A Travellerspoint blog

Lome – Dog Heads, Bat Wings and Other Voodoo Ingredients

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“Why did you want to come to Togo and Benin,” Eduardo asked every day of the first week in West Africa. “There's nothing here.”

But with my interest in everything spiritual, especially indigenous healing methods, Togo and Benin had beckoned me for years. I wanted to discover the roots of vodou, the original white magic version of what Hollywood later branded as “voodoo”. I thought that everything African was cool, sacred and genuinely good. After all mankind and spirituality both have their roots in this corner of the world.

This belief died the day I visited the Marche des Fetisches in Lome, the voodoo market. A guide explained that sick people go to the vodou doctors and then come to the market to buy the ingredients for their healing concoction. The market is full of dried, half-rotten heads of dogs, cats, monkeys, camels, leopards. There are tables with hundreds of dried bats, rats and scorpions. Among the staples are rarities like a gorilla foot, monkey claws, a whole kitten and elephant ears. All ready to be ground down, mixed with water and drunk for a rapid recovery of whatever you suffer from.

A vodou doctor showed us different non-animalistic fetishes to bring luck on travels, in relationships, in health. All of which have been empowered by the vodou doctor and – of course – are available for sale.

Feeling pressured to buy, we decided to get a small relationship totem that had a very strong, vibrant energy. The vodou doctor asked four shells to give him the price. The first price was 35,000 CFA ($70), which we said we didn't have. The shells then agreed to the lower price of $50, then $25, then – last price - $20. We said we could only pay $5, which the which doctor finally agreed to without consulting the shells.

I still believe in the power of African shamans. But the vodou I saw was as distorted and fake as all other organized religions I've seen.

Maybe if you travel to a small village in the middle of nowhere you can find the true vodou, where witch doctors do not have to hunt down and kill dozens of dogs and cats for their medications.

Until then, Reiki will do just fine for me!

Posted by Kristi D 06:54 Archived in Togo Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Lome Airport - Corruption Central

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“Where is my gift?”

I couldn't believe my ears. A Togolese passport official had just asked us for a “service fee”, which we refused, and now the customs guy was requesting his share. And what blew my mind was that he was asking for a bribe just like that, in front of four other customs officials. Do these kind of things really happen in real life?

“Why should I bring you a gift?” Eduardo played stupid. “I haven't even bought my mother a gift.”

The customs guy started opening up Eduardo's backpack.

“What do you have in here?” he asked, trying to dig in deep, searching for something valuable, and pulled out our bag with dirty (and pretty stinky) clothes.

“Just clothes. Just dirty clothes. You want that as a gift?”

The guy finally gave up when Eduardo offered him a handshake as a gift, thinking we were especially thick who didn't get his point.

As we picked up our bags, and took two steps towards the exit, the next official wondered:

“Do you have the money for my coffee?”

There was no “Welcome to Togo”. No “Can I buy you a coffee?”. No “Thanks for visiting our country”. Just corruption all the way.

So we felt very welcome to Togo. And got ready for a rough trip.


Posted by Kristi D 06:50 Archived in Togo Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Arba Minch – Protecting Our Rights As Tourists

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“Yes, I'm rich! And I don't mind paying more at a restaurant than everyone else here. Please bill me as much as you want!”

No, I didn't say that. And I never will.

At Soma, a fancy seafood restaurant in Arba Minch, Southern Ethiopia, they think that foreigners don't mind being overcharged. In fact, they have posted their two menus side by side. One in English – for tourists – with higher prices, and one in Armaric writing – for locals – with lower prices. As though all foreigners would happily pay up to 50 percent more than the people at the next table.

Would an Ethiopian be treated the same way in New York? Never.

Eduardo and I decided to make a scandal and teach them a lesson.

“Sir, can we have the check, please? But with these prices,” we pointed to the menu in Armaric.

The waiter, dumbfounded, tried to understand. He pointed at the menu in English. Surely we would like to pay the higher prices, not the lower ones

“No, we want to pay these prices,” Eduardo repeated.

The waiter shook his head and disappeared into the kitchen. 5 minutes went by. Then 10 minutes. 20 minutes. Nothing.

“Sir, we are still waiting for the check. But with these prices.” Eduardo called out, as the waiter tried to sneak by us to serve other, less argumentative clients.

A local man at the next table got involved, spoke to the waiter, then explained to us:
“You have to pay the tourist prices.”

“But why? It's wrong! Why do we have to pay more than you?”

Eduardo explained: “If you came to my country, would you like to pay higher prices than everyone else in a restaurant just because you're a tourist?”

The coin dropped, and the local man started arguing our cause. But as he was celebrating his daughter's graduation, we thanked him and told him he didn't have to get involved in our case.

When the waiter finally gave us the check, only verbally, it was based on the tourist menu. 108 Birr.

So, we decided to write our own check, using the prices on the local menu. We left the 78 Birr on the table (no tip) – and walked away, looking over our shoulders to make sure no angry mob was following us.

The $2 we saved is not a lot of money, but it's the principle of the matter that counts. Why should tourists always get overcharged?

Refuse to be overcharged!!!

Posted by Kristi D 06:45 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Lower Omo Valley – A Different Standard of Beauty

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Some like blondes, some like brunettes, some like skinny and some like curvy. And some like girls with a big ceramic plate inserted in their lip.


In the Lower Omo Valley in South-West Ethiopia, every tribe has its own standards of beauty. The Banna twist their hair into yarn-like strings and then color their hair red with mud. The Surma paint their bodies with a white chalk-mix. The Karo adorn themselves with jewelery made of all sorts of junk (pens, cans, candy wrappers). The Hamer women wear iron chokers showing whether they're the (more important) first wife, or the second wife. And the Mursi insert clay plates in their lips, the bigger the better.


Traveling to the area south of Arba Minch is a bit like entering a parallel universe. The markets are filled with people with the most incredible outfits and styles. This is the Africa I read about as a child, in the National Geographic. Bare-breasted women with corn in their hair. Scrawny adolescents with leg-bracelets made of beads. Pretty girls with their two lower front teeth pulled out for the sake of fashion. It seems unlikely that they didn't dress up like this just to impress visiting tourists. But this is actually what they wear, their style, their culture. Their taste.


Our guide, Wasagne, told us about an anthropological study from a few years back. They brought a Mursi man to Addis Ababa, to Bole Street where the most beautiful Ethiopians hang. They asked him to pick out the most gorgeous woman, but he couldn't. According to him they were all ugly because none of them was wearing a lip plate.

Someone compared the Lower Omo Valley with a human zoo, and that is a rather accurate description. The tribes go crazy for tourists that pay a few cents for each photo. Everyone tugged at our sleeves, scratched our arms and used sweet words, winks and threats to get their photos taken. Unfortunately we are part of a tourism movement that will eventually destroy the still-authentic culture of these tribes. Soon enough they will learn what they would have to wear and how to style themselves in order to attract more tourists.


But until then, it is an absolutely astonishing experience to visit these people who lead a life so different from ours. And a great gift to be in their presence.


Posted by Kristi D 06:43 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Harar – Now we're talking dirty

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“Faranjo, money!” is probably the phrase you will hear most when visiting Harar. It means “Foreigner, money!” And it seems everyone wants something from you.

Harar is one of the most sacred Muslim cities in the world. But you'd be hard-pressed to call it a city. This ancient trading-post in East Ethiopia, not far from the Somaliland border, seems barely bigger than a sprawled-out market. It's main drawing card is the old town with over 90 mosques, and the colorful people doing business within its walls.


Merchants, peasants and nomads all gather in Harar to sell whatever they can – mangoes, tomatoes, beans, spices, bread, textiles, used clothes, counterfeit items. Anything. Covered-up women in kaleidoscopic patterns walk for miles to reach the city, carrying their merchandise in woven bowls on their heads. Each tribe with their own style and hues . Men and children load donkeys and slowly make their way to one of the many markets.

It's also one of the dirtiest places I've ever been to. Everything is covered in dust. A “water-program” limits water access to a couple of hours in the early morning and a couple of hours at night. The houses in the old town have neither electricity or running water. Stoned men lay on the street, green froth bubbling around their mouths from chewing the narcotic chat-leaves, oblivious to their own poverty. And children play in garbage containers.


Opportunists abound, all children, men and women want your cash. Eduardo almost got into a fight with a guy who took him to “his” antique store, which wasn't his at all, and then wanted a commission. The true owner of the store knew us from our previous visit, and refused the commission. Outside, I stepped in between the Eduardo and the false owner to break up the fight, while a one-eyed old lady stood right in front of me and begged me for money.

The poverty of this country finally hit me in Harar. Complaining about the cock-roaches in our dirty hotel, when the inhabitants of this town most likely have never slept in clean sheets or in creepy-crawly-free spaces. Realizing that most of these people have never had a hot shower in their lives. Seeing a woman wearing just one shoe, because one shoe is better than none at all.

It's a dirty old town, for sure. But a great reminder of how blessed I am. And how rich I am. And how clean I am (most of the time). And I think I will never complain about anything again in my life.


Posted by Kristi D 13:54 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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