Monday, June 21, 2010

Tro-Tro Express: On Traveling In Ghana

I wanted to provide the best possible description for my counterparts back home in the U.S. to get a feeling of what it is like to go somewhere in Ghana. It may be a long post, but I hope that it accurately captures what you will find should you stop on by and visit me here during my stay.

First and foremost: You are not in the United States. This is not a bad thing at all, you are exploring and getting to know the world beyond your borders, so by all means view this as a positive step. What it is meant to do though is to remind you that the things you expect when in a vehicle aren't necessarily applied to travel in Ghana. It is great fun to ride around and see this really beautiful country, but you have to leave some inhibitions behind, and ready yourself (maybe steady yourself too) for some striking things.

Now, the venerable Tro-tro. That is my phoenetic spelling of what they are called, so it may very well be the case that this is not the right name for it, but that is what I hear when someone asks, "Should we take a tro-tro?" So what does it look like? Most of the vehicles are makes and models that we do not have in the United States, so right off the bat it will be hard to describe it just right. You can think of it as a passenger van from the 1970s or 80s, but we start to lose the look of things right there. These vehicles may be even older than that, I can't really tell, but they have two front doors for driver and passengers, and a sliding side door.

Most typically they will have at least three benches of seats that sit three tightly. The rear bench fits all the way across the width of the vehicle and can seat four. For every other bench seat, the right end of the bench has a fold-out seat bolted on that will allow for all benches to maximize passenger space. If you are on a full tro-tro, you are embarking on a journey with 15 people in a van. And their stuff. Which may at times include one or two children with their parents. So 15 is really a ball park.

The point here is that a full ride can be a very close and personal journey. We should observe at this point that none of these vehicles EVER had a working air conditioner, and so the interior gets rather warm.

The driver is a skilled man (I have never seen a woman driver in a vehicle for commercial service) who really doesn't talk much. That is not his job. His job is to narrowly avoid the following: other tro-tros, cars, motorcyclists weaving through traffic, pedestrians who must walk on the road as there are no sidewalks here, pot-holes the size of sink-holes, goats, chickens, bicyclists, dogs, and anything else that might leap out from the tall grass along the road's edge. It really is impressive to see these drivers maneuver their steeds. I mentioned that the driver does not speak; this is untrue. He speaks with his horn. He tends to speak about 40 words a minute by my estimation.

On the tro-tro we have the man responsible for loading the vehicle with human cargo. This is the driver's mate. He collects money, makes change, and if soliciting business, will be chanting the tro's destination to all who idle by the roadside. I loved listening to the mates in Accra as they had a great delivery. Accraccraccra! Circlecirclecircle! Sometimes the mate might see a volunteer and hope to rub a few extra pesuas from their pocket by charging extra so we have normally been on guard when getting money out, but otherwise they are just doing their duty to make a cedi (Ghanaian dollar).

So those are the people on this quite short yet purposeful bus. I have yet to really describe well the condition of the vehicle. There is nothing new on these vechicles. Everything has been fixed two times at a minimum. When I use the term fix, I use it as loosely as possible; blunt force seems to be preferred when fixing plastic trim. Most times the driver uses the key to start the tro-tro up, but sometimes a dip beneath the dashboard to touch a few wires together is necessary. The interiors have probably seen a million passengers before us, so there is a dingy, destroyed effect that builds up over time. The windows in the tro do open up which is a big plus, but during a heavy rain they never really do shut all the way closed. You aim for the middle seats if you think it is going to rain. Outside seats if it is sunny.

Of the odometers that function, they will not be fewer than 300,000 miles. Most have long since stopped working and you would be right in presuming a state inspection probably doesn't require those to work. I have kept a running total of cracked windshields and I am still standing at 50%. If it has one crack in the windshield, it will have two brothers to go with it almost without fail. There is serious doubt that any of these tro-tros could pass an emission test in the states even if the engine was turned off, let alone running. Yet they manage to get to the end of the line most of the time (discounting flat tires).

One of the very funny things here is that every rear window has a phrase stickered to the glass. "Hustler", "God is all", "In His Name", the list can go on and on. I am missing the funnier ones to be sure, but it gives us something to read while bouncing down the road. Oh, the shocks won't be working during your ride, I failed to mention that. The CV joint may creak a bit on hard right hand turns.

Other than this, you have the experience of a lifetime in store for you. They really are a lot of fun and I am purely amazed at the resourcefulness of the guys that drive them. You will enjoy them too, should you happen out here.

Oh, one last thing. Your driver may choose to pass another vehicle ANY TIME THEY WANT TO. Most roads are like that, so try not to show off that you are a novice by complaining.

I love this place.


Jen said...

This is good stuff, David -- entertaining! Gives us a nice flavor of the tro-tro! You're a gifted writer and should consider writing a book at the end of your PC adventures. Or at least some magazine blurbs...

timmyt said...

Thanks David. Keep up the posts. My coworker from Ghana is getting a kick out of hearing about your journey. So am I.

Phineas said...