There’s this episode of the Nickelodeon kids show SpongeBob SquarePants in which SpongeBob, on the way back from visiting a glove-themed amusement park, gets lost in an unfamiliar town called Rock Bottom and has to try to find his way back home to Bikini Bottom. Finding the right bus proves to be next to impossible, and SpongeBob grows increasingly frustrated trying to get help from the locals as he misses bus after bus after bus.
As a kid, the episode was so despairing that I would change the channel when it was on. Now as an adult who (rarely) flips to Nickelodeon, I’ve developed a theory that “Rock Bottom” is a metaphor for psychologically reaching rock bottom, be it after losing a job or being broken up with, and as much as SpongeBob tries, there’s no way escape Rock Bottom. While I might be reading too much into it, in the episode, SpongeBob feels so hopeless and depressed that he even loses his cheery demeanor. Of course, like most things on the show, I assumed a situation like this could never happen — in the real world, it would never be that difficult to catch a bus — but “Rock Bottom” became my reality when I had to get my first trotro in Accra.
One of the cheapest, and supposedly easiest, ways to get around Accra is on shared taxis called trotros. A trotro can hold around 20 people crammed into a sweaty, hot van. If you know which trotro you want to take and where to alight (get off), you can go pretty much everywhere in Accra for less than two cedis (which is about a quarter in American currency.)
Luckily, two of my coworkers (who are twins, write many of their articles together and could easily have their life turned into a sitcom) helped me catch a trotro, which was three rows away in traffic, back home after my first day of work. I was grateful, but terrified of getting a trotro by myself. The next morning, I woke up at 6:30 a.m. and still half asleep, made my way to the trotro stop near the University of Ghana.
I knew I was in trouble when a few of my Oregon cohorts were still trying to catch a trotro after arriving at the stop half an hour earlier. They were standing away from the road, and I knew that we would have to be more aggressive to catch a trotro. The one that I was looking for was an “Accra” trotro and was going into the city. I assumed that it would be easy to figure out which trotro I should take and that there would be many for Accra. I was wrong.
It seemed like the trotros were going to everywhere but Accra. Unfamiliar and familiar names filled the air as mates, the young people who collect money on the trotros, yelled the direction their van was going over the buzz of the morning traffic. I listened for “Accra,” but never heard it. I quickly realized that most mates wouldn’t even yell the name of their trotro and instead, communicated with awaiting passengers through a complicated language of hand signals. I learned that the signal for Circle, which is a bustling hub close to many of our internships, is, obviously, a circular motion. The man next to me told me the sign for Accra was a pointed finger towards the city. I saw a mate make the motion, but was disappointed when it ended up being for a different location.
I was getting discouraged having already waited for almost half an hour when I heard a mate yell “Accra” and make a hand motion akin to wagging a finger at a child to tell them they did something wrong. It was definitely not the arrow pointing to Accra, but at that moment, I didn’t care. The trotro zoomed past me, and I immediately started running. It’s times like these that make me wish I was more athletic because by the time I got to the stopped trotro, someone else had already taken the last seat. Disgruntled, I began to think that a taxi, which would cost at least 10 times as much as the trotro, was a better idea.
But I was determined to wait it out. What felt like hundreds of trotros came by, none going to Accra. Even though it was only 7:45 a.m., the tropical heat was already sweltering, and I wanted to buy one of the sweet doughnuts in a glass case from a street hawker, but was nervous an Accra trotro would arrive during the transaction.
Luckily, right before I was about to give up hope, I heard the word “Accra” coming from a quickly stopping trotro and ran with the energy of an already late intern to the van. Out of breath, I double-checked with the mate, just to be sure it was the right one, and took a coveted window seat. I was already sweating and far behind schedule, but I was content to sit in Accra traffic for the next half an hour knowing I had successfully trotroed.
Of course, getting a trotro was only half of the journey. Once off, I realized that I had no clue where I was. I relied on the goodwill of a few locals to point me in the direction of my internship. When I arrived, 20 minutes late for a meeting, my boss asked why I hadn’t been on time.
Simply, I admitted, “The trotro,” and he laughed at me, as if it was only a valid excuse for an Obruni, Ghanaians’ endearing term for a foreigner. I laughed back, a little discouraged, but knowing there were many more trotros to come.