This day last month I was speeding around the rough roads of Ghana, visiting community-based tourism projects from the humid southern coast to the lush eastern highlands and arid northern semi-desert. The aim was to find places where Irish people could holiday cheaply, while benefitting locals.
I have to admit that before I left I was anxious about travelling in Africa again: the thought of clattering around on old buses, staying in pokey guesthouses and risking the Russian-roulette of street-food wearied me for the first time ever. I feared I may have lost my love of travel. Would I have to begin shielding myself from my surroundings – staying in air-conditioned hotels, eating Western food, taking private taxis?
The question still loomed as I left Accra airport and had to decide whether to turn right towards the taxi rank or continue walking out to the highway where battered old Mercedes vans called tro-tros rattle along towards the city, picking up people until they are bursting at the seams and dropping them off wherever they happen to end up. A taxi costs €8 compared to 20 cent for a tro-tro, and while I would always take a taxi at night or in a risky area, Ghana is safe.
So I walked to the road and shouted, “Downtown, downtown” at every passing van until one stopped and the passengers scooched up to allow me cram in. I was just fishing out some Ghanaian coins when a man behind me shouted up, “No need, I’ve paid for you”. I turned to thank him, but the minibus was already slowing and he was heaving his way out. “Welcome to Ghana” he said, and I was smitten with Africa once again.
The next three weeks played out more or less the same. Though I encountered some surly, sour people, mostly I was cocooned in a network of caring Ghanaians who passed me from one to another. I’d bungle out into the sweltering 40 degree heat, knowing that whatever I needed could be found by just asking the person next to me. If they couldn’t help, someone else would, and unlike elsewhere in Africa, no one expected money. I would tumble into a tro-tro mumbling about where I wanted to go and people around me would decide how best to get there, pushing me back out again and into another tro-tro if necessary, or else haranguing the driver to go out of his way to get me to my destination.
That feeling of being embraced by an entire country is a phenomenal sensation and yet it is the norm for Western travellers in most of the world.
One day I tripped on the road and instantly had a dozen people helping me up, carrying my bag, steering me towards a clinic lest I needed a bandage. That’s the world I know, the world I’ve been travelling through for a quarter of a century without ever being robbed or harmed, except one time on my first ever trip.