Accra, Ghana

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to travel, and perhaps somewhat foolishly, I decided to join a trip to Ghana occurring between Christmas and the New Year. When I first booked the trip almost six months ago, it looked like we were emerging from COVID-19 and life was going back to some semblance of normal, especially with vaccines becoming more widely available and case rates going down.

However, given the changing variants, I became less and less optimistic as we got closer to our December 26 departure date. Bolstered by a sense of optimism, a bit of the sunk cost fallacy, and perhaps an overzealous desire to feel like life is returning to normal, I continued to proceed through the motions: getting all the paperwork necessary and sending my passport off for the visa, booking a private room on our tour, completing the necessary testing prior to departure, getting all of my documents in order to breeze through immigration and testing upon arrival. Despite a growing sense of anxiety, I boarded the plane the day after Christmas and 10 hours later arrived on a (steamy) jet bridge in Accra, Ghana.

For what it’s worth, Ghana does appear to be doing everything it can to ensure public health given the lack of vaccine availability / adoption – we had to complete a PCR test before boarding our flight, provide a health declaration, and complete rapid testing upon arrival before being cleared to clear customs. Upon arrival, I was impressed with how friendly and warm everyone was, from the folks checking our health declarations to the (many) people who reviewed my passport and provided guidance as I proceeded through the rapid antigen testing process right after deplaning. My good first impressions continued when I met our trip organizers at the hotel – without a doubt, Ghanaians are some of the kindest people I have ever met. Every single person I met in a service role seemed genuinely invested in me having a good experience and delivered service with a smile, making me feel so welcome.

After checking into the hotel, I opted to snooze a bit post-red-eye flight; unfortunately, I woke up to the bad news that a couple folks from our party had already tested positive upon arrival and were heading to the quarantine hotel. This was strike one for my anxiety: given the incubation period, it was entirely possible others had been exposed prior to their flights and just hadn’t tested negative yet. Strike two happened as people arranged a late night outing to the nightclubs that evening, and strike three quickly followed when it became apparent the following morning that I was the only person not planning to attend many of the unmasked party activities planned throughout our trip, including Afrochella (a huge music festival akin to Coachella in the United States, where obviously folks would not be at their most mindful of following restrictions). Honestly, I can’t blame anyone – people have totally different tolerance levels and risk appetites, and I should have assumed folks would lean into nightlife.

So, unfortunately this blog will be a much shorter one than I would have desired, but I wanted to record it for my own memories – I wholeheartedly wish that I had felt comfortable remaining part of the trip, and also want to emphasize that my decision to essentially turn around and take the next flight home two and half days after arrival was not due to anything I experienced in Ghana at all. Unfortunately, it’s a reaction to the way my fellow travel group members acted and a result of my (admittedly very, very conservative) approach to COVID safety and lack of comfort with the “what-ifs” that followed the realization that I might have to spend an extra 10 days quarantining at the end of the trip (which, of course, the US shortened to 5 days immediately after I returned home!).

ON TO THE FUN STUFF: I did experience two incredible days in Ghana and got just enough of a taste to (of course) spark my desire to travel back to West Africa whenever it feels realistic to do so. We primarily spent our time sight-seeing within Accra (unfortunately, I missed several of the itinerary items I was most excited about, including visiting the Cape Coast Castle and the Ashanti region, as well as the Ghanaian cooking class and trip to natural wonders like Boti Falls). Apologies for the lack of photo quality – many of these photos were taken from a moving bus, so I’ve done my best to improve the quality but there are some reflections and such.

Accra itself is a bit of a sprawling city, with a relatively new and modern section adjacent to the international airport and an older “downtown” area with many of the sights closer to the coast along the Gulf of Guinea.

We took a nice driving tour through Accra to the Osu neighborhood, passing a variety of landmarks along the way. First was their equivalent of the White House, a beautiful building shaped like a stool – the stool is a symbol of the many tribal leaders of Ghana and their use of stools as part of their leadership. We would also pass a variety of other buildings with stool-inspired architecture, as well as the Independence Square.

Independence Square or “Black Star” Square, celebrating colonial independence. Oddly, the monument itself has an inscription dedicating it to Queen Elizabeth.

The Gulf of Guinea is also quite beautiful (our guides were joking it’s the “Santorini of Ghana”).

However, I think the pieces of the city that appealed to me the most were the pieces of daily life I got to observe. We saw women carrying all variety of goods on their heads to and from the different roadside stalls – things like pineapples, bottles of water for sale, clothing. Enterprising kids jumped onto the hoods of vehicles to begin washing them for a small tip. Women dressed mannequins on the side of the road, displaying all variety of incredible patterns and dress designs.

Also interesting were the markets – if I were crafting the itinerary myself, I would have wandered into the many fresh markets we passed, where huge pens filled with goats, chickens, turkeys, etc. were available for sale.

We also passed some amazing street art on a variety of streets in downtown Ghana. One mural depicts a Ghanaian origin story, while others showcase various parts of their cultural traditions, including incredibly ornate “masqueraders”. Others showed more contemporary art themes.

Our last stop was to a market where we could buy your standard variety of sundry goods – everything from jewelry to fans to handicrafts to textiles. If you’ve ever been to a market with stalls, you can picture what I’m talking about. I was in the market for a traditional, hand-woven textile and learned that there is a significant difference between the woven vs. printed cloth versions of the same patterns. Thankfully, one of our guides was able to do the bartering for me and I ended up walking away with a gorgeous Ashanti textile for a great price.

Honestly, I got just enough of a taste of Ghana to spark my excitement, making me even more eager to return at some point. I’d especially love to see some of the natural sites and see a lot more of the city and its cultural history. One thing I didn’t really get exposure to on this trip was the food – given our hotel was located in the more “modern” but less walkable area, I relied primarily on room service for the few meals I did have.  My favorite of all was the Jollof Rice with beef skewers; the beef had a heavy spice rub that hit really interesting bitter heat notes, and the rice was a perfect balance with some fatty beef and tomato as well as thinly sliced onion, bell pepper and cucumber.

Sadly, that’s it – I made the (relatively) heartbreaking decision to fly back at the end of Day 3, knowing that I couldn’t fully enjoy myself with my COVID anxiety in the background, whether rational or not.

A couple ideas for next time:

  • Our trip organizers, The Travel Clan, did a fantastic job organizing our trip and I sincerely believe they booked an amazing itinerary had I been able to enjoy the whole thing – we had planned trips to many of Accra’s neighborhoods, the Cape Coast Castle, Boti Falls, etc. They also went above and beyond to ensure we had a good experience, coordinating transportation and things like having a money exchanger come to our hotel (who, by the way, gave me an incredible rate which was actually better than market value – I legitimately don’t think I’ve experienced that before while traveling)
  • Stay in Osu to be nearer to some of the sites / within walking distance to restaurants and local attractions
  • Visit some of the museums – from the hotel guestbook, it looked like Accra has some incredible museums related to Ghana’s art, culture, and history
  • Honestly, do it myself as opposed to joining a tour. This might be difficult given you need specific documentation to get a visa (i.e., a “host” in Ghana willing to attest to your ability to pay for activities in the country, compliance with laws, etc.), but I do remember now why doing these very touristy group activities is not my favorite way to travel; that being said, seeing more of Ghana would be worth it however I can make it happen!

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