Which are the best countries in the world to visit?

Given my travel history, I regularly get asked which is my favourite country in the world….. Honestly, that’s easy. New Zealand every time!

However, I do have a list of places that I highly recommend, many of which I  would go back to (or have gone back to) over and over again. Here it is:

Africa highlights

1. Mali

I totally lost my heart to Mali. Hiking in the Dogon was one of the highlights of my life. No hot water or showers, few cold drinks, filtering my drinking water from the wells, sleeping on grubby sheetless mattresses in the dusty wind on the roof of the chiefs house in every village, and dinner of gritty couscous and mystery meat most nights. I went in summer and sweltered doing 30k hiking days in 40 degree heat for six days (we had to lie down on the shade from 11-3 every day). I would recommend going in December when it’s cooler. But I loved it!!!! The scenery in the Dogon is amazing, the welcome incredibly warm and the history was fascinating. (Djenne was lovely too) I can’t recommend it highly enough

Djenne mud mosque
Djenne market
Yougoudougourou Dogon

2. Ethiopia

I am torn on Ethiopia. Addis is a crap hole full of touts. And there are more and more busloads of Italian tourists. And whenever you stop to pee, anywhere in the country, you will be surrounded by kids while your pants are down asking for a pen or a sweet. However, there is nothing like going to Bet Giorgis in Lalibela at dawn for the services, or climbing up to the ancient monasteries in the Gheralta (although some are men only, like Debre Damo). I loved it, and have developed a real love for Injera. I have been back, and am planning to go again to Harar to see the hyenas at some point, as well as see the Danakil depression (which was closed to tourists last time I went)

Yemrehanna Kristos
Woman worshiping at Bet Giorgis (not allowed inside)
Church Guardian
Bet Giorgis

3. Namibia

Sossusvlei alone merits a visit to Namibia. Big red dunes, amazing old trees, and stunning sunrises – if you have extra cash take a balloon ride at dawn. With more time, you can fly up the skeleton coast, cruise around Windhoek (which wins my vote for the most zen capital in Africa), and go on safari in Etosha. Originally colonised by the Germans, the efficiency and organisation remains!

Dead vlei
Desert flowers


4. Myanmar

We went before it got touristy (luckily we did the same in Cambodia). I hope it still retains its charm. Getting up early to see the monks collect alms, watching the sun set over what seems like hundreds of miles of temples, and spending time with very friendly locals. You do need to offset that against a truly oppressive political regime.

Monks going for morning alms
temples in bagan
happy monks


5. Bolivia

The first off the beaten track place I went in South America 20 years ago, I am sure it has changed so we are going back this year to take a look. It was a lifetime highlight, cycling from La Paz down the death road to Coroico, seeing a black jaguar swimming across the amazon while I was in the rainforest, freezing my butt off at 4,800m while being amazed by the salt plains in Uyuni, and horse riding in the footsteps of the Sundance kid in Tupiza. Often overlooked for neighbouring Peru, I would take Bolivia every time, even when I remember the 24 hours I spent lying on the bathroom floor in La Paz with altitude sickness barfing into a less than clean loo.  (No photos as I went in the olden times when we had Kodak film and printed them out)


6. Georgia

Tbilisi is a trip, great food (Khinkhali and kachapuri) and some terrific architecture. But the joys of Georgia can be found out of town. Apparently it has changed since I went and there are now some posh hotels, but I have amazing memories of hiking in the Kazbeg and loving the locals in their skodas. I also enjoyed David gareji – the ancient monastery. It’s safe, friendly and stunning.

Tsminda Sameba
Ananuri Fortress
Bustling metropolis of Kazbeg
Old town architecture Tbilisi
The new Tsminda Sameba in Tbilisi

7. Uzbekistan

Ok it has a totalitarian dictatorship and the food isn’t amazing (plov!). However, the Silk Road architecture is incredible – Khiva, Samarkand, Bukhara. I have been three times and will go again. The first time I went there, ten years ago, there were no tourists to be seen. Last time there were busloads. Try to go off season but pack warm clothes

Tomb of Tajikistan’s most loved son
Chor Minaret – Bukhara

The Minaret late afternoon – Bukhara

For a splurge

8. Botswana

For eye watering sums of money, in my view, there is no better place to see big game. You might find leopards more easily in Kenya, but within ten minutes you will be surrounded by other vans bursting with camera toting tourists. Find a leopard in Botswana and chances are you will have it all to yourself. We went top end and stayed at Mombo, and I don’t want to remember what we paid but it was worth it. Flying in the tiny planes between camps, and scanning the runway for elephants before you land also created memories for a lifetime.

Job done!
The baboon tree viewing gallery

Elephants in the Okavango

9. Bhutan

Expensive but worth it! I saved Bhutan for country 182. I spent more in one day in Bhutan than I did in a month of over-landing on a truck in west Africa the year before. I tried not to think about the cost too much and just enjoyed every minute. A highlight of my travels – the most astoundingly friendly people, a culture which is cherished and preserved, and obsession with improving gross national happiness rather than GDP. Add that to outstanding landscapes and stunning monasteries with great hiking and it is my perfect travel destination. And for my husband – the five star hotels with world class food were a big draw! Save up and go!

Tigers Nest Monastery
Archery in Paro
Monks in Punakha Dzong
Paro Dzong

Off the beaten track countries I wouldn’t go back to, but are definitely worth a visit

10. North Korea

Ok this is a controversial one as the oppression is horrendous. However, I can think of few other places as unusual and where you are so tightly scrutinised! The questions the guide asked me made it obvious they had investigated me before arrival. So, the sights aren’t great shakes, you will get heartily sick of the propoganda and bullshit, and you will struggle not to pee your pants laughing when you hear about how the ‘great leader’ solved all the worlds problems. Recommended if you want to see what life without freedom looks like, it’ll make you thankful for whatever your political system is at home.

Pyongyang metro

11. Eritrea

Very hard to get into, and hard to get around without lots of paperwork, but worth it. For any Art Deco fan, the architecture in Asmara is worth making the trip. The coffee is good, the donuts better! Tourists are so rare that you will be warmly welcomed by everyone you meet, and I found it difficult to pay for my coffee at any cafe.

Bowling alley
Famous fiat garage

12. Yap, Micronesia

Ok it’s blimmen hard to get to (and united just made it harder by cancelling the weekly flight) and you aren’t allowed on any of the beaches without the local chiefs permission. And yes you have to carry a leaf when you wander around the island to demonstrate you are not a threat. And women aren’t allowed to wear shorts. And if you want to go to the national festival you have to go in local costume (that means topless!). But Yap has a charm that I rarely found elsewhere, largely because of its isolation. The stone money and paths are amazing. If you are a diver, apparently the manta rays are extraordinary. And I also suspect the excellent Oceania hotel I stayed in in Colonia made all the difference. However the Chinese government had just started big net fishing on their reefs, so I hope their idyllic lifestyle survives.

Ancient stone paths
Meeting house and stone money
Stone money
Meeting house

13. Sudan

Far more interesting than its Egyptian neighbour, Sudan has the stunning pyramids at Meroe, the nile, the lion temple at Naqa and the whirling dervishes at Omdurman. It’s hard to get into, completely corrupt and you can’t get cash when you are there. But the entrepreneurial Greek brothers at the acropole hotel (a Khartoum legend) can sort you out.

Women at Omdurman during the Friday service for the whirling dervishes
Meroe pyramids
Meroe pyramids
Meroe pyramids
Naqa Lion Temple

14. DRC

a terrific place to see gorillas, and support the conservation of them.  its cheaper and less touristy than Rwanda, so you might well have the whole family of gorillas to yourself.  And while you are there you can climb Nyiragongo.  Its easy to get to Goma through Rwanda and you can book everything direct with virunga.org

For first time travelers

15. Thailand

yes this may seem an odd choice, but Thailand is fantastic for first time travellers. It’s pretty safe, travel is easy and the food is excellent. I have been more times than I can count (largely as it was a great place to stopover on the way home from London to Nz and spend a week on the beach). If you haven’t travelled a lot, and want to get started – go here

16. South Africa

An ideal first time safari destination, amazing food, great wine and very very good value. You can go on safari in Kruger or any number of the neighbouring parks and drive the garden route from cape town to plett. Another country I have been to more times than I can count. If you haven’t been to southern Africa this is the very best place to start


It’s hard not to keep adding countries, as I have had wonderful experiences at most places in the world (largely as a result of the people I meet), so just because I didn’t put it on this list, doesn’t mean I didnt love it.  Honestly, I love France so much, I made it my second home, and everyone should go there, but I reckon most people will go there without my recommendation.   I also love a tonne of other places, too numerous to list.

At this point, I also still have 13 more countries to visit, so one of them might get added to the list

I also don’t think my list is for everyone, it’s entirely subjective and solely my opinion. No gripes if you don’t agree, just write your own list!

Happy trails!

Climbing in Comoros

I am on an instability and poverty roll on this trip – next up Comoros – the third poorest country in the world and they have had over 20 coups since they got independence from France in 1975.   It was stunning flying over Comoros…. verdant green hills with few buildings, volcanic black rock and stunningly blue sea. I had flown in from Addis, the plane was heaving until we dropped 90% of the passengers off in Dar, then the few of us remaining winged our way over the ocean, and only three gringos (the two others were guys in construction). Comoros is not a tourist destination!!!

Arrival was the usual chaotic African madness, I got to the front of the queue like normal, forms all ready to go, and was physically bumped out of the way by several VIPs. I held my ground and managed to get my passport through after six of them by physically refusing to move away from the immigration desk.

My driver found me while I was waiting for them to issue my visa – 30 euros for the privilege – and he showed me to one of the least road-worthy vehicles I have seen in a long time (and I just got here from Juba), but the car was enhanced by a stunning faux fur leopard print steering wheel cover. We wound the windows down to cope with the heat and the pungent aroma of the two police men who demanded a free ride for the 26k to town, and cruised along the coast to the capital of Moroni.

The hotel was small and sweet! I had a small wander around town, and organised my hike for the next day, mildly grumpy that the tour man insisted I get up at 5am!!! Oh well. Dinner of steak and veg, and excellent ginger tea and early to bed.

I didn’t need an alarm clock, the friendly gents at the local mosque sorted me out by getting going at 4.30, and the lovely ladies at the hotel had left me some boiled eggs and a jug of hot coffee. Hassan was there on time and we headed up the road to meet Djire the guide. Friends had told me they started the hike up the mountain from 1600m so I was somewhat surprised when we stopped at a village at 550m. Oh well – must be the long version!! Off we went.

Nothing inspires confidence like following a guide with worn military fatigues and fake prada sneakers into the dark bush at. 5.30am while he smokes a cigarette and lights the way with his mobile phone. It was hot, rocky and slippery, but I saw the wisdom of Hassan’s advice later when we had stunning views the whole way up and it wasn’t too hot. Weirdly two wild dogs followed us from 20 minutes after we started until we finished. They never got too close as the guide kept chucking rocks at them. The climb to the summit, with stunning views over Moroni, took us three hours, we had to stop once so Djire could rest and have a cigarette.

View as the sun was coming up over Moroni below
Djire hiking up the 4wd track, note this was the easy bit as the actual trail through the bush was normally 50 cm wide
you can’t see it, but I could – the airport to the far left
Eerie black bush

The view from the summit down into the main crater was stunning, a big sandy flat hole surrounded by steep cliffs with almost fluorescent green trees hanging on to the sides. Djire confessed he was a bit tired so we stopped for a banana.

Then we scrambled down to the crater floor (followed by the dogs) to check out second caldera from the 2006 eruption. Stunning!!!

We had a wander around poking into holes with steam coming out, checking out the monitoring equipment, and admiring the hardy moss growing near the steam holes!


the view down into the main crater
the flat sand bottom of the main crater
the view down into the second caldera from the main crater – from the 2006 eruption

After that we headed up to the rim to find the clouds had well and truly rolled in! We managed to avoid the rain until we were about half way down, and then the torrent opened up, it was like standing under a fire hose! So I had a good African shower for about an hour, until the sun came out and the water started steaming off us. Heading down took the best part of two and a half hours as had done something to my knee, and it was steep, rocky and slippery. Definitely worth it!!!!

I headed back for an excellent lunch of steamed fish, veg and more ginger tea, and some excellent local fruit!

Old Grand Mosque Moroni (note the name of the boat to the left)

In the afternoon I strolled around town, well hobbled is a better word as I my knee was still not working, so got a few strange looks as I limped round town. Tripadvisor has just two sites in Moroni, and they are both the same place – the grande mosque. It was nice. You can’t walk far without passing a mosque in Moroni, on my 2.5k circuit this afternoon I counted 14. They are a pious lot these comoriens.

yet another mosque

The rubbish in town depressed me. At least the goats were helping recycle.

Comoros goat recycling

It’s hot! Really hot! So I retired back to the hotel to sweat in peace.

Ministry of finance

I slept in, aided by the earplugs to keep the early morning muezzin from my ears! I had a full day to explore Moroni before my flight back to Addis, but sadly had already ticked off the major tourist site – the old grand mosque – yesterday. Oh well, perhaps it would look different in the morning light.

part of the campaign against the French – Mayotte is a French dependency, but in the same group of islands
old grand mosque in the morning light, tide out….

I wandered down, and yes it did look different. Or maybe it was because it was already so hot the sweat was blurring my eyes. I thought I better go see the new mosque also to compare and contrast – and then I made my best mistake of the day. I wandered down an alley and ended up in the Medina. It was blissfully cool(er) in the dark shaded alleyways with all the walls crammed together. I stopped and chatted to a few ladies, making sure to tell them I wasn’t French (they aren’t fans of their former rulers here), although we all speak French (though arabic and Swahili are in common usage too).

Shop in the Medina

I found the new mosque, it was new!

New mosque

And then I found the Friday market. I love African ladies in markets. And the Comorien women bought together the best of French, Arab and African ladies. All the bright colours of Africa, with the voluminous draping of the Arab world, and the ‘soigneuse’/careful arrangement of their look, just like French ladies. They sway while they walk, I wish I had a derriere like these women. It was loud and raucous as everyone stocked up for the weekend. A few ladies were out and about with their beauty cream caked on, apparently it makes them look more ‘clear’ i.e white. Hmmmmf!!!

I checked out the port, and the downtown, there isn’t much going on in Moroni, but most of the people were friendly, though a few of the guys a bit more friendly than required.
It was a lovely stroll, and then I retreated back to the guest house for lunch – more amazing steamed fish and vegetables.  I then headed out to the airport.  I had an amusing moment in security, I set the machine off, and the security lady yelled ‘oi, musungu’ at me (literally ‘oi white lady’)…..,  I get called ‘musungu’ regularly in the street here, but its not polite!!!!.   I wonder how she would have felt if I had yelled ‘oi, black lady’ back at her….., but I figured I was outnumbered.

I would recommend a visit to the Comoros, and next time would stay a bit longer, rent a car and head round the island. There isn’t much to do here, but it is remote and peaceful. There isn’t much in the way of food here, I was craving cheese, and didn’t find any in the six ‘supermarkets’ I went to, so bring stuff with you.

I stayed at the Jardin de la paix. Namsa, Adjia, Moinamina and Madame Raenfati were lovely and looked after me well. I stayed in the ‘simple’ room which was €20 per night, though perhaps I should have splurged the extra €10 on the aircon as it was pretty hot. Their food was the best I ate in town too – really good fish and fresh veg. I also organised the guide for the mountain through Namsa at Ylang tours.  Or if you have gpx, you can follow my strava link up and down

Moroni, 16 February, 2018

Surviving South Sudan

I was a bit nervous boarding the flight to Juba!

South Sudan has had a torrid time of its new independence…, the youngest country in the world, the Christians of South Sudan achieved a hard-won independence from islamic Sudan in July 2011. They managed two years of stability, but there has been an ongoing civil war more or less since then ( between the Dinka and the Nuer).  Famine has been declared , 100,000 people are starving, and a million more people are on the brink of it, and almost five million more are described as food insecure.  1.8 million people have fled to neighbouring countries.  An adolescent girl in South Sudan is now three times more likely to die in childbirth than to complete primary school.  The tragedy is that South Sudan has more than enough resources to go around, but the government is at war with rebels, no-one is growing food as they are too scared, and years of aid don’t seem to be working.   Apparently there is a ceasefire on right now, I will keep my fingers crossed.

$10 urns…. they were enormous

Juba was voted the worlds worst airport earlier this year, apparently it doesn’t even have loos! That’s a first. By all accounts there are few tourist attractions, and photography is apparently banned. The few blogs I had read from other travellers were not that encouraging. I had thought about heading out of town, but that isn’t advisable either. Oh well, with the help of my trusty Facebook group of other nutters trying to visit the whole world, I had at least booked a reputable hotel and found a fixer to take me around while I was there.

The president’s cathedral

I was heartened by the presence of a few gringos on the flight, even two women who were in their 20s. Aid workers I would guess. I managed to get to the immigration shipping container booth in the tent (yes the terminal is a tent and a shipping container attached and a dirt floor) pretty early but they took their time processing me as the poor men couldn’t understand why I was here as a tourist.

View from the hotel – the local soccer field

After immigration, I waited in the sun for a while, chatting to a nice British woman who lives in Kampala and runs a charity that does work in Juba, and my driver didn’t show up but hers did. When she heard that I was contemplating walking to my hotel if my driver didn’t show, she demonstrated the kind of sisterhood I have gratefully become accustomed to when travelling, and promptly took me with her and dropped me at the hotel.

I eventually got some WiFi and my driver came found me, and off we went on a tour of Juba. Bad news first, it is basically impossible to take photos in Juba. Tourists aren’t allowed to without an exorbitantly expensive permit, and if you try the security guys, police, and endless military on the street will give you real trouble. (Note there are fewer photos than usual as I only took them when Peter said I could.)

hippos made in uganda, sold by Ugandan women in the handicraft market

I guess the good news is that you aren’t really missing anything by not having photos. Juba is basically a random collection of shipping containers, corrugated iron and barbed wire, thrown together without much care, with some rubbish strewn around it, on top of gritty sand. There are a few nice old buildings and some modern monstrosities but these aren’t hugely redeeming

Rajaf Cathedral

We drove around town, checking out some handicraft stalls, the mosque, and the stadium. Then we parked up and went wandering around Konyo market, which was the usual wonderful African cacophony of blaring music and shouting vendors, with smoked fish, rotting tomatoes and flies. I checked out the fixed wheel Chinese bikes, at the bike market, and the vendor was surprised when I told him in Burundi these were used as taxis, as they couldn’t afford moto taxis (yes there are poorer countries than South Sudan). There were some amazing hand hewn beds, and also some African urns for $10 (one of the few photos I took, but they promptly asked for money after they let me take it). The difference in this market though, relative to the rest of Africa, was that very few people smiled back when I smiled at them. Peter my Ugandan guide did say that he thought the south Sudanese were pretty grumpy and rude compared to his countrymen.  When you put it in the context of whats going on in the country, it isn’t a surprise that people here aren’t too happy.

Abandoned cathedral near Rajaf

As he drove me round town, Peter pointed out the crazy crazy tall Dinka people with scars on their faces (self inflicted – I guess it’s a form of tattooing). I am not sure I have seen taller or skinnier people, these guys thighs were the size of my wrist. Apparently the taller you are as a woman, the more cows you command as a bride price. Sadly I was informed I wouldn’t get more than 40, but a proper tall Dinka woman would command 100 cows.

Endless plains of bush near Juba

A bit more driving and we saw St joseph’s church, the central cathedral and another mosque. Then we took a spin around the posh leafy suburbs with ministries that were built in 2013, and admired the bullet holes on the president’s palace wall.  We headed out of town to look at the mountains. We contemplated walking up but the first man we met demanded cigarettes before we could proceed.  Sigh!.

We went to see the memorial to John Garang, probably the most influential man in South Sudan’s history.  He led the Sudan peoples liberation army Plane crash, and was the first southerner and christian to take a position of power in the government of Sudan – as Vice President in 2005 – after signing a peace agreement which guaranteed power sharing, and secured autonomy for South Sudan.  He died three weeks after he was sworn in as in a helicopter accident.  The largely extreme muslims of the ruling party were blamed.  I love what his widow Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior said, promising to continue his work stating: In our culture we say “if you kill the lion, you see what the lioness will do”After more meandering around town, we retired back to the hotel.  No-one goes out after dark in Juba.

Bridge across the Nile on the top left

I had a fantastic Shish taouk and hummus for dinner (the advantage of the Syrian and Lebanese diaspora it seems is the ability to eat good Arabic food everywhere), and the hotel manager came to say hi as he had helped with my visa invitation. Our conversation was another stark reminder of how lucky I am. Robert had a Syrian passport, is from a Christian family and is adamant he never wants to be a refugee as it is too difficult to work. So instead he goes and works in the few places where Syrians can get visas (he was in Lagos before Juba). It’s a helpful reminder to myself to be damn grateful for where I was born and the choices that come with that.

The next morning I had hummus, pita, Labneh and eggs, and a gossip with the receptionist who knows a few of the people off my nutters Facebook group of global travellers, tourists are rare here so she remembers them all.

Then I headed off with Peter to check out the sights on the exterior of Juba. We crossed the Nile on a wonderful old rickety bridge and drive for a few hours checking out the small villages along the Nile. We went to Rajaf market to see the Dinka’s long horned cows who were quite amazing. It was a slightly friendlier market than in town. You have to love commerce in Africa – my favourite stalls were the mobile charging stations, were they have a small generator and for 10cents will fully charge up your phone. While there are power lines running to the village, they apparently have never had power running through them. There was a rickety billiards table with some feisty betting going on (a punch was thrown at one point), and endless men and women frying chapattis and patties which looked delicious.

We drove further and saw the huge Rajaf cathedral, it could seat several hundred and it is in a village of perhaps fifty. Further up the road was it’s predecessor which has been abandoned. Whichever direction I looked it was just dry hot ground. Women and men wandered slowly up the dusty road en route to the market, it’s 40 degrees so no one moves anywhere fast. Dotted along the road are numerous military bases and abandoned aid ventures. We passed two trucks filled with soldiers and enormous guns, that always makes me worry. I don’t ever trust the police or the military in Africa (or anyone with a gun frankly), but they drove on after giving us a look over.


We eventually headed back to the dust of Juba, checking out the view of the bridge from the Da Vinci hotel, and Peter told me I could take a surreptitious photo. We then headed down to the afex river camp, where for $300, you can stay on a grubby motel unit. This is what happens when aid agencies and the UN take over a town, the prices go crazy. The restaurant though is very good, and has a lovely view over the river (although no photos allowed). The pork chops were sensational accompanied with some frozen broccoli, watching the half the town swim, bathe and do their laundry in the river below. Some more enterprising kids had made a raft out of a sack of empty water bottles and were floating along using a couple of squashed bottles as paddles.

more horns

After a leisurely lunch we seemed to be driving aimlessly around taking a highly circuitous route to the airport, I was getting a bit suspicious and then Peter started smiling. We had found a big herd of cows with huge long horns. I had admired the cows horns earlier in the day at the market and Peter had laughed and said they weren’t long horns, so he went and found me some. We chatted to the farmer who asked us to go and buy a watering can with him, and took some more sneaky photos (at peters suggestion – to be very clear I was never going to get him in trouble)

Got to the airport. Departures was slightly nicer than arrivals. Imagine two big wedding marquees which are filthy with dust and some rickety desks, atop a platform of warped and pitted plywood. There was a toilet (the economist article lied), and you could smell it from 100m away. After 40 minutes of queuing to process the 8 people in front of me I made it to the ‘lounge’ tent and sweated profusely for another 35 minutes until the flight boarded.

I had an entertaining time, but won’t be rushing back. I think it will take a while for tourism to develop here. My fingers are crossed for the south Sudanese, as would be great to see the worlds youngest country prosper!


Stayed at the crown hotel – which was terrific value for money relative to what else I saw in town

Definitely eat at Afex, it was breezy and lovely

Organised peter the driver through Vickie at atlas tours (email vickie.atlastravel@gmail.com), or contact Peter direct on +256700128899

Juba February 12, 2018

Being inspired in Bujumbura

It’s an odd moment when the FD at work emails you and says ‘hey, didn’t you say you were going to Burundi in a few weeks?, I know someone who will be there’. It’s fair to say Burundi doesn’t have much of a profile, and quite a surprise to get an introduction to a British couple who were going to be in town.

Running along one side of lake Tanganyika, it neighbours Rwanda, has a similar track record of violence, yet it is largely unknown! It apparently is one of the ten poorest nations in the world and has the lowest gdp per capita. Unsurprisingly perhaps Burundi ranked as the worlds least happy nation in the 2016 world happiness report – however I am happy to report I had a very happy experience while I was there.

Lake Tanganyika – with DRC on the other side

I rolled into town after 20 hours flying from London and was ready for a snooze. I was staying at the delightful club du lac, on the shores of the lake, and about as far as you could possibly get from the real Burundi. The carpark was full of 4wds, and while the gorgeous pool had a good mix of dark and light people bronzing, the accents were principally European and American. And there was an incredibly posh wedding going on. The room was lovely and had two rare things in Africa – hot water and aircon!!!! It also had a view of the DRC, across the lake (which is full of hippos and bilharziasis, both of which I avoided)

the posh wedding

I met the lovely British couple – Rod and Anita – by the pool who I had been email introduced to a few weeks earlier. They are extraordinary and have been coming to Burundi for five years to support a programme called New Generation. We lounged by the pool, drinking spicy African ginger tea in the sun and talked about a wide range of topics from global retail businesses to African development.

the lovely Rod and Anita

We wandered down the lake to a neighbouring restaurant for a dinner of local fish, spinach, fried plantains, and for me an enormous ice cream sundae. Over dinner I heard more of the story of the charity – founded by Dieudonne, who found himself living on the streets after his father and many of his family were murdered. He took it upon himself to look after other street kids and 20 years later is still doing just that. Today they are supporting about 75 youngsters who live together in houses, and many of the kids who he has helped over the years are still involved. At the beginning there were 30 of them all living in a rented house!!! I was looking forward to meeting Dieudonne the next day!

the WhatsApp bar

I slept like a log and then strolled along the beach for a wonderful African breakfast with excellent coffee, mangos, avocados, and pineapple. I was looking forward to my morning at church. Ok! For all of those who know me, you can now pick your jaws up off the floor — yes I went to church and lightening did not strike me down. As I said to my kind hosts, I actually enjoy church in Africa and Polynesia, as it is so much more joyous than in Europe. It’s hard to imagine that joyous exuberant Africans are all in the same religion as their largely constrained and quite European cousins.

Dieudonne in action

We arrived at church, which was exactly what I expected. A corrugated iron roof, no walls, sand on the floor and the most beautifully dressed people in their Sunday finest singing with all their might and joy. We were welcomed by everyone, and luckily we had been saved seats up the front where we could see the screen. The service was conducted in kirundi and translated real time in English, and the songs all had live translation. I can’t really describe how wonderful my morning was. The sermon was delivered by Dieudonne with passion and conviction, and just enough fire and brimstone so I knew I was in Africa. I was grateful that we stood most of the time so I didn’t entirely sweat through my clothes. The singing was fantastic, and the sheer joy, enthusiasm and grooving from the congregation was genuinely uplifting. The highlight of the service was when the pastor (the aforementioned Dieudonne) called up the children who were attending from new generation (its optional, they only come if they want to), and the congregation prayed for them. Beaming happy faces of former street kids who were finding purpose and safety with Dieudonne and his family.

Ishengoro Church – they just moved here two weeks ago

I was incredibly honoured that Dieudonne had offered to drive us round and show me the sites of Bujumbura. If you take a look at tripadvisor you will quickly figure out that there isn’t much in the way of sites. I had seen that there was a famous rock south of town where Livingstone and Stanley apparently had their famous rendezvous – ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’. I figured it was too much of a faff to get there, so didn’t think I would see it. Or course, given my wonderful hosts, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when we ended up at the rock with a wonderful view over the lake and a crowd of children around us checking out the muzungus (white people). Livingstone and Stanley apparently spent two nights at this site in 1871 as the guests of a local chief. It was great to see it.

the famous Livingstone and Stanley rock
the famous Livingstone and Stanley rock

From there we headed back into town and up the hill to the rich quarter which was stuffed with ostentatious mansions and embassies.

I love African advertising

We also popped by the oldest university in Burundi which had amazing architecture but was virtually in ruins – and I was surprised to find out they were actually still using it. Unfortunately though, it can take up to six or seven years to get a degree as the professors frequently get fed up with the government not paying them so they stop teaching.

the University chapel

We stopped for lunch at the cafe gourmand. It’s weird ordering a latte that costs the same as feeding a family of four. However, being a former French colony, the quiche Lorraine was excellent.

Presidential Memorial

Properly restored, we recommenced our whirlwind tour of Burundi, checking out the town centre, Main Street and the place d’independence. We also had a quick spin around the lovely city market, which was quite peaceful on a Sunday. After that I was off to the airport to get the last flight to Kigali, part of my three flight hop to get to Juba

Place d’independence
Colour coordination at the city market

I can’t thank Rod and Anita enough for being such wonderful hosts and graciously allowing me to see a side of Burundi I never would have witnessed without them. My FD friend recommended them as two of the nicest human beings I would ever meet, and she wasn’t wrong, I have never felt so well looked after. And thanks to Dieudonne for his wonderful hospitality. Dieudonne was quite an inspiration, he is smart, creative and very driven, as only those who survive and thrive without corruption in Africa are. An extraordinary man, he could easily be running a business in America, or have set up shop in Rwanda, or be doing any number of things. He could also be a very bitter man, given his father and 19 members of his family were murdered in the violence. Instead, he has dedicated his entire life to setting up his church and working with his children, and trying to change the world. Amazing!!! If you want to donate to New Generation do let me know – cash is good, or alternatively they are starting up a phone business, so will gratefully take donations of old unlocked smart phones.

Bujumbura Airport
Anita and Dieudonne

Bujumbura, February 11, 2018

Bhutan – Thukpa in Thimphu

We rolled into Thimpu after coming back over the Dochu La pass.  The guides weren’t flattering about Thimphu as it has been significantly developed in the past few years.  While much of the new architecture isn’t lovely, it isn’t anywhere near as bad as most capital cities.   We checked in to the glamorous Taj Tashi, and hubby headed to bed for the afternoon (he had been ill on some dodgy fish for 20 hours), and I had a sandwich and went for a long walk around town.
Thimphu is quite adorable!  They had installed Bhutan’s only set of traffic lights on the Main Street a few years ago.  So many people complained, that they took them out and went back to the original model of a man with a white glove directing traffic.   I wandered past a few sights, and the highlight of the afternoon was watching worshipers circumambulate the National Chorten Memorial…., it was super calming sitting in the sun listening to the prayer wheels spin and the monks hum their mantras.
National Chorten Memorial
National Chorten Memorial
I wandered past the archery stadium, where the archers were using the modern carbon bows (apparently they cost $3000, and bhutanese men are as likely to buy a bow as a car).  Today’s competition appeared more serious (and definitely more sober) than the one we watched in Paro.
Wandering along the river I chatted to some locals.  Everyone here smiles, and they smile even more if you give them a hearty Guzuzamphola (Dzongkha for ‘hello’).  I stumbled across the Zangto Pelri Lhakhang Temple, which appeared to be in the middle of a some sewerage pipes.   I did three tours of spinning the prayer wheels for extra good karma.
Zangto Pelri Lakhang
I headed to the market for a quick wander around, though I planned to come back tomorrow as the weekend is when it all happens at the Thimphu market.     The sun drops behind the mountains early in Bhutan, and it gets chilly, so at 4pm I headed back to the hotel for a long bath and a light dinner.
The next morning, hubby was somewhat recovered, and we headed up the valley to visit two important monasteries.   First stop, a quick stop to see the fantastic Tashi Dzong – another fantastic fortress housing the administration of the government.
Tashi Dzong
Then we headed up the river valley, pausing again to check out the gold rock painting of Guru RImpoche with his crazy moustache.
Guru Rinpoche
Then off to Tango Goemba – hiking up a nice steep hill (300m of climb) to visit this monastery is named for a natural rock formation which looks like a horses head (ta = horse, ngo = head).
The horses head at Tango Goembe

The monastery was built by the Divine Madman in the 15th century.  It is a beautiful curved building, and is undergoing renovation.  I wanted a good photo so we clambered up a precarious ramp built for the building materials, to get a picture of the outside of the building, and ended up having to come down on all fours so I wouldn’t fall off.   We had tonnes of fun with the cheeky monkeys on the site, who were helping themselves liberally to the fruit offerings that the monks had left.   Most of the visitors to the monastery were locals (we only saw two other foreigners), so it was an entirely different atmosphere than the Tigers nest.

the small temples hanging off the hillside at Tango Goembe
Main monastery Tango Goembe
Cheeky monkey stealing the offerings at Tango Goembe
Main monastery Tango Goembe


After Tango, we crossed the valley and then headed up to Cheri Goemba – which was the very first monastery built in Bhutan to educate the monks.  Cheri was also under renovation, but was a total delight.
Cheri Goembe
Cheri Goembe
We spotted some adorable wild mountain goats (goral) in amongst the villas where the monks go to meditate for three months, three weeks and three days – inconceivable.
Goral at Cheri Goembe

The trail up to the monastery was lovely, so I couldn’t resist jogging back down instead of hiking – 9 minutes to come down :-), and quite a few raised eyebrows from the pilgrims coming up who can’t fathom why anyone would jog.  We met some lovely friendly locals at the bottom, as we were spinning the prayer wheels, and we had a chat about how lovely Bhutan is.  The Bhutanese are incredibly proud of their country, and rightly so.  Everyone we met was lovely!!!
The Bhutanese are immensely proud of their approach to gross national happiness, rather than gross domestic product.   The government priorities are all anchored around sustainable development, protecting the environment, providing free healthy care and schooling and preserving the culture.  It seems to be working.  While there are downsides to GNH in terms of personal freedom (i.e you can’t buy tobacco in Bhutan, meat is allowed but only if it is imported, you must wear national dress inside any government office or temple and western advertising is banned), the upsides in terms of quality of life are worth it.  I wish NZ had a similar approach.
Bridge at the base of cheri goembe
We headed back down into Thimphu town for lunch and then went down to the weekend market.  They had amazing dried cheese, a great assortment of vegetables and some truly unique dried pork.  Modernisation has clearly taken hold as almost everyone in the market under the age of 40 was glued to their smart phone.   Young girls shelling peas whilst simultaneously looking at snapchat was amusing……, but I preferred the two old ladies we photographed who were having a long afternoon gossip.

dried cheese
It was our last evening in Thimphu, so we were good tourists and went to the dancing demonstration at the hotel accompanied by some of the prized local butter tea (its as vile as it was when I tried it in Kathmandu years go).   The dancing was lovely, but thirty minutes is probably all the Bhutanese dancing I need to see in my life.   Another huge dinner and then off to bed.
Local masked dancer
We were really sad heading back to the airport.  Bhutan is expensive, as the government has adopted a wise policy of high value low impact tourists.  It costs a minimum of $200 per day per person, but this does include food, a guide, hotel and transportation.  However, this will only cover a basic level of accommodation, so if you want luxury, expect to pay more.  Honestly for us, it was worth it, as one of those few holidays in our lives where we really went luxurious.   Bhutan is delightful, and I cannot wait to come back.

Bhutan – Penises in Punakha

Our next stop was the lovely Punakha valley…..The weather was wonderful for our drive from Paro to Punakha.  While it is only 120km, it would take 4 hours on the ‘main highway’ of Bhutan which was built by Indian workers 40 years ago, and is still managed by them to this day.   I was looking forward to the drive, as we were heading over the pass at Dochu La – at 3000 metres, this pass has stunning views to the Himalayan range on a clear day.  And it was a stunning clear day, and it seems every day in Bhutan in December is like this!
108 stupas on dochu la
From the pass, we headed down to the Punakha valley.  At 1200m in altitude, it is a lush green valley in comparison to Paro and Thimpu, where they grow great fruit and vegetables.  The first thing you see is Punakha dzong, situated at the confluence of the Mama and Papa rivers in the Punakha valley.  Apparently the Mama river is calm and zen and the Papa river is a bit violent.   This fits nicely with what I have been learning about buddhism from our guide – women apparently stand for wisdom and compassion, and men stand for power and energy.    We didn’t stop at the Dzong, but headed on to the Uma Punakha, further up the valley.  It is a stunning tiny resort with 10 rooms and an amazing view up the green river valley.
Chorten Nibu

We had another huge lunch (chicken wings, a club sandwich and ice-cream), and then summoned up the courage to go for a stroll.  We headed up the hill to Chorten Nibu which is famous for when Drukpa Kunley (the ‘divine madman’ – more on him later)  observed a witches coven plotting to hurt some villagers so he threw a stick at them from a distant hilltop.  The stick eventually turned into a beautiful tree where they built the monastery Chorten Nibu.   We then strolled down through the rice fields back to the hotel for more food and a big nights sleep.

Terraced rice fields in Punakha valley
The next morning, it was another glorious day and we took a stroll along the Mama river in the Punakha valley.  We started from the ‘Aman bridge’, so named as it is near the Aman hotel, which doesn’t have a road, the guests get shuttled up from the bridge in golf buggies.  We were met by a gorgeous fat dog who lives at the Aman (apparently he used to live at the Uma Punakha, but he upgraded a few months ago to the Aman, where he appears remarkably well fed). He guided us across the rice fields and through a little village full of friendly Bhutanese, including some cute kids who showed us their bows.  They couldn’t have been more than about 6 years old but they were pretty good shots.
Village kids proudly showing us their bows
The dog then took us up the hill to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten.  It is a lovely temple dedicated to the current king and built by his mum, who lives just behind, and it was consecrated in 1999.   The paintings were some of the nicest we saw in Bhutan.   From the Chorten we wandered down the hill and through some more fields, helping ourselves to some delicious tomatillos and guavas from the trees on the hillside farms.  I did ask our guide whether this constituted theft, and in true buddhist style, he responded that it was fine as the farmers had an abundance.
our guide dog
Khamsum Chorten

We wandered along the glacial Mama Chu river, which reminded me of the rivers in NZ, and found some illegal fishing nets in the river.  It is technically against the law to kill any animals in Bhutan (all meat is imported from India or Bangladesh), and fishing in the national park is completely outlawed.  We took the nets out of the river and shredded them, popping them in the backpack to dispose of later.
Heading up from the river to the hotel we met some cool young boys playing cowboys.  They told us how many cows they each had.  Like most young bhutanese boys they had knives tied around their waists and were ready for anything.   Within a minute or two they had denied all knowledge of the fishing nets but one of them scurried off to the village to find the culprits, two entrepreneurial teenagers who had been selling fish to some of the locals and who were very upset that we had ruined their fishing nets.  But like most bhutanese, there wasn’t an ounce of aggression.  After a chat about the fishing rules we were back to the hotel for another enormous lunch…., beef skewers, amazing Caesar salad and more cake and ice-cream.
Local boys playing cowboys

In the afternoon we headed down to Punakha to see the fortress. – Punakha Dzong.  Its winter, so the fortress is home  to all the monks who decamp from Thimpu during the winter.  As a result, opening hours were really curtailed and we had to wrestle a scrum of Indian tourists to get in the door.  Punakha Dzong was the second fortress built in Bhutan and it is definitely the loveliest.
Punakha Dzong
Punakha Dzong

The light was magical, and husband and I were forced to pose in front of the famous window in the Dzong where the king and queen had their photo taken.

Punakha Dzong
Snow leopard heads in the door mantle in Punakha Dzong

Monk throwing oranges at his friend
Temple entrance – Punakha Dzong
After a strenuous day of sightseeing, we had a fabulous massage overlooking the river, followed by another enormous meal.  At this rate I will be rolling home.
The next morning, fortified by a  breakfast of French toast and bacon, it was time to head back to Thimphu.  Our last stop in Punakha was at Chimi Lakhang (no dog temple), built in 1499 to honour Drukpa Kunley – the divine madman.
Prayer wheels at No dog temple
Prayer wheels at No dog temple
Drukpa Kunley apparently had a creative way of practising buddhism through sex and alcohol – the rock n roll buddhist!  He apparently slept with over 5000 women, but it was all honourable as his outrageous behaviour encouraged people to think about things differently.  He is still very honoured today, and there are souvenir phalluses galore for the tourists.   Apparently it is a great place to go for a fertility blessing.
Painted penis and local boys
Phalluses for sale
After that we headed back to Thimphu….to be continued

Bhutan – Pampered in Paro

Flying into Bhutan was a hell of an experience – better than a roller coaster….!  There aren’t many places in central Bhutan where you can put an airport…Paro is an hour from the capital of Thimphu (where there isn’t space for a runway).  They have fit a runway in the Paro valley, but the runway is shorter and higher than most in the world and only suits smaller planes.  On a clear fine day the planes bank in tightly through the mountains and turn into the valley, weaving through the hills and juddering to halt about 10 metres from the end of the runway.  On a cloudy day (or at night), no flights come in or out.
Looking down the Paro valley past the dzong
The friendliness of the Bhutanese was reinforced from the outset.  The immigration officer was very friendly.  Their sense of humour was pretty evident also – Hubby asked were the bathroom was and was told that the nearest toilet was ok for a ‘short vacation’ but if he needed a ‘longer vacation’ to try the one further away.  Hilarious!
It is rare for me to do a luxury holiday…. Camping in my one person tent or staying in a backpackers is definitely more my style.  However, every now and then it is nice to go five star, and there is honestly no better place to try out luxury than Bhutan.  Our first few nights were at the Uma Paro, a luxurious version of a traditional bhutanese building with stunning views down the paro valley.     Stunning rooms, wonderful free yoga classes, and they gave us the best ginger and lemon tea I have ever had (which I had at every meal for the eight days we were in Bhutan).  Our first night was Christmas Eve, so instead of the Bhutanese fare of momos and thukpa we were expecting, we had a nine course Christmas dinner with foie gras, scallops, turkey, bisque and mousse.
Zuri Dzong
After a horrible jetlagged nights sleep, I fortified myself with an enormous buffet breakfast and we headed out to ‘hike’ to town.  ‘Hike’ as what they call a ‘hike’ here tends to be a casual stroll for relatively short distances.  Our guide adapted our itinerary to add walking wherever possible, but I was always surprised by the short distances and he was surprised by how quickly we covered them.  Our hike that morning was the standard ‘first day’ hike that the guide took all tourists on to see how fit they were.  It was a lovely stroll up the hill and past Zuri Dzong down to the National Museum.  It took us about an hour, and we did feel the uphills in our lungs at 2500 metres.  Apparently we did pretty well, compared to some of the other tourists who took 2-4 hours to cover the same terrain.
National Museum

The real National Museum is a beautiful old round watch tower on a hill overlooking the valley.  The real museum has been closed since 2009 when much of it was damaged in an earthquake.  There is a temporary exhibit next door with some fabulous masks (my favourites are the angry blue gods with skulls adorning the top), and a documentary outlining the different types of famous bhutanese mask dances.  Honestly the dances all looked identical to me except the dancers wore a different mask – suspect that is entirely not the case, but I am a bit of a cultural heathen.

Paro Dzong
Next up, a visit to the Paro Dzong (or fortress) constructed in 1644.   It is stunning!  We wandered around admiring the stunning architecture, but I was most impressed by the private loo for the main monk.  From the fortress we wandered down to the lovely Nyamai Zam bridge which cuts across the Paro Chhu (or River), practising my Dzongkha greetings on all the people we passed by.
Interior of Paro Dzong
Monks quarters at Paro Dzong
Nyamai Zam
Strolling into town for lunch we went past the paro archery field.  It was hilarious and quite lethal.  The archers (all in traditional national dress) are at one end of the 150m field firing into the distance.  At the target end, a variety of inebriated men taunt the archers when they miss, and they stand surprisingly close to the target and no-one seemed to get hit.  When an archer hits the target he (and yes it is mostly a he, as women are only allowed to compete occasionally) gets awarded a scarf to hang of his belt and is serenaded with a victory song by his friends.
Taunting the archers while standing very close to the target
I could have sat and watched archery for hours, but we got hungry, so headed into town for a spectacularly bad buffet lunch – unrecognisable poultry, cold rice and soggy aubergine…. a good warning to always eat at the posh hotel!
Paro town
We wandered around the unremarkable town of Paro, which is over-blessed with tourist shops, and then headed up the valley to the end of the road – Drukyel Dzong an old fort which was built in 1649 to commemorate the victory of Bhutan over Tibetan invaders who had followed the river to Paro.  Its a lovely spot, and it literally is the end of the road.
Drukyel Dzong
We then went to visit the lovely Kyichu Lakhang with its magical orange tree (so called as oranges shouldn’t be able to grow at this altitude).  It is one of Bhutan’s oldest and most beautiful temples, believed to have been built by a Tibetan king in 659, as part of a network of temples built to pin down a demoness.  Kyichu is pinning down her left foot.    After watching the devotees spinning the prayer wheels in the late afternoon sun, we headed back to the hotel for candlelit yoga and an amazing Christmas dinner! We opted for the bhutanese set meal – great thukpa soup, momos, stunning cheese and green bean curry (with crazy hot green chilis) and chicken curry with red rice….
Kids racing around the prayer wheels at Kyichu Lakhang
Circumambulating at Kyichu Lakhang
The next day we were up early to hike to the most popular site in Bhutan – Taktshang Goemba – literally the Tigers Nest Monastery – which hangs from the cliffside 900metres above the valley.   The monastery is so named as Guru Rinpoche (who bought buddhism to Bhutan), flew up to the monastery on the back of a tiger to defeat the local demons.  All true buddhists apparently need to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives.
Mules relieved to be free of their loads at the half way point

The hike was apparently supposed to take a couple of hours, although our guide had warned us that Indians and Chinese typically took 3-4 hours to get to the top. Alexander McQueen apparently took 9 hours to get up and back, as he stopped for a cigarette after every ten minutes of hiking.   It was quite steep, and it was amusing to see the lazier tourists on the back of mules who you can hire to take you half way up.  I hiked up halfway and then jogged back down to pick up hubby and the guide.  And then I went to the top of the trail and jogged back again…. A perfect morning work out, though it did raise some eyebrows with the hikers who I kept passing going up and back down again.

hubby took a picture of me jogging down the hill

It probably took about 45 minutes to get to the monastery, and it was a great trail, with lots of fantastic views of the en route.   The monastery was worth the hike.   We only went to a handful of the temples (there are many), and we made offerings to Guru Rinpoche, and even meditated for a few minutes.

Takthsang Goemba – Tigers nest monastery

After that, we had some ginger tea and muffins in the sun, and then I ran down the trail to see how long it would take (22 minutes at a cruisy pace – even going downhill at this altitude is tiring).   I then hiked back up again to pick up the hubby.  The guides nicknamed me yaomaoyaomao which means up down up down, as apparently it is unusual for people to voluntarily hike more than they needed to.   A glorious visit!!!

prayer wheels
We had a late lunch and then spent the afternoon trying to learn how to play bhutanese darts and archery.  I was pretty rubbish at both, but did manage to hit the target once with the arrow!!!!
One last night of yoga, delicious food, and a great night sleep at the Uma Paro, we were headed for the Punakha valley in the morning.
26 December, 2017

Lovin’ it in Lahore

There have been multiple terror attacks in Lahore this year, and the week before I arrived there were clashes between anti government protestors and the police.  My first day in town it was the prophet’s birthday – Eid Milad ul-Nabi – and there were 15,000 policemen on the streets of Lahore to prevent any violence…… so, I was a little bit more reticent than usual about visiting.  It turns out I have never had such a warm welcome to a big city.   My most amusing moments were being surrounded by young girls and their teachers who wanted to ‘selfie with me’.   I was also invited home by pretty much every woman I met, including the lovely woman who sat next to me on the plane on the way over.   The pakistani/british women on my connecting flight through Karachi on the way home, also took charge of me and hustled me to the plane along with them at Karachi and made sure I was fine and safe.  I can’t imagine feeling safer or better looked after!

Jinnay Lahore nu nahi takkeya, o jammeya e nai – He who has not seen or visited Lahore, is nor born yet

Lahore is a delight, and there are lots of things to see and do.  I only saw four other tourists in the three days I was in town, so now is a great time to visit.    My favourite things from the weekend……

Badshahi Mosque

The mosque is built out of Jaipur red sandstone, which apparently is baking hot in the summer.  The locals have tried to replace the red stone in the courtyard with a cooler marble, but the heritage officers won’t let them.  Its a truly enormous space which can apparently house 100,000 worshippers.  I can’t imagine the bathroom queues!, and am glad I didn’t visit on the prophet’s birthday as it would have been crazy.

the mosque in the Lahore smog
Contemplating life
A couple enjoying the morning light
the old classrooms of the mosque glowing in the morning sun
Lahore fort

The fort was lovely and well preserved.  Unfortunately you are no longer allowed to approach the elephant gate, but you can see it from the entrance of Badshahi mosque.  There was plenty to occupy an eager history buff for an hour or so, and I thought the hall of mirrors was extraordinary!

Elephant Gate at Lahore Fort


School girls lining up to visit the fort
yes I look like a dork….the guide made me do it
hall of mirrors at Lahore Fort
some of the many girls who asked if they could ‘selfie with me’
having a chat on the mobile at the fort
minar pakistan

The’ tower of Pakistan’ was constructed during the 1960s on the site where the All-India Muslim League passed a resolution calling for a  separate and independent Pakistan on 23 March 1940

the Eiffel tour of Pakistan, on the site of where the document founding Pakistan was signed


Jahangirs tomb

Jahangir is the father of Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal).  He is buried in Lahore as this was apparently his first capital city.  The tomb is set in enormous walled gardens, and was lovely.

Gateway to the tomb
Jahangir’s Tomb
Jahangir’s Tomb
The actual tomb – decorated in the same lapis as the Taj Mahal
Asif Khan’s Tomb (brother of Noor Jahan). Next door to Jahangirs tomb its materials wer sacked by the Sikhs for use in the Golden Temple
delhi gate and old city

No visit to Lahore is complete without visiting the bonkers walled city.  I narrowly avoided getting hit by a motorbike and head butted by an ox.  There isn’t a great deal of personal space in the old city, but it was a fascinating walk.   In spite of having a substantial lunch, I couldn’t walk past the five men making buttery naan in a seamless manufacturing process, and it was delicious.

Delhi gate – to the old walled city of Lahore
the honey and spice traders hard at work in the old walled city
making naan bread
smoking ‘strong tobacco’ from the tobacco vendor’s hubbly bubbly pipe
traffic jam
Lahore styles
wazir kahn mosque

This lovely little mosque is apparently the most beautiful mosque in Lahore, and it reminded me of the ‘rose’ mosque in Shiraz, Iran.  Walking into the courtyard from the hustle and bustle of the old wall city, to find people peacefully praying in the late afternoon sun – it was delightful.  This was probably my favourite moment in Lahore

Prayer time in the late afternoon sun
Prayer time in the late afternoon sun

Atchison College

Atchison College is the ultra-posh school where fine young elite Pakistani men are educated.  The architecture is lovely, and that is why it has appeared on tripadvisor as a place to see.  The twist is the you need to email the principal of the school to ask for a visit – but lucky for me he said yes.   While the architecture was the reason for visiting, it turns out that I was most fascinated by the overwhelming British poshness of it all.  From the 200 groundsmen, to the fully kitted out stables for the equestrian lessons and polo ponies, to the three swimming pools.  They have thought of most things – they even have a Sikh temple and a hindu temple to compliment the mosque – so that everyone can worship.  I also was amused by the irony that there was no way I would have been able to visit the British equivalent of Atchison (Harrow? Eton?) so easily.

Administration building
Sikh temple for the students
Main building
Flowers arranged in a bed with military precision

I love trucks in Asia.  They are more ornately and lovingly decorated than the women, and that says something.  Truck owners invest extraordinary amounts of money (several thousand USD by all accounts) on dedicated truck artists.  I couldn’t resist asking my driver to pause at the truck stop for me to check some of these out.

the drivers requested I take their photo

Gorgeous truck

Shalimar garden

I ended one of my Lahore  days at the lovely Shalimar Garden.  While there was nothing amazing to see, it was peaceful sitting in the shade having a chai, watching the sun go down


additional notes
  • Many people visit the Wagah border with India (24km from Lahore) to watch the elaborate daily ceremony where the flags get lowered and the border closes.  I didn’t go, as had seen it 20 years ago from the other side of the border.  Its worth a trip
  • I stayed at the Residency Hotel which was excellent – free airport pick up, drop off and breakfast, and a great gym.  I rented a car and driver for one day to get around town – it was 30USD all in, including kms.    I also simplified my life and organised a guide for one day, as hadn’t had time to do any planning
  • Women – I would recommend long sleeves, a tunic and trousers or long skirt.  A shalwar kameez is best if you have one, but a tunic and jeans worked for me, with a loose head scarf
  • The food is fabulous…. I could have eaten my bodyweight in paratha, Dahl and chicken handi


Lahore, December 3, 2017

Bullet holes in Bissau

My first attempt to visit Guinea Bissau was thwarted a couple of years ago by the collapse of Air Senegal.  I had paid 300 euros for a visa (including the agency fee to get the visa processed in france as there was no UK service at the time).  When I made it to Dakar airport at 4am to check in, there was no plane, and after 6 hours at the airport, it was evident there wasn’t going to be a plane. I ended up paying egregious sums to get back to London from Dakar. It took a couple of weeks to find out that the airline had gone bust.  Oh well, such is the joy of travelling in Africa!
Plaza of heros
Things weren’t looking much better this time around!  Multiple failed attempts to submit the e-visa on the crashing website!  Then they didn’t process the visa or let me know they hadn’t done so, until I emailed to query what passport I had put it on.  Tried again, fingers crossed!  Ok.  Then Air Maroc cancelled part of my flight back.    Hmmmm, not looking good.   So, I was pleasantly surprised when my flight departed Lisbon airport more or less on time.   I love flying to Africa – you can always tell you are Africa bound by the amount of luggage on the plane.  Almost every person boarding had their ‘carry-on’ taken off them…. .  We eventually all made it on board, and I am guessing Guinea Bissau is slightly posher than the places I usually go, as there are actual tourists on the plane, as opposed to just aid workers, chinese business men and the military.
We landed in the balmy evening in Bissau where a nice man sorted out my visa after chatting me up in broken french. I eventually found the driver I had booked to take me to the hotel after being propositioned by several taxi drivers.  My room at the ‘luxury’ Azalai is more shabby than chic, and I did have to squash a few cockroaches before passing out after 12 hours on the move.
Main street
In the morning, fortified by some fresh pain au chocolat and the appalling nescafe that passes for coffee in most of West Africa, I headed out to conquer the town.   Bissau Velho – old town – is a gunshot peppered, run down, shabby colonial city with lots of charm and friendly people.  Probably too friendly!.  I don’t know what it is with African men – so many of them try to hit on me, its not personal, they hit on anything that walks by.   Sometimes its quite half hearted, but today I had a persistent one who followed me around for half an hour trying to talk to me.  I do my best ‘I don’t speak any language you speak’ smile, and walk on……, but it is a bit annoying.   One day I am going to sit on a plastic chair on the side of the road in a West african city, with my belly hanging out of the top of my pants, and I will hiss at passing men and see how they like it 😃
At the port
The sights of Bissau are not numerous…., the day passed sweltering past the Presidential palace (lots of bullet holes), the cathedral, the bank (where i finally found a working ATM guarded by 8 security guards).
the remains of the fort
I wandered round the fort, and got a proper telling off from the military as I took a photo.  Oh well!.  At least they didn’t detain me.  The port was fascinating.  Then I saw a terrific monument which I think was a fist – hopefully it was an African fist rising up against the horrendously corrupt government here (they are all pretty corrupt in this neck of the woods).   Continuing in the revolutionary spirit, I wandered up to Che Guevara square.
the fist
I took a pause at the Pastry shop at the Imperial – astoundingly good tarts and decent espresso.  I love the countries that were colonised by Portugal, Italy and France – you can tell in the pastry shops (which contrast profoundly with the bread in the countries colonised by anglo nations)
I kept strolling in the heat, and made it up to the National Ministry of Justice which was lovingly adorned with multiple signs saying ‘made with chinese assistance’.  It was an architectural horror!
Ministry of Justice
I passed a smattering of lebanese restaurants.  While I have frequently mentioned how chinese influence is everywhere in the world! – I have neglected to mention the widespread lebanese dominance of grocery stores.
Everywhere from Kenema in Sierra Leone, to Nzerekore in Guinea, to here in Bissau, you can find Lebanese families running the grocery stores who have been here for generations.  I always wondered if it is because the Lebanese are the arabs without oil, they had to find another way to make money 🙂
the pub
More wandering, more old buildings, most of them look derelict with peeling paint, sagging roofs and absent glass in the windows…. but a surprising number have people living in them.   Lots of bullet holes as a reminder of the not too distant past – if Guinea Bissau is famous for anything it is coups and cocaine smuggling.
After strolling for hours, I took a nap by the pool and headed out again for fish.  Spicy fish and palm oil and rice.  It wasn’t terrible :-), but the cakes were better.   A glorious day in Bissau!
Bissau, Monday 6 November, 2017
by the port
My least favourite ad in west africa – with maggi, every mother is a star….. (they are still in the 1950s)
I really liked the curves on this building


Bissau, November 6, 2017

Sunshine and rhythm in Cape Verde

Now that I am working full time, I thought I would find it quite tiring to fit in a bonkers adventure to a new country each month.  And I do!  But its worth it!  I feel like I unleash my ‘kiwi backpacking’ alter ego when I hop on a plane, armed solely with my tiny 16 litre backpack (all you need for four days on the road), and plenty of optimism about what awaits.  I love it, it feels like being across between an explorer and an undercover agent.  Very few people in my office know I am on a mission to visit the whole world.  And I certainly don’t say anything on Monday morning when I turn up still buzzing from the weekends adventure…. They would probably think I was nuts.
Farol Dona Maria
And I did feel a bit nuts at 3.30am when I hauled myself out of bed on Black Friday to head to the airport for a 6am flight to Praia via Lisbon.  Theres nothing like Heathrow at 4.30 am!   For once I had a happy transit experience.  I only had 50 minutes to get from one flight to the other.  And of course, our flight was 15 minutes late…., hmmmm.  I reconciled myself to potentially a 16 hour wait for the next flight to Praia, and was happily surprised to find a man at the bottom of the plane steps to take me and two other passengers directly to the next plane.
Presidential Palace
I landed in Praia at lunchtime in the baking bright African sunshine.  Cape Verde is physically almost half way between Africa and Brazil…..and spiritually feels like the perfect blend of the two!  As usual I was cunningly off the plane and in the visa queue first.  After five minutes of processing, I turned around to see the queue of 30 people behind me, and felt gleeful as I departed the airport in a cab less than 12 minutes after landing.
Ethnography Museum
I am staying at the lovely Oasis Praia overlooking the sea.   I couldn’t resist lying by the pool for a couple of hours to recover from my four hours sleep the night before, and then I went on a long stroll around town.
Our Lady of Grace
The light here is beautiful.  The buildings are various bright shades contrasting with the nut brown to dark ebony of their inhabitants.  I wandered to the famous light house, and accidentally interrupted about 40 men having an afternoon swim without much on.  Oops.   Then I wandered up to the plateau for an icecream and a look around the old buildings (the ethnography museum, presidential palace, colonial bank and the Church of our Lady).  The colonial architecture is lovely.
National Archives
I was feeling grumpy walking around town at all the men hissing at me, and trying to chat me up in various languages, but felt mildly better when I realised they were hissing at every woman that walked by.   I hit a wall at around six local time (having been up for 17 hours, so staggered back to the hotel, had a bag of crisps for dinner and passed out.
Praia High School
Reinvigorated the next morning by 9 hours of solid sleep I was awake at 5 and first into the buffet at 7.  I loaded up on local maize and bacon and then negotiated with a dodgy cabbie to take me out to Ciudade Velho.
St Philip’s Fort
View from St Philip’s Fort

First up a lovely restored fort overlooking the sea, originally built with Portuguese stone.  Then the old town with some eye wateringly bright colonial buildings.

Igreja Nossa Senhora Rosario – Cidade Velha

I found my way to the Lady of the Rosary Church – the oldest remaining building in the town, and apparently one of the few examples of gothic architecture in Africa.  And from there, I wandered through some cows and goats and found the Convent of Sao Francisco, founded in the 17th century.

Sao Francisco Convent – Cidade Velha
Honestly, although the town has Unesco status, the buildings were not spectacular but were lovely to stroll around.
Boys playing football – Cidade Velha
Back into town, and a bit more wandering around the new town (which is still quite old), for a bit of ice-cream and to see the lovely colonial architecture in different light.  Its loud here!  Lots of rocking African beats pulsing out through windows.  I was amused by two guys who were shouting in the street, I though they were fighting, and it wasn’t until I listened carefully that I realised they were selling squid walking through the streets and shouting to any potential buyer.
Presidential Palace
I had another ice-cream and then treated myself to these outstandingly good cheese puddings – they are like cheese cake, but so much better.  The base is caramelised coconut!  Honestly amazing, and I ate all three almost without pausing for breath.
Pudim de queixa
Wandering back to the hotel, I couldn’t help but notice there are 4-5 new hotels going up along the sea front, all being built by the Chinese.  Its lovely here at the moment, as there aren’t that many tourists, but I have not doubt it would be better for the locals if they had more visitors (=more $$).  Come now before the hordes
And then it was time for a bit more relaxing by the pool.  The couple next to me on the loungers had been here for a week and still hadn’t made it to the Ciudade Velho…….   And time for a snooze
Praia, October 15, 2017