Lome & Kpalime, Togo, December 8 & 11 - 12, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
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Trip End Jan 05, 2008


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Where I stayed
Hotel Mawuli

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

This blog entry covers a set of events and experiences that were quite far off the planned trip itinerary but together constitute some very strong memories of my overall West Africa experience.  This all began on Saturday morning as we were driving down the winding mountain from Kluoto to the market town of Kpalime.  Dave "The Hat" was at the wheel and slowly navigating a cliffside hairpin turn while honking Daphne's horn to warn oncoming traffic of our presence.  Suddenly there was a loud bang and sliding sound that I immediately thought was a punctured tire.  "Oh no, we're going to go over the cliff.  Aaaaaahhhhhhhh!" was the first thought of my height-fearing self.  But we didn't. 
A policeman on a motorbike had taken the curve broadly at a rather high speed and drove right into the front left corner of the truck.  He and the motorbike skidded some distance, and the truck quickly stopped, with the man on the motorbike lying in the road screaming.  Here began an adventure that would take several days to resolve. 
The twenty-some-odd people on the truck quickly went to work on the situation, each making a contribution.  The nurse on board administered to the injured man, some held back traffic, the civil engineer among us measured and documented to exact locations of impact, vehicle movement, and road width and conditions.  Meanwhile, I took lots of pictures for posterity's sake.  I'm good at that.  Maybe the locals would come and slaughter us all for colliding with one of their cops, but if I survived I'd at least have lots of pictures of the event.  Seriously, though, extensive photographs were good to have for insurance and legal purposes if the situation were to escalate. 
The policeman clearly had a broken leg.  It wasn't long before a large crowd of locals from the vehicles traveling the road built up.  The medically trained put together a makeshift splint, and the Togolese lifted the screaming man into the back seat of a car to be taken to the hospital in Kpalime.  The military and police who arrived at the scene eventually became threatening and demanded payments from our drivers.  The arguments and negotiations ended with the truck being escorted by the police to the hospital in Kpalime. 
Once in town I had to go to the market and go about my planned business of buying ingredients for dinner, breakfast, and lunch since my turn at cook group was coming up.  To make a long story short, after some walking around Kpalime carrying lots of fresh food we eventually made it to the police station where drivers Dave and James were being interrogated by the gendarmes, the questioning, statements, and negotiations taking several hours as we passenger types waited outside and set up our lunch table. 
My best understanding of the way this was left on Saturday was that the Gendarmes did not trust the authenticity of truck's proof of insurance.  They demanded a letter from the insurance agency that the insurance policy was still in effect.  They eventually allowed us all to go, thanks partly to Dave's fib that we all had to be at the airport in Lagos in three days, but took James's passport as collateral until he returned with the statement from the West African insurance company proving the validity of the insurance. 
On Monday David and James drove into Lome to go to the ECOWAS office, the local branch of the same insurance company that issued the policy in Senegal, to get a statement from the company or a FAX from the office in Senegal showing the insurance was still in effect.  The rest of us all spent the day in on the beach in Agbodrafo since Dave viewed Lome as a potentially very dangerous place.  They returned after dark having been unsuccessful in their quest but with extensive stories about the terrible chaos in Lome. 
The new plan was that we'd all go into Lome in the morning, and they would try again to get the documentation at the ECOWAS office.  The truck and group would continue on to Benin.  James would stay in Lome until he got the situation resolved and got his passport back, then catch up with the rest of us in Benin or Nigeria or wherever we were by then.  James was understandably very stressed about being trapped and potentially on his own for an undefined period of time in a particularly rough African city while his passport was held hostage by the gendarmes in Kpalime.  There was no way of knowing whether it would take two days or two weeks to resolve.  I talked with Dave and James about it and, figuring it would be better for two people to be there together if Lome was in fact as rough a place as Dave had depicted, decided I would stay on with James in Lome until the situation was resolved. 
In the morning the truck went into Lome for the passengers to do some marketing for the beach in Benin and for Dave and James to again try to obtain a proof of insurance FAX from the insurance office in Senegal.  We parked towards the city's center and all went off on our own ways for a few hours, I to an ATM, an Internet cafe, and the post office.  Perhaps predictably, the postcards I mailed from Lome were the only ones of my trip never to arrive at their destinations. 
Lome is a chaotic rundown city with a real air of decay about it, one full of motorbikes dodging every which way on the cratered streets and thick humid air thick with their exhaust fumes.  There were several 1970s-era modern skyscrapers of bank companies in our area, but all also looked like they had seen better days.  Most of Lome's side streets and alleyways, including those surrounding these office buildings, were filled with smoldering mounds of rubbish, the acrid smoke adding to the city's haze and foul air. 
By noontime the drivers had been successful in obtaining the FAX from ECOWAS Insurance.  I decided to go along with James to Kpalime anyway in case there were any further issues with the gendarmes there (and also for a slightly higher level of adventure than I was getting on the truck).  We took a crowded shared public van from the Gare Routiere for the two hour ride there and then walked to the police station, during which time James gave me instructions on what to do in the unlikely event he be detained.  His dealings went smoothly and he recovered his passport while I sat in a cafe across the street to watch the goings on in the police station.  "Mister James", as the gendarmes were calling him, actually seemed to be treated as a bit of a celebrity.  They told him the injured policeman was well and in Lome for treatment and insisted the issue was now closed. 
We returned to Lome in a cramped shared taxi, four people and a baby sitting across the back seat of a station wagon moving at top speed as dusk turned to darkness.  We had been warned against travel after dark in southern Togo because of the high risk of armed holdups and carjackings but had no encounters with the Boogieman on our return to Lome.  However, continuing on to Benin that night was out of the question. 
James had the taxi driver take us to a budget hotel, the Hotel Mawuli, he picked out from Lonely Planet in what turned out to be a very rough neighborhood that gave me the creeps.  The hotel compound seemed secure enough but outside was a scene that looked like Beirut on a bad day - streets dark and deserted except for the numerous rubbish tips which were now on fire and emitting a very acrid smoke around which it seemed like people were cooking.  Since there were no restaurants or stores in the immediate vicinity and no taxis around, for safety's sake we decided to skip dinner and settle for a few cookies I had in my backpack and a bottle of Awooyo beer, a rich amber brew that's one of the legacies of Togo's German colonial era. 
I used earplugs the first half of the night to drown out the street noise but still thought I heard periodic gunfire from outside and occasionally choked on the foul-smelling smoke that drifted in occasionally through the windows depending on which way the breeze was blowing.  I was awakened by the prayer call from the next door mosque some time before my alarm went off at 5:30.  When I saw James downstairs he confirmed that he also heard gunfire during the night. 
Our taxi driver for the 40 or so miles to the Benin border was an even bigger maniac behind the wheel than the one we had the night before.  After we walked across the border it was only a short shared taxi ride to the beach resort at Grand Popo where we met back up with the group less than 24 hours after leaving them.  It was a successful mission in which my role was only one of backup, but I got a sense of adventure out it that I wasn't getting on the truck.
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