Lessons and bus tickets.

*note: the internet at this cafe is toooo slow, i will finish uploading the photos tomorrow or the next day.

Today was another day full of lessons, some new and some known but unheeded.  We started out deciding just to walk up the way for a bit.  We are staying in Haatso (“haw-cho”) which I can now say (thanks to a map we bought later) is a full thirty klicks from central accra and about 18 from the airport.  Haatso, like many little enclaves, has its own commercial strip with a variety of businesses.

As we walked we saw so many different things for sale from wheeled carts, wooden stands, and various [steel shipping] container shops.  The way commerce gets done in Accra is so different from the US.  In the States, if I needed a pay-as-you-go SIM card, I’d go to Target or Walgreens or somewhere like that.  Maybe an ATT store or an “authorized retailer.”  Here, the authorized retailer is the most store-like option, and everything that the US doesn’t have is the more common option.  On a one-kilometer walk from our guesthouse to central Haatso you will probably see two or three yellow or red umbrellas with MTN (yellow) or Vodaphone (red) logos on them.
Yesterday we were looking for a SIM for my old Blackberry so I could call my folks in the States as well as to communicate with some people here who may host us.  We stopped at a couple of these umbrella-type carts at Makola Market (the giant market in central accra) and while they all had many cell phone cases and accessories, most only had a few SIMs and were fuzzy on what we would get exactly.  The first we stopped at wanted $20 for the SIM and he basically had no clue how many minutes (etc) were on it.  I decided to pass.  Eventually we found an authorized cart, bought the SIM for $1, and were led to a “back area” (that is the best I can describe it … basically we were led down an alleyway to a small enclosed shack that had exposed wiring on the walls.  When I say exposed wiring I mean wires with copper exposed and twisted together.  Don’t touch unless you like 240v hangovers.  Anyway…) — in this back area I had to show my passport and my information was recorded.  I read about this previously, but basically Ghana has a phone registry now after text message rumors about politicians were spreading anonymously (if I recall correctly).  Interestingly the kid in the back used his phone (well, an app on it) to enter all my info.  He showed me the info to confirm, and since to him I was “American,” he had entered ‘NATIONALITY: American Samoa.’  In one swoop I became Polynesian, hah.  So $1(CEDI) later I had a registered SIM card.

That night i went to Frostybec, the local containershop for Internet access, and noticed they had a “SIM recharged” handmade poster on the door.  I inquired about my MTN card, and sure enough they could recharge it.  Foster, the owner, logged into his MTN acct on the ‘net, took my $10CEDI, and then applied $10 to my mobile number to “top up” my card.  Anyway, in the end the top up didn’t apply correctly, as today I woke up with $.20CEDI (twenty Pesawas, pronounced “pay-swah”) still on my phone balance.  I went back to ask for a refund, and he happily refunded my $10CEDI.  When I inquired how far an umbrella-stand type shop would be, he says, “hang on,” and discussed briefly with a woman running the neighboring shop, and then a young boy appears with $10 worth of unused MTN top-up cards in maybe 15 seconds.  This is how commerce in Accra happens.  You want something, there it is.  You have to be street-wise, but if you know where to look I get the sense you can find almost anything in short course.

Today on our one or two KM walk we saw a shack-shop selling stuffed rocking horses.  If you come to Accra and need a stuffed rocking horse, i know where to get you one.  Live here long enough and basically you have a list in your head of all the places with all the possible things.  Not so different from knowing that Target sells clothing and Safeway sells groceries, I suppose, but very different to my westernized brain.

They also have a huge amount of commerce taking place at intersections.  Typical things like newspapers, small baked goods, bags of sealed water (many, many things are consumed here from bags by biting off the corner and squeezing the food out … from water to frozen milk to yogurt etc).  I read a blog from someone saying art is sold at intersections and today I saw it: painting, mirrors, etc.

Our walk ended when Miranda bought three apples for $2CEDI (the smaller ones, a cab driver later told us, are $1 for 2), and we hailed a cab.  Again, by “hailed,” I mean that I heard a quick double beep, turned to ensure it was eminating from a vehicle large enough to hold all our gear, and then I lifted my hand to about rib-height by which time our taxi had stopped and pulled off.

It took about 10 or 20 minutes to discover, but this cab ride would be (for me) the highlight of the day.  Our driver spoke reasonably good English, and was genuinely a “good guy.”  Most people in Ghana have struck me as pretty honest — this is a profoundly religious country, and it’s apparent in the general behavior of the people we’ve encountered; if we look even a trifle lost someone will immediately ask where we need to go, not to mention the two different Ghanaians who offered to loan us Cedi when we first arrived … we are leaving tomorrow and still trying to track one down to pay him back! — but this driver was the definition of “stand up.”  First of all, he quoted us $7CEDI to get into Accra, the best rate we’ve had so far.  Yesterday a host at our guesthouse negotiated in Twi an $8CEDI rate for us, but generally it’s $10.

So today as we were driving we began to ask questions of him and he was very helpful in fixing our pronunciations as well as explaining what various things mean (signs and such).  At some point Miranda asked where a bus station was, and he offered to take us there too (we had previously been going to a big bookstore looking for maps of all of Ghana).  It became clear to me he was going to be our driver for the day, or at least half of it.  We negotiated the rate, which took a little while because “mathematical” type conversations are difficult with the money changeover and English fluency issues.

I can converse in Spanish moderately well, but when I want to convey complex things like, “I need to go here to do this, then there to do that, and I wouldn’t have done any of that unless my friend hadn’t done this first…” the meaning starts to get lost.  So with Ghanaians sometimes these sort of conversations can get difficult.  But with a bit of work he offered $30CEDI for all our trips around town, and it turns out the (“STC”) bus station is a long ways away, so this was a pretty good rate.  He helped us get a bus ticket to Cape Coast, which was $4CEDI per person, and made sure we advised them of the total luggage we would have.  He also directed me to a urinal, which was an interesting experience.  Sidenote: there are no public urinals; they are all private, cost about 10-30 pesawas, and you are basically standing in a cinderblock partitional area and urinating directly into the gutter.

So ironically our trips around town in a taxi cost multiples of what a 4 hour bus ride does, but perhaps that is the nature of taxi versus bus and not ironic at all.  I have read many things about bus experiences, so we’ll see how tomorrow goes.

So after book store and bus terminal, we then went to the embassy to check in, which I figured would take a long time, so we decided to cut our taxi loose.  I would later regret not asking for his number to use him as a car-hire-slash-guide in the future if needed.  Anyway, we went into the embassy and the check-in service is apparently open for 3.5 hrs per day only, from 8:30 until noon, and it was one thirty by now.  Drat.  And now we were 9KM from Accra central and our good taxi driver was gone.  We mapped everything out while sitting in the shade at the roundabout in front of the embassy, and then hailed a cab.

This is where I got to re-learn a lesson I had read but never “learned.”  I’d read not to get into cabs without negotiating first, and we had discussed this already.  Basically I’d figured the danger was you might get halfway there before deciding on a price and then if the price is too high you could end up owing half of it to just “stop right here.”  Miranda and I had also agreed ahead of time to never pay in advance, and in general I don’t pay until all of my gear is out of the taxi.  Miranda pays and I remove the gear.  That way the worst that can happen is the driver could get out and harang us for more cash, but that will go no where.  I have heard from a friend whose sister was in Tema (30KM outside Accra) for the Peace Corps that if an Obruni yells “thief!” to someone on the street others will assault them on his behalf, so that is the frame of reference I have for peoples’ honesty here.  I didn’t think breaking the negotiate-first rule could be soooo bad.

So the driver stops, we say where we want to go (and have agreed amongst ourselves ahead of time it should be $5CEDI), and he says “I cannot stop here, I will get in trouble, get in.”  We break the rule that I didn’t know should be a RULE.  Within 10 seconds, Miranda in back, myself up front, we are clarifying where we need to go and asking how much.  For a while he tries to say there are 2 different malls and are we sure which one we need.  We say, okay, EPP Bookstore (which we know is by the mall we want) and he says “oh there are many of those.  Do you want this mall or that mall…”  This is starting to talk a while (driving the whole time) and we affirm we want Makola Market.  If that is somehow wrong, at least it’s an area we know and no more than $10CEDI home from.

He says okay, and Miranda asks how much.   He mumbles something, and a bit of silence hangs in the air before I ask very straight forwardly, “How much?”  He says forty.  Now, bear in mind, if you’ve read my previous posts you know they do money and numbers differently here.  They redenominated their money in 2007 and people still hang onto the old numbers to some degree.  The urinal today said (symbol for Cedi)300 today, and ended up being 10 pesawas (10 cents), for instance.  I thought it might be $.30, or $3, but it was $.10, hah.

So we confirm, he wants $40 CEDI.  Yep.  Not 4?  Not 14?  No, four-oh.  Too much, too much, Miranda tells him in Twi.  He laughs.  We explain that Haatso to Makola was $7CEDI earlier and this is 1/3 the distance.  He starts to recount how much this costs and that costs and it is clear to me at this point there will be no middle ground.  He then asks how much I will pay him to pull over now.  Because children may be reading this blog, I’m going to abbreviate the remainder of this encounter, especially some of the choice words I had for him when he refused to pull over, but basically he continues to refuse to stop and then when he hits a yield sign and has to slow to let a car cross in front of us, I hop out.  Unfortunately he has child-locked the rear doors (unbeknownst to us) and Miranda couldn’t get out.  I cannot open the door from the outside either.  When it is clear he won’t let Miranda out, she rolls onto her back pulling her knees to her chest to kick out the window, and he suddenly acquiesces, “okay okay, you can get out.”

Surprisingly he is still asking how much I will pay him for the ride we have received, maybe half a mile so far.  I tell him nothing.  Fortuitously this took place maybe 20 meters from a cabbie waiting area, so there are a handful of taxis and drivers sitting around.  They come over and I explain he is basically ripping us off.  He ends up driving off angrily, and one of them takes us to the Market for $8CEDI, still too much but better than $40 (and unfortunately explaining he wanted $40 has put me in a bad bargaining position. I was prepared to walk the 9KM but Miranda was crying at this point and it is not worth quibbling over $2.50-3 in difference).

I am suprised at this behavior, as it is very un-Ghanaian, and also surprised at it from a cabbie, since being a taxi driver puts you in a position of great disadvantage: you are strapped in with your back to someone, if you try to hold them hostage, you may get punched, stabbed, strangled, who knows.  Cabbies in the states have a dangerous job (from robbery etc) when they are just eeking out an honest living; I don’t know why anyone would want to increase the risk of such a job by trying to hold people against their will.

The mall we wanted to go to, it turns out, is not the mall we ended up at.  That isn’t the [new] cabbie’s fault, though.  We had stopped a Ghanaian woman outside the embassy and I asked if she knew the Accra Mall (something I have read about and wanted to see, solely to see it).  “Of course,” she replied in very good English, and I asked if she can show me on our map.  She scans the entire map slowly, the way a 3-year-old might, and eventually and confidently says it’s right by Makola Market.  Near EPP books.  We did sit on the steps of a mall there yesterday (it was closed) and although it didn’t look all that impressive, perhaps it was the Accra mall … I have basically read only a few lines about the Accra mall, and maybe I minsinterpreted its poshness.  So anyway, we go there.

Once we finally get there, after our quasi-kidnapping and lots of rush hour traffic, it turns out that this is definitely NOT the mall I’d read about.  Blah.  Later when we suspect our final cabbie of the day doesn’t know how to get to Haatso we ask him to show us on the map where we are (playing as confused tourists) and he cannot find where we are.  Basically I have so far observed a complete inability to read maps on the part of Ghanaians.  This is a skill I’ve taken for granted everyone learns, and I see that is not the case.

We hit EPP books for a little while, hoping to find a Twi childrens book to bring back for the kids at JSIS and discover that basically books are not made in Twi, except for JSS (Junior High equivalent) students who might be studying it, and in that case it is a simple workbook.  This seems depressing to me, that all of Accra speaks Twi, but a large book store has not a single book in Twi.  That children of Accra are learning “C is for Cat and D is for Dog,” from colorful picture books and then learning Twi, well, however Twi is learned.  We even find French and Spanish children’s books.  Colonialism may be “over,” but it’s structure lives on.

Also, let me mention that I have come to better understand the horn usage here.  Horns are used 95% of the time to alert someone to something.  See a car perpendicular to you up ahead, trying to cross the road in front of you?  If you don’t intend to yield, you “beep” a bit just to say “hey I see you and I am not stopping.”  See a guy in a bicycle and you’re coming close to him, beep to let him know.  See a pedestrian who might need a ride (and you’re a taxi), beep to say “hey I am void of fares currently!”  Of literally thousands of “beeps” I heard today I only heard one single “WAAAAAH” of someone laying on a horn.

The WAHHH came post-kidnapping episode, with our replacement cab, a car two ahead of us ran over a pedestrian’s pinky toe, possibly avulsing it.  I didn’t get a very good look, but it was obviously bleeding from basically the whole toe-area.  Unfortunately subsequent to this drama the car to her right hit another car while changing lanes and we got boxed in by angry stopped cars.  We sat for a minute or two while our driver hopped out and expertly directly the toe-destroyer into a driveway and then cleared other vehicles and we were on our way.  This serves as a good chance to address the pedestrian system here, so I figured it could be my segue.  Basically here there are “walk” and “do not walk” signs sometimes, but often they don ‘t seem to work (stoplights may also be in this state of repair!), so basically Accra has a very libertarian viewpoint when it comes to pedestrianism.  If you don’t want to get hit by a car, then make sure you don’t get hit.

This outlook only sits somewhat well with me, of course, since I am a dirty hippie and believe we ought to cater to the poorest and also most environmentally friendly elements of our society … people with big smelly cars can pay more taxes and have to go out of THEIR way as far as I am concerned, not the other way around.  This is my complaint with the Eastside of Seattle, as being a pedestrian is often downright dangerous (since many areas are devoid of sidewalks, bike lanes, etc).  However, I do like the personal responsibility aspect of Accra’s system.  I see a lot of people in the States with zero situational awareness.  People like this do not exist in Accra.
If you want to cross a 5 lane road with speeding traffic, you figure it out.  And for me the system works quite well, but I consider myself situationally aware, hah.  Although if you are an Obruni, you will still have Ghanaians try to advise you when not to go because it seems to them you might be too slow or weak to make it in time, haha.

We also, when revisiting the no-hawking Fanta cafe, got called Obruni for the first time.  A busboy said it as he passed us, much in the way you might acknowledge someone’s t-shirt, “Hey, Dodgers,” or something.
So lessons re-affirmed today:

Look where you are going and make sure no one runs you over.  NEVER get into a taxi without agreeing on price ahead of time (possible sub-lessons: keep an eye on where taxi is taking you, consider packing spring-loaded-centerpunch).  Bus fare is a LOT cheaper than taxis.

I am ready to leave for Cape Coast tomorrow, to escape the vastness and ugliness of Accra for something smaller.  We will surely be back to Accra, but for the moment I have had my fill of this giant, traffic-riddled city.  Our rockstar Obruni status will surely follow us to Cape Coast, although it is also touristy, so I suspect we may stand out a little bit less … we’ll see!

Oh, also, here are just a few of the trotro and taxis from today.  Note the back window messages as well as the questionable mechanical operation of some.

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