Sunday, December 7, 2014

In Ghana, a run that veered off-limits

                ACCRA, Ghana – I’m just back from a 60-hour trip to five African countries – pretty hard to imagine – that included a stop here and in Senegal, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. We went to assess the Ebola response in the three most-affected countries (Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone), and one of the biggest complicating factors (beyond the health risk) was the travel: two nights on a plane, one night here at a hotel.

Getting in a run was critical for my stamina, even if it meant a few hours of sleep. I made it to the hotel lobby by 5:30 a.m. and asked the clerk for a nearby route. He told me to stay inside the hotel perimeter because it was dark out. I said I wanted to go outside and he told to run the perimeter outside the hotel. I gave up. At the front entrance, I saw a security guard and he pointed me toward Independence Square.

I crossed a highway after waiting 15 seconds for traffic to clear and ran down a broken sidewalk, passing vendors already setting up stalls that sold warmed-up breakfast foods and coffee. I ran for seven or eight minutes until I came to a major highway – Independence Square was likely to my left. But in front of me was a narrow road opening to an infinite horizon – it could be the Atlantic.

I took the narrow road. It was semi-abandoned, dark except for pools of light from street lamps. I passed a few men, picked up my pace, and reached a guardhouse in front of a small hotel. I could hear waves.

The guard was asleep. I gently called to him and he lifted his head. I asked about getting to the ocean, and he kindly said, yes, follow me, and he led me through the hotel lobby, a back patio, and to a locked gate, which opened up to the Atlantic Ocean -- the eastern shore, less than a week after I had been to the western, in Maine.

I felt a bit dizzy as I navigated crude wooden steps to the beach. It felt like I was walking into a completely new world. I stopped and steadied myself. The dark was starting to lift, the scene unfolding. The beach was wide and soft, except the packed sand near the tide line. The ocean stretched as far as I could see. I saw a few runners and walkers on the beach, far in the distance. That gave me confidence to go on.

I reached water’s edge and thought for a moment about taking off my shoes, shirt, glasses, and watch, and jumping into the ocean – it was 80 degrees and humid. I thought better of it. I couldn’t read the scene. Enough people watching me. Not enough to stop a thief.

I picked up some beautiful shells and then ran along the packed sand, passing people who said nothing. I saw a young boy just a few feet into the surf, his head facing the beach as gentle waves curled over his shoulders. I saw three middle-aged bountiful women, who were walking into the ocean, holding hands, backs bare, singing about Jesus.

Then I saw in the distance a fishing boat and a dozen men pulling in a substantial fishing net from the shore. I decided to run to the boat and turn back. But as I neared it, a man started running toward me. He waved his arms and held his hand out as a policeman would: Stop. I stopped and help up my hands as if I didn’t understand. He vigorously jabbed his hand toward the beach behind me. I understood. I turned around instantly and headed back. I didn’t look back. I had run into something off-limits and I was getting out.

I kept a good pace. I passed the three women again who were on the beach now, holding hands in a circle, heads turned skyward, singing and shouting. I passed silent men sitting in the sand. I averted my eyes. I went to the gate by the seaside hotel, but it was locked, and so I quickly picked my way through abandoned lots that were strewn with garbage, chunks of concrete, and a small pack of dogs, until I reached a road. I kept my pace.

     In 10 minutes, I reached my hotel. It was 6:15 a.m. I made my way to my room, closed the door, and exhaled.

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