Our intrepid Wander Woman discovers that not having enough small change can get you into big trouble
Last night, the taxi drivers had mobbed me when I'd disembarked from the TCV bus in Kumasi, Ghana, after a long day of coach travel from Burkina Faso. I was glad to be in Ghana, with its smooth roads and marked shoulders, after the potholed byways and ancient buses of Mali. The number of police checkpoints hadn't gone down though.
And I could finally take a break from botching the French language all day. Ghana is an English-speaking country, though I'd have to switch back to French as soon as I crossed into Togo and Benin.
Taxi drivers in Ghana were friendly, and took it with good humour when I argued that I couldn't afford a private taxi. They'd loaded me into a share-taxi without complaint, which had saved me a small fortune. And after some discussions with other drivers and a hotel receptionist downtown, my share-taxi driver was even able to find my hotel, out in what seemed like the suburbs of the mid-sized city of Kumasi.
Which was great, because the suburbs and the Royal Park Hotel were just the place for a rest and a splurge. Air conditioning, fridge, wifi that worked sometimes, hot shower, and a decent Cantonese restaurant. And the breakfast! I'd been on a steady diet of baguettes and croissants since my first morning in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, so it was exciting to be offered an egg along with my free breakfast of Nescafé and wheat products.
Kumasi was once the capital of the powerful Ashanti kingdom, and has many sights spread out around its sprawling hills and the nearby countryside. I asked for help from the hotel clerk, and that's how I ended up in a Toyota Sedan with his friend the driver, who tried hard to find me an ATM that would give me cash from my home bank account.
The trick to finding an ATM abroad is not to worry about the various networks branded on your card – the CIRRUS, PLUS, and other logos you see on the back. Instead, note if your card has a Mastercard or VISA logo on it. These two ultimately dictate which machines will spit you out cash from your home account and which will only give you cash as a pricey advance on your credit card.
My card has the Mastercard logo. When I undertook the original MariesWorldTour.com in 2001, I encountered entire sections of continents, huge swathes of blackouts, where only VISA would make money pop out of the wall. Ten years later, I still run into plenty of problems – and everyone is all-too-happy to add a fee to your withdrawal – but so far, had only come across a single country that didn't have at least one ATM that took my Mastercard-branded debit cards.
The trick is finding these machines. You can Google yourself silly, but in the end, there is no substitute for local knowledge or just experimenting until you find one.
So I experimented. My driver waited as I ran from bank to bank. Standard Chartered, Ecobank, Barclays... It turned out that when I was there was exactly when all the ATMs were getting their morning servicing, so this endeavor took a lot of patience. I am lacking in that quality, so I fidgeted, sighed, and rolled my eyes a lot while checking the time on my iPhone. I even lost my driver for a while when the police asked him to move his Toyota.
In the end, GCB bank took my ATM card and spat out money. I love when money magically appears from a slot in the wall. I still carry a few traveller's cheques and hundred-dollar bills, buried deep in a pack against ATM-malfunctions and satellite outages, but I seldom need them.
So I had money now, but was promptly relieved of it at a crafts village. The Ashanti Empire was a great centre of traditional crafts, many of which are still made in villages surrounding Kumasi.
My driver (a little apprehensively, as he knew well what I was getting into) took me to a weaving village when I asked him to take me to the "best craft village".
I knew as we drove in that I wasn't getting out of the village cheaply. You don't go to crafts villages believing you can just browse, taking only photos and leaving only footprints. It's almost your obligation as a tourist to buy a few things. This is fair – trading cash for hard work and a lovely trinket.
The best you can do for your pocketbook is to not get carried away, and try to find a compromise between spending what you can't afford and what is fair to the craftsman, whose eyes light up when your car comes to a halt in front of his shop.
My driver pulled up outside a weaving center. He looked worried as we were ambushed by two eager young men anxious to make my aquaintance and escort me into the single-story, shaded, concrete building. I assured my driver that I'd be fine and exited the car. Amusingly, a young man asked my name and then started weaving a bracelet.
"NO," I said. "I don't want a bracelet. Don't do that."
This protest had no effect whatsoever, and on my departure, he presented me with a woven bracelet for someone named Mary. I begrudgingly cooperated by giving him a small tip.
Inside the weaving center, ten or so looms were set up, about four of them occupied by men. That's who does the weaving here. The men weren't actually weaving when I came in—they were resting. But they jumped to it, showing me how the colorful threads formed into meaningful tribal patterns on narrow sashes, which were left as they were made or else sewn together to make large textiles.
Finished pieces adorned the surrounding walls, and these were the final products I was invited to negotiate for. I did with good cheer, choosing a few colorful pieces that I liked enough to include in my MariesWorldTour.com souvenir program (strangers send me money and I send them a souvenir of my choosing). We were able to reach agreeable prices that made both the sellers and me happy.
I skedaddled quickly and decided I'd had enough crafts village and would rather spend the rest of the day at a museum.
On the way out of town, a minibus passed us, young men hanging out of every window, barely hanging on.
The driver looked at me, shook his head, and started to laugh.
"This is very dangerous," he said.
Next, we saw ten men carrying a container. On foot. This time, the driver and I both laughed.
Then, a station wagon passed us. Three sets of legs hung out from under the hatchback. I was gob-smacked, stunned. Then I grabbed my camera. We chased the station wagon, and when its occupants saw me, they lifted the hatch and waved.
"Now THAT is dangerous," I said. The driver nodded his agreement.
We headed back to town to leave me at the museum.
We'd passed a few police checks on the way in and had paid the usual taxi fee to the policemen on duty. No me, I mean. I didn't pay anything. But it's a sad fact of life in this part of the world that drivers must pay, pay, pay for the privilege of driving. I have mentioned before that I can no longer distinguish between a toll and a bribe, but that's not entirely true. A toll usually involves a receipt. A bribe just involves an irritated taxi driver.
My driver pulled over abruptly and stopped. On the shoulder, he suddenly reversed the car. Puzzled, I looked at him, but I didn't need more than a second to see he was eyeballing a traffic cop up ahead. But reversing wasn't working. We had too far to go to find a way off the road.
"I'm out of small money," he explained. "I gave it all the other policemen earlier. Unless…do you have any?"
"I gave my small money to the guy who made me this stupid bracelet! I only have large bills from the ATM."
He weighed his options. He could either give the policeman a large bill, which he couldn't afford, risk both our lives by continuing to reverse down the highway, or he could hope he didn't get pulled over.
My driver put the car back into first gear and drove bravely towards the policeman.
The whistle was followed by a pointing finger. That's the sign of "You, pull over."
The driver took a deep breath and pushed down the accelerator. We blew right past the cop, who looked shocked and annoyed.
I looked at my driver with new admiration. That was a ballsy move.
"What will happen?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Maybe next time he sees me, he'll take a lot more money off of me."
I hoped not. Maybe the policeman won't recognize his car. Surely my driver's not the first man to ignore the call of the whistle-and-point.
But he's sure the first one that did it when I was in the car.