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….

May 212016
 

Arriving Paris early afternoon, I was looking forward to getting to my hotel and resting a bit. Of course, the trains had something completely different in mind for me. Back in January when I was in Paris, after an annoying hour waiting for passport control I ended up having major drama with the trains due to some track problems that took over three hours to get into the city from the airport. Unfortunately, this trip was to prove to have even worse drama.

The walk from terminal 2A where British Airways has its gates to the RER station is relatively long, but not too bad and was nice to have the exercise after spending all night on a plane. Got to the train station, bought my ticket, and then there was an announcement. I only began to hear it because people started yelling and the station flooded with heavily armed police. I decided the wise thing to do was follow the panicking crowds back up the escalators in the direction the police were yelling and pointing.

When I got to the top of the station and started walking back towards the terminal the announcement was much clearer: please evacuate the station due to a suspicious package. Seriously, that’s all? It seems to happen pretty frequently in the D.C. metro these days, so was surprised at the level of panic. After waiting over an hour, we were finally allowed back into the station. I headed towards the platform for the RER, and was directed back again by the police. Seems now, the Terminal 2 RER station was closed due to track problems. Please head over to Terminal 3 and get the train from there. Seriously, ugh.

Took the inter-terminal shuttle train over to the Terminal 3 train station, only to find out with a bunch of other passengers, that trains were now suspended all the way to Aulnay-sous-Bois about six stations down the line. Oh, did I mention it was also pouring rain at this point? Instead of getting on the shuttle bus towards Aulnay, I decided to wait it out for 15 minutes in the station. At this point, they still had no idea when the line might reopen, so I resigned myself to the shuttle bus, which took nearly an hour to Aulnay after stopping off at every station along the way to pick up more passengers. Fortunately, I’d managed to get a seat because the bus ended up packed with soaking wet uncomfortable people. It was NOT a pleasant experience.

Fortunately, once I got to Aulnay the ticket I’d purchased at CDG still worked for the trip into Paris (it better since it’s a shorter trip!) and I made it the rest of the way to the hotel in less than 45 minutes. As an added bonus, it was now only misting out so the five minute walk to my hotel from the Metro station wasn’t bad at all. By this point, it was nearly 5pm and all of the afternoon had been lost. Fortunately, this time of year it stays light until nearly 21:30 in Paris, so was able to go out and grab some drinks with friends still.

Got back to the hotel around 9pm, and was ready to collapse. The restaurant I’d wanted to eat at was completely packed and couldn’t promise a seat until after 10, so I pulled up TripAdvisor and decided to see what else was within a short walk since it was nearly 21:30 at this point. Of all things, there was a Thai restaurant that was highly recommended just around the corner.

Communication was an interesting experience. Their accents were incredibly difficult in French, so we made due with some Thai-French-English blend which resulted in me getting my Pad Thai just as I wanted it – no fish, extra chicken, and very spicy. Ironic to get Pad Thai after I’d just been in Thailand a few days prior, but hey, that’s Globalization for you!

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Slept a solid 10 hours which was awesome with the big time zone shift the night before, and headed out in the morning to get some coffee. After coffee I felt like going for a walk, so just decided to start wandering. About 15 minutes later I was at the Louvre, which was absolutely packed with tourists. After taking pictures for three different Russian weddings and a group of loud Midwesterners (seriously the only people in the area without selfie sticks – which are EVERYWHERE in Paris these days) I snapped a quick photo for myself:

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The day was the perfect amount of overcast – just enough to keep things cool for a long walk, but the sun poked through just enough times to keep things warm as well. Headed out of the Louvre past the Place du Carrousel:

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Kept walking through the Jardin des Tuileries and stopped for a bit at one of the fountains to people watch, and watch some baby ducks splashing around:

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Past the statue of Julius Ceasar:

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To another small pool, where I sat for a bit to take enjoy the view of the Grande Roue de Paris:

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This is where things got a little weird. A tour group of Americans came by and their French leader asked them to get themselves arranged to take an end of tour photo. I wasn’t really paying attention – just zoning out and enjoying the view – and he came up to me and asked “excuse me sir, can I bother you a moment?” My tired brain wasn’t registering at the moment, and he sounded like another trinket seller trying to get me to buy something, so I asked him to please go away. He persisted and asked “no, I just want you to take a picture please.” This is when I’d realized I’d been a little rude, and of course agreed to take the photo.

He got the group together, I gave them the “1-2-3 Cheese” and then “one more” and went back to sitting down and enjoying the view. He switched back to English with his group and said “yes, they’re good! sorry about that, it’s those kind of people who give us Parisians a bad name with tourists!” Never in my life has my terrible French been mistaken for Parisian, so I guess – in a way – it was a compliment!

Statue at the Place de la Concorde:

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The Obelisk of Luxor:

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Love this kinda artsy shot of one of the fountains…ruined only by a Calvin Klein ad in the background:

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Took a nice leisurely stroll up the Champs-Élysées stopping once at the park and another time in the middle for some coffee and people watching, and finally got to the Arc de Triomphe:

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I could only have so much playing tourist, so didn’t bother going up to the top for the view, plus the lines were absolutely insane! Instead, since my “short walk” had already taken me so far, I decided why not keep going. Wandered down some side streets I’d never found before, which appeared to be through a bit of an Embassy district. Also found a little sign of home:

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Kept walking until I got to the Trocadero Gardens, and finally got a great view from across the Seine of the Eiffel Tower:

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Kept walking along the Left Bank, and eventually the pedestrian Passerelle Debilly:

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By this point, I’d had enough of walking. I considered walking up the Left Bank all the way to the Musée d’Orsay and Notre Dame, but it was already mid-afternoon at this point, and I was getting pretty tired out. So, I caught the RER and decided to get off at Bastille, since I hadn’t wandered through that area in several years:

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By this point, I realized I was starving since I hadn’t eaten in over six hours and had just had a few coffees during the long walk. I picked a café at random that looked just local and busy enough, and grabbed a seat for some people watching. Relatively friendly service for Paris, efficient, and a tasty glass of Médoc and a Croque Madame for a tasty late lunch:

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With that, I ended up meeting some friends out for evening drinks and passing out early. The long day of walking had worn me out but it was nice to just take in the city without any plans or itinerary. Was a great way to spend a full day and enjoy Paris without being too touristy. Drinks with local fiends and just taking in the city and people watching made for a very nice trip.

Fortunately, my flight out the next morning wasn’t too early, so I also got to sleep in just a little bit. Next up, quick stop in London!

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 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 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!

Dec 222015
 

Fair warning, this is going to get very long with lots of pictures!

The original plan had ben to do two full day tours in order to maximize my short time in Cuba as much as possible. Since I ended up arriving at noon this was cut to 1.5 days of tours. My company was great, however, and picked me up from the airport and instantly started the Havana tour. It was a great way to cut down on the transatlantic jet lag, and get a start on seeing things. Yes, it meant I would have a bit less time in Havana, but I knew I’d also have a half day before my flight out, so I was planning to use it more as an intro to the city.

Guide met me in the arrivals area and, let’s just say I was the envy of all the other western tourists arriving. Between my amazing classic car and my amazing guide there seemed to be a bit of jealousy. Too bad a bit of it was lost on me, and too bad she was uncomfortable posing for a blog picture with me 😉

Our first stop was the Plaza de la Revolución, where large rallies and events are often held with tens of thousands of people for major speeches and events. When Pope John Paul II visited he held mass for over 100,000 in the square, and Pope Francis did the same earlier this year. The iconic picture of Che Guevara was on a building on one side of the square:

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On another side was the Ministry of Information and Communications, and on the side was the portrait of Camilo Cienfuegos and his famous quote “Vas bien, Fidel!” Loosely translated as “You’re doing well, Fidel” it was his reply to Castro in 1959 at a large rally when Castro asked him if he was making the right decisions by nationalizing various things:

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The other side of the square had a large statue of José Martí, but unfortunately due to the angle of the sun I wasn’t able to get a good picture of it. My guide mentioned that the elevator going up the monument was unfortunately closed due to needing some parts, so we weren’t able to see it.

She asked if I was hungry yet, and since I wasn’t we decided to continue the tour in New Havana. Our first stop was the Hotel Nacional, famous for hosting everyone from mobsters to international dignitaries during its lifetime. The bar inside actually has portraits of all its famous guests, and reads like a whos who of 1930s-1950s America. Funny, but after 1960 most of the pictures are people like Mugabe, Soviet leaders, and the like…

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After walking around the hotel a bit (and dodging tourists) our next stop was Parque Lennon, or John Lennon park. Most notable in the park is the statue of Lennon on a bench, wearing his usual glasses. For many years, the glasses would be frequently stolen for the scrap metal they contained, but lately a local woman has been keeping watch over them. She holds onto them, and when she sees tourists coming she puts them back on him for photos, hoping for a few pesos in return for her work:

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By this point it was mid-afternoon and I was getting pretty hungry, so my guide took me to a Paladar, which is a restaurant run by the self-employed as opposed to a government-owned restaurant. The food at these venues is almost universally better quality, and the staff actually care about doing their jobs as they can be fired for not doing it. Paladars came into existence in the 1990s during the first wave of economic reforms, and seem to be where almost all tourists eat these days.

Unfortunately I didn’t get the name of the Paladar she took me to for lunch, but they were having a special – for 20 CUC you got a starter, a main course, a drink, and a desert. What a bargain!

Starter was a “salad” of cheese, ham, and chives…it looked and tasted much better than it sounded:

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Main course of local fish, shrimps, and lobster tail with frijoles negros. YUM! Although I’ll admit eating lobster in Cuba felt slightly…bourgeois 😉

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This is probably a good time to talk about money in Cuba. There are two currencies that circulate side by side: the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) also referred to as the “kook” based on its abbreviation. The government conducts business in CUP, but everything a tourist will run into is priced in convertible pesos. The convertible peso is pegged to the dollar at 1-to-1, however, there is a 10% tax for exchanging dollars so you really end up paying $1.10 for a convertible peso. In contrast, at current exchange rates, one euro buys you 1.08 convertible pesos, so you get a much better rate if you go dollars to euros to pesos. Confused yet?

It also seemed that all Cubans who were middle class had access to convertible pesos. Often, these come in the forms of tips for tour guides, hotel workers, or anyone else who might have occasion to run into foreigners. Consider that the exchange rate between the peso and convertible peso is 25 to 1, you can see why nobody is anxious to deal in “regular” pesos.

After lunch, we drove along El Malecón, which is the seaside boulevard that runs between new havana and the old city of La Habana Vieja, which is also a World Heritage Site. Along the way, we passed the brand spanking new US Embassy:

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Building in the Old Town:

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Buildings around a square in Old Havana:

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Odd statue in another square in Old Havana:

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View of a square in Old Havana:

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View from the roof of the Hotel where Ernest Hemmingway lived:

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We walked the old town for a couple of hours, before the light rain started in the early evening, eventually turning into a torrential downpour. What better time to retire to my hotel and be cliché and have my first mojito of the trip:

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When the rain finally let up a bit I walked around the corner to get some dinner. I didn’t want to go too far due to the rain and the jet lag, but also wanted to get out of the hotel, so went to a place recommended by some other people in my hotel. Yes, it was cliché, but how can you go wrong with a cuban sandwich and mojito. Hint: the ones in Miami generally are much better….

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I’ll go into details on my hotel later, but suffice to say I crashed hard after a long day and managed a good night of sleep before beginning the super long day of touring we had planned. Our first stop the next morning was across the bay to have a view of the city from a lookout point:

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Panoramic:

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As we drove out of the city, we passed a war museum, which I was advised to snap pictures of from the road, because, “it is not worth the admission:”

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…and because Rio has one, Havana needs a large Jesus status to watch over it as well:

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1950s classic car next to a horse drawn carriage…guess which is older?

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As we got out of the city, we started on the highway to Matanzas and Varadero. Our plan was to stop first in Matanzas and see the old city, but just as we approached the skies opened up and it started pouring. We opted to continue on to Varadero first and hit Matanzas on the way back. Our first stop was at some caves outside Varadero where we waited for 30 minutes with a large group of local tourists to go down and explore the cave. The tour was in Spanish only, but it was pretty much like every other cave/cavern tour in the world. Lots of stalactites and stalagmites, and people taking selfies that would never turn out:

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By this point it was early afternoon, so my guide asked her driver (who was from Varadero) for a good place to get some lunch. He recommended the Pequeño Suarez, which previous clients had told him was really good. Based on the lobster thermidore I won’t disagree, even if the cheese wasn’t completely melted on the lobster. Yes, there were more mojitos:

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Shot of the car I drove around in all weekend after lunch:

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After lunch we walked around Varadero, mainly people watching and watching the throngs of tourists behaving badly. Oh, and I might have jumped in the ocean for a bit. I contemplated a small swim to Key West, but didn’t want to aggravate the shoulder any more:

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After walking around the city for a couple of hours, on the way out of town we drove by the Casa de Al restaurant, which allegedly was an old home owned by Al Capone. It’s now a government-owned restaurant with terrible service, and thus, no tourists:

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The rain had let up a bit, but started as a light rain just as we approached Matanzas again. On the main square we stopped to look around. First site, which was very frequent in Havana as well, lots of people camped out next to buildings that had WiFi using the signal. Internet cards are easy to buy, and the signal is horridly slow, but finding a hotspot is harder. Thus, people congregate wherever they exist to use them. My hotel sold cards for nearly 4 CUC an hour and they could be purchased for just about 1 CUC from a government vendor. My guide helped me buy a few, however, the lady refused to sell me more than three hours. “No! You do not need that much! Save for others!” Ah, socialism…

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Panorama of the main plaza in Matanzas:

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Statue of José Martí again in the centre of the plaza:

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On the way back, we stopped to see a bridge. Classic cars parked outside, next to a large tourist bus:

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In 1960, the Puente de Bacunayagua bridge was completed, and offered great views:

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After a long day of driving, I got back to my hotel to see they had left a creepy towel elephant for me. Talk about working for those convertible pesos in tips…I couldn’t resist a tip after this:

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So this is probably a good place to talk about the hotel. I stayed at the Hotel Mercure Havana, mainly because it was easy to book from abroad. Apparently, this isn’t common, as almost every there is on a package holiday and prepaid. Once they figured out my unusual situation it was fine, but they did request I pay in full in cash upon arrival. Ok, no problem, I had planned on this.

As far as the room goes, it was comfortable enough. There was anemic air conditioning that kept the room just comfortable enough to sleep, it was clean, and fairly large. The only rooms they had had two beds which was less than optimal, and the washroom was in serious need of upgrading, but overall the rooms were pretty good. I didn’t bother to check if the tv worked, so can’t give an update on that. Also, the anemic WiFi was only in the lobby.

I also tried the breakfast restaurant, which was decent and did make omelettes to order. The rest of the selection of breads and fruits was pretty poor, but the coffee was decent and it was more than enough for breakfast. The best part was the price, which was only about 100 euros a night. From what I understand, that’s a pretty good deal in Havana, so I was pleased with it. Also, the lobby lounge made good drinks and had live dancing and music all afternoon and evening so was a good place to hang out. Overall, I’d recommend it. The staff were helpful and friendly as well, which isn’t necessarily easy to find in Cuba.

For dinner, I ventured a bit further from the hotel along the Malecón to what was described as a “traditional Soviet eatery.” I mean come on, how can you not try such a place in Havana:

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The pelmeni dumpling starter was tasty too. You can see I also continued the mojitos:

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Dinner was stroganoff. Now, I would have had the beef stroganoff, but there’s a problem in Cuba. Apparently, cows are in short supply. To the point that if you kill one, you can go to prison for life. When they do eventually die of natural circumstances, you must call a government vet to come certify that the death was natural (so you don’t go to jail) and then the government takes the dead cow to make into beef for hard currency sale to foreigners. Reminded me so much of this:

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Anyways, politics aside, for 1/3 the price I accepted the pork stroganoff, which was just as good:

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I met an American family over dinner, and we had a great chat. They were from South Carolina, and were a couple of lawyers and their college son in Cuba doing “research on the legal system.” I was surprised the government was kosher with that, but hey, made for a great mojito-infused Thanksgiving dinner, and after last year’s dinner with the Israeli military it was hard to top. I’m really going to have to work hard next Thanksgiving to come up with a good story.

Thanks to the mojitos I passed out relatively early again, only to wake up to this view from my room. Life was rough:

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View of the atrium of the Mercure hotel from my room on the sixth floor. Everything was a lovely shade of pink and beige:

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Headed out for a walk after breakfast. More classic cars:

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The Museum of the Revolution:

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The Bodeguita del Medio, Hemmingway’s favourite place to grab a mojito:

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Inside of Havana Cathedral in Old Havana, a short walk from my hotel:

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Back to La Bodeguita del Medio to have mojitos with the tourists, and enjoy a bit of music:

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Making tourist mojitos by the batch:

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The most expensive, and probably the worst, mojito I had the whole trip. But with Comrade Castro and Hemmingway looking down on me, the atmosphere made it worth the 5 euros:

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The full tourist experience…one after another…

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Walking back to the hotel, a produce vendor. Bananas were cheap…and I got three for about 25 cents US.

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Buildings in Old Havana:

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More classic cars:

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At this point, it was time to head back to the hotel. The green car above was the taxi I hired from my hotel, and made a great end to a memorable trip. I would highly recommend anyone interested in Cuba to head there soon. The infrastructure isn’t in place to support massive numbers of tourists any time soon, so the biggest constraint will be capacity. Hotel rooms are already a bit tough to find (mine was sold out more than a month in advance) and that will only get harder as more Americans are allowed to visit.

Off to the airport, and my next stop…the Bahamas!

Dec 162015
 

Upon landing in Algiers, immigration was a piece of cake, and not a single question was answered. I was a bit surprised since the visa took quite a bit of bureaucratic paperwork to procure, to the point I actually used a visa expediter to ensure it got done on time. That said, immigration was a piece of cake, and I was out to the taxi queue quickly.

Finding a taxi was easy, but the best price I could get out of the four drivers I talked to was “pay what you wish.” I had an estimate from online, so I decided to just go with it. When we arrived at the hotel I offered 10 euros, which I knew was still slightly generous based on advice I’d read online. Of course, as predicted, the driver became indignant and started a big scene, and demanded 15. I probably should have started at 5 and gone up to 10, but hey – I was tired and just wanted to get to the hotel. At the end of the day it wasn’t worth the argument, so I gave him the 15.

Checked into the hotel, which I’ll describe more later, and then took a quick hour nap to try and fight the jet lag a bit. It was mid afternoon when I woke up, so after a quick snack decided to wander the neighbourhood a bit. Just down the street was the Jardin d’Essai du Hamma. The gardens are a large green urban oasis, subdivided into a french garden and an english garden. I couldn’t tell you what the difference is, but… It’s said to be probably the best botanical gardens in Africa, and from what I saw I’d certainly believe it.

I wandered the garden for a bit, which was absolutely packed with families and couples out for a weekend stroll. The clouds were pretty dark and threatening, but I figured it wasn’t too long of a run to the hotel if the skies opened up, so decided to keep walking. A couple of pics of the french gardens:

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Nice wide lane, with a place on the left that sold delicious banana nutella crepes. I may have stopped for a snack…

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Now onto the english gardens. Family walking along a small pond/stream:

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Couple strolling through the english gardens:

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After about 90 minutes of walking the sun had almost set, so decided to head back to the hotel. Timing was perfect, because the minute I got back the skies absolutely opened up and it started pouring. Which went on for at least the next several hours until I went to bed. Given the combination of jet lag and rain I wasn’t leaving the hotel, which was fine because they made a pretty reasonable attempt at a croque madame sandwich for dinner:

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Passed out for nearly 10 hours, which I didn’t feel too bad about when I woke up and the rain was still coming down in bucketfulls. I decided I might as well enjoy a leisurely breakfast and see if it stopped, which was a good thing because…they did a darn good breakfast. Even made french press coffee and brought an entire basket of breads along with a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. YUM!

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Around 10:30 the rain finally let up to a very light drizzle, so I decided to start my exploring for the day. First stop was the Martyr’s Monument on top of the hill, which required either taking a taxi or the funicular. Since I put the fun in funicular, that was to be the obvious option! Walking from my hotel to the funicular:

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At the funicular I attempted to pay for my ride, but when she saw all I had were large bills (obtained from the ATM at the official exchange rate of 115 to the euro) she just waved me through without paying. Score! Short ride to the top, followed by a short walk, and I was at the monument.

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Police standing guard at the monument, erected to commemorate the martyrs who died fighting for Algeria’s independence:

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After hanging around people watching for a bit, the skies had cleared, so back to the funicular to head back to the hotel. Picture of the funicular (called the Télépherique in Algiers) station at the top of the hill:

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View from the car, descending back down to the city:

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After grabbing some quick lunch at a small place packed with locals near my hotel (where I had some delicious lamb couscous) it was time to plan out the rest of the day. I only had a few hours of daylight to see the remaining sights I wanted to see (rain holding off, inshallah), so it was time to get strategic. I struck up with a taxi driver parked at my hotel, and he agreed to drive me around for 4 hours for a reasonable price which I don’t remember more.

Our first stop was the Notre Dame d’Afrique Cathedral, located on the outskirts of town and high up in the hills. To get there, we drove through the Casbah where we stopped for a short walk. It was just another run down bazaar to me, so we continued onto the cathedral, which felt very out of place in north africa:

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Good views from the cathedral as well down to the water:

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After the cathedral we drove back to the casbah and parked to take a bit of a longer walk through another part. I tried to take pictures several times, but was always asked for money first. I kinda felt like a cross between a working market and a tourist trap, so I got frustrated pretty quickly and said I’d had enough. He also drove me past several of the squares and sights downtown, but it was hard to get a picture from the car. No problem since I planned to come back in the morning.

He insisted I had to see the Martyr’s Monument again by nightlight, and he was right, it was pretty cool:

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This is where the evening got kind of weird. I’d been asking him all afternoon to help me with exchanging some money. Seems up until a month or two ago, it was easy to do on the black market in the casbah or in a place called Port Said Square, but the police have recently cracked down (due to counterfeit bills) so now it’s much harder. But don’t worry, he has a friend, he will find.

After calling several people, and lots of loud talking in Arabic, he assured me he had a friend would could handle the sum I needed to change. I should note at this point the driver spoke no English, so we were getting by in French, and doing a pretty good job of things. Eventually, we got to his friend’s restaurant, which was a small local restaurant that looked a bit like a hole in the wall cafeteria. But, it also had a nice walk-in fridge where business was conducted. He was happy to exchange my euros at 165 to the euro as opposed to the official 115, saving me over 40% on my meals and hotel. Score! He wasn’t even offended when I double-counted and checked the currency. Big win for my driver, and ensured him a good tip.

At this point, the light drizzle had turned into a total downpour again, so decided to go back to the hotel and call it an early night. I got an early printout of the hotel bill, and realized I actually had quite a bit more cash than needed to pay for things after the fantastic exchange, so decided to enjoy a nice leisurely dinner in the hotel’s “fine dining” Algerian restaurant. It was good, but definitely overpriced, so I’m not sure I would give it a high recommendation. That said, I had the extra money to spend, so it was a good experience.

Fortunately, it wasn’t raining the next morning, so I could head out and explore on my own. Algiers’ relatively new subway system wasn’t far from my hotel, so decided to use that for exploring. Heading down into the station:

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Inside the station, looking along the platform at Hamma station:

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Train arriving on the other side:

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Empty station:

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Overall I give the subway high marks. It was quick, clean, efficient, people were polite on it, and very reasonably priced. First stop was the Place de la Grande Poste:

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La Grande Poste itself. Great old post office building:

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I walked around for another 30 minutes or so before I had to head back to the hotel and pack up to leave for the airport. A few thoughts on the hotel. I stayed at the Sofitel, and overall it was a great choice. Fantastic location near the subway and the gardens, also the funicular to the martyrs monument. Also, it had a good lounge and restaurant, so it was easy to stay at the hotel during back weather.

The service was also quite good overall, and staff were friendly and helpful, especially the staff in the lounge and the breakfast/buffet restaurant. As far as the rooms go, they were clean, comfortable, and functional, and a very reasonable temperature. Picture from the elevator area – all rooms were arrange around a large atrium:

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Overall I’d definitely stay here again the next time I visit. The price was a bit on the high side and it wasn’t in the middle of downtown, but it was still in the city and accessible. As far as the high price, after paying in cash with the 40% discount thanks to my friend it felt like a reasonable price and I was quite happy with my choice. Now, time to check out and head to the airport for the next adventure!

Nov 132015
 

Got checked into the hotel around 6pm after a drive through Ulaanbaatar’s (also known as just U.B. by the locals) horrible traffic, and the room was much larger than expected. It was suffering from a bit of 70s hotel fatigue, but was large, super comfortable, and clean, and a reasonable temperature, so overall the Kempinski impressed me.

I walked the area around the hotel a little bit, finding a small grocery store, but nowhere I really felt like eating at. I was too tired to walk very far or get a taxi, so decided to try the hotel’s Mongolian restaurant for dinner. Went down, and only one problem…the restaurant was closed the night for a private event. Figures with my luck! The hotel felt relatively empty, but the restaurant was booked out. But never fear…the hotel has two other restaurants…BOTH Japanese! I guess it’s the “in” thing in Mongolia?

Started out with an eel salad, which was super, super tasty:

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What’s the local beer called? Chenggis of course…there was also Chenggis energy drink, etc…

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The restaurant even featured authentic decor and waitresses in authentic Japanese attire:

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Tableside grilled kobe beef filet…try not to be TOO jealous…it was absolutely amazing…the right level of marbling and fattiness:

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Crashed early, since it was going to be a very long day of touring with my one full day in Mongolia. Up early, and checked out the hotel breakfast which was included in my rate. Pretty wide selection of foods, but the quality didn’t look amazing. They did have some super tasty local dumplings, but the western offerings (especially the breads and pastries) were a bit lacking. That said, there were plenty of options so it was pretty easy to find something I liked. Plus, coffee came in individual small pots, and was pretty tasty!

My driver picked me up right on time, and he was driver and guide. Nice younger guy who’d actually studied in the US for a couple of years, and decided he wanted to go back to Mongolia. As we started to drive out of the city, the thing that surprised me was just quickly the quality of the road deteriorated. Yes, it was still asphalt, but pretty badly rutted to the point it seriously affected how fast we could go.

Our first stop outside town was a traditional rock gathering called an ovoo. The tradition is when you are traveling, you stop at the ovoo and walk around it three times, always in a clockwise direction. Historically ovoos were made of wood, and now lots of them are stones, wood, and miscellaneous…stuff. Our ovoo was also the home of several wild dogs. I love this shot with the clear blue sky behind:

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Our next stop was the 100 monks cave, where supposedly at one time 100 monks hid out during the Russian occupation. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have a happy ending because they were eventually found and killed. My guide climbed to the top and went in, but I only went about 2/3 of the way up because the rocks were tricky, and I was still being careful with my shoulder post-surgery:

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Back to the bottom, we went across the road to visit with some local nomadic people…and their yaks!

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Their goats seemed fascinated by me:

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We drove a bit longer, and our next stop was a place called Turtle Rock. Note again just how amazing the blue skies are…and you can see why it’s called Turtle Rock…really does look kind of like a turtle!

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Not sure it looks as much like a turtle up close, but again, the wide open spaces, changing leaves, and the sky just wowed me:

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The view into the valley from Turtle Rock:

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At this point, my guide announced I should try the most Mongolian of activities and go for a horseback ride up to the temple at the top of the mountain. Now, keep in mind, it has probably been 30+ years since I’ve been on a horse. However, I survived the nearly 90 minute ride. I look much happier at the end than my poor horse:

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A regular Chenggis Khan I am:

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Having survived horsing around (see what I did there?), it was time to walk up to the monastery. There were something like 100 signs on the walk, each with a saying from the Buddha on them:

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Approaching the monastery. Amazing the leaves were so colourful in September:

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Inside the monastery:

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After a visit to the monastery and sitting and reflecting for 30 minutes or so, we started the trek back down the mountain. Scary bridge? No problem!

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On the way down, I spun the prayer wheel to see which of the 100+ verses I should meditate on:

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I spun lucky number 13, so on the way down, I stopped to contemplate it:

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After the monastery we drove a bit longer to a ger (the Mongolian word for yurt) camp for lunch. The accommodations were so luxurious I regretted not being able to spend the night 😉

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View of the gers against the sky and hills:

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Mongolian food isn’t known for being very fancy and is generally very heavy – lots of dumplings, meat, etc, but the lunch was delicious. I thought I’d taken some pictures, but apparently I was too busy being polite and chatting with my guide who ate with me. It was a nice four course lunch at the tourist ger camp, consisting of a starter, soup, dumplings, and some fruit for dessert. Nice and filling and tasty!

After lunch we headed to our last stop, the Chenggis Khan Memorial and museum. In the middle of nowhere, it was build recently and seemed to be a prime attraction for tourists, including busloads of very noisy and rude Chinese tourists. It was so crowded, and they were so loud, that it made the whole thing unpleasant that I asked my guide if we could just hang back for 30 minutes and walk through after they were done. He was completely fine with this, and off we went.

First, the “largest boot in the world” – no clue why, but:

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Hanging in front of the giant Chenggis Statue:

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From below…yes, the shot above is from the “observation desk” on the horse’s back, lol:

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The museum was actually super interesting, and basically told the history of the Mongolian Empire and the Khans, including Chenggis. I had no idea the empire had been so vast at its peak, basically reaching to Europe and most of Southeast Asia as well. After spending around 90 minutes or so at the museum, we began the long flight back to UB. Toll booth on the way back into town:

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Gate/arch entering the outskirts of town:

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On the way into town, I convinced my guide to let me stop in Chenggis Khan Square for 30 minutes to walk around. Fun fact, wanna know why UB was founded where it was? Supposedly in Mongolian tradition, where your horse stops to pee is good luck. Well, Chengis’ horse stopped here and decided to take a leak, and voila, UB was founded. Not kidding, from MIAT magazine:

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Fun architecture:

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Sukhbaatar statue in the middle of the square:

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Local kids hanging out in the square:

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There were lots of booths set up too selling miscellaneous stuff. The architecture was also pretty wild and modern:

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Chenggis statue, yet again!

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Back to the hotel, where I finally got to eat at the Mongolian restaurant, which was honestly a bit of a letdown. It wasn’t bad, but certainly nothing special, and the food I’d had at the tourist ger camp was actually better. When I got back to my room, there were fireworks going off out the window:

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With that, the day was a wrap. I was super impressed how much I managed to cram into one day, especially considering we drove something like 300 km on roads that were often pretty awful. I can’t wait to go back some day for the Nadam Festival, but I feel like I made the best of a bad situation (thanks Turkmenistan!) and got a really good introduction to Mongolia. Next up, the long, long way home!

Oct 272015
 

After resting up at the hotel and grabbing some lunch, it was a bit afternoon and my driver returned to take me on my afternoon tour…except my driver wasn’t my driver. Seems the nice Bangladeshi guy who picked me up at the airport was merely a driver, and my actual tours would be conducted by the Omani guy I had been corresponding with all along. This was a, um, bonus as we’ll see below.

We started to head a bit out of town, where he informed me he was hungry and would I mind stopping for some food. Nope, any chance for a local experience was fine by me. He asked if there were things I wouldn’t eat, and despite having lunch I said no, and so we stopped at some roadside foodstalls which were his favourite. That’s where I was introduced to camel. Racks and racks of it drying in the sun:

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Some delicious grilled camel…it was really super tasty, and he claimed it was the healthiest meat on the planet. “When you get sick, you eat camel. Everything better!” I’ll admit, I finished all of my serving. It had a slight bit of oiliness to it, but overall did seem pretty lean:

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Our first stop was about a 30-40 minute drive outside of Salalah at the Tomb of the Prophet Job…otherwise know as the Tomb of Nabi Ayoub. It’s up for debate just what Job’s role in history was, but one thing Islam and Christianity can agree on is that he was a very important figure in the spiritual history of mankind. So  important that his tomb is covered in green velvet:

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The view from the tomb area was very nice, however:

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I had plenty of time to walk around, because my driver asked if I minded him taking some time to pray, which wasn’t a problem. About 15 minutes later, we headed out on a short hike to see some of the area around a tomb. Only one small problem…turned out a group of women was also making the hike, so we had to wait for them to come back. Didn’t understand why completely, but had something to do with men and women mixing inappropriately.

The hike was a bit steeper down than I expected, and keeping myself balanced with only one good shoulder was a bit of a challenge. I asked my guide to go a bit more slowly, which when explained to him turned into a discussion about the relative quality of healthcare in our respective countries. Turns out he had had a shoulder injury several years ago, and never did anything about it because “these are the kinds of things you just live with in Oman.” These are the kind of interactions you just can’t plan! Finally we got to the bottom of the trail, and there was a nice reservoir under an overhang of rocks:

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He suggested we go the same way back up the rocky trail, but I asked if we could go the “longer” way that had a much better trail. No problem, and the trail was MUCH nicer, and actually had some great views:

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Back to the car, and we headed back to begin our city tour. We got a bit delayed by the local traffic…

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First stop in the city was the Sultan Qaboos Mosque. It was closed for visitation, so I had to settle for seeing it from the outside. Much smaller than its counterpart in the capital of Muscat, but still very nice to see:

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After the mosque our next stop was the Al Baleed Archaeological Park and the Museum of the Frankincense Land. I had a nice walk around the archaeological finds, and finally the museum which was very nicely air conditioned. It had some fantastic exhibits that explained the history of Oman, which I found I knew relatively little about. Before Sultan Qaboos, the country wasn’t really united until 1970 when he overthrew his father and really strengthened the armed forces and united the country. Of course, the museum told the story of him overthrowing his father much more diplomatically…

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Geese hanging around at the park outside the museum:

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The museum also had a great exhibit on Omani nautical history. Oman had once been ruled by the Sultans of Zanzibar, and had a long seafaring tradition. The whole time I was in the museum there wasn’t a single other visitor, which was a shame because it was really interesting. After the museum we went to the old city, where I wandered around the local shops while my guide again got something to eat. The shops were all pretty touristy cookie cutter copies of each other, all selling pretty much the same frankincense-related souvenirs.

The sun was starting to go down at this point, so I headed back to the hotel since we had a very, very full day ahead of us the next day.

Headed out bright and early in the morning, and first thing out of town my driver stopped to get gas and bottled water for us. He also came back with a six pack of glazed donuts, which he managed to polish off in under 15 minutes. He did offer them to me as well, but I figured if he managed to have some sort of diabetes-related incident one of us had to be able to drive!

Our route for the day. The time was WILDLY underestimated due to severely winding roads:

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The first stop after donuts was Mughsail Beach:

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View of my driver looking out into the sea:

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The blowholes of Mughsail:

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After Mughsail, I realised just how strong the sun was, and after only 30 minutes watching the blowholes I was already mildly sunburned. Next stop was at a group of frankincense trees along the side of the road. You could actually pick small amounts of the mineral from the bark:

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More traffic delays en route:

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In fairness, there were good traffic signs warning us to be aware of this:

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View of the valleys between the mountains. The coastal drive is extremely windy and there are lots of hairpin turns up and down the mountain, which make for some spectacular views:

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After another hour or so of driving, we got to this point:

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The view from…”this point” …the strip of road in the upper right corner with what looks like a clearing at the horizon…that’s the border.

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After enjoying the view from the lookout, my driver confirmed I would “like to have lunch with his relatives” and we continued driving another 1000 feet or so. Border formalities were arranged, Jacksonian principles of democracy and openness were discussed, and we were soon in the small village of Hawf, temporarily one passport and cell phone lighter. I assume this was the “daytrip tax” to ensure we returned from our excursion, but all I could think was it would give the border patrol an incentive to ensure we returned.

Got to my driver’s aunt’s house, and was invited to sit and have tea in the entry room. There were probably 10-15 small children in the room, who he said were cousins of his. A large part of his extended family clearly lived in this house, and by the end of our couple hour stay many more people had arrived…strangely all middle to older aged women and men well under 18 who were all obsessed with playing their portable video games. Kids are really the same anywhere in the world.

After about 30 minutes of smiling at his relatives, none of whom spoke more than 10 words of English, I was invited into the larger room next door where there was a large carpet on the floor and lots of cushions around the room. I took a seat on one of the cushions, and his aunt soon appeared with bottles of water, tea, and glasses of goat’s milk. I decided this wasn’t the time to refuse anything, and fully enjoy the experience. Goat’s milk and all. Between her 10 words of English, my 10 words of Arabic, and my driver translating I managed to thank them for having us in their home. Then, the feast arrived.

First came a huge bucket of steamed rice, mixed with pieces of chicken, saffron, and small pieces of tomato an cucumber. This was dumped onto a large silver tray on the floor, and my guide showed me the local way of eating with the hands. Making a small ball of rice and chicken, rolling it between your fingers, and eating it. I think this explains the whole “no left hands” rule 😉 The strange part of this is my guide and I were left to eat alone and nobody else joined us. Occasionally one of the children would come in, sit on one of the cushions in the corner (still playing their video games on their cell phones) but never talking to us, or eating, despite there being plenty of food.

We were there for about two hours, and it just felt like one of those awesome cultural moments you can’t really plan. After we finished eating, his aunt came back and tried to give me gifts. Purses made from goat hide and other small trinkets she had made from animal parts. Not knowing how I would explain to customs on my return that I was carrying local Yemeni handicrafts made of dead goats, I politely declined. She was offended, until I explained the reason, and she seemed satisfied. I did have a small conversation with her with my driver playing translator, and while I had assumed she was around 60 or so, it turned out she was only 35. She had clearly lived a very rough life, walked hunched over with a pretty bad limp, and wasn’t in the best of health. When my driver told me later they were some of the “wealthier people in the village” it really hit home.

Thanking her profusely for her hospitality again, we got up to leave and one of the small children, a girl of maybe three or four years grabbed onto my shirt and didn’t want to let go. I didn’t exactly figure out the reason, but my guide said she “wanted to come with us.” It was kind of touching, but also really awkward at the same time.

Back in the car, drive to the border, passport and cell phone handed back, I believe there may have been more “diplomatic exchanges” but since I was in the car I didn’t see what went on, and soon we were back in Oman and the Omani guards kept laughing at me and my attempts to thank them and say hello in Arabic. Humour goes a long way in awkward situations!

Last stop was the fishing village of Dhalkut, and its local mosque:

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View of the beach in Dhalkut…complete with camel lounging on the beach:

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I mean, come on, you see camels on the beach just hanging out all the time, right?

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But cows on the beach? Much less common!

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What are YOU looking at?

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You know, just cows hanging out on a beach, no big deal…

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Heading out of Dhalkut, I stopped to take this picture of a sign I noticed going in the direction we had just come from:

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Back near Mughsail, a view onto the water from the other direction. Note how blue it is!

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Finally back to my hotel around 5pm, and I was up to 181 countries visited. Just 15 to go now! Relaxing evening at the hotel, since I had to be up relatively early to begin my journey to Qatar.

Oct 082015
 

There was no alarm set this morning. Despite the terrifying bug on the window when we checked in, managed to sleep in a good deal before heading down to breakfast. After a solid meal, we checked with the front desk about the possibility of getting a driver for the day. We had written to several tour companies before leaving, but they all wanted in excess of 200 Euros for a day of touring. No thanks!

Meanwhile, the hotel was willing to provide us a driver for 10,000 CFA an hour, or less than $20. Sold! The only catch was that he would not be available to slightly after lunch. No problem there. Nice morning of relaxing, and we were off to see the city. We had wanted to go out to Lake Chad, but unfortunately, it was closed with military roadblocks thanks to terrorist activity in the area. THANKS BOKO! So, we would have to be content with a tour of N’Djamena. After grabbing lunch at the hotel, we met our driver, complete with air conditioned car, and we were off.

First stop was the National Museum, which was located maybe a five minute drive from the hotel. We pulled into the car park, and everything was suspiciously quiet. As we walked up to the front door, there were a few guys lounging out front just sitting around. Turns out one of them was the museum manager/guide/not sure what he did. This whole thing was seeming very informal. Yes, the museum was open, and we could see it if we wanted.

Went inside, and he had a surprisingly formal receipt book, with all sorts of official stamps. Then, he requested ID to let us visit. We hadn’t brought passports, and I could tell he was debating if it would just be easier to send us on our way so he didn’t have to give a tour. Eventually, I found my PADI scuba certification card in my wallet, and he agreed that was official enough to let us in, hahaha. Receipt stamped, and he started giving us the tour. We started in the main room which was a tour of the history of Chad.

Unfortunately the guide spoke no English, and his French wasn’t fantastic either so we more or less had to go by the signs on the exhibits, which were at least in proper French. One of the first stops was this bird costume used in ceremonial rituals:

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Along with a traditional xylophone:

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Ancient Islamic prayer mat:

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Verses from the Koran sculpted on wood:

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After spending a while touring the first floor (along with the guide, we were definitely the only people in the entire museum) he took us upstairs to the exhibit which was the highlight of the museum. The centre of the exhibit was a 6-7 million year old skull which was found in Chad in 2002 and is thought to be the oldest ancestor known of humankind, which has been named Toumaï man. The skull:

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Another angle, along with another skull found in the area:

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After the museum, we decided we would go see the Central Market/Grand Marché. We’d been highly discouraged from this by several sources, mainly because just a couple months prior Boko Haram had bombed the market, killing dozens. Even our driver wasn’t keen on going into the market, so dropped us off, and told us to come back to the car when done, he would go to the mosque to pray. We wandered for maybe an hour, and other than quite a lot of curious stares, no trouble at all. Perhaps the funniest moment was running into the only other white person in the market, and the WTF are you doing here?! look that he gave us, lol. In fairness, we wondered the same thing about him!

Had to be extremely careful taking pictures, however, because it was banned by the military since the bombing. One decent covert shot:

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From the market we headed to the Cathedral of N’djamena, which had clearly seen better days. It was surrounded by a fence, and when we got close to try and take better pictures of it, a group of police/military guys with big guns started yelling at us. We decided it was best to go back to the car and be satisfied with a poor shot/visit:

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After that, the next stop was the Place de la Nation monument to the founding of Chad. We wanted to stop and get a proper picture, but it was clearly “inderdit” according to our driver, so instead he drove around the square a few times until I managed to snap a pretty decent covert pic from the car:

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After this, we headed to another market on the outskirts of the city where getting photos was a bit easier:

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Hauling goods at the market:

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Busy market scene:

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At the edge of the market:

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Really thrilled to get this picture, great example of local transport, local dress, and goats in the background!

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…speaking of goats, they were everywhere:

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Our final stop on the route back to the hotel was for a haircut, at the world-reknowned “Salon Obama” for men:

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After several hours of driving around seeing the few sights N’Djamena had to offer it was back to the hotel just after sunset to relax and get ready to head onward the next day!