Kpalimé and Lomé, Togo
Ghana clearly didn’t want me to leave. Hey, I was even tempted to stay.
The distance between Hohoe and Kpalimé is not far, maybe about 1.5 to 2 hours tops by vehicle. Naturally, this would be a route with plenty of travellers, right? Nah. After sitting in the parking lot, in the only tro-tro going to Kpalimé, under the hot sun for 2 hours, we were still missing our last passenger. I decided to buy the last seat just to speed things up. It got me a bit of goodwill from the other passengers, but also what seemed like a little derision for my impatience. Hey, at least that means everyone has a teeny bit more leg room, right? Nah.
So then we’re off! Well, the tro-tro driver’s gotta tie all the tags up top and tighten the screws on the wheels first. Sure, just a couple minutes more, no big deal. Off we go on a bumpy unpaved road! Oh, whoops, gotta fill up on gasoline too with the world’s slowest automatic pump. Okay, now we’re really going…30 km/h!
About thirty minutes in, we hit a particularly large pothole. THUD! Oh, false alarm. Wait… THUNK!
Our tro-tro falls hard at the back, and we all bounce in our seats. The driver skids 10 seconds to a halt, carefully managing to avoid a few other holes. We’re lucky not to have traffic behind us. Must’ve been a flat…
All 15 (or more) of us file out of the tro-tro. Hey, where’d the back left tire go? Oh, it’s rolling towards us just a few metres behind, wasn’t a flat after all, no big deal… A passenger praises the Lord for our driver having been driving slow.
Well then! We skidded to a halt right next to a roadside tire repair shop. Ironically, they can’t help us, they can only repair flats. The driver catches a taxi to head all the way back into town to fetch another vehicle, leaving us on the side of the road. Passenger bonding time!…except being the only yovo on a tro-tro full of Ewe people — half English-speaking Ghanaians and half French-speaking Togolese — meant that every conversation going on was in Ewe. Offering a bit of my water served as an ice-breaker. Driver returns in an hour and a half in a different tro-tro, then spends the next half hour moving the luggage from the top of one tro-tro to the other and siphoning the gasoline from one to the other. And we’re off again!
The border crossing is in the middle of a forest, with barely a village around either country’s little outpost. Still, there must’ve been a school around, because… here we go, the infamous song, which I received at all times of the day, whether “jour” or “soir”:
Yovo, yovo, bonsoir, ça va bien, merci!
Ah, kids. Again, being the only yovo, I took longer at both border crossings (and felt bad for making the other tro-tro passengers wait), and had some difficulties at the French-speaking Togolese post. The people tending to it had no uniforms, dressed in wifebeaters, and looked like they just woke up. Typical questions: you’re Chinese, why are you carrying a Canadian passport? Answering that in broken French made for plenty of time for curious schoolchildren to swarm around and sing the song.
The scenery changes dramatically on the Togolese side, as we ascended up a mountain on a worse unpaved road, bumpy and extremely windy with no guardrails. Barely wide enough for one vehicle, we drove off the edge on occasion to let oncoming traffic pass. It’s great that we lost our tire and changed vehicles when we did, because if it had happened here, I wouldn’t be writing this entry. At this point, I could only hold on for dear life and stare out the window. At least if we roll off and die, this mountain valley scenery would be a great last memory…
In yet another cruel twist, our second vehicle began to spew out thick black smoke. Nonetheless, we made it to Kpalimé in one piece, as I swore never to repeat that ride.
Fast forward an hour. I’m sitting on the back of a motorbike belonging to Marc, a souvenir shop owner who offered to take me to Mount Klouto… on the same road I took from the border. Well, so much for that. Despite the harmattan haze lingering, the cool mountain air was refreshing (the most comfortable temperature I had experienced in weeks) and the view spectacular, shrouded in mystery. Being on a motorbike rather than a tro-tro started out a bit hair-raising but turned out to be more enjoyable — the road’s not as bumpy when you can evade all the potholes.
That evening, I met another souvenir shop owner, Antoine — turns out he’s the brother of Marc as well as of the girl working the front desk at my guesthouse; they’re a Beninoise family. Competing shops with each other? Who knows. He took me to a chop stall for some cheap and delicious couscous, then we headed to a reggae bar to chill for a bit after.
And that turned out to be the theme of my short stay in Togo — tepid chilling. Communication was an issue for me, as I struggled to adjust to speaking only French after having it lay dormant for so many years. Though I had the basics down to buy food, mail postcards, and get a SIM card, I wasn’t able to bargain for other things and felt a little helpless, paying more than I should’ve for various things. Even Marc and Antoine, as nice as they were, did charge me more than I’d normally pay for the trip up to Klouto and a souvenir, and hanging around in their shops and chatting with them was pleasant but difficult, as I struggled to understand them and stuttered my way through responses. Not wanting to shell out another fortune to head to Dzogbegan, Atakpamé, or Mount Agou (all mountainous regions, therefore somewhat pointless to go with the harmattan still lingering for a fourth day), and not wanting to just proceed immediately to Lomé either, I opted to take an easy rest day of keeping mostly to myself, reading and napping and hitting the internet cafe that loaded two pages an hour.
Kpalimé’s a very small town without much to do within its city limits. Nonetheless, wandering around its market was pleasant enough, and being the only Asian yovo around provoked some curious but cute responses from sellers and their kids. And the music! Music’s everywhere. The old lady selling juice dances to the French hip hop music from next door. The man making sandals on the street is blasting his radio. Gospel music. Highlife. Hiplife. Reggae. Everyone seems to like everything. And when it’s not music, it’s movies — each video shop I saw in town had a giant crowd in front of it, watching the free movie intently from outside.
Still, there aren’t any sights to see. Marc and Antoine, each sensing my impending boredom, separately invited me to some music/dance performances they were participating in that night, each one being part of a cultural group putting on free performances weekly. Marc’s was a rehearsal in an empty hall, where his friends jammed for awhile, warmed up, and practiced their dance moves. Antoine’s was a more elaborate affair. Shuttled by motorbike roughly 3 km out of town, I found myself surrounded by other tourists (who knew, more white people! what a strange sight) and a stage show awaited — African drumming and dancing were the mainstays (and I have to say, Antoine’s an incredible dancer), with traditional rhythms and dances that tended to hop about rapidly, never allowing a dancer to have both feet on the ground, let alone one foot. But the night progressed towards some interesting directions.
Soundtracked the entire time by repetitively hypnotizing but complex drumming, first, a dancer stepped forward and turned out to also be contortionist. Okay. Next, another dancer stepped forward, brought out a deck of large cards, and somehow played them like an accordion. Then lastly, two dancers stepped forward, took off their shirts, and unsheathed a sword. Taking turns, they each proceeded to slash themselves with it, “rubbing” and “gliding” the sword blade over their stomach, back, neck… starting slow, then going faster and faster. No blood, no marks, but you could see they were applying pressure on their skin and not faking it — hard to watch, given how squeamish I am. They came up to the audience and let some people feel the sharpness of the sword. I couldn’t look…or bear to take pictures. If someone knows what this was… please tell me!
10 pm, with drums still ringing in my ears, I hopped back on the back of the motorbike to return to town. Staying was worth it. Eh, I’d get to Lomé eventually anyway.
Well, that was a prescient way to put it.
It was time to head to Lomé, 3 hours away, the next day. Instead of waiting in a hot car for more passengers, Antoine coaxed his driver friend to cruise around town looking for others before coming to pick me up, letting me hang out in his shop. Still, there was only so much stalling we could do, and so I said goodbye after an hour and hopped into the front seat. Safe from being squished in the back with three other people, right?
Not exactly. As our vehicle was still not full, the driver stopped every time he saw someone standing at the side of the road. If he overshot, he would reverse 100 metres, disregarding any traffic behind him. Eventually we did find enough passengers for the vehicle, but then he found even more… And so, I found myself one of eight people in a sedan made for five, squished in the passenger seat between the stick shift and another person. That’s four in the back, two in the passenger seat, and the driver — make that two drivers! Our final passenger squeezed himself in the driver’s seat as well, operating the steering wheel and the stick shift, while our original driver operated the gas, brake, and clutch. Fun ride that was for everyone involved… By this time, I was entirely unsurprised. Just had to count the hours to go before I could stretch out my legs.
Alas, Lomé! Right next to the Ghanaian border, a few blocks away from the centre of town. Yet a world away from Ghana — no tro-tros, just zemidjans (motorbikes) zipping around everywhere. “Tsss tss, où allez-vous?”
A 200 franc ($0.45) and 5 minute zemi ride later, I reached Lomé’s grand marché. So large that I didn’t even spot the main building — streets were packed full of vendors on both sides, selling anything and everything. A very large section is dedicated to fabrics. With so little actual street space, it was amazing that motorbike traffic often attempted to bulldoze through. And all around, ladies were selling avocado salad sandwiches for 300 francs. Yum.
With no desire to buy anything, and Lomé not being a city with sights of specific interest, I walked back to my hostel along the beach. But something didn’t feel quite right about it — despite it being mostly clean and a lovely stretch of beach, there were hardly any people on it, and those who were there simply stared. I was consistenly confronted with warnings — from guesthouse signs, locals, other travellers — that the beach wasn’t safe at night, but it still felt a little off (vibe-wise, though perhaps a little safety-wise too) during the day. Maybe it’s better during the weekend? Nonetheless, I was a bit deterred from lingering and chose to stay close to the guesthouse for most of my stay. I ate all of my meals at a cheap chop stall around the corner — always spaghetti, always playing a French-dubbed telenovela or a football match, always the same, warm chef.
The next day, I reunited with Carlo! Having some company, we hoped to go to the beach, but alas, we had a mix of rain and clouds. So instead, I joined him, his friend from home Colin, and their local friend Rodrigue as they wandered around the grand marché area shopping for fabrics and souvenirs, before heading to the suburb of Agué, where they were staying. After coming to Togo as a volunteer several years back, Colin returned independently to create his own initiatives to support villages and children’s education with the same local coordinator he had previously. We talked a bit about how little money it takes (from an foreign perspective) to develop something big in Togo — it’s just a matter of knowing how to use it. Carlo brought up an interesting example: an orphanage received a donation of beds, but the children were sleeping on floor mats instead because beds were too uncomfortably hot and something they were just not used to. The donated beds sat unused, wasted. Imposing western standards of what a necessity is can’t be expected to work.
After saying goodbye, I took a long zemi ride home from Agué to Kodjoviakopé, where I was staying, which was a fair distance away. Zemi driver got lost, I got whacked on the elbow by a passing zemi, and eventually he transferred me to another zemi driver who knew the directions. It took one hour and 1000 francs to get home, but it was a good way to zip by the city’s neighbourhoods (nothing terribly of note) and get a feel for the city’s pace — far more laidback than Accra, but still a city nonetheless.
Lomé started opening itself up a little more to me that evening, as my French began to loosen a little. Same chop stall, nice conversation. Souvenir stall owners, strangers hanging around my neighbourhood… all friendly and patient with my French. It would’ve been cool to stay a little longer after getting the hang of things, maybe head to Aného or Togoville to see the voodoo shrines, or to go back to the plateau region once the harmattan wind had passed… but alas, I had already committed to head to Benin the next day!
Togo, I will return one day and give you a fair shot.