Operation: Get To Ghana
When we made the decision to get to Ghana, we knew we had a finite amount of time to get out of Liberia. The clock was ticking for how long we would have until they closed borders. Flights had already been suspended in most places and even if we wanted to fly out, Monrovia didn’t have any direct flights to North America. We were going to have to go by land and nobody had any information for how long we would still be able to cross borders. With visas for Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana in hand, we made the mad dash for Accra. We would have to go 1,200 km to reach the Ghanaian border and then another 400 km to get to Accra where we had a Couchsurfing host. The first step was getting into Cote D’Ivoire, which was increasingly seeming like a long shot. They had stopped accepting people coming from the US but nobody could clarify for me whether that meant all US citizens or just people coming from there direct. We would have to find out.
We left Monrovia early, sad to leave and tempted to stay. We had met an amazing Couchsurfing host, who had offered to put us up for as long as we needed. Things were becoming more tense in Monrovia but it wasn’t bad. We could still go to the bars for a beer, some people still waved to us on the street, we could still take taxis around, although we were often begrudgingly picked up. However, the day we left Monrovia, things had changed.
Even though the number of cases as remained at 2 and were easily traced to a Liberian minister who had returned from Europe, people were more on edge than we had seen before. Our Couchsurfing host graciously escorted us to the bus station so we could catch a ride out of town to a place we could begin hitchhiking. We reached the bus and she negotiated a price for us. We packed our bags in and took our seats at the back. Immediately, we could see people were on edge by our presence. Then people began refusing to sit on the bus with us. Women would enter and turn around again saying they didn’t want to sit next to the corona. The backseat spaces next to us remained empty and the bus took off.
In Africa, public transport is usually not full until there is literally no way that anyone else could possibly be squeezed in. These days, the police were cracking down: a taxi that could fit 7 was now only allowed to take 4. On this particular bus, the seats remained empty not due to the imposition of new rules but because people were afraid of us.
The bus driver, losing money because of the lack pf passengers, demanded we pay for the entire backseat. “You are taking up four spaces so you must pay for 4 seats!” he yelled at us. We told him that if people wanted to sit next to us, they could. We were healthy, not a threat and there was no way we were paying double price to account for other people’s superstitions. He was not pleased, but eventually relented.
When we went to pay our ticket price, we handed the money to the front and a lady grabbed it to hand to the money collector. “You better wash your hands quick!” another passenger told the woman who had touched out bills.
People were mean-mugging us the entire ride. One man began to explain why he was afraid of us. “People see your white skin and they are afraid. This coronavirus is from Europe so people see you and think you have it. I do not know why you came here. There is nothing to see in Liberia, why did you come here?”
It was as if people thought we were there to intentionally infect them. We explained we’d been in Africa for 5 months. We hadn’t left, and we had barely come in contact with any other white people. It was no use. They were scared and already convinced.
The bus ride proved to me we were making the right decision to leave. Within a few days people had gone from welcoming us with open arms to berating us for even being there in the first place. What would it be like in another few days?
We got off the bus and nobody flocked to us to offer us taxi rides as is usually the case. People kept their distance and we walked to the outskirts of town.
Surprisingly, it didn’t take that long for us to get a ride. The first one came from three miners who were on their way to the job site. They let us in without issue but the guy in the backseat lathered us in hand sanitizer when we sat down. They were very nice, offered us some pigs in a blanket, water, and bananas. They asked about our travels and were impressed with our ambitions. We didn’t talk about the virus much and I was grateful for that.
The next few rides took a bit more time but people were still stopping on their motorbikes to ask us if we needed help. Good sign. We made it to Ganta, the border town where we had entered the country only a week before, by nightfall. We made camp and treated ourselves to a beer and a simple meal. It was our last night in Liberia after all.
By the next morning, the mood seemed to have soured even further. People were crossing the street to avoid walking by us. We were getting stares and scowls from locals as we tried to flag down rides that refused to stop. There were many construction trucks driving in caravans, which usually don’t stop to give you rides so I tried to tell myself that was more the reason for the lack of rides but I couldn’t shake the feeling it was because of the fear of the virus. The whole day we ended up getting most of our rides in the back of pickup trucks. People were not keen on letting us into their vehicles. One guy explained to us, from a distance, that people were afraid of us because they didn’t want to die. As we got closer to the border, the fear became more pronounced.
We arrived at the Cote D’Ivoire border a little before 5 pm. I put Gabe’s Canadian passport on top of mine in hopes of buying us some leeway in case we had to persuade the border patrol to let us in. We did.
They took one look at my American passport and laughed, “You are American. You cannot come in.”
We went through the whole spiel: we’ve been in Africa since last October. We haven’t left, we haven’t been to any countries with a high number of cases of the virus.
There was another couple at the border. A Ivoirian and her American fiancée. He had only been in Africa for a month and they weren’t letting him in. Their firm stance with the other American was worrisome.
Eventually, we were let through. We had made it through the first (and biggest) hurdle. At least we were out of Liberia. We had seen there was a hostel that was still open to travelers in Abidjan, the economic capital 1000 km to the south. If we could get there, we could gather some information and would be a few hours away from the Ghana border.
“The borders close tomorrow,” the guards at the Cote D’Ivoire post told us when we were leaving. “All borders in Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana will be closed by 6 pm. Nobody in or out.”
It was just before 6 pm. We had 24 hours to make it, which was borderline impossible. The closest town was at least an hour away. From there we were told it was 10 hours to Abidjan and then another 3 hours to the border town of Noe. If we hitchhiked through the night, we stood a chance of making it, assuming we could get a ride with a lorry truck that was going all the way. It was not a probable chance, however, and a sketchy one I wasn’t particularly keen on. If we didn’t get a ride and had to spend the night somewhere, it would leave us with basically no cushion time necessary when hitchhiking to account for the time it takes to get rides. Especially these days when people seemed much more hesitant to pick us up.
The border closed for the night right after we crossed so there was little chance of us getting a ride to the next town, Danane, which was necessary if we were going to try and continue that night. We paid for a truck to take us but he told us we were unlikely to find a ride farther than the next town. Even if we were willing to pay for a bus, the next ones didn’t leave until the next morning.
We got to the next town and started to hitch. There were still ample street lights and it wasn’t too late so we figured it was still okay. We got a ride but then got dropped off in front of a minibus that was going to Man, the biggest town in the north. We asked the driver if we would be able to continue to Abidjan from there that night. If not, we preferred to wait in Danane and continue to try for a lorry. The ticket man insisted it was possible to do, plus the price was reasonable and we were a bit desperate to make as much progress as possible so we paid for the bus.
Arriving in Man, it was close to 9 pm. We got out and asked for the buses to Abidjan. It quickly became clear that the ticket man from Danane had just wanted to get us on the bus and there actually wasn’t another bus leaving that night.
We were both exhausted and becoming more convinced that we wouldn’t make it to Ghana before the 6 pm deadline. Hopefully, there would be a grace period.
One of the bus stations had a line of unoccupied chairs and was well-lit. We saw other people laying down and figured it would be okay for us to sleep there.
We had no problems and woke up nice and early. Long before the crack of dawn, we were up and moving, walking the 5+ kms to the edge of town to begin hitchhiking. We made it to a spot but it was slow going for the first little while. No trucks stopped for us. People didn’t even stop to ask what we were doing, which usually they do since people see us as potential paying customers. Now, nobody even wanted our money.
Finally, a guy in a delivery van stopped for us. He was going all the way to Abidjan and agreed to take us. A motorcycle quickly rocked up and we saw that it was the police.
“What are you doing here?” he asked both us and the driver.
We explained we were hitchhiking and trying to get to Abidjan and the truck driver had agreed to take us.
“I wouldn’t take them all the way,” the cop told the driver. “They could have the virus.”
The driver was already wearing a face mask and we immediately told him our whole story. He didn’t seem threatened and after we showed the cop our passports, we were free to continue.
We all applied hand sanitizer in the car but within 10 minutes, the driver took off his face mask and introduced himself as Isaac.
Isaac loved music and turned on a great collection of tunes in both French and English and proceeded to hit the road singing and dancing as he went. He spoke only a few English words so he mostly spoke to Gabe but we laughed as we tried to understand each other when Gabe fell asleep during one part of the ride.
He originally told us he didn’t eat when he travelled but a few hours along in the trip we began to ask about Ivorian food and he asked if we had tried Chika. We told him we hadn’t and so it was decided we would stop and get some.
Chika is a staple Ivorian dish, as it turns out, and we soon found out why. It is simple: fish, spicy sauce, onions, and a couscous made from manioc. But the blend of flavors and the freshness of the ingredients was amazing! Isaac offered us a beer and we sat drinking when three plates of food appeared in front of us. Gabe and I had been eating so little the past few days because we had been in travel mode so this buffet was such a welcome treat!
The ladies at the establishment were not callous but were suspicious. They were asking Isaac about us and we heard him explain our situation. Little by little they began to warm up to us. I was hoping that these interactions were having an affect on people.
So much misinformation spreads so easily during a panic. Especially in a place like West Africa where people are already superstitious and education levels are low. People have been subjected to all kinds of theories about how this virus spreads and very few of the theories are founded in medical science. I was hoping that by interacting with people, they would begin to see that white skin didn’t equal coronavirus. It had happened with Isaac and it was beginning to happen with the people at the restaurant. In times like this, little progress goes a long way.
Isaac dropped us off out of his way in the exact neighborhood we needed to get to. When we left, the man who had worn the facemask while meeting us gave us both big hugs and wished us well.
We arrived to a hostel, The Elephant’s Nest, where we heard the owner was still accepting people trapped because of the virus. Our plan was to stay they night there and leave the next morning to head to the Ghana border and hope a grace period had been granted.
The next morning came and we were apprehensive about leaving. The border was most likely shut, which would mean roughly 5 hours of pointless hitchhiking there and back with all of our things. We were uncertain of how it would be getting rides, if anyone was even still going all the way there, and if they would take us. At the end of the day, curiosity got the best of us and we sided with the “never know till you try” mantra replaying in both of our heads. Plus, we had a Couchsurfing host lined up in Ghana who had a private room waiting for us and a potential work arrangement that was closed at the moment but could open up any time. Basically, we had options in Ghana, free options, for riding this out, which we didn’t have in Cote D’Ivoire.
We hit the road and it was slow going getting a car. People passing almost all donned facemasks and nobody wanted to stop for the travelling, white, disease spreading couple on the side of the road. Finally a truck stopped and allowed us to ride in the back, but he ended up only going a few kilometers down the road. We set ourselves a 12 pm deadline for trying to get a significant distance. It was 9:30 am when we began and was getting close to 10:30 when the first ride dropped us off.
I was starting to regret our decision to leave. I had been more inclined to stay than Gabe had been and standing on the side of the highway, I was anxious about public perception of us. A village not too far away had confirmed a case the day before and I was hesitant to be rambling around the area knowing that we might be a target.
Fortunately, a 4×4 soon stopped and agreed to take us to Aboisso, the halfway point to the border. From there we would only have 55 km to go.
His name was Lewis and he ended up being the loveliest man. He wasn’t afraid of us and we didn’t talk much about the virus. He played us a variety of French-speaking music and then when he realized I only spoke English, he switched to soothing instrumental covers of popular songs because he didn’t want me to feel excluded. He asked if we had eaten Chika and we said we had had it yesterday for the first time and loved it so he suggested we stop and get some in Aboisso before parting ways.
The place he took us to was not packed but every eye turned toward us when we entered. I tried to make a production out of washing my hands so people would know I was taking my hygiene seriously. We sat far away from other customers and the lady who ultimately brought out our meal served us our plates like they were already infected. But it was the best meal we had had in a while, especially since we hadn’t eaten much since our last ride had treated us to Chika!
Once again, we insisted on paying for the meal but somehow ended up getting it all paid for. Lewis was a cocoa distributor and was obviously doing alright for himself. Still, we get a bit uncomfortable when people pick us up, take us long distances, and then pay for our meal. When do we get to give back?!
He gave us his number and told us to call him if we had trouble at the border and couldn’t get back to Abidjan. He would help sort something out for us, no problem.
We continued the trek to the border. It took us another 4 rides to get to Noe. The whole way we were unintentionally chasing a rainstorm and by the time we reached the border everything was soaked. But still, we had made it. I was skeptical we would even get one ride out of Bassam but we had made it the 120 km. Now we just had to cross our fingers and hope we could cross…
“Nope, uh-uh, get out, leave now,” the border patrolman told us before we could even step one foot in the door to collect our exit stamp for Cote D’Ivoire. “The border is closed. Come back when it is open. Nobody in or out.”
We had prepared a whole spiel as to why we should get let into Ghana if the border was open. We had had so much success hitchhiking, I foolishly got my hopes up that we would be able to cross over. The two things were in no way correlated but this is the way my brain thinks.
However, our luck was not going to translate to being let over the border and we knew there was no point in arguing. It was back to Bassam for us.
In some ways I was relieved to not be going to Ghana. We knew we had a place to stay at The Elephant’s Nest. There were other travelers there so we had community. The owner had spent most of her adult life in and around West Africa and had all the connections you could want in times of uncertainty. We would be safe there and we would have space to do what we could to pass the time of quarantine we were reconciling was going to be inevitable.
In other ways I was crushed about not getting in. If we had been allowed to cross, we wouldn’t have to worry about anything for 3 months since that was the length of our Ghana visa, as opposed to the 1 month we had in Cote D’Ivoire. We had also set our sights on Ghana and had made such an incredible journey in such a short time to get there only to be 1 day too late. We knew that our setup at The Elephant’s Nest would be comfortable but the thought of having a private room for free with a local in Ghana was a shame to have to pass up.
Still, there was nothing to be done but try and get back to what would be our home for the foreseeable future before dark. Chloe, the owner of The Elephant’s Nest, had made strict rules against public transport of any kind to try and minimize the risk of anyone at her place getting infected. It worked for us as we never use public transit anyways, but as an hour passed and it became 4 o’clock and we were still in Noe waiting for a car to stop, I once again grew skeptical of our ability to make it back.
Cars were passing but they all assumed we had just come from Ghana. There was no way of explaining our situation to a passing vehicle and even if we could, it was still unlikely people would let us ride inside their cars. After a while, we began pulling out all the stops: prayer hands, crazy dancing, absurdly big smiles. It paid off when we got a ride from some policemen who took us back to Aboisso. They were quite reluctant at first but after hearing our story, they too took us farther than they were going to make it easier for us to get a ride.
Back in Aboisso, the mood towards us was deteriorating. Nobody smiled, nobody waved. People weren’t suspicious, they were angry. We needed to get a ride before dark.
And, as always…we did. We made it back safe and sound. We soon began to realize that we had just completed the easy part. Now, we would have to self isolate. The whole world was doing it and we had, until this point, been removed from the reality of the global situation. Our friends the States had been self isolating for weeks. Our friends in Europe were on complete lockdown. It was now time for us to face to music and hunker down.
In less than one week coronavirus went from being a far off problem being faced by people abroad to an immediate threat to us, the countries we were in , and the trip we were taking. Our entire concept of what we were going to experience as a result of the pandemic changed almost overnight. I guess it is the same way the rest of the world felt about it too. But somehow, selfishly, we travelers in Africa had hoped that we would be immune from the worst of it. Everybody kept waiting on this explosion of cases in Africa but it hadn’t happened yet. In some ways I think we were all disillusioned that we might be spared.
But viruses don’t have schedules, or ethnicities, or boundaries. We all have to take the necessary steps to combat the spread of this so that we stand a chance of resuming a normal life in a time frame that is reasonable. And nobody really even knows if that is possible. “We are living in unprecedented times,” seems to be the quote of the pandemic. And it’s true. Nobody knows what is going to happen in even the next week. As if travel in Africa couldn’t get more unpredictable…