Around 8am, the third of three ABC buses bound for Lagos, Nigeria with stops in Lome and Cotonou pulls out of the Accra station. I have some deep-seated fear of not making it to wherever I am supposed to be on time so I have been up since 4am, downstairs checking out of the hotel and waiting for the night staff to find a taxi to the bus station…in a part of town with no taxis…which takes a long while.
Down at the station all is apparently chaos but it turns out to be purposeful chaos. There are three buses that leave about half an hour apart and since most people seem to be traveling home to Lagos for vacation or longer there are many many cardboard boxes, once containing product—diapers, soap, soft drinks—now filled with everyday clothes, presents for the babies back home and bedding for the room back home; and the ubiquitous plaid plastic bags—the real suitcases of the 99%; and there are some regular suitcases, not a single one from REI. People are shouting and jostling and negotiating forcefully with the ABC staff…and somehow it all gets loaded and everyone’s on board and the first bus pulls out almost on time.
I am the only white person, the only little old lady in jeans and a t-shirt, the only silent one except when I ask ABC staff yet one more time will I know when to board the right bus. What makes me very happy is that I am completely comfortable in crowds of people not like me in one way or the other. In Taiwan, I seemed to be the only non-Asian in my neighborhood or my hotel. In Romania the people were white and there were a lot of older people on the buses and train but no one who spoke English, no one of my age in jeans and a t-shirt, always reading, always taking pictures. In West Africa, the people are all another color and more boisterous than me. But I am a natural observer, not a particularly clever or thoughtful observer, but always content to watch people. And they watch me only a little. Probably the thing that is the most different about me is that oldish women in the rest of the world do not often wear blue jeans! Sometimes I AM proud to be an American (we invented blue jeans!—I think).
Buses are the best means of travel. You get to be with the regular people of the world; working class people like me drive cars in some places but in much of the world they’re riding on buses and trains. For a long trip you ride a “luxury” bus otherwise the local van/buses that move on as they fill up are the way to travel. I went on one of these market buses from Maputo to Swaziland and it gave my travels some sort of authenticity (to me!) that I hadn’t claimed before.
As the bus pulls slowly out of the station the Sunday morning sermon begins. Twenty minutes of “Praise Jesus” and “Lord Be Merciful” later we are safe to journey on. The sermon would not have been out of place in any Baptist church in the American south. Africans on the whole are quite religious. Christian generally, those missionaries really got around, but of course as you go further north, more Muslim. And the indigenous religions are strong in this area.
ABC buses are comfortable and well-maintained as advertised. While not quite “luxurious” there is a toilet and meals for each leg of the journey. The meals, rice and chicken, looked tasty but since I try very hard to avoid public toilets, whether on African buses, Romanian trains, United, Delta or American airlines or gas stations in Phoenix. I did not eat or drink for those hours which, fortunately, does not bother me …being apparently part camel.
The West African countryside rolls by as the bus speeds along the 118 miles to Lome.
The view isn’t grand especially since I’m in an aisle seat and the window is smudged. But I snap away. I am not comfortable taking pictures of people and homes up close and personal so most of my photos are taken from bus and taxi windows…hence the sometimes questionable quality.
Takes half hour or more to get through customs. But walking through the checkpoints—get stamp out of Ghana, walk into Togo for the next one makes it all real. I have my colorful visas for all of these countries so it’s very hassle-free.
To TOGO. But first an explanation/confession. I usually read anywhere from a little something to quite a lot about countries before I go there. I admit to not doing that with Togo or Benin, neglecting to get any “neighborhood” background before my two-day drive through. My excuse is this: I travel alone and either do not or cannot pin down precise information about many places I visit…so as I have whiningly stated in other blogs, much of my time is taken with simply finding out how get to the next country or city; ditto the next hotel; where to eat; in French-influenced countries getting Africans who speak one brand of French to understand the abysmal pronunciation of my 20 French words and phrases; getting new money ( I will go from Ghanaian cedi to Togo and Benin’s CFA’s to Nigerian naira) and trying not to get too much because the next country won’t take it…and I am hoarding my dollars for when I cannot change money or use a credit card. Everyone still takes dollars and Euros but keeping track of how many of any given currency equals X number of dollars is no small trick by the third country.
So all of that is my explanation for why I did not explore the cities of Lome or Cotonou but instead spent my few hours observing!, napping, reading “Let the Great World Spin”—preparing for my return to Albuquerque and my book club! But that all counts as exploring the neighborhood even though I was NOT seeing monuments or eating at one of the many fried chicken spots.
Very small, tropical sub-Saharan; official language French; while parts of this region of West Africa were called the Gold Coast, maybe its more apt moniker was the “Slave Coast” since West Africa is where much of the transAtlantic slave trade was based. There was one president, Gnassingbe Eyadema, from a 1967 military coup until his death in 2005; his son, Faure, is the current president. It’s colonial history goes something like this: Originally colonized by the Germans, Togoland was invaded by British troops from one side and French troops from the other during WW I, afterward separated into League of Nations mandates, then UN Trust Territories. The residents of British Togoland voted to become part of Ghana while French Togoland because an autonomous republic of France. A fine example of the craziness of colonial mentality.
There are 40 ethnic groups in Togo, the largest being the Ewe. 51% of the population maintains indigenous religious beliefs, 29% are Christian and 20% Muslim. Come to think of it the “Jesus Saves” bumper stickers were scarce. This is a place where if I had been traveling with someone who said “let’s at least go to the museum” I would have seen some of the local sculptures which are influenced by the native animistic practices. Alas I didn’t.
I have a few shelves of books about all things African. But I’m lazy so my bits of basic info about Togo and Benin come from Wikipedia.
Here’s what I did do. Found my way by taxi to Napoleon Lagune. I am including most of my Trip Advisor review here for your general amusement!
I just checked the web site again to see if memory (from April of this year) is serving me well. And yes, it does look quite charming upon arrival. The outdoor restaurant so pleasant, the hotel cats so cute, the lagoon right in front of the hotel with the picturesque fisherman drifting along!
Even the room was okay in spite of the lamp with the red velvet shade that I had to place on its side to have enough light to read. It was bare bones but everything worked and it was quite cheap. The desk staff was okay if nothing special.
The RESTAURANT was the PROBLEM. Since the hotel appears to be French owned, certainly French operated, I expected okay food…at least okay onion soup and baguette! WRONG. I have never seen onion soup as clear as water with a few slices of onion floating in it and a couple balls of gummy cheese on top. And breakfast the next morning consisted of instant coffee and chunks of bread obviously left over from dinner the night before. And to top off the dining experience, the wait staff was probably the surliest I have experienced–maybe EVER!
I did have a pizza in the evening just across the driveway, still part of the hotel I think. It was the equivalent of bad stateside pizza, limp and greasy. I asked about a store in the neighborhood and received blank stares and that emphatic French “no!”
And I had a beer and admired my Togo visa and passport stamp. And was satisfied.
Back on the on the ABC Lagos bus mid-morning after an argument with a taxi driver about fares. I really don’t believe in bickering over cab fares in poor countries and I leave large tips everywhere…(well, except that hotel restaurant), figuring if I can afford to travel to far places where earnings are so meager and the lives of the workers are so hard then I can afford not to be one of those obnoxious quibblers from the west. But every now and then I snap…it was the onion soup made me so cranky.
About BENIN: Generally the same “sandy, coastal plain…marshy…dotted with lakes and lagoons communicating with the ocean” as Ghana and Togo. Interestingly, Benin has quite a different early and post-colonial history than Ghana and Togo. It was ruled by the Kingdom of Dahomey which was known for its military elite including “an elite female soldier corps, called Ahosi or ‘our mothers’…and known by many Europeans as the Dahomean Amazons” War captives of Dahomey were either sold into transatlantic slavery or killed in special ceremony known as Annual Customs. The French took over in 1892 and finally granted Dahomey independence in 1960. One of the several rulers prior to a turn to democracy in 1991 is probably worth mentioning just for his sheer weirdness. In 1972, Lt. Col. Mathieu Kerekou overthrew the ruling triumvirate. He announced the country was officially Marxist and established relations with China, North Korea and Libya; then he converted to Islam and changed his first name to Ahmed; then he became a born-again Christian and changed his name back again. And we think Romney is a flip-flopper.
The ABC bus to Cotonou, about 84 miles and another border crossing. We arrive late afternoon on the edge of town and then there’s the hassle of finding transportation to the hotel. All the motorbike riders want me to go with them…saying “safe, safe.” I almost acquiesce but there are no helmets and the driver will carry my suitcase (small but not that small!) in front of him on the bike and traffic is intense and I remember my broken elbow last summer and finally say NO. A real taxi finally arrives and we go the distance to the Hotel du Port. Here’s my Trip Advisor review:
The Hotel du Port is an attractive pleasant hotel. Maybe a little above average. Very nice pool and dining area, food was good, decent Pasta Alfredo, cold beer, lovely patio area. Room was also very nice looking although a little hard to operate. I finally used a Gideon bible to prop the headboard away from the wall which otherwise shut off the lights over the bed. Phone didn’t work unless you played with the cord so I was up and down the stairs a few times to get things like towels and water for the room. Still and all, average +
The restaurant staff was welcoming, the hotel staff not so much so although certainly not rude. Partly of course it is my lack of language skills in countries where only French and the local languages are spoken. Does try their patience I know.
The spy reference comes from the fact that my room looked down over the Cuban Embassy and I am a spy/detective novel aficionado extraordinaire. So I pretended I either worked for the CIA or was John LeCarre starting my next novel about a Cuban spy in Benin waiting for hapless Americans to appear!
I decided to ditch my ABC bus and hire a driver to Lagos so I actually could see the countryside. Fortunately I had saved dollars for this very purpose so it was time to use them.
Left in the morning about 10am for my really short but splendid Nigerian adventure. See Chapter IV next week.
CHAPTER IV HAS DISAPPEARED. NIGERIA WILL BE REVISITED AT THE END OF THE BLOGGING BOOKS! If I find it.