I had two rules to follow in order to travel around the world for a semester. Number one: no drugs. Number two: no motorized vehicles, aside from taxis. If caught I’d be sent home immediately with a huge student loan and nothing to show for it.
“Well, would you like to go for a ride on my motorcycle?” a voice said in the crowded convenience store turned bar for the night.
And, I was off, posing at the last second for an incriminating photo that could easily get me kicked off my study abroad program. Donning my borrowed motorcycle helmet I suddenly realized how utterly stupid this idea was. I shot a terrified look into the camera’s lens and took a deep breath.
Well, I’m only in Ghana once.
Burrrr—burrrr, the man began to start the motorcycle, which I then noticed had a considerable amount of scrapes and scratches on it.
That’s probably from the former owner. Yeah, some other reckless twenty year old completely different from my chauffeur…..
Burrr—derrr—iiingg-off into the charcoal night sky clutching my African motorcycle tour guide.
✹ ✹ ✹
It had been just like any other day in Ghana, the economic hope of Africa. As our ship neared the shore we were welcomed by a dozen waving dock employees, their smiles illuminated against their dark skin. Three friends and I decided to hop on the tro tro from the harbor where our ship was docked into the capital city of Accra to explore the town and whatever else seemed interesting. The tro tro is the preferred form of public transportation for the people of Ghana. It’s a large van with the seats taken out and benches put in to ensure maximum capacity of passengers, or in other words maximum profit for one taxi ride. A large van that would normally hold about ten persons in America magically transforms into a vehicle fit for upwards of twenty-five. We nestled into the press of bodies on the communal taxi and tried to get as comfortable as possible for the forty-minute ride into the capital.
“I never knew I could sweat from my elbows before,” my friend Rachel said.
“I wish my friends at home could see me now, living the glamorous life of a world traveler,” I said. From my squatted position on the floor of the van, the sweat was seeping out from behind my kneecaps, and I looked up to see yet another group piling in. A large woman with her three children was pushed closer and closer to me and I watched as she eventually trapped me between her thigh and the edge of the van, helpless to defend myself in the slightest.
And the brochures didn’t mention this? Shocking.
Finally, we were set free from the sardine can only to be bombarded with a mob of merchants. Apparently word had gotten out that over 500 American students were arriving by ship to spend a few days in their home country. And that meant only one thing: relatively wealthy and overall completely stupid customers. I have never seen so many trinkets in my life. Hand-made bracelets were thrust into my face, along with paintings of naked African women with baskets and babies on their heads. My eyes were suddenly colorblind, able only to see red, yellow, and green, the national colors of Ghana. These colors appeared on every souvenir.
“Sorry, guys, we don’t want anything. We are poor Americans! We are students! Poor!” said another friend Paul, not fooling anybody. We had money to spend, but wouldn’t dare pay the “tourist price” of 5 bracelets for a dollar.
“I heard you can get 10 of those for a dollar in the market!” shouted Paul as we ran across the busy street leaving behind a trail of grumbling and disappointed merchants.
We rushed into the solace of a currency exchange center to switch our American dollars into Ghanaian cedis (this became extremely confusing when I was trying to barter to buy CD’s). We paused for a second outside the dim and musty garage with a homemade sign scrawled with “CuRRency Xchange” and decided that we would not be ignorant tourists fooled into getting a shitty exchange rate.
Pshh, you wish.
I have never been very good at confrontations, so when none of our monetary conversions checked out to our calculations I tried to coax my friends out of the garage. Four dollars is no reason to jump down the throat of a man with a rifle placed neatly next to his cluttered desk.
Finally, a man sitting on the brown, slouched couch next to us spoke a few words to the man behind the barricaded window and he slipped us a few extra dollars into the opening at the bottom of his barrier. We thanked the man on the couch considerably and as I opened the screen door to exit I heard Paul inquire cheerfully to the man, “Hey, do you have a car, my man?”
The man nodded and smiled, so Paul wiped off sweat from his brow and added, “Perfect! Say, if we buy you lunch would you want to show us around Accra?”
Did he really just say that??
The man let out a short and jolly laugh, looking at the exchange rate worker with amusement.
Who asks someone that? What, because we’re in Africa random people are going to want to show us around and NOT pistol whip us and take out our organs?
…and this is NOT because I watched too much Law and Order as a child.
Paul began to slightly plead with the man. It didn’t take much, though, and before I knew it the rest of my friends were heading to this man’s car on the other side of the street. I was wondering then if anyone else realized how bad of an idea this was. This was one of those specific situations that parents warn against. My father’s words, “Hun, don’t do anything stupid,” rang in my ears. And I could not deny that this was the exact situation I was warned against. I stood on the sidewalk, staring at a woman walk by with at least fifty bananas balanced atop her graceful figure, weighing my options on a virtual scale.
Sorry, Pops, it’s time to go with the flow.
Next thing I knew I was sitting on top of my friend’s lap in the back of a Ford Taurus headed to, well, anywhere NaNa, our new tour guide, wanted to go. The car kicked up a cloud of dust as we set off away from the main road filled with our fellow ignorant tourists. I took one last glance in the rear view mirror and smiled at the sight of Americans running from the persistent, dreadlocked merchants.
Hmm, at least they can run away.
I planned my escape for the first ten minutes of the drive. Hand clutching the door handle, I was prepared for anything. If our new guide made any sudden movements I’d know. Damn straight I’d know. My tune changed, however, after our new tour guide took us out to lunch, free of charge. I was still wary, but food has a magical power over my moods, I found out, and before long I was ready to go anywhere with our Ghanaian hero. After lunch he told us he had a few errands to run and asked if we’d like to be dropped off at the beach while he went to get his car serviced.
We pull up to what looked like an abandoned resort. Empty restaurant, empty bar, a colorful see-saw, and one of the most beautiful beach vistas I have ever seen. Giddy, we quickly thanked NaNa and ran out onto the sandy wonderland. The water was an inviting pale blue, beckoning to frolic in its glory. I took a deep breath of the salty, humid breeze and prepared to run in when I looked down at the rush of sea coming towards my sand covered feet.
“What the hell! Is that a-“
A syringe, I learned, is a common thing to find on beaches in Ghana. I promptly screamed and ran towards to beachfront bar, deciding watching the waves was much more appealing than contracting HIV.
When NaNa came back as he promised, he brought two friends with him, one in the front seat of his car, and one following in a motorcycle close behind.
“Would you like to go to the club and bar district of Accra? Cheap beer,” Na Na inquired in his booming, yet friendly voice. He was a man of average height, with a large beard and bright green knit cap that matched his Brazil soccer jersey perfectly. He also apparently knew the code words for young travelers, and we agreed to join.
He then drove us to a quiet restaurant to eat “the best fish in the country.” We passed slowly along the two-lane highway watching the country’s landscape roll along. Thick woods lined the road, yet trash lined the ditches leading up to it. The road was jammed with rush hour traffic; only in Ghana traffic was simply an opportunity to set up a portable market. Children and adults alike held up chocolate bars (best chocolate in the world) and vegetables, all hoping for a willing patron to flag them down. Along the way we bonded while rocking out to his Lil’ Wayne and Bone Thugs CDs, all 6 of us singing “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” into the Ghanaian orange sunset.
Law and Order should really be more like this.
We then feasted on what I assumed was the best fish in the country. It was the best I had ever had, even if I did have to explain that I would not be eating the face of the fish, much to the shock of Na Na and his two friends, one of which, my motorcycle man, Jesse.
After this we walked over to the smartest convenience store I have ever seen: Coke a Cola and bread by day, and Coke a Cola and rum by night. We settled down into the plastic chairs in front of the establishment and I began to think how silly I had been to be so afraid earlier. We were fine! And we were getting even better as the night went on, or at least the longer we stayed at that convenience store filled with rum.
“Man, I really want to go on that motorcycle,” I said to my friend Rachel.
“Uh, yeah, you’re not doing that,” she said in a final tone.
“Yeah, I know. But how awesome would that be?” I said, feeling the cheap alcohol enough to ask pointless questions.
Apparently Na Na heard me in my senseless conversation and inquired, “Would you like Jesse to take you for a ride on his motorcycle? He is a wonderful driver, this cousin of mine.”
“Oh, oh, no. It’s fine. I was just saying it looked like it would be fun. I don’t actually want to..and I can’t anyway,” I said half hoping he’d drop the idea and half hoping he’d ask Jesse to start up the motorcycle. As foolish as I knew it was, the thought of a ride thrilled and intrigued me.
If they wanted to kill me, they could’ve easily have done it by now. Right?
As if reading my mind Na Na called over Jesse and asked if he wanted to take me on a short ride around the block, all unbeknownst to me.
“Well, would you like to go for a ride on my motorcycle?” Jesse asked. He was a taller man than Na Na and much thinner. He wore a red and black leather jacket, an Obama screen-printed tee, and an eager smile that took up half of his face.
✹ ✹ ✹
The sticky humid air suddenly turned into a refreshing breeze as we weaved in and out of cars beeping, stuck in traffic. I had trouble getting the helmet’s plastic cover over my eyes so when we hit a straightaway my eyes watered from the motorcycle’s momentum through the dust-covered streets. We zoomed through the illuminated roads, dodging large potholes with grace. I clutched to Jesse with all my strength, ecstatic at this new experience. We passed stand after stand all selling different items, from the paintings I had seen earlier to neon-colored mops and other household cleaning products. Strange, yes; but very convenient.
“How are you liking the ride on my motorcycle?” Jesse asked turning his head slightly so I could hear him, that large smile still spread across his face.
“It’s really fun!” I said, trying to think of something else to say.
I couldn’t, so I just screamed instead whenever we would go fast. Jesse dodged yet another pothole, this time a little too late in the game. We skidded against the hot pavement and leaned violently to the left. He hooted and hollered in excitement, but my heart seemed to stop completely.
The high of trying something new had crashed, and luckily the motorcycle had not. I was still in one piece, and I had my fill. I wanted to go back, and suddenly realized I was alone with him. Yes, unfortunately it did take me that long to realize that. Just as my buzz was beginning to wear off Jesse shouted over the hum of the motorcycle, “Hey! Would you mind if we stopped at my house real quick? I need to get money to pay Na Na for dinner.”
“Uhh, no. I think it’d be better if you just took me back. My friends are going to get worried if I’m gone for too long,” I said, now 100% sober.
“Oh, it’ll only take a minute I promise,” Jesse said as he turned away from the one familiar street I knew, oblivious to my frantic tone.
This is it. I’m going to die. “Young American traveler was last seen hopping onto a motorcycle of a man she met earlier that day.”
He steered away from the bustling streets of downtown Accra and pulled into a wealthy looking apartment complex lined with manicured plants and an impressive fountain.
Okay, this doesn’t look awful. I’m still going to die, but at least in a place with tasteful landscaping.
We then passed this apartment complex and turned onto an even busier street, except this street had very few cars going through. It was packed full with people walking, wandering to the different shops, stopping every so often to talk to friends.
“Okay, here we are. My place is down the third row,” he said, pointing to rows of houses with tin roofs, ”I’ll be right back. Whatever you do, don’t leave the motorcycle,” Jesse explained with mild concern, leaving me clutching the motorcycle again, this time not to fall off, but to somehow thwart my kidnappers. Whether he was afraid for my safety or that he would lose his new American friend I did not know. He looked back and waved, like a Coliseum worker might to a gladiator released into the lion’s view.
This is all your fault. You deserve to be kidnapped, you idiot.
I looked around the street and realized I was in a place where very few tourists wandered; a block party of sorts. There were shacks are far as my eyes could see with smoke billowing out the front from the grills cooking up fresh fish and fried rice. I was the only white person for what seemed like miles, and it was very apparent. Groups of Ghanaians slowed their pace as they passed me, undoubtedly wondering what this little white girl was doing clutching a motorcycle seat with tears streaming down her face.
Why the hell did I watch Taken last week?!?
Jesse strolled back with a smile and proclaimed, “I forgot my house keys! How stupid of me!” He lifted up the motorcycle seat and grabbed his keys, leaving me again, and apparently not noticing my trembling knees. A truck passed by with giant speakers blasting reggae tone music into my eardrums, which were already pumping quite successfully themselves.
Laughter, children’s cries, and chatter all swished together like Listerine. The combination was deafening and my death grip was slipping from the motorcycle’s seat due to the sweat from my palms and fingers. I stared at my shoes and wished more than anything to be able to see my home again.
The home I was so happy to leave.
“Got my money! Let’s get back,” said Jesse carelessly as he finally approached the motorcycle.
I breathed for the first time in about ten minutes, no doubt setting a world record. We started chugging along again, and my tears were dried by the rushes of cool wind on my face. Finally, a smile spread across my face.
“So, do you have a boyfriend at home?” asked Jesse
Shit. I’m not safe yet.
“Yes, I do. Big, strong guy. Tall, and uh muscular,” I said.
“I wish I had an American girlfriend.” Not me. You better not mean me.
“Yeah, I have a lot of great friends.”
“Would they be my girlfriend???”
“Uh, sure. Yeah, yeah definitely!”
“Good. I had an American girlfriend. I loved her. She was amazing. She loved butterflies,” Jesse explained in his perpetually optimistic tone.
“Oh, what happened to her?” I asked.
“She died. She came out here to live with me and was struck by a car.”
The motorcycle sputtered and shifted.
“Oh. Oh my. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. I loved her so much, but I know I need to move on,” he said as his goofy smile finally waned, “the only thing is the girls in Ghana are all so dishonest. I don’t trust them for a second. They’ll only hurt me.”
They’ll hurt you. Hmm.
We cut through the wealthy apartment building again as he continued to explain his relationship with his wonderful Iowa born American girlfriend. We passed a few streets and finally ended up on the main drag.
He’s scared just like me. Maybe not everyone is a human trafficker. Maybe some people just want a girl from Iowa who loves butterf—
Wait, what’s that?? Americans! Walking down the street!
“I’ll love her ‘til the day I—“
“STOP!! My friends! There they are!”
“B-but, we’re not at the bar yet.”
“I don’t care! I, uh, need to talk to them, those Americans right there.”
Jesse stopped the motorcycle. I handed him his helmet as I awkwardly swung my leg over the motorcycle, falling into my confused friends’ arms. He started his cycle again with a slightly hurt look and drove off as I waved, shouting vows to find him an American girlfriend.
As we began to walk down the mud-covered sidewalk I started to feel a twinge of remorse for making assumptions about my new friend Jesse. After all, he was just searching for what so many are looking for as well: companionship and love.
Yeah, but next time you play matchmaker, skip the motorcycle ride into the dark, you lucky idiot.