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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Honestly, although the town has Unesco status, the buildings were not spectacular but were lovely to stroll around.
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.
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.
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
I have felt for the Kurdish people for a long time – one of the largest groups of people in the world without their own homeland. The Kurds in Iraq have managed to carve out a relatively autonomous ‘country’ with clear borders with Iraq and Turkey. However, none of their neighbours want them to be independent – the Iraqis want the Kurd’s oil reserves, and the Turks and Iranians don’t want the numerous Kurds within their borders seeking independence. It felt like an interesting time to visit – a week before a referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. Independence the Kurds believe they are entitled to, not least for their recent efforts in battling IS, and for providing shelter to 850,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees who were fleeing IS (a huge number of refugees for a country of 4 million people). I wasn’t sure what to expect!
I flew via Vienna, and was unsurprised to find the plane filled with aid workers and military personnel. My plane neighbour (Lars from Norway) has lived in Erbil on and off for over a decade. At the beginning he says he was more hopeful and he worked in humanitarian work with living humans. Over recent years, he has found it more challenging to be hopeful and has shifted his emphasis to working with the deceased – specifically identifying the DNA of bones in mass graves. Horrible work, but one that gives family members relief as they can finally know if their loved ones are dead or alive, even if it isn’t the outcome they hoped for.
Erbil airport was a surprise. Aircon, plentiful cash machines, and a nice cafe. Only the VIPs 4WDs were allowed to approach the main terminal, the rest of us were herded on to an old bus to the pick up area about half a km away – I am assuming for security reasons.
I stayed at a great hotel in town – the Erbil View. They picked me up from the airport, and I dropped my stuff off and headed out for a long walk around town. It is fair to say there aren’t many jaw dropping sites in Erbil. In the 40 degree heat, I strolled slowly through the streets (not much in the way of paths) and tried not to melt, and visited the Citadel and the Muzzafariya Minaret and the Hot air balloon in Minaret park.
I noticed hordes of people with Kurdish flags heading in one direction and an overwhelming number of soldiers with guns. This is normally a good signal to high tail it in the opposite direction. Today I decided to trust my instincts and follow them – there were plenty of women in the crowd, every body was drinking sprite or Fanta, and I felt really safe when someone gave me a flag and the next person gave me a hat with the Kurdish flag on it. It turns out I had accidentally happened upon the big Independence rally in Shanidar park. I don’t like crowds at the best of times, and I like political crowds even less. But these were some of the friendliest people I had ever met.
People kept inviting me to dance with them and offering me food! It was like going to a super friendly wedding. I stayed for a couple of hours until the music stopped and the speeches started, and headed back to the hotel for dinner.
The next morning, I got up early to try and see a bit more before the heat got overwhelmingly oppressive. A long walk out to Sami Abdul Rahman Park to see the park and the monument to the the victims of a 2004 suicide bomb attack. It is aptly inscribed with the phrase ‘freedom is not free’.
From there I strolled back to town, and wandered around Shar Garden Square and the Qayssarria Bazaars, endeavouring to resist the huge array of fluorescent coloured sweets. It was hot as all hell, and I retreated into a shady tea shop full of old men (you never see women in these places, they are too busy working), where I had tea so sweet it almost hurt my teeth.
From there I wandered up to the Kurdish Textile Museum – probably not a global museum highlight – and then strolled around the citadel. And then I kept walking until I ran out of steam. If I had more time I would have gone to Lalesh, which was recommended to me on the plane. Next time! And then, after an all too brief visit, it was back to work. I would happily recommend a visit to Erbil for an offbeat weekend – it really isn’t that far away. People are extremely friendly , democratic, non secular and they deserve their own democratic leadership just like the rest of us.
Erbil, 17 September 2017
Note a week later – the referendum was held. Nine out of ten people voted for independence. Turkey threatened to cut the pipeline that allows Iraqi Kurdistan to export oil to the world. Iran and Iraq banned flights to Erbil, and most Western airlines have ceased flights (a challenge for the western military troops who are deployed against IS, as their base is near Erbil). The ban continues two weeks later when I am writing this, and rumours continue that Baghdad will try and retake Kirkuk
From the Observer – While all this may sound rather complicated, in truth, the current problem is straightforward. The Kurds of northern Iraq have proved loyal allies of the western powers since the era of Saddam Hussein. Unusually in a region riven by bigotry and hate, they share the secular, democratic, gender-inclusive and humanitarian values espoused by western society. Whatever the view of Britain and its partners on the wisdom of holding the independence vote, they now have an urgent duty, moral and practical, to robustly support and defend the Kurds as the dark forces of regression and reaction gather.
Baku – the best and worst of Dubai and Moscow….it made for fascinating weekend.
I’d been to Azerbaijan before but hadn’t formally entered the country….hmmmmm, so I thought I better make a return visit.
After a 4.5 hour Friday overnight flight on Azerbaijan Airlines with not much sleep, I arrived in Baku at 6am local (3am London time) on a bright Saturday morning. The airport is stunning and modern. I hitched a ride to town to the cheap but central Bristol hotel. Too cheap to spring for the early check -in, I hit the streets for a six hour 18km stroll around the sites.
First up the old city with Maidens Tower, the Palace of Shirvanshahs and the old city walls. It was wonderfully deserted at 7am. The old city is a UNESCO world heritage site which is extremely clean and tidy, almost like it has been recreated by Disney! Punctuating the views of the old town walls and houses, were glimpses of the huge ‘flame towers’ through the gaps- these are the colossal skyscrapers which overlook Baku from the hill.
I wandered up to get a closer view! I hadn’t realised there were so many steps in Baku, and was amused to see a free funicular and some escalators for the less fit visitors. The more energetic locals were doing Rocky-like stair runs and push ups at the top. It was a stunning view!
After checking out the towers, I strolled along the poignant Martyrs Lane. The memorials are for those who died when the Red Army attacked in 1990. I sat in the shade for a few moments and made a new friend – Abdullah – a retired colonel from the army. He sat down and chatted to me for half an hour, extolling the virtues of the openness of the Azeris. I hope his word choice was an english error, versus an intentional choice, as he was describing how jews and christians were ‘tolerated’ in Azerbaijan. The graves were sombre, but I couldn’t resist admiring the array of moustaches on the headstones.
I kept strolling along the ridge line to check out the huge Nariman Narimanov statue overlooking town and then strolled down the hill back to town in search of coffee. I re-caffeinated at one of the fine establishments on Fountain Square and rested my weary feet.
After that, more strolling along the waterfront Bulvar park. I strategically stayed in the shade as it got hotter and hotter on the 4km stretch to the modern art museum. I did opportunistically pop into two nicely air conditioned malls on the way to cool down. There are lots and lots of posh shops in Baku, staffed by very thin unhappy looking women, catering largely to Arab and Russian tourists. I didn’t get much more than a passing glance from them as I wandered through in old shorts and flip-flops.
I eventually sweated my way to the Modern Art Museum. It was fabulous – lots of great Azeri art and a few Picassos. And they had some lovely beanbags to lie in and look at the art….
I wandered back to town, and finally checked into the hotel and had a wee nap for an hour. After that more strolling and an icecream. Fountain square was quite lovely to watch the people walking by.
I managed to stay awake for an early dinner at Firuze – excellent kebabs and Qutar (bread like pancakes stuffed with meat and vegetables), and then passed out to the sounds of revelling in the streets outside.
Dragging myself out of bed for Sunday morning, and after an uninspiring breakfast I headed out the extraordinary Heyday Aliyev Cultural Centre. I spent a couple of hours walking around the site. The police blew a whistle at me more than once, I guess because I was walking on the grass. Unfortunately the interior was closed for a private event, but the outside is amazing. The grounds have a weird collection of rabbit and snail sculptures and some wonderful fountains.
I wandered back to the old town for another stroll and stopped off for a few coffees. Having seen all the main sites, it was just nice to wander around and people watch. Some of the buildings were lovely – I really liked the Nizami Literature Museum. After just one more kebab, I headed back to the airport- another extraordinary building.
Baku was fun! Highlights were the modern architectural monuments financed by oil money! It was a lovely town to wander around, good food, reasonably friendly people and good icecream. Whats not to like!
Stayed at the Bristol Hotel, ate at Firuze and Kafe Araz plus a random kebab shop. Flew direct with Azerbaijan Airlines from London. Easy to get a visa online for $25, but remember to keep the paperwork for your exit – as they asked me for it at the airport on the way out.