Killing time in Kabul (part 1)

I have been wanting to come to Afghanistan for the longest time, and had finally booked. Hubby had even agreed to come with me, though he was quite sceptical about security and had even packed our emergency locator beacon. We had planned a 9 day trip with the highlight being a trip to Bamian to see the ancient buddhas and the lakes at Band almir. Unfortunately that part of the trip was not to be. The bombing at the intercontinental hotel in January had killed many of the Ukrainian pilots who fly the domestic flights, and others had decided to leave, deciding that even earning five times the Ukrainian wage it wasn’t worth it. As a result there aren’t enough pilots to man the Bamian flights, so we are heading to Herat instead, as well as checking out Mazar I sharif.

Our flight companions from Istanbul to Kabul were what I had expected – mostly men, mostly locals, with a smattering of politicians, aid workers, military and mercenaries. There were very few woman! We arrived without incident, and the plane was greeted by a couple of generals, several posh cars and an armoured van for the US embassy staff. Apparently the embassy staff aren’t allowed to travel by road, so after they have cleared private immigration they get picked up by helicopter and flown to the Kabul embassy – which we realised later is the size of a small town!!!!

We cleared immigration – the service was silent but efficient – and queued up for our registration cards, and then wandered out of the airport to find Kausar our guide, who was with our long time friend Rob, who had decided to join us a few weeks ago when he realised we were coming.

Kausar is a cofounder of untamed borders, and is one of the few people I would trust to help navigate the region. Other agencies offer guides and guns, but Kausar has a strict policy of keeping a low profile and avoiding guns. In his view, and I agree, having an armed guard makes you look like a target. More importantly, the main problem here are subside bombers and if you shoot them, you are in effect triggering the bomb. So we are staying in guest houses with no names that aren’t on websites, travelling in a low profile beat up van and are wearing local clothing! This has its upsides – rob and hubby look pretty fetching in the local waistcoats!

Kabul streets
Kabul streets

We checked in to our low key guesthouse – a marvel of architecture – it was clearly built and then extended over the years using whatever materials were available at the time. It’s a mish mash. We had our briefing and some breakfast and then headed out to see what Kabul had to offer. Ideally we wouldn’t have spent any time in Kabul, but given the vagaries of flight schedules we would end up spending three nights in town – fingers crossed there was good stuff to see!

Ironically our first stop was the British cemetery. It was a lovely peaceful cool enclave in the city. But somewhat disturbing to see all the graves of soldiers, tourists and kidnap victims. Apart from war the most common way to die here appears to be road accidents – as Kausar says, you might be able to dodge the taliban but it is hard to dodge the traffic.

British cemetery
British cemetery

From there we drove through the drug lord district. Their houses are called poppy palaces, or ‘narcitecture’ – what happens when you blend money and narcotics and architecture together – a lurid mass of corrugated iron and bad taste. Kausar pointed out the home of one of the notorious warlords who was responsible for 500,000 people being murdered in the war – and yes he is still in parliament.

The politics here are beyond complicated. For thousands of years the afghan people have been at the crossroads of the world and a pawn in bigger global disputes, and they have the scars to prove it. I won’t bother trying to explain the current politics or the history as could never do it justice – but Kausar is a scholar on the history and has at least managed to get my understanding to novice level.

We then headed up swimming pool hill, which is a surreal place. It is famous as being one of the preferred execution locations for the taliban. However the site is incongruous in any case as it is a diving pool on the top of an amazing hill looking out over the sprawl of Kabul. The town goes on forever and you can tell the rich areas by the trees. The population is estimated at about 6 million but noone really knows. We hung out for a while chatting to some of the young boys and photographers hanging around waiting for tourists and playing expert games of Karoom to pass the time.

Swimming pool hill
Swimming pool hill
Boys playing Karoom
Boys playing Karoom

We drove past the US embassy. Phones don’t work as they jam the signal and we have been advised to take no photos as American soldiers shoot first and ask questions later. It is probably fair to say the locals aren’t wildly enamoured with the ‘American occupation’. Official figures have US military presence at 15,000, but the locals reckon it is more than 100,000. It is not a surprise that the Americans aren’t popular, given most of the military only interact with the local population down the barrel of a gun.

Next up, the old Kabul Fortress with an old cemetery. We stopped at the sheep market and chatted to some locals and some school kids. Most of the locals are fascinated to find out we are tourists and impressed with our clothes.

Old Kabul fort
Kabul streets
Kabul streets
Kabul streets
Kabul streets
Kabul streets
Kabul streets

By this time we were tired and thirsty so we snuck into the Ramadan equivalent of a ‘food brothel’ – somewhere pagans and naughty Muslims can go for food. There were a few of them. We fortified ourselves with banana juice and green tea and chilled out for a while.

A quick drive by of the kings palace which was destroyed in the war and is undergoing restoration, and then we ended the day with sakhi tomb, which is a lovely mosque and tomb. There was an attack recently where 150 people were killed by a suicide bomber, but it was quiet the day we were there.

Sakhi tomb
Sakhi tomb
Sakhi tomb
Sakhi tomb

We stopped on the way back to the guesthouse for fresh bread. The bread is amazing but is at its best in the first 20 minutes out of the oven. Given everyone else was still fasting we hid in the van stuffing guilty fistfuls in our faces – it was excellent

A dilapidated playground
Bread shop

Back to the hotel for a nap and then an excellent iftar (dinner at the breaking of the fast), and the end of an excellent first day in Afghanistan.

I had ten 10 hours sleep, and slept like a baby, in spite of the 3am prayer noise. Our guide who is fasting would have been up at 2am for food and prayers, and gone back to sleep at 3am with no food allowed until 7pm in the evening. Fortunately for us, the Afghans are hospitable and let us eat (discreetly) during fasting hours. We had packed a big stash of protein bars to keep us going making the assumption we wouldn’t get to eat much…. I should have had more faith! Breakfast was a feast of bread, honey and wonderful soft cheese with a delicious omelette.

We headed to the National museum, passing the busy street markets and floods of school kids en route. There is not much left in the museum, the contents were looted by various warlords, or destroyed in the war with the Russians, and then the taliban destroyed everything they didn’t like the look of out of what was left. It must be pretty challenging being a guide in a country where you end up spending most of your time explaining who destroyed what. The museum was lovely and was heavily focussed on the Buddhist history – Afghanistan (or the Kushan empire) was one of the first Buddhist empire states. The exhibits were lovely. We caused quite a stir in the museum, as we met a group of local university students who are studying Chinese. They were mightily impressed to meet rob who speaks impeccable mandarin (which looks incongruous coming from an Aussie body) after ten years in Beijing. We also saw terrific photos of the gold exhibition which is currently touring the globe, which I will definitely try and go see.

National museum
Students from the Chinese dept at the National Museum
National museum
National museum

Driving back up the main road we past the ‘shooting galleries’, which are where the local addicts congregate on the median strip on the highway and shoot up. We also passed the lovely Hazara mosque.

Kabul streets

Although our van doesn’t have opening windows, it does have a sunroof, so Kausar let’s us pop up quickly and take photos through the roof so we don’t get the reflection from the glass. I feel like I am driving in the pope mobile. )

Then a lovely couple of hours of respite at the Babur garden. It is a lovely retreat climbing up the hillside of Kabul with stunning views and lovely gardens. It is named for Babur, who was initially buried in Agra but wanted to be buried in Kabul, so he was reinterred here with his son and grandson. Shah Jahan also built a lovely pavilion, and we got to check out the paintings in the restored caravanserai.

Babur gardens
Babur gardens
Babur gardens
Babur gardens
Babur gardens
Babur gardens

Then it was off to the airport. You get body searched four times before getting to the terminal building so we arrived early. But the security staff here were without question the friendliest I have ever met, and the ladies were highly complimentary about rob and hubby’s local attire.

After the sweltering heat of town and being in the back of the van with no windows or AC it was actually quite nice to hang in the airport in the AC. We amused ourselves by looking at Afghanistan’s first vending machine, which had a guy full time sitting next to it to help you use it and give you change. Being Ramadan we couldn’t politely eat in front of Muslims who are fasting, and my plan to have a quick sneaky snack in the loo was thwarted when I realised how bad the loos smelt. Oh well, I guess we are fasting by accident.

Vending machine

We got on the bus to the plane, and I was amused as no one would sit down until I did, as all the other ‘old ladies’ had a seat. If only the good folks commuting on the Piccadilly line had such good manners. Bye bye Kabul for a few days.

Chilling in Sao Tome

Arriving in Sao Tome (especially from Angola) is like having a balm applied to your soul. The immigration guy was so friendly he even gave me a big thumbs up. No visa required here for under fifteen days, so nice relative to many African countries. Nunes was there to pick us up, and we cruised down the island in the languid evening heat listening to local beats. And breathe out…….

We are staying at a ridiculously lovely Airbnb. A typical Sao Tome stilt house perched on the edge of the cliff above the pounding waves in Santana. We passed out almost immediately on arriving (it was 1am and we hadn’t slept for 40 hours) lulled to sleep by the breeze and the sound of the water. Delightful!

Santana- view from the villa
Santana- view from the villa

After a slow wake up, we got our rental car – no insurance, no license check, and a general request to put some Petrol in it at some point- and headed into town. The capital (a word I use loosely) has some amazing examples of crumbling Portuguese architecture. It always amuses me the sheer audacity of the colonists who turned up in Africa and expected through force of will to-recreate their homelands and religions in the African jungle! The religion has certainly endured with pretty little churches on almost every corner. The architecture is lovely but hasn’t endured so well, but for me that is a lot of the charm.

Seventh Day Adventists
Praca Amizade
One of the oldest cathedrals in Africa

We meandered around town, ooh-ing and aah-ing as we turned every street corner at the buildings. It was a relaxing few hours taking in all the main squares and streets, with an obligatory espresso break (the coffee is pretty good here). The locals are friendly, but the guys can’t help but give you a smile and a bit of a wink. I am sure if I was alone I would be getting whistles, it certainly makes a difference having hubby in tow, though here the whistles are more opportunistic than threatening.

Sao Tome town – tiled building
Sao Tome town
Sao Tome town – health centre

we wandered our way through the cultural quarter and the parque populaire and eventually made it to the fort and the national museum. We sat for a while on the top of the fort being amused by the kids laughing, doing back flips and paddling on makeshift paddle boards. It started raining, but even the rain here is relaxing – plopping gently down, just enough to cool you down and not enough to make you wet and cold.

A good looking french man at the fortress
Fisherman’s church Sao Tome
Sao Tome harbour – boats and litter

We found a restaurant serving local food and got stuck into some calulu and feijoada! (Delicious salty fish stews with breadcrumbs!!!)

Calulu and rice

While eating I started reading the Bradt guide on my phone, I never really read it until after I have seen everything. Fun fact – I am in the middle of the world – Sao Tome is the closest land mass to where the line if zero longitude(Greenwich) crosses zero latitude (the equator). After eating, we needed another coffee to get moving. Everything here is leve-leve, easy pace, and no need to rush, and we are fitting right in. I love it here, all the groove and spice of west Africa without any of the hassles :-).

Sao Tome town – coffin maker
Sao Tome town – retail
Sao Tome town
Sao Tome town
Sao Tome town – main market

We meandered back along the coast road to Santana stopping at the local market to try and buy provisions for the next day. Steph was tempted by the flying fish, but I wasn’t super keen for a fishy breakfast – so we got some fresh eggs and some bread rolls that were so dense they should keep us going for a few days

High quality taxi
Sao Tome town – school

Back to the villa….. aaaaaah….. nothing to do but sit and watch the waves roll in. I feel like I have been here a month and want to stay another. After an hour the skies opened up and entertained us with a stunning rain storm. It must be a kiwi thing but I find the sound of rain on the roof immensely reassuring. What a way to spend the afternoon.

Even better we had asked Yves to sort out dinner for us, so we were delighted when this three course feast arrived at 7.30. The local cat arrived at the same time and managed to commandeer a decent share

yum – dinner

After a wonderful 8 hours of sleep, I woke up to the waves. The friendly cat hadn’t left (we couldn’t lock him out of the open air house) and the minute we opened the bedroom door he made himself right at home in the middle of the bed. I put up with it until I saw the fleas…. and then he got evicted

It was a glorious sunny day so we set off to drive down the island at a relaxed pace. You couldn’t go too fast, it’s Sunday, and clearly laundry day, with all obvious surfaces covered by laundry including the sides of the main road. And it’s a communal industry, I even saw some men chipping in

Our first stop was the Roca Agua ize. Apparently it is still a working plantation, and it was the first cocoa plantation on the island, staffed with 50 Europeans and 2500 contract workers. It’s not obvious it’s working today, but it was Sunday. We checked out the old hospital – am amazing ruin with a fab view. And then wandered around the streets of the small town which would have been built for the European workers. The pastor wasn’t having a great day, with less than ten in attendance. But the rap beats were pounding out from a variety of industrial speakers.

Roca Agua Ize – workers houses
Roca Agua Ize – workers houses
Roca Agua Ize – hospital
Roca Agua Ize – Palm Oil Factory
Roca Agua Ize – Palm Oil Factory

After that we stopped by the boca de inferno – the Mouth of hell – and watched the spray come up through the blowhole

Boca de Inferno

Then more slow driving, avoiding dogs, laundry and kids using the big hills as a skateboard ramp as we headed south down the island, admiring the intermittent views of the pico- an unusual rock formation sticking up like a needle in the middle of the island

Cao Pico

We made it to the idyllic restored plantation at Sao Joao and wandered round the grounds checking out his art gallery and sculptures. We wandered around town too, to work up a bit of an appetite – as apparently this is the best restaurant in the country. It’s a beautiful shady terrace with a lovely breeze and an outstanding view over the sea.

Roca Sao Joao plantation house
Roca Sao Joao art gallery

Lunch turned out to be a 14 course degustation of local flavours! I felt quite impressed with myself for accidentally organising a lovely lunch for my hubby (who is being a very good sport this year and accompanying me on some bonkers trips with no complaints when the travel arrangements all go tits up at the last minute). The food was excellent, great fish, herbs and plenty of local flavours of coconut, mango and vanilla. The swordfish and manioc was excellent as was the cerviche, and the salted cod with with palm oil and banana was amazing. The chopped squid with a fried rice ball might have been the best but hard to judge. The chef/owner/artists came round during some courses and explained the local provenance of the food – it was quite a performance, he was almost singing.

Roca Sao Joao- squid and arancini
Roca Sao Joao- pickled tuna and green papaya
Roca Sao Joao- aubergine and fried swordfish

After lunch we cruised back up the coast….. and had a well deserved siesta before heading to the airport for our flight home (a vile three flight red eye a day early given taag’s uselessness – see why below). I loved it here! We will come back but next time will definitely pop over to Príncipe for a few days. If you want a lovely easy leveleve African experience, come to Sao Tome!

Roca Sao Joao- church – jesus is love

9 more countries to go…..

Additional info

  • Definitely stay at divine ocean villas or one of Yves other properties at Santana, they were amazing
  • Yves can arrange a rental jeep for €40 a day and it gets delivered to the door and you can leave it at the airport
  • Definitely eat the degustation at Sao Joao

Side note 1 – I hate flying in Africa

Due to the vagaries of African airlines (and European airlines that don’t rate their African clientele) this had been a hell of a trip. BA cancelled our flight two days before departure and made no effort at all to find us an alternative (and as yet haven’t refunded me). This necessitated a last minute, very expensive purchase of an indirect flight to Luanda. The next leg from Luanda worked fine to Sao Tome (albeit on the crappiest plane I have seen in years with seats as hard as rock). But then we figured out (by accident) that TAAG had moved our return flight forward 18 hours, so instead of a civilised flight out with a good connection to our BA flight, we were now on a 3am flight with a 17 hour layover in Luanda, and as we were using different airlines in and out of Luanda we wouldn’t even be allowed out of a transit room until four hours before the next flight (apparently there’s no food or water in the transit room), and we couldn’t clear immigration as it takes weeks to sort a visa. Crap!!!!! Oh well, that’s what credit cards are for, and we have found a faster route home, with bonus stops in Accra and Lisbon, but the downside is we only have two nights and days in Sao Tome! Sigh!

Art at Sao Joao

Side note  2 – hubby to 100

It turns out hubby has been keeping a track record of his country count. He’s at 70 which is pretty impressive for someone who is not trying to visit lots of countries. The amusing thing is that he has been to Bhutan and Mauritania and Sao Tome (and is coming to Afghanistan later this month) but he has not been to Germany or Ireland and a bunch of other ‘normal’ European countries! We have decided next year we are going to do a dinner date in a European city each month to at least tick off the main countries in Europe :-), as would be nice to get him to 100

Sao Tome, 6 May 2018

Looking around Luanda/affluence in Angola

Angola is hard to get into and blimmen expensive when you get there.  The government are notorious for not issuing visas, and aren’t keen on visitors (unless you are Russians buying their oil).    It was a portuguese colony until 1975 when Agostinho Neto (lots of monuments and pictures of him later) became the first president, and then the country descended into some pretty complicated civil wars that lasted until 2002 displacing one third of the population, with 15 million landmines laid down.   Angola is one of the richest countries in Africa (lots of diamonds and oil) but is a global leader in corruption, and economic growth has been extraordinary since the end of the war – but the benefits only seem to be going to very few angolans.  Luanda – the capital, is a apparently one of the worlds most expensive cities, but more than 3/4 of the inhabitants live in slums.  Africa’s richest woman, is the president’s daughter. Isabel was appointed to head the state energy firm Sonangol in 2016 by presidential decree and she is worth an estimated $3bn.  But the average wage in Angola is just under $2 a day.

The seventh day adventists are everywhere

My friends who had lived in Luanda had told me it was vile, so we weren’t planning to stay long,…. but as is often the way, we had an amazing time and there was plenty to see.  Our new friend Candido drove us around town, making sure we took photos without the police harassing us (you often have to take them from a moving car so the police don’t bother you) and sorted us our our black market foreign exchange (you get twice the value on the street, but get a local to do it for you).

We stayed on the Ilha- a long skinny peninsular with an odd combination of posh restaurants and 4wds on one hand and barefoot fisherman and people squatting illegally in abandoned buildings .  Mornings are lively with fisherman selling their wares and people doing pushups and bootcamp on the beach.  We made sure we went all the way to the end of the Ilha to see the lighthouse and the view back into town.  our hotel offered to loan us paddle boards, but I wasn’t excited about the smell of the sewerage 🙂

Lighthouse on Ilha de Cabo
Advertising rocks now used as sand stabilisers?

We went on a tour round town to check out the wonderful colonial architecture with the central bank being the best example and the cathedral of the sacred heart being quite lovely also.

Central Bank of Angola
Cathedral of the holy saviour

We also liked the palacio ferro – the iron palace, a very groovy yellow building which is made out of corrugated iron.  Apparently it was designed by Mr Eiffel (of the tower fame)

Palacio de Ferro
Palacio de Ferro

The ‘high city’ ciudad alta is where all the glorious parliament buildings were, with more police than you can shake a stick at.

National Assembly
Ciudade Alta

The fortaleza was worth checking out – it felt like every school kid in Luanda was visiting, as well as a bunch of soldiers who were learning their history.    It has stunning views over the Ilha and downtown, as well as lots of guns and cannons.  Part of the view is down into a shantytown, but the government is systematically moving the occupants out to the suburbs (without giving them a choice) as they want the view to be nicer from the fort…. hmmmmm….

Paintings in the military history museum

But my favourite thing in Luanda was the monument to Agostinho.  Apparently it was half built by the Russians in the eighties, and finally finished by the Koreans in the early 2000s.  It is an amazing bonkers space needle type construction, which also serves as the parade ground for the military.   Definitely worth checking out.

Agostinho monument
Agostinho monument

We ate well while we were there, but it wasn’t cheap.  Lunch would have been $100 for two mains, and one dessert and two diet cokes if we had gotten the official exchange rate, but even on the black market rates it was $50.  Good hearty portuguese food!

view of Downtown from the fort

Additional info

  • on the recommendation of friends, we stayed at Thomson Art Hotel on the Ilha. rooms were small but perfectly formed.  breakfast was great.  we booked airport pick ups and drop offs with them also
  • there is apparently a new visa on arrival system – good luck! We used the old system which required a tonne of paperwork and a few elephant tears at the embassy
  • definitely use the street market for changing money – the rate is double the bank rate, and seemed safe (we stayed in the car while someone came to the window)
  • Immigration are some of the slowest in Africa – get to the airport on time on your way out

Luanda, May 4, 2018