May 072017
 

Was nice to sleep in a bit (seriously, what kind of hotel doesn’t start serving breakfast until 830? that’s kinda awesome) and headed down to meet Ian at breakfast. Only choice offered was coffee or tea, and then breakfast started arriving, one piece at a time. First came porridge, then bread, then a special easter roll, then eggs, then a meat/cheese plate, it was absolutely insane – tried to eat as much as possible not to offend, but it was crazy. Fortunately, they insisted we take the Easter rolls to go, haha. Did I mention how great service was at this hotel?

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We hadn’t booked our driver until 11am, just in case we really needed the sleep, so had a bit of time to walk around in the morning first. First stop was the Ministry of Repatriation to try and get the visa, but nope, we did find a security guard outside who told us they were still closed for Easter – try back tomorrow. Hopefully we could get the visa on the way out of town!

Still had some time, so decided to stop for some “real” coffee at the place we went the day before that made decent ice lattes. On the way, we walked by the somewhat odd “Monument to the Victims of Political Repression.” Looked like a rock with some barbed wire around it…but who am I to judge “art”…

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After coffee, our driver picked us up. There was a new receptionist at the front desk of the hotel today, but the one from the previous day had clearly filled her in. She spoke excellent English as well, and apologized for not only the visa office not being open, but also for the fact our driver did not speak a word of English. No problem at all – free Russian lessons on top of being a driver!

We told him the things we wanted to see, and we were off. First stop was in the town of New Athos (Novij Afon) where the big attraction is the giant cathedral. Unfortunately, it’s in an enclosed courtyard, which makes getting a good picture of the entire thing a little difficult:

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One of the smaller towers around the courtyard:

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Back when I was taking Russian lessons, there were those words in the textbook you never knew you’d have a use for. Like “female crane operator” or “old lady.” Well, this nice old lady was soliciting money outside the monastery, so I had to wish her “good morning, old lady!” She just smiled a (mostly toothless) grin back at me.

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The monastery was located up on a hill overlooking the town and Black Sea:

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Panoramic of the area:

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Cat on a hot monastery ledge:

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The other big sight in town is a really deep cave complex, but unfortunately it was closed on Mondays in the “off season” so we wouldn’t be able to see that. Our driver suggested we go see a waterfall instead:

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Soviet era hydropower station on the waterfall:

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Nice lake at the top of the waterfall:

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Water rushing down from above:

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I am king of the waterfall!

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After the waterfall, our driver said we also had to go see a nice park nearby. Definitely a nice, calm place that you could sit for hours and read a book on a nice day like today:

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…and there were ostriches in the park. Naturally, lol

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We got in the car/van, and had driven no more than a minute from the park when we spotted a guy walking with a bear down the road. No leash, just a guy out walking his bear. Because…Abkhazia. We asked the driver to stop, and we asked the guy if we might take a picture of the bear. Fully expected him to ask for money, but nope, he was just happy to let people see his bear. Look at those claws!

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We asked, and he informed us the bear’s name was Masha. Hi Masha! “Masha and the Bear” was also the name of a popular kid’s tv program in Russia.

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Masha loved having her tummy rubbed too:

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She also took quite a liking to Ian. This was definitely one of the most random travel encounters I’ve ever had. You know, just a guy out walking his bear down the street in the afternoon. We asked him what he would do when she gets bigger, and his response was “oh, I already have a bigger one at home.” Of course you do. Abkhazia.

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We continued the drive north to Gagra, which was up near the border with Russia. Our driver knew an overlook point on the city, so up, up we went for a panoramic view:

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The “beach” in Gagra. Not very appealing, but supposedly packed with Russian tourists in the summer:

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Right next to the beach was the Al Capone Pasta, Sushi, and Pizza restaurant. Uhhh, ok. We were getting hungry at this point, TripAdvisor said it was good, so we had to check it out.

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We ordered, and then the waitress brought over some props. “You have to take a picture with the hat and guns!” Of course we do. Because…Abkhazia. So incredibly random. Let’s just assume they weren’t loaded…ok?

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After a tasty lunch, we headed out on the drive to the final part of the day, the Lake Ritsa park up in the mountains. On the way, there was an “I love Abkhazia” bridge for the obligatory photo op. It was maybe 65 degrees at this point as we headed up into the mountains:

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Finally we made it up to Lake Ritsa, and were rewarded with fantastic views:

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Lots of snow on the mountains. Stalin also had his summer dacha on this lake, but unfortunately it was also not open to visitors in the off-season. It was much colder up by the lake, maybe 50 degrees or so.

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The lake from one of the empty cafes overlooking it. You could tell that this place is really popular in the summer, but in the winter there was nobody around, despite the amazing views with the snow-capped mountains:

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Obligatory photo op in front of the lake and mountains:

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One more shot of the lake with the hills and mountains in the background. Notice the little bit of snow still on the ground:

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It was late afternoon at this point, and time to begin the drive back to Sukhumi. It was about a two hour drive back, and we made it back in time to have a relaxing evening. We wanted to make sure that we got to the restaurant from the night before with enough time to have a proper meal and still call it an early night.

I had submitted a booking request with kiwitaxi.com again, and they had confirmed, so it was good to know that our driver would be ready the next morning at 9am right after breakfast to take us back to Sochi and to the airport in time for our flight. Hopefully he wouldn’t mind a 15 minute stop by the visa office on the way so we could get the visa, and hopefully they would be open on time!

Dinner was super tasty with khatchapuri again (only this time, the smaller version) and some beef stroganoff which was rather tasty. The main street was much more happening this evening, with lots of families out strolling around, and the restaurant was packed with people having dinner.

Early to bed after a couple of drinks at the hotel’s nice outdoor patio bar, and ready for the drive back to Sochi.

Mar 022017
 

This one is going to get a little long. Yes, it’s only two days in Australia, but there’s just that much to see and enjoy that I can’t do it justice without at least a few dozen pictures.

Australian immigration is super easy now that ePassports can be scanned at the gate and you don’t have to deal with an immigration officer. Through the gates, straight to customs, and hand my slip to the customs agent. After asking how long I was here for, and hearing three days, he asked why so far for three days. Told him it’s been a rough few months at work, so decided to take a bit of a trip around the world to get away from all the drama in Washington DC lately. His response was so typically Australian: “yeah, that President’s a bit of a wanker, isn’t he?” Perfect welcome to Australia!

On to the Airport Express Train and off to my hotel – the Westin Sydney. I’ve always stayed at the Four Points Darling Harbour before, but it’s in the process of rebranding so it was time to check out a new part of the city. I’m very glad I did, because although it wasn’t on the water I was very happy with my stay here. Yes, I had the perfect storm of problems with my room (bad air conditioning, a door lock that froze in the locked position and needed a manual key to open, etc, etc, etc) but major kudos to hotel management for doing their best to make things right in the end. Suffice to say, for a stay with so many problems, I will definitely be giving them another chance.

Check in, quick shower after sleeping on a plane, and given it was already mid-afternoon it was time for a walk. Strolled down to The Rocks, and on the way stopped at a small pub I like for a couple of beers and an emu, crocodile, and kangaroo pizza. Lunch al fresco, ahhh….

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Got down to the waterfront just in time, while it was still full daylight, and enjoyed playing tourist a bit. The Harbour Bridge:

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Sydney Opera House just as the sun was beginning to set:

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Bridge selfie:

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Harbour panorama:

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Opera House just before dusk:

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Late afternoon Harbour Bridge:

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I definitely stayed around the water for a couple hours just walking around and people watching. Even after having been to every country there’s something I really enjoy about going to the World’s great cities and just tourist/people watching. It’s amazing to see people who are still excited about the vacation of a life time, and watching the joy as they discover new places.

Opera House just after sunset:

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The next morning, I ended up sleeping in a bit later than planned (thanks jetlag and finally catching up – I think this was my first full night of sleep since I left DC) so by the time I headed out it was just afternoon and already approaching 40C / 105F. I was convinced it would be cooler by the water, so decided to head out on my planned excursion regardless.

My friend Ryan had suggested heading to Coogee Beach to do what is known as the Bondi to Coogee Walk. He suggested, however, doing it in the reverse direction, because finishing the walk in Bondi has great views and drops you in a much more happening area where you can celebrate and enjoy a long walk better. Bit of googling seemed to agree with this, and a couple pages suggested actually starting the walk even further down the coast in the the town of Maroubra.

Only problem was – how do I get there? Those of us over 35 remember when traveling meant maps, guide books, etc, but now things are easy. You tell google maps where you are, you tell it where you want to go, and it gives you bus directions. It works like a charm. I had already purchased a local transit card and loaded fare onto it, so it was an easy matter of finding the bus stop, waiting for the bus, tapping on, and getting off and tapping the card in the right place. Couldn’t be easier!

Even the busses in Sydney are sports-crazed:

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Near the bus stop in Maroubra, getting read to head down the South Coogee Stairs towards the water:

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After about 15 minutes of walking Coogee Beach appeared:

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Fantastic view of the water against the beach:

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After Coogee Beach I had to stop. I was already baking 30 minutes into the walk, and severe sunburn was imminent. Fortunately every little corner store sells 100 types of sunblock, so after stopping for a can of spray-on SPF 50, water, and red bull, I was back on my way. A short while later, I rounded the corner again to Gordons Bay:

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Looking back towards Coogee:

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Next up was Clovelly Beach, with an ocean pool. Didn’t get pics of the pool, but did manage a selfie up against the small inlet:

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After walking around Shark Point, with some serious elevation gain and fall, I came upon Waverley Cemetery. The main walk along the water had been washed out in storms the pervious summer, so a detour straight through the cemetery and a bit inland was in order.

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Path right through the cemetery:

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Gravestones with Ocean backdrop:

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Rounding the next corner after the cemetery brought me to Bronte Beach. Time to stop for a bit, reapply sunblock, before continuing on my way.

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Local kids contemplating some cliff diving:

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Tamarama Beach – the last beach before Bondi, and the fourth beach I’d passed on the walk already:

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Rounding Tamarama Beach to Mackenzies Point:

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Coming around the bend, Bondi Beach was in sight:

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Rock overhangs on Mackenzies Point:

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Bondi Beach:

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Great view of Bondi:

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By this point I was starving, and found a great little Italian place for a late lunch/early dinner thanks to Tripadvisor. Highly recommend checking out Bondi Trattoria if you’re in the area.  Burrata, figs, and balsamic. Outstanding.

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Angel hair pasta, raw tuna, and chili oil. Again, outstanding, and makes me wonder why such simple, fresh dishes are so hard to find in the US:

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After stuffing myself post-walk, headed back to Bondi and sat down on the hill overlooking the beach to watch the sun go down:

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Sunset:

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Found a fun little Star Wars-themed bar near my hotel when I got back, which had several great local NSW craft beers and was a fun way to close out the evening. All the walking had tired me out, and it was a relatively early night. I had nearly a full day the next day, but wanted to be sure I could get up at a reasonable hour and make the most of it.

Despite that, slept in a bit longer than I wanted, so hurried back towards the water to catch the ferry to Manly. Great view of the Harbour Bridge heading out:

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After docking in Manly, a quick shot of the beach. It was a gorgeous, although slightly hot, morning:

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Manly’s fierce and fearless avian inhabitants:

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Still wasn’t really hungry, but decided to stop by the 4 Pines Brewing Company to sample their beers. Definitely a great selection!

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The clouds were starting to gather, so I rushed back to the ferry to head back to Sydney and get my bags before the weather looked too bad.  Of course, a quick stop at Starbucks first to re-caffeinate for the long night ahead. About five minutes into the ferry ride the clouds started looking ominous, so I went to the railing and put the camera on rapid fire mode, hoping that I would catch something exciting. Just a few minutes out from Sydney, I got this amazing shot! Perfect way to end the trip!

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Had to wait about 30 minutes at the pier for the super torrential rains to let up, and grabbed another crocodile pizza on the way back to the hotel and then it was time to check out and catch the train back to the airport. It had been an amazing few days in Sydney, and I can’t wait to go back.

But first, the Qatar A380 in first class to Doha…

Sep 232016
 

Up early the next morning to head out on our Golden Circle tour. When looking for tour companies to arrange the Golden Circle tour, I’ll be honest that I wasn’t totally sure what all the different options were. I know the Golden Circle has some of Iceland’s “must see” sights, and pretty much all the tours seemed the same. When Iceland Travel suggested the “SuperJeep Golden Circle Tour with Langjokull Glacier Add-On” the price was more than double the other options, but it promised a full day of fun place a chance to visit a glacier, so, I went with it. This was going to be our big splurge tour of the trip.

SuperJeep is a separate company, it turns out, and Iceland Travel merely did the booking for us. When they showed up to pick us up, I was thrilled. Each SuperJeep seated five of us comfortably, and we had five jeeps for the day. The drivers were absolutely hysterical, and had a radio system so they could chat between the jeeps all day. We headed out of Reykjavik, and soon we were already seriously off-road. One of the worst trails of they day, we were getting thrown around pretty seriously as we headed up the trail, but the SuperJeep was handling it like a champ. I was a bit nervous that once we got to the top a few people in the group might not have been really thrilled with the pretty serious off-roading. Fortunately, everyone loved it. Our driver, Omar, loved getting a bit crazy, and made no attempt at all to avoid rough spots of the trail!

Eventually we stopped, for a short hike up the rest of the hill for a vantage point over Reykjavik. I hung back to get a shot of the group hiking up the hill against the blue sky:

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View from the top, looking down over Reykjavik:

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First group shot of the day. I love how the bright colours stand out in contrast to the sky and ground!

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We drove a bit longer, and stopped to take in another valley:

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I love how this shot of Ted against the green hills turned out:

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Picture with mom and my brother:

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Part of the group enjoying the view:

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Done admiring the view, we continued on and stopped by a lake. I love how this pic of Jen checking how cold the water is turned out:

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The lake:

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Next stop was at the Faxi waterfall. Most Golden Circle tours don’t do this, and there was almost nobody there. It was another huge plus of booking with SuperJeep that they kept adding stops that a big bus full of people wouldn’t have time for. Kirsten posing with the SuperJeep:

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Faxi Waterfall:

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Faxi waterfall selfie:

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We walked the path down towards the falls, and got this shot from below:

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Shot with John, Kirsten, and Ted by the Faxi waterfall:

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There was a salmon ladder next to the falls, so we walked up the narrow sides of it. Love this shot of Kirsten on the way up:

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Jen and Ingo taking a rest at the top of the falls, I love how the colours just jump out in this pic:

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Getting read to leave Faxi, group pic in the SuperJeep:

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Final stop before lunch was the Geysir hot springs area. Geysir is mostly dormant now, the the Strokkur geyser still regularly erupts every 5-10 minutes:

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Srokkur erupting:

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The great thing about the Geysir area is that all the tour busses stop here along the Golden Circle tour, so there’s a great rest stop with lots of restaurants in it and great places to grab lunch. We stopped for about 30 minutes at this point until our drivers started herding us back to the SuperJeeps. We still had much more to see in the afternoon and needed to get a jump on it! The afternoon of the SuperJeep tour in the next post…

Jan 172016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our boat:

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Just kidding…this was our boat…marginally better:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jufurreh…a baby-friendly community!

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

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

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

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

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Soon, we were approaching Kunta Kinteh Island:

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

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

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Cannons from the Old Fort:

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More ruins of the fort:

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

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

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

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

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Beach chairs, and a volleyball net:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dec 162015
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Couple strolling through the english gardens:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Train arriving on the other side:

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Empty station:

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

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La Grande Poste itself. Great old post office building:

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

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

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

Nov 132015
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Their goats seemed fascinated by me:

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

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

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The view into the valley from Turtle Rock:

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

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A regular Chenggis Khan I am:

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

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

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Inside the monastery:

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

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

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

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

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View of the gers against the sky and hills:

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

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

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

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Hanging in front of the giant Chenggis Statue:

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

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

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Gate/arch entering the outskirts of town:

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

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Fun architecture:

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Sukhbaatar statue in the middle of the square:

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Local kids hanging out in the square:

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

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Chenggis statue, yet again!

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

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

Feb 122015
 

Up early to do a bit more exploring in Tana before heading to the airport for my flight. I’m generally not a big fan of organized tours, but in this case I’m super glad I booked it. Despite only having three nights in Madagascar, this company packed a lot in when I told them I wanted to see as much as possible and they really did their best to not only be flexible when I changed what I wanted to do – but also to cram in as much as I wanted.

That said, early check out from the hotel and off to do a bit more touring. First stop was Haut-Ville, the part of the city built high in the hills overlooking downtown Tana:

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The National Stadium:

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After walking around the upper town for a bit, we got back in the car to visit a souvenir/craft market on the way to the airport. Lots of interesting little things, but nothing I liked so much I wanted to haul it around Africa for another couple of weeks. View of the river next to the market:

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Some of the market stalls:

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Check-in wasn’t open yet when I got to the airport, as it was nearly three hours until the flight. My driver was afraid of traffic jams, so wanted to be sure to leave plenty of time just in case. The queues to get to the check-in counters weren’t marked at all, so I had to ask around which one to get in. “Oh, and is there a business class one?” Nobody seemed to know. Everyone just sort of lined up, and waited. It seemed there were no mid-morning flights at all, but plenty of them around the same time as mine…as there were three different flights waiting to check-in.

As it got more obvious they were about to open check-in I asked a few security guard looking types where Air Madagascar business class line was. They just escorted me to the front, and I was first to the counter when check-in opened. No problems at all, immigration and security were a breeze, and soon it was time to see what the Air Madagascar Business Class Lounge was all about:

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There’s no pictures. For a reason. It was so dark in the lounge I’m not sure they would have turned out. It was also incredibly warm, despite the fact it was nice and cool outside. There was a fan…which I commandeered and pointed at my seat. There was plenty of beverages – coffee and espresso made to order, which the lounge attendant happily delivered. The internet kept cutting in and out, and was more or less useless. With an hour to go to flight time, I decided to go people watch in the terminal instead. Soon, my plane arrived:

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Feb 092015
 

Woke up way too early just after 6am, and met my friend from DC for breakfast before getting ready to head out on my tour. Driver picked me up as planned at 7:30 on the nose, and of course I got distracted catching up over breakfast so was running a little late. No worries, we headed out just before 8 to head to the east part of the island and find some lemurs! Traffic getting out of Tana was quite bad, and the joke the driver had was that it was the Lycée Français – not sure why this was so funny, but every time he encountered traffic that’s what he’d say. Pretty sure you can’t blame ALL the traffic on the French!

Soon we were clear of Tana, and winding our way over the hills/mountains towards Andisibe Park in the east of the island:

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Stop one was the Pereyras Reptiles Farm. After a short trek through the woods, we spotted our first lemurs, who came down from the trees…because we had bananas. Clever.

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Who wants a banana!

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After playing with the lemurs and taking pics, we headed to the chameleon enclosure. It was a bit too zoo-like for my tastes, but at least it guaranteed we’d get to see them since the chameleons can be really hard to spot in the wild. First up, a Parson’s Chameleon:

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…and a tomato frog…gee, I wonder how it got that name!

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BATS!

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I’d had enough of the zoo at this point, so it was back in the car to drive a bit further. We stopped at the edge of the park to get lunch, since it was already after 1pm at this point. Zebu in madagascar green curry…it was pretty tasty…especially the onions! …not to mention cheap. The entire meal with a beer was hardly $8.

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After lunch we kept driving, and our next stop was the Vakona Forest Lodge, where I’d be spending the night. Lanai to my hut:

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It was pretty basic inside, but much better than I’d expected. There was no AC, but the temperatures outside were reasonable enough that it wasn’t needed. The big downside, however, was the 99% humidity in the park. Everything was instantly damp, but hey, that’s what you get when you come to the rainforest! It had warm water on demand, was very comfortable, and all in all, for being in the middle of a tropical rainforest was all-around excellent!

The lodge has it’s own private island, which serves as a refuge for lemurs which had either been in captivity previously, or were in endangered areas. (ie, logging companies were destroying their land, etc.) Got in a small boat to cross the moat onto the island (literally 20 meters across), and I hadn’t been out of the boat for two seconds before this happened. This little brown lemur leapt right at me and jumped on my head. No warning at all, lol, I can see how this wouldn’t go over too well with some people…

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5 seconds later, he was joined by this guy:

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Apparently, they thought I was a tree.

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Lemur kisses!

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What are YOU looking at!

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After managing to pry the lemurs off me we got back in the boat to go down the moat a bit and look for more species. Next up was the golden sifooka:

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…and finally, the ringtailed lemur:

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Right after the ringtails, a torrential downpour started, and we paddled back to the car as quickly as possible, but still got soaked. That’s what happens in the rainforest I guess!

After relaxing at the lodge for a couple of hours, using the wifi in the main lodge, and having a couple espressos, it was time to head out on the night walk. We saw the two smallest species of lemurs – the mouse lemur and the dwarf lemur, but unfortunately they were too far away (and it was too dark) to really get pictures of them. We did get a few cool frog pictures, however:

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After walking in the dark for about 90 minutes I was exhausted, and had had enough, so it was back to the lodge for dinner. More Zebu stew and wild forest mushrooms. Every time I had Zebu, I kept thinking back to that old Simpsons episode where Lisa is trying to teach Maggie the alphabet, and Z is for Zebu…see Maggie? Zebu? With a hump and a doolap. Dooooolap.

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Slept reasonably well, although it felt like sleeping in a swamp the humidity was so high. Up early, decent breakfast provided by the lodge including eggs, bread, and fruit, and then it was off to the National Park to go lemur spotting. Our goal this morning was to see the Indri Indri which was the largest species. About an hour in, we’d seen a few more common brown lemurs and a couple of bamboo lemurs (so named because they eat bamboo) but no Indri Indri. We did, however, see a massive snail:

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…and another Parson’s Chameleon up close and in nature!

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…and this frog!

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After nearly four hours of walking, and consulting with other guides we ran into, we still hadn’t seen any Indri Indri. My guide (a local guide, not the one from my tour company) was growing visibly frustrated, and kept wandering into the forest for 30 minutes at a time looking for them and leaving us behind to stand around. It was pretty frustrating. I told him several times it really wasn’t that important we find them, but he refused to give up. Finally, he was really frustrated, and got out his cell phone and started calling around to all the other local guides.

A friend of his had spotted some Indri Indri at another Park about 10 minutes drive away, so he rushed us out of the National Park, into the car, and off we drove to another park. Another 15 minute or so hike into this park, and finally, there it was….way up in the trees. I needed the binoculars to get a good look at it, but he seemed happy since we could at least tick the box that we’d seen it and he could do his job. It was really cool, but probably not worth all the stress.

At this point it was after noon, so we piled back in the car to begin the drive to Tana. We weren’t hungry when we reached the restaurant we’d eaten at the day before, so I agreed we’d stop at a “clean local restaurant” which was really the only other option on the way back to Tana. I ended up having “steak” which was actually pretty good grilled in some sort of a sweet sauce with a side of fries for a whopping $4. Including a large bottle of water. Hah!

View on the drive back to Tana:

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Pretty bad traffic, and finally made it back to the hotel around 6pm. I rested up a bit, and it was pouring rain outside by this point, so decided to just have dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, since it looked like it had a decent menu. Tasty fois gras starter:

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Grilled fish with blue cheese sauce and veg:

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Moëlleux au Chocolate with ice cream:

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Three courses and two beers? Yes, $21. I think Madagascar is by far the best value for food and lodging of anywhere I’ve ever visited. Every meal was under $25 and high quality, lodging was under $100 a night for solid three star standard, and everything was clean, comfortable, and most importantly all the employees seemed happy and well-provided for.

By this point I was seriously about ready to pass out having been up since 5:30, and crashed early, since we had one more morning tour before flying out.

Oct 292014
 

My ride was waiting for me when I exited immigration, and we were off to dive! Volker, one of the owners of Dive Timor was there to pick me up, and took me straight back to their dive shop / guesthouse / restaurant. I was staying at their guesthouse, which consisted of around ten different rooms/apartments/etc. It seemed the convenient option given my limited time, plus would help me to maximize diving time. In addition, one of the most popular restaurants in town was listed on TripAdvisor as being above their apartments, so seemed a win win.

Got to their location, and quick lodging check-in. They weren’t too full, so I ended up on a two bedroom apartment. Unfortunately, the air conditioner in the common area didn’t work, but the two in the bedrooms were quite strong so kept the whole place reasonably cool. For the price, it was a fantastic choice!

After about 30 minutes waiting for everyone to arrive, we packed up the scuba gear in the van and headed to the first dive site, Dili Rock West.

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I hadn’t been diving since St Kitts back in July, but really wasn’t nervous. I had my gear, etc, and the only nervousness was that this would be my first short dive. I’d never gone into the water from the shore before. Plus, being on the other side of the world was kinda cool. I guess after diving in Seychelles it shouldn’t have been a huge deal, but hey.

Plan was to walk about 10-20 meters into the water, and then try and get the fins on and head further out. Unfortunately, the waves kept crashing down on us, and I panicked a slight bit. Eventually managed to get things sorted well enough that we could descend, and once underwater things were zen and peaceful. Unfortunately, I’d wasted quite a bit of air at this point. Fortunately, I’d decided not to take my camera on the first dive, so I could really just focus on getting used to the water again and enjoying the coral.

I’d used a full 1/3 of my air at this point, and we were only 6 minutes in. I was kind of nervous I was going to be the reason we had to come up early (especially since I often am the first one out of air) but once I calmed down I started using the rest of it really slowly. There were only four of us diving, and two divemasters. Two beginners with one, and me and a guy doing his advanced certification with the other.

It was a good 45 minute dive, and I was excited for the second. We walked about 1/2 mile down the beach to “Dili Rock East” and got ready for the second dive. This one was much easier, because I knew what I was doing a bit better and how to fight the waves when getting into deeper water.

Almost right after descent was a cool lionfish hanging out:

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The reef dropped down to about 60 feet pretty quickly, and it was a cool view:

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Cool coral:

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Jul 262014
 

Woke up again at 630am after another solid 8+ hours of sleep feeling fantastic and went back to Rituals coffee for breakfast. Another great triple iced espresso, but instead of the bagel sandwich today they had amazing double chocolate chocolate chip muffins….yum!

Met Jeff in the lobby again, and Dive St Kitts picked us up right on time for another morning of diving. When we got to the shop, we learned we were the only two people diving today so we could get going as soon as all the gear was set up. Sweet!

Out first dive site was called “The Rocks” and the coolest feature is that the last couple of months a reef shark had been hanging around the site, and we’d try and find it. Strategy was to try and find a lionfish to spear, and then dump it on the ground and wait for the shark to smell blood. The dive was in a fairly narrow “channel” between two reefs, and dropped from about 50 feet where we entered to about 75 feet further down where we turned around and swam back on top of the reef.

It didn’t take long to find a spear a lionfish, and no sooner was the divemaster chopping it up, than this guy started circling:

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A couple of slow circles around us and the dead lionfish, and he darted in a snapped it up and swam away.  For maybe the next 5-10 minutes he followed us around as we swam down the reef, probably hoping we’d feed him another easy meal.  Laziest shark ever!

Along the reef:

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