Friday, 20 July 2012

"No-Go To Togo"

So after a mind- and bottom-numbingly boring wait in the immigration building in central Kumasi, I was finally reunited with my passport (and it only took two visits and a two hour wait). What's more, it was complete with a visa extension, meaning that happily I was no longer illegally in the country. Good stuff. 

Long story short, I wanted to visit Togo with my new-found lease of freedom. At the border however, it turned out that my visa extension actually negates my visa. That is to say, the stay is extended, the multiple entry option is not. (i.e. I can go to Togo, but getting back into Ghana requires an 'Emergency Visa' which is horrifyingly expensive). The annoying part of all this is that I wondered if that would be the case, so I specifically asked the immigration officials in Kumasi whether I would still be able to travel in and out on my visa extension. They said it would be fine. Humph. So I didn't go over. A shame, but rather than weeping shamelessly on the frontier, I thought I may as well have a look around the Ghanaian side of the line. So the lesson learnt is one that we all knew already: immigration officials are the bane of all travelling.

To reach the border town of Aflao, I decided, in a moment of madness, to take a night bus from Kumasi. As ever, I was sitting next to a rather large woman, and there was neither one, nor two, but three screaming children in the back half of the bus. To top it off, on the other side of the aisle there were all manner of bags/sacks/jerry cans thrown into a big pile that reached up to the roof of the bus, all tied together with rope that must have had the tensile strength of blu-tac. Needless to say that by mid-way through the journey this had half-collapsed onto the poor woman at the end of our row.

Sleep was a precious and rare commodity thanks to more astonishingly vicious speed bumps. By midnight we had reached part of the N6 (the main road between the Kumasi and Accra - two largest cities in Ghana) that currently consists of a dirt track the width of a couple of runways. But it's not flat. At all. During the day time, it's a one and a half hours that is only marginally preferable to water-boarding. But at this time of night, I was treated to, what I least I thought was, a desperately romantic spectacle. All around us were hundreds of lorries, of all shapes and sizes, heading to unknown destinations and trying to meet deadlines. They would barrel through the moonscape together, kicking up dust that would swirl around in the scores of headlights. The forlorn sound of air-horns would disappear into the night air, before being replaced by the growing rumble of another gargantuan 18-wheeler as it would overtake: chassis rattling, suspension at breaking point. It took a number of bone-crushingly deep potholes (of which there are more than ample number) to shake me from my reverie.

We arrived in Aflao at around 06.00 in the morning, bringing the total journey time on one bus to the best part of 11 hours. Happily, this manages to break my previous record (from Belgrade to Sarajevo: for all of you out there who are thinking about slumming it across the Balkans at some point). 

So after the border debacle that morning, I had to change my plans. I have a feeling that a few people were secretly - and not so secretly - quite happy that I hadn't managed to reach Lomé. After all, the FCO travel advice for Togo hardly makes for optimistic reading: "…attacks on pedestrians happen in broad daylight...rise in violent robberies…theft is common…unofficial roadblocks…exercise extreme caution….etc." Perhaps it just wasn't meant to be this time.

As for Aflao itself, I read somewhere that it's the sort of place 'you will want to pass through as quickly as possible'. It's a typical border town. It's the complete opposite to Cape Coast (see previous post). It's as chaotic as anywhere I've ever been. The hassle is extreme. Not just to tourists, but to locals as well - there were men and women being pulled in all different directions at the same time as drivers' mates fought to get them on their own tro-tros. And whereas everywhere I've previously been, people talk to you because they're genuinely interested in what you do and what you think of Ghana, in Aflao you have the unshakeable feeling that everyone has an ulterior motive for wanting to talk to you. So I thought I'd press on.

I decided to visit the town of Keta. The hour drive east is worth the whole trip cross-country: Keta is situated on a narrow strip of coastline that lies between the sea and a lagoon . At times this strip reaches no more than 300m in width, where you're treated to bright yellow beaches, surrounded by palm trees on one side, and lush green swamps on the other. It's breath-taking at times. Keta itself is remarkably run-down. It could have been a ghost town. The onslaught of the sea means that many of the buildings on this part of the coast are crumbling onto the beaches. It's wonderfully atmospheric. The main sight in the town is Fort Prinzenstein, built by the Danes in 1784, before being sold to the British in 1850. It used to serve as a prison, until a particularly fierce storm caused it to half-collapse. Having made friends with a couple of boys in town, I was treated to a personal tour of the fort. Shackles, cannons and grind-stones all still in place, it was an eery and isolated place to visit.

I wandered along the huge stretch of deserted beach, watching the spider crabs swarming near the surf, and the fishing boats pushed out of reach of high tide. There was only one other person on the beach, at a considerable distance, and I presumed they were appreciating the decaying, almost forgotten feel to this coastline as I was. At least, I did before they whipped down their trousers and squatted onto the sand…

I finished off the day back in my hostel in Aflao, and to relax I found myself watching Invictus in French on Togolese TV. The final scene was interrupted - and I kid you not - at the exact moment of the triumphant (we hope) last kick of the Rugby World Cup Final. It was 17.00 and time to announce the names of those who had recently passed away in Lomé. I turned this off after an increasingly depressing hour of waiting for the film to continue.

To make my way back to Fumesua and avoiding another night-bus, I had to take a tro-tro to Accra (3h30mins), change at what I'm sure is the most chaotic bus station I will ever go to in my life, and grab another tro-tro to Kumasi, hopping off at Fumesua right at the end of another 5 hours travel. Apart from what must have been a dozen police check points, the moonscape yet again, and a surreal 1h 20 minutes of watching Banlieue 13 in the back of the converted van, this passed slowly but without too much incident. I arrived back here to a wonderful meal, a much needed shower and a very comfortable bed. It was a quick blast east for a couple of days that didn't go at all to plan, but then again, that's what travelling is all about…

Ghanaian Vehicle Moment of the Week: Having a baby throw up in our cramped and very full tro-tro. I suppose it had to happen.

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