Aug 302019
 


Woke up reasonably early, and headed up to the Sheraton lounge for breakfast, although I didn’t have high expectations based on the previous night. The espresso machine worked well, there was reasonably fresh orange juice, hard boiled eggs, and most importantly nice and warm pain au chocolate, so overall it was a success!

On the way up to breakfast, however, I made sure to stop by the concierge desk and order a taxi for an hour later so I could make the most of my time and head to the Bardo Museum.

Taxi showed up right on time, we negotiated a price by the hour so he could wait for me, and we were off.

Got to the museum, and there was an extremely ominous sign on the front: apologies, due to some sort of construction work, there was no air conditioning in the entire museum. That might have been nice, but it was 90F and climbing and it was sweltering hot inside.

The museum has an amazing collection of mosaic tiles, and it’s really sad the facilities that are housing them. These are an international treasure, and it was hard to think they’re not being damaged by the harsh elements. That said, they did survive hundreds of years under the desert, so maybe not?

I managed about 90 minutes in the heat, and got to see a fair amount of the museum – there’s only so many mosaics you can be interested in if you’re not some sort of art historian! Perhaps most interesting is the second picture below, that shows where a bullet hit a glass case when the museum was overrun by ISIL terrorists a few years back killing two dozen tourists.

Driver was waiting for me and back to the Sheraton for a quick shower and to cool down after the hot museum, and soon it was off to the airport. I had agreed to take the hotel shuttle since it beat trying to get another taxi, and soon I was there and checking in.

No problems at all with my slightly unusual itinerary, and immigration and security were both remarkably efficient. Soon I was in the departures area, free to roam the duty free shops and explore the lounges.

Not often you see two flights to Libya on the departures board!

Another mosaic outside the TunisAir lounge…I’d seen enough for the day, and headed inside.

Honestly, the lounge was a really pleasant surprise. During my previous visit, I remember it being super unremarkable with broken air conditioning, but today there was plenty of space to sit and it was nice and cool. I wouldn’t go early for the lounge, but it was definitely a comfortable place to wait!

Knowing there would be a feast waiting on Emirates I only had a small snack to tide me over, and a but of Coke Zero. There was quite a buffet spread, but none of it really looked all that good…

Walk to the gate was relatively short, and with no additional security or anything it was relatively straight forward.

Of course, everybody in the gate area was mobbing the door thinking they needed to be first on board, and the gate staff did a terrible job of anything resembling priority boarding, so I proactively went up to the counter and asked if first class could please board first…so the agent shouted out “ok, we’ll board first class now” and that’s where things got interesting.

A rather angry woman in an abaya and her young (I assume) daughter of about 10yo mobbed the door and were shooed away, told they were in economy and would have to wait. Lots of yelling in Arabic ensued along with arm waving…and when I say yelling, top of her voice yelling to the point airport security and several guys in suits came over. I have no idea what it was about, but at one point in english she yelled “I NEVER SIT IN ECONOMY!” No clue how, but she ended up in first in the end…with the kid… (fortunately both slept the entire flight)

Emirates flight 748
Tunis, Tunisia (TUN) to Dubai, United Arab Emirates (DXB)
Depart 14:05, Arrive: 23:10, flight time: 6:05
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration A6-EBW, Manufactured 2006, Seat 01K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 51,485
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,744,073

Although it wasn’t my first time in Emirates First, I was still giddy about the whole thing, seat and all! The over-the-top bling definitely isn’t my thing, but hey, you can’t argue it’s an amazing seat!

Bit of welcome aboard Dom Perignon? Don’t mind if I do!

Warm cashews and almonds were served on the ground, and then after takeoff the crew suggested maybe I’d like some savoury Japanese crackers with another glass of champagne. Who could say no to that?!

Since the second flight would be a redeye to Singapore I decided to max out the dining this flight and enjoy the entire experience. First up was a starter combo of buffalo mozzarella with pea cream and smoked olive oil, salmon with panko herb crumble, and bresaola with feta and cinnamon poached pear. YUM! (Yes, I’m talking about the appetizers…)

Moving on from the starters…as distinct from the appetizers…next up was smoked fois gras with chicken and mushroom terrine and asparagus. More yum!

The main event was Bzar Lamb with emirati spices with aromatic rice, fried onions, and pistachios. This was absolutely amazing and the lamb was so juicy and tender. I could have eaten two… Delicious with a glass of Château Lynch-Moussas 2008 Pauillac.

So, anyone whose read my blog before knows I like cheese, and that nobody does an in-flight cheese plate quite like Lufthansa in first class. Well, I have to officially announce that Lufthansa has some serious competition with Emirates. Especially the soft cheese in olive oil…wow…it was absolutely out of this world.

Sad to move on, but there was dessert to be had. But first, a glass of Johnny Walker Blue to aid with digestion…and for science of course. Of course, some apricot pudding was also in order…

Stuffed, I watched some tv, and then later in the flight when it was dark the turned on the in-cabin stars on the ceiling so we could have a landing under the stars. Awww… I’m not a cognac drinker generally, but when Hennessey Paradis (which retails for over $900 a bottle) is on offer, it would be insulting to my hosts not to try it…right?

Landed on time, but ended up at a remote stand at the C gates, which is pretty much the world place to end up in Dubai! Oh well, it’s not so terrible when you get your very own bus to the terminal! Fortunately I didn’t have to share it with angry lady who had forced her way into first class.

Meanwhile, if you’re going to East Sketchistan, please take the bus below:

I had a few hours, so I was determined to head to the A gates where there is an entire FLOOR of the terminal dedicated to the first class lounge!

Next up: Emirates A Gates First Class Lounge Dubai, and the A380 to Singapore!

Apr 292017
 

Airport in Sochi was relatively modern, no doubt a beneficiary of the recent Winter Olympics. Since it was already nearing sunset and we were exhausted from a long day of travel, we decided to go with the taxi desk in the arrivals area as opposed to negotiating with the taxi mafia to potentially save a couple dollars each. Nice quick ride with a polite driver who coincidentally enough had Abkhazia plates on his car.

10 minute ride to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Resort and Conference Centre, where check-in was a polite but disorganized affair. First they sent us to our rooms…which we realized when we got there we’d both been given the same room number. Back to the front desk, and apparently they had screwed up, and oh btw, we charged you the wrong amount. Your room requires you to pay this much more. Was somewhat odd that they expected the room to be paid upon check-in, but eventually everything was sorted, and the view of the Olympic venues from the room was fantastic:

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With the sun having set, and the stories of stray dogs around the area (which we never actually saw) there was really no point in trying to see the Olympics sites in the evening, so we decided to head into Sochi for some dinner. See, the airport and the Olympics venues are in a suburb called Adler, which actually sits right on the Abkhazia border. We called an Uber, which was really quick and reliable in Sochi, and made the 30 minute drive to the Morye Mall located in Sochi.

What was the first thing you see at the main entrance to the mall? Yup, it’s like they knew I was coming…AND Sochi managed to get my name right. Bonus points for them!

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We wandered around the mall a bit, walking off the jetlag, and the mall was majorly modern with lots of international stores – likely a beneficiary of the Olympics as well. We were getting a bit hungry, so stopped into a pelmeni restaurant for some dinner. Dozens of varieties of pelmeni on the menu, and I don’t remember what we ordered in the end but they were seriously delicious.

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After a bite to eat, a little more walking around the mall and exploring, and we found another odd vending machine to pair with the caviar vending machine in Moscow. I mean, don’t you always go to the mall and realize “damn, I forgot my contact lenses, I better hit up the vending machine!”

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There was also a huge grocery store in the mall, so explored that a bit as well. I find grocery stores fascinating places when abroad, and a good insight to how at least some segment of the local population lives. Nothing terribly unusual about this one, except for multiple aisles with nothing but alcohol.

Called an Uber which had no trouble locating us at the mall, and after a short ride we were back at the hotel where we promptly passed out for the night. Despite all the confusion over the room rate at the hotel, they did decide that breakfast was included, and it was a reasonable spread for Easter Sunday. The breakfast was seriously empty, but there was still a huge amount of choice at the buffet, both hot and cold options, plus some local sparkling wine. Not bad at all!

…and seriously, how can you resist taking a pic when the hotel has something like this set up?

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It was a nice clear morning, and unfortunately sleep won out over an early morning walk around the Olympic sites. Most of them were well behind fences anyways, so it wasn’t like I was going to get an early morning tour of them. This view from my room would have to do:

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We hadn’t put a whole lot of thought into getting to Abkhazia, but knew that there were essentially two options: take a taxi to the border, cross over, and then wait for a minibus to Sukhumi, or find a driver/taxi who was willing to make the full trip. Given it was Easter, and we didn’t know how much traffic there would be, we opted to skip the public transport option and arrange for a driver. My first thought was to hire our driver from the airport since he had Abkhaz plates, but he he no interest in making the trip.

Our second try was to see if they hotel could find us a driver. Yes, they could, but their driver wanted to leave at 6am to avoid traffic at the border, and wanted 9,000 rubles ($180) for the one-way trip. We definitely weren’t going to pay that much to get up early.

So, google to the rescue and I found kiwitaxi.com which seemed to be too good to be true. A global transfer booking company that could arrange transfers anywhere in the world? They only wanted about 5,500 rubles for the trip ($100) and only 20% in advance with the rest to the driver (I imagine the 20% is their commission) so I figured I would give it a go. Only took about 30 minutes, and I had confirmation that our driver was booked, and would pick us up at 11am as we requested.

Our driver Dima showed up right on time, and had a perfectly comfortable and modern SUV for the trip. He didn’t speak a word of English, but was extremely friendly and easy to communicate with. We set off right at 11am, and were at the border in just over 15 minutes. He made sure to tell us that if anyone at the border asks, we are “friends” since trying to explain a taxi might open him up to bribes. When we got close to the Russian side of the border he let us get out, and go walk through passport control. Exiting Russia was pretty straightforward, with just a couple simple questions “how long will you be in Abkhazia? When will you come back to Russia? Where do you live? Why do you speak Russian?” and we were through.

Dima was just getting the car cleared when we exited, and we were ready to head to the Abkhaz border post about 100 meters down the road. Here we just pulled up to the officers, said hi, showed them passports, and they waved us through without a single question. Way too easy! The whole border had taken about 30-40 minutes due to the passport control line on the Russian side, but overall really easy.

From here, it was about a two hour easy drive to Sukhumi, where we had little trouble finding our hotel. I asked Dima if he would be interested in picking us up in two days, but when we told him we needed to leave at 9am he wasn’t interested since it would mean leaving Sochi super early. No problem, we had two days to sort out transport or use kiwitaxi again, so figured we were set.

Now, time to explore Abkhazia!

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:

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

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Looking back towards Senegal:

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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!”

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Wild camels roaming free:

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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.

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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…

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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:

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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…

Jan 202016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View from the balconies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oct 022015
 

After having visited the Marché des Feticheurs in the morning, we stopped back at the hotel for a quick lunch before heading to the airport to fly to Chad. I asked for some Ketchup, and apparently they’d also gotten the letter about Jeff Smisek’s resignation that morning, because they offered up this brand of ketchup!  😉

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Driver dropped us at the airport, and it was a great end to a short Togo and Benin trip. We got really lucky with the driver the hotel had sent to pick us up on the first day, as he was able to take us everywhere we wanted to go as well. We definitely paid a bit more than we would have for shared taxis, but were much more comfortable and able to go where we wanted when we wanted…plus he had working air conditioning!

The checkin line at the airport was extremely long, and we’d only arrived about 90 minutes before the flight. By the time we got to the front of the checkin line, it was under 60 minutes to go, but we were assured it would be absolutely no problem. Off to passport control, which also had an incredibly long sign, and this warning poster while we waited:

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Immigration was a bit of a zoo, but for once it was the Africans who looked confused. What forms do I need? Where do I go? Which line is for me? We just walked with a purpose past people who were reluctant to say anything, and managed to make it through immigration in maybe 15 minutes, and at this point we were 30 minutes until departure…and security was a mob scene, literally.

There were two machines, and a large mob of people pushing and shoving to get to them. Absolutely no sense of order whatsoever. Ten years or so ago when I first started traveling to Africa and China, I might have tried to politely queue, and likely have gotten completely screwed. But, experience is a good teacher, and being 6’4 is even better, so out came the elbows, and I joined the throngs of pushing and shoving towards the machine. A few choice blunt and snarky phases to people, all part of the game, and managed to get through in maybe 10 minutes. Which is when we found out they were nowhere ready to board.

Lomé departures is one big room, well not even that big, and ASKY usually have three or four 737s leaving all at the same time. No announcements are made either, and you have to wander around asking when yours will leave. We found we had another 20 or 30 minutes to wait, so walked over to the corner refreshments shop and spent our last francs on a couple beers while waiting.

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Then, it was time to take the bus about 10 seconds away from the terminal and board our flight.

ASKY flight 38
Lomé, Togo (LFW) to Douala, Cameroon (DLA)
Depart 14:50, Arrive 15:35, Flight Time: 1:45
Boeing 737-700, Registration ET-ANH, Manufactured 2007, Seat 23J

This flight was pretty full, about 90% I’d say, but fortunately the seat between us stayed open. We’d asked about getting an exit row at checkin, but she claimed they were all full, and for once they actually were. The sandwich was a typical scary looking sandwich with some sort of mystery deli meat and mayonnaise, no thanks! I should have taken it just for the picture, but decided to pass. Flight was uneventful, and when we reached Douala probably 70% of the passengers got off.

ASKY flight 38
Douala, Cameroon (DLA) to N’Djamena, Chad (NDJ)
Depart 18:15, Arrive 20:05, Flight Time: 1:50
Boeing 737-700, Registration ET-ANH, Manufactured 2007, Seat 23J

After about 45 minutes on the ground in driving rain, more passengers boarded, and when the door closed we were about 75% full again to N’Djamena. Fortunately, the seat between us stayed open again. A full hot meal was served on this flight, including a mystery chicken that was mostly dark meat, fat, and a bit of gravy. Nibbled on the meal a little, but made a french meal of it with baguette and red wine…and some carrots.

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Upon arrival in N’Djamena I was interested to see how things went. Chad has a reputation for a huge level of corruption at the airport, and our friend Daniel had been “fined” $50 when he got his camera out when getting off the plane to snap a picture. Our adventure, however, was completely uneventful, and after showing yellow fever card, visa, and writing down details of where we were staying we were through with no problems. Baggage even came quickly…but not quickly enough. The arrivals hall was filled with moths, other buzzing and biting insects, all of whom were very excited to get a taste of us while we waited for our bags.

Then, outside, where the driver from our hotel was nowhere to be found. After about 15 minutes of searching, we finally gave up on him, and searched for a taxi, which were nowhere to be found either. After we asked about, we were told there were people who would drive us to the hotel…on the other side of the carpark. Finally found them, and a guy in an incredibly beat up car offered to take us for 10,000 CFA, or about $17. Definitely a ripoff, but we were stranded there with no option, so took him up on it. After he used a screwdriver to pop open the door on his car, he used it again to open the trunk for our bags, and away we went.

Arrived at the Kempinski after about 15 minutes driving, and the minute we walked into the lobby I could tell things were about to get better. They offered a welcome glass of champagne as we checked in – a first anywhere in the world! I was liking this hotel already, and the forgotten hotel shuttle was already long forgotten.

As in CAR, they were very confused that we wanted a room with two beds. But unlike CAR, they said it was simply a problem with a booking system and they quickly had it fixed. The room was ok, and the air conditioning almost worked, getting the room down to maybe 23C or so. Tolerable, and like the airport arrivals hall, the room came with a complimentary giant bug as a welcome gift:

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We grabbed a small “real” dinner in the lobby bar/cafe before calling it a night. Despite the room being slightly warm I slept really well after all the travel of the past few days, and woke up to a great view of the National Parliament outside our hotel room window:

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View of the hotel from the front. Note the green area out front. The driveway was a loop, but it was blocked off with concrete jersey barriers and you had to walk the last 20 meters or so to the front door. Presumably in case someone decided to drive a car bomb up to the hotel:

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I’ll write more about our day in the next post, but after a long day of wandering around the city we retired back to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. Well, giant beers with complimentary popcorn to be followed by dinner.  …and WiFi that was actually pretty fast and functional:

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After dinner, we made the mistake of ordering dessert. I’m pretty sure nobody else ordered dessert there, because “dessert” apparently was three pieces of whatever you ordered because they were trying to get rid of it. The “apple pie:”

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Overall, the Kempsinki was a perfectly fine hotel. There were little things like the AC that could have been better, but considering the location that’s easy to overlook. It was cool enough, especially in the lobby, and everything else worked well. Rooms and common areas looking reasonably well taken care of, the staff were super helpful and friendly, and they had a good restaurant. The breakfast was also really good, with eggs made to order, lots of fruit, breads, pastries, etc…and actually decent coffee. Was definitely an excellent choice for a place to stay!

Jan 062015
 

After the immigration ordeal, it was time to make my way to the hotel. Based on recommendations on FlyerTalk, I’d sorted a taxi with the hotel, and two hours later he was still waiting for me in the arrivals area. Or, at least I thought he was. He walked me outside, and introduced me to my real driver, who was waiting for me. The taxi was 37,000 LBP or approximately $24 one way, and it was a reasonably quick drive to the hotel.

I’d booked in at the Four Points Verdun in Beirut, who informed me I’d been upgraded to a junior suite upon arrival. Room was modern and comfortable, one of the nicer Four Points I’ve stayed in, with very friendly and helpful staff. It was also 2-for-1 happy hour in the hotel bar/lounge when I arrived, so couldn’t resist sampling the local craft beer. I got seriously addicted to these nuts!

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As I believe I mentioned earlier, Lebanon is one of the first places I’ve ever been that doesn’t allow foreign mobiles to data roam on its networks, so I had no clue until I got to my hotel that my tour company had canceled my tour to Baalbeck in the morning. Their reason? “There have been problems with ISIS in the area.” Uh, gee, great. Thanks to the wonderful ladies at the front desk I got a map of other possible options and she started calling around to see what might be bookable:

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After enjoying my 2-for-1 beers I checked in, and unfortunately all the tour companies claimed to be full the next day, so the only option was to hire a driver. She quickly sorted out a six hour hire the next day at a reasonable rate and pointed me in the direction of Ward El Cham, which she said was a great local restaurant near the hotel. It was maybe a five minute walk away, and when I arrived it was packed with locals smoking shisha and had a super lively atmosphere. I declined the shisha in favour of an Almaza which came with a bread basket and some tasty little munchies to start:

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Decided to start with grilled halloumi as an appetizer

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…and finished off with some delicious kebabs that the waiter recommended.

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I don’t remember the name of the desert he recommended, but I asked for something traditional. It was a sort of semi-soft cheese wrapped in crepes and filled with honey, ground pistachios, etc. Quite tasty!

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Got back to the hotel, and they’d brought up plates of fruit, nuts, and a bottle of wine. I have no idea if it was intentional or not, but the Jason Winery was a new one to me! If this was intentional I’m seriously impressed!

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After a long day of travel, I managed to crash for over eight solid hours. Unfortunately, I woke up seriously jetlagged and disoriented. The combo of “enough” sleep and being seven time zones “off”…no, wait. My body had no idea what time zone it should be in by this point – anyways – I basically woke up sluggish because I was just plain exhausted. I decided to check…just in case…if there was Starbucks in Lebanon…

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Ta-da…a 10 minute walk from the Four Points, and I was very happy. You can see from the photo just how exhausted I was at this point, lol. Just a coffee, and then it was back to the Four Points for a quick breakfast. Normally, I don’t do hotel breakfast, but at the Four Points the Platinum benefit is 250 points (worth $5 in my book) or free breakfast for two nights. Figuring I’d get at least $2.50 in value out of it, I took the breakfast. However, I decided to Starbucks in addition in order to have predictable levels of caffeination. Not a bad call. A good amount of hummus, pain au chocolate, and hair boiled eggs later, I was ready for the day!

My driver showed up right on time at 8am,  and it was time to negotiate. Yes, the agreed upon price was for six hours, but he was happy to work more time if I decided I needed it by the hour. Excellent. So, question number one: is Baalbeck really unsafe? He said normally he would be happy to drive it, but yes, two days ago there was some insurgent activity in the area and he wouldn’t recommend it. However, “I work for you today Sir, so wherever you want to go we will go.” Hmmm…maybe I should do Baalbeck after all…

I decided at this point to throw out a teaser. “So, I hear the highway to Damascus is also more or less safe.” “Oh yes Sir, that highway is just fine, Damascus is no problem. The Syrians all drive than road to fly out of Beirut airport.” Hmmm, this is interesting. We decided that while we planned out the day our next stop would be the ancient city of Byblos….with a bit of a long detour for some driving through the countryside to enjoy a bit of more rural Lebanon. We drove down a very busy highway, had a very fascinating coffee, ticked a box, and then were off to Byblos. Moving on…

Byblos was first settled somewhere between 8000 and 7000 BC (yes, approximately 10,000 years ago) and is said to have been the first city in ancient Phonecia. It is one of a few cities in the Middle East suggested as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, having been inhabited continuously for over 7,000 years. That’s a long time!

Guide helped me paid the entrance fee, and then left me to wander alone. There were good signs, and no touts offering to play guide, so I was on my own. First site was the crusader fort from the 12th Century AD:

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Jan 242014
 

Of all the parts of this difficult trip, I’ll admit that this was the one I was most aprehensive about. There’s not much information online about making this trip by taxi, and given the fact both Congo and Angola have notorious levels of corruption and bureaucratic BS up the wazoo…oh and combine that with my minor princess status…it promised to be an adventure. We’d pieced together enough information online, but for starters, we weren’t even positive the land border would be open on a Sunday!

On paper, it didn’t look too bad:

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See, Cabinda is a small enclave of Angola, surrounded by Congo on the north and Democratic Republic of Congo on the South/East, and then after about 20 miles of DRC in the south you come to Angola again:

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For this reason, we wanted to visit.  As if Angola wasn’t difficult enough, Cabinda has been an active war zone from time to time.  In 1975 when the liberation movements in Angola signed the treaty with Portugal, they reaffirmed that Cabinda was a part of Angola, even though it wasn’t connected.  This was preceded by the formation of MLEC and FLEC, guerrilla movements advocating the secession of Cabinda.  They operated a guerrilla war until 2006 when they finally signed a peace treaty.  That’s not to say things have been happily ever after.  In 2010 the Togolese football team bus was en route from Pointe-Noire to Cabinda for the Africa’s Cup, and was attacked by a FLEC splinter group, killing three people.  So, Cabinda’s kinda…edgy!

So an edgy place, little information, and corruption…what could go wrong?!

I was prepared for the roughly 100km trip to take 8+ hours, and fully expected everything that could go wrong to go wrong.

Taxi to the Congo border was slightly more than we expected at 15,000 CFA ($30) but he wouldn’t budge, given the fact he had to pay tolls along the way, and would likely return empty.   We probably could have saved $10 by taxi shopping, but weren’t in the mood to waste time so off we went.  We’d read online it was somewhere around 20 minutes to the border, but ended up taking closer to 35 with traffic.  Our taxi dropped us off maybe 500m from the border, and we walked the rest of the way.  We were harassed by touts and people offering help from the instant we got out of the taxi, but when we ignored them they gave up after maybe a minute.  Really?  That easy?  On the Ghana-Togo border I never did manage to shake them.  They must not see many western tourists here!

Asked a few people, and easily found the exit immigration shack for Congo.  Piece of cake, one or two questions about why we were in Congo, why we were going to Angola, and that was it.  Stamp, stamp, stamp, we were out of Congo.  I confirmed where to go next from the immigration guy, and left the house and turned left.  Someone started yelling after us…

Turns out he was the health dude, and wanted a look at our vaccination cards.  Nothing unusual there, until he grabbed a stamp, and stamped in both of them…”Cholera – Waived”  Um, excuse me?  I’ve had that vaccination.  But he was having none of it.  He’d exempt us from having that vaccine (probably chosen because it’s obscure) but we’d have to pay a 3,000 CFA fine each for the stamp.   It wasn’t the money, but the scam that set me off…and I went off on him…in that way that you know you’re gonna eventually have to convince him you’re alpha dog or you’re going to end up arrested.  50 or 100 countries ago, I would have been scared by his authority, and done whatever he asked.  I was now enough of an Africa veteran to push things.  I started chewing him out in French, and made up a great story…told him I worked for the WHO (World Health Organization) and if he was going to insist on this corruption I was going to call the Ministry of Health back in Brazzaville and confirm this.  He could decide to give up his scam….or (assuming he believed me) potentially have to answer to his big boss AND a UN agency.  To emphasize my threat…I pulled out my cell phone and started fake dialing….he paused….and we got an ALLEZ-Y!  GO AWAY!  …and it worked.  Jason and Jordan 1 – Corruption 0

Then, it was time for the real test.  Angola immigration.  Waited in one line, whose only purpose seemed to be to verify we had a visa, and he sent us to a small booth in the middle of the road.  This turned out to actually be the immigration officer….brief questions (since he didn’t speak english, and only a little french) about our plans in Angola.  “Today – Cabinda.  Tomorrow – Luanda.  Next – Sao Tome.”  He seemed to get what we were up to, was pleased with it, and stamped us in….wait, that’s IT?!

Right next to the booth Jordan changed the last of his CFA for Angolan Kwanza (most awesome currency name EVER btw) and that was it…we were done.  Terribly anticlimactic….really?

We’d read a taxi to Cabinda city would cost $100 US, and no sooner were we out of the fenced in area than a nice Toyota SUV pulled up, let out 6 passengers, and asked “Ciudad?”  Yes, we wanted to go to the city.  I’d used google translate for basic portuguese, so I knew “how much” as well as “80” and “100.”  So, I offered him $80.  He shook his head…”no $100″ ok, fine…it was a nice air conditioned SUV instead of a taxi, so we figured we’d go for it.  The ride could be up to two hours.  So we set of….

10 minutes into the drive, was a police booth on the side of the road….he wanted to check our passports to make sure we’d entered legally and had visas.  Yup, everything in order, we’re on the way.  What, no bribe?  Seriously?

The drive had some great views….notice the driver’s American flag air freshener:

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After a wide, we drove by the large oil complex, fenced in of course, home to tons of foreign oil workers.  Like Pointe-Noire, Cabinda exists for oil…part of why it’s so important to Angola.  As we approached the city, nearly 100km later, we approached the Cup of Nations statium, the destination for the ill-fated Togolese football team that had been attacked a few years prior:

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…and with that, we were in Cabinda.  The taxi driver made a weak attempt to tell us the hotel we’d picked sucked, and that he knew a much better one.  I’m sure you do, and I’m sure “much better” means my relative owns it and I get a kickback.  We declined, and he took us where we wanted to go.  Just like that…piece of cake.  It was surprising just how perfectly everything had gone, and I was still sure disaster was looming around the corner to pounce on us!

Nov 072013
 

Lots of pics of my day in Niamey, so I’m going to split this day into two parts to make it a bit easier to read.  Slept in a bit this morning, and definitely needed it. I felt like I’d hit the ground running when I landed in Benin several days prior and hadn’t let up until now. Plus, the room was nice and cool and dark so pretty easy to sleep.

Made my way down to the hotel breakfast, and there wasn’t much there except a few baguettes, a jar of store-brand hazelnut spread (aka imitation Nutella) and some instant coffee. It was pretty sad, but I was starving and it was only 3,000 CFA (around $6.50) so I went for it. Plus, it would allow me to wake up in the safe confines of the hotel while coming up with a plan to tackle my day.

The strategy was to find a driver who I could hire for the entire day who would take me to the sites I had read about online, as well as show me some things I might not consider. After breakfast, I headed out into the courtyard area of the hotel to hang around and see who approached me. Didn’t take long until one of the guys sitting around under the trees asked if I was looking for a taxi. First strategy “sure, how much would it cost to take me to the museum?” “Hmmm, 10,000 CFA” “That’s pretty steep – let’s say we do that and make it the whole morning, how much then?” “20,000 CFA” You see where this game was going. Finally, I asked him a price for “3 hours in the morning” then “2-3 hours in the afternoon after lunch” and finally take me to dinner, wait, and bring me back. “30,000 CFA.” I knew $65 was a fortune for a day’s work in Niger, but considering I was trusting this guy with perhaps my one and only time ever in Niger it would be worth it.

He seemed very happy with the deal, and was very anxious. He didn’t speak a word of English, but was very easy to understand in French, and I feel like even if I overpaid I got some great French and cultural lessons out of it too. Told him first thing I wanted to see was the Niger River. So off we went. The car even had AC, and he had no problem turning it on. It wasn’t very powerful, but just enough to turn unpleasant, dirty, dusty, smoggy air into mostly clean indoor air. I’ll take it!

First stop was the “Pont Neuf” or “Pont Chinois” – the “new bridge” or “Chinese Bridge.”  Built by the Chinese just a few years ago, this was the second bridge in Niamey over the river.  Until this, all traffic was on one narrow old bridge.  Not exactly a picturesque river:

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Not a bad bridge though…

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The mud on the banks of the river give you an idea just now nasty and brown it was. Continue reading »

Feb 142013
 

Got to our hotel, the Swiss Diamond Hotel Pristina, and check-in was a breeze. Hotel was quite nice, staff were friendly, and the room was quite nicely furnished as well. Overall, very impressed!  The front desk staff pointed us to some major areas to walk and where we might find a bar serving drinks, and overall were quite helpful.  Just a few thoughts on the hotel:

Breakfast was included and was quite comprehensive.  Set up in what looked to be a ballroom or conference room, there were several stations including eggs to order, all sorts of breads and pastries, cold meats and cheese, salads, hot meats, you name it.  Quite a good breakfast, and included in the rate.  The only downside was trying to get coffee, as it was quite hold to find servers.  Overall though, it was quite good.

Our room also had a balcony overlooking the city, with a pretty cool view:

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