Sunday 21 August 2011

Running From the Border: A Journey Across West Africa

We knew that before we finished our service, we wanted to explore other parts of Africa. So on a rainy night in Yaounde, we bought our tickets to fly to Mali in July! We’d head overland to visit Lindsey’s best friend serving in Peace Corps Burkina Faso, bush taxi down to Togo, and fly back from Benin.

Getting there was a triumph in itself as direct flights weren’t an option and we first flew to Ethiopia. Though we searched Couchsurfing for a place to spend the night’s layover, Ethiopian Airlines took care of us by putting us up in a swanky hotel complete with hot showers and an all-you-can-eat buffet. The next day, we flew to Togo to pick up some more passengers, and then finally landed in Bamako, Mali.

Our journey flying across Africa!

The whirlwind trip included climbing mountains, butterfly hunting, canoeing across lakes and rivers, napping on beaches, dancing all night, and shopping for everything from Obama pagne to hand-woven and decorated mud cloth. The trip was even more memorable as we met world-famous fashion designers, Peace Corps Volunteers, chiefs of villages, and some of the nicest random people that helped us out from time to time.

Hiking between villages in Dogon Country, Mali

A small boy sells fans at the Grande Marche, Bamako, Mali

People always ask us of the trip “Was it the same as Cameroon?” On surface level, yes, pagne was everywhere and transportation was uncomfortable, but when you take a deeper look, each country was beautiful in its own way. In Mali, we found not only mud homes, but ones that were multi-storied creating an ancient town of varying building heights. Burkina Faso, being a transport country, had remarkable roads and the nicest people (no “white man” or “nassara” yells!). Togo was a mix of tiny villages in the North, lush rain forests in the South, and beautiful beaches on the coast with voodoo culture thrown in. Benin was a great place to end with a trip to Ganvie, a village that rests on stilts!

The largest mud mosque in the world, Grand Mosquee, Djenne, Mali

Banfora Waterfalls, Burkina Faso

Stilt village of Ganvié, Benin

However, this is not to say that the trip was without its challenges! Bush taxis almost every day, a car accident with a visit to PCMO (Peace Corps Medical Officer) Burkina, five-hour long hikes beneath the beating African sun, worm and rash outbreaks, monkey attacks, and a brief runaway stint from the Togolese border are just the realities of backpacking West Africa. Luckily, we’ve mastered the fine art of negotiation; I saved us from paying 5.000CFA in Mopti, Mali for a “mandatory” visa extension fee and let’s just say that Lindsey Dattels has a future immigration officer husband waiting for her in the Contonou airport who allowed us to board the plane back to Cameroon.

Monkey attacks are no fun on a vacation
If you’re looking for an adventure (because it was anything but relaxing!), consider backpacking West Africa. We’ll send you our Excel itinerary!

*Note: The first version of this article appeared in the November 2011 edition of the US Peace Corps Cameroon's Small Enterprise Development Gazette.

Friday 19 August 2011

Stilt Village of Ganvié, Benin

This village on stilts should be noted as an official World Heritage site! Just outside the capital city of Contonou, Ganvié is home to about 30,000 Tofinu. The entire village’s buildings sit on 2 meter high stilts above the water.

Back in the 17th century, the Tofinu fled to Ganvie to escape slavery by the Dahomey. Their attempted captors, who were afraid of water and disallowed to enter it due to religious reasons, thus left the residents alone.

And what do the residents live off of? Fish of course!

*Tip: Take public transport or a private person’s canoe if you can sneak it! The Ministry of Tourism will charge you 25x what locals pay (and they are a government agency).

Thursday 18 August 2011

The Beautiful Beaches of Grand Popo, Benin

After three weeks of intense and uncomfortable traveling (backpacking West Africa is far from relaxing my friends!), we spent a necessary day sleeping and strolling on the beaches of Grand Popo, Benin. Nothing to report on this blog post, just a beautiful beach!

Grand Popo, Benin

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Togo: Love Your Beaches, Scared of Your Voodoo & Monkey Attacks!

What’s the best way to say goodbye to a place? Relax on its beaches of course! Before checking out of Le Galion Hotel, I spent a couple hours reading on the Lome shore and yes, my guilty pleasure is a good ole’ Nicholas Sparks’ book!

Lome, Togo

We soon made our way to Chez Alice (, a German-run hostel 12km outside of Lome in Aveposo. Unfortunately, the street was under construction, so few clients meant no music or dancing like usual Wednesdays, but at least we (finally!) had peace and quiet! All except for the noise of the monkeys!

The little guy may look cute until he attacks you!

We took a 500CFA (~$1US) taxi to Lake Togo where we would canoe over to Togoville, Togo’s “voodoo” island. It would be here that those who practiced voodoo were taken to Haiti as slaves. The driver initially believed the canoe would sink if I drove, but to his surprise, I was one of the best rowers he’s seen! Note: If you get a private “tourist” canoe, it’s 4.000CFA (~$8US) one-way. Otherwise, I highly recommend taking public transport as they were paying 200CFA (~$.40) each!

I was a pro!

The Artisanal market at Togoville is only one room but proceeds go towards a local organization and you can find a few gems. After exploring the German Cathedral, we headed off to the voodoo market. We could have paid 2.000CFA (~$4US) to see “voodoo-in-action,” but decided to pass based on the creepiness factor.

Togoville's port (top), stage at the German Cathedral (middle), and voodoo market (bottom)

Back across Lake Togo, we searched for the elusive promise of water sports, but it turns out everything but the paddle boat was broken. So while the other girls napped on the shore, I jumped in an 800CFA taxi to Aneho, home of arguably the best beaches in Togo. With a chicken sandwich at La Cote du Soleil, I could agree!

Beach at La Cote du Soleil, Aneho, Togo - beautiful!

Short on cash, we had a delicious street food dinner of spaghetti, turkey, and French fries – all for 300CFA (~$.60US) mind you! Tomorrow, Benin!

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Discovering Lome, Togo

Even the best planned traveler runs into scheduling snafus along the way especially in West Africa! Often, the reason for this is the good old expiring visa.

At Immigration, the line extended about a dozen people deep with a larger throng surrounding the Service Passport window. Asking around, we soon learned that a 500CFA (~$1US) fee was necessary for an application and the 1.500CFA (~$3US) visa could be done tomorrow (which here in African time could extend to 2-3 days). Thanks to my petite stature, I was able to squeeze my way to the front window to show the Immigration officer our 7-day visas. “When exactly would we have to leave the country?” “The 18th" he said. Sigh, I was hoping for the 19th.

So, with a day cut short, we went into high-gear-let’s-explore-this-great-city-before-we-get-kicked-out-of-the-country mode! First stop was to Lome’s Voodoo Market.

Unlike other markets, Lome’s Voodoo Market is not so much a place where one haggles for souvenirs. Rather, one explores and observes traditional voodoo practices. In fact, there is actually a mandatory entrance fee and tour guide fee.

Upon the parking in the gated market, we were approached by two Togolese who wanted 15.000CFA (~$30US) AFTER the fact that we explained we were PCVs. After much haggling, they said 9.000CFA ($~18US) to visit the market – no thanks! From the five minutes standing in the market the same size as a couple large living rooms, we saw all we needed!

Lome's Voodoo Market - I'm so sketchy taking pics out the car window

To ameliorate the annoyances of the morning, we headed off to the Grand Marche to do a little bit of shopping. Let it be noted that I LOVE haggling: I bought a Togo soccer jersey for 2.000CFA (~$4US); the vendor started at 6.000CFA (~$12US). The power of the Peace Corps Volunteer – it’s not just that we know how to pay local prices; it’s also that we don’t physically make enough money to pay tourist prices!

"Artisinat" - The Artisan Market

We spent lunch eating fish with a world famous fashion designer. It turned out that my old supervisor’s sisters, Grace and Wonder, live in Lome. We met up with the wonderful women while Grace showed us a DVD of the latest fashion show for Vlisco (the Tiffany’s of African fabric) that featured her clothes.

Just a world-famous fashion designer in action!

Cameroonians like to call this a family photo

Afterwards, we headed back to Artisan Market to finish up some shopping before heading to dinner and a movie at Greenfield. Love Lome!

Note: It’s best to go to markets in the late afternoon. Vendors tend to haggle easier as it’s the end of the day and they want to make final sales.