Sunday, November 30, 2008



So we finally made it to Benin, the birthplace of voodoo - the country’s national religion. We needed to find a ride to Ouidah, once a capital of the slave trade and the current center of voodoo worship. While we were looking for a car, guess who showed up! None other than the original taxi driver who did/ did not steal our bags. We decided that since he waited for us at the border we could trust him to take us to the town. It took us awhile to find the hotel. It was raining and smelled like gas in the backseat. We drove on a shitty road (not suited for cars, supposedly only motorbikes). Once we made it to the hotel, the cabdriver threw a fit about the price. Wanted 3000 more CFA. He was being irritating and overly dramatic about it. Big confusing mess. Miriam and I were ready to pay him off (What’s $7.50?) but the others were angry and didn’t want to give in. Everyone was yelling – French. English. Twi? The driver refused to reason and refused to take the money we had agreed upon. It was getting late and already dark. Frustrated and tiered Miriam and I sat on the steps of the hotel and watched the others argue. Even the hotel people got involved. The cab driver ended up taking Rebecca’s backpack from the hotel steps and tried to lock it in his car. Everyone was yelling. This was going too far. Miriam gave him the extra money after Matt ripped Rebecca’s bag out of the driver’s hands. He drove away. What a day…

After a midnight swim in the huge ocean front pool, we went to sleep (the worst night of sleep ever – 3 people in a full size bed. I was in the middle. I have never been so hot in my life!) Woke up early. We paid the bill and learned that the only way to town was by motorbike. Ugh. I’ve always been semi afraid of motorcycles (well just the possibility of crashing and burning). We found 3 motor taxi driver - fit 2 people on each bike. One bag on the drivers lap and one on the person in the back. I had to completely disengage my brain in order to get on the back of that bike. Without a helmet. The dirt road was empty but bumpy. It was actually a really great ride. Felt almost like flying. We were dropped off right across the street from the temple de serpents. The voodoo python temple. A kitschy, semi touristy, semi legit place. We were told a bit about the history of the temple and the religion. People who believe in the worshiping of the pythons have scars on their cheeks and foreheads (which looking like fang/ bite marks). People come to the temple to for ceremonies, to pray, and to get baptized. We were lead into the temple - a small circular shaped room filled with over 40 pythons. This was of course, after he draped a huge, slimy, scaly python around my shoulders (I now have much more respect for Brittney Spears). Apparently all the snakes are defanged and not poisonous. It was pretty cool to see all of these snakes in one place. We wondered what they ate… Turns out they are let loose in the town at night to find food for themselves. People who live in the town are paid to bring them back to the temple in the morning. Crazy.

We walked around the small town looking for food. Cool town - Small and quiet. Found the perfect place to have egg sandwiches and pamplemous (grapefruit juice). At this point we realized everyone was beginning to run out of money. We were told there was an atm in Cotonou – second largest city in Benin. The guidebook describes being in Cotonou “like being locked in a car with a chain – smoking speed freak.” We found a cab and told him to take us to hell. It was a long ride, but we met a police officer that said he would sow us where an atm was. Our cab followed him on his motor taxi. Again we had to fight with the driver about prices. Even the police officer demanded a bribe for his “service”. Corruption at its finest.

Next on the agenda: Spend the night at a stilt village. From Cotonou we took 3 motor taxis to Ganeive. Almost got into an accident (several times actually). The motor taxi was insane. Zooming between cars off the pavement. It was what I imagine motocross or off roading to be like. Up mounds of dirt, and back down. We finally reached the end of the road, and were dropped off at the boat loading area. The stilt village at Ganvie houses 27,000 Tofinu people living in bamboo huts built on stilts, several kilometers out on Lake Nokoue. We hired a boat – a wooden dugout canoe-like sailboat with no motor. Two men paddled us out into the middle of the lake and put up a “sail” – a coloful snoopy bed sheet held up by two crossing wooden poles. Slowly but surely we sailed across the lake. The villagers survive mainly by fishing: Piles of dead foliage are left in the water until they decomposes. When the fish come to eat and “fall asleep” the people can collect them. We were also told why the village was built – the Tofinu people fled to the swampy lake region in the 17th century. They fled from the Dahomey slave hunters who were banned by a religious custom from entering into the water. We finally made it to the hotel at nightfall. It was a big, red, expensive, obnoxious floating mass surrounded by modest wooden houses. We had dinner (couscous) on the patio and played cards on the bed under a mosquito net. We got up at 5:30am the next morning and took a canoe tour of the village at sunrise. We even got to see the village market, which was just like any other market accept each seller was on a wooden boat instead of a wooden stall.

We left the stilt village after the tour and found a cab for pretty cheap to take us all the way to Lome (the capital city of Togo). The drive was smooth and shorter than expected. Nothing to worry about, except when we stopped for a fruit breakfast - our driver passed on pineapple for a couple shots of gin. We were dropped back off in “France” aka: le Hotel Galion close to the Ghana – Togo border. We had one last nice lunch and talked about our favorites part of the trip, which was coming to a close. We had no problem leaving Togo, although it took awhile, but we did run into some problems getting back into Ghana.

All the girls were fine - we all had multiple entry visas. The boys on the other hand were not. They had only purchased single entry Ghana visas and hadn’t checked or noticed before we left. The man stamping the visas was a jerk and would not let us through. He said we would have to spend the night in Togo and get another visa at the embassy in the morning (only technically we couldn’t get back into Togo because we had a single entry Togo visa). Earlier I had seen that the officials checking passport stamps were often bribed. I told Rebecca we could go around the building and make a run for it (so to speak). She and I mapped it out – did a test run and told the boys. Worked like a charm. We snuck around the immigration office and walked calmly to the border gate where the officials were checking passports. They saw our US passports and said “Hello America. Yay America. Keep your passports.” And just waved us through. We hurried to the Afloe station – found a trotro that was going to Legon and literally jumped in. We were free! We spent the whole ride back making jokes, talking about the trip and laughing. I guess technically (according to their passports), Kevin and Matt are still in Togo. Well actually they are in “no mans land” (out of Togo but not into Ghana). I guess we could have left them there to fend for themselves, but as Rebecca would say: If you come together, you leave together. It was an awesome trip. Great people. Great memories.

Love from Accra.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Togo Pictures

Beautiful beaches of Togo (just past the border, near Lome)

View of Cathedral from the Grand Marche in Lome
Clay pots in the Friday market in Vogan

In the market

Checking out the Voodoo section... Skulls, Teeth, Skins oh my!

Love from Accra!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Adventures in Togo and Benin

As usual, a lot has happened since my last post. For one thing, school has ended and finals are beginning. Exactly one month from today I will be on my way back home to California. Part of me is of course sad to leave, while the other part can’t wait to be back on Zig Zag for a while. But, I still have 4 more weeks of adventure. Speaking of which, I am excited to finally write about my trip to Togo (the country bordering Ghana to the east) and Benin ( to the east of Togo).

October 24th

We (Miriam, Rebecca, Liberty, Matt, Kevin and I) arrived in Togo on Wednesday evening after a full day of travel, crossed the border on foot, and found a cab to take us to a hotel near Lome. Because it was dark, because we were tiered, and because our French was limited, we ended up paying 10 dollars to go 2 miles. “Well, it looked a lot further on the map” Rebecca consoled. At least we made it to hotel Le Galion, (which we would later refer to simply as “France” – because of the amazing food, the décor, and the attitude of the clientele). The next morning we woke up to the sound of rainfall and took a cab to the center of the capital city. Lome has a very different vibe than Accra. For one thing, it is much quieter. It lacked the kind of manic chaos that in my mind defines large capital cities. Right away I understood what the tour book had meant by “decaying colonial charm”. Togo obviously had at one point experienced a build up of infrastructure. A lot of buildings, roads, stoplights, and much fewer shanties, and shacks lining the roads. But everything we saw was old. Crumbling. Falling apart. Paint peeling. Metal rusting. It contrasted greatly to Ghana’s current development. Ghana is heading forward while Togo is slowly slipping backward.

After walking through Lome and checking out the cultural center, we spent some time at the Grand Marche (market). It was one of the more relaxed markets I have been to. No pressure. No cars. No foreigners. Only foot traffic. Women carried large stacks of clothe on their heads while men pushing carts full of produce or electronics. It began to sprinkle again and we found another taxi to take us to Togoville, the voodoo capital of Togo. The 6 of us squeezed into the tiny cab and arranged ourselves as comfortable as possible for the 1-hour ride from Lome – 4 in the back and 2 in the passenger seat.

We were dropped off at the edge of Lake Togo where we would have to get a canoe to take us across the lake into Togoville. We went for a quick swim in the beautifully calm lake and trekked through cornfields, houses, and mounds of dirt to get to the dugout, wooden boat. We crossed the lake at sunset and arrived in Togoville in the dark. The following morning, before we left for the Friday market in Vogan, we had breakfast – omelets – in someone’s backyard. We had been searching for something other than chicken and fish all morning. I’m not exactly sure how we ended up there, but before I knew it, three Togolese men were cooking us breakfast in the small dirt courtyard. They had arranged themselves under the metal overhang of a small, unremarkable house. a mango tree in the center with a clothes line connecting it to the mud brick building. The men took shots of gin while cooking our eggs.

The market in Vogan was truly breath taking. I have never seen a market as picturesque. Everything about it was beautiful. The colors, the people. It was so easy going. Crowded but manageable. Somehow it felt safe and calm. Women wearing large brimmed straw hats. No one really even noticed us (the only foreigners). It was as if they were too busy going about their normal activities that they didn’t have time to give us special and generally unwanted attention. There were people selling everything you could ever want (well, need). It was an outdoor market organized into sections – beads, livestock (goats, chickens, etc), fruits and vegetables, clothes, and then we came across the voodoo fetish section… It was like nothing I have ever seen. Live chameleons for luck. Skulls – birds, alligators, monkeys. Skins, bones, teeth, turtle shells. It was right in the middle of everything. Just another part of life in Togo in which -59% percent of the population have animist beliefs. The men invited us to sit down under their wooden awning to get out of the sun. They explained some of the fetish charms. Miriam and I ended up buying necklaces that were supposed to provide us with protection.

While we were exploring, we got separated from the boys. We found matt in the voodoo section, but couldn’t find Kevin and unfortunately our phones weren’t working. While walking around searching for the “tall obruni man in a bright pink shirt” we found a man with a bullhorn – preaching the gospel or trying to sell something (I couldn’t understand the French). Somehow Rebecca convinced the man to give her the bullhorn and she began shouting for Kevin. When there was no sign of him, she handed back the bullhorn. As we were about to walk away, the Togolese man decided to help us. He started yelling “Evan! Evan!” We all laughed and joined in trying to enunciate the K in Kevin. Before we knew it the whole market was laughing shouting “Evan! Kevin! Evan!” Man shouted. Needless to say, we finally found him.

After exploring the market, we decided it was time to head on to Benin. We got lucky and found a trotro to take us to the Togo/ Benin border. Comfortable but very bouncy. The driver was being kind of crazy, making sharp turns and passing other cars, reminding me of Indian driving. At one point, we were passing over a short bridge when our driver decided to overtake the car in front of us. Only there was another car coming in the opposite direction. Before I knew it we were facing a head on collision. On a bridge no less! I don’t know how we squeezed past the car at the last minute avoiding what could have been a very bad accident. Miriam and I looked at one another. “Maybe this voodoo stuff really does work” we decided, thinking of our newly purchased fetish necklaces. Finally we rolled to a stop near some a large group of trucks, not too far from the border. We had found out that the trotro break had gone out. I guess the driver had motioned to Matt during the drive that he couldn’t stop the car. Apparently, Matt suggested the emergency break. With an unease smile he indicted that the emergency break did not work either. “It is finished”. Upon hearing this, Miriam and I explained to the group how lucky they all were that we had bought or voodoo protection necklaces. However, I think the group consensus was that if the charms did actually have some kind of voodoo power, we wouldn’t have gotten into a brakeless trotro in the first place.

The trotro driver helped us find another car to take us into Benin. By this time we had crossed the border out of Togo, but had not yet passed the border to enter into Benin. Traffic at the border was awful. Jam packed. Bumper to bumper. We were at a complete standstill. The driver got out of the car in front of a restaurant bar. Becca had to pee and before I knew it we were all out of the car. After all, what was the point of sitting in a hot car when it wasn’t going anywhere? The boys ordered drinks while Miriam and I decide that we should at least watch to see when the traffic lightened up. We sat on the patio with a view of the car and started talking about the day. We got completely distracted until Becca came over and asked where the car was. Miriam and I looked up. It was gone. Shit. We ran to the side of the road and it was nowhere in sight. “I guess we will have to find another car”. Oh f*ck. “Our bags are in the car!!”. Shit. (at least I had my passport and valuables on me – Mom has taught me well J ). Miriam, Rebecca, and I ran through the street frantically searching for the white car. We caught up with the traffic, hoping that the driver couldn’t have gone too far. We found a security guard and in broken French tried to explain what had happened. By this time I was sure our bags were gone forever. He told us to calm down. “You don’t understand. We can’t calm down!” We kept running through the street. Dodging people and motorcycles as we ran. The vendors on the side of the road yelling at us. Found driver parked near the border with a bunch of other cars. Thank goodness. We all hugged him. Kevin, Liberty, and Matt found us with in 10 minutes. I guess everyone on the street was pointing them in the right direction – the direction the other obrunis were running. We paid the man, grabbed our bags, and crossed the border on foot. Before I could comprehend what had happened, we were in Benin.

To be continued…

Love from Accra!