The Yacht Week Sardinia Day 1 – Olbia Base Marina & Portisco

The Yacht Week Sardinia Day 1 – Olbia Base Marina & Portisco

 

The first day of Yacht Week’s first official voyage to Sardinia & Corsica: a frenzy of check-ins, security deposits, last minute provisional shopping, under 2 flash thunderstorms…aka the not so fun stuff.

But we already would know all this: After 3 orientations over the past month, we had managed our expectations enough to make sure we were all ready for the drama (except for the weather).

Even so, the sweet is never as sweet without the sour.

 

 

Checking out from La Residenze del Centro at 10:30am we walked over to set up our temporary home base at Café Gregorio by the marina, who graciously allowed all 33 of us to hole up there from 11am-5pm (the tip helped).

 

 

Then as prepared as we could be, it felt as if Hurricane Ida back home would still chase after us and throw a wrench into our carefully laid out plans: 2 flash flood storms that struck in Olbia were so awful that even cockroaches scurried for shelter in our bags at the café. While it’s already stressful enough to coordinate the 33 of us to fly out in the middle of tornadoes, flash floods, and hurricanes back home, seeing flash floods and cockroaches scurrying for their lives here reminded us that you can’t outrun Mother Nature.

Yet we were still the lucky ones; while all of us stayed safely and dry under the café’s rain cover the whole day (while I ran over to the marina checking in with Eric’s dinky umbrella), only leaving to make quick trips to the grocery store in between storms, I saw everyone else outside The Monsoon Diaries’ crew in Yacht Week running around and getting soaked at a coverless marina.

 

 

Finally by 5pm, our homes for the next week were ready:

 

 

Dodging hurricanes and tornadoes at home, flights being subsequently delayed or redirected, 2 of us missing and rebooking flights, long lines, long layovers, 2 more storms waiting for us at Olbia, last minute ATM runs, last minute grocery shopping, and fighting off cockroaches, we finally made it:

 

 

Outmaneuvering some initial (and expected) awkward drama in choosing our rooms, we then took an hour to store our food, stock the cabinets, make our beds, and even decorate our yacht to celebrate Ann’s birthday.

 

 

…all with this sunset as our backdrop:

 

 

We then got dressed up, donned our face coverings and at 7:45pm drove up 20 minutes to Matt’s Restaurant in Portisco:

 

 

It’s all 33 of us together finally (with 1 more joining us on Monday!)…

 

 

…cheering to the beginning of the “best week of our lives”:

 

 

Let’s just say we were the pink elephant in the room and the largest contingency of any other group in Yacht Week: we’d take the largest table of the night. Multiple crews from other yachts would come to our table to say hi, and kept asking how we managed to get so many to come to the same voyage at once.

Our collective answer: it’s the monsoon baby. Get ready for us.

 

 

Throwing an impromptu shirtless outdoor dance party during dinner, we eventually returned to our yachts at 1am for even more impromptu parties on our yachts.

And yet as much fun as they would be, we eventually had to establish boundaries by kicking a few folks off one of our yachts for passing out in the back (and some even swiping a few drinks from our fridge)…which I think they all still took pretty well as without complaint they simply moved on to the yacht next door.

Thanks for not being difficult and apologies ahead that we didn’t buy enough alcohol to accommodate for outside guests; it’s only the first day!

 

- At time of posting in Olbia, it was 27 °C - Humidity: 62% | Wind Speed: 27km/hr | Cloud Cover: thunderstorms, flash floods

 

Extr-Azores-dinary: São Miguel

Extr-Azores-dinary: São Miguel

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

Hence this kind of weather:

 

 

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

 


 

It’s located right by São Sebastião Church:

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

These are views of Ponta Delgada from the west:

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

An impromptu picnic ensued:

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

…is another casualty of the COVID-19 era:

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

They Put A Monsooner On The Moon — The White Desert Of Egypt

They Put A Monsooner On The Moon — The White Desert Of Egypt

 

Once in a while, I’m blessed to write up and release a blogpost that will stand the test of time in my memories.

 

 

This is one of those posts.

 

 

The irony of today rests in the fact that after a decade visiting 180 countries and territories, that it would take me returning to my first ever country — country #1: EGYPT — to finally write these words on my blog: “I have never seen anything or been anywhere like this before.”

 

 

This is the White Desert, a moonscape formed by centuries of erosion and sandstorms and a last minute yet unanimously decided excursion for our last hurrah of the trip. And I don’t know we can place such a perfect dot to an exclamation point of a trip ever ever again. And yet, we may be confusing the actual reason for that very thought, to be the people that came with me.

 

 

But before we get there, the sweet is never as sweet without the sour — first it is not easy to get to the White Desert, and our story today won’t work as well without some bitter to begin with.

Going back a day, I found that this trip obviously has been going too well, as if The Monsoon Diaries always has some bad freaking luck with catching trains.

I always tell of the epic infamous story 3 years ago where on our way to Xi’an from Beijing, I messed up the wrong train station and ended up booking it last minute to the correct one, only for half of us to make it and the other half missing it. This led me to pull everyone who did make it off the train as it was pulling away just so we could stick together, which meant a crash overnight stay in Beijing for 4 hours and then taking morning flights to Xi’an instead to resume the monsoon on schedule.

Well, after a chill time in Alexandria just as everything felt like it had been going well without any hiccups, the group decided to split in 2, with one taking the 8pm train back and the other taking the 9:25pm. So at 6:45pm the former — a group of 10 — then split into 3 Ubers to pick up our bags  that we had dropped off at Triomphe Hostel earlier in the day, continuing onwards to Alexandria train station.

 

 

1 of the 3 Ubers almost drove to the wrong train station afterwards and the other was forced to hail 2 separate Ubers due to issues with parking as we went to pick up our bags.

Once arriving at the train station, the first Uber group that arrived ended up in the wrong ticket office (the ticket office outside security is NOT for Cairo), before a kind passerby led us to the right office INSIDE the train station for tickets to Cairo. There I was able to buy 10 tickets to Cairo with 20 minutes to spare at 7:40pm

 

 

After reuniting with the other 2 Ubers to get back our group of 10 together, we asked the station master for the platform for our train (Platform #4). There at 7:45pm we were waiting on Platform #4 confused why our train to Cairo looked like it was abandoned and out of service.

 

 

The guy inside that train EVEN SAID it was the right train to Cairo after looking at our tickets. Something felt off but luckily another passerby came by and told us we were supposed to be on Platform #6 after asking for our tickets. At this point it was 7:50pm.

 

 

So we crossed over to Platform #6 where Chyne, who already suffered a laceration 3 days prior and a fall from his horse 2 days before that, stumbled over his bag right on the platform (he’s fine and just suffered a superficial abrasion on his hand). Big yikes!

We quickly picked him up and at 8:01pm boarded the right train (thank heavens it decided to wait for us). I gave that passerby 50 EGP for his troubles and the train departed right afterwards at 8:04pm with train staff amused at how befuddled we looked to them.

 

 

Peak monsooning the way I missed it.

And to top it all off another well dressed “undercover” plainclothes officer began to monitor us. Then I realized that instead of determining whether we were threats, they may be assigned to protect us, especially after what had happened to 17 tourists 6 months ago. Because once we disembarked from our train in Cairo at 11pm, I saw the plainclothes officer motion to a uniformed police officer to personally guide us to the metro outside the train station before letting us on our way back to our hostel.

Faith in humanity restored! And just to be complete, our final and later group from Alexandria arrived without a hitch a few hours later.

The next morning we woke up at 7am and headed out down the street towards Talaat Harb Square, where our driver Ahmed was waiting for us with a 14 passenger coaster.

 

 

And promptly at 7:30am we set off for the 5 hour drive into the the Farafra depression and desert of Western Egypt for Bahariya: We didn’t last very long.

 

 

We reached a lonely but romantic rest stop about halfway into our 5 hour drive.

 

 

Don’t drop the toilet paper!

 

 

And then finally, about 2 hours later we reached the lush green oasis of Bahariya, where human settlements there date back to ancient Egypt and Roman times.

 

 

There we were greeted by the legendary Badry at his home where he served us al dente pasta and vegetables for lunch.

 

 

After lunch we switched vehicles to three 4×4 jeeps and set out for the White Desert at around 2pm, located approximately midway between Dakhla and Bahariya oases. About about 30 minutes into the drive, we first drove through the Black Desert. Also known as Sahra al-Suda, here we saw dozens of sand dunes lay covered by the remnants of volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.

 

 

Then after about another half an hour of driving, we reached the edges of the White Desert. You’ll know it when you see it:

 

 

After taking a few photos and running up and down sand dunes, we then drove about 20 minutes dune bashing and off-roading, cuing classic Indiana Jones music in the background.

 

 

By 4pm we finished up just in time for sunset,

 

 

The White Desert continues to remain as one of Egypt’s best secrets. The scenery here is unlike anywhere else in the world — once submerged by the sea, it now exists as an isolated and gorgeous moonscape with chalk white pillars coming out of the sand, formed after millions of years of sandstorms that eroded calcium rock into these natural sculptures that look like mushrooms or ice cream scoops, or for others, abstract man-made statues you’d find in a modern art museum.

 

 

If you ever find yourself here, please take a moment to give yourself at least 30 seconds to take in all the silence of this place. It was so quiet we could hear the ringing of our own inner frequency.

 

 

As Diana writes: “There are no pyramids here, so we made our own.”

 

 

But even when pyramids fall, we’re still standing.

 

 

As the sun finally dipped below the horizon, we set up camp with the bedouins led by Badry.

 

 

As the stars began to reveal themselves in the silence and with no WiFi to save us, we lost ourselves in stories and the lentil soup, rice, veggies, and barbecued chicken over an open fire,

Perhaps it was the atmosphere, but we collectively dare to reckon this could be the best meal of the trip.

 

 

After dinner, we then broke out Badry’s hookah around our campfire and shared more stories of travel, love, and romance under the stars.

 

 

In the meantime, others set out to get that perfect shot for the ‘gram:

 

 

Since many of us wanted to wake up at around 4am to catch the twilight at its darkest with its stars, most of us then headed to bed at around 10:30pm.

 

 

And then, imagine you wake up to THIS:

 

 

Dancing away a story called life and on a spaceship called Earth, we fulfilled our one rotation around the sun as it rose once more for us gloriously at 6:30am:

 

 

Some were too cold and had to enjoy it from their rug cavern:

 

Where is Ji Won in this photo?

 

Others braved the chill:

 

 

The silence here at sunrise was deafening.

 

 

How’s your Thursday morning been?

 

 

After taking it in and freshening up in pure blissful nature, we began our breakfast and morning tea together at around 7am.

 

 

During this time, Diana and our very new inductee into the social media team — Raubern — were kind enough to surprise me with a makeshift outdoor interview booth against an epic backdrop, as we all began to realize that we wanted to hold on to our appreciation of this place as long as possible.

 

 

After lingering here for another hour, we slowly hiked 10 minutes towards the famous “chicken and mushroom” formation.

 

 

“You’ll know it when you see it.”

 

 

It has been called anything from “mushroom and chicken”, “chicken and tree”, or “chicken and atomic bomb.” At least everyone agrees on chicken.

 

 

The mushroom and chicken just got served.

 

 

And not just by me:

 

 

Cue the M.I.A. music:

 

 

“Live fast, die young, bad girls do it well.”

 

 

After about 20 minutes here taking our photos, we set out in our 4X4s for other formations, such as the turtle:

 

 

This one is supposed to be an elephant? Because I don’t quite see it.

 

 

And this one I just had for lunch today:

 

 

At this point it was time to turn our 4X4s back home, with a quick stop at Crystal Mountain and locally known as Gebel al-Izzaz: a ridge dotted with quartz, barite or calcite crystals created by a unique geological phenomenon.

 

 

We then took a proper photo stop at the Black Desert, painted dark by ancient volcanic ash:

 

 

By noon we returned Badry’s camp back at Bahariya where we enjoyed our last official lunch together on the trip:

 

 

Don’t forget to bring some dates on your way back.

 

 

And after another 5 hour drive back to Cairo, the group freshened up back where it all started at Tahrir Square Hostel from day 1.

Given that my trips usually end in a completely far off destination than where it begins, to end a trip back where we starts should have some weird serendipitous meaning, a meaning that hopefully may reveal itself to us one day.

 

 

But we’re not finished! The group needs one final dinner together, and so we took the recommendation of many of our local Egyptian friends (even our cab drivers agreed that we were going somewhere special) by dining at the famous Sobhy Kaber, known for its lamb chops and other meat dishes.

 

 

But overwhelmed by the chaos of the place, the group wanted to end such a trip somewhere on a quieter, more humble note.

So we promptly and efficiently returned after dinner back to Tahrir Square Hostel where we kicked back one final time together as a group over local $1 USD hookah watching the world go by at Tahrir Square.

It’s time to say goodbye, for real.

 

 

But it’s never a “goodbye” with us, right? We shall mark tonight desperately clinging onto the infinite possibility of “see you later.”

 

 

“See you later.”

 

 

— AN ENCORE —

The next day, only Diana, Grace, Kasie, Melissa, and I would remain. Since Grace and Kasie had missed the first 3 days of the trip to meet us in Aswan, I had to show them the Cairo as I knew it: we returned for horseback riding by the pyramids at sunrise.

The story that started it all.

 

 

And if at first you don’t succeed with the weather, try try again — the haze from our first go last week had now finally disappeared into this:

 

 

This view never gets old.

 

 

So how much have I changed the past 10 years?

 

 

Afterwards we sent off Grace and Kasie to view the pyramids up close . . .

 

 

. . . while Diana, Melissa and I retired to the bougie breakfast buffet spread nearby at the hallowed former palace (and current Marriott property) Mena House with the pyramids in full display.

 

 

After Grace and Kasie finished at the pyramids, we then took our van out to show them the Cave Church at the top of Manshiyat Nasir (aka “Garbage City”).

There we rendezvous’ed with Priyanka, a girl we had met in our van on the way to Abu Simbel one week ago!

 

 

From there we did our first day in Cairo entirely in reverse — first by walking downhill through Manshiyat Nasir . . .

 

 

. . . and then to Qarafa (aka “City of the Dead”) where a woman invited us into her garden of tombs, not accepting any tips from us for her hospitality, and instead left us all shedding a few joyful tears that felt like she was truly recognized by a vast world that seemed to have forgotten her.

We eventually reached back to where we had our first lunch together at Nagub Mafhouz in Khan Al-Khalili where we kicked back and relaxed. There Priyanka said her goodbyes so she could finish up the last of her sightseeing, and the rest of the group went shopping in the souq for a few hours.

If this post continues to update at the time of reading, it means I’m really trying to prolong this goodbye as long as possible. . . .

. . . this blogpost still in progress at the time of posting: if you’re reading this then that means I’m still typing away in Cairo with Diana, Grace, and Kasie laughing at me. . . .

 

. . . Maybe I won’t end this post formally, just as a symbolic gesture as this being one of the rare moments how I never would want such a trip to end. . . .

 

- At time of posting in Désert blanc, Egypt, it was 22 °C - Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 14km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

Socotra-pped On An Island!

Socotra-pped On An Island!

 

Special thanks goes to our Young Pioneer Tours guide Pier-André Doyon for the blogpost title.

 

240km east of the coast of Somalia and 380km south of the Arabian Peninsula lies a 132 km x 49.7km island called Socotra: a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to countless endemic species and described as “the most alien-looking place on Earth.”

 

 

Due to its isolation, Socotra is famous for its unique eco-system found nowhere else on this planet, and most notably being home to the famous Dragon Blood and bottle trees.

 

 

However, due to the civil war and humanitarian crisis on the mainland still ongoing at the time of posting, logistical and ethical conundrums have stifled the once booming tourism to Socotra Island. From what used to be hundreds of tourists a week have now trickled down to mere teens.

Therefore we have struggled since 2012 in finding the right time to visit Socotra in a sustainable, ethical manner, without feeling we would overwhelm the islanders with our presence. Now that tourism has been slowly reemerging as of late, we have been steadfastly reassured that our presence as Western visitors will ensure a minimal logistical and environmental footprint given that we would be camping nearly every night.

Furthermore, we have been reminded that arriving in small groups we would both create a steady, sustainable positive impact in improving the welfare of the island, and encourage the Yemenese government to find a way to broker a ceasefire and open its doors back up to the world. One could only hope.

 

 

If I learned anything from travel, there is no right and wrong, black or white; so when we were given the option under these circumstances, I decided the only way to find out was to find out.

 

 

Currently the only legal way into Socotra for Western tourists is via a once-weekly, frequently delayed, and $1200 USD Yemenia Airways flight every Tuesday night/Wednesday morning at 2am, with a 1-2 hour stopover in Seiyun on the Yemen mainland before its scheduled landing in Socotra at 8:45am.

The return flight from Socotra is also the same once-weekly, frequently delayed Yemenia Airways flight that departs one hour later at 9:45am, with a 1-2 hour stopover in Seiyun, before finally returning to Cairo sometime that afternoon.

 

 

That means if you’re planning a visit to Socotra, prepare to be, for the lack of a better word, “marooned” on the island no less than one week increments as that single weekly flight is your only way in and out of this lost paradise. Furthermore, Socotra Island has been one of the least developed places I have ever spent an entire week in — we camped outside nearly every night, the only 2 hotels on the island have no working internet or laundry (and one of which is infested with bed bugs), and our guides (and one day, even us) had to hunt for our food.

Therefore if you plan a stay here and want to go budget, be prepared to completely detox from social media and the rest of the world (which I think was a good thing), and have your patience tested by everything running on island time (when anything is planned to take an “x” amount of time, they really mean multiply “x” by 2 and add another 20-40 minutes extra)

Big picture wise, I personally enjoyed my experience here as there are far worse places to be stuck in for a week, but I have to admit despite after an eye-opening 4 days, I was beginning to come down with mild island fever after we began to repeat many of our activities, which you’ll be able to discern between the lines through my blogposts below.

 

Day 1: NYC to Frankfurt to Cairo to Seiyun to Socotra Island —

Hadibo Do Be Dooo…

 

 

. . . 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. . . .

 

 

. . . click here to read more: Hadibo Do Be Dooo

Day 2: Arher Ahoy!

 

 

. . . We soon headed for Homhil National Park, famous for its Dragon’s blood trees which cannot be found anywhere else. . . .

 

 

. . . click here to read more: Arher Ahoy!

 

Day 3: Life On Mars In Hoq’s Cave

 

 

. . . This cave is one of the most important spots on the island and the closest you can get to visiting an alien planet . . .

 

 

. . . click here to read more: Life On Mars In Hoq’s Cave

 

Day 4: Where There May Be Dragons In Dixsam

 

 

. . . After setting off for what I felt was an unnecessary hike, we all soon realized we had made a poorly timed decision as we soon got rained on and a flash flood prevented us from crossing back over to our vehicles. Yikes! . . .

 

. . . click here to read more: Where There May Be Dragons In Dixsam

Day 5: Always Up to Nogud!

 

 

. . . From here we hiked through Fermahin – a forest and the highest concentration of Dragon’s Blood trees on the island (and I guess by transitive property, the rest of the world). . . .

 

 

. . . click here to read more: Always Up To Nogud!

 

Day 6: A Monsooner Always Pays Their Detwah!

 

 

. . . We hiked around the cliffs of the lagoon to pay a visit to Abdullah, a man living with his family (who was nowhere to be seen…) in a cave since a hurricane. . . .

 

 

. . . click here to read more: A Monsooner Always Pays Their Detwah!

 

Day 7: Rico Shuaab-ey

 

 

. . . The waves were rough, as we almost capsized more times I would have wanted to count. But we passed by huge rock formations, countless jellyfish and a few dolphins . . . 

 

 

. . . click here to read more: Rico Shuaab-ey!

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Habido, Yemen, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 88% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

12 Strong: Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan

12 Strong: Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan

 

Our itinerary for this trip needs a little bit of background context.

On January 2018, the Taliban attacked the The Inter-continental Hotel in Kabul and killed at least 42 people. Among the dead included 5 pilots and 4 crew members of Kam Air, which was soon followed by over 50 foreign workers from that airline to then leave the country. Lacking enough pilots to fly out to places like Bamyan, Kam Air cancelled many of their routine daily flights, and to this day about a year and a half later, remains handicapped to where they can travel. Given this understandable situation and out of respect, we altered our original itinerary from Bamyan to Mazār-i-Sharīf/Mazār-e Sharīf/Mazar, the 4th largest city in Afghanistan.

So today we got up at 7am for our 9:45am flight out to Mazar, a significant historical city in both ancient and modern times.

After the September 11th attacks, USA began their invasion of Afghanistan to expel the Taliban. One of the first major battles took place here on November 9th, 2011, where the Afghan Northern Alliance, aided by USA’s Joint Special Operations teams, Green Berets, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), and Air Force Combat Controllers, liberated Mazar from the Taliban.

The battle later became famous in modern warfare lore for US Special Forces charging on horseback against a better equipped Taliban army, which was then profiled in and inspired Doug Stanton’s non-fiction book Horse Soldiers and Douwe Blumberg’s America’s Response Monument, the bronze statue in Liberty Park overlooking the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.

 

The book and statue’s story was later adapted for the recent Hollywood film 12 Strong starring Chris Helmsworth.

 

 

As we left for the airport, we began the long slog through the domestic terminal in Afghanistan. We went through a series of extensive security checks where ironically the women still get patted down more thoroughly than the men.

 

 

After about 20 minutes of going through security check after security check (which I won’t elaborate on to preserve the safety of future travelers), we checked into our 9:45am Kam Air flight to Mazar.

 

 

We waited about 10 minutes in the departure lounge before boarding. 

 

 

The flight over Afghanistan is well worth the window seat:

 

 

We landed about an hour later at 10:45am:

 

 

After being picked up by our convoy and driving 10 minutes to the hotel, we freshened up before heading out for a long day of walking.

 

 

Our first order of business was to savor authentic Afghani ice cream at Akram Sarwari, perfect for the 102ºF weather outside. Flavors came in cardamon, pistachio, cherry, mango, and traditional (that tasted somewhat like a creme caramel)

 

 

After 30 minutes fattening ourselves we headed out to explore the town.

 

 

Mazar was founded in the 12th century after a local mullah dreamt of a secret location where Ali bin Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and the 4th caliph of Islam, had been buried. Soon they built a shrine on the site (later rebuilt as the Blue Mosque) where the town of Mazar began to grow around it.

It soon became the capital of the region after the nearby town of Balkh was abandoned due to disease.

 

 

Regarded as one of the most peaceful places in Afghanistan, it is one of the few places in Afghanistan where we were able to walk freely and safely in a rural environment.

 

 

In what seems to be the most unfortunate aspects of Afghani cities, however, we couldn’t help but note the rows of men squatting along a traffic divider — our guide would mention that they would spend entire days intoxicated on heroin-equivalent substances.

 

 

We also stopped by for a burqa shop fitting:

 

 

Eventually we reached the city center: The Blue Mosque:

 

 

Of course large crowds of curious locals gathered around us everywhere we stopped. We talked to them and our conversations never went beyond asking where we were from and what we were studying/doing for a job.

 

 

Behind the mosque lies the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, the reported burial site of the aforementioned Ali bin Talib and one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Islam:

 

 

A guard will inquire whether you are Muslim or not before deciding whether to let you inside to see the tomb of Ali bin Talib itself. If you’re not, the guard unfortunately made known to our guide that “if the town finds out, they will chop you in a hundred pieces.”

It seemed nobody really minded our presence however, so the risk is yours to take.

 

 

Behind the mosque is a holy slab of rock where it is purported that any bird that lands on it will become white. Take the legend for what you will:

 

 

After about an hour here, we returned back to our hotel and enjoyed a dinner at King Burger:

 

 

- At time of posting in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, it was 39 °C - Humidity: 11% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: burnt to a crisp

 

So I’m In Kabul, Afghanistan Right Now… (Updated July 1, 2019)

So I’m In Kabul, Afghanistan Right Now… (Updated July 1, 2019)

 

(Given the ever-changing security situation here, this post will be updated as circumstances develop so check back often)

 

Travel Warnings

A helpful warning as I set off for Kabul today:

Do not travel to Afghanistan due to crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed conflict

 

Travel to all areas of Afghanistan is unsafe because of critical levels of kidnappings, hostage taking, suicide bombings, widespread military combat operations, landmines, and terrorist and insurgent attacks, including attacks using vehicle-borne, magnetic, or other improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide vests, and grenades.  

 

Terrorist and insurgent groups continue planning and executing attacks in Afghanistan.  These attacks occur with little or no warning, and have targeted official Afghan and U.S. government convoys and facilities, local government buildings, foreign embassies, military installations, commercial entities, non-governmental organization (NGO) offices, hospitals, residential compounds, tourist locations, transportation hubs, public gatherings, markets and shopping areas, places of worship, restaurants, hotels, universities, airports, schools, gymnasiums, and other locations frequented by U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals.

 

The U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is severely limited, particularly outside of Kabul. Evacuation options from Afghanistan are extremely limited due to the lack of infrastructure, geographic constraints, and the volatile security situation.

 

Family members cannot accompany U.S. government employees who work in Afghanistan.  Unofficial travel to Afghanistan by U.S. government employees and their family members is restricted and requires prior approval from the Department of State.  U.S. Embassy personnel are restricted from traveling to all locations in Kabul except the U.S. Embassy and other U.S. government facilities unless there is a compelling U.S. government interest in permitting such travel that outweighs the risk.  Additional security measures are needed for any U.S. government employee travel and movement through Afghanistan.

 

Due to risks to civil aviation operating within or in the vicinity of Afghanistan, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) and/or a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR). For more information, U.S. citizens should consult the Federal Aviation Administration’s Prohibitions, Restrictions and Notices.

 

Yep, even 5 hours ago after arriving and driving around something just happened here:

 

 

But to be perfectly honest, we drove right by this police convoy that was apprehending the Taliban and we heard no commotion whatsoever. Just a lot of cars honking in a typical traffic jam.

In fact, other than the usual security precautions of not posting until after we left the place  — and an attack a few minutes ago on our very last day here (more on that later) — my entire week at Afghanistan personally felt completely safe and remarkably uneventful. Tourists are never a target. The locals have been friendly, the sights have been beautiful, and all in all, not once did I ever feel the least bit of worried for my well-being during my time here.

Except for a handful of minutes on my last day in the country, the most surprising thing about Afghanistan was how normal it felt to be here.

 

Arriving (The Airport)

On Monday I took the 2.5 hour Emirates EK640 flight from Dubai to Kabul departing at 11:10am:

 

 

As we approached our landing:

 

 

We disembarked at 2:30pm.

 

 

Unlike obtaining my visa for Afghanistan, getting through immigrations took less than 5 minutes. They simply take a photo of you and your fingerprints.

 

 

Given the understandable security situation in this part of the world, I was instructed to obtain a temporary ID card from the small blue booth facing baggage claims. I had prepared two 2×2 passport photos ahead of time so I could expedite everything.

 

 

However, it occurred to me I would be the only one in the group to have this ID card as everyone else reported that the booth was closed when they arrived.

 

 

Once I had my temporary ID card (which took 3 minutes for them to make), I left the terminal, turned left and followed the rest of my fellow passengers.

 

 

Non-flyers are not allowed into the terminal building so I had to leave the airport entirely to reach my greeters and guides who had a sign with my name and his own special ID card with clearance to be there.

I had mistakenly wandered into the diplomatic area first, but it seemed nobody cared about my presence before I re-entered the airport and exited the normal way.

 

 

And with that I was on my way!

 

 

Money

Regarding money, there are a number of moneychangers within two minutes walk of our guesthouse that changed USD to local Afghanis at a good rate at 80 to 1.

It is recommended that you bring all the cash you need for a time exchange; ATMs are understandably scarce and the existing ATMs usually never work…except for a few that I found in hidden grocery stores!

 

 

Food & Drink

We chose lunch and dinner at various heavily guarded restaurants during the day as our guide arranged everything ahead of time. Afghan cuisine has been a clear intersection of recognizable Persian/Iranian and Pakistani staples.

Alcohol is obviously banned and is difficult and expensive to find.

 

 

My favorite place was a café called Tea Time that served great shisha, fantastic food, and even better tea and fresh mango juice:

 

 

Much to my surprise, the entire group generally has been feeling fine the entire week with Afghan cuisine. There has been one exception of someone who vomited once on day one and felt fine since, and another whose diet simply couldn’t get used to the change in Mazar-e Sharif. I’ve been totally fine despite me eating everything in sight; TMI, but so far not a single episode of diarrhea!

 

Lodging/Power

I recommend choosing a hotel/accommodations that’s NOT The Inter-continental, The Serena, or any of the world-class hotels that are frequently targeted by terrorist groups. We’re staying at a secure hotel complex and conference center inside the Kabul city center but it’s completely hidden away by tall walls and unmarked doors. 

I can’t tell you where we are exactly to preserve the safety of future travelers (it doesn’t even have an official name or show up on Google Maps!), but you can privately message me if interested. 

In fact our hotel is so secure that a TV crew came by after our breakfast to set up a shoot here for a broadcast on government-sponsored female contraceptives!

Power was also pretty reliable in Afghanistan. Other than a rolling blackout that happened once or twice (and was barely noticeable), everything was chargeable. I barely used my portable charger at all this past week.

At least most hotels have great WiFi if anyone wants to stay connected; in our rooms I was able to upload photos at 4G/LTE speeds!

 

 

Cultural Faux Pax

As we arrived, we were given our choice of clothing. As Afghanistan remains a conservative Islamic country, women are required to wear a headscarf and long sleeved clothing that obfuscate the shape of their bodies. Men wear long trousers. Luckily given the weather, Afghan clothes are light and breathe very well.

When I got my clothes, they felt so light and freeing I wore the same outfit everyday for a week.

 

 

Despite hearing of the infamous conservatism, we found Afghans to be extremely forgiving for any cultural faux pas. There are a few following things we made sure to do, however:

  • Always ask before taking photos, especially regarding to women and people praying
  • Asian households! Take off you shoes if entering a mosque or someone’s house. Hold soles together.
  • Never walk in front of someone if they are praying.
  • Never directly expose the bottom of your feet to anyone
  • Don’t talk too loudly
  • If you are of the male persuasion then do not start talking to/interacting with local women unless they approach you first.

 

 

Security and Safety

Yes, to get this out of the way: As I’m writing this a few explosions just occurred within our vicinity a few km away (it’s already on the news). Still hearing some gunfire in the distance where the plumes of smoke are.

 

 

We just went up to the rooftop to take a look:

 

 

What is remarkable is how the hotel staff and even some of the people in our group remain so blasé right now as if we had heard a car accident just happened a few blocks away. We’ve been here a little over a week and the desensitization is very real, even though nothing close to this has happened during our 7-8 days here. We even went out for lunch outside an hour later. As our guide informed us, most of the attacks occur between 7am-10am at the same places to target the morning commutes of VIPs and foreign workers. Tourists are never a target.

And regarding overall security and safety, the areas we otherwise have been visiting in Afghanistan are where our guides feel comfortable that they can take us without any unforeseen or undue risk. There really have been no other incidents.

On another note, narcotic drug use is unfortunately publicly rampant on the streets of Kabul. The users tend to keep to themselves, so they won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.

 

 

FYI, speaking of security you will always notice the 24/7 all-seeing surveillance blimp (aka the “dirigible“) the USA has set up over Kabul:

 

 

The following things are important should you find yourself visiting Kabul at this time:

  • Never discuss your itinerary or name of hotel with anyone you meet. While the question may arise in curiosity, please keep the schedule to as few people as possible as a precaution
  • Never take photos of any military personal, vehicles or installations.
  • Take early starts on the days if you plan to travel long distances. In the case of a breakdown, you do not want to be stuck on the road after dark.
  • Register with your foreign office. If you go to your countries foreign office website there is usually a form you can complete to let them know where you are. This is so if there are any problems and you need their help, your embassy will be much more helpful if you have registered with them
  • If you get invites for tea or for dinner from people, which is one of the great things about visiting Afghanistan, stay cautious. Follow your guide’s lead if he feels taking up such an invite may be inappropriate
  • Watch and listen to your guide. He has a lot of experience in Afghanistan and may see signs that things are not as they should be before you do.
  • If you disagree with your guide, the time to argue and discuss what to do is later in the hotel. So if your guide asks you to do something, do it and then argue about it later.

 

 

Military Presence

They may be everywhere, but they’re not menacing. Most are local Afghani troops and police forces. I only noticed coalition/Western forces stationed at the airports and inside bases.

 

 

Nevertheless, get used to the sound of Osprey/Chinook helicopters every 5 minutes and the constant traffic jams due to military and police checkpoints at the roundabouts.

 

 

Packing

This was my packing list (and this is overdoing it):

  • Comfortable clothes for wearing around the hotels
  • Conservative, loose fitting clothes for when you first arrive (or buy them on day one)
  • Headscarves for women
  • Plastic carrier bags. Very useful for dirty washing, dirty shoes, rubbish and keeping stuff dry.
  • Spare passport photos for use at the borders
  • Flashlight
  • Flip flops/thongs for bathrooms
  • Small packs of tissues and wet wipes
  • Money belt or secure pouch
  • Sunscreen
  • Sewing kit
  • Sunglasses
  • Writing materials
  • Plenty of spare film or memory space
  • Some small gifts can be nice as presents
  • Umbrella or Keffiyeh for small bouts of rain
  • Towel

 

 

What To Visit

That said, what did we see in Kabul? There’s so much! On my first day arriving when I bought some local clothes to blend in, I found myself at a street shop outside the largest mosque in Kabul, built 6 years ago.

 

 

We then strolled down Chicken Street, formerly the most hip place in town and more notoriously the site of the recent Taliban ambulance bombing on January 27, 2018 that killed 103 people and wounded 235 others.

 

 

Now you can’t tell if anything ever had happened here:

 

 

There are street shops here selling everything a tourist would want in souvenirs including this gem:

 

 

In fact we walked up and down this street more than one occasion each for an hour doing some shopping. Locals greeted us without a care, we wandered in shops without feeling the pressure to buy anything, and perhaps the most dangerous thing that happened to us on the trip were cute children following us down asking us to spare a few Afghanis.

 

 

If you hike up to any viewpoint, you can’t miss the sprawling USA embassy:

 

 

A few times we drove past the Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque, built during the time of Amanullah Khan and unique for its significant European influence in its architecture:

 

 

This site is unfortunately the site where the murder of Farkhunda Malikzada took place; a woman was falsely accused of burning the Quran by a mullah, leading to a crowd of Islamic extremists lynching her. She was beaten, stoned, run over and dragged 300 feet by a car, before being set on fire by the banks of the Kabul River. Her death would lead to the formation of the modern women’s rights movement in Afghanistan.

A memorial to her has been built nearby:

 

 

We also visited the Kabul museum, largely restored after its demolition by the Taliban:

 

 

We paid our respects at the British cemetery, home to hundreds of foreign nationals who died in Afghanistan (The USA have their own private cemetery but that’s restricted access).

 

 

One of my favorite sites in Kabul was the Bird Market, arguably the most dodgy part of the city for tourists since there are reportedly many Taliban sympathizers here, but we felt fine shopping here for clothes in the frenetic frenzy of locals around us.

 

 

We drove up to the hills of Bibi Mahru that overlook the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, where the novel The Kite Runner took place:

 

 

The country’s largest flag, donated by a joint venture between India and Pakistan, sits on top:

 

 

There is unfortunately a well known (for the wrong reasons) swimming pool here where the Taliban executed their prisoners by pushing them off the diving boards:

 

 

That said, if you’re into this kind of morbid stuff, we drove by the infamous football/soccer stadium numerous times:

 

 

Driving back down into the city we took photos of the remains of Darul Aman Palace, “the dwelling-place of peace,” a crumbling symbol of what was once supposed to be the modern future of the country.

 

 

When we returned to Kabul after 3 days in Mazari Sharif, we finished off our sightseeing in Babur’s Gardens – the final resting place of the first Mughal emperor:

 

 

The Qale’H-Ye-Balahissar, an ancient fortress dating from the 5th century AD.

 

 

The OMAR landmine museum, dedicated to the still continuing efforts to remove the hundreds of landmines in this country. It unfortunately shares the space with a television studio constantly threatened and attacked by the Taliban.

We had a close call here as it’s been just attacked by the Taliban again today, literally the morning after we had visited. Yikes.

 

 

The Mausoleum of Zahir Shah:

 

 

The views from here are some of the best:

 

 

The Shah M Book Company, run by a Norwegian book collector who curates a wide and diverse collection on paraphernalia and books pertaining to Afghanistan including controversial items that the Taliban would consider pornography. Photos are not allowed here as he already had to move numerous times after constant threats and attacks:

 

 

And the one of the most surreal, batshit but positive moments of my week in Afghanistan: a brief 10 minute visit to Zablon Simintov, the last remaining Jew living in Afghanistan and the caretaker of the only synagogue in Kabul.

His wikipedia and Atlas Obscura entries are incredible.

 

 

You have to find his hidden synagogue somewhere behind a shisha café and up the stairs on the second floor:

 

 

He speaks no English so we had to use a mixture of basic Russian, Hebrew, and Dari. Eventually for a fee he agreed to open up his synagogue for a visit:

 

 

Oddly he always asks for payment for to be in his company but otherwise to be inside a hidden synagogue and seeing Stars of David everywhere after a week in a place like Afghanistan was a true shock and humble privilege.

 

 

Final Thoughts (Addendum on July 1st, 2019)

Because for security reasons I chose to post this on my last day in Kabul, and especially given that just as I finished writing this we heard a series of explosions and sporadic gunfire occurring a few kilometers away from our hotel, I’m writing this both from the perspective of my first and last day in Afghanistan after 7 days here. And although it took awhile, Afghanistan surprised me in ways I could not expect.

I expected to be throttled, shocked and awed, stumbling to the ground believing it would be a feverish experience from the moment I arrived. Instead pleasant surprise prevailed. Walking on the streets of Kabul on my first day felt immediately comfortable and familiar, and I never once experienced any sense of heightened tensions I had been warned to expect. At many moments I felt like I was back in Pakistan, gallivanting without a care other than the occasional tout and curious child. Like our initial concerns coming here, even military forces soon evaporated within the din of rush hour traffic.

Then I traveled to Mazar-e Sharif, Samangan, and Hairatan for 3 days — and despite the reported threat of the Taliban lurking around the corner — Afghanistan’s ocean of grandeur remained in wait, its beauty slowly unraveling like the beginning of an epic tale. Not until my return to Kabul for my final 2 days did this country finally reveal a tapestry of countless beautiful complexities.

Yes, before I go on, I must take a sense of responsibility and acknowledge the inherent dangers that could happen — even the one within a few minutes at the time of writing. However, I also cannot ignore the tens of thousands other minutes and moments where we felt completely safe, privileged to witness a place past the filter of Western media. Where a degree of the negativity bears truth, most of the positivity remains unrecognized. I know I still go to work hearing gunshots outside my ER back home.

To know Afghanistan is to know patience; the first impression can sometimes be the wrong impression. And sometimes the first impressions stick. Either way, you cannot judge a place or a person until you have experienced it for yourself. All I can conclude is that Afghanistan takes its time, lies in wait, rewarding only to those willing to look past the trauma porn of violence and war at its surface. It may take ages, demand repeat viewings, and should never be considered as n simply packaged, single-serving experience.

What I had witnessed this past week was resilience. Resilience in a country and people proud of its deep history — scars and all — while forging ahead towards an uncertain destiny.

 

 

- At time of posting in Kabul, Afghanistan, it was 13 °C - Humidity: 41% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy