Saturday, 3 pm, Castel Sant'Angelo
Now bumping down the rutty road in the daylight, I get a clear look at the apparitions of the night before. We are in a rather suburban neighborhood, with some rather large houses, but also many unfinished or abandoned concrete shells, and plenty of shacks in between. Even the nicer places are surrounded not by well-kept lawns but wild nature sprouting everywhere. And people are nature too, and they likewise sprout up everywhere, people selling things, people carrying things, people milling about, children playing and children in tan-shirt and brown-shorts uniforms going to and from school. I soon understand why I had such a hard time at the airport explaining that I was staying at the "Catholic mission." There are zillions of missions herepractically every third building is some kind of churchrepresenting twice as many Christian sects as ever existed. Riding toward the city, one could see their influence in the signs on the ramshackle shanty-stores: "God's Love Auto Parts," "Jesus Saves Sewing Machines," "Seek and Ye Shall Find Furniture." Traffic is heavy all over, but intense as we approach the centre. It seems that half the population operates run-down orange-and-blue Datsun taxis, and the other half drives tro-tros, or small breaking-down mini-buses used for local public transportation, and every tro-tro and every truck sports some slogan, often religious in nature, painted in bright colors on its front or back or sides or all four. We had no map other than the rudimentary and not entirely reliable sketches provided in Richard's Lonely Planet guidebook to West Africa. We were following the guidebook for hotel recommendations, and although it was published only in 1995, we found it already out of date. The first hotel we looked at, the Georgiana, toward the northern section of Kojo Thompson Road, was an overpriced dump. The next one was only about a mile southward toward the city center, but it took James about twenty minutes to patiently negotiate the chaotic traffic, and when we got there we found an overpriced piece of shit. Richard was starting to feel nauseous, and I wasn't too comfortable myself; there is a weird, unhealthy smell pervading the atmosphere of Accra Centre, particularly noisome when sitting still in traffic with no real or apparent wind. We settled on the Hotel Avenida, in between but more to the north. I thought it was also too much at $25 a night, and it was a little shabby looking, but clean and spacious with two twin beds, refridgerator, air conditioning and ceiling fan, large bathroom and even a small sitting foyer. We noted right away that there was no water coming out of the taps, but the friendly manager assured us it was a problem they were working on and would be resolved "soon."
6:30, Hotel Campo De' Fiori
By the time we were settled in the room Richard was downright feverish, and there was nothing for him to do but lie down and hope that it wouldn't last too long. In the meantime, I had to fulfil my duty of taking a quick reconnaissance of the immediate neighborhood. I also had to get some local currency, some cedisto this point, I had not spent a dime since boarding the plane in New York. There were signs for several nearby foreign exchange offices, which are called, in typical Ghanaian fashion, not cambio but "forex," but they were all closed, so I headed southward, hopping over concrete drainage canals that, when covered, served as the only sidewalk along many streets, but were mostly uncovered, and dodging taxis and tro-tros to Liberia Road, then across to the next main north-south artery, Nkrumah Avenue. There I found a bank with an open door. Its forex was also closed, which afforded me my second taste of Ghanaian hospitality. A man told a kid in a security guard's uniform to go find me an open forex, and he led me around several corners until we found one (they're all over the place in Accra, just like every other merchandising "ent"erprise). I was sure he was expecting a tip, and he deserved one, and I was prepared to give him one, but once we verified that the forex was indeed open he simply spun on his heels, said goodbye and was gone. I changed a traveler's cheque, for which the rate was a full 20 percent lower than the posted cash rate (this wasn't mentioned in the guidebook), then returned to Avenida. The desk clerk told me I could find the Prestige office at the bottom of Kojo Thompson. Back in the room, Richard was miserable, yet confident that it was merely a pain-in-the-ass, waste-of-time ordeal that he had to suffer through and nothing more serious. I sat with him and watched one of the two television stations for a while. Still no water. I went back to the desk clerk, and he had a kid bring us a big bucket of water so we could at least flush the toilet. Then I set out again to scout some more, thinking that locating the Prestige office, certainly closed by now, would be a good place to start. From the vernal to the autumnal equinoxes, the farther south one is, the less daylight one experiences. Accra is less than 6 degrees north of the equator, and moreover does not observe daylight savings time, and it was 6:30 and already turning into night, and shortly down Kojo Thompson night fell with a bang. Sometimes there's a sidewalk or dirt shoulder in front of the spooky half-built buildings, more often there's not, and not seldom there's a gaping hole in the ground. Regularly there's a bunch of shit in the way. Meanwhile there are no streetlights and very few neon lights from stores, only the charcoal fires of people cooking for themselves and for sale to break the darkness. And headlights. The roads are not very good, and cars are jerking every which way to avoid a pothole or a person, or simply to negotiate a turn through the dog-eat-dog traffic. So when you get stabbed in the pupa by a headlight, it provides no illumination, just a blinding glare that makes the night seem darker shortly afterward. The entire population of Ghana had mystically appeared in the darkness, people running each way and hanging out and hawking merchandise and God knows what else. You had to keep 100 percent attention on where you're walking, plus 100 percent attention to what's coming from the left, and 100 percent to the right, and 100 percent to the front and 100 percent to the rear, and all the time you can't see shit, just 8 million ghosts. It was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences of my life. If someone wanted to rob me or kill me no one would ever know. I maintained my best New York don't-mug-me walk and kept moving through the chaos, even kept pursuing my mission. Downtown Accra doesn't have street addresses; the address on Prestige's card, "Opera Square, opposite Glamour," was one of the more descriptive I had seen. I found a building labeled Opera (of course, like many names in Accra, it had nothing to do with what went on inside) and a building bearing the word Glamour. Satisfied that I could find the office no problem in the daytime, I kept on going south. Like a fucking idiot. I must have been delusional, I thought it would be nice to find the sea. The road started curving around, and after several turns I realized I had lost my bearings. A naked little boy was getting a bath. If there were stars out I could find north, but there are no stars. Rationally, I felt it was time to panic. But I didn't. I kept moving, quickly, sweating seventy shirts in the thick humidity. Of course, Ghana is a very friendly country, and the thing to do might have been to ask a Ghanaian to point me toward Nkrumah Avenue, but if one tenth of one percent of society is criminal, I did not want to chance meeting the thousand that must be out there. So I keep moving, and just as I'm starting to wonder why I'm such an asshole, I espy across the way a small arch that I had passed on the way down, and from its orientation I was able to deduce that I was indeed actually on Nkrumah. Shortly, as I moved northward again, the crowds thinned, stretches of sidewalk became more common, the buildings grew bigger and emanated more light, and I was again in exploration rather than survival mode. I proceeded north of where I figured the hotel would be over on Kojo Thompson and up to Castle Road, a major east-west thoroughfare ("major," pertaining to roads in Accra Centre, means barely two lanes; lesser roads are barely that or dirt paths). Heading east on Castle I find a bar, what a great idea, an outdoor bar with no lights but at least beer. But first, I am badly in need of a shower, so I return to the hotel and breathlessly relate my adventure to Richard, who is too sick to give a crap.
Still no water. Richard has feverish chills, and even the ceiling fan makes him freeze. I calm down a bit. I read what the guidebook says about where I had just gone: "It's not safe to go there at night." Good thing I don't read these things beforehand. But I can't sit still, I have to go out again, and reason that I won't be the only person in this town who sweated too much today without a shower. From the hotel I head north, figuring that part of town would be more suited to my temperament. I go beyond Castle Road to check out a bar/restaurant mentioned in the guidebook called White Bell, on Farrar, the next main road. Unlike many establishments mentioned in the book, it is right there where it is supposed to be. Located on the second floor of a large-footprint building with a thatched roof and only wooden tassels for walls, it is breezy and very pleasant. The staff consists of a DJ playing Black American standards, an accommodating waiter and two girls taking turns passing out at a round table near the bar. The clientele consists of me and a couple of others scattered about the spacious room. I order the Star beer that Raj had told me about in New York, which comes in the same huge bottle as the Club, much larger than a pint, and the damage is only 2000 cedis, or slightly less than a dollar. Wow, I can tip 50 percent and still make out like a bandit. While drinking it a man in a red shirt comes over and bums a smoke. He didn't bother me further, but I should have known something was up because you almost never see a Ghanaian smoke. Just one beer is enough for now, I can always come back later. From my vantage point I noticed a real nice-looking hotel on the other side of Farrar and Kojo Thompson. I stop into the Niagara, which looks luxurious, and get shown a room, also luxurious, only a single bed but twenty feet wide. And the water works. Unfortunately it goes for $65 a night, which is tremendously extravagant for where we are. They have their own chi-chi restaurant as well, which just opened that day and whose menus would arrive tomorrow. Then I go off to find the Piccadilly Disco, which I saw on the map but did not, again, read about. It should be located just below Nkrumah Circle, which is at the junction of Nkrumah Avenue and Ring Road, a real major artery (four-lane, divided highway) that forms a semicircle around all of Accra. I head north on Kojo Thompson, which soon becomes an overpass over Ring Road with spooky people just hanging out mysteriously all over the sides, then a block north of Ring Road I descend a stone staircase into a most wonderful and amazing bazaar. A dirt alleyway is defined by a wide canal running down its center, mostly uncovered with occasional planks laying across it, and on either side are closely packed stalls and benches with signs with funny and inventive names from which people are hawking all manner of worthless junk as well as household items and shampoo and bibles and candy and hard-boiled eggswell, very much the same scene as downtown, but with one crucial difference: every fifteen or twenty feet there is a fluorescent light mounted vertically on a wooden post, so you can see! Hopping back and forth over the canal, either out of compulsion from the thick lively throngs of people or out of curiosity to see something on the other side, is less life threatening and lots more fun when you can see where your foot is going to land. Everyone is having a great time, all are enjoying themselves in the cooler and peaceful night that replaced the muggy, dusty day. It was like this all the way down the alley to Nkrumah Avenue North, around the circle and past a couple of outdoor bars and then the Piccadilly. The Piccadilly was dead, as I expected, since it was still only 10 pm. But I had developed quite a thirst from jumping over the canal so many times, so I ordered a beer, and the bartender said "light or dark," and I said "light," and he gave me dark. I was sitting down enjoying it, enveloped in the loud disco music, when the guy in the red shirt from White Bell invited himself to join me. He introduced himself as Mohammed, and we had at first an amicable conversation about where we're from, what we do, family, etc. Then he asked me to join him at a more private table in the back, even though there's no one around to hear us where we are, and there, while leaning close and constantly touching me on the arm, he goes into an interminable rap about how he comes from one of the finest families in Ghana and Cynthia Kellogg and his uncle is an important military officer and Cynthia Kellogg is the daughter of a Liberian rebel leader and she's hiding out in Accra with 7.5 million dollars and his family wants to help them and get 5 percent and Cynthia Kellogg needs me to help her get out of the country and I get 50 percent and Cynthia Kellogg and I'm listening and becoming more and more impatient because his story is going round and round and never leading further than the repetitive mention of Cynthia Kellogg and 7.5 million dollars. I don't want to be rude (why not?) but I'm getting annoyed at his babbling and constant touching and finally I break it off and politely but firmly take my leave. On the street again I'm careful to look back from obstructed vantage points to make sure he's not following me, and head back to White Bell for another beer. Actually, I'm furious now. I don't like bullshitters wasting my time to begin with, but what really gets me is that I told him something about myself, and if I'm twenty-five and from Iowa that's one thing, but I'm forty and from New York City and this asshole still thinks I'm going to swallow his nonsense. Seeing me for a second time, the waiter at the White Bell greets me like an old friend, and the beer calms me down. Back at the hotel Richard and I have a good laugh about the incident, especially when I read what the guidebook says about Piccadilly, also known as "Pick-a-Lady": "You most likely will be offered cocaine, opportunities for marriage and easy riches." Two out of three ain't bad. The description of the indoor disco across the street is even funnier: "If you are wearing sandals you will not be admitted, but you can rent shoes from the prostitutes outside." All in all, I was very happy with my evening in Accra, a city that comes alive at night.