International Writers Magazine:Ghana
me alone! I screamed at the Asian guy who kept tapping my
shoulder, asking me to dance.
If you dont want to dance, why did you come here?
he asked, clearly baffled that an American amid a crowd of Africans
wouldnt dance with him. I was traveling and studying in Ghana
with a group of other students.
Our days were packed
with classes, trips, and volunteering and fatigue was starting to affect
us all. This night at the club was particularly taxing. I was going
to lose it pretty soon. Maybe it was the Ghanaian heat in June or the
smoke in the crowded club outside of Kumasi, but I was extremely irritated
and this fellow tourist was not helping.
It was 1:30 in the morning, and I was exhausted from a day of travel
and a night of dancing. I longed for a cool shower and the slightly
stiff bed at my hotel. Back at the bar I met up with some friends and
we decided to get a taxi and go to our hotel. If only if it had been
that easy. Finding a taxi in Ghana for a reasonable price when you are
a traveler is an art form.
First, you need to flag down a taxi. This usually involves risking your
life in the street to get a drivers attention. After you have
gotten a driver to pull over, the game of bargaining begins. You tell
him where you want to go and he tells you his price. Never, ever accept
his first offer. Cut it by at least half. Hell probably laugh
at you and say no no no but you must remain firm. Stay with
your price and start to walk away and in less than a second he will
call you back and take your offer. This is what more or less happened
that night in Kumasi.
A number of taxi drivers were waiting outside the club and after we
stated our destination, one driver said he would take us because he
knew where it was. We set our price at 20,000 cedis, which is about
US $2, and he gladly accepted. I was a little surprised at this, since
we were getting a great deal. I thought the trip was at least worth
double. Three other girls and myself stepped into the taxi. We were
all pretty tired so nobody said anything. The radio was playing reggae
and combined with the warm air blowing in through the windows, I was
starting to wind down. About three minutes after we left the club, the
driver pulled into the driveway of a hotel. Only the hotel was not ours.
We told him it wasnt the right place and he assured us we were
at the hotel we had told him. The names of the two hotels were pretty
similar, but we were definitely still fifteen minutes from our actual
hotel. It was a simple misunderstanding, but correcting it would be
Ok, he said, calm for the moment, it will cost 40,000
more cedis since I have to drive farther.
Collectively, we shouted No! He couldnt just change
the fare while we were on our way. We had agreed on a price and whether
or not he was confused by our location, he was obliged to take us there
for that amount. It is the unwritten code of taxi driving in Ghana.
We continued to argue with him, but he wouldnt budge. He was determined
to get more money. Fine, someone said, just take us
back to the club and well find a new taxi. It was an easy
Unfortunately, he would not accept it. He kept demanding more money
and asked us how to get to our hotel. The tension was rising in the
cab, frustration evident on everyones sweaty faces. At this point,
one of the girls snapped. She cursed at the driver repeatedly and said
we wouldnt be taken advantage of, just because we were white and
female. The tongue- lashing seemed to strike a nerve in the taxi driver,
and his switch flipped as well. Instantly, the drivers attitude
changed. He called us expletives, then sped out of the driveway we had
been idling in. He switched the radio off, rolled up the windows, buckled
his seat belt and told us to buckle up as well. Completely oblivious
of our pleadings to go back to the club, he raced down a dark street.
His face was tight with a jaw clenched and angry determination radiated
out of his narrowed eyes. For minutes we sped on into the darkness.
The driver wouldnt tell us where we were going, wouldnt
slow down, he didnt do anything but keep the pedal to the metal.
Whatever tiredness I was feeling, I was now cured of. We were
all wide-awake and terrified. No one wears seat belts in Ghana, and
to be told to wear one by a driver was alarming. What will he do to
us that requires seatbelts? I couldnt help but think something
bad was going to happen, that he would take out revenge on us for not
paying what he demanded. The story of a fellow traveler who had been
robbed by a taxi driver on the roadside drifted to the front of my mind.
I figured he would either get us into an accident with his reckless
driving or take us somewhere and rob us. Something was going down, and
it was not going to be pleasant. One tiny miscommunication was blown
so out of proportion by both sides that no resolution now seemed possible.
We were on a joy ride to hell, with no end in sight.
At the top of the hill we were zooming up, we saw some lights. It was
a Shell gas station, the glowing yellow sign a beacon of relief. Completely
desperate, we all asked him to stop there and let us out, but he seemed
to think we wanted to get a snack or something. Either way, he pulled
over and the four of us rushed inside.
We paced around the store, shaking with fright and wondering what
to do. We didnt have phones, we didnt have the numbers of
friends who did have phones, and we were in a strange city. By now it
was 2 AM and it was a miracle this gas station was even open. The taxi
driver was still waiting outside for us to come back out, but there
was no way any of us were going back in that red and blue death trap.
For the time being we did the logical thing: bought bags of plantain
chips and snacked until we calmed down. Or went into denial about the
When we finished our chips but were still milling around the store,
the two other people inside noticed something was wrong, and asked us
what was going on. We explained the situation and one of the men went
out to talk to the driver. The driver told the man his side of the story
with great animation while we watched, wondering which side he would
take. After all, we were just some rich tourists.
The man helping us came back in and said the driver just wanted
to be paid the full fare. That seemed like an over simplification
of the problem, but we said we would give him the fare we agreed on
and only that. Although he sided with us, he wanted the situation to
end peacefully. He went back out, talked to the driver some more, and
got him to drive away.
It was a complete relief to see him drive off, but now we had
no way home. Luckily, the strangers came to our rescue again. They found
us another taxi, and had us taken back to the club so we could either
re-join our friends or find another taxi back.
At the club again, we met up with our friends as they were getting
ready to leave. They were shocked as we were telling them of our misadventure.
Meanwhile, a shiny black car pulled up and out stepped the strangers
from the gas station. They said they wanted to make sure we arrived
safely, so they followed behind us in their own car.
On the taxi ride back, as we were all venting and sharing how scared
we were, one of the girls said she saw the man who helped us pay the
taxi driver when he went out and got the driver to leave. Everyone went
quiet, thinking about the generosity of the strangers. Those two men,
who turned out to be famous Ghanaian radio personalities, went out of
their way to help four random travelers at two in the morning. They
had no incentive to help us and they could have easily done nothing.
Even though that was one of the scariest nights of my life, and I was
a tad weary of getting into a taxi for the rest of my trip, Im
glad I had the experience. At 2 AM, in a Shell station in Sub-Saharan
Africa, I learned the true depth of human kindness. That night captured
the essence of Ghana. And it is not that all taxi drivers can be lunatics.
Actually, the dozens of drivers I met were great people. It sums up
Ghana for me because I was always experiencing mishaps, but amazing
things came out of each of those unpleasant times. I might get lost
in a new neighborhood, but I would meet the friendliest people who gave
me directions, or I would find a gem of a restaurant off the tourist
track. Or maybe I would be stuck in traffic for hours, but while I was
waiting I would buy delicious food from street vendors. Ghana teaches
you how to go with the flow because life is so different
compared to the United States. Yes, bad things can and do happen, but
the people you meet and the places you see that result from those experiences
make a vacation a journey.
© Kate Mead May 2008
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