Welcome to the Hotel Obama




6/15/14

I saw wonders from the air: Windsor Castle, the neatly organized fields of Dorset, the more American-looking fields of France, the Sarah Desert, a thunderstorm flashing below the plane, and finally, the lights of Accra, not all that different from the lights of Portland, Chicago, New York City, Dallas, or any other city I’ve flown over—not from the air, anyway.

Then the doors opened, the humidity hit, and after 34 hours of travel, I stepped onto Ghanaian soil.
It was a rude awakening: waiting in a slow queue to be passed through customs, struggling to claim my bag, and the moment I was out of the luggage area, being confronted by scammers pretending to be airport officials, hoping to get something off me: a tip, my passport, perhaps even my suitcase. I had been warned by a sign in customs, and managed not to give in to any of them. Once out of the chute, I met Kofi, our director and host, who had hired three taxi drivers to ferry us to the hotel. Note that number. We had to wait for several other Orff people to arrive, then finally headed outside to the taxi area. Somewhere in there, a fourth man insinuated himself into our group, helpfully pulling my bag across the street, firmly shooing away the many scammers wanting to do what he was doing, and convincing me he was one of our official helpers. Kofi had to go back into the airport to assist with a passport issue, and the moment he was gone, the fourth man started pressuring me for a “tip.” In my fatigued state, I wasn’t thinking clearly—the proper response should have been “ask Kofi about that,” at which point he would have probably given up. Instead, he managed to get $25 out of me. I was confused about the situation, had no idea he wasn’t really part of our group, though I might be reimbursed afterward, and gave up far too much money to a grifter. When we finally arrived at the hotel, I noticed he wasn’t with us. The next day, I asked Kofi about it, and saw a cloud come over his face. This man was not part of our group, and should not have done what he did. I later learned he managed to pull the same scam on two other people who arrived separately.

For all that, the Hotel Obama was a delightful idiosyncrasy. Every room has an American name that evokes thoughts of liberation and civil rights: Coretta Scott King, Democracy, 1865, MLK. I stayed in the Lincoln bedroom, sleeping like a rock in an enormous bed.

The next morning, I took a run, and discovered much that I had not noticed on our short taxi ride: shanty towns, open sewers, a huge assortment of aging Land Rovers at a lot on our road. A walk later in the morning exposed me to street vendors carrying all their wares on their heads, businesses with odd Christian names (my favorite: Moses Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Car Repair), unfinished buildings with no apparent construction underway. Riding the bus to Dzodze, where we will spend our first week, we passed through village upon village all featuring the same battered tin roofs, decaying mud brick homes, many of them constructed, Kofi told us, from termite mounds. Motorcycle taxis, trotros (minivans) crowded with far more people than they were meant to carry, and slow lorries filled the road. Our driver passed many of them with seconds to spare as oncoming traffic drew much too close for comfort. Children waved at us from the side of the road, delighted to see so many white people on a bus.

We arrived at our hotel, the White Dove, well after sunset, had dinner, and then an evening session to get acquainted in the Orff fashion: with musical games. It’s an international bunch: exposed me to street vendors carrying all their wares on their heads, businesses with odd Christian names (my favorite: Moses Sitting at the Feet of Jesus Car Repair), unfinished buildings with no apparent construction underway. Riding the bus to Dzodze, where we will spend our first week, we passed through village upon village all featuring the same battered tin roofs, decaying mud brick homes, many of them constructed, Kofi told us, from termite mounds. Motorcycle taxis, tiny vans crammed with people, an occasional trotro (a large pickup truck with the bed filled with chairs for riders), and slow lorries filled the road. Our driver passed many of them with seconds to spare as oncoming traffic drew much too close for comfort. Children waved at us from the side of the road, delighted to see so many white people on a bus.

We arrived at our hotel, the White Dove, well after sunset, had dinner, and then an evening session to get acquainted in the Orff fashion: with musical games. It’s an international bunch: 34 participants from eleven different companies, and our four faculty members from three different countries.


Everything about this place is like a dream: the smells, the sounds (I spent several minutes at a rest stop just listening to the strange sounds coming from a meadow), the fields being tended by just one person, palm trees, thatched huts, women carrying huge loads on their heads, tiny huts operating as stores, the blazing sun allied with the thick air to drench us with perspiration whenever we stepped off the bus. As exotic as all this seemed to me, I had no idea what was in store for me the next day.

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