For the Labor Day weekend, I wanted to do something big. When scouring ideas, I stumbled upon the nonstop flight from Newark to Lome, Togo on Ethiopian Airlines. While seemingly random, it turns out that Ethiopian owns another airline based in Togo so with one plane, they can cover travelers going to anywhere on the continent.
The flight timing was perfect leaving after work on Friday and returning Tuesday allowing me to take a 4 day trip with just a single vacation day. While 4 days in Africa is quite short, Togo is also a small country, and the main sights are all near Lome.
As is common in Africa, I prefer to travel with a guide due to the language barrier and the fact that most of the interesting sights are outside the cities and cannot be accessed by public transport. As Togo is not a very touristy country, I struggled to find guide. One company has a €1200 price for 2.5-day tour. Ouch!
Eventually I found Loic and his company 1001 Pistes in Lonely Planet. He does mostly 1–2-day tours. After an email exchange, I decided to book his “most adventurous” tour which goes to visit tribes in the Atakora mountains somewhere north of Lome. The itinerary was quite vague, but this guy had great reviews. And let´s be real, the super planned itineraries are never as much fun!
The final plan was to explore Lome for 1/2 day upon arrival and the next day get picked up for the 2 day tour, one final night in Lome and then head home.
September 3, 2022: Lome
The flight from Newark to Lome took an easy 9.5 hours. I was told that this flight is always busy. Upon arrival in Lome, a surprising number of people disembarked.
Immigration was a mess. As of a few weeks ago, all visitors to Togo need an e-visa, which I got. There used to also be visa on arrival option, but it was discontinued without telling anyone. Half of the lines were for people with e-visas and half were for the visa on arrival…where a guy tells you to log onto the nonexistent Wi-Fi and fill out the online form for the e-visa. I first went into the wrong line which took about 20 minutes. Why couldn´t the guy just process my evisa?!
Eventually I walked up to another counter and slide my passport in front of a group of people. The African way. Luckily the guy just processed it, and I quickly got my beautiful visa printed in my passport. This is Africa.
Also, very annoyingly Togo requires a COVID vaccine with a QR code. A paper CDC card does not cut it. Luckily, this was not an issue for me but others ran into trouble.
My hotel came with a free shuttle. A man waiting with a sign picked me up and drove me into the city center.
Hilariously the guy did not know where the hotel was located. We drove around the city center for about 20 minutes around the center before I pulled up Google Maps and directed him. TIA.
The hotel was beautiful and looked like a castle. It was owned by a Frenchman who was smoking when I walked in. He has spent 41 years living in Africa, half of them in Togo.
After checking into my room, I headed into the city center, which is basically one gigantic market. Both sides of the streets were lined stalls. There were so many people it was hard to move. I ogled at the colors of the outfits, the overall energy, and the ability of African women to place large and heavy objects on their heads.
Eventually I wandered my way to the cathedral which dates to the brief period of German rule between 1884 and 1914.
Along the coastal road, I found a moto-taxi to take me to Togo´s most popular tourist attraction: the voodoo market. With no helmets and few traffic rules, the 15-minute ride was quite thrilling but eventually we made it.
Voodoo (also known as Vodun) is a West African religion dominated by various spirits that range in levels of importance. There is no centralized authority, and each village has a unique set of spirits.
Interestingly, many voodoo practitioners are also Christian, as the presence of a single almighty God does not discount the presence of the spirits. As a result, most of the “Christian” populations of Togo, Benin and Ghana actually practice a combination of both religions.
Voodoo priests interpret the will of the various spirits and help appease them by conducting rituals. Priests also conduct rituals to help practitioners influence a spirit in the hopes of some life benefit such as health, wealth, sex drive and, yes, revenge. Many of these rituals involve the creation of magical objects called fetishes. The voodoo market primarily sells objects required to create fetishes, but there are also a few magic objects along with non-magical tourist items for sale. The “voodoo dolls” for sale were not magical.
As many voodoo rituals involve animal sacrifice or dead animals, there were naturally many many dead animals. Hundreds maybe thousands of dead animals. There were dead monkeys, hyenas, snakes and even crocodiles! Grisly!
After viewing all the shops and seeing the very real voodoo altar in the back, I was taken into a wooden hut where I met a real voodoo priest. He said he learned the ways of the spirits from his father.
The priest said my name three times and said a blessing which protects me from evil. Then, he showed me several fetishes that he has created. Each fetish has a unique attribute. One is for safe travels, one protects from bad dreams, one promises good sex, and another ensures a safe home. He asked if I wanted to purchase any. I said yes and placed the safe travels and safe home fetishes in a turtle shell. He then said some chants and rolled 5 small shells on the ground. He said the spirits told him that he should sell the fetishes for 50,000 Central African francs- nearly $100. I was not ready to pay this and asked if the spirits could do 10,000 francs.
He rolled the shells again and said that the spirits have accepted my new price. Got to say I did a pretty good job bargaining with the spirits!
Then he showed me two tiny logs painted dark blue and strung together. He said that someone at my job is trying to hurt me, and this artifact will protect me. Again, he consulted the spirits and they again said 50,000 francs. I respectfully declined his offer by saying that fetish was better in his hands and smiled.
I took the same moto-taxi back to the market and continued to walk around. What a thrill!
Having not eaten anything all day, I stopped by the beach for some West African food. The cafe gave me beef and veggies over couscous. It was delicious. During my meal, a few vendors came up to me to sell things. One guy talked to me for a while and I gave him 1 US dollar which he found interesting. The beach, by the way in unswimmable due to rip-currents.
I continued walking to the national palace, which is the former parliament building. The building is now a theater. Outside was a youth roller blading championship which was incredibly random and fun to watch. I really loved the coaches yelling in intense French.
The sun was setting so I headed back to the hotel for dinner. There were no other guests, so it was just me and the owner at a lavish bar stocked with the finest French liquors and wines. I ate a fancy French chicken and watched the French news.
As I was getting ready to sleep, I heard what sounded like chanting and it kept getting louder. I decided to walk outside the hotel and saw a Christian religious candlelight parade. The parishioners were singing! Africa truly amazes.
I then went to sleep to get ready for my 2-day trip into the tribal areas outside the city.
Lome is no tourist destination. Besides the fetish market, there are no museums or other formal attractions. Everything can probably be seen in a half day.
That said, the city is safe, colorful, and pleasant. The people are friendly. If you for some reason need to stay somewhere in West Africa for a couple days, I can think of far worse places than Lome.