Jun 272016
 

Elite status with airlines is great. At a minimum, you can usually get a better seat on the plane. You also generally earn approximately double the miles each flight when you’re a top-tier elite member with most airlines in the US.

Then, there’s free luggage if checking bags is your thing. I know most top-tier elites go out of their way not to check luggage, but it’s certainly a nice benefit when you need it.

Did someone say upgrades? Most of the US airlines offer unlimited complimentary domestic upgrades to elites – space available of course – which is less and less these days. There’s also the ability to do international upgrades a few times a year with vouchers if you’re a top elite. Definitely a great benefit.

However, at least for me, while trying to do every country the single most valuable benefit is free changes on award tickets. Sometimes, I change tickets a lot because I can’t make up my mind. It’s good to lock things in when you find the availability in case it’s gone later, but other times there’s just a change of plans. Or, say 300 days out, you lock in the only routing available with miles…then closer in, better options open up. Free changes, and you’re good to go.

Then, there’s what happened today…

See, I’ve been wanting a flight on the Lufthansa A380. I got one once from Miami to Frankfurt on Christmas Day a few years ago, but I’ve been dying ever since to do it again. Lufthansa is probably my favourite first product, and doing it on the A380 is as close to perfection as it comes.

Once I decided to splurge the miles for a first award to Dubai to start my Turkmenistan trip, there was no question – I wanted the longest flight possible. Lufthansa generally doesn’t open up first awards until 14 days out, so booking United and changing to Lufthansa at 14 days is the best you can hope for. I did that, and at 12 days, lots of options opened up. Grabbing the Frankfurt to Dubai was a piece of cake. Question then was, how to get to Frankfurt.

DC to Frankfurt is a short flight, and wasn’t available anyways. Chicago to Frankfurt was, and surprisingly DCA to Chicago with United was there too. Put it on hold while I looked for something better. There was Houston to Frankfurt on the A380, but getting to Houston appeared to be a giant pain – and in the meantime the availability was gone. A week went by, and it looked like I was going via Chicago. Until this morning.

The longest Lufthansa flight from the US opened up this morning – LAX to Frankfurt! I grabbed it, not even thinking about how I might get to LAX. 11 hours on the A380 with Lufthansa in first was like a dream. Even managed to get an add-on with United from Las Vegas…but that’s as far as I could backtrack with miles.

I’m seriously short this year of requalifying with United in terms of miles. I’m only at around 50,000 booked so far, so am looking for United options whenever they come up. Found a shockingly cheap first fare from DCA to Las Vegas the night before, and I was set! No, this wasn’t how I expected this trip to go down, but, we have a new routing for the trip:

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So, plans change, and the only reason I could even consider this is due to elite status. So, bring on one night in Vegas…..and then LA where I will have 6 hours (side trip to In-n-Out Burger perhaps?) and then a super long A380 ride to Frankfurt!


Jun 252016
 

…and then there were two.

After my recent trip to Mali and Mauritania that left me with just two countries to visit on the list of 193 UN Members + 3 countries most of the world agrees are countries. This was to be a simple trip to go to Turkmenistan, since the last time I tried to visit I had some challenges getting the visa.

But, as with most trips I plan, things are never that simple. First monkeywrench was Ian’s fault. “Hey, let’s go to Crimea after Turkmenistan?” I mean, really, you expect me to be able to resist an offer like that?

Then, I had to get back from Crimea. Lots of really cheap fares ex-Russia at the time, and I was thinking…maybe I’ll go to St Petersberg and fly back via Helsinki. Wait, if I’m going to get a Russian visa anyways…I should see more of Russia.

I know…I’ll go to Novosibirsk. See, Novosibirsk is a special place for me. Back in high school, when my world was limited to the US and Canada I wanted to travel abroad…somewhere big and interesting. School study trip to the USSR was offered…in a small town near Novosibirsk called Akademgorodok. That was in 1988. Where better to go right before Iceland than the town where it all began? It was settled…I was going to Novosibirsk after Crimea.

Then…I was thinking. If I’m that far east, I should keep going. I explored going to Vladivostok, to Magadan, to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk…and while I wanted to do it, I felt that it would take more time to do it justice than I had. So, I scrapped that.

It was Ian to the rescue with a great fare…but that meant I had to get to Malaysia. I started looking how to do that…pieced together some stuff, and suddenly I was going from Novosibirsk to Malaysia via Kazakhstan, Abu Dhabi, and Bangkok…naturally.

If that wasn’t enough, some last minute changes ensured this trip will have outrageous first class flights on Lufthansa, Etihad, and Hong Kong. I’m going to pack gym clothes, because there’s going to be lots of champagne and caviar…because…penultimate country and I’m doing it right!

The route should be set now, insh’allah:

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With that, in just a couple days, I’m off. I’m hoping to do this report in more or less real time…I’m gonna force myself to do it. Fasten your seatbelts, comrades, we’re in for a wild ride!


Jun 232016
 

4:30 in the morning came early, very early. I had set everything out the night before so I could make a very quick escape, and it all worked out well. Rolled out of bed into the bathroom, brushed teeth, put contacts in, and made a quick escape from the room. The plan was to get going as quickly as possible and shower in the lounge at the airport if I still had time in order to try and not wake Ian up. Actually woke up 5 minutes before my alarm (I love how the internal clock works like that sometimes) so think I was out the door in under 10 minutes flat. Called an Uber, and it arrived just five minutes later…and I was off.

With no traffic, ride to the airport was nearly 30 minutes, and when I was dropped at the curb this sign awaited me…it’s like they knew I was coming or something:

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I already had my boarding pass from the previous night, but the line for passport control was over 30 minutes…and that was the priority line…due to a group of 100+ Turks with diplomatic passports that all looked barely 25 congesting the line. There was a large German schoolgroup in the main line, so it wouldn’t have been any better. I wondered where 100+ Turkish diplomats were headed at 5:30am, then saw one of their boarding passes: Pristina. I’m not sure what 100+ 20-something Turkish diplomats were up to in Kosovo, but I’m probably better off not knowing.

Stopped at Starbucks, where apparently Jason sounds like Corsim today. Fortunately, they let me bring it into the lounge where I enjoyed it with some cheese and olives for breakfast:

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Just in case you’re a raging alcoholic, there’s plenty of wine ready at 6am as well:

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Had plenty of time to grab a shower and such before the flight, before heading to the gate. Anyone who’s read my blog knows how I feel about the Istanbul airport. Great facilities, huge lounge, connections to everywhere, but the throngs of humanity make it a nightmare. Think Frankfurt or Heathrow, except instead of 90% passengers from developed countries, you have the other 90% – those who can’t get a visa to transit Europe. People being pushy, disrespecting queues, eating with their hands straight from the lounge buffet, etc. At least you don’t have the self-important scream into the mobile phone types…

The grand staircase in the split-level lounge:

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Bit of a hike to our bus gate today, where I found out the planned A330 had been swapped for an A340 overnight. Ugh, the Turkish A340s are almost as old as some of the United 747s. Hey, it’s a three hour flight though, can’t really complain about even an ancient widebody with nearly lie-flat seats!

Turkish Airlines flight 1587
Istanbul, Turkey (IST) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 07:55, Arrive 10:10, Flight Time: 3:15
Airbus A340-300, Registration TC-JDN, Manufactured 1997, Seat 4K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 99,297
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,288,822

First impressions on boarding were wow, this is nice for a three hour flight!

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Chose the pre-departure lemonade this morning:

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The chef went around offering people drinks as they boarded. He had it down to a science. Let them board, sit down, and about a minute later come and offer them a drink. Very nice, and personalized:

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He offered me a second, so I went with a fresh-squeezed OJ:

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Today’s menu…looks pretty identical to the flight from Dakar the day before:

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Unfortunately, departure time passed, and without a word we just sat there. And sat there. After 20 minutes I rang the call button to ask why we hadn’t left. The flight attendant had no idea but “I am sure we will be going soon.” Another 20 minutes, nothing. At the hour mark, the pilot finally came on and said “something was wrong with the plane, but I think it is ok now and we will leave soon.” Nothing inspires confidence like that! Fortunately about 10 minutes later we were off.

After takeoff, the captain announced we had good winds, so should only arrive about 40 minutes late. Shortly after, the starters for breakfast were delivered. Since the crew the previous day didn’t know what a mimosa was I didn’t want to take any chances, so I asked for an orange juice and champagne…and got one of each. Waste not want not!

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Since the other option didn’t look appetizing I went with the bland cheese pancake thing. It was really bland again, but with the honeycomb I pretty much forgot…and the refills on the beverages weren’t hurting things:

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We ended up actually getting a gate in the B terminal in Frankfurt, and the German border police were waiting at the top of the jetway to check documents. I’ve only ever experienced this on flights from Africa and Turkey, which apparently have a large number of people flushing their passports and trying to claim asylum. For the first time ever I got a bit of a grilling for trying to speak German with them, but was let go after a couple of questions.

Had to re-clear security in order to get back into the B terminal area, so opted to go through immigration and clear that security first as the line to get back into the B area was rather long. The agent was confused why I was going into the B gates when my flight left from the Z gates, and didn’t seem to understand the concept of wanting to using the first class lounge. I’m still completely confused why Lufthansa has a first class lounge at the A gates but not the Z one, when that’s where most longhaul flights depart from!

Once inside, grabbed a quick shower, and unfortunately they only had the generic rubber duckies this time. I’m still trying to get either the rarer silver one or the new European Cup soccer one. Hopefully next time!

Some bubbly and cheese while I waited for my flight. Unfortunately, my lounge time was cut short by a delayed arrival. One of these times I’m going to have a proper meal in this lounge and try the eggs benedict!

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Today’s transfer from the lounge to the plane was in a nice Mercedes S Class, and we took the long way to the plane. I was one of four in first today, and unfortunately three of us had to share the car together. I know, I know, #FirstClassProblems…

Lufthansa flight 418
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Washington, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 13:15, Arrive 15:55, Flight Time: 8:40
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYL, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 103,454
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,292,979

Welcomed aboard with some mixed nuts and a glass of bubbles…

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salmon amuse bouche…

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Takeoff from Frankfurt:

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Today’s menu:

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The Tattinger Millésimé is a nice bottle of bubbles, but not one of my favourites. I appreciate that Lufthansa doesn’t just go easy with the Dom or Krug and tries to get creative, but while this is a very nice champagne, it’s just not one of my faves. No problem, that will just make the switch to red wine easier.

Table was set right after takeoff as I asked:

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Caviar was served. I was even offered seconds, but declined today:

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Appetizers came out next, and the flight attendant insisted I try all three as well as a salad. “You do not have to eat it all, but you should at least try it!” I like her attitude!

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Continuing my unusual streak of fish on planes lately, I went with the turbot. I have to say, I wasn’t impressed. It was a bit dry and tasteless, and I didn’t feel the least bit bad enjoying the Flagstone shiraz with it for a bit of zing.

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Now THAT is a cheese cart. I was in heaven. A little of each please…

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With more shiraz, of course…

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I was too full desert, but again the flight attendant insisted I at least have a couple of chocolates. With that, I asked my bed to be made and passed out for nearly 5 hours.

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I had asked not to be waken for a snack, so I was allowed to sleep until 30 minutes before landing. I think that’s a first for me on a transatlantic, and shows just how little sleep I’d gotten the night before. Boarded, watching a movie, and ate until landing.

Immigration at Dulles wasn’t too bad, was through Global Entry in under five minutes, and then I saw the line for customs. It was the longest I’d ever seen, and people were saying they had to stand in line over 90 minutes for customs! Thankfully, there’s a special line for Global Entry customs at Dulles, and I was out in under five minutes.

Managed to stay awake maybe another six hours after landing, and then crashed hard despite the five hours on the plane. This was really a new experience for me choosing to sleep the daytime flight away, but to me it shows what Lufthansa really excels at. You’re in first class, and you’re in charge – whatever and however you want to use your time you are free to and the crew will see to it that you get the experience you need at that point.

One of these days I’m going to actually do the frequent flier geek thing and try and “maximize the experience” but for now, I’m extremely content just enjoying it as I think it’s meant to be – what you need, when you need it, to minimize the stresses of traveling.

With that, the trip is over, and it’s time to hit my penultimate country in just another week: Turkmenistan!


Jun 212016
 

Woke up at oh-dark-thirty to check out, and the front desk guy at the hotel was nowhere to be found. I eventually found him in the hotel bar asleep in a chair with his head on a table. To his credit, he woke up pretty quickly, and check-out was reasonably efficient. There was a surcharge for using a credit card, and only visa cards were accepted. As promised the night before, the hotel shuttle was waiting for us and we made the short drive to the airport in maybe 10 minutes. On the map the airport looked a long way out of town, but when I asked the shuttle driver apparently that’s the new airport being built by the Chinese…like everywhere else in Africa.

Upon entering the terminal there was an x-ray and metal detector, after which some official people with badges asked for passports and escorted is to the check-in area. Apparently there was nothing official about them at all, and they just wanted a tip for showing you where to check in. Seriously, the airport is two rooms – one for waiting and one for checking in. Did they not think we could figure it out? Eventually they went away without a tip, but they were hassling the woman in front of us pretty hard. She told them all she had was a 20 euro bill, and they took it…and eventually she realized she wasn’t getting any change. Amateur mistake!

No problems at all checking in, short wait for immigration and security, then the Angola-style “please come into this room.” I managed to get out of it, but it was the currency control room, where they tried to find money on you which you hadn’t declared…and take it. Ian got away with no issues and we got to wait in the departure haul which maybe had a couple hundred seats and was buzzing with flies and mosquitos, even at 5am. There were even a couple of stray cats to complete the wildlife scene. Eventually one of the shops opened and was selling bottles of water so we could get rid of the rest of our currency. There apparently was a Mauritania Airlines lounge, but if it’s even still in business it was very, very closed at this hour. Instead, we were treated to several people watching loud bollywood movies without headphones in the waiting area. Ugh.

Boarding eventually started about 30 minutes before departure, and was a walk across the tarmac to the plane. I tried to take my phone out to get a photo, but was quickly yelled at by one of the security guys. Ok, I get it, no photos.

Turkish Airlines flight 593
Nouakchott, Mauritania (NKC) to Dakar, Senegal (DKR)
Depart 06:00, Arrive 07:00, Flight Time: 1:00
Boeing 737-900, Registration TC-JYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 94,894
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,284,419

The flight goes Istanbul – Nouakchott – Dakar – Istanbul, and when we boarded there were still about 50 people on the plane, headed to Dakar. Of course one of them was in my assigned seat and looked annoyed when I showed him my boarding pass. The flight attendant looked annoyed to, and just said “take any seat.” Uh, ok, score another one for Turkish Airlines.

Took off maybe 15 minutes late, but with a flight time of only about 40 minutes we arrived right on time. Nothing was offered at all to eat or drink on the short flight, and soon we arrived Dakar. It was also still mostly dark when we took off, so no real photos for this completely unremarkable sector other than a view of Dakar as we came in for landing:

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The 50 people got off in Dakar, and maybe 100 more boarded, and it looked to be a nearly full flight back to Istanbul. I only saw two empty seats in business and maybe a handful that I could see back in coach. Fortunately, there was a crew change and our rather surly crew was replaced by one that only seemed mildly annoyed.

Turkish Airlines flight 593
Dakar, Senegal (DKR) to Istanbul, Turkey (IST)
Depart 07:55, Arrive 17:55, Flight Time: 7:00
Boeing 737-900, Registration TC-JYF, Manufactured 2012, Seat 3E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 98,200
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,287,725

True to form on Turkish we had a “chef” on board. I’m pretty sure they’re just flight attendants who wear a chef’s hat and apron, but hey, it’s amusing. I usually go with the lemonade pre-departure the offer, but this flight decided to go with the orange juice. Unfortunately, the turkish delight they normally hand out with it was missing this flight:

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So what’s for breakfast this morning?

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Flight attendant came around with hazelnuts, which have mercifully moved from being in a bag to a bowl. Must have been some blowback from the Korean Airlines incident. When I asked for a mimosa, they looked confused. I decided to explain “can I get a champagne and orange juice.” “Oh we have no alcohol on this flight. I think it is because of the religion.” Seriously what. the. eff. I get not serving it out of Mauritania as a dry country but what is the point on a Dakar to Istanbul flight? Is it because it was the first day of Ramadan? Doubtful, as they were serving us food during the day…I was cranky, and decided I needed coffee…and another fresh orange juice:

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Usual delicious turkish appetizers…cheese, pepper slices, jam, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and fruit. Super tasty…now I’m craving peppers and cheese…

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The “turkish pancake” – I wasn’t very impressed with it. Found it incredibly bland with almost no flavour at all. I spread a little of the jam on it and that helped, but overall, not impressed.

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Five hours flew by. Seven hours is a seriously long flight on a 737, but at least Turkish gives generous pitch in business class with plenty of room to stretch out. I killed time watching movies on my iPad, and a small snack before landing. Yes, more cheese and sliced peppers on a roll, and the delicious berry cake that Turkish often serves. Mmmm….

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Overall, for a seven hour flight it wasn’t the greatest but it could have been much worse. We landed in Istanbul right on time, and I checked at the transit desk to pick up my boarding pass for the next morning. I had decided to splurge when I was in Mauritania and changed my routing home. The Turkish flight had always been planned, but then I was going to go on to Zurich for a night in Turkish business, then take United first nonstop home. Decided since there was availability to treat myself to an Istanbul to Frankfurt routing on a Turkish A330 followed by Lufthansa first home via Newark. A few hours later, the nonstop Frankfurt to Dulles opened up so I ticketed that.

First time I’ve ever seen absolutely no immigration line at Istanbul, and since we’d done the eVisa we didn’t have to wait in line at all. Quick trip through customs and a stop at Starbucks in the arrivals hall to get some caffeine in an attempt to wake up. We tried calling Uber, but after several minutes nobody had responded, so we decided to take a regular cab.

We were staying at the Gezi Hotel Bosphorus, part of Starwood’s relatively new Design Hotels collection. Normally I choose the W in Istanbul, but it’s not walkable to all that much, and the Gezi is right on Taksim Square. It was a relatively long taxi ride since traffic was heavy, and when we arrived the room wasn’t ready – because despite requesting a room with two beds they informed us they had pushed them together and made one bed. They invited us for more coffee in the restaurant while we waited, and 15 minutes later, the room was ready. We were definitely rewarded with a great view of the city:

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Quick stop in the room, and then we headed out. Unfortunately, it was already 7pm at this point and although we’d hoped to wander around a bit and at least see the Grand Bazaar and maybe the Hagia Sofia from the outside, we were absolutely wiped out. We took the Tunel metro down to the water and walked around for maybe 45 minutes before admitting defeat and heading back to grab some dinner near Taksim Square.

We decided to head to Faros Kebap on the recommendation of a coworker, and life was much better after a couple of large beers…and a cheese appetizer…holy cow that’s a lot of cheese:

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I went with the pistachio kebab for a main, and it was super tasty:

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At this point I was a bad influence and insisted we get some raki…and of course baclava to go with it:

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Short walk back to the hotel, and time to pass out at 11. That early morning wakeup call was going to come far, far too early…


Jun 202016
 

We arrived in Nouakchott late afternoon, and by the time we hit the ATM for cash, paid our taxi driver, and got to the hotel, it was early evening. The hotel had blast gates up, and taxis were not allowed into hotel grounds, so for the second time this trip the taxi had to drop us outside and we had to walk through security to get into the hotel. They weren’t paying much if any attention to their metal detectors, but at least things seemed pretty secure.

We were staying at the Monotel Dar El Barka, which most sites seemed to agree was the best hotel in town. Only problem was – a few months before our trip it was showing completely sold out so we had made alternate plans. Fortunately, rooms opened up about a week out so we were able to switch and very glad we did.

Check-in was quick and we were shown to our first floor rooms, which were exactly in line with all the online reviews. Rooms are very poorly lit and dark, but the AC is freezing cold and the beds are comfortable. Overall, it’s a solid hotel and the rooms were good. Except as often seems to happen in Africa we had no towels…and my bed had no sheets. A quick call to housekeeping and they showed up in 15 minutes.

At this point, after the long travel day, we just wanted an ice cold beer, but after retreating to the hotel bar were left disappointed:

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Yes, unfortunately Mauritania is a completely dry country, and while you can supposedly get your hands on black market alcohol it’s extremely expensive and somewhat hard to find. Not at all worth it for a few days. We were also really hungry after missing lunch on the long drive from Saint Louis, so decided to have desert before dinner. The profiteroles were delicious:

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After the sun had set, we decided to venture out and find dinner. There were no sidewalks per se, because they’d all been covered in sand, and even many of the roads were hard to see in places. We walked for about 15 minutes, and eventually found the restaurant that had been recommended – a very smokey place called Le Frisco. Complete with San Francisco stained glass cityscapes on the wall.

There was a small menu of items which were incredibly inexpensive, most $5-6 and a large board of daily specials with maybe 20-25 options most of which were closer to $10. I ended up getting the chicken cordon bleu which was actually super tasty and came with fries which were also super tasty. Just water to drink, although it would have gone fantastic with a beer. The music selection was even more interesting, consisting mainly of 2Pac with a little bit of Justin Bieber thrown in for good measure. I swear restaurants in Africa have the most entertaining music selection…

Back to the hotel, where I think I passed out for about 10 hours – the long days overland had definitely taken a bit of a toll.

In the morning, we met up for breakfast, where it was quickly clear why the hotel had been initially sold out. There was a big football match going on – I believe qualifying for the Africa’s cup or some such thing. Mauritania was playing Cameroon and the entire Mauritania team was staying in our hotel. No idea why they weren’t staying at home if they were local, but they had not only completely taken over the hotel but also raided the breakfast buffet. There were no coffee cups to be found, no plates to be found, etc. Eventually some were rounded up, and there was just enough food left to make a decent breakfast. The usual francophone africa baguettes, real Nutella, plenty of coffee and/or tea, and some hard boiled eggs. Overall, pretty solid.

After breakfast we went to the front desk to ask them about getting tickets to the football match, and they said you had to go to the stadium. Oh, and “I like your tattoo – can I take a photo?” Fortunately, Ian thought to get a photo of him taking a photo:

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After this, I had to work for a bit, so took care of that and mid-afternoon we headed for a walk to stadium to look into tickets for the match. Fortunately, it was at around 6pm so we had plenty of time. We had a hard time finding the entrance to the stadium, so ended up walking much farther than we needed to, which wouldn’t have been a big deal except it was hot. Really hot. 114F hot. Fortunately, there was absolutely no humidity, and even 114 didn’t feel too awful.

Eventually we found the place to buy tickets, and there were dozens of heavily armed riot police standing around. We debated if we wanted to go see the match, but eventually decided the large group of riot police was probably a bad sign given Mauritania does suffer from a pretty serious terrorist situation, so we gave it a pass. In retrospect it probably would have been fine, but…

Instead, we decided to grab a cab and head to the port to see all the fishing boats coming in. Ironic given we were trying to be security-conscious that we hailed a random cab on the streets, but it worked out just fine. Managed to negotiate a reasonable price which would include him waiting for us, however, once we were in the cab he “just had to make one stop.” Uh, ok. The stop was only maybe a five minute detour away and I finally realized why I imagined I was smelling fresh bread – because I was! There were a couple of giant bags of baguettes in the backseat which he was delivering to a restaurant for dinner. He attempted to convince us to visit the restaurant later for dinner, and if you do “tell them Mohammad sent you.” Yeah, not because you’d get a commission or anything…

After maybe a 20 minute drive, we were at the port. He said he would come back for us in 15 minutes, and we were left to wander. It was late afternoon, but there was tons of activity with all the fishing boats coming in:

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Fisherman repairing a boat:

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Several boats pulled up in front of what seemed to be the main market square:

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Right next to the square there were several very very dead fish, which looked to be discarded, or not acceptable for sale. Or maybe that was just because of all the flies around and the stench of fish everywhere:

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More boats:

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Rough surf coming in:

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Group of fishermen hauling a boat in:

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Large fish for sale:

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Back to the hotel, and a dip in the pool sounded fantastic. However, I had more important things to do – namely washing the smell of fish off of my shoes. Everything stank of fish, but after an hour of scrubbing it was mostly gone, and by that point, it was getting late and the pool didn’t sound nearly as enticing:

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We opted instead to head out for an early dinner, but as soon as we left the hotel compound there were hundreds and hundreds of football fans streaming our way. Apparently Mauritania had lost, so the potential for unhappy crowds – combined with the whole “stay away from large crowds in un-secure places” thing we opted to wait. Back into the hotel for an espresso while we waited:

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Decided to head back to El Frisco again for dinner, and the “specials” were exactly the same as the day before. The clientele, however, was quite different and consisted mainly of local football fans enjoying a post-match drink instead of being mostly expats like the day before. Had a quick dinner, and retreated back to the hotel since we had to be up at oh-dark-thirty for our flight to Istanbul.


Jun 182016
 

Woke up early to get on the road, and Yves and team already had breakfast ready in the courtyard. Baguettes, pastries, sliced mango, bisap juice and fried eggs. I’m normally not a huge fan of staying in smaller places because of the “forced community” aspect, but Jamm was a fantastic hotel. It was nice staying somewhere more local with hosts who knew the area and made you feel at home. I’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting St Louis!

Small problem when we checked out in that they didn’t take credit cards, but that was easily solved by walking down the street to the ATM and withdrawing some more CFA francs. Bill settled, and still no sign of either of the drivers who had offered to take us to the border. It was pretty clear that they wouldn’t be showing up, but no worries, Yves’ staff had the number of a local driver who was more than happy to take us to the border. He arrived maybe 10 minutes later, agreed to the same rate of 25,000 CFA to the border, and we were off. This car was much more comfortable than the ones the previous day, and the 60 or so minutes to the border flew by.

As we rolled into Rosso, the border town, the vibe of the place definitely changed. Rosso is a border town, on both the Senegal and Mauritania sides of the border which is defined by the maybe 100-200 metre wide Senegal River. It’s also known as Africa’s most difficult and corrupt border, and several people have posted it’s taken 3-4 hours to cross. We were fully prepared for the worst. As soon as we pulled into town, the taxi was swarmed with “helpers” offering to help us with things. Fortunately, I’d contacted my local office and they had helped me hire someone to meet us at the border. Problem was…he was late.

Eventually the Senegalese police became annoyed at us, and demanded we give them our passports…and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. Fortunately, the fixer showed up about five minutes later and we got the bags out of the taxi and headed into the Senegalese police/border post to complete formalities. Same procedure that I encountered back in January when crossing from Gambia into Senegal and then from Senegal into Guinea-Bissau. Write your name in the book, profession, etc, and stamp stamp stamp, you’re out of Senegal. Super easy.

There’s supposedly a ferry that occasionally runs across the river, but the timing wasn’t right, so the fixer  took us down some side streets to a more remote landing where dozens of pirogue canoes were parked. He helped lift the bags up, and we were off:

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In the pirogue, with Mauritania a short distance behind me:

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Looking back towards Senegal:

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After maybe a five minute ride we “docked” on the Mauritania side of the river, and I snapped a quick shot of another pirogue about to head to Senegal. The guy with his arm raised in back was screaming “no photos!”

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We were on the beach now, so this officially made country #194 visited – only two to go!

This is where I expected things to get very interesting. Fortunately, our fixer knew the procedure. He found the chief immigration guy standing by the water, and we all walked back into an office together to “talk.” Fortunately, it was pretty straightforward. American passports are not eligible for visa on arrival in Mauritania, but I had a letter from my local office, signed by some members of officialdom, ordering them to make an exception and grant me a visa on arrival. Fortunately, they had no problem at all with this, and I had my visa in maybe 15 minutes – absolutely no problem at all. Plus, it was all digital stored in a computer and then the visa sticker was printed out. I was pretty impressed by how official everything was for a supposedly super corrupt land border.

Ian was up next. Unfortunately, the visa price had gone up since last we heard, and I believe it was something like 120 euros now. Unfortunately he didn’t have enough, so our fixer was like “don’t worry – I’ll take care of it” and produced enough euros to pay the border guy. No problem at all, and I sensed the less time we spent in the border office the better – since that was more time that could be spent attempting to extract bribes.

Once we both had visa stickers we head to head out of the office, around to the other side of the building where there was a window, and hand over the passports (now including visas) for stamping. No problem at all, and just like that…we were out of immigration. Or so we thought. There was still a very large gate to the immigration “compound” and some shady looking police types hanging about demanding we open our bags for inspection.

I made a little bit of a scene with them, showed them the visa and reminded them that if I was able to get a visa on arrival I know “very important people” in Nouakchott so trying to shake us down wasn’t in their best interest. They relented, and agreed to let us go after recording our details in their logbook.

Out of the gate, down another couple of alleys and sidestreets, and into this very shady looking courtyard:

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Here we were “invited” into a shop, to “do some business.” First order of business, I had leftover CFA francs to get rid of, and no problem, they exchanged those at a very safe rate. Then, came the shakedown. Ian only had Dollars, and they had fronted him like 120 euros to pay his visa. They were willing to sell him euros for dollars, but at a terrible exchange rate that took like 15-20%. Fortunately he scrounged up like 60 euros so only got fleeced for about $15-20 in bad exchange, but still not great. Then, we were given the “bill” for crossing. Pirogue charges, border tax (which is legit), money to “make things easier” and finally “a small tip for me.” All in, they asked for 7,000 in local currency which was only like $20, so a very small charge for getting through the whole border in under an hour.

Bill settled, the fixer walked us over to the driver he had arranged for us, and we were off!

We were just a couple of miles out of town, when we hit the first police roadblock. I’d read there were several of these on the road to Nouakchott, and the easiest thing to do was have pre-printed “fiche” where are a copy of your passport and all your details – name, where you are coming from, going to, etc. That way, you can just hand them over and not have to wait for the police to copy all the details from your passport. We handed them over, and he waved us on – super quick.

As soon as we crossed the river, the landscape changed – we were clearly in the desert now:

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The first 15-20 miles of road were pretty good, but after that it was much poorer the rest of the way to Nouakchott, with the desert overtaking the road in many places:

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Wild camels roaming free:

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Not too much else to say about the drive. Took maybe three hours max from the border to Nouakchott, and probably about 10 stops by the police to hand over the fiches – all in all pretty easy. When we got to the city we had the driver take us to an ATM to get local currency to pay him, and piece of cake. Definitely having everything pre-arranged made things go much smoother and it wasn’t at all as bad as I read from people online.

I understand that having a fixer for this border crossing is pretty essential if you want to get through in any reasonable amount of time and hiring one on the spot probably isn’t the best option since they have the upper hand then. Thanked our driver for his help, and he gave us his business card to give to anyone else who might want help making the trip. With that, it was late afternoon and time to explore Nouakchott!


Jun 172016
 

Our only plan for the day was to make our way north from Dakar to St Louis, Senegal in the north so we could continue to Nouakchott, Mauritania the next day. It would probably have been much easier to fly, but the only airline on the route that sells seats is Mauritania Airlines which does not seem to be bookable anywhere online, and several calls to their supposed office in Dakar also went unanswered. The flights clearly exist and can be purchased, but the difficulty of doing so was enough of a pain that we opted to go the overland route. When I worked in Dakar a few years ago everyone told me how nice St Louis was supposed to be, so this would be a perfect excuse to see it.

Getting to St Louis is pretty straight forward. First, you have to take a taxi to the Gare Routiere in Dakar, and from there you can pick up a taxi all the way to St Louis. We ended up hailing a taxi right outside the Radisson mid-morning, and I offered the driver 5,000 CFA for the ride, which a google search indicated was the going rate since the station is quite a way out of town. The driver was happy to accept 5,000 for the ride (about $9) and off we went.

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The station was indeed quite a way out of town, nearly 30km and it took the better part of an hour to get there. Of course, the minute we got out of the car we were swarmed with the local taxi touts asking where we were going. I told them St Louis, and we wanted to buy an entire taxi. The other option is to wait for a taxi to fill up. The sept place (seven seat) taxis are really cramped old converted Renault or Peugeot station wagons with two rows of seats that they cram three people into, and if you’re the lucky seventh you get to ride shot gun. The going rate is 5,000 CFA per seat plus another 500 CFA for each bag. I offered one of the drivers 40,000 CFA to buy out the whole taxi if he would leave right now and take us all the way to the hotel instead of the taxi station in St Louis, and he agreed.

We were off…sort of…we got stuck behind a number of donkey carts on the way out of town…

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After about two hours of driving the temperature had risen from a pleasant low-70s fahrenheit in Dakar to nearly 100 degrees around Thies halfway to St Louis. It was scorching hot in the taxi, and the front seat where I was sitting had no padding left and the steel crossbars in the seat were jamming into my back and legs. I was glad when the driver said he wanted to stop and buy some mangos:

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Apparently it was mango season, because they were everywhere on the drive:

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I also took this opportunity to switch to the second row of seats in the back to get a little bit of padding. The back seats are definitely not made for tall people, and I had to kind of lay sideways in the seat to not jam my head into the roof of the car, but it was much more comfortable than the front seat. It was tolerable for the four hours or so we were in the car, but anything much longer I’m not too sure how I would have fared.

Of course, most of the drive was pretty bland on the scenery front:

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The drive also took much longer than it should of because the road was covered in random speed bumps everywhere. Fortunately our driver was aware of them and slowed down for them (instead of using the common method of revving it and trying to go over them quickly) but it made for a much longer trip than we expected. After nearly five hours we finally made it to St Louis.

Our driver didn’t know where our hotel was in St Louis, but thanks to google maps (which was thankfully accurate unlike many times in Africa) I was able to direct him to it. We asked him if he wanted to drive us to the Mauritania border in the morning, and he agreed to although he didn’t seem to be too excited by the prospect.

As soon as we got out of the taxi, we were swarmed by a couple of guys eager to show us where the door of the hotel was. Um, thanks? “Oh, and also, I have taxi, I will take you to the border tomorrow.” Thanks, so helpful…so supposedly we now had two different groups of guys eager to take us to the border. Plan and backup plan set we went into the Jamm hotel which was a nicely restored group of buildings that had been converted into four rooms around a nice open air courtyard. We met the charming owner and host Yves, got settled in the rooms, and since it was already late afternoon headed out for a walk. Yves asked if we were ok having aperitifs at 7:30p which sounded good, so off we wandered.

It was hard leaving, because in the 10 minutes we were at the hotel Ian, aka the cat whisperer, had already been claimed by Yves’ cat:

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Out for a walk, and the first view was the Faidherbe Bridge, which connects the island of St Louis to the mainland. The bridge was opened in 1897 and supposedly built by Gustav Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower, but there’s no proof at all that he was at all involved in its design:

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Around the main square in town, where we startled a couple of stray goats:

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After walking for a bit we stopped at the Flamingo Hotel which had a outdoor patio right on the river. Ian learned the very important lesson that you don’t leave your glass uncovered next to the river, because the local flies are intent on getting drunk.

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After one beer we were tired of the flies so wandered to the Hotel de la Poste which was old colonial hotel across the street from the grand old post office. Unfortunately, there is nothing grand at all about the post office these days to the point it really wasn’t even photo-worthy. St Louis used to be the capital of Senegambia before it was moved to Dakar, so it was an important transit point in West Africa. I tried my hand at flying the old French mail route at the Hotel de la Poste:

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After walking for a couple of hours we headed back to the hotel, where Yves had set up for aperitifs in the library of the house. There was only one other guest staying at the time (so three of four rooms were occupied) and he was visiting from France and spending a couple of weeks in Senegal. Yves speaks a little bit of English, but the other guest didn’t so unfortunately Ian was sort of left out of the chat. Drinks were offered by the fantastic lady who managed the hotel. I opted for the Ti’ Punch which was pretty potent with rum and some local juices and we chatted for nearly an hour over drinks.

Yves was a fantastic host and when he found out we were going on to Mauritania in the morning shared his stories of driving from France to St Louis via Mauritania. Supposedly this used to be easier to do, but now that the situation in northern Mauritania is quite unstable and Western Sahara also is a bit dicey in the south he didn’t know if it was still safe. This meant now to get back to France involves the five hour drive to Dakar, a hotel for an overnight, then a six plus hour flight to Paris and then connecting on. He also shared recommendations on places to eat and we ended up going to La Kora Chez Peggy which ended up being a quite popular place.

As usual, I ended up with the Croque Madame (which they had named the Sandwiche La Kora) which was one of the better ones I’ve ever had and went perfectly with a bottle of the house red wine. For dessert, they recommended the mango tart with homemade mango ice cream, and how could I say no since they were apparently in season. It was absolutely delicious and I wanted another one:

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Headed back to the Jamm Hotel, and promptly passed out. Long overland travel days always exhaust me, and we wanted to get a relatively early start the next day since the trip to Nouakchott was supposedly quite long and could take most of the day depending on customs and immigration at the border…


Jun 152016
 

Our flight landed in Dakar around 5pm and by the time we were through passport control and got our checked bags it was after 530. Fortunately, the hotel’s shuttle was waiting at the airport which saved us the pain of trying to organize a taxi. We got to the hotel, and I ended up having two switch rooms because they gave me a ground room floor…with two beds…that had doors opening out into the pool area…and the AC barely worked either.

Rather quick change of rooms, however, and was able to get a much cooler room. It’s funny, I’ve stayed in this hotel at least 10 times, and I find the “garden facing” basic rooms are much better air conditioned than the upgraded “business class” rooms. I think next time…if there is one…I’m going to ask NOT to be upgraded!

We headed to the pool bar to have a couple of drinks, then eventually headed out to dinner. Quick pizza dinner at La Piazza where I had taken Jordan and Daniel back in January, and back to the hotel for an early night. I think the jetlag had caught up to me and ended up sleeping nearly ten hours. Woke up feeling great, and headed over to the Casino Supermarket next door to grab some pain au chocolates and red bull for breakfast.

After grabbing something to eat we grabbed a taxi down to Place d’Independence (not the port – because taxi drivers will try and gouge you once they hear that) and we walked the rest of the way down to the port for the ferry to Gorée Island. The touts were out in full force, and ducked into a small market to grab some cold drinks and try and break some 10,000 CFA notes so we had small bills.

At the port there was a bit of drama, because they were demanding passports to get into the port area. After several minutes of begging and pleading with the guard he finally let us in as long as we signed the visitors logbook. I’m still curious if the port police are searching for Gerry Adams from Ireland and Cecil Rhodes from Zimbabwe…

Got to the window to buy the ferry tickets, and there were three prices. The local price, the African price, and the tourist price. Local price was around 50 cents, African price was maybe $1.50 and the tourist price closer to $5. Well, after the logbook in for a penny in for a pound, so Cecil Rhodes naturally asked for the African price…but what works with the logbook wasn’t working with the ferry ticket matron. No identification you pay the foreigner price if you’re white…that’s just how it works.

Wasn’t a long wait for the ferry, and in the meantime we were hassled by throngs of local women who were “from the island” and “I have a shop there, you will visit me?” Three of the ladies were especially persistent, and kept doing the “you remember my name, right?” I’m sure it’s the exact same women I ran into on previous visits…and I still didn’t remember their names. We were also approached by the regular parade of guides offering to give tours of the island. We didn’t commit to any of them, but did want to get a guide since Ian hadn’t been before and it would be good to get the history.

The ferry wasn’t at all crowded, and fortunately it was a nice cool day with highs only around 23-24C. The sun came out from time to time, but wasn’t so strong that it would burn. After getting off the ferry we told the guide who was the least pushy and spoke decent English that we would hire him. He showed us where to pay the tourist tax, and then told us the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves) was closed until 14:00 so we could walk around the island first.

First stop was the “never forget” memorial to slavery:

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After this we walked along the island, eventually ending up at the “door of return.” Many of the slavery memorials in west Africa have a “door of no return” which is though to be the final door slaves walked out before boarding ships for transport to the Americas. Goree Island also has a “door of return” which was built for those who were coming back to Africa to trace their roots:

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At the highest point on the island were old guns pointing out to see to defend the island. Being big guns, of course Ian needed a picture with them for perspective…

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Memorial to slavery on the top of the island:

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After walking around the island, we were still waiting for the House of Slaves to open, so we headed back down to the waterfront via a trail where local artists were selling paintings:

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At the waterfront  there were lots of local kids playing in the water:

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We had a beer on the beach while waiting at Chez Kiki:

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Finally it was almost 2pm so we headed back to the Maison des Esclaves so we could be the first ones inside before it got crowded. Just inside, the main yard of the house and straight ahead are the chambers were the slaves were kept, often dozens in a room:

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Our guide insisted we take the “traditional” picture everyone takes, so we rushed to the Door of No Return to get the picture before others arrived. Smiling probably wasn’t the appropriate pose, but looking out onto the ocean:

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After this we headed back to try and catch the ferry, and of course our guide pulled us aside to discuss payment “here…so everyone doesn’t see I will have money.” Hah. He suggested an amount which was completely reasonable, and rather than try and lower it and have him follow us onto the ferry and demand more the whole ride back, we agreed to it, and shook hands. He left us alone for a nice quiet ride back.

We walked back from the port, and unremarkably none of the touts bothered us since we were leaving. Crossed the Place d’Independence, and decided to show Ian the Pullman Hotel where I stayed on my first trip to Dakar, which I affectionately named the “hooker hotel” because you’d get random knocks on your door at night from local women offering “company.” Unfortunately, the hotel was under massive renovation (which is good, because it was sorely needed) so their nice lobby bar was closed.

Decided to walk a bit further, and found a nice cafe where we were able to get pastries and espresso before heading back to the Radisson to cool down for a bit. Quick taxi back, rested up for an hour or so, then headed out again to see the African Renaissance Monument. Negotiated a good price with a driver to take us there, wait, and come back, and headed out. Got there just before sunset, and lots of locals were out seeing the monument as well:

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The Monument was mostly constructed and designed by the North Korean Mansudae company and was extremely controversial when it was completed in 2010. Over $27 million was spent on the monument at a time when Senegal was going through a major fiscal crisis, and President Wade was widely criticized for building a vanity monument. When the statue was finally opened, many foreign dignitaries and heads of state arrived. The US? Well, we sent Akon and Jesse Jackson…

Couple of local kids insisted on posing for a photo when I got the camera out:

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View of Dakar from the hill the monument sits on:

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Back to the hotel, and we were wiped out from a long day in the sun, and although we wanted to head out to Chez Loutcha for a local dinner, just didn’t have the energy to leave the hotel. Decided to eat by the pool at the Radisson, but unfortunately there was nothing local on the menu. I asked the waiter if they could make Chicken Yassa, and they were happy to do so:

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It was pretty tasty, and we ended up crashing pretty early as the next day we needed to get an early start to head to St Louis, Senegal near the border with Mauritania by taxi….


Jun 112016
 

I hadn’t really thought ahead since I didn’t plan on arriving in Mali late at night alone, so when I walked out of the airport – it hit me. How was I going to get to the hotel? I had no idea what a fair fare would be in a taxi, or even if the taxis were safe. As usual, before I even got out the door someone approached me trying to get me in his taxi. Since there was no formal taxi queue or price list posted, I just went with it. We agreed on what seemed to be a very fair price (since I knew the hotel was quite a ride away, and we were off.

No problem at all since the roads were empty late on Sunday night, and we arrived at the Radisson Blu gates after maybe 25 minutes. Yes, I said gates. If you remember in the news ten or more terrorists attacked the Radisson Blu Bamako in November, 2015 and took more than 100 hostages. Well, the hotel had to close for a bit after that incident, but was up and running barely a month later. There are now huge  walls around the hotel, and cars are not allowed to enter. Pedestrians are dropped off just outside the walls, and you have to go through airport style metal detectors and have your bags x-rayed to get in. No problem at all, and soon I met up with Ian in the lobby.

Quick check in, and off to the hotel’s bar/cafe for a quick snack. Caught up on things of a few Flag beers and as had become our tradition in the Central African Republic snacked on a croque madame as well. Made some loose plans for the morning, and was off to sleep. The AC was super cold in the hotel, so managed to sleep a very solid 9+ hours.

Woke up and went down to see the pool area:

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The hotel appeared to be majorly empty, which probably isn’t a surprise given the fact it had been the location of a major terrorist attack just six months prior. It felt plenty secure though, so there was really no need to worry. Grabbed some breakfast since it was included, and although it was nothing to write home ago, it was a pretty solid buffet with eggs cooked to order. Given the location, no complaints at all!

After grabbing a bite, we asked one of the guys at the front desk the easiest way to get a taxi, and he walked us out the front gates to one of the local taxi guys who hangs around. Negotiated a good price with him for a two hour city tour, and we were off. First stop was Point G. Point G is a residential area in the hills above Bamako, which is supposed to feature great panoramic views of Mali:

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Apparently the vantage point even had its own fitness area…which was in use by…nobody:

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Looking out over Bamako:

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After Point G, we went to try and see the Grand Mosque. Unfortunately, driving up to it is extremely difficult, so we parked as nearby as we can and our driver led us to the mosque on foot. Unfortunately, it was closed for prayers, so we walked around it outside the gates trying to find somewhere to get a good photo of it. There was nowhere with a good angle, due to the fact that all the streets around it were a giant market. We walked through all kinds of small passageways in the market and got very surprised looks from all the locals. I guess it’s not every day two westerners walk through the market in Mali!

After the short city tour we had to get ready to head to the airport. Agreed on a price for the trip to the airport with the driver, who was more than happy to have the business. He took the “long way” to the airport so we could see a couple of other “sites.” First up was the Monument de la Paix, or Peace Monument:

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After we crossed the King Fahd Bridge, built by the Saudis we came upon a buffalo statue at the Place de Sogolo. In the local Mandigo lore a princess was turned into a buffalo to terrorize the population. King Kone Sakaran offered a reward to hunters who ultimately shot the buffalo and they were allowed to choose among many girls for a wife. They took Sogolon Koné, the ugliest of the women, who the place is named after. Obviously I missed something in the story…

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Got to the airport, things weren’t terribly chaotic, and check-in, security, and passport control were a breeze. There were three lounges in the one-room departure haul, and the first one said it was for business class passengers only when we tried. She suggested we try the next one. I decided to give her my United card, and see if we could get in as a Star Alliance Gold benefit since we were on Ethiopian. She had no idea, but offered to go check. About 10 minutes later she came back, and said yes, please stay and you can have a guest. Finished a couple of beverages, and soon it was time to board.

On the walk to the plane we saw an Antonov 124 Heavy Lifter on the tarmac, and with a window seat I had a perfect view to get a picture of it:

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Ethiopian flight 909
Bamako, Mali (BKO) to Dakar, Senegal (DKR)
Depart 15:05, Arrive 16:55, Flight Time: 1:50
Boeing 767-300, Registration ET-AMG, Manufactured 2000, Seat 11L
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 94,641
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,284,166

*shudder* coach…and not just any coach, coach on an Ethiopian 767, which must be some of the nastiest, dirtiest, poorly maintained aircraft ever. At least this one didn’t shudder and make all kids of awful noises like the last one I was on! Good view of Bamako and the Niger River after takeoff:

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a small snack was served, with the typical mystery sandwich…which I took a pass on. Two things scare me on planes: mystery sandwiches made who knows how long before serving and shrimp. At least the mini bottle of wine and Kit Kat were tasty!

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Short flight, and all things considered not totally awful in economy…I lived to tell the tale!

It had been an all-too-short visit to Mali, but due to the fact that most tourist sites like Timbuktu are off limits due to terrorism in the area, and the delays from American Airlines, I was happy that we’d made the most of it. Just three countries left to visit! Next up: Dakar!


Jun 102016
 

I should be up front before talking about this trip. With so many easier ways to get to Mali, why in the world was I detouring via LaGuardia, Chicago, London, Accra, and Abidjan? Well, it all started with a fare Ian found last year from Accra-Chicago roundtrip in business class for barely $800. I was happy to use it one way and throw away the second half, but hey, I might still have countries in West Africa left by Memorial Day, so let’s book the return to Accra then and see if it’s useful.

We found great one-way fares from Accra to Bamako via Abidjan with Air Cote d’Ivoire, so that settled it. I had initially booked nonstop from DCA to Chicago with American as well but a change in times meant I could either have a barely one hour connection in Chicago, or over five hours. I figured if I was going to play the waiting around in airports game, I would book the connection for some extra miles. I gave myself three hours to connect in LaGuardia which should be plenty…even if things went pear shaped.

The night before, I did a same-day change on American’s website so I could get an hour of sleep. I would leave on the 1pm shuttle instead of the noon, take a slightly later LaGuardia to Chicago, and still have well over two hours for each connection. Seemed great.

Got to DCA which was shockingly empty, and had the most delightful TSA agent I’ve ever had. She was joking with kids and putting stickers on her, so I jokingly asked her why I didn’t get one. She was more than happy to please, and I enjoyed my Chateau le Hector in the Admirals Club and pondered a career change….

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Then, It hit the fan. First a 30 minute delay on the shuttle. Then an hour, then 60 minutes. All the nonstops to O’Hare were completely sold out by this point, leaving me little alternative. Once the plane finally left LaGuardia they were estimating 1:11 to make the connection at LaGuardia which should be fine if nothing further went wrong. Which, of course it did. By the time we boarded and the door was closed, the connection was down to 42 minutes. Still doable, but, with the shuttle flights arriving in a different terminal from other American flights it would be extremely close.

American flight 2143
Washington, National (DCA) to New York, LaGuardia (LGA)
Depart 13:00, Arrive 14:24, Flight Time: 1:24
Embraer ERJ-190, Registration N952UW, Manufactured 2007, Seat 1D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 86,496
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,276,021

Flight was a completely uneventful 40 minutes or so, and we pulled into the gate just a bit further behind schedule with 35 minutes to make my connection. I thought I was going to have to reclear security with the terminal change, but American is now operating a shuttle between the two terminals. Unfortunately, the shuttle was “experiencing radiator problems” and took nearly 20 minutes to show up. By the time I got to the gate, the door had closed five minutes early…and although the plane was still sitting at the gate I was offloaded. The ever so friendly agent told me to “go to customer service and they’ll rebook you.” Ugh. Instead, I called the Exec Platinum line, and got a super helpful agent who was able to put me on the next flight about two hours later.

Of course, this meant I was going to miss my BA flight to London. I had heard about the OneWorld protection even if you are on different tickets, and the super wonderful agent in the Admirals Club was more than happy to help. Given my Chicago-London-Accra ticket was BA flights but on Iberia ticket stock, she took a bit of time to figure it out, but fortunately the inbound London-Chicago a few months prior had been on American so they still held control of the ticket. Eventually, she had no trouble confirming me on the American nonstop to London at 22:20, however, despite there being eight seats open in first she couldn’t process an upgrade to first with a systemwide because it was under gate control. Oh well, with eight seats it should be a piece of cake…right?

New flight left right on time, leaving me nearly an hour and 40 minutes to connect at O’Hare…maybe…

American flight 359
New York, LaGuardia (LGA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 18:55, Arrive 20:43, Flight Time: 2:48
Boeing 737-800, Registration N948NN, Manufactured 2014, Seat 6B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 87,229
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,276,754

Mixed nuts and drinks were served right after takeoff…I really like how AA’s mixed nuts have a few pecans and pistachios thrown in:

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I went for the chicken main (forget what the other option was – some sort of pasta I think) which was pretty good. I went for the pretzel roll instead of the bland “risotto” for my carbs, and with the chocolate chip cookie I was preparing for my overnight carb coma well:

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Then, we landed. See, it’s 20:45…tons of time to make my 22:20 flight…in theory…

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See those storms? Apparently we were the last flight in before O’Hare went on a total ground stop. Yet, we couldn’t get a gate, because there was another aircraft at our gate and nothing was moving due to the weather. Nearly an 30 minutes later at 9:15 we were still sitting on the ramp. The pilot was fantastic, updating us every five minutes on what was going on with our gate. However, his announcements got progressively more and more bizarre as he got frustrated. Eventually, around 21:40 he told us “in my 25+ years with this airline I’ve never seen such a shameful performance by this airport. The ground control is fighting with the tower now, and as a result nothing is moving.”

Finally, around 10:10pm after nearly 90 minutes on the ground (and tweets to American asking when the passenger bill of rights kicked in) we finally arrived at a gate. Flight attendants and the pilot were great the whole time, and it showed – despite such a long delay there were no angry passengers, and everyone was calm. It’s amazing what communication can do.

I had 10 minutes to make my flight which still showed on time, and I sprinted across the terminal. On the way, I popped into the Admirals Club and asked if they could call the gate. They did so, and found out boarding had just gotten underway. Yay, I would make the flight but BOO, my now 80 minute connection at Heathrow was going to be messy.

Got to the gate, and asked the agent at the counter if she could process the upgrade to first please. “Oh I’m sorry, first is completely full.” I asked here how suddenly in the last 15 minutes eight people had been added to the upgrade list and cleared. “That’s confidential – please take your assigned seat.” I smelled shenanigans and demanded politely to speak to a supervisor. I had to wait a couple of minutes to get a supervisor, and explained the whole situation. She apologized at how the agent had handled it, and with a few keystrokes punched out a new first boarding pass for me. She then went the extra mile and escorted me onto the plane…so she could boot the nonrev already sitting in that seat back to economy. Awkward!

American flight 98
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 22:20, Arrive 12:05, Flight Time: 7:45
Boeing 777-200, Registration N775NN, Manufactured 1999, Seat 4J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 91,182
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,280,707

Boarding took forever, and eventually my connection in London was showing only 20 minutes to make it. I was praying for tailwinds. Then, it got to 10 minutes, and I rang my call button to tell the FA I was getting off and asking to be rebooked since I would misconnect and would rather be stuck overnight in Chicago than London. “Oh, you can’t…we’re closing the door now. Plus, I’m sure you’re wrong about your connection time. ‘They’ never would have given you an 80 minute connection to start with.”

Then, she went back to the galley, right behind my seat, and her colleague asked her “what that was all about.” “Oh, he’s full of shit. He thinks he knows more about flight times than we do.”

I was floored.

The only upside to this whole thing…service was polite, friendly, and warm for the duration of the flight. Thank God I somehow managed to not let it linger and get threatened with arrest by a flight attendant who was clearly having a bad day. Somewhere during the whole boarding, at least I got a pre-departure champagne in a non-plastic glass. Are you listening United???

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Psst, American, the 1980s called…they want their inflight entertainment system back:

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Shortly after takeoff more mixed nuts, and a very generous pour of red wine:

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Salmon starter, which was still covered in little ice chips. Apparently it hadn’t been completely thawed out….PASS.

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It’s hard to make a memorable salad in flight, but this one was really good! Creamy dressing, spinach, blue cheese, and strawberries. I have to say, both this salad and the one I had in transcon first from Miami to LA were really good. Score one for AA in the salad department!

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I couldn’t resist trying the turkey, since I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen that on a plane before. It was a breaded cutlet with an extremely sweet sour cherry sauce on it. It was edible, but a bit too weird for my tastes. Plus, notice the empty wine glass…

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Apparently, they had “forgotten” to load the cheese course, so I had a sundae with butterscotch. It was a nice change from the chocolate, caramel, and strawberry gloop choices you get on United:

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The menus:

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The agents were kind enough to let me sleep until barely 10 minutes before touchdown, so I got a solid 5+ hours and was ready for the sprint to the gate. According to the app we had made up more time en route, and I now had 35 minutes to make my connection.

The first sign of trouble was when I got off the plane and there were several agents there asking about connections. I told them Ghana, and the lady said “ohhhhhhhh…..YOU need to talk to him” and handed me over to her colleague. Apparently I had “already missed my flight” (how? I still have 35 minutes) and that had rebooked me to Ghana…on Kenya Airways via Nairobi…in economy arriving nearly 16 hours late. Um, no.

Sensing this agent had no power at all, I thanked him and headed for the transfer desk. The agents at the transfer desk were equally unhelpful, but finally agreed to ask BA if they would please put me back on the flight since the flight hadn’t even started boarding yet! Nope, completely full now according to BA, so no way to get on it. I kept pressing the issue, and no dice, BA insisted there was no way to put me back on the flight regardless if it hadn’t even started boarding. AA had offloaded me and reticketed me proactively, so they had to solve it. I would have had no trouble at all making the flight…and was texting Ian the whole time who was in the gate area. Why couldn’t AA let me take the risk of the 15 minute connection, and rebook me IF I miss it. Now, I was screwed.

The agents at the transfer desk refused to offer me anything beyond the Kenya Airlines option, even when I explained I had a connection the next day to Bamako, and finally, for the second time in 12 hours, I had to speak to a supervisor. “Why don’t you clear security and go to the Admirals Club? You’ll find a supervisor there.”

I did as suggested, security took maybe five minutes, and I explained the situation to the lady at the front desk of the Admirals Club. She was super understanding, and suggested I take a seat and she would get someone from Premium Services to come find me. The gentleman arrived about 10 minutes later, and I walked him through the whole chain of tickets and events. He asked what he could do to get a satisfactory outcome. He sat with me patiently as I got out ExpertFlyer and looked for options.

The only way to get to Mali on time now would be to fly straight there. There was no way to get to Accra in time to make my connection. I found just two seats left on Air France the next day direct from Paris to Bamako. I told him the only options would be to (1) send me straight to Bamako the next day on Air France or (2) return me home and I’ll try this trip again at another stage.

He assured me he would be happy to send me back to the US – either JFK or ORD and on to DCA…my choice…in first class either same day or the next day. That would be no problem at all. He said there was a chance he could get one of those last two seats on Air France, so why don’t I enjoy something to eat and drink while he worked on it. I finally got my cheese!

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Miracle of miracles, he came back about 30 minutes later…Air France was confirmed and ticketed! He offered a hotel and meal vouchers at Heathrow, but instead I opted to get a Heathrow Express ticket and go into the city and see friends. Not much to tell about here – it was early evening by the time I got downtown. Had a nice dinner with a friend and then met others for drinks…and ended up staying out much later than I should.

So, let’s pick this up where it gets interesting again. The flights.

Air France flight 1581
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 12:10, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 1:20
Airbus A320, Registration F-GKXS, Manufactured 2009, Seat 5D
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 91,398
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,280,923

The irony of this flight is it was across the hall from the gate where I had flown London to Abu Dhabi in Etihad Apartments exactly two weeks prior. I never transit T4 at Heathrow, and here I was at two gates right next to each other in two weeks. Funny how it happens!

This flight was a hot mess. There was clearly a large family who had been in London on a shopping trip as a man, what looked to be his teen son – complete with Gucci embroidered velvet jacket – and 11 women boarded. The 11 women, two adults and nine teens/children were all sitting in business (which was completely full) and the two men were in economy. That’s when I felt a tapping on my shoulder. It was the adult who it turns out was in the bulkhead seat right behind me in coach…”will you take my seat please?” and handed me a 100 euro note. Uhhh…it’s a 40 minute flight, the seats are exactly the same…so, um, sure?

I moved one row back, and the flight attendant came up and asked me what was going on. I explained to him, and he laughed, and said “I’ll bring you your meal and drinks anyways.” Easiest 100 euros I’ve made! I had been on this same route with BA two weeks prior, and I have to say the two products were neck and neck. BA’s meal was maybe slightly better, but who needs a meal on a 40 minute flight. Both were very generous with the champagne.

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Despite ATC holds around Paris, I still had enough time to enjoy the lounge a bit before boarding my connecting flight to Mali:

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What could be more french than wine and cheese with some Evian in the lounge?

Air France flight 386
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Bamako, Mali (BKO)
Depart 16:30, Arrive 20:20, Flight Time: 5:50
Airbus A340-300, Registration F-GLZK, Manufactured 1997, Seat 6E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 93,982
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,283,507

I was excited to be flying Air France again. My first experience had been five months prior and I really had enjoyed it, so I looked forward to seeing if those two flights were the rule or the exception. PDB champagne. Real champagne. None of that US airline sparkling grape nonsense:

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The menu looked super:

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Amuse bouche…smoked salmon and cream with some crackers. Maybe the crackers weren’t, en francais, “super classy” but it was nice to have a change from mixed nuts:

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Mmmmm fois gras and smoked cod on panna cotta:

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The cod with smoked salmon and parmesan crumble with chili pepper was out of this world. Maybe my favourite airline entree of all time…and I feel like I said the same thing a few months prior on Air France. Apparently, nobody can do gourmet cooking like Air France in business class. Plus, look at those cheeses!

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…and not just one, but four mini desserts! YUM!

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Overall, Air France hit another home run with me. So much so that I’m actively trying to find a way to try their first class product now. Their seats may be a bit behind the times, but the food and service on all three medium haul flights was outstanding!

Unfortunately, my first longhaul American experience was a shambles both on the ground and in flight. If not for the amazing staff at the Heathrow Admirals club I would have been left with an extremely bitter taste in my mouth. Now, to start fighting American for the 600 Euros in delay compensation I’m due and for credit on the missed Heathrow-Accra flight.

Next up…Mali!