taxis regularly increase.

Finally, we have co-written this guide. Due to differences in our individual experiences in Ghana, particularly before we met, we occasionally distinguish between “I” and “we”. Throughout the guide “I” or “my” refers to Gayle and “we” or “our” refers to both of us. Where Godwin took on exclusive writing tasks we have noted the section as “by Godwin” and similar for Gayle as “by Gayle”. Otherwise it was co-written with individual experiences noted as per this explanation.

So that was the full introduction to the Insider's Guide to Ghana. The first-half of the introduction was originally the prologue to the book I am writing about my journey since leaving Australia to come to Ghana (and a little before). However, it seemed better suited to this guide, so I pulled it from my manuscript and here it is. We hope this gives you a “sense of Ghana” before you arrive. The second half of the intro should help you understand what our guide book is about. If you like what you read on This is Ghana, this blog, you will probably like the guide and find it useful too. 

When you buy the guide you will receive a zip file which contains both the easy read (colour, 1.5 spaced) version and the easy print (black and white, single spaced) version. You will also have an option to download the Insider's Guide to Volunteering in Ghana for free at the same time. 

Oh, and check out yesterday's posts. We're running a competition for the guide--2 nights at Ko-sa beach resort on us. 

Thanks for reading!

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