Ghana Stories and Tips

Part 5

Despite the success of obtaining a fair price at the cultural village, this experience of bargaining was not quite as common in the market in Accra. The crowds, hustle, and fast pace did not allow for such a long period of negotiation. Unlike the cultural village which sold mostly art and artifacts, markets sold limited amounts of such items in addition to everything else imaginable. A large market is the Wal-Mart of Ghana. Many stands sold jewelry, different types of necklaces and bracelets and even rings, some handmade in Ghana, some cheap imports from Taiwan or the United States. Used clothing stands sold secondhand articles rejected from Goodwill in the U.S. There were also seamstresses and fabric to have a dress, shirt, pants, or a skirt made. Fruits, vegetables, dried fish, candy, water, Coca-Cola, and even ice cream were sold from large baskets, many times from atop a woman’s head. CDs, cassettes, DVDs and radios were available from some stalls as well, the most common being the music and movies that were big in the United States years ago. Early '90s music by Celine Dion, Ace of Base, M.C. Hammer, and many others was still extremely popular in Ghana.

The trick to shopping involved the precarious balance of standing close enough to the stalls to keep from being hit by passing tro-tros while simultaneously avoiding the open sewers and women with large baskets or trays of goods on their head. The fast pace of people traffic passing from stall to stall made it impossible to spend too much time at any one vendor.

The market was huge and completely unlike the small market in Jukwa, which consisted of a few stands clustered together selling Coca-Cola products and various vegetables, Accra resembled a maze. Entering was easy, but finding your way out was more of a challenge. The stands followed a pattern in their location. Used clothing was prominent along the train tracks. Fish, fruits, and vegetables were sold by women sitting together in a large open lot behind a building. Music and high-tech devices occupied the stands in the building, which itself blended into the outdoor vendors so much that I almost didn’t notice entering it until I looked down from the second-level and saw the crowds below me. We traversed the market in groups no larger than four; any more, and it would be too difficult to maneuver. Cyprus led us through the narrow, winding paths, and I barely made it past a vendor without someone grabbing me and pulling me closer to look at their wares. The stands were packed so tightly that I felt like I was in a tunnel; at some points, if someone told me I was underground I would have believed it.

The crowds and fast pace of the markets came as a surprise in comparison to the laid-back, no-hurry way of life that surrounded many other daily activities. Outside of the markets, time seemed to not exist, no one was rushed, and that led to a great deal of waiting. In restaurants, in banks, and in traffic, patience became a very important virtue. More than once, a ForEx ran out of currency and we were forced to find a bank to exchange our money for cedis. The problem with the bank in Cape Coast was that the "Please wait in line for the next available teller" sign seemed to be just a suggestion. Numerous people walked right past the others ahead of them in line, and no one even complained. The slow, relaxed service didn’t help. Finally, no more than twenty people and two and a half hours later, it was my turn.

"We are out of large bills, we only have 2,000 and 1,000 cedis," the woman behind the counter told me.

"Oh, okay," I said, not thinking that would affect me much. "I just want to change this $50."

"The rate today is 8,900 cedis per dollar," she said as she began to count my money.

She handed me two stacks of cedis, larger than any I’d ever seen before. Sure she had made a mistake, I began to count them, and soon realized what I had done. I had asked for 445,000 cedis, which is exactly what she gave me. In 1,000 cedi bills.

"Thank you very much," I said as I stuffed the overflowing stacks of 445 1,000 cedi bills into my purse. Behind me, I heard her talking to the next customer.

"We are almost out of 1,000 cedi bills, just coins left."

If possible, the wait for food was even worse. Unless you could afford to dedicate three hours of your day to it, eating in a restaurant was not a good idea. Most restaurants seemed to lack menus, waitresses, and food. Typically, there would be a few menus to share, if any at all, and we often sat there for about twenty minutes before anyone even came out to take drink orders. In many places, the person cooking the food was also the one who served it. It was also pretty much guaranteed that the first three meals anyone tried to order they would be out of, or couldn’t make because a necessary appliance was broken in the kitchen. Most places did have basic dishes, such as chicken, fufu, jollof rice, and kelewele (fried plantains), so we ate those on a regular basis. One morning, we ate breakfast at a hotel that served meals on the back patio. Our group dominated the few tables in the back, but it was clearly popular among tourists. I heard two Dutch women speaking behind me and a Greek man was checking out at the front desk. When a woman finally came by to take our order, I asked for a guava juice and an omelet. She disappeared into the kitchen – a small room just off the patio with no door connecting it to the hotel. Twenty minutes later, she emerged with a few food orders and tea and water. Back into the kitchen. Another fifteen minutes, and this time she had my omelet and a few more drinks.

"Can I get a guava juice?" I politely asked again.

"Ah yes, you ordered it. Next trip, five minutes, it will be right out." Somehow, I didn’t believe her. I ate my omelet, and another fifteen minutes later, she brought out the last few food orders and a drink for John, who had also ordered guava juice, then disappeared again.

I had given up on my juice, and when she finished picking up the dirty dishes twenty minutes later, I figured it didn’t matter by now, she was gone for good. But then she came out with the check. And a single glass of guava juice.

"Did someone order guava juice?" she asked, holding it up.

I smiled weakly. "I did," I replied.

"Ah, here you go miss," she smiled. "I am sorry for the wait."

The least severe of the Three Deadly Waits was for a tro-tro, least severe because tro-tro arrival often involved the shortest waiting period; however, the real trial of patience often came while sitting in the tro-tro, stuck in traffic at a standstill comparable to New York City during rush hour. The tro-tro is the cheapest form of public transportation in Ghana, costing only about 2,000 cedis no matter how far the ride. Tro-tros are built to hold about twelve passengers; however, most drivers will pick up extra people, so they were often more crowded than that. The speedometer never worked (though the radio always seemed to), and more than once a few people had to get out and push the tro-tro while the driver accelerated to give it a running start. Since there are too many roads for police to constantly patrol to enforce the speed limit, instead large speed bumps are placed every so often to force the driver to slow down. This leads to a jerky ride, with the driver constantly alternating between speeds of about 50 and 5 miles per hour.

Many tro-tros - like taxis, fishing boats, and businesses - had names with direct reference to Christianity, the main religion in southern Ghana (the north consists of mostly Muslims.) Usually, taxis and tro-tros had bible verses or simple statements such as "Follow Jesus" or "I Believe in God" on the back of them. We saw fishing boats in Elmina with names like "The Lord" or "Jesus All in All." Most interesting were the businesses, including "God’s Way Gift Shop," "Holy Wood Hair Salon," and "Thy Will Be Done Fast Food."

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