Jul 242018
 


Had a nice leisurely morning since we were in no rush, and let the host know we wouldn’t need breakfast since we were going out for one last long walk and would just grab something on the way. In a way, I think they were a bit offended we didn’t want to eat breakfast there, but at the same time…it saves them money. I’ve never understood how a hotel/etc is such an important part of the experience that it’s so important – but then again I’m not a big breakfast person. Give me a nice strong cup of coffee and maybe a small roll or such, and I’m good to go.

Strolled around the city for a bit, grabbed coffee at Polynesian Coffee and Tea again, and after only two days the proprietor was sad to see us go. Seriously, if you go to Easter Island and like good coffee, this is the place to go to!

Our host dropped us at the airport (after making sure again that everything had been perfect, and nothing was wrong with the breakfast) and gave us leis again as a farewell. A fantastic island experience that made us feel more like family than hotel guests, and I can’t recommend it enough if you’re looking for a unique experience.

I just realized, it seems like I’m gushing about this trip. Maybe that’s because I finally spent four straight nights in the same place on vacation. Maybe it’s because we tried a few unique new things and really enjoyed them…either way, it definitely ticked the box of a nice relaxing vacation!

Nice quick check-in at the tiny airport, and grabbed a shot of our plane from the other side of the fence while waiting to be let through into the secure side of the airport. I’d say the departures hall but, well, it’s not so much a room as just the open air on the other side of the security screening!

In the security line is when I realized I still had the key for the geodesic dome. I went up to the coffee shop in the airport, and figuring since it was a small island, I could just ask her to call the owner…and then leave the key with her. She wasn’t able to get ahold of him, but promised she’d hold onto the key until she could get ahold of him and he came to pick it up. There’s something to be said for small places where everyone is like family!

LATAM flight 844
Hanga Roa, Easter Island, Chile (IPC) to Santiago, Chile (SCL)
Depart 11:25, Arrive: 17:45, flight time: 4:20
Boeing 787-8, Registration CC-BBB, Manufactured 2012, Seat 2H
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 61,049
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,581,324

Ooooh welcome aboard and pre-departure beverages offered by a friendly crew…including champagne and mixed nuts…before takeoff!

Today’s flight path:

I decided to go with the tuna steak, which was kinda meh, but the whipped sweet potatoes (at least that’s what I think they were) were delicious in a balsamic sauce…salad was ok, but the passionfruit creme bruleé (if I’m remembering right…maybe it was mango) was delicious:

Nothing much to say about this relatively short flight. Domestic flight so we went straight to the taxi area, and probably 10 minutes from the door of the plane opening we were in our taxi. Unfortunately, it was absolutely pouring rain, and there were multiple accidents all over the place, making our drive to the hotel take over TWO HOURS. Yes, I get that it was rush hour on top of it, but what a nightmare experience.

We didn’t have much energy at that point for anything other than a quick dinner, so walked a few blocks to Tiramisu which had opened a new room since the last time I’d been there, that was a bit of a bar with 20 craft beers on tap. The perfect place to destress after a long taxi ride.

Slept in a little the next morning, and went down to enjoy the breakfast buffet at the W. I wasn’t all that hungry, but it was nice to have a wide variety of fresh fruits to choose from after being on an island where that was slightly lacking. The Belgium-France football game was underway in the lobby/bar area as we went to breakfast, and it seemed like half the hotel was there watching it:

Not a bad view from our hotel room in the morning either:

It was a pretty overcast day, so we decided to just take it easy and having a casual day before meeting up with the Free Santiago Walking Tour. I had done this tour when I was there the previous August and really enjoyed it, but it had also been raining which made it not so fun, and since Phil had never been to Santiago again we decided to go.

Not too much to say, but I enjoyed it way more without the rain…and we ended up having the exact same guide which I had had almost a year before! I ended up not taking any pictures, not intentionally, but I think I was just focused on seeing everything I had missed the prior time when I was focused on staying dry and taking pictures.

After the walk we ended up at KrossBar Bellavista, where we enjoyed a few good craft beers while warming up from the slightly chilly walk:

We ended up heading back to the hotel after KrossBar, and grabbed a really quick dinner at Tiramisu again before getting to bed earlyish. We wanted to be up at a reasonable hour to do a bit more sightseeing before we headed to the airport for our flight home. We fortunately had a 4pm checkout, so that would give us time to sleep in a little and still see some things.

First up was a walk to the SkyCostanera, and a ride up 60+ floors in the escalator to the observation deck. We had one of the supposedly rare crystal clear days in Santiago, and the place was pretty crowded because of it. But look at those views!

Looking the other direction:

From the 61st floor you could take an escalator up one more floor to the 62nd floor outdoor observation deck. Looking up, nothing but blue sky!

One more look at the mountains….what a view:

Bit of a wide-angle shot so you can see the windows too…I was a bit surprised with my fear of heights that this didn’t bother me at all:

In the mall at the bottom was a grocery store, with something I’ve never seen in any other country. Choose your shopping trolley by volume!

We still had a little time, so hopped on the subway and headed to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, a museum and memorial to the thousands of people who disappeared under Pinochet’s dictatorship. Museum from the outside:

Wall containing pictures of “los desaparecidos” – the disappeared:

I think the story of the disappeared is one of the earliest political memories I have – thanks to a song by Sting of all people about the mothers who danced alone in the square with pictures of their disappeared loved ones hung around their necks. Out of fear of being arrested themselves for protest, they danced in silence with the photos…which I imagine must have been a terribly powerful sight.

Back to the hotel to head home, I noticed this collection of colourfully painted park benches near the hotel:

Another colourful bench:

…of course, we couldn’t resist stopping for one last pisco sour, which was by far the strongest and tastiest of the trip…and there might have been a second just to be sure.

…back to the hotel where the Russia/Croatia game was wrapping up, and a 4pm checkout turned into 5pm…but the W was fantastic about it, and happy to give us the extra hour. Next time, no doubt I’ll be returning here again. Now…off to the airport to begin the long, long trek home!

Jul 232018
 


Our last full day on Easter Island, and we were up again for a 9am half day tour. We’d found a rumoured coffeeshop on TripAdvisor that supposedly opened as early as 7am, so decided to stop by on the way to the tour. Polynesian Coffee and Tea turned out not only to be open, but have a super friendly proprietor and brewed a very nice strong double espresso. I would definitely have the energy to power through this tour!

Much smaller tour group for the half day tour, only about eight of us, including a couple of people who’d also been on the full day tour before. I made a couple more efforts to engage them in conversation, but it was in vain – they were just completely uninterested. Well, their loss 😉  First stop of the day was on the south side of the island at Ahu Vinapú.

Runs of several moai knocked off a platform…against the ocean. Easter Island sure knows how to make even an amateur photographer look pretty good!

Ruins of the platform, and the head from one of the moai. One thing that was different about this site is that the stones on the platform were set absolutely perfectly next to each other with little gap, leaving them to wonder…why.

Sad moai face looking up at us:

After Ahu Vinapú it was time to drive back up to the crater we hiked the first day. I was really looking forward to this, because it would give us a chance to appreciate it not winded, and in much better light. See what I mean? Look at that view down into the crater!

We were also not too tired to go and find the village of Orongo. We might have actually gone on the first day if we had known how relatively easy it was…a simple walk around the “right” side of the crater….until you come to “end” of the crater, which you can see in the first picture above as well from the other side:

So, this is a good place to talk about the Legend of the Bird Man (known in Rapa Nui as the Tangata Manu). Every year, one young man from each tribe would live in seclusion out at Orongo, training for the annual bird man competition. Whenever the first sooty tern (bird) would return to the island and lay an egg, all the young men would swim out to the islands of Moto Nui and Moto Ini and look for the eggs. The islands:

First one to bring it successfully back to the main island, their patron (you didn’t think they’d actually get the reward, did you?) was named the Bird Man for the next year, and basically lived like royalty. Yes, many of them died while attempting it, including falling from the cliffs and being eaten by sharks.

The houses in Orongo where they lived while training. Those doors are barely a foot high, and the inside 3-4 feet high. The idea was that when visitors came, they would have to crawl in on hands and knees, automatically making them submissive to the owner:

Near the ruins of Orongo were also some recreations of cave art which had been found:

One more look down into the volcanic lake:

One last stop on the way back to town, at the very same caves we’d walked by the first day and been unable to go in because the cave was collapsing. Oh well, a great chance to get better pictures in a bit better lighting:

After being dropped off from the tour, we headed across the street and had lunch at what TripAdvisor called the best bargain on Easter Island: a restaurant called “Club Sandwich.” Lots of reviews mentioned they ate here every day because it was such a good bargain. I had the Rapa Nui Burger, which was basically a hamburger with cheese and grilled peppers…sort of like a cheesesteak version of a burger. Delicious, but omg so heavy and filling.

After lunch, I wasn’t feeling overly mobile, and it was a gorgeous day, so we parked ourselves next to the ocean and just enjoyed it…and had a few pisco sours…and watched the ocean…

Back to Mama Nui Glamping for a little bit of late afternoon relaxing, and enjoying our geodesic dome one final time.

After a bit of a rest, we headed to the ice cream place by the glamping site, and had ice cream with the locals one last time. No idea why this place wasn’t more popular with tourists, but it was always packed with locals. Mmmm, rum raisin:

I made a friend who wanted a bit of my ice cream….I was sad I couldn’t take him home!

…I’m a sucker for that sad face!

Back to Te Moai, where we enjoyed one last round of sunset pisco sours:

…and Mother Nature cooperated and put on a spectacular show!

The place we were thinking of eating was hard to find, so we eventually ended up at a different place….which brought me a huge octopus carpacio and bowl of mushroom risotto. Waaaaay too much food today, but delicious!

Full and happy, it was back to glamp for one final night before getting ready to fly to Santiago for a few days in a real hotel!

Jul 212018
 


With a 9:00am tour, we wanted to get up in plenty of time to get some coffee. Our glamping dome didn’t serve breakfast until 8:30, but was nice enough to pack us some brown bag breakfasts….which contained several rolls and muffins, an apple, several other smaller items….and a can of Marley brand matcha. As someone who doesn’t normally eat breakfast all this fuss was nice, but waaay more food than I’m used to. Another plus to the glamping place: a huge breakfast to start your day off!

While snacking on it, the offender who tried to wake us up every morning starting around 4am wandered by….

Took the shortish walk to Mahina Tours, where our group was just assembling for the day. We had an actual small bus, and there would be 20 or so of us doing the full day tour. Strange tour group, in that even by the end of the day nobody was the least bit chatty, and meeting other people was quite difficult.

First stop of the day was way off to the other side of the island on the east, Rano Raraku, where the vast majority of moai were carved out of the volcano before being transported to other parts of the island. This has been determined by scientists based on their mineral composition being the same as the rock on the volcano, but nobody has any idea how these many ton statues were transported. Personally, I’m buying into the aliens theory.

When we got to Rano Raraku, it was off on a guided hike of the moai that were still hanging around the site. We hiked for about an hour, and our guide for the day gave a really complete explanation in spanish, followed by about 75% of the same information in Spanish. You definitely got a little more out of it if you understood Spanish, but the English part of the tour was great as well.

Right, with no further ado, moai #1 of the hike:

Bunch of moai, you know, just hanging around. Note all the lichen on many of them:

The side of the volcano was literally covered with them…most looking out towards the ocean:

Perfect lighting:

After the hike and more moai than I could count, we had about 30 minutes of free time, and we used it to climb up the side of the volcano so we could see the crater lake. This volcano wasn’t nearly as high as the previous one, and we were rewarded with a nice view nonetheless:

After that it was back in the bus for the short 10 minute ride to the coast, and one of the most impressive lineups of moai on Easter Island: Ahu Tongariki.

I really wanted to get a picture with all of them, but despite being there nearly 45 minutes people would go and stand in front for like 10 minutes…and hold long conversations, despite multiple people asking them to move. Every country visited, and I’m still amazed just how many people are so inconsiderate of others.

Right, that said, I took my pic in a minute and got out of the way:

Well-worth waiting 45 minutes to get this shot:

After Ahu Tongariki it was approaching 1pm, so we were back in the bus for the ride back to town and Mahina Tour’s headquarters where lunch was served. It was nothing fancy (juice, grilled chicken leg, rice, cabbage, etc) but was definitely better than expected, and more than enough to get us through the tour. Getting artsy with some flowers out in front of their building while waiting for everyone to get back on the bus:

Final stops of the day were on the north part of the island, with amazing views to the ocean:

A magnetic rock…don’t ask me…but for some reason they felt it really important to show us. A bit of a let-down after all the moai!

Our final stop was Anakena, a beach on the north part of the island. It might have been fun to go for a swim (although the water would have been freezing cold) but we opted just to walk around and enjoy. We’d considered the hike/walk from Anakena back to town on our last day, but it would be around 6-8 hours, and we weren’t convinced we’d see anything that new or unusual so decided to skip it. Right, the beach:

Another moai platform at Anakena….bright sun made for not the best pic, but I do like how they were throwing shadows from the sun right behind:

Stop was a bit longer than it needed to be if you weren’t swimming, but the great tourist hoards had been planned for, and there were a couple of cafes on the beach. We decided to enjoy a beer while we waited, and quickly made some new friends:

The tour was excellent, and since we had no plans the next day we decided to book another half day tour with them the following morning. We hiked back down the beach for sunset, but unfortunately it was super clouded over, so we weren’t able to really get many good pictures.

We also hadn’t made dinner plans, so ended up at the highest rated place on TripAdvisor on our walk back: Neptune Island. First, we were a little concerned because the restaurant was empty. Empty as in we were the only people in the huge restaurant the whole two hours we were there.

But, the food definitely lived up to its billing. I went with the seafood curry as recommended on TripAdvisor, and it was absolutely amazing…as was the quinoa “risotto.” Both were unique and delicious, and I’m glad we tried it despite breaking the usual rule of don’t eat anywhere that nobody else is!

…and as the meal was ending, they came by with “traditional” headdresses and insisted that we put them on and take a pic. Despite protesting they were having none of it:

Back to the dome for an early night, and we had the pleasure of a “pet” in our bathroom…who would hang around for the next two days:

Off to bed…lots of moai and another tour for our last full day the next day!

Jul 192018
 


After a wonderful night’s sleep and finally catching up from several short nights in a row (it’s amazing what a night in a geodesic dome can do for you!) we were off to wander around.

But first…breakfast at Mamma Nui Glamping. Short of buffets, it was one of the most elaborate breakfasts I’ve ever been served at a hotel: a platter of fruit, meats, cheeses, multiple kids of breads, toast, rolls, juice, fried egg…the list goes on and on! More than enough to fuel a day of adventure.

We had decided the next day would be the tours to see most of the island, so today’s plan was to wander around, try and find a tour, and just orient ourselves to things a bit. We hadn’t seen much of the town given we hiked straight out on the first day, so today was really all about exploring.

After breakfast, we headed to the northern side of town and passed our first moai of the trip on the way:

Some more restored sculptures on the northern side of town – you can see just how perfect the weather was!

Crystal blue water, clear skies, and sculptures…pretty close to paradise!

Not sure what this one was supposed to be….a fist gripping something…maybe a fish or weapon?

As we continued out of town, we passed by a cemetery, which was also guarded by a moai:

A group of restored moai at Ahu Tahai on a platform:

Another perspective:

The bright blue sky with the sun overhead made a great contrast with the moai, and was fantastic for taking pictures:

By this point, we’d wandered several miles, and were starting to get hungry. The skies were also beginning to cloud over, so we decided to take refuge and get a small bite to eat. Pisco sours and tuna and cheese empanadas….how can you go wrong?!

Just as we sat down, the skies opened up and very heavy rains started. We were sitting across from the local football / rugby field, and had a great view of the rugby practice that continued despite the heavy downpours. Personally, sitting drinking pisco sours, I thought we had the better way to wait out the rain!

While having lunch, we attempted to figure out which tour company to go with. We’d seen great reviews of Easter Island Travel, but their office appeared closed, and when we sent them a message on WhatsApp we got no response. Strange for the highest rated tour company on the island. We later found out it was a public holiday – the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (which we affectionately referred to as the feast of Peter, Paul, and Mary for the rest of the trip) and thus they were closed.

On the walk back, we walked into Mahina Tour which seemed to be doing good business, and had good reviews on TripAdvisor, and offered a full day tour of the main sights…and the price was fantastic…so we booked hoping for good things. It was pretty much a 9-5 tour the next day, but would let us see all the highlights.

After the rain cleared, we headed back to Mamma Nui for a bit to recharge phones/etc, before heading out again to catch sunset and dinner. Walking back the same way we’d gone in the morning, we passed a horse just hanging out in front of a sign giving the distances to a variety of South Pacific islands:

The moai of Ahu Tahai at sunset…unfortunately, it was a little too cloudy to get a great pic.

…that said, I do like this rather artsy shot of a solo moai with a little sun behind it:

As the sun was almost set, we stopped in the Te Moai Sunset restaurant to grab some dinner. First up was some spicy shrimp as an appetizer:

…followed by an amazing ceviche for dinner:

There was also a super tasty desert, but that was consumed so quickly that I didn’t even get a picture of it.

After dinner, we decided to head back to the Mamma Nui and walk off dinner, but there was one small problem: there was no light pollution at all on the island, and it was pitch black and we couldn’t see where we were going – even using iPhones as flashlights.

After just a couple of minutes we decided to admit defeat and went back to the restaurant to have them call a taxi for us. It was probably only 1.5 miles or so back to Mamma Nui, and fortunately (unlike almost everything else) the price was extremely reasonable.

Bit of wine back at Mamma Nui’s restaurant, and off to bed – we had a full day of touring planned!

May 272018
 


As a fair warning, this post is going to be a bit long and rambling. After my plans to visit Zimbabwe for two nights then Botswana for two nights fell through, I was completely up in the air. The first of four nights was going to get eaten up staying in Johannesburg, since it was nearly 6pm when I landed from Namibia.

Nice night of rest, and woke up, and tried to figure out how to sort out my life. Air Zimbabwe was flying in the late afternoon from Johannesburg to Bulawayo, so I could just as easily pick up my trip! Of course, you can’t buy Air Zimbabwe tickets online, so off to OR Tambo I go with my baggage. The very helpful agent “wasn’t sure if it will go today, or if so when – it gets canceled a lot. Maybe by 11pm.” Uhhh, yeah, that’s not a chance I want to take.

Bit more research, I could pick up Air Botswana directly to Francistown and then drive to Gaborone, but it was going to be more than $800 between change fees for my return ticket and the car, so that just wasn’t happening. Rather than waste anymore time, I decided to chalk it up to “this time, the travel gods were not with me” and head back to my hotel.

Fortunately, I was able to book another night on cash+points, so spent the evening relaxing, scheming, and decided that I was going to make the most of it. Despite dozens of trips to Joburg, I decided I was going to try and dig a little bit deeper. My trip out to Maboneng had been super cool a week back, so I’d use the next two full days to explore until I had to get back to work.

Walking to Starbucks the next morning, fate intervened and I saw the sales centre for the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus. Quick look confirmed it stopped at a lot of places I hadn’t been, so I bought the two day pass. Why not…I think I’ve only done one of these touristy busses once, and they really can be a good way to see a city in a short time. Plus, it was an absolutely gorgeous 22 degree day, and the next day was forecast to be more of the same.

Pickup/start point was right by my hotel, and off we go. I even got a seat on the upper deck…kinda like a 747…same same but different…

I decided to get off first at Constitution Hill and see the Number Four prison and constitutional court. Unfortunately, lots of the site was closed today due to private group tours, but you could still do a self-guided tour of the Number Four Prison. Entrance had one of my favourite Mandela quotes:

Number Four was built in the 1890s under Paul Kruger and Ghandi spent time in Number Four in 1906.

Shot of the prison yard as it stands today. For some reason, the Orange is the New Black theme started going in my head, and I caught myself humming it. Probably not terribly appropriate…

Pictures of Ghandi and Mandela at various points in their lives…

Solitary confinement cells. Stepping inside and to the back of one sent shivers down my spine.

Hillbrow Tower as seen from Constitution Hill. On my first trip to South Africa in 1997, Hillbrow was always regaled to us as that super terrifying lawless place that you didn’t dare set foot anywhere near.

Waiting for our bus to leave Constitution Hill for the next stop.

Since I’d gotten a late start, I figured I’d ride past all the next stops and stop at the SAB World of Beer which was the last stop. That would allow me to see which of the stops looked interesting for the next day, and would conveniently put me at World of Beer at roughly happy hour time.

The tour was over an hour long, and absolutely…terrible. I’ve been on a few brewery tours , and this was probably one of the worst. It was basically a “history of beer” and honestly….was just bad. Our guide was fantastic, but it was basically 90 minutes of prelude before they let you do the good stuff: the beer tasting.

The tasting was kinda fun, five or six (I forget now) different beers from the SAB lineup, poured one at a time from bottles for the whole group. Apparently if the colour/taste of the beer is just ordinary, the tasting term for that is “unremarkable.” Unremarkable was what I’d call this whole experience, but the tour ended on the rooftop beergarden with two tickets and the VIEW was remarkable!

Next day, I got a slightly earlier start. Back onto the bus, and noted this very hoity-toity private school we drove past:

Then the bus would right through downtown Johannesburg. While undergoing some gentrification and revitalization, there are still plenty of signs that the area has a very, very long way to go. For example, this highrise with a history of fires and busted out windows just sitting empty…though likely home to squatters.

Another building which has clearly seen better days, but has apparently found a buyer:

Springbox jumping over a fountain in front of a casino at one of the stops. This seemed to be the most popular of all stops, and I was tempted to get out for an hour, but how exciting can a casino be?

Winding over a bridge into the central business district, an ad for Amarula – made from Africa!

I got off at the stop for Braamfontein, which along with Maboneng is known to be a “hip, young, and edgy” area of the downtown. Madiba on the side of a building:

Turn of the century building, now a bar:

Found some seats at the patio bar across the street, and ordered a cider while I people watched.

Shortly after ordering a second cider, a 6’5+ drag queen came over and sat next to me…and ordered a cheeseburger. Apparently, her name was Miss Winnie Gets-In-Your-Pants (a nod to Winnie Mandela I assume?) and she’d come from the bar/club across the street. Like was common in the US in the 80s/90s, gay bars were found in the edgy parts of town and this area was very popular with alternative crowds – gays, goths, and just general people who lived outside the “mainstream.” Great lively street scene, and fantastic people watching. I think I spent almost two hours just sitting there and watching the city go by.

Back to the hotel, caught an Uber out to Randburg to check out Craft Beer Library which I’d been told has the best beer list in Johannesburg. The setting was cozy, but lots of fun, complete with shoeless hipster singing…

Definitely a cozy little place, but great beer list and super friendly staff. Definitely on my list of places to return to in JoBurg…maybe as soon as a few days from now 😉

…and with that teaser, couple of days of work stood ahead before the trek home and final part of this trip report.

Mar 102018
 


At the recommendation of my friend Daniel, I had booked a “Historical Center Food Tour” with Sabores de Mexico Food Tours. I figured that using my one full day to walk around the historic center while eating at a variety of places that were largely unknown to tourists sounded like just my thing – and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience.

At 11:30 I met my guide, Liz, at Oaxaca en México, a restaurant that specialized in authentic cuisine from the state of Oaxaca. I learned here that there were only two of us booked on the tour today, so we could pretty much go at whatever pace we wanted. Fantastic!

Unfortunately times had gotten mixed up, so the other lady doing the tour with us didn’t show up until almost noon. Not a problem though, since I tend to move at a quicker pace normally anyways. Our first dish would be a delicious chicken tortilla with molé and some rice with local Oaxacan herbs. It was absolutely delicious, and I’m pretty sure that I licked up every drop of the delicious sauce.

After finishing the mole, we headed off for a short walk of maybe 15 minutes until we got to the large covered Mercado de San Juan. One of the older markets in Mexico City, it started out as a place to get more “exotic” and fancier foods that couldn’t be found elsewhere. We entered through the seafood section of the market:

Our first stop inside the market was at Delicatessen La Jersey Gourmet where we had some local cheeses and beats on baguette which were served with a variety of jams….and all the wine we wanted. I loved that the plates were covered with plastic covers, presumably to re-use them without washing. Environmentally terrible..

From there we moved on to another part of the market – the “exotic animals” section. Here we stopped at El Gran Cazador – or “the Great Hunter.” First up? Grasshoppers fried up in either garlic or chilis….very crunchy, but other than that the chili and garlic flavours really overpowered the insect.

Next up? A local ant that only comes out of its burrows for a couple weeks a year, which is the dedicated harvest season and as many of them are gathered up during this time as possible. Not much taste to these either… note the grasshoppers closeup underneath…

Pigeons anyone?

Decorative corns in the market…and I can’t help but see this and remember Lisa Simpson saying “or, as the Indians call it….maize!”

Next up we stopped at another stand of El Gran Cazador, where they cooked up wild boar for us….with grasshopper sauce naturally!

To fortify for the long day ahead, we stopped for a coffee from a stand reputed to have the best coffee in the area. It was pretty tasty, and the proprietor was clearly very proud of his coffee.

Final stop in the market was Rosse Gourmet, which was a fruit and vegetable stand. Here, we got a great discussion of the produce – especially tomatoes, from the very energetic Claudia who was clearly incredibly proud of the quality of her produce. Here she is explaining the difference between tomatoes and tomatillos to us:

Look at the colour of those peppers!

Claudia also surprised us with a homemade cheesecake with fresh fruits and a passionfruit sauce…which was absolutely delicious!

Now THOSE are leeks! …and look at the size of the cauliflower!

Next stop was actually at a food truck/cart with a couple of barstools on the side called El Caguamo where we were treated to a tortilla with octopus and prawn ceviche with fresh avocado. Absolutely delicious, but I was a bit nervous eating street food ceviche given that some of the worst food poisoning I ever had was from ceviche. Fortunately, no issues this time!

We were getting a bit parched by this point, so fortunately the next stop was an old school traditional cantina called La Mascota. It was like other traditional cantinas in that you pay for a (often overpriced) drink, and then you get to eat anything on the menu for free – as much as you want! The place was absolutely packed with locals chowing down, so it was a really fun and lively atmosphere.

A mezcal margarita…and yes, it’s as big as it looks. Fortunately, it was pretty watered down so wasn’t that strong. The chicken tortilla was one of the options on the food menu, and was just meh. You clearly come here for the atmosphere, not for the food and drink which was of very average quality at best.

They even had an old compact disk jukebox!

As we continued our walk, we passed a building where some of the stucco had fallen off the day before during the earthquake:

Next up we stopped at a “new school” cantina (to contrast with the previous stop) called Pasagüero. We had an empanada and a small tapas dish which were both tasty. It was absolutely packed with young people and families, and open to the street so had a very lively atmosphere. I’d definitely come back here for afternoon drinks and people watching.

It was nearly 4pm at this point, and we had one last stop – the Dulcería de Celaya – one of the oldest traditional candy stores in Mexico City – dating back over 100 years. Some tasty local treats.

It was about 4pm at this point, and I had booked tickets to see the Frida Kahlo Museum which came highly recommended and had pre-booked at 5pm entrance so after thanking Liz quickly rushed to the metro to find my way across the city to the museum. The other lady on the tour decided to come with me, and together we figured out how to buy metro tickets, went about 10 stops, and then hopped in a taxi to the museum. Much easier than it sounds.

Frida was a Mexican artist early in the 20th century, and was actually close friends with Trotsky. After he was exiled to Mexico they became close friends, and Trotsky actually lived with her for a period. Frida had polio as a child, and a terrible car accident in her teens, and this combination left her more or less confined to the house as she was not overly mobile…and she spent a lot of her time involved in political causes an artwork.

Some of the art in the museum, also known as the “Blue House”:

The gardens:

The blue walls of the house:

From the street outside:

Went for a bit of a walk after the museum, and found an amazing church:

Grabbed an uber back to the area near my hotel, and caught this great shot of the Angel de la Independencia monument all lit up at night:

I was only a little hungry at this point, so decided to head to a local brewpub which had a rather impressive beer list:

The people watching at this sidewalk bar was lots of fun. This guy might be a little proud of his country:

With that it was time to walk back to the hotel (about a 15 minute walk) and catch some zzzzs. I was feeling exhausted from having been ill the previous week and a long week of work, so definitely wanted to make sure to grab some sleep before flying home!

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…