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I may have mentioned (a few times) that Abuja can start to get to you – especially if your movement is restricted to the city and that city doesn’t have a whole heck of a lot ot offer. I finally decided I had had enough: I needed to get out of Dodge for a few days. Abuja is not easy to fly into or out of – there aren’t a lot of choices here. Europe is six hours away and six hours on a plane each way seemed like way too much torture. My needs were simple: something not too far away (1-2 hours by plane); resort hotel with room service (this is so key); stuff to do. Accra, Ghana met all of my requirements.
Unfortunately for me – and fortunately for you because you get to read about all the crazy shiz that happens to me – the trip did not start well. The flight was late. I should be used to this by now. This is normal for Nigeria. But it still drives me crazy. We were supposed to arrive around 7:15PM but I think we arrived closer to 8:30/8:45PM. Okay. Not a big deal. Except it appears that the Kotoka International Airport is renovating…which means that the customs/immigration area is about the size of my office…which ain’t big. So the 100 or so people on my flight are trying to cram themselves into this room – not air conditioned because if Ghanaians are anything like Nigerians (and Italians for that matter), they hate a/c. And did I mention how humid Accra is? Even at night? But I’m getting ahead of myself. So we are crammed into this little room, inching our way forward. Slowly. I finally make it to the front of the line and the first Ghanaian government official I talk to is a health officer. A HEALTH officer. Guess what the health officer (HEALTH officer) asks me for? My yellow card. For those of you who may not be familiar, the “yellow card” is the immunization card issued by the World Health Organization. Your health care practitioner records all of your immunizations on this card. Everyone who works for an NGO has one for sure, and I’d venture to guess that most – if not all – U.S. foreign service officers have them too. I have one. They are also apparently the immunization record of choice in Africa, which makes sense. And it’s yellow, so “yellow card.”
So the Ghanaian health officer asks for my yellow card. Guess which dumbass doesn’t have hers? Look, I’ve never lived in a place where I’m expected to have my immunization records with me at all times. I’m an American, dammit! Of course I’ve been immunized. (Although, with the recent measles outbreaks in the U.S., I guess health authorities can’t rely on one’s nationality to confirm their immunization). So I was basically screwed. Until I wasn’t. The health officer sent me to another line with other passengers – because apparently I wasn’t the only one without her yellow card – to wait. And wait. Until she finally decided that I looked healthy enough to enter Ghana. I was very appreciative because I was not looking forward to spending the night at Kotoka International Airport, waiting for the return flight to Nigeria the following morning. The takeaway from this: the Ghanaian government is freaking serious about protecting the health of its citizens, so bring your yellow card.
Okay, I’m in. I’ve cleared immigration. I’m good. The hotel’s driver should be waiting outside for me with a sign. I step out into the humid Accra night and am immediately accosted by taxi drivers – do I need a taxi? No, no thank you. Where is my driver? No driver. No sign. Shit. Okay, I am a seasoned international traveler. I do not panic. I call the hotel. I inquire about my driver. I am told “he is there. In the parking lot.” It’s a big parking lot. It is dark. I have no intention of stumbling around the Kotoka International Airport parking lot by myself. So I politely ask if the hotel could call the driver and ask him to drive up to where I am? Of course! Problem solved. Except he does not drive up. He walks up. But he has a sign! He grabs my bag from my hand and starts walking – towards the hotel’s van, I presume?
Here’s where I have to take a break in my story and tell you how wonderful and helpful Nigerians can be. As it turns out, a Nigerian businessman (and a contact for my Embassy) was on my flight. We chatted before boarding, and ended up exiting the airport at the same time. Now, he had a driver waiting for him. But he refused to leave until he made sure that I found my driver and was on my way.
So back to my driver, who I am now following because he has my bag and is leading me to an air conditioned vehicle that will take me to this luxury beach hotel that I booked, right? He is talking, talking, talking on his cell phone – in Hausa, a language found in many parts of West Africa, including Nigeria. My friend, the Nigerian businessman, walks with us. Then he starts speaking in Hausa to the driver. I do not speak or understand Hausa – one of my many short-comings. I have no idea what is being said. They are shouting at each other. I have to go to the bathroom, so I am really hoping that this works out for me. Finally, the driver tells me (in English!) that he’s supposed to pick up a couple of people flying in on British Airways. Their flight lands in a couple of hours. He must wait for them. This is not looking good for me or my bladder. The hotel has arranged for another vehicle to pick me up. It’s on its way. Note: the Ghanaian “on its way,” I discover, is much like the Nigerian “five minutes.” Five minutes means more like 30; on its way means more like it’ll get here when it gets here. The driver spends the next 20 minutes or so yelling via cell phone at the driver who is “on his way” – again in Hausa, but I assume he was telling the guy to hurry up. It was a long, humid, and uncomfortable 20 minutes during which I saw way more of the Kotoka International Airport parking lot than I ever wanted to.
But finally the car arrives, with the driver! Hurray! Do you know my Nigerian friend stayed with me that entire time? I may complain (more than I should) about Abuja, but the Nigerian people are just wonderful aren’t they? This man I had met only once before would not leave me to fend for myself in a strange land. Say what you will about Nigeria’s long and storied history of scams and fraud, the Nigerian people are first rate.
So I made it. No accidents (auto or bladder) on the way to the hotel. My plan upon arrival was to read the riot act to the hotel reception desk. But then they offered me a glass of sparkling wine, and suddenly all was right with the world. The rest of the weekend was smooth sailing. Saturday: me, eating a yummy breakfast at the hotel restaurant; me, sprawled out on a poolside lounge chair drinking long island iced teas; me, walking on the beach; me, enjoying a lovely white wine with my dinner. On Sunday, I decided to get off the lounge chair and tour the city.
So what’s the takeaway from this trip?
- If you’re flying from Nigeria, expect delays.
- Bring your yellow card – I cannot stress this enough. The Ghanaian government does. not. play.
- Learning Hausa could be useful, unless you have a Hausa speaker with you.
- Sparkling wine makes everything better.
- Accra is definitely worth a visit.