Our marathon tour and last foray across West Africa ends in Malabo on the island of Bioko, the capital city of Equatorial Guinea.
From Douala, we boarded a ET913 flight at 12:35pm, landing in Malabo at SSG airport after only 20 minutes in the air at 1:20pm in the afternoon.
We were able to obtain our e-visas online beforehand on their new VFS Global platform. Make sure you’re applying on a desktop PC, and not a mobile phone or Apple product.
Once showing our e-visa papers and QR code, they made us fill out a quick declarations form, asked to write any Equatorial-based phone number at the top (we put down our hotel’s), and then stamped us in.
We were then picked up at arrivals by our ride sent from Magno Suites.
Thinking we wouldn’t see Mike again as he was supposed to stay somewhere else with better WiFi, we took a group photo and said our goodbyes:
Once at check in, we asked if we could hire a driver to take us around the city for a quick tour, but as Magno Hotel was trying to find someone, Mike appeared again with his own tour guide and driver that he had booked a few weeks back saying that the hotel he wanted had no air conditioning. It was meant to be! So as he had to get on a call for work, he lent us his driver and local guide Begoña for the day.
Malabo was originally founded as Port Clarence in 1827 by the British, who leased the island from Spain during the colonial period to suppress the slave trade. Therefore newly freed slaves settled there, prior to the establishment of Sierra Leone as a formal colony for freed slaves. While many later relocated to Sierra Leone, some of their descendants called Fernandinos remained and passed down their generations in Malabo. They now constitute a distinct ethnic group, speaking their own Afro-Portuguese pidgin dialect. Including that, it is also the only official Spanish speaking country in Africa.
After the island reverted to Portuguese and then back to Spanish control, Malabo was renamed Santa Isabel and replaced Bata, located in the mainland, as the capital in 1827. It was later renamed to Malabo, after a tribal king, as part of President Nguema’s campaign to replace European names with “authentic” African ones. And it was also Macías Nguema who led a near-genocide of the country’s Bubi minority in order to replace them with his people, the Fang, in Malabo. Equatorial Guinea was then referred to the “Auschwitz of Africa,” as up to 1/3 of the population fled the country during the final years of his rule. It has since been recovering.
Malabo can be hard to navigate as a tourist because its palace grounds on the eastern side of Malabo are supposed to be off-limits. Therefore, the heart of the city for a tourist to explore would be the old town and historic quarter of Malabo, beginning with the palace like grounds of city hall, where the mayor works.
Thanks to Begoña, we were able to go inside and see some of its local artwork.
If you have time, we were recommended to visit the Universidad Nacional de Guinea Ecuatorial (UNGE), which grassy campus surrounds a statue of Teodoro Obiang, the current president of Equatorial Guinea.
The original buildings on campus were built by the Spanish colonizers, reflecting Spanish colonial architectural style with low sprawling building and generous use of arches.
Spanish style St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral built in the early 20th century.
Begoña walked around the cathedral to ask someone to let us inside:
The patron saint of the island:
If you’re okay with a little dirt and dust, you can climb up to the top of both towers, which experience reminded me when I climbed up all the minarets in Guinea-Conakry:
It’s probably here in the other, farther tower from the first ladders where you can get an actual idea of what Malabo looks like:
The cathedral is surrounded by Spanish colonial-style buildings, a rebuilt Sofitel under construction at the time of posting, and the President’s House . . .
. . . as well as a gorgeous view of the harbor.
Afterwards we retired at the famous and well regarded Café Malabo.
A few blocks away was an e-commerce shopping district that has now been completely shut down after a recent police sting.
After 3 hours there relaxing, eating, and smoking shisha at Café Malabo while waiting for Begoña to finish her call, we then took a stroll with her and our driver along the newly developed waterfront of numerous sparsely attended but still open restaurants and shisha bars.
We stopped at a new beach bar that Begoña seemed to be very proud of:
And just as I thought how everything seemed to be working out just swell for a region such as West Africa for the past 17 days, that’s when everything started falling apart. While relaxing at Café Malabo, I received a text from Tripit.com informing me that one of the legs of my return itinerary home (DLA to BRU of an SSG-DLA-ADD-BRU-JFK itinerary) — all at least business class which I had redeemed miles for (whew) — was cancelled due to a wildcat surprise Brussels Airlines pilot strike beginning tomorrow. That meant after flying SSG to DLA, I would be stuck in DLA with no onward flight.
Not worried at first, I waited until dinner back at Magno Hotel to sort everything out. But then while on the line with both Brussels and United Airlines customer support, on an important zoom call, and our having sat down for what we thought would be a quick dinner, the internet completely cut out for the entire hotel: Rooms, the restaurant, reception, etc. all gone. I scrambled to find alternatives but without cellular data, my T-Mobile and GoogleFi not working, no SIM or e-SIM backup, and the hotel reception looking totally clueless (they too said they couldn’t go online and claimed it was island-wide), I ran out of options.
But thanks to a helpful Good Samaritan standing next to me, he let me borrow his hotspot for 20 minutes as he and his partner waited for me to finish at least one round of customer service checks. I then thanked him, said he could charge whatever drinks at the bar to my room, and tried to find other sources for WiFi so I could find a return flight home.
The hotel staff then asked an employee friend to let me borrow her hotspot, after which another 40 minutes went by with United Customer Support on both Skype and online chat with no progress. Brussels Airlines’ offered an alternative option would had me stay another day here in Malabo for an SSG-CMA-EWR flight. However, being on a 1 day transit visa here, I didn’t want to risk another unnecessary night. Brussels Airlines then gave up on me saying that for other options, I had to work with who I originally booked with, which was United. But the United online chat was going nowhere, so it was now down to my United customer representative over Skype.
I also looked up other flights myself, where the ideal replacement would have been to continue an extra leg with Sandy and Letti tomorrow from SSG to DLA to ADD to then board a direct ADD to NYC flight the next day. However, United’s website wouldn’t let me proceed without speaking to a representative, who in turn and already on the phone with me, said this alternative itinerary seemed to be completely booked and they too, could not do it. Back to square one.
After another hour (it was around 10:30pm by this point and I had completely skipped dinner with Letti, Sandy, and Mike; they sadly ate my portions after I had excused myself), a supervisor from United named Enn was able to take over and seemed way more competent than all my previous representatives. However, the generous person who had lent me her hotspot now wanted her phone back and return home (also asking me for money in the process), so I told Enn I might lose connection and I had no call-back number for her. Enn reassured me she’d stay on and that I could always call back and resume with her.
I held my breath and switched the WiFi back to the hotel’s WiFi router, which at this point (about 2 hours after it went down) was finally back up again. Luckily Skype was able to hold enough of a connection to allow a router switch and the call quality with Enn even improved. Little steps.
Enn the continued, saying she was able to keep my SSG to DLA, continue me onto IST on Turkish Airlines 12 hours later (eek, DLA is not an easy airport to spend a 12 hour layover in, by the way), and then IST back to NYC. I agreed to this, but then Enn got back to me saying it was also fully booked. Back to square one.
Another 10 minutes went by and Enn suggested that I still continue onto ADD on Ethiopian Airlines from DLA, and then have me fly to FCO/Rome, and then FCO to NYC. Little steps. However, there was the next snag: because I had already checked into my prior itinerary before it had been cancelled, Enn could not rebook me unless I “un-check-in” from the Ethiopian Airlines portion of SSG-DLA-ADD. Back to square one.
Since there was no option to do that on Ethiopian Airlines’ website, Enn told me to call Ethiopian Airlines’ customer support instead. I replied that I did not have access to a second phone nor could I do a conference call with my signal strength, so Enn helpfully did it herself. After I waited another 20 minutes on hold, Enn came back and said she was able to connect with an Ethiopian Airlines’ representative who in turn informed us I could e-mail reservation[at]ethiopianairlines[dot]com with a copy of my confirmation number, passport, and request to un-check in.
After another 20 minutes, Enn came back and said I had been successfully un-checked in and she was able to rebook me from SSG-DLA-ADD-FCO-EWR. Wow wow wow. Finish line.
I thanked Enn, not caring that she had to downgrade me from business to economy (middle seat middle row, oof, what a jump down) on the SSG-DLA-ADD portion. I then texted Letti, Sandy and Mike to leave without me for a 7:30am morning tour they had scheduled with Begoña, and that I would meet them on the way to the airport instead at 10:30am. After nearly 5 hours on the phone, I was in bed by 2am.
But instead of sleeping in as I would have expected, I woke up at 6:30am on my own and couldn’t go back to sleep. Using the extra time, I packed my things and decided to still join them on their morning tour because what would be my other options? I even called United again asking if it was possible to get me back on business class from SSG-DLA-ADD (since that what was what I had originally booked), but this new representative said it was impossible as the DLA-ADD part was sold out for business class and that I should request compensation from United on their website instead. So I did just that and then joined Letti, Sandy and Mike for breakfast downstairs where it was storytime until Begoña came to pick us up.
If you stayed with me this far, then I hope I made it more interesting for you to read than what I had experienced last night.
Although our original morning plan was to return back to the hotel to use the airport shuttle (which I had booked only a few minutes before Begoña had arrived), Begoña agreed to take us directly from the morning tour to the airport herself. So I unbooked the hotel shuttle and went back upstairs to pack the rest of my things and bring it downstairs. Mike then started feeling a little GI upset and debated whether to back out, but after hugging us goodbye and seeing us get into our cars, he relented and rejoined us anyway. Yeah, nothing feels direct here.
Our first step was to drive east towards Sipopo Beach where we passed by the President of Equatorial Guinea taking a morning walk with his military garrison on the other side of the highway. Because of the presidential stroll, we could go only as far as the Sofitel Le Golf where they wanted to charge us 5,000 CFAs per person to enjoy their portion of Sipopo Beach. We asked to take a quick peek first before agreeing.
After a quick stroll to the beach and meeting a Lufthansa flight attendant there (they were all staying there), we headed back into our cars and drove to the main market.
Compared to other markets we’ve strolled on this trip, Malabo’s seemed very well organized.
Then it was goodbye to our 17 days for real; we bid Mike farewell one last and 3rd time and headed to SSG airport for our return flights home.
Think I encountered any issues there too? You bet I did!
While checking-in, the agent said she saw I had a double booking for SSG-DLA: one was my original business class seat and the other was my newer rebooking on economy. And although she could see both reservations, she could not see a ticket for my latter booking. Therefore I was then escorted into a back office where a very American English-speaking Ethiopian Airlines staff member worked everything out. I then got my ticket and proceeded past passports and security to get in some lounge time.
However, despite the lounge being listed on Priority Pass, the staff SSG’s only lounge said they would not take Priority Pass and there were no other lounges. And although they still took in business class passengers (which half of my itinerary was for and I had an old SSG-ADD business class e-ticket), they would not take my e-ticket. It was only until we befriended a UN employee from China inside the lounge where they relented for us to stay for 20 minutes before finally wanting to kick us out.
Unceremoniously we headed out to our gate and I’m now trying to get this all out before I forget any details. What a shit way to end the trip but at least we’re all safe and well on our way with our return flights home!.
My middle seat? Luckily I’m now sitting in a row that I have all to myself! OK, it all works out. Even if yeah, nothing feels direct here.
(20 minutes later)
Wait, never mind, someone wants to share the row with me. At least we have an open middle seat between us to spread out.
(4 hours later)
…and then with about an hour before landing, someone asked to take our middle seat to watch a movie. OK. Interesting.
Landing 6 hours later in Addis Ababa airport, I was able to sneak Sandy into its Cloud 9 Business Class Lounge for legit Ethiopian coffee.
Then after walking her to her gate and onward flight to Hong Kong, I packed up my stuff back in the lounge and boarded my business class rebooking to Rome. The new Ethiopian Airlines Business Class cabin has so much storage!
Then after another 6 hours in the air I arrived at 4:30am to a very empty Rome airport:
I had to go through security twiceover to look for a lounge that was open and I could spend my next 4 hours in. It looks like the only one would be the Primeclass Lounge I had spent time in 2 years ago.
Then at 9am I boarded my United Polaris Class flight back home.
I approve of its new partnership with Therabody:
On the way back I almost got into a Lyft as my typical ride home from the airport, but something in me spoke in my head to take the AirTrain and NJ Transit train back from Newark Airport. Half an hour later, the gut feeling revealed itself: While boarding the train, I ran into Valerie from our COVID-19 testing days:
- At time of posting in Malabo, it was 27 °C - Humidity: 80% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear, humid again