Feb 192015
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wait, MENUS on a short regional flight?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus, a menu with some different items:

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

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

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

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

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

But, back to those texts and emails…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 142015
 

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

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

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

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

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

Walking to the plane:

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

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

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

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…and other storage carts from Air Littoral:

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

Plus, the inflight magazine came with free fashion tips:

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

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

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

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

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

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Walking along the corniche:

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

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Feb 132015
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to Mombasa!

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

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

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

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

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One of the several pools at the resort:

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

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

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

View from my room:

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

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

Jan 202012
 

As I mentioned earlier, booking tickets to Somalia isn’t easy. The airlines don’t operate frequently, there is next to no information about them online, not to mention anything about how to book. Thanks to a very helpful person I talked to on Flyertalk I learned about an airline called East African Safari Express who supposedly was the most reliable (i.e. the flights actually do go when they say they are going to) option. Took about 5 or 6 e-mails until they responded, but once we’d traded emails I found a date and time that worked and voila…it was booked. Of course, they only take payment in cash, and could you kindly show up in our office in Nairobi to do that?

Since we had barely 36 hours in Nairobi this was going to be tricky, but they agreed we could pay the day before. What they forgot to advise us was that the day before was a holiday in Kenya…and they were closed! Fortunately, immediately upon arrival we’d spotted their office, walked in, dropped several C-Notes with a shady looking guy in a back office…and had carbon copy tickets that were handwritten…things crossed out, changed, etc. Fortunately, all went well!

Arrival and check-in was quite quick and efficient, and there’s not too much to say. They insisted we check our bags, but other than that…it was just like a “normal” flight. Through security, and into a very unfabulous lounge thanks to Priority Pass, and then it was down to the gate….where we saw the first glimpse of our plane!

East African Safari Express flight 1823
Nairobi, Kenya to Hargeisa, Somalia
Departure 8:00, Arrival 10:00, Flight Time: 2 hours
Aircraft: Fokker F-28, Registration 5Y-EEE, Manufactured (approximately) 1985
Seat 12E

Now, I say approximately, because I really can’t find a production list for F28s online. I found this aircraft has been passed around Africa for over 10 years now, after doing previous duty in the US with Allegheny, Piedmont, and eventually US Air!

All the checked baggage was laid out next to the plane, and before boarding you had to point yours out before they would load it. That was reassuring…at least you knew it was on board! That said, the flight itself was quite uneventful. I’d say it was 75% Somali diaspora and maybe 25% foreign aid worker looking types. They even served a “meal” on board…you’d never see THAT in the US!

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Jan 192012
 

Before this trip, nearly everything I’d read about Nairobi was negative. Get out as soon as possible. It’s an urban jungle full of crime. Nothing worth seeing, etc etc etc. I’m so glad we gave it a chance for a full day. Even though it was forced by flight schedules, our day there was amazing.

Although I’m sure it was moderately overpriced, we arranged for the Hilton Safari vehicle to take us on a tour of the Nairobi National Park. The cool thing was there was never a concern about how long the trip was – we could stay out as long as we wanted. Since we’d booked another afternoon urban safari, however, we kept it semi short from 7am to 1pm. Still, we saw a ton. Having just been on safari in Botswana four months prior we’d set our expectations low, but we ended up more than surprised. We saw another lion stalking a kill (though it didn’t happen) and finally saw the one thing we missed in Botswana: Zebras!

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Jan 182012
 

When I booked this trip, I really tried to find a way to go to Rwanda, Burundi, and end up in Kenya, with two one-way flights. ¬†It wasn’t to be. ¬† Lots of flights between them all, but also lots at 2am, 3am, etc. ¬†Since these are pretty much hour-long flights…and I have a really strong aversion to redeyes, it’s how we ended up in this situation. ¬†Flying into Rwanda from Europe was easy, so that was the jumping off point. ¬†Rwanda to Kenya or Burundi was easy….but to get out of the region you have to be in Kenya….so Rwanda-Burundi-Kenya was the logical order. ¬†Unfortunately, the only Bujumbura to Nairobi nonstop is at some awful hour in the morning, so we took the one-stop back via Rwanda again. ¬†Little did we know it would be such an adventure!

Check-in in Bujumbura was a non-event, seats assigned, and off to passport/security in this very very small airport. ¬†I’ve been fascinated with Bujumbura ever since my undergraduate days when I had a good friend from Burundi….looking back, I never would have imagined back then just how “small” this airport is. ¬†We saw a security lane marked “VIP” and decided to try it with Delta Platinum cards since we were flying Kenyan….no dice. ¬†They gave us blank stares. ¬†Flash of the correct passport and we were whisked through, and straight into the “VIP Waiting Room.” ¬†Not quite sure why it was needed when the whole airport is one gate and there’s no WiFi, but it was entertaining nonetheless.

Kenya Airlines Flight 442
Bujumbura, Burundi (BJM) to Kigali, Rwanda (KGL) to Nairobi, Kenya (NBO)
Depart Bujumbura 12:15, Arrive Kigali 12:55
Depart Kigali 13:40, Arrive Nairobi 16:10 (1 hour time change)
ERJ-170, Registration 5Y-KYL, Manufactured 2006

So, perhaps the strangest part of this trip was the timing! ¬†We boarded in Burjumbura around 11:15, and by 11:30 we were in the air! ¬†Yes…we departed a full 45 minutes early! ¬†Not sure if everyone had checked in or what, but yup that’s what happened. ¬†Same thing in Kigali…arrived way early, and departed nearly 30 minutes early! ¬†I guess Kenyan has a major “thing” for being on-time? ¬†Anyways, the flights were totally uneventful, and we arrived Nairobi about 20 minutes early. ¬†Visa on arrival was quite easy, except for the very very unusual question: ¬†“You no working in Nairobi right? ¬†Only transit? ¬†No making money?” ¬†Um, no.

Our next segment out of Nairobi was on a strange small airline that only takes cash, and we were VERY lucky to spot their office after leaving immigration. ¬†We were due to go ticket the next day (which I had confirmed via e-mail) but turns out the next day was a holiday in Kenya, and they would not have been open! ¬†VERY fortunate. ¬†We headed to the East African Safari Express office, confirmed our tickets, got the first carbon-copy tickets I’ve seen in years, and were all set for the big adventure ahead.

Fortunately, the Hilton shuttle waited for us this whole time, and soon we were off to the hotel. ¬†We were given a nice junior suite as an upgrade, and everything worked perfectly. ¬†A bit of internet time, planning for our one full day in Nairobi the next day, and soon it was off to dinner at a recommended place by some colleagues called “Havana” which was promised as Tex-Mex.

Unfortunately, the food and drink were pretty disappointing, but the amusement of having Tex-Mex in Kenya was pretty high…plus, at least the drinks menu was entertaining if not good! ¬†Next up, I’ll update on our full day in Nairobi, which was 100x more fun and interesting than people had led me to believe was possible!

Jan 082012
 

…but then again, I’m not right in the head. I was probably dropped as a child, or something similar, but something clearly isn’t quite right up there.

You might remember the last two years where I spent New Years Eve…yes, Iraq and then Iran/Afghanistan. I was taught in High School that things always seem to happen in threes…some sort of natural law thing. I had a good friend working in Djibouti, and that got my head to spinning…what’s perhaps the only place worse than Iraq and Afghanistan in the mind of most? Could I…I mean, Somalia is only about 20km from the capital of Djibouti!

Of course, when planning, that wouldn’t be enough. That would just be two new countries. I had to add more…and they couldn’t be boring. So, the final trip came out looking like a place of 8 years that normal people don’t spend new years:

1. Djibouti
2. Somalia
3. Ethiopia
4. Rwanda
5. Burundi
6. Kenya
7. Egypt
8. Yemen

Now, I admit normally a couple of these are a little tame. But Egypt’s been more than a little exciting lately, and Kenya is all a-twitter about Al Shabaab reprisals. So that made things a little more exciting. Things got more exciting when Yemen pulled my transit visa…boo hiss! Must find another way from Addis to Cairo. A normal person would have booked the direct flight even though it was at 3am. Nope, that wouldn’t do.

So Yemen was replaced with the world’s newest country: South Sudan!

Sit back, buckle up (well, unless you’re on the one of my flights that didn’t have seat belts, and prepare for a very very wild ride!