Togo Or Not To Go

If you are inherently lazy, but also keen to match the athletic feats and braggadocio of social media contacts, I strongly advise choosing a really small country to bike across. Then top off the journey with a police detention.
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If you are inherently lazy, but also keen to match the athletic feats and braggadocio of social media contacts, I strongly advise choosing a really small country to bike across. Then top off the journey with a police detention.

This is what I did in Togo. Togo is thin, short on longitude (a little more than 30 miles across), but with a good latitude. So with a work trip looming to nearby Ghana and Liberia and a weekend to spare while there, two colleagues and I, like the great explorers who preceded us, looked up neighboring countries on Google Maps while drinking girly cocktails. Pointing at cinched-waist Togo, right next door to Ghana, we lit upon the idea of biking across its girth, from the capital Lomé on the western frontier into Benin on the eastern border, and so match the claims of the annoying circumnavigators, base-campers and trans-polars in our online midst. The planning was complete.

"Louer les vélos? Pour cycler à Benin?" We were greeted with smiles, sometimes belly laughter, from the French-speaking hotel staff, guides, taxi drivers in Lomé. Patiently, the motorized options, with prices, were outlined to us. We were asked whether we were short of money -- did we need to borrow some? For why else would one step back several technologies, to one from which most Togolese were happy to have graduated?

We despaired, until one afternoon while riding in a shared taxi on the way to a glorious beach where we planned to sulk over freshly-caught lobster, we saw a group of men by the side of the road, pumping up bike tires. We exited the car and began to negotiate for three bikes we had spotted, wheels up, prostrate before the beating sun, waiting to be worked on.

One of the men, in oil-stained blue overalls, shook his finger explaining they were not for rent or sale, no matter the price. But he offered to be our agent, and helped us wave down another taxi, taking us back into town and to the Saturday market.

Lomé's "Grand Marché" occupies several city blocks, a colorful, dizzying array of stalls where women, mostly, sell clothes, shoes, bolts of textiles, tools, toys. There is music and street food, outdoor butcheries of freshly slaughtered animals. And coconut water -- in fact if you could swap in yoga mats for the stalls selling animal parts like monkey skulls for practicing voodoo, you might believe you were in Boulder or Portland on a Saturday morning.

Our minder led us to a long, dusty street featuring nothing but bikes, scores of them. Renting was not an option, so our broker negotiated for us three crappy bikes at $20 apiece.

Early Sunday morning, the sun just up, we began our epic journey, first negotiating past the prostitutes who crowd the hotels where westerners stay. Unlike a North American city, Lomé at this time was crowded, alive with the sound of singing and chanting. On the four-lane beachside boulevard, we weaved among hundreds of young men in organized groups, some of them 75-strong, jogging in step. In each platoon runners played drums or other percussion instruments, others carried banners proclaiming affiliation with local sports clubs.

It was a powerful scene, alongside the wide, turmeric-colored beach that wraps itself around west Africa, stretching, with interruptions, from Nigeria to Senegal. Off the beach, a backdrop of 50 or so merchantmen at anchor in the Gulf of Guinea, in ballast.

We cycled east, already damp with sweat, past the modern container port. Togo is poor, a backwater even by African standards, but its people are spirited, and there's a feeling of cautious optimism, one reason for which is the money that foreign investors (including the Chinese) are putting into the modern harbor which, among other things, will service land-locked neighboring countries to the north.

In the suburbs the road narrowed but the diesel fumes retreated too. We kept an easy, steady pace along the flat terrain, allowing us to take in our surroundings. Outside Lomé, men worked small vegetable allotments between the roadway and high concrete walls belonging to houses or businesses.

As we got into the countryside, our path narrowed to a one-meter-wide shoulder we shared with scooters and pedestrians balancing things on their heads. Small plots of trees and fields were punctuated by villages where whitewashed churches blasted out hymns on portable speakers. Children walked in Sunday finery, past stalls with steaming tin pots, women cooking stews for sale; men sold petrol in small unmarked plastic containers. Here and there was a short length of railway track left over from colonial times, German, French, British, looking more like ancient clay-caked fragments of a dinosaur's femur bone than anything man-made during the past 100 years.

We were overtaken by trucks, motorcycles, the occasional bus, sometimes uncomfortably close. We were not chased by stray village dogs, nor baboons, which had been a fear we belatedly voiced halfway into the trip. We reached the border with Benin in three-and-a-half hours, the scene a hubbub of pedestrians, mini-buses, cars honking. We put our bikes up against the colorful sign reading "Frontiere Togo -- Benin," then stepped back to document our achievement.

Suddenly a Togolese border policeman appeared in front of us. In French, he told us that what we were doing was illegal. He led us away to crowded benches in the open air, where people were pleading their cases to officers on the other side of a broad table. Ushering us to sit, he asked us to fill out police reports. The officer was young, with shaved head, a sympathetic face that bore tribal scarification -- long cuts, partially open, across either cheek, denoting his home village, likely in the north.

He left and came back a few minutes later, questioning us once more. He explained in French that Benin was out of the question without a visa secured previously, and anyway, why would you want to go there? Here he pursed his lips and made a sound like "chup chup chup," which I suspected meant that folks in Benin are awful snobs.

In that case then, I said, our new plan was simply to offload our bikes and take a taxi back to Lomé. This seemed to change the mood of the young officer, though initially we couldn't tell for good or ill. I explained we were tired from the ride, hoping that what I was saying was not being taken as an attempt to corrupt a government official. Somber, he asked us to stand and ushered us into a room in the police station, where he closed the door behind us. It contained leather couches, and a table. We waited, continuing to work on our police reports.

A few minutes later the door opened and an older officer entered, with more to his epaulettes. The younger officer was in his wake.

"What is the presentation, what are we here to discuss?" the older officer - well-fed, with a twinkle in his eye -- asked. Nervous, I repeated that we no longer needed the bikes, but gosh, would love to get back to Lomé in a taxi.

Silence. Then, "Who wants a beer?"

The older man marched to a fridge in the corner of the room. Beer seems like it might be problematic, so I asked for a Coke Zero. He stared at me, then pulled out a regular Coke in one of the old-fashioned bottles. My friend requested a Fanta.

The junior officer left to fetch a taxi driver. While we again waited, the boss and we laughed at the snobs of Benin. The senior man abruptly turned solemn, explaining the bikes would go to the children of himself and his young colleague. We nodded, equally serious.

A taxi driver was brought in. He appeared on his guard, not knowing what to expect, furtively looking around the room, at us. The senior officer sternly considered the driver in his civilian clothes, then handed over a small amount of cash as he explained the mission. He told the man to drive straight to Lomé, warned him not to fill the taxi with the usual seven or eight passengers. We all shook hands, the police reports were folded away. The senior officer asked if he could stay in touch, perhaps give us call now and then. We said we would welcome this.

As we were being driven off in the taxi, we looked out the rear window of the taxi and saw the policemen leading away our bikes from under the border sign. We left Lomé the next day, but not before relating our story to one of the hotel clerks who had been skeptical about our journey in the first place.

"C'est pas normale, ça," she said, though it wasn't clear if she meant our encounter with the police, or our biking across her country.

Alexander Wooley is a freelance writer who works full-time in international development. If you are lazy and would like to bike across a West African country, a highly recommended activity, The Gambia is only 30 or so miles across, Benin 55 miles.