I recently came to the conclusion that I don’t much like it here, at least in the Greater Accra Region, and nor am I obligated to like it here. However, in deference to the fact that I’m living here, I’m starting a series on Things I Like, to be known in the future as TILAGs.

Now: tro-tros.

I am passionate about public transportation.  I was virtually raised on the New York subways, spent eight years travelling through Chicago by el and bus, and don’t feel you know a city without knowing how the public transit (however limited it may be) works.  I got my driver’s license only a year ago (and then it was stolen; I’ll have to replace it when I move to Massachusetts upon my return to the States) and as a result tend to become somewhat passive as soon as I enter a car, feeling like everything is going to be done for me.  I’m a good navigator if you ask me to be, but I have to be asked.  On the other hand, part of the reason I have to be asked is that, as a result of being a natural public trans-er and pedestrian, I tend to assume every resident of a city knows his way around as well as I do.    I have an excellent sense of direction on foot and on trains, and attribute it to the fact that I know every step of getting from one place to another.  If I’m driven around a city, I have no idea where I’m going.

All this is only to explain that all forms of public and communal transit have an automatic draw for me.  My love of tro-tros is not out of character, but it’s there nevertheless.

A tro-tro is a passenger van, usually in somewhat dilapidated condition, that holds anywhere from eleven to twenty-five-odd passengers aside from the driver and the conductor, known as the “mate.”  They stop at appointed “junctions” as well as spots along the roadside that you just have to know, the mate leaning out the window and shouting the tro-tro’s final destination as well as the major stops along the way.  The system, from the outside, seems informal or arbitrary, but it’s rapidly clear that it’s very structured: each tro-tro goes only along a certain route, taking only particular roads to get to that route, with a pricing structure that varies by no more than five pesawas (that’s around two cents) between vehicles.

Once you board, you’re crowded against another person; if you board later in the game, it’s likely you’ll be sitting on a flip-down seat that takes up the dubious aisle, and have to get up the next time someone wants to get off, or “alight.”  A few minutes into your ride, the mate asks for payment; if you haven’t taken the route before, you’ll have to ask him for the cost, but should he inflate it, other passengers are likely to be vocal in your defense.  (For the record, I use “he” because in three months of living here I have seen neither a female driver nor a female mate.)  If you’re sitting in the back, you may have to pass your money through the hands of someone sitting closer to the mate, who generally sits on the fold-down seat on the aisle by the door, either immediately behind the front seat or two rows back.  A tro-tro is such an intimate form of transit that honesty is automatically enforced.

You may wish to get off at a slightly unconventional stop: between towns, or at a specific store, or at the “second” stopping point at a well-known junction.  For example, I usually request “second” at Atomic Junction, one of my changeover stops, because otherwise I have to cross a crazy traffic circle in the dark, filled with crazy Ghanaian drivers, in order to get to the taxi rank that houses the last leg of my journey.  From “second” I need only cross the road and walk a few steps by the roadside.  In that case, you’ll have to yell to the mate a few times to get his attention, either to request or to remind: “Mate! Mate!”  If he doesn’t hear you, others will again take up your cause.

Generally, I aim for a seat against the wall and read for most of the journey, as long as it’s light.  But if I don’t have a book or if it’s gotten dark or if I don’t have the focus for it, I’m happy to just stare out the window as the strange signs and Ghanaian street live and alarmingly loud music go by.  I’ve occasionally made buddies or gotten into interesting conversations on the tro-tro, and more than occasionally had to fend off men who “would like to be your friend can I have your number so that I can get to know you better?”  The truth is I don’t mind either, nor do I mind the quiet, nor the older women who very occasionally greet me in Twi and are shocked when I can respond.

Sure, it’s crowded and you’re occasionally in someone’s sweaty armpit.  Sure, if you’re an obruni you’ll get an average of two marriage proposals in a week of tro-tro commutes.  Sure, tro-tros are dilapidated vehicles, the lack of shocks often making your head hit the ceiling as you course down unpaved roads.  Sure, traffic in the Greater Accra Region is obscene.  But nevertheless, I’ll miss tro-tros when I return, just as now I miss subways.