The Pointe-Á-Pitre is to Guade”loupe” You In

The Pointe-Á-Pitre is to Guade”loupe” You In

 

If I’m in the photo or the photo is really really professional, then the photography credit goes to Paul Woo.

 

After 7 days on the water, we settled back in readjusting our sea legs onto our first bed on land. After checking out and saying our goodbyes to our skipper-chef husband and wife team Brian and Marta, we drove an hour back to Fort-de-France.

 

 

Fun fact: our taxi driver Cedric was the exact same one who had rescued Koichi a week ago after a severely delayed flight that left Koichi with no means to call a taxi at midnight until a sympathetic local couple on the same flight assisted in finding and calling up Cedric.

Then the serendipities kept coming: just as Kimmy remembered she had left her North Face jacket back at Simon hotel where we stayed at a week prior, Paul also recalled he had accidentally left his cell phone in the taxi that Cedric’s mother was driving and thus compelling her to come back to the airport anyway. Then taking advantage of the drop-off for Paul’s phone, Kimmy and I also made a roundtrip retrieval mission for her jacket, which still somehow left us plenty of time for our afternoon 45 minute Air France flight to Guadeloupe.

 

 

Also known as “Butterfly Island” due to its geographic shape, Guadeloupe made for a quick entry with a cursory glance at our vaccine cards when we landed at 3:30pm at Pointe-à-Pitre. We then hailed a 30 euro taxi ride into the city and settled in at our charming Airbnb Appart Coeur de Rhum before exploring the town at sunset.

 

 

The town center begins at Place de la Victoire:

 

 

Mémorial ACTe, the largest memorial to enslaved people in the world is here, is located about a 10 minute walk south from the town center:

 

 

We then walked around town, the most other central spot being St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral:

 

 

Nearby enjoy the brutalist distinct architecture of Hotel De Ville:

 

 

Across the street is a fascinating art complex Awtis An Resistans.

 

 

 

We then tried to find whatever street looked interesting.

 

 

…before finally finishing our tour by the Spice Market.

 

 

It was here where I had a hunch to finish our week with a Lebanese dinner at Damas Gate, taking it all in and resting up after a long week on water. We even invited The Yacht Week resident DJ Alex EBS to join us for drinks, who had noticed I was wearing TYW attire at FDF airport before we flew back together to PTP. He also happens to be on our same flight out tomorrow morning to Miami!

 

 

We all just tested negative on BinaxNOW + Telehealth again so we’re heading home now. Another week of successful in the books during these crazy times.

 

 

- At time of posting in Guadeloupe, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 80% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

Ad-“Marin” du View

Ad-“Marin” du View

 

If I’m in the photo or the photo is really really professional, then the photography credit goes to Paul Woo.

We had expected that similar to our last time with them in Sardinia it would involve a frenzy of check-ins, security deposits, last minute provisional shopping, except this time without the 2 flash thunderstorms. Instead, we woke up this morning to something even crazier: finding out that 90% of the yacht staff would test positive for COVID-19 this morning after a trip they had sailed on the week before.

Therefore, in the best interests of everyone’s safety, a decision was made to cancel the itinerary entirely. We sadly would miss out saying hi to our friend and intended our skipper Umbi (who we were so lucky to have in Sardinia). Although he continues to test negative for COVID-19, he also did not want to take a chance to eventually test positive while sailing with us. Such professionalism. I respect that. WE STILL MISS YOU UMBI.

Especially after having our fill of Fort-de-France, we decided to reframe this unfortunate series of events with the irony of a Yacht Week trip now truly turning into a monsoon proper, where we would have no idea what the next step would be but pressing on anyway. Therefore continuing onwards without expectations, we asked our concierge at Simon Hotel to arrange a driver to take us to the marina at Marina du Marin from Fort-de-France.

And as luck will reorient itself for us, they luckily got us a wonderful driver and guide named Daniel, who after taking us to Sacré-Coeur de Balata also pulled off to the side of the road for a spontaneous jump behind the bar to serve us their local aged and white rum, complete with syrup and muddled lime.

 

 

Every travel serendipity now tastes 10 times sweeter of a victory.

 

 

Once we arrived at the marina an hour later, we were informed by the yacht staff that they actually may have found us a replacement skipper from Croatia, who just so happens to be vacationing on a nearby island and therefore did not partake in last week’s trip that got 90% of the staff positive for COVID-19. If he tests negative upon his arrival tomorrow, we may be able to salvage whatever bit of our trip that remains viable.

Umbi even left me a gift at the marina office!

 

 

After our check-in and all the logistics, we waited for our yacht to be prepared.

 

By 6:30pm the yacht was ready and we got pick our cabins onboard our newly christened yacht, Free Willy.

 

 

After settling in, we had dinner at L’Annexe for first night celebrations for getting this far despite the circumstances.

 

 

- At time of posting in Marina du Marin, it was 27 °C - Humidity: 74% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Getting Out of Omicron City to Fort-de-France, Martinique

Getting Out of Omicron City to Fort-de-France, Martinique

 

If I’m in the photo or the photo is really really professional, then the photography credit goes to Paul Woo.

It’s time for another joint journey with The Yacht Week on our second collaboration together, this time for a much smaller excursion to visit Martinique and St. Lucia amidst all this craziness with Omicron.

With NYC at nearly a 1 in 3 positivity rate and CDC telling us we can go back to work after as few as 5 days from a positive COVID test, and after a week of drowning in understaffed healthcare facilities across the city due to COVID positive tests, I’ll take my 14 days of daily negative rapid antigen and PCRs as a sign to quit while I’m ahead and getting the fuck out of Omicron City.

I feel that instead of working as a glorified human testing site (since so few patients are getting sick or hospitalized due to most of NYC being vaccinated so I feel pretty useless as a doctor these days), I feel it’s safer for me and my own mental health to take a week isolating myself on a boat with other fully boosted healthcare workers who have gone through the same shit-show and rigorous negative testing requirements. The only exception in our group is one person who had tested positive at least more than 10-14 days ago before testing negative on both a rapid antigen and PCR at least 3 more times before starting this trip with us. We’re also fully boosted for an extra layer of security.

And sadly not all of us made it: I had 4 monsooners drop out at the last minute due to being unable to make these requirements. We started with 11, and we’re now down to 6. Luckily I bought G1G travel insurance for all of ourselves a week ago, so the 4 are getting 100% of their money back as COVID-19 is covered in the trip cancellation policy. I hope this is good enough…otherwise we’re all going to quit tomorrow and you’ll have no more safe or open hospitals left to keep society afloat.

Therefore, unlike our Sardinia trip which consisted of us filling 3 yachts out of 22 in the fleet, this time we kept it to filling a single yacht out of 5 total on this route.

Flying direct into Martinique from the USA is nearly impossible unless you’re lucky to get a cheap flight from Miami. Otherwise I had to finagle a hack flight path consisting of 2 separate bookings of JFK to PTP in Guadeloupe and then PTP to FDF to make the itinerary affordable (<$300).

Taking the 7:50am AF 621/Delta 8251 flight from JFK to PTP, I landed 4 hours later at 1:15pm, and then because of a last minute cancellation by Air Antilles, I instead joined Sabrina, Kimmy, and Paul in taking off again at 2:30pm for a 3:15pm arrival into FDF. Tammy and Koichi would join us later in the evening on Air Antilles and AirCaribes flights.

 

 

After arriving into Martinique, we hailed a cab for about 10 euros per person into the city center.

 

 

Settling into our lodgings within the hour at Simon Hotel by the bay, we then sauntered in an empty plaza outside. One of my favorite things in life are freedom you feel in the first few minutes of every new trip.

 

 

We then walked over 10 min into a city completely shuttered for Sunday.

 

 

We headed into town to Market Hall Fort-de-France.

 

 

Then turned back around for a visit to Schœlcher Park which faces the town’s cultural center and Court of Appeals

 

 

Nearby, don’t miss St. Louis Cathedral, built in 1895.

 

 

Nearby is the town’s prettiest structure: Bibliothèque Schœlcher, which houses the works of abolitionist Victor Schoelcher.

 

 

We then crossed into Parc La Savane for a glimpse of local living.

 

 

We then kept walking further down to enjoy music by the Malecon at sunset:

 

 

We then walked down peninsula past the park for Fort Saint-Louis: a fortress, former naval base, and now public museum originally built during the reign of Louis XIII.

 


 

Afterwards we finally had our first meal of the day at the hotel terrace restaurant where we devoured their entire menu despite missing items.

 

 

Then we took back a bottle of white wine and enjoyed a round of “We’re Not Really Strangers” before kicking off an impromptu jam session: Tammy somehow packed both a guitar and ukelele in her carry-on; she even almost brought a keyboard!

 

 

The next morning we tried to visit all of the above when everything would be open on a Monday, including the best fried fish sandwich I’ve enjoyed in recent memory. Thanks to Paul’s find, we went to find the obvious reason why: Asian.

 

 

The town is so small we didn’t mind another walk around the neighborhood:

 

 

 

After enjoying a rooftop drink, we then set off on our cab ride to the marina to be with the rest of the yacht weekers. If you have time on your drive, do a short detour for Sacré-Coeur de Balata, surrounded by cliffs north of Fort-de-France.

 

 

The views from here:

 

 

- At time of posting in Fort-de-France, it was 23 °C - Humidity: 73% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

Santa Ana Over To Tazumal

Santa Ana Over To Tazumal

 

After an early breakfast at 8am and disappointigly finding out that Joya de Ceren — the Pompeii of El Salvador — was temporarily closed for renovations, we instead set off for San Andres: a pre-Columbian site in El Salvador beginning in 900 BC and abandoned by 250 AD after the volcanic eruption of Lago Ilopango.

 

 

This site was occupied again in the 5th Century, along with many others in the valley of Zapotitán. Then between 600 and 900 AD, San Andrés became the capital of a Mayan district with control over the other regions of Valle de Zapotitán.

After paying the $5 USD admission fee and washing our hands with a quick vaccine card and temperature check, we were treated to a 45 minute guided tour of the site (Spanish speaking only).

 

 

From San Andres we then drove onto Lake Coatepeque for lunch. Created from a volcano, the lake is located 20 minutes south of the city of Santa Ana with an altitude of 745 meters above sea level and a depth of 115 meters. 20,000 people live around the lake.

 

 

A splendid scenery for an alfresco lunch by the water.

 

 

The lunch was so filling that everyone fell asleep. On my birthday of all days. Hmph!

 

 

Driving on for another 30 minutes we managed to reach Tazumal an hour before closing at 4pm. Like San Andres, Tazumal is a pre-Columbian Maya archeological site excavated in the 1940s. 

 

 

But unlike San Andres, there is no guided tour; once you pay the $5 admission fee, wander and climb up to your heart’s content here.

 

 

The best part was when we sat on the grass and watched the world go by.

 

 

Leaving at 4pm right at closing, we drove back east 20 minutes to Santa Ana, the second largest city in El Salvador.

Everyone comes to Santa Ana not only for a more authentic Salvadorian experience, but also for the Cathedral. Are we in Milan?

 

 

Right by the cathedral in the public square is the gloriously built Santa Ana Theater:

 

 

Don’t miss the other architecture in this area unique to Santa Ana; you can’t find this in San Salvador as readily.

 

 

Golden hour is the best hour:

 

 

After a light dinner and drinks at Simmer Down we then headed back to San Salvador while making a pit stop grabbing wine, beer, spirits, and snacks at a local gas station.

Returning to our hotel hour later at 7:30pm, we kicked it on our balcony rooftop back and went in deep the usual monsoon way when we’re in good company.

Happy birthday to me.

 

Mecca Wasn’t “Ta’if” on Us!

Mecca Wasn’t “Ta’if” on Us!

Ta’if

About a 2 hours’ drive north of Jeddah lies Ta’if. Located within the Mecca region and one of the oldest towns in Saudi Arabia, it has been famous for its rose production and views over Mecca itself:

 

 

Along the way we stopped to say hi to the numerous baboons that live here and amongst the mountains. The young ones, if they’re not busy fighting each other, can be a little feisty in trying to steal your stuff from the car. 

The older ones are calm as Zen:

 

 

… also enjoyed some charcoal mint tea by the side of the road:

 

 

Once in Ta’if proper, we got ourselves acclimated with a view over the Mecca region:

 

 

We then toured the Al Gadee Factory and learn how roses are distilled to produce rose water and oil:

 

 

Afterwards at the recommendation of one of our beloved monsooners from Egypt, Karthik, we boarded the cable car at the top from the Ramada Hotel (also know as the “Jeju Island” honeymooners’ spot for Saudi newlyweds):

 

 

Each way takes 18 minutes. Once you near the bottom of the cable car ride, you may notice a barely unused (at least when we saw it on a hot Tuesday afternoon in October) waterpark guarded by a very lonely and bored-looking lifeguard.

 

 

During sunset, we opted for an al fresco dinner with a view at BelleSoire:

 

 

Afterwards we strolled along one of the numerous parks in the area, filled with families:

 

 

And from there we drove onwards into the hills for our hotel.

 

 

The next morning we drove back into Ta’if’s city center, first stopping at the Al Katib and Kaaki House, which architecture combines Roman style with Islamic motifs:

 

 

We then began our morning stroll at the Bin Abbas Mosque:

 

 

Nearby is the local souq, where you can sample some of the area’s naturally harvested honey and halwa:

 

 

We then had breakfast up on a rooftop overlooking the souq before driving out into the Al Shafa mountains for another local rose farm:

 

 

After having fresh pomegranate juice there all by ourselves (I swear we are the only tourists in the entire region), we headed back into Ta’if again for lunch.

And “when in Rome,” we were suggested the camel meat; a cross between a lamb rump and pork shoulder, it was just as good as how I remembered when I last had it a decade ago in Shiraz, Iran:

 

 

And after lunch, we returned for our last night in Jeddah. . . .

Mecca/Makkah

 

This deserve a section in of itself; I have yet to go into details HOW we got back and forth between Ta’if and Jeddah.

The short story is as much as we did NOT need or want to, our local Saudi driver — a devout Muslim and local Saudi born and raised in Jeddah and hailing from a generation of Saudis also based in the Mecca and Jeddah region — insisted that we SHOULD drive through Mecca/Makkah, the holiest city in Islam.

Local Saudi from Jeddah & Mecca (and our driver): “The fastest way between Jeddah and Ta’if is through Mecca. Are you okay with that?”

 

Me: “Are you joking? No!”

 

 

Driver: “No I’m serious. We go through Mecca. It’s fine.”

 

Me: “What? But we’re not allowed…isn’t it illegal? I don’t want to get into or you into any trouble” (I pull up Wikipedia)

 

Driver: “I’m Saudi. I know. I’m from here. Look at second line: ‘loosely enforced.’ It’s fine now. It’s okay. You just can’t go inside to see Kabbah because you need clearances for that. Special papers because of COVID. Even I cannot see Kabbah now because I don’t have clearance papers. But rest of Mecca city okay! No traffic, much easier and faster Insha’allah!”

 

Me: “Haha, you’re funny. Stop joking around! I’m going to take a nap. See you in Ta’if.”

(I then fall asleep in the car as we begin our drive)

15 minutes later I wake up only to freak out at the sight of sailing through the multiple checkpoints towards Mecca without any checkpoint guard bothering to stop us (and they’re looking in every car including ours!):

 

 

Whether it was me with my mouth agape underneath my surgical mask because COVID-19, or Mihaela as an American/Serbian brunette who didn’t even think of covering her hair up with her makeshift abaya (our driver never reminded us to), every guard at every checkpoint (I counted at least 2-3 throughout our drive) indeed looked inside our car and waved us all through. I can tell our driver was totally judging our anxiety and shock.

For the record, we drove through Mecca and all of these checkpoints twice over between Ta’if and Jeddah on the roundtrip, let alone both on separate days at different times with nobody seeming to mind on either day.

Have times really changed? I’m confused. I’m speechless. I’m left dumbfounded and shooketh.

 

 

Even as we protested at least 4 times before our drive that we did not want to disrespect the rules, our driver didn’t even let us negotiate as he began to suggest that we would be disrespecting him as a local who’d know better than we would. And the last thing we wanted to be was to be one of those disrespectful entitled foreigners who’d assert that we would know more about a country than our very own hosts.

Oddly I’m therefore also grateful that he insisted so much. As if the universe, or some energy “up there” really wanted us to be here, or that they really wanted to show us things are changing. And who are we as mere mortals to really know how the universe really works anymore?

Driver: “I told you. Look, it’s ok. It’s fine now.”

 

Me: “…this is not so you can get a better tip right?” (half joking tone)

 

Driver: “No tip! Jeddah, to Mecca, to Ta’if is just better and faster drive for us all. Look, relax, Google says so.” (Indeed, it says so)

Uber — 5 star rating for all the reassurances? Our driver even told us to look at our Google Maps for any places to get coffee.

Driver: “Before we leave the city for the next stop, do you want coffee? donuts? We have 3 Starbucks by Al-Haram…but can’t stop too long; have to keep driving.”

 

Me: “…(what is going on)”

 

 

As we officially entered the city our driver points out the Burmese neighborhood that is home to an older, more established Burmese community of 250,000:

 

 

Although at every exit I had thought we we would take a turn to leave Mecca, our driver continued onwards into the city center. He seemed intent about getting his Starbucks fix. This was a screenshot from his phone:

 

 

Who were we to stop him?

 

 

We began to see signs for Al-Masjed Al-Haram, the location of the Kabbah and the holiest site in Islam.

 

 

Our driver kept onwards to Al-Haram:

 

 

We then crossed a long tunnel:

 

 

And then I saw it. I recognized all the buildings.

 

 

Once we reached the King Abdul Aziz Gate . . .

 

(Wikipedia)

 

. . . I knew we were at the feet of the holiest site in Islam, the world’s most expensive building valued at 100 billion US dollars, and the crossroads of history during its second expansion:

 

(Mine)

 

And I definitely recognized the Makkah Clock Royal Tower, the world’s second most expensive building in the world valued at 15 billion dollars.

This photo is from Wikipedia:

 

 

And this photo is from me…because I just drove right underneath it:

 

 

And inside you can find pilgrims performing Umra:

 

 

I ask a friend for context as our driver stopped to get a Frappucino:

 

 

With that and a Frappuccino in our hands, we headed onwards past Al-Haram:

 

 

We even stopped to see some of the other mosques in Mecca:

 

 

…as well as an all-girls university:

 

 

We then continued onwards our respective destinations, whether it was Ta’if or Jeddah:

 

 

…and as I’m posting this where I am in my hotel, numerous Saudis have already walked by looking at my photos, and giving me a smile. They know.

And I’m still confused. And grateful. Something or someone is watching out for us. Or times really have changed.

 

–EDIT–

The response so far has been 100% unanimously positive. I was so worried. Thank you to my Muslim supporters around the world:

 

 

- At time of posting in Ta'if, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 38% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Picnic on the Edge – Jebel Fihrayn: The Edge of the World

Picnic on the Edge – Jebel Fihrayn: The Edge of the World

 

 

After our first day in Riyadh with an early 6am rise and coffee, Salwa’s partner Mohammed picked us up in his car where we began our 2.5 hour drive to the Edge of the World:

 

 

Stop by for the Saudi Arabia’s distinctive black camels before you go off-roading!

 

 

Where am I?

 

 

The Edge of the World is an unexpected and dramatic geological wonder within the rocky desert northwest of Riyadh. Considered as Saudi Arabia’s own “Grand Canyon,” it boasts its unique name because from atop the escarpment, you have an uninterrupted view of the horizon.

 

 

The view reminded me of the Yangykala Valley in Turkmenistan.

 

 

We then spent an hour here underneath Mohammed’s shade enjoying alcohol-free beer, coffee and tea.

 

 

Afterwards by 11am we headed back into Riyadh where we caught the 3pm domestic onward Saudia flight to Jeddah.

 

 

We landed at 4:30pm in Jeddah where it wasn’t taxi drivers or family members that greeted us, but a freaking aquarium:

 

 

Another one of Salwa’s travel partners, Abdulazis, picked us up here where we drove into Jeddah for sunset.

 

 

We parked up at Joujou for dinner where sights that couldn’t have been imagined years ago were occurring naturally here. Let alone being informed by literally everyone we were one of the first foreign tourists to visit the “new Saudi Arabia.”

 

 

I took full advantage of it:

 

 

- At time of posting in Jebel Fihrayn, it was 30 °C - Humidity: 19% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear