Lome, Togo, West Africa
The African soldier waving us down is hard to see in the dark night on this poorly-lit road in Lomé, the capital of Togo.
My husband and I arrived at our hotel a few hours ago, having come from Ghana, and are now on our way to find La Pirogue, a seafood restaurant.
GD stops the car and rolls down the window a smidgen.
“Bon soir,” says the defender of the nation, beaming goodwill at us. A rifle is slung carelessly over his shoulder.
“Bon soir,” we respond, smiling back nicely.
The soldier offers us a babbling brook of French, saying something about wanting to buy café. I have no idea what coffee has to do with anything.
“I’m sorry,” says GD, “I don’t understand.”
Pas de problème. The man can do his pitch in English, which unveils the fact that he really needs some coffee to keep him going this evening and it would be nice if we could help him with a small donation.
“Ah,” says my mate, smiling broadly, “this is a big problem for me!” This is his Ghana response. We live in Ghana and there he is quite adept at humoring types like this one out of their quests for a dash. Making a game out of it, he usually manages to depart, leaving them laughing but empty-handed.
The soldier smiles some more and politely repeats that he really needs some coffee.
This is Togo, and not Ghana, and my spouse decides that it is prudent for there not to be a problem after all. Ready for these eventualities with Togolese coins, he gives the soldier the requested small cadeau.
A little further down the road, another one of the nation’s finest signals us to stop. Wouldn’t you know, he too needs a caffeine fix. We pretend not to get what he’s saying and ask for directions to the restaurant.
He willingly explains, enthusiastically waving his arms in various directions, but the exertion makes him even thirstier, and now he really needs his coffee. He carefully adjusts his rifle strap and smiles.
We give him some money to help alleviate his crise de café, compromising our principles, but possibly avoiding injury by bullet or other unpleasantries. For ten cents it’s a bargain, really.
The protector of the people thanks us politely and we drive off wondering how many more caffeine-deficient warriors we will encounter before reaching the restaurant. Fortunately, we find the Pirogue without further ado.
It’s not the swishy fish place we had expected, but we find a dining room with most of the tables occupied by sophisticated-looking folks eating and drinking wine with apparent appetite. We take this to be a good sign. A number of pale-skinned foreigners are among the guests, expatriate residents probably, except perhaps the four young American travelers at the table next to ours. There’s no wine in sight, they’re wearing comfortable clothes and one of them has an impressive-looking backpack that hasn’t yet met with much adventure.
The restaurant is not cooled very well and the general appearance is somewhat shabby, but the ambiance is agreeable. A nice touch is the live music, a mellow-looking African guitar player singing a sweet love song from the sixties, in English. He smiles at us as we are seated at our table, which is covered in a Mediterranean-blue cloth topped with tired plastic place mats and set with an abundance of silverware, wine glasses and flowers.
A waiter, a man très sérieux, wants to know our drink requirements. We order a carafe of the house white. The service is attentive with European pretensions, but then this is a former French colony. To us, however, it appears a tad incongruous to see all this flair in this modest little place. In the States you’d most likely get served by a gum-chewing young thing called Bambi or Candy, wearing jeans, who says she’s going to be your friend for the evening.
We study the menu, which offers nothing exciting, so we go for the grilled lobster, which in West Africa is nothing exciting. It’s tasty, though. We’re thinking maybe they’ll do something fancy and gourmet-ish with it here. Something French. Hope is a beautiful thing.
In the mean time, as we sip our wine, I study the table along the wall, set up as a shrine to African art and French wine. A carved wooden elephant laboring under a big bowl of fake fruit serves as the centerpiece. Several carvings depicting human forms hover on either side, one of them a pretty young woman with a basket on her head, naked apart from a thin strip of cloth covering a minimum of her most private anatomy. Keeping this beauty company is a wooden grandpa leaning on a stick. He looks dead. Several pottery heads, cut at the neck, don’t look too lively either. A number of other interesting artifacts are on display as well, and in front of all this splendor glimmers a collection of fancy wine bottles, all lying down as if paying homage to the elephant god.
Our guitar player sings something about Mother Mary. “Let it be,” he croons, “let it be.”
I take a contented sip of my wine and relax in my chair. This place is okay.
I’m just about to open my mouth to express this thought to GD when he makes a sudden, startled move, and I see something leaping from his back down to the floor. Something sludge-colored with a long thin tail.
A rat. Transfixed, I watch the rodent scurry into hiding under the cloth-draped altar table, on the other side of which sits the musician.
“Was that…” my man asks, mildly stunned.
“Yes, a rat,” I say. I catch the eye of the guitarist and he smiles. He has seen it too. It probably ran away over his feet. “Let it be,” he sings, “let it be.”
“Where the hell did it come from?” asks GD, surveying his immediate surroundings.
Behind him is a window with heavy draperies. “I heard something scrabbling around and the next thing it landed on my back.”
“And you didn’t even scream,” I say, full of admiration.
The young people sitting nearby have witnessed the little drama as well, but fortunately they have already finished their meal.
“Was that really a rat?” one of them asks, incredulous. “It actually jumped on you?”
“Yes,” says my hero. “It was on my back.”
The girl’s face is contorted with disgust. Well, I can’t say I’m delighted either. A rat? In the restaurant dining room? And I am going to eat here? I have standards. Where I come from one does not dine with rats in attendance. Then again, neither does one pay bribes to gun-toting extortionist soldiers. Travel requires certain attitude adjustments; I should know that by now, having lived abroad for years.
I take a generous swallow of the wine to fortify myself. Should we stay or leave? Then go where? Back to the hotel? Might have rats there too, more sophisticated ones who know not to show themselves to the guests.
“Think of it this way,” says GD, “at least he wasn’t in the kitchen.”
I grimace. “No, that’s where his extended family hangs out.”
“Let it be, let it be,” sings the guitarist. And if you think I am making this up, you are wrong.
Clearly, I am in need of a Buddha moment.
To free my mind of the turmoil of my thoughts about rats, food contamination and disease.
To reclaim calm and inner peace.
The Buddha said, I’ve read, that our lives are shaped by our thoughts. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be shaped by thoughts about filthy vermin.
I breathe in and I breathe out.
I take a slow sip of cool wine.
The incident has drawn the attention of the other diners, but nobody seems impressed or runs out screaming, although the American girl at the table next to ours is still visibly suffering from the shivers. She might be new to Africa. She does look rather clean and well-groomed for a Rough-Guide pilgrim. As for me, I have had other encounters with rats, be it not on the dining room table.
Our dignified waiter brings us lovely fresh bread and sweet Normandy butter. This is an excellent move on his part because good bread and butter always have a calming effect on me.
What can I say? This is Africa; these things happen. One learns to be philosophical.
The troubadour has exhausted his English repertoire and is now singing French chansons about love and despair and rain outside.
The four Americans have paid their bill and are ready to leave.
“Enjoy your meal,” the girl says.
“We’ll try,” I promise.
The waiter comes by and discretely refills our wine glasses. I’m now beginning to feel hungry and want my lobster.
Chewing the bread, I study the naked virgin on the shrine table. She has pouty lips and perky breasts and her eyes look vacantly into the distance, as if she knows there is no hope for her, no matter how sexy she is. She’s made of wood and will never be real.
Me, I’m lucky. I’m real, and dressed even. Just look at me sit here with the love of my life smiling at me. What more can I wish for?
And the lobster arrives as if on cue. Half of one, anyway, but it just about falls off the plate it is so big. In Ghana we get four or six halves, depending on how minuscule they are. This Togolese specimen is a beaut, une vraie merveille!
And it is delicious, well prepared, if not with a lot of imagination. Then again, lobster doesn’t really need any adornments apart from lots of butter and garlic and a squish of fresh lemon.
The chanteur plucks his guitar and sings lyrically about happiness ever after while we enjoy our meal.
My mind is at rest.
The waiter hovers, fills our wine glasses, wants to know if all is well.
“Magnifique,” I tell him.
Karen van der Zee grew up in the Netherlands and married an American Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya. She has cooked, shopped, mothered, traveled and written romance novels in Africa, Asia, Europe, the US and the Middle East. She has seen her Palestinian butcher’s bedroom in Ramallah, dined on fertility goat sausage in Kenya, and almost ended up in a bush jail in Uganda. Karen is the author of 34 romance novels. Her non-fiction work has appeared in The Washington Post, the travel-humor anthology I Should Have Just Stayed Home by RDR Books, Tales of a Small Planet and other publications. Accompanying her globetrotting development-economist husband, she presently lives in Armenia, where she is finishing a book about her (mis)adventures living abroad. Visit her website at www.Karenvanderzee.com