In a recent letter to my mom I mentioned how I get around in Ghana because she had asked me how I make travel plans. Its a good question- how the heck do you get around this country? I think I briefly talked about traveling here when I first got to Accra, but I don't think I've described it much since then, so I will try to do the subject justice. We just had our All-Volunteer Conference, so its the perfect opportunity to describe the traveling experience here.
Traveling is the most dreaded activity here, next to hand washing our clothes and dishes. Ghana is about the size of Oregon, but with how long it takes to get anywhere, you would think it was as big as the entire West Coast. Really, all you can do is "hope for the best, prepare for the very worst."
Our All-Vol Conference started on a Thursday, so I left my house that Tuesday to get to the Tamale sub-office. To leave Kongo, I walk to the market square and either pick a tro-tro that's driving through Kongo to Bolga, or I hop on a Kongo car that's waiting in the market to fill. On days that I'm lucky, I catch a car as soon as I get to the road; on bad days, I can wait up to an hour for a tro to drive by with a spot open, or for the Kongo car to fill. Once in Bolga, I go get on a Tamale car. Usually when I want to get to Tamale, I leave my house as early as I can so I can get to Tamale by noon. I just hate making that 3-hour drive to Tamale after the middle of the day. Since a lot of Upper East volunteers were heading down to the sub-office before the conference also, I lucked out and got on the same tro as Lauren and Ran. Traveling with people is so much better than being alone- you have someone to talk to on the painfuly long drives, and you have other white people support once at your destination. Usually when I catch the Tamale car, I miss the first car out and I have to wait about an hour for the next one to fill. Only a lucky few times have I gotten one of the last seats available. Once in Tamale, you take a taxi to a place called Vittin Estates, which is just east of the main Tamale town off the Salaga road. You drop at the junction where there's a convenient corner provisions store, then walk a few hundred meters to the office.
Just like last year, All-Vol was held at Bunso Cocoa College, which is in the Eastern Region, about an hour west of Koforidua. So all of us staying at the Tamale sub-office had a long trek to make on Thursday. About 20 of the PCVs hired a private car to take them directly from the office to the college, but I didn't get on it in time, so I had to travel the normal way. But it worked out fine, I ended up traveling with Ryan, Lauren and Mary- an awesome group to make the trip with!
So there's several ways you can get from Tamale to Bunso: 1) take a Tamale-Kumasi car, then in Kumasi get a Koforidua car and drop early at the college (the car will drive right by the college on its way to Kof, so its pretty convenient); 2) take the Tamale-Accra bus, either early morning day bus or afternoon night bus, and drop early at the college (cars going to the south will pass by the college, so you just drop early). I decided to stick with what I know- take the Tamale-Kumasi car, then in Kumasi go to the Kof station to get a car. From Tamale to Kumasi, its about 6 hours, then Kumasi to Kof is about 4 hours, but dropping at the college makes it about 3 hours. So 9 hours of driving, but that doesn't include waiting for cars to fill, and the exchange in Kumasi. This all adds up to us getting a really early start.
Thursday morning we were up by 4:30 AM, out of the office by 5, got a taxi right away, and were at the station a few minutes later. We arrived at the station just in time to get on the first bus to Kumasi, we got the last 4 of 5 seats. I've never been able to catch that first car to Kumasi, I always am on the second small car to leave, so I was pretty excited! We took up most of the back row of the bus. Usually in big tro-tros, the last row of seats is the WORST, but this was a nice big bus, so the back was very roomy! For various reasons (people not on the bus, a big truck in our way) we don't leave the station until 6 AM. At this point the sun was just over the horizon- time to nap!
Cars going from Tamale to Kumasi (or anything in general going between the north and south) make one definite stop, for about 10-15 minutes, depending on the driver- at Kintampo. All other small stops are just for people to go pee on the side of the road; so essentially, this stop at Kintampo is the only one I get. This is the approximate halfway point between Tamale and Kumasi. There are decent restrooms, a few sit-down places to eat, and lots of bread, yams, fruit, fried yam and meat being sold. Sometimes I'll buy some bread to snack on, sometimes I'll buy some fried yams, because the hot pepe sauce that comes with it is so good!
We end up beating the private PCV bus to the Kintampo stop by about 10 minutes, so we crossed pathes for a few minutes. Then it was back on the road for the four of us, no stopping until Kumasi. We got to Kumasi about 12:30, and we dropped at Race Course to grab a taxi to the Kof station. (Race Course used to be a big, bustling station before I got to country, but it was torn down to build a hotel, so I've been told.) Again, we lucked out and got the very last seats on the car that was filling up to go to Koforidua. That also meant only 3 of 4 of us got to use the urinal at the station (which was by far the nicest urinal I've seen in Ghana, and in Kumasi no less). As far as exchanges in Kumasi go, this one was pretty painless. We were in Kumasi for well under an hour- success!
Back on the road, heading southeast towards Koforidua. It was a fairly uneventful few hours, except we passed the private PCV bus on the way! They didn't see us, but we were pretty thrilled we were making better time than their private car!
Right before Bunso College, there's a rest stop that tros usually stop at for a minute, called Linda Dor. As we were stoppped there, the PCV bus caught up to us, so we hopped out of our car and onto theirs, so we could get a ride all the way through the college campus to where we needed to be. It all worked out well, the timing couldn't have been more perfect. We arrived at Bunso before 4 PM- not bad! So from the start at TSO to the finish at Bunso, 11 hours.
On the way back, I knew the travel back up from the college to TSO would be painful, so I got a very early start that Monday after the conference was finished. I skipped breakfast and head out at 6:45 alone, since everyone's plans were scattered, made the decent trek out of the college to the main road to catch a car. I got a on a tro right when I got the to the road; at first I thought he was only going to the Linda Dor stop, and then from there I would pick an Nkawkaw or Kumasi car, but he ended up going all the way to Nkawkaw, so I stayed on the same tro for that 45 minute ride. I remembered from last year that I went from the college to the Linda Dor junction to get a car to Nkawkaw and then there got a car to Kumasi, so I just followed my steps again. Once in Nkawkaw, I got on a Kumasi car, waited about 20 minutes for it to fill, then we were on the road again.
About 1 1/2 hours later, we arrived in Kejetia- a huge mess of stations and vendors and buildings and tons of people everywhere. We arrived in Kumasi mid-morning which was perfect- rigt in-between the crazy, shitshow traffic jams of the morning and noon times. The car stopped at the other side of Kejetia than where I needed to be to catch the Tamale car, so I hauled myself to the other side of the station, which took about 10 minutes with the thousands of people everywhere. After what seemed like a much, much longer walk than what it should have been, I reached the Tamale cars. And somehow, again, I get the very last seat on the car that was filling, and as a bonus, Ran and Diana were already on the same car! I guess they had left the college a few minutes before me and somehow I caught up to them. I was very thankful to get this last seat on the car. I've waited up to two hours for this Kumasi-Tamale car to fill several times before, and that's not fun. I got crammed in the back row with the other PCVs, which was meant for three people, not the four they packed back there...so part of me was on the seat, part was in the empty spot between the seat and side of the car. But it was not the worst seat I've ever gotten, and I didn't have to wait at all for the car to leave, so that was fine by me. It was actually the most pleasant (if that word can even be used to describe anything about Kumasi) exchanges I've had in Kejetia ever. Normally everyone is yelling OBRONI and men reach out a grab your arm to get your attention (I'm just waiting for the one who grabs something other than my arm, I'm afraid of what will happen to him)...but this time I got none of that. I can only describe it as a miracle. Finally, people understood my "Don't f--- with me" face.
We left the station right away, at 10 AM; again, I was in Kumasi for as little time as possible, which is exactly how you should approach that shithole of a city that you just can't avoid when you're traveling between the north and south.
We stopped again at Kintampo, around one, and got into Tamale just before 4 PM. Total time under six hours- pretty good (longer rides I've had can take up to 7 hours, but its not nearly as bad as the 9 hours it used to be when the roads were much worse). Other PCVs also went from Bunso to Tamale that day but didn't come in until a few hours after the three of us. After a long day of travel, I crashed hard, then got up early again the next morning to get back to Bolga (again I got the last seat on the Tamale-Bolga car- pretty unusual luck for me to get on nearly-full cars; I usually get there right when the tro has filled and I end up being the first one on the second car that's leaving going to Bolga). I was back in Bolga around 10. Got food, did some shopping, post office, internet cafe...then back on the Kongo tro to home, never to make that trip south again for a very, very, very long time!