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Great Times in Ghana

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Greetings from Cotonou, Benin. I've been resting up here after a nasty respratory infection I caught up north. Been a rocky re-entry into the saddle, but I'm getting stronger.

Great Times in Ghana

I’ll start this journal with one of my favorite experiences in Ghana by far. It’s a winner. I was walking by myself in good friend Kwame’s neighborhood in Accra New Town where very few white folks ever venture. A group of teenagers passed me by with all their testosterone flowing hard and one boy broke off from the group and started following me. When he caught up I noticed he was well dressed, healthy and alert. He tossed me the following line, “Hi Mister. I’m very hungry and I would appreciate it if you could give me some money to buy some food”. I stopped, looked him dead in the eye, and proceeded to challenge the kid.

“You’re a smart young man, right?” I asked
“Yes, very smart” he replied confidently.
“You know how to work hard, right?” I added.
“Yes, I do” he responded
“You know how to sell, right” I added
“Yes, I’m very good at selling” he responded
I looked him in the eyes and said “I’ll give you a better gift than money. And it’s my advice. Don’t ever ask for money for nothing from anyone ever again. Especially don’t ask a person just because they have white skin. Work hard, work smart and take pride in yourself. If you do that you can be successful”

What happened after I will never forget. The young man’s eyes opened super wide in total excitement as he almost yelled back at me “Okay! I will NEVER ask for money for nothing ever again! That’s a great gift! Thank you! I love you! I love you!”

I gave him a hug, and off I went. As I walked away he kept screaming “I love you! I love you! Thank you so much!” He was so genuinely excited! It was an experience I’ll never forget.

So back to how I got to Ghana and into the adventures 15th African country of the expedition.

My planned 1.5 month visit to the USA for my cousin’s wedding, video screening and fundraiser turned into 4 months. I cant’ complain as the visit was very productive, rewarding and I got to connect with all my friends and family. But, on the downside, I admittedly got soft and spoiled back in the western lifestyle, and returned towards the end of the Harmattan winds as the heat was rising big time. I had no idea how hard it would be to reenter life on the road in Africa.

The bonus of my late return was that I returned to Ghana right in the middle of the continent’s largest soccer tournament, the Africa Cup, which was being hosted in Ghana. In fact, I arrived the very day that Ghana was playing Morocco to enter the semi-finals. I managed to get all my gear to Ghana with American and North American Airlines without any hassle and I was greeted at 5:30AM by my good friends Kwame, his wife Gina and other crew. They had huge smiles, hugs and two taxis ready to take me to one of the few hotels that had a room in the jam packed capital.

The first thing I noticed that was different since my last visit to Ghana were the dark grey skies, which were caused by the seasonal Harmattan winds that blew sand from the Sahara desert for months. Combine this with the choking pollution and muggy heat of Accra and you have some pretty harsh reentry conditions for a guy who was just wearing a down jacket and jeans the day before in clean fresh ocean air.

After a nice nap I woke up to home cooked food brought to my room from Gina, a ritual I would get used to over the next few days in Accra. Gina loves to cook and is by far the best cook I’ve met in all of Africa. After a filling meal of yummy Ademe we headed to Kwame’s pad to watch Ghana play Morocco in the soccer match. Ghana was the underdog but I just knew they would win and bet Kwame that every goal Ghana scored he had to eat a tooth of a goat’s head he was eating for dinner. He ate several that night as Ghana beat Morocco and the city of Accra went wild.

I seem to have some unconscious attraction to huge football tournaments. In 2002 we stumbled upon the World Cup in Korea, in 2004 I happened to be living in Portugal for the Euro Cup and here I was now on the 3rd continent for another huge soccer party. I’m not complaining, but I am curious how it keeps happening. I’ll be in Eruope for the 2008 Euro as well. Life is tough, I know!

I spent 3 days in Accra getting my bike dialed in, meeting with the media, getting my visas in order and spending time with my friends Kwame and Gina. It was on day two that I broke down and realized just how sad I was to have left my family and friends once again for a 10 month expedition out of the country. Although I love my life and the Peace Pedalers project dearly, 10 months and dozens of countries of travel seemed like a long road to go it alone. I cried for hours in my hotel room, but it was just the release I needed to move me closer to getting back in the groove of Peace Pedaling.

I have a good buddy Pete who has a surf shop and restaurant in West Ghana at Busua Beach right in front of the surf so I decided to start west and pedal east back to Accra to celebrate my birthday with Kwame and Gina. After a painless bus ride I was greeted by Frankee, a local Ghanaian who runs the surf shop and is half owner in the Black Star Surf Shop, the only surf shop on the entire coast from Cote d Ivoire to Nigeria. I spent the next few days surfing the glassy waves on a fresh new swell with great people from all over the planet. Life was good, but after my surf buzz wore off each day I was still feeling very anxious, lonely and uninspired looking forward to the long solo journey ahead.

The day finally came where I would make my first pedal strokes of a 10-month expedition pedaling east and I had a guest rider Charles on board who I surfed with while in Busua. We had a short 35km ride together but we got a terribly late start doing final preparations and giving tons of local rides before we left to my new friends. The massive 200 pound load, combined with the heat, hills, headwinds and one very soft Binks fresh from the USA made the short ride feel like a 100 mile century.

It was a pleasure at first pedaling with Charles, who shared his story of how we came to Ghana from Cote de Ivoire, a country that is now in major turmoil. Like Frankee, he lucked out when an American guy with a vision named Pete started the shop and he scored a great job there and is now living a pretty dreamy life surfing daily, dating a lovely Canadian woman and, in most African’s eyes, he has nothing to complain about. But he has grown into an ambitious young man and still wants much more and seemed to have endless desires—perhaps a character trait he’s picked up by hanging out with westerners on a regular basis.

After about 20km the conversation dried up and I was struggling. I don’t remember Africa being so hot and the pollution and traffic being so intense. And I certainly don’t remember the bike feeling so darn heavy. By the time we rolled into Takoradi I was knackered. I had planned to carry on another 25km, but ended up crashing out at a cheap hotel at 6PM. The trip was not off to the best start.

The next day I dragged myself out of bed as early as I could to beat the heat and was out pedaling by about 6AM. But my mojo was far from back and I felt closed, bitchy and very depressed. By 7AM the heat was coming on fast and the traffic and pollution were coming on strong. By 8AM the hot Harmattan headwind we pounding nails in my coffin of sadness and despair by making my progress slow down to about 12km/hour.

There were potential guest riders in every direction—flagging me down from bus stops and stores, screaming to stop from people’s houses and so forth. There was no shortage of pedal power and people to play with. But something was blocking the happy Jamie flow and I just did not feel like being with anyone. I had resolved that day to just pout like a baby and push though the wind solo.

Ghana is one of West Africa’s most wealthy and populated countries. That combination means lots and lots of cars, trucks and motorized traffic. And, being Africa, there are little, if any, enforced emission controls. Although there was a shoulder on the road at times for bikes to ride on, it usually was loaded with sand, trash, broken down vehicles and taxis picking up passengers. This meant I was in and out of the fast moving traffic with way too many close calls. These were not the ideal conditions for my first days back in the saddle, especially in my sad state missing my family and friends so much.

I managed to muscle out a huge 60km solo day into the headwinds, which took me almost all day with frequent stops in the shade and the slow speeds. But all the time over the handlebars by myself gave me time to think through what was going on inside. What I realized was that I was in a state of mourning and had to allow myself to just be sad for a few days. As soon as I allowed myself to be sad, it lifted. And although I was totally dead by the time I rolled into this small fishing village of Komenda, I was ready to start to open myself up again, connect with the locals, and turn the volume up on the Peace Pedalers project.

First things first, I knew I needed a dip in the ocean and found a small boy Tofi as I entered Komenda to show me the way to the fresh blue waters under endless palm trees. I came out of the ocean excited to find a place to stay with some local folks and start getting back in the groove. I pushed my massive load to the first house I found with an ocean view and peeked my head inside the courtyard with a fresh smile that brought me back to my good ole days of Peace Pedaling.

I was greeted by a grinning yet somewhat suspicious looking man name Jose who challenged me at first by pretending not to speak any English. But I saw through his front and knew I had found a new friend from the first bit of eye contact. Before I knew it he was offering me bites of his meal of rice and fish and gave me the green light to set up my tent in front of his house overlooking the ocean.

Turns out that Jose speaks plenty of English and is actually a teacher now getting his masters degree in the next major town of Cape Coast. He was living by the beach with his best buddy. He set me up with a cool bucket shower, stored all my gear in his room, and cooked a huge meal to nourish my starving body. He then took me downtown to check out the fishing village, old colonial forts of the Dutch and English, and we enjoyed a cold beer and some great conversations while watching the world go by in Komenda.

Jose has a wife who is also a teacher and 3 kids he loves dearly. He had plans to head to the university the next day to register for classes and I invited him to ride with me as that was my next stop as well. He was hesitant at first, admitting that he was horribly out of shape, but since it was only a 40km ride I assured him we would manage. He was in. I crashed out within minutes of arriving back at his house and the cool ocean breeze allowed me to sleep the whole night through and we were up early to get an early start.

We did some filming and I gave Jose the mic to tell our story and we packed up and were ready to ride. But just as we were suited up I realized I had left both my helmets in the woodworking shop next door the day before when I went swimming! Doh! We were totally bummed as they would not open for at least an hour. By the time the guys came to the shop it was almost 9AM, the time Jose had planned to be at the university. We had to cut our ride short and we were only able to ride to the main highway where he had to catch a bus to Cape Coast and I was now solo once again--but not for long!

At the corner of the highway there’s a greasy auto repair business where Jose and I bid our farewells. As we took our photo and I printed him out a copy with my new photo printer there were dozens of eyes on us and one set caught my attention. One of the mechanics Fi had a huge smile and muscular body. He spoke some broken English and he asked me if he could ride with me to Cape Coast after he finished working on a car. Somehow I knew we were meant to ride together that day so I turned down the others who were ready to ride on the spot and I took a seat in the shade to wait for Fi to finish his work.

Fi was installing some homemade bushing into an old Toyota Corolla. The bushing was carved by hand out of a large piece of rubber and was almost an exact replica of the original part. I’m still amazed how resourceful the Africans are when it comes to fixing things. The fix took much longer than I would have liked so we got a late 11AM departure into the peak midday heat. But luckily Fi had some nice leg power and we were soon flying along at 25km/hour.

This was my third day in a row out on the bike and after about 20km I was feeling it, especially the previous day’s 60km headwind solo push. We had to stop several times to find cold water and ice to cool me down, but made some steady progress. Fi was not as talkative as I thought he would be and did not have much of anything to say. Add that to the fact that the traffic was only getting stronger and you’ll understand why I left the cameras in the cases that day.

We finally rolled into Cape Coast and found a beachside backpackers where we rolled in for some cold drinks and a big meal with Fi. We did not talk much on the bike as the traffic was too heavy, but chillin by the ocean Fi shared his life with me as a young mechanic, unmarried at 28 and loving it, and with no major ambitions other than to enjoy life, save some money, and one day get married and have a family.

I was pretty bushed but I was happy that the next day was a rest day and I would be able to recover and build some strength. I was not feeling the filming mojo all that much over the past few days and admittedly was lacking any good footage for my program. I wanted to let Fi do some talking but could not muster up the strength or inspiration to set up a shoot so I sent him home at sunset and settled into a chill evening meeting some other travelers and indulging in some western dishes.

The next day I was once again feeling depressed and lonely. I was told the night before that the traffic was only going to get more intense as I moved east towards the capital and the road construction was in full swing in that section. I decided to take my rest day in a minivan heading east to eat up some of the ugly highway riding and allow me to take some back roads I found on the map the following day. I arrived at the junction to Winneba about 3PM and it was a short 7km ride to a cheap guesthouse I found in the Lonely Planet where I’d begin my ride towards Kokrobite the following day.

I had watched “The Secret” again that morning on my computer and while I was on the bus my Ipod was spitting out all sorts of songs about love, opening your heart, shining big and I saw that as a sign to step out of my “funk” and get the wheels really turning on the Peace Pedalers project. So I pedaled a few hundred meters and set up my cameras and mics and pedaled into the town of Winneba just before the Semifinal match between Ghana and Cameroon. I was flying a big Ghana flag now and was getting cheers in every direction as I made my way to town smiling ear to ear, blowing a whistle, and having a blast!

I finally felt “normal” again for the first time since being back on the continent! I stopped for a bit in the shade and was soon surrounded by a friendly and playful group of children and a few parents. One boy caught my eye with his huge smile and confident disposition. I got the okay from his mom to take him out for a spin. His name was John and he is 12 years old and soccer is the thing that makes him the most happy in the world. He also loves school and is committed to getting great marks and wants to be a businessman or politician when he finishes school. We had a blast pedaling together.

After about 4km I decided it was time to send John back to his mom so he could watch the game in his neighborhood. Just as I was printing out a photo for John a guy came up and offered to hold up the bike while John and I said goodbye. Turns out his name is John as well and he was also keen for a pedal to the next part of town. I told him I wanted to find a place that had a big TV and was showing the game and he knew just the place. We were soon pedaling down the road giggling like kids and enjoying the cool evening air as the sun set and the crowds started to gather in front of any TV available.

We finally hit the restaurant he wanted to take me to and there were dozens of people scattered around a huge TV screaming and yelling as Ghana strugged against the tough Camaroon squad. I was the only white boy for miles and it felt good to be in the guts of Ghana in good spirits again, sipping cold drinks with the locals and cheering on the team. John did not speak a whole lot of English, but he was a real gentle guy, very genuine and laid back. Sometimes you don’t need words to build a friendship and this was the case with this John and I.

At halftime Ghana was down by one and the crowd was quiet but hopeful. John and I pedaled to the backpackers and we watched the rest of the game over there. Unfortunately, Ghana lost and it sure took the wind out of the local Ghanaians sails immediately. Frowns were in every direction and it lasted for days. John walked home with a photo of he and I on the bike and he shard with me that it was one of the best days of his life being with me. I was flattered and my sprits were definitely on the up and up.

After a perfect night sleep I was up and on the road by 6:30 and feeling great. I only had about 25KM of highway riding then it was all back roads until Kokrobite, which I was excited about indeed. Just as I left town I heard two boys yelling behind me and when I looked back I saw little 12 year old John and his buddy Enoch chasing me on their bikes with enormous smiles. John was gleaming, sporting a cycling jersey for the day and his bike was all pimped out with a Peace Pedalers sticker dead center.

I decided to give Enoch a ride on the tandem while John rode his bike. Enoch was another 12 year old who also digged soccer and sent a plea to the world for a bunch of soccer balls for his community. If you want to put a bunch of smiles on some faces, let me know and we’ll get the balls to John and Enoch! We had a fun ride chatting about school, life, girls and philosophizing why Ghana lost the day before. “Cameroon wanted it more. It was clear from the start”, was my analysis. “Cameroon got lucky and all our shots were just off. We deserved to win” was John’s. “Cameroon played better and more physical. We are not used to playing so physical” came from Enoch. Good fun!

I gave Enoch a photo at the junction and told the boys I was heading solo to Kokrobite in search of some more mature legs but they ended up double riding on John’s bike until I found my first rider, a woman named Regina who was waiting for a bus to head back to her village after visiting her sick brother. Like most African women, her legs were weak and she had no idea how to keep pedals moving. She was extremely timid and screaming “No drop me! No drop me!”. With the intense traffic, sketchy shoulder and an off-balance Regina I was getting quite a full-body workout like no other!

She barely spoke any English but I managed to get a few sentences from her. I could only take about 5km of riding with her before my arms felt like they were going to explode and luckily she was not going far. She was grateful for the experience and the photo gift I gave her put the warmest smile on her face ever.

After Regina I decided it was literally unsafe to take a passenger on the main highway as we were now only 50KM from Accra and the road was a nonstop flow of huge trucks, crazy passing vehicles and every obstacle you could imagine. I stopped for some food at a little village and met heaps of friendly people who shared the local grub with me in the shade. I was eager to get off the main highway and only had about 12km to go. Just as I was gearing up to ride off a young man in rags came up to me and started a conversation.

His name was Samuel and he loved the bike and wanted to go for a ride to the next town of Oduponkpehe. I was hesitant at first due to the wild road conditions, but once he told me, “I will go get permission from my ‘master’ and if he says yes I really want to ride with you”. Something about the world “master”, and someone having a person in their life they call “master” made me feel inspired to ride with him. He ran away and came back smiling ear to ear saying his “master” gave him permission to ride to Oduponkpehe, but no further.

Samuel is 22 years old and very poor in all standards. He dropped out of school to help his mother and father with the expenses of his huge 8 person family as they could not afford his school fees. He’s the oldest and now works for a man who owns numerous businesses. He told me he had dreams to become a civil engineer but now had lost hope due to his family situation. I believed him, and to this day am hoping he was not lying, as he seemed quite sincere.

When we made it to Oduponkpehe we sat down for some cold drinks in the shade and I told him I would find a way to sponsor his education if he really wanted to go back to school. He was so excited so I left the ball in his court and gave him a few dollars to open up an email account and send me a basic proposal and the details on the school. I did this in Kenya with another rider Kamau and I’m still in touch with him and continuing to try to move him along in school. Sadly, to this day, now several weeks later, I have not heard from him. But it was a great ride and I wished him the best as he went back to his master. Turns out the word master to him is the same as “boss”, and there was no real negative connotation to it—I made that up myself.

So I was FINALLY off the main road for good! I pedaled towards the ocean where my map showed a thin red line I hoped was a small coastal back road of about 20km to beachside town of Kokrobite. I was eager to do some filming and capture some Peace Pedaling in Ghana and hoped the side roads would afford some good opportunities. I pedaled down the road until a few men yelled out from the shade and I decided to stop. When I told them I was heading to Nyanyanno to find the side road they told me there was no road and I had to go back to the main highway! “No way! I am not going back to that hell on wheels!” I replied. “Please help me find this road” I said, showing him the map.

We looked at the map and one of the men David decided to hop on the bike and come with me further down to talk to the police to see if there was something there. The police confirmed that there was no road in that direction, but there was a sandy back road through the salt flats if I wanted, but he assured me it would be tough riding. “As long as it’s not on the main highway, I’ll take it!” I told them. So David, a 34 year old bachelor and owner of his own small auto repair business, took me to where the police officer said this back road was and we bid each other farewell.

The road started just peachy going through small villages on hard pack dirt. But as I started to move towards the ocean I was soon washing out in patches of sand here and there, then huge clumps of mud and gaping holes started to appear. The going was tough but I was able to negotiate most of it. The heat was intense and I was drenched in sweat when I met the next rider of this marathon guest rider day.

A young man Emmanuel came out of the salt flats where he was working and stopped me to ask where I was heading. When I told him Kokrobite he told me I was going the wrong way and needed to go back to the main road! Nobody seemed to know this back road that was on the map! He then said I could keep going onwards but that it would turn to sand for about 2km and surely I would not be able to push the bike alone. He graciously offered to ride along with me until I got on the proper beach road.

Emmanuel works on these salt flats where somehow they make salt in these square, shallow pits of water. He was worried that he left his tools behind but I assured him that his good karma would make sure they did not walk away. We were able to ride about 500 meters or so before the sand started. We pushed the bike in the thick sand for about 45 minutes and it was tough work. But Emmanuel was strong and determined to make sure I got where I was going safely. He had a warm heart and at the end of the pushing mission he offered to push himself as he could tell I was exhausted.

We finally made it to the hard pack road and he ran back to work to make sure his tools were still there. I offered to give him a bit of cash for some food that night but he refused. He helped me because I needed it, and it felt good. And boy did it feel good to be on solid ground again!

I was only about 5km from Kokrobite when I heard a bunch of laughs and screams from a small hut to my left. I stopped to see a very fun group of families in the shade playing with the kids and relaxing. One of them came up to the bike and introduced himself to me as “4-star”. I invited him to ride into town with me and when he asked his wife she agreed as long as he went to the market and picked up some cassava for dinner. We were on!

4-Star was my 6th rider of the day, a record on the Peace Pedalers expedition. We hit it off right away. He’s a 29 year old father of one lovely child and has a stunning family and a happy, simple life. He rode with me to the backpackers where I would spend the first part of my birthday weekend on the beach checking out live music and meeting up with my good friends Kwame and Gina who were on the way to greet me. I made a plan to ride out to his house the following day to continue our conversations.

I spent my birthday weekend with Kwame, Gina and a slew of new friends catching live music by the sea, recording an amazing band from Burkina Faso on the beach, and making a nice revisit to my friend 4-star and his family and friends for some great chats and filming.. Admittedly, it was a rocky start back on the bike and but the tail end of the adventure was a real winner.

On my 36th birthday I made my way 30KM to Accra where Kwame and Gina were busy preparing for a huge party for me. They had a sound system, chairs, food for an army and the whole neighborhood was invited. Gina was working hard in the kitchen cooking up my very favorite Jolof Rice and Kwame and I went to get the drinks lined up. It was gearing up to be an amazing birthday indeed.

The night was just about perfect. I had my great friends, awesome music, kids all over dancing and singing, and cold beers. Life was good. That is, until a serious argument broke out that simply would not end and kept flaring up just as the party would get going again. That pretty much put an end to the happy vibe of the party as many guests left, including myself. I spent the night at a friend’s house a few kilometers away. But all in all, it was a very special day which I will never forget.

Soon after my party it was time to move on to Togo. With the border 250KM away on a busy highway I opted for some transport and arrived just in time for cool, ocean view, late afternoon ride through the boarder and into Lome, Togo.

Ghana is an amazing country, where the people take great pride in caring for their visitors. The fact that many people speak English makes it a great “Africa for Beginners” kind of county. I learned my lesson though about cycling main roads in the more developed African nations countries this time though—find back roads!!!

Signing off from Benin--will be in Senegal by the time you read this :)

Enjoy the ride and Live Big, Give Big!


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