This morning we throw on our backpacks and meet Apollo, our guide, for coffee. We will travel through three countries via Public transit. So, we head for the “Lorry” station and sit in the van for about one-hour, waiting for people to fill it up. Venders sell everything from fried plantains to high-heeled shoes. Already soaked in sweat, finally the Lorry fills up, and we squeeze together like sardines in a can, en route to the border of Togo.
Several hours later, madness and mayhem minds the border. People sell goods in clouds of dust, dodging trucks, taxis and vans, (Tro-tros). Finally, we pass through the fifth passport/immigration stop, filling out forms, happy to hop into a taxi. The driver continually beeps the horn, slowly rolling through the middle of a crowd in a market. Again, vendors sell everything from plastic banjos to baby cloths and dried fish.
The smoky, dust-filled air of this city of Lome, in the country of Togo, burns our eyes, and I feel like I have smoked a pack of Camel non-filters. Lome derives its name from “Alome,” the Ewe tree, which produces chewing sticks. French is the language here, and through the border, negotiating taxis, we realize that Apollo, our guide, is worth more than we could have imagined. We would still be at the border, probably detained for missing a stop, if not for him.
Apollo shows me his perfect teeth. “You see, people think that we are backward, but look at my teeth. We’ve been chewing on sticks way before the Europeans brought us toothbrushes. Everybody has good teeth.”
Okay, from this point on, I scrutinize everybody’s teeth.
Our first stop is at a fetish market, “Marche’ des Feticheurs,” where a different guide gives us a tour. Dried heads of monkeys, dogs, tigers, elephants, snakes, lizards, frogs, alligators and antelopes, goats and gorillas, birds, most everything you could imagine, sit out in the sun on display. All the animals die on their own, before they get “medicined” to preserve them. The stench of decaying flesh overwhelms the smell of smoke and diesel fuel. These fetishes (Voodoo) represent white magic, good magic, and the guide explains that nothing can harm us here. The black magic of Voodoo cannot defeat the white magic at this place.
“What you see here is just a display for tourists to buy,” the guide explains. “They are not blessed yet. Now I will take you to a fetish priest, (Voodoonou) who specializes in good travels.”
We take off our shoes and walk through a curtain, hiding a back room, where the Vodoonou welcomes us. He learns our names, and blesses us individually, not looking at us, but at a statue that he pats, making a tingling sound.
All items in this room are blessed. He hands pieces to us, one by one, such as a small, carved travel god with a hole in it. You speak into the hole to ask for safe travels, and then plug the hole with a small stick. Travel with it in your pocket. After traveling is finished, you take out the stick for another time.
The bones of a variety of animals are ground, mixed with up to two hundred different herbs, and used for healing – Elephant for elephantitis, guts of a cobra (preserved moist in a bottle) for general healing, and blessed pods to put under your pillow for good sleep. Of course, a certain stick is used for maintaining an erection, by cutting off a small piece, soaking it in water, and then drinking the water fifteen minutes later. A man can only do this once per week. At least the guide didn’t tell me to see the Voodoonou for any erection lasting more than four hours!
We decide not to purchase any of the items here, as Apollo advises us that this market is mainly for tourists. If all goes well, we will experience a genuine ceremony in Benin, the birthplace of Voodoo.
When we cross the border from Togo to Benin, we again realize the value of our guide, Apollo, who directs us through several more checkpoints, and speaks not only French, but many different tribal languages as well.