Tuesday, July 31, 2007

from the "Ghana border expedition part 2 - chapter 1" dept.

[ from July 14, 2007 ]

After a few days rest in Takoradi, Jesper and I ready to begin the western leg of our tour of Ghana's borders. If you've ever wondered we go to these odd places, the answer is simple: Some people collect stamps. Others snow globes. We collect borders. And before you snicker, think about this: We travel to some of the remotest parts of the world and get to meet some of the most amazing people as we add to our geo-collections. Yes, it's weird. But it is also a hell of a lot of fun!

The border between Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana basically runs north from the Atlantic Ocean. We planned to visit two crossing main crossing points and hoped to visit a couple of other places that looked darn interesting on our 1:50,000 scale maps.

The second part of the expedition would take place over two days.

DAY 1: SATURDAY, JULY 14, 2007

After crunching the numbers and estimating the remoteness of our destinations, Jesper and I decided to once again engage the services of Smiler, our driver from the Togo and Benin border visits. He had preformed marvelously, taking us to distant and far-flung destinations in complete safety and comfort. Smiler and I had a history as well; he was the main driver on Freedom Flame "adventure" earlier this year.

The price was right: US$115 per day, which included a Toyota Land Cruiser, Smiler's skills plus his meals and hotel. We still had to pay for petrol, but because the vehicle was staying inside Ghana, the rate was much cheaper than the US$160 per day we had paid while exploring Togo.

We arranged for Smiler, who lives in Accra, to pick us up in Takoradi. This meant he had to leave the capital at 6 a.m. in order fetch us at my house around 9 a.m.

Jesper and I drank some fine Togolese coffee and poured over topographic maps while we waited. We planned a simple visit to the main Cote d'Ivoire crossing at Elubo, about 120 km west of Takoradi. Earlier in the week I had contacted an acquaintance with the national immigration service about setting up a visit at the crossing. I was told that the duty officer would be expecting us.

Smiler arrived around 10 a.m. We had minimal luggage to load as we planned to spend the night back at my place in Takoradi. The drive to the border was effortless. The road to the border was in good condition and we sailed through the far-too-numerous police and customs roadblocks along the way.


Elubo is a small but extremely chaotic border town. The main road leading to the crossing was reduced to a single lane thanks to lines of parked cars, all bearing Cote d'Ivoire license plates, on each side. Traders selling all kinds of things, especially booze, also competed for the pavement.

After parking at Ghanaian customs, we went off in search of our contact. He wasn't exactly happy to see us. He told us that we needed permission from the immigration department's head office -- and he wondered why we didn't have it.

With our tails between our legs, we explained that we were just kooky tourists and had had no problems with his colleagues on the eastern border with Togo. After dropping several names, he relented. Like a change in weather, suddenly we were granted unfettered access to the boundary.

"Walk over there," he said, pointing to the road that leads to Cote d'Ivoire. "Go as far as you like."

That meant we would wander past all the official guff and head directly to the Tano River, which forms the boundary. A bridge connects the two countries.

The road to the bridge was in terrible shape, with massive car-eating potholes camouflaged by large pools of muddy water. This didn't slow anyone down. Taxis and private cars sped along at breakneck speeds forcing us to hop out of the way of impending death several times.

It was quite a hike to the severely rusted bridge. The railings were barely able to support their own weight and looked like they would likely turn to dust in the slightest wind.

A marking near the middle of the bridge was the likely indicator of the actual boundary. The letters GPS and a small white cross were painted on the north side of the span. As there were no officials anywhere to be seen, we started taking pictures.

A disheveled looking fellow strolled up and asked if we had authorization to take pictures. We knew he was looking to make a few quick Cedis, so we replied that we actually did have permission. He immediately backed off, switching to tour guide mode. For 1,000 Cedis he confirmed the painted cross on the bridge marked the exact borderline. We were certain that he would have confirmed that we were standing on the Brooklyn Bridge for the same amount.

On the Cote d'Ivoire side of the river, the road lead through large metal gates and eventually to the customs post. There were no "Welcome to Cote d'Ivoire" signs to be seen and knowing that we needed visas to enter, we decided to go no further than the gates. We were still on Cote d'Ivoire soil, but thought it would be better to try entering the country at a smaller crossing where local officials would be more flexible to a non-Visa entry.

We turned around and walked back to Ghana.

After thanking the man in charge, we asked Smiler to take us to someplace good to eat. It wasn't far: A small restaurant on the second floor of a bar overlooking the main road/parking lot through Elubo.

We both ate spaghetti and tomato sauce with fish. It was cheap and tasty and, after washing it down with a large Stone lager, we were on our way to another crossing.

However, we needed to find the way.


We drove east in search of the road that would take us north to a second crossing near Fawomang.

We tried one road, but due to it's route through a quarry, we bailed thinking it was a driveway. Continuing east, we stopped at a small roadside stand where a man wearing a Chicago Blackhawks Jersey told us that the road running through the quarry was the right route. By this time we were well practiced at u-turns.

The road did indeed continue through the quarry and lead us north. Our quest was a border stone marking the Cote d'Ivoire boundary with Ghana.

The gravel road was rough and the going was slow. We later learned the road was built in 1995 and, by the looks of it, there had been no maintenance over the past 12 years.


After an hour or so, we arrived at Fawomang, where the road crosses the Tano River. The signage was poor so we stopped to ask some locals for the location of the border.

Moments later we were talking to the former-district assemblyman, John Amponsah, who seemed to know exactly the spot we were searching for. He told us the only way to access the boundary was by water and, before we knew it, we were led to the river's edge where a 40 HP outboard was being attached to a colourful fishing boat. I pondered the importance of Psalm 23, which was stenciled on the stern, as several fishermen bailed water out of our vessel.

We climbed in the boat with about half-a-dozen new friends, several clutching machetes. We were told we'd travel upstream a few kilometres to the point where the Tano becomes the boundary between Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana. John explained that the stone we were looking for was located at the point where the border left the land and entered the water.

The journey was stunning. We motored slowly down the wide silt-filled river, lush green jungle towering on both sides. John pointed to a ridge where he said customs officials used to keep watch years many years ago. We saw nothing but green.

Suddenly the boat swung starboard to the bank on the right. A steep path rose from the water's edge. It was quite muddy, and every few feet sticks had been driven into the ground to provide climbing support.

All but a few of the guys in the boat clambered up the bank. As we made our way through the thick jungle, we heard the boat leave. We hoped that we'd meet up with them again. Otherwise, this was a brilliant start to a teenage-slasher flick. Except none of us were teens.


The machete guys and John took the lead. Jesper and I followed, trying not to slip on the muddy trail that cut through a cocoa plantation. At a clearing, John stopped and pointed to two exceedingly tall trees. "This is the border," he said, explaining that we were standing in the boundary vista.

Unsure of the actual location of the borderline, it was hard to say in which country we stood. However, as we continued down the trail we knew, if John was right, that we had definitely entered Ivorian territory. No visas required!

The trail curved back towards the water's edge and we could see that the remaining men from the boat were waiting for us down the steep bank.

John said the border stone had to be around somewhere, and instructed the machete-wielding fishermen to hack away at the thick undergrowth. Jesper poked around, avoiding the swinging blades as he looked for the marker. Suddenly he yelled -- he had found it.

But it turned out to be a red herring. It was actually a Ghana forestry marker. John said the border marker was close by -- and seconds later, one of the fishermen had made the discovery of the Holy Grail.

After clearing heaps of plant matter from around the square marker, we pounced on it -- taking pictures and trying to read the inscription. The locals were amused at the bizarreness of our quest. Who travels thousands of kilometres to photograph a small cement cairn? Border Freaks, that's who.

The pillar is the last one marking this part of the boundary before it leaves land and enters the water. According to the markings, it was placed here in 1973. One side is marked CI for Cote d'Ivoire, the opposite side GH for Ghana. Instead of a number, the marker was labeled BP Tano.

We headed down to the water's edge after taking notes and a group picture. The riverbank was even steeper and muddier that where we had disembarked. In seconds the treads of my shoes were clogged with gooey muck and thus provided as much traction as a snowboard on Everest.

As I attempted to lift one leg into the boat, the other went slaloming downhill, leaving me grasping for anything to keep from falling into the murky waters of the mighty Tano. Luckily, I was able to grab onto a tree. Unfortunately it was the African Prickle Bush and the branch was covered with sharp barbs.

I didn't fall in the water, but the blood from the Jesus-like wounds on my palm flowed nearly as fast as the river. I slid into the boat, fishermen in awe at the lack coordination I so proudly exhibited.

Chugging down the river the boat became quiet. Everybody seemed tuned in to the beauty of the jungle and calmness of the river.


Back at Fawomang, we thanked everyone for their assistance in our odd little expedition. We gave John the assemblyman about $20 to show our appreciation and invited everyone for a drink at a nearby watering hole.

John, Jesper, Smiler and I sat at a table in the corner of the bar. Jesper and I told stories and passed around pictures from previous border expeditions. We ordered warm beer for us and a bottle of local "gin" for the fishermen. Toasting another successful journey, I was thankful that I collected geographical places and not snow globes.

Soon we were back in the Land Cruiser and headed back to Takoradi. We had seen much more than we had expected to, and the river ride was a bonus.

By the time we reached my house it was dark and we were beat. We made plans with Smiler for the next adventure: back to the Cote d'Ivoire boundary at a remote beach crossing on the edge of the Atlantic. We would start first thing in the morning.

Ghana-Cote d'Ivoire part 2 [and images] to come...


From "the week that was" dept.

[Posted Tuesday July 31]

What a busy week!

I spent much of it busy as heck. Helping Kevin, my JHR colleague get settled. Dealing with the silent treatment from one of the roommates. And then having to deal with that same roommate's detention my Ghana's finest. Oh, and the theft from Kevin's room as well.

Saturday was shopping day. And I even returned to Hellcom and their standard lack of customer service. But Kevin got some stuff for his place, and I picked up some groceries. Exciting, no?

The Mapees Road is still broken. A large water pipe blew right where the road joins the highway to town. Because of this, few cars can pass and cab rides involve a surprisingly long detour. The road has been closed for several weeks because of a massive hole around the pipe. Some cars are able to drive through the bush on one side of the road, but most get stuck or don't want to take the chance.

It's even tougher to cross on foot as the rains have turned it into a field of slop.

Today, Sunday, a bunch of JHR people are arriving in Takoradi. We're holding two days of workshops beginning Monday. That will keep Kevin and me out of the office until Wednesday. We're also hoping there is a good turnout as invites went out late.

That's about it for now. A posting from the border expedition follows. And another one is coming in the days ahead.


Friday, July 27, 2007

from the "leaving on a jet aeroplane" dept.

Ghana News Agency is reporting the following good news:

Lufthansa resumes daily flight to Accra

Accra, July 26, GNA- Lufthansa on Thursday resumed its daily flight to the Kotoka International Airport after the suspension of its flight into Ghana since July 15, 2007 due to the regularisation of traffic rights.

A release from the Airlines office quoted Silvio Uhlseleder, Country Representative of Lufthansa German Airlines in Ghana, as saying, "for the benefit of our customers, we are pleased to start operating our daily flight from Ghana to Germany. Now, we are able to continue our dedicated commitment of 40 years of building bridges and fortifying economic ties between the two countries".

The service strengthens the Airlines market position as the biggest German carrier in one of the fastest growing countries in West Africa.

The release said the Lufthansa flight scheduled to Germany would remain unchanged with departure from Accra at 1900 hours and arrival in Frankfurt at 0525 hours the following day. Departure from Frankfurt will be at 1110 hours and arrival at the Kotoka International Airport at 1720 hours, all in local time.




from the "is it over yet?" dept.

There are things that make you wonder.

Thursday, July 26, 2007 was already a shit day. It was the day I learned that Kenny Lim, the CTV Vancouver graphics guru, passed away earlier in the week while trying to save his son from drowning. He did, and it cost him his life. As my friend, former VTV promotion guru Brent Toombs so elegantly put it: "Fucking tragic."

The rest of the day was a bummer. Thinking about the old VTV/CTV days. Thinking about the importance of friends and family. Thinking about how precious life is and how fast it can come to a sudden end.

Imagine my surprise later in the day when my JHR colleague Kevin Hill, who is renting a room from me, said he had some bad news. What could it be, I wondered.

Long story short: His iPod and some cash went missing from his room while we were at work. Nice. Welcome to Ghana.

How could this be?

As far as I know, only Kevin and I have the keys for the front door to the upstairs suite. He left his bedroom door unlocked, but with the front door locked, that shouldn't have mattered.

I left my set of keys for upstairs suite in the kitchen downstairs. And Kevin and I spent most of the day together at SKYY.

So, how did it happen?

Theory #1: Someone has the keys to the front door and decided to swipe some stuff. Why they didn't swipe more is another question I can't answer.

Theory #2: Someone has the keys to my suite downstairs and grabbed the upstairs keys -- and put them back. Why they didn't swipe stuff from my suite is beyond me.

Theory #3: Who knows.

I'll be glad when this day is over.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

remembering Kenny Lim

July 26, 2007 sucks.

It's the day I learned the news that CTV Vancouver (VTV) graphics guru and all-around-decent human being Kenny Lim died while rescuing his son from drowning.

Here's the original note along with with the script for the news story that aired in Kenny's memory.

For those of you who may not have been at work today -- on one of the saddest days in our memory -- I wanted to make sure you knew about the tragic passing of a beloved member of our CTV family, Kenny Lim.

Kenny died last Saturday trying to save his 10 year old son Dexter from drowning at a campground near Thunder Bay, Ontario. Dexter survived, but Kenny lost his life. He was 47 years old.

Kenny, as most of you know, was a VTV original. He signed on the day that the station signed on, Sept. 22, 1997. He was one of the gentlest souls most of us have ever known.

Funeral arrangements are still being made but the service will likely be next Tuesday.

We ran a video tribute to Kenny as a show-closer in the 6 tonight, and it will run again at 1130. For those of you who may not be able to see it .. I've attached the script below.

[TAPE=050219 @ 51:00]

[ON CAM](**ON CAM**)





(**ON CAM**) [ON CAM]


Kenny Lim was a talented, warm, caring, gregarous character that made CTV a better place to be.

I would often seek refuge in the graphics room and talk with Kenny about life, computers, travels. He was always interested in my travels and listened to my endless babble about borders.

Life wasn't always easy for Kenny and yet he always overcame his struggles... and was always quick to smile.

I was lucky to have met someone like Kenny Lim. And it is a testament to his life that he died an honest-to-goodness hero.

I'll miss him.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

from the "evil foreigners" dept.

It started simply.

Reporter Fred Kofi Asamoah, JHR colleague Kevin Hill and I headed out to shoot some video for a story. Asamoah needed some images of children working for his feature on child labour.

We were barely out the front door when Asamoah struck up a conversation with a young girl of about 5. On her head she balanced several kilos of sachet water -- plastic bags of drinking water. She looked tired and her dress was dirty.

We decided to shoot some footage of the girl walking down the SKYY driveway towards the main Takoradi-Accra highway.

After a short period of time we were walking along side the heavily travelled highway. Massive transports rumbled by, only inches from us and the tired little girl with the heavy load on her head.

Two men in a blue BMW drove slowly past, glaring at us. We weren't quite sure what they wanted and they didn't say anything.

We continued to shoot pictures of the little girl. A few minutes later, the BMW was back. It pulled up behind us and stopped.

The two men, one of whom is a pastor (!), hopped out started berating us.

According to them we were:

- coming to Ghana to show the bad side of the country to the world

- lying about what Ghana is really like

- working for foreign news agencies and making money off poor children

- shooting the girl without permission and her knowledge

- assholes (I've never been called an asshole by a pastor before!)

We explained our mission to encourage human rights reporting in Ghana. We told them that we worked for SKYY and the story was for a local audience. We also explained that the girl knew what we were doing because we'd asked her if we could shoot her. And, most importantly, we told them we were concerned that a young child was walking along the busiest highway in the metropolis without any supervision.

The yelling continued and I wondered why a supposed man of God was more concerned with the image of Ghana than the safety of a wee girl. I also wondered if his BMW was financed by his church's collection plate.

Things got even more bizarre when the pastor and his sidekick tried to take force the girl into their car. She freaked and started crying and we realized it was time to back off. These guys were complete nut bars. She escaped their greasy clutches and began walking away.

The men turned their attention back to us with more accusations of how we were single handedly destroying the image of Ghana.

We shut them down saying that if they had concerns they could go back to SKYY and talk with the owner, news director or managing editor. Kevin even asked one if he could interview him! Priceless! They drove off in a huff.

I gave Asamoah 20,000 cedis to give to the girl for all the silliness she had to endure and hoped that she wasn't too traumatized by the attempted "rescue."

Asamoah, Kevin and I headed back to the newsroom, not really believing that we'd just experienced what we had just experienced.

Back at work we mentioned what had happened and everyone seemed to agree that the pastor and his pal were in the wrong -- especially when they tried to stop us from reporting on a human rights story.

Later we discovered that the pastor had called the station to complain. The tape we shot was requested and viewed by the top. And... they sided with the pastor! We had to turn the tape over so that we wouldn't use pictures of the girl! And it was Kevin's tape shot on Kevin's camera. Unbelievable!

The story will still go, but we'll have to shoot pictures of another girl walking down the same busy road. Needless to say, I disagree with the decision. But I have to accept it. I don't own the station.

It seems sad that when it comes to doing what we are here to do, we still find a lack of support.

But that is another story....


Tuesday, July 24, 2007

from the "quick email update" dept.

Slow internet means the Blogger page won't open.
But I wanted to mention a great confrontation while shooting a human
rights story.
Nothing damaged, no one hurt.
But a great story to come tomorrow.
With an unhappy ending.

Please Stand By!


Monday, July 23, 2007

from the "let's waste some characters" dept.

Truthfully, I have little to write about.

I'm still facing the task of writing up the border expedition to Cote d'Ivoire and resizing some pictures. And I don't feel like it.

It's Monday and I am at work. The wifi is flowing and all is right in the interworld.

Kevin Hill, my JHR colleague, is settled into Doug's Guest House and in the midst of enjoying his first day at Skyy. It takes me back to those innocent days of January 2007. Sniff.

Little else to report. I'm looking forward to a weekend off. But isn't everyone.

Talk about low energy!


Sunday, July 22, 2007

from the "sunday at the plant" dept.

What a lost weekend!

Spent Saturday trying to paint the room for Kevin, my JHR colleague that is renting a room from me. Had huge problems trying to cover up some stains from a leaky ceiling. The ceiling is fixed, but the stains remain.

Spent this morning filing a story for a website called 5 Minutes to Midnight. It's a photo essay on the Freedom Flame trip. But it took hours to upload the images via email.

Well... I have two hours before Kevin arrives. Think I'll relax a bit.


Friday, July 20, 2007

from the "deconstructing Melcom" dept.

The shopping process in Takoradi, Ghana is generally the same as everywhere in the world.

You walk into a store, grab an item, hand over some cash, get some change, and continue on your way. Simple.

But there is one shop in Takoradi that sets the standard for what is likely the most complex shopping experience ever.

Welcome to Melcom.

Billed as the place "Where Ghana Shops," they really mean that they sell a bunch of overpriced cheap imported knock-offs and crap. Not only that, they make it nearly impossible to buy anything.

Here's how it works:

You walk in to the store, competing for precious door and aisle space with stock boys loading in huge boxes of overpriced cheap imported knock-offs and crap.

The aisles are crammed with unopened boxes of stock, shoppers, and staff. Lots and lots of staff. Things using power and edible items are located on the bottom floor. Things made of plastic and textiles are on the upper.

After zeroing in on the item you wish to purchase, say that Mosque-shaped alarm clock that goes off five times a day, you walk to the cashier to pay for the item, tripping over stock and staff along the way.

You have to fight for cashier's attention (let's call her Staffer One) because there isn't an orderly queue at the till. It is at this point you discover that you can't pay yet. There is a mysterious system that you have to learn first. So... it's back to the shelf where you picked up your alarm clock to start anew.

Luckily there is a staff member sitting on an unopened box nearby. You tell her, let's call her Staffer Two, that you want to buy the Mosque alarm clock.

Barely moving enough to for the dust to fall off her body, she points to Staffer Three.

Staffer Three holds the ticket book. You tell Staffer Three that you wish to buy the fancy alarm clock. She writes a jumble of letters and numbers on a small piece of gray paper, using carbon so she retains a copy of the secret code. After thrusting the paper in your face, Staffer Three walks off without another word.

Then you navigate the aisles crammed with stock and staff, back towards the till. If you need additional items, say a toilet brush or a wheel of Happy Cow cheese, you have to repeat the ticket process each time.

After fighting your way to the non-queue at the register, you come face to face with Staffer One again. She looks at your tickets, not your items.

A new currency has been introduced in Ghana and the cashier has absolutely no idea of its value in relation to the old, despite the fact that the computerized till is telling her it's 10,000 to 1.

After solving the currency problem with the assistance of a half-dozen other customers you are given your receipt, but no bag for your purchases. If you have lots of items, you have to carry them in your arms as you proceed to the next stage in the Melcom adventure: trying to leave.

First you have to go to a long table by the main entrance where three people sit motionless. A fourth, Staffer Four, is checking the jumble of products precariously balanced in your arms against your receipt. At this point you are granted a bag. But the fun isn't over yet.

Just before walking into the bright sunlight and tripping over a jumble of boxes that have yet to be loaded into the store, you have to visit Staffer Five.

It is Staffer Five's job to take your receipt and stamp it, like a passport. With that, you're on your way having experienced shopping the Melcom way.

I should note that Melcom has launched a series of TV ads, replacing the "Where Ghana Shops" slogan.

The new slogan? "Melcom - Making Life Easy."

Thursday, July 19, 2007

from the "back in tak" dept.

The hols are over and I am now back in Takoradi... and midway through a Thursday workday. I spent the morning at the local courthouse with one of SKYY's reporters.

We were doing a follow story on two people charged in the destruction at the Krisan Refugee Camp in 2005. It was hard to stay awake and the case was held over for a month. Which is the 17th time. We're trying to find out why...

Lots of things going on in the background: getting the upstairs room ready for Kevin, the new JHR guy. And an article for the online site 5 Minutes to Midnight. And writing the remaining border expedition stories (and editing them for length). And trying to get a decent sleep.

But I remain healthy and happy and scheming. More soon...


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

from the "change in planes" dept.

Seems the good Government of Ghana has revoked Lufthansa's daily landing rights in Accra. This caught Lufthansa and hundreds (thousands?) of customers by surprise.

The GofG has offered the airline 2 landings a week. Lufthansa says that's not enough to be profitable and suspended all operations.

Jesper was due to fly back today (Tuesday) to Copenhagen on Lufthansa. Luckily we heard about the problems yesterday and called Lufthansa's office this morning. We were told to come down immediately.

The office was surprisingly calm and within an hour Jesper was rebooked on an afternoon KLM flight. He arrives home 2 hours later than originally scheduled.

I asked about my ticket -- booked to Vancouver on Oct 1. They said wait to see how the situation pans out. Fine. My worry is that I want to change my ticket to Dec 15th and now may not be able to. We'll see.

I'm heading to the airport soon to drop of Jesper and to meet the new Takoradi JHR guy - Kevin Hill. He'll remain in Accra for a week of training and then bus it to his new home, which happens to be at my house.

On a seperate note, here's an interesting Globe and Mail Story about pot use in Canada (including a mention of Ghana).... click here!

The fun continues!


Monday, July 16, 2007

from the "not home for a rest" dept.

The Great West African Border Expedition is done.

Over the past weekend Jesper and I visited many points along the Ghana - Cote d'Ivoire border. We entered C.I. three seperate times and met some very interesting folks on both sides of the line. We were even able to shoot pictures at New Town, a unique seaside border crossing.

In additional to the legal/geographical highlights, the scenery was spectacular. Full reports to come later in the week.

As for now, we're in Accra. Jesper heads home to Copenhagen Tuesday. I will stay until Wednesday. My JHR replacement arrives Tuesday as well, and I'm hoping to have a brief meeting. I return to Takoradi Wednesday.

More to come...



Saturday, July 14, 2007

from the "this just in..." dept.

Saturday July 14, 2007 @ 8:15 pm

Just arrived back in Takoradi from two (!) visits to Cote d'Ivoire.

On Sunday we return for a third visit before heading to Accra for 3 nights.

Full details and pictures in the coming days.


from the "Togo-Benin Chapter 3" dept.

Saturday July 7, 2007:

The noise from the Coco Beach Hotel's kitchen served as our alarm for the second morning in a row. My sleep was decent, although I woke up a couple of times thanks to heavy rains over Lome, Togo.

Around 7 a.m. Jesper and I headed to the outdoor restaurant for breakfast. It was a huge improvement over the previous day's continental breakfast. And the price was the same.

We both ordered double espressos. I had a cheese and ham omelet, fresh mango cubes and some toast and orange marmalade. Total: $5.

The first item on our agenda was gifts.

Back to central Lome we went, in search of something -- anything -- to take back for gifts. Smiler took us to the Ramco Supermarche where we found lots of amazing food and a crazy-big selection of French wine. But the gifts available were limited to Ghana-made chocolate and overpriced woodcarvings. And we just didn't have the time to search the local market for gifts.

Now, had these gifts not been for Ghanaians, there were a number of things I could have bought, like imported cheese or local coffee. But these wouldn't fit the bill for the folks I was thinking of.

I also picked up some deodorant and coffee filters at the Supermarche, neither of which would make good gifts for my friends back home.

Back to our expedition: Jesper and I tried to find where the Ghana-Togo border changes direction from north-south to east-west. Our maps showed a marker at the turning point.

By the time we got close to the border the skies had opened up. We could see the border fence in the distance, but missed the turning point. In retrospect we likely could have found it while clambering through the tall grass, but we would have emerged looking like bushmen. And I don't mean the Republican kind.

Our route would take us about 120 km north of Lome to Kpalime. The roads were good and we made good time. We were still close to the border as there were many signs pointing to various crossings west of the highway.

At one small town we decided to follow a dirt road west towards a small crossing. However, we only got as far as a Togolese customs stop. The frontier was still several kilometres down the road, and we didn't feel like dealing with all the paperwork to see something that might be nothing. We turned around.

Unlike Ghana, there are few police checkpoints (revenue generators for crooked cops) and we sped along at a decent clip. The terrain changed from low-lying jungle to spectacular mountainous scenery.

Smiler indicated that we needed some petrol. This was our first stop for fuel since we'd left Accra several days earlier.

After gassing up we sped north. The Land Cruiser's radio could tune in the shortwave band and we were able to listen to BBC World Service on the way to Togo's third largest burgh, Kpalime.

Kpalime (the K is not pronounced) is a small and orderly town nestled in the mountains. In fact, it sits below Togo's highest peak.

Back at the Coco Beach Hotel, Patrick had recommended taking lunch at Chez Fanny. We asked some locals for directions and soon I was digging to a plate of garlic shrimp ($8) and a tomato salad ($2). Both were excellent. For the three of us, the total was roughly $40. Expensive by African standards, cheap by ours.

The road from Kpalime to border with Ghana twists and turns through the Akwapim Togo Range. So much so that it qualifies as an amusement park ride -- especially when a gatekeeper appeared in the middle of nowhere asking Smiler where we were coming from. His answer "Togo" was technically correct but evasive enough that the gatekeeper launched into a verbal barrage about how we should know where we came from. Our mother's wombs?

By 3 p.m. we were preparing to cross back into Ghana.

Our first stop was the Togolese customs house. We had to get out of the car and complete yet another form. This went quickly and after paying a "tip" of about $4 we were free to go. The official even let us take pictures.

The border in this part of the country follows the Todze River. Smiler drove across the bridge while we walked, taking more pictures. We couldn't see any border markers, however.

On the Ghana side, the first stop was immigration. Two women sat outside a small hut. One had a pile of fruits and vegetables in front of her. These were likely "tips" as well.

One of the women was very pleasant and laughed along with us. The other one wanted me to give her my shoes. I considered her request and then refused when they wouldn't let us take any pictures. We escaped without paying any tips and walked to the customs hut where three men sat before a long table.

We got hung up when they discovered some problem with Smiler's yellow fever certificate. He didn't have one and hadn't needed one up to this point. After much arguing in traditional languages, we were free to go, no tipping required.

Once back in Ghana, we set about finding yet another crossing. This one was interesting as it looked like we could actually find and hopefully photograph some official border pillars or stones.

At Hornuta we met Ben from the Ghana Immigration Service. He was very kind toured us around the tiny border crossing. One of his men took us to the actual frontier. Another used a machete to clear the weeds around a border marker (#33).

The stone was interesting in that it was marked BT for British Togoland on one side and TF for Togoland Francais on the other.

This part of Africa was called German Togoland until just after World War I. After the Germans lost the war, the territory was divided into French and British Togoland.

Eventually French Togoland became Togo and British Togoland joined Gold Coast, which we now know as Ghana.

It was getting dark so we pointed our vehicle south. We passed through Ho, seeing nothing in the darkness. We passed over the Adome suspension bridge and we would have had a spectacular view of the Akosombo dam, had it been daylight.

In Accra, Smiler took us to the Date Hotel -- which was full. Then down the road to the Ghasom Hotel where we overpaid by about 1000 per cent.

After a shitty sleep in a noisy room, we realized the money error before checking out. We got back most, but not all, of the overpayment. We still hope to get the rest of the cash but who knows. We might have to call 1-800-JUJU-MAN for assistance in the matter.

We snagged a taxi and arrived at the STC Station in the nick of time to catch a bus leaving for Takoradi. We paid $6 for our tickets and we were on our way.

In Takoradi, we took a small hiatus from our border expedition to hang out, eat and see the sights, which included the former slave castle in Cape Coast.

We're now ready to embark on the next stage of our journey -- to the western edge of Ghana and the border with Cote d'Ivoire. Stay tuned...


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

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.



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...


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

from the "expedition" dept.

The Great Ghana Border Expedition is about to begin.

Jesper arrived from Copenhagen last night and we set about making our plans today. We've decided to hire a driver and car for the next three days. Our itinerary:

Thursday: Aflao, Ghana - Lome, Togo
Friday: border between Togo and Benin
Saturday: Kpalime, Togo (border with Ghana)
Sunday: back to Accra then towards Ivory Coast...

So far so good. Images and tales to come!


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

from the "breaking news" dept.

It's official. I have decided not to re-sign with JHR for another season.

It was a tough choice, but in the end it came down to a new funding scheme that requires new "volunteers" to raise a substantial amount of cash. Part of this money would cover airfare.

Also, I wouldn't be able to remain at SKYY in Takoradi.

Here's the latest everchanging plan:

Continue with JHR though mid-September. Change my plane ticket to return to Canada around mid-December instead of Oct. 1. My work visa also expires December 15th.

From the period Sept. 15 - Dec. 15th, I will live on my savings (easy! especially if my tax refund ever arrives!) and try to earn about $1,000 a month freelancing.

And so it goes...


from the "captial city" dept.

An update:

I took the STC bus from Takoradi to Accra Monday. It left on time, didn't break down and the air conditioning worked. Amazing!

Upon arrival I hopped in a cab and zipped over to the Osu section of Accra. I had reserved a room at the motel4.com (odd name, I know) near the JHR office. Actually my pal Mark went there on my behalf last week to reserve a room for three nights. The motel is located in Osu and expensive -- about US$40. I usually stay at a place that is about $15/night.

When I arrived at the hotel I was told there was no room available -- despite the reservation, which was noted in the clerks book. In fact, it turns out the people who got the room hadn't checked out -- and thus had more right to the room than the guy with the reservation. Argh!

Luckily there was room at my normal cheap hotel. And in the process I have a great piece coming about the experience and I'll save about $90. So screw you motel4.com!!

Afterward I went to Ryan's, the local Irish pub, with some of the JHR folk. Then back home for a fairly decent sleep. Decent until someone decided that 6 a.m. was a good time to start cleaning out the sewer. Hoo, baby, did it stink!

Today I walked all the way from Adabraka to OSU and survived. Working off the beer, don't cha know.

Tonight fellow borderfreak Jesper arrives from Copenhagen... and then we're off to Togo Thursday. Stories and pictures to come.

Speaking of pictures, let's review some favourites. Click HERE!

That's it for now... I'm on holidaze!