After a succession of long, uneventful flights, my husband, Keith and I finally arrived in Accra, Ghana just before midnight. Having held our expectations at bay, we rushed to embrace the new world that lay before us. First stop: exchanging money on the black market aka conducting a monetary transaction with a man seated on an orange plastic chair along a busy thoroughfare, watched over by a woman selling beaded jewelry and what looked like breath mints. Emboldened by the 520 cedis in our pocket ($100 at our optimal rate of exchange) we took ourselves out to eat at a nearby restaurant, and were given slices of birthday cake by a neighboring table of Lebanese celebrants. An auspicious start!
The following days brought blistering hot weather (the coolest months are July and August- our spring is their “summer”); great food (yucca fries are our new go to); some of the best live music we have heard in years (actually, the only live music we have heard in years); and a renewed admiration for entrepreneurial tenacity (salespeople detecting a brief glance at their wares, bundling up shoes, sunglasses, carved wooden statues or paintings in blankets, and following us for blocks, surrounding us when we paused, and boldly unfurling their mobile stores on a competitor’s patch of ground in the hopes of selling us a trinket).
The next day, while Keith spent time with his daughter who was studying at the University of Accra, I hopped in a van with friends old (a Montclair couple that arrived the night before) and new (an assortment of people from England that included my friend’s coworker, the founder of a girls STEM school in Accra, and a famous British comedian) to visit Elmina Castle, the first European slave-trading post in sub-saharan Africa. Corrugated metal huts, soft green rolling hills, lively conversation and the passing of the snack bag that Keith had thoughtful provided, were constants on the meandering 3+ hour drive along the coast.
At Elmina, we were met by a group of men who seemed to pair with each of us, welcoming us home, calling us brothers and sisters, shaking our hands, asking our names. I felt a flash of embarrassment that I was reluctant to share my name with my persistent escort. Realizing that my travel diet of girl scout cookies was making me edgy, that my years in NYC were sometimes a detriment to my interpersonal skills, and that there was little he could do with that information, I shared my first name. As he carefully wrote it on a piece of paper, I moved on.
It’s hard to describe the visceral impact of that picture-perfect castle, an impressive white fortress that reveals a pleasantly scaled piazza, dotted with potted plants, within its walls. Flanking this cobblestoned courtyard, that would have been at home in the most quaint of European cities, is a series of equally considered rooms, lined with black shutters, each thoughtfully designed for its purpose. I think I am still processing how, for hundreds of years, a structure so graceful could have housed such atrocious acts.
After a somber tour of the castle, and a quick stop at the gift shop, our group quietly trudged outside. Once outside, our “greeters” leapt up from lounging on stone walls, and raced to find the people they had spoken to earlier. I heard my name, and saw my “gift”, a shell with a personalized message written in black and blue sharpie, complete with email address in case I wanted to stay in touch with the charlatan who was now shaking me down for $50 for the fist sized memento. Giving him 5 cedis instead, I climbed into the van to join my fellow travelers who each now resignedly held a marked mollusk or a woven name bracelet. Welcome home, indeed…