I sometimes wonder if this travelogue is in danger of turning into nothing more than a detailed examination of being ill in exotic locations, because for the last couple of weeks, that's all it's felt like. At least in India I was granted a couple of weeks' respite between illnesses, but in West Africa things have degraded after a promising start, what with the Lariam, the homesickness and various bouts of intestinal hockey. In my defence, a good travelogue must report the trip faithfully, but feel free to skip this one if you're sick and tired of the sick and tired.
While waiting for my visa in Ouagadougou, I was all geared up for Ghana. The number of people I met in Mali and Burkina who'd come from Ghana was considerable, and except for one solitary Norwegian girl, who didn't strike me as the kind of person who would enjoy anything, the reports were utterly enthusiastic. Although the consensus was that there wasn't a great deal to see in Ghana, the laid-back locals and ease of travelling sounded like a major respite after the effort of the Sahel.
I was thoroughly excited, then, to be hopping on the direct bus from Ouagadougou to Kumasi, Ghana's second city. I'd decided that my main aim for the next week was to get to the beach on the southern coast of Ghana, a delightful sounding spot that I reckoned would be perfect for Christmas, but the prospect of an overnight bus journey all the way to Accra was just a little too much in one go, so I decided to opt for a stopover in Kumasi; the 8.30am Ouaga bus was due to arrive in Kumasi around 8.30pm, which sounded much more manageable than turning up in the wee hours of the morning.
Of course, nothing's ever that straightforward. Getting up at the crack of dawn to report to the bus station for 6.30am, I shook the sleep from my head to find that – surprise, surprise – I'd picked up yet another stomach problem. I couldn't believe it; I had only managed to shift my Dogon bug a couple of days earlier, and here I was again, gnawing on leather every few minutes and looking forward to a long journey of clenching, sweating and praying. There was nothing for it, though; I needed to get to Ghana to save my sanity, so I put a brave face on it and grabbed a taxi to the gare routière.
The journey was thankfully uneventful, except for an unscheduled four-hour stop at the Burkina-Ghana border because someone's customs papers weren't properly filled in, and by 12.30am I finally arrived in Kumasi, pale but in one piece. Following the guidebook like a bear with no brain I plucked the first choice from the hotel section – the Presbyterian Guesthouse, known locally as the Presby – and discovered that they were full, but I could sleep on the balcony if I wanted. I wanted; the thought of a shower and a toilet was too much to resist, and at 1.30am I finally settled into my first night in Ghana, sweating under my mosquito net on the wooden balcony of an ancient colonial-style building. 'Things could be a lot worse,' I figured as I rolled over into a fitful sleep.
Trying Hard to Smile
By 5am they were a lot worse. I woke up feeling terrible, and ten minutes later I just knew I was going to be sick. It wasn't long before I was bringing up nothing but acrid yellow bile, and wondering what I'd done to deserve yet another bout of illness so soon after the last one. If you'd tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a flight ticket home, I'd have grabbed it faster than you could say 'Bleearghh!'
The next day I felt a little better and managed some breakfast and a short walk around Kumasi, but although things were improving, I ran out of energy pretty quickly and took refuge in an internet café down the road from the Presby. This turned out to be a bad move; instead of writing the happy emails of someone in a new and exciting country, I wrote the emails of someone who would rather be back home in England, away from nasty bacteria and the humidity of the tropics. Instantly regretting sending anything at all, I decided the only way to cheer myself up was to eat something really special, especially now that I had my appetite back and the diarrhoea appeared to have stopped, so I headed off to Vic Baboo's Restaurant in town and ordered their curry special.
What was I thinking? Curry? I must have been out of my mind – by this stage I quite possibly was – and although the food was excellent, I only managed to eat half of it before the cold sweats signalled a problem. I hobbled back to the Presby for an early night, and found myself suffering a whole new game; I had serious issues with gas.
My stomach was hard, firm and felt like a shaken bottle of pop, and as the night wore slowly on, the burping started. These weren't little, friendly burps, they were explosions of cyclonic proportions, and every time I rolled over I could feel the next bubble of acidic gas making its way up my oesophagus and into the stuffy night air. And just in case I thought I was going to be able to sleep my way through it, cramps hit my lower abdomen and my guts turned to water. I was back in the shit again.
So here I am, spending Sunday trying to recover, drinking bottled water and eating bananas, the best friend of the ill traveller. I still can't believe just how cruel West Africa is turning out to be; I haven't been taking any chances with food and water since the Dogon – no scary street meat or bisap, much to my irritation – but here I am, losing weight rapidly and thoroughly fed up with being ill. But worst of all I'm gutted, because it's in serious danger of ruining my trip. In this sort of state it's practically impossible to think of anything else except going home, where I can eat food without worrying about dying, I don't have to take strange drugs to avoid tropical diseases, and I can be with my girlfriend. This isn't why I went travelling; I'm supposed to be having such a fantastic time that I don't want to go home.
So I'm giving Africa until after Christmas to persuade me to stay, or I may end up coming home early. So far, West Africa really hasn't been worth the physical effort it's taken out of me; I'm at the end of my tether, and if you don't have your health, it's impossible to enjoy travelling. What a pity it's turning out this way, but there you go.
Come on Ghana, you can do it!