Low riders and Notre Dame
After the ticker-tape parade of fans that followed us in Ghana, Togo was always going to be a come-down.
In celebrity, we’ve gone from 90’s Tom Cruise to present-day Tom Cruise. Our fans are less enthusiastic, and more than a little wary. Our egos haven’t taken this downgrade well. We'll frequently wave back in response to realise - it was the person behind us.
Unlike Ghanaians, who will run out to greet you, our Togolese hosts are a bit more reserved.
Their eyes follow you keenly, but until you break the ice, they won't lay out the red carpet.
It's intimidating at first, as we feel the eyes on us, and we feel slightly unwelcome.
But just as soon as we say 'Bonjour', they will break into a smile, they'll approach to talk, and we'll realise it's all in our heads. You only get what you give - like that New Radicals song.
We cross the border into Lomé, Togo’s spread out capital. A giant D-shaped motorway encircles a bustling city of tangled market stalls and motorcycle riders zipping through traffic.
The border runs alongside the beach, so after getting your visa on arrival (£15), you can hit the beach and watch the crowds of djembe players lining the shore.
The country’s border bears the hallmark of ‘colonial European draws arbitrary line’, and the city swells right up against the border, as evident from this Google Maps weirdness:
Our hotel is mostly full of septuagenarian French sex tourists. The generous owner shares drinks with his elderly friends, playing host to bored looking young women eyeing their iPhones.
We meet Lukas, a Swiss cyclist. He's travelling from Cameroon to Switzerland over 100 days, on an epic cola-sponsored quest to bring an African nut back to Europe. (No, really!).
Meeting Lukas is a reminder - no matter how crazy your adventure, there's always someone crazier than you. Our paltry distances pale in comparison to the epic miles he’s putting in. He could probably do our trip in a weekend.
He doesn’t even have The Merch!
No ridiculous helmet anyway, and a gentleman doesn't discuss his lotions.
What he lacks in merch, he makes up for in street cred, opting instead for the shirtless bohemian look and cycling a small tank with a GoPro attached.
Not for the first time, we feel like fat, lazy drunks in ill-fitting spandex.
So we swerve past the bored hookers and order another Guinness.
Off the bikes, we wander through the Grand Marché, a street full of stalls selling fruit, underwear, batteries, and raw meat. (2 pairs of boxers and a steak for £3).
It’s around 4.30, and sunset’s slowly approaching. As I’m totally oblivious, Will has to point out the two guys following us.
He’s spotted that guy with low-riders and overly visible boxer shorts before. Lowrider stops dead in front of me to suddenly contemplate his laces, nearly knocking me over.
We swerve around him, cross the street and loop around to the parallel road, thinking we’ve lost them.
A few nervous minutes, until - another sighting. His pants seem to be getting lower, a malevolent peacock with malice in his heart.
By now our pace has quickened. Will recalls his mum's advice for keeping safe - if you're being threatened, stay visible, and walk in the middle of the road. So we do, down the centre of a 2 lane blacktop at rush hour.
The street seems endless, with no potential for escape or shelter. We can’t find a taxi anywhere. Or a restaurant, a policeman, or lollipop man.
Our new friends follow at ever decreasing distances, and we try to act casual. (As casual as you can when you’re about to be run over or kidnapped.) The next few minutes is a tense blur: Is that a taxi over there? - It’s yellow - How close are they? - Try not to get run over - In - Does these doors lock? - He's asking for directions?! - We have locked the doors, right? - Where's Lowrider? - And he's finally got it!
One last look at Lowrider as the taxi finally pulls away, and he smiles at me - dead-eyed and joyless. That's not a smile I’ll forget any time soon.
Note for our potential muggers: You should probably try to blend in more. Next time, pull up your damn pants.
We take a pirogue (lake gondola) to Togoville, the ostensible ‘home of voodoo’ in Togo. It looks like voodoo’s shut up shop for today, the streets populated solely by small shacks and run-down bars.
Finding our guide (random villager idling on the street corner), we're brought to the chief’s house. The chief - clad from head to toe in Adidas - expounds on the village’s colourful history while I admire his knock-off trainers.
Faded laminated photos of Pope John Paul’s visit in the 70’s are wheeled out. We’re shown the Pope Boat, a crumbling behemoth that once escorted the pontiff and cronies. From their high-end hotel to the custom built outdoor Pope stage, the Boat had its brief moment in the sun. Since then, its just been left there, its forgotten history undercut by the implausibly well-endowed voodoo statues nearby. We neglect to take pictures, so you’ll have to imagine. The boat, I mean.
We notice this strange juxtaposition of religions throughout the country. Wherever there’s a voodoo temple or local religious spot, some entrepreneurial missionary has erected a church or a basilica next to it. The chain religion with big pockets has a grand façade, giant wooden Jesuses, and stain glass windows. In contrast, the voodoo temples are small-scale affairs, tucked away under run-down shacks in small alleys. The church in this town (Notre Dame de Togoville), though nice to look at if that's your thing, is a case in point. It feels alien and imposed, a Western afterthought. The voodoo ceremonies, however, are organic gatherings - outside, in the backstreets, corner huts, and lakesides. 'God's house' doesn't even have air-con.
The cycling has settled into a nice rhythm.
Early rise, morning ride, blinding stomach cramps from dehydration/food poisoning, arrive in post-apocalyptic abandoned hotel, Game of Thrones in bed, passed out by 9.30pm. The headwind is heavy, and the heat oppressive, so I have to stop more frequently now.
Friendly locals provide motivation, though most of its in French, I only have to guess what half of it means.
We reach the border crossing at Aneho, a little more thorough than Ghana.
After inspecting my passport for an inordinate amount of time, I’m brought to a room with the Boss Man.
We sit in silence while he thumbs through my passport and waits for me to crack.
After 10 minutes, realising I have too much time on my hands - and no money -
'Where are you going?’ – ‘Lagos.’
That is the entire transcript of our fruitful encounter, and I’m brought back outside to be rubber stamped.
And like that, we’re free to enter Benin.
To read more about Lukas's adventures: check out his website here: