This travelogue describes my trip to West Africa (Ghana, Togo, and Benin) in March and April of 2006. The why of this trip is straightforward. Seeing a total solar eclipse was an item on my life list. It's somewhat absurd to plan a major trip just around a minutes-long event, so I figured that it made sense to go somewhere that is interesting for other reasons. Most of the eclispe tours I saw advertised were for Mediterranean cruises with frustratingly little time at the more appealing ports. Libya was tempting, but had potential for a lot of administrative hassle. But my internet searching turned up an eclipse trip to Ghana, being offered by Tusker Trail. Their main business is Kilimanjaro climbs (something I have no interest in at all), but Eddie Frank, who owns the company, has a long time association with astronomer Laurance Doyle and has done eclipse trips with him before. (I'll note here that Laurance Doyle was unable to travel when the time came, so we had a substitute astronomer, Martin Heath.) West Africa is decidedly my sort of destination and the itinerary included a wide variety of scenic and cultural experiences. I mulled it over for less than a week before putting down my deposit.
The rest of the trip came together as a result of fortunate timing. I decided to use my Alaska Air miles for a ticket on British Air, largely because their routing (Washington to London Heathrow to Accra) was more desirable than United's routing on Lufthansa (Washington to Frankfurt to Lagos to Accra). Many long term frequent flyers will remember seeing signs in U.S. airports for years warning that the airport in Lagos, Nigeria didn't meet international safety standards. While the signs may have disappeared, I didn't see the need for an additional stop. And I like Heathrow much better than Frankfurt as European airports go. The day before I called Alaska Air, I got an email from Tusker offering an extension to Togo and Benin, being offered by Transafrica. (Transafrica also did the local arrangements for the Ghana portion of the tour, by the way.) The itinerary included the fetish market in Lome, which I'd heard a lot about from other people, as well as an opportunity for an audience with a Yoruba King. Lo and behold, the dates worked for getting business class tickets. Nobody else signed up for the extension, which made it relatively expensive, but I figured that it was still worth seeing a bit more after going all that way.
For some reason, people always ask about shots. My yellow fever certificate was stll good, but I needed to get boosters of the typhoid and meningococcal vaccines. By the way, nobody ever actually asked to see my yellow fever certificate - not even when I returned to the U.S.. And, yes, this is a high risk area for malaria. Fortunately, I tolerate lariam well.
As for background reading, I picked up Bradt's guidebook for Ghana. I also looked through Lonely Planet and Rough Guide for West Africa at the library, but neither was particularly up to date. Rereading the Benin and Togo chapters in Peter Biddlecombe's French Lessons in Africa and his chapter on Kumasi (a city in Ghana) in Travels With My Briefcase would probably have been useful, but I didn't think to do that until after I got home.
The other major preparation involved was getting visas. Living in the Washington, D.C. area made that somewhat simpler, as I could go to the embassies in person. The Ghana visa required four copies of the form (and, thus, four photos) plus $80 for multiple entries. (A single entry visa is $50.) Dropping things off at the embassy was fairly straightforward and provided the chance to hear a fair amount about the country from Ghanaians waiting to drop off passport renewal applications. Picking up my visa was slightly annoying. They tell you to come between 2 and 3 p.m. a week after you applied, but they don't actually give anybody their passports back until about 2:55. The room was hot and crowded and I decided that the experience was intended to prepare you for likely conditions in the country. Transafrica had claimed I could get all the visas within Africa, but I called the embassies to double check. The Togo embassy told me I had to do it in advance. That visa (2 copies of the form, 2 photos, $100) took just a couple of days. There was nobody else at the embassy during either of my trips there and, in fact, when I dropped off the application, the clerk had dozed off at her desk. The Embassy of Benin said visas were readily available at the border with Togo, so I can't testify to their processing speed or the wakefulness of their staff. I can, however, recommend that you ignore their advice and get the visa in advance if you can. But there's a lot more to the story. For details, read on.
Ghana in the Dark and Light
The Voodoo Lands of Togo and Benin
Concluding Remarks and Miscellaneous Notes
last updated 19 April 2006