When you’re on the border of an African country, it is no joke to hear the words, “Get your bags and get out of our country!” But that is exactly how things went down.
This is a story that could never happen again. One reason, to steal a line from Erykah Badu, is that this happened “back in the day, when things were cool.”
Another reason was because we were young and kind of dumb. Also, we thought our winning personalities and bright smiles would carry us through. But things didn’t go as planned.
So I have to say that I’m not exactly sure how we managed to get into Togo without visas. But we did. We were en route from my brother’s wedding in Cameroon, where we had spent the past two weeks, and now we were planning to backpack our way through a few more African countries before we headed home, back to California.
Our flight landed in Lome, and we were waved through customs with no problem, passports stamped without a word. We took a taxi to the border and walked over to Ghana, where we filled out all the necessary forms and displayed all of the contents of all of our bags to all who wished to see. However, as soon as they learned that we had no visas, it was all over. This is the part where they yelled at us (bilingually, in both French and English) and told us to get our bags and get out of their country. (Isn’t that a great line? Don’t you wish you could yell it at someone?)
So we did. We got out of their country. We walked back over to Togo. But they wouldn’t let us in, because we didn’t have visas. A small crowd gathered as I argued our case. Because Josh doesn’t speak French, he couldn’t help. He just watched as the argument grew more and more heated. I wanted to call the embassy; they insisted that I couldn’t use their phone. Finally one of the guards yelled, “Enough! One stays and one goes!” I’m not kidding, he totally said that.
Another guard grabbed me by the arm and propelled me away from Josh, my bag, and my passport. I looked back over my shoulder to see Josh standing in the midst of total border mayhem.
It didn’t occur to me to be scared. (I know, that’s so dumb. But because I was young and hadn’t seen a bunch of scary, sad movies about what happens in these kinds of situations, I was infuriated instead of being terrified.)
I got escorted to a Cabin Telephonique about 500 feet from the border. My escort shoved a phone number at me and stared me down as I dialed the number. Things were already surreal, but they got movie-style crazy as soon as the embassy answered the phone. “We are pinpointing your location, Miss,” the receptionist told me. “Please wait by the phone. Mr. Neumann, the on-duty officer, will arrive shortly.”
Sure enough, within minutes, a spotless white Toyota pulled up, and George Neumann stepped out. He looked exactly like his name: tall, with thick, wavy gray hair and square glasses, big yellow teeth, and a pudgy middle. Over the next hour and a half, Josh and I were detained in an interrogation room (seriously, it had all the dramatic touches, like a bare bulb hanging down from the ceiling and bars on the windows), while George proceeded to “smooth things over” with the border officials.
He totally did. He got our passports back and dropped us off at Le Galion, a cute little hotel in Lome. We thanked him again and again, and he waved us off. “That’s what your taxes are for!” he said, clapping Josh on the back heartily.
Now we just had to get our visas.
The next morning, we showed up at the Ghanaian Embassy bright and early. The sign on the door stated that the doors would open at 8 am, and in an amazing African phenomenon, they did! Things were looking good. We filled out forms in quadriplicate and waited in line. Most people were told to return in three days, but they made an exception for one fortunate Frenchman. “Tomorrow,” they told him.
We wanted what he was having.
Josh flirted with the woman behind the counter. She was unimpressed.
I stretched the truth about the reason we needed to get to Ghana tomorrow (a wedding!). She smirked and raised her eyebrows.
Josh pulled out some money. She laughed. “That is nothing!” she told us.
“What can I do for you?” Josh asked her.
“That is for you to decide,” she said. “You have to give from the heart.”
Josh is a kind of a smooth operator. “How about I buy you some flowers?” he asked, leaning in a little closer.
“That is not the way things work around her,” she said coyly, looking up at the ceiling and chewing a fingernail.
I decided to get in on the action, and I burst into tears. In the meantime, Josh doubled his cash offer to about $10 and waved it tantalizingly in front of her.
Our double-teaming did the trick.
“Fine. 1:45 tomorrow,” she said, pocketing the bribe. “Cool down,” she said to me.
I did as I was told.
Lo and behold, the next day, we got our Visas and crossed the border. Our journey continued. We had given from the heart and now things were cool. It was just another day on the road.