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Moroni - Dar es Salaam - Dubai - London - Bristol

The long journey home


View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

The air-conditioner slowly gave up its will to live some time during the night, meaning that the room is mighty warm this morning! We sit outside on the terrace for a while to cool down before going for breakfast.

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Breakfast

Despite advertising that their breakfast starts at 06:00, there is precious little choice when we arrive at 06:20. Potatoes it is then.

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Checking out

Hopefully this will be the last time we check out of this hotel! There is some confusion this morning with the bill: because we came back to the same room when we returned from our aborted home journey yesterday, they seem to have added items from the previous two nights onto our bill this morning. We query it, but can’t quite understand the receptionist’s explanation. It doesn’t help that the short (just a few minutes) phone call to England yesterday cost us £45. Studying the bill more closely it becomes obvious. Yes, they have added the first two nights on the bill, but they have also subtracted the bill we paid yesterday. We didn’t notice that there is a Debit and a Credit column. Doh.

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Moroni Airport

Confusion over and we make our way to the airport. Again. Thankfully Omar still has the VIP pass from yesterday, so we walk straight in, despite the airport not being officially open yet. Check-in for the Dar es Salaam flight isn’t due to start until 07:30 anyway, so we are over half an hour early.

The departures hall has a grand total of five seats, and we have three of them. Result.

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Nothing seems to be happening though, and Omar goes off to check what is going on. “Check in will start at 8:00” he informs us when he returns. 08:00 comes and goes. “At 08:30” says the official when we ask. Meanwhile we people-watch. We see the first ill-behaved young child since we arrived in Comoros, causing havoc while waiting in line to check in.

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Photography is not permitted, and an officious looking security guard tells me off. I try my luck again though, very surreptitiously, as the wording on the back of the porters’ jerkins amuses me. I thought exploiting your staff was illegal, and not something you’d want to advertise.

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By 08:30 we are told that the plane hasn’t even arrived yet, and won’t be departing until 13:00. Groan. Omar phones the Air Tanzania office in town and comes back with good news: we are definitely on the passenger list. Yay! One step nearer.

An hour or so goes by, with more people watching. A kindly official appears and looks at our tickets for the connecting flight in Dar. I am not exactly comforted when he mumbles “sorry” and wanders off. Omar explains that he is going to phone the office to “make sure the flight leaves on time” so that we don’t miss the onward connection. I don’t hold out much hope though. We have just over an hour in Dar, but we have to queue to get our visa ($50 just to collect our bags!), queue for passport control, wait to collect our bags, make our way to departures, queue to check in at the Emirates counter, then queue again for immigration and security.

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Finally the Air Tanzania desks open up and we get to check in. To save some time in Dar es Salaam, I ask if they can check our bags all the way through to London. The clerk shakes his head: “No, sorry”. I plead with him and explain the situation. He fully understands my predicament, and wishes he could help; but the truth of the matter is that he cannot physically do it as they do not have a computerised system with access to international flights. Wow. I can’t remember the last time I had a hand written boarding card!

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Our main luggage goes through an x-ray at the check-in desk, and I am invited behind the counter to open mine up as they claim to have seen something ‘suspicious’. They are placated, however, when I point out that it is just some camera equipment.

Before we are even permitted to join the queue for passport control, a security guard checks our passports and makes sure we have completed a departure card.

At the immigration counter our passports are checked and stamped, our photograph is taken as are fingerprints from all fingers on both hands.

In the next booth they check our passports again and relieve us of the departure card.

At the x-ray my AA batteries are confiscated, as are a couple of safety pins. The batteries go in the manager’s drawer. Hmmm. A nice little business sideline?

We have now officially left Comoros and are technically in no-mans-land: the departure gate.

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And so we wait. And wait. And wait. I anxiously look at my watch with regular intervals, getting more and more convinced that we will miss the connection in Dar.

Eventually the plane arrives at 12:50. There is no way we are going to get away by 13:00, so now I have accepted that we will have to sort out a new flight when we get to Tanzania. Oh well, so be it. There is nothing we can do about it. On the mainland, arranging a new flight should not be so difficult though: Dar er Salaam is a big and busy airport, and London is a popular destination. And English is the lingua francas.

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It seems our VIP status is still valid, as only people with walking difficulties, plus us, are invited to board first.

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The plane takes off at 13:20, which means we are thankfully another step nearer home, or rather further away from Comoros.

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As the plane makes its way across the Indian Ocean, I start to think about the connection again. There is still a glimmer of home that we might make it, but it was such a crush at arrivals on our way over, and it took over an hour to get through immigration just to get to the luggage carousel, which was another nightmare. This is obviously a much smaller plane than the one we came from Dubai on though, so there may not be as many passengers wanting to get through at the same time.

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Being right at the front of the plane means we get into the arrivals hall first; and thankfully there are not very many travellers there are all. I make a beeline for the Transfer Desk, and breathlessly explain that we are on a very tight schedule, and we have checked in on line for the next flight, but haven’t got boarding cards, and we have to collect our luggage and check in again…. The attendant senses my slight panic and in a calm and soothing voice (and impeccable English) says: “Give me your onward flight ticket and your luggage tags, then go and sit down. We’ll sort this for you. It is all fine”. I breathe a huge sigh of relief.

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By the time I have text my dad and emailed a friend, the nice chap comes back with our boarding cards and baggage tags, having collected our bags, and checked them and us in with Emirates. Wow! I could hug him. That is such excellent service. He then lets us through the back door behind the Transfer Desk, which leads directly into the Departures Hall and Duty Free. Result!

So many people have shown so much kindness and have gone so far out of their way to help smooth out all the issues and obstacles we have encountered along the way on this trip. I feel quite humbled by it all.

The rest of the journey home via Dubai and London Heathrow is totally uneventful and we gratefully open our front door some 31 hours after leaving the hotel in Comoros.

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Home, sweet home

All that remains now is to thank Undiscovered Destinations for arranging another fascinating trip. It didn’t always go to plan, but UD, and their ground agents in Comoros, did their very best to ensure we were still able to make the most of our time in this little-known country, minimising any disruptions caused by various circumstances beyond their control. I guess this is why they call it adventure travel.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:56 Archived in Tanzania Tagged flight tanzania airline aiport emirates_airlines dar_es_salaam air_tanzania moroni itsandra_hotel dealy flight_connection Comments (1)

Dar es Salaam - Moroni (Comoros)

We're here!


View Comores 2017 - Cloud Coup Coup Land or Secret Paradise? on Grete Howard's travel map.

Much as I love Tanzania, this trip is something totally different. Today we are continuing to the small island nation of Comoros.

“Comoros? Where’s that?” has been the common refrain when I tell people where I am going.

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Nestled between Madagascar to the east and Mozambique on the African mainland to the west, Comoros consists of three major islands: Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani) and Moheli (Mwali). Internationally, the islands are known by their French names, and I have added the local Comorian names in parentheses.

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It’s not exactly all the rage

The reason you haven’t heard of Comoros lies largely at the door of its total lack of commercial tourism, unlike that which its neighbours Mauritius and Seychelles close by ‘enjoy’ (or endure, whichever side of the fence you are). According to the Tourist Office, the islands receive fewer than 3,000 visitors each year (the last data I could find was from 2011, when 2,497 tourists entered the country). To put things into perspective, the Seychelles received 36,000 tourists in April this year alone.

As described by an online travel deal comparator promoting the islands: “Not many tourists travel to Comoros in the Indian Ocean and for good reason: there is regular seismic activity on top of great political instability”.

Cloud Coup Coup Land

Affectionately known as ‘Cloud Coup Coup Land’ as a result of its numerous (more than twenty) coups d’états since its independence in 1975, with various heads of state assassinated. Subsequent instability has left the small archipelago desperately poor (said to be the third poorest country in the world), unsurprisingly corrupt, and relatively untouched. It has an unemployment rate of 80% and it is believed that around 50% of the population live below the poverty line of US1 a day; and unfortunately it has few natural resources with which to recover its failing economy.

Dar es Salaam - Moroni

Anyway, back to today’s journey.

We are up at the crack of dawn this morning for a 5am pick up for the transfer to the airport. The journey that took well in excess of an hour last night in the terrible traffic, takes us a mere 20 minutes this morning.

Check in

We approach the Air Tanzania check-in desk with trepidation, and hand over our passports. The young girl types away on her computer and we are asked to place our bags on the scales. This is looking promising. My heart sinks, however, when she asks: “Are you travelling with Air Tanzania?” I hand over the original e-ticket plus the email and explain that we were originally booked on the Precisionair flight this morning which has been cancelled and that they informed us we have been re-booked with Air Tanzania instead (see yesterday’s blog for the full explanation). "Ah, that's why I can't find you on my system" she confirms. I hold my breath, waiting for the rejection and expecting her to pass the buck and tell us to go and sort it with Precisionair. She doesn’t. She calls them herself and asks us to sit down and wait while she sorts it out.

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We sit and we wait. And we wait, and then we wait some more. After around 30 minutes the supervisor comes over to tell us “it is being sorted”.

One hour. I go and ask. The supervisor tells me: “It is all confirmed, we are waiting for the second paper to be completed. Just sit down and relax.” I sit down. And relax. Sort of.

We eat the packed breakfast the hotel provided us with while we wait. And wait. And wait some more.

20 minutes before the departure of the flight and 2½ hours after we first checked in, we finally have boarding cards!

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Passport control is very slow, leaving us no time to buy any rum in the Duty Free as we go straight on to the plane.

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As we climb high and leave the metropolis of Dar es Salaam behind, I am looking forward to lazy days on tropical beaches in this ‘hidden paradise’.

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I am surprised to be served a small snack on the short flight – it is only about one hour and 20 minutes long.

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It’s not long before we spot the peaks of Comoros’ highest point, Mt Karthala in the distance.

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The origin of the name Comoros comes from the name given to the islands by an Arab geographer in the Middle Ages: Djazair al ‘Qamar’, which translated into English means Moon Islands. It is said that the first Arabs who arrived in the archipelago were enthralled by the lunar-like landscape caused by petrified lava on the pure white sand of the beaches. Looking down on the coastline below, I can see what they mean.

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Soon we are approaching the small runway of Prince Said Ibrahim Airport in Moroni (I have no idea how this airport got its three letter code HAH).

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At immigration there are two forms to fill in, and my Norwegian passport seems to cause a bit of a stir, with the official calling her supervisor over to check it out. She speaks no English, I speak almost no French and even less Comorian. She keeps repeating “Visa! Visa!” I am not sure if she means I should have obtained a visa before travelling or that she is going to issue me with a visa.

It turns out to be the latter.

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I am very impressed they manage to produce a sticky-backed printed visa complete with my picture right here in the little immigration booth. She even asks me which page of my passport I would like it stuck on. There isn’t much choice in my case, as I only have one single spare page left in my passport; the rest is full with stamps and visas.

After a cursory luggage check in the Customs area, find ourselves outside in the sun looking for someone carrying a sign with our name on it. Again. We look around, nothing. Again. Neither of our mobile phones seems to work here in the Comoros, something we were warned about, so we are unable to call our guide or the office. Hovering by the exit for a few minutes soon attracts the local taxi touts, one of whom speaks a little English. He is thankfully not persistent and we chat to him for a while, explaining that we have someone coming to meet us from a local agency. When, after around 20 minutes or so, our pick-up still hasn’t arrived, he kindly uses his own mobile phone and rings the telephone number we have been given for the local agent’s office. It goes through to an answering machine. He then tries the number the agent supplied for the local guide we are to have for the duration of our stay here, Mr Akim. Success. David talks to Mr Akim and explains that we are waiting at the airport for him. Mr Akim is somewhat perplexed, and stutters as he laments: “I didn’t know you were coming… I am nowhere near the airport…” He sounds genuinely concerned (and extremely confused) and asks us where we are staying. “Take a taxi to the hotel… but the hotel is not booked…” We are both feeling a little tense and rather uneasy by this stage, wondering what else can go wrong, and if this trip is maybe jinxed in some way

Out of the corner of my eye I spot a chap walking purposefully directly towards us, and in his hands I can see a sign “Grete & David Howard”. He introduces himself as Yahaya, and is full of apologies for being late. Great! First a feeling of relief, then confusion. Oh. So, if this is our guide, who is the person we are talking to on the phone?

(It later transpires that the local agent had arranged another guide for us, but didn’t let us, or Undiscovered Destinations, who we booked the trip through, know)

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Waiting for the car at the airport

The car boot is not big enough to take both the bags and close as well, so we drive along with the boot lid open. It doesn’t really matter: these are not fast roads.

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But first we must get the car started. It fires, turns and then dies. Time after time, again and again. We, and the luggage, get out of the car in order to access the spare battery the driver keeps in the boot, and the tools under the rear seat. This is obviously a regular occurrence.

As we approach the capital, we hit a huge, slow-moving traffic jam. “There is a strike,” says the girl whose name I heard as Malika and David thinks is Monica. We take a short cut through some badly pot-holed back streets, and stop at a small shop that doubles as a money changer.

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Pretty beach outside Moroni, the capital

National Museum

On the way to the hotel we stop for a visit to the small, but reasonably interesting National Museum.

All the Comoros islands were created at various times as a result of volcanic activity on the seabed resulting in each of the islands having a distinct topographical characteristic as a result of their different ages.

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Volcanic stones

According to pre-Islamic mythology, however, a jinn (spirit) dropped a jewel, which formed a great circular inferno. This became the Karthala volcano, which created the island of Grande Comore.

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A cross section of the earth, showing Mt Karthala, the still-active volcano on Grand Comore

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Pottery shards

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Coelacanth - the fish thought to be extinct for millions of years until it was re-discovered here in Comoros in 1938

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Pufferfish

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Whale skull

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Shells

A few bedraggled and sad looking stuffed birds

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Caspian Tern

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Common Ringed Plover

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Comoro Blue Pigeon

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Drums and other musical instruments

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Various pots and containers

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Oil lamp - usually whale oil was used

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Outrigger canoe - the museum guide explains that he was a fisherman himself, using one of these for many years; much to his father’s disappointment, as he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and become an Imam.

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Sugar cane crusher. The juice is later turned into 'honey'.

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Items made from the coconut palm - no part of the plant is wasted

Medina

Walking down through the Medina (old market) of Moroni, we cause quite a stir. There is lots of laughter, pointing and many shy smiles, plus a few requests for us to take them back to England with us. Tourists are a rarity here.

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Fruit and vegetables

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Beans

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Chillies

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Onions

Many Comorians believe that having their photograph taken will bestow them with bad luck, so I am therefore very surprised when this lady actively wants to have her picture taken with me. Don’t you just love the look on the face of the woman behind though?

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Butcher

This lady not just asks us to photograph her young daughter, she begs us to take the child back to England to “give her a better life”.

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I am not sure the girl, however, is equally enthralled with that idea.

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Some more images from the market:

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Shoes

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Tailor

Also in the Medina, behind these elaborate doors, is the palace once used by the last prince of Comoros.

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The Old Town

We continue through the maze of narrow alleyways in Moroni Old Town.

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Similar in many ways to Zanzibar’s Stone Town (they share a lot of history and culture), the old town has many beautifully carved doors.

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As we get nearer to sea level and the large Friday Mosque, the alleyways open up and the vestiges of grand mansions appear, now but sad relics of faded glory.

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Sultan Ahmed Mwigni Mkou Mosque

Historically, Comoros was divided into a number of Sultanates following the arrival of Arab settlers starting in the 11th century. Mwigni Mkou was the biggest of these Sultans, reigning for over 40 years.

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The Town Hall

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Retaj Moroni Hotel

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After checking in and dumping the bags in the room, we head down to the restaurant to see if we can get a small snack for lunch. Passing through the bar, we see a pizza oven and someone rolling dough, which will be perfect as neither of us are particularly hungry.

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Pizza oven!

When we arrive at the restaurant, all they are doing is an international buffet. We both hate buffets with a passion and decide to forego lunch and take a wander around the hotel grounds instead.

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Swimming pool complete with water!

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Dinner

After a stroll to the local supermarket and a nice little siesta, followed by a shower and change, it is time to go down for dinner. This time they do have pizza, which is what we order.

Mine has meat, chicken, vegetables and egg on it – it is the first time I have ever had egg on a pizza.

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David chooses his to be topped with turkey and mushrooms.

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The Retaj Hotel is own by a Qatari organisation, and as such they abide by their strict Muslim beliefs: no alcohol served in the hotel at all!

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It is not quite the same toasting our safe arrival in Comoros – our 139th country – with water!

Starry sky

As we make our way back to the room, I notice the sky is clear and full of stars, so I go and grab my camera and tripod and head for the darker areas of the hotel grounds to look for the Milky Way. Considering we are on the outskirts of the capital, there is surprisingly little light pollution here.

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The land arrangements of this trip was organised by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 00:47 Archived in Comoros Tagged mosque beach travel hotel volcanic_rock market flight museum africa tanzania muslim lava tourism old_town pizza swimming_pool airline islam indian_ocean medina town_hall sultanate hah dar_es_salaam comoros undiscovered_destinations air_tanzania precisionair moroni retaj_moroni coelacanth pufferfish mt_karthala Comments (4)

Bristol - Birmingham - Istanbul - Tanzania

The Howard's 40th Anniversary Tour


View The Howards' 40th Anniversary Tour 2017 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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“It has to be a safari,” David stated without hesitation when I asked him a while back where he would like to celebrate our Ruby wedding anniversary. Seeing as photographing animals in their natural habitat is one of my favourite pastimes, I didn’t need any encouragement or persuasion; and immediately booked a couple of flights. Tanzania it is then.

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Where have those 40 years gone? It doesn’t seem that long ago that a starry eyed teenager met a fancy man with an even fancier car who whisked her off to a fancy dinner at the Post Office Tower in London for her 17th birthday.

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And the rest is history as they say.

Here's a few pictures of our journey together through 40 years of marriage:

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On a Mediterranean cruise 1984

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Having fun in a photobooth 1979

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In a friend's cabin in Lillehammer 1976

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At a friend's wedding 1982

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1975

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In our first home, 1977

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In Amish County, USA 2000

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Having fun in a safari park 2013

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Celebrating Christmas camping in Taberma Valley, Togo 2006

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Goa 2003

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Sea Trek, Jamaica 2004

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Gyatsola Pass, Tibet 2005

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Celebrating the Indian festival of colours, Jaipur 2014

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Hong Kong 2010

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Collecting ice for my nightcap, Antarctica 2004

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Tobago 2012

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Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb 2002

40 years of marriage, 40 years of shared fun, 40 years of travel, to all corners of the earth and some of the world’s most amazing places.

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Not only will we be celebrating our 40th anniversary on this holiday, it will also be our 200th trip abroad together (making an average of 5 foreign trips every year of marriage - plus another 100+ domestic trips).

Travel is a humbling experience. I consider myself extremely privileged to be able to indulge my obsession to the extent I do. I am fortunate that I can experience the way of life of other civilisations and I regard it as an honour to be invited to learn about their traditions and customs. Travel has a way of making me feel blessed – not just because I can see for myself all these far-flung exotic destinations, but also because it makes me appreciate what I have back home. I am the luckiest girl alive: being married to the best travel companion anyone could wish for.

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We have been lucky enough to visit 138 countries on all seven continents (148 if you count East Germany, Macau and Hong Kong (all countries in their own right when we visited), Tahiti, Tibet, Palestine, Antarctica, Martinique, Greenland and Transdniestr).

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We are often asked if we have a favourite country. Much as we love almost every place we have been to, there are two countries that stick their head above all the others for us: India and Tanzania.

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So here we are, jetting off on yet another African adventure.

The Tanzanian visa caused me a few moment of concern this year. Following the Brexit Vote, they appear to have changed the wording on their website:

”A Photocopy of Residence Permit or Visa (is required) for non-British and EU countries passport holders”

Having lived in this country for 43½ years, and married to a Brit for 40 of those, I do not have a Residency Permit, nor do I require one. Hopefully the Tanzanian High Commission would be aware of that too, but just in case they were not, I enclosed a screen shot of the gov.org website confirming that I have Infinite Leave to Remain.

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Thankfully the visa came back without any issues, and as always with the Embassy of Tanzania, very quickly.

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Having stayed overnight just a few miles away, the idea was to arrive at Birmingham Airport refreshed and raring to go for our flight to Kilimanjaro Airport via Istanbul.

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There is plenty of legroom on the flight, the food is good and we soon find ourselves arriving in Tanzania.

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Plenty of legroom

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Istanbul from the air

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Tasty pasta and a chocolate mousse to die for.

As we exit the baggage claim at Kilimanjaro airport, we spot a smiling gentleman holding a welcoming sign bearing the word GRETE. That'll be me then.

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Kia Lodge is the official airport hotel for Kilimanjaro, and as such is within the grounds of the airport, a mere five minute drive away. This is not your average airport hotel though, Kia Lodge is a series of rondavels laid out in lush grounds, more akin to a safari lodge.

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After a very welcoming welcome drink, we are shown to our room and collapse in bed. It is 2am, and we are meeting Tillya and Malisa at 8am.

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This amazing adventure was made possible thanks to Calabash African Adventures.

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Posted by Grete Howard 23:24 Archived in Tanzania Tagged wedding history travel flight istanbul anniversary holiday africa safari tanzania journey airline nostalgia turkish_airlines birmingham_airport kilimanjaro_aiport Comments (4)

London - Chisinau

We're here!


View The Undiscovered East (of Europe) - Moldova, Transdniestr & Romania 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Thankfully the flight is not early this morning, so we can have a leisurely start to the day, with a full English breakfast in the hotel. Probably just as well, as we won’t be getting any food on either of the flights today.

Gatwick Airport

At the Ukraine International Airline desk, the check-in girl weighs my backpack and frowns. It is nearly 10kg, and I am only allowed seven. She tries her best to help me out by asking if I have a laptop in there that I can take out. No. She wonders if I can transfer any of the contents to my ‘handbag’. I explain that both are full of camera equipment that I really don’t want to check in. “It is not safe” she agrees. Finally, after establishing that David’s backpack is only 5kg, she reluctantly lets mine go. Phew.

Security is very well organised, with slots marked on the floor next to the conveyor belt, each person having an area to unload their stuff before it actually goes on the belt; rather than a free-for-all that usually ends in chaos. It works well and seems to be much less stressful, as you are not holding anybody up even if you take your time.

The first flight from London Gatwick to Borispol, Kiev is not full and we are able to spread out a little. We both sleep most of the way anyway.

Kiev Borispol Airport

The airport looks brand new, and has certainly been built since we were here last in 2008. Our flight lands at the furthest gate, so we have a long walk to Security, where – after very slow processing - we just turn around for another long walk back to the next gate. Which is in fact the same gate we landed at, and the same plane. We sleep on the next flight too, which is only around an hour.

Chisinau Airport

Moldova’s main airport is also brand new – in fact it is still under construction. A flight from Istanbul arrives just before us, so there is a long and slow queue at Immigration and chaos at the baggage carousels. Sharp elbows are a must, even more so when trying to exit the Arrivals area through a long thin corridor where passengers stop to greet their friends and family, completely blocking the exit. Arghh. I easily lose patience with people who have no consideration for others; and I ‘may’ have ‘accidentally’ shoved someone suitcase into their shins and knocked into them with my backpack…

Tatiana from the local agents waits for us just outside the Arrivals Hall. She has fairly limited English, but is very sweet. Leonid, the driver, is parked right outside the terminal building, and he soon whisks us off to our four star hotel in the centre of Chisinau.

Codru Hotel

I didn’t expect a long queue to check in to our hotel after 22:00 on a Wednesday night. I guess these other people arrived on our flight too, or maybe on the one from Turkey.

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We finally get in to (the very pleasant) Room 313 (once we have negotiated the tiny lift which barely fits two people with bags), and crash out.
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Posted by Grete Howard 06:09 Archived in Moldova Tagged airport kiev ukraine flights airline chisinau moldova borispol gatwick airport_security uia ukraine_international_airline codru_hotel hotel_check_in Comments (0)

Port au Prince - Atlanta - London - Bristol

Homeward bound


View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

05:00 is way too early for my liking, but I prefer to have plenty of time to get ready. Today is departure day and Geffrard is picking us up at 06:15. He is early and we make it to the airport in no time.

The whole airport experience is a bit of a palaver. Uncharacteristically, we allow a porter to take out bags from the car to check in, and tip him accordingly. He lingers, consistently demanding a “tip for my supervisor” Really?

Suspecting previous experience is to blame for the pre-check-in checks in the departure hall, we are not surprised when a Haitian couple are unable to produce a green card or visa for the US, pretending not to understand the questions posed to them and thus holding up the queue.

In the queue for security, I chat to the Canadian UN security worker in front of me, whose alcohol-breath poses a real fire risk. She gets stopped by the officials – I wonder why...

I am not sure whether it is the Haitian authorities or Delta Airlines whose paranoia leads to the sheer number of checks:

Pre-check in checks: US visa / ESTA / Green Card
Check in – tickets / pre-printed boarding cards / passport
Bag drop – boarding cards
Security – boarding cards, shoes off, x-ray
Immigration – passports, boarding cards
Another check – boarding cards scanned
Second security – boarding cards check, manual bag check, body pat down
Boarding gate – boarding cards and passports
On entering the plane – boarding cards

Finally we board our Atlanta bound plane, and find ourselves surrounded by a large group of Pennsylvania Dutch. Are they Amish? Mennonites? Quakers? I admit my ignorance at not knowing the difference. They are all in plain dress, with the women wearing mostly matching pale blue gingham-checked floor-length dresses, a white bonnet covering their hair and make-up less faces devoid of any smile or outward sign of joy. The men – mostly young lads – nearly all look alike which makes me think they are possibly brothers or even one large family. They speak some variation of German amongst themselves, and English to the crew. As the plane starts to taxi, the sound of two dozen passengers quietly singing hymns emits from all around us in the cabin. In all the 650 or so flights we have taken, this is a first!

Leaving Haiti we head due north, initially over the mountainous interior, then later we have great views of Turks and Caicos islands from the plane.

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After a beautiful start, we soon hit clouds and experience some pretty severe turbulence, eliciting loud gasps and even screams from the passengers.

Atlanta

More officialdom on our arrival in the US of A. The self serve immigration desks scan our passports and take our fingerprints, giving me a green light and the go-ahead to enter the country, but David gets a cross and a referral again. They obviously don't like his passport, as the same thing happened on the way out.

The guy in front of us at the queue for the manual immigration also has problems, and requires a Creole translator. We swap queues and are in luck: an immigration official with a sense of humour, joking that David Howard is a common name. "Less of the common please, I like to think it is popular" quips David.

In most other countries when you are in transit, you literally arrive in the departure hall and remain there until your flight is called and you go to the gate. Not so the US. The hand luggage goes through an X-ray while we have to remove our shoes and go through the complete body scanners, followed by a manual pat down.

We collect the luggage and exit through a security check where we hand in the print out from the self check-in in Port au Prince. The luggage then has to be re-checked-in at the desk. Fortunately there is no queue here, and the lady behind the counter takes a shine to my accent, making me repeat the short sentence “It is” again and again. OK......

One more check of the boarding card and passport, then through another body scanner, then we are back in the departure lounge. We check the information board for details of our next flight – I never get used to the unique way flights are displayed in the US – in alphabetical order rather than chronological like in the rest of the world.

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Ecco Restaurant
Having five hours to kill, we want to sit down for a proper meal, being served by a waiter (or waitress), rather than grab a quick bite to eat at a fast food place. The general manager shows us to our table, and starts chatting. Finding that we are on the same wavelength, we and up talking to him for half an hour or more, covering a number of subjects, including politics, travel, culture and languages.

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David is delighted to find they serve cider

The pizzas are very nice, but nothing exceptional and the wine is expensive even though we choose the second cheapest on the menu. . After a couple of desserts and two coffees each, we are totally shocked to find the bill comes to $160! That is by far the most expensive pizza I have ever had. I check and re-check the bill against the menu, but find it is correct, and leave the restaurant with a sour taste in my mouth (and it wasn't the wine).

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The setting sun is just above the horizon as we taxi out to the runway at Atlanta for our flight back to London Heathrow.

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The rest of the journey home is totally uneventful, and in the car on the way back from the airport in the UK, I reflect on airline security checks. On our journey from Haiti to the UK, my passport was checked nine times, boarding card eleven times. My hand luggage went through three x-rays and one manual check. I had two X-rays, two full body scans and two manual pat downs, as well as having to take my shoes off twice. It's good to know we are safe.

Welcome home.

Posted by Grete Howard 02:58 Archived in USA Tagged sunset travel flight usa security pizza expensive virgin airline passport atlanta luggage heathrow aiport delta immigration haiti rip_off ecco security_check ecco_restaurant Comments (1)

Port au Prince – Cap-Haïtien

Palace Sans Soucie and Citadelle la Ferrière - incredible UNESCO Heritage sites

sunny 32 °C
View It's the Caribbean, but not as you know it - Haiti for Jacmel Carnival 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day six of our tour of Haiti arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

An early start this morning for our transfer to Aérogare Guy Malary (the domestic airport) for the short flight to Cap-Haïtien. Even at this early hour (we leave the hotel at 06:15), there is quite a lot of traffic on the streets of Port au Prince, with many more people walking to work. One young lad jumps on the ladder at the back of our van to catch a free ride for a while, then knocks on the roof when he wants to be let off.

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There is not much action at the airport – we are supposed to be meeting an American guy called Kyle here, who is joining us for the day. Meanwhile we hang around, eating the packed breakfast provided by the hotel.

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Kyle eventually turns up – his driver took him to the international airport rather than the domestic one, so he had to grab a taxi to bring him here. To add insult to injury, his flight ticket has been cancelled, so he is put on standby. Kyle is very laid back about it all, and we keep our fingers crossed as we watch people arrive in the waiting room. His luck is in - fortunately not all the booked passengers turn up and Kyle is on the flight!

It's only a small plane, and I sit right at the front with a good view of the cockpit. When the pilot arrives, I ask him if he is able to fly over the Citadelle for me to take some photos, and he promises to try.

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My view is restricted by the engine, but I still get a reasonable good look out over the spreading metropolis that is Port au Prince as we take off.

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The urban sprawl soon gives way to mountains as we head north.

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It's only a 30 minute or so flight, and about half way through, the captain beckons me to come forward into the cockpit just as the imposing Citadelle la Fèrriere comes into view, perched spectacularly atop a craggy peak.

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As we pass the fortress, the pilot dips his wing so that we all get a good view, even through the side windows with the engine in the way.

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What a star!

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Sans Souci

From Cap-Haïtien airport we are whisked to Milot, where we meet with Maurice, our local guide.

Sans Souci palace was constructed in 1806 for King Henri Christophe to concentrate all administrative functions of the monarchy around the royal residence. The gates were allocated according to rank – only the king could enter through the middle gates, and the soldiers used the door on the right.

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The building you can see with a domed roof, is a catholic church.

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Originally decorated in European style, the palace was looted after the king's death in 1820 and later suffered damage during the earthquake of 1842 before gradually turning into the ruins you see today.

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Christophe had this palace built (along with his fortress which we will be visiting after this) for three reasons:

1. to defend the country from the French
2. to defend his kingdom from enemies from the south (Haiti was divided in two at that time)
3. to show the world what a great nation Haiti was and what it was capable of

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When Napoleon sent two spies to Haiti to report back on how the palace was organised for a possible raid, Christophe tricked them into believing that he had an enormous army. The French envoy stood in this very position at the top of the stairs (below), while Christophe's soldiers marched down the steps opposite.

Christophe's entire troupe of one thousand soldiers paraded down the stairs, then snuck around the back and up into the palace, changed into another set of uniforms and filed down those steps again (and again and again...); thus giving the French spies the impression that Haiti had a ten thousand-strong army!

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Christophe greatly admired Napoleon. So much so, that he had his portrait hanging in one of his galleries. When news reached him that Napoleon had been captured alive, Christophe tore down the picture, tearing it to pieces with the words: “Great men should never survive!”

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Later, suffering from illness and fearing a coup, Christophe committed suicide in 1820, aged 53. The deed was done in this very room (below), using the silver pistol we saw in the museum on our first day in Port au Prince.

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Fearing attacks from the French as well as the southerners, security was strict at the palace. The guards in the sentry box would stop any visitors, and if they were unable to show the right ID, it was straight to the dungeons. Fortunately Maurice doesn't exercise the same defence policy!

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The palace complex also includes the Queen's apartments,

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her pool and fountain,

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and a printing press. Christophe's philosophy was that all children should receive a decent education.

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Having been here before the palace was built, the authorities are now trying to keep this 300 year old star apple tree alive. It was known as the Justice Tree, because the king used to sit under its branches, handing out judgement to his people.

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Kyle turns out to be quite the mountain goat, and he climbs a crumbling old wall for a better view of the palace from above.

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We take our photos from the safety of terra firma.

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Citadelle la Ferrière

From Sans Souci Palace, we continue up the hill to Citadelle la Ferrière.

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This is the number one tourist attraction in Haiti, and the most common way to reach the towering heights of the fortress, is on horse back.

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As I am adamant that there is no way I am going to subject any horse to the weight of my body, Maurice tries to organise a 'rhino' for me. I struggle with the thought of a one-horned African animal with a saddle on its back ferrying me on narrow stony paths in Haiti... especially after my last close encounter with a rhino. I am therefore very relieved to know that the 'rhino' they refer to is in fact a small motorised vehicle similar to a golf cart.

Unfortunately, however, the rhino is sick today. Looks like there will be no visit to the Citadelle for me then, as the 1.6 mile long track is notoriously steep and not something I relish the thought of attempting in this heat. I therefore give David my camera, wave him goodbye and stay behind with the horse handlers, self-appointed guides and souvenir vendors; while David mounts his horse and rides into the great unknown with Kyle, Serge and Maurice.

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David has never really been at ease on a horse (he has similar memories of Peter the Plodding Pony as I do of rhinos), so I am impressed that he manages to take photos while riding!

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At the top, riders alight the horses onto cannons, some of many still left around the grounds of the fort.

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It is customary to buy the horse handlers a drink from the conveniently positioned vendors (above), while the horses get their own water and are left to graze as the tourists explore.

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The imposing Citadelle was commissioned in 1805 by Henri Christophe - who at the time was chief administrator in the region, became the president of Northern Haiti in 1807 and declared himself king four years later.

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The largest fortress in the western hemisphere, it took 20,000 men 15 years to build. Created as a protection against the French, who were expected to return after Haiti's independence to re-take their colony by force, the citadel was built to be able to accommodate 5,000 defenders - as well as general / president / King Christophe and his family - for up to a year, enabling the king to use the so-called scorched earth policy in case of attack.

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The construction of the Citadelle is certainly monumental, with ten feet thick and 130 feet high walls, making it a daunting prospect for anyone to try and storm the fort.

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Three of the four sides are virtually impregnable, with only the south aspect a little more exposed. To counteract this weakness, another fort was built on a small hill nearby to protect the Citadelle from any would-be invaders choosing to attack from this direction.

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Not to mention the amazing artillery battery pointing in this direction.

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The Citadelle was outfitted with 365 cannons of different sizes obtained from various monarchs including this British one (bottom photo).

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The height of the mountaintop upon which the Citadelle resides is 950 meters, and provides an exceptional views of the surrounding landscape, something which was the main factor of the fort's position - King Christophe and his men were able to observe any ships arriving at the coast. Apparently it is even possible to see the eastern coast of Cuba (140km away) on a clear day.

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Under Christophe's policies of corvée, or forced labour, the Kingdom increased its wealth by trading in sugar; but the people resented the system. Unpopular, debilitated by a stroke, and concerned about being overthrown, Christophe committed suicide in 1820, by which time the Citadelle was only 95% completed. His body is allegedly entombed within its walls, as is that of his brother-in-law (below), who died in an accidental explosion.

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The fort complex included a printing shop, garment factories, a hospital, schools, a distillery, a chapel, and military barracks.

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And apparently a pizza oven!

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One of the more impressive features is the rainwater collection system on the roof. With a lack of underground water (the Citadelle is built directly onto the rock), the fort was constructed so that rain could be utilised to supply its inhabitants with water.

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Citadelle la Ferrière was never put to the test, since the French did not come came back to reconquer Haiti; and the fort was later abandoned.

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Lakou Lakay

We too abandon the Citadelle and make our way to Lakou Lakay Cultural Centre for lunch. Run by Maurice (our guide) and his family, the aim of the centre is to preserve the rich cultural traditions of Haiti including folk dance as well as teaching local children to read.

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There are many beautiful items for sale in his small boutique, all locally made.

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In the grounds of his property grow various fruit trees, including this soursop tree. The leaves are thought to cure cancer and the juice made from the fruit cleanses the blood. We have become rather partial to this drink, so it is good to hear that it has medicinal properties too.

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We are greeted by Maurice's beautiful daughter with a bowl of water and some soap; so that we can be nice and clean in preparation for tucking into the delicious spread provided: there is chicken, vegetables, fried plantain, diri djon djon (rice cooked with the juice from black mushrooms), potatoes stuffed with fish...

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… with a special mention to the hot pickles. For many years now I have graded chillies and spicy food on a 1-10 'Grete Scale'. Since arrived in Haiti, much to Serge's surprise, I haven't found anything spicier than a 6. These chillies, however, are super HOT, and I would say they are a good 8.5 or even a 9! Pretty mind-blowing stuff!

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After lunch we need to drop Kyle off at the airport for his flight back to Port au Prince. Unlike his outbound flight this morning, the check-in process goes without a hitch, and we are soon on our way across town, leaving Kyle to wait for his flight.

Cap-Haïtien

Cap Haïtien was an important city during the French colonial period, serving as the capital until it was moved to Port-au-Prince in 1770. Again after the revolution in 1804, Cap Haïtien became the capital of the Kingdom of Northern Haiti until 1820. The town is now a mix of a shabby and somewhat seedy port area and a much more charming 'down-town' section where brightly painted, well-kept houses mingle with dilapidated and crumbling properties.

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Wherever we go, there is traffic. Always traffic. Which is one of the reasons the waterfront area looks like it does - a whole swathe of buildings have been removed to make way for a brand new freeway.

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And well turned out school children. As per education policies, children are not allowed to turn up at school looking in any way unkempt. However poor the family may be, their kids always look immaculate: neatly pressed uniform, hair with half a dozen or more bows, highly polished shoes. Just like the children back home in England. Not.

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Hotel Roi Christophe

At this point I must have a little whinge about my lack of linguistic abilities. OK, so I am bilingual in Norwegian and English, I speak enough German to just about hold a simple conversation, and I can order food in Spanish; so why, oh why, do I struggle so with French? Pourquoi indeed. To me the pronunciation is just totally illogical: take the word roi (meaning king) for instance. How on earth this word goes from being written roi, to being pronounced wah is beyond me. (See here for the correct pronunciation).

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Anyway, back to the hotel, named after Henri Christophe, the former slave and a key leader in the Haitian Revolution, which succeeded in gaining independence from France in 1804. Christophe created a separate government in this area and in 1807, three years after the end of the revolution and independence of Haiti from the French, he was elected President of the State of Haiti, as he named that area. Alexandre Pétion was chosen as president in the South. In 1811, Christophe converted the state into a kingdom and proclaimed himself Henry I, King of Haïti.

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Touted by Lonely Planet to be the most charming hotel in Cap HaÏtien, the Roi Christophe is a delightful colonial building from the 18th century. Once a palace belonging to a French governor, it now has a Spanish hacienda feel to it.

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The moment we arrive I am in love with this place. So much greenery, so many little gems hidden away amongst broad leaved banana shrubs and flowering hibiscus, such as intimate seating areas and eclectic art.

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There are several bar areas dotted around, although the service is more than a little slow... funnily enough, having tipped well when the first drink is brought out, the speed of the server suddenly increases rapidly.

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Eventually we settle on some chairs by the pool, overlooking several large trees for some bird watching. With a drink of course.

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While we haven't seen many birds here in Haiti up until this point – the Roi Christophe grounds are overrun with the endemic Hispaniolan Woodpecker!

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I have never seen so many woodpeckers in any one place – everywhere we look there is another one – I count at least a dozen!

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Parents flit back and forth feeding their babies, and some even seem to service two nests at once. How does that work?

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They may be pretty birds, but look what they've done to the poor trees!

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Also spotted in amongst the foliage is the Hispaniolan Palm Crow and the Palm Chat – both endemic to this island; the more widespread Grey Kingbird and the near-endangered Plain Pigeon.

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Palmchat

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Grey Kingbird

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Plain Pigeon

We see what initially looks like a 'blob' (a fruit maybe?) high in a tree, and wander off to investigate. The 'blob' turns out to be a large bird, but we are really not sure exactly what it is. After further inspection, a lot of discussions, and googling on our phones, we decide it is a juvenile Yellow Crowed Night Heron.

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Seeing several adults in the same tree later, including a nest, seems to confirm our suspicions.

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There might not be a great variety of birds here, but there are certainly more than we have seen anywhere else in Haiti; and it's such a charming place to while away a few hours that we are almost sorry when the light fades and it's time to get ready for dinner.

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Dinner

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Not particularly memorable, but the Griot de Porc is very tasty, albeit a little too fatty and bony for me. The fried plantains, however, are the best we've had so far on this trip!

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The flan (vanilla/caramel pudding) is quite nice.

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We have another couple of drinks before retiring to bed.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:58 Archived in Haiti Tagged birds traffic horses history travel ruins hotel fort flight palace canons caribbean unesco photography airline revolution woodpecker chillies pilot aerial_photography spicy haiti bird_watching horse_riding fortifications citadelle cap-haïtien sans_soucie citadelle_la_ferrière sunrise_airways cap_haitien roi_christophe haitien_revolution fotress canon_balls lakau_lakay haitien_food haitien_art soursop school_kids yellow_crowned_night_heron fried_plantain Comments (1)

Istanbul - Cairo

Arabia Felix - Yemen 1997


View Arabia Felix - Yemen 2007 on Grete Howard's travel map.

At least today should be less eventful than yesterday. A nice mini-bus turns up as arranged to take us back to the now very familiar Istanbul airport. After some confusion about where we check in, we finally have our boarding cards in hand and are now on our way to Sana’a yet again. It looks like it paid off that I remained calm and friendly to the girl on the Transfer Desk yesterday, as she’s upgraded us to Business Class. The special lounge with complimentary food and drink is very welcome prior to our flight.

In Cairo the Transfer Desk is unmanned, so we hang around loitering for a while, until we are taken by bus to another terminal building. After the X-ray and security check, our passports and tickets are taken from us and we are told to sit and wait. We do as we’re told. Some two hours later, I inquire about our tickets, and they are produced from under the counter.

Once we have our boarding cards, I send a text message to Emad to confirm our arrival time, and he replies with the good news that he has changed the group flight to 06:00 so that we can all travel together.

We use our unplanned – and unwanted – time here in Cairo to visit a cafeteria called Cinnabon, where buns filled with cinnamon (funny that!) are heated up and iced. Total deliciousness. (postscript: these have become quite an addiction for me since then, and an absolute must when we travel as thankfully they do not have an outlet near us in Bristol.)

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Things are looking much brighter now, at least until we get to the gate in Cairo for our flight to Sana’a and read the sign: ‘No liquids to be taken on board’. There goes the three litres of Duty Free from London! This is particularly annoying as Yemen is a dry country, although as a non-Muslin we can bring in a 'reasonable amount' of alcohol for our own consumption, but we will be unable to buy any over there. We were hoping to have a little something to help us celebrate Christmas and New Year.

Feigning total ignorance, David sends his bag first through the X-Ray scanner. They discover his water and can of Coke and ask him to remove it. This is where I know our luck has turned and David seizes the moment to makes a bit of a fuss. As they turn to explain where he can dispose of his liquids, the officials temporarily take their eyes off the screen and miss my bag going through with all the alcohol in it. We are through and so is the Duty Free!

The catalogue of errors is to continue though, with the transfer bus taking us to the wrong plane. After waiting in the bus for some ten minutes for instructions from the authorities, we are finally delivered safely to the correct aircraft. The rest of the journey is uneventful and we are finally on our way to Sana'a.

Posted by Grete Howard 12:53 Archived in Egypt Tagged travel flight airport istanbul christmas security cairo yemen alcohol new_year airline turkish_airlines duty_free airport_security Comments (1)

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