Got my third booster for COVID-19 yesterday! And what better way to revel in my potential side effects of the booster than a 12 hour red-eye flight from NYC to Abu Dhabi to Riyadh?
The days of loopholes and hurdles to obtain a business or transit visa for Saudi Arabia (or trying to get invited to a wedding… or even an “archaeological dig”) have long been over: Since September 27, 2019 it has been possible for citizens of Canada, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, China and the whole of the Schengen Zone to get a tourist visa, let alone an e-visa within minutes. All I had to do was apply on Saudi Arabia’s E-Visa website and get access to the country (excluding Mecca) for 90 days!
Then all you need is (from left to right in the photo) your proof of:
Negative PCR test for COVID-19 within 72 hours of your departure flight
E-Visa after applying through their online portal
Arrival Registration after submitting proof of being fully vaccinated for COVID-19
Saudi Arabian travel and health insurance that automatically comes with your e-visa application
With flights I picked the aforementioned 9:05pm Etihad EY100 Flight from JFK to Abu Dhabi (AUH), with a 1 hour layover for Riyadh (RUH) afterwards. The perk of this itinerary was also getting to come early to check out the new AMEX Centurion Lounge in Terminal 4 of JFK:
There’s an Equinox studio inside for compression stocking therapy, massages, physical therapy, yoga studio and a small gym, as well as a speakeasy bar downstairs:
After an uneventful 12 hour flight from JFK, transiting through Abu Dhabi to the gate for Riyadh took about 20 minutes:
At 8:30pm I arrived an hour later into Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia which also has limited flights from Europe and Hong Kong.
They also now have their very own dedicated “tourist visa” line, something you’d never expected to see 2 years before.
This is the first time in the country’s history where tourism is officially allowed and we are those very people at that doorstep!
They take your photo and fingerprints here, and don’t even ask you any questions.
Without them even batting me a look, I was in and out with an oddly handwritten and stamped visa within 15 minutes.
Crossing customs was also a breeze and I was out in the airport ready for my pickup:
We then drove 30 minutes into the city for our centrally located hotel
We immediately hit the sack at 11pm, waking up the next morning at 7:30am for breakfast and finally meeting our local guide and head of Haya Tours, Salwa. She’s one of the first women in Saudi Arabia to not only drive her own car (women were legally allowed to drive in the country only 3 years ago), but also owns and runs her own tour company!
We began our day at Al Masmak in the city center: a clay and mud brick fort in the Riyadh city center and one of the most iconic part of Saudi Arabia.
Its location took centerstage for the restoration of the House of Saud.
Then we headed to Dheera Souq.
Located in the old part of the city, this market has a plethora of little shops arranged in rows along narrow streets selling carpets, gold, silver, souvenirs, antiques, traditional clothes, accessories and even furniture. Most of the shop owners here speak English and welcome good hagglers. They seemed a bit … closed when we arrived.
Right by the souq on your way back to the fort is Deera Square, aka Alsafat Square/Justice Square…
…which is also known for this:
With nothing else open nearby, Salwa insisted that we stop here for saffron coffee and dates with tahini dip. To be honest, that’s a winning combo.
We next visited the Grand Mosque. Not only the largest active place of worship in Riyadh, it is one of the largest mosques in Saudi Arabia and seats up to 17,000 worshippers.
Before lunch we visited the National Museum of Saudi Arabia. First opened in 1999, the design of this museum was inspired by the form and colors of the sand dunes of the “Red Sands” located outside Riyadh and includes a unification hall which shows the establishment of modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by King Abdul Aziz Al-Saud after he captured Riyadh. A handwritten Quran is also in display.
We then visited the Kingdom Center Tower and its observation deck
At 99 stories and 302 meters tall, it is Saudi Arabia’s 5th tallest tower and you can go to the very top of the “bottle opener” at the 99th floor for the walk across its Skybridge:
You can view the rest of Riyadh from both directions:
And below the Kingdom Tower is one of Saudi’s most popular malls, one of countless in this country.
I find it ironic while the USA is axing Victoria’s Secret shops by the hundreds, you can still find them here in Saudi Arabia:
Leaving the mall and Kingdom Tower, we then enjoyed a long awaited traditional Saudi bedouin local lunch at Najd Village:
After a long day around Riyadh, we strolled a bit at sunset before a hearty dinner of smoked BBQ baby back and short ribs at Salwa’s son’s joint 7Rib.
Tomorrow we get up early for a 6am drive to the Edge of the World!
- At time of posting in Riyadh, it was 23 °C -
Humidity: 19% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
Angola: Once a Portuguese overseas territory from the 16th century to 1975, the country became infamous for becoming the staging ground for a brutal civil war (between the Soviets and an alliance of Western nations that ironically also included China…one of the few times the USA and China fought on the same side!) from 1975 to 2002 soon after establishing its independence.
And despite ranking as the 2nd largest petroleum and diamond producer in sub-Saharan Africa, Angola unjustly has become notorious for having been one of the worst ranked in the world for life expectancy and infant mortality rates; its vast wealth of natural resources are known to bypass the local populace and pipe-lined straight to the pockets of politicians, miners, oilmen and multinational corporations.
Nevertheless, there has been signs of recent progress: Recent investments by oil production has upgraded critical infrastructure, improved standard of living, increased life expectancy from 46 years in 2002 to 51 in 2011, reduced mortality rates for children from 25% in 2001 to 19% in 2010, and has tripled the number of students enrolled in primary school. Evidence remains to be seen whether wealth inequality will persist.
For the longest time Angola remained cordoned off from the rest of the known world and maintained tight control over restricting tourists from visiting, until exactly 2 years ago by presidential decree. From March 30, 2018, many nationalities can now receive a 30 day tourist visa on arrival (e.g. EU, US, Canada, much of southern Africa) after simply registering online (although you’ll need to upload a ton of paperwork). Furthermore, a visa is not needed for international airline transfers of less than 24 hours, and visitors from Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, and South Africa are completely visa-free.
Furthermore now that we’re here and if everything goes according to plan (which we know in travel, they never do, so fingers crossed!), we will be visiting not only Angola proper but also the rarely visited exclave of Cabinda, aka “The Kuwait of Africa.” About the size of Delaware, Cabinda is where 65% of Angola’s oil is sourced and where a separatist guerrilla group called FLEC still maintains an active influence despite a peace treaty signed in 2006.
So after extended layovers in Zurich and Frankfurt, I arrived at 7:00am in the morning today at 4 de Fevereiro Airport, the international airport of Angola’s capital and the world’s most expensive city, Luanda . . . which is ironic since Angola’s flag literally imitates that of the former Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle:
When I arrived at the terminal there were already signs of COVID-19 and coronavirus concerns in ways that I didn’t even notice during my layovers at Zurich and Frankfurt.
Immediately upon entering the terminal, staff obliged me to disinfect my hands with hand sanitizer and then took my temperature, after which I was asked to present a copy of my Yellow Fever certificate at the desk.
The office was quite crowded with other tourists, which made for about a 30 minute wait until they got to my passport.
There staff took my pre-approval letter with passport and generated me an invoice for $120 USD. Then I paid off the invoice in a separate room within the SME office. The office accepts cash in USD, Euros, or Pounds, or VISA credit cards (although the credit card option wasn’t working for me when I tried).
After a few minutes of processing and taking your photo, they then stuck this fresh new visa in my passport:
Once you have your visa, you can walk straight ahead to the baggage claims, past customs, and into arrivals.
Once I hit the arrivals hall I was promptly picked up by my buddy Rik, whom I have a tradition of grabbing a beer with at random stopovers in Amsterdam and an occasional Iraqi city.
Amsterdam, January 2016
Amsterdam, April 2018
Iraq, May 2018
As we took some time waiting for others in our group to arrive and got some coffee, I tried my hand at installing a foreign SIM card for the first time ever (Sprint’s Global Roaming unfortunately doesn’t cover Angola as I got a text I would be charged $2 USD for each MB of data!). A comedy of errors soon ensued as not only did the foreign SIM card not work for me (although it worked for everyone else), but then I lost my original SIM card when trying to replace it!
I swear I had performed an inadvertent magic trick on myself as I literally and consciously ensured I would see that my original SIM card would go back in my phone, only to have the phone report “MISSING SIM.” When I open the SIM card slot back out to see what was wrong, it was empty! I even returned to the airport with a flashlight scouring the floor to the amusement of airport staff, but alas, to no avail as I could not find where I dropped my chip.
What a great start to the trip, but as I prefer to see it: it’s a sign to disconnect once again, that I need to go back off the grid, that this is a necessary detox, and all my best trips have a tradition of starting with big giant fails.
Oh well. After licking my wounds, we grabbed breakfast at Café Paris and began our walking tour at Fortaleza de Sao Miguel military museum.
This empty fort boasts great views over Luanda:
However, my favorite part was its propaganda art at the front. So impressive it could make North Korea blush.
Afterwards we drove down to Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Nazaré, a church built on the famous 4 de Fevereiro avenue.
After 10 minutes there, we then stopped at the Memorial to the Unknown Soldier.
Rumor has it that this was the work of Gustav Eiffel and that the ship carrying his prebuilt edifice had drifted off course upon the Skeleton Coast, before being claimed by Portuguese authorities and placed in Luanda.
The building is currently going through re-purposing hell as nobody is sure what to do with the structure after it was recently reopened to the public.
Given that the Iron Palace was closed, we headed onwards to finish off our first day at Independence Square:
It features a statue of the country’s first president, Neto, and large reliefs at the bottom featuring Soviet-inspired mosaics.
First day in the books! We finished off with a deliciously cooked fresh fish that costs $8 USD (4000 kwanza…not bad for the “most expensive city in the world”):
…and walked off our meal by watching life go by along the boardwalk.
Time to finally sleep in.
- At time of posting in Luanda, it was 32 °C -
Humidity: 65% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: hot
After relaxing in Dakhla for 2 night, we drove to the border of Morocco and Mauritania early this morning.
About an hour into the journey we suffered a flat tire, which luckily took about 30 minutes to sort out thanks to a friend of the driver’s brother that was nearby!
And yet that was my opportunity to get in about 200 push ups while waiting, so ’twas meant to be.
We enjoy one final rest stop on our epic road trip beginning a week ago in Casablanca.
Once we hit the Morocco/Mauritania border at 1pm we said our goodbyes to our guide and drivers and exited the country.
They stamp you out in this little office here:
Once they inspected our bags at “customs” we were picked up by our Mauritanian guides across the border.
From there we hopped into 3 pick up trucks and began a 5km drive into no man’s land, more officially (or arguably?) controlled by the SADR (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic).
While the rest of Western Sahara is claimed by Morocco, this sliver of land is indisputably Sahrawi.
While you may see stolen cars sellers, guns smugglers, and refugees from the conflict here, we saw simply an eerie road lined with endless rows of desolate trucks, and a barren wasteland of abandoned cars as if the apocalypse had occurred years ago. Or Mad Max.
It makes for a surreal 5 minute drive.
Right from the Mauritanian border we entered a whole new world, especially after 2 weeks in Algeria and Morocco. Keep all obvious camera equipment on you and hidden away unless you want to spend forever here.
Our visa on arrival here took nearly an hour and a half to arrange; bring small denominations of Euros to pay for the visa in exact cash (55 euros at the time of posting) because they’ll conveniently “not have change.”
Another trick is to pay in a big group: Not only did we make sure we wouldn’t be swindled the 5 euros per person, but also it ensured our place in the queue.
We were led into the small office about four folks at a time where one by one they took our fingerprints and photos before issuing us our one page visa on arrival.
After getting our visas, we quickly continued onwards to Nouadhibou, the Mauritania’s second largest city and economic capital.
Along the way we sailed through a series of checkpoints; it helps to have a stack of printouts that list your group’s names, nationalities, passport numbers, and visa numbers so you can hand them to every guard that stops your vehicle. That way they can let you drive on without having to get out and be inspected every time.
We quickly drove through Nouadhibou for a southern detour to Cape Blanc: a peninsula shared between Mauritania and Western Sahara.
Like literally shared. Look at Google Maps. What country am I in anyway?
It was here that the Spanish expanded their fishing presence from the Canary islands onto the African coast.
If you’re lucky, you might spot the endangered Mediterranean monk seal colony there; there’s only 150 left out of 500 total in the world. We settled for the small museum in the area.
Making use of a rope nearby, we then rappelled down to the beach, where the world’s biggest ship graveyard used to be located until it was broken down into steel parts and sold by Chinese companies.
We then visited the newer ship graveyard of Nouadhibou.
Looks like they’re phasing this one out as well: Last year there were 15 ships being taken apart, now there’s only 2 left.
Afterwards we grabbed a late dinner at Ice NBC where they served humongous portions for a great value and with decent WiFi. If you fancy a cold one you can grab a beer at the next door Chinese restaurant, the only place that openly serves alcohol.
Then by 11pm we turned in at Hotel Al Jezira.
And yet during all the driving, we managed to get a sneak peek of the train we’re hopping on tomorrow:
The next morning we quickly the Port of Nouadhibou and its fish market . . .
. . . before getting our supplies ready and hopping on this:
- At time of posting in Nouadhibou, it was 26 °C -
Humidity: 33% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
2 copies of a 2×2 passport photo of yourself in front of a white background
Hard copy of your USA passport in hand with at least 2 blank pages (the pages in the back don’t count!)
A printed copy of the front page of your USA passport
$160 USD in a USPS-issued money order, with the “Pay To:” field left blank and your name and passport number in the “Memo” field
A copy of hotel bookings or notarized invitation letter from an official travel agency in Algeria; this letter can be a printed copy from an e-mail or PDF from the agency
A copy of a roundtrip flight itinerary (I did not buy my flights until way later on)
Either a recent pay stub or bank statement (showing you have enough money to get in and out of the country if needed)
Then you can either mail your application to the embassy in DC (along with a self-addressed prepaid envelope) or head to the consulate in person (preferable):
When you immediately enter the front doors at the consulate in NYC, you go through a metal detector, your bag is screened, you sign in, and your cell phone is checked in with a ticket. That’s right, you’re going to be sent to the waiting room without your cell phone to pass the time — bring a book to read!
During the 15-20 minutes of waiting, they summon a few staff members to come by and praise your choice of a tourist destination before visa processing officers arrive to review your application. They also go through your entire passport to make sure you have at least 2 blank pages not counting the “Special Endorsement” pages in the back — this is important as they turned away a friend of mine and asked her to reapply with a new passport as all she had left were the 2 blank pages in the back of her passport! Suffice to say, this meant she unfortunately could not come on the trip with so little time left to prepare.
Once your application is approved, you then sign both copies of your visa application, the $160 USD money order, and a sign-in sheet on a clipboard before you’re sent on your way. Although they told me my visa would be ready within 10 business days, it took many of us months before we heard back (I waited about 3 weeks). They were notorious in never picking up the phone when we called, so it took many of us a triple-threat combination of an email, fax, and phone calls before anyone from the consulate finally reached us.
More than 3 weeks went by and after the email/fax/voicemail combo, I finally heard back on a phone call that “your visa has been ready for awhile now!” In other words, they don’t call to inform you that it’s ready unless you bother them a little (And I’m glad I did because I’m supposed to leave in 24 hours!).
So I returned to the consulate just now to pick it up, going through the same rounds of security checks before a man came downstairs 10 minutes later, shook my hand, and just handed me my passport right then and there. Simple as that: Nothing else was signed and I was done!
Flying out in 24 hours!
- At time of posting in NYC, it was 7 °C -
Humidity: 50% | Wind Speed: 16km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
So after a 6 week hiatus from nearly a year of monthly travels, it’s time to hit the road again. With 85,000 miles I booked the Lufthansa LH 401 flights on business class from JFK to FRA to CAI all for $60 USD. The experience began with the quick obligatory visit to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge at JFK.
By 3:30pm I boarded my 747-8 intercontinental craft leaving at 4pm.
If you have to choose, pick the upper deck for a more intimate experience by the window; window seats here have an added compartment for storage!
On the downside, the amenities kit have downsized over the years:
And the menu looks a little sparser:
Dinner was served soon after take-off. I chose the beef fillet and lamb chop:
After a 3 hour nap and about 6 hours in the air, I was served breakfast an hour before landing: buckwheat and chia seed muesli and the smoked turkey breast.
Landing on time in Frankfurt at 5:30am, I kicked back for my extended layover at the LufthansaWelcome Lounge outside baggage claims B, reserved especially for business and first class arrivals:
Their breakfast spread rivals the spreads I find even at Senator Lounges! If you had to choose between staying inside transit for a Senator Lounge, or going outside arrivals for the Welcome Lounge, I’d choose the latter. You have to go through security either way anyway!
At the lounge, they really pushed me to take one of their showers (probably because I smelled):
After about 7 hours kicking it, I boarded my onward 1pm LH 850 Business Class flight for Cairo.
Unlike the experience getting to Frankfurt, the business class flight on their medium-haul flights is pretty much economy without the middle seat:
But we get business-class level service in the soft product:
At 6pm I landed — this would be my first time back in Cairo 10 years later, albeit briefly, to begin our trip to Yemen’s Socotra Island.
With my 3 hours in Cairo, I did a quick roundtrip to Tahrir Square to make some final payments to secure our hostel bookings. Then I headed back to the airport to Terminal 1 where I met up with my perennial travel partners Young Pioneer Tours.
Only one flight is allowed for tourists to enter Socotra: via Cairo and Seiyun on Yemen’s mainland on Yemenia Airways flight IY 607. They’re so old school you have to go through 2 security checks to reach the check-in counter that took nearly an hour to open.
There we paid our 100€ visa to Socotra and booked the flights on the spot with cash.
Afterwards I waited around and charged up my electronics at the terminal’s only Priority Pass lounge.
By 1am we were ferried like cattle to our 2:00am Yemenia Airways flight from Cairo to Seiyun, Yemen.
At this point I knocked out for a few hours before landing in Seiyun for an hour.
While waiting for everyone else to disembark, those remaining onboard for the onward flight to Socotra stuck around inside the plane for about an hour as they processed our passports inside Seiyun Airport.
Then we waited for others to board before taking off for an hour’s flight to Habido, Socotra, landing at 8:45am.
Upon arrival we were greeted by our local Socotri guide in quickly processing our visas.
Then picked up our baggage among everyone else.
After a 20 drive from the airport we settled in for 2 hours at the island’s one of two hotels: the aptly named Socotra Hotel.
There is a much nicer, more modern one around the corner called Summer Land, but it was fully booked when I had inquired about an upgrade right after breaking my bed in two by simply sitting on it. Luckily they were able to fix it quickly!
We then took a 5 minute drive into town for a first lunch over freshly caught snappers.
Given first day blues and red eye flights, we then drove out for a swim at Delisha Beach, a beautiful white beach that once were filled with hundreds of tourists before the civil war.
And finally celebrating a proper birthday I took a nap on the sand without a care in the world as local kids played soccer around me.
After 3 hours here and then watching the sunset, we then went back into town for dinner and to exchange our cash at a current black market rate of 546 Yemenese Rials to the dollar.
We then turned in at our centrally located hotel in Hadibo for a quick dinner and early night.
- At time of posting in Hadibo, Socotra, it was 24 °C -
Humidity: 79% | Wind Speed: 19km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
Much like Dar es Salaam in Taznania, there’s nothing much to see in the capital of Madagascar either in terms of tourist trappings, but that may be part of the allure of this place.
Perhaps the most well known site would be the Queen’s Palace aka the Rova of Antananarivo, a royal palace complex (aka a rova) that served as the home of Kingdom of Imerina in the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as of the rulers of the Kingdom of Madagascar in the 19th century. It sits on the highest point on Analamanga, formerly the highest of Antananarivo’s many hills, thus giving a great panoramic view of the city.
A suspicious fire in late 1995 damaged all the structures within the Rova complex shortly before it was placed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It has since been restored.
If you really want to explore further, there’s also Parc de Tsarasaotra, famous for being the home to a man-made heart shaped lake a king made for his wife.
I think Evan speaks on behalf of some of us where this was him before:
And Evan morning after:
The next morning we barely made it to the airport on time for our onward flight to the Seychelles. Even though Google says the traffic from the city to the airport takes 33 minutes, it took us twice as long! But we made it.
- At time of posting in Antananarivo, Madagascar, it was 17 °C -
Humidity: 69% | Wind Speed: 16km/hr | Cloud Cover: n/a