Sunday, January 3, 2010

Christmas in Togo

I got to explore some non-Burkina West Africa after our In-Service Training, during a week-long Christmas vacation. For a couple of months my friend Coleman and I had been planning on going to Togo and Benin, but we forgot about the actual planning part and wound up with a truncated trip to Togo, sans the final Benin leg. We left Ouagadougou around 6 a.m. the Sunday before Christmas on a Greyhoundesque bus, iPods fully charged for the ~twenty hour trip (which was much more bearable than the forty hour trip we'd anticipated). The only real excitement on the way down occurred when we reached the border, where we had to buy visas as we hadn't bothered with that step in advance. We were hurried off the bus and down the road, told that once the bus went through the checkpoint it would keep on going whether we were through or not. Thankfully our white skin was a green flag and we were whisked to the front of the line and through the visa process without hassle. It was only when I decided use the bathroom (read: bush at the edge of the parking lot) that the bus almost left without me, forcing me to cut short those plans as well.

There was a startling shift of scenery once we crossed the border - green things growing everywhere, hills, paved road, sure signs of development - the trip was eye-opening to the different degrees of development within West Africa; being in a country with ports makes an immeasurable difference. Lomé in particular was like like a looking glass, as there was still the riot of noise and color and poverty of Ouagadougou, but it had a glossier sheen, or at least fewer vacant lots. I hate to say it, but the grass really was quite a bit greener. We got in around one in the morning, found a hotel close to the bus station, and called it a night (though not until we had broken the one fan in the room...).

The next day we spent wandering around Lomé, checking out the market area, bookstore, and beach and sampling Togolaise cuisine. Attieke, egg and bean sandwiches, and Fufu topped the list of favorites and the local beers clearly outclassed Burkina's Brakina and So.B.Bra, though we found no bar or club to rival Ouahigouya's Baobab or Ouaga's Mitatas and Calypso (to be fair to Togo, we weren't really looking).

We spent one more night at the hotel and then took a taxi east towards Benin (so close, yet two whole visas away) to a little town on the beach called Avépozo. We got out at the sign of Chez Alice, which one of our guidebooks had recommended and which should have been a red flag signaling a tourist trap. From the East African Art to the imported butterflies (well, we suspected) to the two monkeys tied to a tree on permanent time-out, everything was out of place for where we were in West Africa. There were a handful of older Germans who didn't seem to be together or altogether there, and who we didn't see anywhere else but on the grounds of Chez Alice. The whole place gave off a strange faux-African hippie commune vibe that put both of us ill-at-ease. The beach was only a short walk away, however, so we made the most of the afternoon, had some great FuFu, Awooyu, and Fan Lait on the main drag of town and crashed around in the waves. One of the reasons we'd chosen Chez Alice was for the cheap camping rates and we spent the night awkwardly camped in the courtyard shared by all of the hotel's guests.

The next morning we walked down the beach a ways to a swimming spot we'd found the day before, a steep strip of sand sloping towards the ocean, at the top of which was perched a handful of cabanas and beach chairs. We threw down our stuff on an empty seat and jumped into the surf, my clumsy New England ocean style not quite adequate for the West African waves, which resulted in several painful body slams against the sand. After the beat down I went back up to the chairs, where I was approached by someone who told me we'd have to pay to rent the chairs unless we wanted to stay at their hotel. Neither seemed terribly appealing at the moment, so I grabbed our stuff and plopped it down on the near-deserted beach. Only after another swim did it occur to us that maybe the offer was worth considering, as we were less than thrilled with our current set-up. We asked the attendant if we could take a look at their cabins, which was probably the best decision we made the whole trip.

Each cabin was stripped down, no show simplicity, with a small courtyard and a bin of water for bucket bathing. The price was great and it took us all of a minute to decide to switch lodgings. After lunch and another battle with the waves, we collected our stuff from Chez Alice and moved into our new almost-authentic African paradise, where the only other guests seemed to be from Togo, Burkina, or other nearby countries. For most of the time we had the whole place to ourselves and vacation finally felt like Vacation. I couldn't have pictured a more idyllic location and the hours stretched on and on as we settled into a blissful repetition of swimming, eating, sitting, and reading. It would have required at least another week for us to grow weary of the idle isolation.

We finally got around to thinking about planning our vacation, now that we were well into it. The big decisions were what to do for Christmas and how to go about the Benin visa situation, as we had to leave Togo by the 26th and we weren't planning on going back to Ouaga until the 29th or so. Because we hadn't gotten visas in advance, we would only be able to get a 48-hour pass to Benin, necessitating an extension that would have been nearly impossible to obtain due to the holidays. We called Peace Corps friend Christina, whom I had replaced in Béléhédé and who was spending a third year volunteering in Togo, about an hour north of Lomé. I'd been hoping to visit her since we met during my site visit in July, and she had extended an invitation, but we felt bad about taking her up on the offer on such short notice. She was adamant that it was no trouble, however, and as she was hosting several other Burkina and Togo volunteers, it promised to be a festive holiday even if it wouldn't include the usual trimmings of family, snow, cookies, and card games by the fire. Christmas day plans settled upon, we decided to spend one more night in Avépozo, giving us one last perfect day at the beach, capped off with a Christmas Eve sunset over the Gulf of Guinea and a large dinner complete with a couple of dusty bottles of French wine that we'd found in the back of the hotel's bar.

After a night of sleep broken by bouts of drumming from revelers on the beach, I awoke to the first Christmas that didn't involve rushing down a flight of stairs to see what Santa had spread beneath the tree. While it was sad not being able to share the day with family back home, it was a beautiful morning and after wandering around town for a bit, we finally found someone to open up shop and prepare an omelette breakfast for us. While everyone in Avépozo seemed to still be sleeping after a night of celebration, once the eggs and coffee started cooking, we quickly found ourselves in good company and we had the feeling our chef was almost-glad to have been awakened, as he was in for a brisk Christmas business.

After breakfast and one last swim, we hailed a cab and headed back to Lomé, where our last hope of making it to Benin was dashed when we went to the bus station and discovered that the bus schedule wouldn't work out with our tentative itinerary; the only feasible option was to buy tickets back to Ouaga for the following morning. It was hard to feel too disappointed as the trip had been perfect up to this point and we still had a party with friends to look forward to. So, after lunch we hopped in another cab and headed north to Tsévié, where Christina is spending her third year as a Peace Corps Volunteer, helping to incorporate and implement Life Skills lessons into school curricula and after-school clubs. I lucked out and got to share the front seat with the driver and one other passenger, while Coleman got stuck in back, packed in with a boisterous bunch of women from Ghana, who had somehow managed to get drunk on their way from a Christmas morning church service and who spent the hour-long trip fondling Coleman and demanding vows of marriage. I turned up the volume on my iPod and listened to Mariah Carey belt out "All I Want for Christmas is You," while enjoying the view of lush green vegetation and ignoring Coleman's laughter and screams for help from the back seat debauchery.

Christina came and picked us up when we got into town and took us back to her beautiful home, where we were greeted by Kait and David, friends from Burkina, along with some new friends from Peace Corps Togo. After bathing (I forgot to mention how humid Togo is; I think I actually prefer the higher temperatures of Burkina, since the heat is at least dry heat - the only time we weren't sweating was when we were actually in the ocean) we spent the early afternoon lazing about and catching up, sharing vacation tales and discussing the differences between volunteering in Burkina Faso and Togo. We finally got around to the festivities, placed an order of beer to be delivered, and started dinner preparations. Afternoon slid into evening and beer into wine and conversation into carousing, interrupted only once by a quick beer run, which was a party in itself as Kait and I decided to have an impromptu dance party with some Togolaise women and children in the neighborhood. While it was slightly humiliating to be shown up by a 7-year-old's dance skills, I had more fun in those 15 minutes than I often have in a week and it was definitely a highlight of the day's events. We had considered going out dancing, but were having such a good time (and such good food!) at Christina's that we decided to stay in and continue the revelry in her courtyard. Sometime around midnight I finally called it a night, covered myself with a pagne, and crashed.

While I'd never anticipated a Christmas like this, I couldn't have asked for a better first one away from home and family. Christmas Eve on the beach in Togo was the complete antithesis of cold, snowy Water Valley holidays on the family farm, and I've never before spent Christmas day with people I hadn't known my entire life, but somehow it all felt about as right as it could have felt. I was even able to talk briefly with my family back in Marblehead before my phone cut out, which never would have seemed like a sufficient Christmas present when I was a kid, but was more than enough this year. While traditions change and toys and family both get old, only the latter is irreplaceable and worth holding onto as long as possible. This year I was also blessed with new friends and experiences, so I couldn't have really asked for anything more. (If anyone from the Peace Corps is reading this, however, I am still asking for a job description and some work!)

The next day we all sweated our way through the humidity back to Lomé, and Coleman and I boarded a bus back to Ouagadougou for another week of vacation and one more night of celebrations to welcome in the the new year. It was a long bus ride back, with a 4-5 hour stop at the border - Coleman is a magical wizard of languages, even at 6 a.m., and managed to make many new friends by breaking out his newly-learned Jula, while I can only manage cranky at that hour - but we slid smoothly back over the border, even though our visas were slightly expired.... As we left behind the greenery, the well-paved roads, multi-story buildings, and other signs of development and headed north past vast open planes, mud huts, and herds of cattle, I realized that far as this country has to go to join the developed world, and little as I may be able to contribute to that process, I am very happy here and here is home for now. People here understand the importance of friends and family in a way that many Americans fail to fully grasp, and though there is a shortage of any number of things that Americans deem essential, there is almost never a shortage of people to look after you whether you're in need or not.

Anyway, to draw this to a close, I hope all of you who might be reading this are surrounded by good friends and family during the new year. If you happen to be far away from most of them, keep your eyes open for new friends - they're everywhere!

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