The border patrol officer skimmed my passport. “Where are you staying in Togo?”
Pause. “I don’t actually know,” I said, my eyes avoiding his gaze. If only I had known then just how true the statement would be. I rested my chin on my sweaty fist.
“You don’t know?” His eyes were now directly in front of mine. “What is the phone number?”
I shrugged. “Uh…we don’t know that either. Kat, did Anna tell you the name of the AirBnB?”
Across the room my friend was having an almost identical conversation with another officer. I caught her eye. We didn’t need to exchange words in order to reach the same conclusion: if we wanted to make it through customs efficiently, we had to banter our way to the other side.
Kat turned back to the officer, ready to charm with her signature Cuban lip pout.
“We’ll figure it out, right?” I shouted, my hands extending out as if I were on Broadway. “Pas de problème!” The officer dodged my outstretched arm and stamped my passport.
“Bonne chance!” He said with a chuckle.
“Claro que si!” The Spanish words came ringing back from Kat’s table.
“You speak Spanish?” The officer asked her in broken English. “Como estás?”
Kat winked at the officer as he handed her the passport. Knowing that we were departing celebrities, we slowly backed off stage left to exit Benin and enter Togo.
Giving each other a high five, we planned our next move: catch a taxi from there to Lome, the capital, and from Lome travel 2 hours north to Kpalime, where our friend Anna awaited us at an AirBnB…or so we thought.
Before we could say “Bonjour” a policeman secured us a taxi. We felt spoiled when we realized that the taxi had AC. Off we zoomed, feeling like queens.
Aggressive bartering in Lome landed us our final taxi to Kpalime. Squeezed into the back of a four door sedan were four women. We made short introductions then turned to face forward. Our hips crunched as we took off, then drifted into numbness until the occasional jolt revived sensation. In the west the sun was setting; the northern sky threatened rain. Relishing the fresh air, we maintained rolled-down windows as if our courage would postpone the downpour.
Two hours later, still confined to the rear of the taxi (which was now starting to feel like a prison) I received a text message from an unknown number:
This is Anna. In Lome. Call me. I am at hotel Lily, on the beach road. Come there with moto.
I squinted, confused. “Anna’s in Lome?”
A fuzzy phone call revealed a hiccup in our plan. Kat and I had left a day early, thinking that a longer weekend could only be a good thing. But Anna had not received our messages about coming to Kpalime a day early. She wasn’t even there.
“You guys are insane,” she said, “The reservation was for tomorrow night—not tonight—but it doesn’t matter. I called the AirBnB lady. They’re painting the house. We can’t stay there at all.”
“What?!” I thrust my jaw in irritation. “Under what circumstances is it okay to cancel last minute so you can paint your house?”
“I’m running out of credit,” Anna said, the signal crackling, “I will come to Kpalime tomorrow. Try to find the YWAM house. Maybe you can stay there. But it’s not in Kpalime…it’s in some village on the outskirts of town.”
The dark drive continued as we propelled north into the unknown. I called the YWAM house several times. Finally, a male voice answered. “There is no room tonight. You can come tomorrow.”
“Can we sleep on the floor?” I pleaded.
The man laughed. He thought I was joking. I wasn’t.
Kat and I assessed our options. It took a grand total of five seconds for us to realize we didn’t have many. We could try to find accommodations in Kpalime but we didn’t know the town and we would arrive late.
“I have my hammock,” I said, “We could sleep in the bush. It’s a two-person size. I call little spoon.”
At that moment a Togolese man in the front of the taxi turned around to face us. He must have disliked our wilderness idea because he asked how he could help. I explained the situation to him.
“Hey,” I asked him, “Can you ask this woman if we can stay with her, just for tonight?” I motioned to the woman we had greeted earlier. Before the man had even finished translating to her, she shook her head and turned her back to us.
“Do not worry,” he said, “I will take care of you. My name is Seth.”
I was really hoping he would say his name was Jesus…but Seth was alright. We decided to entrust ourselves to our acquaintance in the front seat.
About thirty minutes later Seth signaled the driver to stop the car. I glanced out the window. We were nowhere near civilization. There. I spotted two lights about 100 meters off the road. He motioned us in that direction.
We walked in silence for a few minutes until we entered a concrete compound. Two pairs of eyes peered at us curiously behind the safety of their mother’s skirt. We walked through an open area and into a dimly lit living room. There we waited as instructed for dinner. “This is my native village,” Seth explained. “We will eat here then I will take you across the road. My uncle has a guesthouse. I think you can stay there.”
We ate fou fou, which is yam pounded into a moist, thick paste. Add some fish stew and voila, we had our evening meal. We drank bag water until we could expand no more.
Seth, who had excused himself during the meal, reappeared in the dark room. “Come,” he said, “we can go to the guest house.” Kat and I wrestled our bags onto our shoulders and followed Seth outside. We crossed the road and traced a dirt path. Left turn. Walk. Left turn. Stumble. Readjust head lamp. Walk. Turn. I glanced at Kat with wide eyes and retraced our steps in my mind.
We arrived inside the guest house and were escorted to a small room with a double bed and a bathroom. Before he left, Seth grabbed both of our hands and prayed with authority for our safety and protection. “I will see you in the morning,” he said, passing us the room keys. He closed the door behind him.
Kat and I stared at each other.
“Do you know where we are?” I asked her.
“HELL no,” she replied, laughing. “There isn’t a single person in the WORLD who knows where we are right now.”
I thought for a moment. “You know…I kind of like it.”
A few hours later gentle light coaxed our sleepy eyes to reality. Dawn. My favorite time of the day, especially when breakfast is within reach. The staff took our coffee order.
“Shoot,” I said a few minutes later, sipping the sugary paste. “We forgot the ‘no sugar’ addendum.” We opted to venture caffeine-less rather than drink a lifetime’s worth of dental cavities. Nevertheless, we departed with grateful hearts. Jesus Seth bid us farewell after he prayed again for our safety. He had already paid for our accommodations but we offered money anyway.
We hitchhiked along country roads and aimless goats until we found our coveted destination: the YWAM base. After room arrangements had been settled, Kat and I dozed in my hammock for a few hours.
Squawk! My eyes opened. A flock of birds darted into the sky as if a predator had pounced. I peered above the seam of the hammock for potential danger. Aha. A voice resounded. This roaring laugh and a bizarre accent could only mean one thing.
“Anna!!” I yelled.
Finally, albeit a day late, our trio had come together.
The reunion was sweet. Anna is the kind of girl who would sign an apartment lease in a foreign country without ever visiting the apartment. She is unpredictable and lovely. Anna chided us for being idiots and then complimented us for being brave. We slurped mango skins and tossed around the idea of squeezing three into the hammock.
Some people might call us senseless, others might say we’re wild. I’m not really sure, nor does it matter. All I know is that I was refreshed after spending time with women who drummed to a similar beat. The following two days in Togo delivered some of my favorite moments of my life.
Together, we refused a guide and hiked into the Togolese wilderness, determined to track down an elusive waterfall. Not surprisingly, it took us way too long to find the waterfall, and then we spent far too long at the waterfall. We donned our damp shoes as dark blue swells clouded the evening sky.
We speed-hiked to mountain’s base with only a few minor cuts and bruises. Far from the nearest town and without transportation home, we corralled around the last moto driver. He agreed to let all three of us squeeze onto the back of his bike. Our quartet sped off, clamoring for grip and fist-pumping every time our motorcycle didn’t bottom out.
Lightning reached its talons into tumultuous clouds above us. In Kpalime we dismounted our noble steed and thanked the driver for a safe return. Only one more stretch remained until we could satisfy our groaning bellies. Within a few minutes we had bartered our way into a taxi. At the time we didn’t realize our chauffeur wanted to kill us, but we found out soon enough.
Shovels of rain dumped onto the poor excuse of a taxi, drowning our windows in blurry streams. Every few minutes the driver packed more people into the car, barely pausing for passengers to settle before he lurched like a bat out of hell. For most of the trip we held our breath…until Anna couldn’t hold it anymore.
Jutting her chin forward, Anna yelled at our taxi driver in French, “Monsieur. SLOW DOWN. WE DO NOT WANT TO DIE TONIGHT!” He paused momentarily (not from driving 60 mph, but from slapping the inside of his windshield with an old t-shirt) to howl with devious laughter and swerve to miss an innocent goat. We opted to depart the taxi well before our destination.
See, we have some sense!
Needless to say, after a warm pasta dinner we tucked ourselves in early. The rainy season flexed and roared all night.
The following morning we enjoyed an Easter breakfast before we bid the YWAM base farewell. Loose coins jangled in our pockets as our trio skipped along the dirt road. We pulled out the camera and shared genuine smiles, thankful for another shot at life.
Long hours of travel provided an opportunity to reflect on the weekend. We agreed that Togo is lovely but we don’t like taxi drivers, and we’re allowing ourselves to generalize. We risked safety for the sake of a good story and took some amazing photos (correction: Kat took amazing photos.).
Time away from the ship gifted us the space to stretch and disclose and discuss everything that crosses a twenty-something’s mind. We planned poorly and pretended that we had no regrets.
It’s also important to mention that we prayed—a lot. And we came out alive and better than ever before.
Try not to be intimidated by my harmonica skills.
Photos taken by Kat Sotolongo @katsoto