May 072016
 

Flight landed just a few minutes ahead of schedule at the Nadi airport, which I found out after boarding was under major major construction. Two good things about landing just after 5am: no immigration lines, and the normally super hot and humid outdoor terminal was still pleasant and breezy at this hour.

Immigration was a snap, no questions, and I was off through baggage claim to get a taxi. Two taxi drivers were waiting, and I picked the first one. Asked him “it’s still $25 to the Sheraton, right?” “Oh no, it hasn’t been that in 10 years, it’s $35 now.” Hmmm, I was starting to smell a scam, so I went over to the other driver…same thing even though he hadn’t heard me talking to the first. Sigh, at this hour there wasn’t much choice. (As a side note, I did confirm later that $25 is the correct fare – grrr!)

Rather short 20 minutes or so ride to the Sheraton since it was Sunday morning and there was still no traffic. Got to the Sheraton, checked in, but was told unfortunately my room wasn’t ready yet. Given it was 6am I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was tired, cranky, and sweaty, and when she suggested “maybe you can go get some breakfast and wait by the pool. Maybe it will be ready by 12 I was less than thrilled.

I asked if perhaps there was ANY room ready now – it didn’t need to be the ocean view suite they had upgraded me to. After going in back and checking – yes – there was another room I could have until mine was ready. Woo hoo! Got a rather boring garden-view room with two beds, but the AC worked and I was able to get a couple hours of solid sleep so that was fantastic!

Shortly afterwards, around 11am they called and told me my new room was ready, and the buggy would come and pick me up and drive me over. That’s the service I remember from this hotel. Not only was it a suite, but it was at the corner of the beach – probably the best of all the ocean view suites the property has based on location. Can’t argue with the view:

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See, here’s where I could pretend I did anything the rest of the day, but… I grabbed lunch at the beach-side restaurant, plopped down by the pool, and pretty much spent the afternoon on and off dozing and reading. Considering I normally suck at relaxing while on vacation, I was pretty proud of myself for doing absolutely nothing. Before I knew it, it was late afternoon, and the sun was setting. Not a bad view from the beach right outside my room:

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That evening, I took the Bula Bus to the Denarau Port for dinner. The Bula Bus makes a loop through all the resorts on Denarau Island (Westin, Sheraton, Radisson, Sofitel, Hilton, etc) as well as the port. The port is filled with restaurants and shops, and probably the best place to go for a bite if you want to get away from the resorts.

I had dinner at the Nadina Fijian Restaurant which I had eaten at a couple years prior. It was just as delicious as I remembered from before, but I don’t think I was able to fully enjoy it because I was so exhausted. I recommend the Kokoda which is a Fijian version of ceviche – basically cubes of raw fish and veggies served in a lime and coconut broth. It’s delicious!

Took the Bula Bus back to the hotel, and promptly passed out for nearly 10 hours – guess I needed it!

Next morning, I got up and grabbed a coffee just outside the front of the resort at Bulaccino. No, it’s not amazing coffee, but given the location it’s a huge step up from the awful drip coffee you get in hotel restaurants, and almost as good as you’d get in a small independent coffee shop in the US or Europe. Highly recommended – and their iced americanos are like rocket fuel – not something that can usually be said for coffee in developing countries! Also, they made a mean eggs benedict for breakfast.

Got back to my room after some breakfast and heard music coming from outside. Turns out the hotel wedding chapel was also right outside my room, and a Chinese couple were having a “traditional” Fijian wedding:

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That was my cue to head back to the pool and read for a bit, before I got hungry again and headed back to the port for lunch. Decided this time to try a new restaurant called The Rhum-Ba which gets great reviews on TripAdvisor. Can’t argue with the view, as the restaurant is housed in the yacht club:

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You can, however, argue with the service and the portions. I had kokoda again, and it was literally three spoonfulls…for US$10. Also, there was a strong wind which actually picked up my glass of cider and sent it flying all over. I suggested MAYBE they could get me another…and he had to “check with the manager if that’s ok.” Service and portions were severely lacking, and although what I did have was tasty, I’m not sure I’d go back.

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After this, I discovered a place that will be my potential downfall in the future. New Zealand Natural ice cream. Supposedly this is a chain ice cream shop, and maybe it’s not that special, but I ordered rum raisin and another flavour called Hokey Pokey. What’s hokey pokey? Basically vanilla ice cream with little chunks of crystallized toffee and honey. It was out of this world…and I might be addicted now!

Back to the resort, where I spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach reading:

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Followed by another absolutely amazing sunset:

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Just after sunset, the power went out. Fortunately, the generators for the hotel kicked back on. But, it was the weirdest thing. They only powered some things, but it seemed like the strangest subset. In the room, all lights worked, but nothing else. No power outlets, no internet, no AC. So, I headed to the Port to get dinner. Unfortunately, the port also had no power, so all the restaurants had closed.

Went back to the Sheraton, and still no power, but fortunately the kitchen was powered by the generator, so the bar was hopping, and I was able to get a sandwich. Not sure powering the band at the bar should take priority over AC, but it was what it was. I was exhausted again, so fortunately had no trouble falling asleep without AC – and fortunately the fan did work, however. I was woken up about 2am when power finally came back on and the AC/TV/etc all kicked back on, but can’t really blame the hotel for the poor power situation. I guess rolling brownouts have become a fact of life in Nadi in recent months.

With that, my two super relaxing days had come to a close, and it was time for my third try at getting to Tuvalu!

Jan 272016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Soon, we were pulling into the Lungi Pier:

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Lungi appeared to have a very nice beach at least:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last night together on the beach:

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 242016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Running hurdles:

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Post-hurdles recovery…

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

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

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

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

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Group of school kids we passed on our drive:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Plus, from the guesthouse there was a fantastic sunset:

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

Jan 232016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 222016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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Wildlife on the drive:

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

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

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

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The profiteroles dessert was great as well:

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

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

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

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The Grand Hotel…not looking so grand these days:

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

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Independence Monument with the Presidential Palace in the background:

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

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Major street in Bissau, walking back to the hotel:

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

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

Jan 202016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View from the balconies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 182015
 

After landing at 7pm, conquering the bus gate and long immigration lines I got the MTR and just over 20 minutes later was at Kowloon station. From there, it’s a short walk through the shopping mall to my hotel of choice in Hong Kong – The W. Hong Kong is one of those cities that has a ton of great hotel options, and everyone seems to have their own favourite. The W wins for me for convenience to the airport, being connected to the mall and the MTR, and the overall great service I’ve received each stay. The biggest downside, which to be fair is the downside of most nice Hong Kong hotels, is that there’s just no way to get it on the cheap.

Check-in was pretty efficient, friendly, upgrade to a slightly larger room, but unfortunately when I got to it…it absolutely reeked like someone had been smoking in it. The response from the front desk? We are really full and really busy, can we give you a call back in 30 minutes? Seriously, what is it with my bad luck on this trip. I told them it wasn’t acceptable, and only had to wait 15 minutes for a new room. Ugh. Fortunately, that one was much better and since it was already 9pm I headed to a place next to the mall for a quick dinner.

Choice for dinner was Madame S’ate, which had a nice outside patio as well as an enclosed space. Given the humidity was oppressive and it was about 28C even at night, I definitely opted for the air conditioned indoors. Place was still quite lively that late, and opted for what was a delicious wagyu steak, lyonnaise onion and cheese tartine. Washed it down with a craft beer from the local Young Master brewery, which was also pretty good:

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Back to the W a bit before 11, where the elevator floor made sure to welcome me back:

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The W gives a bonus welcome amenity to SPG Platinum members, which is a complimentary drink in the hotel bar…I assume to encourage you to stay and spend more money. Decided to have a second beer and people watch, which is always a fun pastime in Hong Kong:

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Slept well, and unfortunately when I woke up it was absolutely pouring outside. Decided to delay sightseeing for a bit, and enjoy some Starbucks for breakfast…given its convenient location right in the mall under the hotel. I think this must be the first time they’ve ever spelled my name right at Starbucks!

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It was still pouring after breakfast, so I did a bit of walking around in the mall for some light exercise while waiting for it to taper down. Back to my room a bit before 11, and the rain was finally starting to lighten up a little bit. View from my room:

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Took a long walk through the mall to the MTR to grab some lunch a bit, and walked right past the mall’s enclosed ice rink. I think I need one of these myself given how I skate:

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Not bad for an in-mall rink…it would be pretty awesome to get the chance to play some hockey here at some point!

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The rain had finally let up, so I took the MTR one stop to Hong Kong station, to walk around and grab some lunch. The light mist and humidity were a foul combo, combined with the fact that the walk to the restaurant was pretty steep uphill:

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To the point that after the relatively short 10-15 minute walk I got there and was absolutely drenched in sweat. Gross. Went to the washroom to clean up before ordering, and was met with this poster in the washroom:

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Uhhh….thanks POTUS! The restaurant was The Roundhouse, billed as an authentic Texas BBQ and home to 25 different craft beers on tap. I have to say, the tap list was seriously impressive, containing lots of great American, Danish, and European craft beers as well as a few scary local Chinese options. Oh, and there was the BBQ…the beef shortrib sandwich was absolutely amazing:

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Had a couple of beers, and went to wash my hands afterwards, and next to Mr Obama was this poster:

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By this time the steady rain had started again, so it was back to the hotel to clean up and shower before heading to the airport for my flight back home. At least the downhill walk was a lot less sweaty, but a lot more moist do to the rain:

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Despite the rain, quite a bit of shopping going on:

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I didn’t end up getting to do nearly as much exploring as I had wanted to this trip, but by this point sleep was winning out and the rain was making things uncooperative. I guess in all my travels, I’ve been extremely lucky with weather overall so can’t complain I had a bit of a washout in a city I’ve already visited several times. There’s always the next visit. Quick shower and check-out, and it was time to MTR to the airport and begin the long trek home!

Oct 152015
 

Hotel shuttle to the airport got me there right when I wanted to, and already had my boarding pass from the previous evening so was able to head straight to immigration. Almost no line, and in probably 10 minutes I was inside the departures area…and not a second too soon. I believe in being completely honest about travel, and something about Ethiopia and I didn’t get along.

I got to the lounge I usually go to, and she told me “yes, but there is a better lounge you can access” which nobody had ever told me before. I’ve always been Star Alliance Gold, and always in business or first out of Addis, so how this was news to me I don’t know…but it was. The problem was, she insisted I go use the nicer lounge, and I was rapidly losing the battle against…something I’d eaten the day before. I don’t know if it was the hotel pizza, or the plane lunch, or the bar snacks at the hotel,  but by the time I found the nicer lounge it was not a second too soon.

Disaster averted, it was time to check out this lounge. Did some re-arranging of flights for later in the trip on the internet which had quite good speed, and enjoyed a diet coke or two. The most notable features that made this lounge better than my usual one were that it wasn’t a dark dungeon and was actually well lit, had a group of people sitting on traditional chairs burning incense, drinking coffee, and eating what looking like popcorn in some sort of quasi-traditional setup, and had plenty of power outlets. It also definitely improved my impression of Addis airport immensely!

Soon, it was time to board. Out of the lounge, through security, to the gate, and no plane anywhere to be found. Agent told me boarding was at least 30 minutes off, so why don’t I go back to the lounge. Out of security, to the lounge, a little bit of blogging and another Diet Coke, and finally back through security and to a bus to board. There was a special bus for business class…all three of us. Yes, the plane seats 28 in business, and only three seats were taken.

Ethiopian flight 602
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (ADD) to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (DXB)
Depart 10:55, Arrive 15:30, Flight Time: 3:35
Boeing 777-300, Registration ET-APY, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2L

First impressions of business class on the Ethiopian 777, my first time on their long-haul business product. Middle seats in business, who does that anymore, ugh, it’s almost as bad as United:

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Similar to my Turkish flight a week before, they had the footsie seats which went completely flat, but where you were very likely to end up playing footsie with your seatmate as you sleep:

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Settled in with bubbles in what basically felt like a private plane…couldn’t even see the other two in business:

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Amenity kit which, while not super fancy, makes a great case for storing the small stuff I tend to keep in my carryon. Just big enough, but not huge. It’s now beat out amenity kits from ANA, Lufthansa, Swiss, and South African which I used to use. I feel it’s that well-designed!

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Today’s menu:

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More airplane-shaped crackers with bubbles as as pre-lunch snack:

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The salmon starter wasn’t bad, and the salad was decent as well:

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The Cape Malay Chicken Curry, however, was absolutely delicious despite being a bit scary looking:

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But once again delicious cheese…glorious cheese…and they refused a second serving. Grrr!

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Arrival at Dubai involved a pretty long walk to immigration through several escalators, and the line was about 10 minutes as well, but stamped into the country with no issue at all. That is, until I passed the immigration desk and a woman in an abaya started pointing at me and screaming HARAM! HARAM! HARAM! It took a minute to figure out what was going on, but I think she’d seen the rather large tattoo on my arm (and I’m sure wearing shorts wasn’t thrilling her either) and had decided to make sure everyone knew just how awful I was. Thanks! Fortunately nobody else seemed to care.

Stopped at the ABM for some cash, and into a taxi for the ride to the Sheraton Dubai Mall – my first time at this property. I think every time I’ve visited Dubai I’ve ended up at a different hotel. Since this was a relatively short overnight I wanted somewhere convenient. I had some shopping to do for the rest of the trip (mainly something warmer for Mongolia) so being attached to the mall seemed a logical choice. Upgrade to a nice suite:

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The room was quite large with a bedroom, large bathroom, huge walk-in closet, and a sitting room with a couch, tv, desk, etc. Much more space than I needed, but extremely comfortable. Headed down to the attached mall for the shopping, and could have been anywhere in America. They even have Shake Shack now…Michelle Obama would be so proud!

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Stopped at Starbucks for a quick caffeine and snack. No clue how I was hungry, but I was, so…

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I still had a couple of hours to kill, so stopped by Ski Dubai to embarrass myself. The only place in the world you can go skiing inside a shopping mall. This was my third visit, and I keep hoping to snap a picture of a woman in an abaya going down the slopes, but they remain elusive. Perhaps on the next trip!

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Also, probably the only Hollister in the world with two twenty foot high television ocean displays outside the store:

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Back to the hotel for a short bit before dinner, and the executive lounge had an amazing spread. Alcohol is available at hotels in Dubai, but it’s also extremely expensive. Not only were drinks in the lounge free, but they were poured very generously. I think I had two glasses of wine, and probably finished off 2/3 of a bottle. Plus, they had tons of tasty bar snacks and desserts:

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Shortly after drinks I was picked up at the hotel by my friend Daniel, a long-time reader of my blog who lived in Dubai. We had met just under a year ago in Bali of all places and did some touring, and then met up again a few days later in East Timor. Now I was on his home turf, and it was time to catch dinner and catch up. Daniel and Rianda picked me up, and we drove a short ways to another mall (because that’s what you do in Dubai) to find some dinner. Car parked, and we set off to find somewhere to eat. Walked past the water show, and it was pretty much people taking pictures and not really looking at the show:

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We managed to grab a delicious dinner at a Lebanese place in the mall, which was blessed with fantastic air conditioning. Lots of great grilled meats and catching up, and regrets that we weren’t going on to Turkmenistan together. Daniel and I had originally planned to do the Turkmenistan part of this trip together, but when they denied me the visa he decided to go on alone and enjoy while I made other plans. After a couple of hours it was back to the hotel to get some sleep because they had to work in the morning and I had an early flight. One of the treats of traveling so much has been meeting people who live all over the world, and feeling like you always know at least someone in all major cities!

Up early the next morning, and off to Oman!