After our day in Comoros — the #10-#12 least visited country in the world (depending who you ask) — let’s get even more off the beaten track: Mayotte, a French island in the Indian Ocean off East Africa between Madagascar and Mozambique that ceded to France from the Comoros group of islands in 1843.
In the spirit of anti-colonialism when Comoros voted for independence in the 1970s, Mayotte surprisingly voted instead to remain a French “collective”.
Then in March 2009, the islands sealed the deal by voting 95.2% YES to become France’s 101st ‘department’ effective 2011. Therefore at over 5000 miles, the flight between Paris and Mayotte is the second longest domestic flight in the world, with the first being Paris to Réunion (which I’m flying myself next week!).
Although France has indubitable administrative control of Mayotte and it is considered part of the EU, Comoros claims it as one of the Autonomous Islands of Comoros. Because pride. We get it.
So from Comoros, we were picked up this morning by a pre-arranged taxi at 6am to check in for our 8am AB Aviation Y6 303 Flight at 8am from HAH to DZA airport in Mayotte.
The check-in was as austere as that in Kiribati, with everything happening in one, small, partitioned room.
Their conveyor belts for checked luggage are shorter than treadmills:
And the immigrations counter was right behind us in the very same room after checking in:
And as how it was in Tuvalu, flight tickets are handwritten instead of printed.
Since we had too much food given to us for breakfast by the hotel, we handed them out to fellow passengers turning the waiting room into something even better than a de-facto Priority Pass lounge.
We then boarded promptly at 7:45am, taking off on time at 8:00am.
After 45 minutes in the air, we landed in Anjoaun: one of the 3 autonomous high islands in the Indian Ocean that’s part of the Union of Comoros.
Although our final stop would be Mayotte and we were expecting to stay on the plane, the staff instead made us disembark with our bags and escorted us into literally an empty arrivals room.
After 5 minutes here, we were led into the main check-in area, where we had our tickets re-inspected and our carry-on baggage go through security (no x-rays machines here; staff open and comb through your bags instead).
Afterwards in the waiting area, airport staff asked us one by one to step outside to pick out our checked luggage so they knew which ones to reload back onto the aircraft.
Once back outside, they then scanned us with metal detector wands and reopened our carry-on items before allowing us to reboard the very same airplane we had arrived on.
FYI, men are asked to go first for this process. This confused me — after being asked to skip past a long line of women who were waiting in front of me to go outside and claim my checked luggage, I left my cell phone, bag, and travel pillow behind in the waiting area thinking I was going to be allowed back in…but nope. Shit on face moment.
Luckily the rest of my group of monsooners were able to retrieve those items for me!
After a 45 minute flight from Anjouan, we landed promptly at 9:45am in the Mayotte’s only civilian airport (located on the island of Petit Terre).
You notice the difference between Comoros and Mayotte as soon as you land.
And unlike Comoros’ long visa process, we instead got stamped as if we were literally entering the European Union (after all, Mayotte is a French territory!)
And as you can compare with Comoros’ airport, this is apparently what it looks like when you choose to remain a colony instead of independence:
Alas, the eternal debate between security vs. freedom rages on.
After retrieving our checked luggage, we hailed a taxi for 15 euros and a 5 minute drive to take us to La Fare Beach Restaurant where Sarah, Ines, and Bessie stayed behind to sunbathe while watching over our bags.
Evan, Ann, and I instead continued onwards for another 2 minutes to the docks where we boarded the passenger ferries to take us to Grand Terre island for Mamoudzou, the de-facto capital and largest town in Mayotte.
The ferry departs every half an hour on the :30 and :00. It runs exactly like the Staten Island Ferry.
There is no payment here as they expect you instead to pay the fare (1.25€) on return. So once you arrive into Mamoudzou, just get off and keep moving as if it were a free ride!
Once on Grand Terre, we quickly walked around Mamoudzou, running through the streets of its colorful markets. However, there’s really not much else, let alone unique, for the typical visitor.
Once we were done, we ran back to the docks for a return ferry back to Petit Terre, this time paying the 1.25€/per person fee.
Once back at the docks of Petit Terre, we walked over 12 minutes to meet with the rest of the group waiting for us at La Fare.
We then had one of the best lunches on the trip so far.
Thank you, French cuisine.
At 12:45pm we wrapped up and called in a taxi to take us back to the airport where we boarded the 2:45pm (which was delayed by an hour) Air Madagascar Flight MD150 from DZA to TNR in Madagascar via another quick layover in Comoros. The flight had us change seats in between to accommodate for a full flight.
Next up: Madagascar!
- At time of posting in Mayotte, it was 26 °C -
Humidity: 81% | Wind Speed: 16km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
After our last night with Ravi, Bryan, and Brandon in Dar es Salaam, the 7 of us remaining now we go from most traveled to one of the 10 least traveled: Comoros.
Having endured 20 coups or attempted coups since gaining independence from France in 1975, the islands of Anjouan and Moheli declared independence from Comoros in 1997 in an attempt to restore French rule. Remarkably, France instead rejected their request, which led to a civil war between federal troops and rebels.
Colonel Azali soon seized power in 1999 where voters then approved a new constitution in 2001 and presidential elections took place afterwards in the spring of 2002. This averages out to a coup every 22 months.
Thus Comoros’ nickname: “Cloud Coup Coup Land.”
One of the world’s poorest countries, Comoros is home to Mt. Karthala, the world’s largest active volcano, and is made up of 3 islands that have inadequate transportation links, a young and rapidly increasing population, and few natural resources. This is no longer Tanzania, ladies and gentlemen.
Enjoy pushing the frontiers of travel? This is it.
Boarding a 1 hour Air Tanzania Flight #210 at 10:40am (which finally left on time!!!) from DAR airport, we arrived in Moroni HAH airport at 11:55am.
Everyone is issued a 45-day extendable (as long as it’s for a good reason) visa on arrival for 30 euros that can be paid in Comorian francs, US dollars, or Euros.
Pack euros if you can help it as they’ll make you pay a full $50 if all you have is US Dollars!
And it’s a full page visa that they print out for you in the counter on the spot:
Baggage claims is a whirlwind of goods hustling in the raw:
Afterwards we were picked up by our ride from Golden Tulip Grande Comore Moroni Resort & Spa for a quick tour of the island.
Again, my welcome sign: Nailed it.
We first drove through and took in a view of the capital of Moroni, known for its medina’s winding alleyways similar to those in Stone Town and its grand mosque.
Nearby a Ylang Ylang Distillery (the primary plant and export the Chanel no. 5 uses for their perfumes!) in Mbeni, we then had lunch at a bar/restaurant/club owned by a descendent of one of the first French families to settle in Comoros.
Afterwards we walked along Galawa Beach, one of the countless white beaches on the island.
Driving onwards, we were invited to climb inside a large, hollow Baobab tree.
Driving further to Lac Sale, we learned about this mythical salt lake with sulfuric water believed to heal skin diseases.
After about another 30 minute’s drive we then walked up to the top of a hill in Northern Comoros for a panoramic view of the island:
From there we hiked along the famous Dragon Rocks to witness the volcanic scenery, and the silhouette of a giant dragon lying on the seaside.
It faces Trou du Prophete, where the Prophet Mohammed is said to have hid from marauding pirates behind the tall rocks in the bay.
If you hike further along and hold your breath, you’ll be rewarded with epic views of the sea from the rocks.
Finally our last stop was one more white sand beach, but at this point we were so frazzled and baked by the heat we all wanted to return to our lodgings and recharge.
Now it’s time to kick back and relax at Golden Tulip as we celebrate Cathy’s last night with us.
Tomorrow we visit what probably is even more rarely visited that it’s not even considered its own country: Mayotte!
- At time of posting in Comoros, it was 25 °C -
Humidity: 87% | Wind Speed: 6km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
After 3 days road trippin’ around the UAE and visiting all 7 Emirates and Omani/Emirati counter-enclaves, it’s finally to the literal end of the road to Khasab: the main city in an exclave called Musandam Oman and can be considered Oman’s “Alaska”. It’s also called the “Norway of Arabia” due to its topography of desolate mountainscapes and fjord-like inlets.
If you’re planning to do the drive yourself, make sure you have a NOC (No Objection Certificate) that the car rental shop will give to you when you tell them you’re making a drive to Musandam Oman. Evan was able to thankfully arrange all this when he arrived into Dubai 2am the night before.
Giving Evan only 4 hours of sleep, we all woke up early at 7am to begin our day. Ambrose also happened to befriend a Persian girl named Samira last night after I asked him to do my laundry downstairs, so we all had breakfast together at the hotel before beginning our drive at 8:30am.
We first drove up an hour and half up past RAK city to the UAE/Musandam Oman border, reaching there at around 10am.
First you have to enter the offices there and formally exit the UAE, paying the 30 AED exit fee first along with your passports, NOC, and car registration papers.
They then give you a pink slip to show to the border guards as you drive into No Man’s Land.
Then when you reach the Oman border, you have to enter the offices there to get a visa on arrival stamp at the border for 5 Omani Rials. There’s an ATM inside in case you need it.
They also hand you another slip to show the border guards that you’re good to enter Oman.
Once you’re past this border, you need to quickly clear customs.
Then it’s another 45 minute drive down gorgeous curvy seaside cliffs to reach Khasab.
All in all, it took us about 3 hours in total to drive from Dubai to Khasab.
Once there we first stopped by the Central Sultan Qaboos Mosque, which holds 1900 people. We were not allowed inside.
Then we drove up to Alkmazrh Fort (or Khmazera Castle), located inside the city that still belongs to a local tribe; it currently is taken care by the tribes’ younger generation who remain proud of their ancestral possession. It was free to enter for us.
We then drove 3 minutes uptown and paid 0.50 Rials to check out the slightly larger Khasab Castle for 10 minutes: Built by the Portuguese in the 17th century, this castle once housed the Wali and his family, then prisoners, before being converted and restored into a regional museum.
The view from the top:
Then we drove up 2 minutes more uptown to scarf down a fantastic 10 Rial seafood lunch complete with fresh fish at Amjad Restaurant:
We then finished our drive at Khasab Dhow Port for the ferry-boats to Muscat. Here you can hop on a full day 6-8 hour or half-day 3 hour dhow boat ride (Or take one all the way to Muscat!).
On a side note, if you’re lucky you can find Iranian Smugglers here where everyday hundreds of small jet boats carrying supplies cross the Strait of Hormuz heading to Southern Iran. The former brings over goats and sheep for the UAE, and then carry back televisions, cigarettes, and other goods to avoid Iranian import duties. Because Khasab is a free trade port Oman tolerates all this.
They must avoid not only shipping traffic but also the Iranian Coast Guard who have no reservations of shooting them on sight.
Since smuggling wasn’t on our minds, we were able to arrange a 3 hour boat ride at 1pm at the last minute for 100 AED (you can bargain it down) per person thanks to a contact provided by Sean the night before.
Dolphins chased down our dhow about 20 minutes into our ride!
About an hour in, they’ll take you to a freshwater area deep in the Strait of Hormuz where you can jump in for a swim and snorkel off the coast of Oman (or Iran, depending on how you look at it). A US drone was just shot down here 3 days ago, but we saw nothing of it: No warships, no media, no helicopters, and no military activity. Just a bunch of American tourists going for a dive.
Then it was simple relaxation for the rest of the journey where you can just take in all the views as they serve you unlimited fruit, tea, water and coffee onboard.
Just lounge away:
After our dhow cruise docked back in Khasab at 4:30pm, we began our drive back to the UAE:
Once returning to Dubai by 7:30pm, we freshened up at our hotel and rendezvous’ed with Sean, his girlfriend Chelsea (who also has been living in the UAE for the past 9 years), as well as inviting Samira out for a final night out together by the Dubai Fountain and facing the Burj al Khalifa.
After a wonderful meal complete with shisha and drinks, we finally said our goodbyes, with Wendy running to catch her 1am flight back home, and Sean and Chelsea having to go to sleep early for their classes tomorrow morning.
The 5 of us left then headed to Dubai Mall for the obligatory visit to the world’s largest fish tank and one of the largest aquariums in the world:
Then Samira and the gang had one more round of drinks and shisha at Garage Café before we all finally turned in at 1am. In a few hours: Kabul, Afghanistan!
- At time of posting in Khasab, it was 40 °C -
Humidity: 28% | Wind Speed: 15km/hr | Cloud Cover: so so hot
What a cool name for a country — “Hey, I live on ‘The Isle Of Man.'”
It first appeared on my layman American radar when it was referenced as a penal colony in the dystopian Children Of Men, but otherwise has also become — at least for me — a symbol of an elusive exotic island off the grid of the civilized map (how wrong I was). It definitely has become one of those places that elicits a “that’s a real place?” when mentioned to the average American.
But I can’t see why it would be after 2 quick and easy flights from NYC.
The Tower Of Refuge
For the uninitiated, the Isle Of Man is considered a sovereign state that also exists as a dependency of the British Crown. This means it is NOT part of the UK itself but relies on them for foreign affairs and military defense. Otherwise the Isle Of Man has its own government, Chief Minister, and a democratically-elected Parliament (The “House of Keys”) that nominates a “Legislative Council.” In relation to the EU, the Isle of Man is an associate member but not a full member.
In other words, visiting the Isle Of Man may count as a new country!
After an 8 hour layover in Manchester, I boarded a 5:35pm Flybe flight, arriving 50 minutes later at 6:25pm. Despite the short flight, I befriended my seat-neighbor Zoe who helpfully shared some pro-tips on exploring the Isle Of Man in 2 days.
Getting out into arrivals in this cute little airport took literally less than a minute.
At the information desk in arrivals, you can ask for a passport stamp for the Isle of Man:
Then I rendezvou’ed with Melissa, Joe, and Grayson (who flew in from London at the same time) outside baggage claims, where we were then picked up in our rental car by Alfred and Sam, both of whom had arrived a few hours earlier.
We then drove 20 minutes over to the capital city of Douglas and checked into our digs at The Town House. As we waited for Donna to arrive later at 9pm, we began a leisurely stroll north up along the corniche.
Following the din of random music, we enjoyed an impromptu dinner via food trucks at Bushy’s TT Village, featuring an outdoor concert on a rooftop overlooking the town center.
After an hour here, we then walked south around Douglas down its pedestrian-only Strand Street, taking in the golden hour.
Once we got to the southern docks, it was already 9:30pm local time, but as you can see it was still bright out:
Adding to the surreal atmosphere here, Donna would also happen to run into Sam and me along Strand Street as we picking up some water and groceries for the next day. We all then headed back to The Town House and gave into the jetlag.
The next morning we got up early for our big day exploring the island, first enjoying a lovely farm to table breakfast at The Alpine.
Then we set off north 15 minutes for Laxey, famous for its “oldest water wheel in the world.” Admission fee is 7£ for adults, 4£ for students.
Pro-tip (thanks Zoe!), if you arrive after 5pm when they close, you can jump the fence and make up for the bad karma later.
93 steps up to the top:
There’s also a lovely Mine Trail behind the Laxey Wheel that takes 15-20 minutes long to walk:
Then we drove southwest to the city of Peel:
It’s home to the 1000 year old Peel Castle, where it was once used by monks to hide from invading Viking hordes. Also 7£ (4£ for students) to enter.
After 30 minutes wandering here we then grabbed some ice cream at the famous Davison’s Ice Cream Parlour and peeked inside St German Cathedral (aka Cathedral Isle Of Man):
From there we drove south to Castle Rushen in the appropriately eponymous Castletown:
Also 7£ (3£ for students) to enter:
Find the pooping man inside:
Then driving through Balladoole Heritage Site, which lies 5 minutes to the west of Castletown, we headed another 10 minutes southwest to Isle of Man’s own “Stonehenge”: the Meayll Stone Circle:
After 5 minutes taking in the views of the south, we began our drive back towards Douglas to catch the annual Isle Of Man Tourist Trophy (IOMTT) practice races from the balcony lounge of The Creg-Ny-Baa. Of all the times to choose to go to the Isle of Man, I would pick the most popular time to visit!
For 10£ per person you can reserve seats in the upstairs lounge at The Creg no more than 48 hours in advance for prime viewing spots of what has been regarded the “most dangerous sporting event in the world.”
Grab your telephoto lens when the race starts; the elite riders go first:
At around 8:05pm, the sidecars come out:
What a time to be alive! After the race ended at 9pm and waiting for the roads to reopen at 9:15pm, we then drove back to Douglas for bed.
Tomorrow we set off early for Northern Ireland!
- At time of posting in Isle Of Man, it was n/a -
Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: n/a | Cloud Cover: n/a
Needless to say, the visa to get into Afghanistan is not as straightforward.
For USA passport holders, single entry tourist visas have a maximum 3 month validity, so the earliest you can apply is 3 months ahead. With an opportunity to go there later this June, I figured it would be worth a shot at an application in April.
Along with an invitation letter from either a hotel or official tour company (I had one supplied by my friends at Young Pioneer Tours), the application form is a mere 2 pages long and takes 5 minutes to fill. You can download a copy on the website of the Consulate General. Amanda would go for the consulate in DC, whereas I sent mine to the one in New York.
They also need a 2×2 passport photo of you in front a white background that you can affix at the end of the application:
Afterwards, make sure you also supply a prepaid, self-addressed return envelope that is large enough for the return of your passport and documents.
Stick that pre-paid envelope inside:
Then I went to my bank to not only obtain a $160 Cashier’s Check made out to the Consulate General Of Afghanistan in NY, but also to notarize my documents since I was planning to mail them in instead of applying in person. You don’t have to do this, but I did it anyway just to be safe:
Then with a signed application form, invitation letter, 2×2 photo, my actual passport, a pre-paid self-addressed envelope, a notary public document, and a $160 cashier’s check/money order, I put all of that into a flat-rate envelope and shipped it out.
A few days later I received an expected call from my consulate in New York that my invitation “wouldn’t be enough” and that they needed another letter from the inviting tour company in Afghanistan (and not Young Pioneer Tours/YPT) to send another letter endorsing my travel.
When I was able to forward one along from YPT the next day, an official then called me a few hours later asking that the letter be in Arabic and contain details of contact information, phone number, and a tour company license number — I was able to get this letter for them a few days later via YPT. Then another phone call a week later asked for a copy of the actual business license, which I then provided that a few days after that via YPT’s efforts.
Finally, about 3 weeks later after I first sent in my application, and about a day after receiving the business license, the consulate called me to say my visa had been approved and it would take another day to issue. True to their word, my passport was sent back in my pre-paid self-addressed envelope I had provided them, only for the USPS to lose the envelope containing my passport 3 days later. WHAT THE FUCK. Where Amanda and Evan already had received their passports on Wednesday and Thursday, mine still had not arrived by Friday night.
I wouldn’t come to this realization until Saturday morning, however, and to add insult to injury, the Afghan Consulate was closed, I had lost the tracking number for the return envelope, and I was due for an international monsoon to Antigua & Barbuda in 3 days…but without my passport!
Although after a series of trial and error and some calculations where I was able to guess my tracking number from the first envelope that went out to the consulate (feeling very proud of myself here), that very tracking number only yielded this message: “ALERT: The delivery status of your item has not been updated as of May 10, 2019, 11:37pm. We apologize that it may arrive later than expected.” WHAT THE FUCK.
I then headed over to my local post office on East 70th Street, where the staff went to the back for an hour to look for my package but could not find it. The manager than confidently reassured that it was probably already en route to my home address later that afternoon. But alas, afternoon would come and go, and I still had nothing in the mail.
On Sunday, when everything including the post office was closed, I was prepared to attempt a same-day expedited passport at downtown Manhattan’s local NY Passport Agency on either Monday or Tuesday. Not taking any risks here, I even dug up my birth certificate, social security card, and 2 passport photos with a filled out “Lost Passport Form” all ready to go.
Then, this morning Monday, I decided to chance it one more time and head back to my local post office on East 70th Street to check in again, only to be told by a new manager that everyone on Saturday was lying to me and that my package was still at the main 909 3rd Avenue USPS hub on East 55th Street. So I took a quick bus downtown to East 55th Street where I was brushed aside and turned away, being informed that my package would likely still be at the East 70th Street location. Anticipating the run-around, however, I began a heavy and emotional charm offensive to underscore the emergent nature of my situation. They were soon swayed, and after another half an hour of looking, they were able to pinpoint that my envelope just left uptown back to East 70th Street. I thanked them promptly, ran out, taxi’ed back uptown, where I re-met the manager and finally got my envelope and passport.
What a shitshow. And all for this:
I hope Afghanistan is worth it.
Alternatively for Amanda who applied to the Afghan Consulate in DC, officials called her asking not for anything from or about the tour company but rather if she could send them a personal letter that stated the intent and purpose of her travel to Afghanistan. This echoed the similar drama I experienced when I tried to apply for a visa to Iran back in 2011.
Amanda simply copied and pasted what they wanted in the letter, signed it off, and mailed it in the next day. She was then able to get her visa a few days later with much less drama than what I had to go through.
- At time of posting in Little Neck, NY, it was 17 °C -
Humidity: 21% | Wind Speed: 19km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly cloudy
Islamabad just got served
How I Got Here
5 years ago I crashed a random wedding in Lahore where of all the “WTF small world moments” I’ve had in my life I would run into an acquaintance named Ali Raza, whom I had first met briefly when I spoke at CUNY Baruch only a year prior.
Flabbergasted, we then took a photo together and he remarked that whenever he‘d get married he would invite me to come back to Pakistan and attend his wedding, insha’allah!
We then don’t speak until 5 years later when I get an invitation in the mail: He’s a man of his word.
And so am I. Pakistan 2.0, let’s go.
This time with the help of Ali’s father, I avoided the shitshow I had went through last time trying to get a Pakistani visa and instead acquired my visa within 4 days. They even gave me multiple entry!
Ali was also even gracious enough to invite/let me bring along a few monsooners to help him celebrate!
Qatar Airways Business Class: 1-2-1 Herringbone
After a very comfortable 24 hour journey on Qatar Airways’ new Qsuite Business Class, eventually reaching Doha from a conference in Boulder, Colorado, I headed out for my last 3 hour leg to Islamabad on Qatar’s older business class seat in the classic 1-2-1 herringbone configuration.
Aside from the obvious differences of less privacy and no sliding doors, the amenities kits are understandably smaller and simpler.
For the meal I opted for a cold chicken tandoori appetizer.
For dessert, they served a caramel cheese cake and a bowl of small fruits.
Arriving Into Islamabad
We arrived at Islamabad International Airport at 1:50am in the morning.
And just like how I felt last time when I arrived into Pakistan 5 years ago at the arrivals area in Lahore’s International Airport, the staring games once again commenced the moment I stepped into arrivals. Oh how I missed even this.
Once outside arrivals, Ali’s driver and Ali himself (as well as Daniela, who arrived earlier that morning) greeted and drove us over to our lodgings in Rawalpindi.
We finally settled in at 3am at Jungle Barracks, which was actually an awesome place to stay and run by ex-military officers looking a perfect place to stay active in their retirement. Super secure, safe, and has all the frills I need for a comfortable stay. And the WiFi here is excellent!
The next morning we chilled out and basked in our Vitamin D. The weather here this season during the day is perfect.
We have separate entries for Ali’s Mehndi/Rasm-e-Heena, Baraat/Shaadi, and the Walima in case you want to take a peek at all the outfits and splendor of the functions here. But this post will be devoted to our city tours of the planned capital city of Islamabad over the course of our week here.
We began with a drive up to serene village of northern Saidpur, which existed long before Islamabad.
There we had a late lunch at Des Pardes:
Nearby here you can keep driving up Daman-e-Koh for stunning views:
While you’re up there you can dine at The Monal for an unforgettable meal overlooking Islamabad:
After dining at The Monal we drove south to visit Islamabad’s most recognizable landmark, the Faisal Mosque. It was built in 1987 and designed to resemble a Bedouin tent.
For lesser-visited sights, if you need to go shop, there is the daily hustle at Jinnah Super Market:
You can also drive down the green avenues of wealthy Blue Area:
On the southwest side of town is the Pir Meher Ali Shah Shrine in the Golra area.
And on the northeast side in Nurpur Shaha is the Shrine Of Hazrat Bari Imam Sarkar:
If you’re visiting on a Sunday, don’t miss the weekly shops that open up at Itwar Bazar:
Or go shopping at any of the local chowks by Shakaparian Park:
To finish off your day, don’t miss the Pakistan Monument. It’s a gorgeous structure built in the shape of blooming flower petals.
And stop along Rawal Lake for sunset if you have time.
- At time of posting in Islamabad, Pakistan, it was 17 °C -
Humidity: 58% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny