Nov 272017
 


I had been pondering for a few weeks what to do with the Thanksgiving holiday week. Due to some comp time built up, it made sense to go somewhere for the week since I could get a nine day vacation for the price of two days. Due to some fluctuations with flights and availability my plans changed a few times, but as a long-time Zimbabwe watcher, when the coup (sorry, “protection of democracy”) happened it made my choice pretty easily.

Unfortunately due to some other commitments, I ended up having less time than originally planned and unfortunately it became a shortened trip, which unfortunately meant I arrived in the country the day after Mugabe’s resignation. You can’t exactly plan and time these things well, and at least I would be there the next day and see the very first day of post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Enough background, let’s get into the trip!

Delta flight 151
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Atlanta, Georgia (ATL)
Depart 15:04, Arrive 17:00, Flight Time: 1:56
Airbus A321, Registration N324DX, Manufactured 2017, Seat 14B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 136,002
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,500,403

Overall, a pretty average domestic hop to start the trip. Yes, I ended up in a middle seat, but at least it was Comfort Plus so I had plenty of legroom. Unfortunately, I had a “passenger of significant size” on BOTH sides of me. The gentleman in the window was as polite as possible and “leaned” toward the window as much as he could, but the guy on the aisle was far less pleasant. He insisted on keeping the armrest up, and made no effort at all to avoid spilling all over me. Ugh. Even in an uncomfortable position you can still make an effort to be as helpful as possible to your fellow passengers. I think the flight attendant took pity on me, however, because she she made the drink run and I asked for red wine…well, she was generous!

Delta flight 200
Atlanta, Georgia (ATL) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 18:17, Arrive 16:30 next day, Flight Time: 15:13
Boeing 777-200LR, Registration N707DN, Manufactured 2009, Seat 11A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 144,441
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,508,842

This was my first time on Delta’s 777 product, and although the seats were a little old-fashioned and worn, first impressions overall were pretty good. I’m a huge fan of all-aisle access, and this product does that will still being roomy and relatively private given the high walls.

“Tray service” in business class doesn’t bother me as much as it does some others, and I liked having the appetizer, soup, and salad at the same time so I could alternate bites as I felt like it. The ceasar salad was meh, although the dressing was pretty good. Loved the butternut squash soup, and the “butternut squash, date, and meyer lemon compote” was a little odd – but taste. Seems United’s asparagus fetish has company in Delta’s butternut squash fetish. Plus….pretzel roll! Yum!

Four choices of mains, and I went with the butter chicken. It was good, but nothing outstanding.

Cheese and sundae. Sundae was tasty, and I love the biscuit with it. Good selection of cheeses as well, cypress grove midnight moon, kaltbach gruyère, and buttermilk blue affinée. Overall pretty good for a business class selection, plus it came with fig compote so extra points! (yes, I’m still on my figs with cheese kick)

Dinner was over, and I managed seven straight hours of sleep before getting up and watching a bunch of tv. Shortly before landing was the second meal, which was either a lentil salad with grilled chicken or a hot roast beef and cheddar sandwich. The sandwich was really tasty, but the potato salad super bland. The blueberry tart, however, was quite good.

Not too much exciting to say about my overnight in Johannesburg. Had I planned better I probably would have connected straight to Harare that evening, but it was night to have one night in a familiar surrounding to relax. I was back at my favourite hotel by far in Joburg, the Hyatt Regency, where I had stayed just three weeks prior.

In fact, I had come back so quickly that the jacaranda trees still had some flowers on them:

Slept in, had some covfefe, and then it was time to head back to OR Tambo for my flight to Zimbabwe. Mugabe had finally resigned the previous evening, so I was very curious to see the energy on the streets when I landed.

South African Airways flight 28
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE)
Depart 14:50, Arrive 16:25, Flight Time: 1:35
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-SJV, Manufactured 2003, Seat 5F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,035
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,509,436

Despite being a mid-afternoon flight, a snack plate was offered. Nothing extraordinary, but a solid offering for such a short flight. You’d never see this in the US on such a short flight.

While waiting in line at immigration to pay for my visa, I noticed all the immigration officers seemed to be in great moods. I chatted a bit as mine wrote up my receipt, and cracked a joke about “what, did something exciting happen here recently?” It was like the entire nation was in the middle of one great big party, and I had just arrived!

I had arranged for a hotel driver to pick me up, since at $25 it was the same price the airport taxis were rumoured to extort you for. I was staying at Meikles Hotel, which had recently celebrated it’s 100th birthday in 2015 and bills itself as the oldest hotel in Zimbabwe. I’d read many reviews online that it doesn’t live up to its five star reputation and is old and tired, but my experience was exactly the opposite. No, it’s not a brand new sparkling hotel in Dubai, and I’m not usually one to go for “old school charm” but I found it a very nice place to stay – especially given its location in a country that’s been experiencing economic malaise for nearly two decades.

I had splashed out for a club floor room with a park view, figuring if the demonstrations were still going on against the government at the Parliament across the park I would have a great view. Unfortunately, I was a day late on that as the park was empty by the time I arrived, but I did have a great view! Parliament is just across the square past the trees:

Sun was setting, but I was determined to at least get out a bit before the sun went down. According to the map there was a Pick n Pay Supermarket just two blocks away, so I headed there to pick up a few supplies since I’d actually be spending multiple nights in the same hotel.

The supermarket was packed, and people were staring at me. I wasn’t entirely sure if that was due to me being the only white person in sight, or if it was the tattoos, but it was definitely noticeable. Not in an uncomfortable way, just once of those – I’m standing out here ways.

One of the things that had made me hesitant on the trip was the currency situation. Zim uses the US$ now, and travel sites warn you to bring lots of small notes, because nobody has change. I didn’t have a chance to get to a bank before going, so had to rely on yuppie food stamps for the trip ($20 bills) which turned out to be no problem. If they don’t have US$ change (which, in every transaction I made in the country nobody did) they give you Zim “Bond Notes” in return which everyone took for me at par. Supposedly you can exchange bond notes for US$ on the black market at a 30-40% discount, so I’d have to imagine that for any large purchase if you pay US$ cash you can probably negotiate a discount. Just saying…



That over, I really did want to get out of the hotel for dinner, so I grabbed a hotel car to Pariah State bar/grill in Barrowdale. I hadn’t had enough time to read up on the taxi situation, and while the hotel car price seemed a bit high at $25, it was a 20 minute ride and I figured for safety it was worth it. Dinner was rather tasty, and the people watching was fantastic. Plus…got to sit outside and have dinner which was a treat given winter is coming back in Washington.

Near the end of dinner, two low-level soldiers walked into the bar, and several white Zimbabweans went up and thanked them for what they’d done (ousting Mugabe) and took selfies with them. Amazing…this is why I chose to come now, and it was awesome to see people showing their appreciation to the military.

Decent night of sleep, even though I woke up a bit after 4am (I don’t know why – but the last year I’ve had a tough time with jetlag going to Europe/Africa, something I never had before) so I actually did a short workout in the hotel gym and then off to breakfast. One major negative for the hotel, the person who walked me to my room pointed out the club lounge and told me “you can have your breakfast there.” I asked if it was included, and he said yes…so I went. I was presented with a bill at the end of breakfast, but assumed it would be an internal charge back like many hotels do. Unfortunately, when I checked out, it was on my bill and I was told that whoever told me it was included was wrong…and they wouldn’t budge on the charge. Left a poor taste in my mouth.

Full menu to order from (the lounge has its own kitchen) as well as a mini buffet of fruits and pastries. I went with the eggs benedict, which was on the small side, but given its richness that was just fine. Very tasty, and excellent hollandaise sauce. I can forgive the lack of proper English muffins in Zim:

I had arranged a 9am walking tour with Lynnette from Free Walking Tours Harare, and let me just start by saying she was absolutely amazing! Great communication before the tour via Facebook messenger and WhatsApp, and since I was going to be the only client for the day, we could start whenever I wanted. Awesome!

We started at the Museum of Human Science, and I decided I didn’t want to spend my time in a museum – I wanted to be out walking and feeling the energy of the city. We walked for about 10 minutes, and the first place we came upon was the ZANU PF political party headquarters. The previous evening there had been a huge rally here to greet the return of (now) President Emerson Mnangagwa, and in the process, Mugabe’s face had been ripped out of a billboard:

The HQ building was an impressive structure, but has clearly seen better days. Looked like missing windows, and the exterior was a mess. I would have loved to go inside, but unfortunately that probably wasn’t a good idea given the political situation this week…

From there we walked another 15 minutes to the Harare Gardens. Lyn shared stories about spending weekends there in her childhood, and how the gardens aren’t in great shape now. She hoped with the new government, they could recapture some of their glory. A WW1/WW2 memorial in the gardens:

As we exited the garden, on the far side was the National Art Gallery. Sculpture outside:

Mask on a tree:

After another bit of a walk it was looking like rain, and just in time we reached the Roman Catholic Cathedral:

Very nice on the inside…and I loved how the pink/tan/dark hues played off each other. Lyn shared stories of Zim in the 70s and 80s when it was pretty much compulsory to be Catholic to have access to a good education. Stories of her family and their education, and it was very interesting to hear how things have changed over the last few decades.

Military vehicle in the street. First one I’d seen, so I asked the soldier if I could take a picture. Of course! I should have asked if I could climb up and take one with him…I’m sure he would have said yes. I really need to get better at asking what I perceive are “uncomfortable” questions so I can get better photos! Skill I have yet to master in all my travels!

In front of the Reserve Bank of Zim, with another military vehicle:

At this point we were back by my hotel, in front of Parliament. There were still a few signs out from the celebration of Mugabe’s resignation a couple days prior:

Loved seeing how participatory the whole thing was:

Parliament. Rare flag “flying straight out” shot. I try and get flags like this all the time, and rarely success:

The coup was so low-key, that the guy sitting out in front of Parliament was alseep:

Right next to Parliament was the Protestant Cathedral of St Mary. Very pink inside, and equally nice:

Quiet gardens behind the cathedral – you forget you’re in the middle of a bustling capital city:

Near the Parliament the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission had set up voter registration, and they were doing a brisk trade in people signing up to vote in the 2018 elections. Now that there is a chance of “free and fair” democratic elections next year, people were excited to register and make their voices heard. One thing every person I talked to said is “it can only get better. If the next guy is bad, we will not stand for it any more.” People were very excited for change, and virtually everyone felt it was going to be a major turning point for the country.

The Eastgate Mall – one of the first in the world to use architecture to provide for natural cooling via airflow. It was noticeably cooler inside, despite no artificial AC and 30 Celsius temps outside.

Took this pic on the walk back to my hotel, not knowing just how famous it would become. Several times over the next day I would see BBC, CNN, etc on tv, and all walking by and talking to these same three fruit vendors and interviewing them for their opinions. I’m guessing it was because they were one block from the one nice hotel in town, so that’s where the news crews ventured.

For example, BBC – I took this pic while having a bottle of water in the Club Lounge. Background look familiar? Yup, she’s in my hotel with the park in the background…exact same view as from my room. Most likely she was broadcasting from her own room less than three doors down from me.

It was early afternoon at this point, and despite a semi-heavy breakfast I was super hungry thanks to the long walk. I googled for a bit, and found there was an app called GTaxi with an online portal where you could supposedly book a driver – just like Uber. Price was given to you in advance, and they quoted me half the price of the hotel car to go back to Borrowdale, so I figured I would try it. Car showed up in under 10 minutes, was nice and clean, driver was chatty and professional, and was a great way to move around the city. Highly recommended!

I had lunch at the Pistachio Cafe in the Borrowdale Mall, and had a delicious “100% Zimbo Beef Burger” and a passionfruit/mango/etc smoothie which was all delicious.

After lunch walked around for a bit before calling GTaxi again to take me to the Zimbabwe National Heroes’ Acre. Unfortunately, given the “current situation” it was closed, as it is a bit of a politically sensitive site. Especially since the “war veterans” (of the liberation war) had come out against Mugabe when he failed to resign in his TV address, this was probably seen as a bit of a sensitive site. Oh well…at least when I called another GTaxi to come get me they were there in about 10 minutes.

Walked around the downtown a bit after I got back, but it was soon sunset so I retreated to the club lounge where I had chats with several very interesting characters. A few diplomats in town for the inauguration of the new president the next day, foreign news crews, a couple of ambassadors who were based in Pretoria but also tasked with covering Zim….it was a veritable who’s who of Southern Africa. This was my first time being in a “small” country at the top of international headline news, and I couldn’t have been more glad that I chose this hotel….and paid the premium to be on the club floor.

I had read on TripAdvisor, and some folks in the lounge confirmed to me, that one of the best restaurants in Harare was Sabai Thai. So yeah, Thai in Zimbabwe was such a strange concept, I had to go and check it out.

The restaurant was in a residential neighbourhood in a small house/garden, so another chance to eat outside. Even better, when I sat down, the resident cat hopped up on lap demanding to be pet. When I ordered the penang curry with chicken I was asked how spicy I wanted it. Potentially a good sign, as long as “spicy” didn’t mean “ok, has a little flavour to humour the westerner.”

I can confirm it was authentically thai spicy, to the point I scarfed three ciders total and had to pace myself as I ate. I’m going to attribute this to the owner’s wife who is from Thailand. DC has more Thai restaurants per capita than anywhere outside Asia so we’ve got lots of great Thai here, and Sabai Thai ranked right up there with the best of them. Very glad I made it for dinner, since it also was a very authentic local atmosphere and allowed me to get a bit of a feel for how those in Harare with money celebrate out on special occasions.

My flight was relatively early the next day so I made sure to get to bed early so I could enjoy a couple hours in the morning before heading to the inauguration. Good thing I was up early, because the club lounge was packed with dignitaries rushing off the the ceremony at the national stadium. Diplomatic staff from several southern African nation were having breakfast, and there was me…in shorts and a t-shirt, hanging out with them just observing.

Headed down to the lobby to go for a short walk before going to the airport, and had to pause…because there was a red carpet set up coming into the hotel, and people were lined up along it. I figured why not, so got in line…and no more than a couple minutes later a series of town cars pulled up with Zambian flags waving from them. That’s how I got a handshake from former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda! Pic I took while waiting my turn (I believe the other guy in the lei is one of the other recent Zambian presidents):

Flags and red carpet outside the hotel entrance:

Took the hotel car back to the airport, which is one of the few things named after Mugabe still standing. His picture has already been removed from the immigration hall, but the welcome sign to the airport was still there:

Bit of time in the lounge which was nothing to write home about, but loved that the news was calling it “Mugexit” LOL. Trying too hard there guys:

South African Airways flight 23
Harare, Zimbabwe (HRE) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 12:50, Arrive 14:30, Flight Time: 1:40
Airbus A320, Registration ZS-SZH, Manufactured 2014, Seat 4F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 145,629
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,510,030

Now, remember, this is an 80 minute flight tops. Lunch was offered, with THREE hot meal choices. I went with the lamb. While it might not look super appetizing, it was really tasty…and the potatoes were really good too. Just creamy enough, and the red sauce on the side (which I couldn’t quite figure out) made sure I finished my plate.

Headed to the South African lounge after clearing immigration and security. I was still undecided if I was going to stay another night in Johannesburg, or head straight home, and I was still holding reservations for both. I decided there was no point to another night in South Africa, given I had just been there for a week and didn’t know what I would do with what would literally amount to a dinner and coffee in the morning. Decided to skip it, and catch the next flight hope, saving a few hundred dollars in hotel/meals/etc.

South African Airways flight 209
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Accra, Ghana (ACC)
Depart 18:50, Arrive 22:45, Flight Time: 5:55
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 148,526
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,512,927

The South African flight from Joburg to DC stops three days a week in Dakar on the way, and the other four days in Accra. When I was working in Senegal I took it back and forth to DC several times, but I’d never had the opportunity to take it the whole way from Johannesburg. That might have been part of my motivation for going straight back too. Fortunately, the day I was going was a Dakar stop day. Why is that important? Well, on the days it stops in Accra the stop is from 10:30 to 11:30pm and the days in Dakar it is roughly 1-2am. Much easier on the body clock to stop earlier and have more time to rest on the redeye westbound to DC. Pre-departure champagne was offered in a nice glass flute (are you listening United?) and then we were off.

I was in the “mini cabin” of business with only three rows, and only 5 seats out of the 12 were occupied so it was nice and private and quiet.

Canapés and wine. While I applaud the effort to do more than mixed nuts, the canapés were soggy and relatively flavourless. Two days later, I can report I risked the cockroach of the sea (aka shrimp) and it’s tiny speck of caviar, and avoided food poisoning from it, hah.

Salmon and trout mousse starter. It was soup…or salad…OR starter. No, you can’t have more than one. Seriously South African, way to look cheap. The only reason I went with this option was for a bit more protein, but after one bite that was enough. Fishy tasting and overall yuck.

…at least there was garlic bread? Except it was soggy and had almost no garlic or butter taste. Oh, and you get half a loaf because it’s not cut well enough to pull apart.

Pan fried beef fillet…the beef was two tiny slices, like seriously maybe 3oz at most, and cooked beyond well done. Yuck. The highlight was the butternut squash (seriously…are you guys and Delta in cahoots?!) and the maelie pap and corn cake because it was novel. While I appreciated the reasonable portion sizes a la Finnair, it just didn’t work.

I posted a trip report a few months ago on South African’s new Airbus A330-300 with the 1-2-1 layout, and that was another reason I chose this flight. Glad to see the config was as comfortable as I remembered.

After dinner I fell asleep for nearly three hours, a good nap on the way to Accra. While I’d hoped to stay awake to Accra then sleep 8+ hours to DC, the body clock had other ideas.

According to TripIt, the Accra to DC flight is only 12% on time, and we were to be no exception. We arrived in Accra with only 30 minutes until scheduled departure, and ended up leaving nearly an hour late. By the time they had done what they called a “TSA security sweep,” cleaned the plane, catered, and boarded the new passengers, it took nearly 90 minutes. Not sure if our flight was typical, but 75% of passengers got off in Accra, and at least 100-150 new passengers boarded. You have to schedule more than an hour for all of that!

South African Airways flight 209
Accra, Ghana (ACC) to Washington, DC, Dulles (IAD)
Depart 23:45, Arrive 6:15 next day, Flight Time: 11:30
Airbus A330-300, Registration ZS-SXJ, Manufactured 2016, Seat 11K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 153,822
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,518,223

No pre-departure beverages offered, and actually no interaction with the crew at all. There was a crew change in Dakar, and while the first crew had seemed disinterested, this new crew was literally nowhere to be seen.

So bad that once we were in the air, the first interaction was a “we have dinner, you don’t want it do you?” Well, because of that, I had to see if it would be any better.

Nope, the canapés were similarly ugh looking. I ate one just to see….anyone who’s read my blog can probably guess which of the three I went for:

In complete fairness, the “soup of the day” was delicious – it was carrot ginger – and one of the best soups I’ve ever had on a plane. I didn’t ask if I could have the salad or appetizer this time because I wasn’t that hungry, but very glad I went for the soup.

I’m not sure what made me risk the beef again (just like the previous flight, there were four meal choices – beef, chicken, fish, and veg just like the previous flight) but the description of “grilled beef fillet with potato and pumpkin gratin” got me…partly because of the gratin part.

That said, this beef was light years better than the previous one, and the sauce and the gratin really added. A very solid meal. I don’t know if this is catered out of Accra or Joburg, but the two meals appeared to be night and day in quality. Sorry for the low-light pics, but this crew insisted on serving meals with the cabin lights completely turned down.

Despite the three hour nap, I managed to pass out after dinner for a solid six hours. I guess the previous days of less sleep than I’m used to had gotten to me so that was good at least. Why did I wake up? Well the crew insisted on turning on all the lights two full hours before landing, and the resulting noise resulted in me waking up since I was already halfway there. No big deal, I got enough sleep, but seriously, why do you need two hours for a small one-tray meal service? On this rant…they also insist you power down (yes, no airplane mode allowed) all electronic devices at the TOP of descent…a full 45 minutes before landing. Ugh.

Anyways, I went with the hot breakfast option. The eggs were meh as expected from eggs on a plane, but something about the mushrooms and red sauce were actually delicious.

Plus, given the hour delay, we were treated to a gorgeous sunset over the wing as we were on approach:

So, final thoughts on the trip. I literally decided the day that I left that I was going to do this, so absolutely zero planning went into the trip. That said, it was amazing. Sure, I wish I ‘d gone a day earlier and captured Harare the day Mugabe resigned, but you can’t exactly plan those things. Being there the first day in Zimbabwean history without him as President was equally amazing…especially when you saw how quickly people moved on and were ready to build a new nation.

It was also kinda cool to be so spontaneous and head 9,000 miles away on a whim. Great time, great experiences, and despite the exhausting I’m super glad I went. I’ve been struggling a little with “what next” after going to every country, and maybe I need some more spontaneous trips like this!

That said, no plans yet for New Years or 2018, so stay tuned!

Oct 032017
 



Landed at Domodedovo, immigration was a snap: “you are visiting a lot this year, what is the reason?” me: “our countries are great friends now.” him: “why do you speak such good russian” me: “I”m sure you speak even better english my friend.” …and that was that. Foreshadowing, but amusing…..

Was originally going to grab an Uber into the city given it was already late, but just in case there was traffic, and because I think the Moscow Metro is one of the best tourist sites in the world, I decided to hop the AeroExpress train. Arrived in the station with two minutes until the next train, quickly got my ticket, and settled into a completely empty business class car. Put in the earbuds, and hit shuffle, and my iPhone spits out “Back in the U.S.S.R.” The irony was absolutely delicious. I had the feeling this was going to be a great end to the trip.

Train, metro, and a 10 minute walk, and soon I was at my hotel. About five years ago, I stayed at the Sheraton on my first visit back to Moscow since the late 1980s, and had a fantastic experience. Since then, I’ve been staying at the St. Regis which is much better located, has an amazing breakfast, but is a but stuffy for my taste overall. This time, the Sheraton was an absolute bargain at barely 7,000 rubles, so I couldn’t say no.

Upgraded to a very nice one bedroom suite with way more room than I needed, and promptly proceeded to pass out given it was like 4am in Australia, where my body clock was still set to. Woke up in the morning, grabbed a quick bite in the executive lounge (where I was the only person there – guess there’s not much business travel in August) and headed out for a walk. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but decided to just head out and wander. Rain was in the forecast, so we’ll see how far I get.

Down Tverskaya Ul. towards Red Square, statue of Mayakovsky in front of the Tchakovsky Concert Hall:

It was cool out for mid-August (barely 10 degrees) but still lots of people out enjoying the swings in front of the concert hall:

Kept walking and walking, and soon I was at Red Square. I think. I’ve never seen Red Square like this before. Set up for a giant military tattoo, the whole square was full of booths selling things, and parade stands for the night’s show. I debated getting tickets, and it would have probably been a fascinating show, but I just wasn’t in the mood for what was being billed as a four hour extravaganza.

So, amid the thousands of tourists (mainly Chinese) I went into GUM. I’ve seriously never seen so many tourists in Moscow before. Is this an August thing, or a 2017 thing?

Clearly, someone in GUM was smoking some good stuff, because they had filled one of the fountains with melons as an art display. Uhhhh….sure? I like to think I have a pretty good window into the Russian national psyche, but this was beyond even my understanding…as is most modern art, to be fair.

Best part of GUM: the obligatory 50 ruble pistachio ice cream cone! Enjoyed outside, where it had gotten quite a bit warmer, in front of the Kazan Cathedral.

Walking off the jetlag was feeling great, so I kept going, until I got to Lubyanka. Lots of people were taking pics of this car, so I had to too. Felix would be rolling over in his grave at this ostentatious display of capitalism.

Felix is watching…

Meanwhile, the local Mexican restaurant across the street was trying to win over customers…this isn’t your grandfather’s Lubyanka anymore!

Right about this point I was tired…so I grabbed a Starbucks. As I exited, the skies began to get super dark and it was only about 2:30, so I decided to google “what to do in Moscow on a rainy day.” Remember how I mentioned above that I love the metro? Well, one of the first things that came up was a self-guided walking tour of the metro. Sold!

I’m going to do this up front and plug Moscow360’s self-guided metro tour. Go to their site. Click on the ads. I’ve been to Moscow dozens of times now, and this is seriously some of the best tourist advice I’ve gotten. Lots of history about the stations and the country, and a great introduction to the city. You must see it! No, I’m not affiliated with them at all, but they put out a damn fine tour!

So, since you can read all about it on their site, just the highlights.

Ploschad Revolutsii Station. Note the hammer and sickle, the years 1917 and 1947. This was the starting station of the tour…yes, this is the ticket hall. Imagine that in DC or New York!

What makes this station notable is the 76 bronze statues, in four sets of 19, of various professions of the “new Soviet Man.” If you know anything about Russians, they are super superstitious. All sorts of things, like having to touch certain objects they pass every day for good luck. We’ll come back to that in a second.

An athlete:

A student of some sort:

This guy? Well you might notice the bronze on his leg is a big rubbed off. It’s obviously been polished more evenly lately, but in the past supposedly his…well-endowed statue used to be noticeably touched over and over in the same place. I’ll let you guys why people were touching him, but given superstition, chances are it had something to do with either fertility or….bringing the magic back.

Moving onto Kurskaya Station, which was one of the first place there were designated capitalist busking stations set up. This band “C-Jam” was’s pretty unusual, but not bad!

Leaving Kurskaya station, the words to the Soviet National Anthem were inscribed in the rotunda. However, a while back under Comrade Kruschev, there was a verse erased from the anthem because…it mentioned Stalin. That meant it got erased from this rotunda as well…until Mr. Putin put it back a couple years ago. Basically translates to Stalin raising up the great deeds of the motherland.

Large sword on the wall of Kurskaya Station:

Wow, this hall in Kurskaya Station looks like it needs a statue…

Oh, look what used to be there. Another example of de-Stalinization.

Next up: Komsomolskaya Station. Look at the ornate ceilings – this could be a museum!

Comrade Lenin and the Hammer and Sickle and the end of the station:

Lenin mosaic on the ceiling….however, this didn’t used to be Lenin…it featured Stalin 50 years ago as well.

Super Soviet athletic…”woman.” Look at those biceps! Notice anyone missing from the reviewing stands of the Kremlin? Yup, Stalin used to be looking down on her…

Trampling out Nazis…

One more shot of Komsomolskaya, seriously, it felt more like a museum than a metro station.

Next station: Novoslobodskaya. I remember back on my first visit to Moscow in high school in the late 1980s, my classmates and I used to love riding the metro and imitating the announcer’s voice. “Be careful! Doors closing! Next station….” it used to always draw grins from Muscovites, one of those rare moments of sunshine in Soviet times.

Novoslobodskaya was one of the last stations finished under Stalin, and oddly enough, looks the most like a church with all the stained glass. Ironic as Stalin destroyed 2/3 of the churches in Russia at the time….

Mother, son, and the…..holy doves?

…oh, wait, this was the original stained glass. Stalin-approved. Supposedly, the lady was supposed to originally have three kids as well, but they were running behind schedule. Fearing Stalin would show up any minute and it would be unfinished, they rushed it to completion with one kid. Plus, what ideal hard-working Soviet woman would have all that time to be making three babies?

Next up is Byelorusskaya Station (Belarus Station.) Look at those hard-working soviet belarussian women!

Monument to Byelorussian partisans who fended of the Nazis in World War II:

Final station on the tour was Mayakovskaya. This station was somewhat lighter and a bit airy feeling, with great artwork on the ceiling:

Paratrooper:

Despite being light and airy, it again felt like a museum:

Exit elevators in Mayakovskaya Station. This is one of the deepest stations in the system, Stalin used to deliver New Years addresses to the people from here in World War Two. Also, note the huge steel blast doors designed to seal off the station in case of bombardment. The metro stations often served as bomb shelters during the war, and can still serve that function:

After heading back to the hotel, grabbing a light dinner, I headed off to my favourite craft beer bar in Moscow for some great drinks. I’ve posted about it here before so won’t go into too much detail, but Rule Taproom is a great place…as long as you don’t mind feeling slightly old. The selection of tap handles alone is fantastic:

With that, it was time to get some sleep before getting up and catching the train onwards to Leningrad…I mean St. Petersburg! Does it count as a new city if you haven’t been there since it changed names?

Sep 042017
 



After landing immigration was a pretty quick affair (where I saved $117 due to not being Australian) and then it was time to figure out how to get to my hotel. A nice trick I learned several years ago is that when landing after a redeye, unless you are really in the rush for some meeting or appointment, there’s no harm in sitting down, waking up, and figuring out your game plan for a new place.

Now, Santiago wasn’t new for me, but it had been nearly fifteen years since I was last there so I figured I should take my time and plan the next steps. Sat down at a coffeeshop in the immigration area, enjoyed some espresso to wake up, and plotted how I would get to the city. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been able to find an ATM, and I wasn’t sure that taxis would take credit cards, and Uber looked like an option, so I decided to go with that.

There were official taxis where the rate was just slightly higher than Uber (and the desk looked to take credit cards) but I decided to try and be a little more independent and try Uber. I was assigned a driver rather quickly, and within a minute he texted me in the app – asking where I was waiting. He didn’t speak any English, but with a little help from google translate I was able to work with him and find out there was an official waiting area for meeting your pick-up.

Walked to the area (across the main road outside the arrivals area) and while waiting, a couple different people told me not to bother – Uber is illegal here and nobody will come pick you up. Well, my driver did show up about 10 minutes later, but the first thing he told me too is that Uber is kind of illegal here, so if anyone asks…we are friends, ok?

No problem…and a good thing, because no more than two minutes down the road there was a police checkpoint where they were checking the papers of taxi drivers…and looking for illegal Ubers. They wouldn’t talk to the driver, only to me…”yes, he’s my friend.” “How do you know him?” “Well, my sister was here last year, and they met at a club, and when I told her I was coming here she told her friend and he offered to pick me up.” I’m not entirely sure they bought the story, but they did let us go. I think the driver was impressed with my ability to make something up on the spot…in my rather bad Spanish on top of it.

Traffic was pretty bad since it was around 9am, and finally made it to the hotel about 45 minutes later. The W had agreed in advance to honour the “My 24” benefit of my status, and allowed me to guarantee a 9am to 9am stay. Was great to be able to check in right when I arrived (even if it meant no upgrade) and after a quick shower I enjoyed a fantastic two hour nap that was just enough to recharge me for the day.

It was 11am by this point, and I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my day. I hadn’t really planned too much for this stop just in case I didn’t make it on the standby flight, so some planning was in order. Fortunately, there was a Starbucks right around the corner – allowing me somewhere to caffeinate and plan. Well, maybe not me, but some guy named “Jess” at least:

Couldn’t really decide what to do, and since I’ve had luck in other cities I googled “free walking tour of santiago.” Managed to find a company called Free Tour Santiago that looked good, had tours every day at 3pm, and no booking needed. Perfect! I would go check that out, and if it was promising I would go with it. After enjoying a bit of coffee, lunch, and the latest news about the DPRK and USA alarming the world, I headed out to make my way to the Plaza de Armas for the tour.

Figured out how the subway worked, how to buy a farecard, and I was off. The plaza was filled with interesting characters, and since I still had 30 minutes until the tour I took a bench for a bit to peoplewatch. What was perhaps the most interesting to me was the extremely high number of Haitians hanging out in the square. At least 100 in several small groups. I did ask my guide about it later, and he said most of them had arrived as refugees after the big earthquake several years ago, and were having a hard time integrating due to language barriers.

3pm came, and a light rain started. This wasn’t looking good for the tour. I did manage to locate the tour guide in front of the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago which was already getting set for the upcoming visit of Pope Francis.

Lots of people about, and looked like we would be about 20 for the tour today. Strangely enough, no Spanish speakers, only Brazilians and a mix of internationals who spoke English. Fortunately there were two guides, so they agreed to do one English tour and one Portuguese tour. Our group contained a couple of girls from Korea, a few Germans, a couple of American backpackers who gave up on the rain/tour after 10 minutes, and a couple of Danes. We decided to set off from the Plaza, and see how the rain went.

First thing in the square was the statue of Don Pedro de Valdivia, a Spanish conquistador, who “discovered” and founded Santiago in 1541:

Next up was the Mueseo Chileno de Arte Precolombiano. We just stepped inside for a bit to talk about the museum, and the guide gave us enough background in case we chose to come back on our own later. It was also raining very heavily at this point, so allowed us 15 minutes to get out of the rain. When the rain let up a bit we walked a bit more and made it to the Plaza de la Constitución and saw the La Moneda Palace:

In the square was a statue of Salvador Allende, so we stopped for a brief Chilean history lesson. The very short version: Allende was a Marxist who was a cabinet minister as a member of the Socialist Party. After unsuccessful runs for President in 1952, 1958, and 1964 he finally won in 1970. In 1973, the military (supported by the CIA) attempted to overthrow Allende and surrounded him in the La Moneda Palace where he eventually committed suicide.

Eventually Pinochet took over as President and ruled as a dictator until 1990, a period during which thousands of people mysteriously disappeared.

The rain continued to be a light drizzle, so the eight of us who remained kept walking to the Opera House, where across the street is a small restaurant.When Bill Clinton visited Chile he stopped in this place (for a Coke supposedly) and ever since the restaurant has completely branded itself around him – featuring a whole menu of Clinton-inspired dishes – including the “Monica Lewinsky” hot dog…

The rain had picked up again at this point, and the timing was perfect. We kept walking (into a trendy/expensive neighbourhood whose name I’ve forgotten) and stopped for snacks/drinks at a place the tour company had an agreement for. They had a “special menu” of food and drinks for the tour (supposedly cheaper than their normal prices) and we were encouraged to try the Pisco Sour.

I’d always though Pisco was a Peruvian thing (and maybe it is) but our guide insisted that it was a Chilean drink that the Peruvians had simply stolen. Now, given Pedro de Valdivia had come to “discover” Chile from Peru, the whole thing is up for debate really since the the breaking up into countries is a bit of an artificial colonial thing…

That said, the pisco sour was indeed delicious!

After the rain let up a bit we kept walking through a park, and enjoying the park, statues, etc….

Finally the tour ended up in an area known for nightlife. Now, this is usually the downside with free tours which is that they are geared to budget-minded travelers (aka backpackers) so tend to skew towards the activities more popular with the younger crowds…aka bars and clubs.

This one was no exception at the end, but as with some other great walking tours I’ve gone on there was plenty of history and a great intro to the city included, so it was well worth it. Plus, this tour ended at a place where the group could have a drink together, and the four of us left standing at the end did…plus, it was a place that brewed its own craft beer so was definitely a win!

After the tour was over I had a recommendation for a place near my hotel called Pizzeria Tiramisu to get dinner, and when I walked in I was shocked how busy the place was for a Thursday night. Tables were all booked, but the place had multiple bars inside and it was suggested to hover by them and wait for a seat. One opened up after about 10 minutes, and I was able to enjoy a nice lasagna and beer (and of course tiramisu) which was welcome after several hours walking around in the cold rain.

I was exhausted by this point, made it back to the hotel and crashed, since it would be a very early wakeup the next morning to continue on to Buenos Aires! Not too much to say about the W as a hotel – it was located in an upscale neighbourhood with lots of stuff within walking distance. It was very clean, very W-like, and not memorable. I would definitely stay there again, but given the rather expensive price I would also consider other options.

Sep 262016
 

After lunch it was back into the SuperJeeps, and off to explore more. Next stop was the Langjokull Glacier, but first, our drivers took great pleasure in charging the jeeps across progressively deeper rivers:

Eventually, we made it to the edge of the glacier, where we stopped for a break before heading onto the worst road I’ve been on anywhere in the world. Africa included. This was some serious off-roading over volcanic rock to get to the glacier. A panoramic with the glacier up ahead on the horizon:

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Heading up onto the glacier. The black is from the volcano which blew a few years back, spewing ash all over the glacier. This is actually a really bad thing because the black ash concentrates the sun, and melts the glacier at a faster pace:

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Deep crevice in the glacier…many of these go down as much as 100 meters….and there’s no telling where they end up. Possibly in an underground lake under the glacier, from which there would be no way out. Talk about a horrifying way to die!

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View across the edge of the glacier:

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Standing by one of the ash piles against the bright blue sky:

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View down the glacier towards the SuperJeeps:

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Melt from the glacier headed down into one of the deep crevices….I keep being terrified the ground would give way and we would tumble down…

After the glacier, we headed off to the Gulfoss waterfall. This is one of the prime attractions on the golden circle, and it was absolutely packed with tourists. Hundreds of people, to the point it wasn’t possible to enjoy the natural beauty. This was really the one place in Iceland I felt the tourist crowds, and it was the one place I would avoid next time. That said, look at that view:

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Video of the falls:

Amazing:

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Selfie with Phil in front of Gullfoss:

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On the way out of the falls, we were treated to not just a rainbow, but a double rainbow. Even nature decided to be a part of this big celebratory trip!

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Rainbow selfie!

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Amazingly, we were able to even see both ends of the rainbow:

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Then, for our final stop, it was off to the Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir is closely linked with the history of Iceland and is where the parliament of Iceland was first founded around the year 930. District assemblies were set up with a general assembly, the Alþing, which first convened at Þingvellir just before 930. This laid the foundation for the Icelandic Commonwealth, which was largely controlled by chieftains with some participation by ordinary people. As the site of the first parliament in Iceland, it’s seen as the place where Iceland really became a country. Did I mention it was also gorgeous?

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Panoramic shot after a 30 minute hike through the park:

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When we got to the jeeps at the end of the hike, our driver and guide Omar was just chilling with the jeep:

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One last group selfie from an amazing day on the Golden Circle and Glacier…with Omar chilling out on the left:

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After we got back to the hotel, got this amazing handmade wall hanging from mom. The best gifts really are those that people you care about put thought and effort into:

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Then, it was off to Kirsten’s Air BnB across the street, where it was time for drinks to celebrate being to every country. Celebratory Veuve with Dewon, Phil, Greg, and Clint:

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…because Kirsten and I are classy like that:

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Late dinner, and then back to the Foss for more awesome craft beers and craft cocktails with Lukas the Lithuanian bartender. Unfortunately, many people were leaving in the morning and lots of goodbyes were said. It was so amazing having so many people care enough to join me in Iceland for the final country, and was a real testament to the awesome people I have in my life! Off to bed, because there was still one more day in Iceland to enjoy…

Sep 232016
 

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

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

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

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View from the top, looking down over Reykjavik:

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

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

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

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Picture with mom and my brother:

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Part of the group enjoying the view:

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

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The lake:

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

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Faxi Waterfall:

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Faxi waterfall selfie:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Srokkur erupting:

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

Sep 182016
 

Fortunately, the mass 22 beer flight was consumed over enough time that it did no damage, and I had a great night sleep, waking up in plenty of time for breakfast. Lots has been made of the Fosshotel breakfast on TripAdvisor, so I might as well add my two cents.

Overall, it was a great selection. Certainly not world-class like many breakfasts in Bangkok, but a very solid performance for a breakfast that’s included with all rooms. They had a great coffee machine that made to-order drinks, a reasonable selection of fruits and pastries, eggs, deli meats, a good Scandinavian option of bread with cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, and deli meat, and pretty much anything you could want. Only downside is the breakfast room was pretty crowded at peak hours between 7:30 and 8:30, but it was never so packed we couldn’t find a space. That said, if you stay at the Fosshotel you’re already giving up on the serenity Iceland is known for, so I didn’t find it a bad tradeoff.

Fortified with breakfast, the entire group met up again at 9am for our Tour de Jour. I figured many people were probably still a bit tired with jetlag (as we had a few less experienced travelers) so I scheduled a shorter/more relaxing tour for the first day. We were headed out to the Reykjanes Peninsula, and then on to the Blue Lagoon. Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s also one of those things you have to do when you’re in Iceland. Our bus arrived right on time, and our rather geriatric bus driver herded the thirty of us on board.

We set off on a drive out of the city, headed in the direction of the airport. The Blue Lagoon would have been a much easier visit on the way to the airport or on the way back to the airport, but with everyone coming and going on different flights we decided to make a day trip out of it so everyone could go together. Our guide started sharing with us stranger and stranger stories, and complaining about the lack of infrastructure in Iceland for tourism – notably, the lack of bathrooms in rural places. We weren’t sure if he thought one of us needed one (I mean, we’d only left the hotel 30 minutes prior) or he needed one. We stopped at a series of rural farmhouse, and he came back defeated each time. At one point, while he was looking for a bathroom, we stopped and got to see a very friendly Icelandic horse (and quickly learned you don’t call them ponies):

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Next stop was about 15 minutes on, the bridge between two continents. This is the place where the European and North American tectonic plates meet and these ridges have risen up:

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Kirsten being all high and mighty and looking down on me from Europe:

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Hanging out in the neverland between Europe and North America, while others simply take the bridge back and forth:

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Fascinating land a mixture of volcanic rock, sand, and moss…

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Back on the bus, Ted found the only seat comfortable when you’re 6’8:

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Next stop was on the coast of the peninsula:

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Rocky outcrops on the far western coast of Iceland:

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A statue of a Great Auk, which went extinct about 200 years ago…playing with perspective and taking a photo with part of the group that had climbed a nearby hill:

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Selfie with Dewon on top of the hill, with the North Atlantic in the background:

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Fascinating geography:

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There’s lots of stories about hidden people and trolls in Iceland, and our geriatric driver only seemed to become animated when talking about them. We noticed the bus came complete with a troll on the dashboard:

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Final stop was an area of geothermal activity. Steam rising from underground – be careful to stay on the walked pathways as the ground is unstable and prone to collapsing:

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Smoking-hot selfie with Rich:

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After getting our fill of sulfur, it was off to the Blue Lagoon to relax. Unfortunately the sun wasn’t out, but it was still not too cold. After parking the bus in the Blue Lagoon’s rather large (and increasingly commercial) parking lot, you walk the path between volcanic rock to the welcome centre:

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The Blue Lagoon is definitely crowded, no getting around that. However, they do manage the number of entries every hour quite carefully so while crowded it was never so crowded that it felt too hectic. The only hectic part is the check-in area where you get your bracelet, slippers and robe if you paid for them, and directed to the changing areas. You do have to buy your tickets in advance as they definitely sell out (especially in the middle of the day) but it was possible for the one member of our group who missed that memo to buy one as a walk-up. Not sure if that was because there were already 30+ of us with tickets or what, but they did make it work.

After the mandatory change and shower, it was out to the lagoon:

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Panoramic shot of the lagoon:

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Part of what makes the lagoon famous is the silica mud on the bottom, which they scoop up (and maybe process) and put in bowls at the side. The idea is to make a mask of it which is supposedly good for your skin. Personally, I think it made me look more like a swamp creature:

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Ramzi and Jason, however, decided it made them look absolutely fabulous:

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This is also a good place to mention that you get a bracelet which has an RFID chip in it, and is used to track all your purchases inside the lagoon. Our first drinks were included, and there was a maximum of three drinks per person for safety reasons.

There was also a photographer off to the side taking pictures and e-mailing them, and the most shocking part of it was that they didn’t even ask you to pay for them. Pic of a part of the group:

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When you leave the lagoon, you have to stop by the cashier before you can get out. They scan your bracelet, collect any payment due, and they you have to scan your bracelet with a zero balance again to get out the turnstyle. It’s all rather well organized and efficient, and we had a great time spending a couple of hours there relaxing away the jetlag.

Then it was back on the bus to the hotel, where it was already late afternoon. After a short rest a group of us met up to head to the largest church in town, the Hallgrimskirkja:

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It’s a fully-functioning church, but also functions as a tourist attraction with an observation desk that provides a nice view of Reykjavik. For a price, of course.

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After taking in the views, we headed off to find somewhere with happy hour to have a few drinks before dinner. Unfortunately, this was also the one time on the trip that it decided to rain, so we ducked into the nearest bar with seats. After drinks, the group split up a bit to try and find something to eat. Getting increasingly frustrated that everywhere seemed to have no open tables, the group continued to splinter further and further, and eventually our smaller group of eight ended up at Steikhúsið – or steakhouse. They were able to seat all eight of us, and looked to have an interesting menu, and it was still pouring rain, so was an easy choice…until we got the bill, of course.

Starter of reindeer samosas….

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The surf and turf platter of horse and minke whale steak…along with fried sweet potato tots. Yum!

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Group shot at dinner:

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After a delicious meal fortunately the rain had reduced to a light drizzle/mist, and the 1.5 km walk back to the hotel wasn’t that bad. When we got back, some of us met up in the lobby bar where we discovered one of the Fosshotel’s hidden treasures – Lukas the Lithuanian bartender. You just had to give him an idea what you want “something with gin and an icelandic twist” and he’d come up with craft cocktails featuring local spirits, herbs, berries, you name it. Plus, he was really fun and chatty and added a great ambiance. If it wasn’t for the group of 30 geriatric german tourists all ordering Irish Coffees, where each espresso shot had to be pulled by hand, it would have been an amazingly relaxing atmosphere. Then, it was off to bed, since our big tour day left early the next morning.

Sep 162016
 

We finally arrived at our hotel, the Fosshotel Reykjavik, a little before 3am after the bus drama, and check-in was reasonably efficient given the hour. Only one problem – they couldn’t find one of the reservations. Fortunately my check-in didn’t take too long, and it was up to the room by around 3am. Found out the next morning that Garrett had to wait another 30 minutes for them to figure out his room. Ugh!

I decided I was going to sleep in and stay closer to east coast time for a day, since if I tried to operate on 4-5 hours of sleep it wasn’t going to get the trip off to a great start. Being around 11pm east coast time when I finally got to sleep I slept very soundly, finally waking up around 11a local time. When I did finally wake up, I took a look out my window and had a great view of the city:

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We (the group that arrived late) had made plans to meet at 11a to find some food and more importantly coffee, so set out on a walk. Found a nice little coffee shop where we grabbed coffee and tried to wake up. We still had plenty of time before the group was meeting for the planned tour, so walked back to the hotel via a longer route along the water:

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When I did get back to my room, there was a nice vase of flowers from the hotel as a congratulations (thanks mom for guilting them into it!) which made the room much more festive. I think this was the first time outside a couple of work trips that I’d spent five nights in the same hotel room in a long time, so it was a very nice touch!

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At 2pm those of us staying in the hotel met up to walk to the meeting point for the walking tour of the city. It was about a 20 minute walk to the Parliament where the tour would kick off, and mostly downhill, so made for a nice walk. Unfortunately the angle of the sun was bad for getting pictures of the parliament, but in the square – known as Austurvöllur – was a statue of Jón Sigurðsson, a leader of Iceland’s independence movement:

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We soon found our tour guide Marteinn from CityWalk Reykjavik, who had agreed to lead a private tour for us. The first piece of the tour was about the parliament itself which was built in 1881, long before Iceland’s independence. The square was also the site of many protests, including a 1949 protest against NATO and the 2009 protests which brought down the government after the financial crisis. Apparently Icelanders are rather polite when they protest, preferring to bang wooden spoons on anything that makes noise.

From there we walked just around the corner of the square to the statue of Skuli Magnusson who lived in the 1700s and was largely responsible for the founding of Reykjavik as a city…such as it was in those times with just a couple dozen people:

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From there we walked through the old part of the city where there was a marker of the year 874 which is when a Norwegian chief named Ingólfr Arnarson and his wife arrived in Iceland. According to the Landnámabók he threw two pillars over the side of his ship and vowed to settle the land wherever they landed. When he found them again, he set up home there and named the place something along the likes of Reykjavik, which he translated as “smokey cove” – although it’s questionable what he really meant to call it. The pipe attached to the pillar is venting steam from the underground thermal pools:

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We walked a bit more in the downtown of the city, and Marteinn told us about Iceland’s most famous traditional dish – the hot dog. He was just kidding, but we passed the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand, home of Reykjavik’s most famous hotdogs…and where tourists and locals alike form a massive queue to get one of these treats. Seriously, I don’t know why, but Icelanders seem to love hot dogs. Marteinn also educated us that what are viewed as “traditional” Icelandic foods such as whale, horse, and puffin, are really not eaten much anymore…except by tourists.

He also told us about Brennivín, also known as the “black death.” It got its name because shortly after prohibition ended they put a skull and crossbones on the bottle to warn against drinking it…and the name apparently stuck. It’s apparently best enjoyed with fermented shark, which Icelanders do apparently still eat. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a stop to try it…

From there we walked up the Arnarhóll, which is located next to Iceland’s Supreme Court. It was a good place for the first of many group pictures…

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From there we continued to a monument to the women of Iceland, where Marteinn again comment on the suspicious underrepresentation of women in our group. He noted that Icelandic women were famous for many inventions, and I was also shown a famous Icelandic invention – the beer mitten. Unfortunately, no beer was provided with it, but there was a nice Icelandic orange soda to enjoy:

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From there, we walked towards the City Hall and the lake that sits in the middle of the city centre:

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This is where we learned a couple of very important facts about dating in Iceland. Apparently there’s a website called the “Book of Iceland” where you can put in your name and the name of the person you’re thinking of dating, and learn just how distant of relatives you are. In a county with only a couple hundred thousand people apparently this is important….

Marteinn also pointed out that because Icelanders are very big on gender equality, having even had a lesbian Prime Minister recently, they had recently erected a new display in the city hall. Since the city has a penis museum, they felt it was also important to have a giant vagina painting hanging in the City Hall. No, I’m not making this up.

After showing us around for a few hours, Marteinn left us to explore on our own, and naturally several people went to find the painting…unfortunately, the City Hall had just closed and they were left disappointed. I can’t recommend Marteinn and CityWalk Reykjavik enough. It was a fantastic introduction to the city and to Icelandic history, and also a wonderful chance to walk off some jetlag.

Next up was celebrating visiting every country with a celebration beverage, but first, a few of us circled back to the hot dog wagon for a snack:

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There really wasn’t anything special about the hotdog, but “everything” included ketchup, mustard, remoulade, crispy fried onions, and raw onions. It was definitely tasty!

It was just warm enough to sit outside and enjoy some happy hour two for one drinks:

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After happy hour ended it was back to the Fosshotel where the sun was just setting over the city. View from my room:

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A short while later, a group of us met up in the hotel’s beer garden for dinner and more celebration drinks. The beer garden has 22 beers on draft, and offers them all in a tasting flight. Phil and I were up for the challenge, and although it took a bit of time to get through them all, I’m proud to say we defeated the giant towers of beer:

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This was polished off with some tasty fish and chips before calling it a relatively early night. We had to be up early the next morning to head out on our tour, and I wanted to make sure I was up early enough to get some breakfast beforehand!

Jul 202016
 

Tried to sleep in a bit, but due to the time zones was up super early. Got to breakfast shortly after 7 and they still weren’t open but went back a little later and they were. The odd thing, the breakfast buffet was set up in a restaurant that had only one purpose all day: to serve breakfast. It was a huge room, definitely capable of seating a few hundred, but at no time did we ever see more than ten people there. The whole atmosphere was surreal.

The breakfast buffet was also quite large, with plenty of options, included a white chocolate fountain and fruits for dipping. It was a very strange combination of items, but more than enough choices. It actually felt rather wasteful as few people as there were there, but I was happy to get a good start to the day. Shortly after, I got a text from Ian that he had survived the post-terrorist attack chaos at Istanbul Airport and had just arrived in Ashgabat and met the driver. Shortly after he got to the hotel, and we headed out to do a city tour.

First stop was the ancient settlement of Nissa. The site is located about 10 miles outside of Ashgabat, and the driver said we should do it first thing in the morning since it involved a good deal of walking and it would be better to start before it got too hot. It was already nearly 90 degrees fahrenheit at 9am, so this sounded like a good plan. Nissa was a settlement of the Parthian Empire which lasted around 500 years from 250 or so BC to 250 or so AD. The Parthian Fortresses of Nissa are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but excavation has been slow. In order to protect the sites from the elements, many of them have been covered in mud temporarily to protect them. Here’s one spot where the mud was peeled aside to show just a little of what’s underneath:

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Part of the old fortresses, partially restored. It was difficult to tell what was original, and what was restored:

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Obviously, this part is mostly restored:

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We wandered around for an hour or so, but it was really difficult to get much sense of the place because so much of it still had yet to be excavated. It was still interesting to see, but having seen so many other ancient ruins at places like Leptis Magna in Libya, this was more than a little bit underwhelming. I asked if we would be seeing the tall rotating statue of Turkmenbashi that used to sit in the city, and it was announced that was where we would go next.

The statue has been placed outside the city now, and while the gold statue of Turkmenbashi still stands atop, he no longer rotates so he is always facing the sun. According to our guide, this may actually be a legend, as nobody admits to remembering seeing it rotate in the past. I guess this is what happens when one ruler-for-life is replaced by another. The monument is known as the Neutrality Monument, built to commemorate Turkmenistan’s status as the only officially neutral state in the world:

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Great views of the City of White Marble from above the viewing platform:

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Although you can’t really see it in the pictures, one of the interesting features is that all of the government ministry buildings (which were absolutely huge and made of white marble) were constructed in the shape of what they were in charge of. For example, there was the ministry of health located near the local medical university. The building for dental studies was shaped like a large tooth, for example. The Foreign Ministry had a large globe on the roof, with Turkmenistan outlined in gold. The Ministry of Health itself was shaped like a giant syringe. We were told that one joke was if the University ever opened a department of OB/GYN studies you had to wonder what the building will be shaped like…

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Funicular up one of the legs of the tripod, and from there you take an elevator to the observation deck:

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Looking up at the monument from below:

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Last stop before lunch was the Turkmenistan Independence Monument, surrounded by famous people from Turkmen history. None more important, of course, than the leader himself:

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Celebrating Turkmenistan’s independence, and trying to look half as fierce as the guys in the background:

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After a morning of monuments, we headed back to the hotel to get some lunch, and get out of the heat of the day. Before heading back, however, we needed to change some money. A very…favourable rate…was obtained, and suddenly prices didn’t seem to be quite as much of a rip off. On the way back to the Yyldz Hotel we stopped at the National Wedding Complex, complete with its own hotel for guests who come from outside the capital to get married: Definitely an interesting architecture:

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View of the city from the hill outside the Yyldz Hotel:

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We grabbed lunch at the hotel restaurant, not to be confused with the breakfast restaurant. This one was on the second floor from the top, complete with white tablecloths and a very formal atmosphere…and nobody other than us eating. Grabbed a couple of club sandwiches and beers, and took a couple hour nap before our long evening excursion.

After resting up, it was time to begin the approximately three hour drive out to Darvaza to see the flaming gas craters. We had originally planned to camp near the crater and spend the night, but being exhausted and in need of a good night of sleep we opted to drive back afterwards and just sleep in in the morning.

The drive itself was pretty uneventful, and the road was in decent condition most of the way. We stopped at a small village near the crater to stock up on important supplies: local beer and snickers bars. Definitely the dinner of champions!

First stop was the “water crater” and yup, it was filled with water. It was easy to climb over the security ropes, and get very close to take pictures. I definitely didn’t want to fall the 50+ feet down into the crater, however. Pretty obvious there would be no easy way out!

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Second stop was the “mud crater” which clearly had some gas burning off as well, but there was lots of bubbling mud. Again, you could get really close, and in this case falling in was definitely not going to have a good outcome:

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After these two craters we headed off to the final stop, the flaming gas crater. On the way, it was a bit of offroading through some very desertesque landscape:

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Final stop, the Darvaza Gas Crater, otherwise known as the Door to Hell. It collapsed in 1971, and geologists set it on fire because local nomads kept wandering into the area and dying from all the poisonous gasses being released. They had expected the gas to burn off quickly, but now nearly 45 years later it is still going. The crater is more than 200 feet across and 70 feet deep:

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As the sun began to set, we wandered up onto a nearby hill to take some pictures:

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Ian looking down on the crater from the hill:

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Sunset. You can’t tell from the picture, but there was an extremely strong wind in the open area, and I can’t imagine pitching a tent to camp there. It would definitely been a very windy and very uncomfortable night:

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Sunset, with the crater in the distance:

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Shortly after sunset, the crater gave a brilliant glow against the night sky:

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Looking evil next to the flaming crater at night. It was hard to stand this close because of the extreme heat:

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One last look:

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By this point we were quite tired, and I’m pretty sure I slept on and off (mostly on) for the rest of the drive back to Ashgabat. We arrived around 12:30am, and I crashed hard for nearly 9 hours from exhaustion. Coming back was definitely the better call, because with a 4am sunrise, combined with sleeping in a tent it would have been very difficult to get enough quality sleep. Next up, time to see a bit more of Ashgabat and then head to Mary and see the Ancient City of Merv.

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:

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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:

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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…

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Memorial to slavery on the top of the island:

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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:

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

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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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View of Dakar from the hill the monument sits on:

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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:

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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 172016
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our boat:

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Just kidding…this was our boat…marginally better:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jufurreh…a baby-friendly community!

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

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

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

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

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Soon, we were approaching Kunta Kinteh Island:

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

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

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Cannons from the Old Fort:

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More ruins of the fort:

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

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

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

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

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Beach chairs, and a volleyball net:

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

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

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

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

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

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