About jled20

I am a Los Angeles-based lawyer taking time off to do a road trip down the West Coast of Africa.

BEFORE EGYPT, A NIGHT IN THE LAGOS AIRPORT

June 2

Despite a crop of emerging airlines and growing demand, intra-Africa flights are mercilessly expensive.  In order to get a reasonable cross-continental one-way fare (read: under $1000), I had to carefully consider my destination.  This venue shopping resulted in a roughly $750 flight from Cotonou to Cairo, but before reaching North Africa I had to earn my stripes by spending a night in the Lagos, Nigeria, airport.  Sweet Lagos:  one of the most dangerous cities in the world and infamous within the West African region.  Back in the 90’s, apparently the airport itself was a lawless shithole with a real danger of crime against passengers, though apparently things have improved since then, thanks in part to, if the internet posting I read on the topic is accurate, a “shoot on sight” policy of unauthorized persons appearing in places like the tarmac between where passengers exit the airport and the actual plane.

Anyway, I was expecting a rough stay but when I got there, a guy from the airport staff showed me to a lounge where he and his co-workers often slept.  He then offered to get me some food in the street since the airport restaurant was closed down.  Hungry, I accepted since without a Nigerian visa I couldn’t leave. When he returned, he tried gouging a huge tip out of me (more than the full amount of the food), and I refused, setting off a bitter exchange in which I typically failed to budge an inch. But whatever – I downed the beef and rice meal and crashed right out.  The next day, I found a wifi hotspot and got some work done until my afternoon flight finally came around . . . Cairo, straight ahead!

BENIN: LAST OF THE WEST AFRICAN 14

May 17 – June 1

Benin was a lot of fun; I spent a good deal of my time hanging out in the largest city of Cotonou, having great times with mostly local people and a smattering of travelers and NGO workers.   As is typical in West Africa, people were awesome and a joy to spend time with.   I relaxed in cafes and made trips to the markets and beaches.  My French has never been better.

Despite our best efforts including this sign, we were unable to sling the Cruiser in Benin

Benin was also where I said goodbye to the Cruiser; I had decided in Ghana that I would stay behind in Benin to continue the adventure solo while Lee and Nate went back to Ghana to get a flight to South Africa to buy motorbikes, do some sailing lessons, and, I’m sure, plenty of other awesome stuff.  A few days before I flew out of Benin, we took the Cruiser out for one last day trip (for me, at least) to Benin’s capital of Porto Novo and a visit to the huts-on-stilts village of Ganvie, built over Lake Nokoue. These hut dwellers perched over the lake escaped invasion by slave hunters, who, depending on whom you ask, were either forbidden by their religion or simply too scared to venture into the big, bad lake to attack villagers.

Colonial architecture in Porto Novo

We tried slinging the Cruiser in Benin, but couldn’t find anyone who would buy it for anything approaching a reasonable sum.  We probably could have gotten more in Burkina Faso or Niger, but at this point none of us wanted to go there.  After failing to sell his own vehicle (an older, less equipped vehicle than ours) in Burkina Faso because no one would give him the $10,000 US he was asking, my German friend Andy brought it to Benin, hoping to get at least as much.  His final price after tons of haggling:  $6,000 US.  Whoops.  So the writing was on the wall, and we had already visited and been in contact with shippers in Ghana that would ship to South Africa, as a backup plan.  We wanted to get at least $14,000 US for it, but we really never got close.

Aquatic fruit merchant and her young daughter in Ganvie. I bought a few of her bananas.

There are dealers from Benin’s giant neighbor to the south, Nigeria, everywhere on the scene in Cotonou.  They buy in bulk to sell mostly to the Nigerian market, and were not interested in a vehicle outfitted for an expedition.  Not to mention that they were collectively a bunch of knobs. Ideally, we wanted to find a fellow overlander, someone who cared about a roof rack, awning, load guard, bush lights, and everything else that makes the Cruiser ready for its next African off-road assignment.

With no takers in Benin, South Africa is the Cruiser’s next destination.  So the day after our final expedition, around 1 pm, I said goodbye and watched Nate, Lee, and the Cruiser start the journey up the Atlantic Coast to Ghana.  I will remember for a long time standing in the driveway of Gaesthaus (the name of our guest house in Cotonou) and seeing my home of five months disappear around a roundabout, and from view forever.  And so ends of Part 1 of the Africa Trip.

Rush-hour dugout canoe traffic services the stilted village of Ganvie

At a local art market (and a damn good one), I wheeled-and-dealed for some slick pieces of African art and sent a bunch of stuff home, in the process making a “heart-wrenching” decision to leave my banged-up old speargun behind.  (My internal debate entailed carrying the awkwardly long, and somewhat bulky, and – to some people – threatening speargun around until I found a place to put it to good use, probably Mozambique if not sooner.) The rains started to come more consistently as time passed in Cotonou, a reminder of dumps to come.

The keys I had held in my pocket for about 5 months were about to head to Ghana, then to South Africa in shipping container along with the Cruiser.

The only thing left to do was deciding where I would continue the journey.  Around the time Nate and Lee left, I finalized plans to go to Egypt.  In this way, I would do the classic Cairo to Capetown route north to south.

This was totally out of the blue, as until recently I hadn’t even considered the thought of going to North Africa, to the heart of the unfinished Arab Spring.  But after about an hour of research, I decided it was safe enough . . . and booked a one-way flight to Cairo.

SADLY, JUST 36 HOURS IN TOGO

This mischievous monkey pilfered anyone whose pockets he could search, looking for anything of interest, sometimes eating or shredding the contents. Hotel Le Galion in Lome

May 15 and May 16

We had considered ending the trip in Ghana, and selling the car there, but we didn’t, instead opting to see Togo and Benin.  In so doing, we will leave just three out of seventeen countries generally considered part of the geopolitical region known as West Africa – Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon – for another time.  If we hardly got to know Cote D’Ivoire, we gave tiny Togo short shrift too.  I could have enjoyed more time in Togo; at the same time, in a somewhat homogenous region, the experiences were becoming to some extent unavoidably repetitive.

Andy on his new motorbike near Condji, Togo

Although we had just a couple of days, they were superb.  This was in large part because I met up with my buddy Andy from Burkina Faso; just by coincidence, he happened to be chilling solo on the couch at a guest house we rolled up on, in the capital of Lome.  (In a testament to just how few travelers there are in the region, Lee and Nate ran into Alex in Ghana, who along with his girlfriend entailed the other overlander group we met in Burkina Faso.  Post-rally, this means that we met all the other overlander groups we saw in West Africa twice.)

Togo was one of the few countries – in Africa or otherwise – successfully colonized by Germany; the influence in Lome is palpable.  We had an awesome German meal our first night out.  The guest house was run by an elderly German woman who over the years had seen all manners of overlanding groups come through. She shared several stories of co-adventuring overlanders not being able to stand each other by the time they had reached Lome.

2036 Vendors and patrons at Vogan Friday Market

Since I had seen Andy last, he had bid adieu to his travel partner, spent a month in neighboring Benin (mostly in villages), acquired a motorbike in Benin without a license plate, and somehow managed to get it across the border to Togo.  How small is the Togolese coastline?  On my second and last day in Togo, Lee, Nate, and I had to get Benin visas from the the Beninese embassy, which was just a kilometer from the Ghana border.  After returning, Andy and I then took his motorbike to the Vogan Friday Market, and on the way back passed just a few kilometers from the Benin border.  We rode back to the guest house where I said goodbye to Andy and jumped in the Cruiser with Lee and Nate, and crossed the Benin border around 8pm that night.  Essentially, in a few hours, I crossed Togo three times – and then left the country.

The market trip was memorable; this might have been my favorite of the inevitably countless West African market experiences we’ve had.  The unusually relaxed layout in the late afternoon setting was worthy of many pictures, the vendors were lively and sassy, the fufu sauce arashide (yam paste served with a ground nut and peanut sauce) was delicious, and – more than anywhere since Carnival in Guinea Bissau – we heard the local word for white person, yovo,  (Though as I write this I recall a particular stretch in Ghana, between Dixcove and Green Turtle, where almost 100% of kids and a fairly high percentage of adults, we passed in the Cruiser said “Ubruni, how are you?”, ubruni meaning “white foreigner”.)

Vendor prepares a pineapple for me at Vogan Friday Market; I also bought some her oranges and mangoes, the latter of which she also sliced for me. All for less than $1 US.

Togo and Benin are well known for yovo greetings.  I sometimes enjoy being greeted like this, as it often signifies that Western travelers aren’t too common in the locale.  It surely displays a lack of worldliness and tact, but I guess it’s better to be provincially called out as different than to be just one more Western traveler in the midst of a completely blasé local population.  It gives one the feeling of successfully having gotten off the beaten track, and usually people saying yovo and the like are less jaded than the average bear.  On the flip side, I will admit that it does occasionally get annoying, especially if it is kept up all day long, day after day.

In any event, everyone was cool here, and Togo is good value for money.  A few more days would almost certainly have been a lot of fun.

GHANA: BIG MILLIE’S BACK YARD AND THE EAST

May 8 – May 14

By the time we reached Ghana, we had decided that we would be selling the Cruiser sooner rather than later.   It had been a good nearly five-month run, but not always an easy one; with increasingly violent Nigeria and the West African rainy season approaching, with different desires, agendas, and traveling styles among us, and with plenty of time in the Cruiser already logged, we decided that we would soon sell the vehicle. Meanwhile, I had been using a backpack and not a duffel bag because I figured at some point my African adventure would turn into a backpacking trip.

And now the time had come to strike out on my own, as I’ve done so many times before.  After Accra, I took a week at a somewhat legendary beach hostel in Kokobrite Beach called Big Millie’s Backyard, just a few kilometers away – yet a world apart – from Ghana’s capital.  There, I met lots of great people, locals and travelers – an Australian named Roger and two Ghanians, Belinda and Michael in particular who helped make the time at Big Millie’s special.

Big Millie’s was a great place to unwind for a bit.

Roger had been all through Southern and Eastern Africa, for much of the time on an organized overland tour – one of those giant buses.  He made a compelling case that such is a fun, efficient, and cost effective way to see those regions, and though ultimately that type of trip just isn’t my style, I enjoyed hearing his stories and remember some of his favorite spots.  I also spent considerable time on the internet, intensively trying to figure out where I’d go.  I think I’ve got some ideas.

FIshermen haul in nets while we watch from under a thatched shelter.

After Big Millie’s, I rejoined the squad in Accra; we then headed towards Togo, stopping in Eastern Ghana, highlighted by a great night camping on the beach at Keta.  During this time, I started to reflect on the bigger picture:  Overlanding in West Africa has been an unforgettable adventure, allowing us to get constantly off the beaten track because essentially the entire region is off the beaten track.  It’s an opportunity few have the chance to experience.  Yet the way we have been traveling lately – and to an extent on the whole for the last five months – has not been as conducive as I’d like to establishing the kind of relationships that come from solo travel.

The Cruiser is a barrier in many ways.  I hope to change this in the second half of the trip, while continuing to make the African experience as epic as possible.   After spending much of the last 15 years on the road, I think this may be my last big trip, or is it??? 🙂 Anyway, I’m throwing a lot at it.

GHANA: AND DOWN THE COAST THEY GO, FROM GREEN TURTLE TO THE CAPITAL

May 3 – May 7

Once again, a nocturnal entry into the next country; and again, we just beat the clock on the border closure. I had to rush to get all our paperwork done on the Cote D’Ivoire side while the others crossed the border in the Cruiser.  It’s always fun to walk across a border, and so many borders around the world involve a river or some other body of water with a bridge to walk across.  The lush, vine-filled banks of the Lagune Juen helped create one of best borders crossings I’ve seen; I had an urge jump into the surely warm water below and float off into the waiting jungle while straddling the border for a few hours.  Alas, it was getting dark and those guys were waiting for me.

Woman in Dixcove

Woman prepares a plate of rice and sauce in Dixcove

On the other side of the bridge was Ghana, where I had been back in 2005.  Like  Sierra Leone, I most of all remembered the people there: the smiles; the amazing friendliness, rivaling almost anywhere else on the planet; and also a somewhat annoying tendency to scold people for minor social transgressions.

We stopped in a small town near the border for dinner and decided at that point to continue on to the Green Turtle, a remote beach guest house that Lee and I had passed by on a full day hike. Let me take you back:  In 2005, we had decided to do a trek along the Ghanaian coast from Busua to Princesstown.  With all of our backpacking gear, we set off around 9 am, having heard that it was about 10 kilometers or so to our destination, an old slave fort that had recently been transformed into a guest house.  We walked along a road, at times followed by a dozen or more children, and along the beach.  We saw Green Turtle, at the time a few huts set just off the beach; we took a swim there, ate our packed lunch, and briefly contemplated staying there for the night.  We didn’t and pressed on, being forced inland through a forest trail by a rocky outcropping as it was getting dark, and emerging back onto the beach to a nearly full moon an hour later.  It was several more kilometers from there – with raw feet, aching backs, and a profound sense of relief, at around 11pm we finally rolled upon the fort-guest house above Princesstown.

Former Slave Fort, Dixcove

Remains of former slave fort in Dixcove

Fast forward to the present: we rolled up on Green Turtle itself at maybe around 11 pm that night.  The place had become a full-on travelers’ remote beach mecca guest house, and we were greeted by a wholly wasted English guy who was starting arguments and fights with people, walking into their rooms, just acting like a complete douche.  Immediately upon arrival, we got the same treatment . . .  welcome!  We stayed at Green Turtle for a couple of days, enjoying the laid back beach and the nearby remains of a former slave-holding fort in Dixcove, the likes of which dot the Ghanaian coast .

The English owner, Tom, who loved the story of us passing by in 2005, was looking to sell the place after an apparently successful nine-year run there.  He and his wife had school-age children, and they wanted to get back to England.  Many travelers, including me, have considered the idea of buying a guest house on a beach, making it amazing, and enjoying life, but it was particularly interesting to hear from someone who had done it and was now looking to move on, to re-engage with his native country.   Most ex-pat guest house owners have crazy stories of navigating the local scene; Tom sure had a few including his latest battle to get the local powers that be to improve the horribly potholed road that leads to Green Turtle and service villages in the area.  I forget the exact numbers but he was looking to sell for like 50 or 100 times what he paid for the land.

A Band at a Bar in Accra, Ghana

Ghanian high life: a band playing at afternoon concert in chop bar, Accra, Ghana

We then enjoyed a couple of nights and a full day in Accra; we ate some great local meals at a couple of chop houses, made the rounds at a bar scene that had a large number of ex-pats and foreign students (Ghana has become a popular place to study abroad), and did the inevitable administrative stuff that you can only do in big cities in Africa.  I hadn’t been to a place this developed since Morocco; as I watched a soccer match on flat screens at a trendy sports bar, I couldn’t help thinking we were a long way from the dark, cramped, sweaty, men-only “soccer observation rooms” of Guinea and Sierra Leone.   The developed nature of certain parts of the city was a shock to my system; in certain spots of the city, it was almost as if we had been transported back to Europe, even if reminders of West Africa were never too far away.

Accra marked the point when Dan’s two weeks in the Cruiser were over, except for that when we got to the airport about an hour and fifty minutes before the flight, Dan was told that since he did not get there two hours early, he couldn’t board the flight.  No amount of rational argument, threats, sweet-talking, attempted bribery – to multiple potential decision-makers – could change anyone’s mind, and he had to pay over $200, wait an extra day to fly out, and take a new flight that included a stopover.  Ouch.  This is Ghana’s obsession with rules gone mad; they serve a purpose in a region often marked by lawless chaos, but they still seem to be working on enforcing the right rules at the right time.  But oh well; he got out in the end and he was a good sport about it.   Dan, great traveling with you – I’ll miss the laughs and wish your stay could have been longer.

COTE D’IVOIRE: LA DEUXIEME PARTIE

April 30 – May 3

Three curious youngsters outside a gas station in Man, Cote D’Ivoire. Wherever we stopped, kids would usually pop up to see what was going on.

I had been eagerly awaiting the return to Cote D’Ivoire, a country plagued by even more recent violence than Liberia.  When we got there, however, the reality of having to get Dan to the Accra airport in just a few days meant that time was extremely limited.  We spent the first night in Yamasoukoro, the capital.

After spending almost three weeks in two of the world’s poorer countries, Cote D’Ivoire was noticeably more developed, especially the purpose-built capital with its wide streets, ubiquitous street lights, and . . . very few people.  At a restaurant in Yamasoukoro, I tried agouti, a muskrat.  Never has a rodent been prepared so delightfully for my consumption.

Grandiose basilica in Yamoussoukro, Cote D’Ivoire

 

The next day we made it Abdijan, a city of 5 million people, the economic capital of the country, the largest city in French-speaking West Africa.  We drove through the city – and by traffic-dodging pedestrian merchants peddling an astonishing array of useless bullshit – to stay in Grand Bassam, which had beachside accommodation.  Here I got yet another chance for ocean wave-riding within a sizable and violent swell, heretofore one of my most commonly undertaken activities throughout the trip.

A night later, we hit a fun local outdoor restaurant selling grilled chicken; we subsequently tried and failed decisively to find anything going on in the area, happening upon bar after bar with only a few prostitutes and no customers inside.  I suppose it was only Tuesday night; in retrospect, we should have tried another neighborhood in a city that big.

Nate heaves a bottle we found washed up on the beach, with a message inside. It washed back up on shore a minute later. Southern Cote D’Ivoire.

We mulled over spending a night in the southern part of the country, on an island in Iles Ehotile National Park, taking a quick look but deciding against it, instead opting for the Ghana border before it closed for the night.  And that was Cote D’Ivoire…kind of anti-climactic.  CDI, I hardly knew ya.

EURO FOOTBALL IN WEST AFRICA

One constant in West Africa has been a love of European soccer leagues, primarily the English Premier League (EPL), the Spanish La Liga, and Italian Serie A.  Also tremendously popular is the Champions League, and though it won’t happen until later this year, I’ll bet even more popular still will be the Euro 2012 tournament.

The reach of the English Premier League, with an old-school and well-worn Liverpool represented here, seemingly knows no bounds in West Africa. Near Banfora, Burkina Faso.

With no high-level domestic play locally, the Africans’ passion for the European league is manifested by whole towns turning out for matches; by scores of young guys with pirated European soccer jerseys, so much so that these shirts have become the de facto uniform of young West African men; and by the constant conversation about the matches before and after they take place.

In a testament to how global the European leagues have become, from Morocco to Liberia (and counting), we have seen everywhere signs written on chalkboards inviting patrons to watch matches.  Whether it’s a tea house, a restaurant, a bar, or an impromptu movie theater, large groups of men (and occasionally a few women) gather to watch the matches on tiny screens.  At their most classic, the venues are dimly lit sweatboxes full of men only, a hundred or more smushed into a tiny room, many of them adorned in the invariably pirated jerseys of their preferred squads.  Everyone goes apeshit regularly – it doesn’t have to be a goal but when one is scored, the level of excitement skyrockets into the stratosphere.  Everyone cheers wildly – celebrating the global game in a local way – for their chosen team for the particular night, no matter if it’s the team they support habitually. This is modern West African culture on display.

Euro soccer jerseys on sale at Vogan Friday market, Vogan, Togo.

And it’s not only during the match.  In Robertsport, Liberia, we were sleeping on the beach one morning, only to be awakened by a group of fishermen at about 5:30am, shouting exuberantly for about an hour.  They were from two different boats, so we thought maybe they were having some kind of feud about territory or something.  Unable to sleep, I started watching them; a couple of times, it looked like a fight was going to break out but none ever did – they were just excited.  A woman passed by and I asked her what they were talking about.  “Oh they’re just discussing last night’s football match,” she said, referring to the Champion’s League semifinal between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, which we had watched too.

A huge crowd gathers to watch a Champions League Match, in a scene no doubt repeated in countless venues throughout West Africa that night. Monrovia, Liberia.

I’ve always enjoyed watching sports, and it’s great to see these matches bring people together.  For many, they also provide a respite for a sometimes difficult life in the world’s poorest region.