Tuesday, July 10, 2007

From the "48 down, many more to go" dept.

48 refers to the number of countries I have visited. I added two more in the past week (more on that in a moment). My hope is to hit 50 by the end of the year, thus beginning the long and doubtlessly expensive climb to 100. RRSPs? Retirement? Next life!

Jesper and I are now in Takoradi and I finally have access to the internet. We've had a busy week of traveling around the region and I'm afraid this will be a long post. With that in mind, here's the first part of the road trip:

Tuesday, July 3, 2007: Jesper arrives in Accra.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007: The wheeling and dealing day. We take some good (and expensive) food in the touristy section of Accra and arrange transportation to Togo. After some problems with our original plan, we decided to hire Smiler -- the driver I had traveled with on the crazy Freedom Flame adventure. He cost a little more, but I decided that going with someone I knew was a good idea. Plus we'd be getting a Toyota Land Cruiser instead of some Chinese knock-off 4x4.

Thursday, July 5, 2007: Despite our best plans to get outta Dodge early, or Accra in our case, we started late.

Smiler fetched us at the Date Hotel, in the Adabraka section of Accra. The Date is cheap, about $15 a night for a self-contained room, but best described as a dump. For your $15 you get a smelly toilet, a fungus covered shower and a bed. You don't get toilet paper, towels or bed sheets. Also, some rooms, like mine, over look the courtyard, which is a bar at night. In the morning staff run around chatting loudly. Another thing you don't get at the Date is a good nights sleep.

Smiler picked us up early and we drove around Accra running errands. Then we had to go to the car rental office to pay. There was some confusion because the invoice was in US$ but we wanted to pay in new Ghana Cedis. After paying, it took me half-an-hour to determine whether I had just ripped myself off in the conversion. I hadn't. US$ 1 is worth about 93 pesewas -- or .93 of a new Ghana Cedi.

It was 11 a.m. before we finally hit the road heading east towards Togo. In Ghana, there are many police checkpoints on the highways. These are supposedly set up to check insurance papers and such. In reality, they're revenue-generating programs for the local constabulary.

Most of these we cruised through without any problems. But somewhere around Dawa we ran into a cop that thought Jesper and I were dumb tourists. He checked all of Smiler's paperwork and to see if the vehicle was equipped with a list of emergency equipment. Luckily, it was. We were clean, and there was no way for the cop to try and squeeze any cash out of us. We waved us on with a big forced smile. We gave him a big forced smile back.

The drive along the highway to Togo is quite stunning, especially around Keta. The road follows a narrow strip of land bordered by Keta Lagoon on one side and the Gulf of Guinea on the other. I would have stopped to take some pictures, but the skies opened up.

A few kilometres up the road, I telephoned a man named Franklin at the Aflao border crossing. I have a contact with Ghana Immigration in Takoradi, and had made arrangements for us to have a tour around the boundary area. It's interesting for a couple of reasons: it's a beach border (the border crosses a beach before running into the sea) and Lome, the capital of Togo, is pressed right up against the boundary. This is not common.

We hit a detour as we approached Aflao, a typical grungy border town. The road was in terrible condition. Smiler was able to avoid the huge overloaded lorries and navigate the lake-like puddles along the dirt road. In the rain, it reminded me of a scene from the movie "The Sorcerer." It's a movie about a group of men transporting a truckload of nitro-glycerin through the Amazon jungle.

As we approached the border, swarms of money traders descended upon us. We decided to get some CFAs (the currency of eight French-speaking West African countries). We'd been advised that it would cost about 20,000 CFAs (US$ 40) for our visas.

At this point Smiler was a little unsure of what this trip was all about. His English isn't the best, so the gist of the trip (visiting the boundary) hadn't quite sunk in. It took a few minutes to convince him we wanted to see the border and not cross it (yet).

Smiler parked the truck near the immigration office while Jesper and I hopped out and went looking for our contact, Franklin. We called him and he told us he was unable to join us, but would have someone else show us around.

That someone else was Foster, a friendly young representative of the Ghana Immigration Service. He showed us around the various buildings along the border and then took us along the frontier itself. There is a three metre high fence between the two countries. On the other side of the fence was a thin strip of land he called a no-mans land.

On the Ghanaian side of the border there is a large blue arch over the road. It wishes people leaving the country a safe journey and welcomes those arriving. On the other side of the frontier there is a huge Togolese sign welcoming visitors in both English and Togo's official language, French.

Foster took us towards the ocean where the boundary slips into the sea. The fence comes to an end about 20 metres from the water. There is a jumble of large rocks and broken pieces of cement that continue from the end of the fence to the water. Despite what our topographic map said, we couldn't find boundary pillar #1. Foster was unaware of it and we assume it was either buried by the rocks or carried into the sea.

As this part of the border can't be seen very well from the main crossing, there is a little wooden shack where Ghanaian immigration officials can sit and watch for smugglers.

Foster introduced us to Precious, was on duty at the shack. She was quite friendly and explained that the many people we saw walking across the border on the beach were locals.

Most foreign nationals require visas from both countries to cross the border. Residents of ECOWAS states ( sort of a West African EU ) do not need visas but still must go through immigration controls. Local people are allowed to cross without any control. Precious said officials on both sides know the locals and let them cross as easily as crossing the street.

Most of the local people on both sides of the border are Ewe and the border splits many families.

I was surprised that we were allowed to take as many pictures as we liked. After bidding Precious goodbye, we headed back to the main immigration building. Foster was willing to take us to other points north of the crossing, but the rains had turned the area into a muddy mess.

When we asked to take a photo of the arch over the road, Foster said we needed special permission. He took us to a room where we had to plead our case with several other officials. After agreeing to shoot the picture only towards Ghanaian territory and framing it so as to show no buildings or people, we were allowed to shoot one image. I took two. And Jesper took one as well.

We thanked Foster for his time and walked back to where Smiler was waiting. It was time to enter Togo.

It was a long process that I will try to edit for brevity. Upon exiting Ghana we had to get an exit card to fill out and return to one official. After she approved it, we had to see another official for the all-important stamp. He questioned my numerous Ghana visa stamps but eventually waved us on.

At this point a "fixer" attached himself to us. Initially we didn't want his help, but because Smiler was dealing with the vehicle, we had to deal directly with the French-speaking Togolese officials.

The process for entering Togo involved the fixer, at least three officials, a long form, stamps, glue, a 20,000 CFA payment and what could only be described as a 1000 CFA donation to the Togolese Immigration Christmas fund. After about half an hour we were ready to go. We paid our fixer the equivalent of about US$2 each, which was worth it if for nothing more than his translation services.

Just before driving off, we asked the Togolese officials for permission to walk back towards the fence on the beach. After giving a big wave to Precious, who was still watching her side of the boundary, we hopped into the Land Cruiser and sped off towards Lome, Togo's capital.

Ten seconds later, we were in Lome. The main road east is bordered by a chaotic sprawl of city to the north and a massive reddish beach lined with palm trees that stretches as far as the eye can see. The potholed roads are packed with thousands of motorcycles going every which-way and breaking every traffic rule known to man.

It was late afternoon and the traffic was moving very slowly. After much difficulty in explaining to Smiler that we wanted to revisit the border fence a little further north, we eventually were headed back to the frontier.

We came upon the fence about 2 km north of the official crossing. Here the boundary is on the other side of a road that is blocked to cars, but is otherwise a normal street. We hopped out and walked towards the fence. A few moments later three Togolese soldiers surrounded us.

With painful French and fractured English we explained our mission. The officer in charge was fairly friendly and once he understood why we were there, he offered to show us more of the fence. He pointed to a patched hole in the fence where just days before people were crossing illegally. There were lots of people milling about on the Togo side, but few on the Ghanaian side.

It was almost dark, and Smiler was anxious to get us to our place for the night, the Coco Beach Hotel.

The hotel is on the east side of Lome, right on the sea -- a virtual oasis in the middle of an industrial zone. We encountered language problems with Patrick, the French-Canadian manager, when we asked if there were any rooms for the night.

We also faced a dilemma with currency. He took no credit cards or currency other than CFAs. We'd not been able to find a bank machine earlier and had only a small amount of CFAs.

Patrick offered to call a moneychanger friend. Jesper and I decided to split a single room. Smiler would stay at another location more in line with his driver's allowance.

After a while Patrick warmed up to us. We sat down in the beachside restaurant and marveled at the cleanliness of the hotel and the service. The menu was quite extensive as well.

We weren't very hungry, as we had had a quick plate of rice and goat before crossing the border. I ordered the tuna salad ( 3000 CFA ) and Jesper decided on a more traditional salad ( 2800 CFA ). Certainly more expensive than street food in Ghana, but still cheap by North American standards. We washed the salads down with local Eku beer. It was odd seeing small beer bottles again. Most beer in Ghana is sold in 650ml bottles, hence my expanding waistline.

We turned in early. The room was quiet and spotless. The beds had nice linens. The bathroom didn't stink. The shower was squeaky clean. It was like being in Europe. I've never seen anything like this in Ghana, although I'm sure it exists somewhere. The cost for this little piece of heaven? About US$30 each.

And with that, the first day of our trip was over and my country count was 47 with 48 to come...

... to be continued...


1 comment:

Janet & Mark in Ghana said...

Hi Doug,

I happily found your blog today. I wish Mark and I had located the Cocoa Beach Hotel instead of the place that gave him food poisoning. I'm enjoying being transported back to West Africa as I shiver in the Saint John fog. I hope you get to Kpalime and cross the same border that took us to Ho.

- Janet