The Road Less Travelled

The Road Less Travelled

It had been a long time since I had set of on my own to explore a country that I didn’t speak the language of and I was a little nervous when I had heard that not speaking French made it nearly impossible to travel northern Togo and Benin solo. I guess that could put a lot of people off but for me I like the challenge and adventure of it all, Money speaks all languages, so long as you have some you will always get to where you want to go.

The Border crossing between Aflao, Ghana and Lome, Togo was as annoying as it had been written. The touts hung around like flies trying to find ways to get you to accept a service they could offer that you didn’t need. ‘It’s ok the form is in English, you don’t need to translate it for me’ etc. To my surprise though none of the border officials asked for bribes which I had heard was common. I got my transit visa for Togo at the border and paid what I should have paid and had a good little laugh with the immigration officer while doing it.

Lome is basically on the border with Ghana so it is an easy 10-15min walk to the hotels once you have cleared customs, the taxi-moto’s don’t like this  but until you work out the best price for things it is better to pay for nothing at a border unless you have too.

I spent 2 nights in Lome so that I could get my Benin Visa before heading north, the lady at the consulate was very nice and helpful to me and I felt quite bad when I made a spelling mistake in her receipt book and had to correct it, she reacted as though I had just killed her first born. I was glad I had the passport in my hand first or she might have tried to take my visa away from me for it.

Lome was not an amazing city and the fact that I had decided that I had Malaria did not help me to enjoy it any more. I woke up with a very sore, stiff neck and read that it was a sign of malaria. This mixed with my feeling of vagueness the few days before made me head for a pharmacy to get tested. The pharmacies don’t do the test so I decided to just buy the treatment anyway as it could not do much harm if I didn’t have malaria and it only cost 4 euro. For various reasons I had decided not to take anti-malarial pills in Africa and got told off by the pharmacist for this, so I bought some one a week lariam’s that would do me for the rest of my 2 week stay.

The next day I felt no better and no worse so I got up early and headed for Kande in Northern Togo. I was a little apprehensive about the trip due to my complete lack of French and the reports of Togo and Benin’s complete lack of English. I stopped a taxi-moto and asked him to take me to the bus station, he spoke English. We arrived to the station and immediately 4-5 man came running to see where I wanted to go and to throw me inside a van, the man whose van I ended up in spoke English. I bought my ticket to go to Kande and was told that we would be there in 7 hours. So at 9am the 24 of us headed off in the 19 seater van.

The lady beside me in the van also spoke English which ended up being a good thing as when we arrived to Kara(1 hour from Kande) the van stopped and was not going any further. We explained to the driver that I had a ticket showing Kande and the price for Kande so he happily but reluctantly organised a taxi to take me there and paid my fare. This taxi was a squeeze with 7 of us inside and we all thought the driver had lost his mind when he tried to get 2 more people in, we asked where they would sit and he suggested they would lie across our laps! We had no say in the matter, his car his rules, and were happy when the couple saw the options and refused the ride.

I was beginning to realise now that these were the reasons why people say you need patience to head north and into ‘The road less travelled’ border crossing between Togo and Benin. My motto for the trip had been to say ‘you are never there until you are there’ repeatedly everytime I felt happy that I had successfully made it to my destination. The taxi stopped at the next town before Kande and said that I would have to get another taxi as he was going no further as I was the only one travelling on and it was too late for a return fare.

This created a lot of chatter amongst the lady I met in the van, the taxi driver and all the taxi-motos who arrived to offer their services. They were very upset that I had been sold a ticket all the way to Kande as apparently they never go the whole way, they were also upset when I told them that the taxi driver had already been paid to take me the whole way. In a fun and light-hearted way they gave him some jip for taking the money and then changing his mind and it felt really nice that although they didn’t know me they were all looking out for me as a fellow human being who was in a situation that any of them could be in at some time. I have to say that the people of Northern Togo are perhaps the most helpful, respectful and polite people I have met.

I decided that I did not have to continue onto Kande that day for the extortionate price they wanted to charge and instead said I would stay ……… and go to Kande in the morning. I asked about a hotel in town and instead was basically abducted by the lady I had met and taken back to her housing compound, one building with 5 rooms attached for 5 families and on the other side 5 separate rooms for kitchen and washing.

I was a real novelty in her village when I arrived. One lady was breastfeeding with it all hanging out and had to quickly cover up when I was led into the courtyard to be ‘viewed’ by everyone. I was sat on a bench while everyone laughed and joked and came up to me one by one to bow and say ‘Bon Arrivee’. I felt like a real Muppet sat there as some sort of presentation piece but it was an amazing experience to see how hospitable and welcoming they were. After dinner we went for a little tour of the village where I was always sat down with the women coming up one by one to bow and welcome me.

I was starting to realise by now that not speaking French was a negative to the whole experience of West Africa, they say West Africa is all about the people, and it is absolutely true so when you don’t speak the language of the people it makes it a little boring in the end. For this reason I later changed my flight and left Africa earlier than anticipated.

After a good night’s sleep and a great thunderstorm I woke up to get my stuff and try to escape from captor. I was told I had to go out into the courtyard and greet everybody good morning and then we ate some breakfast, went to the collective crafts school for the disabled and then flagged down a taxi moto to take me the rest of the way to Kande and the border. Not before I was given another bottle of water that appeared to be from the well and probably what gave me the squirts that were soon to arrive.

I bargained a good price for the taxi moto and again thought everything was going well and that I would be at the border soon. Again I was wrong and as soon as we reached the entrance to the Unesco Tambemra Village sight there was a little office set up with the sole purpose of fleecing tourists! My taxi moto was unable to enter as he had not been approved by them, I would instead have to pay a taxi moto that was waiting there. I understood this and didn’t mind too much but when they said I had to pay $8 for guide to come with us to see one of the compounds, on top of the $3 entrance fee, I got a little agitated. I told them screw the guide and ill just pay the taxi-moto more to show me a house. Apparently this is not allowed and after much frustration with them the three of us headed off on the 125cc motorbike along the bumpy gravel road.

30mins later we arrived at a Tamberma compound and I got to witness the little circus their area has become. The Compound huts were amazing, Mud fortresses built to resist elephant attacks and raids by other villages. The huts are built far enough from each other to avoid arrow strikes, have a sleeping area on the roof with a hole for boiling water to be poured on intruders and holes in the walls to fire arrows. Unfortunately a very very small percentage of the money I paid the guide goes towards the owner of the hut basically performing tricks on demand.

‘look, the man just crawled into the sleeping area…take a photo’

The man is then slipped 50cfa(less than 10cents) for his effort. I saw where this was heading and decided to get the hell outta there as I felt bad for the locals.

‘Look the man just climbed the tree for you, take a photo’

‘It’s ok I don’t need a photo’

‘But he did it especially for you, don’t disappoint him’

Click click and then man comes down for his 50cfa reward aka doggy treat. I was told that if I paid 200cfa then we could ask the alligator man to get naked and show us the scars from his attack. It felt really wrong to be any part of this so I told the taxi moto man to take me to the border and left the guide behind.

It was a long and bumpy ride to the Togo border post, no man’s land and then on to the Benin immigration to get my passport stamped. I especially liked the street smart of my taxi moto guy which is why I paid way too much to let him drive me all the way to my destination in Benin. At the border post he saw the van that would be taking people to the town for a third of what he was charging, so he quickly veered away and bought some petrol even though we had got some not long before. When they are this nifty you don’t mind paying them a bit more.

As we left the border and zoomed quicker and quicker along the bumpy gravel road for the final 1 hour of the trip I started to realise that I was on the back of a crappy motorbike doing 70-80kmh wearing shorts and a t shirt and no helmet. If death didn’t result from a crash then drain damage or lack of skin definitely would have. But what can you do but hope for the best, so many times now I have been in similar circumstances and thought ‘this is really dangerous, this could actually be my time, this is just wrong’ but I cant change it so I just Clench J

We never did crash and mad it safely to Natitingou, a respectable 2 hours late due to the breakdown along the way ‘you are never there unless you are there’ was all I could think.

One night in Natitingou was enough for me so I headed for the hustle and bustle of Cotonou then next day. It was a comfortable and reliable bus ride down and all the transport problems of Togo seemed to be nonexistent in Benin. Benin did however have Cotonou, one of West Africa’s craziest cities and home to thousands of taxi moto drivers. It is worth going to Cotonou just to jump on the back of one and speed dangerously though the streets weaving through traffic and side swiping other vehicles, this is basically what I did as I got straight out of Cotonou and headed further down road to Porto Novo, a little more of a relaxed city.

At Porto Novo my belly started to make sounds that it hadn’t for many a year and I was still concerned that I may have had Malaria. I was now so doped up on pills that any of the symptoms I had in the next few days could have been malaria or just a mild overdose. I was on malaria treatment tablets and I also took a triple dose of the strongest Anti malarial pills available. After 2 days on the beach at a Rasta bar/guesthouse in Grand Popo I decided to get back to Lome and change my flight to get out of Africa.

I could not eat for 2 days, my dreams were freaky as hell and on the day I crossed the border my arms were numb and tingly making filling in my immigration forms hard work J. I was back in Lome 4 hours after leaving Grand Popo and went to the Airline to change my flight and then to the clinic to get a malaria test. The clinic said I would not get results until 4pm which did not suit me as despite being so ill I still wanted to visit one more town before leaving Togo. I did not get the test, stupidly or wisely i’ll never know, and headed to Kpalime to find that it was pouring with rain and pointless being there so I returned to Lome and spent the next 36 hours tossing and turning in bed, not eating and unluckily getting the squirts about 12 hours before my flight back to London.

I was wondering if I would be able to make the flight with the way I was feeling and was very relieved when 2 hours before I left for the airport my body said it wanted water and food, I knew that the worst of it was over.

I was looking forward to getting back to the UK to sort out my Russian trip as I was over Africa by now. I was amazed by Togo and Benin and found them a real highlight of my trip. I can honestly say that you should not visit West Africa without seeing Northern Togo and its people. All along the trip I was always asked for either money or gifts by children and adults, when I got the Lome airport it was the first time in Togo I had been asked that question, it was by the security guard at the baggage x-ray machine! She held my passport and waited and unfortunately I was too ill and tired to tell her to F*”k off and refused to give her anything instead.

See photos for Benin and Togo: