Visiting Ghana, Africa’s Most Interesting Country

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Two nights before the MV Explorer arrives in a country, we have a cultural pre-port that all Semester at Sea participants attend. This can be anything about the place weโ€™ll be visiting, from the food to the music, the people to the religion.

One night before we arrive, we have a logistical pre-port. This is when the Field Office tackles need-to-knows, our unflappable assistant dean Laurie gives a rundown of how our arrival in that country will work, and our expressive doc, โ€œDr. Diarrheaโ€ as he lovingly has been dubbed by the entire shipboard community, scares the heck out of all of us with tales of elephantiasis and frightening images of other such diseases we could potentially encounter on land.

Here’s the thing: The scary parts of visiting developing nations like Ghana oftentimes trump the pre-arrival excitement, as was the case this time around. You have to worry about things like not drinking a bottle of water unless you are absolutely certain it has never been opened before and even then wiping down the top and lid—or bringing a water dispenser with you just in case—and making sure everything you eat is cooked, passing on the unpeeled fruit or uncooked produce like lettuce. One small slip-up can make the difference of a great trip or a trip spent sleeping on the bathroom floor (as I found out in Portugal five years ago, after brushing my teeth with the local water and subsequently spending every night dreadfully ill). After Dr. Diarrhea’s presentation, SVV and I were wondering if we should even get off the ship.

But, in reality, I had nothing to worry about when we got to Ghana.

The people, they were friendly—overly so—the nicest people you will meet anywhere in the world, of this I am certain. The food, it was delicious. I had bottles of Pepto Bismol stashed in my backpack and didn’t even bust it out. Some of my fellow staffers located this wonderful restaurant, Ambar, near downtown Accra, and we gorged ourselves on jollof rice, chili chicken, red red, foufou and all the plantains in the land. I’ve never would have guessed Ghana for a culinary destination, and yet, I didn’t have a bad dish during the time we were there.

The only serious problem we encountered was traffic—Accra’s car situation makes LA look tame—but we had a police escort every time we ventured the 33 kilometers from Tema into the capital, which is another story for another day.

And yet despite the frenetic pace at which Ghana operates and the 25 million people that crowd the country, I had a bizarre chance encounter.

The first day in the country, SVV and I took off into the city with Paula and Spencer. We arrived in Accra and set off with no map, no direction, no plan. After an amazing lunch at a “local spot”—during which we were able to watch a school induction ceremony take place across the street, complete with costumes, theatrics, drumming, dancing and chieftans—we took a taxi over to the Centre for National Culture.

We got there just as one of the Semester at Sea trips was leaving, meaning the vultures were out in full force ready to poach the tourists, and they closed in on us before we were even out of the cab, wanting to usher us into their respective shops.

This worked in reverse, as SVV, Paula, Spencer and I were totally turned off from the experience and bolted back out the entrance. One Ghanaian followed us: “my sister, my sister, please come back. My people, they don’t understand that you are not used to this in America. Please, return, and I will guide you through the market and no one will bother you.”

We declined his offer, and then he stopped in his tracks and looked at me more closely: “you’ve been here before. I know you.”

“Uh, no, I’m pretty sure you don’t,” I eyed him skeptically.

“No, I do! Take off your glasses.” I did, and he responded, “you have a sister. She’s a university student. She was here with the ship last year. I taught her how to play the drums.”

Here’s where I was completely blown away, as all that he said technically was true (other than the drum part, which I had to confirm). I told him I’d come back later.

I texted my sister, and she said yes, a group of locals had taught her and Richard drumming while they were traveling independently through Ghana last year and that I should return to get a picture of the guy. So two days later, we did. We entered the market, were swarmed once more and asked one of the locals for David. Ten minutes later, David emerges, delighted that we did indeed come back. He escorted us to his work studio, and we sat down and had a nice long chat.

He was by far one of the nicest people I met while in the country, not expecting a thing from us and completely generous, giving me handmade goods for Kari and me. He wanted us to come back so he could give us a proper drumming workshop, but alas, we were out of time.

I later sent Kari this photo to confirm that, yes, he was one of the locals she met 18 months ago during her own trip here. Bizarre. Only me. Only my sister. Only in Ghana.

Because David was so nice and not pushy, we asked to see his shop, which was tucked away at the back of the market and full of the most beautiful woodwork. If you recall, SVV and I have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with globes and maps, and we had already talked about expanding our collection with purchases abroad from this trip. As I poked around David’s shop, I found the perfect piece of woodworking genius: a small hand-carved, hand-painted globe that would become the 20th in our repertoire of globes and serve as an ever-present reminder of our whirlwind visit to Ghana.

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COMMENTS
  • September 21, 2011
    MOM

    “Only me. Only my sister. Only in Ghana.” ONLY MY GIRLS!!! And the freaky Psycho music continues…

    • September 21, 2011
      Kristin

      It’s all your doing!

  • September 21, 2011

    How crazy! At least she remembered him for good things, not as, “That guy who stole my purse.”

    It always amazes me how you manage to meet the most wonderful people when traveling. It’s like you have a homing device for awesome people and they just flock to you.

    • September 21, 2011
      Kristin

      Haha, I like that mental image! And I hope it continues to be true…one of the things I miss about traveling solo is you meet SO MANY more people that way than you do in group travel. At least, unless you like talking to yourself and only yourself all day, every day, solo travel forces you to strike up a conversation with your neighbor at dinner, that deli guy at the supermarket, the crazy woman feeding the pigeons in the park (OK, maybe not her, but you get the gist).

  • September 21, 2011

    That is truly unbelievable. You must have been stunned.

    Oh, and who doesn’t need 20 globes. As if!

    • September 21, 2011
      Kristin

      That’s my mentality! And I expect our collection to double by this time next year as we’ll soon be back in the South with all those delicious antiques markets, too =)

  • September 21, 2011

    What a great culmination of events. It goes to show that in even the biggest tourist trap, there’s humanity and kindness–not to mention a lovely story–to be found.

    • September 21, 2011
      Kristin

      I love that sentiment. That’s going to be my motto from now on: “there’s humanity and kindness–not to mention a lovely story–to be found [in every situation].”

  • September 21, 2011
    Dayla

    Goosebumps! I’ve had similar occurences (just not in Ghana)!

    • September 21, 2011
      Kristin

      These types of things seem to happen to me more and more…but I never expected it to happen in Ghana of all places! I feel like it’s a sign–of what, I’ve yet to figure out…

  • September 21, 2011

    What a crazy coincidence! That’s a great story, and I’m glad you got another globe as a memory of it.

    • September 21, 2011
      Kristin

      I wish all crazy coincidences ended with cool globes as the finale!

  • September 21, 2011

    I LOVE this!! How cool that you were in Ghana and ran into someone who knew your sister. Plus, amazing globe!! Keep the stories coming. Wish I was there with you!

    • September 21, 2011
      Kristin

      I can’t wait to have a couple days off this next week to catch up on all your Thai adventures!!!

  • September 21, 2011

    I love this story, and I really love that globe! Yay Ghanna!

    xox

  • September 21, 2011

    So, you’re Kari’s sister. I see the resemblance. I was the librarian on her voyage and know exactly where you were, but didn’t know David. Kojo was our guy.

    • September 21, 2011
      Kristin

      What a small world–or rather sea, I suppose. =)

  • September 21, 2011

    Cool story about your sister and great impressions of Ghana ๐Ÿ™‚ It is one of my favorite countries in West Africa. I will be there in mid November to visit with friends and your post is one more reminder about why it is a special place. You’re right, the traffic is really bad in Accra. There is a new highway that will hopefully take off a lot of the pressure on ring road when it is finished. Do you stop elsewhere in West Africa?

    • September 21, 2011
      Kristin

      Unfortunately not, Phil. We dock in South Africa in two days for a week and then it’s off to Mauritius! But we worked with this great operator, Land Tours, who operates in six countries in West Africa so I’d love to come back independently and do one of their trips. And I’m hoping if I ever do Semester at Sea again, we’ll dock in Takoradi (which they do from time to time) and get to see more of the Cape Coast and Dixcove area.

  • September 21, 2011

    UNREAL! What an amazing and awesome run–in!

  • September 21, 2011

    What an amazing travel moment! See, the right mix of skeptism and openness can lead you to all sorts of wonderful things!

    • September 21, 2011
      Kristin

      I like the way you think!

      equal parts skepticism + equal parts openness = amazing chance encounters you wouldn’t have had otherwise

  • September 21, 2011
    McKenzie

    Such a cool story.

  • September 21, 2011

    The stories just keep getting better! Love the globe!

    • September 21, 2011
      Kristin

      Next up: South Africa, where I most definitely will NOT be diving with great whites… ๐Ÿ˜‰
      I’m leaving that as your story to tell. (You’re welcome!)

  • September 21, 2011

    What is the white cone in the bottom right of your food shots?

    • September 22, 2011
      Amy
      • September 25, 2011
        Kristin

        Yes, Amy, you are totally right! It’s a weird texture, but it’s pretty tasty when combined with the other dishes on the plate.

      • May 21, 2013
        Selorm

        Nope. That’s actually akple (aka banku). It’s derived from corn powder (and cassava dough). It’s a pretty popular dish, especially with ground pepper and tillapia. Sorry f I’m responding to a “dead post”.

      • May 21, 2013
        Selorm

        Nope. That’s actually akple (aka banku). It’s derived from corn powder (and cassava dough). It’s a pretty popular dish, especially with ground pepper and tillapia. Sorry if I’m responding to a “dead post”.

  • September 22, 2011
    Amy

    What a fantastic happening (story seems not real enough for what transpired). David’s words to you that his people don’t understand that their behavior isn’t what you’re used to is a good reminder. I get turned off by the pushy sales people at the mall at home, so people who rush me in a foreign country where I’m already on guard really go beyond my comfort level and I shut down so quickly.

  • September 22, 2011

    If someone had put me and my sister together I would have been shocked. I’m assuming you ladies look quite similar. HOW AWESOME of an experience!

    • September 25, 2011
      Kristin

      The weird thing is I don’t think we look much alike at all! Like maybe if we’re standing side by side in a photo, but definitely not completely removed from each other and meeting the same guy 18 months apart! I’m still blown away by the whole situation.

  • September 22, 2011

    Amazing story! People often think my sister and I are twins so I’ll have to see if I can fool anyone when she comes to visit me in Thailand…

    • September 25, 2011
      Kristin

      You could totally pull a Parent Trap on your Thai friends!

  • September 22, 2011

    Chance encounters like that one remind me that the world is itty bitty. It might seem great and vast and tiny, but we’re all connected, somehow, by a wildly woven web.

  • September 22, 2011

    What a crazy story and small world! (and a small world with which to remember him ๐Ÿ™‚

  • September 23, 2011

    I still can’t believe that happened! What a coincidence!!! That globe rocks!

  • September 26, 2011

    I feel the same way about markets when vendors are pushy, but he was right it”s just a cultural thing but I hate high pressure and I usually just walk away.

  • September 29, 2011

    Great story! I love weird chance encounters like that. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • October 2, 2011

    1) That food looks amazeballs
    2) Dr. Diarrhea is hilarious
    3) I can’t believe the guy remembered your sister and was able to connect you with her!!! I guess there aren’t a whole lot of blondes with blue eyes wandering around there ๐Ÿ™‚

    Lilly from Around the World L told me that Ghana has the friendliest people in the world. I’m glad you had a great time, and that globe you bought is beautiful!

  • June 6, 2012

    Good pictures. I remember my volunteer abroad trip in Ghana. It was so good. I miss my host family so much.

  • March 13, 2014

    That is crazy. Such a chance encounter but also that he recognised your sister in you. I have always wanted to head to Ghana and with you saying its so friendly only makes we want to go more.

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