A Travellerspoint blog

The Gambia

Half-term trip - The Gambia & Senegal

sunny 30 °C

These days the world feels small... so small it was even emblazoned on a coffee mug I used to have. I bought it to teach myself all the names of the African countries and where they sat with every sip. The vastness of it, the cultural heritage, the disparity, the complexities, my lack of awareness of even its names of the 55 countries.

How many can you name … 10 may be ?

And I would always get stuck on west Africa… So many with annotation lines on the countries to names which are too big to appear on its piece of land so appear on a neighbouring piece and some in the sea and our euro-centric maps present Africa as disproportionately small…. creating an added layer of cognitive dissonance and reinforcing our inaccurate and superficial if any relationship with Africa.

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However over the years we managed to visit about 11 of the above countries, notably Ethiopia truly one of the most beautiful and magical (seriously felt supernatural) countries (so much in contrast from the image it has been stuck with but hey at least some popstars got famous) and Nambia with its skeleton coast was just wild. The world felt big again and we felt small which I think should be the right way around.

The last few years we have mostly avoided Africa …well not strictly true – we have avoided Malarial countries until this year... as our daughter turned 5 and could comfortably take required anti-malarial pills.

As a tentative toe back in the continent with a small child, we decided to do Africa-lite: well travelled package destination Gambia and the oil rich Senegal.

London Gatwick to Gambia …. should have been easy …..

Our 5 year old as our alarm clock wakes us up at 6.30 usually, but this morning we had to wake at 5am ..to catch our fight to Barcelona enjoy some tapas then to Banjul, Gambia ready for Persia’s bedtime. Best laid plans …. got to Gatwick bleary eyed only to find out our first leg was cancelled with only one flight to Gambia once a week from Barcelona, we couldn’t take the airlines offer to get a flight next morning … so we had to frantically rebook to go via Casablanca, departing from London at 4.30pm (10 hours after we had arrived for our original flight — uggh) getting in at Casablanca at 9.30pm.

9.30pm Casablanca Airport to Our Hotel in The Gambia

A little area of food choices. We sat in Pauls (as in the slightly tired French themed chain), as there was wifi, comfortablish seats at a corner. Have you noticed at airports there are very few seats which actually create a safe cosy corner ?

Persia occupied herself writing in her diary: “Waiting at airports is boring. My holiday is boring.”

I actually thought Casablanca Airport would be dusty and hectic with imposing groups of Morrocan men … you know like James Bond movies. We had been to Morocco before - in fact to Fez and drove around the cost to Eussaria and Agadir. It was a pretty stressful holiday overall, around the time of the arab spring with polarized views at a high …Julian and I got hassled a lot for being a mixed couple there was lots of tension in the area and a few weeks after we were back there was a terrorist bomb in Istanbul. Anyway fast forward 12 years.

Apart from the life-sucking fluourescent ubiquitous airport and probably prison tube lights, it was a tidy, clean, chilled out airport (good toilets too). There were one or two groups of Moroccan men minding their own business except for the one I approach to borrow his phone charger; and there were also lots of female travelers and locals some on their own, some with kids. Of course there would be – how can we see past the blinkers of your own prejudices to pull them off? How can you become conscious of your own unconscious bias? I guess when it slaps you ‘woke’ in the face … just by experiencing other cultures first hand.

We were so tired by the time we sat down on our Royal Air Maroc flight to Banjul but it was only 3 hours to Gambia. Just to note if you go in season, there are many direct package tour operators and we could have avoided all this drama.

Not the most memorable flight except I do remember my daughter seeing that the back of the seats had no media screens and saying ‘this plane is old school’. And we had an hour and half delay on the runway – rebooting the plane. Turning the key and switching it on and off with accompanying chug chug wrrr and chug chug wrrr magically it did start to work.

We got to Banjul, Gambia at 2.30am. Very painful. In the African heat and darkness, we approached the taxi guard who pointed to a skittish guy who led us past a bunch of normal looking cars to a rusty peacock blue Trabant with matted leopard fur insides (no seatbelts – clearly predated any regulation). For a split second I day-dreamed off and thought this car is way the hell cool … before reengaging my brain – to shit we are are in a death trap. (Some side notes - about Banjul Airport during the day, there is very little to do there. You can get internet but you have to buy some food from a café within the main airport departure room (it is only 1 room) the password has a ‘$’ sign in it so make sure you know where that is on your phone keyboard !)

Luckily there was no traffic but at 3am as we got closer to the town it started to come alive .. music blaring, a lot of men bustling around random cars just chatting and chilling, couples spilling out of bars, clubs, locals, a lot of scantily clad women strutting down the middle of the road more akin to townies. I wanted to take a photo because I knew we wouldn’t be out again at this time (we are parents of a small child for goddsakes) …. but I was paralysed with tiredness .. could only watch wide-eyed.

So why ‘The’ in The Gambia … the answer is partly differentiation from Zambia (other country in the world with The is The Bahamas). Where is it exactly ? well it is a slither of land from the atlantic sea into the belly of Senegal with a river running through it. It is a muslim country and everyone like most of west africa could speak french but english is its official language. (There are at least 10 languages spoken in Gambia by the various ethnic groups - Wolof, Serer-Sine, Sarahole, Pulaar, Maninkakan, Mandjaque, Mandingo, Jola-Fonyi and the Aku's Creole (pidgin English)).

Our Hotel

30 mins later we were at the hotel. The hotel was a mid-range large complex. The tall young chap at the desk walked us over little bridges through lush hotel gardens to a dingy room with twin beds stuck together. They hadn’t even cleaned the bathroom still with a wet towel on the floor. We were too tired to fight we just went to sleep. In the morning we requested to change rooms and got a much bigger triple room on the ground floor overlooking the gardens near the kids pool area and the beach. Just a note, there was aircon but it was dripping/raining onto a TV on a shelf directly underneath !

The hotel had beautiful grounds in Senegambia area, with a committee of vultures (kettle of vultures when they are flying), troops of mnkeys, colourful birds and giant lizards. They were lots of fun but they seem a bit too comfortable sharing the space with us. The hotel and tourists were a source of food. There was also a human rights conference going on in the hotel which was great to see.

On the first day, out of tiredness and trying to keep our daughter entertained (as the hotel did not have any childcare) we stayed mostly by the pool. The hotel was pretty busy mostly with German and Dutch tourists.

There is also neverending beach off the hotel with a few hawkers trying to sell their batik sarongs and mini bongo drums and a few ladies running a chilled out shack of a beautician. In fact one of the ladies touted sunbathers for hair braiding and manicures charming people including us. As we were there a German guy came for a foot massage and we all had a bit of a laugh chatting and watching the sea. I think I nearly fell asleep during one point. Then the lady noticed a few new people appeared from another hotel and worked out they were Russian. The German guy taught her some Russain and just like that she was off repeating the words under her breath and approached them. The dynamism and entrepreneural spirit was impressive. They rejected her in typic Slavic manner but she came back giggling wanting to improve her russain so she could try again later that day.

And we took a walk around the block to the adjacent nature reserve/national Bijilo park. We passed a strip of restaurants and shops some with hand painted fonts and signage (which I love by the way). Other thing there were a few older ladies with younger men (saw one European lady one the beach with 2 younger guys) and actually a regular looking guy stopped from coming into the hotel with his very attractive younger lady tour guide assumed by the hotel security to be a prostitute. The local shop even comedy postcards depicting this kind of thing. In fact Gambia is trying to change it’s ‘sex tourism’ reputation to be more of a wildlife and heritage destination.

Anyway, we could not find the entrance to park because parts of the park had been razed to the ground to build a China Aid funded ($50million) obscenely massive conference centre for an Islamic event in 2019. We spoke to a few locals who said they were not too pleased about it when there were so many other issues to be solved but what could be done.

We did actually make it back to find the entrance and walk (90mins) through the lush palms and groves (all the while hearing the construction) which led back onto the beach and to our hotel.
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Highlights

There was a tourist office right next to the hotel. We negotiated a bespoke day trip with a driver called Osman with an open top 4 by 4 and tour guide called CD for the day for around £100. We really should have checked the car first – it was ridiculously beaten up with a smashed front window.

To note a lot of people do pray 5 times a day so it is good to start early after the first prayer and try and get back before the last prayer so the guide and driver get home to pray.

Kachikally Crocodile Pool

Kind of strange experience, apparently the crocs have been reared on fish so don’t eat humans. My whole body was telling me do not stand in a bask of crocodiles (ooh I just love using the collective nouns of animals) - they will devour you. But I did it. To prove that the those crocodiles weren’t just sedated, the guide dropped his key ring down on to them and as a reflex they all swished up and snapped at it with natural reflex. We did go onto do a short walk through Abuko Nature Reserve, it was ok but led onto some sorry looking hyenas in a caged area.

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“The Kachikally Sacred Crocodile Pool is known by local Gambians for its healing powers and as a place where people come to pray for blessings. It is sometimes seen as a place of last resort for infertile women who wish to conceive; being washed by specially trained women of the Bojang clan, after which they are told not to shake hands with anyone in Bakau. Many others with long-term ailments or misfortune also come to the pool to bestow them luck and offer kola nuts, cloth and other offerings to the Bojang family and the crocs in return. Sacred rituals are still occasionally held here; often accompanied by dancing and drumming, most of the time, however, the only visitors are tourists.

Kachikally's sacred pool shrine was revealed to the Mandinka Bojang family, over 520 years ago, by a ruler's sister named Katchikali. She first tested the worthiness of a Nkooping Bojang - the founder of Bakau Village - and his sons Tambasi and Jaali Kumba, by pleading with them to help rescue her child, supposedly fallen into a well. On approaching the pool a child's cries was heard. Tambasi entered the well and found the child sitting on a rock surrounded by spring of water. For showing willing, they were rewarded with the custodianship of the well itself, where 'any woman washed will, providing she sleeps with no other.......before the same time next year bear a child'. Tambasi and Jaali in return gave Katchikali (a spirit from the forest) the first thing they caught in their fishing nets at a swamp called 'Tambe-Koba': two crocodiles, which their mother placed into the well. Many generations of Bojangs ago, these reptiles were the prelude to the present-day site.

Another variation of the story is that during the 15th/16th centuries the well at the pool used to provide the only source of drinking water for the people of Bakau. One day when two brothers, Tambasi and Jaali, were busy palm wine tapping, a female Jinn (supernatural entity) came to the well with her child tied to her back, carrying a bucket. As the Jinn was pulling water from the well her child fell inside; the woman shouted for help. Once alerted, the two brothers dashed to see what the problem was. As they reached the well, they saw the woman in tears and shouting 'Kachikally', which means in Mandinka 'pick it up and put it down'. Tambasi and Jaali helped by taking the child out of the well. The woman thanked the two brothers and gave a prayer for them. The woman told the brothers that in future the well would become a sacred shrine for prayers and supplication”.

Art village

Julian, had read in an old lonely planet about this art village ‘Wide Open Walls Project’ in the rural cashew nut farm areas where internationally renowned graffiti/street artists painted on the side of houses In Kubuneh. We drove totally off piste, onto dirt tracks turning around on dead ends a number of times because of huge rain logged ditches. It was a 4 hours slow bumpy (thought we were going to turnover a few times ) detours which was not worth it. I guess we saw a different less touristy side of Gambia.

Also despite the art looking great, and sure the famous artists got to pat each other on the back, the villagers saw little benefit from it.

We noticed a lot of schools with kids dressed smartly in uniforms some of whom ran after our jeep asking for pens and lollipops.

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Serekunda Market

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Went on forever, local produce supplying locals - incredibly vibrant, hot, loud, colourful, stimulating and busy - minimal tourists. Had to take photos surreptitiously. Went into a 3 story open plan building which had whole areas for instance just repairing phones. We need this in London.

Sanyang Beach

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Again went off the main roads onto dirt roads, shacks, incredible stench of fish to a cafe (delicious lunch of fish with onions and rice) on the working fishing beach. One of the most beautiful beaches we have ever visited. Cackling seagulls encircling the nets as they were brought in towards rows of wooden bold decorated fishing boats where the women wearing swathes of saturated hues in the bright sunlight gutted the hauls.

Posted by Bushra 08:31 Archived in Gambia Comments (0)

Brunei

sunny

We vistied Brunei in April 2018. Had a great time.

I remember first hearing about the Sultan of Brunei, pre Bezos & the Zuck, as the richest man in the world. And seeing him on TV, seated next to the Queen at official events, with his intricately embroidered hat and robes. Mysterious rich dude of an even more mysterious oil rich country in the middle side of the Malay Borneo which in itself was too remote and exotic to be able to pinpoint on a map.

I knew very little else about Brunei.

We arrived in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan at 12.30am and picked up a taxi. The wide, empty modern roads were seemed to go on forever. Our first impression of the infamous Empire hotel was its sheer size followed by the sheer amount of marble. We were pretty tired though so it was kind of annoying to check in and then still had to journey a little to our hotel room building.

The room was nice enough. Very little soul but immaculate. We opened our balcony door to the sound of the South China Sea crashing onto the man made manicured rocky banks flanking the hotel.

The next morning, we felt the full expanse of the hotel. It was set in landscaped gardens with a complex of hotels and apartments, a country club, cinema, bowling alley, grand hall, 4 restaurants, countless swimming pools spread across a sprawling golf course. Presumably built to meet, greet and sell oil to the P Trumps of the world. In fact the complex cost $1billion back in 2000 and it was of its time …soulless glass and clean lines which much like other turn of the century moneyed architecture had not aged well … canary wharf-esque.

Of course the copious staff were very smiley and polite but kind of eerie because they outnumbered the few guests. They dutifully maintained the sprawling grounds, not a blade of grass out of place. And there were lots of golf caddies either parked in anticipation or zipping around to pick up and drop off the non-existent guests. Though occasionally, just to remind you that Brunei with a population of only 300000 was (70%) untouched virgin rainforest, a troop of monkeys would scramble across the pristine tarmac.

But mostly we were in a bubbles, with physical barriers to reality - with the south china sea on one side and the golf course and national park on the other side with an outer ring of motorways ….….there was a distinct feeling of isolation ….the Shining mixed up with the Truman Show and kind of like what it probably feels like to be a billionaire. Lots of room. Lots of staff. Lots of loneliness.

There were some eateries in the complex, including a 24hr bakery, an Italian, a Brunein and a Chinese restaurant. Sadly they were all overpriced and underflavoured. The bakery – dry almond croissants, the Italian - had to turn away the calzone, the Brunein restaurant –lacking in spice and made me feel a bit ill and the Chinese restaurant – quite tasty but they added weird things onto the bill like the wet wipe napkins at 50 cent each… super irritating.

Also we had booked this hotel because of its kids club which was a well-equipped building next a shallow pool. Unfortunately it was not supervised so we couldn’t use it ad-hoc/drop-in and we had to book a babysitter of course at an additional cost. It was fine but just unnecessary admin.
The hotel did have an excellent fitness center with free studio classes which I attended. They were full of expat wives – European, Asian, Indian. There was also an indoor heated pool 32 °C, after the initial wow this is incredible.. I felt a bit sick.

On Day 2, we took a cab into the main city (to note, took 30 mins to turn up and apparently it is quite difficult to get taxis so take the mobile number of your driver).

I wasn’t sure about the dresscode for women but it seemed moderate with as many women in skirts and highheels as hijabs. Men and women were walking together and clearly lots of women worked, in fact our taxi driver was an older lady.

We had a restaurant address from the book which we started heading towards from the taxi drop off. The streets were pretty quiet but we did notice a group (white faces presumably from the nearby German and French Embassies) heading towards a Pakistani café which turned out to be delicious. Big portraits of the Sultan and his wife regaled the walls. Afterwards, we walked up a bit more to get some cash in the scorching sun, and found a friendly Coffee Bean café for a mache frapacinno and wifi.

We ventured out to the looming glowing magnificent main mosque and threw on hijabs-to-borrow and stepped inside. Everyone was super friendly and welcoming. Outside, we were approached by this teenage boy, asking us if we required any trips as he had a long boat. After a little bit of haggling down to $30 we went with it. He did have life jackets but no awning on his charming long boat, so we were pretty exposed to the lunch-time sun and his diesel fumes.

The only rest-bite was the refreshing wind as we sped around the water village (the largest in the world) and first and second grand palaces on the neighbouring hills. I can only compare his boat driving style to a boy racer, we nearly lost our heads on some low bridges as he would disconcertingly speed up as fast as he could to what felt like a collision and then would slow down just in time to manouvre sharply around it. All part of the fun. Persia dozed off for the most part.

Otherwise, it was a very smooth ride, with stunning mangroves and forests with a few houses scattered on the banks. We floated slowly through the twists and twirls of the narrow mangrove pathways to some quiet spots and yes we spied some proboscis monkeys far and high up in the overgrowth. He assured us there were more monkeys further ahead, and we set off again down the main river. This time on the banks, in clear view, there were 2 families of different types of monkeys swinging past only stopping to altercate loudly amongst their monkey tribes. Pretty impressive.

He even sped into the water village picked up his mum and little brother from the local school on stilts and boated them over to different jetty. He offered to take us to the museum on stilts but we were ready for dry land and a cold drink so got dropped off by a mall. We picked up a lemon shake with yakult (so refreshing) ! hello kitty stickers for Persia and Julian went into a bakery and got this weird custard bun thing. We then walked through the carpark back to the our taxi meeting point - We went back to the Coffee Bean Club and called our taxi driver who sent her son to pick us off. Julian headed off to take some more photos of the city while we waited. It was ridiculously humid. The café barista’s teenage daughter joined us and played with Persia asking her lots of questions in English.

The son of the taxi driver - a stoic chap conversed frankly about the state of Brunei and current demise of the world in general. Oil had gone down 40% since the hey days, which meant their high standard of living for so long subsidized had been scaled back. The relationship with the west had been compromised by the rejection of TPP agreements by the US so Brunei felt China was a more a more stable economy to create a relationship with and in fact 90% of tourists we did see were Chinese groups. He mentioned, Brunei had been quite proudly protectionist of its culture so had not really promoted itself as tourist destination. He pointed out areas on the way – oh the Sultan’s brother was going to build a formula 1 track over there and stopped mid construction and this and that about the royal family as if it was his own family. He said that his siblings were at UK universities but he himself was not so academic. It was sad to hear such fateful despondency. Such an intelligent informed young man, capable enough to create innovation and systems to help his country regain a new glory surely - we said to him.

Daytrip to Ulu

7am start uugh. We booked our tour through the hotel. It was $160 dollars per person and half price for Persia. We checked online and it was pretty much the same as booking through anywhere. We weren’t sure about what to wear but we would be on different types of boats, trekking for a bit, zip-lining and swimming in waterfalls, so we packed swimsuits and sun cream and hat. We were picked up by Freme travels by mini bus and then proceeded to pick up another tourist – an American guy Greg from the Radisson on the way. He seemed a typical middle-aged American – big smile, baseball cap, premier airline and le meridian points cards jangling on his rucksack. I was surprised to see someone like him on our tour, in a Muslim country and assumed he was an expat living in Asia who had popped over to Brunei over the weekend.

We were driven to the Ferry terminal and were met by a couple – Brunei local and his Chinese girlfriend. What stood out was he was in sort of combat shorts and sensible trekking sandals and she was in a very short red dress and white flip flops and plastic bag with some crisps and a canned drink.

The ferry ride felt quite long but retraced the mangrove route we did previously but a lot more. It was a full boat and we sat near the back which had opening to the engine, not a good move as the heat and the diesel fumes were nauseating. The seats were comfortable and the scenery was beautiful. We actually had to go into Malaysian waters and back again into Brunei.

We were met at Batang Duri by this lovely tour guide – Ivy. She took us for a walk through the markets to the carpark and we bought some small nibbles and took photos. We were driven by another minibus to the lodge through the national park of virgin rainforests. There are only 3 regions in the world with virgin rainforests – Congo basin, Amazon and Indo-Malay. Interestingly the virgin rainforests of Brunei (80% of Brunei is uninhabited) still existed were because of the oil company, they protected the rainforest and the wealth meant there had not been as much illegal logging as neighbouring Malaysia or Indonesia particularly clearing for palm oil. Get your head around that – petrol profit was saving the rainforest.

We finally made it to the lodge on the river. We were given tea/coffee and some local cakes and a toilet break as there were no toilets thereafter, to note the toilets in the lodge were great. We asked about whether we should take our swimming stuff now or later and Ivy advised to leave as much in the lodge locker as possible. She also advised I could wear rubber shoes, they could lend me, because some of the trek to the canopy was muddy so I did. I think that was a mistake. The rubber was sooooo hot and a little heavy and the mud was not that bad.

The canopy trail could only be reached by boat. There were 2 longboats for our group so we sat with the American guy Greg and off we went. Over the 1 hour ride, we saw a couple of other lodges and one shack with a half naked guy fishing outside along the banks.

The ride was a little bumpy over soft bubbling rapids – more exciting than scary. It had been quite dry so the water was low, which meant a couple of times the boat got stuck on the rocks and had to reverse and renavigate. I felt a little over heated even on the boat.

We stopped off and had to scale up a grassy verge off a muddy bank to register at the national park office. And because of issues with one of the bridges we had to be taken across the river to the other entrance. The steep trek up the mountain, did start off muddy for about 15 minutes, but then we had mostly quite an established trail with wooden steps for most of the way. But there were a lot of steps – 1200 in fact. I was definitely struggling and blamed my sweaty feet in rubber shoes for compromising me but actually I think wasn’t used to so many steps!

Anyway after probably over an hour of uphill we got to the canopy structure. It was an exposed metal scaffolding with metal ladders rigged up to a canopy bridge created by the oil company were ‘50 metres (160 ft) above the forest floor overlooking the highest tree canopy and provides vistas of the forests’. There were nets around it but it couldn’t have looked more unstable and the whole thing swayed. And once you started up to the top, you had to complete the full canopy and go up a bit again and come back down the other way. I didn’t think it was safe for Persia or rather if she got to the top and didn’t want to go further we would have screaming child to then take across the top and back down.

Also I didn’t want to do it.

I had climbed up many spires of crumbling cathedrals probably higher and more higgle-di- pigigledy than this and let’s face it, the oil engineers used these types of rigs all the time but I wasn’t feeling it.

So I stayed down with Persia crying that she wanted to go up to the top and then she cried because of the big ants crawling around her feet but then her crying turned into curiosity and she squatted down and watched all the insects while her father climbed high up above. We walked over to the exit rig and waited for Julian. It probably took him a 40mins to clamber up, walk across the bridge, take photos and climb back down. And he and those who did go up said it was just breath- taking. But the rig did sway a lot at the top which was kind of unnerving. All the way back to the boat, I regretted not going up and I did feel like a total failure I have to say. And vowed to come back and do the trip and go to the top.
We then took the long boat to a derelict lodge and walked through a shallow fast flowing estuary to some waterfalls with roots from the rainforest trees clawing into the crystal clear frothing pool beneath. Without swimming costumes, we just waded and then full submerged fully clothed. It was refreshing. We spent about an hour there.

Dripping wet and totally relaxed, we slumped back on the long boats to the lodge. I kept wanting to jump into the rapides for a swim to experience more of the river.

Back at the lodge, we had a delicious freshly cooked curry lunch of local dishes - seriously Brunei is such a foodie place. Then for the last bit of the adventure …. The canopy zipline over the river from the forest to the lodge. The last time I had done ziplines were in Costa Rica in 2002 apparently the highest in the world so this seemed very tame. We were strapped up, helmet clipped on and walked over the bridge and took a 5-10 minute stroll through the forest up the platform and with a quick jump whizzed down to the other side. Lots of fun. Persia was too young and played with the lodge cats while Julian and I took turns.

We finished by up 2.30pm and were back at the terminal for the 3.15pm ferry back to the main city. There are no shops at the terminal so it is worth picking up a drink from the shops near the carpark. My husband went off to do this and nearly missed the ferry back!

Persia slept on Julian’s lap while I chatted to the American guy – G from DC. He was so interesting. Had travelled 154 countries, lived in Africa for a while – in fact had a place in S Africa where he chuckled “You can do charity work during the day and still sip fabulous wine and steak back at your apartment overlooking your swimming pool”, was part of his boyfriend’s family business of political autocues (!) and had lots of gossipy, hilarious internationally anecdotes. He had repeated throughout the day that he was super liberal, hated white-man privilege and the only thing he had learnt from all his travels and meeting so many different people ...in the end most people are nice.

Oh yeah also throughout the day, the local guy and his Chinese girlfriend progressively totally fell out big time and by the end were not even walking together off the boat. Awkward.

Other highlights

The Neptune Restaurant – you can get one of the staff to golf buggy you up to the car park adjacent to the sea of the hotel but he was not allowed to go any further (so Truman Show) and then you had to walk about 10 mins with no shade to the edge of the hotel complex where there was a sleeping security guard and you enter the fish market area – fun in itself before finding the Neptune where you could order fresh lobster. Oh my god so delicious.

High tea at the Empire. Something to do. Quite tasty.

Cinema complex at the Empire. We booked a babysitter for our daughter so we could go and see Ready Player One as per the cinema schedule. We turned up and they had already started it because the cinema listings were subject to change on the day during the week as there were no guests. I was like we just spent $80 for a babysitter and had arranged a whole afternoon based on their cinema schedule. Anyway they let us in late to the film – but the film was not actually playing because there were no audience. Anyway when we sat down on their lush sofa seats, they started it 30mins in ... one of the worst movies I have ever seen after all that. We also tried the bowling alley. Just fun to do with my 5 yr old Persia as she had never done it before. Again had the place to ourselves.

To note – on Fridays (prayer day) everything stops from 12 -3 … you can’t even use the swimming pool or gym. Literally have to sit and watch Netflix in your hotel room - it is the wish of the Sultan.

Posted by Bushra 14:16 Archived in Brunei Comments (0)

Easter Island

semi-overcast 7 °C
View Summer 2010 : Deserved liberation on Bushra's travel map.

Easter Island or Rapa Nui always held many childhood fantasies of mysterious rituals and rugged remoteness. I never thought I would ever make it there for real, but somehow we managed to just about include it into our route between Tahiti and Cuba.

We didn’t manage to book a room ahead, not for lack of trying, but everything had been solidly booked out from 2 mths before. Tripadvisor had given mixed reviews about most of the places. I tried to manage my expectations and figured the worst scenario would be camping which could be quite fun even in the chilly evenings.

We found all our worries were for nothing as, there were about 3 counters promoting local pensions. A lady sold us and a Swiss guy rooms ($20 a night) at the same pension on the other side of the main high street in Hanga Roa. She drove us there and also sourced us our own jeep for $30 for 24 hours. We had had an overnight flight and with only one full day in Easter Island so we were rearing to go.

Our pension was a little semi-detached bungalow in a large garden of other mini bungalows and a towering long hydroponic pepper patch. Our bungalow consisted of one room and a shower/toilet. It was clean enough and had the usual array of health and safety hazards. The window from the toilet looked onto the main kitchen. The kitchen was a compact with the only basics which led onto a terrace with a dining table. On the other side, a door from the kitchen led into a living room for the lady who served us breakfast and took our payment. She was a lovely granny like local who spoke no English but was very caring, serving strong hot coffee at every opportune moment.

We sat down at the terrace table and had our coffee to set us up for the day. We chatted to a Swiss guy and a Chilean guy about their travels while we looked past the garden. We could see a Maoi on the horizon. The air was undeniably fresh with heavy icy water droplets.
As soon as our red jeep arrived we were off around the island. There was no insurance , so everyone drives carefully. We needed to get money and the book had portrayed some complicated foreign exchange issue. We found the local bank as mapped by the book. After Julian threw a marginal frustrated fit as he had waited in a very long queue and then tried in vain to organize some cash from the bank unsuccessfully, we drove around the corner and found a brand new spanking red Santander branch. A well to do man inside showed us how to use the ATM – easy peasy. I have to say the Lonely Planet for the South Pacific islands was pretty crap – they really need to publish a new edition.

Hanga Roa was compact but busy little centre, with a sprinkling of tourist shops, hotels, eateries and car rental places. It seemed very carefree with kids playing infront of buildings and packs of dogs and wild horses trotting about. Tourists in all-weather anoraks and woollies and wellies trapsing around. Also I noticed just off the town, there were a number of crazy surfers boarding in the choppy freezing sea.

We followed the coastal road from Hanga Roa from the west to the north-east of the island. Most of the roads were good but some were dirt tracks.

We drove as close as we could to the nearest site. This lush emerald field was known as the Tahai Ceremonial Complex. It was just breathtaking. Hoards of wild horses seemed to be roaming free with their maine blowing in the wind. The Moai with a piercing stony glare had a back drop of formidable midnight blue waves crashing frothily onto the scraggy black rocks. I was impressed.

All of the Maoi dotted around Easter Island, to me were spectacular, so not sure I can do them much justice in the photographs or this blog. All I can say is they were all amazing and at a rush, we did manage to see everything we wanted to in 1.5 days.

Just a few things to note, the petro glyphs in the cave are definitely worth it. Also the one surprisingly amazing sight which blew us away was the crater lake of Rano Raraku in the southern tip of Easter Island. It is filled with rain water and plantation but looked like it is filled with glistening jewels. Also, try and get to the sites before the coach loads do, so best to start early.

We did as much as we could before it got dark. We walked back into town for dinner. The highest rated restaurant from the book was closed but we found a sort of italian restaurant. It was probably subzero and after we sat down on the terrace, we realised that there were no actual rooms. The view and the sounds were beautiful but jeesh it was freezing. Also, I think they forgot our order because it took them about an hour to serve us, still the food was not bad.

We were pretty tired by the time we walked home. A rather haggered alsation met us at the entrance and decided to become our dog. He lay on the doorstep of our bungalow, and protectively barked most of the night.

Posted by Bushra 06:50 Archived in Chile Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Tahiti and Bora Bora

sunny 30 °C
View Summer 2010 : Deserved liberation on Bushra's travel map.

Tahiti
After reading all the slating reviews of Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia (45km across), we had no intention of going there but were forced by plane timetables to have a night there. We had heard that it was extortionate and a 5minute taxi ride from the airport to the hotel could cost $30, so we were going to walk it. With just our backpacks we found our way out of the airport and onto a pavement next to a 4 lane highway of speeding gas guzzlers. Incidentally this was not THE highway of 6 lanes which is further up the island. It was like back being in Asia but with everybody in the cars and hardly anybody walking the streets at night like us. We did ask a local passerby if we were walking in the right direction and though he spoke French, some broken English tumbled out of his mouth. He was really friendly and we were on the right path.

After spending a week in Rarotonga, we were really sensitive to pollution. We could smell and see the smog in the air. There were estuaries running under the pavement which were drowning in used coca cola cans and general rubbish. We walked past quite tightly packed neighbourhoods , with lush gardens of hibiscus flowers and trees swollen with mangoes or breadfruit.

Eventually we found our hotel – the Sofitel. It was Saturday night and the foyer of the hotel had a noticeable amount of anorexic middle aged women in tiny sequined dresses showing of their patina pins. We had no intention of going out on the town but also no intention of eating at the hotel. Julian left me in the bedroom to hunt and gather. He managed to come back with a very tasty takeaway Chinese. We actually found the Carrefour the next day ( 5 minutes walk from the hotel) so we could pick up some French cheese and baguette etc for lunch.
We were flying out on Sunday evening, the next day. We did toy with the idea of getting up early and going for some surf lessons, after all surfing was invented here. Or maybe taking a day trip around the island via the Gaughan museum (which had no original Gaughans). It all seemed a bit much when we had a plane to catch that evening. We figured the safest option would be to go into the main town. On Sunday, the hotel told us that no buses were running so they booked us a cab. It was not as bad as we thought but it was still $40. Once we were on the highway, we saw lots of buses which were running – but they didn’t really stop at bus stops. They kind of shout out of the window at pedestrians if they want to take the bus and then they stop. Anyway we were dropped off by the harbour in the main square of Papeete. It was boiling hot and sunny and everything felt quite neon bright with the lingering stench of the night before. We followed the walking tour in the lonely planet. There was a veritable amount of clubs, bars, shops and a market. Most things were closed bar a few cafes, so we did not see that much other than some well-kept plants in a park, impressive yachts and a lemon yellow catholic cathedral. I guess it sort of reminded me of Marbella. We had a coffee and got the bus back to the hotel. The hotel had a narrow black rocked beach, so we sat there amongst the topless honeymooners and ate our picnic.

Bora Bora
It was dark by the time we were boarding for Bora Bora but we watched the lights of Tahiti disappear into the distance. We noticed that we were sharing our 45minute flight with a number of very well-heeled passengers with bling jewelry. We were unashamedly scruffy as always. The plane landed on a slither of a motu (an islet) north of the main land mass. Then we were herded onto a boat which sped to the main island in 30minutes. We stayed on the top deck but it got quite windy and cold. As we approached the port, we noticed that the main square had a sort of a dance-athon going on. We figured it was to entertain the local cruise ship embarkees.

A very jolly lady beckonned us to her minibus. Her husband – this big beardy friendly man lolled about in the back with their 3 small sleeping kids. Thing to note, we asked the lady if we had to pay her the cost of the taxi or if it was part of our room rate and she said it was all ‘included’ and well in the end we found $80 was added to the bill at the hotel. In hindsight there was no other choice, but it would have been nice to know if you were paying for something when you specifically ask !

We drove in the dark for about 20minutes before reaching our hotel- Mai Tai. The Mai Tai had mixed reviews on tripadvisor but for us it was fine for 2 nights. It was pretty much on the beach (but did have a small road between the hotel and the sand), so we could snorkle every day. We also took out a kayak and made an attempt to reach the nearest motu which was 30minutes away, but the waves and wind were too high, still it was hilarious. The hotel staff were very friendly and helpful and the hotel food was great. Expect to pay $40 a head for dinner (unless it’s rancid looking pizzas and junkfood) anywhere on Bora Bora, but we did find a little supermarket where we could buy water and bread and cheese etc.

We took a trip to the town centre. What can I say, it was dead ! Only the extortionate black pearl jewelry shops were open. Even walking around was quite an effort because the roads were so broken with rubbish thrown into the rubble. However the locals were friendly and the views of the mountain were amazing. We killed some time just watching the locals fish at the harbour. We even spotted a Japanese film crew and struck up a conversation with them. They were doing a travel program. A beautiful little girl who was with a family fishing, sat with me and smiled and chatted to me in French.

My husband who has had family fight in WWI and WWII loves war history; so we decided to follow a ‘lonely planet’ walk to some giant cannons on the main hill. These cannons were left by the Americans when they used it as a supply base whilst fighting the Japanese. Anyway we walked up and down the main road around the island trying to find the entrance to the path, and then were told by a café owner that the book was wrong and the path was now privately owned because someone had bought the land with the cannon to build a house.

Oh yes, and we did have dinner at Bloody Marys. I had read a lot of the hype about it and how everyone from Cameron Diaz to Bill Gates had eaten there. To be fair,good eatery options on the island were limited. We were picked up by the Bloody Marys mini bus, which we noticed was full of Americans and no French tourists, which is always worrying when you are going to a restaurant in French Polynesia. The restaurant was well themed, with sand for floor and hut like décor. It all started off in a ceremonious way by everyone congregating around a table of delectable fresh line caught seafood glistening temptingly. You just point at what you would like. The only preparation on offer was ‘on the grill’ but there was a choice of sauces. Oh yes, and they don’t tell you the prices so you have to ask. It was not ridiculously expensive, though for the same price you could certainly have a Michelin starred lunch in London which had the same quality of ingredients but much more refined skill in cooking. The food was delicious though there were some tasteless items on offer for instance there was a booth selling Bloody Marys merchandise like Tee-shirts with a crowd of Americans with dollars in hand waiting for their turn. Anyways it was a fun night out and I do recommend it.

For our last night in French Polynesia, we had booked one night into the best possible overwater bungalow at the 5 star Le Meridien on the neighbouring motu. It was a total blow out, because we figured when else are we going to be staying in Bora Bora. A minibus took took us to the Le Meridien harbour, passing a number of derelict hotels and scrapyard gardens with ragged children playing. There was definately a rich tourist/ foreign hotelier vs poor locals divide.

We were taken to the resort by a little speed boat and the resort really was out of this world. Our staff walked us around the communal areas – the bar, restaurants and reception and then drove us in a caddy taking the scenic route through the sumptuous grounds of palm trees past the beach cabanas and finally our own decked lane to our bungalow.

We ooohed and aaaahed amazed. Floating nets cascaded from the sculptural wood ceiling of the four poster bed. We pressed our faces against the floor window onto the water underneath. The curtain which backed onto the bathroom area had petal shaped cut outs and somehow the light from the water through the floor window seemed to float onto it and make it look like it was on fire. The unadulterated view from our balcony was of the main island with its rugged overgrown peak. From our balcony there were some spiral steps straight into the clear turquoise pacific. It was deep enough to dive into. A very well thought out room.

We eventually prised ourselves away from the bungalow to venture down to the beach. Le Meridien have what is called a Turtle Sanctuary within their ‘lagoonarium’. The waters were crystal clear with some well positioned coral and abundance of exotic gaudy coloured fish. We snorkeled there for absolute hours. On the otherside of the lagoonarium there was the main beach. Again we did some kayaking.

For dinner we ate at the bar with some cocktails. It was all very romantic. We decided to head back to our bungalow till the traditional dance show on the beach later on that evening. The staff had left us a bottle of champagne! That really was a nice touch. And the show was fabulous, but probably not that traditional. At the end, I even danced at the front with the troop.

Just a faultless experience all in all.

Posted by Bushra 12:32 Archived in French Polynesia Tagged beaches round_the_world Comments (0)

The Cook Islands - Lazy Lazy days

sunny 35 °C
View Summer 2010 : Deserved liberation on Bushra's travel map.

We stepped off the fully packed Air New Zealand plane, into the brilliant sunshine of Rarotonga with a Kia Orana welcome. Kia Orana means may you live long. Not that there were no clouds. It's just that everything was bright and lucid, but relaxed at the same time. Smiling faces and glowing skin. As we queued up through immigration, I noticed the pretty bright flower the women at the desk wore behind their ears. Apparantly if it is behind the left ear, you are taken and behind the right ear you are available.

It was funny thing, which I cannot really get my head around. Basically travelling around the world we had gradually lost a day somehow and now we had just crossed the dateline so gained back the day.

Standing within the curve of the baggage conveyor, was an elderly guy with a hawaiin flower shirt, garland of flowers around his weaved hat, big glasses, singing and playing the ukele. Absolutely brilliant !

90% of the tourists were kiwis or ozzies. And I would say a good 65% seemed to be very chatty OAPs ! The rest were couples around our age and 90% of them were honeymooners. We stayed in a mid-range resort called Edgewater Resort. Not our usual thing, so we didn't know what to expect. It was not a cool place but a very comfortable place and we had a great view of the sea through the gardens, and got 6 nights for the price of 4. Because of the gained day and generally lethargy we got all confused about whether we needed to extended for another night.

The first couple of days, we just adjusted to island life with a little bit of snorkelling close to the hotel. We dragged our lazy feet up the palm lined, black lava stone crested white sandy beaches. Clams with gaping mouths set in lava for eternity. Seashell cornets housing hermits scrambling around under your feet. The only disconcerting element were the stray dobermen crosses. Growing up in the 80s, watching programs like Magnum, I have always been scared to death of dobermens. They were always the guard dog with super sharp teeth practically frothing at the mouth at the sight of anyone but their owner. However this doberman just trotted over to me and started to gently lick my hand with a smile. Just such an adorable friendly dog. She followed us for a good half a mile, pushing her head under our hands for a pat or cuddle, even jumping into the sea with us.

The surf crashed onto the reef edge, 200 metres away from the main beach. The sea was quite refreshingly cold in the blistering heat, and visibility through our snorkelling goggles near the hotel was pretty cloudy; but a little further out, we saw In the coral reefs, saw electric blue star fish, tonnes of black and brown sea cucumbers, moray eels, long thin white fish with big eyes which stopped to look back at me, shoals of multicoloured parrot fish.

Over the 5 days in the Cook Islands, I would say, we didn't do much at all. Our routine was get up wash etc, go for the huge buffet breakfast, get our things, wait for the hourly hop on hop off bus, find a spot to get off and go snorkelling, then get the bus again to go into town and get something to eat, then stroll around, may be read, go back to the hotel for a rest, watch a silly movie in the room and repeat all in the evening.

It was relaxing and just what we needed.... and yes..... there were times when we were bored. What a great feeling.

A few highlights :

Walk Across the Island - We did an 8km walk over the hill through the forest from one side of the island to the other. Actually we did it the wrong way round as recommended by the book and then got totally lost and walked around the hill high up off-piste scaled some boulders and back down again waded through slippery streams and muddy paths for 4hrs. It was a pretty cool adventure.

Trader Jack's - amazing restaurant we frequented. Totally recommend the fish tacos and dukka sauce on parrot fish.

Local Dance Show - our hotel had quite a good one, and some teams for a competition were staying at the hotel, so we watched them practice.

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Aitutaki Day Trip - Unbelievably amazing.

It is not an ambition of mine to find paradise, probably because I have always been suspicious of the word. Many years ago, my cousins lived in the Seychelles and I spent a few weeks dossing around there. It was beautiful for sure and what I thought was 'Paradise'.

Aitutaki took the word 'Paradise' to a whole new level.

We had bought a day trip with Air Rarotonga, which was not cheap : $429 per person. At 7.15am, they picked us for the short 45minute flight. Aitutaki airport was literally a hut. We were picked up to be taken to the second highest point on the island. In February a cyclone had ripped up – news story"http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTS2Wmq2iRU".

The driver pointed out to some islets on the horizon and said "When we locals get stressed the whole family take a boat and stay on one of those for the weekend, with some tents and supplies", a kiwi from our hotel asked "What do you guys get stressed about ?", he answered "When things get too boring".

He then drove us to the jetty, where there was a catamaran called "Land Luvas" waiting for us. We looked onto the beach, and the neighbouring islands. It was stunning. Crystal clear waters in between all the islands, just lagoon after lagoon. The weather was just perfect. We stood up top for most of the time. Down on the lower deck, the boat driver was playing the guitar and telling cultural stories. I didn't really listen.

We first went to a lagoon for a swim. We had a little walk around the islet and then got back on the boat towards honeymoon island. A spectacular peice of beach with only the 10 other tourists on our boat. It allowed us to wade knee deep through the water for about 300 metres over some sand banks to one-foot island. It was just beautiful.

The crew caught some fish and barbequed it up for us with an array of salads and grilled veggies.

We could see that the unspoilt waters teamed seacreatures. The water was flowing down, so we walked up to the north of the island and tiptoed around the sea slugs washed up on the beach and jumped in to snorkle. All this crytal clear water snorkelling, led to Julian burning the top of his feet so he had to sleep with wet towels on his steaming feet but he did not complain one bit. Aitutaki was literally the most beautiful place we had ever been.

I can't even describe it because it was too amazing.

We were transported back to the airport all content around 4.30 and back in Rarotonga airport around 5. As we sat in the mini bus back to the hotel, reflecting on the lovely day, just when we thought our day could not get better, a humpbacked whale jumped out of the sea and then from under the sea started to spurt out water like a ghyzer.

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All in all, Rarotonga was fabulous - in a very very relaxed way.

At Raro airport, while waiting for the flight to Tahiti, the ukelele man started to set up - the same guy we saw as we came into this wonderful island. He clocked me looking at him and walked over and sat next to me and started telling me his life story. He was so open and frank and rather blunt. It turned out he was born and bred in Rarotonga but was an MBE. He had travelled a bit as a rugby player and he used to be an airport security guard and had met the queen when she came to open the new airport at Rarotonga in 1976. He also mentionned that never trust anyone from Solomon Islands. He mentionned that there were lots of types of christianity on the island though a few years ago these religious paradigms had been reduced to 4. He pointed out trouble-makers on the island and generally gossipped about his life and people.

As we steped out onto the tarmac, he gave me a huge wave from this stage.

Posted by Bushra 04:25 Archived in Cook Islands Tagged beach paradise round_the_world Comments (0)

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