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Ashgabat - Dubai - Heathrow - home

The long journey home


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

After breakfast we wander down to the lobby – partly to access the internet, and partly to get away from the drab room. An English-Danish couple approach us, asking if we know anywhere around the hotel to change money. They are very well travelled, and we hit it off immediately; so much so that they end up sitting there chatting to us for nearly three hours, sharing travel stories.

By this stage we manage to arrange a room swap, and thankfully return to something more comfortable. While we have stayed in very much worse rooms on our travels, they were never part of a four-star hotel!

With the help of a porter, we move out stuff over, followed by another room picnic using up all the leftover snacks. This room is a big step up from last night, with two chairs, a nice rug on the floor, two sets of towels, extra loo paper (that's a first in Turkmenistan!), two dressing gowns, extras pillows, a bolster on the bed, pretty bed spread, and two bottles of complimentary water.

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We take a nice long nap, followed by a shower, and get ready for dinner at 18:30. The restaurant is deserted. We are the only people there (yet they couldn't find us a decent room yesterday?), and the menu is limited.

We both order chicken in cream sauce and I ask for a Fanta. No Fanta, only Coke. Not being particularly keen on naked Coke (without rum or vodka, that is), I ask for an apple juice instead. As with everywhere else, they don't seem to provide individual cartons, so I end up with a whole litre of the stuff!

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They have no Berk beer (but there was some in the mini bar in the room earlier), only Zip Light. Light? At 11%? As Boney M says: “Oh, those Russians!”

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The waitress brings over a huge basket of bread while we wait for the food. It is very fresh, and would be delicious with lashings of butter. No butter.

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After a few minutes the surly-looking waitress comes back to explain that they have no chicken. I ask for beef stroganoff with rice instead, while David chooses beef in cream sauce with chips (or rather fries, we've made that mistake before here in Turkmenistan). When the food arrives, David's dish comes with rice and mine is accompanied by chips. Oh dear. The chef had TWO meals to make this evening.

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Locals do not eat with a fork and knife like we would, only a fork, using the bread to push the food onto the fork. The food is quite tasty, albeit a little greasy. We don't linger in the restaurant after the meal, but return to the room for a very short night.

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Tonight's sunset

Friday 20th September

We're up at 01:00 for a 02:00 pick-up. There is quite literally no traffic, so we reach the airport in just ten minutes, ready to start the rigmarole of getting through the bumbledom of official pomposity and nonsensical regulations.

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In order to enter the airport terminal, we are scanned and the luggage is X rayed, and passports are checked. As soon as we are deemed suitable to be able to get inside, we request a wheelchair for David. Airports in general are such huge places with miles of corridors to make even the most able-bodied traveller weary.

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At check in, we yet again have to show our passports, and by the time we reach the pre-security passport check, we are waved through in front of the queue waiting, without anyone even looking at out passports.

The security check is much the same – the carry-on luggage goes through the X ray, which detects what the official suggests might be a knife. I show him my nail file and again we are just waved through.

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By the time we reach the boarding gate, our passports have been checked five times, and we've been through three X rays. Should be safe then. One of the benefits of travelling in a wheelchair, is that you do get priority boarding. Pushing David in the chair down the slope to the plane is hard work, not made any better by the fact that the rubber handles come off the chair where I have held on so hard to make sure it doesn't run away from me.

The plane between Ashgabat and Dubai is nowhere near full, and we get to have a row of three seats each. One poor chap has paid for two seats in order to have the extra space, and not only could he have got that without paying, the two seats he has been allocated are actually far part! Doh!!!!!

The second flight from Dubai to London Gatwick is full, however, and we end up with the two middle seats in a row of four – our least favourite seats. Arriving at Gatwick, we are amongst the first off the plane, and the porters point to a bunch of wheelchair just inside the tunnel “pick a wheelchair, any wheelchair...” It even comes complete with a porter to push this end, so I don't have to. In fact I struggle to keep up with them, and when the lift is not big enough for the three of us, I end up taking the escalators and have to run to catch them up again. We end up in a holding area, which has a great atmosphere, and while we wait for the electric buggy to come and collect us, we bond with fellow kindred spirits (ie other invalids).

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In the buggy

At immigration, the buggy driver gathers up all the passports and takes them over to an official, who brings them back as soon as he has checked them out. The buggy drops me off at the luggage carousel and takes David right through customs to a pre-agreed meeting area while I collect our bags. After helping a girl who is on crutches get her bag, I meet up again with David outside Marks & Spencer for the short walk to where the Valet Parking chap is meeting us with the car.

The journey home takes almost twice as long as it normally does, due to series of traffic jams every few miles. David has booked an appointment with the chiropractor this afternoon, but we have to ring him and cancel, as we won't make it. Which is probably just as well – for the last few miles David's stomach has been feeling increasingly unsettled, and as soon as we walk through the door, it explodes both ends. It must have been something on the plane, as mine follows half an hour or so later. Welcome home!

Posted by Grete Howard 14:46 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged flight airport security dubai passport luggage plan wheelchair gatwick ashgabat diarrhoea room_picnic grand_turkmen_hotel delsey_dining fanta Comments (2)

Mary - Türkmenabat

Another city, another museum


View The Forgotten Stan - Turkmenistan 2019 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I slept well last night, until 5am this morning, although I did have lots of strange 'fantasy' dreams. David's leg is worse today, despite spending some considerable time last night with it elevated.

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The barman from two nights ago, recognised me as I walk through on my way to breakfast, and even smiled – which is quite something, as Turkmen don't generally appear to smile much.

We are checking out of the hotel in Mary this morning and continuing to Türkmenabat in the north east near the border with Uzbekistan.

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As soon as we leave the confines of the built up area, we are struck by the huge disparity between the clean, modern, wealthy looking cities in Turkmenistan, and the countryside where life still carries on in a much more traditional and simplistic way.

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Cotton transport

Police Checkpoint

Every few kilometres there is a police check point. The police, like so many other places in the world, are not only devious and hiding behind bushes and trucks when speed checking, they are also open to bribes. Many vehicles have speed check radars, and cars going the opposite direction practise 'positive reporting' by flashing their headlights and signalling: 1 finger in the air means there is a radar ahead, while waving of the palm means the road is clear. With so little traffic on the road, we see most oncoming drivers do this.

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PYGB refers to the department looking after exit and entry between the separate provinces, whereas PYGG is the regular police service.

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We are stopped and Artem is asked for his driving licence, our official tourism permits (checking that is has been stamped), plus Meylis has to give all his personal details such as name, address, guiding licence and phone number).

Türkmenabat

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Türkmenabat City Hall

Being so close to the Uzbek border, Türkmenabat would have been the first city merchants reached within the country when travelling along the Silk Road from Uzbekistan. The name means “city built by Turkmen”. In the old days, the place was known as Amul.

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Wedding Palace

Restaurant Praga

We stop at a very nice restaurant for lunch, in a style of how I imagine a 'Gentleman's Club' in London looks like, with all dark wood and a giant old-fashioned globe.

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When we arrive, Artem notices that the tall clock in the background is not working, but by the time our food arrives, Artem has fixed it.

Scattered around the place are eclectic decorations, such as a toy Mini car, a Routemaster double decker London bus and a scale model of the Parliament in Budapest.

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The cutlery is wrapped in individual monogrammed cloth pouches.

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Even in the toilets, there are single use monogrammed terry towels, as well as flashing mirror lights.

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Meylis and Artem both have fajitas for lunch, with the latter complaining about there being too many vegetables on his plate: “I'm not a cow!” he says, and proceeds to eat the meat and tortilla, leaving all the veggies on the side. The guy seems to live on meat, bread, vodka and cigarettes.

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Artem is a terrible flirt – or should I say an 'excellent' flirt, and despite not understanding what they are saying, it is obvious that there is some pretty magic chemistry between him and the waitress.

I order chicken stuffed with cheese and mushrooms, and supplement it with Artem's discarded vegetables.

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Unlike our driver, I am of the opinion that a meal without veggies is not a proper meal. That is one of the downsides of eating out when travelling – they rarely serve enough vegetables for my liking. Side vegetables are almost unheard of here in Turkmenistan, and although most menus offer a selection of salads, they are mostly made up of tinned vegetables and mayonnaise.

Türkmenabat Museum

After lunch Artem takes us to the local museum. As we arrive, Meylis looks a little concerned, and asks us to wait in the car while he checks it out. After a few minutes he comes back laughing, explaining that the museum has recently moved to a new purpose built place in another part of the city, and this somewhat run-down pre-Soviet building that we are pulled up in front of, now houses the Pensions Department.

The new building is stunning, in keeping with the majority of modern Turkmen architecture, and boasts the largest diamond-shaped roof in the world.

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The museum has not been open very long at all, and they are anything but organised: they have no English speaking guides and have 'run out of' even Russian and Turkmen speaking ones. They also don't have any change when I pay 50 manat for the camera fee (just over £10), but they promise to let me have the other 50 manat by the time we leave. I am told "no photos of our leader" - numerous exhibits show images of President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

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Sheep and camel wool, including the black karakul, which we can see in the photo on the wall behind

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Medicinal plants

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Chemicals produced in a factory here in Türkmenabat: Sulphur, Bentonite, Ammonium Superphosphate, Meliorant, Granulated Superphosphate, Chalk.

The Silk Road
The museum focuses heavily on the fact that Türkmenabat – or Amul as it was known then – was an important city on the ancient trade route.

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Map of the famed Silk Road routes within Turkmenistan. The name 'Silk Road' is a bit of a misnomer, as it was not just one single road, but a network of trade routes from the 2nd century BC until the middle of the 18th century.

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Map showing the main routes (from Wikipedia)

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Diorama depicting a camel train on the Silk Road

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These domes, known by their Persian name of Sardoba, are cupolas built over fresh water sources and areas of rainwater accumulation, to ensure that the water does not evaporate and stays cool. These installations were built every 30-35 kms along the Silk Road and are indicative of a unique hydro-engineering ability.

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Similar to those found in India, Mesopotamia and Egypt, the irrigation systems of the ancient Central Asian civilisations rely on a water-dipping device consisting of a wheels and gear train operated by draught animals walking in a circle. The ceramic vessels are known as chigìr’.

The Silk Road covers a distance of some 12,000 kms, and was a well developed merchant trade route. Caravanserais were built along the route, featuring rooms for relaxation or overnight stays, as well as space where the horses and camels could be fed and watered and provided with shelter from the weather and any wild animals.

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Diorama featuring Daya Khatyn Caravanserai

Many of the caravanserais also doubled as 'shopping centres', where goods from China, such as silk, iron, nickel, fur, and paper were traded with local Central Asian goods: woollen fabrics, carpets, jewels, ceramics and thoroughbred horses; as well as tea, perfume and incense arriving from India.

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In the Middle Ages, Turkmenistan was well known as a centre of education, and book-trading was widespread throughout Central Asia. The diorama shows a cleric in a madrasa (Islamic religious school)

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Pharmacy

On the way to the hotel, we stop to get some stronger tablets for my upset tummy.

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Yupek Yoly Hotel

A strange mix of minimalistic modern and classic Turkmen luxury, the hotel has an interior atrium with the rooms off a central gallery overlooking the reception area from each floor.

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While the lobby is fairly traditional, the rooms remind me of a cheap European motel.

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Except the bathroom, which has an ultra-modern power shower with more bells and whistles than I know what to do with; and huge mirrors on two of the walls. Thank goodness for steam!

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The shower runs out of hot water before we are both able to have finish our ablutions, however, and while we have two hand towels, they have only provided one bath towel.

The door, on the other hand, is in the same ornate style we have seen elsewhere.

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By now, David's leg is beginning to show some serious bruising. Should we be worried? We try and contact John, our chiropractor, which is easier said than done from Turkmenistan where all social media is banned, along with several popular websites offering emails. We have no mobile signal on our phones either, but we do finally manage to get through via gmail.

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Restaurant-Club Traktir

Looking more like a brothel than a posh restaurant, this place is one of the two best eateries in town (the other one being Restaurant Praga where we had lunch). When I see an American Embassy car outside, I realise it can't be all bad. Or can it?

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Entrance to the restaurant is down a long corridor with flashing light nets.


Seating is in individual booths, with glistening black flock wallpaper, and black and gold ceiling. (it's an awful photograph, but it gives you some idea of what the restaurant looks like)

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I notice a couple of little amusing translations on the menu, such as “second blouses”, “chicken on a green cushion”, and “beef in gold ring”

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The food – descriptions below as it appears on the menu – is extremely good.

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Roast beef with mushrooms and potatoes, with garlic aroma and fresh cut herbs.

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Pallo-Segretto – meat balls with cheese filling

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Toretta – gastronomic tower of chop veal and chicken filet, laid by layers with vegetable streaks of eggplant, tomatoes and rennet cheese.

Artem wants to stay in the bar, drinking, but both David and I are feeling less than enthusiastic this evening.

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The garish-looking bar - apologies for another rubbish mobile phone photo

When we get back to the room, or in David's case, hobble back to the room, I still have diarrhoea, and take some of the tablets I bought earlier. We can hear loud music which appears to be emanating from just the other side of our room; with what sounds like a live stage with a boy band and screaming girl fans, almost rioting.

On that note, we go to bed, after another interesting day here in Turkmenistan, as arranged by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:20 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged police museum russia mary pharmacy turkmenistan caravanserai soviet_union ex-soviet permit central_asia undiscovered_destinations upset_tummy turkmenabat diarrhoea police_checkpoint drivers-licence tourism_permit türkmenabat_museum silk-road amul restaurant_praga sardoba yupek_yoly_hotel restaurant_traktir flock_wallpaper bad_ankle swollen_leg Comments (4)

Free Day in Anjouan

Chilling in the hotel

During breakfast we have a chat with the two British guys and an American girl from the US Peace Corps, who have all been stranded on the island for the last couple of days as a result of the flights being grounded and the ferry not operating due to bad weather.

One of the men has an international flight connection tomorrow morning, and is getting a little concerned that he will miss it. If he has to make other arrangements and stay longer on the islands, he would be struggling, as he has very little cash left and, a very low credit limit on his credit card, and no easy way of getting hold of more cash. While I sympathise with his predicament, it does seem to be a rather irresponsible situation to leave yourself in, especially in a place like Comoros where spanners can – and will – be thrown in the works. He is very well travelled, trying to get to all the countries in Africa before he dies, so I find it all rather odd. I heard Patrice advice him yesterday that they should leave here at 06:00 this morning and go to the airport to sit there all day hoping for a ‘window of opportunity’. “Oh, I won’t be around that early, can you make it 07:30?” he asked Patrice. I find that even more odd – if I was worried about missing my international connection, sleeping in would be the last thing on my mind; I would want to be first in that queue at the airport.

Anyway, we see them all go off this morning, feeling hopeful for a seat on the small 9-seater plane that is flying a shuttle service between Anjouan and Moroni today.

When Patrice arrives, he collects our passports, and after he has taken the others to the airport, he will go and try to and get ferry tickets for us for tomorrow. He tells us he has spoken to the boat captain already this morning, who has assured him that there will be a sailing tomorrow. Inshallah.

Walk?

The area around the hotel is lacking in places of interest or even scenic beauty, with piles of rubble and heaps of trash lining the roads.

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It is too hot to have a longer walk further afield, so we decide to spend the day chilling in the hotel.

Al Amal Hotel

Not being very good at ‘chilling’, I wander around the hotel grounds to look for something to photograph. Anything. Maybe some good macro work? Or an interesting insect?

Nope. The hotel grounds are what you might call sparse. There is no outdoor furniture, no benches, nowhere to sit and enjoy the scenery. It’s pretty bare and rather bleak. I assume this was once a thriving terrace with a cafeteria, tables, chairs, and umbrellas; with stimulating conversation, subdued laughter, iced drinks and colourful cocktails… In the heyday of the hotel maybe? Did it ever have a heyday? I find it hard to imagine.

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I walk around the other side of the building to find the few flowers that do dot the grounds.

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And the scrawny looking local cat, eyeing me suspiciously.

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I do find a sparrow and a carpenter bee as well.

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Even lizards are in short supply.

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To say the hotel is run down is an understatement. It has certainly seen better days and could do with a spot of refurbishment and lots of TLC, but these days Comoros is such a poverty stricken country with tourism being almost non-existent, so I doubt if they are able to spare money for doing the hotel up.

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The entrance to the hotel from the car park

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The reception area to the left and the restaurant straight on.

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The restaurant

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The outside dining area

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The corridor leading to the rooms

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The fusebox on the landing

Swimming Pool

There is a fairly large swimming pool, and a small paddling pool, but no water. I am guessing it is not financially feasible to maintain a full pool with just a handful of tourists (just four at the moment).

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David decides to do a dry run anyway.

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Beach

With no water in the pool, maybe we should try the beach. There is a gate in one corner of the grounds, but it is locked. Which means going up the steep hill to the main road, through the sports stadium and down a series of steep steps to get to the beach. In your swimwear. No thank you.

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Fishing

We watch the fishermen for a while, working in teams of four, with one man in the boat, throwing out the nets, with the other three in the water, splashing around to frighten the fish into the net.

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Chilling on the balcony

Having exhausted the ‘leisure facilities’ in the hotel, we go to chill in the room. The bedroom is the only place with A/C (or at least some of them have), but there is no wifi, or chairs; the restaurant has wifi, but no A/C or comfortable chairs; the reception has comfy seating but no wifi or A/C. We grab a couple of chairs from the restaurant and sit on the balcony for a while in the shade.

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We brought some bubbles with us to play with the local kids, but haven’t seen any children around, so David has to play with himself.

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Sporting my 400mm lens, I do manage to capture a couple of birds from the balcony.

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Common Myna Birds

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Pied Crow

Tripadvisor

You know you are in a fairly obscure place, when even Tripadvisor is confused about where Anjouan is, showing a photo from Ait Benhaddou in Morocco on their site for the island.

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This hotel, despite being the 'best on the island', is not even listen on Trip Advisor. Yet. I have tried to add it and written a review so hopefully it should show soon. .

Even David’s mobile phone seems to have doubts about this place.

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Lunch

The restaurant is calling, as much for the wifi as for the food: with little to choose from, we have another chicken sandwich. Considering there is only the two of us in the restaurant, I am somewhat surprised that the sandwiches take 45 minutes to arrive. Not that we are in a hurry, quite the opposite.

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Patrice arrives with our passports and tickets for the ferry tomorrow. This looks promising. He tells us the others are still waiting at the airport, with a glimmer of hope for a seat on the plane this afternoon.

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The rest of afternoon is spent just chilling, a little siesta, a short walk, some internet time, a drink (non-alcoholic) in the bar… The usual stuff.

Dinner

This evening they have vanilla, but no lobster, so I have to make do with chicken in vanilla sauce. It is absolutely delicious. David has another pizza.

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Later Patrice joins us for a drink and confirms that the one British guy who has an international flight tomorrow morning did get away today, but not until 18:00 this evening. Once the pilot had finished his scheduled flights for the day, he took some of those passengers who were most desperate to go to Moroni in his nine-seater plane, charging them €160 per person. That still has to be worth it to save all the hassle associated with missing your international flight.

As it is still too early to go to bed, I attempt some astrophotography in the grounds of the hotel. There is too much light pollution to be successful, but I have a go anyway. At least we can see the Milky Way quite clearly.

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As soon as we get back to the room, we both complain of feeling nauseous. Some ten minutes later, David starts vomiting violently, followed almost immediately by me. Oh dear.

I go to bed, hoping that having got rid of the content that was bothering my stomach, it will settle it down now. No such luck. I still feel terribly nauseous. Half an hour later I also have diarrhoea. Followed almost immediately by David. It is one of those cases where you don’t know whether to sit on the toilet or kneel in front of it. Thankfully, our urgent bathroom visits do not clash at any time, but they do go on throughout the night. 27 times to be exact, and yes, I am counting.

By around 2 am there is no more water in the tank to flush the toilet, so we start using the reserve from the buckets. By 4am this has run out too. So has our drinking water. If we weren’t already feeling nauseous, we certainly want to be sick as soon as we enter the pungent bathroom. We both feel like wet rags that have been wrung out and turned inside out. We try to get some sleep, but really only doze. Vomiting doesn’t bring any respite or relief from the dreadful nausea, it is constant and overwhelming.

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The buckets in the bathroom. You will be grateful to know that there is no photographic evidence of tonight's experiences.

Food poisoning is all we need for tomorrow’s ferry crossing back to Moroni. Right now I just want to be able to say “Beam us up Scotty” and be transported to home. I eventually drift off into a restless slumber.

This adventure was arranged by Undiscovered Destinations, specialists in trips to unusual places.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:17 Archived in Comoros Tagged water fishing beach hotel flight cat crow ta lizard chilling swimming_pool run_down frangipani decay passports runs bubbles astro sickness stomach tummy trip_advisor comoros nausea milky_way food_poisoning moroni anjouan al_amal_hotel mutsamudu chicken_sandwich hibiscus vanilla_sauce astrophotography diarrhoea Comments (2)

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