Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A vacation in Togo

(Note: I wanted to write about our vacation in Togo, but didn't have time before returning to Canada. Here is the story with a few pictures)

We had hoped to go to Kenya or Mali for the last two weeks of June, which was also to be my last two weeks in West Africa, but due to the prohibitive cost of air travel to any place within Africa, we settled on Togo.

Togo is a country to the east of Ghana and is one of two slivers of land nestled between Ghana and Nigeria. It is French-speaking and has recently stabilized following a devastating civil war.

The border is only 3 hours from Accra, so it was easy for us to slip into the country, spend a few days touring around, and then head back to Ghana for a final few days at a beach resort.

We hit our first snag at the border where we were told our Ghanaian entry visas would have to be renewed before we could return to Ghana. We hadn’t expected this, and it would mean spending at least two days in Lomé, the capital, while we waited for the Ghanaian Embassy to process our visas to allow us to return across the border. Reports from the capital didn’t inspire a desire to spend more than an obligatory night there, but we had little alternative if we wanted to cross into Togo. We made the leap, and entered the country.

We spent our first night in a small hotel in a neighbourhood near the beach. The hotel bar and restaurant could have been plucked out of any small town in France. It had a beautiful outdoor patio, stone garden walls and a French Swiss owner. The room we stayed in was much less inspiring. It was musty had one dimly lit bulb hanging on a far wall and a toilet that didn’t flush. But, at $20 a night, we couldn’t really complain.

We dropped our things in our room, and went for a walk along the beach. Lomé spreads itself along one of West Africa’s most stunning beaches. The main road leaving Ghana and heading to Benin borders a sparkling sandy beach. Glistening blue water stretches out for miles from its edge. We watched Togolese families picnic in the shade of a few palm trees while children chased soccer balls along the hot sand. Couples strolled slowly along the edge of the water hand-in-hand.

Immediately we sensed a cultural difference between the people of Ghana and Togo. Even though Togolese look much the same as their Ghanaian neighbours, and some are from from the same tribes, they carried themselves differently. The people we watched seemed more leisurely. They held hands, sat under trees talking and laughing over food, and were well, more French. Obviously French colonization has had a lasting effect.

In the distance we heard music blasting. We followed the sound and were soon swallowed by a crowd. We pushed through the throngs of people and came across a stage on the beach where three women dressed in Coca Cola t-shirts were showing off their moves. The performance, we learned, was part of a summer dance competition sponsored by Coca Cola. The crowds voted for the best dancer by cheering loudly for their favourite. At the end of the summer, the final competitor would win a motor scooter.

By this time it was getting dark and we started to make our way back to the hotel. We took a side street called Avenue de la Presidence. I guess we should have realized from the name of the road and the unexpected silence that we were going in the wrong direction. A soldier approached us and demanded to know what we were doing. We told him we were heading back to our hotel. “Not this way,” he said. “You’re on the president’s property.”

Once we finally got back to the hotel, we lay down for a brief rest before dinner. We were excited about the menu selection which offered tempting French meals, but were tired from the bus ride and from crossing the border so decided to lay down our heads for a few minutes.

At 1 a.m. we woke up hungry.

The next morning our first activity was to go to the Ghanaian embassy to drop off our passports and apply for another visa. This was supposed to be an easy process, but an angry bureaucrat refused to simply allow us to fill out the application and pay our fee. After much convincing that we did indeed need another visa to cross back into Ghana and that he should take our money, he looked me and said sharply “Okay, but this is the last time I’m giving you a visa!”

We were told to return the next morning to pick up our visas. We paid our money and left.

Since we had to stick around Lomé until the next morning, we decided to go on a quick day trip to a place called Togoville, an hour’s drive from the city. Togoville is a small town on a lake where the locals practice voodoo. Most of the residents are also Catholic and in 2004 the pope visited the small town after the Virgin Mary was allegedly seen in a boat crossing the lake.

We also arrived at the village by boat thanks to a couple of local entrepreneurs who charged us $8 to sail a couple of kilometres across the lake. The boat was a carved out tree trunk, and the sail was a piece of plastic stuck to the top of a long wooden pole.

Once we arrived in Togoville we were met by Vincent, a man whose business card said he was a consultant and youth tourism trainer. For another small fee, he would guide us around the village and show us voodoo in the village.

I expected to see voodoo dolls and evidence of animal sacrifice, so was actually a bit disappointed by what seemed to be a series of neglected shrines. Mark reminded me that Hollywood had sensationalized voodoo and distorted it from its original conception.

Vincent told us that the locals believe that inanimate objects like trees, rocks and sculptures have living spirits. The villagers pay respects to these spirits with gifts of food and ask for guidance and protection.

After our brief tour, we returned to the dock where our boat was waiting to take us back across the lake. This time the wind direction made it impossible to use the sail, so our guide poled us across the water. It was a much more arduous trip and he definitely earned his $8.

Back at the hotel, we settled in at the restaurant anxious for a good meal. We didn’t dare lie down before dinner. The food was delicious. We had shrimp, couscous, and chocolate mousse for dessert.

At 3 a.m. we both regretted our meal. I was sick a couple of times, but Mark was so sick he hardly left the bathroom for the rest of the night.

In the morning, Mark was exhausted and didn’t think he could move on. I hated to pull him away from the comfort of the toilet, but also didn’t want to spend any more time in the musty room or in Lomé. I finally convinced him he could make it as far as Kpalime in the mountains an hour and a half drive away.

We waited for over an hour at the bus station for the bus to fill up. Twice Mark left in search of a toilet and returned looking sicker than before. I kept hoping the bus would fill up quickly, so we could move on, but it seemed to take forever, and we were still three people away from leaving.

Finally after his third or fourth trip to the terribly objectionable public bathroom, Mark told me he couldn’t make it. We would have to spend another day in Lomé. I was disappointed, but knew it was the right thing to do.

We quickly grabbed a taxi and found a guesthouse with a TV and DVD so that Mark could wait out the effects of the food poisoning while watching old Eddie Murphy movies.

The next 24 hours remain a blur. I read and Mark moved from the toilet to the bed.

We left for the mountains the next morning in a shared taxi with three people in the front and four squished into the back. Mark was tentatively feeling better, and we were keen to really start our vacation.

Thankfully Kpalime was a nice small town in a beautiful valley surrounded by lush green mountains. We found a quiet hotel on the outskirts of town with a pool and settled in.

A few minutes after we arrived, it started to pour. We were anxious to go hiking in the mountains, but waited out the rain at the hotel while eating conservatively. Mark had a cheese sandwich.

An hour or so later, the rain stopped and the sun came back out. We grabbed our day pack and made plans to visit an entomologist at the top of a nearby mountain.

“Will it rain again today?” I asked trying to decide whether or not to bring along a raincoat.

“No. It’s done for the day,” replied a staff person at the hotel. Another echoed his thoughts. “Don’t worry; there won’t be any more rain today.”

In Togo most people travel by motorcycle, and instead of taxis, the favourite way of getting around is by mototaxi. If we wanted to go to the top of the mountain, we would have to go this way. Our destination was 12 km and our driver’s name was Clement.

I had a little chat with Clement before we started. I reminded him that we didn’t need to drive quickly. “Doucement,” I said in French repeating what I’d heard someone say earlier. I liked the sound of this. Go softly. “Allez doucement,” I said again as we pushed off.

We climbed the mountain at an extremely slow pace. I smiled to myself as Clement inched up the road. He was being very careful, and for this I was thankful. It was actually quite breathtaking climbing up the mountain on a motorcycle. The air was fresh and cool following the rain storm and the view was spectacular.

At the top of the mountain we met Monsieur Prosper, an entomologist who makes a living taking tourists on guided hikes to see butterflies, and learn about native plants. He seemed surprised to see us, but was happy to take us on a tour. He warned us, however, that we wouldn’t see many butterflies because they don’t like the rain and were still in hiding.

“Why don’t butterflies come out in the rain?” Mark asked.

“For the same reason that you don’t like going out in the rain,” he replied.

We spent a wonderfully educational two hours with Monsieur Prosper as he guided us along the outskirts of his village. He is also a painter and uses only natural pigments for his colours. We saw a green leaf turn red and drip blood-like liquid when squeezed, and touched a sticky golden pigment the colour of the sun on the inside of a piece of bark.

He also showed us how a white powdery substance found on the back of a fern frond can leave a lasting mark on skin. It showed up much better on his skin than on mine.

After many interesting discoveries we looked to the east and saw huge black clouds storming towards us. It was going to rain hard and we hadn’t packed rain gear. We had a couple of minutes to quickly find shelter in a village school, and then it poured. The water came down in buckets, and left us stranded for 30 minutes or more. We had arranged for Clement to pick us up at 4 p.m. and worried that we wouldn’t get back in time to meet him. We also wondered if he’d be able to drive in the rain.

When the rain let up, we hurried back to Monsieur Prosper’s house and found Clement waiting for us. He had driven up the winding road in the pouring rain.
We hopped on the back of the motorcycle and started down the mountain. The rain pelted us we moved slowly but steadily down the road.

Back at the hotel, we changed, and then returned to the restaurant to order dinner. To our surprise Clement, our mototaxi driver was standing outside the kitchen. Not only was he a careful mototaxi driver, but he was also our chef.

Clement cooked us a great French meal – one of the best I’ve ever had – antelope marinated in red wine sauce. We enjoyed the meal, and slept soundly without any sign of food poisoning.

The next day we went on another hike to a waterfall where we saw huge fields of corn planted on the side of incredibly steep hills. I was amazed at the athletic strength required to plant and tend to these fields. We met a couple in their 50s who live halfway up the mountain and farm this land. An hour later we met the same woman returning from the village where she’d gone to get supplies. I was exhausted from the two hour walk. She looked refreshed and strong.

Togo is a beautiful country with a vibrant culture, good food (most of the time), and gentle people. Unfortunately we could only visit the country for a few days, and this was to be the end of our Togolese vacation. We bid goodbye to the green mountains and lush valley and Clement our multi-talented new friend. At the bus station we caught another shared taxi back to Ghana.

- Janet


Jack said...

I'm so pleased that you were able to get yor visas to return to Ghana. Did you ever consider the possibility of being stuck in Togo?
It sounded like the official you met with had mistaken you for someone else. I guess all whites look alike there.
Anyway. it was nice to see you in Saint John the other day and I'm sure that Mark will be happy to be home with you soon.

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