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

 

Nauru, AKA The Marooned Diaries – New Year’s Eve In The #1 Least Visited Country In The World

Nauru, AKA The Marooned Diaries – New Year’s Eve In The #1 Least Visited Country In The World

 

Above cover photo credit: Mikhael Chai — thanks for that unplanned shot of me standing on the top of Nauru!

  

I’ve already had my fair share of New Year’s Eve celebrations in far flung corners of the globe:

 

But this year will be different. Today I will celebrate New Year’s Eve in the #1 smallest independent republic and LEAST visited country in the world at less than 160 visitors a year: Nauru.

I first heard of Nauru years ago on This American Life as one of the most difficult countries to visit and officially the #1 least visited country in the world. The 30 minute podcast episode is fascinating and I highly suggest you listen to it, if not read the transcript here. After all, it is about a country literally in the middle of nowhere.

 

Specifically, the middle of nowhere is an island, isolated even by Pacific Ocean standards, 1,200 miles from the nearest smudge of land. A third the size of Manhattan, way east of New Guinea. On a map, a tiny dot in a massive hole in the middle of the sea.
 
This place is called Nauru. Heard of it? Don’t worry. Almost no one has. Nauru is the place you’ve never heard of until you’ve heard of it, and then can’t stop hearing of it. Part of the pleasure of knowing about Nauru is watching it pop up, Zelig-like, at the strangest world events. A covert spy operation involving a fake embassy in China. The world premiere of a London musical. The dark back room scheming of global terrorism. A dramatic rescue on the high seas. And an incident of international bankruptcy, as Jonathan Winer discovered. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

 

 

 

 

The Least Visited Country In The World

 

For those of you unfamiliar with Nauru, this tiny sliver of land boasts 11,300 residents covering a 21 sq km (or 8 sq. mi) area. This makes Nauru the world’s smallest independent republic and 3rd smallest state by area behind Vatican City 

 

 

More notably, Nauru’s phosphate-rock deposits once made it the richest country per-capita in the world in the late 1980s. Then international mining companies completely stripped the mines and thus nearly Nauru’s entire source of income:

 

This discovery [of phosphate] plunged Nauru into the Industrial Age in the most brutal way. It became a strip mine, with a succession of different owners. First Germany, then Japan during World War II, and then Australia until the late ’60s when colonialism went out of fashion. Nauru became an independent nation in 1968 and took control of the mines. The money poured in. By the late ’80s, Nauru was the richest country per capita in the world. And they luxuriated in it. Everyone bought a car, even though the drive around the entire perimeter of the nation can’t last much more than 30 minutes. They built cinder block houses, the hotel went up. Everyone got satellite TV, Western food arrived. Nauru Airline started flying. And in the final sign of post-colonial arrival, they built a golf course in the middle of nowhere.

And just like for everyone else in the ’90s, the bubble burst. Nauru’s financial advisers in the west robbed them blind. One of them, Adrian Powles of London, looted $60 million. Another boondoggle was producing a play in London. Maybe you missed the musical based on the amorous adventures of da Vinci, called Leonardo, A Portrait of Love. It closed a few weeks after it opened, losing tens of millions of dollars for its principal backer, Nauru. By the late ’90s, the country was in ruins. With the money gone, it was easier to turn around and see what they’d done to their homeland. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

Probably 70% of the island is mined out ruins. You can’t walk through it, it’s of no use to you. So the people on this island are in big trouble. They can no longer really get from the island those life support functions one needs in order to live somewhere. 

– Carl McDaniel, This American Life

 

When you’re on Nauru, there’s a palpable sense of shame at what they’ve done. Bring up the mining with anyone, a hotel clerk, a cab driver, a postal worker, and their face goes tense. It’s hard to understand because the Nauruans have done something almost unparalleled. Imagine if France had paved Bordeaux, or if Japan had carted away Fujiyama by the truckload. The Nauruans literally sold off their homeland for a pot of wealth, which is now lost. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

 

In desperation and after leagues of further bad investments, Nauru became a tax haven and illegal center for money laundering for various illicit government factions and mafias around the world.

 

For a while in the 90s, Nauru advertised on the internet permitting anyone to start a bank there for as little as $20,000. Make up a name, like the Panacea Bank. . . . Here was the advantage. Most banks are required to keep an audit trail of money coming in and going out, like a standard statement for a checking account. Nauru didn’t burden its banks with such fussiness. Nor did Nauru require that they ever tell anyone just who ran the bank. So when investigators went to track illicit money flows and got to the Panacea Bank, there would be no record of where the money came from. The trail would vanish. And Nauru would be under no obligation to say who ran it or where they lived.
 
Banks that would hide your tracks for you have always been around, but it was more of a gentleman’s sport practiced with old world grandeur in Switzerland. Nauru led the way in democratizing offshore banking, taking it to the internet, lowering the cost to make it easier on middle income international criminal syndicates.
 
– Jack Hitt, This American Life
 
 

Even more notoriously, Nauru has accepted aid and money from the Nauru Regional Processing Centre: an offshore Australian immigration detention facility. As a result of its heavy dependence on Australia, Nauru now has been considered a client state of Australia.

 

A boatload of refugees, mostly Afghans [were] fleeing the Taliban. Their wooden ship was sinking in the waters off Australia, and the Aussies flew helicopters out over them for three days, taking no action until they spotted a Norwegian cargo vessel nearby. The Australians then radioed the captain, told him of the SOS situation, and advised him to take the wreckage to Indonesia. The Norwegian captain hurried to the sinking boat and pulled over 400 refugees onto his cargo ship, ill equipped to handle such a crowd. Obviously, he had to take immediate action, heading for the closest port that could handle them. Australia. But Australia didn’t want these people, so for days there was a standoff at sea until Australia came up with a solution.

What the Norwegian captain didn’t know was that he had sailed right into the middle of an ugly national election. Australian Prime Minister John Howard was down in the polls and seemed destined to lose. Then he stood his ground regarding the refugees. He declared, “We will decide who comes into this country.” After he ordered his Navy to board the Norwegian vessel and remove the refugees to Nauru, his ratings shot right up and he easily won reelection. In exchange for locating the refugees on this distant island, he agreed to pay the Nauruan government a first installment of $20 million, with more to come.

You won’t be hearing from the refugees. Since they landed on the island in September 2001, Nauru has closed its borders. No tourists or journalists are allowed. The refugees cannot receive visitors. And Australia has picked up other refugees on the water and sent them into the camps, including Iraqis escaping Saddam Hussein. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

 

This would lead Nauru to become a breeding ground of a staggering mental health crisis almost unparalleled anywhere else in the world:

From the start, the authorities recognized that the detainees were becoming lethargic and morose. So they hired Maarten Dormaar, a Dutch psychiatrist, who came to Nauru. He was hampered by the fact that rural people from Afghanistan and Iraq don’t have a rich tradition of talk therapy, or opening up to a grief counselor. So their anxiety manifested itself in physical ways.

 

There was a boy who only came to me because of his stuttering. He said, I can’t speak anymore, properly. And the more emotionally loaded my questions were, then he started to stutter. As soon as he had to pronounce a word like brother or father, he couldn’t go on talking. It was clearly an emotional reaction, a reaction to his being overloaded with, how do you call, [DUTCH WORD] how do you call that in English? Longing for, hey, he was a young boy. Longing to see his mother, longing to be comforted, longing to have an arm around his shoulders. And there he is, all alone, in a long house with people that he cannot trust and he cannot confide in. It’s very understandable. 

Most of them didn’t sleep. That is their main complaint. They didn’t sleep till 4:00 or so. And then they said, did you sleep afterwards. No, I didn’t sleep, I just rested a little. Pain in their back, in their head. I mean, they always want sleeping pills and pills for headache. Fear of dying. Feeling of fainting. And so the feeling that you can’t breathe anymore. Self mutilation, with a knife over the chest and over the arms and so on, a lot of blood. This happened at least a dozen of times. 

–  Maarten Dormaar

 

Dormaar tried to convince the authorities that none of the detainees had any mental illness. Simply put, they are being driven crazy. The cure was simple. Freedom, work, friends, life. All things he was powerless to provide. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

 

And to top it off into the extreme, our very own US government simply would make things even worse by means of international espionage involving a fake embassy in China.

[U.S. State Department] paperwork, including emails, personal correspondence, and memos on state department stationery, detailed a quid pro quo between Washington and Nauru. Washington offered to return Nauru to paradise with fisheries, health clinics, schools, desalination plants, the works. In return, Nauru had to stop its banking and passport business, set up a listening post for US intelligence agencies, and sign Article 98, exempting the US from all war criminal proceedings in the international courts. Standard stuff requested by the Bush administration these days. Oh, and there was one other thing. Nauru had to go on a secret mission.

The way it was described to the Nauruans was this. The US wanted to use Nauruan diplomatic facilities in China to help facilitate the safe defection to the west of senior North Korean military and scientific personnel. Nauru would set up an embassy in China, and it would also set up an embassy car. And the car would be used, with a Nauruan flag, to help move people around the country. And the embassy would be used as a possible safe house to hold a defector until they could be safely moved to the West. The operation, they describe as Operation Weasel. 

– Cameron Stewart

. . . But when the state department was asked publicly about aid to Nauru, they not only denied the deal, but insisted that the men who made the arrangements with Nauru had no official authority. Meanwhile, understand, the Nauruans had held up their side of the deal. They outlawed offshore banking, which had cut off a big part of their income. So Nauru took the United States to court in Australia. . . . No matter what happens, it’s hard to see this as a win for Nauru. It’s a desperate act, even for a country so intimate with desperation. You know you’re really running out of options when you’re dunning the CIA for money owed on failed covert ops.

 

. . .How often you get to watch a country die? For a modern nation state, however small, to furl its flag, push in its UN chair and turn off the lights, is unthinkable. But for Nauru, it’s not only thinkable, but likely. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

 

  

Day 1 – Dec 30, 2018

Arrival

 

Given that things have turned around for Nauru lately, and that its borders were beginning to open up again to tourism, we had to see this very place for ourselves. We began our morning with 7:30am vans to Majuro airport.

 

So I traveled to Brisbane, Australia to catch the Nauru plane. I say the plane because Nauru Airways owns only one, a Boeing 737, all that connects this island to the world. I was told I was lucky to be aboard since the president often commandeers it to fly in party supplies, or sometimes creditors trying to collect on one of Nauru’s many debts seize it right on the runway. On the flight out, half the plane was taken up with giant plastic containers customized to fit ceiling to floor in the passenger seats. See, almost everything, including fresh water, has to be imported. 

– Jack Hitt, This American Life

 

 

Once at the airport we checked in with printed copies of our pre-purchased tickets.

 

 

There’s a pretty decent restaurant inside Majuro airport if you want to grab a omelette or a hearty spam musubi. They also sell a very rare copy of the highly vaunted “BAMON VS MAJURO.”

 

 

Afterwards we boarded our 3 hour 40 minute 9:25am flight from the Marshall Islands via Nauru Airlines.

 

 

 

I expected it to up there in charm with Air Koryo but Nauru Air is actually a very normal airline.

 

 

Before arriving in Nauru, we first stopped in Kiribati for a 20 minute layover on the runway before eventually arriving in Nauru airport at 1:05pm in the afternoon.

 

 

The energy was palpable on the runway, with nearly everyone stopping every few paces to take photos around them. In any other country this would have been a huge security no-no, but expected in Nauru.

 

 

There we waited for them to process our pre-arranged visas ($50 AUD).

 

 

 Getting a visa was relatively straightforward although prolonged. We applied months in advance, filling out a multi-page form and submitting a 2×2 passport photo, a screenshot copy of our passport, and an official letter of employment.

 


 

After 5 minutes at the passport counter and a relatively thorough customs check, we finally set foot into Arrivals and otherwise the world’s least visited country.

 

 

We quickly got picked up by our hotel outside arrivals…

 

 

…and checked into one of reportedly only 3 hotels in the country, The Menen Hotel, which is the the main international hotel of Nauru:

 

 

For the record, there are currently 8 ATMs on the island, one being at the Menen Hotel, one at Cappelle & Partner Department Store, and 4 at Bendigo Bank at the Civic Center. However, the guarantee of actual hard cash in these ATMs is not guaranteed — after a day our ATM at the Menen Hotel was run dry, leading us to make trips to Yaren to get out cash. And credit cards at the time of posting are still not accepted here.

Afterwards we wandered about Anibare Beach and the surrounding area. 

 

 

 

We then had dinner at Anibare Restaurant by the hotel before doing a night’s walk in the pouring rain.

     

     

    We happened upon Anibare Community Harbor, financed by the Japanese government and the only place on the island where you can have a safe swim. A few of us jumped in the warm waters here with some local kids.

     

     

     

     

    Day 2 – Dec 31, 2018

    New Year’s Eve

     

    Because Nauru’s size allows for it to lack an official capital city, it does boast a “capital village” in Yaren (aka where the airport is). So we headed there after an 8am breakfast to check out the Parliament Building and the Office of the President:

     

     

    If you’re in need of souvenirs, there is a “main gift shop” and post office for some memorabilia at the Civic Center past the airport. This is also the only other place to get cash from an ATM.

     

     

    Down towards the coast are the surreal ruins of the former phosphate mining facilities of Nauru’s richer past. Here you can find plenty of abandoned industry and shipwrecks at the port.

     

     

    And up the road is Nauru College:

     

     

    Obviously, my people are everywhere: 8% of people here are Chinese! 

    So we meandered over for a hearty Chinese lunch at the adjacent Anibare Harbor Restaurant we decided to obtain bragging rights to say we walked around a country in one day — Nauru is the only country in the world where it is actually possible to do this in 4-5 hours!

     

     

    And while doing our first loop around the country, we stopped by “Chinatown” which is more of a line of dollar shops than it is a town:

     

     

    These toys are all wrong though!

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Near the north part of the country is “downtown” in the vein of a giant Cappelle & Partner Department Store, the largest of which on the island:

     

     

    Luckily the best party in town for New Year’s would be held right at our own hotel, so we headed back for dinner and a few drinks before congregating at the hotel’s poolside. 

     

     

    At midnight we all jumped into the pool with an eclectic mix of refugees, expats and locals to see 2019 in no other random, crazy way than in the least visited country in the world!

     

     

    Unfortunately for music we lacked a DJ. As random people were scrambling through songs on YouTube to keep the party going, I stepped in to help out with my playlists of parties past. Speaking of which, this makes Melissa’s and my 3rd new year’s eve together!

     

     

      

    Day 3 – Jan 1, 2019

    Starting Off The Year By Walking

    An Entire Country In One Day!

     

    And what should we do as our first item of business for the new year?

    After a quick swim at Anibare Community Harbor and another Chinese lunch at the adjacent Anibare Harbor Restaurant, we decided to obtain bragging rights to say we walked around a country in one day — Nauru is the only country in the world where it is actually possible to do this in 4-5 hours!

     

     

     

     

    Of note, we passed by the emblematic phosphate deposits on Anibare Beach:

     

     

    And a special tree house:

     

     

    I finished the whole walk in 4.5 hours, having taken 30,000 steps across 15 miles. I am never going to do this again.

     

       

       

      Day 4 – Jan 2, 2019

      Inland aka “Topside”

       

      For our fourth day in Nauru, we headed inland first first to explore much of the abandoned and nearly scuttled phosphate mines that once dominated Nauru’s economy.

       

       

      Even if people are still kinda working here, this can be a playground for any urban explorers. Make sure you’re up to date on your tetanus!

       

      Nature always finds a way

       

      Our next stop was an empty Supermax prison, population: 0.

       

       

      Later in the afternoon we took a quick look at the infamous detention and regional processing center, which has now  been shuttered and mostly another refugee camp.

       

       

      We met a few Rohingya Muslims still living here who recently had fled Myanmar. They even invited us into their room for a few minutes to speak with us about their lives here.

       

       

      We then explored a few World War 2 relics still scattered about, including an old Japanese gun:

       

       

      …as well as an old Japanese prison:

       

       

      …and finally a giant Japanese artillery cannon on top of Command Ridge which takes a quick 10 minute hike up a hill and Nauru’s highest point.

       

       

      You can even climb inside and try to start it up again:

       

       

      From here you also can get glimpses of the leftover phosphate stockpiles that still remain on the island. This sun-bleached forsaken area is also known as Topside:

       

      The next day though, I realized that Nauru was also at the center of a completely different story. I called the cab for an island tour. The driver this day, whose name sounded like Brian, took me on a slow tour around the outer edge of the island. Then he asked me if I wanted to see the interior, known as Topside. When I said I did, the mood in the cab noticeably darkened. But he turned off one of the few side roads, and we headed in. Right away the trees disappeared. I immediately saw that the palms and pandanas you see on the shore are kind of scrim. A curtain, hiding from sight one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen.
       
      Almost all of Nauru is missing. Picked clean, right down to the coral skeletons supporting the island. It’s a haunting landscape of dugout stone channels formed by limestone towers and coral outcroppings, all blindingly white under an intense equatorial sun. The winding channels among these coral spires are lined with an appallingly silky dirt, and old, filthy trash, too expensive to export from the island, blows around this blistering desert. Shreds of plastic bags snag on bits of coral, and feral dogs hunt in the canals.
       
      Brian told me how when he was a boy, all this was dense tropical forest. We sat in a hissing silence for a while. There was no breeze, just fine talc, airborne and stagnant. – Jack Hitt, This American Life
       

       

       

      After all this we definitely needed a drink, so we began the country’s first official pub crawl at Jules bar:

       

       

      Then we had dinner at one of the only non-Chinese restaurant in the country, The Bay Restaurant:

       

       

      And finally finishing up at Reef Bar next to our hotel:

       

        

      Day 5 – Jan 3, 2019

      Our Last Day

       

      For our last day in Nauru, we hiked over to Buada Lagoon, the only freshwater lagoon on the island and an otherwise peaceful area surrounded by palm trees.

       

       

      After a 10 minute walk around the lagoon, we drove off for some cave spelunking. We first stopped by a mosquito-infested cavern in the Anibare area, where a tribe of 500 villagers were massacred many years ago. 

       

       

      Be careful crawling in — you’ll have crouch down pretty low to see where it leads as you’re getting eaten alive by the plenty of mosquitoes breeding here.

       

       

      After about 20 minutes here we drove towards to the airport to check out Moqua Well, a secret cave that once served as the country’s primary source of fresh drinking water during the Japanese occupation. 

      You’ll need a guide to help you find where it is, or ask some villagers to point you in the right direction. You’ll know you’ve reached it when you take a small 4 minute hike through some shrubbery to see this graffiti’ed wall.

       

       

      Afterwards we all headed back for an early end to our day; tomorrow we wake up at 3am to make our 5:15am flight to Kiribati. 

      It’s been real, Nauru. 

       

      Update: At the time of posting, it appears that the detention situation has dramatically improved. Citing the “devastating mental health crisis”, there has been a large-scale evacuation of nearly all the refugee children off of Nauru in the past week.

       

      - At time of posting in Nauru, it was 31 °C - Humidity: 75% | Wind Speed: 18km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

       

      One Last Day In Lahore

      One Last Day In Lahore

      Jehangir's Tomb...and my jeans...just got served

       

      Today was the day we needed to see all the major sites of Lahore other than the Badshahi Mosque. Beginning with a relatively early morning at 11am, we set off for the massive city-sized Lahore Fort:

       

       

      The first major part that you’ll come upon entering Lahore Fort is the Shish Mahal, a palace of mirrors.

       

       

      Walk anywhere along the edge of the fort you’ll get stupendous views of Lahore itself:

       

       

      After the fort, we walked north to find the hidden Begum Shah Mosque, one of the oldest in Lahore.

       

      To find Begum Shah Mosque, walk through a seemingly deserted and sketchy part of the red light district by the Fort:

       

       

      After visiting Begum Shah, we drove northwest towards Jehangir’s Tomb (tomb of the famous 4th Mughal Emperor), coming upon a road being torn apart to install a new sewage system. That didn’t stop our driver from driving through it anyway:

       

       

      Jehangir’s Tomb is immense, and a great place to stroll around and people-watch, or rather constantly being watched by dumbfounded locals who rarely see any foreigners here. 

      Mariam informed me I ruined a few cricket matches simply because I was walking by.

       

      They interview her for a documentary on Pakistan

      Walking towards the tomb:

       

       

      By the entrance to the tomb, you can pay a guard 100-200 rupees to let you in an adjacent door that opens to a staircase leading to the top of the minarets, where you can get great views of the area and Lahore:

       


      Leaving the tomb site, we headed back southeast towards the inner city (or Old City) for the last stop of the day: the deserted and exquisite Wazir Khan Mosque:


       

      To get to Wazir Khan, I would recommend that you stop your car outside the gate of the inner city and walk by foot to the mosque:

       

       

      Wazir Khan Mosque, the namesake of the governor of Sirhind. Unlike The Badshahi Mosque and its epic scope, the beauty at Wazir Mosque lies in the details of the walls and the buildings themselves, as well as that deserted feeling you get just by being here. 

      You might find yourself totally alone at Wazir Khan, and that’s what we loved the most about making this our last stop in Lahore.

       

       

      And with that, we bid a sorrowful goodbye to Pakistan and the wonderful people we met here. I always say I don’t really travel for the sights, the parties, or for the location itself; rather, it’s always the people that become the reason why I travel.

      That could not be any more true with the people and family I got to know here in Pakistan.

      On a daily basis the media compels us to think twice about traveling to a certain place, but Pakistan is one where I wouldn’t think twice about coming back to again, simply because of the family that took me in and made me feel like I was one of them.

      With the weddings, outings, family functions, and the opportunity to embarrass myself in front of a crowd of hundreds of strangers, I was given an insight to a part of a country and culture I would never have been able to access or understand on my own. I will forever be grateful for showing me what hospitality, love, and kinship truly means.

       

       

      - At time of posting in Lahore Airport, it was 11 °C - Humidity: 62% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: nil significant cloud

       

      Tegucig-Awe-lpa

      Tegucig-Awe-lpa

      Tegucigalpa just got served.

       

      “…Tegucigalpa is dangerous and the crime is palpable . . . Comayaguela, which is very rough and tumble and not a place to linger day or night. San Isidro Market is a particular hot spot for petty theft.  . . . Take taxis at night. In Colonia Palmira, gangs of transvestites have also been known to mug tourists (You won’t be spreading that news across your Facebook status update, will you?). Steer clear.”

      “…Shorts and sandals quickly give you away as a foreign traveler. This should go without saying, but here goes anyway: keep your cash and valuables well hidden. Finally, seek advice from your hotel or locals before hopping on a local city bus. Some are prone to theft and ‘taxing’ carried out by gang members.”

      “Downtown Tegucigalpa is safe-ish during the day, although not at night. Comyaguela is an even dodgier part of town but closer to the bus terminals. Wandering around here day or night is not recommended.”

      -Lonely Planet on Tegucigalpa, October 2010

       

      Not very encouraging, is it?

      And that’s where we find ourselves in: the capital of Honduras known affectionately as “Tegus.” Lonely Planet calls it a “sprawling Central American metropolis, snarled with fume-belching traffic.” But we prefer to appreciate the fact that “the setting is spectacular — the city is nestled in a valley surrounded by a ring of mountains, and it has a certain chaotic charm.”

       

       

      From Copan Ruinas, we took an 11am Hedman Alas bus into San Pedro Sula at 2:45pm in the afternoon. When we arrived, Hedman Alas quickly carted our checked bags to another bus headed to Tegucigalpa while we were processed via a relatively extensive security checkpoint.

      The whole transiting process felt like transferring in and out of an airport — two times they combed through our bags, took our photos, checked our passports with those said photos, and made us go through X-ray machines simply to board a bus.

       

      Hedman Alas Bus Station in Copan Ruinas

      From Copan Ruinas to San Pedro Sula

      Hedman Alas Bus Station in San Pedro Sula

      A quick search would reveal that a slew of violent armed robberies had occured a few years ago on various bus routes in Honduras, particularly the one between Copan Ruins and San Pedro Sula (the one we were on), thus compelling Hedman Alas to institute this complicated security procedure for tourists and locals alike.

      The whole bus ride (from Copan Ruinas to San Pedro Sula to Tegucigalpa) was $30 USD overall.

       

      San Pedro Sula Main Bus Station; The dedicated Hedman Alas' station is to the right

      San Pedro Sula Carnival

      San Pedro Sula outskirts

      From San Pedro Sula to Tegucigalpa

       

      We finally arrived at 6:50pm and from the station took a cab to our place of stay, Granada #2 in Downtown Tegucigalpa.

      And despite all the negative foreboding, Tegucigalpa deserves its due and we found it quite frankly…charming. Thanks to a quick Facebook referral by a mutual friend from college Cristina Handal, we befriended Andrea and Maria, who graciously welcomed us to their city with an amazing dinner at Hacienda Real.

       

       

      And then we drove around, taking a tour of her city at night.

       

      Andrea with the group!

       

      When we got back to the hotel, we scurried up to see if the door to their rooftop was unlocked, and indeed it was:

       

       

      Overall, Tegucigalpa has been a memorable, pleasantly surprising stop on our way hopping from capital city to capital city, as we stayed up to catch a 4am Transnica Bus to Managua (capital city of Nicaragua) before finally arriving in Granada.

      There we ran into some trouble when the Honduras Transnica Bus Office didn’t recognize tickets I had prepaid for via Western Union a week earlier. I know that sounds sketch in the first place, but I had Googled the guy I was supposed to send money to before I made the transfer and it checked out as legit. Biting the bullet, I took that chance and unfortunately it would bite me back in the ass as I had to pay Honduras Transnica Office again in order to board the 4am bus when they refused to let me board even though I had a copy of all the emails and receipts approving my reservations.

      On the flip side, I was able to reach the guy I had transferred the money to by phone, and he had reassured that he would pay me back when I arrived in Nicaragua.

      To be continued…

       

      - At time of posting in Tegucigalpa, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 69% | Wind Speed: 7km/hr | Cloud Cover: broken clouds

       

      Getting Out Of ‘The World’s Murder Capital’: San Pedro Sula

      Getting Out Of ‘The World’s Murder Capital’: San Pedro Sula

       

      To be honest, it wasn’t that bad. Not once did we ever feel unsafe driving through San Pedro Sula on our way to Copan Ruins. In fact, it looked like any other city in Central America.

      Our group landed in 3 separate runs: Angela arrived at noon on Friday, Erick, Matt and Bill arrived at Friday evening and then Kym and myself arrived this morning Saturday at 6am. Because of the reports that suggested San Pedro Sula was no place for a solo traveler to wander about, plus the fact that there is pretty much nothing to see in town and that it would be better off the save the money on lodging and stay in the airport, the group did just that before Kym and I arrived. 

      I have to hand out mad kudos to Angela for staying in the airport for 18 hours and still keeping a smile on her face by the time we arrived. Apparently during that time she got hollered at, catcalled, and befriended a 7 year old girl traveling to Mexico City “for fun” by herself but was forgotten by the flight attendant and therefore had to stay overnight in the airport with Angela as an abandoned “unaccompanied minor.”

      The airport is open 24/7 and it is possible for you to stay overnight there on hard benches in the food court if you prefer not to wander out into San Pedro Sula alone at night.

       

      San Pedro Sula airport

       

      Upon our arrival, the plan was to take taxis from the airport directly to the bus station and catch an 8am Casasola Express bus to the Copan Ruins, but with all the free time she had Angela did a great job scoping out direct taxis to Copan Ruinas. 

      She found out that if you’re traveling in a group, you might actually save money and time by taking a direct taxi from the airport to Copan Ruins instead of a taxi to the bus station, wait around for a bit, and then a bus to Copan Ruins. We took her suggestion and did just that, and this is what we saw along the way:

       

       

      Too bad nobody paid any attention:

       

       

      After a 4 hour drive from SPS airport, we were dropped off at a parking lot 1km east of the Copan Ruinas town:

       

       

      From here you can either pay $1USD per person for a tuktuk/rickshaw to the town or do an easy 15min walk along the road. We chose the latter and finally reached our place of stay: a quaint, hospitable, well-run Hostel Berakah, 1 block north of the town’s Parque Central/Central Park.

       

      The Copan Ruinas town

      Copan Ruinas' Parque Central

       

      We’ve just freshened up and about to hit up the Mayan Ruins and then to the nearby Hot Springs about an hour’s drive away. I guess the bottom line is that we’re totally safe, and we didn’t have to dodge any bullets to get here from SPS.

       

      - At time of posting in ESQUIPULAS, it was 23 °C - Humidity: 78% | Wind Speed: 4km/hr | Cloud Cover: broken clouds

       

      Santo Domingo Chinitos

      Santo Domingo Chinitos


       

      We set off on a late morning on a search for Santo Domingo’s Chinatown.

       

      By Calle El Conde

      Calle El Conde in the morning

      Grabbed a breakfast at the 200 year old diner joint, Cafeteria la Colonial, and then walked north up Duarte Avenue (with Parque Duarte behind us) for about 1/5 of a mile until we hit Chinatown:

      Nobody famous, just a statue of a "sample Chinese immigrant"

      They placed this statue to inform Dominicans what a Chinese woman looks like

      Santo Domingo’s Chinatown consists of approximately 4 city blocks total, and is easily walkable in 10-15 minutes even if you take your time. All it has are restaurants, eateries, take out joints, and maybe a small goods store or two. There’s also a random South Asian-run jewelry shop here.

      As for the Chinese community itself, the only local Chinese people you’ll find are behind the counters and the managers overlooking their staff in the restaurants. We couldn’t find any Chinese people merely strolling about the streets enjoying their day; they were all working indoors. Not much of a visible community here (like a Chinese school, community center, etc.) other than ex-pats coming to make a living here.

      Afterwards we headed back down Duarte Ave, admiring last night’s ruins of the Hospital from a park behind it:

       

       

      Afterwards we hailed a 150 peso taxi ride to the Expreso Bavaro buses heading to Punta Cana from the corner of Ave. Maximo Gomez and Juan Sanchez Ramirez (NOT Juan Sanchez Ruiz — this is an error that Lonely Planet lists, and it led to some confusion with our cab driver in getting there).

      The times of the Expreso Bavaro buses to Punta Cana also changed; instead of 7am, 10am, 12pm, 2pm and 4pm as listed on websites and in Lonely Planet, buses now leave at 7am, 9am, 11am, 1pm, 3pm, and 4pm. Ticket fares also have increased to 400 pesos a person.

      Punta Cana beaches, here we come!

       

      - At time of posting in DR BALAGUER INTL, it was 30 °C - Humidity: 62% | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: few clouds