February 14th, or is it the 15th now? I’m too tired. 1998
I walked off the plane into sensory overload. Piercing hot darkness. This was definitely Africa. It was very humid and a pungent tropical smell (a mix of sweat and coastal breeze, unlike anything I’d ever smelled) filled the night air. The dark of night was nearly complete. Just a few post-midnight lights marked the city of Accra.
Inside, the terminal was dimly lit with fluorescent lights that were only 20% as bright as you’d see in the West. It made everything seem darker, older, and dirtier than it really was. From a group of plainclothes guys with ID badges, a man approached and asked for my immunization records. He took mine and Peggy’s to a counter where another guy stamped them.
He took our passports and led us ahead to a series of lines labelled “Ghana Nationals,” “West African Nationals,” and “Other Nationals”. The “Other” line was very long. The guy with our passports led us into the “West African” line and then started talking money. He said he would get us through quickly and we would give him ten dollars. We grabbed our passports back and got in the long line, while he went off in search of a new mark. After a long wait we got through.
I went to exchange currency. We would need walking-around money. I exchanged $100 and got a very thick stack of Ghanaian Cedis. Their largest bill is only worth $2.50, and I didn’t get any of those. My $100 was exchanged into 100 red 2,000 Cedi bills. The wad of cash was so thick it bulged out of my pocket.
While Peggy waited inside I went out to see if our local contact was there. In front of the airport there was a huge crowd of people gathered, and seeing me, they began hollering. “Are you okay?” “Need a taxi?” Others tried to get my attention by hissing sharply like snakes, “SSSSSSSS!!!”
I walked out trying to project confidence, as if I knew what I was doing and where I was going. In reality I was thoroughly confused and overwhelmed. In my mind it played out like those scenes in movies where the Marlboro Man westerner walks through the chaotic exotic marketplace, all calm and serene. The reality was not even close.
I didn’t see any sign of our ride, anda guy named Frankie started following me around. He led me to a guy selling phone cards out of his wallet. Frankie acted like he was helping me out and asked for money. I told him I would get him later. Since the shops were closed I bought a phone card for an outrageous sum.
Back inside, Peggy went to call our ride with the phone card. I laughed when I saw a man behind her, reaching in to push buttons. Another helper! Peggy managed to wake up one of our local contacts, but the call was useless. She could hear him but he couldn’t hear her. We were on our own for transportation to the hotel.
The Ghana Airways flight with my hard-case was due soon. Miraculously, the case arrived intact with the film scanner and photo equipment safe and sound.
We waded back into the sea of “helpers” outside the airport and Frankie was on us immediately, along with a bunch of other guys. We figured we might as well have Frankie take us to the hotel.
He led us to a van in a very dark parking lot. There were a couple cars labelled TAXI, including one with a shirtless man sleeping on the hood. Frankie threw in our luggage and another guy got in to drive.
They kept insisting that our hotel, the Golden Tulip, was too expensive and offered to take us somewhere “more affordable.”
“Take us to the Golden Tulip, now!” Peggy ordered.
The Golden Tulip turned out to be only about a half-mile from the airport. And for that short drive they wanted $20. I was so exhausted I just handed them the money without argument (20 red Cedi bills).
As we started to get out of the van they said, “You can leave your baggage in the van while you check in.”
I smiled. At least they were being polite about conning us out of our belongings (possibly). We took the bags, checked in, and slept. In only a couple of hours, the phone would ring and it would all start.