Jan 302016
 

Holiday Inn shuttle dropped me back at the airport, and there was a rather long queue to check in, but fortunately nobody at all in the business class line. Quickly printed my boarding pass, gave me directions to the lounge, and it was off to immigration. Again, super long queue, but none in the priority line and was through to security in a couple of minutes. Immigration queue seemed to have relieved the security queue, and there was no wait. Walked through duty free, and had no trouble finding the lounge.

This is where things got weird.

Gave her my boarding pass, and was met with “Oh good evening Mr M, we have been expecting you. Right this way.” She walked me to the back corner of the lounge, there was a table already set up, and she made sure to mention “this is the coolest corner in the lounge, we have a nice table and beverages for you, and there is a power outlet right there.” Either someone in this lounge secretly reads my blog (and somehow knew I was traveling?) or some friend or colleague tipped them off. I have yet to find out who…

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Stayed right up until flight time, and the cookies were, btw, delicious.

British Airways flight 78
Accra, Ghana (ACC) to London, Heathrow (LHR)
Depart 22:40, Arrive 5:05 next day, Flight Time: 6:25
Boeing 747-400, Registration G-BNLF, Manufactured 1990, Seat 5K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 13,491
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,180,529

British Airways is funny, in that they don’t yet you choose your seat more than 24 hours in advance, even if you’re in business class, without paying for it. When I checked in at 24 hours, I noticed they were letting business class passengers choose the first class seats. A bit of research yielded that BA has just one old 747-400 left, and people get pissed if they pay for first and get these seats. So, instead, for the rest of its life BA condemned it to fly London-Accra (changed to Vancouver-Accra in February) and give away the first seats with business service.

I had to spend an hour with BA phone support to select the seat (something to do with being ticketed on an Iberia ticket), but soon was able to confirm in “first” seat 5K:

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Shot across the cabin…this actually kind of reminds me of the old 747 United first seats:

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Pre-departure champagne and really strange amenity kit:

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Power by emPower?! What is this 1998?!

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Shortly after takeoff, wine was offered with some nuts, and a very generous pour:

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Despite the late departure, a very nice dinner menu was on offer:

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To start the meal, another extremely generous pour…and who says the British aren’t drinkers…

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The salmon and salad were…acceptable. Roughly United standard in my book…but Archer made it much better…

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The chicken, unfortunately, was dry and flavourless. The jollof rice was a bit better, but…

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The pineapple tiramisu was nice, but more of a mousse with some pineapple sauce than really tiramisu.

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The cheese plate was…once again United quality…which doesn’t say much…

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Managed about four hours of sleep due to a comfortable seat. I should mention when I asked the flight attendant if she could please keep the cabin as cool as it was overnight and try and find me a second pillow, she was more than happy to do so. Also asked if she could wake me at the last possible second before landing, which she also did. The crew was really great on this flight, and really left me with a positive experience.

About 7-8 minutes before touchdown I was woken up, put on my glasses…and eventually stumbled extremely bleary-eyed out of the plane for my first T3 experience. Yes, fortunately, we hadn’t come into T5 today, and were in T3, so it made connecting to American easy. American actually has a nice transfers area when you arrive, and when I went up to the business class desk, she asked if I might like to take the earlier connection to Chicago. Originally, I had a nearly six hour connection (since that’s all that was bookable on the low fare) but this was great! She managed to get me an aisle seat, and I was off to the Admirals Club for a shower.

After a shower, I enjoyed a nice bacon sandwich for breakfast…along with a Diet Coke:

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Soon, it was time to board, a short walk from the gate. I vaguely remember T3 from the days United occupied it as well, but nothing looked at all familiar. Have things been remodeled?

American Airlines flight 87
London, Heathrow (LHR) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 8:40, Arrive 11:35, Flight Time: 8:55
Boeing 777-200, Registration N792AN, Manufactured 2000, Seat 12J
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 17,444
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,184,482

Ewwww old slanty lie-flat seats, a 2-3-2 config? Even United doesn’t have slanty seats any more. Between BA and AA, so far I’m not impressed with transatlantic OneWorld business class. What I am impressed with, however, was the eight people occupying like 35 seats. Score!

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Lots of room:

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Sorry it’s blurry, but you get the idea. Transatlantic breakfast flights are always disappointing, and this one was no exception:

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Bubbles…just to see if American pulled the same plastic glass crap that United does. Answer is: yes.

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Taxi was past…Concorde!

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This was just a hot mess of a meal. I wanted something more than water, but not a cocktail, so settled on an old childhood standby: ginger ale and OJ. The flight attendant had never heard of it before, and honestly, it was the best part of this meal. The fruit was dry and flavourless, the biscuit was just plane dry, and the eggs? Yuck. The worst part, however, was the yogurt parfait slathered in whipped cream and artificial berry jam. I think I took four or five bits of the whole meal and gave it right back. Awful.

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At least the cheese plate was decent? I tried to get seconds, but were told there were “no more, that’s the last one.” Um, with only eight passengers, seriously?

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Slept another three solid hours since I hadn’t gotten much on the prior flight, watched some tv, and soon it was snack time. Diet coke and Jeff, I mean Oscar, I mean Hector’s famous split cashews:

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Nice little deli plate. Nothing outstanding, but solid. Much better than the breakfast, and a decent white wine to go with it:

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Soooo, then we land. Overall impressions: the flight was pretty good. I think had it been a full cabin I would have come away extremely unhappy. Seat wasn’t great, food was well below average, the crew was pretty average, it was just…meh for a transatlantic. That said, one flight doesn’t tell you much and I’ll certainly give American more chances to prove themselves going forward since I have Executive Platinum status for the year now.

Short walk to immigration in Chicago, and this is where the fun began. I hoped that having global entry might automate things, but one of the first questions to pop up was “Have you traveled to Guinea in the last 28 days?” Yes/No question, lying on Global Entry can get privileges revoked along with whatever other crimes they could charge you with, so I was honest and answered yes. This immediately spat out of the machine with no further questioning:

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There was a dedicated immigration agent helping Global Entry passengers, so I gave it to him and told him “I’m sure the X is because I was honest that I visited Guinea.” He said “wait, that Ebola thing? Isn’t that done? Let me check.” Tapped on his computer a bit. Called a supervisor over. Supervisor called someone on the phone, the made lots of notes, asked me how long I’d been there, what I was doing, where I’d gone, etc. I was honest that I was working on going to every country, and stayed in Guinea as short as possible to minimize risk, etc etc. He said ok, everything was documented, you’re good to go.

Walked through baggage claim, to the customs guy, gave him the receipt, and he said “oh, you’re the Ebola guy, I need you to go with these officers and speak to the CDC.” Uhhhh, ok? Got escorted to a desk near baggage claim with a bunch of CDC posters by it, and learned the Chicago was a designated Ebola quarantine station, one of a few airports in the US that had been designated to accept passengers from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone at the height of the epidemic. My flights were on a different ticket so I likely would have arrived in the US undetected, but if you were coming direct from one of those countries a few months prior, you were only allowed to enter at certain points of entry, one of which (fortunately for me) was Chicago.

I was walked into a back office by CBP, who were extremely friendly and professional through the whole thing. They called the CDC agents on the phone to tell them to come in, and meanwhile, started filling out an online questionnaire. Typical things about fever, rural areas, funerals, unusual bleeding, playing with dead bodies, etc. At that point, I was given a gift from the government:

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Fortunately, my temp came in at 99.1, which was way higher than normal – probably due to the dehydration of a long flight. Fortunately, it wasn’t over their caution thresholds, and I was given the thermometer to keep “courtesy of your government.” Gee, thanks! Who says the government never gives you anything for free?!

I thought I was done at this point, but nope. Now, it was time to have a chat with the CDC people. Same exact questions about where I’d been, unusual fevers or bleeding, dead bodies, etc, and I think I got off a bit easily because they could tell I was clearly Ebola-aware as well as medically-aware, and ensured them I would immediately call county health officials and self-quarantine if I experienced any symptoms.

They seemed satisfied with that, and let me go, but not before giving me this card and insisting I carry it with me for the next 28 days. Great…now let’s just hope I don’t get knocked unconscious and start bleeding playing hockey, mkay?

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Since the great fare I’d gotten was Accra to Chicago, I had to buy a separate ticket from Chicago to DC. Decided on United, and fortunately was able to confirm an earlier flight online as well. But, this meant heading over to the B-Terminal, where there was as very joyous lady on the inter-terminal shuttle proclaiming her love for America:

Had to wait nearly 20 minutes for TSA PreCheck line, but other than that I still had plenty of time to hit Chilis for an El Presidente Platinum margarita and some Tex Mex eggrolls. Priorities, you know.

United Express flight 6469 operated by SkyWest
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 15:00, Arrive 17:55, Flight Time: 1:55
Embraer E-175, Registration N105SY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 18,056
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,185,094

United domestic first on an ERJ – nothing to write home about, but we were more or less on time, beverages were served (no snack basket today), and that was that. Another fantastic trip in the books. Thanks again to Daniel and Jordan for joining, trips like this are much more fun when you have others along to share the crazy with. I was supposed to have no more international travel until May after this trip, and really thought I didn’t when I landed in Chicago.

However, in the approximately two weeks since then, trips to Quito, Belize, and two weeks in Cape Town for work have all come on the books. Add to that a two week trip to check off Tuvalu (and burn American miles thanks to now being Exec Platinum and not having change fees), with stops along the way in Hong Kong, Fiji, Paris, London, and Abu Dhabi to try the Etihad Apartments, and this spring is suddenly quite packed!

Jan 292016
 

Soooo yeah. I woke up much earlier than I had planned on, due to not just getting a good night of sleep. Or, maybe I was psychic. Decided to check my e-mails and such in bed while I waited to see if I might fall asleep again. It was like 7a, and I had hoped to sleep until maybe 830a or so. While checking my emails, I saw a whole slew of emails from Kenya Airways, TripIt, and FlyingBlue. Apparently, my Kenya Airways flight from Monrovia to Accra had been “re-timed” from about 3:30pm to 9pm…making me miss my connection out of Accra out of Accra at 11p.

Um, this is not a good thing. My ticket from Accra was a crazy low Accra-Chicago-Accra ticket, and missing it would mean I’d have to find another way back from Accra or Monrovia, and also likely eat the discount business fare out of Accra. Ugh.

Hopped out of bed much more quickly than I thought possible, got to the computer, and started searching. Monrovia airport only has like five or six flights a day, and miraculously there was another one to Accra…leaving in just under three hours. Now, keep in mind, the airport is about a one hour drive away, and rush hour was rapidly approaching. The flight was with Arik Air, and of course when I tried to book online it wouldn’t work.

Skyped my travel agent, and she couldn’t get Arik Air to book either. Apparently, Arik Air is almost impossible to book except in person due to the fact that…well…it’s a Nigerian airline. I was down to about 2:30 until the flight, and time to make a decision was rapidly running out. I knew if I didn’t go to the airport, chance of anything happening was pretty much zero, so after telling Daniel and Jordan I was out, it was time to get out of dodge.

Went to the front desk, and of course they had no clue what to charge me for the room, since with all the room changes who knew. They tried at first to charge me for the VIP Suite Jordan had booked, but I informed they guy that “they” told me last night it would be the same as normal rooms. I told him what I was paying, he debated it, and finally wrote me a receipt. Of course the hotel driver wasn’t available, but he did call me a taxi to get me on my way to the airport.

Got to the airport without too much traffic, and then the drama started. I hadn’t negotiated the price with the taxi, but I was pretty sure it would be less than the $20 per person that the hotel charged the three of us to pick us up. Nope, the guy wanted $60 and wasn’t going to budge. I was rapidly running out of town, so paid up and went to the terminal.

I told the lady manning the very long security line to get into the building that I needed to buy a ticket. Yes, for Arik Air. Yes, for the flight in 90 minutes. She acted like this wasn’t strange at all, waved me past the security line, and straight to the check-in counters. The line for economy check-in was nearly 100 people long, so I walked up to the business class counter and told her I wanted to buy a ticket. Right now. Just to Accra. Again she didn’t think this was strange at all, and said, “ok, let me find out the price.”

She called someone, talked on the phone for a few minutes, and then came back with a price. I suggested maybe it was a little high, so she got on the phone and said some more things. She came back with a price $200 lower. I told her to check one more time. Nope, that’s the final price. That’s what you pay. She already had my passport, and handed me a boarding pass. Then, she wanted many hundreds of dollars…so I started to get out my credit card. That’s when she started laughing. This was going to be a cash-only transaction. I was basically screwed.

Then, I remembered the ATM in the parking lot. I told her I’d be right back, took the boarding pass and my passport and baggage (?!) and headed outside. Pretty sure even though I had a boarding pass I wasn’t getting on the plane without paying, so, I had to pray. Unfortunately, the ATM wasn’t working. Nothing I could do would make it take my card. The security guard said “for a tip” he would tell me where there was another machine. Ugh, cost me $10, but he showed me another bank/ATM on the other side of the parking lot.

This one worked…but there was a catch! It would only spit out $100 at a time…at a surcharge of $5! I was going to need this to work several times if I had any hope…and that my bank didn’t find multiple $100 transactions in Liberia suspicious. Fortunately, they didn’t and soon I had the cash! Went back inside, paid at the ticket counter, and was wished a nice flight. Wait, this was going to work out?

Passport control was easy, then it was time for…security. Except, the one x-ray machine wasn’t working, so everyone and their bags got completely hand-searched. It was a pretty low-quality search, and could have pretty easily gotten away with anything. That said, I made it to the lounge about 50 minutes before the flight. The AC was ice cold:

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I was offered “a drink and peanuts or pringles” – and went with water and pringles. Salt and vinegar, mmm….breakfast of champions! I’d been in such a rush to try and get out of dodge that I hadn’t had breakfast. This was also when I realized I would miss my chance to do a day of touring in Monrovia, sigh. Guess I will just have to come back now!

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Boarding was right on time, and despite it being a very short distance to the plane, we got bussed.

Arik Air flight 303
Monrovia, Liberia (ROB) to Accra, Ghana (ACC)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 12:50, Flight Time: 2:00
Boeing 737-800, Registration 5N-MJQ, Manufactured 2009, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 10,331
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,177,369

My first time on Arik Air, and the condition of the seats left a little bit to be desired:

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Very large 20 person business class cabin with good room between seats…and only three seats taken:

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For a short flight, was impressed we even got a meal, and there was a choice of chicken, beef, or fish. She recommended the beef “if you like spicy Nigerian food” so of course, I went with it.

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All-in-one wine bottle and glass. Clever! First the South Africans come up with wine juice boxes and now this!

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Meal was actually decent, and the spicy beef and rice was right up there!

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Landed in Accra on time, and one last look at Arik, who saved the end of my trip! I came away with a very positive impression of them!

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At this point, I had nearly 11 hours until my connecting flight to London now, and there was no way I was going to spend 11 hours in an airport lounge. Previous trips to Accra I’d stayed at the Holiday Inn airport hotel, so decided that would be a good place to go and see if I could get a day rate and some rest.

The Holiday Inn actually has a nice cool air-conditioned arrivals lounge and shuttle, and yes, they had no reservation for me (no kidding) but were happy to take me to the hotel and try and earn my business. The van arrived about 15 minutes later, and when I got to the hotel they gave me a very reasonable day rate for 8 hours. Was happy to pay, went up to the nicely air-conditioned room, and got a nice 90 minute nap in.

Needed some caffeine after that so walked down the road to the local grocery store to pick up some Red Bull. Walked by the La Tante DC 10 Restaurant on the way. I so can’t wait to eat here when I come back through Accra again in May!

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View from my hotel room:

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Pool-view room. I decided it was a nice warm day, so spent about 90 minutes relaxing by the pool before doing a bit of work.

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Panoramic shot of the pool:

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Was a little hungry at this point, so headed to the hotel cafe to see if I could find something light to eat. What could be lighter than “Goat Light Soup?”

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Ordered the soup, and one last large African beer while I waited:

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Soon, it was time to head off to the airport having survived a very drama-filled escape from Liberia, and begin the trek home.

Jan 272016
 

After wandering around, I met my driver to head back to the airport. I decided to use the Radisson’s transfer service again since it made things much easier – no worrying about cabs, boat tickets, or anything. I was starting to feel a little Africa-d-out so easy and convenient made it worth the little extra money. Dan and Jordan hitched a ride along in my van to the pier, and Jason’s visa service, over the course of the trip, expanded its lines of businesses to become Jason’s Visa, Translation, Transportation and Foreign Exchange Services. Soon, it will be like a South Korean Chaebol controlling all sections of the competitive traveler economy!

When we got to the pier, the first thing I noticed in daylight (since the ferry ride from hell the night before had been in total darkness) was the inappropriately named boat…Blessing:

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My ship of horrors from the night before, the Sea Coach Express. Yes, those are windows, but there’s no way to open. Apparently there was a door at the front too, but that must only be fore the captain, because you couldn’t get to it from the inside.

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Apparently we were too few passengers to use that ship again (shucks), so we would be using what they called the “small boat.” He called the first group of ticket numbers right at the time advertised for boarding, and at first I thought this was our boat. One never likes to see “Good Luck” as the name of their boat after the terrifying experience from the night before. (Yes, I know Goodluck Jonathan is the President of Nigeria, but still!)

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Our boat was the same style as that one, and they didn’t pack it full this time. We all had a seat, it was open to the air (to the point I felt confident jumping and swimming for it if things went wrong) plus they made each of us put on a life preserver before leaving. Night and day from the previous ferry. (Yes, pun intended.)

Jordan and Dan, having bought their tickets at the pier, were in the second boarding group, and apparently would not be getting on this boat since we left without them. No idea if they were going to make it or not…tried texting them, but no response.

With that, we pulled away from the Aberdeen Bay ferry port:

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Plenty of lifejackets to go around today…and the ferry wasn’t crowded. I was beginning to wonder if the night before had just been some really, really bad nightmare:

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Soon, we were pulling into the Lungi Pier:

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Lungi appeared to have a very nice beach at least:

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Jordan and Dan made it in a boat maybe 10 minutes behind, and we all piled into a couple of vans to the airport. The van stopped about 200 meters from the airport, and we had to go in a tent and wash our hands. Then, we were allowed to drive up to the terminal. In front of the terminal, there was another mandatory handwashing station.

Then, you entered the terminal and had to fill out two forms. After filling them out, you got your temperature taken, and you were certified as low-risk for Ebola and allowed to check in for your flight. This form was stapled to your boarding pass, and then at the gate they took your temperature AGAIN, and wrote it on the form before allowing you to board:

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Check-in, immigration, and security were a piece of cake. Security tools asked me for a “gift” – I told them I was a tourist and that was a gift to their economy. They laughed.

I went off to find the business class facilities, which were mercifully (and frigidly) air conditioned since we still had nearly 90 minutes before boarding. No free food or beverages, but there were employees from the airport restaurant there who would fetch anything you wanted to order and bring it to you. I shared a few beers with a South African “contractor” who has “been doing some work in West and Central Africa for about 20 years now.” I didn’t ask further questions…

Soon, it was time to board our ride to Liberia:

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Air Côte d’Ivoire flight 759
Freetown, Sierra Leone (FNA) to Monrovia, Liberia (ROB)
Depart 15:05, Arrive 15:50, Flight Time: 0:45
Airbus A319, Registration TU-TSA, Manufactured 2004, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,628
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,176,666

Interestingly, this would be my second flight on Air Côte d’Ivoire, and more interestingly neither time did the flights actually involve flying to or from Abidjan. They apparently run lots of tag-on routes. First one was from Togo to Ghana, and now this one would be from Sierra Leone to Liberia. I remembered being pretty impressed with them the last time in coach, so was looking forward to a good flight. First noticeable changes, a locally-registered plane (last time the plane was registered in France), and this time a local crew, whereas last time the crew was French. Looks like they were growing local talent, so another good sign.

No pre-departure drink, and after takeoff, I was asked if I wanted water. I asked for champagne. She scowled, and said “no, only water.” Um, ok, I think I will have the water then!

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Very short flight with non-existent service, and soon we were on approach to Monrovia:

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We had arranged for our hotel to pick us up, and they were waiting in the carpark when we got through immigration. Immigration was super quick, and since Liberia uses US dollars in parallel with local currency I decided not to get any. Soon, we were heading out of the airport and on the hour long drive into town to our hotel.

On the way, we passed rubber plantations and lots of very, very green scenery. We also passed the Liberia Revenue Authority, which apparently only collects lawful revenues. Whew, I’d hate to think there was corruption!

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After checking in at the Bella Casa Hotel, I got to play musical rooms with the hotel. I hadn’t paid much attention, and knowing my princess needs, Jordan had kindly booked me in the for $220 a night VIP suite. One big problem, however, the air conditioning seemed to be non-functional, and there was nothing VIP about it. So, we tried another room. Then another room. Then a fourth room which they convinced me would be cooler when I got back from dinner. I wasn’t convinced.

Meanwhile, a friend had told me there was a great beach just a couple blocks for our hotel, so we retired there for a sunset beer and Dan and Jordan grabbed dinner. A proper Africa-sized beer:

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Last night together on the beach:

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Great sunset from the beach bar/restaurant, which was aptly named Sunset Beach:

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I left them to enjoy dinner, and met a friend from DC who had recently moved to Monrovia to work for USAID. He was picking me up in his car, so I stopped by the room on my way and found the AC still not really working, so told the front desk to find me a better room while I was gone. ugh! He had a restaurant he’d been wanting to try called Anglers Bar and Grill, so we headed there. Lovely outdoor deck right on the ocean.

We ordered a couple of Savannah Dry ciders to start along with some grilled Halloumi cheese (the proprietors were Lebanese) followed by the tuna steak with balsamic which was absolutely huge…and delicious! A great meal:

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We caught up for a couple hours over dinner, and when I got back to the hotel they notified me they had found me a room that might work better. Fortunately, it was indeed a bit better, and adequate for the night. I had no idea what they intended to charge me, or what “level” of room it actually was, but it had functioning air conditioning and internet and that was the important thing!

Headed off to bed, and tossed and turned all night, having a rather poor night of sleep. Woke up much earlier than planned at 7am due to sleeping badly, which turned out to be a good thing, because…

Jan 262016
 

Fortunately, my adventures on the RER were much less of a problem today – and not only that – I managed to catch and express train and was at the airport barely 45 minutes after leaving my hotel…which gave me 3.5 hours to spare. I was going to need it, however, to figure out my way through this maze of an airport.

Leaving the RER station, there were a bunch of Air France kiosks, which made checking in and getting my boarding pass easy. So far so good. Rather long walk, but eventually navigated my way through the sea of checkin counters and found the area for departures. Exit immigration was a breeze with no line at the business class counter, and priority security was also rather empty…save the woman with about 200 metal bracelets and trinkets all over her body. Seriously, do people not thing ahead when they are flying?

Regardless, found my way to the lifts underground, and to the Air France lounge with plenty of time to spare. To top it off, my flight would be leaving from the main terminal 2E building, meaning a short walk from the lounge. Looked like everything was going well today!

Since I’d only grabbed a quick coffee at Starbucks, I decided to find out what my food options were in the lounge.

A lounge with real cheese and not Tilamook? Score!

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Main course of a chicken and mushroom stew of some sort, and cheese wrapped in ham…with an apple tart for dessert. Not at all bad for lounge food Air France. Not bad at all!

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Since I had plenty of extra time thanks to the RER running well today, it left me a few extra hours to get some work done in the lounge before it was time to take the short walk to the boarding gate.

Air France flight 770
Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Freetown, Sierra Leone (FNA)
Depart 13:35, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 6:35
Airbus A330-200, Registration F-GLCB, Manufactured 2001, Seat 5E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 9,374
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,176,412

As soon as I was seated, pre-departure champagne was offered along with amenity kits. I decided to fit in this time, and when I wasn’t offered a blue one on the tray, asked if they might have any blue ones. The flight attendant apologized, and immediately went off to fetch one. Hah!

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Today’s menu…rather tasty looking once again!

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Today’s flight was the same number as my flight from Conakry two days prior, and apparently it does a circle Paris-Freetown-Conakry-Paris every couple of days. Worked out perfectly for me, and obviously lots of others because today’s flight appeared to be completely sold out in all classes. Everyone I could see in business had either American passports of Chinese, leading me to believe it was largely a mix of development workers and the usual Chinese “infrastructure” people. Tasty snack of cashews and cranberries along with a creamed pea mousse:

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Shrimp starter, along with more fois gras. Looking around – I found almost everyone poking at…and then refusing to touch the fois gras. Next time I’m on Air France I’m going to ask for them to take double helpings for me from all those who can’t or won’t appreciate it!

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Extremely tasty risotto, and cheese! I’m branching out from my usual beef offerings this trip with vegetarian risottos, scallops, monkfish…what is this world coming to?!

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Trio of desserts. It’s no Jeff Sundae, but it’s way tastier!

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My impression after two medium-haul flights on Air France: nobody can beat them for business class food. Sure, Emirates and Singapore can try and be “fancy” but they save the truly impressive stuff like lobster and caviar for first class anyways. Air France serves good, solid, high quality food in business class that doesn’t taste and look like it came out of the dollar bin at your local WalMart. Normally I’m the first to find airplane food boring and meh, but I can honestly say the Air France meals were things I would order in a restaurant. Well done Air France!

…and as a nod to Air France, my seatmate was displaying extremely Haute Couture – a bedazzled New York Yankees sweatshirt:

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This is where stuff got interesting. After a great flight, we landed at Lungi International Airport where the passport queues were extremely slow and sweaty. Country #189 visited! Now, Lungi Airport is rather interesting. It’s about 10 miles or so from the capital of Freetown, but those 10 miles are if you can walk on water. If you can’t you take the long way around the bay by car, which usually takes 3-4 hours. Yes, that’s right, hours. So, what most people do is take the ferry.

I had read nightmares about the ferry, and the process of procuring tickets, which were approximately $35-40. For $60, the Radisson would send someone to meet you at arrivals, transfer you to the ferry, give you your ticket, and pick you up on the other end. Sounded like a bargain to me…and I went with it.

My driver was waiting for me in the arrivals area, and handed me my ticket. He took me to the bus area, where I would wait for the bus to the ferry. Yes, that’s right, first you need a ferry ticket. Then the ferry company drives you to the pier. Then you take a ferry. Then you need transport on the other side. Well worth the premium I paid.

Fortunately, the ferry company’s van had awesome air conditioning, and soon we were off. About a 10 minute drive to the pier in complete darkness, but it didn’t matter, because once we got to the pier we waited nearly an hour to board the ferry. No answer why, other than soon soon. Eventually we boarded, and it was clear they were going to cram an entire A330 of passengers on a ferry which was marked “Capacity: 55”

I personally counted at least 80-90 people, and there was lots of yelling and complaining about the boat being overloaded. But, see, there’s a problem. It had one deck. With one door. In my foolish rush to board I had moved away from the door, and if this thing sank, there was absolutely no way I was getting off on time. I was hoping reason would win it, but no, they just slammed the door. A staff member gave some half-hearted safety demonstration that included comments about life jackets and the easter bunny…not sure if either really existed..and the motors sputtered to life.

Fortunately, it was pitch black outside, and we couldn’t feel the terror we were about to embark on…the first five minutes weren’t too bad, but then the waves started, and the boat started pitching pretty hard side to side as the waves would hit the boat which was loaded down worse than a pregnant woman well past her third trimester. I tried to strike up a conversation with the local couple seated next to me (we were some of the lucky ones with seats) but that didn’t work when they told me they’d taken this ferry dozens of times…and it had never been loaded down this badly. They were clearly worried.

I started looking for small and weak people between me and the door, deciding who I would trample when we capsized. I also started practicing holding my breath, trying to figure out how long I would have to get to the door once the water came rushing in.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, that’s when it started. Now, Sierra Leone had recently been declared free of Ebola, and to do so they constantly reminded people of the way it spread: avoid bodily fluids of sick and dead people. Well, that’s when the first woman lost her cookies…all over a couple of people also standing in the middle of the boat.

A couple of minutes later, it happened again with another person. All told four people threw up all over other passengers. While it made the time pass by quickly, if a sinking boat didn’t kill us there was a reasonable chance Ebola would. Eventually, we made it to the other side…the air heavy with the smell of vomit and fear.

True to their world, the Radisson shuttle driver was waiting for me, and soon we were off to the hotel. Quickly messaged Jordan and Dan that I’d arrived, and that they were free to meet me in the hotel bar/restaurant as after checking in I would need something to make me forget my near death experience.

This item on the menu didn’t reassure me:

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Yes, you may have a beer, but only after you sanitize your hands:

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After a couple of beers and some food, it was time to head to bed so I could get up at a reasonable hour and maximize my time in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, the room air conditioning in no way met my standards, nor did the internet which only reached about a foot into my room. I was too tired to care, and had good data service on my cell phone, and eventually passed out for eight solid hours of well-needed sleep.

Got up to have a bit of breakfast before heading out, and was surprised to run into Dan and Jordan there. They had some sort of buy one get one free rate that didn’t include breakfast, and given the hotel wanted over $25 for it I hadn’t expected to see them. The buffet was rather basic, but enough to do the trick, and certainly better than several we had had on this trip.

They had arrived the prior day, and agreed to show me around the area near the hotel so I could maximize my time before leaving. We headed down to Lumley Beach, which thanks to “National Exercise Day” on Sunday, was packed:

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I was doing my best to “STOP the EBOLA Virus” but given all the vomiting on the ferry the night before, I wasn’t overly confident.

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The beach was packed with people playing football, lots of people just walking, and vendors selling water and other drinks in the incredibly hot sun:

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I spotted one football team getting ready to take a picture, and rushed over to ask if I could take their picture as well. This got them to do their championship pose, and I found out they had just won the beach league tournament of some sort. Given the dozens of games going on at the beach, there seemed to be tons of different leagues and casual games going on, and most of them even had referees. It was a rather large affair and apparently THE thing to do in Freetown on a Sunday.

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After a while of walking around we eventually headed back to the Radisson to try in vain to cool down ever so slightly with some cold drinks before heading to the airport for our onward flight to the final new country of this trip: Liberia!

Jan 242016
 

The guesthouse was nice enough to give me a ride back to the airport, but unlike the approximately 20-25 minute drive to get to the guesthouse in the morning, it took us more than 90 minutes to get to the airport. I had left plenty of time so it wasn’t a problem, but was still mildly annoying. Plus, I got a free long French lesson out of it, since it was just me and one of the owners in the car, so we covered everything from US politics to the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, African dictators, you name it. Quite a good conversation for a couple of folks speaking their non-native languages who had just met less than 12 hours prior.

Air France check-in was no problem at all, and immigration and security were a breeze as well. I was soon camped out in the common-use lounge Air France uses to wait for my flight. It was still festively decorated for Christmas as well:

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Decent selection of beverages, and some pastries that were a bit past their freshness:

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The downside on the beverages…I ended up having three beers, and as I got up to leave and board my flight she came running over asking me to pay for the third one. I don’t have a problem with that itself, but she should have informed me when I ordered it that there would be a charge. Oh well, there were plenty of electrical outlets, comfortable seating, fast internet, and good AC, so if that’s the biggest problem with a lounge in Guinea I’m pretty ok with it!

As we were boarding, nurses were waiting in the jetway, and writing temperatures on the boarding pass to “prove” you weren’t sick at the time of boarding:

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Air France flight 770
Conakry, Guinea (CKY) to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG)
Depart 23:10, Arrive 06:25, Flight Time: 6:15
Airbus A340-300, Registration F-GLZK, Manufactured 1997, Seat 6E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 6,445
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,173,483

I had changed my seat right before boarding to 5E, since according to ExpertFlyer there were two seats left to sell, and 5E and 5F were both open on the seatmap. It turned out to be the right call, because even though I was in the last row, I had nobody sitting next to me. Amenity kits came in a choice of colours, and I noticed several of the passengers around me being very particular about which one they got…and the crew seemed to think this was completely normal. Seriously, the contents were the same (I asked) so people were being fussy on the colour?

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Welcome aboard champagne. Yes, champagne. Real champagne. In a glass. Take that United!

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I do love monkfish, and figured if anyone can do it right on a plane it’s the French, so I broke (for the second time this trip) my no seafood on a plane rule and ordered it:

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Not a bad menu for an 11pm departure!

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Dessert and starter served all at once. Mmm, cheese, profiteroles, and fois gras. This has the makings of the best business class meal ever!

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The monkfish was absolutely amazing, and the mashed pumpkin was a tasty addition:

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Managed to get almost four hours of decent sleep, and woke up just before landing in Paris. It was my first time dealing with the situation at Charles de Gaulle outside the United area, and what a mess! So many parts to the terminal, connected by a maze of passageways and trains, but eventually I did make it to immigration where the wait was over an hour in the business class line! They were questioning every passenger very hard – probably due to a combination of the refugee situation and the recent terror attacks. My turn? When I finally got to the front it was a look at my passport “where do you live?” “Washington DC” stamp and go. No questions beyond that, but in my hour of waiting saw at least 20 different people pulled into the office for secondary.

Long hike to the train station to catch the RER, which was a nightmare. There were track problems going on, and four trains in a row got canceled. It took over an hour to get a train into the city, and once we finally moved it took probably 15 minutes between stations. Finally, I arrived at Les Halles just over three hours after leaving the airport. Yes, three HOURS. There were also problems on two metro lines, and the station was more than a little congested:

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To the point people were getting majorly impatient:

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Eventually I made it to my hotel just after 11am, despite landing before 7am. Absolutely crazy. First order of the day was to take a short nap, and then head out on a long walk:

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I usually stay at a small family-run hotel in the Marais, and decided to head out on my usual walk starting first past Notre Dame:

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From there, I continued up past the Pompidou, Louvre, and eventually down the Champs Elyssees to the Arc de Trimophe. Unfortunately, no pictures of that part of the walk since with coffee and pastry stops along the way it was super dark by the time I arrived. I had hoped to have a bit more of the day, but the train/metro disaster kind of squashed that, so I had to settle for just a long walk, which was pretty awesome.

Since it was after dark, and headed into the weekend I headed out to grab drinks with a couple of friends who live in Paris before calling it a relatively early night. I still had to get up in the morning and head back to the airport for Air France adventure part two, and a few more days in Africa. Given how the trains had been operating I decided not to risk missing my flight, so headed to the airport with plenty of time to spare.

Jan 242016
 

I had to get up early. Way too early. It was a struggle to decide…the Radisson ran airport shuttles at either 4am or 5am, and I was really debating risking the 5am. It would still get me there about an hour before my flight, which would be more than enough time if there was no wait at security or immigration. But, I’ve seen well over an hour wait for immigration at Dakar, so eventually common sense won out and I decided to take the 4am shuttle…which meant getting up at something like 315am. Ugh. Even with a 930 bedtime that wasn’t six hours of sleep. Fortunately, I’d stocked up on Red Bull, cheese, and chocolate croissants so I got to have the breakfast of champions before heading off.

Of course, there was absolutely no traffic, and absolutely no security line, so I was at the gate by 5am with just shy of two hours to kill before the flight. Of course, then 640 came, and we still hadn’t boarded. Somewhere, around ten minutes after we were to have boarded the bus pulled up and we finally got to board. Didn’t get a whole row to myself, but the flight was empty enough that all the middle seats were free so couldn’t really complain at all!

ASKY flight 55
Dakar, Senegal (DKR) to Conakry, Guinea (CKY)
Depart 06:40, Arrive 08:05, Flight Time: 1:25
Boeing 737-700, Registration ET-AOK, Manufactured 2003, Seat 15C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 3,572
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,170,610

Uneventful flight, the crew made one pass for beverages – only water offered – and that was it. As recently as three months ago ASKY was at least handing out crummy sandwiches on short flights, so must be budget cuts!

We landed maybe 30 minutes behind schedule, and caught a bus to the terminal where everyone got their temperature checked (thanks Ebola!) before being allowed to enter the terminal. There was also a mandatory handwashing station set up before you could enter the terminal:

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Immigration was a piece of cake, but they were rather shocked to see tourists. Guinea was only declared Ebola-free a few weeks prior, and has suffered a major drop in tourism. He was even more surprised when I told him I was just in transit for 15 hours, and would be flying out to Paris the same evening. A tourist and in transit? He was pretty excited and welcomed me to Guinea. I’d heard lots of not so great things about Guinea. Several folks in the “visited every country club” have said Guinea was their least favourite country in the world due to crime, rude people, things being run-down, etc, so I’d decided one full day would be plenty.

Honestly, the second reason for the short stop was that I had two options for going onwards to Sierra Leone. One was 24 hours or so in Guinea, followed by 12+ hours overland from Guinea to Freetown, Sierra Leone by shared taxi. I’d heard stories the roads were quite grim and the trip rather unpleasant. However, there were also no direct flights. On one engine, when I typed it in it tried to give me an Air France connection via Paris with 36 hours in transit! Wait…

On the off chance, I decided to check Delta’s website. I’ve had just over 100,000 miles sitting around, and decided to see if Delta would let me book this routing. Sure enough, it was happy to sell it to me with miles, and I was going to have my first Air France experience. Not only was I going to get to give Air France a try, I’d avoid a long unpleasant overland trek as well as getting a full day in Paris. Sounds like a win to me!

But, I digress. Our driver was waiting for us right outside customs. Dan had found the Pension les Palmiers online, a small guesthouse located about 10km outside of downtown Conakry. That might not seem like much, but traffic in Conakry is horrendous. However, the owner’s son picked us up and drove us to the hotel for 10 euro each, so it looked like a good base for the day.

While he was finishing getting our rooms ready, I watched a group of local schoolkids doing athletics on the beach:

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Running hurdles:

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Post-hurdles recovery…

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Soon our rooms were ready. Mine was small, rather hot, and had cracks in the screen so bugs/warm air could get in. However, the air conditioning was rather powerful and managed to offset that. It was a good thing I wasn’t spending the night, however, since I imagined being on the water without great screens on the windows lots of flying and biting bugs would get in. I passed out for a solid 90 minute nap, and woke up feeling much better.

I had arranged with the owner to find us a taxi driver to take us on a city tour for five hours, and by the time we woke up and were ready to go he was there. Our first stop along the way was at a local moneychanger, who seemed to hang out on a certain street corner, and when we arrived he ran up to the car window with large wads of cash ready to trade. We got a fair rate, and then continued on towards the city. Streetside view on the drive:

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After driving through the city a bit, we passed the Michelin 3-Star Obama Restaurant:

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For some reason, we decided not to have lunch there, and continued on our way, soon passing the Conakry Port:

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Group of school kids we passed on our drive:

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Political graffiti, of course when I took this picture, the artist who did it ran up and asked to be paid. Ugh.

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We decided to do lunch at Chez Luigi, which was really two different restaurants. Unfortunately, we went in the wrong one first, and when asking for a menu they got really confused and said they only had breakfast food. I was starving so ok with that, but then eventually she asked “do you want something else like pizza maybe?” Um, yes? She then walked us a couple doors down to their sister restaurant which was absolutely packed. Much better!

As soon as we sat down and looked at the tv, I saw this:

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Well now, that didn’t bode well for my flight to Paris! Fortunately, as we were eating lunch the plane did indeed take off from Paris, so it looked like we would be leaving more or less on time. Whew. Hopefully it was a one-off attack and wouldn’t have too much impact on my time there. The restaurant was run by a Lebanese family (there seemed to be tons of Lebanese in Guinea), and had an interesting mix of Lebanese food and Italian. I went with a pizza which was pretty good…and they had Diet Coke, which made me super excited!

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After lunch, we went back to their sister restaurant next door to enjoy some gelato and espresso. Perfectly nice little Italian lunch in the middle of Africa. Who knew!  As we waited for our taxi to find us again, lots of local boys were happy to try and sell us everything under the sun:

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Driving on, even the police were doing their best to stop Ebola:

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Our next stop was the Palais du Peuple, or People’s Palace. There was a float from the recent election parade parked outside:

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Independence monument, which proclaimed that “Imperialism shall find it’s death in Guinea!” Indeed…

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Driving along, anti-Ebola poster on the road.  “I’m reassured….because my family washes its hands with water and soap.”

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Eventually, after a nice hot drive we made it back to the guesthouse where the owner was happy to bring us ice-cold local Guiluxe beers. She was a very charming older lady from France who had moved to Guinea years ago and decided never to leave. Her and her son were great hosts, and the guesthouse was the perfect place to relax for the day. From airport transfers to a nice place to crash, to finding us a great taxi driver to take us around, it was a really lucky find.

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Plus, from the guesthouse there was a fantastic sunset:

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Overall, my impression of Conakry was actually quite good. It was far from the worst place I’d visited, and I wouldn’t even mind going back for a few days some time. Sure, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot to do or see, but that alone doesn’t make a place awful. Everyone I met was perfectly helpful and nice, and while the country obviously has poverty it wasn’t nearly as in your face as many other places. I was glad to get a really good experience in Conakry, but all too soon it was time to head back to the airport and continue my wanderings….

Jan 232016
 

Despite the rather significant communication gap, the Coimbra Hotel did indeed have a driver ready and waiting (and they even have their own hotel van) to take us to the airport. Unfortunately, traffic in Bissau this afternoon was bumper to bumper and it took a good hour in heavy traffic to get there.

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We arrived a bit later than we had planned, approximately 2.5 hours before our flight. We figured getting there early would be a good idea, since the airport only has three or four flights per day, and if anything went wrong it would be good to be at the head of the queue. Judging by the parking lot 2.5 hours before the flight, we didn’t have much to worry about. Finally found a security guard to let us wait inside the somewhat cooler terminal instead of in the extremely hot parking area:

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In fact, the check-in hall was so empty we were actually wondering if the flight existed. Until about two hours before the flight, we were the only ones around, and over the next 30 minutes a few other passengers and cleaning staff trickled in:

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No problem, however, about 90 minutes before the flight they did finally open up check-in, and it was no problem at all getting our boarding passes for Dakar. Was forced to check my rolling bag, which really wasn’t a big deal, and then was allowed to proceed through security and immigration to the waiting hall, which had a nice little bar/cafe waiting area:

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Boarding was right on time about 30 minutes before the plane, and obviously there was no jetway. Our plane was ET-ANH today, and it was the same 737 that Ian and I flew from Lome-Douala-N’Djamena, Chad back in September:

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Being one of the first on board was able to get a great exit row seat with no seat in front of it. Despite maybe 40 minutes of flight time, it’s always good to be comfortable!

ASKY flight 42
Bissau, Guinea-Bissau (OXB) to Dakar, Senegal (DKR)
Depart 18:15, Arrive 19:10, Flight Time: 0:55
Boeing 737-700, Registration ET-ANH, Manufactured 2007, Seat 16A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 3,131
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,170,169

Only a 40 minute flight up up to Dakar, but a full beverage service was offered. You can see the missing seat in front of me here:

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Overally, another solid flight with ASKY. I’ve taken about 10 flights with them now all over west Africa, and they’ve been super about being on time, friendly, and generally comfortable. Overall, aviation west Africa is so much better than it was even ten years ago. Sun was setting as we approached Dakar, and after deplaning got a nice shot of our plane at dusk:

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Collected my bags, and headed off to get a taxi to my hotel. I was staying at the Radisson Blu (which I had decided on previous long work trips to Dakar was by far the best choice in town), while Jordan and Dan were staying at the Hotel Baraka (Obama). Just kidding on the Obama part. We decided after checking in to meet up for dinner, and grabbed cabs to the La Piazza Restaurant. Unfortunately, they were running a bit late due to traffic being blocked by what was apparently a corpse in the road. Eek!

La Piazza had remodeled since my last trip two years ago, and was actually nicer now. We were the only customers, but that changed by the time we left to a full house. I forgot that people in Dakar tend to eat rather late. Several of the waitstaff remembered me from a couple years back, and when I commented that they had changed my favourite dessert they said they absolutely could make it the old way. We ended up splitting a pain perdu, which is basically a caramelized french toast with ice cream…it was delicious!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t join Jordan and Dan for a day of touring the next day, since I had to go into our office to do a bunch of work. Fortunately, the Radisson is just a few blocks from my office so I was able to take a nice long two hour lunch break by the Radisson pool. The struggle is real I tell you…

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Ended up doing dinner with coworkers I hadn’t seen in a couple years, so wasn’t able to join Dan and Jordan, but it was an early night anyways, as we had to be up at oh-dark-thirty for our flight on to country #188 – Guinea!

Jan 222016
 

After checking out of the hotel we were able to flag down a cab to take us to the shared taxi rank. The minute we got out of the car, we were mobbed by people wanting to know where we were going. I guess three white guys with bags make a pretty good target. One guy, who the others seemed to respect did all the negotiating. I told him we were going to Bissau, and wanted to hire a whole taxi to go there. He said no problem, wait, and got a taxi with a funky furry purple interior to take us there. I wanted to know how much, but he insisted we get in the car first.

That’s when I found out why. Once we were in the car, with the driver, he got in as well, and we began negotiating. Basically, it appeared he didn’t want all the other drivers and touts hearing what we were doing – probably because in local terms we were severely overpaying and he didn’t want someone undercutting him. The journey was well over three hours, and eventually I negotiated a price of 35,000 CFA, or just over $20 for each of us. Not bad for a private car!

The drive to the border was extremely uneventful, and our driver was very helpful in getting us over the border. Unfortunately he was from Bissau and didn’t speak any French or English, so it was a bit hard getting our point across. Eventually, as he got more comfortable, he did speak some French which made things much easier.

Clearing the border was no problem with the visas we’d obtained in Ziguinchor, and after about 30 minutes we were on the road to Bissau:

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In one small town we stopped, and negotiated some oranges from a couple of local girls:

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Wildlife on the drive:

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Once we got to Bissau, our driver had a very difficult time finding our hotel, the Coimbra “Spa and Suites.” The quotes are because they claimed to have a spa, but I never saw it open, and what they called suites were really just big rooms where the internet didn’t work. Matter of fact, the only place the internet ever seemed to work was in the reception area. Not a huge deal, however. I was pretty exhausted, and when Jordan and Dan went out exploring I hung around the hotel and chugged an energy drink while resting a bit. After a bit, I did walk down the street and see the church on the next block:

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Fantastic sunset from in front of the hotel. This is one of the busiest streets in Bissau, and yes, mostly dirt road:

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A bit after sunset, we wandered through the pitch black dirt roads to O Bistro restaurant, a supposedly good Italian place. The lasagna was actually surprisingly very tasty:

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The profiteroles dessert was great as well:

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Changed rooms twice (yes, common theme in my posts) and eventually got a room with working AC and internet…a luxury in this hotel. It was rather comfortable, and I managed eight solid hours of sleep before getting up to meet Jordan and Dan for breakfast…the breakfast room had very interesting art:

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After fortifying ourselves with tea/instant coffee and bread (I think Jordan might have braved the cold hot dogs on offer) we set out to explore the city a bit. One of the first areas we wandered was the Porto Pidjiguit, or old port. There was a monument here shaped like a giant fist, where in 1959 the Portuguese killed over 50 striking dockworkers. The fist monument was in memory of the resistance to the Portuguese which started here:

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We continued walking, and were soon in the old town. Dirt roads, pastel colonial architecture, but things were extremely run-down:

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The Grand Hotel…not looking so grand these days:

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We continued walking past the old fort (still home to army troops, and thus definitely no photos allowed) and were soon in the main square:

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Independence Monument with the Presidential Palace in the background:

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After a bit of a wander, we stopped in at “Papa Loca” which was advertised as one of the better cafes in town. Run by a nice Lebanese gentleman, they had good pastries and coffee which fueled us for a bit more of a walk. Next up was the National football stadium:

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Major street in Bissau, walking back to the hotel:

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I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Bissau, but it met most of my expectations. There wasn’t too much to see or do, and while it did in some ways feel like other former Portuguese colonies in Africa, it also had a west African vibe that felt different. The poverty was rather striking, as were the decades of civil wars and coups that have plagued the country. Infrastructure was some of the poorest in West Africa, and there was a near complete lack of English and French spoken. However, the people we did meet were super welcoming and friendly and very glad to see tourists there!

The hotel was kind enough to give us a late check-out at 3pm, and despite having had trouble locating our reservations the day before they had sorted it all out and the “complimentary” hotel shuttle to the airport was exactly as advertised. Soon, we were in the luxurious airport and ready to continue our adventure.

Jan 202016
 

Our taxi driver showed up right on schedule, and soon we were off to the Gambia/Senegal border. Our transport to the border, photo courtesy of Jordan:

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It looked to be not too long of a drive, and our driver confirmed it should be about an hour, inshallah. Fortunately we had no troubles at all, and got to the border in under an hour. I was expecting some trouble at the border since I’d never been asked to pay for a visa, but nope, super easy and friendly, stamp stamp, and we were out of The Gambia. Our driver was super helpful, and engaged in a bit of negotiation for us.

See, after you get stamped out of The Gambia, you have to drive another two miles to the Senegal entry point/border. However, our driver didn’t have Senegalese/ECOWAS insurance (which we learned was quite common) so he couldn’t take us. He did, however, negotiate a local taxi for us for what came out to be about five US dollars.. Our driver was super helpful, and engaged in a bit of negotiation for us. That driver, however, didn’t want to go all the way to Ziguinchor (the capital of the Senegalese region of Casamance) so we would be going to the local taxi hire and seeing what we could do there.

After dropping us off, he went to find us a “good taxi” – as opposed to a bad one I suppose. This is when all the negotiating started. He had found a good car, but he was going back in what sounded like pretty angry Mandinka with the driver. One spoke French, one spoke English, but they both spoke Mandinka, which left us out in the cold. He told us he had negotiated around 30,000 CFA francs (about US$50) and that sounded good enough, so we agreed. However, when we went to pay him, he wasn’t going to take $5 as agreed because it “took so long.” It was annoying, but only took $1 extra to get him to agree, so it wasn’t so bad.

Once that was done, it was on the road in our rather fabulous ride to Ziguinchor:

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Daniel managed to snap this photo from the backseat. Notice the Senegalese flag steering wheel cover, and complete lack of any other dashboard instruments….

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The drive itself was pretty uneventful, maybe two hours or so, and we arrived in Ziguinchor. Our driver had a bit of a hard time finding the hotel, so he headed first to the taxi station to check in. He needed to go there to get in the queue to go back to Banjul for his next trip, so wanted to make sure to check in before dropping us off. He also used this to get directions to our hotel, which wasn’t too far away.

We arrived at the Le Flamboyant Hotel, where the friendly staff let us know our rooms were ready. They were rather basic, but for less than US$40 per night they were amazing. Good, functional air conditioning as well as good free WiFi and breakfast for like $4. Can’t really go wrong at all! The bed was pretty hard, but given I slept nearly nine hours it must have been pretty comfortable!

View from the balconies:

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After checking in, we were pretty hungry so went for a walk through town to find some lunch. We eventually managed to stumble upon the Kadiandoumagne Hotel, which was serving up lunch still…and had great carvings in the courtyard:

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The lunch special, strangely, was Cordon Bleu…served with either beef or ham. I went with the beef option, and it was rather tasty all things considered. Washed down with a La Gazelle beer it was tasty enough, and fueled me for what was to be an afternoon wander.

Next stop was the local church/cathedral. Unlike most of Senegal, Casamance is largely Christian and animist, which fueled a decades long struggle for independence from Dakar which only ended a few years ago. No signs of conflict here, however, although the church has clearly seen better days:

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We wandered the town for maybe an hour, where I eventually came upon a Total station which had ice cold Diet Coke. It was a message from the gods! I made mental note of it, so I could stop by the next day for snacks before we headed onwards to Guinea-Bissau.

After resting in the hotel a bit, we headed out for dinner at the Le Parroquet hotel and restaurant. Fresh-caught Barracuda was the special, but very small pieces buried under a large pile of chips and salad. At least it was pretty tasty, and they had bananas flambé as the dessert!

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After a relaxing dinner, we headed back through the “well-lit” centre of town to the hotel. Yes, this is bustling Ziguinchor, Casamance, Senegal:

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When I got back to the hotel, they informed me they hadn’t fumigated the room for mosquitos since I didn’t leave my key. I agreed to stay out of the room for 15 minutes, and they went in and absolutely sprayed the hell out of things. I went to dreams with foggy memories of dead bugs, and slept like a rock on the rock-solid bed. Up for breakfast in the courtyard: instant coffee, baguette, and some bissap juice was the order of the day. Daniel tried to get some eggs, but apparently the chickens weren’t around because they told him they didn’t have them today. But what they did have was a very festively decorated African mask hanging in the courtyard:

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After breakfast, our mission was to find the consulate of Guinea-Bissau and get a visa. Why hadn’t I done this in Washington, you ask? Well, Guinea-Bissau is one of like two or three countries that doesn’t have a capital in DC. The others are tiny countries like Tuvalu, but Guinea-Bissau…that’s a unique case. See, they used to have an embassy in the suburbs in Maryland, but somewhere around 10 years ago they ran out of money…and rumour is the bank foreclosed on the mortgage. That’s right…the Bank repossessed the embassy. Even stranger, because you’d think under diplomatic conventions they should be protected against this or something, but whatever the true story, there is no longer an embassy in DC and the consulate in New York doesn’t issue visas.

Since so many people go overland from Banjul to Bissau, general consensus is that Ziguinchor is the best place to get a visa. The embassy had moved a couple years ago because, well, they couldn’t afford the rest on the main street in Ziguinchor, but after a good wander through a residential area with dirt roads, we finally found it:

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There, the consul was very cheery and helpful, and we joined several others getting a visa…all Americans oddly enough. A group of older American women who’d been in The Gambia and decided why not see Bissau while they were in the area (seriously – my heroes!) and a strange evangelical guy from Texas who was going to Bissau to do some sort of missionary work. That said, the consul was great, we had visas in like 20 minutes, and they were dirt cheap at 20,000 CFA francs (around $33) versus the 55,000 francs charged in Dakar!

Walking back to the hotel, I stopped at the Total station again to get some biscuits and Red Bull for the journey (one small packet of instant coffee was not about to cut it) and then we went to pack up. View of the main circle in town from the Total Station:

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After the walk, it was time to get some extra cash just in case the ATMs in Bissau weren’t functional as rumoured online. The first ATM I tried in Ziguinchor was out of service, and then when walking the half mile or so to the next it started raining. Which didn’t matter, because it didn’t want to take my card either. Neither did the third ATM.

Nearly a mile of walking later, we found a fourth ATM, and it started to make very promising noises…which I discovered were the sound of “I’m going to digest and keep your card now…mkay?” Panic ensued…almost. Here I was in relatively rural Africa, low on cash, and no ATM card to improve the situation. Oh, and it was raining and I was seriously soaked. Miracle of miracles, the bank branch was actually open….but when I got inside there were over 100 people waiting to see a teller/agent. I pulled the stupid/crazy/confused white guy, and just walked right to the front of the line and told her the machine ate my card.

Apparently, this is not uncommon. She signed, and asked for my passport. I told her I didn’t have it. She sighed. I offered to write down everything about the card on a piece of paper…she sighed and went in the back. Miraculously, she came back with my card, looked to see that it somewhat matched what I’d written down, and gave it to me. Whew. Huge disaster averted.

With that, it was back to the hotel to pack up and get ready to head to country #187 visited – Guinea-Bissau!

Jan 172016
 

About two weeks before the trip, I got an email from SPG that the Sheraton Gambia Resort was no longer the Sheraton, but had kindly agreed to honour SPG awards but not benefits. Well, considering it was like 2,000 SPG points per night (a complete bargain since I value points at 2.5 cents…meaning $50 a night and the paid rates were over $200) I could forego the benefits for a super cheap stay.

Upon arrival, the resort looked much better than online reviews would lead you to believe. People complained about shoddy run-down facilities, terrible food, disinterested staff, mosquitos eating you alive in the middle of the night, you name it. People did not have nice things to say about this property.

I got a nice little bungalow on the second level, and overall it seemed good. It was a bit damp and musty smelling, but hey, this is a country where humidity hovers around 99% so what do you except. Clearly not rebranded toiletries:

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After a quick shower to wash off the plane gross, headed down to the hotel outdoor bar and cafe for a bit of dinner. The creatively named JulBrew (Banjul, get it?) and a big heaping plate of chicken yassa. Definitely super tasty! I don’t know why people were complaining about the food…AND cheap! Most of the people at the resort were Brits and on all-inclusive package tours, so they seemed quite confused when we wanted to sign our drinks to the room.

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Had a good night of sleep, and in the morning had to be up at oh-dark-thirty for our “Roots Tour.” Daniel had found the tour, and since the former Sheraton was a bit out of town, we were the early stop on the tourbus pickup. The bus kindly came with a map of The Gambia on it, so you could see the river – part of which we’d be navigating. This seemed like a good way to spend the day, since when an entire country is named after a river it would be a shame not to spend some significant time on said river!

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The views from the pier weren’t half bad…it was a bit overcast, which was great for keeping the temps cool:

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Our boat:

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Just kidding…this was our boat…marginally better:

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After a nice two hour or so cruise up the river in relative cloud cover, we finally docked on this beach:

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…and arrived at the twin villages of Albreda and Juffureh:

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The “Roots Tour” was so named because in the 1970s American author Alex Haley wrote a book called Roots which claimed he had traced his slave ancestry all the way back to The Gambia and “The African Kunta Kinte.” These were the villages Kunta Kinte were supposedly from. I say supposedly, because there’s lots of controversy around the book involving plagiarism and allegations that the book is largely a work of fiction based on what he experienced trying to find his roots. Regardless, it was a very interesting insight into his journeys. A “never again” monument to slavery in the village:

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The remains of an old Portuguese church – possibly one of the earliest Christian churches in Africa:

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The women and children of the village were all assembled to sing for us…and of course the donation basket was out:

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Jali, playing the Kora – he wrote a special Ode to Jordan the Traveler…unfortunately I can’t get the video to post!

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Jufurreh…a baby-friendly community!

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…and there were certainly lots of children around…again, note the donation tin. Pay us for being cute!

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Women pounding out grains for either tourist photos or to eat…it was unclear which. But the way she pointed at me…and said YOU PAY ME…I have my suspicions…

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We were followed around the village the whole time by a group of local Gambian police, including my friend “The Colonel.” He kept saying to me “Big man! My friend! You lift weights!” To his credit, he never asked for money or anything, he just wanted a photo as we got on the boat and ready to leave…I love this pic!

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Once back on the boat, a buffet lunch was served. Some spicy beef rice (with extra hot sauce), pumpkin, and other local vegetables. Rather tasty!

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Soon, we were approaching Kunta Kinteh Island:

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Why was this island so important? Well I’m glad you asked!

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Remains of the old fort where slaves were held, often hundreds to a room, before transport on to Goree Island in Senegal and eventually across the ocean:

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Cannons from the Old Fort:

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More ruins of the fort:

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After the island, we settled in for the long two plus hour cruise back to Banjul. Chatted with a couple of Londoners on the trip back, who snapped this pic of us just handing out on the boat…complete with passed out Swedish tourist in the foreground:

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On the way back into town, we convinced the bus driver to stop a second to snap a picture of the national liberation monument:

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Back at the ex-Sheraton, and after a quick dinner completely passed out. Daniel was staying at another place across the street, so once we had dinner he took off and I’m pretty sure we all passed out quickly.

Up early, and a nice view of the pool, with the ocean in the background:

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Beach chairs, and a volleyball net:

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The beach at the resort…only moderately crawling with local hucksters trying to entice you on boat tours, “come drink with me in my local bar” (I mean, I’d love the chance to get drugged and mugged, sign me up!), etc…and it was a nice beach, so worth the mild hassle:

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Strange art at the resort. There were several cats roaming the property, and this was apparently an artist’s rendition:

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The walls of the resort were covered with all sorts of local art:

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We had arranged with the bus driver from the day before to drive us to the Senegal border in the morning instead of trying to negotiate with some random taxi, and while we waited, I checked out the local news. The President was apparently urging all Gambians to live “as one strong family”

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There were also 20+ full page ads in the newspaper from various companies, wishing His Excellency, President Sheikh Professor Doctor Al-Hadji Yahya AJJ Jammeh Babili Mansa a Happy New Year. Now if that name isn’t impressive…

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Our driver arrived right on time, and it was time to get on the road for Senegal!