My first impression of Togo, West Africa, was oppressive humidity, auburn sand and the smoky-sweet aroma of melted waste. My parents and I stepped out of the Lomé airport into darkness with nothing more than our backpacks and the desperate hope that my older brother, Sean, was somewhere nearby, ready to usher us through a foreign country.
The three of us left our Midwestern home five days previously, prepared for what we could only assume would be a wild adventure. Sean has been serving in Togo with the Peace Corps since June 2014, so my parents decided to visit the country he has called home for the last two and a half years. We packed and re-packed our bags, got shots for tropical diseases and applied for Togolese and Ghanaian visas. Before we knew it, we were on our way.
Because there is a 6-hour time change between Minneapolis and Lomé, we stopped in Brussels, Belgium for two days to get over jet lag. We had a great time visiting the Royal Palace, eating near the Grand Place, reading French panels at the Brussels City Museum and exploring endless chocolate shops along the cobblestone streets. We kept losing track of mom as she ducked into every chocolatier she set eyes on, eagerly tasting each sample. One night we went out for Belgian beers at a local pub and watched as young people started to flood the streets. The plaza buildings glowed in golden lights and the cool air bit through our wool sweaters. It felt like time was suspended in anticipation of our next stop.
The following day we flew from Brussels to Accra, Ghana where our plane stopped for an hour to let off 80 percent of its passengers. The remaining Togo-bound travelers all stood around in the aisles and watched from the small plane windows as the sun set over the hazy red earth.
It was dusk when we finally landed in Lomé but it was only about 6:30 p.m. local time. We stepped out into the darkness of the parking lot and were immediately surrounded by reuniting families. We hesitated in the doorway for an uncertain moment, but then I saw Sean’s lone white face among the thrumming crowd. As we made our way towards him he began to laugh, saying it was so weird to see his family in Togo: a collision of two different worlds, two different lives.
Sean had set up a taxi for us and he quickly rattled off some confident French to agree on the price as we loaded our bags into the back of the rickety car. Then we rumbled into the night. The roads were barely contained chaos with weaving cars, random roundabouts and reckless motorcycle taxis. These motos swooped and swerved in and out of loose lanes of traffic while their female passengers balanced gracefully on the back, their long hair and brightly colored skirts flapping with the wind. I leaned my head out the window, letting the breeze dust me with red sand as car horns filled the air.
When we turned into Sean’s neighborhood, Kodjoviakopé, the pocked pavement eroded to red sand and the buildings had more dents and patches. We pulled to a stop in front of an impressive graffiti painting of two African women and we piled out of the car. We lugged our bags across the street to Hotel Phenix where a group of men were crowded around the small red doorway. We smiled and nodded wordlessly at their French greetings while Sean checked us in. Overwhelmed and exhausted, we were all very grateful to eat dinner and have a beer with some of Sean’s fellow Peace Corps Volunteers.
I woke the next day to the scratching of someone sweeping the courtyard with a bundle of sticks and the scent of trash burning throughout the city. I spent the first part of the morning struggling to fix the bed frame after one of the boards slipped out during the night, and then I had a quick self-taught lesson on how to flush a toilet when the handle isn’t attached (turns out if you stick your hand in the tank and pull up a tube, that seems to work). I finished my morning routine by brushing my teeth with bottled water and then I headed out to face the day. I met my parents at the rooftop restaurant and we drank Nescafe instant coffee as we waited for Sean to meet us. Despite the early hour, Lomé was already bustling to life underneath a rusty sunrise. Motos roared by on the street below and conversations in Togolese French drifted up to where we sat.
When we stepped outside a little later, the sand was already burning in the heat and every few yards there was a puddle of liquid waste or a pile of debris. As a group of white faces, we definitely attracted attention, but it was not nearly as disconcerting as I imagined it would be. Instead, we were met with curious looks and mostly friendly greetings. Occasionally a man would pass on a motorcycle and shout “yovo” — foreigner — but it was more of a statement than an accusation.
The three of us followed Sean around like lost puppies as he led us to his office at the Peace Corps Bureau. I was enjoying looking at the little fruit stands on the street and admiring the occasional scraps of vegetation that we passed, but I quickly became aware that beads of sweat were forming on my forehead. Then the shirt underneath my backpack straps began to stick to my shoulders and my face became swollen and red — after only 20 minutes outside. The dust in the air makes the sun feel distant, but the air is thick and wet and impossible to breathe. I spent the next couple hours still wiping away sweat as we met Peace Corps supervisors, doctors, coordinators and other volunteers. It was hardly a great first impression but we received many sympathetic smiles and a lot of advice on staying hydrated.
As the air began to cool, Sean took us to the beach a few blocks from his apartment. We passed palm trees, long wooden boats and young boys with large trays of sunglasses and sandals. There was a large tent with seating but we found a blue table with plastic chairs at the outer edge and ordered some Togolese beers. There was a steady stream of people trying to sell us various goods and a group of young boys seeing if we were paying attention to our belongings, but the breeze was pleasant and the beer was cold. The legs of our blue chairs sunk deeper into the sand as the sun slowly set in the distance, casting shadows behind the thatched canoes lining the shore and the haggard women selling fish.
During our last full day in Lomé, Sean’s friend from his village, Ikililou Sidamba, came down to visit us. Sidamba was Sean’s counterpart during his two years in village and helped him integrate into his new home. Our family has heard a lot about Sidamba over the years but this was our very first interaction with him. He had spent eight hours on an overcrowded bush taxi and had to be unbelievably tired but Sidamba greeted us all with warm hugs, calling us father, mama and sister. He is a tall, energetic young man with a quick laugh and warm smile. I think we all loved him immediately.
After walking around Lomé for a while, we all went out for lunch at a Togolese place on Beach Road. It was a small place with one fan on the low ceiling and long tables crammed wall to wall. Sean knows the woman who runs the place because he eats there multiple times a week and she greeted us all as long lost family members. When the food came I discovered the peanut sauce that I ordered was a gray liquid with hunks of goat swimming in it. Luckily it also came with a cone of rice so I ended up mostly eating that for lunch. That was the first and only time during the trip when I couldn’t quite bring myself to eat what was in front of me.
For our last night in Lomé, Sean took us to the nicest place in all of Togo: The Radisson Blu Hotel. The hotel rises 27 stories into the sky, towering 25 floors above any other building in the country. Bright blue lights flicker up the sides of the sleek building in sharp contrast to the surrounding houses with crumbling beige walls and tile roofs. As we walked through the 10-foot metal gate, we were searched and scanned by eight guards and then carefully guided to the poolside bar. We sipped sweet Caipirinhas (not Sidamba because he doesn’t drink) by the neon blue water as the sun faded behind the trees. The place was luxurious by any standards and we all felt the need to repeatedly explain that it wasn’t a normal American place to stay. There were walls of water, pianos in the lobby and golden artwork everywhere. I felt incredibly out of place despite the fact that I saw more white faces at that hotel than anywhere else in Togo.
When it got dark outside we took the elevator up to the 26th floor to admire the view. The lights of Lomé speckled the ground in front of us, but they cut off dramatically at the edge of the city. And then for miles there was nothing but blackness. The following day we were to venture out there, north to Kpalime, where we would get trapped at a bar in a rainstorm, attempt to hike in the mountains and venture into a Togolese market.