Christmas in Togo, the New Year in Benin. Here will end my vacationing in coastal West African countries (until the end of my service, at least) - I want to check out the other Sahelian countries with my remaining vacation time. Though Niger is looking a bit dicey at the moment...maybe a trip up the Niger river to Timbuktu? (Actually, I hear that Timbuktu isn't that fun, and the only reason to go would be to send postcards to people so they have the word Timbuktu in their address of origin). I had hoped at one point to climb Mt. Cameroon with a friend, but that doesn't look viable at this point. I AM still hoping to spend a week in Paris with Pat; you know, right after he buys that winning lottery ticket (message to Pat: please stop procrastinating on that).
Speaking of Pats, this post's shoutout goes to another, my Uncle Pat, who sent me a backpack and shirts that have accompanied me in a short period of time through very different climates and terrains - from the kind-of desert to the kind-of mountains to the (not-kind-of) beach and back!
A New York second
We've all heard the idiom So-and-so would do such-and-such in a New York second! to indicate eagerness. It was once explained to me that a "New York second" is that incredibly small amount of time between when a light turns green in New York City and when the car behind you honks believing you to be unaware of the fact. There's a similar tendency in Ouaga to prove your reaction time is better than those ahead of you by honking before the nerve impulse to change from the brake pedal to the gas can even reach their foot. At least, that's what I used to think, and it drove me nuts. But I recently realized that here, at least, that obnoxious honking has a non-obnoxious purpose: moto drivers routinely pull into the intersection far enough that they can no longer see the light! So the honking is downright civic-minded. Just a little reminder that just because I see people doing things I feel are irritating and irrational doesn't mean they actually are.
The stress of travel
Border crossings in West Africa are in my experience very user unfriendly. There will be a stop for customs somewhere near-ish the border, which will be entirely unmarked but everyone but you will know that they have to get off the bus, which will drive empty an unspecified distance before allowing you to re-board. The process is similar at the border itself, though usually it's more clear how far you will have to walk before being allowed back on the bus; the problem here will be figuring out which of the dozens of poorly marked buildings contains the one person who can stamp your passport and allow you to leave the first country; this fun game will be repeated on the other side of the border to find the one person who can let you INTO the second country. Depending on where you are, there may be another customs stop on that side.
It's confusing and time-consuming, but usually only that - you get through it in the end. Well, this trip we got an extra nasty surprise: at the very first customs stop we got back on the bus and the bus driver left FIVE PEOPLE BEHIND!!! We yelled at him to stop, but he didn't give a damn. They caught up with us at the border (50 km later) because a second bus driver for the same company had some modicum of compassion, but it made every stop an excruciating experience, thinking to ourselves Do I have time to pee? Can I buy dinner? Crap, was that the bus's horn? Maybe I should just be hungry and suffer bladder discomfort for the next 12 hours...
At least now I know one reason that traditional women's outfits invariably include a third pagne (a bolt of cloth) folded and draped over the shoulder. Because when we stopped, they whipped that sucker out and had their own personal enclosed urinals. Handy when you can't afford to take the time to find a bathroom for fear your bus will leave you stuck in the middle of nowhere...
Après avoir arrivé: Mountain #1
In what I hope will solidify into a holiday tradition, I spent much of this vacation with my friend C, the same C from last year's trip to Bobo and Banfora (she's doing a third year in Togo). K (same K as from Ghana) and I got in late, knew we were going to get up early to hike up a mountain - and still stayed up until 4 catching up with C. Which was totally worth it. The next day we set our sights on the highest mountain in Togo: Mount Agou. We're not talking about alpine-like climbing here, to be clear; our more modest goal was to hike up the paved road that wends its way to the top. We didn't even manage that (we started too late in the day), but the scenery was beautiful, and it was pretty amazing to be in a place where, if you were hungry, pretty much all you had to do was reach into the nearest tree. The hike up was occasionally interrupted by dodging nearly entirely silent moto drivers who cleverly save gas money by coasting down the mountain, but very un-cleverly do not honk when rounding corners to let people know they're coming. We had a lunch of boiled corn and peanuts with coconut, then grabbed some star fruit from the nearest tree for dessert (for some inexplicable reason, the French name of star fruit translates as "fruit with 4 sides," even though it very clearly has 5 lobes).
The next day, we chose a smaller mountain, Mount Kouma-Konda, because based on its sharing a name with a coffee brand, K hoped to find freshly made coffee (coffee grows all over the mountain region, but for the most part the locals don't sell it in a way useful to us: they prepare some for themselves, then export the rest raw to be prepared, packaged and sold in Côte d'Ivoire. No joy there, but it was an even prettier ascent than the first mountain, and this time we found a guide and climbed up and down on village trails, seeing more fruit trees (avocado, pineapple, banana, plantain, lemon, and others) plus other crops of interest (bushes and trees cultivated to make dyes and the like). We also found a guy who does batik on bazin, a lovely combination. We all 3 bought some.
Tired of climbing, we took a car to the top of Mount Daï (appropriately pronounced "die," given the terror of the hairpin turns with overloaded truck sincerely expressing their desire to use the whole road no matter which part of it you may happen to occupy) where the members of a Benedictine monastery do, in fact, prepare, package and sell their locally grown coffee. We didn't make it quite as far as the monastery, so we didn't get to SEE the process, but the nuns at the associated convent sell the end result, so I've been drinking intensely good coffee for the last several days. We also bought some avocado wine (I recommended this course not because I'd ever had avocado wine, but because if there's one thing I know about Benedictines it's that they know how to make alcohol worth drinking. We weren't disappointed.)
After our mountain climbing, we relaxed in C's lovely abode, joined by a group of 5 other Togo volunteers who share the following traits with C and K: they are women, they are beautiful, they are fun, and they kick ass and take names. I really should have taken more pictures to show off how much of a player I looked hanging out with this crowd. We ate wonderful food, a mélange of American and local fare. We had some suspect mushrooms, which we debated about - and then regretted that we didn't have a recording of what we'd said (things like "Should they be this hairy?" "Does that smell right to you?" and "Were they that color two days ago") in case they turned out to be our last uttered words. They weren't, and the mushroom sauce may have been the winner in a competition that included fondue, roasted chicken, and a salad with BACON.
The next day we did pretty much the same thing again. What a great two days. The debatable food that second day was the chicken from the first day. This time, we decided NOT to use it, and had our suspicions confirmed when even the neighbor's dog refused to eat it.
Two other Burkina volunteers who spent Christmas on the Togo beach stumbled on a place that even the Togo volunteers didn't know about (because it's not in any of the American travel guides). It's really popular with Europeans, particularly Germans (no shock given Togo's colonial history), so for the first time ever the first thing one kid said to me wasn't some form of "Hey whitey" or "Are you French?" or "Are you American?" It was wie gehts!
The resort was a cluster of buildings made from strips of palm tree bark. It was cheap, fun, had a great atmosphere and a friendly staff, and if you EVER want to vacation in Togo, give me a call. Or check the next edition of Lonely Planet's West Africa guide - all of us who stayed there (K, myself, and 2 of the Togo volunteers who either greatly enjoyed our company or were at least willing to tolerate it for a chance at a decent beach - I hope it was the former, because we certainly enjoyed THEIR company immensely) decided that the omission of this place must not be allowed to continue. We played in the surf for the day (there was a nearby area with a rock shelf about 40 meters offshore, so we didn't have to fight too many waves - the Togo beach is a steep one, so wading isn't much of an option, it's sink or swim, except for this area) and slept to the sound of waves crashing on the shore at night. Lovely. So lovely that we changed our plans and went back again a couple days later!
The second time we stayed there, we decided to eat a bit cheaper and had one of the staff lead us to a street-side food vendor. We had spaghetti with scrambled egg on top, which sounds weird to you but I bet every Africa RPCV reading this (if any) is having a mouth-watering problem right now. At the end we witnessed a rather intense confrontation between the staff member (whom we treated to dinner for walking us out) and the counter lady, who had overcharged us. The proprieter eventually showed up and fixed the price. We had actually told our staff friend to just let it slide, it was only about 100CFA each (maybe 25 cents) and we just wanted to go, but he wasn't having any of it. He explained to us on the way back why he was so upset, and if this isn't the EXACT (translated) quote, it's close enough: "It's not that she overcharged YOU, you're white, that's normal. It's that she overcharged you when you were with ME! She knows me!"
Voodoo and devil worshippers
As you may or may not know, the Togo and Benin area is credited as the birthplace of voodoo, and I was excited to explore the markets devoted to this, having grown up next to Cajun country. In the end, we weren't able to work that into the trip, but instead we got to see something more local and not at all influenced by the tourist trade. One of the volunteers we'd spent Christmas with invited us to her village, where her neighbors were self-described "devil worshippers." Nothing so straightforward of course, but the guy who'd started the religion had been converted by missionaries when he was young and so I suppose when he turned away from that he kept some of the vocabulary. Unfortunately, he wasn't there to discuss the matter - he had gone to some mystic spot to transfer the contents of a liquor bottle into a new container. The contents being a locally produced distillation of palm wine called sodabi mixed with snakes. It's purpose is to prevent snake bites, and I'm sincerely sorry I didn't get the chance to taste it (having tasted unadulterated sodabi, I can assure you the alcohol content is high enough that there would be no fear of the snake bodies causing disease). But his assistant allowed us to take plenty of pictures of the idols and explain to us all of the different magical objects found in the "devils'" room. Only after making sure we'd partaken in several shots of (non-snake) sodabi, of course. So it was still interesting, and as I observed above there was no question of authenticity - this was NOT a tourist village, just a guy doing his thing in the middle of the jungle.
Mountain #4. Er, 1.
Rejoined by C (who had left our company briefly to gather her friend flying in from the states), we returned to Mount Agou, this time to stay in a couple of villages, one at the bottom, the other at the top, thanks to their connection with another volunteer, who unfortunately was not there, but in Africa that hardly matters. This time we drove up to the very peak (remember, we hadn't made it on our first attempt), slept with a family at the village on top of the mountain, then hiked down on back trails. More beauty, more fruit, more sore legs. It was great!
Technically, I've been now. But really, I can't say I EXPERIENCED Benin the way I did Togo. We just hopped across the border - so close my Togo cell phone never even stopped working - and hit a popular beach resort there. Popular with French families, that is - it was overrun with kids. The upshot of this is that we got to participate in releasing baby sea turtles into the ocean. How FREAKIN' COOL is that?? At this point, we'd also hooked up with another group of Burkina volunteers, so we ended up having the roof of a chateau to ourselves (more or less) overlooking the beach. So we partied, ate well (comme toujours dans cette récitation), drank, and swam. Oh, poor choice of order with those verbs. Swam, THEN drank. Honest. Oh, and played in a drum circle. That definitely DID come after the drinking. Well, during.
Our rooms ended up being free because we didn't have running water for part of our stay. A pretty nice cadeau for a group of people who ROUTINELY live without running water!
On our way back we passed through the Togo capital, Lomé, where we found BUMPER CARS!!! Best 500CFA I ever spent. Ramming into friends and kids to 80s dance music. The kids at first seemed upset - having observed them before we got in, we got the impression that they didn't really get the "bump" part of bumper cars. We taught them, and by the end everyone was having much more fun than they'd had before. Especially the worker, who absolutely LOVED slamming his car into this white guy's just as hard as possible.
The bus ride back was less stressful - no stragglers - though waiting at the border for 5 hours so the driver could catch up on his sleep was annoying (not that we would have minded sleeping, just that no one bothered to give us ANY indication of the length of the stop, so we couldn't go wandering nor fall asleep outside the bus for fear of ... well, by now you know of what). Our mood wasn't helped when the fellows at the border decided to check our bags, but only AFTER said 5 hours when the driver awoke and we were ready to go! On the plus side, we got to see guys standing in donkey carts led by two donkeys at a full gallop - African chariot races!
And now, if all goes according to plan, you won't hear from me for at least a month. I'm going back to site, I'm going to work, I'm going to visit with my friends there whom I haven't seen in entirely too long - and I'm going to catch up on my sleep! I plan to stay there until mid-February, when obligations will call me back to Ouaga. Until then, gentle reader, be well, and remember when crossing the street to keep an eye out for silent motos and racing donkeys!