Togo or not Togo

Last week, I spluttered and stuttered along the streets of Accra before hearing of the horrors of life inside the slave forts on Ghana’s Gold Coast. This week, I amble further along the shores of the Atlantic, catching crabs on some of West Africa’s finest beaches.

Day 36 – Cape Coast, Ghana to Lomé, Togo

A new week and, following my brief detour to Cape Coast, I was back on the road. This time I wasn’t stopping in Accra but heading further eastwards into neighbouring Togo. I once again bumped into some munificent locals going to the border whom took me under their wings and assisted me with transport throughout the day (this has occurred at least five or six times). I must say that this is not something that has happened to me all that often around the world, but rather unique to the West African people.

I was accompanied right to the very border and, unfortunately, this is where my luck ran out. Upon my arrival, I exchanged all my Ghanaian currency for Togolese with one of the various exchange guys close to the border. I have done this umpteen times before and never had a single issue (you’ll always get a better rate than at a bank and it is simply more convenient). However, as I paid for my visa upon entering Togo, I received a rather stern look from the border guard, before he hollered for his senior.

Turns out I had paid the fee with a counterfeit note. Cut a long story short, they didn’t believe my innocence for two very reasonable reasons. Firstly, and rather remarkably, I had used the one note out of about twenty which was forged – all others were legit. And secondly, it looked like knock-off Monopoly money and they didn’t think anyone could be stupid enough to use it without knowing. Well, I was (it was very dark in my defence). It took around ninety minutes of doe eyes and ignorance pleading before they ‘allowed’ me to pay again and enter. In all honesty, if this had been at a more remote border post, it could have been a hell of a lot worse. Hello Togo!

Day 37 – Lomé, Togo

Togo’s burgeoning capital Lomé is situated right on the Ghanaian border, so it didn’t take me much longer than thirty minutes to find my beach-side accommodation late last night. It also didn’t take me long to find out that the city was currently hosting the very first edition of the Togolese International Artisanal Market Fare – which I simply had to visit.

The market was held directly in front of the National Museum which, unfortunately for me, was closed for some form of national holiday. Instead, I made do with all manner of arts and crafts from some of “the finest carvers in Togo” (what a title to hold). I picked up as many edible freebies as I thought I could get away with before slipping out the back. I then attempted to visit Lomé’s infamous voodoo market, which I almost instantly regretted.

If there’s one thing I detest more than having to pay to take a photo of something that is visible with my own eyes, it is being forcibly accompanied by a swindler. For the first five minutes, you have polite conversation with your tag-along before it slowly becomes more hostile as you refuse to pay for their daughter’s fifth hip replacement. After being unable (for over thirty minutes) to shake off two particularly obstinate individuals, I gave up on trying to see anything of interest at the market and caught a cab back to the hostel. I despair.

N.B. These are not beggars or people who don’t know where their next meal is coming from. They wear relatively expensive clothes, carry business cards to build rapport and speak several languages – the primary one being arsehole.

Day 38 – Lomé, Togo

If there is somewhere in West Africa more of a polar opposite to the chaos of Lomé’s market than my current digs, I simply haven’t seen it yet. Just a few kilometres outside of the city lies Backpackers House, the most idyllic of hostels with its own small beach, and its own giant tortoise (named Togo of course). Not having taken my foot of the proverbial gas for almost six weeks, I decided that this weekend would involve recuperation and replumping (having lost a sumo’s worth of weight since the start of the trip).

Whilst it is fair to say that I am not seeing a great deal of Togo from the comfort of my sun lounger, it is also fair to say that, for this weekend at least, I couldn’t give a flying flamingo. A chance to catch up on reading, writing these stunningly humourous posts and planning the next leg to Benin, I couldn’t have stumbled upon a better spot to do so. I was even upgraded from wooden dorm to wooden shack, with its very own porch and rocking chair to do my best Clint Eastwood impression in. Yes punk, I do feel very lucky.

Day 39 – Lomé, Togo

A continuation of yesterday’s laid-back theme. Regrettably, the weather gods weren’t quite as kind today, so I was unable to try and fix the quite horrendous T-shirt tan lines I have developed over the last month or so (I’m Obama on the arms and O’Reilly on the chest). Instead, I moseyed around the beach, feeding Togo his usual vegan lunch before supplying myself with as many carbs as one could muster – rice, rice, rice.

Whilst the small slither of Togo I have seen is rather idyllic, I began to notice that it wasn’t quite as flawless as it was made to appear. As I embarked on a brief stroll along the sands, I discovered that security guards were sat at either end of the beach halting boisterous but friendly locals from entering the ‘tourist zone’. What a sham. I felt like taking a sun lounger and joining them on the other side of the imaginary beach barrier. Well, tomorrow I will be avoiding all tourist coaches on my journey to Benin, as I re-join the locals on whatever god-awful method of transport they use to get there. It should be fun.

Day 40 – Lomé, Togo to Cotonou, Benin

Day forty, the halfway point of my trip and another day travelling across a nation in a shared car held together with duct tape and chewing gum. However, the days of two-to-a-seat seem to be long gone (touch wood). I had the whole of the passenger’s seat to myself as we travelled the very short distance to the Beninese border (Togo’s entire coastline is only fifty-six kilometres in length). This time, I did not pay the fee with a fake note and was stamped into the country in minutes.

Benin. A country I knew nothing about, not even how to pronounce it correctly – Ben-een, Ben-in or Ben-an, who knows. Geographically very similar to Togo, the country has a very short coastline, where sits its largest cities Cotonou and the capital Porto Novo, and a narrow tract of land which heads northwards for about seven hundred and fifty kilometres (an intrepid journey I would be undertaking later in the trip). I quickly found my hostel and discovered it was full of French and Belgian students on internships in the city. I can’t tell you my joy at not having to have a conversation with myself for the fortieth night in a row, Brexit discussion was a welcome relief (never thought I would say that).

Day 41 – Cotonou, Benin

Turns out, if you’re francophone at least, Ben-an is the correct pronunciation – what a relief to get that cleared up. Also liberating was my newfound ‘love’ of getting from place to place on the back of rusty motorbikes. I hadn’t even ridden on one until my trip to El Salvador last year, at the ripe old age of twenty-eight. Now, I can’t get enough of them, and Cotonou is a city built for whipping around on them. Copious motorbike lanes, a driver register and the fact they outnumber cars by at least ten-to-one mean that they are the fastest, safest and cheapest way to get around (well maybe not safest). I’m yet to spot a traffic jam.

My first stop of the day was at the Zinsou Foundation, an educational hub on contemporary African Art which was currently holding an exhibition of Beninese textiles. Not my usual vice but when in Benin… It was actually an interesting visit, having been informed of how the differing colours and patterns carry various stories and meanings. And if fabrics are not your thing, a small museum on the top floor provided a window into Benin’s rather colourful past. From occupation by the French, becoming a Marxist–Leninist state in the 1970s (the only nation in West Africa to do so) before beginning its forays in democracy in the early ’90s, the locals (well the elders at least) are certainly used to change.

Day 42 – Cotonou, Benin

After forty-two days, I can happily confirm that I never have to visit another embassy, consulate or ambassador’s back office for the remainder of this trip (unless they invite me in for tea). My final visa out of the thirteen I needed in total (Senegal, The Gambia and Cabo Verde the marvellous exceptions), was collected first thing from the glorious and resplendent embassy of Niger. I hopped out of that door like Tigger on cocaine and have already decided to undertake a far less visa-heavy trip for my next adventure. They are exhausting.

A short distance from the aforementioned embassy lay Cotonou Cathedral, a rather eccentrically designed building that can be spotted from a fair distance away. The burgundy and white striped tiled architecture, although appearing quite contemporary, dates back to 1883 – although for the life of me I could not find out why this striking colour scheme was chosen. An infamous Cotonou landmark that I did know more about was Place de l’Étoile rouge – or Red Star Square.

In the middle of one of the city’s busiest roundabouts lies a giant five-pronged red star with a tower in the centre topped by a ‘good man’. The clearest indication of Benin’s communist past, the nation has undergone a radical transformation since the first multi-party system was adopted in 1991. Being about a five-minute walk from my hostel, the l’Étoile rouge is also an extremely useful landmark to tell motorbike drivers to drop off me at (indeed the only thing I can say). I should probably proceed to learn a little more as all but one of the remaining nations I visit is entirely francophone – sacré bleu!

J

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