Sunday, October 4, 2009

Togo capital is not what it was in 1980s

LOMÉ, Togo – I’m back in Togo, almost exactly 24 years after I left. I lived here for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching agriculture in a secondary school in the seaside village of Baguida just a few kilometers east of here.

As I write this, my former student Bada André Kokou is coming to Lomé to meet me and take me to Baguida. But yesterday was spent rediscovering Lomé, the Togolese capital that I knew well in the 1980s, too see if it has any of traces of the considerable charm and allure I remember from that special time.

This time, I entered the country through the Ghanaian border on the west side of Lomé. My Togolese traveling companion’s claim that the Ghanaian officials would hit us up for bribes and the Togolese would not be a problem turned out not to be true: The Ghanaians were polite and professional and the Togolese authorities were stern and unfriendly. But no one hit us up for a bribe on either side of the border and we arrived on Togolese soil after about 45 minutes.

We jumped into a taxi and I immediately noticed that Lomé’s oceanfront road is being completely rebuilt. My friend told me that ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States was paying for the project the entire 50 kilometers from the Ghanaian to the Beninese border. That was pretty much the only sign of progress I saw during my three days in Togo.

The bad news is that the rest of Lomé – or at least the little I saw of it today – is deteriorating and a shadow of its former self. I had planned to spend my first night in the Hotel du Golfe, where I once stayed and have fond memories of it as a charming, colonial place with a lovely pool. When my taxi pulled up to it this afternoon, I immediately knew something was wrong. It didn’t look right outside, or inside. I could not see the pool. And the charm was nowhere to be seen.

I headed over to Hotel Ibis (called Hotel le Bénin in my day). I also have fond memories of it and, unlike the Hotel du Golfe, it still looks pretty much as I remember it. I never stayed here but I used its lovely pool several times, as did many other Peace Corps volunteers of the time, and it all looked vaguely familiar. From my room, I could see the still highest skyscraper in Lomé -- the Hotel 2 Février, once the swankiest hotel in town and now closed and a sad reminder of what Lomé used to be.

I headed for the Grande Marché in search of the Restaurant de l’Amitié, where I used to have a plate of chicken, rice and peanut sauce washed down with a cold bottle of Biere du Bénin most Fridays after finishing at the school. I walked along the coast road and saw that many of the fine old colonial buildings that I remember are being neglected and are falling down.

I saw a man urinating in public, not uncommon in Togo, even in crowded areas. I once had a friend who had lived in Togo and had developed a unique index of development. One of the criteria was degree of public urination and she rated Lomé very high in this regard. Indeed, I think it has increased, if anything, since I left Togo (I later saw full-frontal urination, something I had never seen before).

When I got into the bustling market area, I had the unmistakable sensation that I had gone back in time to the mid-1980s. Everything was exactly the same: The bustle of people buying and selling. The cars and motorcycles weaving their way through impossibly narrow and clogged streets, blaring their horns. The tantalizing smell of Togolese street food. The faint (and sometimes strong) stench of urine. The women calling me “yovo” (white person). Yes, this was all familiar.

But after 30 minutes of trying to find the Restaurant de l’Amitié, I gave up. It was gone. I later found out the Lebanese owner had moved to Mali. I tried to find Le Phenicien, where I learned to love Lebanese food, and its incredibly obese owner Romeo, who always reminded me of a villain in a James Bond movie. I found out later he had died and the restaurant had closed. I came upon a supermarket which I was sure was SGGG, where I used to shop as a volunteer, and went inside. But the Lebanese owner told me that this was not the supermarket I remembered, and that it was in another location and had closed as well.

I also could not find my favorite Lomé restaurant, Relais de la Poste. This was shocking to me as it was a virtual institution, the best place for simple French cooking. I loved their "avocat vinagrette" as an appetizer and their "Lobster Thermidor" and "Steak au poivre" was so good I don't think I ever ate anything else.

I did find one thing I was looking for – great leather sandals. I bought three pair, and was pleased to see that they have survived.

In the evening, I headed over to the eastern side of the Boulevard Circulaire to find Café des Arts, the popular watering hole of the Peace Corps volunteers of my day. I was pretty sure it did not exist anymore and my instincts proved sound: I could not find it but I did find that this part of the Boulevard Circulaire has become a center of Lomé nightlife with dozens of bars, nightclubs and restaurants of all types crowding both sides of the street for a kilometer or more. But none of them could replace the charm and the ambiance of Café des Arts that I remember on a lovely evening in Lomé in the mid-1980s.

See my Lomé photo album on Facebook.

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