We left Saturday afternoon, our mission clear: A quick 3 hour bus ride to Aflua (the border town) and then a short walk into Lome, Togo where we would spend the night in a quaint hotel by the ocean, speaking French and eating delicious cheese and bread, listening to live music. All this and cheaper visa renewal too?
The average Ghanaian visa is good for 60 days in country. Then a person must go to the embassy and pay $50 to renew it, or leave the country and come back. All told, a trip to Togo is actually cheaper than the embassy fees because at the border it is $20 and a quick stamp if you have a multiple entry visa (a point to which we’ll return, shortly.) My good friend Julia was facing her 60th day in Ghana, and I realized I too would have this predicament in just a few weeks. Who wouldn’t opt for a holiday weekend in Togo?
We charged happily towards the border in an air conditioned bus that outdoes even the bus Adrienne and I took to Cape Coast. This bus had white pleather recliner seats and played a Ghanaian movie; a story to which I became so engrossed that I was mad when the bus ride ended and the movie wasn’t over! Disembarking from the bus, we followed the flow of people towards the border guards’ offices, dodging mud-holes and taking pictures of the “Bye Bye Ghana” sign arching over the road. A plain clothed man hissed and followed us to the passport check point to tell a guard that I’d taken a picture and they both demanded to watch as I deleted it. This should have been a clear omen.
As soon as the passport authority took my passport she shook her head saying that if I left Ghana I couldn’t come back until Monday morning. I have a single entry visa and if I stayed in Togo until Monday morning the Embassy would open and I could get a new $40 visa. This is where the bribe comes in— from experience in a few other African countries I didn’t hesitate for a second in asking if I could just ‘pay for one night’. They all flat out refused. In hindsight I can’t believe I asked (inadvertently condemning corruption!) and I’m relieved they were honest and wouldn’t bend the rules for me. It was clear I was not To go.*
Julia looked at me, then at the guards (both of us knowing she had to go to Togo to get that stamp) and said “I’m just going to pick something up.” They stamped her out and I promptly sat down to wait, not knowing what she would go over and do, or how long it would take.
Only ten minutes of sitting on the guards’ front porch and watching the endless people and cars go by, and Julia was back! She said that on the Togo side it was not as the tourist books or her friends had described it—in fact two guards (who made her feel really uncomfortable) told her the visa would cost twice as much but not to worry they could find someone to exchange her money, and where was her husband to escort her? She immediately asked for her passport back, turned around, and walked back to Ghana. She explained to our friends the Ghanaian guards that it didn’t work out in Togo after all, so they stamped her back in to Ghana.
We walked away from the border, digesting what had just happened. Since the sun was rapidly setting and we know better than to travel after dark, we finally negotiated a shared car with another traveler and left by 7:00. In a way we’d accomplished the core of the mission, so we were in decent spirits to begin the journey back to Accra. We also couldn’t stand Aflua which was similar to most border towns; dirty with dust and exhaust, people all screaming at once to get in their car, or get out of the way, or buy their wares, etc. At 9:45 pm we were able to begin laughing about the ordeal and acknowledge our disappointment.
Fifteen minutes later, it started pouring. We knew rolling into Accra at 35 mph in torrential rain was the icing on the cake so we were thankful just to be home safely. Our car dropped us a block from our apartment, so we stood under an overhang and waited for the rain to let up enough that we could walk home. As the downpour made the streets and ditches into rivers, one could feel a sense of cleansing; for us it was of the weird spirited day that was finally over.
In the end Julia got her stamp and it actually cost nothing. I mean she never handed over money to obtain the stamp. I don’t want to talk about the time and effort that went into getting that stamp but including the road trip adventure and a good story to tell, even paying for my trip, Julia got that stamp for $10 cheaper than by standing in line at the embassy!
*Yes, I fully intended every redundant usage of Togo and ‘to go’ or ‘not to go’? Its just too great to ignore.