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The International Writers Magazine:Ghana

Taxi Hostage
Kate Mead

“Leave me alone!” I screamed at the Asian guy who kept tapping my shoulder, asking me to dance.
“If you don’t want to dance, why did you come here?” he asked, clearly baffled that an American amid a crowd of Africans wouldn’t dance with him. I was traveling and studying in Ghana with a group of other students.

Our days were packed with classes, trips, and volunteering and fatigue was starting to affect us all. This night at the club was particularly taxing. I was going to lose it pretty soon. Maybe it was the Ghanaian heat in June or the smoke in the crowded club outside of Kumasi, but I was extremely irritated and this fellow tourist was not helping.

It was 1:30 in the morning, and I was exhausted from a day of travel and a night of dancing. I longed for a cool shower and the slightly stiff bed at my hotel. Back at the bar I met up with some friends and we decided to get a taxi and go to our hotel. If only if it had been that easy. Finding a taxi in Ghana for a reasonable price when you are a traveler is an art form.

First, you need to flag down a taxi. This usually involves risking your life in the street to get a driver’s attention. After you have gotten a driver to pull over, the game of bargaining begins. You tell him where you want to go and he tells you his price. Never, ever accept his first offer. Cut it by at least half. He’ll probably laugh at you and say “no no no” but you must remain firm. Stay with your price and start to walk away and in less than a second he will call you back and take your offer. This is what more or less happened that night in Kumasi.

A number of taxi drivers were waiting outside the club and after we stated our destination, one driver said he would take us because he knew where it was. We set our price at 20,000 cedis, which is about US $2, and he gladly accepted. I was a little surprised at this, since we were getting a great deal. I thought the trip was at least worth double. Three other girls and myself stepped into the taxi. We were all pretty tired so nobody said anything. The radio was playing reggae and combined with the warm air blowing in through the windows, I was starting to wind down. About three minutes after we left the club, the driver pulled into the driveway of a hotel. Only the hotel was not ours. We told him it wasn’t the right place and he assured us we were at the hotel we had told him. The names of the two hotels were pretty similar, but we were definitely still fifteen minutes from our actual hotel. It was a simple misunderstanding, but correcting it would be more complex.
“Ok,” he said, calm for the moment, “ it will cost 40,000 more cedis since I have to drive farther.”
Collectively, we shouted “No!” He couldn’t just change the fare while we were on our way. We had agreed on a price and whether or not he was confused by our location, he was obliged to take us there for that amount. It is the unwritten code of taxi driving in Ghana. We continued to argue with him, but he wouldn’t budge. He was determined to get more money. “Fine,” someone said, “just take us back to the club and we’ll find a new taxi.” It was an easy enough solution.

Unfortunately, he would not accept it. He kept demanding more money and asked us how to get to our hotel. The tension was rising in the cab, frustration evident on everyone’s sweaty faces. At this point, one of the girls snapped. She cursed at the driver repeatedly and said we wouldn’t be taken advantage of, just because we were white and female. The tongue- lashing seemed to strike a nerve in the taxi driver, and his switch flipped as well. Instantly, the driver’s attitude changed. He called us expletives, then sped out of the driveway we had been idling in. He switched the radio off, rolled up the windows, buckled his seat belt and told us to buckle up as well. Completely oblivious of our pleadings to go back to the club, he raced down a dark street. His face was tight with a jaw clenched and angry determination radiated out of his narrowed eyes. For minutes we sped on into the darkness. The driver wouldn’t tell us where we were going, wouldn’t slow down, he didn’t do anything but keep the pedal to the metal.

 Whatever tiredness I was feeling, I was now cured of. We were all wide-awake and terrified. No one wears seat belts in Ghana, and to be told to wear one by a driver was alarming. What will he do to us that requires seatbelts? I couldn’t help but think something bad was going to happen, that he would take out revenge on us for not paying what he demanded. The story of a fellow traveler who had been robbed by a taxi driver on the roadside drifted to the front of my mind. I figured he would either get us into an accident with his reckless driving or take us somewhere and rob us. Something was going down, and it was not going to be pleasant. One tiny miscommunication was blown so out of proportion by both sides that no resolution now seemed possible. We were on a joy ride to hell, with no end in sight.

At the top of the hill we were zooming up, we saw some lights. It was a Shell gas station, the glowing yellow sign a beacon of relief. Completely desperate, we all asked him to stop there and let us out, but he seemed to think we wanted to get a snack or something. Either way, he pulled over and the four of us rushed inside.

 We paced around the store, shaking with fright and wondering what to do. We didn’t have phones, we didn’t have the numbers of friends who did have phones, and we were in a strange city. By now it was 2 AM and it was a miracle this gas station was even open. The taxi driver was still waiting outside for us to come back out, but there was no way any of us were going back in that red and blue death trap. For the time being we did the logical thing: bought bags of plantain chips and snacked until we calmed down. Or went into denial about the situation.

 When we finished our chips but were still milling around the store, the two other people inside noticed something was wrong, and asked us what was going on. We explained the situation and one of the men went out to talk to the driver. The driver told the man his side of the story with great animation while we watched, wondering which side he would take. After all, we were just some rich tourists.

 The man helping us came back in and said the driver just wanted to be paid the full fare. That seemed like an over –simplification of the problem, but we said we would give him the fare we agreed on and only that. Although he sided with us, he wanted the situation to end peacefully. He went back out, talked to the driver some more, and got him to drive away.

 It was a complete relief to see him drive off, but now we had no way home. Luckily, the strangers came to our rescue again. They found us another taxi, and had us taken back to the club so we could either re-join our friends or find another taxi back.

 At the club again, we met up with our friends as they were getting ready to leave. They were shocked as we were telling them of our misadventure. Meanwhile, a shiny black car pulled up and out stepped the strangers from the gas station. They said they wanted to make sure we arrived safely, so they followed behind us in their own car.

On the taxi ride back, as we were all venting and sharing how scared we were, one of the girls said she saw the man who helped us pay the taxi driver when he went out and got the driver to leave. Everyone went quiet, thinking about the generosity of the strangers. Those two men, who turned out to be famous Ghanaian radio personalities, went out of their way to help four random travelers at two in the morning. They had no incentive to help us and they could have easily done nothing.

Even though that was one of the scariest nights of my life, and I was a tad weary of getting into a taxi for the rest of my trip, I’m glad I had the experience. At 2 AM, in a Shell station in Sub-Saharan Africa, I learned the true depth of human kindness. That night captured the essence of Ghana. And it is not that all taxi drivers can be lunatics. Actually, the dozens of drivers I met were great people. It sums up Ghana for me because I was always experiencing mishaps, but amazing things came out of each of those unpleasant times. I might get lost in a new neighborhood, but I would meet the friendliest people who gave me directions, or I would find a gem of a restaurant off the tourist track. Or maybe I would be stuck in traffic for hours, but while I was waiting I would buy delicious food from street vendors. Ghana teaches you how to “go with the flow” because life is so different compared to the United States. Yes, bad things can and do happen, but the people you meet and the places you see that result from those experiences make a vacation a journey.

© Kate Mead May 2008

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