Sunday, September 23, 2007

An arresting experience (or Too Many Puppies!)

So here I am, sitting in another airport, this time being detained and waiting for deportation. Not quite how I intended to spend my Sunday, but hey...

Because very little was prepared for me in Lome, and because pretty much all of the resources that I needed to complete my work are out in Benin, I've hit a wall there. So I hopped a plane to Abidjan, Ivory Coast, in the hopes of being able to complete something there. Sadly, the admin lady who went to get me a visa for this trip was told that I don't need one on my passport, so I've been detained by some gentlemen with too many guns and not enough sense of humour. The bastards held me for 4 hours with no water, which is a bitch because by that point I'd been on the go since 4am with nothing to drink or eat. But enough whinging ...

After all of the other places I've been, Togo has been a breath of fresh air. I'm still not quite living the life I agreed before hitting the road, but it's certainly better. At least there are a couple of people around the place who speak English!

I have a question for you though - is it worse to have nothing, or to have something wonderful, but not be able to use it? I'm still undecided on this, but right outside the hotel is one of the most stunning beaches I've seen in years. The surf isn't anything to write home about, just a single line of breakers against the shore, but the overall image is stunning. And I can't use it.

Even the hotel key has a message advising that 'The beach and its surroundings are subject to frequent attacks'. Chatting to some people from the operator here confirms this. The first 3 people I spoke to had all been mugged on the beach. The third guy tried to be clever and left his wallet, watch and cellphone at the hotel before going, so they just beat seven shades of shit out of him instead.... Some kind of object lesson I guess... "Next time, bring money and don't waste our time... kicking you in the head is hard work in this heat!"

Transport around Lome is different. There are regular taxis, but very few people seem to use them, probably because of the cost. The primary form of public transport is the Moto. These are normally two-smoke motorcycles with a maniac behind the handlebars and accidents are frequent and brutal. Watching a family climb aboard one of these things is funny as hell though, especially if there is a kid involved. They just scamper up the driver's leg, haul themselves over his arms, and plop themselves down on the tank, holding the bars and grinning for all the world like they were born to be there. I've seen some pretty amazing things on the back of Motos, from 6' satellite dishes, to over 50 bottles of some kind. And when it rains, you'll often see the passenger holding a brolly over themselves and the driver. I don't know if they get a discount for that though.

On Friday night, I accompanied some of the local expats on their usual Friday night outing. It consists of finding a table at their regular bar, talking crap and drinking beer until late into the night, and watching the world go by. And the world does go by! Unlike the other places I've been lately, there is a definite energy, a sense of life to Togo. Everyone is working, active, doing something to try and improve their lot in life. You can buy pretty much anything you want without ever leaving your seat as the endless stream of hawkers rotates. Over the course of an evening, you start to recognise some of the regulars, and see how the operation works.

The island in the middle of the street is the centre of business. All of the guys are based there, and they restock each other's boxes with everything you could possibly want. Tissues, headache tablets, mints, smokes, condoms, DVDs, playing cards, you name it. One guy stays on the island at all times, just keeping the tea going and making sure that the guys doing the heavy work are fed and watered.

This goes on until well into the early hours of the morning, but there is none of the tension or desperation that I've seen and felt elsewhere - it's poor, but it's optimistic and healthy.

One of the things I've come to use as a benchmark of prosperity is the presence of pets. See, if a guy is eating well enough that he has food left over to raise an animal purely for pleasure, he's doing ok. In CAR, I didn't see a single pet; the only animals present were food in waiting. In Niger, I saw nothing outside the hotel, and a single litter of cats inside the hotel ground, but I still counted those daily and I'm sure the total was going down.

In Togo, I've seen at least a dozen dogs in all shapes and sizes, and the way they were interacting with their owners was clearly a relationship based on friendship, not on work. Sure, they probably hunt vermin and stuff in their free time, but they are kept around as friends. It's really heartening to see, and rams home the point of how much I miss my mutt and stinky cat while I'm out here on the road.

My trip to Abidjan required that I pack way light. I came out with my work tools and CDs, barely enough clothes to get by and my laptop. I could only take what I could fit in my laptop bag, and after chargers, cables and tools, that isn't a lot!

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