In theory, day 14 was supposed to be our most ‘dangerous’ day at sea. I put dangerous in quotes because it wasn’t really dangerous at all. Nonetheless, it is worth talking about some of the issues the G Expedition has to face in this part of the world and the security precautions which were put in place.
For starters, it needs to be noted that West Africa is not East Africa. The problems with piracy off the Horn of Africa are nothing like what has been happening in the Gulf of Guinea. While piracy has become a full blown industry in Somalia, in West Africa there have only been a small number of cases of piracy, and those have only involved oil tankers. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a case of a passenger vessel being taken in West Africa.
That being said, it is possible there could be a first time, so there have been security measures put in place to ensure the safety of the ship. Here are some of the things which have been done:
- The stern of the ship has been covered in razor wire. As this is the lowest point of the ship where someone could climb on board, this part was given the most attention in terms of security. Most piracy attempts involve putting a ladder against the ship or throwing up a rope, so by securing the lowest accessible point of the ship, you can do the most good.
- In addition to the razor wire, several fire hoses were installed which point outward on the stern of the ship. The theory being, that if someone still tried to scale the ship, they would be blasted with a high pressure flow of water and would be knocked back.
- Most of the piracy incidents which have occurred in West Africa have come near the coast of Nigeria. That is the reason why we didn’t visit Nigeria on this trip. Also, as we traveled from Principe to Benin, we didn’t take a direct route. We took a roundabout path which was a bit longer, but was further away from any potential source of danger. This is also why I’ve withheld the latitude and longitude from today’s update.
- A team of former special forces soldiers were brought on board in Swakopmund. These guys are trained in courter piracy measures and one is on security duty at all times during the cruise. None of them are allowed to drink during the trip. (Which I know because several of us have tried to buy them a beer :)
- The entire crew has been trained in security procedures in the event that something should happen. Should a small team of people in a boat try to take us, they’d have their hands full with a bunch of angry Filipino crew members. The fact that you’d have to deal with so many people is one reason why hijacking passenger ships isn’t a good business decision for pirates.
- During periods where we are closest to Nigeria, we’ve been running at night with most of our lights out. You can still see some lights out the windows, but it has been minimized.
- We we fortunate to have a Turkish warship in the region this year. I’ve also understood that there is usually one or more naval vessels in the region all the time. That means if pirates did try something, they have to deal with armed soldiers within a few hours. Again, that is bad for business.
- This is actually a very busy stretch of water. Along Togo and Benin we saw dozens of ships including container vessels, oil tankers and other ships with actual, sellable cargo. They are much better targets than a passenger ship filled with retirees.
So, while the threat was minimal to begin with, the security procedures put in place has made it such that none of the passengers have been seriously concerned about our safety, myself included. I have no desire to be a martyr for the cause of travel, and I didn’t feel that traveling in West Africa was in any way an extreme risk.
I have no doubt in my mind that this is by far the least dangerous way to experience West Africa.
Next Stop: Cotonou, Benin
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It’s nice to have a love celebration like Valentine’s Day in February, a dreary month in the northern hemisphere to say the least. It gives couples something to look forward to after many cold months, and it can brighten up the long winter and add a touch of romance.
However, the timing of the Catalan version of Valentine’s Day—Sant Jordi Festival—has always made a bit more sense to me. The holiday is held on the 23rd of April each year, when spring has officially sprung with love and pollen blowing in the air. What says “amor” more than beautiful Barcelona in full bloom!
Sant Jordi Festival
For Sant Jordi’s Day, either a book or a rose are given as gifts. Men, you’ll want to look for a few select red roses to give to the special women in your life. Women, you’ll need to browse the many book shops and book stands that set up on La Rambla and get a paperback for the important men in your life. These are the rules, and as someone who appreciates both flowers and reading, I like to break them!
Where to stay for an affordable romantic getaway
If you’re traveling through Barcelona in April with that special someone, look for rooms in these hotels that make the perfect escape for lovey-dovey couples.Cozy charm in the city - Hosteria Grau
Doubles from: $83 to $143
Privacy is key to romance, so avoid the backpacker hostels and instead go for double room at Hosteria Grau, one of the coziest hotels in the city center. The two-star rooms are cute and clean, and the staff is incredibly helpful. Furthermore, Grau is a couple blocks from La Rambla and Passeig de Gracia, where much of the Sant Jordi fun will take place.Designer decor – Hostal Goya
Doubles from: $97 to $152
Ambiance is important if you’re on a romantic escape. Avoid faded rooms with questionable artwork and amateur silk flower arrangements, and instead book at Hostal Goya, a chic option in L’Eixample. Goya’s interiors are some of the best we’ve seen in Barcelona budget hotels. You’ll be wowed by not only the modern tiled floors, the abundance of natural light and the elegant attitude—but also the very affordable price!Old city strolls - Hotel Banys Orientals
Doubles from: $138 to $145
What’s more romantic than wandering the old city with your lover, arm in arm? Not much. So make sure to book at Hotel Banys Orientals in El Born for lots of cobblestone charm. Picture yourself sipping Spanish wine in front of Santa Maria del Mar Church, and then window shopping at the many boutiques near Banys Orientals.
Bonus tip: Not only is love in the air, but spring, and the months of April and May, are some of the best months to visit Barcelona because the weather is gorgeous, and the city is a lot less crowded than summer. Enjoy!
The post Amor in Barcelona: Budget hotels for romance to celebrate Sant Jordi Day appeared first on EuroCheapo's Budget Travel Blog.
Our day in Principe was perhaps the most atypical stop we’ve had, or will have, on our entire trip.
Rather than going out to visit sites or meet local people, today was devoted to rest and relaxation. G Adventures rented several cabins for the day at the Bom Bom Resort on the northern point of the island and everyone was able to swim, rest and enjoy a nice BBQ lunch.
Like in Sao Tome, we had to use zodiacs to get to shore as they didn’t have facilities for the ship to dock. However, unlike Sao Tome, we were probably 1/3 closer land this time which made the entire process much quicker.
The first thing we saw in the morning was a fisherman outside the boat showing off a giant red snapper (see above) which he caught. It was almost as large as he was. He was asking €50 for it and eventually went down to €20, but I don’t think the ship ever purchased it as we had plenty of fish on board already. Its too bad because it would have made for a great addition to the BBQ.
As with Sao Tome, Principe was like visiting an island in the Pacific or the Caribbean, only more so. The beaches and the trees seemed more unspoiled and the population was much smaller.
Once at the resort, I made a beeline for the water to take a swim. Despite all the water we’ve been in the last 2 weeks, I haven’t actually had a chance to go swimming (it is usually frowned on to swim in busy industrial ports).
While the passengers were swimming and relaxing, the crew were busy transporting everything necessary for the BBQ from the ship. This included all the food, tables, chairs, grills, beverages, silverware and plates. Everything had to be brought to the island via zodiac.
After an hour of swimming, one of the staff with a zodiac picked me up and we went for a short photo excursion up the coast. Being able to explore the island from that vantage point is a great way to see it as you get a full perspective of the island and have the option to land.
Having done this the year before, the staff member landed the boat where there was an abandoned church which must have been several hundred years old. It was actually and incredible find which reminded me of some of the temples I’ve seen in Angkor, Cambodia. Only the walls of the church were standing and trees had taken root and grown up right in the middle of the structure. This also wasn’t a tourist attraction, so it had a very Indiana Jones feel to visit it.
Further up the coast we found a local fishing village which oddly enough reminded me of some of the abandoned villages I’ve seen in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia, except this one was very much alive. Children ran out to the beach to wave as we went past. We cruised past men fishing and offered them a hearty “bom dia!” from our vessel to theirs. Some men appeared to be fishing with a net and others seemed to be fishing with a speargun. I think other may have been diving for sea urchins or other mollusks as well. The funniest part was watching several families of pigs root around on the beach.
We didn’t stop at the village due to time constraints, but it was great to at least be able to see a slice of life on Principe away from the resort.
Overall, it was a pretty good day and the time on the beach was a welcome change to the schedule. Just being able to relax was a different way of enjoying the island rather than doing the usual visits.
Next Stop: Cotonou, Benin
Latitude: 0° 20.9204’ N
Longitude: 6° 45.7471’ E
On day 12, the G Expedition pulled into the tiny island of Sao Tome.
I’ve spoken previously about the poor conditions and lack of a tourist infrastructure we found in Angola and Congo. On paper, Sao Tome is poorer than either of those two countries (primarily because of a lack of oil) and because of its location in the middle of the Atlantic, it probably get significantly fewer visitors as well.
Nonetheless, Sao Tome turned out to one of the highlights of the trip so far.
For those of you who don’t know about the nation of Sao Tome and Principe, it is a tiny former Portuguese colony in the Gulf of Guinea. The area is approximately 1/3 the size of the state of Rhode Island and the population is about 157,000 people. It is either the smallest or second smallest country in Africa, depending of if you include the Seychelles as African.
Unlike the rest of the stops on this trip, we were unable to dock in Sao Tome because they didn’t have a deep enough port or the facilities to handle the boat. We had to shuttle everyone from the ship to the shore via inflatable zodiacs. I think that sort puts into perspective just how small of a country this is, as the Expedition isn’t that large of a ship.
The first thing I noticed when we arrived were the flotilla of small fishing craft off the shore. What made them unique was that they were all carved from a single tree and all used bags of rice sewn together for a sail. They are small, ingenious, low-cost craft which sustain the fishing industry on the island. (see photo above)
Our first stop of the day was a coffee plantation on the island (Monte Cafe), but on the way we stopped at a waterfall and drove through some smaller villages on the way there. It was hard to put my finger on it, but while the people in Sao Tome are poor, life on the island seemed easier than what we saw in Congo or Angola. In fact, Sao Tome hardly seemed like it was in Africa. It could just as easily been an island in the Caribbean or the Pacific.
Once we arrived at Monte Cafe, we were swarmed by the local children who also go to school there. We were told that the coffee plantation only gets visitors once every 3-4 months, so it was a different experience for them. I can always tell how visited a place is by the reaction in the children. In over touristed spots, the kids have learned to beg and ask for things. In places like Monte Cafe, which gets few visitors, the kids are entertained by the novelty of having different people around.
After the plantation visit, we then headed back to the city of Sao Tome (capital of the country) for lunch. Along the way we stopped to see some local dancers who were performing. Supposedly the dance came over from the Congo from when the Portuguese transported slaves to the island. It was never really explained what the dance meant or its purpose, so I was left scratching my head about what I had just seen.
After lunch at a restaurant on the beach, we did a tour of the city which was hit all the usual spots you see on a city tour: the cathedral, independence square, a colonial fort and the presidential palace that we were told not to take pictures of. The condition of the public monuments seemed to be better in Sao Tome than in Angola or Congo. In many developing contries, monuments are erected to celebrate independnence or some leader and soon fall into a state of disrepair. While there was some of that, they at least cut the grass and trimmed the shrubs.
The summary from my brief visit to Sao Tome is that is a very un-African, African country. Because it is an island it is perhaps shielded from many of the problems on the continent. (For example, the rate of HIV infection in Sao Tome is only 1-2%, where in some African countries it can reach 20% or higher.) Oil exploration is underway which could bring more money to the country, but will probably also bring a whole other set of problems.
I’d love to return to Sao Tome sometime in the future to spend more time. It is a facinating little country which has a lot to offer.
Next Stop: The Island of Principe
Longitude: 7° 46.5771’ E
I should probably spend a bit of time talking about the internet and communications because I know many people have questions about it.
The internet connection aboard the Expedition isn’t great and it isn’t cheap. I can’t complain about it too much however, as I am still amazed at the fact that we are able to have an internet connection at all in the middle of the ocean. When you consider that the ship is usually in the polar regions, it is even more impressive. (the satellite which the ship communicates with is located over the equator, so the farther away from the equator you get, the harder it is to reach. It is a function of angle and signal strength, not distance.)
Nonetheless, the internet is slow. When you log into the system, it says you have a 96k connection, but in reality, this is only true if no one else is using the bandwidth. In reality, other passengers, the crew and official ship business can slow the connection even further.
I’ve used the internet on the ship enough now to have developed several tricks to maximize my experience.
- I use the mobile version of sites when possible. For example, using m.Facebook.com will make things load much faster than the normal Facebook page.
- I have set the basic HTML version of Gmail as my default. The standard version has too many scripts and takes too long to load. You lose out of features, but at least it works.
- I’ve learned to get online when most people are sleeping. After 11pm I can usually get better speeds than in the middle of the day. Likewise, if I get online first thing in the morning, I can usually get things to work.
The most frustrating thing has been the inability to upload photos. I usually upload images directly from Lightroom to my Smugmug account. That is impossible from the ship. What I’ve been doing is saving low quality jpeg’s, no larger than 600px wide and uploading those. The quality is usually good enough for online and I only need the photos to support the daily updates I’m doing.
The reason it is frustrating is because I have’ already taken some amazing photos on this trip and I really can’t wait to share them with everyone. I expect an orgy of photo uploading when I get back to Cape Town. I think I’ve been averaging over 500 photos per day on shore. I’ve been lucky so far in that at every stop, I’ve had at least one experience that has resulted in some really great images.
Next Stop: The Island of Sao Tome
Latitude: 4° 37.0843’ S
Longitude: 11° 51.5024’ E
The benefit of traveling by ship is that you can explore 70% of the Earth’s surface. The downside is that you are limited to only exploring places on land which are near the sea. I don’t this is effect more pronounced than in the Republic of Congo. There are some amazing places to visit in the Congo. The shoreline and the city of Point Noire isn’t one of them.
Deep inside the Congo are forests, national parks, and sanctuaries for elephants and gorillas. None of those places, however, are near Point Noire. The vast majority of the population in the Republic of Congo lives between Point Noire and the capital of Brazzaville. The really amazing parts of the Congo, however, are in the sparsely inhabited northern regions.
Point Noire is mostly an industrial port with little in the way of attractions. We disembarked in the port of Point Noire and boarded transportation which took us to a museum about the slave trade outside of town. The museum was, 1) all in French and 2) not very well curated. It wasn’t a great museum and I feel bad saying that because I am aware of the circumstances which exist in West Africa.
After the museum we did a brief stop to look at the Diasso Gorge, which is interesting but not really interesting. We had been warned prior to disembarking that we would probably find the gorge underwhelming, and it was.
At this point the photography hadn’t been very good. Museums are never great places to photograph and the time of day wasn’t really optimal for landscape photos.
I should take this time to note that I don’t think the reason to visit West Africa is because of tourist attractions. Our morning in Pointe Noire really hammered this point home. The tourism infrastructure isn’t well developed and many of the countries are so small that they really don’t have many sights to see.
The real reason to visit West Africa is the people. Our last stop of the day was at a grade school we visited. The purpose of the visit was to deliver supplies for the school and while we were there, the kids put on a brief show for us displaying their skills in singing, dancing, and oratory. The kids were grades 6-12 and many of the teachers and parents were in attendance as well (it was actually a school holiday, so they showed up just for us).
Visiting the school was the highlight of the day. The kids were great and they really put a lot of effort into the show they put on. Hopefully, they’ll put the school supplies to good use. The head of the school board gave everyone his business card so we could make donations if we like when we get back home.
Our visit to Pointe Noire reenforced the point that you don’t need tourist attractions to have a good trip. West Africa (and everywhere else in the world) is filled with people living their lives who are just as interested in the rest of the world as we are of them.
People are the biggest tourist attraction of them all.
Next Stop: The Island of Sao Tome