The Importance of a Good Travelling Companion

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One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things   Henry Miller

I’m not one of those people who like to travel alone. I like to share my experiences with someone else. However, I don’t underestimate the difficulties of being with someone else for 24 hours a day. I know it’s a testing experience. There are many areas for conflict. It can break a close friendship.

After two years of not just Covid-prevented trips but also working on projects that needed all of my attention, I was keen to go away. I’m always interested in exploring new places and I’d loved going to Senegal in West Africa with my son a couple of years ago. I wanted to do more in that part of Africa. Ghana arrived by chance – I was chatting to someone who worked for the same charity as me. He happened to have built an eco-lodge on the coast in the Volta area of Ghana called Meet Me There, I looked at their website and decided then and there that Ghana would be my new destination.

That was summer 2021 and of course, I had no idea what would be happening with Covid and it was pre-Omi. I invited my partner, Asanga to come along. January is always my favourite time to get away, a long way away; to flee the pervasive grey, the post-Xmas blues, to lighten the emergent year.

Eventually, Asanga declined. A few years ago, he and I faced our differences on this front. He declared that he was no longer – he’s 78, has a major climbing injury and is happy with the heavenly landscape of sea and mountains in North Wales – interested in long haul trips abroad. But he was supportive of my continuing enthusiasm.

I was stumped because none of my usual travelling companions was available. And then I happened to be talking to an old friend, Ruby Millington – we met when we both worked as freelance journalists for the Evening Standard’s Metropolis 30 years ago – and she confessed that she’d wanted to go to Accra for some time to check out the style and the art. That she’d read it was the new New York.

We’d never been anywhere at all together that lasted longer than an afternoon but in September, we booked the plane tickets. It was a commitment and a leap into the Covid unknown. We booked a recommended hotel/hostel in Accra and the eco-lodge for a few nights and then we did nothing except rest in a kind of uneasy contentment about our future plans.

There was a flurry of worry amongst my friends as Omicron arrived in South Africa. I explained that South Africa was a long way from Ghana. Ghana, in fact, had very low Covid deaths – just over a thousand according to their official figures. For some reason, I had faith.

In mid-December, I realised that I needed not only my Booster Covid vaccination but also diphtheria/typhoid, tetanus and yellow fever. Not just one vaccination but three. I tried to get out of the yellow fever one – I managed to find proof that I’d had it in 1978 in New Orleans and these days, it’s meant to last for life – but Ghanaian regulations stipulate that you need to have it in the last ten years. I had it. I have survived so far.

This was the beginning of the tenaciousness that was required before we even set foot in Ghana. A whole trip in itself. There was the visa situation. There were umpteen conditions to fulfil – a written invitation from our host, proof of a hotel, proof of money, flights, a vaccination pass etc. Ruby and I almost lost the will to live trying to fill it in online. And then we had to get the Ghanaian High Commission in Archway – after a lateral flow test in the morning.

Finally, just before Xmas, we had our visas. Hurrah.

Ruby looks after her incredible 96-year-old mum, Maria – who (bless her) was really keen for her daughter to get away for 18 days – and was organising for a lovely local woman to go in every day, as well as preparing meals for the freezer and a multitude of other tasks. I hadn’t realised what a superwoman, Ruby was. She actually managed to ring her mum every day while we were away – from petrol stations (Ghana’s petrol stations are often like palaces, they have oil and are proud of it), from the side of busy roads with a Pentecostal choir singing nearby. It was one of her many travelling feats.

And then there were the British Airway requirements. As well as the PCR test to do.  Uploading vaccination passes, Travel Codes that took hours to obtain from a Ghanaian-approved website – we spent hours trying to work it all out. We failed to upload them and arrived on Jan 6th 2022 at Heathrow feeling weary and anxious.

It was a good sign that it was a pretty smooth check-in, after all. A six-hour flight and then there was a mini-crisis for me. I could hardly walk as I arrived in Accra. My ankle had been affected by sitting in one position on the flight, I wasn’t sure what was going on. But I had to hobble up and down the airport getting the incredibly expensive Lateral Flow test and the results. And then my bag was one of the last to arrive. Luckily Ruby was there to help out. We both took it as a good sign that a holy man from Senegal was arriving at the same time to chants and hoots from a group of local Muslims.

BUT WE HAD ARRIVED IN ACCRA. We celebrated with a beer at midnight amid the gorgeous equatorial heat next to the pool at our travellery hotel/hostel. We had booked separate rooms aware that we hadn’t voyaged anywhere together and as a space precaution. In other words, we might need that space from one another.

I really liked Somewhere Nice – mostly occupied by young people backpacking or working for NGOs – there was a big breakfast table for the sharing of tales and I found out from a couple of Parisian-Cameroonian women some good local places to eat – but Ruby wasn’t so keen. She saw the layers of untended dust and dirt, I saw the communal thing.

Accra was confusing to navigate at first – not to mention my difficulty walking which thankfully only lasted a day – lots of duel carriageways and am not sure Ruby was convinced by the ‘new New York’ description. But something happened on the second day that cemented our travelling relationship. We had decided to look at art galleries; in the evening, I suggested we go to the 1957 Gallery (the year of independence, Ghana was the first African country to leave its colonisers under the socialist vision of President Nkrumah in 1957) which was located in the five-star bling Kempinsky Hotel. We visited the bold figurative works on the walls and then cocktailed at the pool bar. Afterwards, we, unlike everyone else, didn’t have a taxi waiting for us so we actually walked down the road. There was a daunting black James Bond-type armoured Hummer outside too. Just as we were about to hail a cab, we noticed that there was music emanating from the National Theatre nearby. We decided to check it out.

The next moment, Ruby was taking photos – she’s an ardent Insta woman – of what seemed to be a band on the red carpet. Within seconds, the lanky be-dreaded, be-hatted, be-shaded main man had ushered us onto the red carpet as well and then into what turned out to be The Young Ghanaian Achievers’ Awards. Losso Saabele – king of afro-pop and dancehall – was up for Artist of the Year.

Here we were in our casuals amidst Ghanaians dressed up to the nines in sparkly shoes and sequinned dresses. The award ceremony was slightly shambolic – sorry Ghana – nominations were missed. And sin of all sins – our man should have won and he didn’t. It’s now being re-awarded to him. Talk about La La Land. Anyway, he did invite me for a little dance as part of his performance which of course I rose to the occasion for!! And Ruby recorded!

And then Losso, his crew and the Rs went back to the Kempinsky Hotel for a little after-party. It did it give me great pleasure to witness Losso with his unicorn-like front dread wandering around this ultra-shiny hotel occupied mostly by foreign military-medal-adorned dignitaries.

This was only Day 2. The rest of the trip saw us continuing to have a blast. Ruby turned out to be a perfect travelling companion. I was the guidebook queen – I like actually reading about the places – and she was the savvy tech queen. Which meant we both organised but in different ways. I researched places to go, she was able to book hotels and guide taxi drivers (we wondered how anyone ever got anywhere in Accra because none of them had a clue where we were going). She had a local SIM card, I opted not to.

There was a sense of equality. She is good at snooker, and I am good at table tennis! The snooker was in a nightclub, the tennis at Meet Me There. Payments were shared easily. Phew. Ruby is more than generous. She lent me 3,000 local cedis (about £350) when I couldn’t withdraw enough to travel East.

Meet Me There turned out to be a delightful destination – we had the best rooms (one each still) right on the lagoon. Every detail had been attended to – gorgeous décor, carved wood tables, amazing food, compost loos, ever-friendly staff. And we were actually in the middle of the local Dzita community. Local fishermen/boys were all around. There was a dispute one morning which MMT staff went over to successfully mediate. An older man had accused the younger ones of overfishing the lagoon and he was probably right. And there were deeply expressive church services that went on next door. Don’t go to Ghana if you are uncomfortable with noise!

All the profits from MMT go to their Dream Big Ghana Foundation. One morning, the co-manager Christian took us to see the magnificent compost toilets – purple paint and tiles with showers too – that they had built in the local school. And they also had created ones in the local villages. There are big public defecation and urinating issues in Ghana. The NGO also does educational workshops about the ‘compost’ which can be used to fertilise crops and that is the whole circular point. Great activities as well as an educational centre with books and computers for local children. And tree-planting.

Next was the mountains of the Eastern Volta region – the river was dammed in the 60s to make a huge, huge lake which provides most of Ghana’s electricity – and here in these much more basic lodgings, we decided to share a room. It was a big dormitory room and it went well. This was the new Ruby and Rose sharing a room period.

We loved the mountains. Cooler and more innocent. On the first afternoon there, in the highest village in Ghana, it was a Friday and there were about five processions going on. They were transporting their dead loved ones – often in ambulances with the sirens blaring out – to their homes for a wake. The atmosphere was celebratory. Everyone ignored us which we were very happy about. And they didn’t seem to mind us being there either. The next day, their loved ones would be taken to the cemetery. This was happening all over Ghana.

There were a few difficult moments later on in the trip but we dealt with them well. Ruby – with her tech-savvy – booked us into a dodgy hotel where we actually had to share a bed. That was fine in the end but the hotel was a guest house in the middle of nowhere. And then there was the characterful Rasta in Cape Coast in the West who charged us 60 US dollars for a shared room that turned out to have no water (yes it was a serious local problem but other hotels had paid to have extra water). And he had omitted to tell us. We had to get angry and demand our money back for the other two nights. We managed it and remained united.

We shared a sense of curiosity and desire to learn about Ghana and Ghanaians. We both like to mix up our experiences. And we both loved travelling around – that on the road feeling.

Our new ways of seeing included appreciating the Ghanaians for their eagerness to connect, their friendliness, their expansiveness, their grace. One of my son’s best friends is just like that, but I hadn’t realised that it was because his grandma is Ghanaian and she looked after him as he was growing up. She passed on this sense of ease and generosity.

Well, it was a wonderful 18 days. We packed so much in. And I haven’t even mentioned how intrepid Ruby is. I found her inspiring. I ended up doing something that I would never do – using a rope to descend some rocks. I only did it because she had already done it.

Rwanda has been mentioned.

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