'Tis the Season?

Without snow, Christmas carols, or decorated street lights, I was a bit shocked when Christmas day arrived. Luckily, my local radio station had been getting into the festive spirit (minus Christmas music) and decided to organize a Santa outing event.

What exactly is a Santa outing you ask? Mr. Claus, or Papa Noël as he goes by locally, distributes candies to children in public places. This might rile up suspicion back in the States but was completely normal; even welcomed here. 

Papa Noël made his rounds to different vendors in the market dressed for the holiday from head to toe. He wore a typical triangle shaped Christmas hat with a round ball on top, a plastic Santa face mask with rosy red cheeks, a thin and stringy white beard, a Santa jacket stuffed with a small but round belly, and slightly off-red colored women's pants.

He might be seen as an emaciated Santa impostor by US standards, but the kids and adults alike loved him here. He often had to slyly creep away from the flocks of people that came with outstretched palms wanting a candy to be placed inside them. Within about thirty minutes, Papa Noël handed out all his candy and finished the tour for the day. Of course, he would be back the following day for the real Christmas celebrations plus a gift give away.

After that interesting adventure, I headed off for the next. A nearby village holds a cross-dressing event to celebrate the holiday, which is something I did not want to miss. I was not entirely sure of what to expect (can you ever?), but because I'd received a typed and time-specific invitation a few days before, I knew it must be serious business. 

The invitation indicated that the events would begin in the morning and continue until night fall. I was most interested in the dancing parts, which were scheduled to start by 2:30 p.m., so I planned to look for a car at 2 p.m., take the twenty minute trip and arrive before 3:00 p.m. Even with some of the most planned events, things usually still happen on the l'huere Africane (African time), which means a delay of an hour or more. 

As luck would have it, the event made finding a car to the village easy, and within just a few minutes we were ready to go. Just as we were ready to leave in the full the car by American standards (five people inside), the driver added two more to the front, one to the back, and packed someone in the trunk for a total of nine people inside. 

While this type of packing does exist and is normal in some areas, I never experienced it before in my city. If I am in the right mood, I protest when the car is loaded with a modest seven people (three in the front, four in the back). I was in the mood this time and gave the driver a piece of mind. How dare he try to charge the normal price of 75 cents for that?!

Thinking another car would be easy to find because of the event, I started walking in the direction of the village where it would be held. I could get directly there from the route nationale, (one of the only paved roads and sole international one in Togo), which always has heavier traffic. 

I could not be more wrong that day. A few cars passed but all were almost or just as full as the one I refused to ride in. I decided to try my luck at walking the five mile uphill distance, even though I was wearing simple sandals. On my way, two children joined me who were going to the event too. We made some small talk but were silent for most of the way. Though even without much talking, it was nice just to have some company.

A few times people from my city on motorcycles stopped to offer me a ride. There would only be space enough for me and maybe one other child if we overloaded, but I repeatedly chose to continue the walk with my new found friends. As we got farther and farther I became more committed to the walk, and was looking forward to the finish....but alas, when an air conditioned, clean, compact SUV with a free back seat offered to give us a ride, we accepted. 

I met the driver once at the radio and though I remember the day, I barely remember meeting him. Jumping into a car with a barely-known acquaintance is also a weird nuance of the States that is ignored here. Hitchhiking is just typical Togo transportation.

Before the event, I anticipated a few hundred people or so coming. After all, it was held in a village of only 500. As we pulled into the event space though, the normally empty land was packed with thousands of people. Later counts totaled the number of attendees around 5,000. 

As promised, men were dressed in skimpy women's clothing and women in men's. The most interesting was of course the men, who are some of the most buff, and masculine on another other day, now wearing high heels, tights, short skirts, fake breasts, wigs, and makeup. Many also carefully crafted their new do to leave space for beards and chest hair to poke through.

To my surprise, the event gathered what seemed to be almost full participation. Virtually every man present was wearing what would be considered American drag clothing. Women participated as well but to a smaller scale. Their clothing was usually limited to traditional shirts and pants with painted mustaches or beards. 

The cross-dressing groups were split into smaller huddles surrounding a giant circle in the middle. I decided to circulate the small huddles first and caught a few glimpses of the dances. They were all basically the same, and the giant circle ended up being where all the groups combined to form a giant rendition of the dance. 

Between waiting for a second car and mostly walking to the event, I made it there around 3:30 or 4 p.m., when things began dwindling down. I was surprised to run into a few Asians and Europeans at the event, and met up with one of my volunteer neighbors. We talked and walked around for a bit before I went back home and called it a night.