I didn’t make it to Lome (pronounced low-may) for new years eve. My mum had posted me a parcel of things I’d lost, broken, forgotten or overlooked and it wouldn’t arrive in Lome until the 4th or 5th of January, so I decided to stay in Bobo for NYE. The pace of life in Bobo is very slow, and I mostly didn’t get up to much, although a lot of my inactivity was just due to plain laziness. I got to see a lot of the town and ended up breaking my self-imposed ‘no riding in the dark’ rule pretty much every night.
We mostly hung out at Sitala but we did have a couple of nights out in the bars and clubs of Bobo. On one night out I was getting harassed by a drunk guy on the dance floor. Nothing gay, he just was being too over-friendly and really wanted to have some foreign friends and was bugging me for my phone number. A was about to fob him off when a friend came and rescued me by dragging me away. I think I got an insight into what it must have been like for girls I’ve tried to get phone numbers off when I’ve been drunk!
It was a great opportunity to hang out with Sitala in Bobo and I recommend to anyone else coming to Africa to do the same. Besides the free food and accommodation, I got to know local people and experience the Burkinabe culture. The members of the Sitala organistion are all lovely people and my French has improved loads through hanging out with them. The guys are all excellent musicians (check out their website) and they gave me some lessons on playing the djembe drum. I also saw the full Sitala group perform at street parties around Christmas. Here is a video of them in full effect.
A large crowd of us went to visit a town called Banfora that is about 100 km from Bobo. Banfora is a small place, but it has a lot of tourists as many come to see its amazing rock formations and waterfalls and the wild hippos that live on its lakes. We went there with Mamdou, who created the Sitala association and has been a good friend of Chris and Jem’s for many years. We hung out together a lot and got particularly smashed together on NYE.
While chilling in Bobo, I got to further plan my trip through the remainder of west Africa, and a friend managed to send me pdfs of some guide books (nice one mate) so hopefully now I won’t be riding so much into the unknown. I was getting excited as I started to plan my route. It had been so long since I had ridden alone that it felt like I was starting all over again. Previously I had been worried about Mauritania, with tales of non-existent roads and kidnapping by terrorists but now its all about Nigeria. So many people have told me not to go to Nigeria, and have tales of friends who have had bad experiences of the place, and as I’m writing this there have been many killed in bomb blasts in the north of the country over Christmas with tensions rising between the muslim and christian communities in the North. I have also read lots on the net from people who have traveled through on motorbikes like I will do and they have had nothing but good reports for the place. I had decided to go anyway, even before I had left the UK, mainly due to geography, because no matter how bad it is, it can’t be any worse than traveling through Niger and Chad, which are completely off-limits to tourists as the same terrorist groups that are active in Mali and Mauritania are rife there. I will stay away from the hot spots and try to pass through the country quickly. So the next question is do I go to Lagos or not? I’ve been specifically warned off going there and from reading the guidebooks it sounds like a hell hole to ride in, but I am curious to see a city that has been described as ‘chaos theory made flesh’! As has been the case several times with this travel, I may not get the choice, as I need to get a visa for Cameroon from somewhere and I believe that the Embassy may be in Lagos. Perhaps its a good time to find someone on couch surfing who would put me up for a couple of nights. We shall see, but first I need to get into Nigeria. Getting a visa in the UK is near impossible as it requires an invitation from someone in Nigeria. I probably could have got an email scammer to send me one if I agreed to send him some bank details! Anyway, I was told at the Embassy in Ougadougou that I can get a visa at the embassy in Benin.
I left for Togo after saying goodbye to Jem, Chris, Zia and Lyla and also Mamadou. I really hope to see them all again when I finish my trip.
I went back to Ouagadougou and stayed the night at the same auberge as last time. There were two French guys riding Yamaha Super Teneres and I had a few beers with them. They were heading on to Ghana and invited me to join them but I had decided to save Ghana for next time I’m in Africa, so I got up early and rode to the border with Togo. I made the border at about 1pm. I had stopped at what I thought was the border about 20 km up the road and showed my documents to some bemused officials (it certainly looked like a border, there was a chain blocking the road, loads of parked lorries and a big customs office). The real border, on the Burkina side had huge concrete buildings and a large x-ray machine for scanning containers. It looked way more professional than some of the other borders I had passed through so far in Africa. I went into one building and I got my passport stamped and all the details filled out without any fuss or trouble. As I was riding out of the complex to go to the Togolese side I was flagged down by some guys in blue urban camouflage uniforms with Police written on it. One wanted to look in one of my panniers. I opened it for him to have a look and he asked me if I had anything to give to him. I answered ‘No’ so abruptly that he started to laugh. I rode off without giving them everything. I later realised that they where actually Togolese police who were just sat off on the Burkina side for no particular reason. I got stopped by other randoms asking for new years gifts before I got to the Togolese side which was just a small concrete building. A guy in a denim shirt asked to see my passport and I inquired who he was. I was a little embarrassed when he undid a few buttons to show the police uniform he was wearing under the shirt! still we laughed it off and I was sent in to sort out the paper work and purchase a visa. Although I had failed to find anywhere to get a visa in Ouagadougou, I was told by two French ladies we met in Banfora that it is possible, and much cheaper to get it Ouagadougou and that the visa also covered Benin and some other countries. You do not get it from any embassy or consulate but there is an office in the police headquarters (or something like that) that does it. I had decided to get it at the border though cos the office wasn’t going to be open until the 4th cos of the New year. Getting the visa was no drama, and cost 10000 CFA (about 15 euro) but was only valid for one week. I could extend it in Lome for free to give me a month but I really didn’t see myself staying there that long. I went to customs, who asked if I had a carnet de passage. I told them that I had one, but that I would prefer to have a lassiez passer (cos its less hassle). The customs guys couldn’t understand this because it was free to fill out the carnet, but 6000 CFA for the lasseiz passer. I decided that it would be rude to explain them that I wanted to minimise hassle from their colleagues at the Benin border and in the end I used the carnet. I hope this decision does not come back to bite me!
It had only taken about an hour to cross the border so I still had its of time to ride on before looking for somewhere to stay the night. I knew that there was a national park about 60 km in so I headed for that. After an hour on the road my thirst got the better of me and I stopped at a maqui (bar) in a small village. I was immediately swamped by curious locals. Everyone was really friendly and some spoke pretty good English. I joined some old couples for a quick beer. One guy, a teacher from the local high school suggested that I could camp in front of the maqui, which I though was a stupid idea, even though he insisted that it was secure. Trying to get to sleep with booming African tunes and pissed-up people coming out of the pub would have done my head in for sure! I rode on a bit more and stopped at a market to buy some bread and fried fish for dinner. Again I got swamped by locals when I stopped. I was beginning to think that they mustn’t get that many foreigners passing through the area, although I definitely saw some foreigners names on the register at the border. I rode on for another half hour before turning off on to dirt track and setting up my tent out of site behind an earth ridge. People were walking by later and I’m not sure if the saw me or not but I was left alone all night and I got a good nights kip under the stars again. I was later asked if I was scared of the wild animals in that area as apparently there are lions!
I woke up with the sun rise and was on the road before 7am the next day. The scenery of northern Togo was beautiful and looks a lot like northern Thailand, with a mixture of forest and jungle and loads of mountains.
I stopped for breakfast in the city of Kara, and again somewhere else for lunch before riding to Lome . The road from the border to where I had camped was full of pot holes but it was in very good condition for most the way to Lome. I think that I have finally realised what African drivers use their indicators for. Instead of using them to warm other motorists of their intended course, they use then to warm vehicles behind them not to over take. For example, a truck will indicate left, (as if he going to pull out) if a car is approaching the other way on his left hand side.
Togo isn’t a very large country, I reckon its under 100 km wide and only about 600 km long, but the difference in climate between the north and the south was striking. The humidity in Lome is such that you are soaking with sweat at all times of the day and this is their winter! I had left my ‘warm weather jacket’ in Bobo as I hadn’t really used it but now I’m regretting that decision a little! I don’t know if its to do with the humidity or not, but the sun always disappears before it gets to the horizon. Weird.
I had to go to Lome to collect a parcel that my mother had sent to me from home and we needed to give an address for the delivery even though I was to collect it from the DHL office. I had found a hotel in a French Guide book that was reasonably priced but it did say that it would be full of ex pats with little scope to meet locals. It didn’t matter me though as I had only intended to stay a couple of nights before moving on. On my first night there I met two girls from Finland who were traveling together. We ended up having way to much to drink and then left the hotel to look for even more booze. The hotel was not far from the beach and near to the ring road that runs through the centre of town, with lots of restaurants and bars on them. We had a few more beers at one bar where the guy working there asked the girls for their phone numbers, he was refused then he asked me to give him their numbers. How cheeky is that!. The next day I was rough, but I had to go to find the DHL office which was near to the airport. The roads are mostly good but dirt roads on side streets, like in Bamako, Ouagadougou or Bobo. I got lost and ended up on the wrong side of the runway to the airport buildings. I decided to ride around the perimeter as it would be easiest way. There are loads of residential, shanty areas next to the airport and the road went from sand, to sand and rubbish, to….. rubbish on fire! I really shouldn’t have been riding through burning rubbish still half-cut from the night before but luckily I made it to DHL without any incident. DHL had my parcel but wanted 11800 CFA for some spurious charge. I protested and even went and inquired at there main office but in the end I had to pay it. They gave me a receipt but to fork out 20 quid after my mother had already spent 70 to send it took the piss. We are looking into it. The customs clearance was easy though and even though I was a bit intimidated by the customs chief’s office, which was just a bit more luxurious than the other customs staff’ meager offices (Air con, white leather sofa , huge flat screen TV) nobody asked me for anything.
On Friday, the 3 of us went to get our visas extended but arrived too late at immigration to get them done in the morning and were told to come back in the Afternoon. We met Edern, the director of an educational program and Sido, one of his one of his French teachers who was getting her visa extended too. We went to have a look around Lome to kill time. Togo is one of the countries along with Benin where people practice the religion of Voodun (Voodoo) and Edern and Sido accompanied us to see the Voodoo ‘fetish’ markets. I was quite interested to see this, because other than from watching ‘Skeleton key’ and which ever bond movie (was it live and let die?) I know sod-all about Voodoo and wanted to check it out. The market was a bit of a disappointment, although I’m not really sure what it was I was expecting to see. We had to pay to enter as apparently its a ‘sacred’ market (I’m sure they can use the money to re sanctify it!). There where large collections of dried animals that are to be used in potions and rituals and the ‘guide’ was pointing out what they all are. At times it seemed more like a lesson in zoology than religion! I was more interested in listening to Edern, who is a Christian but also follows some Voodoo beliefs and culture, as he explained the Voodoo belief to us.
All in all, I reckon the market was a load of bollocks, and probably only existed to show to tourists but It was cool to hang out with Edern and he took us back to his place where I helped to make fufu (mashed something or other!). We invited them to join us for some clubbing action in the evening.
I have mentioned that there was loads of restaurants and bars near our hotel, and over the previous couple of days we had become friendly with the proprietors of a Vietnamese restaurant and a Lebanese super market. We had planned for a big night out in Lome and we started fairly early. The Finns, Linda and Elisa, were being plied with rum and coke by some Swedish guys at the hotel, and I was given loads of Jack Daniels when I went to get a Kebab from the Lebanese super market. Edern and Sido came to join us with some of their friends and we were all joined by our Vietnamese friends Tommy and Van Damm (not his real name!). There was a little bit of tension at first as Edern and Tommy discussed where we were to go. For some reason everyone was looking at me to make a decision, but eventually we all agreed on a place and headed out ensemble to the finest clubs and bars that Lome has to offer. Tommy and van Damm wouldn’t let us pay for anything, and we were all absolutely smashed by the end of the night when we went back to Van Damm’s place where he passed out on the sofa and Tommy made noodles for everyone. I have to say that I wasn’t a fan of the Lome nightlife. I went out the next night too and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not possible for me to find a club that I’ll like in the developing world. In the developing world, clubs are mainly a place to be seen splashing the cash and pick up whores. Not really my bag. I am now a big fan of African music, but the music in clubs is garbage compared to the traditional stuff I’d been hearing in Burkina Faso. Still, it was cool to watch the local ladies bump and grind! It was funny being back at Van Damm’s place cos it is right next to the Ghanian border. Right next to it, like his garden backs onto razor wire! As we walked home in the morning we had money changers coming up to us. maybe they thought it normal to cross African borders at 7 am without luggage, pissed up!
Other than the weekends hedonism, I returned to the immigration with Elisa on the back of my bike. I hadn’t had any trouble riding around Lome before, but now I was getting stopped by the police loads. One policeman walked into the middle of 3 lane traffic to get me to stop then I had to pass through a lane of moving traffic and up a 45 degree dirt hill to stop where he wanted me to. He wanted to see all my documents which I stupidly had left in the hotel room. I wasn’t wearing my jacket which usually has my license and insurance in the pocket and I explaining the situation with them while trying to be friendly. They kept asking me for my Lasseiz passer, which if you remember, I had opted not to purchase this time. The problem is that it doesn’t look like they actually know what a carnet de passage is, and it was very difficult to explain when I didn’t have it to hand. I have since had the same problem even with the carnet is with me. They just don’t know what it is, even when it is also written in French and has an explanation on the front. It is most likely the case that they are just trying to get some money out of me and I rode off on the first policemen cos he said that we could go to immigration but we had to come back and deal with him. Yeah right! Since then it has happened a few times but I’ve been able to talk my way out of paying anything every time. I’m really starting to appreciate speaking a level of French were by I can make myself completely understood, yet it is still plausible that I cannot understand them! Most of the coppers have just wanted to buy the bike anyway. If you listen to the expats who drink at the hotel, this is normal and they always pass some sort of bribe to keep moving. We had started to think the same way as them, as we went to the immigration for the third time with 2000 CFA notes stuffed into our passports to try to lubricate the whole process. This went wrong when Linda was asked by the official “what is this money for?”. We quickly came up with an excuse that it must have fallen into her passport in the pocket, and I sneaked the money out of mine. They said our passports would be ready the next day at 4, but after a little pleading we got them to change to 8 am. I wouldn’t say that the guys in the hotel are completely wrong, but I also wouldn’t underestimate the appeal of a blonde European woman in Africa. I’m sure Chris would agree, it can make things a lot easier.
Laas had told me about a motorcycle shop that sells KTM motorbikes (an off road specialist) in Lome and I thought it would be good to get some new tyres as my rear tyre currently only has about 3000 km left on it and I’m not sure how easy it will be to buy them further into Africa. The proprietor, Toni was a very nice guy and had some tyres for sale, although they were too dirt – orientated for my journey which. We chatted about the situation in Nigeria, which has gotten worse, both for the violence in the north which is heading south and also because of a general strike that is planned to protest the removal of a government fuel subsidy. The strike will make it impossible to get fuel. I’m starting to wonder if it will be possible to pass through Nigeria at all right now. I’ve contacted a guy in Lagos through the couch surfing website. He has very kindly offered to put me up and show me around Lagos. I shall have to ask him what the word is on the street.
Assuming I get my passport back tomorrow morning, Me and the Finns are heading off to spend a couple of days in Kpalime, which is in the hills about 2 hours North west of Lome. After being in the city for almost a week, I could do with some time in the countryside, and I need to get out of this hotel. The restaurant here is great but the room is crap really. Although the windows have mesh on them, there are no mosquito nets and no matter what I do, I wake up in the middle of the night having been savaged by the little bastards. I reckon I’d be better off in my tent.