To the north.

After Kakum, we left the Botel to spend one night in Accra because we were flying to the northern capital city of Tamale the next day (pronounced TOM-uh-lee, not like the delicious Mexican food). The tro-tro from Cape Coast to Accra was the first and only one we rode in that was actually a passenger van and not a cargo van outfitted with bolted-in seats. This one had real upholstery and air conditioning. With the windows closed, the trip was relatively quiet and tranquil. We were in the way back of the van (fifth row) and though the air flow left a little to be desired, it was our most comfortable tro-tro ride. Language note: the word “tro-tro” comes from the Ga word for “threepence,” the cost of a ride on a shared vehicle during colonial times.

We didn’t have much planned for Accra. Matt doesn’t really love the place and I can see why. It’s sprawling and congested and the vendors and taxi drivers can be aggressive. We were both really looking forward to our time in Tamale, the capital city of Ghana’s Northern Region (there are ten regions). It’s hotter but more arid, and the people are reputed to be, generally, more relaxed.

We got up early- to an alarm!- the next morning to go from Frankie’s (where we’d spent our first night) to the airport. Traveling by tro to Tamale would take anywhere from eight to thirteen hours, and neither my stomach nor our itinerary allowed for such generous travel time.

So we flew instead, on Ghana’s new carrier, Starbow. We expected big delays, but actually everything was really quite smooth. Just like in China, the domestic flights in Ghana were so much more generous than those in the U.S. Our flight was one hour long and we got water, mango juice boxes, and these amazing chocolate cookies that tasted like chocolate Teddy Grams but better. The writing on the package was in Arabic, so I don’t know what they’re called, but if I ever find them again, I’ll be sure to post the name.

My first impression of Tamale was that it was quiet, but I think this was due to the taciturn taxi driver, who didn’t even have his radio on. It was such a peaceful drive into town. Most of our drivers loved talk radio, which somehow made the heat feel more oppressive.

The foliage of the Northern Region was really different than in the south. Plains with stunted trees and almost no dense underbrush to be found. A savannah. Most of the homes we saw, rather than being made of concrete and tin, were made of hardened mud with thatched roofs. They were also round.


Our hotel, Picorna, was on a quietish street and only a short walk from the city center. Though short, the route into town quickly dispelled any notion I had that Tamale was quiet. There were motos everywhere, and lots of cyclists, too. In fact, there were even bike lanes on many of the major roads. Another notable difference was the size of the mosques. Islam is practiced much more widely in the north than in the south- there, the mosques are modest one-story buildings. In Tamale, there were two huge, multi-story mosques within walking distance of Picorna.

The entrance to Picorna. This is one of the best pictures that I took in Ghana.

A large mosque near Picorna.

On our first walk, I got yelled at twice by cyclists who silently sidled up behind me and nearly startled me off of the sidewalk. But they were the only ones yelling. Unlike in the south, no one was shouting at us or trying to get our attention. Kids said hello and giggled when we smiled at them, which was charming.

One of the first things we did in Tamale was walk to the city’s huge market. It was an incredible maze of stalls and smells. The vendors were so relaxed- I think I would have been completely overwhelmed by so much to look at if people had been trying to get our attention, but everyone just left us alone. It was so nice.

And the market was really amazing. Fruits, spices, roots, vegetables, huge pieces of raw, fly-covered meat, all artfully on display. We could have wandered for miles inside the market, and there would still have been more to see.

We bought two-yards at the market for my family.
Shoes on the table, shoes on the roof.

I mean, can you even? FOUR bowls of coal?!

On the way back from the market, hot and exhausted in the literally 100 degree heat and uninterrupted sunshine, a group of uniformed girls passed by us. “Hallo! How are you?” they chanted. A few of them reached out to touch my arm. “I am fine. How are you?” I said, and they all giggled. I said, “Can I take your picture?” and the positively squealed. “Yesyesyesyes!!!” Instantly, they struck poses. Afterwards, I showed the picture to them. “Such beautiful smiles!” As we turned to go, they were suddenly on me with kisses and hugs and a few patted my (probably nasty and sweaty) hair. They were so sweet.

We spent the night at a rooftop bar, which started out really pleasantly and was then interrupted by three high, cigarette-smoking men, who pulled up chairs and surrounded us without a word. It felt menacing, and Matt and I were both uncomfortable. They didn’t say much- the two smaller ones let the big one do the talking. Thankfully, our waiter came and after some cajoling, got them to leave. It seemed we weren’t the only customers they were bothering.

The rooftop bar.
The view from the bar.
A truck full of logs. I really just wanted those men on the back to be wearing helmets.
Chill Matt.

We did actually make a few friends that night. Two Americans who couldn’t or wouldn’t give us many details of the jobs that brought them to Ghana, except to say that they worked for the U.S. government, and one Ghanaian named JFK, who was a cook in Tamale. (We’d meet up with him again- more on that later.) Between those conversations and the sangria, the night was enjoyable, especially when all the lights in the city went out. An unexpected darkness and quiet fell on Tamale, and it made the heat lightning and the rising full moon even more beautiful.

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