Wednesday, December 19, 2012

CUBA People to People Cultural Exchange – NOV-DEC 2012

Monday, November 26, 2012:  Fly from LAX to Miami, Florida via Houston
Cuba has been on my bucket list for decades.  It was the last country in the Americas for me to visit.  I jumped at the opportunity to legally visit when Debbie my travel agent at Cruise Specialists sent me a brochure earlier in the year advertising the Tauck Cuba People to People Cultural Exchange.  Their after Thanksgiving 9 day tour fit nicely in my schedule after my Horn of Africa Trip and before Judy’s December 11th birthday, so I signed up.

My scheduled flight to start by trip to Cuba was not until 13:30 so I had a normal eight hour’s sleep and was able to finish my last minute packing without the customary early morning rushing around.  I had elected to drive since it was a relatively short trip.  It was my first trip to the airport in my 2012 Miata and I was happy to discover that my bag fit in the truck.  The 2012 Miata’s have a larger trunk than the 1990 Miata I used to own.
On the morning news I heard that as part of the 405 Carpool Lane project that Sepulveda was going to be closed at 09:00 for the day.  I was concerned that it would affect the 405 traffic so I left for the airport at 10:15.  The traffic was not as bad as I expected and I was parked in the Parking Spot garage before 11:00.  Check-in was fast but the TSA Security check point was slow and not very well organized.  They had removed the full body scan and didn’t seemed to have the staff to hand check all the people that triggered alarms passing through the x-ray machine.  It took me thirty minutes to clear security which was unusually long for the United Premier Terminal at LAX.

I still had over an hour to kill before boarding my flight so I spent some time in the United Club and then at 12:30 I checked out the lunch options.  The food concessions at United’s Terminal 7 had changed and where Wolf Gang Puck and MacDonald’s had been there was construction and just some shelves of very expensive sandwiches.  It appears that the food concessioners are setting their prices to match the prices of the food sold on the flights.  The days of people purchasing a cheap MacDonald’s hamburger and carrying it on the flight is gone for at least at Terminal 7.  I decided I would buy my lunch on board – at least the drink would be free.
During my food investigation my departure gate was changed and I didn’t catch the change until I realized they were boarding another flight at what I thought was my assigned gate.  I got to the correct gate just as the flight attendants were going on board.  When my group was called and I boarded I was presently surprised to have a vacant seat next to me in Economy Plus.  The aircraft was an ex-Continental B-737-824 with Direct TV installed.  I hate those aircraft because one you have to pay almost $8.00 to view a movie and two if you don’t want to watch a movie there is no music channels or channel 9 flight following options which I usually listen to on flights.  Before takeoff they announced that Direct TV was not operating on the aircraft.  I dug out my iPod and listened to a book-on-tape.

We landed in Houston ahead of schedule and stopped at a Wendy’s in the airport for a quick sandwich before my flight to Miami.  The Miami aircraft was also a B-737-824 with Direct TV.  On that aircraft the Direct TV was working.  Next to me were a father and son speaking Spanish.  They paid for the TV so the son could watch a soccer game.  We arrived early in Miami and I took a shuttle bus to the Marriott Residence Inn for the night.
Tuesday, November 27, 2012:  Meet with the Tauck Tour Group at the Hilton Miami Airport Hotel

I didn’t get a full eight hours sleep because I did not fall asleep right away at 01:00 since it was only 22:00 Pacific Coast Time.  I was able to fall asleep by 02:00 but I woke at 08:30 to enable me to get the free breakfast the Residence offers.  After breakfast I packed and did some work on my computer and transferred all my African pictures off my camera.  It was soon noon and check-out time at the Marriott.
I took the Marriott airport shuttle to the airport and then took the Hilton shuttle to the Hilton Miami Airport hotel where I would join the Tauck tour group.  At check-in I was handed an instruction sheet from Tauck informing me that the Tauck Director would have a Hospitality Desk open from 15:00 to 17:00 and there would be a mandatory briefing at 18:00.

At 14:00 I went for a walk.  I discovered a shopping mall about 30 minutes away and stopped in to purchase a wall charger for my cell phone to replace one I had been using that had broken a wire.  I returned to the hotel at 15:00 and checked-in at the Tauck Hospitality Desk.  The Tauck Director, Ulla Salafrio, informed me that there would be 25 people on the tour.  It was a bigger group than I have been used to traveling with.
At 17:45 I went to the Cove Meeting room for the mandatory briefing.  Ulla and a couple from Phoenix, Arizona, Mary & Dennis Schumer were the only ones there but the bar was open and snacks laid out.   Ulla handed me an envelope with the information and paperwork we would need on the trip.  Panic set in when I reviewed the paperwork and discovered that it had my 2 year passport numbers on the Cuban Visa and that passport was with UTS obtaining visas for my January return to Africa.  Ulla told me she could fix it after the briefing.

The others arrived and we sat at a U shaped table.  Ulla handed out everyone’s envelopes and had us introduce themselves to the group.  Six were from California, four from Pennsylvania and the others were couples from Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Massachusetts and one lady from Vermont.  They were:
  • Mr. Joseph (Jerry) and Jan Schumb, Kihei, HI
  • Mr. Christopher (Chris) Schumb, San Jose, CA
  • Dr. David Schumb, Oakland, CA
  • Mrs. Elizabeth (Liz) Sheppard, Mill Valley, CA
  • Ms. Susan Arnold, Middlebury, VT
  • Mr. Elliot Young and Vedrana Grgas, Palm Beach Gardens, FL
  • Mrs. Martin (Marty) and Judith (Judy) Schwartz, Princeton NJ
  • Dr. Albert (Buck) and Suzanne Frederick, Chestnut Hill, MA
  • Mrs. Cecile Natt and Judy Zon, Bryn Mawr, PA
  • Miss Mary Kopa, Wayne, PA and Mrs. Judy Duffy, Clarks Summit, PA
  • Mr. Douglas (Doug) and Susan Kish, Brevard, NC
  • Mr. Charles (Chuck) and Karen Northrop, San Francisco, CA
  • Dr. Dennis and Mary (Dr. Mary Kass) Schumer, Easton, MD and Scottsdale, AZ
  • Mr. Lloyd and Susan Hendricks, Columbia, SC
Ulla then had us review the paperwork and complete the arrival forms for Cuba.  She then took my visa and used a sharp felt tip pen to write the correct passport number over the incorrect number.  One of the questions on the Health Form was to list the countries you have visited in the last 15 days.  I thought Djibouti, Ethiopia, North Sudan and Germany would fall in that period and so mentioned, but when I realized the form would be dated the 28th and those countries I left on the 10th, I left the entry blank.

After the meeting I talked to several of the people and retired since we had to be checked out by 05:00 in the morning.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012:  Fly Miami to Havana and tour Havana

I awoke at 03:30 to shower, shave and pack.  At 05:00 a porter picked up my bag and I went down to breakfast.  I sat with the Judy and Cecile.  It was a quick breakfast since we had to be on the bus by 05:15.
It was a short ride to the airport but flight check in was a long multistep process.  First we lined up behind a desk that checked our paperwork, then we went to the check in counter and had our luggage weighed including our carryon and then we told them our body weight.  They also checked our paperwork and issued a boarding pass with the luggage tag fixed on the back.  After that we had to go to another station and pay a $33 fee.  From there we passed through Immigration and then security and finally we could go to the gate.  The security check had the full body scan but they still did a quick pat-down after the body scan.

The airline was Sky King, a charter airline founded in Sacramento, CA in the early 1990’s but after a bankruptcy it moved its headquartered to Florida where they mainly fly to Cuban cities.  The plane we flew on was a B-737-400 painted all white.  The seats were comfortable.  My seat mates were Elliot Young and Vedrana Grgas.  Vedrana was originally from Croatia and we talked a little bit about my proposed trip next year to visit the Balkan countries.  Elliot was originally from New York City.
The flight took ninety minutes and arrived on the scheduled time of 09:00 at the Havana Airport.  There was no sky bridge at the airport so we had to walk to the Arrival Terminal.  There we passed through Immigration where they took our pictures and took half of the visa.  Next we passed through a security checkpoint where I set off the alarm and had to be "wanded".  From Security I had to go to another desk for another paperwork check.  Following that we were ushered into the VIP Lounge where we gave an agent our luggage tag.  She retrieved our luggage and took it to be x-rayed.  The VIP Lounge had free sandwiches and drinks (Rum, beer, Coke and juice).  When everyone's luggage had been x-rayed we were led outside to retrieve our luggage and board a bus.

On the bus we were told that it was too early to check in at the hotel so we rode to the Museum of the Revolution and then Revolution Square. 
The airport parking lot had been full of new Korean and Japanese made cars but at the museum and the square we saw a lot of 1950 era cars.  I got some good pictures.  The old cars in excellent shape were used as Taxis.  There were a lot of old Russian cars and the old American man cars that were not taxis were not in great shape but there were a lot of them on the road.

The Museum of the Revolution was an interesting mixture of indoor and outdoor displays of the rise of Castro and the demise of Batista.  The museum is housed in what was the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents from Mario García Menocal to Fulgencio Batista.  It became the Museum of the Revolution during the years following the Cuban revolution.  The museum was designed by the Cuban architect Carlos Maruri and the Belgian architect Paul Belau and was inaugurated in 1920 by President Mario García Menocal.  It remained the Presidential Palace until 1959.  The building has Neo-Classical elements, and was decorated by Tiffany & Co. of New York.
The museum has the pock marks of the bullets shot during the March 13, 1957 by a group of university students who stormed the Presidential Palace with the aim of executing dictator Batista.  The assault failed and most of the young attackers got killed.  .  The inside tour was of three floors and included, a Chapel, Hall of Mirrors with a beautiful painting on the ceiling, Flag Hall, Presidents Office (where we were shown the closet stairway Batista used to leave his office and hide from the students) and Council Ministers’ Office on the second floor and the Liberation War period, and Che Memorial on the third floor.

To the right side of the lobby was a mural that Isabel warned us that we might find offensive.  It had large cartoon caricatures of:
  • Batista saying: “Thanks you cretin for helping us TO MAKE THE REVOLUTION”
  • Ronald Regan in a cowboy outfit saying: “Thanks you cretin for helping us TO STRENGTHEN THE REVOLUTION”
  • George Bush Sr. dressed as Caesar saying: “Thanks you cretin for helping us TO CONSOLIDATE OUR REVOLUTION”
  • W. Bush with a Nazi helmet saying: “Thanks you cretin for helping us TO MAKE SOCIALISM IRREVOCABLE”.
Behind the building was the Granma Memorial, a large glass enclosure which housed the Granma, the yacht which took Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba for the revolution.  Around the Granma was an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile of the type that shot down a U.S. Lockheed U-2 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The engine of the U-2 airplane was displayed.  There were also a Pontiac used to carry weapons, a Willy’s jeep, a Toyota jeep, a tank and a Hawker Sea Fury F50 fighter aircraft used in the revolution on display.  Near the museum was also an SU-100, Soviet tank destroyer.  Also on display was the remains of the B-26 bomber which was shot down during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.

Across the street we saw a nice line up of vintage convertible taxis including two Model A Ford replicas, a 1932 Ford with rumble seat.  Outside the front of the museum were the remains of the old city wall of Havana.
We rode from the museum to Revolution Square, one of the largest city squares in the world.  The square is dominated by the José Martí Memorial, which features a 358 ft. tall tower and an 59 ft. statue of Martí.  The National Library, many government ministries, and other buildings are located in and around the Plaza.  Located behind the memorial are the closely guarded offices of former President Fidel Castro.  Opposite the memorial on the far side of the square is the famous Che Guevara image with his well-known slogan of "Hasta la Victoria Siempre" (Until the Everlasting Victory, Always) that identifies the Ministry of the Interior building and an image of Fidel Castro on another building.

Next to where the tour busses parked was a street bordering the square lined with many beautiful 1950 era Taxi convertibles and a few “Coconut” Taxis.  The “Coconut” Taxis are three wheel motor scooters with a round yellow shell that resembles a coconut.  I took more pictures of the cars than the monuments and statues. 
It was then time to check in to the Melia Habana hotel.  But first we had lunch at the La Scala Restaurant in the hotel.  Lunch was a salad and pizza and I finally got to my room at 15:00.  It was a 5 star hotel and I had free Wi-Fi in the room.

At 16:30 we met in a hotel conference room to attend a presentation by PhD Camilo Garcia Lopez-Trigo, a graduate of the Institute of International Relations in Havana in 1991 and a former Cuban diplomat on the subject of the Cuba-U.S. relationship.  Camilo had lived in New York City when he was assigned to the Cuban delegation to the United Nations.
He told us of the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 by John Quincy Adams, Monroe’s Secretary of State.  In 1848 the U.S. attempted to buy Cuba from the Spanish.  During Cuba’s second war of Independence in 1895 the U.S. became involved in 1898 when the USS Maine was blown up in Havana harbor.  After Spain surrendered the U.S. was granted control of Cuba.  The U.S. military governor of Cuba drafted a constitution that included an amendment by US Senator Platt that guaranteed America’s right to intervene in Cuban domestic affairs.  It also forced Cuba to lease in perpetuity to the US a naval base at Guantanamo Bay and required the Cuban government to: "maintain a low public debt; refrain from signing any treaty impairing its obligation to the United States; to grant to the United States the right of intervention to protect life, liberty, and property; validate the acts of the military government; and, if requested, provide long-term naval leases.

In 1902, following the elections of 1901, Cuba was proclaimed an Independent Republic under official protection of the U.S.  During the next three decades the relationship was rocky with many interventions by U.S. military and business interests that eventually lead to the “Sergeants Revolt” and the overthrow of the government by Batista in 1933.  Batista backed several presidents and served several terms as President himself.  When he ran again in 1952 he did not win but he simply decided to take over in a bloodless coup.  On July 26, 1953 Fidel and Raul Castro lead a group of revolutionaries in an attack on Moncada Barracks and the Cuban Revolution begins.  They are captured and imprisoned but were released in 1955 and they fled to Mexico.  They returned in 1956 and force Bastia to flee in 1959.
A U.S. embargo on Cuba begins, in 1960 prohibiting all exports to Cuba. In response, Cuba strengthens trade relations with the Soviet Union and the following year the U.S. ends all diplomatic relations with Cuba and closes the embassy in Havana in January 1961.   In April, a group of Cuban exiles invade Playa Giron on the Bay of Pigs.  The Soviet Union began to install missiles in Cuba in 1962 and despite Castro’s desire to fire them at the U.S. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agrees to remove them after he negotiates with President Kennedy.

During the next thirty years there were several programs to allow Cubans to leave for the U.S.  The Cuban economy limped along with Soviet aid until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In 1992 the U.S. implemented the Torricelli act which forbade foreign subsidiaries of US companies from dealing with Cuba, prohibited any ship that has docked in Cuban harbors from entering US ports for 180 days, and called for a termination of aid to any country that provides assistance to Cuba.  The act did not bring down the Castro regime so in 1996 the U.S. Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act that allows the USA to penalize foreign companies that invest in Cuban properties seized after the Revolution.  The Helms Burton Act also deprived the US President of any discretionary power to end any aspect of the embargo.  The bill permits Americans with claims to property expropriated by the Cuban government to sue for damages foreign corporations or individuals that "traffic" in such property.  The US also denies entry to the executives and major shareholders, as well as their immediate families, of firms found to be "trafficking" in expropriated property.  The legislation also restricts US aid to independent states of the former Soviet Union if they provide assistance for intelligence facilities in Cuba, but also provides waivers for humanitarian aid or aid to promote market reforms and democratization.  It reaffirms the embargo under the Trading with the Enemy Act.  The act has severely hurt the Cuban economy but the regime is still in power.  President Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba in 2011, allowing for more educational, religious, and cultural programs.

Camilo also told us about the “Cuban Five” which is a very emotional issue in Cuba.  The five men were Cuban intelligence agents caught spying on Miami's Cuban exile community.  The men were sent to South Florida in the wake of several terrorist bombings in Havana masterminded by anti-communist militant.  The five were convicted in Miami of conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and other illegal activities in the United States.
In the Q & A after his talk Camilo told us that because of the Helms-Burton Act there are limited things a President can do to ease the tensions between the countries.  It would require an act of congress to change the provisions of the Helms-Burton Act which severely restricts the Cuban economy and interaction between the countries.  Cuban’s don’t understand why the anti-Castro lobby is still so effective since the Cubans that fled in the 1960’s are are dead or passed the age of retirement.

I left the meeting wondering what the Miami based anti-Castro lobby expected to achieve.  Their property has been lost for so many years that in many cases they wouldn’t want to return.  I went to sleep wondering if had been worth the effort to attempt to bring down the Castro regime.
Thursday, November 29, 2012:  Art in Cuba

This was my first morning in Cuba.  After two nights of less than eight hours sleep I slept until 07:00.  We had a choice of two restaurants in the hotel to eat breakfast.  I selected the VIP Bar on the 9th floor which was just one flight of stairs from my 8th floor room.  It was pretty much a standard hotel buffet breakfast bar.  I was not impressed with the texture of the bacon and the fact there were no whole oranges but I filled up and returned to my room to check my email and get ready for a 09:30 departure.
Our first stop was the home and studio of Jose Fuster, one of the most celebrated artists in Cuba.  I was not prepared for the sight as the bus drove close to his studio.  The houses had walls alone the sidewalk and a large arch over the gateway covered in colorful bits of tile.  Even the street names were in colorful tile.  When we arrived at his studio we were greeted by the sight of many arches, geometric shapes and figures of people all covered in colorful tile.  Fuster’s son met us at the entrance to the three story studio.  I noted that there were two late model Japanese cars in the yard.  The son told us that over a dozen men assist in the creation of the display.  I counted at that moment at least four men on the various floors applying cement to walls and railings and imbedding pieces of tile.  Another man was breaking tile in different colors into pieces the others would apply.

I walked upstairs to visit a room where the tile was created.  Many 6x6 tiles had colorful scenes and some were hanging on a wall for sale.  In another room was Fuster’s oil paintings, and one of etchings.  He is called a visual artist with the paintings alone the style of some of Picasso’s and his tile style from Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona.  After touring the three floors of his studio and taking dozens of pictures I wandered around the neighborhood.
Across the street was an artist with a display of wooden VWs and figures of musicians.  His house had a fence decorated by Fuster as did all the houses in a two block area.  Many had the house walls decorated in Fuster’s style.

Our next stop was the Institute Superior de Arte (ISA).  It is an impressive set of brick domed buildings built on the grounds of a former Country Club’s golf course.  The ISA teaches college level classes in art, theater, dance and music.  The ISA guide told us that it is highly selective and as an example only 15 students were selected from 400 applicants this year.  We toured the various art classrooms and workshops which covered a wide range of specialties from paint in various styles and mediums to ceramic and metal sculptures.
I was impressed in some areas but overall it impressed me that the artists are morbid tortured, unhappy souls.  There were no displays of landscapes.  Many works were colorful but many were dark, bloody and gloomy.

From ISA we went to lunch at Don Cangrejo’s, a seafood restaurant on the coast.  We were greeted in the yard in front of the restaurant by a large ceramic tile crab.  It was raining lightly so we had to eat inside.  I could see that they normally setup tables overlooking the sea wall.
The meal was delicious.  It started with a family style dish of crab balls, olives, cheese, and fired fish fingers.  The main was a medley of clams, calamari, fish, shrimp, mussels, crab, lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage and beets.  Drinks were a rum mojito and wine or beer.  Dessert was a scoop of peach ice cream with a nickel size creme burlee.

During our lunch a jazz band with an outstanding female singer performed.  She sang several Nat King Cole songs, “Mack the knife” and “When the Saints Come Marching In”.  Al and Suzanne Frederick danced to one of the songs and then Judy Zon and Mary Kopa did the Mummers Philadelphia New Year’s Parade dance to the “Saints”.
After lunch we visited Casa de la Cultura in Plaza de la Revolution.  There are a number of neighborhood culture centers around the city where people of all ages can take extracurricular classes in art, music, dancing and theater.  We visited a ceramics lab and a knitting class and then were treated to a special performance in the theater.  It started with a young girl around eight years old singing a ballad, a group of younger girls doing ballet and then an old man singing a ballad, followed by a younger man singing a salsa tune with a couple dancing in back of him and ended with six couples dancing what they called a casino dance where they jitterbugged and changed partners in a circle similar to square dancing but in more of a circular pattern.

After the performance we visited the Center’s Art Gallery.  They had some nice pieces on display.  I thought they were better than in the ISA.  We returned to the hotel and left for dinner at 18:30.
Dinner was at the La Moraleja restaurant which is not government owned.  I had a very nice Greek Salad, braised lamb with ice cream for dessert.  We were sitting at three tables with the Schumb family occupying one of the tables.  The wine was flowing freely and they started telling family stories in louder and louder voices which really drowned out cross table conversations at the other tables.  It dampened the spirit of the dinner.  Isabel, the Tauck Director, was sitting at our table and when we could converse she had some interesting stories to tell us.  She has worked for a number of different tour agencies including Grand Circle and OAT.  She mainly works the Panama Canal and Costa Rica Ecology Tours.

The service was slow at the restaurant and it was close to 22:00 before we returned to the hotel and since we had an early departure scheduled for the next day I went right to bed without updating my journal.
Friday, November 30, 2012:  Farm Day (or as I would call it “Cigar Day”)

We rode out in the country southwest of Havana on a four lane highway to the city of Pinar del Rio.  Along the way we stopped at the Las Barrigonas rest stop.  There were several busses already there and more arrived following us.  Las Barrigonas was a brick shelter with clean rest rooms and arts and crafts for sale.  Near the building was a farm with a several pigs a cow and a donkey hooked to a cart.  As we were returning to our bus the farmers rode off in the donkey lead cart.
When we arrived in Pinar del Rio I noticed that the taxis were not the 1950’s era cars but were three wheeled bicycles with a double size seat over the rear axle and a roof over the driver and passenger.

We toured a Cigar Factory set up for visitors, no photos allowed I guess because it showed each step in selecting the crushed tobacco, forming it in the size of the cigar, compressing it, and then wrapping it with the outer leaf.  From Pinar del Rio we rode north stopping on the way at Hotel Horizontes Los Jazmines one of the most renowned hotels in Cuba.  It has a stunning view point of the Viñales Valley UNESCO site.  The valley is surrounded by lime stone mountains with spectacular cliffs full of indentations and caves.  The parking area was full of tour buses of Europeans.  There were a number of tables with arts and crafts displayed and a saddled Ox.  Doug Kish from our group climbed on for us to take his picture.
Leaving the vista we rode past the village of Viñales to a tobacco farm.  As we drove into the farm we saw a turkey slowly wandering around the yard.  In the back of two white farm houses there were two oxen hooked to a cart and a group of farm workers on a break. 

When we got off the bus we were ushered into a tobacco barn for a presentation by the farmer, Benito Camejo, who was out of Central Casting.  A handsome man with a bushy mustache (for those of you that know my neighbor Gary Wales that restores and shows Bentleys he reminded me of a young version of Gary, you can also see his picture if you ‘Google’ his name).  As he sat talking to us he rolled a cigar and lit it up.  He then led us to his house for a cup of either Cuban coffee or rum or a mixture of both.  I was the first to have just the rum and he took a liking to me and led me to his garage to see his 1953 Chevrolet.  It still has the original engine but the carburetor has been swapped out so he could burn diesel which is significantly cheaper and as I understand easier to get.  I learned most of the old cars have converted to diesel because gasoline is about $7 a gallon.  He also showed us his tobacco crop and told us how he transplants the seedlings from a wet area next to the river to fields next to his house.  He also showed us his coffee bushes and fig tree.
From the farm we headed back towards Viñales and stopped at El Estanco II, a tobacco processing plant where they remove the stems, grade and size the leaves then ferment the leaves and bundle them up for shipment to a cigar factory.  We were given a briefing on the process.  I found the process of fermenting the tobacco leaves interesting.  They stick a thermometer in a compressed bale of tobacco until the temperature no longer increases and the leaves no longer feel slightly sticky to the touch.  Another interesting fact is they bundle up the removed stems and use them to control insect pests.

We ate at lunch at Palenque de los Cimarrones in a valley out of town between mountains full of caves.  The restaurant was a symmetric structure of open log cabins joined by halls, with roofs made of leaves taken from the royal palm tree and displayed as in an ancient African village.  The restrooms were in round structures with murals on their sides.  We were serenaded at lunch near a cave.  The lunch was family style.  It was Susan Hendricks’ birthday and somehow the guides were able to have a birthday cake baked and served for the occasion.  After lunch I decided to walk through the cave.
Near the entrance were two life size figures of a slave fighting a runaway slave hunter.  Runaway slaves hid in the caves.  At the entrance were a couple of local performers.  One of them was a fire eater and he entertained me.  The limestone cave was narrow in many spots and had deep crevices branching off of the path.  There were also carvings in the limestone of snakes and rats.  At the other end of the cave was a stage for band concerts and a bar constructed of limestone.  Outside was an ancient sugar cane press which I noticed was manufactured in Buffalo, NY.  I walked back towards the restaurant but the bus had started to leave and picked me up on the way.

We returned to Viñales and spent an hour walking around the town.  It was set up for tourists and several of the European Tours were already there.  It had showered as we approach the center of the city but soon the covers were removed from tables of arts and crafts.  In the city center there was a beautiful little church and a statue of Jose Marti dated 1895.  After our tour of the town we boarded our bus for a two hour ride back to our hotel.
Dinner that night was on our own in one of the six restaurants in the hotel.  Our choices were:
  •   Sabor do Brasil
  • Miramar (Buffett)
  • Vedado Restaurant (where we ate breakfast)
  • El Bosque de la Habana (Lobby Bar)
  • La Scala (Italian Restaurant)
  • Bella Cubana (Fusion Asian Restaurant)
I chose the Miramar where one of my choices was pork cut from a full roast pig.  After a rather quick dinner I returned to my room and caught up on my email before retiring.

Saturday, December 01, 2012:  Literary Arts in Cuba (or as I would call it Hemingway Day)
After a breakfast of a fried egg a link sausage and two Danish rolls we met for a presentation on the life of Ernest Hemingway and his relationship with Cuba.  We were supposed to visit Hemingway’s home but they are filming a movie on his life and the home was closed to visitors.  Sharon Stone was scheduled to be in the movie and was staying at our hotel although I never saw her.

We left the hotel with the intention of visiting Hemingway’s old haunts in Old Havana but it was raining so the guide changed our schedule and dropped us off at the Havana Club Rum Museum.  At the museum we were assigned an English speaking guide who took us on a tour of the museum.  She explained the differences between the white and dark rum and the distilling and aging process.  One of the rooms had a detailed model of a Sugar Mill including a model railroad with model trains.  It was very impressive.  She then led us through he distilling vats and aging barrels.  After the tour we had a sample of the seven year old dark rum and saw a $1,200 bottle of rum in a glass display case.
We boarded the bus and rode out of town to Cojimar, the small fishing village east of Havana where Hemingway fished and found the inspiration for his novel “The Old Man and the Sea”.  His house is in the area but set back from the road so we didn’t even drive by.  The rain appeared to be letting up when we arrived at the old fort on the sea wall across from a bust of Hemingway.  We got out of the bus to take pictures but the rain increased and we quickly got back on the bus.

Next we stopped at the La Terraza de Cojimar Restaurant where they have a table roped off in a corner with a view of the sea that was Hemingways favorite table and where he dined with Gregorio Fuentes, captain of Hemingway’s yacht “Pilar”.  It was in this restaurant that Hemingway met Cojimar’s fisherman.  The restaurant’s walls were covered with pictures of Hemingway and paintings of the sea and fisherman.  It was very colorful.
On the drive back to Havana we stopped for lunch at Divino’s Restaurant.  The restaurant was already decorated for Christmas and we were greeted by a large statue of Santa Claus at the door.  I had salad and fish for lunch.  When we left the restaurant the rain had stopped and I was able to take some pictures of a nice four door 1931 Ford sedan.

Back in the city we got off the bus at san Francisco Plaz and started our walking tour of Old Havana.  First stop was the old fort of La Real Fuerza.  We then walked up the narrow streets to Hotel Ambos Mundos where Ernest Hemingway stayed and wrote many of his short stories.  We took an elevator to the top floor where we were served a Mojito and had great views of the city.  The open rooftop bar had pretty art decorated panels on the walls.
After a crowd of European tourist left the area we were able to visit Hemingway’s room which has been setup as he used it when he stayed there.  A typewriter with pages from a short story is in a display case on the standup desk he used when he wrote.  The closet has one of suits and tie hanging behind a glass door.  A model of his yacht Pilar was on display on top of a bookcase.  A case displayed cards, poker chips, dice and a small roulette wheel.

On the way out the lobby was full of European guests checking in and out with their luggage.  We were then on our own to explore Old Town Havana.  I walked up the narrow streets and visited several shops.  Of interest was the restored Johnson Drug Store with a display from floor to ceiling of ceramic jars used to contain drugs.  Along the way I walked through a large open market with arts, crafts and clothes for sale.
At the end of the walk was another Hemingway hangout the Floridita Bar home of the original daiquiri.  Inside was a spot where Hemingway liked to sit and pictures were on the wall of him with famous people such as Errol Flynn, Castro and Mafia Dons.

We returned to the hotel before 17:00 and had a rest before leaving for dinner at 19:00 to dine at El Tocororo a privately owned restaurant until recently only open to foreigners.  It had plaques on the wall from various tour groups and a great jazz band.  Dinner was delicious.
After dinner we rode to the Tropicana Night Club where we took in the show.  It was spectacular with dancing, singing, many costume changes and lots of colorful lights.  It ranks with the best Las Vegas shows.

It was a great way to spend Saturday night in Havana.
Sunday, December 02, 2012:  Spirituality in Cuba

Our first visit for the day was a tour of the Colon Cemetery founded in 1876.  Named for Christopher Columbus, the 140 acre cemetery was noted for its many elaborately sculpted memorials.  It is estimated that the cemetery has more than 500 major mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults.  The cemetery was entered through a massive stone gate called the “Gate of Peace” in the form of the Arc de Triumph with three arches over openings.  We were met by a guide that showed us around the cemetery describing the many large mausoleums, chapels, and family vaults.  He pointed out several notable people’s graves, the Chapel of Constante Ribalaigua, a friend of Ernest Hemingway and founder of the Floridita, famous Hemingway bar in Old Havana.  Ribalaigua is credited with having invented the famous daiquiri drink.  The most impressive grave site was the 75 foot high monument to the firefighters who lost their lives in the great fire of May 17, 1890.  We were impressed by the clean condition and massive size of the sites, many dating back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.  It indicated that there was once great wealth and taste for the arts in the history of the nation.
We toured the chapel in the center of the cemetery between funerals, which go on all day, and then visited the very popular grave of La Milagrosa (The Miraculous One).  The story goes that when Amelia Goyri de la Hoz died in childbirth in 1901, she was buried with her stillborn daughter placed at her feet.  When the tomb was opened a few years later, the baby was found in her arms.  Amelia is now considered the protector of pregnant women and newborn children.  Pilgrims paying homage must not turn their backs to the tomb upon leaving.  We saw many woman visiting the grave and laying flowers on the tomb in just the few minutes we were there.

The cemetery has more than 800,000 graves and 1 million interments, space is currently at a premium and after three years remains are removed from their tombs, boxed and placed in a storage building.  The cemetery ranks right up with the most impressive in the world such the ones in Paris and Buenos Aires.
Our next visit was to the area called Muraleando Mercado de San Jose.  Muraleando means mural-making and what started out as art classes taught in the street because there was no local room to teach, the classes grew into a community beautification project where trash areas were cleaned up and metal sculptures installed and murals painted on the walls.  Even Charles Schulz’s estate has contributed by allowing pictures of Snoopy to be painted on the walls.  The community gained permission from the Government to turn an old concrete water tank into an art studio and in front of the tank they built a covered stage where we were entertained with the talents of the local musicians and a ‘rap’ artist.

The music became a group dance where the locals had us dance with them.  It was great fun and followed by a showing and selling of their art work.  Of course I had to buy a small print of a painting by the young lady that had asked me to dance with her.
From the community center we boarded our bus and rode to the Arts and Crafts Market that occupies the old warehouse space along the seaport docks.  There I was able to purchase a few small art objects for the grand kids.  We then rode to the San Francisco Square where we had the official Group Photo taken in the archway of the cathedral.

We had lunch at Cafe de Oriente on the square.  It was very elegant and we had the whole top floor with a jazz trio serenading us while I had a delicious seafood lunch.  After lunch we had the choice of staying in Old Havana or returning to the hotel.  I choose to return to the hotel to catch up on my email and journal.
At 17:30 we departed to the Belle Arts Museum to attend musical performance by six local music teachers called the Groupo Vocal Elé.  They sang a number of songs in Spanish and English.  Their rendition of ‘Summertime’ was outstanding.

Following this surprise event we rode to Casa Espanola for dinner.  The meal was a traditional Cuba meal with beans and a potato quiche.
It had been another memorable day on my visit to Cuba.

Monday, December 03, 2012:  Education in Cuba
On our many trips back and forth to and from the hotel would pass by a beautiful old three story mansion on a corner which Isabel called the “Green Tiles” house.  Well, we finally stopped and visited the house.  The house had been owned by a wealthy lady with a lot of land holdings in the country.  After the Revolution she had to give the State all her holdings but could keep one house to live in.  She chose this beautiful house with a large lot and water fountains and reflecting pools in the backyard.  When she died the house passed to her niece as her only living heir in the country.  When the niece died she had no heirs and the property was turned over to the State.

The government restored the house to its former glory and it was then used by the Havana Revitalization Works as an office, reception and briefing room.  We were lead up to the third floor past beautifully decorated rooms to a large room where we were given a presentation on “Restoring the Memory - Approach to Cuban Architecture and Havana Revitalization Works”.  The presenter was a female architect from the Havana Revitalization Works.  She traced the history of architecture in Cuba through its history, the influence of wars and the renaissance influences in fortress, the Spanish-Arab influences in houses, the colonial period, the cathedrals, convents, neoclassic buildings, and the period from 1902 to 1958 which included the ‘Capital’ building which is a replica of the US Capital and the Casinos and hotels.  She then described the damage to the buildings caused by strong storms over the years.
That background lead to the establishment of the Revitalization Works – Cultural and Touristic Infrastructure.  She talked about and showed us before and after pictures of the projects her department has undertaken and some of the artists that perform the work including the National School of Arts, the Mills Farm in central Havana and the Green Tiles house.  In the Q&A following her presentation she talked about the funding which comes from tourist fees and how the US embargo hampers the funding by reducing the tourist trade.

After the presentation we were given a tour of the house.  Fabulous!
We then rode to the famous Hotel National.  The New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White designed the hotel, which features a mix of styles.  It opened in 1930, when Cuba was a prime travel destination for Americans and the hotel has had many famous and important guests.

The hotel was built on the site of the Santa Clara Battery, which dates back to 1797.  Part of the battery has been preserved in the hotel's gardens, including two large coastal guns dating from the late 19th Century.  There is a small museum featuring the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.  During the crisis, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara set up their headquarters in the hotel to prepare the defense of Havana from aerial attack.  The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is a World Heritage Site and a National Monument, and it was inscribed in the World Memory Register.
At one end of the long ornate lobby I entered the ‘Hall of Fame’ which has a panorama of the famous guests that have stayed or visited the hotel since it was built.  On the walls are large collage of famous peoples photos grouped by decade.  In addition there were individual photos of famous people and even a full size bronze statue of Nat King Cole.  At the other end of the lobby was a bar which also had pictures on the wall of luminaries.  Our side in the back was a beautiful view of the harbor.

I didn’t visit them but a number of rooms that have been occupied by the famous have been zealously conserved, several having been declared historic (those of Nat King Cole, Compay Segundo, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, María Felix, Johnny Weismuller, the Mafia bosses, Bola de Nieve, Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, Agustín Lara, Jorge Negrete, Mario Moreno, Stan Musial, Paul Casal, and Errol Flynn).  On display in each are photographs and a biographical profile of their celebrated former occupant.
Out front as I waited for the bus to arrive I saw a beautiful 1957 red Chevrolet convertible pull up to pick up a passenger.  Outstanding condition!

Our next visit was to an Art Museum where we entered the side to a long room with a band set up at one end.  We sat on folding chairs on each side of the room.  We were introduced to Cuban Folkloric Dance.  The group was from a family of three men and three women.  There danced what I considered a very wield gyration and I didn’t think the movements were in sync with the rhythm of the music.  They looked like they were on drugs.  I was not impressed.  At one point they performed a mating ritual where the female danced with skirt which she would raise teasing the male who had a handkerchief he would flick at the raised dress.  If she didn’t like him she would drop her skirt if she liked him she would encourage him to get closer.
During the dance the female dancer tried to get Buck sitting next to me to dance the man part.  He declined and told her to pick me.  I gyrated with the handkerchief and turned my back to her and flicked it between my legs.  I felt silly since I still didn’t sense the correlation between her movements and the rhythm of the music.  Chris came to my rescue and took the handkerchief and enabled me to sit down.

After the mating dance we all paired up and danced a sort of a square dance where we danced up and down and then in a round.  Finally it was over and we left for lunch.
Lunch was at the El Aljibe Restaurant, an open sided thatched roof building.  It was a good lunch and a popular place full of tour groups including a group from the Hemingway movie crew. (No star actors included).

After lunch we visited the Santovenia Senior Home, a catholic run home since 1886.  We toured the various areas of the home.  One wing held males another wing females and across the rear small apartments for couples.  In the middle was the chapel.  We were shown the common facilities like the Physical Therapy room.  Our host was one of the women living with her husband and we visited her small apartment which had a patio and a garden in back.
We returned to the hotel and prepared for our farewell dinner.  At 18:30 we gathered in the hotel lobby to board the bus and were told the bus had broken down.  Isabel then told us she had ordered taxis to take us to the Saratoga Hotel for dinner.  I was elated and boarded a 1957 blue Ford convertible with Cecile and Judy.  The driver took our picture and then Isabel jumped in the front seat.  She confessed that the bus was not disabled and the surprise was to give us a ride in the old cars we had been drooling over all week.  The driver told me he had replaced the Ford engine with a Hyundai diesel and that almost all the Taxis had diesel engine replacements.  We had fun on the way to dinner passing some of our colleagues or being passed ourselves.

Our farewell dinner was at the roof top of the Saratoga Hotel in the center of the city.  It was a clear night and we had spectacular views of the city.  I sat with Dennis and Mary and Isabel.  It was a delicious meal and a fitting end to our visit to Cuba.
Back in the room I read an email that informed me that my youngest daughter Robin was going to arrive in Miami to attend the Art Basel Miami Beach at the same time I was scheduled to arrive.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012:  Return to the US
I arose early to pack and have my luggage ready for pick up before I went to eat breakfast.  We departed for the airport at 08:00 for a 25 minute ride.  Check in was a little confusing because another large group was checking in at the same time.  I was motioned to be first in line at one of the counters but the agent had not set up his system so it took me a little longer than those in the other line.  I was assigned a window seat.  Immigration and Security went fast.  Some of the group carrying pictures in a tube had to show the contents of the tube.  Once inside the Departure Hall a man with a Tauck sign directed me to the VIP room overlooking the hall.  We gathered in the room and waited until one of the group noticed people lining up at our assigned gate.  I hustled down to the hall and the line started growing to be the length of the hall.  I got in near the front with several of the members of our group.

The flight on a World Atlantic B-737 charter took off on time and landed ten minutes early at Miami International.  I hurried off the plane to try and get through Immigration and Customs to meet Robin when she landed.  I don’t know the layout of Miami International but I think we parked as far away from Passport Control as possible.  I walked as fast as I could passing by everyone from my plane and finally arrived to find the Passport Control Hall full of passengers from other flights.  It took me forty minutes to pass through Passport Control.  My bag was just coming off the carousel and then I had a ten minute wait to pass customs.  Robin had landed and was trying to contact me but cell phones are not allowed in the area.  Finally I was able to talk to her and we agreed to meet at the Hertz rental building.
We met all right and used her iPad to direct us to her small hotel in Miami Beach on 18th Street.  She checked in and I found a parking lot.  We then had one of her staff join us for lunch.  They had meetings to attend so I left them and drove to a Residence Inn in Coconut Grove to spend the night.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012: 
I went to the airport early with a plan to take the first flight to the west coast that I could.  Finding a gas station near the airport was more difficult than I expected and I had to drive around side streets before I could gas up.  Them I could not believe how complicated and long the route was to get to the Rental Car turn in lot.  I was not a happy person and then to top it off when I got to the United check-in counter I found the first available flight to LAX was not until 15:00 and there was no longer a Red Carpet or United Club at Miami so I had to kill time in a bar near my departure gate.  The flights home went off without a hitch and I was home for dinner.  Trip over!

I highly recommend the tour for everyone.

Horn of Africa November 2012

Thursday, November 1, 2012:  Fly Addis Ababa to Berbera, Somaliland and drive to Hargeisa
Having completed tours of North Sudan, Madagascar and the African Indian Ocean Island Nations I was ready to finish my 2012 trip to Africa by visiting the small Horn of Africa countries.  The Advantage Travel and Tours group had been reduced to just myself, Lynn, Neal, Laurie, Terry and Linda.  Cathy Prada had asked me to be the leader of the group and keep her informed of our travel.

We had an early morning transfer to the airport for our 08:30 flight to Berbera, Somaliland the first country on our Horn of Africa tour.  The hotel provided a room service breakfast at 05:30 before our 06:15 departure.  Befekadu, our Ethiopian Tour Agent, was in the lobby when I checked out and helped us load the bus.  Ethiopian Airways considers flights to neighboring countries as domestic so we checked-in at the Domestic Terminal.  Tour Agents were not allowed in the terminal so I was sort of the lead to check our small group in.
We had a little confusion at check-in since we did not have visas for Somaliland, but we did have an entry permit letter with all our names listed.  Since we had our reservations in their system the agent first was going to check us in as a group but after I collected all the group’s passports she changed her mind.  She did check in all the “checked” bags at once and stuck all the baggage tags on one ticket which created a problem at Berbera.

Eventually we all received our boarding passes with our United Mileage Plus numbers correctly printed and processed easily through Immigration and Security.  I had planned on checking my email in the Ethiopian Lounge but discovered after I had passed through a second Security that it was back in the other hall.  Since the day before Ethiopian Airways had actually departed ahead of schedule I decided to wait with the group at the gate.
As we waited at the gate we discovered that the same gate was used for all their Dash-8 departures to neighboring countries which used busses to the aircraft.  The announcements were not clear and one group of tourists missed their flight.  An American in business attire sat next to me.  He was from Mississippi and was on his way to Djibouti City on business.

I was sitting close to the door and when our flight was called I was one of the first to board the bus which meant I was one of the last off at the plane.  At the bus an agent took the main portion of the boarding pass and gave me just the small end.  When Linda got on the bus she was very agitated because the part the agent took was the only place where the Frequent Flyer number was printed and she would have no proof if they didn’t give her miles credit for the flight.  I told her that since the correct number was printed on the boarding pass it was in her flight record and if she didn’t get credit the stub she had was proof she flew the flight.  She snapped back that she had been down that road before and since United switched to the Continental numbering system her records have been fouled up and she coudn’t even get them to send her a card.  I asked her if she had tried to get one at Dulles airport she replied that they no longer had a Service Desk there.  Anyway she was very angry with me for trying to tell her that she would get credit for the flight.  (It is 431miles)
The Bombardier Dash-8 does not have very high overhead bins although they are deep.  Many of the passengers had trouble attempting to jam their carry-on luggage in the bins but we still were able start engines on time.  I had a row of seats to myself for the little less than an hour and one half flight.

Berbera is not the normal point of arrival in Somaliland but was used due to upgrades to the main international airport at Hargeisa.  The Berbera airport was built by the Soviet Union in the mid 1970's and is one of the longest in Africa at 13,582 ft.  It was later certified as an emergency landing site for the U.S. space shuttle from 1970 to 1991.
We had to take busses from the aircraft to the Arrival Terminal.  They used tour busses and jammed people in with their carry-on bags - it was chaotic.  I managed to get a single seat by the door and balanced my carry-on on top of the rail by the door.

Once inside the chaos continued since this is not a normal International arrival airport.  There were three cages manned by an agent and no signs to indicate which cage should be used if one did not have a visa.  I lined up on the right side Terry in the middle and Linda on the left.  Linda’s line was moving fast so Terry switched and a portly woman with an ID hanging around her neck moved Terry, Linda and the rest of our group to the right side line.  A couple ahead of me was in a big argument with the agent and the line was not moving but the lady wouldn’t let us switch.  Eventually I got to the Agent and he took my passport and Entry Authorization Letter, he continued to argue with the wife of the first couple.  Sort of multi-tasking he handed me a form to complete while he continued arguing.  I attempted to get five other forms for the rest of the group to fill-in but he would not give them to me.  He handed the lady he was arguing with her passport and started to process mine.  He stamped a page and asked me for my pen so he could initial the stamp.  He never returned the pen but did hand me my passport and motioned me to leave.  Behind his cage were two white cages.  Only one was manned and there were no signs over the cages.  Along the wall were a money exchange counter and the toilet doors.
I headed to baggage pick-up but was stopped at the door and asked for my receipt.  I showed him my visa stamp but he wanted something else.  Finally a gentleman explained to me that I had to pay for the visa at the unmanned white cage and would get a receipt which would then allow me to enter the baggage pick-up area.  When I looked puzzled at standing in front of an empty cage someone else informed me the agent was in the toilet.

When he returned he asked for $34 and wrote a multi copy receipt, affixed two stamps and handed me the top copy which I then showed the guard at the door and was able to exit.  In the baggage arrival area there was no belt, just bags on the floor.  Three of our bags with the Advantage Travel & Tour tags were grouped together and a gentleman was standing guard.  As I approached he identified himself as Ali from the Ambassador Hotel in Hargeisa.  I introduced myself and counted the bags – one was missing.  I spotted it in another group and found that it had a United Airlines tag.  I recognized the pattern and realized it was Terry’s.  He soon arrived and I asked what happened to his Advantage Travel & Tours tag.  He told me he didn’t want to have a tag that identified his bag as belonging to an American.  I questioned the thinking since a United Airlines tag would indicate an American.  He then mentioned that it didn’t have a specific address on it like the Advantage Travel & Tours tag.  Anyway I told him it caused the Guide some confusion when he was gathering the bags.
We had been told that there was a mandatory exchange of US$50 to local currency at the "official rate" but no one mentioned it to us  I asked our guide if people accepted US$ and he said yes and that we didn’t need to exchange any money if we didn’t want to.  Only Terry and Linda elected to change money and had to go back in by the visa payment cage to the Money Exchange counter.

The rest of us started out the door to load our bags on the tour bus.  I was stopped at the door and asked for by baggage tag which it turned out didn’t match so I had to go back to the Money Exchange counter and get the tags from Terry.
Eventually I was allowed to exit and discovered that instead of one tour bus we had two Toyota SUV Land Cruisers with just one back seat.  We split, Lynn, Terry and Linda got in the SUV with Ali with their bags while Neal, Laurie and I and our bags got in the other SUV with a driver named Mohammad and an armed guard who sat in the front passenger seat.

Laurie sat in the middle and initially I tried to sit on her left but my left leg immediately started to ache and we stopped and I switched the right side and was able to stretch the leg up between the driver and passenger seats.
We had landed at 10:10 and it took us until 11:30 to start the drive to Hargeisa, the capital of the breakaway democratic republic of Somaliland.  Somaliland is not recognized by the countries of the world.  They still are considered part of Somalia.  It was formerly British Somalia, and is struggling for its identity.  In 1960, the British "unified" Italian and British Somalia into one country, called Somalia.  After a devastating civil war which broke out in 1988 with as many as 20,000 Somalilanders killed, the western part of Somalia (former British Somalia) declared its independence in 1991.  It is not very prosperous, but the pride and independence of its people give it a unique character.  Most Somalis speak their own dialect although some English, Swahili and Arabic was spoken.

We rode through Palm Springs like desert country passing by occasional camels and goats wandering around sometimes with a lone Sheperd.  The road was paved but had some potholes and speed bumps where there were a group of shacks.  Many were very colorful dome structures with different colored cloth, cardboard and flattened cans over bent poles.  They looked like sort of makeshift yurts or gers.  The terrain was littered with trash and plastic bags caught in the bushes, cactus and small trees.  There were a number of large trucks with very colorful decorations on their front windshield, grill and side view mirrors.  Many were hauling water.  We also saw donkeys pulling carts in some of the villages.
About one hour out we stopped at a monument with the inscription “1939-1945 Cumar Axmed Amaan (Cumar Ku Joog)”. As I understand the meaning of the monument is it is the spot that Omer Guguok, a local died defending the British garrison against invading Italians during WW II.  He was awarded the British Victoria Cross (equivalent to the US Medal of Honor) for his action

Another hour out we left the paved road and headed over the rocky desert toward a ridge of rocks.  We bounced along for about ten minutes when we stopped to pick up an armed guard.  He sat between our guard and Mohammad which meant that I had to bend my left leg and fortunately he rode with us for only about five minutes when we reached a small building that is the welcome center for the ancient rock paintings of Las Geel (some archeologists date the exceptionally well preserved art back to 5,000 BC or before).
We entered the building to a large single room with panel displays on the wall describing the Site of Las Geel.  It was only discovered in 2002 and is described as an archaeological site with exquisite rock paintings.  It is perhaps the most significant Neolithic art in the whole of Africa.  The panels described the archaeological team, the studies they have undertaken at the site, their interpretation of the various pictures.

We then walked up a set of concrete stairs to the first large cave.  The caves are not very deep nor very high.  (Approximately 15 feet deep and 8 to 10 feet high)  They would only shelter from the sun and some rain but the figures of animals and men were very vivid, painted in mostly red and black.  It is amazing that they have survived for so many centuries.  This first cave had a stone throne that could seat two people.  After taking a lot of pictures we moved to additional caves, mostly smaller and some with challenging access.  At one point we stopped to see a herd of baboons run across the valley floor below us near the Las Geel building.  Between a group of caves we came upon a vista point with great views of the surrounding desert.
Our path down started out as a challenge over and between rocks which at one point I encountered a rock snake that quickly slithered into a crack between boulders.  The route soon turned into a gentle downhill path back to the building.

The second guard rode with us back to a point close to the main road and my leg really hurt until I could stretch it out after we dropped him off.  We were close to the outskirts of the city of Hargeisa and soon we were driving by large concrete and pretty colorful rock faced buildings.  But the road turned to dirt and the trash buildup worse.  We traveled past the market and mosques and then onto a paved highway south of the city and up a hill to the compound of the Ambassador Hotel Hargeisa.
Our vehicles had to have the undercarriage viewed via a mirror before they were allowed into the compound.  Near the stairs to the reception desks we had our luggage opened and inspected.  We were “wanded” and the ladies in a small room off to the side had their bags inspected and were also “wanded”.

Inside the hotel we were met by the friendless group of men that I have encountered when checking into a hotel.  We had to give the Manager an envelope from Advantage Travel containing the hotel and tour fee in US$ since there is no banking between Somaliland and the US.  Lynn and I each were assigned a room.  It was not large but adequate.  There was only one electrical outlet next to the bed and that was for the lamp so I had to jerry-rig adapters to have the lamp plug into my power strip.
Internet was free for devices.  They had a unique arrangement.  I had to bring my devices (smartphone and laptop) to the front desk where they would connect to their router and when the reception clerk could “discover” the MAC address of each device he would assign it a user name and password.

Dinner was in a restaurant within the compound.  We could either eat outside under a tent or in a small round building.  There was a slight breeze so we elected to eat in the building.  I ordered “Grilled Boneless Goat” and a Tuna Salad.  They served a free “Meat Soup” with each meal (It was more like a vegetable soup) which was very tasty.  The goat was sliced thin and well done but very good and I could cut it with a fork so it was more tender than I have had in the past.
After dinner I washed my clothes and used the internet.

Friday, November 2, 2012:  Tour Hargeisa
Breakfast in the hotel started at 06:00 but I didn’t go down until 07:00 and was the first from the group to eat.  The others soon arrived.  They had eggs cooked to order, cereal, French toast and pancakes.  No yogurt.

Shortly after 08:00 we climbed in our SUVs to go on a city tour.  There were no guards so I sat in the front and was able to stretch my leg out so it didn’t ache.
Our first site to visit was the University of Hargeisa.  We entered the main gate and saw posted on the bulletin board student test scores.  I was interested in the subjects they offered.  They listed schools of: Medicine, Engineering, Information Computer Technology, Business Administration, Economics, Law, Science & Technology, Education, Islamic Studies and Math & Statistics.  We saw one large lecture hall but not much else since it was Friday and classes were not in session.

The second site was the Camel Market.  There we had a lot of fun since we were more of interest to the attendees than the animals.  The animals were in groups with identification marks painted on their backs.  Ali told us a camel sells for around US$500.  There were groups of goats in addition to the camels.  Linda’s blond hair drew a big crowd.
From the Camel Market we rode out of the city on the road we had come in on the day before and turned off towards Laasahablood (translated into the breast of a woman), two pyramid shaped mountains north of the city.  The road was rough and at one point we had a great view of the two mountains so we stopped to take pictures.  During the stop Ali and Mohammad talked and when we got back in the SUVs they turned around.  Ali told the people in his SUV that the road ahead was closed.

Coming down from the mountain we rode back toward the city and turned off to the east down a dirt road to the Zoo.  We entered the zoo they told us the fee was US$2.00 and we gave Ali our money but then they told us that if we wanted to take pictures it would cost an additional US$5.00.  We balked at that and got our US$2.00 back and boarded the SUVs.  Ali then came out and told us they would let us in and we could take pictures for US$2.00.  We paid the fee and walked down a path to two large pens.  In each pen were two lions looking very sad.  We were appalled at the sight.  A cage on the side held two vultures and another cage a hissing small bobcat like cat.  We left in a hurry, unhappy at the conditions the animals were being kept in.
Back in the SUVs we rode to the city and stopped near the market.  Near where we parked was the Money Changers.  A row of men or women sitting with stacks of paper money bound in the size of a brick stacked five bricks high.  I found it unbelievable that they don’t publish larger bills or reevaluate the currency to a manageable size.  We crossed the street and entered the market, a maze of alleys where everything under the sun was sold.  The people were very reluctant to allow us to take pictures.  The few times that I got an OK and took a picture there was someone telling me to stop.  One woman begged to have me take her picture and show her the results and as she posed people were telling her not to have her picture taken but she told me it was OK.

Outside the market we gathered on a corner where a man wearing red sneakers who told us he was from Sweden asked us to take his picture.  As we were taking his picture a man ran from across the street yelling “No pictures” but the Swede told us to go ahead.  Ali talked to the negative man and defused the situation.
The last stop on our tour was the main attraction in the city: the MIG monument.  It stands on a pedestal with the 26 May 1988 inscribed on the base.  It is a reminder of when the dictator Siad Barre lost control of the province and ordered the air force to bomb Hargeisa.  The bombing and subsequent raids of government troops claimed tens of thousands of casualties.  The war memorial in the form of a MiG-17 fighter jet was erected to mark the event.  As I walked around the monument a man came up and told me he lost his father, brother and son to Barre’s bombing of the city.

We returned to the hotel and had lunch.  I spent the afternoon writing in my journal.  At 19:00 we met for dinner where I had a Grilled Camel Steak.  Lynn had a Grilled Fillet of Steak and the two looked the same and since they were most likely cooked on the same grill they probably tasted the same.  Anyway it tasted good.
Back in the room I finished the day’s entry in my journal.

Saturday, November 3, 2012:  Drive to Sheikh and back to Berbera
We were scheduled for a 08:00 departure from the hotel.  I attended breakfast early and when Terry arrived he started a conversation with one of the guest from Scotland who is a consultant to the Somaliland Police Department.  We asked him about the road to Sheikh because I could not get a clear route on Google Maps.  There were two roads and he did not consider one of them safe.  When I finished eating I asked the Hotel Manager what route we would be taking to Sheikh and he told me that we would return to Berbera and then turn south to climb the mountains to the village of Sheikh.  That was the safer route.

I returned to my room and finished packing and Terry arrived informing me that the desk clerk was charging us US$100 for our rooms.  I carried my bags down to the lobby and asked to see the Hotel Manager.  Neal, Terry and I sat in his office as he showed us the correspondence he had with Advantage Travel.  The misinterpretation was over the definition of the “Total Tour Cost”.  He contended that the “Total Tour Cost” was for just the SUVs, drivers and guards.  The room rate was separate.
At first we told him to contact Advantage Travel and if we needed to pay the $100 we would do so in Berbera.  I quickly set up my laptop in the lobby and emailed Advantage Travel of that plan but soon I was told that the Manager would not let the drivers take us until we paid the $100.  I send another message to Advantage Travel informing them that we would be paying the fee.

All the fee discussion and negotiations delayed our departure by one hour and we were caught in a traffic jam driving through the city.  It is election time in Somaliland and caravans of busses and cars with signs supporting one candidate or another were parading through the city.  What I found interesting is that each candidate is assigned a three digit number, so instead of the caravans blaring out vote for Obama or Romney they had signs and were asking the people to vote for 213 or 607.
It took us almost three hours to travel the 100 miles to Berbera with a few rest stops on the way.  The road was paved but as I wrote before it had speed bumps at each village alone the way and a fair amount of pot holes to slow our progress.

Just past the entrance to the Berbera Airport, on the outskirts of the city we turned southeast toward a mountain range.  We soon started to travel up the mountain on a winding road.  About forty-five minutes on the road to Sheikh we stopped at a vista point with outstanding views of the valley all the way to the Gulf of Aden.  The hotel had packed a lunch which we eat at the vista.  It was a Hamburger with French fries.
After lunch we continued up the mountain to Sheikh, a small town on top of a mountain range that parallels the Gulf of Aden coast.  When the British were in charge of Somaliland, Sheikh was their favorite place for a retreat from the heat of the arid lands.  They established schools and the remains of English style homes could still be seen. After independence, during the regime of Siyad Barre a veterinary college was built that attracts students from all over the Horn of Africa.

We stopped in the center of town and attracted a crowd.  A woman with a bunch of gat branches and leaves posed for us.  She struck up a conversation with Linda and danced a little jig.  She was then joined by another woman who told us that she was 88 years old.  They posed for pictures and asked Laurie to join them for an all-female group picture.  A group of men crowded around asking questions.  One young man told us he was a student at the veterinary school and how important veterinary medicine is for the Somaliland people.  The old woman had disappeared but soon returned from across the road wearing the Somaliland flag draped over her body.  She was carrying a small woven vase and posed for pictures until her husband appeared and wanted her to stop having her picture taken.  She didn’t seem to care and was thoroughly enjoying herself.
We finally boarded the SUVs and rode down the mountain.  We stopped at another vista point where mountain goats are often seen but we just saw domestic goats.  They were being herded across the road and it was a fun sight to see the Shepperd’s throwing rocks to herd them in the right direction

Back down the mountain we skirted the edge of town and headed north along the coast to the Maansoor Hotel.  Owned by the Ambassador Hotel in Hargeisa it is not up to the same standards but is in a nice location with a wide-open field between the hotel gate and the beach.
Lynn and I were assigned individual rooms in the building across the driveway from the registration building.  Each building had four rooms.  The others were assign rooms in buildings across a wide yard.  When I arrived in my room there was no power but soon a man came and reset a circuit breaker and showed me the switch for the air conditioner.  He also gave me the password for the Wi-Fi and I discovered that Bob Parda had sent me a message that he would resolve the hotel fee issue and the worst case would send us a refund when we returned to the US.  I started to respond to his email when the power to the whole area failed.

The Hotel Manager told me it would return at 17:15 and would go down again at 08:00 in the morning.  I passed the word about the refund and the power outages to the group and then walked to the beach to get a picture of the sunset.  Unfortunately, there was a layer of fog or smog on the horizon so it was not the picture I had hoped to see.
The group met for dinner at 18:30.  After we ordered Ali arrived and handed us a refund on the Hargeisa hotel room charge.  That was great news and we had an interesting dinner.  Several of us ordered grilled fish and Lynn ordered grilled steak.  When the meals arrived it was difficult to tell the difference between the grilled fish and grilled steak, both were pounded thin and had the same reddish color.  It tasted OK but not very fishy.

After dinner I returned to my room and saw that Bob Prada had sent me an email informing me that he had negotiated a solution with the Ambassador Hotel Manager.  I replied thanking him and informing him that we already had received the money.
Just another adventure in our travels with Advantage Travel & Tours!

Sunday, November 4, 2012:  Fly Berbera to Addis Ababa
We were scheduled to tour Berbera after breakfast, have lunch at the hotel and wait on the hotel grounds until it was time to leave for the airport.  The disturbing plan was we would have to vacate our rooms before lunch.  That would have us sitting under trees in the heat and humidity which did not set well with the group.  With the help of Ali I was able to get the hotel management to let us stay in Terry and Linda’s room until we needed to leave for the airport.

Breakfast was interesting because we had to order off a menu and some of us were told that they were out of eggs and later arrivals were able to order eggs.  After breakfast we boarded the SUV’s and toured the city.  It bore the scars of the civil wars.  Many buildings had battle damage and there were a number that were just a pile of rubble.  The roads were not paved and we saw a lot of poor rundown areas.  There were a few monuments at traffic circles but not many.
We saw a number of gat stands.  The most modern buildings we saw were the storehouses for the World Food Program (W.F.P.).  Berbera is an entry port for food distributed to South Sudan and central African countries.  Some of the literature that describes Berbera predicts that it will be a resort city in 20 years.  I will be surprised.

When we returned we checked out of our rooms and parked our bags at Terry and Linda’s.  We then ordered lunch.  Again it was an interesting experience with long waits for some orders while others were served right away.  After lunch we adjourned to Terry and Linda’s room to stay cool until we departed.
Check-in was another interesting experience.  I was the first in line and I showed the agent our Ethiopian Airways reservation with all our names and the schedule with all the flights to Addis Ababa and the flights from Addis Ababa to Somaliland, South Sudan, and Djibouti.  It confused the agent because he didn’t have a computer and had to find our names on a printout.  He had to hand write the boarding pass and luggage tag.  Terry was next to check-in.  When Terry came into the departure room he told me that the agent had initially checked his bag to Juba our next destination after Addis Ababa.  I checked my baggage receipt and found he had checked my bag to Juba.  I was able to go back to the check-in counter and saw my bag on a pile of bags and convince the agent to change the baggage tag to Addis Ababa.

Our flight departed early and landed fifteen minutes early at the International Terminal 2.  Befekadu was not there to meet us so we again met at the Hilton office and had the Hilton agent call him.  He assumed that since we had departed from Terminal 1 that we would return to Terminal 1.
Check-in at the Hilton went a little smoother for me since I have a Hilton Honors car and all my information was in their computer and they were able to give me the key faster than the others.  This time our rooms were in the main building and we could take the elevator from the lobby to our floor.

It was late by the time we checked-in and dinner was a little bit of a mix up.  Apparently we needed reservations at that time of night for the buffet in the main dining room.  We pleaded our case and they seated us in the Pizza room adjacent to the main dining room and we were able to enjoy the buffet.
Monday, November 5, 2012:  Fly Addis Ababa to Juba, South Sudan

All the SUV riding the last two days had aggravated my leg and I did not have a very restful sleep.  I woke early and walked around the hotel grounds.  The pool was very busy at 06:00 with lap swimmers and the gym was also busy at that time of the morning.  The main dining room didn’t open for breakfast until 07:30 and we had to leave for the airport by 08:15.  Befekadu was there it help us check out and leave on time.
The check-in process was a little less hectic than it had been for our flight to Somaliland four days earlier.  What helped was we had a South Sudan visa in our passport so check in was routine.  I was able to find the Ethiopian Airline lounge this time and waited there where I could check email for the departure time.  When the Lounge Agent called my flight I arrived at the gate to discover the Gate Agent could not unlock the door to the stairway to the ramp.  It was a little comical but after trying many keys on a large key ring of keys he was able to open the door and we walked down the stairs and across the ramp to our aircraft.  I had a window seat in the back of the plane and was able to take pictures of the South Sudan countryside before we landed at Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

The city was located between the island of Gondokoro and Rejaf (the capital of the Lado enclave).  We were warned that photography is a forbidden in most of the city because of an attempted assignation of the President.  When we pulled up to the terminal it started to rain and by the time Laurie I departed the plane the rain turned into a downpour and we were soaked.  The other members of our group had dashed to the terminal before the downpour.
I was surprised that we did not have a Tour Guide with a sign waiting for us.  One of the young ladies from the plane asked me if I had the name of the Guide and when I told her it was George Ghines she replied that he is well known and reliable.  There was a Tourist Desk and I asked them to call George and they got an ‘out of service’ message.  I then arranged to get a cab to take us to the Quality Hotel.

When I returned to our group I found Linda in an altercation with a Security Officer.  Apparently she had taken a picture of the Airport Terminal and the officer wanted to confiscate her camera and she was apologizing and told him she would delete the picture.  Terry was there and we were able to calm down the situation.  Linda deleted the picture and was able to keep her camera.
A policeman had arrived and I took the opportunity to ask him if he knew George and he replied that he did and left us I presumed to call him.  When the taxi van arrived the policeman had not returned so we piled in and rode to the hotel.  At the hotel reception they were expecting us.  We were told that our guide had been there and dropped off our names for registration.  We went to our assigned rooms and the reception clerk called him.  A short time later a man, who introduced himself as George's colleague Travis, arrived.  He told us that when the other group (Edna, Bob and Mike) came earlier in the week.  Their plane didn't arrive until 16:00.  He claimed he called the airline and was told our flight was also not going to arrive until 16:00 so he was waiting to meet us at that time.  George was out of the country which is why his phone indicated it was out of service.  I had paid the US$50 for the cab and Travis told me that he would refund the cost.

As a result of the heavy rain the roads were very muddy (Juba has only two paved streets) and Travis decided to not take us on tour in the muddy roads.  He planned to take us to dinner at 19:00 and then take us on the city tour at 08:00 in the morning.
The rain had stopped so the group (minus Lynn) walked to the center of the city.  Neal, Laurie and I toured the market in the mud.  When we returned to the hotel we watched the sunset over a Nile (beer) at the hotel.

Laurie had haggled with a street vendor over the price of a bracelet.  She wanted it but they would not take US dollars.  As we sat drinking our beers her desire reached the point where it dawned on her that the hotel reception could exchange enough dollars to enable her to purchase the bracelet.  We had another round of beers while Laurie obtained the local currency and walked back to town and purchased the bracelet.
When Travis picked us up to drive us to dinner gave us some background on the country.  While there have been several reports of violence in the country, they have been centered in the northern and eastern border regions.  South Sudan is still a bit of the "Wild West" but with reasonable caution it Juba is similar to most large African cities.  Everything is imported and there was an over-abundance of NGO and oil workers, causing prices to skyrocket.  There was an ongoing road improvement program but the city still has mostly unpaved streets that can make for slow travel.  Infrastructure improvements have slowed since there is serious consideration being given to moving the capital to a new location.  However, in the past year, the city has rapidly transitioned from a “tent and container quarters city" to a city of over 200 hotels.

Dinner was at Notos Restaurant, which is the same building where the ex-President Theodore Roosevelt spent a night in 1910 together with his son Kermit and the members of the Smithsonian African Expedition. Notos is an old warehouse converted to a five star restaurant with multi-ethnic cuisine. The stone building represents a typical structure of the first Greek settlers which established Juba at that time. As per Mr. Roosevelt's memoirs, they spent a night at a Greek merchant's house. The rehabilitation of the building started in 2008 and the inauguration of Notos coincided with the Centennial of the visit of Mr. Roosevelt.
It turned out that George was the owner and Travis was the General Manager of the restaurant.  George was a native of the city.  His parents had come from Greece and run restaurants eventually purchasing and restoring the Notos.

The dinner menu was impressive and I had nice poached Tilapia in lemon sauce.  Travis gave us permission to take pictures of the place and even took a picture of our group but when Linda took some pictures in the bar area one of the patrons objected thinking he was in the background.  Linda just couldn’t win in this country.  Travis defused the situation and overall we had a delightful time.
The hotel provided free internet and I was able to check my email before retiring.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012:  Fly Juba to Addis Ababa
Breakfast was pretty good in the hotel restaurant and Travis arrived at 08:00 to take us on the tour.  He cancelled the tour of the ancient volcano because the road would still be very muddy.  He told us to be very clandestine with the picture taking which drove Laurie nuts.  We started out crossing the river past the Belgian cemetery of King Leopold's soldiers which was so overgrown that we could not determine that it was a cemetery, and out into the country to Equatoria (Rejaf Payam) first capital of the region.  The capital moved to Juba on the Nile River.  There was a large brick church, a school and some thatched roof huts and not much else in the village.

We rode back to Juba on the dirt highway which Travis told us was the main highway to Kenya.  When we crossed the river in Juba Travis turn off and stopped at the De Vinci Restaurant and Bar on the river’s edge.  We were able to take pictures of the river and the Restaurant.  We had coffee on the deck overlooking the dock.  Due the rain the water was very dirty and wild.  There was a small Arts & Crafts market at the restaurant.
We returned to the hotel to get our bags and check out.  Travis deposited us at the airport to take a 13:30 flight back to Addis Ababa.  We bid Laurie farewell since she would be leaving the group and fly later in the afternoon back to New York.

Our flight left thirty minutes early so when we arrived in Addis Ababa I anticipated that Befekadu would not be there to greet us.  To compound the situation when we had returned from Somaliland we arrived at Terminal 2 but Befekadu was waiting at Terminal 1 so we told him to meet us in Terminal 2 when we returned from Juba since I figured that although the flights to the neighboring countries left from the Domestic Terminal 1 they had to arrive at the International Terminal 2 to process the passengers through Immigration and Customs.  I was wrong since there were only 12 passengers on the flight from Juba so Ethiopian Airways took us back to Domestic Terminal 1.
There was a small desk to process us through Immigration.  I then had a problem contacting Befekadu to inform him that we were in the Domestic Terminal 1.  The only Ethiopian Airways Agent in the Arrival area at first would not let me use her phone.  She told me that the airline makes their decision on the number of passengers; if it is a large number of passengers they send them Terminal 2, a small number of passengers to Terminal 1.  I explained to the agent that since it was their inconsistency that she should contact our guide.  She finally agreed and called Befekadu.  He was not happy since the parking is free at Terminal 1 and there is a fee at Terminal 2.

Registration at the Hilton Hotel was smooth but they assigned Lynn and I a room in the old section of the Hotel where we stayed the first time.  When we got to the room we found that it didn’t have a working air conditioner so after lugging our bags back to the lobby we were assigned to a room in the main section of the hotel where we could take the lobby elevator to our floor.
We were surprised when Befekadu told us that we were on our own for dinner.  Our program stated that dinner was to be provided but his program didn’t have it indicated.  We ate in the hotel buffet and I sent an email to Cathy and she responded that she would reimburse us for the dinner.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012:  Fly Addis Ababa to Djibouti City, Djibouti
We woke to the news that it appeared that Obama was winning the election.  I packed my bags and took them to the lobby before I went to breakfast at 06:30.  Terry, Linda and Lynn soon joined me and we finished and checked out of the hotel before 07:00.  Befekadu was in the lobby waiting to take us to the airport.  We loaded the bus and took a slightly different route to the airport.

Check-in at the Domestic Airport was easy; especially since we had obtained our Addis to Djibouti boarding pass the day before.  I dropped my bag at the Cloud Nine (Ethiopian for Star Alliance Gold) counter and received a luggage tag.  The Immigration check was quick and I proceeded to the Ethiopian Lounge where I hooked up my laptop and connected to the internet.  Above my seat was the TV which had the Aljazeera International station on in English with the election results.  At 08:15 I packed up to proceed to the gate for my 09:00 flight.  The Lounge Agent informed me that the Djibouti flight was delayed an hour so I sat back down and listened to Romney’s speech.
At 09:30 I packed up again and this time the Lounge Agent led me to the front of the Security Line.  I felt a little embarrassed but it was a good thing since as soon as I got to the gate they called the flight and I walked down the stairs to board the bus to take us to the aircraft.  I was one of the first on the bus so I took a seat by a door but then as the bus was filling up a family with a baby in its mother’s arms arrived and I gave her my seat and now was pressed against the door.  When we arrived at the aircraft they opened the door on my side of the bus enabling me to be in the first group to board.

Having my carry-on bag checked at security twice left it in a less than compact order so it was difficult to get it in the overhead.  A woman behind me told me it was too bulky to fit but I responded that this was the third time on the very same aircraft that it had fit before as sure enough as I said the bag compressed enough to fit.  Ethiopian Airways has about 10 Dash-8-Q400 aircraft but in our five flights we have ended up on the same aircraft three times.
It was a short one hour and fifteen minute flight to Djibouti City.  There was a driver from the hotel to greet us when we exited the Arrival Hall.  The first thing I noticed as we left the airport was the number of military aircraft on the other side of the runway.  I saw an AWACS aircraft, several C-130s, and a couple of US Navy P-3 maritime surveillance aircraft.  There also appeared to be hangers for fighter aircraft.  We rode past an entrance to the US Camp Lemonnier, the only US base in Africa.  The area around the airport was very flat and as we entered the main highway to the city we came upon a settlement of new buildings more modern than what we had seen in the other cities on our trip.  The route to the hotel by-passed the center of the city and followed the coast line past the sea port and along a bay with a sandy beach.

The Djibouti Palace Kempinski Hotel is located on a peninsula north of the city in an area called Ilot du Heron.  As we approached the hotel it indeed looked like a palace.  It was truly a 5 star hotel with a gated entrance and long driveway through immaculate lawns and a large fountain.  It looked very much like it belonged in Las Vegas.  The hotel and the rooms were elegant in a African and Middle Eastern architecture, design and furnishings.  Our assigned room was above the entrance canopy with a view of the spacious grounds and the bay toward the city.
After depositing our luggage in the room we headed out to find a place to each lunch.  The main dining room had an expensive buffet so we found the Pizza Restaurant overlooking the bay and next to an infinity swimming pool.  We had a pizza for lunch and returned to our room to unpack.  After I was able to hookup my cpap machine I left to explore the hotel and the local area.

The country is a mixture of Christian and Muslim with French being the official language.  My walk took me a mile south of the hotel along the beach to the first major road to the east.  There I turned and headed back north.  On this back street I encountered walled houses on both sides and people sitting on the sideway, some on mats leaning against a wall, some on lawn chairs.  I encountered women feeding their children on the sidewalk and men smoking and in some cases playing a board game.  Many of the men appeared to be “stoned” from chewing khat.  A few wild eyed men offered me a chew.  Djibouti and Somaliland are a few of the countries where it is legal to grow and sell khat.  It was an interesting walk and included passing by several embassy compounds.  At the end of the street I came upon a number of taxis and when I took some pictures I was yelled at and realized that they were parked at the entrance to the French Army Base.  I put down my camera and saw that I was at the employee entrance to the hotel.  It was about a two block walk from there to the gate house.  As I showed my room key to be entered they had just lowered the flags and the attendant hopped in a gold cart and offered me a ride to the hotel lobby entrance.
The group had agreed to meet in the lobby at 19:00 for dinner and go to ‘Bankouale’ an outdoor restaurant next to the beach.  The lobby was full of military attending a function celebrating the completion of a joint exercise.  I saw many USAF Colonels, a Brigadier General, several US Navy Captains and officers dressed in their whites.  There were also officers and enlisted men and women from other nations.  It was a large gathering held on the lawn next to the restaurant we were eating.

We were the first to arrive at Bankouale and the staff greeted us warmly and showed us their outdoor brick open oven where they bake their own flat bread.  We ordered fish which was also cooked outside.  It was an interesting meal.  The flat bread was delicious but the fish still had some small bones which detracted from the experience.
After dinner I was able to process my email in the room before retiring.

Thursday, November 8, 2012:  Tour the area around Djibouti City
The breakfast area was in the main restaurant which was very large.  I had lost my appetite and did not try the eggs.  After the meal I didn’t feel well (either from the greasy pizza or the fish) but decided to go on the tour.  Linda was so impressed by the Kempinski Hotel amenities that she elected to skip the tour so she could get a massage, swim and generally relax.  We met in the lobby before the scheduled departure time of 08:30 and were not met by a guide.  At 08:45 I asked the receptionist to contact our guide.  She responded that the guide was already in the lobby sitting on his butt and not looking for us.  When I approached him I asked him way he wasn’t looking for us and in almost unintelligible English just said “my name is Ali”.  I figured we were in for an interesting tour.  He led us outside and a beat-up Toyota four-wheel drive wagon pulled up.  It had bench seats along the side in the back so we sat facing each other.  There was a cooler of ice that blocked one of the four seats.  Lynn sat in the front.  I was able to stretch my leg straight out next to the end of the cooler.

When we pulled out of the hotel compound Terry asked Ali if he could drive us through the center of the city.  We had bypassed it on the way in from the airport.  It took some trial and error before Ali understood but the drive turned off the road along the waterfront and we did ride through the center of the city.  It was very busy with a lot of open stalls selling goods similar to other African cities.  One thing that was prevalent was the sale of khat.  Several stalls had signs advertising it in different size bunches.
The roads were smooth and outside the city we were on the main road to Ethiopia.  There was a fair amount of truck traffic.  Many were 18 wheelers and the petrol trucks were tandem trailers.  We had not encountered these large trucks in Sudan (both north and south) or Somaliland. In those three countries the trucks were 6 to 10 wheel trucks and none were trailers.  The smooth road made the ride almost comfortable.

Along the way we saw camels, baby camels, goats and a group of baboons.  The baboons were cute because they were running around on both side of the road.  We stopped and took a lot of pictures.  Continuing on for about an hour on the main road we turned north on a smooth road with no large trucks.  Soon we saw the Gulf of Tadjoura in the distance and turned into a vista point.  At the vista we overlooked a spectacular gorge.  It was a sort of miniature Grand Canyon with many layers of different colored rocks.
From the gorge we rode on to the turn off to Lac Assal, the large salt lake which at 509 ft below sea level is the lowest point on the continent of Africa.  There is no outflow and as a result, the salinity is about ten times that of the major oceans.  It is the world's largest salt reserve.

The paved road soon ended and we descended down to the edge of the lake.  There were a number of domed huts in the area and we watched the locals loading of salt onto several camels.  The locals had also a lot of displays set up with sculptures of animals carved out of blocks of salt.  They were also selling large salt crystals, some as big as a softball.
The lake was beautiful with areas covered by dried salt that looked like it was covered by ice.  The water had areas of different colors from the white salt to aqua green and deep blue.  It was great sight for pictures.

We returned to the highway we turned north and drove to a picnic area on the shore the Gulf of Tadjoura.  Our lunch was tuna salad and roasted chicken leg.  In the picnic hut next to us was a group of Air France flight attendants and in another picnic hut was a group of German tourists.  I guess that we were at the spot that all the tour agencies used for lunch.
After lunch we rode back to Djibouti City.  There were not more sights to stop at on the return drive.  We did see some camels loaded with packs in a small caravan but it was a straight drive to the city.  We were anxious to get back to the hotel and out of the old vehicle.  On the way we were concerned that the driver driving under the speed limit and then we discovered the tie-rods are shot and the car would go into violent shaking on occasion if he drove too fast.  We made it back OK and were glad to climb out of the vehicle.

We decided to eat on the town at the Melting Pot which was in walking distance and recommended in the Lonely Planet and also by the hotel staff.  It had a rustic look with Asian decorations.  The menu included Japanese, sushi, poultry, meat, fish and seafood, and special items.  I had the Camel tenderloin which was interesting and not tough as I had been lead to expect.  It was a fitting end to an unusual day.
Friday, November 9, 2012:  Fly Djibouti City to Addis Ababa, tour the city and then fly to Frankfurt via Khartoum

We had a nice buffet breakfast in the main dining room.  After breakfast I went to the front desk to check out and settle my bill.  There was a line wanting to be served and I engaged in a conversation with an airline pilot next to me.  He flew the civilian version of the C-130 out of Myrtle Beach, SC, hauling cargo all over Africa and the Middle East.  They carried a three man crew and a half dozen non-crew load masters and mechanics.
The hotel shuttle van took us to the airport.  On the way we encountered an interesting sight – a pedestrian and two policemen pushing a police car towards a gas station.

Check in was easy.  While we waited to board our aircraft I saw an AWACS aircraft land and taxi past the terminal.  It carried French Air Force markings.  I knew NATO flew them but I didn’t know the French flew them.
Our flight stopped in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia on the way to Addis Ababa.  It is an industrial city and a lot of people dressed in business attire got on for the short flight to Addis Ababa.

Even though the aircraft was full when we landed in Addis Ababa the airline parked us at Terminal 1 which meant that we finally got the meeting with Befekadu correct.  He was outside the Terminal waiting to take us on a city tour.  We bid good bye to Neal since he had toured the city in the past and preferred to wait for his flight back to the US in an airport lounge.
Befekadu started the tour by having the driver take us up streets we had not traveled in our many trips back and forth to the Hilton.  Our first stop was The National Museum of Ethiopia.  The grounds of the museum had the statues of early leaders and military weapons and a café in a tradition thatched roof building called a “tukul”.  Inside the museum had four floors:

·         The basement was devoted to paleontology and prehistory: Lucy, Selam (the earliest child) and other fossils including stone tools and early history.

·         The first floor displayed culture items from ancient, medieval and contemporary Ethiopian societies respectively from the pre-Axumite times to the 16th century AD as well as regalia and memorabilia from former rulers, including Emperor Haile Selassie.

·         The second floor was devoted to traditional and contemporary Ethiopian art in a chronological order, from traditional to contemporary works.  They included murals, Afewerk Tekle and other Ethiopian artists.

·         The third floor displayed traditional and ceremonial costumes, jewelry, reflecting the diverse cultures of the various Ethiopian ethnic groups.
I was fascinated by Lucy because it was an exceptional fossil and constituted the most complete skeleton of an ancient hominid.  Especially since my DNA traces back to the same area Lucy was discovered in.

When we exited the museum Linda remarked that she was very confused since what she had just seen and learned conflicted to her Bible teachings on the creation of man.  I responded that what she saw were undisputed facts and that the Bible was a book of stories written by men without this evidence trying to understand where the earth and man came from.  She responded that I’d better not have her mother hear me say that.  For the rest of the day Linda kept returning the conversation back to her dilemma and questioning my belief of evolution over creation and where a belief in God fit in the equation.  It turned out that she was attended classes on the belief in miracles and my philosophy also conflicted with what she was being taught in class.
From the museum we drove up the mountain that overlooks the city.  The city was originally built on the mountain but due to a shortage of water they moved down the mountain.  Along the route we encountered several switch backs and coming down the hill was a steady stream of old ladies carrying large bundles in a roll on their backs.  At some point it was difficult not to brush the bundles with the van.  It was painful to see these old ladies stooped over under the heavy bundles of wood.  Befekadu told it was a century old tradition.  Down in the city the women sell the wood to city dwellers for heating and cooking.  In a few cases we saw horse drawn carts filled with the bundles of wood.

At the summit vista point we stopped to take photos of the city and farm land below.  It was very hazy and the view was not clear.  Next to our parking spot was a lady selling hot tea.  She had a little charcoal stove and Arabian style kettle.
We then rode back to the city to visit what Befekadu called the largest market in Africa.  Street after street arranged by goods took up many city blocks.  We were amazed at the truck loads of khat being unloaded in one area.  In another interesting area was the sale of yellow plastic bottles that originally contained cooking oil.

Befekadu then took us to an Arts and Crafts market.  It was strange because it was behind a metal wall and gate but it was where people buy Ethiopian beads which I was looking to purchase for my daughter, Robin.  I found the beads expensive when which Robin had warned me off.  Some were priced over several US dollars per bead. 
When we left the market it was getting dark so Befekadu capped off the tour by stopping at the Elfigan Cultural Restaurant for a typical Ethiopian dinner were we all four of us had to eat with our right hand from one big platter of spicy vegetables and meat dishes, in the form of a thick stew, served atop injera, a large spongy sourdough flatbread, about 20 inches in diameter and made out of fermented teff flour.  We used a piece of injera to scoop from the platter various items and fold the bread and eat from our hand.  I don’t know exactly what I ate but it was delicious.

The restaurant was built like a tukul, round in shape with a thatched roof of palm leaves, a center pole and support beams branching out like and upside-down umbrella.  The slanted ceiling was decorated in native art and the walls with pictures, a bar, a band platform and a private dining booth.  We were serenaded by a trio playing Ethiopian music on drums and string instruments. 
Following diner we rode to the airport to check in for our flights home.  We bid Befekadu good bye and proceeded through Immigration and Security.  I spent the two plus hours waiting for my Lufthansa flight in the Cloud Nine Ethiopian Lounge.  The flight departed on time for a stop in Khartoum on the way to Frankfurt.

Saturday, November 10, 2012:  Fly Khartoum to Frankfurt to LAX
It was a one hour and thirty minute flight to Khartoum.  I had a whole middle row of seats to myself on an A-340.  We were on the ground for over an hour and then had a six hour flight to Frankfurt.  I was able to sleep and did not feel too tired when I arrived in Frankfurt.  I had a four hour wait for the eleven hour flight to Los Angeles.  I spent the time on my laptop in the Lufthansa Lounge and was able to have a good free breakfast.  It bothered me that I had to pass through security several times since I was always inside the terminal but I guess it is determined to be necessary although it didn’t catch the shoe or underwear bombers.

At LAX I had a little problem connecting with my driver.  He called my cell phone to tell me were to meet him but since I couldn’t use the cell phone in the Passport Control and Customs areas I didn’t receive the message.  Eventually we connected and I got home in midafternoon – the long trip over.