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23rd October 2011
Intrepid Wander Woman Marie Javins discovers an inventive way shuffle off your mortal coil. Ghana style
I contemplated my budget from a padded chair in the air-conditioned comfort of my nice mid-range room at the Afia Village Hotel in Accra, Ghana. These little splurges were doing my finances no good but I'd worry about running through my year's round-the-world funds in my first three months later on. For now, I had to work out my next week between Accra and Nigeria.
And then what about when I reached Nigeria? Did I have to go through Lagos? Then when I eventually got to the Congos, I didn't have any idea how I was going to get from A to B. And Angola – people were struggling to get even transit visas at the moment. How was I going to get into Angola?
Before I had to worry about all that, though, there was one thing I still wanted to see in Accra.
You might have seen Ghana's coffins in a travel magazine, or perhaps in a documentary. On a strip along the coast, just east of my hotel, there are coffin-makers.
And not just any coffin-makers. These guys specialise. Are you a photographer? Perhaps you'd like a giant camera shaped as an SLR as your coffin. Always wanted a Mercedes but couldn't afford it? No problem. You can spend eternity in a wooden Mercedes.
I left my packed bags behind the hotel front desk – I was moving on to Togo tonight – and went outside the gate to hire a taxi for my coffin-viewing excursion.
The taxi driver was Graham, who'd taken me to the Accra Mall last night when I'd tried to replace my sandals with the melted heel, the ones that had met their maker on a motorbike in Mali.
Graham listened to BBC radio in his taxi, and loved to discuss the wider world and politics, both Ghanaian and international. Last night, I'd found myself explaining to him that Obama and Bush were not from the same party. In return, he'd explained the intricacies of the current Ghana primary elections.
"You again?!" He was surprised. "Did you find new shoes last night?"
"No, but I met some teenagers who asked me to pose for photos with them. They were nice."
Graham looked at me with a stern glance.
"What?" I'd obviously done something wrong.
"Did you know these young men?"
"Why do you think they wanted your photo?"
"Uh... to put on Facebook?"
"Confidence scams. They will say you are their friend or customer and this will help them gain trust of others like you."
I was deflated. He could be wrong but what he said sounded right. But they could have just been kids out running around the mall. What did Graham know about confidence scams? He was the calmest, most easy-going taxi driver I'd ever met. So calm, I sometimes secretly wished I'd found a speed demon in a decrepit heap, one willing to break a few laws to get through the Accra traffic a bit faster.
We drove down the coast to a museum first. This place had top-end coffins – lobsters, Nikes, and eagles, some of the best in the country – these are frequently featured in magazine articles on Ghana.
But I didn't come to Accra to look at coffins in a museum.
"I thought I'd see them in workshops," I said to the museum attendant. "Where are the workshops?"
She motioned down the road.
"I thought you wanted to see just the coffins," said Graham. He seemed disappointed. I shortly worked out why.
Construction. There was road construction between the museum and the workshops. It took ages for our taxi to inch its way down to the workshops. But they were marvelous. Graham parked his taxi and we both went in together. He seemed to be enjoying the excursion as much as I was. We wandered around coffins shaped like fish, pineapples, pastries, cows, beer bottles, Coke bottles, and a Canon SLR camera.
And then it was time to drive back to the hotel. Into the traffic. Which wasn't moving.
Graham calmly sat there, the taxi not moving. The traffic annoyed him but he wasn't going to let it dominate his thoughts. I watched other cars darting around, seeking a way out. I also watched the clock. I was paying by the hour. Maybe that explained the difference in our attitudes.
We spent an hour barely moving from the coffin workshop back to the museum. Then, finally, the traffic moved normally. Ten minutes later, we were at the hotel to pick up my luggage.
Graham then drove me to the center of Accra, to the bus area. After we drove into the wrong lot and struggled to get back out, I gently suggested I walk into the next lot. Graham wouldn't hear of it.
"I have to make sure you are safe."
He turned into a dense, chaotic bus park.
We were surrounded by passengers, touts, vendors, cars, minibuses, mopeds. In short, this pristine taxi and its relaxed calm driver were in way, way over his head.
"Let me walk," I suggested again. "If you go any in any farther, you'll never get back out."
Graham looked around at the mobs of people and cars, and this time he nodded.
I shook his hand, grabbed my bag, and dove into the throngs.
Instantly, a bus tout sussed out my needs, grabbed my bag and lifted it over his head. "Follow me," he yelled back as he pushed into the crowd.
I scampered along behind him.
I would have lost sight of the tout as he ducked and squeezed through the crowds, had he not had my backpack over his head. He deposited me at a van bound for the Togo border, squished my bag into the rear of the van, and smiled at the one cedi tip. Then, he was off in a flash, searching for his next job.
The drive was short once we were out of Accra – which took forever – and it wasn't long before I was standing in front of two Togo border officials, paying 15,000 CFA for my visa, and then walking into Togo at sunset.
"You're going where?"
"Lome. Cote du Sud guesthouse."
"I know it. Let's go."
"Ha. No way. 1,000."
The driver thought for a minute.
"The price is 5,000. You will find the same if you ask everyone. But for you, I will do it for 3,000, though the price is 5,000. Because of God."
I nodded. I had doubts this had anything to do with God and everything to do with it getting dark and the driver wanting to go home. But either way, I didn't want to hang around all night to save a few bucks either.
Darkness fell as we headed to Lome. But the time we got to the hotel, the city was a mixture of headlights and engine roars. I saw nothing that wasn't lit by the halo of the taxi's lights.
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