Jan 152017

So, yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve written a travel blog. I think after Iceland I was a bit exhausted, and combine that with the fact that October-December are always my busiest months at work it meant I really didn’t have much time for travel – or for writing about it.

If there’s any interest, I can put together blogs on two trips I took in the past few months to Zagreb and Bangkok, but you’re not going to see too much outside of hotels and tons of airplane pics because it was long work days without much time to get out and about. However, if you want to see more Lufthansa First as well as my impressions of the first day of United Polaris service I’ll be happy to put those up.

February is going to be an interesting month. I had originally planned to stay closer to home and enjoy the car I make payments on but never seem to drive and take a long roadtrip through the Southern United States to visit four of the eight states I haven’t been to.

However, travel has a way of pulling you back in, and so I started looking at what I could use some of my miles for…and managed to piece together a crazy 17 day round the world with stops in some of my favourite cities: Hong Kong, Bangkok, Cape Town, Paris….oh, and it would involve first class travel on ANA longhaul, Thai on the A380, Qatar on the A380, Emirates on the A380, and yes, more Lufthansa first. It’s pretty hard to say no to, even though I should be a bit fiscally responsible…time will tell!

I recently did an interview for another website which will be up shortly, and I’ll link to it when it’s live. As part of it, I was asked to pick some of my favourite travel photos of myself, which was fun going back through memories. So, my favourite are below. Promise I’ll write more regularly again!

Top of Huayna Picchu near Machu Picchu, Peru


Crossing the river from Rosso, Senegal to Rosso, Mauritania:

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Jumerah, The Gambia


New Years Eve stranded in Gabon, due to a coup in Democratic Republic of Congo:

gabon bottle

Darvaza Crater, Turkmenistan


Koala cuddling in Brisbane, Australia:


Cuzco, Peru:


Hanging out with the Wrestling Cholitas in La Paz, Bolivia:


On the equator in where else, Ecuador:


Waiting for the tube in London, UK:


Friendly lemurs in Madagascar:

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Inland lake in Comoros:


Pyramids of Giza, Egypt:


Leptis Magna, Libya:


Jun 182016

Woke up early to get on the road, and Yves and team already had breakfast ready in the courtyard. Baguettes, pastries, sliced mango, bisap juice and fried eggs. I’m normally not a huge fan of staying in smaller places because of the “forced community” aspect, but Jamm was a fantastic hotel. It was nice staying somewhere more local with hosts who knew the area and made you feel at home. I’d highly recommend it to anyone visiting St Louis!

Small problem when we checked out in that they didn’t take credit cards, but that was easily solved by walking down the street to the ATM and withdrawing some more CFA francs. Bill settled, and still no sign of either of the drivers who had offered to take us to the border. It was pretty clear that they wouldn’t be showing up, but no worries, Yves’ staff had the number of a local driver who was more than happy to take us to the border. He arrived maybe 10 minutes later, agreed to the same rate of 25,000 CFA to the border, and we were off. This car was much more comfortable than the ones the previous day, and the 60 or so minutes to the border flew by.

As we rolled into Rosso, the border town, the vibe of the place definitely changed. Rosso is a border town, on both the Senegal and Mauritania sides of the border which is defined by the maybe 100-200 metre wide Senegal River. It’s also known as Africa’s most difficult and corrupt border, and several people have posted it’s taken 3-4 hours to cross. We were fully prepared for the worst. As soon as we pulled into town, the taxi was swarmed with “helpers” offering to help us with things. Fortunately, I’d contacted my local office and they had helped me hire someone to meet us at the border. Problem was…he was late.

Eventually the Senegalese police became annoyed at us, and demanded we give them our passports…and they wouldn’t take no for an answer. Fortunately, the fixer showed up about five minutes later and we got the bags out of the taxi and headed into the Senegalese police/border post to complete formalities. Same procedure that I encountered back in January when crossing from Gambia into Senegal and then from Senegal into Guinea-Bissau. Write your name in the book, profession, etc, and stamp stamp stamp, you’re out of Senegal. Super easy.

There’s supposedly a ferry that occasionally runs across the river, but the timing wasn’t right, so the fixer  took us down some side streets to a more remote landing where dozens of pirogue canoes were parked. He helped lift the bags up, and we were off:


In the pirogue, with Mauritania a short distance behind me:


Looking back towards Senegal:



After maybe a five minute ride we “docked” on the Mauritania side of the river, and I snapped a quick shot of another pirogue about to head to Senegal. The guy with his arm raised in back was screaming “no photos!”


We were on the beach now, so this officially made country #194 visited – only two to go!

This is where I expected things to get very interesting. Fortunately, our fixer knew the procedure. He found the chief immigration guy standing by the water, and we all walked back into an office together to “talk.” Fortunately, it was pretty straightforward. American passports are not eligible for visa on arrival in Mauritania, but I had a letter from my local office, signed by some members of officialdom, ordering them to make an exception and grant me a visa on arrival. Fortunately, they had no problem at all with this, and I had my visa in maybe 15 minutes – absolutely no problem at all. Plus, it was all digital stored in a computer and then the visa sticker was printed out. I was pretty impressed by how official everything was for a supposedly super corrupt land border.

Ian was up next. Unfortunately, the visa price had gone up since last we heard, and I believe it was something like 120 euros now. Unfortunately he didn’t have enough, so our fixer was like “don’t worry – I’ll take care of it” and produced enough euros to pay the border guy. No problem at all, and I sensed the less time we spent in the border office the better – since that was more time that could be spent attempting to extract bribes.

Once we both had visa stickers we head to head out of the office, around to the other side of the building where there was a window, and hand over the passports (now including visas) for stamping. No problem at all, and just like that…we were out of immigration. Or so we thought. There was still a very large gate to the immigration “compound” and some shady looking police types hanging about demanding we open our bags for inspection.

I made a little bit of a scene with them, showed them the visa and reminded them that if I was able to get a visa on arrival I know “very important people” in Nouakchott so trying to shake us down wasn’t in their best interest. They relented, and agreed to let us go after recording our details in their logbook.

Out of the gate, down another couple of alleys and sidestreets, and into this very shady looking courtyard:


Here we were “invited” into a shop, to “do some business.” First order of business, I had leftover CFA francs to get rid of, and no problem, they exchanged those at a very safe rate. Then, came the shakedown. Ian only had Dollars, and they had fronted him like 120 euros to pay his visa. They were willing to sell him euros for dollars, but at a terrible exchange rate that took like 15-20%. Fortunately he scrounged up like 60 euros so only got fleeced for about $15-20 in bad exchange, but still not great. Then, we were given the “bill” for crossing. Pirogue charges, border tax (which is legit), money to “make things easier” and finally “a small tip for me.” All in, they asked for 7,000 in local currency which was only like $20, so a very small charge for getting through the whole border in under an hour.

Bill settled, the fixer walked us over to the driver he had arranged for us, and we were off!

We were just a couple of miles out of town, when we hit the first police roadblock. I’d read there were several of these on the road to Nouakchott, and the easiest thing to do was have pre-printed “fiche” where are a copy of your passport and all your details – name, where you are coming from, going to, etc. That way, you can just hand them over and not have to wait for the police to copy all the details from your passport. We handed them over, and he waved us on – super quick.

As soon as we crossed the river, the landscape changed – we were clearly in the desert now:



The first 15-20 miles of road were pretty good, but after that it was much poorer the rest of the way to Nouakchott, with the desert overtaking the road in many places:


Wild camels roaming free:



Not too much else to say about the drive. Took maybe three hours max from the border to Nouakchott, and probably about 10 stops by the police to hand over the fiches – all in all pretty easy. When we got to the city we had the driver take us to an ATM to get local currency to pay him, and piece of cake. Definitely having everything pre-arranged made things go much smoother and it wasn’t at all as bad as I read from people online.

I understand that having a fixer for this border crossing is pretty essential if you want to get through in any reasonable amount of time and hiring one on the spot probably isn’t the best option since they have the upper hand then. Thanked our driver for his help, and he gave us his business card to give to anyone else who might want help making the trip. With that, it was late afternoon and time to explore Nouakchott!

Jun 172016

Our only plan for the day was to make our way north from Dakar to St Louis, Senegal in the north so we could continue to Nouakchott, Mauritania the next day. It would probably have been much easier to fly, but the only airline on the route that sells seats is Mauritania Airlines which does not seem to be bookable anywhere online, and several calls to their supposed office in Dakar also went unanswered. The flights clearly exist and can be purchased, but the difficulty of doing so was enough of a pain that we opted to go the overland route. When I worked in Dakar a few years ago everyone told me how nice St Louis was supposed to be, so this would be a perfect excuse to see it.

Getting to St Louis is pretty straight forward. First, you have to take a taxi to the Gare Routiere in Dakar, and from there you can pick up a taxi all the way to St Louis. We ended up hailing a taxi right outside the Radisson mid-morning, and I offered the driver 5,000 CFA for the ride, which a google search indicated was the going rate since the station is quite a way out of town. The driver was happy to accept 5,000 for the ride (about $9) and off we went.


The station was indeed quite a way out of town, nearly 30km and it took the better part of an hour to get there. Of course, the minute we got out of the car we were swarmed with the local taxi touts asking where we were going. I told them St Louis, and we wanted to buy an entire taxi. The other option is to wait for a taxi to fill up. The sept place (seven seat) taxis are really cramped old converted Renault or Peugeot station wagons with two rows of seats that they cram three people into, and if you’re the lucky seventh you get to ride shot gun. The going rate is 5,000 CFA per seat plus another 500 CFA for each bag. I offered one of the drivers 40,000 CFA to buy out the whole taxi if he would leave right now and take us all the way to the hotel instead of the taxi station in St Louis, and he agreed.

We were off…sort of…we got stuck behind a number of donkey carts on the way out of town…


After about two hours of driving the temperature had risen from a pleasant low-70s fahrenheit in Dakar to nearly 100 degrees around Thies halfway to St Louis. It was scorching hot in the taxi, and the front seat where I was sitting had no padding left and the steel crossbars in the seat were jamming into my back and legs. I was glad when the driver said he wanted to stop and buy some mangos:


Apparently it was mango season, because they were everywhere on the drive:


I also took this opportunity to switch to the second row of seats in the back to get a little bit of padding. The back seats are definitely not made for tall people, and I had to kind of lay sideways in the seat to not jam my head into the roof of the car, but it was much more comfortable than the front seat. It was tolerable for the four hours or so we were in the car, but anything much longer I’m not too sure how I would have fared.

Of course, most of the drive was pretty bland on the scenery front:


The drive also took much longer than it should of because the road was covered in random speed bumps everywhere. Fortunately our driver was aware of them and slowed down for them (instead of using the common method of revving it and trying to go over them quickly) but it made for a much longer trip than we expected. After nearly five hours we finally made it to St Louis.

Our driver didn’t know where our hotel was in St Louis, but thanks to google maps (which was thankfully accurate unlike many times in Africa) I was able to direct him to it. We asked him if he wanted to drive us to the Mauritania border in the morning, and he agreed to although he didn’t seem to be too excited by the prospect.

As soon as we got out of the taxi, we were swarmed by a couple of guys eager to show us where the door of the hotel was. Um, thanks? “Oh, and also, I have taxi, I will take you to the border tomorrow.” Thanks, so helpful…so supposedly we now had two different groups of guys eager to take us to the border. Plan and backup plan set we went into the Jamm hotel which was a nicely restored group of buildings that had been converted into four rooms around a nice open air courtyard. We met the charming owner and host Yves, got settled in the rooms, and since it was already late afternoon headed out for a walk. Yves asked if we were ok having aperitifs at 7:30p which sounded good, so off we wandered.

It was hard leaving, because in the 10 minutes we were at the hotel Ian, aka the cat whisperer, had already been claimed by Yves’ cat:


Out for a walk, and the first view was the Faidherbe Bridge, which connects the island of St Louis to the mainland. The bridge was opened in 1897 and supposedly built by Gustav Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower, but there’s no proof at all that he was at all involved in its design:


Around the main square in town, where we startled a couple of stray goats:


After walking for a bit we stopped at the Flamingo Hotel which had a outdoor patio right on the river. Ian learned the very important lesson that you don’t leave your glass uncovered next to the river, because the local flies are intent on getting drunk.


After one beer we were tired of the flies so wandered to the Hotel de la Poste which was old colonial hotel across the street from the grand old post office. Unfortunately, there is nothing grand at all about the post office these days to the point it really wasn’t even photo-worthy. St Louis used to be the capital of Senegambia before it was moved to Dakar, so it was an important transit point in West Africa. I tried my hand at flying the old French mail route at the Hotel de la Poste:


After walking for a couple of hours we headed back to the hotel, where Yves had set up for aperitifs in the library of the house. There was only one other guest staying at the time (so three of four rooms were occupied) and he was visiting from France and spending a couple of weeks in Senegal. Yves speaks a little bit of English, but the other guest didn’t so unfortunately Ian was sort of left out of the chat. Drinks were offered by the fantastic lady who managed the hotel. I opted for the Ti’ Punch which was pretty potent with rum and some local juices and we chatted for nearly an hour over drinks.

Yves was a fantastic host and when he found out we were going on to Mauritania in the morning shared his stories of driving from France to St Louis via Mauritania. Supposedly this used to be easier to do, but now that the situation in northern Mauritania is quite unstable and Western Sahara also is a bit dicey in the south he didn’t know if it was still safe. This meant now to get back to France involves the five hour drive to Dakar, a hotel for an overnight, then a six plus hour flight to Paris and then connecting on. He also shared recommendations on places to eat and we ended up going to La Kora Chez Peggy which ended up being a quite popular place.

As usual, I ended up with the Croque Madame (which they had named the Sandwiche La Kora) which was one of the better ones I’ve ever had and went perfectly with a bottle of the house red wine. For dessert, they recommended the mango tart with homemade mango ice cream, and how could I say no since they were apparently in season. It was absolutely delicious and I wanted another one:


Headed back to the Jamm Hotel, and promptly passed out. Long overland travel days always exhaust me, and we wanted to get a relatively early start the next day since the trip to Nouakchott was supposedly quite long and could take most of the day depending on customs and immigration at the border…

Jun 152016

Our flight landed in Dakar around 5pm and by the time we were through passport control and got our checked bags it was after 530. Fortunately, the hotel’s shuttle was waiting at the airport which saved us the pain of trying to organize a taxi. We got to the hotel, and I ended up having two switch rooms because they gave me a ground room floor…with two beds…that had doors opening out into the pool area…and the AC barely worked either.

Rather quick change of rooms, however, and was able to get a much cooler room. It’s funny, I’ve stayed in this hotel at least 10 times, and I find the “garden facing” basic rooms are much better air conditioned than the upgraded “business class” rooms. I think next time…if there is one…I’m going to ask NOT to be upgraded!

We headed to the pool bar to have a couple of drinks, then eventually headed out to dinner. Quick pizza dinner at La Piazza where I had taken Jordan and Daniel back in January, and back to the hotel for an early night. I think the jetlag had caught up to me and ended up sleeping nearly ten hours. Woke up feeling great, and headed over to the Casino Supermarket next door to grab some pain au chocolates and red bull for breakfast.

After grabbing something to eat we grabbed a taxi down to Place d’Independence (not the port – because taxi drivers will try and gouge you once they hear that) and we walked the rest of the way down to the port for the ferry to Gorée Island. The touts were out in full force, and ducked into a small market to grab some cold drinks and try and break some 10,000 CFA notes so we had small bills.

At the port there was a bit of drama, because they were demanding passports to get into the port area. After several minutes of begging and pleading with the guard he finally let us in as long as we signed the visitors logbook. I’m still curious if the port police are searching for Gerry Adams from Ireland and Cecil Rhodes from Zimbabwe…

Got to the window to buy the ferry tickets, and there were three prices. The local price, the African price, and the tourist price. Local price was around 50 cents, African price was maybe $1.50 and the tourist price closer to $5. Well, after the logbook in for a penny in for a pound, so Cecil Rhodes naturally asked for the African price…but what works with the logbook wasn’t working with the ferry ticket matron. No identification you pay the foreigner price if you’re white…that’s just how it works.

Wasn’t a long wait for the ferry, and in the meantime we were hassled by throngs of local women who were “from the island” and “I have a shop there, you will visit me?” Three of the ladies were especially persistent, and kept doing the “you remember my name, right?” I’m sure it’s the exact same women I ran into on previous visits…and I still didn’t remember their names. We were also approached by the regular parade of guides offering to give tours of the island. We didn’t commit to any of them, but did want to get a guide since Ian hadn’t been before and it would be good to get the history.

The ferry wasn’t at all crowded, and fortunately it was a nice cool day with highs only around 23-24C. The sun came out from time to time, but wasn’t so strong that it would burn. After getting off the ferry we told the guide who was the least pushy and spoke decent English that we would hire him. He showed us where to pay the tourist tax, and then told us the House of Slaves (Maison des Esclaves) was closed until 14:00 so we could walk around the island first.

First stop was the “never forget” memorial to slavery:


After this we walked along the island, eventually ending up at the “door of return.” Many of the slavery memorials in west Africa have a “door of no return” which is though to be the final door slaves walked out before boarding ships for transport to the Americas. Goree Island also has a “door of return” which was built for those who were coming back to Africa to trace their roots:


At the highest point on the island were old guns pointing out to see to defend the island. Being big guns, of course Ian needed a picture with them for perspective…


Memorial to slavery on the top of the island:


After walking around the island, we were still waiting for the House of Slaves to open, so we headed back down to the waterfront via a trail where local artists were selling paintings:


At the waterfront  there were lots of local kids playing in the water:


We had a beer on the beach while waiting at Chez Kiki:


Finally it was almost 2pm so we headed back to the Maison des Esclaves so we could be the first ones inside before it got crowded. Just inside, the main yard of the house and straight ahead are the chambers were the slaves were kept, often dozens in a room:


Our guide insisted we take the “traditional” picture everyone takes, so we rushed to the Door of No Return to get the picture before others arrived. Smiling probably wasn’t the appropriate pose, but looking out onto the ocean:


After this we headed back to try and catch the ferry, and of course our guide pulled us aside to discuss payment “here…so everyone doesn’t see I will have money.” Hah. He suggested an amount which was completely reasonable, and rather than try and lower it and have him follow us onto the ferry and demand more the whole ride back, we agreed to it, and shook hands. He left us alone for a nice quiet ride back.

We walked back from the port, and unremarkably none of the touts bothered us since we were leaving. Crossed the Place d’Independence, and decided to show Ian the Pullman Hotel where I stayed on my first trip to Dakar, which I affectionately named the “hooker hotel” because you’d get random knocks on your door at night from local women offering “company.” Unfortunately, the hotel was under massive renovation (which is good, because it was sorely needed) so their nice lobby bar was closed.

Decided to walk a bit further, and found a nice cafe where we were able to get pastries and espresso before heading back to the Radisson to cool down for a bit. Quick taxi back, rested up for an hour or so, then headed out again to see the African Renaissance Monument. Negotiated a good price with a driver to take us there, wait, and come back, and headed out. Got there just before sunset, and lots of locals were out seeing the monument as well:


The Monument was mostly constructed and designed by the North Korean Mansudae company and was extremely controversial when it was completed in 2010. Over $27 million was spent on the monument at a time when Senegal was going through a major fiscal crisis, and President Wade was widely criticized for building a vanity monument. When the statue was finally opened, many foreign dignitaries and heads of state arrived. The US? Well, we sent Akon and Jesse Jackson…

Couple of local kids insisted on posing for a photo when I got the camera out:


View of Dakar from the hill the monument sits on:


Back to the hotel, and we were wiped out from a long day in the sun, and although we wanted to head out to Chez Loutcha for a local dinner, just didn’t have the energy to leave the hotel. Decided to eat by the pool at the Radisson, but unfortunately there was nothing local on the menu. I asked the waiter if they could make Chicken Yassa, and they were happy to do so:


It was pretty tasty, and we ended up crashing pretty early as the next day we needed to get an early start to head to St Louis, Senegal near the border with Mauritania by taxi….

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:


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:


Running hurdles:


Post-hurdles recovery…


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:


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



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


Group of school kids we passed on our drive:


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


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:


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!


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:


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


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



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


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


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.


Plus, from the guesthouse there was a fantastic sunset:


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

Jan 222016

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

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

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

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


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


Wildlife on the drive:


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:


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



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:


The profiteroles dessert was great as well:


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:


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:



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



The Grand Hotel…not looking so grand these days:


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:


Independence Monument with the Presidential Palace in the background:


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:



Major street in Bissau, walking back to the hotel:


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….


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:



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:



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!


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


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:


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:


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:


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 202012

Unfortunately, due to workload, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to tour Dakar, much less get to see the neighbouring countries. However, at least I managed to hit a few primary attractions. My main goal was to get to see Île de Gorée or Gorée Island – a major holding place where tens of thousands of slaves were sent to the Americas.  I decided to walk to the port and along the way got to see a few sights.  First, the Hôtel de Ville or City Hall of Dakar:

to get there, I passed through the Place de l’Independence.  Now, normally, I think of “Independence Squares” as being grand places, filled with monuments and kept extra clean because they have lots of nationalistic pride, etc.  Not so much in Dakar, but again this is part of what I love about the developing world, and Africa in specific.  Places feel more “real” at times, a bit edgy, lived-in, and not so sterile.

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Dec 192012

Yeah, I know I’ve gotten a bit behind with this trip, but travel and travel planning keeps getting in the way.  I need to find a way to use plane time productively to write blogs.  That said, on to a review of the hotel I stayed at on my second trip to Dakar, and the second half of my first trip.  It seemed to be a consensus that this was “the” place to stay in Dakar, although some people seemed to prefer the Terrou-Bi instead because it was “just as nice, but less pretentious.”  Well, as I just mentioned I came back here for my second trip, so you can guess I was pretty pleased with it.

One other random cool thing, and this had nothing in particular to do with the hotel – but I do think it speaks to the quality of it – is the guests.  One morning in the hotel, absolutely by chance, who did I run into but Canadian PM Stephen Harper!  He was there with his entourage on the way to DR Congo for le sommet de la francophie, so either it was the best place in town or it was the only place they considered secure enough.  Considering the distinct lack of visible security (compared to a U.S. Presidential visit, for example) it was pretty amazing.


Had a standard city view room the first trip, and a “business” oceanview on the second trip.  Main difference, other than the obvious view was that the business room had a bit bigger desk as well as having a Nespresso machine.  That was a huge help in the mornings, since I don’t get moving in the morning without coffee, and having that so easy was a huge plus.  They were also willing to restock the capsules as often as you wanted during the day, so big win there.  Air Conditioning worked much much better than the Terranga, and overall I was pretty happy with it.  Housekeeping wasn’t perfect – seemed most days they’d miss one small thing (maybe towels one day, refilling bath gels the next, etc) but a quick call and things were fixed.  Overall, the room was leaps and bounds above the Terranga.  Most importantly, it was cool, quiet, clean, and safe, with a rather comfortable bed and a nice (albeit a bit weak) rain shower.

Oh, and the view from my room in the morning was absolutely terrible on the second trip!  😉  Well, there was a construction pit at the end for the large expansion to the hotel that is underway, but the noise never occurred in the morning/evening so it didn’t bother me.

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Oct 252012

Since I’ll be returning to the area again shortly, felt I’d review the few things that came up on my first trip that I know won’t change or be added to on the second. There will be new restaurants, sights to see, etc, but I know I won’t be returning to the first hotel I stayed at, the Pullman Teranga. When I mentioned this to coworkers, I was met with amusement and bewilderment. Seems this is the fifth or sixth choice of hotels in Dakar, and the others were all completely sold out my first nine nights there. Online reviews on TripAdvisor made it seem tolerable, so I decided to go with it…it’s not like I had a choice!  It was #10 of 35 in Dakar, so how bad could it be…right?  It used to be a Sofitel up until a few years ago, when it was rebranded by Accor group as a Pullman.  I’d never heard of the Pullman brand before, but it seems to be quickly growing.  Knowing it was affiliated with Sofitel gave me comfort, so I was pretty ok with it.  Plus, for almost 100,000 CFA a night how bad could it be?


Where do I start with the room review?  The first, second, third, or fourth?  Even at a rate of 100,000 CFA, I was supposed to be relegated to a “city view” room but had been “upgraded” to an ocean view.  This was going to be great…or so I thought.  First room, I lasted all of 10 minutes in.  It was somewhere around 25C in the room, even with the aircon cranked up to the max.  Went to the desk to ask, and they immediately offered to move me.  Ok, second room was just a bit down the hall…and had a broken deadbolt as well as being warm and absolutely reeking of body odour.  No way.  Moved down one floor to room #3 and it was finally tolerable.  Maybe only 22C, semi-functional air conditioning, with only a slight smell of smoke and must.

Of course, after four days, the safe battery died.  They promised for two days they would replace it, but eventually admitted that they didn’t know how, and would I like to move rooms?  Room four was actually just a bit further down the hall, but had the best view of the ocean.  Similar to room three in smell and temperature, it was barely tolerable.  Maybe other rooms are better, but I came to the eventual conclusion that the beds are very comfortable, all the rooms have a musty, smokey, unpleasant smell to them, frequent stains on the carpet, and are barely cool enough to be tolerable.  Overall, if I’d had another choice based on rooms I’d have been out of there in an instant.

Rooms did had a few upsides.  Free bottled water, juice, diet coke, etc in the fridge…when they remembered to restock it.  Plus, all rooms came with complimentary condoms, lol.


Everyone I encountered was very friendly.  There were a few staff at the front desk that were very helpful (which was needed for the frequent room issues that popped up) but there were also several younger people at the front desk with “trainee” tags.  Most of these didn’t even smile, and just gave nods when you asked anything.  Overall, it was pretty typical west Africa where when they tell you they can/will do something, you stand about a 50% chance of it actually happening.  Everyone was friendly though, so I’d say service attempts were above average, but delivery frequently was short.  English skills I didn’t really experience since my French was better than their English, but they did seem to speak enough that they could easily help you in English.


The big plus, I thought.  Walkable to a great grocery store about 5-10 minutes away, lots of taxis, several good restaurants in walking distance, and seemed to be in a pretty safe area.  I walked around a lot, even at night, and didn’t have a single problem or ever feel unsafe in the least.  Also, if you have business with the government, it’s right downtown in the Plateau area near many of the ministries, so very convenient.  A few shots out my window follow and you can see that at least on the “ocean view” side of the hotel it has some pretty great views:

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