Burkina Faso – Visa optimisation in Ouagadougou

Ouagadougou (pronounced ‘waaggaadoogoo’), affectionately known as Ouaga, is the capital of Burkina Faso which ranks 181 out of 187 on the UNs development index. It wasn’t really my intended destination for this trip, but bizarrely it was cheaper, faster and easier to add in a stop in Burkina Faso to get a visa for Mali rather than apply in London. The Mali visa in Burkina Faso was €50, and the Burkina Faso visa set me back another €150, BUT just to get a Mali visa in London would have cost €220 and here i can get the Mali visa in one day versus two weeks in London (time I didn’t have). What sealed the deal is that I was headed to the famous Dogon country, which was half way between Ouaga and Bamako (the capital of Mali,) so just as easy to get there from Ouaga.

Burkina Lottery – there were stalls everywhere

It didn’t start off well. Arriving late in the evening, the immigration guys had a unique system where they will give you a visa on arrival, but as they don’t want to work late, you pay for it and then you have to come back at 3pm the next day to pick up your passport. Not super helpful for someone like me who was supposed to be lodging their passport at the Mali embassy the next day at 8am. Just as well I had a back up passport with me.

Main cathedral

Next morning I woke up starving at 5am. Breakfast was apparently from 7. At 7 am when I woke up the receptionist he didn’t know where the cook was. At 7.30 the receptionist made me a coffee…. but sadly no breakfast. I found a moto taxi to take me to the embassy and it seemed to go off without a hitch, and my new friend Sila at the embassy said I could come back at 2 to pick it up my visa.

 

So off to check out the sites.  Ouaga is steaming hot. By 9.30 am I was soaked through with sweat, it was already 38 degrees and I wisely choosing my path to optimise shade. There are no real sights to see here, but I made an effort and went to the mosque and the cathedral.

Famous Ouaga cinema

Bemusingly and somewhat depressingly I was referred to as a ‘jeune homme’ (young man) by numerous passers by, and a chinois (Chinese) by a few more. I am happy to take the ‘young’ but I am not sure how I got the ‘man’. Is it my short hair? the lack of boobage? the enormous calves? Who knows? Oh well, it probably isn’t something I want to be conducting a street poll on.
I beat a retreat after two hours and went for coffee (well Nescafé) in a busy cafe stuffed to the gills with male Burkinabes solving the problems of the world (or more likely discussing the arsenal game) at high volume, with continual arm waving, and an air of importance, interrupted only by answering (obviously urgent) incoming calls on their old Nokia mobiles. It was an amusing and much needed respite from the heat. At this point I am questioning the wisdom of signing up for hiking 30k per day in the Dogon….. with no breeze and in full sun it is hard to walk let alone hike.

Grande Mosque

I summoned up the courage to walk some more, and wandered around the central market. I was way too hot, so I put my umbrella up for shade much to the amusement of many of the locals, quite a few of whom stopped and stared as I strolled by. The market was the usual frenetic west African market, pungent with the smells of animals being gutted, rotting fish and mangos. It is nice being back in a steaming vibrant west African city. The women here are loud, vivacious and demanding. In many ways they are more challenging than the men when they have their hearts set on selling you something.
After an hour I scarpered to a lovely French restaurant for lunch, and enjoyed the shade, fans and wifi. One of the few good things that has come out of French colonisation is that there is always good bread and a steak with Roquefort sauce to be found!. The day was definitely improving!

Ouahigouya cathedral

I went to the airport, hoping to pick up my passport before the 3pm pick up time, and managed to persuade the 4th policeman I asked to give it to me, and then headed to the Mali embassy to get my visa! Yay, all sorted. The lovely Amadou Traore had come to get me from Dogon country, and after an hour navigating the dusty streets and traffic, we finally exited Ouaga and hit the highway to Ouagigouya!
Amadou entertained me on the voyage with two themes which appear frequently in west Africa. 1) a long and caring lecture on why I needed to have children. I have heard this from almost every African man I have ever met….one even said I was like a sad fruit tree who bore no fruit. I showed him pictures of the cats, but he didn’t think they were sufficiently child like, and then 2) a detailed discussion on how and where he might find his second wife. He is looking for a ‘femme blanche’ (a European) and reckons he is in with a shot as in his mind the European women think African men are more powerful. He wondered if I might know anyone who was interested…. if you are feel free, do let me know and I can pass on his details.

Luxurious $50 hotel room

Three and a half hours and several goat road blocks later we arrived in ouahigouya, which has 12 banks! Bizarre (I know this because I counted all the welcome signs from the banks on the way into town). For the princely sum of $50, I secured a room at the luxury hotel l’amitie – no hot water, pretty filthy and no loo seat, but at least the AC worked intermittently albeit noisily.

I went to the restaurant for dinner, after giving me the eight page menu and saying they didn’t have my first two requests, the waiter confessed he only had spaghetti or chicken. Hmmmm, perhaps a blackboard menu would work better. I actually felt sorry for the chicken I ate, as I was pretty sure even though it was free range it hadn’t eaten much in its life.
I passed the evening watching the storms last down the street. Torrential rain and sideways trees, it was a lovely respite from the heat. The next day an early departure to Mali. The border post was amusing as they had never seen a NZ passport, and had only had 30 or so tourists cross the border this year! Goodbye Burkina Faso and thanks for the visa!

Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso, May 16, 2017

Eritrea – Art Deco in Asmara

In the case of Eritrea immigration, the whole is more than the sum of its parts…. Italian efficiency combined with African bureaucracy….. amazing new levels of ineptitude :-)! I was first in the queue to passport control and 45 minutes later I was the last out, and my kiwi passport had been scrutinised by everyone in the building. Oh well, I still beat most people out as I didn’t have any bags.

The Irga building – one of the earliest art deco buildings

Eritrea is a former Italian colony, famous for having the best collection of modernist buildings anywhere in the world. The entire town of Asmara is a modernist experiment. Historically (and fortunately) they haven’t had the funds to build skyscrapers, and now they are applying for world heritage status to protect and restore the buildings.

Civilised queueing for the bus outside of the main mosque

I was extremely jet lagged from my 1am wake up to get on the flight, but the light was fabulous when I got into town at 7.30am, so I headed out for a stroll. First up, the most famous building in Asmara – the Fiat garage – shaped like an airplane. Gorgeous!

The Fiat Tagliero Building

Then I wandered along to the cinema Roma, I couldn’t resist a macchiato from the ancient coffee machine, and I was even invited into the theatre to see a kids play. The theatre gets put to good use with screenings of the UK premier league matches most days.

The antique projector at the Cinema Roma

Asmara is at 2200 m, and it has a delightful climate, a blessed relief after ten days of sweating, so it was the perfect day for a long wander. The buildings are remarkable. Hartnet ave – the main drag is a bit like Las Vegas back in the day – pastels, Art Deco and palm trees.

Enda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral

I meandered around the religious quarter where the mosque, cathedral, synagogue and two types of orthodox churches live in peaceful harmony. My favourite was the Enda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral.

Main Post Office

And then I just wandered around the old quarter looking for a postcard for a friend who has a daughter named Asmara. The post office was stunning but sadly only had six abysmal postcard options – oh well, beggars and choosers. Then I checked out Mah Jai jai and the market. I punctuated the days wanderings with excellent macchiatos in the many cafes in town.


Eritreans are beautiful and stylish! Fine cheekbones and chiselled features. They are definitely modern, and this is the first place in two weeks I have seen women, lots of them, wearing jeans! The old men are nattily attired in hats and jackets and make a full time job out of walking down the street chatting to people and drinking coffee.

The bowling alley

The city vibe is laid back and friendly, totally unlike all other capitals that I have experienced in Africa. Cars stop traffic to say hi to friends coming in the other direction – it’s like small town New Zealand. I had zero hassle day or night, and the locals took pride in telling me I could walk around at midnight with no problems. Too bad I am too old and boring to consider being out at midnight.

Cinema Roma

Eritreans are also extremely polite!  The best example is watching the queues for the bus.   Rather than stand in line, you leave a bag or a rock in the queue and then you can wander off for a coffee or sit in the shade.   Unimaginable in most African countries, where queuing feels like being in a mosh pit at a concert and you certainly wouldn’t leave your bags unattended in the street.

Cinema Odeon

I was up at 5 my second day and wandered up to Kidus Michael Church to watch the sun come up over the city and see the dawn church service. It is a lovely sight watching very devout old ladies perform their morning prostrations – no doubt it keeps them flexible. And then I went for a wander around the Italian cemetery, which is extremely ornate, though I couldn’t figure out why there were cow horns and hooves strewn around in one corner – either a bizarre ritual sacrifice ceremony or perhaps just a lazy garbage man.

Kidus Michael at dawn

 

Italian Cemetery

After breakfast I wandered up and down lots of random streets with no real plan. Every street had wonderful architecture, honestly this place is a modernist dream. For lunch, I met up with the delightful Tekeste…- the worlds friendliest guide (see more on him here). He has developed quite a following from the worlds travellers as is one of the few Eritreans with the connections to easily sort out a visa for you.

Local Injera Lunch with Tekeste

He treated me, and a French writer who was on one of his tours, to a fabulous local lunch with wonderful injera and spicy meat. And then I treated them to the best gelato in Eritrea at the Fortuna gelateria! Outstanding!

Fortuna Gelato – the best in Eritrea

More wandering in the afternoon, honestly the streets are endlessly lovely and I happily strolled for hours.  Then I rounded out the day with Arabic tea and a custard slice at the sweet Asmara cafe.

Asmara is delightful – easily my favourite capital of all African cities. If you like modernist architecture come quickly while the buildings are still standing.  The hospitality is amazing, and I had one final act of kindness from the lovely Tekeste who got up at 4 to drive me to the airport. I will be coming back!

Sweet Asmara – for the best cakes in Eritrea

Travel notes

– I can’t recommend Tekeste highly enough. He was amazing, hospitable, and can sort everything out. I only used him for visa support but next time would book everything through him. His agency is asmara grande, or contact him directly on tekeste.tekeste.azere@gmail.com

– I stayed at the crystal hotel. It was clean, and the staff were lovely. The downside was that the restaurant was not great and with the marble floors it was very noisy in my room

Italian Cemetery

– My favourite coffee spots were the Impero, the Roma and the Asmara Sweet. Best pastries were at the Sweet. Best gelato at the fortuna which isn’t on google maps, but it is across the road from the Omar Bin Abdul Aziz mosque (which is on google maps)

– It is mandatory to exchange with authorised dealers, however they no longer control this at customs. The official rate is 15 nakfas to $1, but you should be able to find someone willing to exchange for 23 (not on the street).  Note there are no ATMs in Eritrea, bring plenty of USD with you, and only change to Nafkas as you need

Antique post boxes still in use

– You can easily fly you to Asmara from Cairo and Dubai. I flew flydubai which departed at an uncivilised 3.40am. Note You can tell a lot about a country by what those coming home bring on a plane. The Eritreans set new records on the amount of duty free bags I have ever seen, with a ratio of 5 bags per person, principally composed of bulk boxes of kit Kats. Get in early if the flight is busy and you want your bag in the overhead locker

– The government here is extremely oppressive and apparently their freedom of press scores are worse than North Korea. Best not to discuss politics with the locals in public.

– Heading out of Asmara is possible but requires permits which you can get (eventually) from the tourist office. Next time I will visit Massawa

Italian Cemetery

Bangladesh – Gossiping in Dhaka

I love being on the subcontinent…. , everything smells pungently of incense, curry spices and sweat!  Traffic lanes don’t exist in Bangladesh and every journey is a crazy game of chicken between gutsy rickshaw wallahs, dented buses, aggressive tuktuks and the pristine cars of the wealthy.  It’s a constant cacophony of horns. Crossing the street on foot here takes nerve. It’s a team sport, best undertaken with an expert between you and the oncoming homicidal traffic.   But its fun!

National Assembly building

I met up with a local guide and for our first few stops much of the discussion was on the liberation from Pakistan in 1971 and the 3 million Bangladeshis murdered during that war.  There is still ongoing anger towards Pakistan for their historical oppression of the Bengali language.  Yet another sharp reminder that my history knowledge is dire. I had made the naive assumption that being Muslim, Bangladesh would be friends with Pakistan. As it turns out they prefer their Indian neighbours, though they reckon the Indians are unfriendlier and cheaper than Bangladeshis.

Paintings near Shaheed Minar, the monument to commemorate those killed in the Bengali Language Movement demonstrations

After seeing Dhakaswari, the National Assembly, Shaheed Minaar, and the Sculptures Terrace (none of which were remarkable apart from the history) we headed out to Sonargaon to see the the lost city of Panam. Fortuitously we were half an hour early so we took a wander around a local village to kill some time. That ended up being my favourite part of the day –

Lovely local ladies in Sonargaon

Every house we walked by, we were invited in by the stunningly beautiful women who lived in them.  We stopped at a few places for a drink  and then some fruit as it seemed rude not to when everyone was trying to force us to sit down and visit

Friendly lady in Sonargaon

Most of these ladies’ husbands are off working in Saudi, according to these ladies it is good money but a horrendous lifestyle…..which doesn’t surprise me having seen how many immigrant workers are treated in the Arab states. It was a lovely way to pass some time, sitting having a gossip with the gorgeous local ladies.   We also wandered by a local school.  We wandered in to say hi – it was a Saturday so there were no formal lessons going on.   The headmistress came to say hello and had the students practice their English on me.

School kids who were practicing their English on me

Eventually Badal the guide got me moving and we went to see Panam. It is quite lovely, and we enjoyed a peaceful twenty minutes before five bus loads of schoolboys arrived. Panam City  is part of the 15th century city of Isa Khan’s Sonaragaon.  The buildings that remain are lovely but falling down at a rapid pace and it was disappointing to see the schoolboys rampaging all over the site, climbing up the walls and dumping rubbish everywhere.

Panam
Panam

One the bright side, unlike India, the hassle factor is manageable. The locals are delighted to see you, western tourists are rare, and I had many new ‘friends’ ask for photos of me with their offspring.

Rickshaws

From Sonargaon, we headed back into town to check out the madness at Sadarghat – Dhaka’s river port.   Getting to river port requires navigating the seething mass of humanity and road traffic in the old market to find another seething mass of humanity down at the port.  The river is a major form of transport and there are about 50 large ferries docked at Sadarghat with all forms of accommodation available from lying on the floor of the open air decks, paying for a japanese style coffin box with a fan, all the way up to an aircon room with tv.

Sadarghat river port

We were there early afternoon before the ferries started to fill up properly but families were already there staking out their claims to the upper deck.  There were only 2 toilets for the open decks, which apparently can fit several hundred, I can imagine that class of travel may not be for the fainthearted or those with a good sense of smell.   I loved the noise, the colours and the friendly people, and the sulphurous smell rising from the pitch black Buriganga river definitely left an impression on my nostrils!

Sadarghat River Port

I also visited the other main sites in town – the Lalbag Fort, the Star Mosque, and the Armenian church.  Honestly, none of these is remarkable.  More interesting is enjoying navigating around the old town getting stuck in the traffic and watching the passers by.

Nap time

I had a wonderful time in Dhaka, probably because I had no expectations having read all the reviews.   The very best thing about Dhaka is the people, who were all incredibly friendly, even when I was wandering down the street.   I felt very safe everywhere, though I have no doubt there were a few pickpockets about.

Folk art

The food was pretty  fabulous also, and I would recommend eating as much Dal as you can!   It is the best Dal I have ever eaten.  I am looking forward to visiting again

My new friends

Note that getting a visa on arrival is pretty straightforward at the airport.  Also Uber works well in Dhaka and is much cheaper and easier as a foreigner negotiating with a taxi!

May 8, 2017 Dhaka, Bangladesh

Somaliland – Hanging out in Hargeisa

I am technically in Somalia – home of pirates.  I had planned to go to the capital of Mogadishu, but doing so requires hiring four armed guards for lots of money to look after you.  My husband sagely suggested that if they can be hired to protect you for $1000, then a motivated individual might pay them twice as much to kidnap you.

Early morning at the livestock market

So, instead, I am in Hargeisa – the capital of the unofficial republic of Somaliland- a zone of relative tranquility and stability which has seceded from Somalia and is trying to get UN recognition as a sovereign state.  They deserve it – they actually have a democratically elected president and relative border stability – unlike many other states in Africa.   The other advantage of coming to Hargeisa, apart from avoiding kidnapping, is going to visit the famous cave paintings at Las Geel.

The colourful ladies on the goat side of the livestock market

I had a lazy first day, checking out the hustle and bustle of downtown, where the tourist highlight is a Somalian MIG jet which crashed when bombarding the city.   Apart from that the other priority was to try some camel meat.   Reading Mark Hay from Roads and Kingdoms had prepped me well…..

You’re going to eat a metric shit-ton of gamey, tough, and greasy camel meat….Somalia is home to half of the world’s 14 million camels. Camel meat is not tender.  You’ll also eat a fair share of camel’s hump, which is a spongy, fatty tissue, resistant to all mastication… ..

Yup – that pretty much summed up the experience

Camel spat

And then I spent the rest of the afternoon smelling the flowers in the garden at the Ambassador Hotel near the airport.  I was staying here not because I wanted to hang with all the aid workers nor spend $60 a night versus the much more reasonable $15 at the Oriental hotel, but because it is one of the only hotels in town that isn’t right next door to a Mosque.  Somalilanders take their worship incredibly seriously and the 4 am wake up call is ear splitting…….

The herd of the man with the most camels

I was up early my second morning in town and headed down to the livestock market. Somalis are still nomads at heart and camels are an important source of food and transport. The camels kicked up lots of dust in the early morning sun as the traders shouted prices around them. There is pretty strict division of labour here…. men do camels, women do goats. People are very friendly, lots of people said hello and asked here I was from, but no one was hassling or trying to sell me anything. These markets pop up all over the country where nomads come together but this is one of the biggest ones

Kid by the side of the road, in what the locals describe as the ‘bush’

Then I headed out to Las Geel. In spite of having no major incidents against foreigners in over ten years, (the last incident was three aid workers being murdered by terrorists from Mogadishu in 2003,) the government requires tourists to have an armed government escort and a permit to travel outside of Hargeisa. So it turns out I was getting armed guards after all….. but these were government approved, and likely to be under-utilised.

View from inside one of the caves at Las Geel

After the guide requested an early start it turns out he had the opening times wrong for the tourism ministry, where we needed to stop to get a permit. So we ended up hanging out for 45 minutes chatting to various men and eventually a form in triplicate was produced after I had shown them where Nz was on google maps. Not quite done, we then had to go pay for the permit at the finance ministry, and then back to the tourism ministry for another piece of paper. Eventually after 90 minutes of African bureaucracy at its finest we hit the road.

5000 year old rock painting of cows shagging

Las Geel was amazing. The 5000 year old rock paintings are in open sided caves near an ancient wadi. Historians think there must have been lots of water there so ancient camel herders had plenty of time for painting. Interestingly there aren’t any paintings of camels – it’s mostly cows.

Female cow

More amusingly, even back then shagging was an art theme, and there is a great painting of two cows shagging. I was the only visitor there and it was a magical hour scrambling up and down the sides of the rocky outcrop seeing the paintings. I haven’t seen anything like this before, and would definitely recommend a visit to any history buffs.

Female cow with a man underneath

Additional notes

– you must have a visa to come to Somaliland. You can get these easily and for free at their mission in London, alternatively for a small fee at the embassies in Addis or Djibouti. I didn’t have time for either so paid the hotel $60 to arrange a visa on arrival which worked well

– Any of the hotels can arrange a trip to Las Geel. It is not cheap and the guides at the site, as well as your driver and guides will all also ask for a generous tip

– Sometimes the Lonely Planet (commonly known amongst serious travelers as the Lying Planet) omits some startlingly important things.  I had read a couple of blogs about women getting rocks thrown at them for wearing trousers and no head scarfs…., and even wikitravel mentions it as a requirement, but nothing in the LP. Big thanks to Vanessa for her donation of an ankle length skirt before I left Australia, and my sarong doubles up as an ok headscarf.

A man and his dog

Random side note – it never ceases to amaze me in Africa how the borders bear no reference to historical tribal divides. I guess it is not surprising when they were historically drawn up by European cartographers assisting their governments in divvying up the colonies and their resources. I can’t help but wonder how many of today’s civil wars and partitions might have been avoided by drawing lines in places that recognised the locals history and tribes.

Somali nomad hut – unlike in Djibouti they use old fabric and plastic rather than palm mats for walls

Second random side note – there are khat shops everywhere if you want to try ‘African salad’…. its a mild amphetamine related to the betel nut

The khat shop

 

Hargeisa, May 5, 2017