From Hell to Heaven, and Back to Hell

By February 6, 2013Blog & News

**An explanation of why and how the group and therefore the blogs fell off of the face of the earth for a while

Disclaimer: This entry contains graphic material in the forms of uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea.

Our alarms are set for 3:30 AM, and of course I wake at 3:20. A familiar feeling sweeps through my stomach, and I recognize it as nausea, today, the last day of being subjected to African food. The day we are set to journey about 15 hours across the country. You are not going to puke, I tell myself, but to no avail. I rush out the door and stumble to the steps and toss up last night’s Jollof rice still intact. I’d generously helped myself to three portions the night before, and perhaps it was just too much for my stomach now the size of a walnut. I chug some water, and slip back into bed.

The next urge to purge the water is almost instant, and I realize I’m not just full, I’m actually slowly dying.

The rest of the group creeps from our rooms and watches me retch. “It’s okay, I puked last night too,” Chris tells me, but he seems fine now as I take a shaky sip of water.

Olivia appears, and for once our transportation is ready on time so we rush to pack. I don’t have the heart to tell her my stomach is a time bomb of explosion, especially since I’d raved over her delicious Jollof rice mere hours ago. So we pile into the tro-tro and I lean my head against the rattling, plastic window. Africa stops for no one.

The ride to the station isn’t long, but my stomach is on a tight schedule so I spit up some water onto the bus floor, stifling my moan as I try to pretend it’s simply a spilled water bottle. The moment I hop out of the van I heave again, and the driver offers me a roll of toilet paper and wishes I feel better. Again, I don’t have the heart (or the stomach) to tell him I’d also splashed his van floor, so I thank him graciously instead.

I rummage through my luggage as we board the bus that will be our ass-numbing home for the next seven hours and extract a plastic bag, sizing it up with what must be left in my stomach. This will have to do.

I seat myself between Erin and Amber, then turn to each of them to apologize for what is bound to ensue. The sun rises with my bile, but luckily my stomach is empty enough that the damage is minimal. A woman in front of us retches into her own bag. Her child screams from his father’s lap, and she takes him in her arms and heaves once more.

Beside a minor incident of bile leakage onto our luggage, the bus ride passes in a fog. I slip in and out of not-quite-sleep, not-quite-relief, and an unbearable thirst I cannot allow myself to quench.

At last the bus reaches Tamale, and we dismount, defeated. The sun is unforgiving on our pale, foreign skins. “Well,” says Chris. “It’s up to you. Should we try to get a ride to the park? It’s another three to four hours away.”

But the group is waiting, and Africa stops for no one, and my stomach stops for nothing either. I close my eyes, and envision what I hope to be a cool, clean bed in the Mole Motel. Perhaps, if I even dare to hope, the cold porcelain of a toilet to caress against my cheek. “Let’s do it.”

We pile into a cab where I droop my head out of the window, but my intervals of explosion seem to be growing and we make it all the way to the tro-tro stop incident-free. Out of the cab and back into the sun, this calm does not last as I heave in exhaustion once again. The men loading our luggage onto the bus stop to watch as I empty the slime green poison from my stomach into the nearby open sewer. I can do nothing but challenge their stare, challenge them to look away in shame.

I am thirsty, and at last feel capable of hydrating my body though I know the consequences. We buy waters and they show us to the back of the bus, where we sit and wait for it to fill on seats with absolutely no cushion until our butts become numb.

Northern Ghana is much more Muslim, we come to learn, as turban-clad, dark eyed passengers board the tro-tro. They hesitate to sit near us, crowding toward the front of the bus, and never have we felt so white, so exposed. Vendors crowd around the parked bus in hopes of selling us some last-minute crackers or fish or water bags before we depart.

And in this moment, perched strategically next to the window, I know I have no other choice as the water hits my ungrateful stomach.  The vendors back up a bit, then slowly brave steps forward to shout at me in a language I can’t understand words that I quite frankly couldn’t care less about.  Here, now, surrounded by less-than-pleased Ghanaians who would be sharing the next four hours with me, staring down at the contents of my empty stomach as startled women squawked up at me, I feel relief.

The bus jolts to life and we are off. I spend the first few hours in a haze, napping against the seat in front of me as my body jerks every which way on the winding dirt road. At last I can sleep no more, and I wake to watch as we fly towards Mole. This dirt road is under construction, and while I’m not really sure how one maintains a dirt road I can see why it needs the maintenance. The curves are never-ending: wind left, wind right, don’t mind the overturned semi-truck. The edges of the road are steep and the road itself is narrow, and from my window seat I can see death beckoning us over the ledge.

God gave you ten fingers for a reason, I remember, and so murmuring to myself in the heat and dust and danger I pray a broken rosary. It takes a few attempts to find the rhythm of the Our Father once again, but once I do the rest of the ride passes, a calm acceptance.

We dismount the tro-tro on shaky legs. Amber’s face is streaked with orange, the aftermath of oncoming traffic. Another cab ride and disgruntled driver, and we arrive at the gates to enter Mole National Park.

We flash our student ideas and wave the 5 cedis for admission expectantly, but the officer sitting at admissions eyed us cautiously. “Your IDs do not have expiration dates. No student discount.”

Our protests remain unheard, until the cab driver shifts on his feet and tells us he will leave us here, until Amber throws down the 10 cedis and struts away.

“Wait, wait,” the officer calls, takes one last, deliberate look at our IDs, and grants us the student discount.

“Thank you,” we grumble, and the six of us pile back into the cab. The driver charges us each an extra cedi, and we pay it with little protest, our resistance weakened. The sun is still beating relentlessly.

We trek to reception, where we book our rooms for the night. “Only one to a bed,” the receptionist tells us. My heart leaps. It’s been about two weeks since we’ve each had our own bed. “Two triple rooms with air conditioning. Straight ahead and to the right.”

Air conditioning. Running water. A toilet. Cable television. I collapse on a bed and we flick on E! Network. “This is miraculous. This is culture shock.”

“This isn’t culture shock,” Chris chuckles back.

“It’s the most culture shocked I’ve been here,” I mumble before slipping into sleep. I don’t wake until morning.

Our alarms shatter the silence at 5 A.M. and we struggle to scramble from our beds. This is what our long journey has been for – an early morning safari before the sun rises to beat down on us all. A chance to see wild animals, and if we’re lucky, an elephant or two. We peel our bodies from our beds and dress in the darkness, at last finding ourselves huddled around the largest group of white people we’ve seen since leaving the States, some head-to-toe in safari gear, plucked straight from National Geographic.

Our group combines with two cheerful British girls and we begin the walk into the sunrise. Our tour guide is gentle, silently pointing out each animal we pass and whispering a detailed description of their species, their behaviors, their diet, inching us closer and closer until the animals scatter.

We creep on crocodiles basking in the sand. We watch warthogs graze in the open. Antelopes leap through high grasses as we stumble after them. The entire tour our guide is tracking elephant activities deeper and deeper into the savannah, timing the footprints and lines in the sand.

I have been plucked up from civilization – from America as well as Ghana – and dropped into The Lion King. Today, I can die happy.

Our tour ends with a slight sigh of disappointment, as we did not manage to track any elephants today. Our guide passes along his number in case we spot one from the grounds above, in which case we will go out again to watch up close.

We sit down with our new British friends to breakfast at the outdoor restaurant alongside the pool, dreaming of the cold water rushing over our dirt-encrusted hides.

Breakfast is peaceful, too peaceful, and as we sit back with satisfied bellies a baboon sprints over to our table, slurps down a sleeve of butter like Go-Gurt, then hops on the table and snatches every piece of toast in sight before running back to the lawn, where he eats our breakfast in front of us mockingly.

Our fear immediately turns to laughter, and we laugh until our stomachs hurt and our heart rates slow to an almost normal tempo until we hear cries from the pool deck. Someone has spotted an elephant.

We scarf down what is left of breakfast and call our guide to venture back out. In no time at all we have found this majestic beast grazing on a few trees, curling his thick trunk around a branch and ripping each leaf off with gentle ease. Slowly, we are allowed to creep closer, and closer, until I am sitting on the ground staring up at this beautiful, wrinkled creature who remains unfazed by the crowd closely observing his breakfast.

We fall to silence, and watch, and wait for nothing at all. The elephant eats tree after tree, until there are no appetizing leaves left, then moves to the next cluster, and we follow in his enormous footsteps.

At last our guide tells us we should go and leave him to wander some more, so we reluctantly peel our eyes away and take hesitant steps back toward the grounds, turning our heads back in wonder.

Our eyes still wide, we rush back to our rooms for makeshift bathing suits, and together, throw our tired, trying bodies into the cold rush of the pool. The chlorine wakens our skin, the cold numbs our aching muscles, as we swim a few laps and pretend the dirt floating around is not all coming from us, though we know full well it’s our first shower in many long days.

Our aching bodies are cool, and for the first time since we’ve arrived in Ghana we bask in the sun.

“This is paradise. Like a real vacation.”

“For real, we almost died to get here.”

“I almost died so many times! Like, seriously thought the puking would never end.”

“And then the tro-tro…”

“I prayed a rosary for us guys. I thought we were goners for sure.”

“Does anyone else feel like we died and went to heaven?”

“I think we died, went to Hell for a little bit, then made it up here to heaven.”

The pool rests atop the safari grounds, and we stare out at the endless land, an occasional animal hopping by. A cool breeze kisses our sunny skin as we stretch and drift back to the air conditioning for mid-day naps.

But like I said, from Hell to heaven, and back to Hell again.

We wake from our naps, and each of us in turn feel worse for wear. We drag ourselves to dinner, to the long-awaited cheeseburgers that our stomachs now knot at the thought of. We find Sophie perched by the pool still, beer in hand, surrounded by new friends, by Americans.

We all sit together, a hodgepodge of experiences, some new to Ghana, some living in Ghana, and the six of us, who have been there for two weeks and yet absorbed a lifetime of experiences. We laugh over the winding dirt road that brought us here, a road that is proclaimed the worst road in Ghana by our new friend Clement, a Ghanaian himself. That ride was on Liz’s first day here, Austin’s mother. Austin is in the Peace Corps and has been in Ghana for a year, and we laugh at his mother’s first impression of the country.

Our long-awaited cheeseburgers arrive, and almost instantly Chris and Amber are rushing to the bathroom. Their food remains untouched.

Grant and I pick at our burgers delicately, exchanging nervous glances.

“I feel fine,” Sophie chirps in. “I feel like I should feel terrible since everyone else does, I feel so bad!”

Erin’s stomach is churning, and soon after we are served she returns to the room, Amber in tow once she returns, hunched over, from the bathroom. When the rest of us have nibbled on as much African cheeseburger as we can stomach, turn to the bathroom to check on Chris. He is standing outside, empty-stomached and shivering, his arms tucked into his shirt. He retreats back to the room, defeated.

And then there were three.

Sophie groans softly. “Guys I really don’t feel good now. I’m trying to tell myself it’s all mental but—“

“It’s mental,” I say hastily, and Grant and I agree to go buy some Sprites in hope of settling overturned stomachs.

“Oh God, I really don’t think it is…”

Grant and I pass Sophie rushing back to the room. “I just emptied the entire contents of my stomach,” she murmurs in passing.

And then there were two.

Liz rushes over to us, her glass of Maker’s Mark long forgotten on the table. “Stay healthy you two, please!” We can only hope, but my stomach seems to recognize the warning. “You need a mommy hug, come here,” and she wraps us in warmth, and she smells clean and I fight the sudden urge to cry into her curly hair. “Take care of them. Get back home to the city. And take care of yourselves!”

Grant and I nod, stoic. We walk away from our table, knowing full well the night is only beginning.

My room is miraculously peaceful, Amber and Erin resting in their beds quietly conversing. The constant sounds of violent retching are all too familiar through the too-thin walls. We wonder if the toilet’s limited flushes will soon expire.

Minutes later, Grant bursts into our room. “The puking and pooping…it just won’t stop! If it’s not one of them over the toilet it’s the other!” Then, the splatter of fresh vomit outside the window. “They’re both shivering, they made me turn off the air conditioning, and well, it reeks in there so…I’m just going to hang out here for a while.”

We laugh nervously. Eventually, the rhythmic lull of splash, flush, splash, flush eases me to sleep for about an hour, before Grant returns to our room again. “It still hasn’t stopped and it’s been hours. I think we should take them somewhere.”

The clock reads 1:00 A.M., and our bus leaves at 4:00 A.M. “Okay…where? How?”

Grant ventures back out to the restaurant, where he finds Liz, Austin, and Clement still sitting and basking in the coolness of the night. Clement has a cab here at the park, and offers to drive to the health clinic also located on park premises. Grant, Chris, and Sophie disappear into the night.

After hours, or perhaps just long, stretched minutes, Grant bursts through our door once again. “Water…do you guys have any drinkable water left?” We toss him what’s left of our water bottles, demanding a rushed explanation.

“The nurses have no idea what’s wrong with them. They gave them something to stop the puking and the shitting, and they have really high fevers so they’re giving them something to treat that. We think it might be malaria.”

“But they’re only treating the symptoms.”

“Exactly. We’re bringing the British girls back from earlier, the one girl has been here a while and knows a lot about the health care here. She also knows a doctor in the area.”

“And they don’t have water there?”

Grant sighs, sits. “No. The first thing they wanted to do was give them an injection, and I immediately said no to that. Absolutely no needles. They also want to hook them up to and IV but I don’t know, I’m saying no until I hear otherwise from the UK girls. Sophie is begging for it though, and I just don’t know. I have to head back though.”

We exchange fallen glances, unspoken fears. “Well, good luck.”

The night drags like a smoldering cigar. We are interrupted once again by Clement and Jadiza, one of the British girls. “Grant said you had protein bars?” Jadiza asks timidly as we throw open the door.

“Yeah! Yeah, of course. What’s going on?”

Jadiza is vague, saying their condition has improved but the nurses are less than capable.

We later come to find this means they are unable to connect an IV drip, digging through Chris’s tendon with complete disregard for both his bulging, dehydrated veins and his squirms in pain until Grant orders them away. We learn that they refuse to treat for malaria in case they treat it wrong, and they will face backlash if the two are admitted to the closest hospital. We learn that this closest hospital is a four hour drive away, and all they want to do is sleep.

“There’s a German doctor here, we need to find him and wake him, and he can help diagnose. You should all get ready and catch the bus. Grant will meet up with you later in the day.” Jadiza tells us before they turn to leave. It’s now 2:30 A.M.

“Wait!” I call, but the cab turns away, nothing but a cloud of orange dust.

“We need to find out what Grant wants us to do. I don’t think we should split up. We need a phone. We need to call him.”

Amber groans from her bed.

“Erin, let’s go find Liz and Austin. We can use Austin’s phone. “

Erin and I trek through the dark, praying we’re about to knock on the right door. When we hear Liz’s voice we release our baited breaths, and Liz coaxes us to perch on her bed.

“You girls just need to get out of here. Get home, get safe.”

Home. Such a foreign, diluted concept. Still half the world away.

We call Grant and he urges us to catch the bus. “We’re coming back now to rest. We’ll take a cab later and meet you guys in Tamale. The UK girls will be on the bus. Stay with them.

We thank Liz and Austin and bid sober farewells. I think about curling at the end of the bed and not moving until I’ve slept, until the six of us are all together and can laugh until our ribs ache.

But I can’t, so I push the thought away.

Erin and I return to collect Amber, and we pack hastily and step back into the night. It is 3:30. A cab swings up to our hotel door.

Slowly, a crowd piles out of this tiny cab. The German doctor, who turns out to be a German med student, Jadiza and Sayyeda, the two British girls, Clement, Grant, and the shadows of Sophie and Chris. They are a delicate shade of gray. Their eyes are open but they remain still, glassy. They are able to stand, but need a human crutch to walk. They do not speak. They do not smile. We stand in a circle, we stop, we stare.

“You girls need to catch the bus,” says Jadiza, breaking the silence. “Tell the driver to wait for us, we’re going to pack up and we’ll be there shortly.”

Grant and the girls meet us waiting to board the bus shortly. Amber is growing weaker before our eyes, crumpled into a limp ball clutching her stomach. “Ugh, toilet paper. Who has toilet paper? Oh God!”

She grabs a roll and runs into the trees. Erin, Grant, and I can only sigh. Amber returns, shaking her head. “I can’t get on that bus for four hours. I’m gonna need to go back to the room.”

Grant leads her back slowly, and Erin and I board with the two UK girls. The five hours on the bus pass in a haze of feigned sleep, hoping my mind will follow suite. At last we arrive at Tamale, and the sun has risen, and we stand at the same bus stop where we’d decided to continue to Mole only two days ago. It feels like weeks have passed.

Jadiza takes us to a home where we can spend the night, built by a small man with a wide smile exclusively for volunteers to stay at. The house is beautiful, and Erin and I stare at the Hello Kitty mattress with longing.

“This home is beautiful, but we really think we should try to get back to Accra by tonight to see a doctor. We’d like to look for flights,” we explain to the British girls.

“Alright,” they sigh with exhaustion. “Would you like to get breakfast first?”

My stomach doesn’t remember what hunger is anymore, but we agree anyway. We grab our luggage and head back to where the girls are staying, a quaint house tucked away in Tamale where a third British girl is awaiting inside.

Jadiza serves us bread and tea and curls on the corner of a worn, leather couch, drawing a slow sip to her lips. “Ahh, isn’t a cup of tea just lovely right now?”

Yes, yes it is, and this strikes me as such a beautiful moment that we are here, sipping English tea with a Brit herself, admiring the quiet peace of morning tea. And I remember in a few short days I will be in England myself, surrounded by beautiful accents and daily tea time and cold, dreary weather.

But today I am in Ghana. It is around 90 degrees out, and my friends are potentially dying. We need to find a flight; we need to find them; we need to find water. We call Grant from Jadiza’s phone but he’s out of minutes, unreachable.

Erin and I are ready to trek back through Tamale and search for plane tickets, but Jadiza and Sayyeda first freshen up and begin tidying the house. Erin and I stare at our orange dusted, sweat stained shirts and declare them wearable, despite the girls’ reassurance that there’s plenty of time to wash up.

We find a flight to Accra for 3:00 P.M. It is now 11:00 A.M. We need to find our friends. We need to find tickets.

“They really should be treated for malaria as soon as possible,” Sayyeda insists. “There’s no harmful side effects; it’s better to treat as soon as you suspect it. You should wait until tomorrow to return to Accra.”

“But…we have family in Accra. And, well, the doctors should be much better there. We trust the city so much more for this,” we must insist. We’ve explored so much of the Ghanaian health system at this point that we know Accra to be our best option by a landslide.

And so out into the city we go, running from ATM to ATM, from closed ticket office to closed ticket office, Jadiza leading the way. People stop us on the street to ensure we are headed in the right direction, ready to offer advice or suggestions as we pass.

Miraculously, stopped at an ATM, a cab swings up full of familiar white faces. They pile out of the cab and at last we are six again, ready to face any other obstacle to get us home.

“How are they doing?” I whisper to Grant.

“They were great this morning, talking, laughing, drinking water. But well, the cab ride was long and really hot, and they just stopped drinking. They’re out of it again.”

And sure enough, Chris and Sophie are sitting on the steps to a bank, eyes rolling backwards to expose the whites as they slip their lids closed. I thrust bags of cool water into their hands and they bite them and suck them weakly, but at least it’s something for now.

Jadiza finds another lead on a ticket office, and so the group is off once again. We scurry up and down alleys like rats, hovering in the shade as Hedwig knocks on door after door. Sophie and Chris melt into the luggage, napping on the street for five minute intervals as cabs scrape by on the gravel and trash blows in the breeze.

At last we have a contact number, and instantly it seems Jadiza is able to make arrangements for us at the airport and call a cab to rush us there for a reasonable price.

The six of us pile into the four seats and speed off, arriving at the airport with plenty of time to check our luggage and wait to pass through security.

Our boarding passes are laminated, open-seating. Chris is feverish, and he is back and forth between the bathroom and reclining across the unbending, plastic seats. I rush to the counter and ask to see my luggage before it is loaded onto the plane, and a man lets me back through security with a kind smile. I rummage through and grab a handful of ibuprophen and thank him graciously, brushing off his request to return to America with me.

“Here.” I throw a few pills as Chris and force a water bottle into his hand. Offering him some of my valuable stash of Pringles to settle his stomach.

I throw the same at Sophie. “Why?”

“Chris took them.”

“Oh, so cause Chris took drugs I have to?”

“Yes,” I sigh, and pray that this is Sophie’s sense of humor returning. It’s the most life I’ve seen in either of them in days.

At last we can pass through security, and Sophie and Chris continue reclining across a row of seats, not-quite sleeping. We thrust water bottles into their arms just to hold, and watch our plane land in the lot in front of us.

We walk across the lot toward this small plane in the blazing sun, supporting Sophie and Chris’s weak bodies, and I can’t help but feel there should be a camera crew catching our hair blowing back in the wind as the six of us strut forward together, with dramatic, heroic music swelling as we board.

The hour flight to Accra is air-conditioned, and while I fall into not-quite-sleep wrought by terror of the plane crashing or someone dying or my seatbelt coming undone during landing, it is strangely peaceful. There, I find a sense of returning home.

Oliver meets us at the airport, and a familiar face looks like family. We return to the Benneh household once again, to the familiar sticky leather couches and thick drapes that block all chance of a breeze. It is wonderful, and safe.

Oliver understands that we need to make it to a doctor, and he escorts Sophie and Chris while the rest of us climb in Asomah’s car to check in to our hostel.

Our own beds, our own room to the six of us. Again, an inextricable pull toward this room, this makeshift home.

The outpatient hospital is crowded, but perhaps it’s because of Asomah’s status as a police officer or our status as “the white men,” but Chris and Sophie are put to the front of the line. By the time we arrive their blood has already been drawn for the long-awaited malaria test, and Sophie’s blood pressure has been declared dangerously low. She is taken to another room.

Asomah returns to the waiting room a few minutes later and asks for me. He leads me to Sophie’s room, where she is resting delicately on a hospital bed, IV line dripping, heart rate blipping by on a monitor.

“What’s wrong?”

“I just…haven’t seen you all day and I’m…lonely.” Sophie’s voice is weak, and her body is weak, and I just want to hug her but I’m scared she’ll break.

So instead I perch on the end of her bed, watching her blood pressure rise and steady. Slowly, the rest of the group trickles in. Chris is feeling much better, and he and Sophie are once again able to share a laugh over the insanity, the purging, the pain that has been the last 48 hours.

Asomah wants a picture, and Sophie smiles with ease. “I’d do it all over again if I had to,” she says. “I’d do it 119 more times for each kid at that school.”

One saline bag, one antibiotic dose, and one doctor-patient marriage proposal later, we are back at the hostel.

“Can you believe we were in Tamale just this morning? Mole just this morning?”

“Guys, we almost died today.”

“So Liz, think you can crank out a blog entry?”

“Sure,” I yawn, stretching out to take the laptop.

And with the lights bright and my fingers stroking the keys, I silently slip to sleep.