Mar 072015
 

So, earlier this year United made two changes to its Mileage Plus program which I consider fairly major. The first is that they raised the qualifying requirement for 1K status from 100,000 qualifying miles and $10,000 to 100,000 qualifying miles and $12,000. Now, $2,000 is plenty of money on its own, but 20% is semi-ridiculous when you consider it’s nearly seven times the rate of inflation. Couple this with the fact that this year I’m checking off many more obscure countries…which will be harder to use United tickets to…and I really wasn’t sure it was worth another year of pursuing status.

The other major change was the way miles are earned. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re rewarding your “best” customers this is the way to do it, but I think they have the multiplier wrong. It’s now based on a combination of how much you spend and your status. Unfortunately, unless you’re buying tickets that cost approximately 18 cents per mile as a 1K, you won’t break even. Now, you need to pay 12 cents per mile to get your 100,000 / $12,000 qualifying, so do the math. It’s a major downgrade.

Then, there was the “London mistake fare.” Yes, it was too good to be true. You can debate if it was unethical. But United outsourced some web coding, resulting in a mistaken exchange rate being used on its website. To me, the lesson to take away from this is if United screws up they can refuse to honour it, while if I screw up…too bad. Pay the change fee, and that’s your option. The game has gotten much less fun, and the airline clearly holds the upper hand…in most cases.

Add to this the fact I became a United million miler a couple years ago, meaning United Gold status for life, and the incremental benefits of 1K are free redeposit of award tickets, a few more miles, and priority free upgrades domestically, which I haven’t seen in over three years. If I want first domestically now I pay for it, because I just never get it.

So, in summary, I just didn’t see a point in 1K status anymore. I resolved to get some new experiences, fly whoever had the best discounted business fares, and just be happy with that.

Then, the shoe dropped…or should I say the wrench got thrown in the plans.

It’s looking like some Transpacific work travel will be coming up, for which our preferred carrier is United. That should likely get me at least halfway to the qualifying miles/dollars targets, making it much more attractive to consider it. Combine that with the fact I’m off to Turkmenistan this September, and there’s some very attractive D fares (business that can be upgraded to first with certificates) back to the US, and it puts me within mileage running distance. Ugh!

So, thoughts? What are others doing about for 2016 status?

I had almost nothing booked a month ago, but now my tentative plans for 2015 look like this. All tentative of course, but:

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…over 100,000 miles already planned for the rest of the year, with more likely to come. No rest for the weary!


Feb 242015
 

So, after the unexpected early end of my trip and missing Yemen and Eritrea I was a little bummed out and down. But more…exhausted. Somehow, still managed to play some hockey after getting home and then crashing…hard…and sleeping for nearly 12 glorious hours.

Woke up, rubbed my eyes, and couldn’t believe who was hanging out in my condo:

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Yes, the drama llama had struck again.

Barely 12 hours after I’d come home because Yemen was unsafe and I’d had to bail on Eritrea because after eight weeks my visa on arrival still wasn’t ready, there it was. Along with a note: “here’s your visa…please let us know if you will come tomorrow now.”

Tomorrow…yeah, um, about that…I’m kinda 8,000 kilometers away at the moment because it took forever. So, emailed the tour company to see how long I had to use it. 30 days from date of issue…which left 29 days to go.

Now, Eritrea is known for being suspicious of tourists, and outsiders in general. I’ve never had a visa take eight weeks to arrive before. I figure that if I didn’t use it, after all the favours that were called in to make this happen, the chances of me getting another Eritrea visa any time in the distant future were about as likely as ISIS and Elton John meeting up at the Western Wall to do a rousing rendition of Hava Nagila. That’s to say, I had 29 days to get to Eritrea or I wasn’t going…and my every country quest was going down the drain for the foreseeable future.

So, the only real questions were when to go and how.

I found the most practical time for me in the next 29 days, and then it was a question of how to get there.

I was still a bit sick and exhausted, and economy was absolutely out of the question. Lowest business class fares I was seeing were north of $4,000, so that wasn’t a very attractive option. I had enough miles to get me there on United, but that would deplete all my miles as well as costing me almost $1,900 to get home. That wasn’t attractive either. Then, I remembered I still had a large stash of US Airways miles that I could use on OneWorld, which Qatar was now a member of. Qatar and Turkish are really the only two airlines to fly into Eritrea (of any size) so just maybe…

Shockingly, DC to Doha was available on the day I needed. But there was a snag. US Airways doesn’t recognize Eritrea as existing, so can’t book flights there. Still, a roundtrip to Doha is only 100,000 miles in business, way cheaper than American or United miles, so it’s a great deal. Let’s see if I can get home from Doha. Nope, Doha-DC sold out for 2 days either side of the day I need. Doha to anywhere in the US seems sold out to. Let’s start checking other OneWorld Airlines…

Finally found a flight from Helsinki to JFK with availability, and I love Helsinki. Managed to piece together Doha-Stockholm-Helsinki with an overnight then Helsinki-JFK-DC the next day. Not idea, but it would work.

Now, how to get from Doha to Eritrea. Paid tickets were nearly $1,600 so that wasn’t exactly a great option. Turns out BA does recognize Eritrea, and will book it for just 30,000 miles/avios….which I don’t have. But you can transfer American Express Membership Rewards points to BA, which I did, and it was instantaneous.

So, I’m all booked. Supposedly I have a visa. Maybe second time’s a charm…. so, although there’s a short break in DC, this trip really isn’t over…. coming up:

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Or, in total, this trip will be:

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I’m already tired…but no rest for the wicked. Carry on my wayward son…there’ll be peace when you are done…


Feb 222015
 

Up early and one last breakfast in the executive lounge. I still wasn’t feeling so hot, and it was a gorgeous sunny day so rather than run around and get myself any sicker I decided to spend a couple hours relaxing by the pool and taking it easy. Shot of the pool from earlier:

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Grabbed a light lunch in the hotel cafe/bar after the pool, and got things packed up and ready to go. Before leaving, I decided to head down to the Executive Lounge for a double espresso. The lounge was on the 10th floor, and I was on the 12th. Grabbed the espresso to go, and was waiting for the lift back up to 12, and noticed a guy standing near the elevator who had that distinct security look about him. Tried to make small talk, and he was having none of it, which only confirmed my suspicions.

Then, the elevator door opened, and emerging in all his glory was the President of Uganda – Yoweri Musevini – wearing full academic regalia / PhD robes…hat and all. Didn’t even know the guy had a PhD, but apparently according to Wikipedia he’s got at least six of them, hah. I have no idea what he was doing in the sheraton, much less in academic regalia, but I guess that will remain a mystery for the ages. If you’ve read my earlier blogs this is my second presidential encounter in hotel elevators in the last four months, the previous being President Xi of China in an Auckland Hotel elevator. It was beginning to seem a rather strange coincidence!

Traffic on the way to the airport was absolutely horrid, and it took nearly two hours to reach the airport. I’d planned on two and a half hours worst case so it wasn’t a big deal, but was still annoying. Check-in and immigration were a piece of cake, and soon I was in the business lounge which featured an actual waterfall. Pretty sure that’s an airport first!

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Boarding was a long walk along the tarmac to our plane:

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Ethiopian flight 331
Entebbe, Uganda (EBB) to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD)
Depart 18:20, Arrive 20:25, Flight Time 2:05
Boeing 737-800, Registration ET-ARD, Manufactured 2007, Seat 2C

Ugh, Ethiopian…your planes are even rattier than United’s:

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What a…cute…little amenity kit. Pre-flight beverages were water or orange juice.

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Flight was only booked to 8/16 in business, but at the last moment the last eight seats filled up with folks that were clearly local important types. No idea what was going on, and it was a rather full flight so it’s possible they just upgraded people with status or something, but based on how rude they were I’m pretty sure they were DYKWIA types that Ethiopian staff upgraded for whatever reason. My seatmate, fortunately wasn’t bad….except for taking his shoes off and putting his bare feet on the seat in front of him. Gross.

The meal was, however, quite tasty for a two hour meal. Choices were fish or beef, so I went with the beef option. It could have been warmer, but I ate about half of it, which considering being sick was pretty good:

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Continue reading »


Feb 212015
 

Woke up feeling a slight bit better, and headed up to the executive lounge to get some breakfast and try and figure out what I was going to do next. Current plan was to head out at 5am the next morning to somewhere on the Turkish flight, but that would mean leaving the hotel no later than 2:30 in the morning. Being a bit sick I really wasn’t looking forward to getting four or five hours of sleep, so looked for other plans.

Saw that Ethiopian also had a flight out the next day, but around 6pm to Addis. It would connect to the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, and from there I had a ton of options. Called United, confirmed the Ethiopian flight had business available, and booked (as a placeholder) Entebbe to Addis the next day at 6pm in business, then Addis-Jeddah-Frankfurt in Lufthansa first with a connection to Kiev in Lufthansa business. That would be a good placeholder until I decided for sure where I wanted to go from Frankfurt.

View from the Executive Lounge while I was having breakfast and doing a bit of planning:

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So, this would leave me with a solid 30 hours to explore Kampala a bit. Still was feeling pretty rough, so took a short nap and then headed down to the hotel concierge to see what kind of trouble I could get into. He confirmed they had drivers available for hire for only $14 an hour, fuel included. Wow, for a hotel driver that was a bargain! There was a limit on the number of kilometers, but driving around the city he assured me there was no way I would go over. I told him I’d be ready to go, and headed up to my room to research where I wanted to go. Made a list of sites, mapped them out in what looked like a logical order on google maps, and off we go.

First, stopped in the lobby at the ATM for some local currency (decided 70,000 Uganda Shillings – or about $25 – should be plenty), and noticed the hotel had a wall of fame of the Presidents of Uganda since independence:

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Met up with my driver whose name was Ahmed. He looked at my list, suggested a few changes to the order, and off we went. First site I wanted to see was the parliament. Walked around a little bit, but taking pics was an absolute no-no, but Ahmed knew how to solve that. After our walk, we drove around the block a few times so I could try and snap a few shots from the car. I liked this guy already!

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Our next stop was one of the palaces of the Kabaka of Buganda. Buganda is a sub-Kingdom of Uganda, and home of the Ganda people. Buganda has its own palaces and parliament within Uganda, although the Kabaka (or King) is largely ceremonial these days. However, the King does “speak for the people” to a degree, so members of national political bodies tend to listen to him.

It wasn’t obvious if you could go inside the gates to see the palace, but someone walked up to us and asked if we wanted to go in. Sure, no problem, you can take pictures, etc…all for 20,000 Uganda Shillings (about $7) which includes a guided tour as well as a guided tour of the Buganda parliament about a mile away. Wow…score. The palace:

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During the reign of Idi Amin, he had overrun and occupied the palaces for a bit. He was also quite a collector of cars, the remains of several now litter the palace grounds. The remains of (one of) his Rolls Royces. Notice the hubcap:

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Of course, there’s also the unpleasant side of Idi Amin’s rule. He is known to have tortured and killed (and rumoured to have eaten) several thousand Ugandans during his rule. Behind the palace was this underground holding cell, which would hold up to 100 prisoners. Note the green line on the bottom of the wall? Once it was packed with prisoners it would be filled with water up to this line, and then electricity would be passed through the water. Maybe for a few seconds if he just wanted to torture people, or for longer if he wanted a mass killing. Chilling.

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Unfortunately it was not possible to go inside the palace itself, so after exploring the grounds we got back in the car and drove the approximately one mile down the “Royal Mile” to the Buganda Parliament. Outside the parliament:

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At the entrance we representations of the symbols of some of the Kingdom of Buganda’s 52 clans. The clans all have very specific duties in society (for example, the mushroom clan traditionally guards the Kabaka) and clan membership is passed down from the father. It’s prohibited to marry someone from either your clan or your mother’s clan, so there’s quite a bit of mixing. Notice the clan in the middle…our guide referred to this as the “shit clan” and said members of this clan often lie and claim to be from another clan. I don’t know that I’d want to be a member of the rat clan either…

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The parliament of Buganda. On the far end is the pedestal where the Kabaka’s throne is placed when he’s there. The benches along the side are for the members. As we were standing in here, the guide gave a great history of Buganda and explained how the parliement works, as well as its relationship to the national government. As he was explaining this to me, two other Ugandan men walked in, came up to us, and started to listen. He then explained that when the Kabaka is here, new members are expected to bring their wives to parliament to introduce them to the Kabaka, since all the women technically “belong” to the Kabaka.

One of the men who’d been listening in spoke up: “you know now that 30% of the members are ladies…do you know what they do when they join the parliament?” I couldn’t resist being a bit snarky and said “I’m pretty sure THEY don’t introduce their wives to the Kabaka.” Totally caught him off guard…but after a moment of awkward silence he broke out in a deep laugh and grabbed my hand and shook it, laughing as he walked out. My poor guide looked stunned, and told me…”um, that was the speaker of the parliament!” Hahahah!

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After thanking the guide we got back in the car for the drive to the Kasubi Tombs. This is the resting place of the Kabakas, and all Kabakas since independence from the UK are buried here. Unfortunately, there was a huge fire back in 2010 and the main building burned down, but it is being rebuilt (with a state of the art fire suppression system) now. The rest of the site is still quite accessible, however.

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Smaller huts around the main hut, mainly for the wives of the deceased Kabakas as some workers who take care of the site. The hut on the far left is the wine hut, where local wine is made. Our guide said this is her favourite of the huts…hahah!

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Behind the main area are the graves of the immediate family members of the Kabakas. The most recent one was less than a month old:

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After the Kasubi Tombs, we headed back off to visit the national mosque, also known as the Gaddafi National Mosque, since it had been built and financed by Libya. Shoes off, and inside, where the Imam himself gave a brief tour. We were invited to sit on the floor where he explained not only about the mosque, but about some of the basics of Islam. It was fascinating, but I was a bit embarrassed by a few of the other people there (we were six in total) who sat with the soles of their feet pointed right at the Imam, and one other Germany guy who was there in shorts. Ugh! The inside of the mosque:

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The minaret:

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Climbed up the minaret, which was a good workout and a few hundred steps, but we were rewarded with an amazing view:

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While we were up there, it was time for the evening call to prayer, which was amazing. Asked the Imam if it was alright to stay up there during that, and he said “absolutely – Allah belongs to all faiths.” Wow, if only more world religious leaders had such a tolerant and accepting view!

The mosque from outside:

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After the mosque, it was back to the hotel for some dinner. My big dilemma from here was where to go from Frankfurt. I could fly to just about anywhere in Europe, but with a maximum stay of about 16 hours, or I could head straight home. It was tempting to spend a night somewhere, I was thinking Kiev, Berlin, Helsinki, Vilnius, Riga, but in the end decided it wasn’t worth a few hundred dollars in taxes, hotel, meals, etc, and since I was still sick and worn out I decided to head straight home…which was made even easier when Lufthansa opened up the Frankfurt to Chicago flight in first with miles! Sold!

Off to bed so I could enjoy my last morning in Uganda…


Feb 192015
 

Woke up in the morning not feeling too much better, and knew it was going to be a long day. Grabbed a quick breakfast in the hotel restaurant before checking out and going to meet my driver. I’d offered to my taxi from the day before that he could take me back to the airport if he showed up at 7:45, and he seemed excited for the business. I should have known when he insisted on being paid for the one way up front there was a chance he wouldn’t show… Dar has incredibly bad traffic, but when he still hadn’t showed by a few minutes after 8:00 I had to give up and hire one of the hotel cabs. They wanted the same price, so I wasn’t out anything.

Off to the airport, and saw this sign which made me laugh. Apparently times are tough everyone…Men at Work has become Man at Work ;)

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Traffic was nightmarish, and it took nearly 90 minutes to make it to the airport. Fortunately, I’d planned for that as a worst case scenario, so everything worked out just fine. Check-in was no problem at all and after immigration and security it was into the departure hall where my flight to Nairobi was till showing on time:

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Kenya Airways uses the Tanzanite Lounge in Dar, and it was located downstairs from the departure hall. Fair amount of seating, though I imagine when/if widebodies come through it gets really full really quickly. Not too sure on the food and drink offerings, but there were plenty of outlets for charging up the phone which is all I was looking for for the thirty minutes until it was time to board.

Kenya Airways flight 481
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (DAR) to Nairobi, Kenya (NBO)
Depart 10:25, Arrive 11:45, Flight Time 1:20
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration 5Y-KYP, Manufactured 2010, Seat 2A

Offered water, juice, or champagne upon boarding…seriously? On an hour long flight? I’d been interested to try Kenya Airways, since I’d heard even on short flights on regional jets they were doing quite well, and so far I wasn’t disappointed!

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Plus, their inflight magazine featured an article on honey badgers, lol!

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Wait, MENUS on a short regional flight?!

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Decided to go with the beef paprika, which was served with multiple refills of the champagne. It was reasonably tasty, especially for a short, flight, but could have used a small something sweet for afterwards.

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Landed in Nairobi over 20 minutes ahead of schedule, and caught an L1011 on the tarmac – been years since I’d seen one. I have fond memories of them from my first ever trip across the pond on Delta from Cincinnati to London:

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Remote gate, but there was a bus just for the 10 passengers in business class to the terminal! Excepting the private car Lufthansa provides to first class passengers, this is how a remote gate should be done!

Into the terminal, which…seemed much more modern and nice than I remembered. I knew there was a major fire at the Nairobi airport a couple years back, and I assumed the airport was still more or less under construction from that. Yes, there was still construction going on, but we arrived at what felt like a nearly new and very modern terminal. I was pretty impressed how much of an improvement it was from the old airport. Transfer security was quick and efficient, and it was time to look for the lounge since I had a bit of extra time.

I didn’t have to look hard, because it was maybe 100 meters or so past the security checkpoint and up an elevator. Lounge was very nice compared to the old one, with plenty of power outlets and beverages. I wasn’t hungry so didn’t check out the food options, but there were plenty of drinks including proper champagne on offer. Can’t complain at all! 45 minutes until the next flight, I went down to the gate, only to find out I was the last one to board and they were waiting on me!

Kenya Airways flight 412
Nairobi, Kenya (NBO) to Entebbe, Uganda (EBB)
Depart 12:45, Arrive 14:00, Flight Time 1:15
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration 5Y-KYS, Manufactured 2011, Seat 2A

Despite having a gate, the plane wasn’t using the jetway, so we walked down the jetway, down stairs, about 20 meters, then up stairs to the plane. I’m guessing the jetways just weren’t working in the new airport yet. Never mind, there was more champagne on offer!

Plus, a menu with some different items:

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Left the gate 20 minutes early, maybe a 10 minute taxi, and we were airborne. Decided to go with the Chinese chicken this time which was tasty, probably because it was extremely salty. Still, meal was great except it could have used some dessert.

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Landed in Entebbe over 20 minutes ahead of schedule, and taxied by the airplane graveyard where I got this blurry pic:

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Into the arrivals hall, where nurses were waiting to take everyones’ temperature before allowing them to proceed to immigration. Quite an efficient operation, not to mention immigration…where you handed over your passport, they asked for $50 for the visa (which just got thrown on the counter with a bunch of other cash) and stamp….I was in Uganda. Piece of cake. Found my driver from the Sheraton to take me to Kampala (the airport is about 90 minutes drive from the capital) and off we went.

My phone finally got data service a few minutes into the drive, and started blowing up with emails and text messages.

I was supposed to be in Uganda for one night, which I’d decided on for a couple reasons. First, the main thing I wanted to do there was wildlife trekking, especially seeing the gorillas, and that would take a good week to do it right, and with the every country quest I knew I didn’t have that type of time right now. On top of that, given the government’s recent homophobia and atrocious human rights record, it wasn’t a place I wanted to spend much time or money. So, I opted for one night, and then onto the next country…Yemen.

But, back to those texts and emails…

Was notified by several friends and colleagues that the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen had gone into full “shred and burn” mode and were preparing to abandon the embassy. Now, I’ve visited several countries before where the U.S. doesn’t maintain an embassy, however, news they were preparing to imminently abandon it was definitely a warning sign that things were about to go bad…and quickly!

By the time I got to the hotel, I learned that the Embassy had evacuated, and when they got to the airport the marines who protected the embassy were held by the houthi rebels and had all their cars, weapons, and who knows what else confiscated. Things were going badly quickly, and I decided the trip just wasn’t worth the risk at this point.

So, I mailed my tour contact in Yemen…who quickly replied that things were completely fine and I’d be passing up an opportunity by not coming. Um, ok, thanks, but still not a risk I’m comfortable taking with the information I have.

Next step was to figure out where to go next. After Yemen my next stop was Eritrea, but I still didn’t have a visa! So, that made that a non-starter. I was going to come home from Eritrea via Ukraine, so I could probably still find a way to do that, but what’s the point? At this point I had the chance to go straight home several days early and still enjoy a long weekend. It was challenging.

The Sheraton gave me a nice suite, and so I retired to the Executive Lounge for a beer and to do some planning. None of the options seemed very attractive, and I was toying with if it really wanted to take the 5am Turkish flight out of the country. Instead of Entebbe-Istanbul-Yemem I could do Istanbul-Kiev and still at least enjoy that. But 5am. Ugh. With all that was going wrong what was the point? Maybe I should stay in Uganda for an extra day and see what there was to see. I was tired, exhausted, still a bit sick, and cranky at this point, so I decided to delay it 24 hrs. I booked Entebbe-Istanbul-Berlin 24 hours later, which meant I could at least sleep in the next morning, have a full day in Uganda, and go from there.

Quick room service dinner because I was tired, then off for what would hopefully be a solid sleep. There was much planning to be done…


Feb 172015
 

After my evening wandering the streets of Stone Town trying to find my way to and from dinner, I had a nice relaxing morning. Breakfast was included in the hotel restaurant, which was on the top floor and had a nice view out over the roofs of Stone Town. As an added bonus, the breakfast buffet spread was pretty good and service was quite good as well. Nice relaxing start to the morning.

Checked out, and had the hotel call a taxi for me, which took about 10 minutes to arrive. While waiting, I saw this table in the hotel lobby. I loved it…nine little compartments on top, each filled with a different spice. Something like this would be a great souvenir from the spice island!

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Taxi came in about 10 minutes, and the fantastic hotel staff insisted on carrying my bags to the tax, which was maybe a 100 meter walk from the hotel. Many of the streets in Stone Town (including the one the hotel is one) are so small and narrow that no vehicle traffic is possible, so cars just come as close as they can.

Got to Zanzibar Airport, and found out that domestic flights depart from a different terminal, which is just one room with one x-ray machine. There were maybe 50 people waiting when I got there, for an assortment of flights in tiny planes to Dar, Arusha, and possibly some other destinations. There was one check-in counter, with no real signs/indication of where to go for which airline…of which there were at least five different airlines. I just went up every 10 minutes to ask, and eventually, yes, they were checking in my flight lol.

Boarding was five minutes before scheduled departure time, and we started walking to the plane. There were a couple of dozen small plans scattered around the tarmac, so I was curious to see which one we would get. View of the airport:

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This little guy turned out to be our plane. Pilot plus room for five passengers, one of which sat in the copilot seat. Smallest plane I’ve ever been on.

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ZanAir flight 105
Zanzibar, Tanzania (ZNZ) to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (DAR)
Depart 11:00, Arrive 11:20, Flight Time 20 minutes
Cessna 207A Stationair, Registration 5H-ARD, Manufactured 1980

It was getting hot out. Very hot. So what do you do if you’re the pilot? Hold the window open to get a good breeze going during taxi…of course!

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View of the apron at ZNZ just after takeoff:

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Flight was a total of about 40 miles, and lasted just over 20 minutes. Soon, we were in Dar es Salaam at the domestic airport:

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The domestic and international terminals at Dar are quite a way apart, and all of the other passengers on my plane were connecting to international flights so ZanAir gave them a ride in a company car over to the other terminal…how nice! There were plenty of taxis for me, and prices were posted, so there was no question what a fair price to the hotel would be.  Traffic was horrendous, and it took well over an hour to get to the DoubleTree hotel located in the neighbourhood of Oyster Bay.

Was given a very nice upgrade to a suite upon check-in:

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I was exhausted from several days of go-go-go traveling, and it was mid afternoon by this point, so I decided to relax for a bit and just enjoy the afternoon by the pool…where I was the only person for most of the afternoon:

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Sunset near the hotel:

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A friend had recommended I get dinner at the Cape Town Fish Market restaurant, which was located near the hotel. I asked for directions from the bellman, who seemed terrified that I was considering walking there. After convincing him I was serious, he gave me directions, and it was an easy 10 minute or so walk. The neighbourhood didn’t feel the least bit dangerous, even after dark, so I’m not quite sure what the big deal was.

The restaurant itself was fascinating people watching. It was packed with various expat types as well as what appeared to be lots of middle and upper class locals. There were clearly lots of regulars, because the staff were greeting everyone by name. It was a nice warm evening, although there was a breeze, so sitting by the ocean and having dinner was perfect. They tried to sell me on a salmon entree (seriously? salmon? in Africa?) but I passed and asked for something local. Ended up with a red snapper which was quite tasty. Wanted to get dessert as there were several tasty looking options on the menu, but wasn’t all that hungry. I’d later find out the next day that I was getting sick and that’s what had killed my appetite.

Not feeling great headed back to the hotel and early to bed to hopefully sleep it off before heading to Uganda in the morning.


Feb 142015
 

Somewhere in the middle of the night the aircon in my room decided to crap out, so woke up nice and early a sweaty mess. Lovely. I would have enjoyed the sunrise, except it was super hazy, so there wasn’t really anything to see. Oh well! Might as well check out what the all-inclusive breakfast has to offer.

It was a pretty poor selection, and honestly a step below almost every hotel breakfast I’ve ever had in a major hotel. It was pretty disappointing…there was enough to eat with the fruit, breads, etc, but it was far from exciting. Well, I may not have enjoyed it, but the guest who joined me for breakfast sure wanted some!

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My taxi showed up right as promised, 2 minutes early actually, but he apologized up and down for being two minutes late. I informed him he was early, and he was relieved, lol. I don’t know why so many taxi drivers in the developing world are unpleasant and try and cheat you…it kind of goes contrary to the idea of providing good service and making money. Is the concept of service really that foreign? That said, this driver was fantastic and I really appreciated the effort he made to me more than “just” a taxi.

No line to check in at the airport, and off to the departures lounge.which involved going upstairs. Apparently, in Mombasa, knowing how to use an escalator doesn’t go hand in hand with flying:

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There was as lounge in the airport which was nice and air conditioned, but apparently my Priority Pass card had expired three days prior and they never bothered to send me the renewal. Sigh. Service from AmEx goes downhill further and further every year. At least I had less than 30 minutes to go until it was time to board.

Walking to the plane:

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My big orange ride for the trip to Zanzibar….anything goes!

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Fly540 flight 105
Mombasa, Kenya (MBA) to Zanzibar, Tanzania (ZNZ)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 11:30, Flight Time 40 minutes
Canadair CRJ-100, Registration 5Y-BXC, Manufactured 1997, Seat 12A

Not that this plane was a throwback or anything, but they even had borrowed beverage carts from TAROM:

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…and other storage carts from Air Littoral:

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My boarding pass said “open” for seating, but apparently they’d assigned seats to everyone else. Oh well! For some reason, despite the plane being booked 42/50, there was nobody at all in the last two rows. So I moved back there and had a whole row to myself. Go figure!

Plus, the inflight magazine came with free fashion tips:

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Quick flight, no food served, just a bottle of water handed out upon boarding…which was more than enough for barely 30 minutes in the air. Soon, we were landing on Zanzibar!

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Visa on arrival was an unpleasant $100, but it came with a full colour sticker and was good for multiple entries for a full year, so I suppose it wasn’t awful. The ATMs in the airport were all broken, so my next task was to find a taxi who would take me to the hotel and accept Euros or US Dollars. I’d been told to expect roughly $30, so when a driver offered me a ride for $10 I jumped on it…20 minute or so ride, and I was at my hotel, the Doubletree Stone Town Zanzibar.

This hotel is almost a small boutique hotel right in the heart of Stone Town, and has maybe 60 rooms spread across 6 floors. I received a Diamond upgrade to a “deluxe king” room which was very nice…and freezing cold! I was in Heaven! The decor felt “very Zanzibar” to me, and for the price paid it was a fantastic room.

My first mission was to go on a long walk and enjoy stone town, but first I needed a coffee. Delicious double espresso at a little cafe right next to the hotel. Price? Less than $2

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After rejuvenating thanks to the magic of coffee, it was time to begin my walk through Stone Town:

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Walking along the corniche:

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The tree known, appropriately, as “the big tree”

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Feb 132015
 

Driver had dropped me off at the airport for my flight, and check-in was quick. Before heading through security, a quick shot of the bustling Hahaya International Airport in Comoros.

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The waiting area was just one big room, but some great views onto the tarmac. Not the best shot, but a Ukrainian military helicopter…because that’s not all sorts of random in Comoros!

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While we were waiting for the flight, it was also prayer time. The shot below shows how slick the floors look…nice and shiny. Which was great, until people went to the washroom to wash their feet before praying, and then headed into the waiting area to pray. Witnessed one guy slip, land flat on his back, and paramedics had to come and take him away. Rather unfortunate start to the day! You can see in the photo below just how small the airport is. Yes, this is the entire departures area.

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Soon, the plane arrived right on time and it was time to board!

East Africa Safari Express flight 542
Hahaya, Comoros (HAH) to Mombasa, Kenya (MBA)
Depart 14:00, Arrive 15:30, Flight Time 90 minutes
Canadair CRJ-100, Registration 5Y-BXD, Manufactured 1994, Seat 1A

Flight was open seating, so I made a dash for the aircraft in order to try and get the bulkhead. Parked myself in 1B, and knowing from the check-in agent it was booked to 38 of 50 made sure to take up as much space as possible so as to make the seat next to me look undesirable ;) It worked, and I ended up with both seats to myself for the short 80 minute or so flight.

Small snackbox was offered, and I decided to eat the muffin and apple (I don’t do sketchy room temperature sandwiches). Still, gotta give them credit for giving everyone a free snack! Beverages were offered, which were coke or juice. I decided to stick with water.

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Disembarking in Mombasa. Nothing says “sketchy” like a solid white plane with no identifying marks on it!

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Welcome to Mombasa!

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Quite a long walk along the tarmac to the arrivals door, maybe 200-300 meters or so, passing a large Ethiopian jet on the way:

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I was prepared for the $50 Kenya visa on arrival, but due to the fact I was only staying 24 hrs they approved a $20 transit visa instead. Saving money is always a good thing! Outside departures there were plenty of taxis, with a price list posted, so there was no scamming going on here. I’d had a difficult time deciding where to stay, and originally had planned the Serena Hotel since it looked like the most upscale option, but then I saw the Voyager Resort which was not only $100 cheaper, but also billed itself as an all-inclusive resort. I thought that was a Caribbean-only concept, so had to book it just to see!

The taxi price was 1300 Kenyan Shillings, approximately $14, and the driver told me prices were based on distance. 100 shillings per kilometer of driving. Talk about honest! It was about 30 minute driver, and my driver was fantastic. Talked about life in Mombasa, how things were safety wise etc. He was a safe driver and really nice guy, and before dropping me off I asked if he’d like to come back the next day to pick me up. He was happy to, and asked not to be paid until he’d done his job. I was impressed! It was 1300 one way, but in the end I gave him 3000 for the roundtrip based on his honesty, efficiency, and for making things easy for me.

Check in was nice, cold towel and juice offered, and I noticed the hotel had a rather corny nautical theme. Signs like “enjoy your voyage!” and referring to the groupings of rooms as “decks.” Hah! The room was clean and cool, but unfortunately the internet didn’t work in my room…it seemed to be in a dead spot. They informed me there were no other rooms available, so this was pretty disappointing. It was soon forgotten, however, when I went to the pool for a swim and to enjoy an “all-inclusive” drink. Tusker Lager on draft:

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One of the several pools at the resort:

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Unfortunately I was one day late. Sunday was “Swahili Day” at the resort…I would have loved to see their take on Hawaiian Day…not to mention a disco party!

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Oh, there was also one bottled beer on offer as part of the all-inclusive…not good, but not awful…

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The hotel seemed to be absolutely packed with German tourists, and everywhere I went I heard German being spoken. The next day when departing, there was a flight to Frankfurt leaving from the airport, so my guess is that German travel agencies arrange trips to Mombasa. It’s funny how every country seems to have its resort destinations, and for some reason Mombasa seemed to be popular with the Germans.

View from my room:

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After sunset, it was time to head to the restaurant for dinner. It was buffet, and I was pretty surprised just how limited the offerings were. There was plenty of food, but definitely not a super wide variety. Part of it was probably that it was Swahili night and many of the options did not look very appetizing, but even beyond that it just felt limited in choice. This was made up for, however, by a reasonably drinkable (hey, I’m used to United Airlines, ok?) red wine that was provided with a fair amount of refills. The staff seemed a bit overworked, however, and as a result a bit cold and distant.

It had been a long day, so ended up crashing right after dinner so I could could continue my journey in the morning!


Feb 122015
 

Up early to do a bit more exploring in Tana before heading to the airport for my flight. I’m generally not a big fan of organized tours, but in this case I’m super glad I booked it. Despite only having three nights in Madagascar, this company packed a lot in when I told them I wanted to see as much as possible and they really did their best to not only be flexible when I changed what I wanted to do – but also to cram in as much as I wanted.

That said, early check out from the hotel and off to do a bit more touring. First stop was Haut-Ville, the part of the city built high in the hills overlooking downtown Tana:

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The National Stadium:

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After walking around the upper town for a bit, we got back in the car to visit a souvenir/craft market on the way to the airport. Lots of interesting little things, but nothing I liked so much I wanted to haul it around Africa for another couple of weeks. View of the river next to the market:

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Some of the market stalls:

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Check-in wasn’t open yet when I got to the airport, as it was nearly three hours until the flight. My driver was afraid of traffic jams, so wanted to be sure to leave plenty of time just in case. The queues to get to the check-in counters weren’t marked at all, so I had to ask around which one to get in. “Oh, and is there a business class one?” Nobody seemed to know. Everyone just sort of lined up, and waited. It seemed there were no mid-morning flights at all, but plenty of them around the same time as mine…as there were three different flights waiting to check-in.

As it got more obvious they were about to open check-in I asked a few security guard looking types where Air Madagascar business class line was. They just escorted me to the front, and I was first to the counter when check-in opened. No problems at all, immigration and security were a breeze, and soon it was time to see what the Air Madagascar Business Class Lounge was all about:

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There’s no pictures. For a reason. It was so dark in the lounge I’m not sure they would have turned out. It was also incredibly warm, despite the fact it was nice and cool outside. There was a fan…which I commandeered and pointed at my seat. There was plenty of beverages – coffee and espresso made to order, which the lounge attendant happily delivered. The internet kept cutting in and out, and was more or less useless. With an hour to go to flight time, I decided to go people watch in the terminal instead. Soon, my plane arrived:

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Feb 092015
 

Woke up way too early just after 6am, and met my friend from DC for breakfast before getting ready to head out on my tour. Driver picked me up as planned at 7:30 on the nose, and of course I got distracted catching up over breakfast so was running a little late. No worries, we headed out just before 8 to head to the east part of the island and find some lemurs! Traffic getting out of Tana was quite bad, and the joke the driver had was that it was the Lycée Français – not sure why this was so funny, but every time he encountered traffic that’s what he’d say. Pretty sure you can’t blame ALL the traffic on the French!

Soon we were clear of Tana, and winding our way over the hills/mountains towards Andisibe Park in the east of the island:

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Stop one was the Pereyras Reptiles Farm. After a short trek through the woods, we spotted our first lemurs, who came down from the trees…because we had bananas. Clever.

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Who wants a banana!

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After playing with the lemurs and taking pics, we headed to the chameleon enclosure. It was a bit too zoo-like for my tastes, but at least it guaranteed we’d get to see them since the chameleons can be really hard to spot in the wild. First up, a Parson’s Chameleon:

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…and a tomato frog…gee, I wonder how it got that name!

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BATS!

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I’d had enough of the zoo at this point, so it was back in the car to drive a bit further. We stopped at the edge of the park to get lunch, since it was already after 1pm at this point. Zebu in madagascar green curry…it was pretty tasty…especially the onions! …not to mention cheap. The entire meal with a beer was hardly $8.

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After lunch we kept driving, and our next stop was the Vakona Forest Lodge, where I’d be spending the night. Lanai to my hut:

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It was pretty basic inside, but much better than I’d expected. There was no AC, but the temperatures outside were reasonable enough that it wasn’t needed. The big downside, however, was the 99% humidity in the park. Everything was instantly damp, but hey, that’s what you get when you come to the rainforest! It had warm water on demand, was very comfortable, and all in all, for being in the middle of a tropical rainforest was all-around excellent!

The lodge has it’s own private island, which serves as a refuge for lemurs which had either been in captivity previously, or were in endangered areas. (ie, logging companies were destroying their land, etc.) Got in a small boat to cross the moat onto the island (literally 20 meters across), and I hadn’t been out of the boat for two seconds before this happened. This little brown lemur leapt right at me and jumped on my head. No warning at all, lol, I can see how this wouldn’t go over too well with some people…

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5 seconds later, he was joined by this guy:

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Apparently, they thought I was a tree.

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Lemur kisses!

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What are YOU looking at!

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After managing to pry the lemurs off me we got back in the boat to go down the moat a bit and look for more species. Next up was the golden sifooka:

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…and finally, the ringtailed lemur:

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Right after the ringtails, a torrential downpour started, and we paddled back to the car as quickly as possible, but still got soaked. That’s what happens in the rainforest I guess!

After relaxing at the lodge for a couple of hours, using the wifi in the main lodge, and having a couple espressos, it was time to head out on the night walk. We saw the two smallest species of lemurs – the mouse lemur and the dwarf lemur, but unfortunately they were too far away (and it was too dark) to really get pictures of them. We did get a few cool frog pictures, however:

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After walking in the dark for about 90 minutes I was exhausted, and had had enough, so it was back to the lodge for dinner. More Zebu stew and wild forest mushrooms. Every time I had Zebu, I kept thinking back to that old Simpsons episode where Lisa is trying to teach Maggie the alphabet, and Z is for Zebu…see Maggie? Zebu? With a hump and a doolap. Dooooolap.

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Slept reasonably well, although it felt like sleeping in a swamp the humidity was so high. Up early, decent breakfast provided by the lodge including eggs, bread, and fruit, and then it was off to the National Park to go lemur spotting. Our goal this morning was to see the Indri Indri which was the largest species. About an hour in, we’d seen a few more common brown lemurs and a couple of bamboo lemurs (so named because they eat bamboo) but no Indri Indri. We did, however, see a massive snail:

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…and another Parson’s Chameleon up close and in nature!

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…and this frog!

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After nearly four hours of walking, and consulting with other guides we ran into, we still hadn’t seen any Indri Indri. My guide (a local guide, not the one from my tour company) was growing visibly frustrated, and kept wandering into the forest for 30 minutes at a time looking for them and leaving us behind to stand around. It was pretty frustrating. I told him several times it really wasn’t that important we find them, but he refused to give up. Finally, he was really frustrated, and got out his cell phone and started calling around to all the other local guides.

A friend of his had spotted some Indri Indri at another Park about 10 minutes drive away, so he rushed us out of the National Park, into the car, and off we drove to another park. Another 15 minute or so hike into this park, and finally, there it was….way up in the trees. I needed the binoculars to get a good look at it, but he seemed happy since we could at least tick the box that we’d seen it and he could do his job. It was really cool, but probably not worth all the stress.

At this point it was after noon, so we piled back in the car to begin the drive to Tana. We weren’t hungry when we reached the restaurant we’d eaten at the day before, so I agreed we’d stop at a “clean local restaurant” which was really the only other option on the way back to Tana. I ended up having “steak” which was actually pretty good grilled in some sort of a sweet sauce with a side of fries for a whopping $4. Including a large bottle of water. Hah!

View on the drive back to Tana:

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Pretty bad traffic, and finally made it back to the hotel around 6pm. I rested up a bit, and it was pouring rain outside by this point, so decided to just have dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, since it looked like it had a decent menu. Tasty fois gras starter:

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Grilled fish with blue cheese sauce and veg:

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Moëlleux au Chocolate with ice cream:

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Three courses and two beers? Yes, $21. I think Madagascar is by far the best value for food and lodging of anywhere I’ve ever visited. Every meal was under $25 and high quality, lodging was under $100 a night for solid three star standard, and everything was clean, comfortable, and most importantly all the employees seemed happy and well-provided for.

By this point I was seriously about ready to pass out having been up since 5:30, and crashed early, since we had one more morning tour before flying out.