Gone Fishin’… Togo Style – Part II

(Continued from yesterday’s post Gone Fishin’… Togo Style)


So we walk across the street, through the open doorway of a typically run down two story building, through a short dark corridor, and into an open air concrete courtyard bustling with the sounds and motions of a dozen people going about their early morning business. At this point, my gung-ho attitude towards this little adventure is gaining just a hint of skepticism and apprehensiveness. Theres a young mother giving her baby a bucket shower in one corner, an impressively old woman preparing the day’s meal in a giant, charcoal black, cauldron, little kids in their green and white checkered school uniforms horsing around before they have to leave for class.

I look at the guy next to me like ‘Seriously dude, where the hell are we right now?’. Theres no way this place is a bar. We just walked into someone’s kitchen/bathroom/front yard/living-room. I’m not so much fearful at this point as I am just straight up confused. We are supposed to be going to take shots right now, right? Or did I completely misunderstand the little conversation we just had on the beach?

But sure enough, after a little back and forth bantering between the lead fisherman and one of the women in the courtyard, she guides us over to a back nook of the courtyard, and pulls a white sheet off a table in the corner like some sort of magician, revealing a dozen bottles of Sodabi each with some different sort of ‘flavoring agent’ sitting at the bottom of the bottle. Everything from ginger or papaya, to a root they claim to be an aphrodisiac, to a handful of others that I’m sure at some point in the past had a heartbeat, or were at least attached to something with a heartbeat. I figured it was better to not ask any questions, so I closed my eyes and attempted to take my shot like a champ, using all of my willpower and jaw clenching ability to not let them see the horror and pain that was pulsing through my veins and slowly coating the inside of my empty stomach with fire, but I’m pretty sure that was all to no avail, as right after I took my shot, even the ‘bartender’ was having a tough time holding back a smile. After wiping away the single tear that had rolled down my left cheek, and breathing out the last bit of fire remaining in my lungs, I think I had fully gained the respect of this group of eight very large, extremely muscular Togolese fishermen who were at this point half cheering and half keeled over laughing and patting me on the back. Talk about cultural integration. By now, all remnants of fear and apprehensiveness had been completely washed away. I felt like a freshman at a high school party who’d just proved to the seniors that I could run with the ‘cool kid’ crowd.

A quick 6:00am sodabi break and it’s back to work. Time to pull in the net and see what the day’s catch has to offer. I stroll back across the street trying to recover from the acidic erosion that is currently taking place in my esophagus and stomach lining, and once again pull out my camera to snap a few last pictures before I head out to get ready for my flight. Once we get there the fishermen start pulling in two thick ropes about 50 yards apart, each attached to one end of the long net they’d set out in the ocean before we had gone off for our little ‘early morning pick-me-up’.

The burn of the moonshine that had overtaken the slight nausea of the hangover from the night before was slowly fading into blissful comfort as I strolled over the soft white sand, already getting hot to the touch from the early morning sun.

I managed to get a few decent pictures in before a couple of the fishermen told me to grab hold of the rope and give them a hand pulling it in. And once again, the ‘why the hell not’ mentality kicked in. I shoved the camera back in my pocket, kicked my flip flops off and joined in. I’ve already worked so hard to scrub that TOURIST stamp off of my forehead and prove to them that I’m not just some foreigner with a camera. I mean, I’m not about to throw away my cool kid status at this point by saying that I’m not man enough to get my hands dirty. Besides, how many times in my life am I going to get the opportunity to do something like this? I figure I’ll help out for 20 minutes or so, see what sort of catch they pull in, and be out of there before I know it with an awesome set of pictures to bring home and an even cooler story to go along with them.

Boy was I wrong about that. A solid 3 hours later, we were a good quarter mile down the beach having been pulled by the current grabbing hold of the net as it got closer to shore. The entirety of my palms and most of my fingers had long ago passed the blister stage, scattered with patches of straight raw skin, and small wounds from the abrasive sand covered rope, the skin on my forearms and back of my neck were radiating with heat from the mild case of skin cancer I had just submitted them to, and every muscle in my body was quivering with exhaustion. Now, call it determination to finish the job, straight stubbornness, or just pure stupidity, but I just couldn’t bring myself to quit halfway through. It’s not like I didn’t realize my hands were being torn apart by the rope, my pale white skin was being cooked alive, or my out of shape body was being pushed to limits it hadn’t seen since high school football camp. I guess just kept thinking we were almost at the end. I was like a donkey stubbornly holding onto the optimism that if he keeps running he’ll eventually catch up to that carrot.

‘Alright, fuck this.’ I thought to my self at one point. ‘I’m calling it quits’. And of course, just as I let go and look down the line to where it disappears into the waves I see the blue of the net popping out of the water and I can’t help but grab back onto the rope and start pulling again. We’re in the home stretch now for sure. I’m not about to play the whole damn game and then tell the coach to pull me out at the 2 minute warning. Little did I know that as the catch gets closer to the shore, it gets exponentially harder to pull it in. So what I originally thought was the 2 minute warning was more like the start of the second half. I’m not exaggerating either. What started out as an 8 to 10 man operation two and a half hours earlier, had grown to a gang of 25-30 men from god knows where having to help pull this thing in. Every body at a 45 degree angle, muscles flexed to the max, feet half buried, digging into the sand trying to get some traction.

That last grueling stretch of pulling the actual net in felt like a lifetime, but we finally get the pouch at the end of the net holding all of the fish on shore. Dripping with a mixture of sweat and sea water, sand burrowed into the open blisters on my hands, and about to collapse from exhaustion, I manage to stumble over to the crowd of fishermen surrounding the catch to take a peek at this undoubtedly colossal sized catch we’d just hauled in. I’m expecting to see nothing less than Free fucking Willy flopping around in this net to have put up that big of a fight. I’ve got an image in my head of Forest Gump opening up the bottom of the net, and thousands of pounds of shrimp flooding the deck of the boat. But instead of shrimp its going to be blue fin tuna, and marlin.

So I push through the crowd to get a look, and to my complete and utter underwhelmed lack of astonishment, barring the one 3 foot barracuda, not one of these fish could have even made a satisfying meal by itself, and to my disappointment, Free Willy was not in attendance. Seriously, how is that possible. How were we not just pulling in a great white shark. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m hung over and extremely out of shape? No, that couldn’t be it.

Now, I guess I’m exaggerating a bit, there were a fair amount of fish there, but after building this up in my head to a level I felt to be the equivalent to the effort I’d put in and pain and suffering I had been enduring, I was just a little bit disappointed. Not to mention, now that the adrenalin and anticipation had subsided, all of my senses were slowly being assaulted by the combination of fatigue, sunburn, salted wounds, and that damned hangover inching its way back into my temples.

At this point one of the main guys who’d been there from the beginning reaches over and puts his arm around me as he’s mid conversation with a few of the other men who’d straggled in a bit late to help finish off the job. I couldn’t understand anything they were saying in their local language, but after a few laughs, an empty hand gripping an imaginary shot glass being tossed up to his face as he threw his head back, a quick inspection of my torn up hands, and a couple pats on the back, I could tell I’d officially overcome the fanny pack and hawaiian shirt syndrome I’d been trying to avoid from the beginning.

And as is custom, even though I tried to tell them that I was getting onto an airplane in a couple of hours and had no where to put them, everyone who helps with the haul, gets a share of the bounty.

So with the sun now high in the sky, I painfully, but quite proudly, strolled back towards my hotel room with a camera full of pictures, and a story I’m sure I won’t soon forget.

Oh yeah, and a dozen freshly caught, sand covered fish in my hands that I had absolutely no idea what the hell to do with.


Gone Fishin’… Togo Style

It’s 5:00am as I stroll down the sidewalk next to the beach in Lome, the coastal capital of Togo. Now for me, getting up before 10:00am is just about as enjoyable as I would imagine getting a colonoscopy from your ex girlfriend’s father to be. Especially after a few rounds of 6.2% 22oz Togolese beers the night before. But for some inexplicable reason I managed to pry myself out of the dingy, by this point sweat soaked sheets, wrapped around the plywood they somehow pass off to be a mattress at the $12.00 a night, (believe it or not, by Peace Corps Volunteer standards, fairly midrange) ‘hotel’ just a few blocks from the beach. Now that I mention it, I guess it wasn’t that ‘inexplicable’. I mean I wasn’t quite like I was pulling myself away from a down comforter on a pillow topped mattress at a ski resort in Vermont.

          As I’m trying to wipe the remnants of last night’s intoxication from my eyes, discovering the plethora of new mosquito bites popping up all over my body, and praying that my malaria meds aren’t going to fail me for a second time, I slowly emerge from my zombie like trance (Sorry, is that a politically insensitive term nowadays)and my eye catches exactly what I’d been looking for on this ass-crack of dawn expedition.
My flight back to the States was leaving that night and being the master of procrastination that I am, I decided that 6 hours before getting on the plane would be an appropriate time to get some pictures of the country I’d been living in for the last eleven months. So I stroll out onto a section of the beach intermittently scattered with a variety of old, large, hand built, fishing canoes. From a distance, each identical to the next, but as you get closer, the individual intricacies of the hand carved symbols and now mostly faded bright colored paint jobs give them each their own unique character.

I’d passed by these old fishing boats a number of times before but the closest I’d ever been to seeing them in action was from the comfort of my couch at home in NY watching Anthony Bourdain make some sarcastic comment as he nursed a hangover with another luke warm beer on the beaches of Ghana just a few miles down this very same beach. At this point a little hair of the dog probably would have been up there on my breakfast menu if it weren’t for the fact that most tiki hut beach bars in Togo aren’t quite open for business at this ungodly hour. Luckily for me though I’d soon find out I wasn’t exactly the most informed person in that field of study, and I certainly wasn’t the only person whose liver needed a little kickstart for the day.

So I pull out my camera and somewhat shadily start snapping pictures, trying to avoid the full on Hawaiian shirt and fanny pack tourist attention I was inevitably about to attract. Luckily I had gotten there just in time so catch some shots of a group of fisherman riding the waves in in their wooden canoe after setting the net out in the open sea. I tried to get as many pictures in before being swarmed by anyone who could catch me in their crosshairs to ask me to give them something or, god forbid, the worst case scenario jumping around the back of my head, anyone who might want to mug the one white dude on the entire beach.

I continue to snap pictures of the fisherman as they battle the strong current and relentless waves pounding them and the boat as they try to secure it to the beach. As I expected, once everything was all tied up they came up to check out the Yovo with the camera taking pictures of their daily work. This I didn’t mind at all. It was the random sketchy people lurking behind me and ominously walking up the beach towards me I was a little less than excited to interact with.

In an effort to remove the giant ‘TOURIST’ stamp from my forehead, I throw out a few greetings in a couple different local languages that I’d picked up in my village and quickly correct their assumptions that I’m a Frenchy, telling them that I am indeed from the land of Obama (Togolese people seem to innately dislike the French and emphatically love Americans, or anything that has to do with America). This seemed to work like a charm. Before I knew it they were telling me to come across the street and take shots of a local moonshine called Sodabi they make here in Togo. The best description I can give of this stuff is that it’s probably similar to what I would imagine the feeling rocket fuel gets when it has indigestion. My immediate thought was, no fucking way. First of all because I didn’t really feel like breathing fire at 5:30 in the morning. This wasn’t quite the ‘hair of the dog’ I’d been thinking of. And secondly because I became immediately suspicious and somewhat fearful of being mugged.
But I figured, what the hell, my experiences so far with going to get drinks with random Togolese people have resulted in some positively unforgettable experiences. It is 5:30 in the morning, and these guys are clearly working class dudes who’re probably just looking for cool story to tell there buddies about taking shots with an American on the beach at the ass crack of dawn.          This seems like a great idea.

Why the hell not.

To Be Continued…

The Story of the Spongebob Shirt

The story I’m about to describe to you is how I came across the greatest t-shirt known to man. Alright, maybe its just the greatest shirt in my entire wardrobe. Yeah, alright, true. I do only own like 9 shirts, but thats not the point. Now I could have just come across this gem while digging through any old pile of dead yovo clothes(It’s what all of the donated clothes from the US and Europe are called here) at the market and it still would have been pretty awesome. But a signed Derek Jeter ball you bought in a sports memorabilia shop is not nearly as cool as somehow getting Jeter to sign the game winning home run ball you caught with your own little league mitt. Its the story that makes it.

So, the story starts at this little rooftop bar in my village where another volunteer and I were cooling down and relaxing over a few cold beers. We’ll call the other volunteer…Jack. Anyway, Jack gets a phone call from another volunteer saying that she just arrived at So And So’s birthday party and it was going to be “uhhmAAAziiiing!!!” So OMG we just haaad to come.

We had previously decided that it wasn’t worth the time and money to take the long trip out to the other town where the party was taking place. But we were each a couple of beers deep so lets just say our negotiating skills weren’t quite in tip top shape to be arguing against going to a party at this point. So after carefully weighing the pros and cons and making sure we made the most logical and reasonable decision, about 35 seconds later Jack and I were paying our tab and heading out the door to find a cab.

Now this wasn’t like the kind of ‘oh man, I really don’t feel like taking a half hour cab ride to the other side of town to go to some birthday party’ kind of trip. This ‘long trip’ that our previously completely sober and rational minds had decided wasn’t worth it, was about to take us five and a half hours cramped in a bush taxi with 6 other people (thats a total of 8 people in a small beat up sedan), down a grueling, unbelievably rocky and pothole ridden ‘road’. And all of this was coming together just as the horizon was beginning to take on the pinkish hue of the days setting sun.

After what I can honestly say was the worst traveling experience I had ever had up to that point(It was stripped of its title shortly thereafter by the hungover car ride back up that exact same road the next morning), the car finally stops to let everyone out, only to tell us we still had another 25 miles to go and that he wasn’t taking us any further. So after arguing with half a dozen moto drivers to find a decent price, and being convinced to partake in a round of particularly hellish shots of Togolese moonshine, we hop on the back of a couple of motos to head down the rest of this riverbed they claimed to be a road.

Now the back portion of the seat on my moto had been so worn down that I was literally just sitting on metal bars for the last 40 minute stretch of this trip. Needless to say, by the time we arrived I was less than happy, completely sober, and literally felt like my ass had just been through the scene after the baseball game in Dazed and Confused. Going to a party right now was the last thing I wanted to do.

So I’m standing in the middle of the ‘road’ after stepping off of this moto. It’s pitch black at this point and I’m waiting for Jack to pay the guys, rubbing my ass to make sure its actually still there, and this random guy walks up to me. Now as you can imagine I am in no mood to be getting friendly with strangers. I’m actively avoiding eye contact with this guy in hopes that he’ll just go away. “No, I’m not going to give you money. No, I don’t need a taxi. Just leave me the hell alone man”. Just as I’m thinking this to myself he says to me “I like your shirt, you should give it to me”. This was pretty much my last straw at this point. My usual technique when someone says this kind of thing to me (which is surprisingly often), is to say right back at them that they need to give me their shirt, hat, motorcycle, etc.. Usually that gets them off my back.

So I turn around and say exactly that to this guy. Mind you though, in a much angrier voice than he had said it to me. But mid sentence, as I’m turning to face him, I see this giant Spongebob smile and big bulging white eyes on his obnoxiously bright yellow shirt, and I can’t help but immediately calm down a bit and almost crack a smile at the situation. And rather than the usual confused look and response of ‘what are you talking about, I’m not going to give you my shirt, thats ridiculous.’ He rolls his eyes up and to the side, as if seriously contemplating my proposal. After 3 or 4 seconds he looks me dead in the eyes, shrugs his shoulders a bit, and with his eyebrows cocked up, just says ‘Okay’.

I was so taken aback by the combination of his response and the giant happy spongebob face staring at me, I completely forgot that I was angry. I glanced down at my shirt, then over to spongebob’s obnoxiously large smile, and then kind of just stared at the guy for a few seconds, not really sure how to respond.

“Um…Okay” I said, still a bit confused

“Okay…Um…You, uh, Wanna. Trade. right now?” He was just as puzzled by this situation as I was.

“Uuh…Yeah. I guess. Right here?” I mean, we’re kind of standing in the middle of the road, and I’m not exactly sure whats happening right now dude, buuut…..

He shrugs his shoulders at me again and says “Um, Yeah?” Looking back to me for reaffirmation.

We both kind of go back and forth with this little game of ‘Are you sure you’re gonna do it? Cause I don’t wanna do it unless you’re definitely gonna do it. You go first’. ‘No you go first’ Like we’re two 16 year old kids with a bottle of Baily’s sitting in between us that we just stole from Dad’s liquor cabinet.

So we both hesitantly take of our shirts in the middle of this street and slowly hand them over to each other, only releasing our grip on our own shirt once we know we’ve got a firm grip on our newly found attire.

Both of our cautiously perplexed faces slowly give way to smiles once we’ve got our new shirts on our backs. We shake hands, give each other a mutual look of ‘yeah, that definitely was a bit weird, but I’m okay with it’, and go on our separate ways.

Just as I turn back around Jack has just finished paying for the motos. She turns around to look at me. “Wait a minute, were you wearing that shirt the whole time?”

“Nope, just traded some random dude on the street for it” I say back to her with a smile that surely had to rival that of my new shirt. “I’m totally ready to party right now though”