Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pedaling to Kumasi

Kumasi - Ghana's 'second city' and its cultural capital - lies a few hundred kilometers north and west of Accra.  It has a sprawling open-air market, an Indian restaurant sometimes claimed to be the best in West Africa, a railway station that's been unused for quite awhile, and the joking-est tro-tro conductors around.

Crowds in Kumasi's market.

How do I know all this?  Three weeks ago, I rode my bicycle there from Accra.

Which makes me a legend to some.  "You pedaled all the way to Kumasi!  Are you crazy?  I flew there."

To others, I've fallen a bit short.  "Why yes, I remember that Accra-Kumasi stretch from my cross-continental bike tour back in the late nineties…"  (Ok, no one's said that to me yet, but I expect it to happen one day.)

For myself, it's a mixed picture: I sat my butt on that bike seat for three full days, and I made it.  But I took the VIP bus home.

This was the first real bike touring I'd done since riding across the US with my cousin Glen back in 2002.  Sure I did some out-and-back overnights here in Ghana, but this was to be a multi-day outing with some real distance to cover.  I'd have to buckle down.

And I did.  Sort of.

Day 1: 85 kilometers through hills from Accra to Koforidua.  Day 2: 110 kilometers from Koforidua to Nkawkaw, with a stop at the bamboo bike workshop in Abompe (more about that in a later post).  Day 3: 85 kilometers from Nkawkaw to a friend's house on the edge of Kumasi city.  And then another day of 30 or 40 kilometers riding around Kumasi and finally settling at a hotel in its downtown.

In a way, there's not much to report from all those kilometers.  I got on the road each morning for three days straight and pedaled until I thought it wise to stop - for a cold drink, or for lunch, or for the mid-afternoon break when all living and moving things should be shaded from the relentless tropical sun.

(And that sun was merciless.  From 11 am onwards my overriding thought became: how far can I go this time until I have to break for some shade and some cold liquid.)

To me, bike touring is all about being on the bike.  When I'm not on the bike, frankly, I get bored.  One of the most exciting things about traveling with my new rear rack and saddlebags was that I had enough cargo space to carry a book.  Something to keep my mind occupied when I wasn't in motion.

When I was in motion there were always little things to notice.  The man riding a bicycle with a plastic chair over his handlebars.  The orange-headed lizard who raced me (and won) up the hill to Aburi.  The laborer in a dirty yellow T-shirt laying down his machete to buy plastic packets of gin to spike his afternoon.  Water so cold vapor poured out the top of my bike bottle as I filled it.  A woman in an outdoor shower calling "Hello!" to me as I rode past, her chocolate shoulders dripping with soapsuds.  The "Only Jesus In Stock" store.  In cocoa-farm country, a whole town smelling like cocoa powder.

And, some more substantial memories.

-The joy of the early morning cool.  It was a struggle for me, a natural night owl, to get up and on the road as early as I should have.  In Ghana, the sun rises every day right around 6, and the wise bike tourer is pedaling by then, getting in the miles before the noon-day sun begins to addle the brain.  I usually managed to have my butt in the saddle by 7.  Which left me about an hour to enjoy any sort of morning coolness left in the air.  And boy, did I learn to savor that hour.

-The joy of a cold packet of Fan Ice soft serve ice cream on a hot day.  'Nuff said.

-Getting spanked by a teenage girl outside Mamfe.  Yes, spanked.  I was zipping downhill from Mamfe town and saw some kids horsing around on the road ahead.  They turned out to be teenage girls, who scattered to the side as I passed.  They yelled and laughed at me, as teenage girls will at sights less strange than a white man in biking gear whizzing through African hills.  And, as I glided past, one of them reached out with a stick and tapped me lightly on the butt.  Admirable aim.

-The marching band of Asankare.  Video below.

-Bowls of rice and beans with the chickens.  Restaurant kitchens can be quite slow in Ghana, and so I often turned to the side-of-the-road, under-the-tree, pot-over-charcoal-fire sort of eating establishments to get fuel for my legs.  You stop, the woman dishes out some rice and beans, you're eating.  Done.  These rice-and-bean moments were some of the best of my trip.  The beans were tasty, and I could just sit on the offered wooden bench and watch the street-life around me as hens scratched in the dirt under the plastic table and little yellow chickies ran across my shoes.

-The man who bought me my first Malta.  This was in a road-side bar called the "Hollywood Spot."  Which bore no resemblance at all to Hollywood.  But the man was kind, and called out to me as I sat sweating at a table, waiting for a drink.  "The sun is too hot for you!" he joked to me, but then was suitably impressed when he realized it was a bicycle and not a motorcycle I was riding to Kumasi.  He bought me a Guiness Malta, a sort of non-alcoholic version of Guiness beer.  I don't usually like these dark, malted drinks, but this one tasted sweet and thick and I downed it.

-Craggy hills and peaceful sunset at Nkawkaw.  A line of green hills had been on my right all day after I hit the main Kumasi-Accra road at the Bunso rest-stop junction.  Around Nkawkaw, as the sun set, they became particularly craggy and picturesque.  Maybe I'll get to bike into them one day.

For now, I'll have to just bike into the sunset. 


poly islam said...

Nice article. I think it is useful and unique article. I love this kind of article and this kind of blog. I have enjoyed it very much. Thanks for your website.
Carbon bike wheels

Alek Nowak said...

Thanks for bringing back some vivid memories of Ghana... came across your blog by accident only now, but it seems we may have been there around the same time, same places :)