Tuesday, July 10, 2007

from the "bordering on the absurd" dept.

Friday July 6, 2007: Sleeping at the Coco Beach Hotel on the industrial outskirts of Lome, Togo was most enjoyable until 6 a.m., when the kitchen staff began doing their chores.

I flipped on the TV in the hope of finding some local Togolese programming but found only a half-dozen channels from France and CNN International. It appeared to be Pakistan Week on CNN.

After packing, I headed downstairs and met Jesper for an amazing double espresso. We pulled out our maps to plan our route. Originally we were going to stay the night in Kpalime, about 120 km north of Lome.

After some thought we decided to continue east, to the Togo-Benin border. It was doubtful we'd be able to get visas at the border, but it wasn't a far drive -- so it was worth the chance. We decided that since the Coco Beach Hotel was so comfy, we would stay another night, and travel to Kpalime the following day.

Patrick, the hotel's French-Canadian manager called his money exchange man again. We didn't have enough cash to pay for our room and there were no bank machines handy. The money man said he'd be by shortly and we ordered two more double espressos.

After about an hour, we gave up on the money exchange man and decided find an ATM in Lome.

Smiler, our driver, was waiting for us in the hotel parking lot. It was nice staying in the same place a second night as we could leave most of our stuff behind in the room.

Traffic back to town was absolutely brutal. Heavy traffic plugged the two-lane main road. Motorcycle riders were able to bypass the congestion by speeding up the shoulder of the road. Bastards!

In addition to a bank machine, we were also in search of a gift shop and a bookstore that carried local maps.

Driving west along Boulevard de la Marina (Republic), I was again stuck by the beauty of the beach that forms the southern edge of the city. Since we were close to the border with Ghana, we decided to first travel back to the big fence separating the two countries. This time we would try and visit it at a point further to the north.

By this time Smiler was up to speed on our goofy mission. We headed north then west through some of the most decrepit streets imaginable. It's doubtful the average car could pass, and there were times that the Land Cruiser struggled with the huge potholes.

Unlike Ghana, most locals paid us no attention. It was a welcome break from the constant obruni (white man!) calls so common at home. The Togolese didn't seem to give a rat's ass about us or our skin colour.

We found the border again and were pleased to discover that we could actually drive on the road parallel to it. There wasn't much to see. The fence was nothing more than chain link fence, concrete posts and some barbed wire. No official markings. Nothing but big green fields of tall grass on the Ghanaian side and a few homes amid lots of scrub on the Togolese side.

We snapped a couple of pictures and headed back over the dreadful streets to central Lome. We still needed money.

Driving around Lome in the daylight revealed some really interesting architecture not to mention the rundown (former?) presidential palace. According to our guidebook, there was a cluster of ATMs in the central part of the city. Smiler found them instantly. However, the first two rejected our cards. But at the third, located at the main branch of the Togolese bank BTCI, we hit the jackpot. Well, I did. Jesper's card wouldn't work. And for some strange reason I took out 300,000 CFAs, or about US$600. Even after room and fuel costs it was about twice as much as we would need.

Now that we had money, it was time to head east to Benin. The journey was quick as the border town of Aneho is only 50 km from Lome.

The main southern crossing between Togo and Benin was surprisingly far less chaotic than the border between Ghana and Togo on the edge of Lome. There were few officials and the boundary was not very well marked. Later we were told that this is because both Benin and Togo are French-speaking countries whereas Ghana is English speaking.

The road was blocked by a two sets of gates separated by what officials called a no-mans-land. We doubted the legal existence of such an area and decided that the actual line was probably somewhere between the two gates.

Officials were pleasant, but we were not allowed to take photos. We did sneak a couple later, just before leaving the area.

Smiler waited in the Toyota as we wandered off to ask the Togolese officials if we could get a visa for Benin. They seemed to think we could. However, there was a substantial language barrier and I wanted to make sure that if we left Togo and were refused entry to Benin, we could come back. "Oui," they said.

We walked through the first set of Gates. On the western side they were labelled "Frontiere Togo-Benin" and "Republic Togolaise" on the eastern side. The second set of gates were similarly marked, with Benin replacing Togolaise.

A Benin border official was sitting on the far side of the second gate. In our fractured French we asked if we could get a visa for Benin. He responded in English saying that we could, for 10,000 CFAs ( US$20 ) and motioned for us to walk through the gate. I was now in my 48th country.

He walked with us to the Benin immigration office and asked us about our journey. He also wondered if he could buy my camera and for how much. It was an odd question and I responded with a question about the border.

Our new friend returned to his post after delivering us to the office. Two Benin officials asked why we were there and what we wanted. We repeated our story and explained that the other official said we could get visas.

"Not possible," said one.
"No visa at border. Buy one at embassy in Lome," instructed the other.

We pushed the issue, but it was like speaking to a concrete wall. The Dane and the Canadian would not be given visas for Benin on this day.

It's stupid really. If they had issued the visas, the immigration office would have earned 20,000 CFAs ( US$40). And because Smiler and the vehicle were already Benin-approved we could have spent a few hours exploring the country while contributing to the local economy. But no, we had to go back, taking our CFAs with us.

Our Benin border friend had disappeared and we crossed back into Togo. After explaining what had happened, we were let back into the country. I was concerned because they didn't give us an entry stamp -- meaning that when we left Togo for Ghana, we would have a series of stamps saying we had entered Togo and left it, but never returned. So how could we be exiting again? This never happened and I realize I worry a lot for nothing.

We met Smiler back at the vehicle and explained we wanted to walk south along the boundary to see where it meets the sea. I wanted another image for my growing "beach border" photo collection.

Along the way we found a path that crossed the border through a refuse pile. Smiler took the lead and asked some locals if it was the border. It was. And there were no officials anywhere to be seen.

We walked south to the beach and were hard pressed to see the actual boundary. An inlet separated the beach from where we stood. We asked a small local family who were casting nets into the water if the border was near. They said it was, but we couldn't determine any specifics and our access was blocked by the water.

We had left the vehicle back at the crossing and Smiler headed off to get it. Jesper and I took a few pictures and waited.

Smiler seemed to be taking quite some time and I joked that he had been detained by border officials. As it turned out, he had.

After picking us up we headed towards the main road. Just before reaching it we saw the soldiers that had detained Smiler. We stopped, hopped out, and asked them about the border.

Lack of French remained our enemy. We tried to get some official information as to where the boundary crossed the beach. We failed. At the time I noted that one of the soldiers that remained seated had a rifle across his lap. It was pointed towards my crotch. I took a step to the side to remove my privates from the danger zone.

We thanked the Togolese soldiers for their time and headed back towards Lome. We stopped at a couple of points where Benin and Togo are separated by a river -- but other than a million shades of green, there was little to see.

It was another world back at the Coco Beach Hotel. Earlier in the day we had decided that we'd eat a fine French meal, regardless of the cost. As it turned out, cost wasn't much of a factor. I ordered the excellent lamb and Jesper had the antelope. The meal was accompanied by a fine bottle of red and a couple of local beer. The price for this high living? About US$40.

A Dalmatian pup provided some evening entertainment. The little dear brought us some half eaten fish and delighted in eating plastic bottles (much like Leanne's dog Katie does back in Vancouver).

We made a plan for the following day and turned in early. I slept solidly until awakened in the middle of the night by a huge downpour. Another day was on the horizon, but I still had the chance for a few minutes of sleep before the kitchen staff started disturbing. I drifted off again.



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