There were seven of them. They were mostly teenagers, riding that awkward edge before they settled into manhood. They were definitely closer to our table than they had been ten minutes ago. We continued playing rummy and tried to ignore the taunting shouts and big gestures of bravado that burst from their group every few seconds, like fireworks.
It was hot. I took a sip of warm, iodine-infused water from my Nalgene bottle, then I snapped three aces down on the table with a flourish, just to rub it in. “Ha!” I cried. I love to win.
Instantly, a teenager slid into the booth next to me. “Sistah, give me wa-tah!” he demanded. I smiled and shook my head. The teenager turned to Josh. “Mistah, watah!”
Josh stared at him, not unkindly. The teenager was tall, lanky, long-legged. He had origami-ed his body into the small booth with difficulty, and to remove himself now would require a gangly loss of face. His friends jostled each other, edging closer to witness the outcome of our water standoff. All around us, the boat was packed with groups of laughing, shouting people lying on woven blankets and perching on tables and sitting a dozen to a booth. The interior was a loud, sloppy jumble: large baskets filled with belongings, big bundles wrapped in yards of colorful fabric, small cages stuffed with chickens, bunches of bananas and bags of tomatoes and little wooden crates of onions. So we were just part of the happy cacophony.
Josh laughed. “NO watah!” The rest of the teenagers took that as their cue, and swarmed into the booth, filling it with arms and legs and knees. Their long, eggplant-colored fingers picked up our playing cards and poked at our backpacks as they continued to pester us for water, gum, pens, sunglasses. Finally we couldn’t take it anymore and decided to move to the upper deck.
We were on the Yapei Queen, a combination cargo/passenger boat (mostly filled with yams) that crosses a huge swath of Lake Volta in Ghana, from Akosombo to Yeji, with countless stops along the way.
Our 18-hour journey cost about $5 a person. There are no assigned seats, so as soon as the gangway drops, there is a mad dash to stake a claim at a wooden table or along a railing. At first, we had managed to secure a prime spot at one of the tables, but when the boisterous pack of teenagers overran us, we found a new spot under the overhang of the top deck of the board.
It seemed kind of perfect: we would be out of the wind, sheltered in case it rained, and could spread out. Oddly, there wasn’t anyone else there. That should have been a clue. For the first several hours, we had a grand old time. We leaned back on our backpacks and watched the lake and the country go by.
As the night wore on, we unrolled our sleeping sacks and bedded down. The metal floor was uncomfortable, but we were used to interesting accommodations, so we didn’t mind. We congratulated ourselves on our ingenuity and resourcefulness, and looked forward to greeting the next day refreshed and ready for more adventure.
It turns out our “prime spot” was directly over the massive engines of the boat. For the first few hours, since the boat was traveling fairly slowly, the engine noise just felt like a gentle thrum. But in the middle of the night, the captain must have put the pedal to the medal, because the soothing hum became a deafening roar. The metal floor beneath us became warm, then almost hot. A blanket of exhaust settled around us, nauseating and heavy. Huge insects droned and buzzed in our ears.
We tried to sleep though it. At one point Josh started to laugh. “I just fell asleep for a few minutes!” he chuckled darkly. “But I had a terrible nightmare.”
“What was it?” I mumbled.
“I dreamt that I was on an 18-hour boat ride and that I was trying to sleep on a metal floor, directly above a loud, hot engine, and exhaust and soot were swirling around me as I got dive-bombed by huge insects.”
“That’s not funny,” I told him.
“I know!” he said. “The funny part was when I woke up, and I realized that I was on an 18-hour boat ride and that I was trying to sleep on a metal floor, directly above a loud, hot engine, and exhaust and soot were swirling around me as I got dive-bombed by huge insects!”
Truly, it couldn’t have got much worse. But have you ever noticed that in these kinds of situations, as soon as you think that it can’t get worse, it does? So it started to rain. Big freezing bucket splashes of water washed across our legs. Soon our teeth were chattering, despite the hellishly hot metal floor beneath us.
I wish I could say that we started to laugh, and that we whipped off our shirts and joyously danced in the rain. Instead, I started to cry, and Josh got mad. I think we got in a fight. We huddled together for hours, shivering, waiting for the sun.
Of course the sun came up, like it always does. We dried out. The boat plowed on. We finally arrived in Yeji. Our adventures continued. But for years I shuddered when I thought of our miserable journey up Lake Volta, of the deafening roar of the hot engine, the freezing rain, the incredible discomfort. “It’s all about the journey?” I would snort. “Ha! Hardly.”
And then one day I realized, after telling the story for the hundredth time, it actually was all about the journey. That the journey was the story. And the story was the journey. And I was there in the middle of both, on a yam boat on Lake Volta in the middle of the night. And I would remember this journey forever.