16 June 2011

Obroni travel guide to tro-tros

Part I. Some Basic Travel Rules.

Living in Cape Coast, with most of my friends in Accra, I take a lot of tro-tro/ford bus rides back and forth.  I’ve now taken enough trips back and forth that I have developed a set of strategies for ensuring maximum comfort.  Here are a few:

1.       Do not overpack your backpack.  If you have a seat that requires you to frequently get up and down for people who are boarding/alighting, you will regret it. As in, when you can’t smoothly get off the tro and back on again, people get irritated. And some will, inevitably, look at you like you’re stupid. Which you kind of are, for not being able to manage a backpack.

2.       If you are ready to get off, don’t say “I want to get off here.” Say that you want to alight. Please. Otherwise everyone will look at you like you’re stupid.  Which you kind of are, for not picking up on the fact that everyone who has gotten off before you has used the word, ‘alight.’

3.       If possible, take the seat on the far side of the tro next to the window. You’ll get air and you won’t have to move.  Thus avoid all appearances of stupidity. 

4.       Bring change for snacks. It’s obnoxious to make vendors break larger bills.

5.       Do not think about dirt.  It isn’t important and it washes off.  But please, at least wash your  sandaled feet when you get home, if you can’t manage the rest.  They are just disgusting.

Of course, there are more, but I’ll save them for when you come to visit me.

Part II. Some Sights and Sounds to be Found on the Road.

For background: when you sit on the tro-tro, waiting for it to fill up with passengers so you can finally leave, all the vendors cluster around and do business through open windows and doors.  If you’re obroni  (foreigner/white person), you get a lot of attention and occasional price hikes.  That being said, you can generally count on staples like sachet water, biscuits, drinks, yam chips, meat pies, bread and yogurt.  Every day, you will see enterprising people working hard to survive and get ahead.  Sometimes, you get a rare find, like superglue.  The general rule is that if you don’t buy it right when you see it, you will never see it again.  Today:

-A plastic harmonica vendor.  Sadly, I miss the opportunity.  
-Sweet apples, and here’s the story.  So, the first apple vendor offers to sell me one for gh 1. I relay that I only have 50p (appropriate price), but she isn’t pleased and tells me that I have more money in my pocket.  When I shrug, she moves on.  In a bit, another vendor comes by and offers to sell me an apple for 50p. I buy one of her apples even though I don’t really want it, just to congratulate myself that, after four months, i know that a single apple should never cost gh 1.  Clearly, a little silly and you were probably hoping I was long past this, ideally through with this kind of immature behavior.  Sorry, no.
-Someone markets a small box of Q-tips with a pen, for 50p.  You have to work with what you’ve got.  2 sales made.

-Deworming medication is offered by an enthusiastic and determined seller.  He has to sell well, just based on his commitment level.
-A young man offers to say prayers for our safe travels in exchange for small donations.  Heads bow during prayer, but I don’t see any donations given.

-And the rest of what passes by with the noise...toothpaste, phone credits, hand towels, flags, maps of Accra, men's dress shirts, phone credits again, and candies. Interesting note, most hard candies here are like cough drops.  They're even made by Halls.  The rest are usually ginger, but I found coffee flavored so I really got lucky. 50 pesewas.

After we pull out from the station, it’s all congestion for some time.  We get a bisection of Accra’s population as we crawl through traffic at Malam Junction, with an amazing number of tro-tros, big buses, brand-new SUVs, and compacts converging and merging.  You will definitely note all the “couldn’t be sold at auction because of structural damage so were shipped to Africa for resale at ridiculously high prices” used cars, which generally become taxis or personal vehicles.  Of course, cars with structural damage don’t hold up so well in accidents.   
English song playing on Ghanaian radio station: “You make me feel, you make me feel, you make me feel like a natural ma-aaan…” Not the original, not the remake, but a cover of a remake of a classic.  So it's a classic, warped and wronged and twice removed.  Bad radio is the same all over the world.

After passing the angry part of the traffic, things settle down.  As we’re passing through one of many communities surrounding Accra, there’s a man in crisp Muslim garb walking along the street.  With one hand, he leads a little goat/sheep by a rope.  In the other hand?  A shotgun, with the tip leaning against his shoulder.  Ominous*.
*Seriously, I think I may become a goat/sheep vegetarian.  The little goats/sheep are cute and I still have flashbacks to another tro-tro ride…where a man brought a baby goat on board, carried upside down because it was trussed up with rope, shaking all over from the shock.  I’m just not a fan, not at all.  If I could have a little goat to play with, I would.  But then I would have to leave Ghana and the goat at some point, and I think we can all imagine what can happen to a goat, out on its own, alone in the world.
At this point, I nap. It’s hard, because there are a LOT of speed bumps on the coast road.  They do more than jostle.  This ride is not recommended to anyone with any kind of back problem.
Also on the radio, different station: a very impassioned and insightful argument from a caller-in about political parties needing to step up and do more to provide free education and improve the police force, as well as issuing a call for politicians to start working for people and stop “practicing politics.” Then he switched to Twi so I couldn’t understand any more.
It’s been, surprisingly, about 2 ½ hours.  We pass Biriwa, a very poor fishing village, and also the location of Biriwa Beach Resort.  It’s one of those juxtaposition deals.  I do love driving through Biriwa because I know I’m almost home – it’s right on the ocean, lush and green with palm trees, and generally beautiful.  At the time we pass by, the fishing boats are crammed up onto the shore, and I can see the water spotted with the sails of those that are still out.  Then Biriwa is past and home is closer.  Soon, on the right, I see the “University of Cape Coast 13 km ahead” sign.  We turn toward downtown and again, we are in a mass of taxis and tros.  Except nowhere near the scale of Accra.     
I may have mentioned before that just about all taxis and tro-tros have lettering on their back windows.  Usually the message is spriritually based, but some messages do seem to rise above religious identification.  I’ve collected some of my favorite life-lessons-by-tro below.  Before I do, I have been asked by a friend to remember that the spiritual sayings tell an important story as well – what a person has been through, what she or he has learned, or what keeps that person motivated.  So to close, here are some of my motivations, and I think, in sum, they sum it all up:
o   Lazy man eat no food
o   Enye easy (It’s not easy)
o   Susu Ka (Quit going on and on)
o   Oh Man
o   Expect
o   Decent
o   Expensive
o   If you do good you do for yourself
o   Don’t judge
o   Why not
o   Why is it so?
o   Thank you philanthropist
o   Prince of pea*
*Now, I recognize that this probably intended to say “Prince of Peace”, aka Jesus.  But minus the ‘ce’, when I saw this on a taxi in front of me, I could only think of the story of the Princess and the Pea.  Then in my mind I turned the Princess into a Prince and imagined that.  And I thought about what the taxi driver could be saying about his character if he were aware of the tale.  Then I shared the story of the Princess and the Pea with my own taxi driver, and he was amazed that such a story could exist that made so little sense.  No kidding.
I’m home now. I have clean feet.  This coming weekend, I’m letting everyone else come to me.  Anyway, I think I’ll quit going on and on now, but I'll be back.


  1. You are too funny! Thank you for the blog post, girl...FINALLY!!!

  2. Oh Kincaid....so glad you posted the link to your blog on facebook...I will be a faithful follower. All I have to say is your writing is amazing...you paint a picture that I can see in my mind and I love being able to envision your experiences to the tune of your words. I must say....this made me laugh. Favorite (although disturbing) story is the tied up goat on the bus.