The last time I was in West Africa, in 1978, I was foolish, naïve, fearless, and often more than a bit lucky. That was before the time of Lonely Planet guides, and I often traveled without maps or any knowledge of appropriate lodging, pretty much clueless as well about local custom. That I survived is little short of a miracle. I was based in Ouagadougou in what was then “Haute Volta” - Upper Volta - and is now called Burkina Faso, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer and teaching English at the University of Ouagadougou to students who were just a year or two younger than I was. It was a time of discovery and self-discovery, and in terms of life lessons, I almost certainly learned far more from spending two years in a world far removed from my own than my students did from me, even if I did try to do more than simply teach verb conjugations, reading comprehension, and popular slang.
Now I was back, for the first time in 33 years, not at all certain what I would find, and how I would find it. Pat, whose idea of roughing it is a hotel with a shared bath, had somewhat bravely bought in to the notion of a little adventure, as long as I could assure her that we wouldn’t sacrifice too many creature comforts. We arrived in Accra, a place I’d visited two or three times. The Ghanaian immigration service had gone super modern, with high-tech electronic fingerprint scanners to make certain that all potential terrorists were traceable. Fine idea, but it meant that it took an hour and a half to process one Airbus full of arriving passengers.
The next morning we ventured out to see the city. It was like I’d never been there before; I recognized absolutely nothing. It was so bad that when the taxi driver dropped us off next to the gigantic Makola Market, we couldn’t even find our way inside. I will take credit for the fact that when we asked a subsequent taxi driver to take us to the fishing harbor, and he headed east instead of west, I questioned whether he was going the right way. He insisted he was, but as the town center receded from view, I grew more and more skeptical. And when I repeated - the Fishing Harbor by Jamestown, he replied, “Oh, that fishing harbor. No - it’s that way.” What should have been a five minute ride became a forty minute crawl through the virtual gridlock that afflicts central Accra from 5 in the morning until 8 at night. That, to be sure, was different from what I recalled of Accra circa 1977.