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….

Fortaleza
Agostinho
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!

Downtown
Downtown
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

Passport stamps in Nepal

Now I am getting close to completing visiting all of my list of 197 countries, I have started a nice geeky spreadsheet with all the dates of entry for the different countries and noting which of my various passports has the entry stamp. In the process I realised that I had misplaced my very first kiwi passport. Most of the countries I had visited in that era (ages 14-23) I have already been back to more than once, but not Nepal. Twenty years ago I spent a few weeks hiking in Nepal and loved it, and I am sure I have some photos somewhere but I could only find one photo of someone who looked vaguely like me in front of a stupa in Kathmandu. But, as I was in Delhi for work, I decided I may as well pop up to Kathmandu for the weekend – it’s not far! I could get in at 9am and leave the following evening around 6 – allowing two full days for sightseeing …..(and fulfil my OCD need for some ‘proof’ I went there :-))…..

I had forgotten about the fog in Kathmandu. I was at the airport at 5.40 am, but our flight ended up being delayed for six hours due to the airport being closed in Kathmandu. Hmmm! Not ideal. Looking around the gate, it is obvious that things have moved on in Nepal. While there were a few happy hippies in flimsy embroidered tops and grubby trousers, (two with guitars,) there were also impeccable equipped japanese and American hikers with shiny new boots and even some business men. I was excited to see how different Kathmandu would be after 20 years.

We eventually got on the flight and landed in a wonderful sunny day in the kathmandu valley, which is surrounded by stunning mountains. Obviously air india don’t have great relationships at the airport as they have their own dedicated beaten up bus, and the door wouldn’t even close. I did my usual power walk through to immigration, paid the fee, smiled nicely at the immigration dude (apparently i was supposed to have two copies of something and I didn’t) and was first out of the airport.

bhaktapur

I found a driver and negotiated a fee for the afternoon (the guy I had booked had given up hours before) and headed out to Bhaktapur. When you think of Kathmandu, the gateway to the mountains comes to mind, but I had also forgotten that Kathmandu has worse air pollution than Delhi! .  it was vile, and i wasn’t surprised to see one young girl violently throwing up out the bus window next door given how bad the fumes were.

Taumadhi square
Bhairavnath

Bhaktapur was lovely. I had clearly come late enough in the day to miss most of the tourists, and the afternoon light was perfect. Nepal has a clever policy of charging special prices to tourists – not a bad idea given they need to get foreign currency from somewhere – so it was $15 to enter, but worth it. I wandered around the four main squares (Durbar, Taumadhi, Pottery and Dattatraya).

Bhairavnath

Dattatraya was my favourite, largely because there was an enigmatic goat who kept posing for me in front of the main temple. The streets of Bhaktapur are wonderful and although as over-run with scooters as most of Nepal, they are car free and pretty walkable.

Old house on the streets of Bhaktapur
Dhattatraya Square
Patan

We then headed to Patan. I left the driver in the carpark and wandered up the street. Before long I ran into three lines of what looked like riot police, and behind them a crazy loud crowd. I was mildly worried I had accidentally run into some demonstration,but there were a lot of women around so I decided to follow one of them and we squished past the police and forced our way along the sides of the crowd – quite tough in a narrow street. There were hundred of locals out celebrating some festival – honestly no clue what it was about, and i couldnt’t understand the name of the festival from the guy who started telling me about it (his accent was incomprehensible), but it seemed to be a challenge to haul what looked like 50 metre christmas trees down to the square.

the weird christmas tree pulling festival
the police
soldiers attending the festival at Patan
crowds at Patan waiting for the tree

Patan was badly damaged during the 2015 earthquakes, and many of the temples are still being rebuilt. However I loved it more than Bhaktapur purely because I timed it when the locals were in full celebration. After wandering around and chatting to some of the local ladies, I made my way to the hotel for a much needed shower to get the Kathmandu grit out of my hair

crowds at Patan waiting for the tree
Ladies dressed up for the festival
Patan being reconstructed
Old men gossiping

I am staying in Thamel, the backpacker haunt of the 70s (and for me in the 90s). It hasn’t changed a bit but is also totally different. Its still grubby, full of touts, blessed with unlimited momo shops and lots of counterfeit outdoor brands. And it is still over-run with tourists. But the tourists are much better dressed, everyone has a smartphone and every cafe has wifi (we didn’t even have internet last time the first time I came here). Its kinda odd. I wandered round and stopped for a crackingly good pizza at Fire and Ice and retired to bed in my small but perfectly formed room at the Oasis guesthouse

I managed to sleep in spite of all night construction works next door including concrete laying at 4am. The Australians next to me at breakfast were complaining vociferously about the noise, but in a country with limited regulation, construction entrepreneurs will use all the hours available.

Thamel and durbar square

After an amazing breakfast of masala omelettes and chapatis I wandered through Tamel down to Durbar square. Much of the complex was badly damaged by the earthquake. It is still worth a visit as it is lovely and very much still in public use with crowds of people performing their morning puja to Hanuman (the Hindu monkey god). This is clearly a tourist hot spot as the beggars are orderly and organised. I was amused by an aged wrinkly hippy with his dog who has likely been here since the seventies, who made his rounds giving alms to equally wizened beggars. The sadhus (holy men) are equally out in force to profit from the western photographers who get uncomfortably close to their faces.

Hippy distributing cash to the beggars
Hanuman shrine at Durbar Square
Man selling bird feed at Durbar Square
Tourist taking a photo of Sadhu (for a negotiated fee)
Temple being reconstructed at Durbar Square
Temples at Durbar Square

swayambhunath

Arjun picked me up and we headed out to Swayambhunath temple – monkey temple (so named for the many aggressive monkeys :-)). The traffic was not so bad as it is Saturday but the air quality really is awful! I saw quite a few tourists walking the route from Thamel, but while I love walking, I wouldn’t willingly do it here with all the fumes. Arjun took quite some persuading that I wanted to walk up the famous steps to the stupa rather than be driven up. It was a lovely shady stroll on the hill with lots of devout locals making puja. The monkeys provide tonnes of entertainment and you have to hold on tightly to anything shiny! The stupa is lovely!!!!!!!!

Buddha at the base of the steps to the stupa
One of the many monkeys on the steps
the last flight of stairs (the pilgrims are quite unfit, i overtook most of the people in view after taking this shot)
The stupa from different angles
The stupa from different angles
The stupa from different angles
boudhanath

We then headed across town to Boudhanath. A lovely stupa surrounded by coffee shops. Kathmandu is third world but wonderfully organised for tourists, you are never far away from a flat white, WiFi and a clean loo! It is certainly much nicer than it was 20 years ago. After circumnambulating twice I restored myself with an excellent flat white and a banana muffin :-).

Tourist heaven – muffin and coffee
Boudhanath stupa from different angles
Boudhanath stupa from different angles
Boudhanath stupa from different angles

pahsupatinath

After that we headed to Pashupatinath – one of the largest complexes in Nepal and definitely the most important….it is where local Hindus are cremated and is said to represent Shiva’s head (his other main body parts are in India). The three most beautiful temples are off limits to non Hindus but it is a lovely place to wander around. The more ghoulish tourists spend ages watching burning bodies and trying to get close to take photos….I learnt years ago in Varanasi that I didn’t want to smell bodies cremating as it put me off food for a long time. I also wonder how we would feel if someone put an enormous lens in our faces while were burying our loved ones in the cemetery. I wandered around and got invited to join a family for a picnic. I sat in the shade and chatted to some kids for a while, but my Hindu is limited to two words :-).

Blessings
Small temples at Pashupati
Main temple at Pashupati (no entrance for non hindus) behind the cremation ghats
Kids cleaning in the river
Body being prepared for cremation
Time for a snooze
The three nicest temples were off limits to non hindus

After that back to the airport to head home the long way, via Delhi and Dubai. It was lovely to be back, but reminded me that there are amazing mountains in Nepal so am contemplating signing up to the mustang trail race in 2020. Let me know if you fancy coming

April 21, Kathmandu, Nepal

Additional info

* stayed at oasis guesthouse. Clean, great location, very good management and excellent breakfast

* can negotiate taxis from place to place but I am lazy and found it easier to get a driver. Rate was $45 for a full day

* all the cafes are excellent, I tried several java Nepalese, the local Starbucks and they were good

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Fruit vendors Thamel
Rickshaw rank Durbar Square
Flower vendors Durbar Square
A shrine made out of coins nailed together

Cheeky weekend in the Seychelles

I was off to Dubai for work, and so figured out how to sneak in a weekend in the Seychelles while there.  Hubby wasn’t super keen to come as it is a bit far for a weekend so there I was, solo on a flight jam packed with honeymooners and couples!  Flying into the Seychelles, you can see stunning beaches, wild rainforest, and huge rocks that seem to be falling from the mountain tops into the ocean.   The island survives on tourism, and rightly so!   I was first off the plane, and picked up a wonderfully dodgy rental car.  A crapped out Kia Picanto that  last saw it’s clutch in 2015, and I was going to rue the crappy engine more than once over the weekend.
Hindu Temple, Victoria, Mahe
I drove into town looking for the Larue apartments.  There are no street numbers here, but thankfully google maps knew where I was going.   The kia picanto couldn’t make it up the very steep wet driveway, and I was very embarrassed when I had to call the owner to come and get me – he drove my car up!.  Apparently it happens every time a guest arrives (and don’t worry I got up fine every time after that).  The Larue apartments are basic but lovely – it’s high on the hill in bel air with stunning views overlooking Victoria.   Accommodation is ridiculously expensive here so I was happy to find a whole apartment for 80 Euro a night, it actually had three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
Replica of Big Ben – Victoria, Mahe
The afternoon wasn’t sunny so went down to check out the bustling metropolis of Victoria.  Its tiny, lovely and indisputably African.  I checked out the ‘sights’ – a cute Hindu temple, the church and a replica of the clock tower in London.  And then I followed the local ladies to the market to buy food for the weekend – eggs, avocado, beans, corn, tomatoes and eggs.  I couldn’t resist the bakery either and ended up with some delicious deep fried fish cakes that were so spicy my nose started running, and a ‘coconut gateau’ that was halfway between the consistency of a scone and a rock, but surprisingly good.  I had an early dinner of veggies and eggs, and then passed out as the jet lag hit me like a rock
Church, Victoria, Mahe

I slept a solid 12 hours, and roused myself at 8am to get some hiking in.  I was staying at the edge of the national park on purpose as I prefer hills to beaches.  I had lined up three hikes, which should have taken me about six hours.  The first – Trois freres – named for the ‘three brothers’ – huge rocks which overlook the town of Victoria.  It was supposed to take 2 hours return, but took 30 mins.  It was a lovely  view though.

Trois frères trail
Trois frères trail – steps cemented to the big rocks
Next up the ‘casse dents’ (broken teeth) which was sadly closed due to too much rain eroding the track.  So I headed next to Morne Blanc.  I picked up some local girls hitching on the way.   They were hilarious, as they were ‘hiking’ with their university, but effectively they were walking on the road for the whole day.  They were a bit tired going up the ‘big hill’ so I gave them a ride.  I have to say the Kia picante didn’t do well with four ladies on a steep incline – it was first gear all the way.
View down to Victoria from Trois Freres
Hillside Trois Freres
I stopped at the trail head for Morne blanc and tried not to worry about the two blokes with machetes hanging around the trail head.  That ’90 minute’ trail took 30 minutes, but was wonderfully steep up and down, so it was a nice jog.   To round out the morning, and as I was finished early, I also ran a few km on the Mont d’or trail for good measure  (accessed from Port Gilaud).  All of the trails are well marked, but you can find them on the Gaia app.
View south west from top of Morne Blanc
View north west from top of Morne Blanc
Typical village house Port Glaud

I then headed to the top of the island. I passed a big resort and a crowded beach and kept going until I found a delightful private beach to myself for a swim.   Afterwards, clean and restored, I drove to the end of the road to Cap Ternay, and then turned around to head back to a nice posh resort for lunch  – Constance Ephelia.   It was a nice place but overrun with kids and pink tourists, and out of my budget but I did have a very good lamb kebab!

My private swimming beach

I had no plans for the rest of the afternoon, so I put some good tunes on the car stereo and cruised down the west side of the island, stopping frequently to take photos or to jump in the water to cool off.  Driving here is not for the faint hearted.  Your rental car is bound to be rubbish, mine ground the gears every time from second to third.  The roads are narrow, slippery, and windy!  I rarely got above 40km, and spent most of the time in the mountains in second gear.  Add to that the local kids and dogs who will randomly dart in front of you from nowhere.  I narrowly avoided running over a dog fast asleep in the middle of the road.  Don’t drive here if you have a weak heart!!!  The old local buses belch out black smoke, and you don’t want to be stuck behind one going through the interior or you might suffocate, I pulled over a few times to get further away from the buses and try to breathe.
Port Glaud Church
Port Glaud
It was a brilliant afternoon, I loved the drive.  The west side of Mahe island is much quieter than the east side, and highlights were Grand Anse and Anse Takamaka.   It was a strenuous afternoon driving with one hand on the wheel, and one arm hanging out the window ……with the music blasting I looked just like one of the locals.  I rewarded my effort with an icecream and a nap on Takamaka beach.    After that I cruised back into town, and had another stroll around before dinner.  A perfect day as a tourist 😃
Grand Anse Beach

I would highly recommend the Seychelles for a weekend, and if you love beaches there is tonnes to do for a week – I am just not great at sitting on a beach all day!
Baie Lazare
Anse Boileau Church
That was the last lovely country of the 197…., thanks Seychelles no. 186, just 11 more to go
Victoria, Mahe, 14, April, 2018

Meandering around Mauritania

Hubby was accompanying me on this trip, and he was delighted to see the french equivalent of the FCO had just downgraded the security risk on Mauritania from ‘advise against all travel’ to ‘advise against all but essential travel” – by my standards lately that is like visiting Disneyland.    We were heading to Nouakchott and then up into the Sahara to visit the ancient towns of Chinguetti and Ouadane, which used to be on a well travelled french tourist route, but the tourists stopped coming in after a few incidents in 2007.  Good news is that twice weekly charter flights resumed for the three month winter season from December 2017, so perhaps there is hope to rejuvenate the tourist industry.   Most people I told we were coming kept getting Mauritania mixed up with Mauritius…., its a bit different.  Mauritania is between Western Sahara, Mali and Senegal – 90% desert, 29th largest country in the world, with only 3 million people.  It became independent from France in 1960, and after numerous coups, has been ruled by the same more or less corrupt ruler for the past 10 years.
Downtown Nouakchott
We had another passenger with us – Keith.   I had been following Keith’s global travels on my nutters facebook group of world travellers.  Sadly Keith passed away having only visited 157 countries.  His legendary family made pottery stars out his ashes and are doing their utmost to make sure Keith gets to fulfil his dream of visiting the remaining countries in the world by sending him post-humously off to new countries with a variety of tour guides.   You can follow Keiths adventures here on this facebook page and see him in some of the photos below…
Atar Ladies
We flew via Casablanca (which is a remarkably good airport for Africa fyi….), had a few hours of people watching and then boarded the multi coloured flight to Nouakchott (well all the colours except european).  The visa on arrival process was pretty efficient by african standards, we were fourth in the queue and made it out in half an hour (pity those who were 50th in the queue).   The posh new airport was pretty lovely and the people here are utterly chilled out. The men have lovely white and blue desert robes (bobos) and the women are all colours of the rainbow.  Our taxi was pretty dodgy, but we made it into town – which was much posher than I imagined – loads of brand new modern buildings on well built streets – and passed out at the Auberge Diaguili.
Pastel Tyre Vendor
Up a few hours later to an excellent breakfast of coffee, baguette, croissant and yogurt (yay for the bakery legacy of french colonisation).  And then our driver arrived more or less on time to take us to Ouadane.  We headed out of Nouakchott on the main road to Atar – it is one long endless stretch of tar with barely a bend for 400km.  I am not sure how they stop the desert from engulfing it on both sides.  As we leave Nouakchott there is a curious evolution in architecture.   The houses begin to look more like concrete tents, and sure enough after a few more kilometres, the houses actually turn into multi coloured tents.  Apparently the true nomads don’t like sleeping in towns, so even those that have been forced to move to Nouakchott for work will return to the desert fringes of the city to sleep in these tents at night.
Akjoujt Pastels
Akjoujt Pastels
Akjoujt Pastels
The road seemed endless, but we had plenty of stops ….. the Mauritanians are in love with paperwork, and I lost count of police checks we had to stop for.  My forward planning for this trip had been bit haphazard, and I was reading the guidebook in the car, where they advised us to bring plenty of photocopies of a fiche (effectively your itinerary, passport numbers and visa numbers), as apparently that speeds things up, as they don’t have to take your passports for ten minutes to write everything down.  Oh well….next time.
After three hours of desert we stopped in Akjoujt for tea – three cups as per the tradition.   Nothing is fast here, so we lounged on the cushions on the floor and were amused by the restaurant owners yelling at their pouting son waiting for our tea.  Appropriately restored with tea so strong and sweet you could use it to de-rust the car, we headed off again.  A couple of hours later, we arrived at the beginning of an amazing marscape heading up to the Adrar plateau at Atar.   It was very hazy, but stunningly beautiful.   We stopped in Atar for provisions (biscuits, laughing cow cheese, bread and water) and had a chat with the enthusiastic shop owner, and headed off to Ouadane on the 4wd highway.
Akjoujt tea
Atar shopkeeper
Ahmed our driver persuaded us to stop at the neolithic paintings just out of town.  One of the few downsides of travelling so much is that I have already seen lots of amazing things, and these paintings were underwhelming compared to the rock paintings at Las Geel. However, the young man who lived on site was fascinating and very keen on the history, and he was worth stopping to chat to. We had an amusing chat about dates, as I realised that we always date things in AD and BC, and wondered how they described BC in a muslim country.  Apparently they also say BC, as they recognise Jesus lived…., my favourite comment from the guide was  ‘well you have your stories about Jesus, but the Koran is clear and I know the truth’.
Rock painting guide
Main 4wd piste from Atar to Ouadane
in total it was 550km from Nouakchott to Ouadane. The last 150km offroad but on a pretty good 4wd track which Ahmed was blasting down at 90-100km an hour, which was fine most of the time, but there were a few hairy corrugated corners.   We arrived in Ouadane around 5pm and were honestly a bit disappointed.   The Lying Planet describes it as ‘one of the most enchanting semi ghost towns of the Sahara…with the houses ‘tumbling down the hill’.   Hmmmmm, it is pretty, but enchanting might be stretching it.   In the right light the stones look lovely, but the rubbish was off-putting, as was the smell of baked urine.   We went for a stroll around town!  We had fun watching the local kids learning their Quran, and had a chat with a few ladies, and then we ended up in the new town where we were offered several camel rides and I got told off by an aggressive young lady for not covering my whole body.
Main square in Ouadane
We went back to the Auberge for dinner – delicious pumpkin soup, dense baguette, followed by the amazing local wholemeal pancakes (ksours) and spice mystery meat and vegetable stew .  We were the only guests.   We were staying with Zaida, a ‘famous’ (in Ouadane at least) former slave who runs a guest house.   Honestly, she was worth making the trip for.  In all my travels around North and West Africa, I have never met an African woman so free of spirit.   Zaida has two sons, is more or less my age (though looks 10 years younger), and she divorced her husband many years ago.  She now runs a successful auberge (though challenging no doubt with the lack of tourists).  She chain-smokes Winstons and barks commands at her boys to get things done around the auberge, but she has one of the biggest smiles I have seen in years.   I asked how she got on in Ouadane, given she isn’t wildly traditional, and her response was brilliant – ‘eventually people get tired of talking about you and move on to talking about something else’.    We lounged around after dinner on the cushions, and then headed off to sleep, waking occasionally in the night to the sound of torrential rain.   We woke up to lots of plopping rain, thunder and lightening –  and we had a grand breakfast of coffee, baguette with about half a jar of amazing hibiscus jam, and sat watching the rain come down.
Zaida
The plan for the day was to head through the sand dunes to Chinguetti, passing by the oasis at Tanourchert.  We headed off with Ahmed in the 4wd to the desert.  After about an hour it became abundantly clear he didn’t know where he was, where he was going or where the track was.  Hmmmmm, about that time, I began to question my lackadaisical approach to this holiday.  As a frequent outdoors person, i am rarely caught short, and know that I should have 2-3 days of water, food, a working beacon and a compass when I head to the desert, as well as make sure the 4wd has a shovel and some back up fuel.   In a country where safety precautions are limited to praying five times per day and saying Inshallah a few times for good measure, I should have known better.  All we had was a litre of water and some food – which was more than the driver had.  Between Steph and I, we figured out where we were (his phone GPS was working), and where we were going (the compass on my watch was working), and Ahmed finally confessed he didn’t know where he was and asked where we should go.   We headed in the right general direction and then, inevitably, we got stuck in a sand dune.   We were lucky and managed to dig ourselves out of the deep sand with our hands, and with a bit of pushing from Stephane and I got back on the hard sand.  I wasn’t wildly confident that we were going to get to Chinguetti in the 4wd, but at least we knew where we were, and I was confident that we could walk the 30km to the nearest road with a 1 litre of water provided my compass kept working.    Fortunately, we found some nomads shortly after getting stuck,  and after 2 hours of being pretty much lost, we found the 4wd tracks to follow the rest of the way to Chinguetti.
Camels in the desert
the nomad camp we found when lost
Chinguetti in the distance was a sight for sore eyes, with the lovely dunes of Erg Warane alongside, although up close it was littered with as much rubbish as Ouadane.   We found the lovely Hotel La Gueila, and checked into our room off a delightful courtyard and settled in for some iced tea.  We then headed into town to check out one of the famous libraries – Chinguetti is a famous centre of islamic scholarship.  We went on a tour with Saif the librarian –  a true ‘bavard’ with a knack for drama and embellishment.  The manuscripts were fascinating but we escaped after the ‘short tour’ of 45 minutes.
Saif the bavard

After that we went for a gentle meander around town, or what was left of it.  The sand has started to reclaim the village and it was amusing to see doors and windows half blocked.   The levels of harassment in Mauritania are quite low, but we were still hounded by a few of the boys who were demanding ‘cadeau’, and some energetic women who were keen to sell us some jewellery, and then I got told off by some young boys for showing my ankles (literally i am covered head to toe, and to the wrists), but they are quite conservative.  We had a long chat with Sylvette – another extraordinary woman to find in the middle of the desert.  She has been here for ten years and built the hotel with a local ten years ago.  Its an impeccable hotel, and her food was amazing.  But more interesting was listening to the stories she told – she has travelled most of the world, but fell in love with this corner of it and decided to move here from Paris – which is quite a cultural shift for anyone, let alone a woman in her mid sixties.   I do wonder how you get on with healthcare in the middle of the desert, but I didn’t want to ask.  Sylvette fed us a fantastic dinner – soup, chicken with lemon and olives and potatoes, a pineapple cake for desert, and we retired to bed at 9.30 like old age pensioners.
Kids playing in chinguetti
Buildings getting buried in Chinguetti
Main square Chinguetti old town
Door of Habbot Library Chinguetti
We rolled out of bed at  8 to an amazing breakfast – good bread, strong coffee, camel milk jam (like dulce de leche but made with camels milk), homemade yogurt and tonnes of jam.   We stuffed ourselves with bread and jam, and chatted to the other two guests – two women in their 30s who work for the UNHCR – an incredible job, but they work crazy hours apparently, and have been in Mauritania for 18 months without making it up to Chinguetti as they don’t get many holidays.  They told me the rates of suicide and divorce for women in the UN were extraordinarily high, and the life incredibly stressful, but they couldn’t imagine doing anything else as it would be too boring in comparison.  Power to them!!!!, I couldn’t do it.      We then motivated ourselves to leave.  Staying with people here isn’t really like being in a  hotel, it is more like staying in someones house.  Sylvette and Sidi felt very responsible with us and had even had words with our driver, to make sure he took us on the main road to Terjit (versus the off track – something we had unsuccessfully tried to persuade him against the day before).
Chinese Highway Atar Plateau
Ahmed our hapless driver
We cruised back along the chinese road which descended down from the plateau into the canyon, got harassed for some more bribes by the police, and took the turn off to Terjit.   Ahmed got lost again, but we managed to find the sign to the basic chez Jemal.  There were actually tourists there, albeit they all appeared to be young aid workers or french embassy staff from Nouakchott.  Terjit is an oasis tucked into a steep red canyon.  We ate a huge lunch of goat, rice and dates, drank some tea and napped in the shade with everyone else as it was 40 degrees in the sun, so we decided to leave visiting the Oasis until the late afternoon.   We finally roused ourselves off the mats in the shade around 4pm to get moving. We first had to giggle at the aid workers driver from Nouakchott as he couldn’t get his 4wd out of the driveway – it made us feel better about the complete ineptitude of of our driver.    The oasis was lovely, albeit the only visitors seemed to be men.  We climbed up the canyon at the back of the famous Terjit springs (one hot and one cold, which mix together to make a warm bath at the bottom) and got to the top of the hill, looking down at the oasis.  It seemed like the nicest place to leave Keith, so we tucked him into a sheltered spot with a terrific view.
Keith at Terjit Oasis
Terjit Oasis
Young girl at Terjit Oasis

After that we had another bout of lying around on the floor in the nomad shelter (there is a lot of lying about that happens in Mauritania- it is pretty hot)…  a bunch of local ladies had installed themselves with a gas stove and the tea accoutrements in the shade, and they shared their tea with us with typically islamic hospitality so we were well restored.  Dinner was gritty couscous and carrots, with some soup and dates.

Our accommodation for the night was a little more rustic than we had prepared for (we had no sleeping bags or sheets), but these days I am pretty fine sleeping anywhere  as long as there aren’t too many mosquitos and I have enough clothes to stay warm.  Sleeping on dirty mattresses on the roof tops in Mali and many nights in mountain huts are a terrific apprenticeship to getting used to sleeping anywhere.  We had a mattress on a matt on the sand in a nomad tent.  The mosquito net was too small so we ended up with it being more like a sheet  Sadly two of the young french aid workers were quite enamoured with each other, but too timid to do anything about it, so they entire camp had to endure about two hours of painful adolescent like chatting from their tent about their social awkwardness and anxiety issues.  I got fed up at midnight and yelled out a firm ‘good night, time to stop talking now’  (if i had known the french for ‘just shag each other and stop bloody talking’ i would have yelled that out instead.
Terjit Oasis at dawn
Terjit Oasis at dawn
Both hubby and I woke up about four and put two more layers of clothes on and huddled together for warmth to go back to sleep.    We were up at 7, and  I made plenty of noise to wake the annoying aid workers up  Breakfast was nutella, nescafe and bread.  The light was extraordinary – it was the first time in four days there wasn’t a haze, and the oasis looked amazing.
We finally got moving and then we headed back on the endless road to nouakchott, where we were good tourists and went to check out the main mosque and the fish market.  The fish market is the ‘star attraction’ in Nouakchott according to the guide book – and you could certainly smell it well in advance of arriving.  The fish smell made me heave, but the thousands of boats were amazing to see, although the crowd wasn’t entirely welcoming!   We got to the hotel around 3pm, and went for a walk to round up some food for dinner, an early night is called for after not much sleep in the desert, and the taxi is picking us up at 4.30am
Port au peche
Patriotic boats – Port au peche
Port au peche

Additional info

We stayed at Auberge Diaguili in Nouakchott (aubergediaguili@gmail.com), Auberge Vasque (contact on facebook messenger) in Ouadane, La Gueila http://www.lagueila.com in Chinguetti, and Jemal in terjit
arranged a 4×4 through info@chinguitty-voyages.mr http://www.mauritaniatours.com/  (Which I wouldn’t recommend – next time I would get Sylvette and Sidi at La Gueila to arrange everything for me)
Useful articles
Nouakchott, April 2, 2018

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