Extr-Azores-dinary: São Miguel

Extr-Azores-dinary: São Miguel

 

 

If you’re planning to visit anytime soon, don’t forget to fill out the required health screening info at My Safe Azores! If you can’t get a negative RT-PCR test for COVID-19 within 72 hours, they’ll test you when you at arrivals.

 

 

I planned it out where I’d get a rapid RT-PCR test literally 2 hours before departing from NYC so I could kill 2 birds with one stone: Not only did that rapid PCR to get me out of NYC and into Spain and Portugal, but even with having stayed in Lisbon for 2 days, I was able to rely on that same exact test barely within the 72 hour window to get into Azores as well — No need to retest. And with Madeira 2 days after, which only needs a vaccine card without a test, I minimize all the swabs up my nose to enjoy my time in Portugal.

Otherwise they’ll make you leave the long health inspection line for a rapid PCR test and then have you wait for your results before leaving the airport.

 

 

After arriving the night before from Lisbon into the Azores’ capital city of Ponta Delgada at 8:30pm, we took a cab (10 euro flat fare into the city) to my lodgings at one of my new favorite hostel (with my own private room) at Pé Direito.

And at the time of this posting, we currently have the WHOLE place to ourselves as nobody else is staying there. The front desk staff even let us be on our own, walking around the entire property without a care, and answering questions remotely via WhatsApp if we had any questions.

It’s also as central as you can get with staying in Ponta Delgada:

 

 

The vibes here in the evening have skyrocketed to the top of my list in saudade (fitting since that word is originally Portuguese) travel moments:

 

 

If you’re not familiar with this area, we are in the capital of The Azores, a chain of 9 volcanic islands administered by Portgual and located in the Atlantic about 950 mi from the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula.

Hence this kind of weather:

 

 

After settling in with a dinner consisting of local cheese from the island of Saint George in the center square, the next morning we took a stroll to the iconic 18th century gates of Portas da Cidade, which we already loved looking at the night before:

 


 

It’s located right by São Sebastião Church:

 

 

At 9:30am we arranged for a 2 day tour of the entirety of Sao Miguel via our hostel, thanks to local Azorean and former pilot Bruno. He’s kinda like Sao Miguel’s mayor.

 

 

We began with a look back at Ponta Delgada being blessed by a double rainbow:

 

 

Then we took a short 5 minute hike to see the waterfalls at Povoacao:

 

 

Afterwards, we drove onwards to Ermid de Nossa Senhora da Paz for the rolling hills and the views of the cities at sea level:

 

 

After a quick pick-me-up at Quejaida da Vila do Morgano, famous for its secret recipe since the 16th century…

 

 

…we reached Furnas Lake (Lagoa do Furnas) by noon:

 

 

Furnas Lake is a giant caldera of an active volcano that hasn’t erupted since 1630, during which the Azoreans weighed the benefits over the risk at the time and built entire slew of cities here to guard themselves from the threat of piracy. Since then this entire area has been famous for geothermic hot springs:

 

 

The water here is naturally yellow-orange because of the deposits of iron-rich minerals that gets into everything, including your clothes. Don’t bring any white towels from the hotel unless you intend to pay for their replacement.

 

 

While here, feast on their uniquely flavored local stew that they slow cooked with volcanic heat — with no added water or spices mind you — in holes of volcanic soil they’ve dug into the ground for at least 6-8 hours.

 

 

Afterwards, take a walk around Furnas and examine all the increased volcanic activity that has been popping up the past few decades, and especially so in the past 6 months.

 

 

There’s so much volcanic activity lately they’re even cooking bags of corn in these geothermic pools to sell them on the cob for 1 euro each.

 

 

After about an hour here, we drove 20 minutes northeast to the Nordeste area and walked around the Cascata da Ribeira dos Caldeirõ complex of waterfalls, water mills, and streams:

 

 

Then we capped off our day with locally harvested tea at the tea factory Chá Gorreana:

 

 

The next morning we set out at 10am and took a quick peek at the gilded interiors of Igreja de São José:

 

 

Then driving on we passed by a series of ancient aqueducts that suggest there were civilizations that existed here well before the Portuguese…could it be the Romans?

 

 

These are views of Ponta Delgada from the west:

 

 

We then headed further west to Lagoa das Sete Cidades, a series of crater lakes surrounded by hills. Notice the two different color waters of each lake:

 

 

There’s also an abandoned luxury hotel at the highest viewpoint for those of y’all into urban exploration. Stop by now before it gets renovated as it just got bought out for redevelopment!

 

 

I also recommend heading to the very foot of the hills where the ASMR of rustling leaves and rolling hills could make you want to stay here forever, or at least until the next volcanic eruption:

 

 

If you snoop hard enough there’s a manmade tunnel that drains the lake into the sea when it gets too full. On off days you can walk the entirety of its 800m length. As they always say, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.

 

 

Then on our way to lunch back at Ponta Delgada, we stopped at Miradouro da Ponta do Escalvado located by the town of Varzea:

 

 

After lunch we made a second attempt for a view over Fogo Lake (Lagoa do Fogo), for which we bailed yesterday due to some heavy mist and fog. I guess we lucked out today:

 

 

Then we returned to Ponta Delgada to the local city marketplace Mercado da Graça, where we bought and immediately feasted on local pineapple, passion fruit, canteloupe, 2 year old cheese from St. George, and tangerine liqueur.

 

 

An impromptu picnic ensued:

 

 

The highlight here is their local pineapple, which takes 2 years to grow and is currently the juiciest I’ve ever had.

 

 

After 2 full days with Bruno, we said our goodbyes and headed onwards to our flight to Madeira:

 

 

FYI, the lounge here as listed on Priority Pass at the time of posting…

 

 

…is another casualty of the COVID-19 era:

 

 

If you want to venture to the other islands of the Azores, you can take a flight out to Faial Island, also known for its massive caldera in the center:

 

 

A ferry ride away from Faial Island, Pico Island is known for its 2351m high mountain, the tallest in Portgual, which takes about 2-3 hours to climb for the very fit:

 

 

Finally, Terceira Island is famous for being the “Happiest Island” with its charming Angra do Heroismo:

 

 

- At time of posting in Ponta Delgada, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 76% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: misty, cloudy, RAINBOWS

 

“Varosha” Upon A Star: The Best exCYPRIOTnces Are Those You Least Expect

“Varosha” Upon A Star: The Best exCYPRIOTnces Are Those You Least Expect

 

 

Despite a successful border crossing attempt via the Ledra Pedestrian Street UN Buffer Zone in Nicosia from the southern side to the northern side of Cyprus without any of the required materials 3 days ago, it seems that the border guards at northern side of the vehicular crossing at Deryneia had done their homework.

 

 

When we attempted to drive through (instead of walking) Deryneia’s checkpoint from south to north this morning to visit Varosha, we were politely turned away at the northern side as they required the following:

  1. That we had stayed in the part of Cyprus south of the this border crossing for at least the past 14 days (which we have not done)
  2. OR that we’d be fully vaccinated WITH a negative PCR test within the past 72 hours (the latter of which we did not have)

 

 

I think this was my first time ever turned away at a border crossing. But such are the hiccups that would be expected in post/current pandemic travel. I think we took it well.

 

 

And yet still undeterred and at the recommendation of the Cypriot border guards on the southern side, we drove down to a private clinic 10 minutes south to get a rapid PCR, only to be told that the turnaround would be 24 hours and the closest appointments would be next week. Too late. Then I determined perhaps the 6-8 turnaround rapid PCRs at Larnaca’s airport 30 minutes away could be another option, but they closed early at 4:30pm (we’d barely make it) and also required appointments.

But then I realized: if we had been successful at crossing 3 days ago via the pedestrian street crossing at Nicosia with the city’s rapid antigen tests (let alone the PCR tests we took back home 5 days prior), why not repeat our success again the next day at that same crossing and then have local taxis pick us up on the other side of the border and take us to Varosha and back? After getting wifi, I started up a random chat with Savas of Cyprus Taxi via Google Maps. And within an hour and an initial down payment online, we confirmed the plan for the next day!

With Varosha moved to tomorrow and having a few extra hours, we leisurely drove for some sightseeing at the easternmost point of Cape Greco and its famous natural bridge Kamara Tou Koraka:

 

 

Although on a better day we’d be cliff diving, we watched the precarious waves crash against the Sea Caves a few minutes away:

 

 

A bit west of Cape Greco is the town of Ayia Napa known for its Love Bridge and Miami style nightlife.

 

 

There’s also a Sculpture Park opposite the Love Bridge:

 

 

After driving back and forth Cape Greco and Ayia Napa, we then kicked back at Kaliva On The Beach to celebrate Jeanette’s birthday as if we booked the whole place to ourselves (we literally did):

 

 

If you want to complete with your autonomous region checklist, the British-owned overseas territory of Dhkelia is sitiuated between the drive from Ayia Napa and Lanarca or Nicosia:

 

 

After returning to Nicosia from Ayia Napa, we rallied and continued Jeanette’s birthday rager at the outdoor club/lounge/bars Zonkey, D’avillaSeven Monkeys, and Locker all in that order and all unplanned until we finally collapsed in our beds at 5am.

 

 

Despite waking up a bit hungover at 11am this morning, we slowly crawled our way to the free rapid antigen COVID-19 tests at Eleftheria Square so we could be cleared for our return flights home. Then with a quick breakfast and coffee at the atmospheric Pieto, we then made up for yesterday’s failed attempt in visiting Varosha.

I felt like we were legally exploiting a loophole by returning to Nicosia’s Ledra Street UN Buffer Zone and successfully crossing over with our rapid antigen tests (they don’t require PCR tests at this particular crossing). And there waiting for us on the northern side of the checkpoint as agreed, Savas’ 2 vehicles from Cyprus Taxi picked us up on and took us on a one hour drive to Famagusta and the ghost town of Varosha. Easy peasy.

 

 

As we approached Famagusta and the ghost town of Varosha, we felt like we were stepping into an alternate dimension:

 

 

No registration, no admission fees, no drama, and no issues. We simply walked right in.

 

 

In the early 1970s, Famagusta was one of the top tourist destinations in Cyprus if not the world, where movie stars such as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton flocked here as their preferred destination away from Hollywood. Then just as what had happened in Pripyat and Chernobyl, its entire population quickly abandoned the city as the Turkish army advanced from the north, after which the army seized and walled off the entire city.

 

 

Associated Press Photo:

 

Our photo today:

 

Associated Press Photo:

 

Our photo today:

 

Since then and until only recently October of last year, no entry has been allowed other than Turkish military and United Nations personnel. That makes us one of the first casual visitors to enter the area:

 

 

This is what we travel for: to cross into unknowns and see it for ourselves once instead of reading about it a thousand times.

 

 

We walked as far as we could along the recently paved roads for pedestrians and rented electric bicycles. You’ll know that you should turn back when you reach military fences such as these:

 

 

But don’t be intimidated; all of the military personnel were quite friendly when they told us to delete certain photos or not go certain places. They even set up little ice cream trucks to soften the blow.

 

 

Ghost towns. There’s something about witnessing a world without us.

 

 

After about an hour and half exploring Varosha, we turned back and drove 20 minutes north to the ancient city of Salamis:

 

 

A Byzantine-era city that was built on top of Roman ruins, it’s a fascinating wonderland of past ghosts to explore in the same vein as it was with Varosha.

 

 

Try to find the extremely well preserved Byzantine mosaics:

 

 

At this point I think the girls have been getting along on this trip (that’s an understatement — LWCSD is now an official club):

 

 

Before returning back to Nicosia, Savas added in a complementary detour to visit the lesser known Saint Barnabas Monastery, which was built in the 1700s featuring a museum of icons, archaeological finds and the tomb of Cyprus’s patron saint.

 

 

Then after an hour’s drive back to Nicosia and saying our goodbyes to Savas and Ali, we crossed back over into southern Nicosia for an impromptu dinner at Fanous and a last run at our lodging’s hot tub:

 

 

This is going to be a tough monsoon to say goodbye to. This one was special. And yet it becomes another one in the books.

 

 

RETURNING TO THE USA: At check in airlines hand out the following attestation forms and require you to fill them out before returning to the USA regardless of your vaccination status.

 

 

And if you’re returning to NY (like me), you also need to fill out this:

 

And for what it’s worth now that I’m back home safe and sound — nobody checked for these forms when I arrived from the airport to the taxi ride home. -_- Stop killing trees!

 

- At time of posting in Varosha, it was 27 °C - Humidity: 36% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

I’m At A “Paphos,” Tryin’ To Call Home: From Nicosia through Akotiri to Paphos

I’m At A “Paphos,” Tryin’ To Call Home: From Nicosia through Akotiri to Paphos

 

We took on nearly all of South Cyprus today, beginning with a 45 minute drive out south from Nicosia to the beautiful boardwalks of Limassol and its eponymous castle.

 

 

After a quick bite at Pier One, we drove 20 minutes onwards into the British owned autonomous area of Akotiri: one half of the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia and considered a British Overseas Territory. Some would say it’s a reminder of colonialism.

 

 

The areas are British military bases and installations retained by the UK under Cyprus’ treaty of independence in 1960. The territory remains a strategic part of UK’s surveillance gathering network in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

 

 

While in Akotiri, we stopped for a second meal and dip at one of the numerous beach cafes and bars on Lady’s Mile Beach.

 

 

It’s a getaway paradise:

 

 

After 2 hours here, we then continued onwards for about another 20 minutes to the ruins of Ancient Kourion, an ancient city-state and formerly one of the island’s most important city-states in antiquity.

 

 

There’s a sexy clifftop 2nd century Greco-Roman amphitheater that faces the Mediterranean and still used today as an outdoor performance venue.

 

 

East of the theater, you can explore the ruins and fifth-century mosaics of the House of Eustolios, which was originally a private villa but was transformed into a public bathhouse in the early Christian period.

 

 

There’s also a beach down below.

 

 

The views everywhere here are stupendous:

 

 

And don’t miss the Sanctuary of Apollo Hylates, about a 3 minutes’ drive up the hill:

 

 

Halfway towards reaching the west coast of Cyprus, we paid the obligatory respects to Petra tou Romiou. According to Greek mythology, this is said to be where love was born when Aphrodite — the goddess of love and beauty — arrived on the foam of a wave.

 

 

After another 15 minutes of driving we finally arrived at Paphos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its preserved Greek-Roman ancient ruins and where the mosaics at Nea Paphos are said to be some of the most beautiful in the world. Like those among Kourion, Paphos is home to a few ruins of its own including the Roman Odeon and the Villa of Theseus, a 2nd-century Roman house featuring a preserved mosaic of Theseus fighting the Minotaur.

 

 

Another 10 minutes’ drive north from Paphos led us to the Tombs of the Kings, a large necropolis carved out of rock and dating back to 4th century B.C., as well as the Shipwreck of MV Demetrios II, which has been grounded off the coast since 1998. Having been navigated without the legal maritime certificates and under questionable leadership, the ship was abandoned and purposely left on a shallow to rot instead of the high costs of trying to move it to a scrapyard.

 

 

After an exhausting day of driving and ruins, we recharged with a lazy dinner in Paphos and by 10pm we turned the car right around back and returned to Nicosia by midnight. But instead of going to bed, our group rallied once more and hung out in the old city at D’avila Cafeé until “curfew” at 2am. . . .that’s 2 nights in a row now!

 

 

- At time of posting in Paphos, it was 21 °C - Humidity: 83% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

I’ll “Nicosia” Later!

I’ll “Nicosia” Later!

 

After our 2 days in Larnaca, we embarked for the world’s last divided capital city (since the fall of the Berlin Wall) of Nicosia:

 

 

The most southeastern reach of any of the European Union’s capital cities, Nicosia has been continuously inhabited for over 4,500 years and has remained the capital of the island since the 10th century.

 

 

In early 1964, following the Cyprus crisis of 1963–64, the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities of Nicosia split the city (and island) into South Nicosia and North Nicosia respectively. This segregation then exacerbated into becoming a militarized “Berlin Wall” between the Republic of Cyprus and Northern Cyprus after Turkey occupied north Cyprus in 1974.

The Turkish army will remind everyone of this piece of history on the northern hills:

 

 

Officially today North Nicosia is the capital of Northern Cyprus, a state recognized only by Turkey and otherwise considered as occupied Cyprus by the international community.

 

 

So today we went to explore. After a 45 minute morning drive from Larnaca, we reached our lodgings at Central Park Residences about a 10 minute walk south from the city center.

 

 

Don’t say I don’t treat my monsooners well:

 

 

We freshened up for 20 minutes and treated ourselves to brunch at the memorable Elysian Plant Blased Kitchen Bar:

 

 

We then entered into central Nicosia with 10 minute walk north past Eleftheria Square, which was designed by the late Zaha Hadid:

 

 

To explore the atmospheric walled city of central Nicosia is a must. So we immediately hopped onto the main Ledra Street, a major shopping thoroughfare that links both sides of Nicosia.

 

 

From 1955–1959 this street was nicknamed “The Murder Mile” in reference to the frequent targeting of the British military by nationalists along its course

 

 

Then after much time and negotiation, the world’s last “Berlin Wall” eventually loosened up to (with a quick passport check) most tourists up until the pandemic, after which this border crossing was essentially entirely shut again to the world. It seemed all hope was lost for our group for a visit to the northern side of Cyprus until the respective authorities that be had made a sudden announcement 5 days ago (last Friday!) that they were reopening the border again. Although set rules exist regarding who can cross regarding COVID-19 precautions, it seems that our group of 11 arrived so soon after the reopening last Friday that the border guards of both respective sides weren’t entire sure how or who to let through.

And at the time of posting, the border guards on both sides essentially let all 11 of us USA passport holders through back and forth multiple times on both sides today, as long as we provided a paper copy proof of a negative PCR result for COVID-19 within the past 7 days (we used copies of our PCR tests we obtained back in the USA prior to the trip). The only issue was quickly explaining how the the month and day is switched in the USA (so that a test performed 5 days ago on June 4th is not April 6th) by showing the date of the email that contained my PCR result.

The crossing was so much easier than expected that when 4 of us were forced to walk back to our apartments to retrieve their paper copies (as the guards did not accept digital copies on our mobile phones), I did a double U-turn by crossing the border 3 times back and forth to give part of my group the apartments keys without so much a nod and an eye roll from the guards on both sides of the border.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing: when one of us was given a really hard time on the final return back to the southern side of town — even though everyone else in our group was allowed back through to the south by that point — we found out later what they really needed was a paper copy proof of a negative rapid antigen test with an official “stamp” (see below). None of the guards we had — except the one at the end who definitely did his homework — seemed to have been aware of this. However, by the time we found that out, the damage had been done and we already had explored nearly all of the northern side of Nicosia hours after the fact.

We hope this accidental honest oversight on their part didn’t get anyone in trouble!

 

 

After this border kerfuffle we even promptly headed back to the lower part of Eleftheria Square for this specific rapid antigen COVID-19 test and get that stamp that the border guards’ had unknowingly needed.

 

 

The rapid antigen test at the square is free and takes 15 minutes to process on site. Just bring your passport as an ID to match. It’s open from 7:30am-7:30pm.

 

 

Anyways, let’s roll it back to our pre-border shenanigans: if you’re sticking to the southern side of town before heading to the border, don’t miss the Greek Orthodox houses of worship Panayia Phaneromenis:

 

 

and the adjacent, smaller, Arablar Mosque:

 

 

But no matter how long you stay on the south side, the border will draw you near as it literally is the elephant in the city.

Other than with the aforementioned appropriate proof of negative COVID-19 test to get to the northern side of Nicosia, make sure your passports also work: For a visit less than a month, visas are not required for any nationality except for citizens of Armenia and Nigeria. Visas are otherwise acquired at international representative offices in London, Washington D.C., or NYC before travel.

 

 

It’s simply a walk across no man’s land for a few feet:

 

 

You’ll know it when you see the pin on the Google map:

 

 

And surprisingly at the time, nobody cared about us taking photos or video:

 

 

You’ll know you’re in the northern side of town when you see ads everywhere for Efes beer . . .

 

 

. . .and a photogenic pentagonal convergence of multiple pedestrian streets.

 

 

Büyük Hamam lies immediately past the border, which is still running and open to the public to this day:

 

 

…and Büyük Han will be to your right: a place to shop for eclectic crafts, dine, people watch, or take in live music under the incredible architecture of a building constructed back in 1572.

 

 

A few more paces north will lead you to Ataturk Square (Sarayönü), a landmark square marked by a Venetian Column placed in 1915 and the Judicial Building.

 

 

Directly north of the square are the Samanbahçe Houses that exemplify photogenic Turkish Cypriot architecture.

 

 

If you’re lucky, the 13th century fortress/mosque hybrid Selimiye Mosque — the centerpiece of Nicosia’s landmarks — will be done with its renovations and finally reopened to the public:

 

 

We also headed off to the deserted side streets . . .

 

 

. . . just to peek at Lusignan House, a mansion built in the 15th century as a residential building for Latin nobles during the Lusignan period. They were so caught off guard by our presence they turned on the power and opened the small museum inside for 5 minutes just for us.

 

 

You’ll reach the northern limits of the walled city when you see Girne Kapisi, a Venetian built 16th century gate and Ottoman watchtower:

 

 

After about a few hours exploring northern side of the border, we walked back across the UN Buffer Zone:

 

 

…and then totally vegged out pretending we were back in Miami in our own private sauna/spa at our residences.

 

 

1 hour later:

 

The “Cabin-da” Woods: “We Are Not Ready For Tourism” | Everything You Need To Know About Visiting Cabinda!

The “Cabin-da” Woods: “We Are Not Ready For Tourism” | Everything You Need To Know About Visiting Cabinda!

 

Primer on Cabinda

Formerly known as “Portuguese Congo” and no larger than the state of Delaware, Cabinda is a curious little region sandwiched between the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Having endured a 30 year long struggle to claim independence from the rest of Angola, it likely may become one of the next world’s “newest” countries give or take a few years (decades?). We’re arriving here early before that happens.

The reason why Angola wants to keep Cabinda is because the region is rich in natural resources and one of its wealthiest: it supplies 65% of Angola’s oil! Nevertheless, it remains one of the least visited places on Earth and where things can get a little rough during our 2 weeks in Angola.

 

 

Arriving from Luanda to Cabinda

Barely getting much sleep after arriving last night from Lubango (especially since the guy next door to my motel room was having an epic fight with his wife), we rushed to board our 5:50am TAAG flight from Luanda to Cabinda.

 

 

Class C on TAAG means business class! It just meant I got a bigger chair and a quick meal of cheese, dried meats and fruits all saran wrapped onto a tray.

 

 

After an otherwise uneventful 45 minute flight, we landed an hour later at 6:50am at Cabinda’s sole airport.

 

 

Amusingly, someone checked in their shoes as luggage. Must’ve been over the baggage minimum.

 

 

Once we hit arrivals, there were no signs of the massive police and military presence they had warned us about.

 

 

Exploring Cabinda City (There’s Not Much)

 

Our local guide’s uncle Jovanny promptly picked us up outside arrivals and we began our quick city tour of Cabinda. There’s not much in terms of “tourism” so you have to do your best with the following 3 “sites”:

1 May Park:

 

 

The Church of the Immaculate Conception:

 

 

And Central/Municipal Market:

 

 

At the market we got a glimpse of the famed Cabinda wood, aka their Viagra.

 

  

Exploring Outside Cabinda City

After driving an hour around the city, we decided to venture outside Cabinda, which we had been warned not to do earlier in the trip due to safety reasons. So many kidnappings and clashes occur on the road between the towns of Cabinda and Malongo that there is now a highly profitable helicopter service that takes oil workers and businessmen from the airport directly to Malongo!

State departments around the world also continue to cite the random roadside attack on the Togo national football team in 2010 as the reason for this region’s notoriety as an active “war zone” and “separatist” region, although nothing as major has since happened.

 

 

Nevertheless, our local guides from Cabinda insisted that we still leave the city, citing a significant improvement in the security situation and that there was nothing to worry about. We went on their word.

After all, they said, “there’s nothing else much to do here in Cabinda.”

 

 

The only thing that “happened” was when a soldier stopped our car to make us delete a photo we took of a random river. They’re bored. Power trips. 

 

 

We then passed through the towns of Cacongo and Malongo in an unsuccessful attempt to see the “bacama” (Angola’s version of voodoo).

 

 

Then we made a random unannounced lunch stop in a random soulless banquet hall in Buco Zau, where we ate with the soldiers stationed there (they made us turn our cameras away).

 

 

And then after 3 long dreary hours on the road, we finally reached Maiombe Forest Reserve, the biggest rainforest in Angola. Not many tourists have ventured here: It took 20 minutes of intense discussions between our local guides and the military stationed there to let us get out of the car.

They wanted us to drive the 3 hours back to Cabinda, get special written permission, make a reservation, and then return to visit the Forest Reserve.

 

 

And yet saner minds prevailed. After checking our passports and taking our names down letter by letter, they sent off a senior officer to guide us to the river. They told us the only thing we could not do was to take photos of any chimpanzees we saw (they inhumanely locked them away in squalid cages).

We hiked about 20 minutes towards the river.

 

 

After 10 minutes here, we turned around and headed back for our jeeps. That’s it! As our local Angolan guide shrugged his shoulders and said: “We are definitely not ready for tourism.”

So by 3pm we headed back to the city of Cabinda.

 

 

As if were the theme of the second half of this trip, however, we suddenly felt our tire go flat. And we did not have a spare tire.

 

 

Luckily (or unluckily?), however, this all happened next to a lake/marsh not even marked on the map.

 

 

So we decided to take advantage of this sign from the universe and pay a few boatmen 4000 kwanzas to ferry us around the lake for a few minutes. Although these boats are meant for 2, we barely made 4 work before threatening to sink our boat completely.

In the meantime our driver Jovanny also successfully flagged down a Good Samaritan to spare a tire.

 

 

After an hour, the tire was quickly replaced and we drove another hour and reached the Monument to the Treaty of Simulambuco

It somehow still exists despite etching in Portuguese that Cabinda should be an independent country from Angola!

 

 

Then we checked into our lodgings and had dinner at the swanky Apolónia. Despite the upscale ambience, the dinner is buffet style where they even weigh your plates as if we were at a bodega.

 

 

Afterwards we officially finished our trip, enjoying one final round of drinks with Rik and Ingrid back out hotel bar. We also did our best to politely ignore all the sex workers aggressively interrupting us to get them a drink.

They also sport a very unique shower head. I never seen something like it before.

 

Close enough.

 

Crossing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from Cabinda

 

The next day we enjoyed a lazy morning by the hotel pool before having a late lunch back at Apolónia among an international mix of soldiers from Brazil, USA, Portugal, Namibia, and Angola who seemed to be there socializing and inspecting a construction site by the restaurant.

With nothing much else to do, we decided to peek at the Cabinda/DRC border about a 20 minute drive south from the city.

 

 

The security staff in the pink structure that issues exit stamps may appear strict here! 

However, they seemed to not care when I asked to walk across no man’s land and across the border into the DRC without needing an Angolan exit stamp or DRC visa.

 

 

They replied as long as I didn’t take any photos and walked back into Angola within their eyesight, it would be fine.

 

 

They also didn’t chose not to stamp me out as “we don’t want you to be kidnapped when you reach the other side.”

Why not?

“By not officially getting an exit stamp, you’re still under our protection.” I guess that makes sense?

 

 

So I did just that as I crossed through no man’s land.

 

 

And then I reached into DRC territory.

Except for the photos part since they also didn’t seem to really care about that and looked the other way.

 

 

And Google maps even proves that I made it. I’m actually in the DRC!

 

 

Although I didn’t wander any further than here, I spent enough time across this border in the DRC to have a drink, take a dump, and say hi to the guards there, to the point I didn’t really feel it was a big deal at all.

 

 

Whether or not it counts is entirely up to me (or you as my humble reader), but I know I’ll visit the DRC properly when I swing by Burundi next year. Count this as much as you can count my visit to Paraguay?

 

 

Returning back to the city, we then kicked back at a smaller Apolónia café for an hour before heading back to the airport to check in early.

 

 

We then returned again to Apolónia proper for a 3rd meal there!

 

 

Afterwards we quickly stopped to say hi to our guide’s aunt as he needed to drop something off.

 

 

We then headed back to the airport one last time for our return 8:50pm flight back to Luanda.

 

 

Keep in mind like in Comoros if you have checked luggage, you’ll need to claim it a second time on the tarmac so they know to load them into your flight.

 

 

Once we returned to Luanda, we got to stay at the best hotel in town, the HCTA Talatona Convention Center Hotel (they have a full working gym!).

 

 

Now waiting for our 11pm flight out of the country, where I’m now catching up on all the COVID-19 stuff I need to be prepared for when I return to work tomorrow back in NYC.

 

 

It’s ironic that even though I just spent the last 48 hours traveling through an active conflict zone and region notorious for a brutal civil war, I still my life would still be more in danger back home. Hopefully this won’t be my last trip in a while.

On the bright side, since nobody’s traveling these days (let alone to Angola), I got “business class” again on an economy fare.

 

 

See ya back home!

 

 

- At time of posting in Cabinda, it was 25 °C - Humidity: 94% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy

 

“Namibe”-tter Duo, I’ll Wait. Otherwise You Gotta “Lubango!”

“Namibe”-tter Duo, I’ll Wait. Otherwise You Gotta “Lubango!”

 

After some uneven back-and-forth kind of travel in the outskirts of Luanda yesterday, we “slept in” this morning until 8am before starting out day with a drive to Cacuaco for a stroll around a local fishing village.

 

 

My gut feeling here was that since tourism here is still raw and developing, I would recommend keeping on the periphery and not to getting in the way at the market.

So we spent about 10 minutes here before heading off to the airport for our 12pm flight to Lubango.

 

 

Not since Tuvalu since I got a handwritten plane ticket!

 

 

I think they accept priority pass at the domestic airport?

 

 

Alas but nobody was there to check me in. It was very rude.

 

 

After a half an hour delay passing the time over some coffee and two of us doing 300 pushups in the waiting area, we finally boarded our flight at 12:30pm.

 

 

We landed after an uneventful 1.5 hour flight in Lubango, where we got screened for a fever (COVID-19 fears are real even here!) and had our visas checked. 

Picking up our checked luggage and driving off promptly at 2pm south for Namibe, we then had a quick lunch in the city proper before stopping at a viewpoint on Serra da Leba cliff:

 

 

There’s also some street art along the highway:

 

 

After a 3 hour drive, we arrived at Namibe at 6pm, just in time for the golden hour and enjoying a kind of splendid city atmosphere that immediately reminded me of Cienfuegos and Havana in Cuba.

 

 

We then checked in at our hotel in the outskirts and had an early dinner before turning in at 10pm.

The next day was…not very efficient and a string of mishaps.

Although we had been informed by our local guide to wake up at 6:30am for a morning drive out to visit a few tribes, nobody showed up when we did just that. Half an hour went by before we got word that only one of the drivers “just woke up” and another car “wasn’t working.” So we shrugged our shoulders and went for breakfast where another hour went by. Then another. It wasn’t until 9:30am when anyone showed up with an update and a single 4×4 to take only part of the group. Not wanting to lose any more time and get back to Lubango too late, we sent half the group out on the itinerary while the 3 of us stayed behind for a second 4×4.

About 45 minutes later at around 10:15am a second jeep showed up, with the other guide informing us that there had been an additional delay because of some “oil issues” with his borrowed vehicle. Undeterred, the 3 of us remaining packed the 4×4 and set off.

An hour later we soon crossed through the town of Namibe and off-roaded into the desert. The litany of abandoned cars here became a fitting harbinger of what was to come.

 

 

About 45 minutes into the desert, our jeep suddenly stopped driving. The engine wouldn’t start, and we started to smell smoke.

 

 

Yep, you guessed it. Aforementioned “oil issues” turned into “engine failure.” We got out and began to pay our respects to a dead vehicle that was now stranded in the middle of the desert, 45 minutes from the nearest city.

And yet by pure dumb luck and before any sort of worry set in, we only had to wait a mere 1-2 minutes before a good samaritan — driving his family and 3 goats on the back of his pickup truck — stopped to help resurrect this husk of metal. He quickly took out his black toolkit, looked at our engine, picked up an empty aluminum can off the side of the road, ripped off a shard, and performed some heroic McGyverish maneuvers.

 

 

After about 10 minutes of trial and error, this good man finally got the engine back up running again but warned us to not to drive too quickly. So we thanked him, got back in our 4×4, shut off the A/C, rolled down the windows, turned around our jeep, and limped our way at 18km/hour back to Namibe. What would have been a 45 minute drive took us about twice as long at 1.5 hours.

Once we arrived back into town, we stopped back at the car shop where our guide had originally picked up the jeep and tried to switch to a new vehicle. By then our jeep was so murdered by the elements that the staff had to manually push it back out from the garage into the street.

 

 

To add insult to injury, the car shop had no other vehicle for us to switch into. So our guide ran off without explanation, returning about half an hour later with a small Volkswagen beetle (so much for a 4×4 and off-roading for today!). By then it was about 1:30pm. At this point I was amused at the whole morning, sitting in a café across the street, and enjoying the whole comedy of errors as long as we were all alive and safe. We decided to head straight to Lubango.

But then a different spectrum of emotions emerged.

 

Here’s a Preface:

I’m a big believer of not judging anything from your high-horse/backseat/armchair unless you experience it yourself and form your own opinions.

That said with all my experiences, I am far past a point of no return in being a perfect person. Travel can be fraught with so many ethical conundrums that it becomes a mess, and if we look through it from such a lens, my hands are filthy.

So at the very least I strive to minimize the impact of my sins on this earth by seeking “Truth” with a capital T, which has created a habit of constantly locking horns without the boundaries of what society considers “acceptable.” After all, most of the things we take for granted without a thought today would instead be considered taboo if it were not for those who have challenged the status quo of generations past. I thus relish in the rebellion in critical thinking, questioning established institutions and “rules”, reading between the lines, and then touching the burner (and yet the caveat being that as long as any of my actions and any downstream ripple effects don’t directly harm anyone, have unsolicited negative consequences, or interfere with anyone’s daily lives) — it’s the core of what excites me when I wake up every morning.

And then today, these feelings came: Even rebels have boundaries.

 

The Emotions

I have certainly taken portrait photographs on my travels more than a handful of times. But why does today feel completely different, even when having verbal consent? Why would it be today that I would reach some kind of personal limit where I couldn’t even bring myself to participate?

When our local Angolan guide insisted that we take photos of local tribes along the way back to Lubango, why couldn’t I help but feel he was being exploitative by encouraging and we were being equally exploitative by going along with this? Why couldn’t I help but feel as if our guide was some kind of pimp driving along the road asking us “you like this tribe? Want to stop for a photo?” Why couldn’t I help but feel we were on kind of objectifying dehumanizing safari?

It’s not so much the feeling that counts as much as understanding the meaning behind those feelings.

Our guide reported that from the tribes’ side, it was understood that members would agree to have their photographs taken if they got paid 500-1000 kwanza per person. So a monetary transaction was expected here? This was not a “Humans of New York” campaign where we could spend time to get to know them, hear their stories, invited into their homes, exchange a meal of perspectives, and they would in turn fully comprehend and understand the purpose of our photographs. Or even better, like in Mumbai’s Dharavi, photography is officially banned; instead you can tour around with a responsible NGO who then sends you an album of responsibly taken “ethical” photos for your personal use. I would have appreciated even a semblance of such efforts by our guides, but alas, at the same time Angola is still developing these infrastructures.

On a brighter side of better behavior, my fellow travelers made efforts to soften the blow; one had a Polaroid camera which photos he gave back to the tribes, and another tried to have a conversation with the locals and ask meaningful questions via the guide translating, but I still felt the guide wasn’t being very helpful and just wanted to drive to the next stop. There was no conversation.

 

 

At one point I thought maybe I should be giving everyone the benefit of the doubt in that the local tribes are also fully onboard? And yet because Angola is infamous for its extreme inequality gap and so underdeveloped in tourism, such a scenario would be on the unlikelier side of the spectrum. It also didn’t help that a random police officer had stopped our guide sometime in the afternoon, made us drive to the local station, and told him what he was doing was not allowed (The guide’s defense was that the officer wanted a bribe and there was no such rule).

Therefore I wince over how it is much more likely that our local guide is a willing participant in exploitation, where downstream patronage — foreign or domestic — further exacerbates an inequality. Furthermore, our local guide replied with an unsatisfying answer when we asked him about whether he was being respectful in his approach to these tribes: “I go to the tribe and I say I have these tourists who are interested in your way of life and would like to take a picture.” *Crickets*

So what ended up happening today was except for the police station, I sat in the car in a form of borderline bratty but silent protest. Despite the guide repeatedly asking me to pay the tribes to take a photo without otherwise starting a conversation with them, It just felt all wrong to me; I smiled politely the best I could and declined.

 

 

Circling back to how the very nature of travel is fraught with ethical dilemmas that it can never be perfect, I don’t want to come off across as ethically superior to anyone and I don’t want this to sound like self-righteous condemnation. As I have said in my preface, I myself am far from a perfect person and I plead guilty to having towed the line so much that my entire life has stretched ad infinitum into an endless gradient of grays. So instead of unsolicitedly imposing any sort of personal ethical standards onto others, I’m thus here on my own platform to describe and vent an intense feeling I couldn’t control, so that I may hopefully ultimately ascertain a meaning behind why I feel the way that I do, and that as part of the problem I may do better next time.

But where I can’t control emotions (who can, really?), I certainly can control my own actions — Tomorrow I’ll skip out on the second day of this “tribe safari” and finally enjoy some time alone to myself.

So after a whole afternoon of driving and discussing this, we finally reached our hotel in Lubango by 7pm where I continued this conversation with my other 2 fellow travelers over dinner and we all seemed to be on the same page.

But what about the other half of the group in the first car that had left earlier before us? They ended up driving back to Namibe instead of onwards to Lubango due to another miscommunication. So they turned back around, reaching our hotel by midnight where we were finally reunited. Oh Angola. Baby steps.

 

 

The next morning I stuck to my promise and sat out the morning’s activities while the rest of the group set out to visit a few more local tribes. I took my time with breakfast and caught up on a lot of housekeeping.

By the time the group finished, they picked me up at 12:30pm for a street stall lunch and then a city tour of Lubango’s surroundings.

We returned to the edge of the Serra da Leba cliff this time for a viewpoint on the other side to see the Tundavala Gap.

 

 

Then we headed up the mountain to the famous Christo Rei statue, a near exact but smaller replica of the one in Rio.

 

 

And we then were dropped off back at Lubango’s airport for our 5:30pm flight back to Luanda.

 

 

- At time of posting in Namibe, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 81% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy