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Turkmenbashi - Dashoguz

A day of travel


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

I don't know what I ate last night that didn't agree with me, but whatever it was certainly aggravated an already unsettled tummy. I won't go into detail, as I am sure you don't want to know. Suffice to say it was messy. Very messy.

Typically, the breakfast buffet this morning, as you'd expect from a five star hotel, is superb, but all I want is some plain bread. At least the bread is deliciously fresh.

A couple of times during breakfast I have to make use of the toilets in reception. Beautifully clean and modern, they have motion activated light sensors in each cubicle. I am all for saving the environment, but these have been set to switch off after three seconds. Between me reaching out to pick some paper, and actually using it, the light goes off. I spend more time waving my arms around trying to see what I am doing than actually doing it. If it wasn't for my awful upset tummy, it would be rather amusing.

We have a slightly later than normal start this morning, and while David hobbles back to the room to rest his poorly leg after breakfast, I wander around the hotel and grounds taking pictures.

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Our room

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David elevates his leg on cushions on our balcony

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The balcony overlooks the grounds

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The leaves on the trees are just beginning to change colour for the Autumn

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The accommodation is in villas featuring four rooms per building. Our room is bottom right.

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The entrance to the hotel

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I find this Instagram swing totally surreal, especially since Instagram is blocked in Turkmenistan

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The front porch

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Reception

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The bar

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Lounge area

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Patio

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Swimming pool

It's a shame we don't have time here to enjoy all these lovely facilities, especially as David could do with resting his leg, and I would love to be somewhere with a toilet easily accessible, rather than spending the whole day travelling.

When Meylis arrives, he arranges a taxi to take us back to the car park where the driver will be waiting for us.

According to our programme, Artem - the driver who has been accompanying us so far on this trip - is to pick us up at the car park this morning, then drop us off at the airport for our flight to Dashoguz, where another driver will meet us. Artem, apparently, has had so much fun driving us around, that he has begged his boss to do the rest of the trip with us too. This of course means he has to drive from here to Dashoguz, a 14 hour journey, so he set off right after he dropped us off last night. We are not just feeling greatly honoured that he enjoys our company that much; we are also delighted to have him as our driver - we find his driving safe and comfortable, he is courteous and fun to be with, and he plays great music!

It does mean, however, that we have another, local, driver for our tour this morning. Because of David's inability to walk, we do our city sightseeing by car rather than as a walking tour.

The Port

Turkmenbashi is the second city in Turkmenistan and has an impressive modern port. From here oil and gas is exported, and passenger ferries run across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan.

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Oil depot

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Japanese Cemetery

During WWII, some 3,000 Japanese prisoners of war were incarcerated in Turkmenbashi; and even after they were 'liberated', they were never permitted to leave the town and were employed as forced labourers. We see a number of houses in town that they built, distinguishable from the Soviet blocks and modern buildings by their architectural style.

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Turkmenbashi Airport

This modern terminal was built for the 2017 Asian Games and is desperately under-utilised now, almost empty.

In order to enter the terminal building, all our luggage has to go through a scanner while we enter through an X-ray arch. The machine bleeps ominously as I walk through, yet I am dismissively waved on. Much as it makes my life easier, it is frankly quite a ridiculous and futile exercise and no way to conduct a security screening.

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Two trolleys turn up laden with snacks, and for a while we watch the Tuck Shop Wars in the terminal as they both vie for customers. There is only our flight departing this morning, and we see only one person purchasing something.

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As usual we receive VIP treatment here, as Meylis takes our passports, tickets and luggage to check in for us. The same thing happens after we land in Dashoguz – we are ordered to sit down while Meylis collects our luggage.

My tummy is still troublesome, despite taking Ciprofloaxin antibiotics earlier. I hope I can get rid of the problem before we venture into the desert tomorrow.

Hotel Dashoguz

Having stopped off at the supermarket for essentials (water, vodka, coke and ice cream), we continue to our hotel. As we make our way along the wide avenue, I spot an impressive large marble structure, and exclaim: “Wow, look at that fab building”

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“That's your hotel” Meylis states, wryly.

Like other hotels here in Turkmenistan, the lobby is palatial, with polished marble and grandiose furnishings.

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The room is of a good size, with a comfortable armchair complete with foot stool for David to rest his poorly leg on.

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Dinner

The restaurant is equally grand, with padded seats, cloth-covered tables and fancy drapes. But no diners. Nor staff. We hang around for a bit, coughing and talking loudly hoping to attract someone attention, but although we can see people in the kitchen, no-one appears to greet us.

Having seen that there are several people in the bar as we walked past (including the first two westerners we've seen since we left Ashgabat), we decide to head back there instead. We find a small table as far away from the party of six Russians as possible – four of whom are smoking while the rest are eating. Having been used to non-smoking establishments for so long now, I find second-hand smoke quite revolting. It does, however, bring back memories of the good (bad) old days of my nightclubbing era, especially with the dim lighting and loud music.

Most bars in this country have a huge TV screen, and in the evening can be found showing Russian and western music videos. The music tonight is excellent, and the raunchy videos are bordering on being pornographic; which I find quite surreal in a Muslim country where the vast majority of women are dressed conservatively with headscarves and long flowing dresses which cover the arms and legs.

We order two small pizzas, and a drink – David has beer, but I have to have a Pepsi as they don't have Fanta or anything similar.

The pizzas, when they arrive, are huge; and here there is no napkin snobbery – we get neither a cloth nor a paper one!

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We retire to bed feeling as ready for the adventure ahead of us as we can be considering David can't walk and I have the runs. Thank you Undiscovered Destinations for arranging this private tour of Turkmenistan.

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Posted by Grete Howard 12:05 Archived in Turkmenistan Tagged flight cemetery port pizza turkmenistan turkmenbashi ig instagram undiscovered_destinations upset_tummy yacht_club domestic_flight caspian_sea yelken yelken_yacht_club dashoguz torn_calf_muscle turkmenistan_airlines japanese_cemetery tuck_shop ciprofloaxin Comments (6)

Anjouan Island tour

Lobsters and lemurs

We both slept reasonably well, considering the party right below us went on until 04:00 this morning.

Sunrise

I stay behind taking photos of the sunrise while David goes off with Patrice to collect our bags from the port.

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Sunrise from our balcony

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Sunrise over the rocky beach

Picking up the luggage

Over at the quayside, David takes up the story:

”Arriving at the docks, we are faced with (what seems to be) a corrupt official, who insists we have to pay a 'port fee' just to go and collect the bags. They charge us per bag. It all seems like a total rip-off to me, and Patrice is furious.

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By the time we reach the ship, the crew are just starting to unload the bags, but ours are nowhere to be seen. Patrice arranges for me to be able to climb on board the ship to search for them rather than having to wait for every single case to be unloaded. Today there are not even any steps, nor gangplank, so I have to jump across the gap between the quayside and the ship.

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On board the boat last night's crew are busy cleaning up sick from the seats and gangways - not a job I envy them. I thankfully spot our luggage almost immediately, sitting just behind the bulkhead, and as soon as I hand over the luggage tickets, I am free to take the bags; which then have to be manhandled across the same gap between the ship and the docks. Once we are off the boat, we still have to transport them the considerate distance between the mooring and the dock gate, and from there back to where the car is parked, a couple of streets away. Thank goodness for luggage on wheels”

Back at the hotel, after a decent breakfast we finally have our shower and change, before setting out on a tour of the island with Patrice as the guide and Khalid as the driver.

Anjouan

A bit of a rebel child, Anjouan has never really fitted in. Declaring its independence from Comoros back in 1997, then changing its mind and asking to be re-integrated into France. Not being welcomed by the French, Anjouan reluctantly re-joined Comoros in 2002, only to once again declare itself an independent nation in 2007, prompting military action from the Comoros. The island now has a semi-autonomous status.

Island tour

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Setting off in a clockwise direction, we initially skirt the coast, then head inland and up into the highlands.

Cloves

Our first stop is at Koki Village where we see cloves being dried by the side of the road.

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Originally native to Indonesia, the Comoros is now one of the top exporters in the world of cloves. Patrice talks us through the whole process from harvesting through to bagging it up ready for export.

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The clove tree is an evergreen that grows up to around ten metres high, with large leaves and crimson coloured buds growing in clusters, turning into white tufty flowers.

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When the flower buds have turned a bright red, they are ready to be harvested. Patrice gives us a raw clove to try – it is very strong and the taste lingers for a long time afterwards.

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At this stage they are 1.5-2.0 cm long with one end housing four outer petals and a central ball of four tight, unopened petals.

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The flower buds are then spread out on the ground to dry in the sun where they gradually turn brown, hard and slightly shrivelled up, just as you see them for sale in the west.

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Used in many culinary dishes as well as medicines and even cigarettes, cloves are also often used as a traditional treatment for toothache.

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I love spices and find it interesting how various spices are produced from various parts of the plants they come from: cinnamon is the bark, ginger is a root, and cloves are the aromatic flower buds. The whole area where we are standing is filled with the aroma, and I am sure from now on the scent of cloves will always remind me of Anjouan.

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Cloves bagged ready for export.

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Some of the local workers

Village of Bazimini

Further along the road, we look down on the village of Bazimini, which has been built inside the basin of an old volcanic crater.

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Sisal

Introduced to Africa from its native Mexico in the 19th century, the fibrous leaves of this spiky plant are stripped and dried to produce fibres used in rope, twine and sack production as well as mattresses, carpets and handicrafts.

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Pigeon Peas

Patrice calls them “petit pois model Comorione”: pigeon peas are very popular here, and are often served cooked in coconut milk.

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We try them raw and they are very pleasant.

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Tratringa Falls

Featuring on the 100FC and 125FC stamps, this waterfall is popular for more than one reason. and the natural beauty of these cascades is obvious.

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Unfortunately, the tranquil charm is ruined by heaps of trash floating in the water and blighting the side of the falls.

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The falls are wide (at least during the rainy season, today the water does not extend across the whole width of the falls) and tumble into a small pool before making their way under the road into another narrower chasm the other side.

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Being a Saturday, the area around the falls is quite crowded, and Patrice explain that they have mostly come up from Mutsamudu. The reason this place is so popular does not just have to do with the beauty of the place (although we do see a car full of locals pull up, get out, snap a few pictures with their mobiles and drive on); it is a much more practical and mundane explanation: People from the capital come here to do their laundry in the river.

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The paradox of someone driving here in a large, fancy, 4x4 or gleaming pick-up truck to wash their clothes in the river by the side of the road completely blows me away.

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Ylang ylang

Anjouan is affectionately known as the ‘Perfumed Isle’ as a result of its bountiful flora whose aroma often wafts with the wind and hangs in the air as we found earlier with the cloves.

The most prominent of those aromas, however, is arguably the ylang ylang, an ingredient found in many of the world’s most popular perfumes (including Chanel N°5, my mum’s favourite perfume). The ylang ylang, a tropical tree producing yellow flowers, is highly valued for its essential oil, of which Comoros is the world’s largest producer, exporting some 50 tonnes each year.

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The process is a fairly simple operation in this basic and somewhat primitive set up. But it works, and the surrounding area is enveloped in a glorious aroma.

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The aroma is slightly floral, so it is primarily used in women’s perfumes and other cosmetics, but it can also work as a middle note in fragrances and products for men.

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This aromatic oil is not just used for perfumes; however, it is also popular in aromatherapy. It is also said to increase libido, help fight depression, lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system. Maybe I should try some to get mine back up to scratch after all the illnesses and antibiotics I have had this year! It is also said to be extremely effective in calming and bringing about a sense of relaxation, and is thought to help with releasing feelings of anger, tension, and irritability. David says I definitely need some!

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Mango

As it is my favourite fruit, I am disappointed when I find out that this is not the mango season.

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Patrice, however, picks an unripe fruit from the tree, and eats it like he would an apple, skin and all. I remember having a salad in Laos some years ago made from green mangoes, and try the hard fruit when offered.

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After finding the skin a little tough and difficult to bite through, the fruit is tart and quite refreshing inside, like a cross between an apple and a pear.

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Once I have finished the whole fruit, I recollect the old adage about eating fruits and vegetables ‘abroad’: “Peel it, wash it or forget it”, and my mind goes back to eating an apple bought from a market in Ghana and the subsequent dreadful sickness that I suffered as a result. Oh dear, maybe I shouldn’t have eaten this mango… only time will tell.

Mausoleum of Abdallah

Continuing south, we reach the town of Domoni and the revered resting place of Abdallah. The first president of Independent Comoros in 1978, the late Ahmed Abdallah Abdermane is considered to be the ‘Father of Independence’ and very much a national hero. He was assassinated by a military guard during a coup d’état in 1989, allegedly on the order of the French.

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Turning inland and climbing higher, we can get a good look back on the town on Domoni.

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The town of Domoni

Sales people line the road side.

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As we turn inland, both he road conditions and the weather deteriorate, with a thick mist enveloping everything in its wake.

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The road snakes its way down from the highlands towards the south-west coast in a number of spectacular switchbacks

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Men and women climb the steep road, carrying firewood and animal fodder.

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Sometimes the road disappears into oblivion, as we can barely see more than a few feet in front of us.

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As we descend, however, the mist gradually lifts, and we can start to make out the beautiful coastline below.

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Moya

The road leading into the small town of Moya is particularly bad, with more potholes than actual road.

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Lunch at Moya Plage Hotel

After climbing down a number of pedestrian switchbacks and steep paths, we reach the Moya Plage hotel, perched on a ledge overlooking the ocean.

The table is bulging with seafood: lobster, tiger prawns, octopus curry, and tuna fish; plus a number of accompaniments such as fried bananas, taro, salad, mataba (cassava leaves) and rice.

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It is all absolutely delicious, and I gorge myself full of lobster, one of my favourite foods! (I eat three of them, but don’t tell anyone. Shhhh)

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Maki

Being very disappointed that I am not going to get to Mohéli Island on this trip to see the whales, dolphins, turtles, bats and lemurs, I am overjoyed when I spot a baby maki (AKA mongoose lemur) on the restaurant terrace. Never mind stuffing myself on lobsters… I am off to photograph the lemur!

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I don’t know what it is about feet / shoes and lemurs; I remember the ring-tails in Madagascar licking our feet. It must be something to do with the salt in the sweat, but why feet in particular?

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Although it seems my fingers don't taste too bad either.

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Despite not quite understanding my excitement about seeing a maki (“but they are always here…”), the kitchen let us have some fruit to entice the young animal with.

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Comoros is the only place outside Madagascar where you can find a population of wild lemurs. This little guy, although still quite young, is obviously used to people and is quite content to clamber over anyone who sits still long enough and happy let you stroke his back.

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In fact, he is rather partial to having his ears scratched.

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When Patrice informs us it is time to leave, I reluctantly tear myself away from my newfound friend.

William Sunley

In the 19th century, there was great rivalry between Britain and France in the Indian Ocean, prompting the British to establish a consul on Anjouan. The man appointed was a retired naval officer, William Sunley, who was later invited by the local Sultan to establish sugar plantations. As a result of using slaves provided by the Sultan, he was forced to resign as consul (slavery was by that time abolished in the British Empire). Concentrating on his export business, his holdings expanded and at one stage he controlled around half the arable land on Anjouan.

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What remains of William Sunley's warehouse

With a widespread rebellion among the slaves in 1889, the French took the opportunity to intervene and conquer the island. Thus started the French sovereignty in Comoros. Despite being implicated in the slavery trade, William Sunley appears to be some sort of hero on the island.

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The tomb of William Sunley

Coastal Road

Patrice gives us the option to travel back the way we came, or go along the coast, but “the road is bad, very bad” he says. We are OK with that; I would rather see something new.

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As we travel along the south west coast, we see glimpses of sandy beaches and rocky promontories with surf spraying up over the built-up road.

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Seeing those waves crashing in, I am glad I am not on that inter-island ferry today; yesterday was bad enough. Patrice tells us that the ferry is actually cancelled today and tomorrow because of bad weather.

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Small communities cling to whatever flat land can be found, eking a living from the sea.

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On this narrow country lane we meet a cavalcade of flash looking black cars with blackened windows and headlight on full beam. “It’s the Vice President” explains Patrice.

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Breakdown

We also come across a friend of Patrice’s, whose car has broken down. His battery is flat because the alternator is not working. We swap batteries so that he has a good battery, while we take the flat one and hopefully our (good) alternator will recharge his duff one by the time we get to the next village.

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Naturally we have to jump-start his car, but after that everything goes well all the way up a long hill to the village where we yet again swap over to the original battery.

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Another spanner in a trip full of spanners.

Malagasy Pirates

Comoros was a favourite haunt for Malagasy pirates in their quest to capture slaves they could sell on to Europeans. Patrice points out the headland where the buccaneers used to hang out and congregate before raiding the capital Mutsamudu.

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Abandoned ship

It seems that it is not just cars that are abandoned where they die; we see this rusting hulk beached just outside Mutsamudu.

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Hotel Al Amal

Yesterday the reception hinted that they may move us from Room 121, so when we arrive back at the hotel today, we ask “which room”. "121" the receptionist confirms, the same one as yesterday. As we are not particularly bothered whether we change rooms or not, we go and start to undress ready for a shower.

Looking forward to relaxing in the cool air-conditioned room, we are dismayed to find the remote control for the A/C is missing. With no other way of turning it on or off, we put our clothes back on again and go back down to reception.

”Oh, we have moved you,” says the same receptionist who a mere five minutes earlier told us we were in Room 121.

We pick up the key for Room 112, one floor down, and move all our stuff over. Yet again I take my shoes and trousers off and slump down on the bed and try to switch on the A/C. However much I try, and whichever button I press, the remote does not work. Clothes back on and back to reception. They agree to send an engineer up to look at it. He arrives around ten minutes later and after fiddling for some ten minutes more, concedes that the A/C is not working. Yes, we know.

Change rooms. Again. Clothes back on. Again. Move stuff over. Again.

Room 114 does have a working A/C! Hurrah! “No TV” reveals the engineer. “No problem” we assure him, but is it safe to get undress (again) yet? We check the bathroom. There is only one towel, which is wet. We still have the key for Room 112, so collect the one and only towel from there. That is also damp. I cannot work out whether they are leftover from the last occupant or just haven’t dried from being laundered, but as I’d rather not risk it, mausoleum I use the towel I brought from home.

The bathroom is somewhat shabby to say the least, with a shelf that looks like it is just about to disintegrate any minute. As for the bath mat – it is dirtier than the cloth I wash my floor with at home! Thank goodness for flip flops.

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Time for a shower. As there is no shower curtain,, it’s a sit-down job. I didn’t realise how much dirt was on that road today – the water that is coming out of my hair is the colour of mud!

Feeling much more refreshed after the shower, we go to change into something cool before going for dinner. “Where are the shorts?” Both David’s and mine are missing, and I know I packed them in Grand Comore. We wore them on the last night there and I distinctly remember asking David: “Is it OK if I put these in your bag as I have already done mine up?” I placed them on top of the other clothes in his bag and zipped it up. Oh dear. Somehow they have gone ‘missing’ between packing the bags before going for breakfast in Moroni and looking for them this evening in Anjouan. Hmm.

Dinner

One saving grace about this hotel is that they do serve a very good pizza! I have mine topped with lobster, while David chooses a pizza called Oslo, with meat and vegetables.

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What they don’t have, however, is stocked up on beer after David drank the last one yesterday. Another dry evening.

After dinner I look for stars. Last night the skies were full of them, but my tripod was in the luggage that was still on the boat. Tonight I have a tripod, but no stars. Oh well. Time for bed then I guess. There is a party on again this evening; in the sports stadium right next to the hotel.

This trip was booked through Undiscovered Destinations, an excellent tour operator who specialise in adventure tours to unusual destinations. Such as Comoros.

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Posted by Grete Howard 01:45 Archived in Comoros Tagged hotel surf waves ship river sunrise fruit waterfall africa dinner lobster lunch mist docks pirates ferry trash pizza bags mango breakdown swimming_pool luggage aroma fragrance indian_ocean octopus chasm laundry lemur abandoned towel distillery smell a/c perfume spray ylang_ylang comoros cloves malagasy_pirates anjouan al_amal_hotel quayside luggage_on_wheels maki photograhy bazimi sisal pigeon_peas tratringa_falls runnish unripe_mango green_mango moya moya_plage hotel_moya_plage ahmed_addallah_abdermane mausoleum_of_abdallah domoney switchbacks bad_road mataba tuna_fish william_sunley coastal_road car_battery alternator jump_start abandoned_ship room_121 air_conditioning Comments (3)

Grand Comore - Anjouan

Another day, another island, another spanner in the works

This morning there are no bowls or spoons at breakfast, so David ends up eating his cereal out of a coffee cup with a teaspoon.

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After breakfast we meet with Omar in the lobby to hear of news about today’s ferry to Anjouan. “We leave in five minutes” he declares, which is not a problem for us: we are ready and packed!

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Another small car, unable to close the boot with our luggage inside, arrives to take us to the ferry ticket office to check in our bags. We are an hour early: check in starts at 09:00, with the ferry leaving at 10:00. Inshallah.

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We are not the first, however, there are already a lot pf people here: families travelling together, young men arriving in taxis, sales people trying to cash in, children throwing tantrums…

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Rather than hanging around here in the heat and melee, Omar suggests we go for a drive around town and come back when the office is open. Good idea.

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It seems to me that all the streets of Moroni are one giant market place with everyone selling and no-one buying.

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Volo Volo Market

We take a short walk through the new market, which, to be fair, doesn’t look all that different to the old market in the Medina that we saw a couple of days ago.

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Clothes, household good and food are sold from a number of very similar stalls.

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The Grand Marriage

On our way back to the check-in area, we come across a Grand Marriage. An age-old tradition that has been passed from generation to generation and is very much kept alive today, the Grand Marriage is so much more than a ‘mere’ wedding; it is all about a symbol of social status, being elected to the rank of a person of note, something that every self-respecting Comorian must do. A Comoran man can only wear certain elements of the national dress, take part in decision-making at the bangwe (gathering place where village elders meet to discuss important matters), or stand in the first line at the mosque if he has had a grand marriage. Apparently, the current president has not had a Grand Marriage and for this has become the scandalous subject of consternation and ridicule.

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While most people here in Comoros get married in a small wedding like many other places in the world, some men will then devote the entire rest of their lives to pay for the Grand Marriage. Most men are middle aged before they can afford to pay for this important celebration, having been officially married to their spouse for years already. Sometimes the Grand Marriage involves taking a second, much younger wife; Comorian men are permitted to have up to seven.

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The celebrations for this important occasion involve a major series of parties, processions and gatherings that can last up to two weeks and take over the whole village.

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Check in – another spanner in the works

When we get back to the port area, lots of people are queuing with their luggage, ready to check it in. Omar takes our nags to go and get them weighed and comes back looking somewhat concerned. “There is a little bit of a delay…” he says his voice trailing off into a kind of embarrassment.

The security police are on strike and refuse to go back to work until the government has made promises that they will repair the badly potholed road leading onto the docks. Their luggage truck has been damaged several times now and they are fed up with it.

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The luggage truck ready to go

”How long is it likely to be?” I ask. Omar shrugs and looks defeated: “It could be one hour, or two, one day or two days or more…”

My heart sinks. This trip started off as a three-island tour; then yesterday it became a two-island itinerary after all the flights were grounded. Now it looks like we may be stuck on this main island for the duration.

Omar suggests going to the Itsandra Hotel (the best hotel on the island) for coffee while we wait. He leaves our bags in the safe hands of the harbour master while we head for some refreshments.

Itsandra Hotel

Even in the aftermath of a heavy rainstorm, the hotel looks friendly and welcoming.

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We sit and enjoy a cold drink and the view out over the bay, while Omar goes to check on availability of a room for tonight, ‘just in case’. They have two rooms left and Omar asks them to reserve one of them for us, in case that ferry never leaves.

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Back to the dockside check in area

In order to reach the docks again, we have to drive right through the capital, Moroni, and as usual there is a traffic jam. At least this gives me a chance to people watch and take some photos.

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Love the name of this boat: Air Force One 007

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Meanwhile, back at the loading area, everyone is still waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

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The only people benefiting from this situation are the local tradesmen and women.

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The nearby 'Old Market'

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After 1½ hours of nothing much happening, Omar thinks lunch is in order, so we yet again leave our luggage in the office and head out.

New Select Salon de Thé

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Today being Saturday, I decide to try the Comorian Saturday Special. It’s off. We see someone on another table with a very tasty looking baguette, so order ‘”one of those please”.

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Chicken, chips and coleslaw sandwich. It was really tasty and fresh.

Rain

Suddenly the heavens open and torrential rain that within minutes has caused quite some flooding of the roads outside.

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Half an hour goes by, no sign of Omar. We pay for our lunch and get ready to leave, and after 45 minutes they turn up. Africa time. There has been no change in the strike situation and Omar suggests we go down to the docks one more time, and if there is still nothing, we’ll grab the cases and go to the hotel for the night. That sounds like a plan to me.

When we get to the docks it is all go! A compromise has been reached, the luggage has left and the passengers are making their way on foot towards to docking area. Omar hands us our tickets and luggage tags and we drive the kilometre or so down to the docks.

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Yay, I have a ticket! I am a little concerned that the date of departure shows tomorrow's date, but Omar tells me "not to worry, it is correct".

The entrance to the docks is locked. It seems the ferry company decided to tell passengers to go, before any agreement had been sorted with the security, so now we are left standing, in the full sun, on the pavement outside the dock gates. Women on the right, men on the left. After 20 minutes or so of communal baking, we are let through the gate (tickets checked) into a waiting room, where we are asked to take a seat.

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An official walks around the room, collecting tickets (and in our case also our passports, which he has to check in with the ‘big boss’) and puts them in a large pile on a desk. After collecting all the tickets, he then picks them up again, and walks around the room, shouting out the names on the tickets, the corresponding passenger must show ID in exchange for a boarding card (which he carries under his arm in a cardboard box, wrapped in glittery red Christmas paper).

Once we have our boarding card, we are free to leave the waiting room and walk the ¼ km or so to the boat.

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The free-standing aluminium steps are steep and wobbly, without a hand rail, and there is a one foot gap between the steps and the ship. One man each side holds my arms, and they helpfully (and thankfully) take my bags off me as I board. Then I watch the local women carry a child in one arm, a large bag in the other and a bundle of stuff on their head, all while wearing flip flops, negotiate the steps as if they were a smooth marble floor. I suddenly feel very ungainly and awkward.

Having already been told off twice for taking photos, I daren’t scratch my itchy shutter finger any more, despite being ‘desperate’ to document every part of this whole day’s shenanigans.

We take our seats, and as soon as all the passenger have boarded, we cast off. Just then they remember that a motorcycle must come off. The gap between the ship and the step is getting bigger and bigger as four men try to haul the heavy bike across. I am fully expecting it to end up in the water, but it seems they have done this sort of thing before. I risk a photo when I think no-one is looking.

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The crossing

We finally leave at 14:45, nearly five hours late. At least we are on our way.

You know it is going to be a rough crossing when the first thing the crew do, is to routinely hand out sick bags to every single passenger.

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I really cannot find anything good to say about this crossing, much as I would like to. The temperature is sweat-drippingly hot, and the TV is showing a bloodthirsty film full of violence, gore, and carnage (not just one, but three savage films, back to back). There is lots of screaming going on, by unwell kids, and each time a child screeches, a mentally disabled youngster near the front of the ship wants to imitate, shrieking his lungs out, jumping up and down in his seat and frantically flailing his arms about.

In addition to crying children, there are a number of adults shouting into mobile phones, holding the top part of the phone up to their ear for listening (as normal), then removing the phone from their ear and shouting into the ear-piece when talking. I have never seen that anywhere else on all my travels, but it seems quite common over here.

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We follow the shore for some time, and the waves are reasonably calm. Once we round the tip of the island, however, huge swells make the ship bounce around in a most unpleasant way. All around us people are throwing up (I am sure watching the awful films does not help one bit!), and shouts of “sachet” (bag) can he heard almost constantly. The crew are very attentive; collecting used sick bags and handing over fresh ones.

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Omar told us the journey should take 3½ - 4 hours from Moroni to Anjouan. After four hours its starts to get dark, and land is still nowhere to be seen. 5½ hours: I see land!

Anjouan

There is another big step to negotiate off the boat at this end, with the added disadvantage that it is almost pitch black. As soon as we step on land, Patrice, the local guide, greets us warmly. I guess, as the only white passengers, we are easy to spot.

Although I was not actually sick on the journey, my stomach does feel a little unsettled, and it feels good to be on dry land again. I can’t wait to get to the hotel for a shower and change out of these clothes that are soaked through with sweat. So, where do we collect our luggage? “Tomorrow” is the answer. The crew are not taking any luggage off the ship this evening; we will have to come back at 07:00 tomorrow morning. Groan. No toiletries. No nightwear. No sandals. Thankfully I always carry a change of clothes in my hand luggage, so at least I do have some dry clothes.

As it turns out, by the time we reach the hotel, it is so late that we go straight to dinner.

The good news is that they have beer! The bad news is that they only have one.

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We both opt for chicken pizza tonight. There is a cute old guy (he looks about 80, but I am guessing he has just had a hard life) who speaks excellent English waiting on the tables tonight. Table. We are the only two diners this evening.

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As we leave the restaurant at around 22:00, we notice some pretty impressive speakers being installed in the restaurant. We soon find out that Saturday night is party night in Al Amal Hotel, with loud music (our room is two floors directly above the restaurant), singing, dancing and shouting. I am too exhausted to take any notice and despite the ruckus below, quickly drift into sleep.

This trip was organised by Undiscovered Destinations.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:18 Archived in Comoros Tagged rain market ship music party africa sick docks ferry pizza floods street_market queue strike sandwich comoros nausea delay moroni grand_comore spanner_in_the_works itsandra_hotel tantrum anjouan volo_volo_market ferry_crossing al_amal_hotel grand_marriage new_select_salon-de-thé rain_shower torrential_rain sea-sick boarding_card loud_speakers violent_film Comments (3)

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)

London Heathrow - Atlanta - Port au Prince, Haiti

We've arrived, with even more goodies than we set out with.


View Fet Gede - Haiti's Day of the Dead 2016 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Never before have we travelled with so much luggage! Normally when we travel, we park at an off-airport long-term car park and take advantage of their valet parking deal, where we just drive up to the terminal, jump out of the car with our luggage, and someone else takes the car away to park it. This time we decided to get a hotel the night before as the flight departs so early. We stumbled across a great deal with a 'mystery' hotel and parking for the week for less than we normally pay for just the parking. The 'mystery' hotel turned out to be the Hilton at Terminal 5 (and very nice it was too), but as we are flying from Terminal 3, it means getting the Hotel Hoppa bus from the hotel to T5, then the Heathrow Express train to T3. With four large bags, two rucksacks and a camera bag. At 05:00 in the morning.

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The check-in girl at Virgin Atlantic Airways is delightful, and when we tell her all about the donations we have received to take over to Haiti with us for the victims of Hurricane Matthew, she waves the fee for checking in an extra bag each. Well done Virgin!

The flight is not full, so we are able to spread out and have a row of seats each.

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Approaching Atlanta

We chat to the crew on board, and tell them about the good deed their colleagues on the ground did this morning by allowing us to carry the disaster relief for free, and amazingly they return with a large bag of goodies for us to take: blankets and toothbrushes/paste. Virgin Atlantic really does rock!

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The US is the only place in the world that I know of where you have to collect your luggage and re-check it even if you are on a connecting international flight. The customs officer brusquely asks: “What is all this?” pointing at our four large suitcases. “Clothes” I reply. After ascertaining that we are not carrying any food, he lets us pass and we can get rid of the main bags again.

The full body scan turns into a bit of a palaver, as even my silk scarf and empty money belt show up and I am asked to remove both. When trying to get it off, the money belt gets tangled up in my bra and they reluctantly allow me to just hold it to one side and do the scan again. I then get a full pat down and with all the distraction and fluster, I leave my scarf behind. I don't discover it until we get to the gate, and it's a long way back via the inter-terminal train and in through a NO ENTRY sign. David really is a star for going back to collect it for me!

While waiting at the gate, our name is called and we discover that we have had our seats re-allocated on the next flight – we again have a row to ourselves! Well done Delta!

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Pouchon, our driver, waits for us by the luggage carousel at Port au Prince, and whisks us through the dark streets of the capital to our hotel.

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Thanks to my Facebook friends' generosity, over a thousand items of clothing (from babies, toddlers, children, teens to adults) came over with us to help out the victims of Hurricane Matthew in Haiti.

We also took some shoes and hats, toiletries, feminine products, space blankets and enough water purification tablets to make 20,000 litres of clean water.

Our friend Jacqui in Haiti (who runs the local tour agency Voyages Lumiere) agreed to take in the collection, so we leave the bags in the car for Pouchon to take to her house.

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Through one of her contacts who runs a bus service, Jacqui has been able to get free transport for the bags to the severely affected areas in the south.

Another friend of hers is a doctor who spends a couple of days a week treating the poor for free; and he has agreed to be the co-ordinator and distributor in the stricken area, making sure the items go to the most needy.

Many of my friends also gave us money to help out the victims; and I am delighted to say that with the addition of funds we would otherwise have spent on the two extra bags, we collected $750. In Haiti we received a refund from our tour operator for unused services (after an itinerary change) that we added to it, and after topping it up with some extra, we have made it a grand total of $1000!

The aforementioned doctor is also currently administrating a project to fit new roofs to houses damaged by the hurricane, which is where we decided to direct the money we collected.

So thanks to my very generous Facebook friends, at least TEN families will received a roof over their heads; as well as hundreds of people getting new clothes! I am absolutely humbled and extremely grateful to be able to organise this. Well done the power of Facebook!

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Our bags are now looking decidedly empty, so I guess I shall have to do some shopping while we are here in Haiti.

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We just dump the luggage in the room and head for the bar for a cold, refreshing Prestige Beer and a light dinner.

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Meatlover's pizza

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Terrace burger

What's a girl gotta do when she asks for a cappuccino after her meal, but they have run out? Order a Piña Colada of course!

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Before signing off for today there are a lot of people I have to say a “Thank You” to:

Voyages Lumiere for arranging this trip

Jacqui for agreeing to be our local coordinator for the aid we brought over

Dr Robert for helping to distribute the goods in the south as well as arranging the new roofs

My Facebook friends for their generous donations

Virgin Atlantic for allowing free passage of the suitcases as well as the large goodie bag

The world truly is full of beautiful people.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:52 Archived in Haiti Tagged beer travel us usa hurricane pizza aid atlanta luggage heathrow delta burger virgin_atlantic facebook haiti piña_colada port_au_prince #selfieless selfieless hurricane_matthew hurricane_relief voyages_lumiere haiti_relief hurricane_mathew aid_work aid_relief hotel_le_plaza le_plaza hilton_terminal_5 atlanta_airport us_customs body_scanner prestige_beer 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)

Jalousie, Bouteliers, Furcy and Pétionville

Head for the hills

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

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I have to say the cleaning staff is certainly efficient here, Housekeeping knock on the door at 07:55 this morning, wanting to make the room up! Normally we are up and out by that time, but this holiday has some nice, leisurely starts. In fact, we have quite a lot of free time on this trip – is this a sign that we are getting old?

Not only are they efficient here at Le Plaza, they are extremely friendly too. The girl who 'checks us in' at breakfast fusses over my hair; and Jerry, the waiter, won't let us carry and thing - not even the plate or glass - from the buffet.

I try a vegetable tortilla and some sautéed ham for breakfast this morning, rather than the usual omelette. It makes a nice change.

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Jalousie – Beauty v/ Poverty

Today we head for the hills, with the first stop being a look-out point over Jalousie, one of Haiti's slum areas built into the side of Morne L’Hôpital.

Inspired by famous Haitian painter Prefete Duffaut, who died in 2012, the houses have been painted in rainbow colours as part of a government scheme called “Jalousie en couleurs” (Jalousie in Colours).
The scheme involved rebuilding earthquake-damaged houses, installing running water, and introducing rent-free accommodation (initially at least), in order to attract people to move here from displacement camps downtown. Being on such a steep slope has its disadvantages though, with many of the homes built on the ravines that serve as canals for rainwater. Due to the lack of vegetation to hold it back, during the rainy season water and mud have been known to carry away people, animals and even entire houses.

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Poverty

Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and the third poorest country in the world outside Africa (the top spots go to Afghanistan and Nepal). Decades of neglect and a lack of investment in water and sanitation are still manifested in the country’s malnutrition and child mortality rates, which are the highest in the region. Some 80% of the population live below the poverty line while the country is in an advanced state of industrial collapse, with a GDP per capita of just $2 a day.

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Pride

What has struck us here in Haiti, however, is the pride of the people. No-one looks poor. Everyone takes great care of their appearance, their clothes are always clean, the children are immaculate in their school uniforms. If I take one single word away with me from our time here is Haiti, it has to be PRIDE.

A new building springing up this side of the ravine - I guess the view we have today will soon be obscured by a multi-storey apartment block.

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Love the writing on the side of his helmet: Le Boss!

The road is narrow and winding, with lots of traffic. We get stuck behind a large truck which spews out putrid, black smoke as we travel up and up and up.

Bouteliers

We leave the smoking truck behind and turn off the main road to take a detour to Bouteliers, where the aptly named restaurant Observatoire offers amazing views.

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Below us lies Port au Prince and its suburbs spread out.

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On closer inspection, we can see the different aspects of Haiti's capital city, from its leafy suburbs...

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… to its tightly packed poorer quarters...

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… the town's enormous cemetery...

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… and the main town centre.

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It's not until I see it all laid out below me like this that I realise just how central our hotel is. There it is, right in the middle of all the main sights of downtown Port au Prince.

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Chaîne de la Selle

As we climb higher into the mountainous interior of Haiti, low clouds obscure the top of the mountain ranges.

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Ayiti (the original name of Haiti) means mountainous land in Taino language, the ethnic group who lived in Haiti for 700 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. In fact, Haiti is the most mountainous country in the Caribbean with its peaks plunging steeply down to the thin strips of coastal plain.

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We stop a couple of places to admire the scenery, looking out over the valleys, terraced fields and clusters of buildings that dot the countryside. Here they grow vegetables which are sold in the street markets and at the big supermarkets in town. It is nice to know that the small squares we see are owned by the farmers, not by some rich landowner leasing it to workers at an astronomical price.

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At Fermanthe, we stop to buy some post cards, a fridge magnet and use the facilities. The choice of post cards – the first ones we've seen in Haiti – is very limited indeed. Serge – who is also a keen photographer – is thinking about making his own. I hope he does, as I am sure he would be able to offer a much better selection than the ones available at the Mountain Maid Baptist Mission here.

Kenscoff

This is where a lot of the produce we saw growing on the hillsides ends up – the main market for the whole mountain region.

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Furcy

At 6,236 feet (Serge has an altimeter on his smart watch!), the air here is cool and clean – quite the contrast to Port au Prince at sea level.

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The site is absolutely spectacular, sitting on a ridge overlooking valleys and mountains, and there is an almost serene Alpine charm to the place.

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The spectacular track on the ridge of the mountain range takes you across to Jacmel – it is accessible by 4WD only though. Shame. It looks like a fun drive.

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This, surely, is where the Haitan proverb Dèyè mon gen mon ('Beyond the mountain there are mountains again') was coined.

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Pétionville

Making our way back down to Port au Prince, we make a stop in Pétionville.
Named after the first president of the Republique of Haiti, Alexandre Pétion, this is the upmarket tourist area of Port au Prince and is known for its palatial mansions and numerous art galleries. I found the description of Pétionville in Wikipedia patronising, condescending and highly insulting, suggesting that the suburb has “an appearance of western normality”. What the **** is that, and why would I travel to Haiti to experience it when I can instead immerse myself in the rich and eclectic culture that the years of mixed heritage has created ?

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Anyway, climbing back down from my soap box...

Pétionville has a country club and Haiti's only golf club. Wow! (insert sarcasm font here).

Lunch

We mentioned to Serge yesterday that we are keen to try some local food rather than international stuff and that we like spices; so he takes us to La Coquille Restaurant for lunch.

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With tightly packed tables inside and out, the buffet restaurant is popular with locals.

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One of the drinks Jacqui suggested we try, was soursop juice – a fruit native to Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean. This is a new one to us, and it tastes a little like a creamy banana milkshake.

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Again it comes served au naturel, with extra sugar to add if desired.

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And judging by the look on David's face, I would say it is probably required.

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Round one of the buffet consists of:

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diri djon djon – a traditional Hatian Creole dish where rice is cooked with water in which dried black mushrooms have been soaked/cooked. The mushrooms themselves are not served with it, just the rice which is stained brownish-black by the mushroom water.

rice served with beans in a sauce poured over it

lalo legume – jute leaves cooked until slightly sticky

cabbage and carrots

For round two I pick up a few things that were not available on my first visit to the buffet – some very fatty but tasty fried beef, green beans, beetroot and pasta in a creamy sauce.

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Art Gallery

Pétionville is famous for its art galleries, and after lunch, we visit an upmarket showroom, complete with armed security guard outside, a beautifully presented but bored looking female assistant, and super-efficient air conditioning. To be fair, it has some pretty awesome art - we are not tempted, however. Serge asks us, half-heartedly, if we would like to visit another gallery...? I think he knew the answer even before he finished the sentence.

Caribbean Supermarket

Instead he takes us to the Caribbean Supermarket. Commenting to Jacqui yesterday that the one thing I would miss if I moved to a place such as Haiti, is the supermarkets back home; Jacqui looked at me aghast and exclaimed: “Are you kidding me?” Entering the clean, modern and extremely well stocked store, I see her point. Heck, they even have Strongbow cider!

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Barbancourt Rum

And no, we don't buy any cider. We do, however, get some local 8 year old rum. The Barbancourt Distillery is over one hundred and fifty years old, and the rum is referred to as the 'rum of connoisseurs'. We shall look forward to sampling this and seeing what it is like. Not that I am a connoisseur, but I do have some experience with rum...

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Taking no chances, we strap our booty well in to the seat of the van as we make our way back to Port au Prince.

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Post Office

Having bought post cards this morning, the logical next step is stamps. You'd think that would be an easy job. Not so in Haiti. The post office does not produce stamps above 20 gourdes. A card for America costs 200 gourdes and for England we require 15 stamps per card. Don't even think about sending post cards to Australia! $40 for stamps to go on ten cards may be horrendously steep, but to me it is worth it just for the unique experience of sticking the blighters on the cards! I just hope they actually get there after all this!

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Traffic

As we enter Port au Prince proper, we get stuck in traffic. Serge blames it on the school run – nothing new there then: just like back home! At least it gives me a chance to people-watch...

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Everybody needs some form of entertainment, and in a country like Haiti, where life is tough, jobs are scarce and poverty is rife, dominoes offer just that: a chance to relax, hang out with friends and even partake in a spot of gambling without necessarily having to put down any monetary stakes.

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It seems it is not just me who finds the city heat too much – I suppose if you work on a street-side vegetable stall, you have to use some ingenuity in order to find somewhere to take an uninterrupted afternoon siesta.

Road Block

Fed up with sitting in stationary traffic, Geffrard tries to take short cuts across other avenues, but he's not the only one attempting to get around the gridlock. Eventually we discover the reason for this heavier-than-usual amount of traffic – a road block. Riot police with shields and semi-automatic guns at the ready tell me “no photos”. I oblige – after a quick covert snap from inside the car.

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We are ordered out of the car, as no vehicles are allowed anywhere past this point. Geffrard and Serge argue that they want to transport these tourists to their hotel; but the gendarme is not impressed. Don't they know who we are? Apparently not; and we make our way through the throngs of milling people on foot to get to Le Plaza, where the metal gate is locked, bolted and guarded by two burly men armed with assault rifles. “Let us in!”

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Safe Haven?

As always, Le Plaza is a haven of tranquillity and respite from the disturbing turmoil on the streets outside. But did I come here for a sedate and calm holiday? Did I heck! Finding a suitable (safe?) viewpoint, I start photographing the political rally that snakes its way through the city.

Political Rally

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Unlike some of the recent inflamed and destructive demonstrations by the opposition parties (there are over 100 political parties, with 56 presidential candidates for the upcoming elections); this procession is organised by the ruling party with a strong anti-violence message in an attempt to show the world (or at least the Haitian voters) their own peaceful approach.

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Pink? Really? Who on earth was in charge of the colour scheme for the campaign?

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Having already twice been told “No Photos” by uniformed, armed police, I am initially a little apprehensive about openly photographing the rally, even from my safe view point; but the protesters themselves seem very friendly and quite happy to have their picture taken, waving their hands and placards at me. Haitians don't seem to smile naturally like some other nations, but when they do, their whole face lights up.

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The only casualty we see, is this guy who gets knocked off his bike when a car collides with it. At those snail-pace speeds, no harm is done and he laughs as he is helped back up again.

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Despite being billed as a peaceful rally, the police are taking no chances, and are out in force: ready for combat with their riot gear and armoured vehicles. When we later hear several sirens from outside the hotel grounds, we do wonder if the rally remained peaceful.

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Pool time

The show is over, and it's time to chill in more ways than one.

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Post cards

OK, we now have to start licking – the amount of stamps required for each card necessitates that the stamps go on immediately after the name and address, before even thinking about what to write.

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It certainly doesn't leave much space for writing!

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In fact, it doesn't leave much of the other side either; only the two cards bound for the US retain an unscathed picture. Australian friends will have to guess what the card shows.

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Beer!

With our tongues coated in glue, a drink is much called for! Rarely has an ice cold beer looked so welcome!

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Dinner

As usual, I find the starters on the menu more interesting than the main courses, and order two entreés instead of one mains, while David settles for a meat lovers' pizza.

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The starters are huge!

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Kebbeh – Arabic fried minced meat dish served with Picliz (Haitian coleslaw), and this one has a real kick!

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Accras de malenga – taro root fritters. A little bit dry - would have been nice with a chilli sauce or something for dipping

I am just grateful that I had two starters, not a starter and a main course, as I certainly couldn't finish these two!

As we have a late start tomorrow morning, we enjoy the rest of the evening by the pool in the company of a rum punch or four.

large_Pool_by_Night_4.jpg

PS. As of March 13th - six weeks later - none of the post cards have arrived. Boo! All that effort (and money) for nothing. I have waited until now to publish this blog entry in the hope that they would, so not to spoil the surprise.

Posted by Grete Howard 14:43 Archived in Haiti Tagged mountains art beer hills views shopping scenery pool pizza swimming_pool rum stamps haiti art_galleries petionville la_plaza_hotel port_au_price furcy political_rally post_cardselections haiti_elections Comments (0)

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