Liking Laos

There are very few countries I have visited that I would say I hate, but top of the list is Laos. This was based on a trip in 2007 with my son to the island of Don Khong. After 2 relaxing days, we asked the hotel proprietress for help getting us to Siem Reap in Cambodia. What ensued was an hours long negotiation about price between the proprietress, a restaurant owner and us, the former in cahoots with each other. In the end, they promised us a single vehicle, one day ride to Siem Reap for $35.

What followed was an hour ride to the border with a demand by the border guards to pay the Sunday overtime charge ( it was Monday at 8:00 am), a change of vehicles to some town in Cambodia where the driver told us no further ride would be available until the next day. Me, and a mass of other Westerners, protested and eventually a rickety mini-van was produced which ferried us to Phnom Penh, but only after I forced Stefan to sit in the stairwell for lack of seats. At the outskirts of Phnom Penh, we were met by a bunch of scooters, anxious to take us into the city. Given our heavy suitcases, motorcycles were out of the question. Finally, a taxi took us to a hotel on the Mekong, where the next door’s discotheque pounded music until the wee hours. It was one of my worst days and the duplicity of the hotel proprietress left a bad taste in my mouth about Laos.

Time made me realize it was unfair to condemn an entire nation based on the lies of two people, so I decided to give Laos another try. My arrival without the necessary visa was met with a few shrugs by the immigration officer who pointed me to the visa line where one was quickly obtained and I was welcomed to Laos.

I was in Luang Probang, the ancient capital, Laos’ second city and a magnet for tourists seeking a relaxing, meditative experience. Its peacefulness, compared to Thailand, was palpable. Motorists did not honk horns, there was no garbage strewn about and the sidewalks were wide and regular.

Some history is in order. The Laotians are generally regarded as a subset of a Thai tribe that migrated from the Chinese highlands in the 13th century and settled in the area that is now Laos. Its greatest kingdom governed from the 1350s to the 1700s with Luang Probang as its capital. Suffice to say its borders contracted and expanded depending on the outcome of battles with the Thais, Vietnamese, Burmese and Chinese. In 1750, the Siamese took over until 1890, when it ceded Laos to the French in exchange for Siamese independence.

The French period is regarded as “ soft colonialism”, with the Laotian people mostly being used as cheap labour for French projects in Vietnam. Cries for independence started following WW2, but was only granted in 1965 following the defeat of the French in the French/Indochine war. During the Vietnam War, the USA carried out its secret war in Laos, covering the country with bombs in an attempt to halt Vietnamese arms transport along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The USA left a trail of destruction, death and land mines which still explode occasionally today.

Following the North Vietnamese victory in 1975, Laos, too, was taken over by a Communist party, which has retained control through to today.

Luang Probang offers a number of sites and experiences for the tourists and I engaged in most of them. First off, the requisite sunset cruise along the Mekong River aboard my private boat:

It was a bit cloudy, so I’ll spare you the not so spectacular sunset photos.

Next up, seeing the temples, of which there seemed to be hundreds:

Quite frankly, after the first dozen or so, they all started to look the same and, really, how many photos do I need of pretty, gold coloured temples.

The night market, along a Main Street blocked every evening, has the usual array of local crafts and tacky souvenirs:

Luang Probang has one unique experience high on every tourist’s list and that is the march of the monks. Every morning, before dawn, the orange robed monks leave their dorms and walk down the streets toward the temples as locals and tourists give them rice- their sustenance for the day. It is highly recommended and I wanted to see it, but…,

The bane of my time in Luang Probang was this bridge:

To get from my hotel to the center of Luang Probang, I had to either call a taxi tuk-tuk and pay $16 to go the 15 minutes via the new bridge or I could walk over the old bridge’s planks for free and be there in 5 minutes. The problem is I get vertigo and have a strong dislike of rickety old bridges so every time I had to walk across it was an unpleasant chore.

I finally compromised and decided I’d walk across the bridge in daylight, but use the taxi after dark. And since there were no taxis waiting at the hotel at 5:00 am, no amount of promised fantastic experience could convince me to walk across the bridge before dawn, so I didn’t see the monk’s march.

I couldn’t leave Luang Probang without visiting one of its many nearby waterfalls. An hour’s drive away is Kuangsi waterfall, a popular picnic point for locals and tourists alike:

Pretty, but quite busy. More serene was the the nearby butterfly park and, while there were many beautiful butterflies there, getting a decent photo was near impossible.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and to get there from Luang Probang involves a $150 flight on Lao Airlines, a 9 hour minivan ride through mountains and winding roads or a $35 ( after commission) ride on the newly built Chinese railroad. The problem is that train tickets go on sale only 3 days before and require personal attendance to buy them.

I opted for the train ride and happily paid the commission for the agent to stand in line at 4:00am 3 days prior. My hoped for business class ticket wasn’t available but a regular seat was procured. On the appointed day, I arrived at the stark, newly constructed station and settled in ( after 2 passport and 1 security checks) for the ride. I’d read the scenery was spectacular but the first hour was filled with so many long tunnels it was hard to see much, but what was visible was quite pretty:

Vientaine is considered a quiet, relaxing capital, which it was. I hired a private driver, found a list of top things to see and crossed most of them off in two hours. They included a few temples, a few temple museums and the Patuxai Monument, commemorating those who died fighting the French and later, the non-Communists:

I could bore you with descriptions and photos of more temples, but I will spare you and move on to my Vientaine highlight, Buddha Park. It’s a built for tourists park containing in excess of 150 Buddha and Hindu statues. Here are just a few:

I appreciate this may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but after enjoying the monument park in Budapest ( displaced Communist statues), I couldn’t resist another one. Yes, it’s kooky and slightly irreverent, but it was jolly good fun seeing all these Buddha statues poking up everywhere.

And thus ended my time in Laos. It had mostly redeemed itself ( until I went through the security check at the airport but that’s for the next blog). I didn’t love Laos, finding it a bit too laid back for my liking, but it is no longer on my “hate” list.

Next: Vietnam

Of Temples and Trains: Thailand

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Bangkok three times prior, so I’d been to the usual tourist attractions: the Royal Palace, the Emerald Buddha, a cruise along the river. This time, I had two objectives.

First, I wanted to learn more about the history of Thailand. I booked a day tour to the ancient city of Ayutthaya, located about 90 minutes from Bangkok. The Siam dynasty succeeded the Khmer dynasty in 1351 and constructed Ayutthaya as its capital city, still mostly in the Khmer style which explains its resemblance to Angor Wat in Cambodia. Siam ruled the area for 400 years, battling the Burmese and Laotians. Finally in 1730, the Burmese ransacked the city and the Siamese decamped to the newly built city of Bangkok.

We went from temple ruin to temple ruin:

They were quite beautiful, but after the fourth or fifth one, they all started blending into each other. Our guide, with hard to understand English, offered little explanation and very few of the signs were in English so much of what I learned about the area was from Wikipedia.

My second goal was to visit the train market. I’d seen photos of one in Hanoi, where the train runs very close to market stalls, but as Hanoi is not on my current agenda, I wanted to make a point of seeing the Thai equivalent.

After an hour drive out of Bangkok, my tour group was dropped by some train tracks along with hundreds of other tourists in the middle of nowhere. A few minutes later, a train appeared, we boarded the rickety old commuter train and settled in for the half hour ride.

At the 28 minute mark, the guide yelled “get ready”and we all looked out the windows to see market stalls just inches away. Standing below were camera toting tourists anxious to take a photo and high-five the train passengers – we were that close:

It was jolly good fun and everyone laughed as the train inched its way along the track. After it stopped, we disembarked then stood behind the red line to watch as the vendors packed up their stuff as the train made its way back up the track:

A visit to the floating market, indulging in Thai street food, a foot massage and a $12 haircut completed my time in Bangkok. In my younger days, I would have taken the 12 hour train to Chiang Mai, but I’ve lost patience for that so I flew to my next city, Chiang Rai.

Chiang Rai is the northernmost city in Thailand, near the border with Laos, and having a population of about 200,000. One of its highlights is the Blue Temple:

As you can see from the photo, it is quite blue. Inside, it is also blue:

Not to be outdone by the Blue Temple is the White Temple. Construction began in 1997 by a local artist and it is absolutely gorgeous;

Both inside and out are intricate carvings, all in white:

It really is magnificent; a fitting memorial to an artist’s imagination and aesthetic that, in my mind, ranks with the Taj Mahal as one of the world’s most beautiful buildings.

Needing a change of scenery from all the temples, I went on a 30 minute hike to a nearby waterfall, the Khun Korn waterfall. As I started, I was greeted with this sign:

Fortunately I saw no green pit vipers, or any other snakes, and made my way to the waterfall without incident.

A comfortable 3 hour bus ride landed me in Chiang Mai. The second largest city in Thailand, it’s advertised as a quaint, quiet town with few tourists and an old town replete with walls and hundreds of temples.

Well, there is a wall and lots of temples, but I wouldn’t describe it as quaint or less touristy. The old city is a warren of tiny streets, a temple on every corner and impromptu market stalls on every spare inch of sidewalk:

As for fewer tourists, that’s debatable. Although there was an absence of Chinese and Russian visitors, there were plenty of Europeans and Israelis. Cheap massage parlours, express tailors and food stalls abounded. Touts hawked treks to the nearby mountains and elephant sanctuaries promising “no riding” were heavily promoted.

I choose to do a cooking class at the Simple Organic Farm. It started with a quick stop at a market, than a ride to the farm, actually a well organized cooking school with dozens of individual cooking stations. We each choose 3 Thai dishes and with the excellent instruction of Natty, chopped, pounded, diced and cooked the ingredients. I made Green Curry Chicken, Holy Basil Chicken and Hot and Sour Soup. I managed to eat most of it, but forwent the mango ice-cream for dessert.

Chiang Mai is famous for its plethora of temples. I found a “10 great temples list” on the internet and, with the help of Google Maps, started walking to each one. They were all beautiful:

But after finding 6 on the list, and dozens not on the list, the temples were becoming indistinguishable from one another and I was having a hard time appreciating each temple’s beauty. I’d had enough.

So I consoled myself with a $8 massage and a pedicure, had some pants made, got laundry done and ate too much delicious Thai food. It was time to move on.

Next up: Laos

Sweating in Singapore

Determined to avoid another cold Canadian winter and thanks to the kindness of my dog sitting cousin, I embarked on a two month journey to East Asia one cold, January morning.

My first stop was Singapore. I had previously visited in 1994, emptied my pockets of chewing gum, duly drank a Singapore Sling in the Raffles Hotel and spent too much time and money in the shopping Mecca that is Orchard Road. But the tourist board and the travel writers promised a new and more vibrant Singapore and I was eager to see what the city had to offer these days. Besides, its temperature is a fairly constant 30 degrees which would keep me nice and warm.

My first stop was to a traditional site; the UNESCO world heritage Botanical Gardens with its marvellous outdoor orchid garden:

Beautiful as the orchids were, my highlight was being asked for ID to establish I was eligible for the senior’s discount entry fee. Good to know I don’t look over 60.

After enjoying real flowers, I made my way to the Gardens by the Bay, a fabulous garden complex constructed on recently reclaimed land. The Supergrove is its star, a complex of giant metal trees which treat everyone to a dazzling sound and light show every night:

Not to be outdone is the nearby Marina Sands, which offers a nightly water dance; music plays as scores of fountains spray and splash and circle about in a spectacular array of lights and colour:

Often described as the third modern wonder in Singapore is Changi Airport, with its Jewel containing the world’s largest waterfall. However, when I went there was no water:

I decided to console myself by going to the Changi Airport Butterfly Garden, but after searching for half an hour, was dismayed to learn it was only available after clearing security in Terminal 3. Since I arrived at Terminal 1 and was departing Terminal 4, the butterflies were not to be. My trip to Changi was a bust.

Not so my visit to Haw Par Villa, a theme park offering 150 dioramas depicting different exploits of Chinese gods in vivid colours:

Imagine 150 such scenes and you get the idea it’s a sort of “ you’ve got to be kidding” moment, reminding me of all the floats at the Mardi Gras Museum in Mobile, Alabama. But more illustrations awaited as I entered the Hell’s Museum where an additional 10 dioramas showed the 10 step progression through the Chinese purgatory:

Seeking something slightly less colourful, I took a free ( before tip) walking tour with Just, a local guide anxiously awaiting the return of the Chinese tourists who used to make up nearly half of all visitors. We walked around many of the older, British legacy buildings: the Victoria Theatre, the Supreme Court Building and the formerly whites-only cricket club.

Singapore had been little more than a marshy swamp when Stamford Raffles founded the city in 1820 as a trading port along the Singapore River. Britain colonized it, subjected its local Chinese, Malay and Indian inhabitants to the usual humiliations of colonization and did the usual British stuff, laying railways, building churches, speaking English.

In 1942, Britain unceremoniously surrendered the city to invading Japanese forces and left. Though they returned in 1945, the locals did not forgive them and the independence movement took shape. Granted independence in 1965, Singapore has been ruled by the benevolent dictator Lee Kuan Yew and his son ever since.

The remnants of the British colonialism and its tendency to segregate different ethnicities is found in the various neighborhoods: Little India, China Town and Arab Street. I walked around each, but as I live in a very multicultural city with its own ethnic neighborhoods, the ones in Singapore were underwhelming, filled mostly with tacky souvenir shops and self- proclaimed trendy bars and restaurants. I didn’t linger.

The one exception is the hawker centers. Best described as a conglomerate of independently owned food stalls serving mostly cheap Chinese food, I made my way to a few of them for lunch and dinner, enjoying roast duck and fish soup meals for a few dollars.

But the culinary experience highlight was eating at Tai Hwa Pork Noodles, the only Michelin starred food stall in the world.

I waited in line for over an hour before ordering its signature minced pork over noodles dish:

The pork was okay but the noodles and sauce absolutely delicious.

And thus ended my time in Singapore.

Up next: Thailand

Driving Germany’s Romantic Road

The Romantic Road was a term dreamed up by PR types trying to entice tourists back to post-war Germany. It’s a pretty enough route, but I failed to find any love interest on my week long journey around it.

After picking up a rental car in Munich, my friend Cathy and I drove to our first town, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, replete with timber framed houses and an old town square fronted by the Town Hall:

It’s one of three walled towns still existing and wall walking is a common pastime, so we indulged:

A must-do is to take a walk with the Night Watchman, who regaled us with stories of life in medieval Germany. Then, the place stank due to lack of plumbing, plague and other diseases ran rampant and the church controlled every aspect of one’s life. Hardly a paradise;

The Night Watchman

For a change of scenery, we drove 35 miles to the second walled town of Dinkelsbuhl. It too had timber framed houses, ramparts and a town square. Rather than repeat our Rathenberg ob der Tauber experience, we started on our second quest, eating lots of good German food. Thus, we sat in a cafe near the Cathedral and ate a delicious piece of Apple Strudel:

The third of the trio of walled towns is Nordlingen, which has the usual medieval attractions but also the Ries Crater Museum, which as its name suggests, is about craters and more specifically about the 25 kilometre wide crater where Nordlingen rests, created when a meteor crashed into the earth about 15 million years ago. The museum was a welcome change from all things medieval, focusing on how the universe and earth were formed.

Another diversion from the 15th century was a detour to Stuttgart and the Mercedes Benz Museum. Housed in an elliptical building, the museum whisked us to the 8th floor in a pod like elevator. From there, we slowly walked down, with exhibits about Mercedes Benz intertwined with world events. Daimler patented the first motor car in 1885, but it wasn’t until the Paris World Fair in 1889 that his car really took off; it being one of the main attractions there after the Eiffel Tower:

The Museum was full of interesting tidbits. The name “Mercedes’” was adopted when one of Daimler’s engineers christened his race car after his daughter “Mercedes”. Benz and Daimler never met; financiers forced the two companies to merge in the wake of the financial crisis in Germany in the 1920’s. During WW2, Mercedes Benz used over 30,000 forced labourers, mostly prisoners of war and concentration camp victims. It has apologized for this but no mention was made of reparations.

In furtherance of our food hunts, I finally was able to enjoy white asparagus, loved in France and Germany every spring. It’s white because it is grown completely underground so it lacks chlorophyll but served with Hollandaise sauce and weiner schneitzal makes for a very hearty meal:

Part of the romance part of the Romantic Road is the plethora of pretty castles. We visited Hohenzollern Castle, an 18th century Gothic Revival castle built by Crown Prince Frederick William IV of Prussia on the remains of a much older castle:

Inside, it was as opulent as one would expect a palace to be. Unfortunately due to a mix up in castle names causing me to buy tickets for Hohenschwagua not Hohenzollern castle, the only tour available was in German and the only thing I understood was “stay on the carpet” so my information is a little thin.

On our way to our final castle, we passed through the Bavarian Alps, beautiful in their thick forests, lush green grass and glacier fed lakes:

If you look closely in the picture above, you’ll see Hohenschwagua castle on the right, which we did eventually find on route to Neuschwanstein Castle but having already shelled out 30€ to try and visit it earlier but went to the wrong castle, we didn’t try and visit it again. The tickets had very strict date and time entries and we’d missed both.

So on to the ultimate castle, Neuschwanstein Castle. Conceived by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the 19th century as his version of a medieval castle, its setting is spectacular:

We managed to buy the correct tickets for the English tour and were led through the castle by the guide who explained King Ludwig’s masterpiece. Frustrated by his limited constitutional powers, Neuschwanstein was built so King Ludwig could engage in his vision of a medieval king; omnipotent, a brave warrior, etc. To this end, he had a room that looked like a cave and another one pained with scenes of his favourite stories of Parzaval and Lohengrin. Alas, no pictures were allowed inside.

The castle is the subject of many rumours, most of which were ignored by the guide. It is said to have inspired Disney’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. It was also said to have been built for the German composer Richard Wagner. King Ludwig was also supposed to be mad, which our guide did address, but his take was that King Ludwig just liked to visit an alternative reality, no different than today’s kids playing video games. So rather than being mad, the king was just ahead of his times.

Believe what you like, I found the castle enchanting, a monument to one man’s dreams. And thus ended our Romantic Road journey.

Armenia: The Third Caucasus Country

The problem with doing a 3 country tour is that once you get to the last one, you feel like you’ve seen it all before and the prospect of visiting yet another medieval church or seeing another stunning mountain vista becomes more of a chore rather than something to look forward to.

Thus, I entered Armenia after visiting Azerbaijan and Georgia a little tired, a little jaded, planning to go through the motions rather than truly embracing it. Of course, I was wrong. Armenia has plenty of novel attractions to satisfy my quest for unique and interesting.

To be sure, my tour stopped at quite a few churches, not surprising as Armenia had been the first country to adopt Christianity in 301. The man responsible, St. Grigor the Illuminator, is remembered in a monastery partially carved out of a cave and set against the Caucasus mountains:

I also visited the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the seat of the Armenian Orthodox Church and generally considered the first Cathedral in Europe, dating to 301. Unfortunately it was under renovation and scaffolding so we could not enter.

But Armenia offered plenty else. Many of its buildings are constructed from tufa, a limestone formed by lava with lovely hues. In the second city of Gyumri, most of the center’s buildings are tufa, including the still under construction main church:

Gyumri was close to the epicentre of the 1988 earthquake which devastated the country, killing 25,000, leaving 500,000 homeless and levelling 60% of Gyumri. Most of the buildings destroyed were of the bland, Soviet era variety, while the replacements are the Armenian tufa style:

In the capital city of Yerevan, I visited the Genocide Memorial, commemorating the 1.5 million Armenians living in nearby Turkey who were killed between 1895 and 1925.

The archeological museum contains treasures from Armenia’s golden period, from the 9th to the 4th century BC when it stretched 400,000 kilometres, covering parts of modern Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Azerbaijan. A 20th century nationalistic movement seeking to regain part of Greater Armenia was exploited by Stalin and his mass relocation of different ethnic groups and is the root of the territorial dispute with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region which has seen three wars between Armenia and Azerbaijan since 1991.

To satisfy the need to visit something quirky, I went to the Temple of Garni, a Soviet era reconstruction of the Greco-Roman temple to the sun king Mihr. It’s a sign of pre-Christian pagan Armenia, which might explain why the Soviets rebuilt it, the original having been destroyed in an earthquake in 1679.

The Matenadaren, or Manuscripts Museum, is the largest depository of Armenian manuscripts, many dating to the 4th century. Painstakingly translated and drawn by Armenian monks, the western world has these translations to thank for preserving many famous works by the ancient Greeks and Latins after the originals were destroyed at the Great Library at Alexandria in one of its purges. Alas, no photos were allowed inside.

Like Georgia, Armenia is a grape growing region with delicious wines. However, it was its brandy (or cognac) which our tour focused on at the Ararat Brandy facility. A brandy tasting followed the facility tour. My favourite? A 7 year old vintage sipped after slowly eating a piece of dark chocolate:

Although located in Turkey, Mount Ararat, of Noah’s Ark fame, is visible on a good day from the capital. It’s only 40 kilometres away. So important is it to the psyche of the Armenians that all of Yerevan was designed so the mountain would be visible from everywhere in the city. We had mostly cloudy days, but managed one clear early morning sighting:

Mention must be made of the current political climate. Armenia is a close ally of Russia, so I didn’t see any Ukrainian flags. Of more importance to many Armenians was the signing of the Russian brokered treaty with Azerbaijan whereby Armenia was giving up its rights to the Nagorno-Kharabakh region. Protests in opposition to this treaty erupted everyday in Yerevan, snarling traffic and making access to some points difficult. But, so far, the protests have been peaceful and the protesters’ tent city almost had a carnival atmosphere:

After 4 days I left Armenia. A short visit but one which gave me a taste of the country. Next up, something more romantic.

Georgia: Wine, Monasteries and the Russians

Georgia is known for its wines and, as if to prove the point, our group was met on arrival at the Tblisi airport by our tour guide, whose first act after introducing herself was to hand out small bottles of Georgian wine to enjoy on the bus. This country was off to a good start.

Georgia is considered the birthplace of wine, with some wine resins dating back 8,000 years. Just outside of Tblisi, we began to see vineyards where some of the 500 different varieties of grapes in Georgia are grown. We enjoyed a wine tasting at the Khareba Winery, deep in one of the 13 kilometres of tunnels, learned about the difference between Georgian wine making technique (the skin and seeds remain throughout the fermentation process) and the European technique. And of course, we sampled many of the local wines at all of our meals in Georgia.

Georgia was the second country to adopt Christianity as its state religion in 326, after St. Nino cured the Queen of ill health. Many churches/monasteries date from this 4th century, but Georgia’s glory period, between the 10th and 14th centuries saw the construction of some glorious churches by such monarchs as David the Builder and Queen Tamar. Many of the churches escaped destruction by various invaders – Persians, Mongols, Turks, Russians- unlike other grand palaces and universities, which were uniformly razed.

If I had a favourite, it was the modest church in the Vardzia cave city. Originally carved by monks in the 12th century, the 13 story high cave city expanded to house up to 50,000 inhabitants and contained amenities such as stables, water pipes, stores and a church, everything needed to hide out for a few years:

An earthquake struck in the 13th century, leaving much of the cave fronts open, but the city was reinforced and used for another two centuries. During the Soviet period, it was a museum but off-limits to most people.

Now, about the Russians. Situated right above Georgia, Russia has had its eyes on Georgia for centuries as a buffer between it and the Persians/Ottomans. In 1783, it signed a treaty with the Georgian King in which Russia took over Georgia’s foreign policy. A few years later, in 1803, Russia invaded the country and occupied it until 1918. In the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution, Georgia declared independence, but it was short-lived when Russia again invaded in 1920, brutally put down the independence movement and annexed the country, making it a republic of the USSR.

In the capital Tblisi, the National Museum dedicates a floor to the Soviet occupation, with graphic illustrations of executions, the gulags and the repression of free speech and political parties. The great purge of 1937 saw aristocrats, intelligentsia, political prisoners and rich peasants tortured and killed.

Independence movements began in the 1980’s; it was declared initially in 1989, suppressed but finally granted in 1991. Nonetheless, it remains precarious with Russia arming two breakaway republics, both of which have declared independence, recognized by nobody except Russia.

As a result, over 20% of Georgia territory is currently occupied by Russian forces and people fear that Russia will turn its sights on Georgia next after Ukraine. Its strategic position, along with rumoured reserves of oil and gas and rare earth minerals and Putin’s desire to return Russia to the glory days of the USSR, make it a tempting target.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the invasion of Ukraine on Georgia; its effects were all around. Although the country’s largely ceremonial president has spoken out in favour of Ukraine, it’s prime-minister prefers Russia. And little wonder as his biggest supporter, and former prime minister, is a major shareholder in the Russian petrol-giant Gazprom.

So Georgia walks a tightrope. Flags supporting Ukraine are everywhere:

Large numbers of Russians and Belarusians, unable to remain in their home countries, have fled to Georgia, where they await visas for Western Europe or North America. Two whom I met both proclaimed they would return home “when Putin is dead. ”

But not all Georgians welcome these Russian dissidents. There is great dislike and distrust of all Russians, regardless of political persuasion.

A controversial exception, but only to some, is Georgia’s most infamous citizen, Joseph Stalin. Born in a rented two room house in Georgia’s second city of Gori, he initially studied to be a priest but failed to finish likely due to his political dissent activities. He was arrested 7 times and was sent to Siberia, where he managed to escape 6 times. Eventually, he befriended Lenin and Trotsky and rose through the ranks to become the Soviet leader until his death in 1953.

All this and much more is documented in the Stalin Museum in Gori. I toured it with an English speaking guide, who delivered a matter-of-fact commentary about Stalin, neither flattering him nor referencing his atrocities.

She focused on his ” damaged arm”, always out of sight in official pictures, his refusal to exchange his prisoner of war son (who was executed) and his personal possessions, like his pipes.

The museum has his birth house on its grounds and his refurbished train. Apparently Stalin was afraid to fly. Inside are his meeting room, security office, bedroom and bathroom, all furnished in a mock Art Deco style. I wonder how he would feel having loads of western tourists snapping photos of his toilet. I did but I’ll show the whole train instead:

Another inescapable consequence of the Ukrainian/Russian war is the plethora of trucks on the Georgian highways. As soon as Russia invaded, all surrounding countries except Georgia closed their land borders. Thus, the single open border into Russia has a line- up of trucks over 150 kilometres long. It takes a minimum of 4 days to cross:

Thankfully, I was not in a truck trying to cross into Russia.

Next stop, Armenia.

On the Road Again: Baku, Azerbaijan

After two years of limited travel (two weeks in Madrid and Portugal, a crazy drive across Northern Canada to pick up a puppy and six weeks in Florida), I’m finally on an extended trip, starting in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. I’ve joined a tour offered by Adventures Abroad of the Caucasus; Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia.

Let’s start with the geography. The Caucasus is a mountain range bordered by Russia to the North and Iran and Turkey to the south. In the west is Georgia and the Black Sea; to the east is Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea. Its neither in Asia or Europe or in both, depending who you ask. And despite its name, the Caspian Sea is not a sea, but the largest lake in the world.

I could give a long dissertation on the history of the region, but there are great documentaries on YouTube if you’re interested. Suffice to say, the region has been fought over by Persians, Christians, Muslims, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and Orthodox Russians for centuries. The countries first declared independence in the 1920’s, but Russia brutally annexed them after 23 months and made them each republics of the USSR. The Soviets displaced hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijani and created artificial borders, resulting in the tension and war between the countries that still exists today. Independence from the USSR occurred in 1991, despite a bloody crackdown by the USSR in Azerbaijan in 1990 resulting in massive fatalities.

I would like to tell you that Azerbaijan is filled with fascinating architectural and archeological sites dating from time immemorial but that wouldn’t be correct. Invading armies, earthquakes and Soviet policy left little intact. Instead, the current regime has embarked on a massive reconstruction of past buildings in an effort to create a glorious Azerbaijani past. Thus, we visited reconstructed fire temples, mosques and palaces, all dating from 2000 or later. To erase the Soviet Realism style of high rise buildings, many of the facades have been refaced in a more Azerbaijani style, like government house:

Government House

Now about the government. Two year after independence, in 1993, Heydar Aliyev, former KGB and former Communist Party member became president. He was succeeded by his son, the current president, whose wife is vice-president and his son is the heir apparent. There are “elections” which the opposition alleges are fraudulent, a dictatorship disguised as a democracy. Freedom of expression is not allowed; opponents to the regime are either jailed or living in exile. We were warned not to discuss politics with locals.

However, the government is wealthy, owning the expansive oil & gas reserves that make the country rich. Ostensibly, it spends its money on public works; the streets are broad and well cared for, cranes dot the city skyline erecting modern high rises, water, power and internet are reliable. Education and health care are free.

But it’s somewhat of an illusion. The vast amounts spent on public works do little to benefit the majority of the population who struggle to survive on meagre wages. Preparations for a Formula 1 car race inconvenience the entire city for six weeks prior to the race. Corruption is rife. Ill paid doctors, teachers and police officers demand bribes to do their jobs. As if to prove the point, our tour bus was stopped by a police officer “ seeking dinner money” before allowing us to resume our journey.

We visited some of the main sights in Baku, like the Maiden Tower, one of the few non-reconstructed towers, which no one can accurately date and whose purpose is unknown:

Maiden Tower

And walked through the attractive but mostly reconstructed Old Town:

Old Town

Wonderful new buildings line the Caspian Sea waterfront, including the Flame Towers, so named because in the night, their lights resemble flames:

Our tour travelled to the old capital of Shaki, stopping along the way at more reconstructed buildings – a mosque, a Zoroastrian fire temple, a palace- all rebuilt in the last few decades following destruction by Mongols, earthquakes or the Soviets, take your pick.

The single original sight is the petroglyphs in the Gobustan National Park, where a large number of cave art paintings dating back to Palaeolithic times (10,000 BC) are visible, including the dancing women:

I spent a pleasant 5 days in Azerbaijan. The country is clean, safe, with modern roads and good food, but lacks the eye-catching historical sights that I love. What it does have is an interesting political history with Russia and Turkey fighting a proxy war in the area for territorial supremacy and Caspian Sea access. Azerbaijani people we met were divided over the current war in Ukraine. While some expressed displeasure at the Russian invasion and decried Russian aggression, we also saw signs supporting the Russian fighters.

I was happy to have visited Azerbaijan but was equally happy to move on to a new country. Next up, Georgia.

COVID-19 wins/ Me, the Tourist, loses

On Saturday, I waved the white flag and booked a flight from Ponta Delgada, in the Azores, Portugal, to my home town of Toronto for Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Despite all my attempts to continue travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming more and more difficult. I like to think I know when to quit and, so, I am trying to.

But let’s back up a bit. I had booked a 6 week holiday in Spain back in December to begin March 31, when I was to meet up with a friend in Madrid. Over the last few months, hotels and Airbnbs had been booked, a rental car reserved, advance payments made when requested. I’d also arranged to meet my son here in Ponta Delgada for a week of sun and hiking during the second week of March, a well deserved holiday for him as he left one job and was about to start a new one.

In January, new reports started filtering out of China about a novel virus and a city under quarantine and ships getting turned away from ports in the Far East, but it was a distant thing, of little concern to me. In February, I flew to Accra in Ghana and, after a week there, went to Senegal.

It became time to start booking plans between Senegal and Spain. Everywhere was safe except China and maybe South Korea. I booked 10 days in Lagos, Portugal on the Algarve coast before I was to head to the Azures. After a week in the Azures, I would visit a new country for me, Malta, before going to Milan, Italy, where I planned to visit the iconic opera house, La Scala, and take a train to walk the five towns that make up the Cinque Terres before flying to Madrid.

At the time the plans were made, in late February, the virus had barely hit Europe and was traceable only to persons who had been to China. But once I got to Lagos, events started happening quickly. Italy, mostly Venice and Milan, started reporting outbreaks. My flight from Malta to Milan was cancelled by the airline. A few days later, the flight from Milan to Madrid, on Ryanair, was cancelled. To its credit, Ryanair offered the best, most simple refund mechanism imaginable. Just a few clicks on the link it sent me and the money was back on the my credit card.

Then my son sent me an email from his new job indicating all employees who had travelled to China or been in contact with anyone who had been would not be allowed to enter the building for 2 weeks. He was nervous ( it turned out rightly so) they would expand the ban to anyone who had travelled internationally. He told me he wouldn’t be joining me in the Azures.

Lagos seemed to be operating normally; there were plenty of tourists and no obvious precautions. Nonetheless, I started watching YouTube videos on how to properly wash my hands, managed to buy 3 small bottles of Purell for the usurious price of $26.00 and realized, to my chagrin, how often I touched my face. Twelve days later I left, via Lisbon where I spent 4 hours in the airport. Again, nothing out of the ordinary was observed.

On Thursday, my 3rd day in the Azores, Trump gave his disastrous pep talk from the White House and, all of a sudden, things started going a little crazy.

A digression and a bit of history. The Azores is a group of 9 islands in the mid-Atlantic, about 1500 kilometers from mainland Portugal. Portugal explorers discovered them in 1427 and started settling them soon after. They’re volcanic, with the last major eruption in 1563-4. Today, on the island of San Miguel where I am, are a number of calderas filled with lakes and hiking trails.

On Friday, I noticed a cruise ship outside the harbor. It had been denied entry and was sailing away to parts unknown.

I had booked a tour of San Miguel Island, the largest and most populous island in the Azores, which went to two of the crater lakes: Lake Green/Blue which, as its name suggest, has both a green and blue portion and Lake Fugo

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Lake Fugo

The tour was scheduled to visit Caldeira Velha, a national park with hot springs and sulfur steam spraying from cracks in the ground. But alas, that morning, the Portuguese government had ordered a shut-down of all parks. I contented myself with the beautiful views of the Blue/Green Lake.

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The Green/Blue Lake

More bad news when I checked GoogleNews during lunch. Malta would impose a mandatory 14 day quarantine on all non-Maltese newcomers who landed on the island. After the tour ended, I went to cancel my flight and hotel reservation there. After being on hold for 3 hours with Expedia, Air Malta cancelled my ticket and refunded it all, despite it being non-refundable. Not so the Grand Excelsior in Floriana, Malta, who didn’t seem to care that its government was telling tourists to stay away, and refused to refund any of my money. So please, if you go to Malta, boycott this hotel.

As I already had a flight booked to Lisbon on my way to Malta, I decided I would go there for a week and managed to book a Lisbon./London/Toronto flight for March 24th. But that night, the authorities ordered nightclubs and museums to close all over Portugal. On Saturday morning came the news that 5 flights from the UK to Spain had been turned around mid-air since they wouldn’t be allowed to land in Spain.

Enough was enough. There is a non-stop flight from Ponta Delgada to Toronto on Tuesday, March 17th. I booked a seat. The timing was lucky. Later in the day, Trudeau told all Canadians to come home as quickly as possible. My flight sold out soon after.

So it is Monday now and I wait for the flight, hoping it will go. The island is quieter than when I arrived. The Tourist Office and half the restaurants are closed. Packets of sanitary wipes began appearing on the tables at the hotel breakfast yesterday and today the entire staff is wearing gloves. Only 2 people are being allowed into pharmacies at a time, so crowds are mingling on the street as they wait their turn.

I can do little more than walk around or cycle on the 4 kilometer bike path along the sea wall. It is a beautiful town, its architecture a mixture of Portuguese and colonial. Most prominent are the white buildings framed in black, basalt stone, a nod to the volcanic nature of the island.

If for some reason I do not get home tomorrow, I keep telling myself it is no big deal. My hotel, with a balcony overlooking the harbor, is very inexpensive and has lots of toilet paper. The restaurants which are open serve great fish and meat dishes. Before the islands turned to tourism, their main source of revenue came from cows, a breed brought over hundreds of years ago from The Netherlands. They are grain fed and apparently their milk, cheese and meat are highly prized. The steak I had was delicious.

The weather is also wonderful. Semi-tropical, the temperature rarely goes below 15 or above 25. A warm breeze keeps the air humid and, even though the temperature was only 17 the week I was here, it was warm enough for just a t-shirt and shorts.

But I get the message. Now is not the time to be travelling. Much as I would like to take advantage of the near empty, normally crowded tourist hotspots, I don’t want to be disrespectful. Governments don’t want foreigners on their soil, potentially spreading the virus and imposing on all ready over-burdened health care systems.

Besides, it is not fun anymore. I am inundated with hourly emails from back home from concerned friends and family reporting the latest WHO figures or the newest closures. Emails from lists I have long since unsubscribed from all start with their concern over my well-being and safety. The news reports nothing but the COVID-19 virus. My plans, and the back-up and the back-up to the back-up, have all been thwarted. I hate the uncertainty.

So I will be responsible. I will return home if my flight leaves here tomorrow, armed with a few cans of tuna, a bag of rice, lots of hand sanitizer and 12 rolls of toilet paper.

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For now, my travels are over.

Another Slavery Hotspot: Lagos, Portugal

I had just spent two weeks in Western Africa, where the main tourist sights related to slavery; the ugly capture and transport of millions of Africans to the Americas between the 16th and 19th century, so I thought Portugal would be a welcome relief from the saddening tales of the Ghanian and Senegalese slaves.

The Slave Trade:

My landing point was Lagos, a city of 30,000 on the south coast of Portugal, in the famed Algarve region. A friend had stayed here last year and highly recommended it as an inexpensive but warm vacation spot with lots of good food, plenty of sunshine and decent wine. I booked a place for 12 days and arrived after an all night flight from Dakar (only red eyes fly from Senegal to Europe) to Lisbon, a quick hop to Faro and an hour mini-van ride from the airport to the hotel. Situated right on the marina, my one bedroom offered a large balcony, reliable hot water and decent wifi, all welcome contrasts to my prior hotel in downtown Dakar. As an added bonus, there was no daily 6AM call to prayer to wake me.

But my belief that I had left the slave trade behind was completely erroneous. In fact, Lagos had been the capital of European slavery for centuries, beginning as early as 1450. Fifty years before the Portuguese claimed Brazil and 42 years before Columbus discovered America, Europeans were importing slaves from North Africa and selling them in the main market square in Lagos. A small Slave Museum, located in a former Customs House, details the slave trade to Portugal. Slaves, allegedly mostly prisoners of war sold by Arab traders, were sold in Europe where they were used in construction and heavy labour jobs. Somewhat incomprehensible to this explanation in the museum is an extract from a contemporaneous manuscript describing a slave auction, where a mother tried desperately to stay with her child. How mothers and children became prisoners of war is never explained.

History:

I took a walking tour with a history fanatic through the center of Lagos. In addition to the slave history above, we were handed a sheet with a timeline of significant events in Lagos, which went something like this: original inhabitants were Celtics, followed by the Romans whose main legacy is the road system.. When their empire disintegrated and the dark ages reigned, the Visigoth tribes moved in. In the 8th century, Arabs conquered the area and created cities using Arab building techniques still evident today. Between the 11th and 13th century, tribes who eventually became the Portuguese from Astoria in the north battled the Moors for supremacy, eventually driving the Arabs out of Portugal in 1249.

Lagos reached its heyday in the Middle Ages, when ships bound for Africa and America called it home. Fleets moored in Lagos during the Spanish/ British wars were attacked by Sir Francis Drake (Portugal was under Spanish rule at the time), along with various pirates who regularly plundered the city.

In 1755, a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed the city along with most of coastal Portugal. Lagos slowly rebuilt itself.

Portugal remained a monarchy through the Napoleonic invasions and the industrial revolution. A few 19th century civil wars reduced the monarch’s power to that of one of a constitutional monarchy but in 1910, the king was deposed and sent into exile. The Republic was born.

Over the next 65 years, Portuguese politics was plagued by military coups, dictatorships, fascism and communist parties. It remained neutral during WWII, assisting both sides as the wind blew. But in 1975, the country adopted a democratic government which has ruled ever since.

Henry the Navigator:

Lagos’ most famous citizen was Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese prince born in 1394 , died in 1460, and who, while he was a prince was not much of a navigator. Rather, his claims to fame are his contributions to navigation; he is rumored (but disputed) to have started a school of navigation in nearby Sagres, where two significant discoveries were made. First, the caravel, a lighter, more maneuverable ship was developed under his tutelage. Second, cartographers mapped more of the world, including the Canary Islands and the Azores in the Atlantic and the coastal areas of Africa below Bojador in the Western Sahara. They learned how to navigate using the stars, permitting the Portuguese to sail beyond the coastline, something the Vikings had figured out some 400 years before but that’s neither here nor there.

Lagos today:

Of course, most people don’t come to Lagos for its history or its architectural marvels. Rather, its primary attraction is as a well-deserved, relaxing tourist destination. Prices are inexpensive, with good Portuguese wine costing only a few dollars a glass, rotisserie chickens in the supermarket the equivalent of $5.00 and bus fares costing just $2.00. Hotels with all the modern conveniences abound, there’s a pretty pedestrian way with restaurants offering lots of fish dishes. Along the main road, pretty white low-rise buildings evoke pictures of traditional Portuguese houses and palm trees sway in the breeze.

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Lagos and its canal

The area has at least 13 golf courses and lots of water sports, including fishing. For those that prefer to walk, the streets are lined with sidewalks, zebra crossings are everywhere and cars most diligent about stopping to let pedestrians cross the street.

Tourists walk along the canal, up the shopping streets, towards the fort or beside the churches. It’s a bit of a walker’s paradise, with oodles of hiking trails. My favourite was a 45 minute walk from the marina, up a hill, to Ponta de Piedade, where wooden walkways criss-cross fields and run alongside cliffs overlooking limestone formations in the Atlantic Ocean below. Along some of the the walkway, a bevy of yellow flowers were in bloom, making for a lovely sight, but naturally, not in the pictures below:

Large numbers of Europeans – Brits, Germans and French – come here every winter to enjoy the mild (average about 20 degrees) weather and sunshine and Canadians have started coming here also. One sign read “We speak francais and quebecois.” Bars catering to foreigners line the marina  where British football matches play continuously, menus advertise Roast Dinners every Sunday and the singer, a guitarist, played mostly Tom Jones songs, but the loudest singalong was reserved for Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline.

Sagres

Thirty kilometers away is the town of Sagres. Reputedly home to Henry the Navigator’s sailing school, at its end is Cape St. Vincent, the most southwestern point in Europe and regarded as the end of the earth in ancient times. A lighthouse marks the end of the Atlantic Ocean where ships enter the Mediterranean Sea.

Today the lighthouse still stands and, in clear weather, its light can be seen for 60 kilometers. People, myself included, flock here for the nightly sunset, watching the sun drop into the ocean.

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Sunset at Cape St. Vincent

The Grottos

The waves have carved beautiful grottos into the limestone cliffs; most are accessible only by boat. Kayak and stand-up paddle boat tours take intrepid travellers into them, but I, being less fit and much lazier, opted for the speedboat. Little did I know the driver considered terrifying the passengers with sharp turns and dizzying speeds over high waves part of the experience, so I gamely held on  to my chair for the 25 minute terror ride to the grottos. The views were my reward; I will let some pictures speak for themselves.

Closing Thoughts:

Lagos wasn’t the most fascinating place I’ve been to, historically, architecturally or  culturally, but what it lacks in those areas, it certainly makes up for in great weather, easy travelling and nice, welcoming people. After 12 days here, I understand Portugal’s attraction for tourists escaping winter.

Next: Travelling in the time of Covid-19

Still in Africa: Senegal

My trip to Senegal started oddly. The best available flight between Accra, Ghana and Dakar, Senegal was on the national carrier, Air Senegal. The only other options were a 40 hour bus ride or ridiculous and expensive flights to hubs like Istanbul or Paris or Addis Ababa. The flight on Air Senegal was direct and cheap, so I booked it without a second thought.

Boarding the airplane, a Boeing 737-500, I noticed that of the 50 or so passengers, only 4 were not white, and 2 of those were part of a 30 person basketball team from South Africa. Then I noticed the flight crew were all white, speaking English with odd accents and wearing tags attached to necklaces with Blue written all over it. They were Romanian, and the plane had been leased from the Romanian company Blue Air, which explained the accents.

The lease issue aside, the flight was uneventful and 3 hours later we landed at the very modern airport where Immigration, Customs and bag retrieval took less than 15 minutes. The ATM dispensed Senegalese currency (the CFA) and the taxi driver only charged me 50% more than the official posted rate. The road to Dakar, a modern highway with toll booths, lanes, a basketball stadium at one end and neither people nor animals venturing onto the road, was a pleasure to drive for the 45 minutes it took.

My hotel is in the center of Dakar, in an area known as The Plateau. The streets are straight, traffic lights abound, but are routinely ignored, high rises of up to 10 stories were on all sides and there must be regular garbage collection as I saw no rubbish lining the roads like in Ghana or Ethiopia. I walked around frequently, finding a 40 minute circular route taking me past the Presidential Palace, beside the major market street and along the main avenue named after the first president, Leopoldo Seder Senghor, which is now lined with banks.

Walking felt safe in this area of Dakar. I’m not sure if this is due to the large contingent of police officers, many directing traffic, private security guards at every second building or the good-nature of the Senegalese, but I never felt threatened. Certainly vendors tried to sell me everything under the sun – fruit, made-to-measure clothes and sunglasses seemed their favourites- and beggars asked me for money, but none were persistent. Finding a safe path presented more of a challenge. The sidewalks served as makeshift parking spots, perches for beggars and temporary stalls for artists, shoe salesmen and mannequins, everything except pedestrian walkways. For that, I and most others, walked on the streets, but the cars were quite tolerant of this, with gentle toots on the horn to warn us they were coming from behind. Not what I was used to, but it worked.

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A sidewalk in Dakar

History:

Now for a little history and, as I’ve just come from Ghana, its easiest by comparison. Like Ghana, little was written down before the Europeans showed up in the 15th century and, like Ghana, it shares an ugly history as a slave trading center by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and English. The land was finally obtained by France in 1895 during the great African land grab by Europe in the late 19th century. The French administered it, built railways, mined its minerals, taught the locals to make baguettes (there’s a lot of good bakeries here) and imported decent French wine. The slave trade was abolished in 1848, but the French stuck around until 1960 when the country was, peacefully, granted independence.

It has remained a democracy, more or less, since. No civil war or invasion has occurred on its soil, although the 2012 elections caused riots when the President tried to run (illegally) for a 3rd term. But he was ousted and accepted the election results. Senegal is one of the few African countries where incumbent Presidents have been voted out of office without the eruption of violence. The press is free and human rights are more or less respected, as long as one isn’t homosexual.

It is also largely Muslim and completely French speaking, except for the uneducated who tend to be mostly rural women. Of a total population of 16 million, about 2.4 million live in Dakar and more and more are flocking to the large cities. Fishing and farming were the traditional livelihoods; both are alive and well today along with some gold mining. Unemployment stands around 15%, education is free but health care is not once you are over 6. Since extremest Islamic incursions in neighboring Mali, civil war in nearby Ivory Coast and the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone a few years ago, refugees have flooded in. Historical tribes – 14 of them – including the Wolof, Bamara and Fulani, live in peace. A large ex-pat community from France, between 25,000 and 50,000, live in Senegal, mostly involved in small business enterprises, although the largest mobile network (Orange) and bank, along with the mobile money system are French operated.

Goree Island;

A 20 minute ferry ride from Dakar is Goree Island, a former slave trading post, current tourist hot spot and a Provence lookalike. The houses are painted in pinks and oranges and burnt yellows, the alleys (there are no cars and no streets) are cobblestone and bougainvillea grows along stone fences.

It’s quite beautiful and would be peaceful but somewhere, sometime long ago someone decided tourists must love musical instruments, specifically the kashaka, which Wikipedia describes as two small gourds filled with beans connected by a string carried by young salesmen “clacking” (that’s the sound they make) them together ad nauseum. See a tourist, “CLACK, CLACK, CLACK.” Another ones comes by and “CLACK, CLACK, CLACK” again. Really annoying.

On to the tourist sites and foremost is the former slave trading center. Having just visited Ghana and seen the horrendous conditions slaves were kept in awaiting transport, I was struck by how much better the slaves in Senegal had it. Their rooms were ventilated, well lit and the slaves were allowed into the courtyard for an hour each day. Food was generously distributed so the slaves could achieve the minimum weight of 60 kilos. A male slave was worth a gun, a female a bottle of wine and a child, but a meal. Of course, I recognize comparing slave hovels is like debating which is the more humane method of conducting an execution, but the slaves here seemed to receive better treatment than those in Ghana.

Pretty views were the reward for climbing to the highest point on the island, where 2 USA built cannons stood. The movie, The Guns of Navarone, was filmed here (don’t ask me why an island in the Atlantic substituted for one in the Agean, but it did), artists show off their wares and the port area is ringed by restaurants offering meals much cheaper than in Dakar, But a few hours on the island were enough for me.

On my return ferry ride, I sat on an outside bench and was surrounded a few minutes later by a class of 10 years, all wearing their school uniforms, navy blue jumpers for the girls and sweaters for the boys, all with light blue shirts underneath. To my delight, and that of most of the other passengers, they began singing. They were obviously a well practiced choir and serenaded us with their favourite songs. I understood only the French version of I’ve Been Working on the Railroad. After 20 minutes, the singing ceased and the kids started playing Rock, Paper Scissors. Probably the most authentic moment I had in Senegal. 

Around Dakar:

I spent 7 days in Dakar, mostly in the Plateau region, seeing the major sights. Quite frankly, there weren’t that many. A presidential palace, a Catholic Cathedral, a dodgy (for Westerners) market and the Chamber of Commerce building. The French constructed a railroad from Dakar to Bamako in Mali, some 1300 kilometers away. Back when I visited Mali in 2006, a train left the Art Deco station in Dakar and usually arrived in Bamako about 3 days later.

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The market area with thousands of shoes for sale

Today, a bus says it does the run in 2 days, but a week is more likely. The train hasn’t run since 2007, but a new high speed line will link Dakar centre with the airport, inexplicably built 45 kilometers away. The trains have been purchased but sit idly by while construction on the track continues.

A day trip to the Pink Lake:

I seem to be landing in countries with pink lakes; Senegal is my third after Australia and Bonaire. The two I have seen were beautiful and the one in Senegal is considered a must see highlight. Thus, I booked a full day tour to the Pink Lake, with stops at a Fulani village, a ride on the sand dunes and lunch in a resort. I was the only one going, as February is not high tourist season in this country.

The temperatures had been glorious so far; sunny and between 25 and 30, so I was unpleasantly surprised when I awoke the morning of my tour to a haze. I checked my weather app, which showed “dust” for the next few hours, the first time I’d ever encountered that indicator on the weather network.

I met up with my guide, who explained it was a sandstorm, blowing in from the Sahara and out to the Atlantic When I mentioned the forecast was for it to blow over (pardon the pun) in a few hours, he shook his head “no, it is probably here for a couple of days.” He was right, of course, and for remainder of the day, and the following, Dakar was subjected to a continual barrage of wind and sand.

Needless to say, the view of the lake was less than spectacular. Wooded boats moored to the beaches refused to go out in the wind and the salt workers were mostly enjoying the unexpected day off. On sunny, hot days, the algae in the lake turn it a pretty pink, but today it was little more than a browny mess. I stood by the lake for the obligatory photograph, unsmiling lest more sand grit got between my teeth. It was clear my inner Lawrence of Arabia is deeply buried; the blowing sand was uncomfortable to say the least and we still had an exciting dune ride in an open jeep beside the Atlantic Ocean to get through.

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Me, the Pink Lake and a lot of sand and wind

It turned out to be about 15 minutes of pure discomfort. Yes, I jumped out at the ocean and snapped a photo, then told our guide and driver I had seen enough and could we go to our next, indoor attraction, please.

Well, sort of…it was the Fulani village where we were greeted by the chief, his two wives and a bunch of their children. He walked me around the village – to the community area where disputes were settled by the male elders (women could not be elders), to the new water wells, inside the children’s sleeping hut and to a kitchen where only a few pots and piles of millet indicated its purpose. The village tour ended at the inevitable souvenir store with the promise that all proceeds went to the school, but as my tour had already included a contribution to the village, I declined to purchase anything more.

The day was a bust, unless I add “surviving a sandstorm” as one of my bucket list items that could now be checked off. As our restful 2 hours by a resort swimming pool was not going to happen, we instead stopped in at the Tortoise Sanctuary, where dozens of giant tortoises live well into their hundreds. Although not as big as the Galapagos ones, they were still a lovely sight and the sand storm was quickly forgotten.

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Me and some tortoises

The Museum of Black Civilization:

I thought I would save the best for last – the Museum of Black Civilization. Opened in 2018, paid for by the Chinese and housed in an impressive looking building, I was looking forward to a telling of black culture and contributions from an African perspective, not the usual (for me) European one.

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The Museum of Black Civilization

Alas, it was not to be. Aside from the exhibits being mostly in French, they were limited to posters explaining the migration of people out of Africa, and African contributions to medicine and mathematics. Upstairs, in one of the few rooms with anything in it, was a collection of Senegalese art recently re-acquired from a Frenchman. Most of the rooms were sadly empty. What a missed opportunity to highlight ancient African civilizations in Zimbabwe and Timbuctu or Ethiopia’s unique architecture or Benin’s bronze statues or lots of other African achievements. It’s as if all the funds were spent on the building, with nothing left for the interior. It was not the ending I was seeking for my time in Africa.

 

Next: Lagos (Portugal, not Nigeria)