IF you find yourself in need of a last-minute present, forget rushing to the shops or the final resort of an all-night garage. Head to a traffic jam in Accra.
The streets of the Ghanaian capital are awash with vehicles, usually not moving that fast (if at all) and myriads of enterprising folk offering to sell you just about anything you need. And lots you don’t.
Fancy a snack? Something to drink? No problem, wind down the window, open your door or hang out the side of the truck and hand over your cedes for a pack of plantain chips or the ubiquitous bag of water (very handy, usually cold and about 2p, although not the easiest to drink while trying to maintain some dignity and prevent spilling most of it over you).
Need a present for the children? Flag down the guy carrying sets of building blocks, one of which is already made up and being carried around for demonstration purposes.
How about some paintbrushes? Religious pictures? Or a copy of the local newspaper with the splash headline “Commuters Stranded” to be read by stranded commuters going nowhere fast?
Or what about a framed picture of Barack Obama shaking hands with dignitaries at an official function?
It’s all there and you will have plenty of time to peruse what is on offer as sooner or later – almost always sooner – you will get stuck in a traffic jam trying to go anywhere in Accra.
Not that we have been going anywhere fast as the need to sort out visas has seen us sitting in some of those jams, waiting outside embassies, hanging out at a couple of shiny new shopping malls and chilling out at our base, Big Milly’s Backyard.
An institution among overlanders, young volunteers seeking a weekend retreat away from their schools and orphanages, holiday makers and locals escaping the bustle and smog of Accra, Big Milly’s has become a major stop on Oasis Trans-Africa trips.
Big Milly herself – who is far from big and is called Wendy – even hopped on one of the trucks for a brief stint a few years ago.
Her backyard – a beachfront bar surrounded by huts, room for tents, a restaurant, a few other stalls and space for bands and entertainment when it gets busy on weekend evenings – also provided a first proper bed for many of us since we left the UK more than two months ago.
The draw of that bed (and the adjoining, open to the elements, bathroom) meant at least one of us (OK, me) stretched out a three-day stay in a hut to the full eight-night duration of our initial stay. It may be difficult to resist a repeat when we return to complete our visas before heading out of Ghana and pressing on towards Cape Town.*
Big Milly’s has also been notable for us crossing paths with our fellow Oasis truck heading to Cape Town for the first time since Fes in the opening Moroccan skirmishes and we acquired several of its inhabitants for our quick scamper back down the coast for the weekend.
And two new arrivals have countered bidding farewell to four of our original group.
Joanne was always scheduled to finish her trip in Accra (and her departure increases my chances of winning a game of cards), but Sam and David have been forced to head home (hopefully only temporarily) for personal reasons and Derrick made the same journey back to the UK due to illness.
With four gone, two new faces and five refugees from the other truck, it all made for an unfamiliar look to the back of the truck as we headed a couple of hours out of Accra to Abandze Beach Resort, which had been our final, brief port of call before heading to Big Milly’s.
We had made it back to the sea after leaving Kumasi after a last-ditch, early-morning run around the Presbyterian Guesthouse to collect our damp laundry off washing lines – despite proud assurances that it was ready and done in dryers the day before – and heading to Cape Coast.
The castle which played a key role in the slave trade which scarred this stretch of coast makes for an interesting visit as another entry into the places where tour guides are able to use the word British with no shortage of contempt.
Halfway round the museum, a large tour group descended on a small room and, for a few slightly unsettling moments, the only white face in an exhibition on slavery suddenly became the centre of attention.
Totally at odds with the welcome we have had across Ghana, but unnerving. Still not sure if they guy who exclaimed “what are my eyes seeing?” was looking at me or the pictures behind.
The welcome at the bar just down the road from our overnight halt was certainly warm. They had no power and they did not have the promised meat on sticks. But they had beer and as we sat drinking by the lights of the passing cars on the adjacent road, one of them stopped and out jumped the guy despatched in a taxi to get the much-valued snack.
A gentle start the next morning and we were rolling towards Accra, before turning off down the bumpy roads to the beachside community of Kokrobite and its beating heart Big Milly’s to bring down the curtain on the opening leg of this African adventure.
To varying degrees, we spent the week or so exploring the city itself – a good hour or more away by taxi and tro-tro — heading out into the shops, bars and food places in the village (especially once we had discovered the internet cafe), wandering along the beach (heeding the warning to take nothing valuable) or merely making the most of having a bed (be it in a hut or in a shared house which had up to a dozen crammed in at one stage) and hanging around the bar.
Checkout was difficult, not just because of bidding farewell to the bed, but it provided the moment of truth with my bar bill.
But with large beers at 4.5 cedes a pop (just over £1) and cokes about half of that, it would have taken some serious drinking to run up anything too alarming.
Not that some of us didn’t try a few times (breakfast attendance was sporadic across the week), particularly on the Friday and Saturday when the place comes alive to the sound of ethnic drummers, a reggae band who really kicked into gear after midnight (and even had me up dancing barefoot on the sand) and some excellent, eye-watering local acrobats, plus the influx of new faces to chat to – a bit of a novelty to us as we usually make up the bulk of the residents at most places we stay.
The bar also hosts any number of locals keen for a chat and most of us struggled to walk too far without someone calling our name or engaging us in an elaborate handshake. Have just about mastered the one that ends with a click of the fingers, but not without a bruised middle finger.
Away from Big Milly’s, much of our time has been spent at one of two new malls which show the growing prosperity of Accra or sorting out visas.
Joe has been running around the embassies sorting out forms, payments, photocopies, printing and a wide range of differing requirements, most notably how much each one costs and in what currency.
Having collected the cash for two sets of visas, he took Kris and myself along as hired muscle (our cost: a bottle of water and share of a pizza each) to visit an embassy and deposit a payment at a bank.
Not sure how much use we actually were, considering we were both falling asleep in the bank by the time Joe emerged after being stuck behind a guy paying in 48,000 cedes in cash.
It should have been a simple job – walk into bank, fill in a form, hand over money – but this is Africa. And even in booming Accra, there is no escaping that.
There are times it appears somebody has drawn up a list of the most efficient way to do things, crossed out all the best options and opted for the one that involves the most amount of people who can stand around and look totally bemused when you ask them something to do with what you think their job might actually be.
And when you do get something done, it’s time to sit back in one of those traffic jams.
* For difficult, read impossible.