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 we’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, “Dr. Diarrhea” 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.