Friday, September 14, 2012

Two Times Togo

Oh yea, I went to Togo…twice. 

The first trip I made to Togo, at the end of May, was to visit the daughter of one of my father’s old work colleagues, named Shelly, who works for Mercy Ships, a faith-based organization dedicated to bringing advanced medical procedures to high-need locations, where such medical technology is too expensive, or simply not available. Mercy Ships has essentially converted the lower level of an ocean liner, called the Africa Mercy, into a floating hospital, which at the time of my visit was docked in Lomé, Togo.

I have to make a brief interlude at this point, to tell the actual story of getting to Togo, part 1, because both journeys to Togo were quite an adventure.  So here is the story of getting to Togo the first time:

The trip from Accra to Aflao (the border city on the Ghana side), is just about 100mi, which in a country with good infrastructure should only take about 2 hrs, right? Hah. This journey took closer to five, considering the horrible traffic and poorly maintained roads (that sometimes bounce you so high they could cause a spontaneous abortion) but that wasn’t even the worst part. In general, getting a car for travel is pretty hit or miss. Sometimes you get a modern van with comfy seats and air-conditioning, and sometimes you get a van that shudders so much you wonder if it might crumble down around you.

This trip, the car was most definitely a miss. Let me paint you a word picture here.  The car that made the trip to Aflao looked like a standard Accra tro-tro—a construction van, circa 1980-something with five rows of seats, seating about four people per row. Add in about one bag per person, taking up the floor space, and 6 young children sitting on various laps, one of which was directly behind me, then I’ll raise you one crazy, can’t-seem –to-figure-out-how-to-drive-in-a -straight-line driver, and we’ve got ourselves a horse race. And it still gets worse.

So we start our journey out of Accra, and traffic is awful, as it always is. The driver keeps trying to weave in and out of traffic, slamming the brakes, then hitting the accelerator, slamming the brakes again…on and on and on. About 45mins of this goes by, and we are finally on the brink of getting out of traffic. You can see it, like the light of the end of the tunnel, reaching for that break in traffic, the driver guns the engine, just as the girl on the lap behind me proceeds to projectile vomit. All. Over. Me. So not only did I have to spend the next 4 hours squashed between two people with no foot room and no air flow, but I also had to spend it sitting in a pool of someone else’s vomit.

It was one of those situations where you just have to laugh. Murphy’s law. What else could have gone wrong? We finally made it to Aflao, I crossed the border, and Shelly was on the other side with her car, ready to whisk me away to the ship. Luckily, I was staying on the Africa Mercy, which has great water pressure and hot water. A shower never felt so good.

Anyway, now, anyone who knows me knows that I am not a huge fan of faith-based organizations. But I have to say, I was so impressed with what Mercy Ships is doing on the Africa Mercy. They spend about six months docked in ports all over Africa, providing cataract surgeries, fixing cleft palates, removing tumors, treating leprosy, providing dental care, and fixing physical abnormalities—just to name a few. And they’re all volunteers!

Now I know some cantankerous person somewhere is grumping about the Mercy Ship project not being sustainable enough, because it doesn’t fix any underlying problems in these countries that are causing the numerous health issues, but as someone wisely reminded me recently, projects are not about numbers and data, nor are they about saving the world; the meaning comes from the individual lives that are touched, or changed for the better. And seeing a person walk off the ship, able to truly smile for the first time because they have just had their cleft palate fixed, is nothing short of amazing. 

I have heard that 60 Minutes is doing story on the Africa Mercy in the near future, so if anyone is interested, watch out for that episode. I am not sure exactly sure when it’s airing, but the camera crew was due to arrive the week after I left.

Needless to say, I really enjoyed my weekend on the ship. I was able to tour the hospital, the control room, and even the school for the children who live on board. It was nice to get away from Accra for the weekend, and see what other organizations are doing—and also enjoy a hot shower, a comfortable bed, and Starbucks! Yes, they have a Starbucks on board. 

So, why, when I had just been to Togo, did I turn around and go back again at the end of the month? Well, my friend, I’ll level with you. One of the perks of being on the Africa Mercy is that all Mercy Ships employees are guaranteed entry in and out of Togo without needing to buy/have a visa. And when you’re a guest on the ship, they print you an official ID, so you can sign in and out of the ship during your stay. So, since the expiration date on my ID wasn’t until the end of June, what’s a girl to do? NOT take advantage of the fact that I can cross the border for free? I don’t think so. 

Thus begins the telling of the second journey to Togo. Don’t worry, no vomit this time.

The second time I went to Togo, the journey to Aflao was a bit more comfortable. Not only because of the absence of vomit, but the car my friend and I took was transporting a lot of construction materials, laid over the tops of some of the seats, blocking people from sitting there, which meant that we had the whole back seat to ourselves. Which never happens. 

We got off to a late start, and traffic, again, was despicable, but since there was space to breathe (and to move even!) in the car, I didn’t mind so much. Now when someone takes a destination car, like a car that is going to Aflao, they do not necessarily continue all the way to the final destination. So sometimes the car makes frequent stops, and people get off in various towns and villages along the way. In this particular car, we had a majority of those people. By the time we got half way through the journey, we were down to only 5 passengers. By the time we got three quarters of the way through the journey, we were down to only 3. And when the car was down to only three passengers, the driver decided it was not worth his gas to continue all the way to Aflao. Super.

So, the driver pulls over, hails a taxi driver friend, and tells the taxi to take us to Aflao, about thirty minutes further than the town we were in. It would have been fine, except the tro-tro driver took off without paying the taxi driver, which we didn’t figure out until half way to Aflao.

At this point, my friend and I were starving, tired, and grumpy. And refused to pay the taxi man, since we had already paid the tro-tro driver to take is all the way to Aflao. So the taxi driver turns around, goes back to the town, and starts looking for the tro-tro driver (apparently they are kind of friends?) to make him pay the difference. Luckily enough, we found the tro-tro driver, but he was not willing to pay for the rest of the journey. In situations like this, it’s really pays to have a Ghanaian buddy—especially one that is really good at threatening someone without actually threatening them. I was sitting in the car, so I am not sure exactly what was said, but the tro-tro driver ended up paying the rest of the money to the taxi driver, getting us safely to Aflao.

However, because of all the driving back and forth nonsense, we got to Aflao just as the border was closing, and were forced to stay in Aflao for the night. To date, that hotel was the grossest place I have ever stayed: cobwebs and dirt everywhere. But, it was the equivalent of $5 for one night, so I guess you get what you pay for.

And then FINALLY, we got to Togo! 

Now I could probably go on and on about how awesome Togo is, but this post is already getting to be too long, so I will keep it to the highlights. First, there is significantly less traffic in Lome than there is in Accra, partially because Lome is just smaller and less populated, but also because more people travel by motorbike than they do by car. 

Second, its francophone. Which means more fun for me for two main reasons! A. because I get to practice my French, and B. because FINALLY  I am the one who understands, not my friend, and can pick and choose what to translate, which happens to me allllll the time in Accra. My friends love prattling away in their local languages and only giving me minimal translations. So--Justice. 

And lastly, the VOODOO MARKET, which it think was my favorite place that we visited in Lomé. This particular market was a voodoo fetish market, which means that they sell charms, totems, and things--for protection while travelling, making someone fall in love, protection from spirits--that sort of thing. There are also fetish priests who sometimes perform ceremonies, to drive away illnesses that are caused by spirits. Now, I will say, that this market was a liiiiiiiiiiiiittle kitschy, most likely because there is more tourist traffic through the capital. But it was still very cool to visit. 

The voodoo itself is an interesting practice though. Depending on what is ailing you, the fetish priest selects from his store of dried and cured animals (cured in a special liquid that keeps them from rotting), which can be burnt as a sacrifice, or ground up, added together, and turned into a medicine, based on the "prescription" from the fetish priest. 

And judging by the display, there are a multitude of different dried animal combinations. They have everything from cheetah to chimp to chameleon. Skulls and skins alike. 

 Below is the area where they hold ceremonies and sacrificial burnings. Our guide was very excited to be in the picture :)

Although the market seemed to be mostly geared towards tourists, there really is a significant portion of the population in Togo, I think about half, that actually practices indigenous religions, like voodoo, some 2.5 million people. It makes me wonder what more genuine voodoo looks like. I really want to travel out into villages, to see...maybe that can be on my third trip to Togo! Now, how can I get in again without a visa...

Until next time! 

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