Thursday, July 3, 2014

Lost in Tema Station

July 2nd 2014

Today was our first official day of work at the Human Rights Advocacy Centre.  We were told it would take approximately 1 hour to get to work via trotro (the cramped, cheap public transportation) and with work starting at 8AM we resolved to leave the ISH (International Student Hostel) at 6:30 AM to catch the trotro for the first time on our own. Let me just say - we had quite the adventure.

When we woke up this morning it was pouring rain. Luckily I brought an umbrella with me from Canada, but not so luckily I didn’t bring my rain boots. We walked from ISH to the trotro station which was approximately a 10 – 15 minute walk. I was wearing my nice black flats because they were the nice work shoes that I brought with me and I wanted to make a good impression today.

We arrived at the trotro station at around 6:45/6:50 AM with our clothes already starting to stick to our bodies and my flats coated with a nice layer of red from an ‘almost’ slip in the mud. Our umbrellas were not doing too much to keep us sheltered from the rain so we were anxious to start our trotro journey.

We needed to catch a trotro headed into Accra, and to get off at Tema Station to catch another trotro headed to Labrodie and then finally get off at the stop in front of Kingdom Books & Stationary. So we waited for any of the mates in the rusted, large vans to pull to the side of the road, fling open its doors and yell, “Accra, Accra, Accra,” or to see the tell-tale Accra hand gesture. However, after about 10 minutes of many trotros coming and going it was plain that finding a trotro headed to Accra was going to be more difficult than we had hoped. I could feel a little flutter of panic beginning to form in my chest as I saw the minutes going by and there was still no trotro headed to Accra (with space anyways). There was no way I wanted to be late for our first day!

I breathed a relative sign of relief when a red Metro Mass Transit bus pulled to the side and I heard a voice yell, “Accra, Accra.” Many of us still waiting rushed towards the bus to claim the few remaining seats. We felt hesitant about using the bus as all of our ‘advisors’ on transportation had only mentioned trotros but if it was going to Tema Station then we figured it would be our best bet. On our way we stopped briefly to ask the mate if the bus was headed to Tema Station, and he assured us it was. Feeling lucky that we avoided the cramped trotros, we got on the bus and found some seats at the very back.

We paid 80 cedis to the mate as the bus pulled out and into the busy traffic, and I kept my eyes and ears attentive to any sight or mention of Tema Station. It was 7:03 AM when we pulled out of the bus. We had one hour to get to work. I figured that would be enough time, but still felt panicky. We had never been to Tema station before, and so I wanted to be sure that we got off at the right stop.

A Ghanaian lady sitting beside me assured me that she was also heading to Tema Station, and would let us know when the stop was approaching. It was still pouring rain, and traffic was an absolute nightmare – nearly at a deadlock in some places, very slowly moving in others with horns blaring everywhere. I kept my eye on the time, and it didn’t take long for us to realize that there was no way we were going to make it to the HRAC for 8AM. 

I texted our contact at the HRAC to let him know that we would be late to work, all the while cringing inside and hoping that we wouldn’t be much later than 8:00 AM.  My nerves shot up at the prospect of walking into work on the first day both late and frazzled from the rain, but I turned my attention to the next leg of our journey.

Finally after about an hour or so on the bus in extremely slow-moving traffic, the lady beside me indicated that we would be approaching Tema Station soon. The line of traffic heading into the station was crazy but finally the bus pulled to the side and opened its doors. The rain was pouring harder than ever, and all we could see from inside the bus was a queue of many people under umbrellas and wooden platforms, and a line of red buses. We hesitantly got out and stepped into the rain, and as the bus emptied and closed its doors we realized we had no idea where we needed to go from here.

We knew we needed to catch a trotro from Tema Station, but we had not been warned as to how big Tema Station was, and that the buses pull into a different terminal than the trotros! We had no idea that there was a huge market that intersects these two terminals, nor that there are tons of mini-terminals (those wooden platforms which people were packing into like sardines to escape the rain) all throughout the trotro terminal!

I don’t know if I can adequately paint the picture of the chaos that was occurring around us as the rain poured down and hundreds, probably thousands of people milled about trying to get out of the rain or to their next mode of transportation and the hundreds of trotros and other vehicles driving in and around these people and market women carrying loads of various items on their heads and calling from their stalls to entice you to buy something even in the downpour.
This is not a picture I took but found online. I didn't bring my camera with me on this journey. This is what Tema Station was like, only even more chaotic!

Added to all of this was the fact that the heavy downpour had caused the streets and terminals to begin to flood – ankle-deep water was rushing over our professionally-dressed feet carrying with it all sorts of  waste and colours and smells. My new flats had caused a blister to break out on my left heel and as I felt the cold, dirty water rushing over it I was silently praying it wouldn’t get infected.

Though we didn’t know where to go, we began to walk towards the trotros with a slight feeling of anxiety and giddiness - despite being a bit lost and soaking wet and surrounded by chaos, it was kind of an exhilarating experience. We laughed a lot at the somewhat outrageous situation we had found ourselves in. A good sense of humour is absolutely necessary when travelling through Accra for the first (few) times!

Ghanaian people are so friendly. We very clearly looked like 3 lost, wet, obrunis (white people) and as we meandered through the markets and terminals without us even asking a local would approach us or yell from across the way, “where you go?” and point us in the right direction. All we would get would be a point though so we would have to guess as to how far to walk in that direction and where to go but after a bit of doing this we managed to get to a trotro that was headed to labrodie! We climbed in the back and waited – a trotro won’t leave until there is a good amount of people inside (though it depends on the driver and the mate). Finally the trotro was semi-full and we pulled out of park and began our final journey towards labrodie.

Traffic was still crazy slow and hectic, and the rain was still pouring. The streets were semi-flooded in some parts and rain was trickling in through the window I was sitting beside. It didn’t matter though – we were all soaked to our skin anyways.  However, it WAS a bit of a shock when our trotro went through a big pool of water and we felt a great splash of cold water hit our legs and feet – there was a hole in the bottom of the van! We laughed it off. This is Ghana.

After an extremely slow trek through traffic, we got off at Kingdom Books & Stationary. We knew the HRAC was only a 10 minute walk away – but the rain was pouring, the streets were flooded in some parts, and it was our first time trying to walk there on our own so naturally, we were lost again. We called our contact at the HRAC though and he was able to give us directions.

Though we knew were headed in the right direction, the adventure wasn’t over. Because the streets were flooded in some parts we had to jump over huge waterways, climb onto the grassy sides of buildings and climb through a prickly flower bush that left sharp burrs all over my pencil skirt. But after what felt like ages, we arrived at the HRAC! We did our best to smooth down our frizzy, wet hair and pick out all the burrs and headed in. It was only when I was in reception waiting for our contact to come and greet us that I realized my feet were a dark blue and purple colour. They weren’t bruised – they were dyed! I guess my black Clark flats weren’t meant for walking through Ghanaian flood waters.

We arrived at the HRAC at 9:30 AM, a good hour and a half late. But to be honest, we felt very accomplished that we had made it there on our own at all!

Our way home from work was a whole other experience – it was better and not as crazy because we decided to take a taxi back rather than a trotro through the rain again (yes, it was still pouring by 4PM) but our taxi was malfunctioning for most of the trip.  Our driver had to get out of the cab and go under the car a few times to tinker around and fix something that was swooshing and clunking along the ground. The smell of gas was nauseating. But you know what, we made it to work and we made it home, and it was an unforgettable experience! 

Since it took us so long to get to work yesterday (July 2nd - 2 and a half hours) we woke up at 5AM today to get to work. We took the same route except we were able to get a trotro instead of a bus to Accra and it wasn't raining. It only took us an hour to get to work - what a relief! We arrive an hour early but it's better than being an hour and half late, so from now on guess who will be waking up at 5AM everyday?!

Also, my feet are still blue and purple. 

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