Friday, 29 January 2010

Parting Words

My last afternoon in Ghana -- January has really flown by!

I thought I would write a final post to reflect on my trip this past week -- a little bit of Ghana, some Togo and a bit of Benin.

As my project was wrapping up in January a couple of weeks back, I was thinking ahead to the week of solo travel I was about to undertake. I had been gradually coming to the realization that I might be evolving out of the budget-backpacker phase of my life.

This transformation first struck me last December, when I started thinking about taking a week off HLS to squeeze in a trip to Togo and Benin. Although I ended up skipping school and traveling anyways, I found myself somewhat less enthuasiastic about the trip than I would have, say, a year or more ago. There was a long period of my life where I craved what backpacking had to offer: finding new adventures, crossing crazy borders, overcoming language barriers, walking far off the beaten path, making new friends and partying in strange places. And, to be honest, I actually liked certain parts of budget/backpacker culture (although I have *always* despised the pot-smoking/traveling kid/quasi-Rasta/hippie types that you meet at most hostels).

It's not like I hate traveling all of a sudden. I am still excited at the prospect of working in interesting locations abroad, but the excitment of traveling crazy places just to be there has worn off. Maybe it's growing up, or maybe it's having done so much independent traveling already. On the bus this morning, I figured out the number of countries that I've visited: it's 70+. The number is amazing or disgusting depending on how you look at it, but either way, it's a lot of ground covered.

For these reasons, I have treated the past week in some ways like my 'last' true backpacking trip. There is a certain symmetry in this formulation; in January of 2003 I came to Senegal, also in West Africa, which kickstarted my life as an independent traveler. Although I've covered fairly little ground in the past week, it feels as if I've done a sort of one-week West African redux.

There have been good things, bad things, and (as usual) funny things.

This trip has reminded me of the many pluses of traveling in West Africa:
- genuine hospitality (cliched but true; I have met many people in the past week alone who invited me to dine with them, stay at their place, meet their families, etc.)
- excellent dairy products (FanYogo in Ghana, lait caille in Benin)
- the music (acclaimed as the best in Africa. If you haven't checked out the following, you should: Senegal (Youssou Ndour, MC Solaar, even Akon); Mali (Salif Keita, Amadou et Mariam); Burkina (Ismael Lo); Benin (Angelique Kidjo); Ghana (Tinny and other hip-life artists).
- nice border crossings (in general)
- awesome and accessible sights: the stilt village, the vodou market, the crocodile pond, crumbling colonial towns, bustling cities, beachfront hotels, just to name a few options
- reasonable prices

The bad things about traveling (in this region especially) are also there. There are things you never really like, or get used to, no matter how many times you face them:
- the same relentless and irritating quasi-Rasta street hustler/drum instructor/souvenir salesman in every town
- the bizarre charges that people try to apply to the foreigner (e.g., a surprise "electricity surcharge" at my hotel in Lome where I had to pay $3 for use of the fan overnight; the 1,000 CFA pilfered by the Togolese border guard)
- cramped, shared long-distance transport (always inevitably with large individuals seated next to you)
- a very real chance of destruction at the hands of a zem driver, taxi driver, bus driver, tro driver, or any operator of motor vehicles
- starch overload; if I was carb-loading, I would have enough to run an Iron Man right now
- astonishing lack of respect for women (sadly, not limited to here)

Despite these irritations and drawbacks, traveling in West Africa never fails to make me laugh at least once a day. When I crossed into Benin five days ago, I lost track of my shared taxi and its driver (since they had no paperwork to complete). I looked and looked but couldn't find them anywhere on either side of the border. I felt sure that the driver had left without me and taken my pack with him. I wandered back to the Beninese side to find onward transport on my own and ran into the taxi driver. He said that he had been looking everywhere and that he whole carload was worried and waiting. I felt really bad at this point, and I suggested that we run back to the car (about a quarter-mile away) so as not to hold up the others any longer. When we were jogging, we passed two policemen who started blowing their whistlesand motioning us to pull over as if we were two speeding cars. Everyone around (including us) burst out laughing at the absurdity of a running white guy being pulled over by the cops.

My experience in Weta two days ago (see post immediately prior) was another reminder of the hilarity that happens when two cultures clash (in that case, those of American gangsters and Ewe villagers).

Even the shop names in West Africa have a sense of humor. Stores and vehicles have amusingly-worded religious titles: a taxi named "Junior Jesus," the "Let Them Say" canteen, "Havard Kiddie's University" [sic] (a primary school), and the profusion of "God's Time Is The Best" boutiques and restaurants. The small stand pictured below (in Weta) is typical of what you see around the region:

All in all, my past week was more interesting, more fun and less stressful than I thought it was going to be. Ending on a high note is a good thing.

It's probably premature to say that I've hung out my trusty backpack entirely, and I'm sure that I'll find myself in a budget hostel again before too long. It probably is fair to say, though, that I'm going to be looking for different types of travel from here on out.


  1. Interesting. As mentioned over weekend, I share your reservations about backpacking, but feel like I haven't quite quenched my desire for travel qua travel (probably because in the last couple years I haven't done quite as much as I would have liked...too much time in Ghana studying LSATs!)


  2. I hear you. I still think that backpacking/traveling for its own sake is a great thing to do, and I encourage others to do it. I guess I've just hit my limit, is all. Great seeing you guys in London!

  3. Hey man, bringing back memories of Senegal. Lait Caille....amaz-fucking-tastic. Don't forget the frozen bissap juice!