Togo to-go!

During our stay in Ghana, we had three weekends to take whatever trips we wanted. The first weekend was spent exploring Ada Foah and our (temporary) home turf of Accra, and the second was at Cape Coast. The third weekend — well, the subject of Togo cropped up quite a bit. Togo, a sliver of a country nestled between Ghana and Benin (the birthplace of voodoo), was within reasonable driving distance from Ghana, and a good number of us had multi-entry Ghanaian visas, so why not?

Saturday was spent at Ho, the major city of Ghana’s Volta region. Drained and pretty darn sleep-deprived that day as we had to leave Accra at 6am and Halloween had been the night before, I didn’t quite have the energy to climb nearby Mt. Adaklu, especially not under the blistering sun at noon, or much else, so I chilled out at the hotel and managed to live on the edge by falling asleep at an impressive time of 8pm that day.

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The base of Mt. Adaklu — gotta love the generic sign

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The hiking centre of Mt. Adaklu

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A view of Ho from the hotel; the peak in the distance is Adaklu!

Which was probably a good thing, because we left for Togo bright and early the next day. This was my first land border crossing, excluding European train rides because Schengen eliminates all that hassle, since the time I crossed the Seattle-Vancouver border when I was like, 9. But lucky for you, I’ve compiled a quick and easy guide of my own experience crossing the Togo border so that if you ever have the desire to go from Accra to Lomé, this might make things a bit easier. :)

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Les douanes togolaises: for the non-Francophones, that’s the Togolese customs

Ghana Go to Togo: The 9-Step Program

1. Get passport photos, because the visa application says they’re required.
If you’re that type of prepared traveler who carries these by the dozen, skip this step (and probably this entire guide, because you likely won’t need it anyway). Otherwise, HAHAHAHAHA good luck finding a photo studio that’s open on a weekend morning, let alone a morning on Sunday in a heavily religious part of a predominantly Christian country where you have no business not being in church at that time. In the meantime, drive around to find a functional ATM to withdraw cash to buy your passport photos. An hour later, go to the one photo studio in Ho that offers instant passport photos (thanks Sinbad!).

2. Drive to the Ghana-Togo border.
You’ll have the van door opened by a border guard with a fever gun ready to examine your temperature. As you wonder how effective those things really are, you’re suddenly whisked outside the van, where you’re supposed to present your yellow fever immunization card. Breathe a sigh of relief that you were smart (and lucky) enough to bring it with you to the trip. Fill out embarkation forms.

3. Drive between no-man’s land.
Don’t take pictures, even if they’ll make a good Facebook profile photo for later. Border guards hate that shit.

4. Arrive at the Togo border.
Realize that nobody here, not even the border guards who live only a few meters away from an English-speaking country and are pretty much responsible for communicating with people who are 97% likely to speak English, speaks a lick of English. Use the last remnants of your French skills, which have rapidly deteriorated since you left high school. Attempt to communicate with the border guard’s Togolese French using your basic-ass French and get deets on how to get a visa. Fill out visa forms.

5. Pay for the visa.
Fair enough, right? The details of how much you need to pay for a visa seem particularly hazy when a border guard is telling you this in Not-English, but you manage to communicate to the rest of your group that Americans need to pay slightly more CFAs (the Togolese currency) than the non-Americans. Sounds like every other passport control pricing, but then you run into the snag: nobody here has CFAs.

6. Exchange your cedis for CFAs.
Arithmetic is difficult. Arithmetic in French is fucking difficult. Arithmetic in French and then back in English and then back in French is a nonstop round trip to hell and back again. You have 7 people, 3 of them non-American, who need visas, and all 7 of these people apparently need to exchange their cedis for CFAs, because the Togo border refuses to take anything else. Convince the border guard to exchange everybody’s cedis (6 cedis = 1,000 CFAs, because this new currency is unthinkably hyperinflated), but realize exactly how difficult arithmetic is in a foreign language. Get all 7 people to chip in their cedis. Receive CFAs, only to give them back to the border guard almost immediately to pay for your visas. Realize that last step was incredibly superfluous and made approximately zero sense (because why couldn’t the border guard just take your cedis and be done with it???), but roll with it anyway because of all the things that have a place on the Ghana-Togo border, logic is not one of them.

7. Wait in your van.
Get ordered by the border guard (in French) to wait in the van, which is aptly parked near the middle of the road. Stare at the border guard through your van window as he completes a stack of 7 passports. Continue staring for 45 minutes.

8. Receive visas.
Scratch head and wonder why it took so long. Think about what it would be like if you had to wait 45 minutes at the US border and shudder instinctively. Open your passport. Find a wet speck on top of your Togo stamps that you suspect might be somebody’s saliva, and that somebody is not you. Count the number of components that make up a Togolese passport stamp (eight). Stare at the handwritten part (congratulations, you are the 599th person to cross this Togo border! DING DING DING.), at the two old-school stamps that require you to manually lick them (and also realize where that saliva came from), at the fact that this whole thing took up an entire page of your passport. Realize why it took so long, even thought you’re Very Confused about the absurdity of it all. Realize that you never used your passport photos from Step #1.

9. Félicitations, bienvenue à Togo.

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Check out our 70,200 CFA lunch bill — oof.

If there was one thing that really made the Togo trip what it was, it was this. Togo itself is a low-key country, made even more low-key by the fact that it was Sunday and nothing was open. Everything, from the writing on the storefronts and billboards to the street signs to the overheard conversations, is French. Lomé (the capital) lacks the hustle and bustle that I had gotten used to in Accra, and the only foreigners we had even seen were the ones we saw at Alt München, the German restaurant where we had gotten lunch. Palm trees are a dime a dozen here, and the entire coast is all beach, with nobody actually swimming and everybody chilling out drinking Club beers on plastic chairs at the roadside beach bars. We could have browsed the Fetish Market (the voodoo market that Lomé is particularly known for) or stuck around for the last day of Togo’s Bierfest, but sometimes you just really need a break from “obligatory” sightseeing and there’s no better antidote for that than a hilariously absurd border control story.

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P.S. That said, going back to Ghana from Togo was so much easier.
P.P.S. I still haven’t used those passport photos.

Never Ghana Give You Up: Accra

I don’t have any excuses for the amount of dust and radio silence that this old blog has collected, and I always dread the inevitable moment, where I hang my head in shame because I had only one job. Record-keeping for record-keeping’s sake doesn’t come as naturally to me anymore, and I’ve developed the blogging habits of a drowning man who comes back up for a gasp of air, only to drop back down, never to resurface again.

But anyway, here’s to trying. (And I need to pour one out for Amanda, who has been providing me with all the mojo I need to stop being lazy and actually write a blog post — hi, you rock!) Status update: I’m currently in Accra, Ghana, actually, as I have been for the past three weeks, even though my sense of time has been slow-cooked enough for me to believe that I’ve been here for the past six months. More specifically, I’m wrapping up a community service program at work where 15 other Googlers and I work on various consulting projects with local NGOs in Accra.

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First off, I’m lucky — really lucky — to be able to take time off of my day-to-day work sched and do cool work with cool people in a country whose many quirks and facets have gained real estate in my heart. Mondays through Thursdays are for Soronko Solutions, where two lovely Googlers and I are helping to create a STEM mentorship program for high school girls in Ghana. Fridays are for teaching about tech to the kids in the local high school, followed by creating videos at the local arts centre. From 8am to 5pm, we’re knee-deep in hands-on work. Most days are exhausting. I have developed predatory instincts for caffeine. I never quite get my expected 8 hours of sleep. I deal with things like not having any power (which means running on 5% battery with my laptop and sometimes 5% of my own energy reserves) or not having a functional sink or toilet that are usually considered unthinkable back in Silicon Valley but are merely minor inconveniences over here. But the overall experience in Ghana has been the good sort of exhausting, in the sense that I’ve eaten a full delicious meal right after running on empty, and now I’m in the food-coma stage where I’m still digesting everything that I’ve experienced and I know I’m going to have so many good things to say after the fact, but if I could just lay down and roll around on a bed for a minute (because right now, at this present moment, I’m still bloated), that’d be amazing.

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I’ll talk about Accra first. It’s very much a city, but a city with social circles that overlap and run tangentially, where run-ins with people I’ve met from the week before are not coincidental but the new normal. On my flight from Accra to Dubai, for example, I ran into the owner of the gelato/pizzeria place where I had been going for my Friday morning latte fix. (Also, if you couldn’t tell, I have since relapsed from my three-year coffee fast. More on that later!) Accra runs on a system different than that of any other city I’ve lived in, but it works. Power might be randomly shut down at any given second, but people find other things to do than wait around for Internet. People run on a wider wavelength of time here, but you learn to adapt and slow your roll. Almost everything is up for debate. I have to negotiate upfront for everything from taxi rides to a pair of printed trousers at the market, and as somebody who’s stonewalled into stubbornness (“Ten cedis? Are you fucking kidding me.” And let’s not forget that ~3 cedis = $1 USD.) and much too prideful to budge when it comes to paying 6 cedis versus 7, I can probably count negotiation as an “area for development”. Despite these idiosyncrasies (or maybe because of), life still goes on — but at varying speeds, because everything here is up in the air.

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Some other things I’ve jotted down during my time here:

  • When I left New York, I never thought I would miss coffee. After coffee and I had our “I WISH I COULD QUIT U” moment back in New York, I gave it up cold turkey, didn’t look back for nearly three years, when slowly but surely we started easing back into a healthier and less frequent relationship. Long-distance, if you will. But absence does make the heart grow fonder, and when you’re working all day and going to group events all night, you become more dependent on caffeine, to the point where you don’t start your mornings until you go to the local Putt-Putt golf course to drink non-instant coffee at the lounge because Accra doesn’t do cafes. And yeah, you heard me: I go to Putt-Putt golf course lounges just so I can drink coffee. What’s it to you?
  • Similarly, I was never a fan of Sweet ‘N Low (I’m a Splenda girl), but the dearth of artificial sugar (a staple of my breakfast tea/coffee) means shamelessly hoarding packets of those pink packets in my purse so I’ll have my emergency fix when I need it. Yes, Ghana has forced me to admit that I am hopelessly addicted to aspartame. Also, shame is overrated.
  • I have better luck finding a unicorn than diet soda, which maybe explains why I froth at the mouth whenever I see a Coke Zero nowadays. Come to think of it, I can’t remember the last time I had soda with sugar.
  • My laughable experiences with Ghanaian toilets have not given me better insight into the mechanics of a toilet. Dumping water into a toilet can fool you into thinking that it’s clean, but don’t try this lifehack at home, kids.
  • Ghanaians seem to have either a soft spot for Chelsea or Man City, which runs anathema to my own football tastes. This doesn’t stop me from going to Man-City-centric sports bars, because sometimes all you really need is a large bowl of honey chicken wings and a football game (any football team, really!) on a TV to make your Wednesday night.
  • Chicken and rice play a starring role in my Ghanaian diet, and plantains have a supporting role. Vegetables, on the other hand, are strangely absent.
  • Ghanaian radio plays the same sort of music you’d expect in an elevator at JCPenney’s in Midwest suburbia. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” played in an unironic context before (Bridget Jones doesn’t count.). I might even have heard more country music on Ghanaian radio than American radio, come to think of it.
  • “Seihor” by Castro, on the other hand, will never not get stuck in my head.

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Above all, though, Ghana will occupy a piece of real estate in my heart. Everything has been jam-packed and compressed in the past three weeks, that one blog post isn’t ever going to scrape the surface. I could talk about the people that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with (both Ghanaian and Googler alike) who are constantly doing amazing things, the high school girls in Accra that we’ve been mentoring who have enthusiasm and drive in spades, the constant friendliness of the people here, the joy of finding a restaurant here that you really love and know you will eventually revisit even though three weeks is about to draw to a close, the greatness of kelewele — I could talk about all of these things, but in a way, it still feels too soon and I have to remind myself that I didn’t actually make up any part of my experience here, certainly not the absurdities or the memories or the highlights that made Ghana Ghana.

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New Zealand, Day 4: Franz Josef Glacier, Lake Matheson, Lake Wanaka

This post is Day #4 of a series of blog posts documenting my road trip to New Zealand from 12/23 – 1/2. For deets on the actual trip itself, click here.

When I first heard that I’d be spending Christmas at a glacier, I was expecting something in a similar vein to crazy cold blocks of ice reminiscent of Antarctica. Franz Josef Glacier, though, feels less icy and more … rocky. That is, less of what you’d expect of a glacier:

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To be fair, I visited during the summer, but, come on, this is one area where rockslides are the most dangerous threat (they really do mean it when they say: ROCKS FALL, EVERYONE DIES). It still doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s stunning as hell.

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This might have been the 4th eggs benedict that I had in New Zealand? Whatever, man. Like I’d pass up eggs benedict with salmon, like this one from 88 Asian Fusion Restaurant.

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After our brunch, we drove to the Fox Glacier area, where we spent the afternoon walking the length of Lake Matheson, which is famed for its perfect mirror-like reflections.

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Verdict: noooot quite “perfect”, thanks to the wind and its endless ripples, but gorgeous nevertheless.

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That night, we were expected to get to our lodge at Lake Wanaka, except for one thing: Haast Pass closes at 6pm. With only 90 minutes to drive through Mt. Aspiring National Park, we were majorly pressed for time. As in — we’d probably be bumming it in Mt. Cook if we didn’t get past the construction on Haast by the late afternoon.

AKA: we were screwed.

So you can probably imagine: lots of SHIT SHIT SHITs as we put the pedal to the metal. There was no time to stop and smell the roses, but even though the outside of my car window looked like a fast-forwarded replay of a National Geographic special, the point is, the outside of my car window still looked like a National Geographic special.

Sheep! Mountains! Deer!

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And we made it! By the time we got to Lake Wanaka, I think I became dead-set on one day retiring and buying a nice summer house here. Look at that water. Either that, or I was so happy to not be pulling a Nascar on the hairpin turns of a bunch of mountains anymore. Either way, arriving at Wanaka was everything I needed and more.

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Unlike the cityscapes of Christchurch and Auckland or the deep-in-the-woods feel of Franz Josef, Wanaka felt decidedly more suburban: lots of quiet neighborhoods overlooking the lake. And with that, I spent that night searching up fun (read: CRAZY) things to do for the next day in Queenstown, only the extreme sports capital of the world.