Mecca Wasn’t “Ta’if” on Us!

Mecca Wasn’t “Ta’if” on Us!

Ta’if

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

 

 

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

The older ones are calm as Zen:

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

Mecca/Makkah

 

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

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

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

 

Me: “Are you joking? No!”

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

Me: “…(what is going on)”

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

Who were we to stop him?

 

 

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

 

 

Our driver kept onwards to Al-Haram:

 

 

We then crossed a long tunnel:

 

 

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

 

 

Once we reached the King Abdul Aziz Gate . . .

 

(Wikipedia)

 

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

 

(Mine)

 

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

This photo is from Wikipedia:

 

 

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

 

 

And inside you can find pilgrims performing Umra:

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

…as well as an all-girls university:

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

–EDIT–

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

 

 

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

 

A My-“Riyadh” of Potential

A My-“Riyadh” of Potential

 

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:

  1. Negative PCR test for COVID-19 within 72 hours of your departure flight
  2. E-Visa after applying through their online portal
  3. Arrival Registration after submitting proof of being fully vaccinated for COVID-19
  4. 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

 

“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

 

Ohio Gozaimasu!

Ohio Gozaimasu!

 

 

“All of life is a foreign country.”

 

Today ends nearly 5 months since my last monsoon, and 5 years since my last domestic road trip across America. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to put a life of travel on pause, but alas, even life has its rest stops.

 

 

I’ve survived and worked enough to reach this point: After 3 months sheltering in place before I began to peek above our fences with last month’s trial road trip in New England, and amidst months of posting on my social media about what was going on outside of NYC regarding the rise and plateau of COVID-19, a small group of us have now decided to band together and finally see the rest of the country westwards for ourselves.

Maximizing safety, I can assure the many of you reading that not only many of us have traveled together already before, but also a large portion of us have had direct face to face healthcare experience with COVID-19 and stared at this pandemic in the face. Add on face coverings, hygiene training, a self-sufficient RV that can be sealed from the outside world if need be, and with all of us having tested negative for COVID-19 this week, we don’t know how — other than to not travel at all (which would be unsafe for my mental health) — we can get any safer than this.

For a more in depth point by point analysis on what we’ve done to maximize safety, check out our previous entry.

It’s been so long since I’ve led a trip, I even missed packing.

 

 

Yesterday I briefly showed Brynn around NYC as she arrived in from Maine (it’s her first time back in the city in 10 years!), and then introduced her to the other first-time monsooner Noeleen:

 

 

. . .  then we rendezvous’ed with the 5 others based in NYC for one final in-person orientation going over expectations, hygiene training, COVID-19 infection training, and contingency plans.

I also reassured everyone about life when returning home from the trip as on the NY State website, it’s written: “The requirements of the travel advisory do not apply to any individual passing through designated states for a limited duration (i.e., less than 24 hours) through the course of travel.” Given our nature of monsooning, we don’t plan to be anywhere longer for 24 hours in a high prevalence state, so hopefully no issues when we return!

One toast to celebrate good vibes and good luck.

 

 

Look how excited I get at 6:30am. We’re going on an adventure!

 

 

This morning we met bright and early at 7am for breakfast at Bluestone Lane in Astor Place.

 

 

Mask on?

 

 

Mask off? You can’t please everyone.

 

 

After everyone was ready, we then hailed a Lyft SUV for an hour’s drive to the NYC chapter of Road Bear RV in Middleton, NJ.

 

 

After an hour filling out the necessary paperwork and paying off the remaining balance to pick up our pre-reserved RV, we got to know our home for the next 10 days: A 12 foot high, 27 foot long Class C motorhome.

 

 

It comes complete with a full kitchen: oven, microwave, dining set, sink, coffeemaker, plates, silverware, and stovetop.

 

 

In the back is a full bathroom (with shower!) and queen sized bedroom that can be expanded outwards.

 

 

And in the front, we have a work station with couch that both can be converted into full-sized beds, as well as a queen sized bed in the cab above the driver’s seat.

 

 

After another hour acclimating, we set out west into Pennsylvania at 10:30am.

At this point, a girl named Rachel who I had just met for the first time 12 days ago in NYC reached out to say hi on our way through PA into OH…and who am I to say no if you’re on the way? So we did just that about an hour and a half later:

 

 

After an hour’s lunch with Rachel and her husband Chris, we then continued on the 6 hour drive towards Cuyahoga Falls in Ohio, in the outskirts of Cleveland.

 

 

We had already been briefed this would probably be the least photogenic and eventful part of the trip, so we made up for it with good music and the excitement for the adventures ahead.

 

 

Planning this sometimes feels like:

 

 

“And he had a nice home in Ohio with wife, daughter, Christmas tree, two cars, garage, lawn, lawnmower, but he couldn’t enjoy any of it because he really wasn’t free. It was sadly true.”

 

As we approached Akron, we received a trend of messages telling us to eat at local favorite burger joint Swenson’s, which is also a favorite of LeBron James (I’d say he’s a little biased being that he’s an Akron native himself…).

So we did just that, sampling their iconic Galley Boy burger (and in our case we had four).

 

 

We arrived at Streetsboro / Cleveland SE KOA Holiday by 9:00pm, settling in after our first long day on the road.

 

 

It took us about to figure out the hookups by ourselves but we managed.

 

 

The sleeping arrangements took a little longer.

 

 

Tomorrow we continue onwards to Chicago.

 

“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.” 

 

- At time of posting in Cuyahoga Falls, it was 23 °C - Humidity: 74% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: mostly sunny/clear

 

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

 

Not All Who “Luanda” Are Lost . . .

Not All Who “Luanda” Are Lost . . .

 

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.

 

 

Next I turned left to visit the SME office where I presented my pre-approval letter for my visa that I had obtained online on the SME website last week.

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.

 

 

We then drove on to The Iron Palace, where with its wildly obnoxiously yellow exterior, it is made entirely of iron. Many wild stories surround the origin of the building.

 

 

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