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

Asia

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
temples

Americas

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)

Europe

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).

Hmmmmf!!
Medina
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.

Horns!

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!

Details

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