The Fast(ish) and the Furious: Driving in Conakry

A typical Conakry traffic situation with cars going every which way however they want. I am just trying to go straight out of a roundabout…

I used to think traffic in Malawi was, hmmmm, how do I say? Interesting? My daughter learned all the bad words from sitting in the back seat while I drove around Lilongwe. Traffic in Malawi, my friends, was nothing compared to Conakry. I laugh now thinking back to it. How did I think Lilongwe was challenging? I have certainly been in locations where there was similarly interesting traffic – Hanoi, Delhi, Mombasa come to mind – but I was not a driver in those locations. Conakry really tested me. The State Department’s required Foreign Affairs/Counter Threat (FACT) course, lovingly referred to as “Crash and Bang” for its defensive driving and shooting components (though over the years the weapons familiarization portion has gradually been reduced), really came in handy in Conakry.

Conakry has more roads in general and more wider, two-lane roads than Lilongwe. But Conakry is also more chaotic. There are more vehicles: more large trucks, more taxis (there really were not taxis in Lilongwe, but in Conakry there are a plethora of these distinctive sedans painted in the red, yellow, and green colors of the Guinean flag), and motorcycles. So. Many. Motorcycles.

Just a wee road obstacle. Do not worry about this five foot deep ditch on the side of the road with no barriers that can swallow your car. Not a problem….

Any city might struggle with the volume of vehicles in Conakry. But a city with poor infrastructure, where the majority of two-lane roads have no lane markings, no shoulders, no crosswalks, no sidewalks, few traffic lights, and all kinds of obstructions on the road, it really struggles with this. Add in drivers that seem to do whatever they want… If you want to stop suddenly in the middle of the road to let out or pick up passengers or just wait, go right ahead. Too tired to go up to the next roundabout to turn around? Just drive down the road against traffic, no problem! Basically, too many vehicles, haphazard traffic conditions, and a lack of road etiquette spells very challenging driving conditions.

I am sure accidents like this, right outside my residence, happen frequently. I am just surprised I have not seen more of them.

For instance, when I depart out of my residential compound when there is significant traffic (a very regular occurrence) there are guards who stop traffic to let us out. Though the guard may stop one lane of traffic, inevitably the car behind that one, or the one behind the second one, immediately decides this is BS waiting and pulls around the stopped vehicle. The guard usually then stops this car, but back in the line someone else has decided they don’t want to wait in lane one or lane two and then tries to go around both cars. This road is about four lanes wide. Well, it would be if there were any lane markings, which there are not. But at times cars will build up to four across in one direction as each person tries to get ahead of everyone else. This then, naturally, causes difficulties for the traffic going in the other direction. On very bad days this can lead to a standstill. I called one of my colleagues once who informed me she had been sitting in her car “one minute from the Embassy” for approximately 30 minutes, barely inching forward. On another day my colleague and I were heading to the grand opening of an event and it took us one hour to move three kilometers. Something that should have taken five minutes. When we finally reached the end we could see no reason for the back-up. It was just one of those special Conakry traffic days. (Luckily though things often start late in Conakry and we were mostly on time)

Photo of a Conakry road. You might think I took this photo from the side of the road, but you would be wrong. I am in a vehicle, also on the road.

In the U.S., some drivers facing a similar predicament, might just drive on to the shoulder and skirt around those blocking the lane. Except there are often no shoulders. Or the auxiliary lane is cut off from the rest of the road by a two foot wide, five foot deep cement ditch with zero protective barriers to stop a car from driving into them. There are some areas where the road is paved between the two to allow drivers to get onto that side road, but you may end up driving for awhile before you can get back on. These ditches are so deep that informal mechanics use these to conduct under carriage work – having a car carefully use a paved crossing to maneuver their car so that tires are on either side of the drainage ditch and the mechanic gets into the ditch to work on the underside of the car.

I guess one positive of Conakry traffic is it is hard to get up any real speed. With so many cars jostling for space on the road, pedestrians darting across at any location, speed bumps, dips, and random obstacles on the road, when most accidents occur they are generally scrapes and fender benders. When my daughter and I were returning from tennis at her school one day, we got caught in a traffic jam that turned the 6.6 kilometer (4.1 mile), 15 minute drive into an over an hour ordeal. Inching along and jockeying to keep ahead of cars and motorbikes that take any hesitation as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to pull ahead, it was maddening. Due to some road construction we were diverted onto a makeshift road, though one better than 90% of the roads in Conakry. Although the state of the road was good, there were simply too many cars on it trying to get out a narrow opening to another road. A driver in a taxi next to my car decided that he was going to forge ahead and cut me off. Instead he scraped against my car and got stuck. Traffic police, who I had not noticed at all before, suddenly appeared and tried to get the driver to back up. That only led to more scraping against my vehicle. The police tried to get me to back up, but I was completely hemmed in by the taxi and a horde of motorcyclists right on my bumper. I had a few inches to my right alongside a barrier and the police directed me to slightly turn that way. This gave the taxi the chance to get off my bumper and he sped away. The police pushed in my bumper and gave me the thumbs up sign. And here is the amazing bit: I didn’t yell. I didn’t say one bad word. I just returned the thumbs up sign and drove home. It was all just so inevitable.

Creative driving in Conakry. On the left: the guy hanging outside the back of the truck and furniture for sale placed directly on the roadside; on the right: I have to get this large ungainly wooden thing home so I will just strap it to the top of my taxi.

There is a lot of creativity to driving in Conakry. I have got to hand it to some folks for their ingenuity, but some things just are just downright dangerous. See the guy hanging out the back of the panel van? I cannot say he is the only person I have seen doing this. And the large piece of furniture strapped haphazardly to the top of that taxi? Yawn, so commonplace. And I 100% know that these kinds of innovative means of transporting goods and people is not, by any stretch of the imagination, limited to Guinea. There just seems an extra layer of hutzpah added here. For example, when I lived in Indonesia in 2007, I watched a father place his slightly sized son, maybe 10 years old?, on the back of a motorcycle holding on to newly bought large television set, still in its box, and then motor off. I feared for the kid who could barely wrap his skinny arms around the box. One speed bump would surely knock him backwards as his little bum sat on the very back of the seat and he was not anchored to his father in any way, just holding on to the unwieldy box. However, one day in Conakry, at a particularly messed up under-construction intersection, I saw a motorcycle swerve between my car and the one in front of us. The passenger, a middle aged woman wearing a bright orange patterned west African style dress, perched on the back of the bike clutching a large unboxed television. As another car roared into the fray, trying to maneuver in front of me, the motorcycle swerved again and the woman nearly lost her balance on the bike and her grip on the television. As she grabbed for the television she let forth a string of curses aimed at the car, gesticulating angrily with her head and a few fingers of one hand. Hutzpah.

For some reason the city has opted to start construction on many of the roads in Conakry all at the same time. This is not just my complaint, I have heard it from expats and Guineans alike. No doubt the roads could use a facelift, it just does not make much sense to do it all at the same time, that only contributes more to the gridlock. Much of the construction is on the main roads forcing drivers to take to the side streets, which are often in worse shape. Side roads are often unpaved. They are generally more narrow and are hemmed in by pedestrians, businesses or homes, pop-up markets, and random piles of stuff. The stuff could be mud, garbage, construction materials (not for roads, but for buildings), whatever. There are often more speed bumps (or what is left of speed bumps), more potholes (some that could swallow up cars), just more life and obstacles in general.

On my first drives in Conakry, the GPS led me down a side street that may have once been two lanes but was at the time in the throes of a busy market with hundreds of hawkers and customers milling around and motorcycles zipping everywhere they wanted. It had easily become a single lane. The road ended in a T-junction that I needed to turn on to, except the majority of the end of the road was blocked by a three to four foot pile of garbage. Motorcycles were easily getting by, but for me to squeeze through I needed half my car to go up and over. This was my introduction to Conakry driving. Wowsers.

Some roads are just dirt, but not just dirt. They are rocky strewn hills. Seriously, I think the Guinean government could make a pretty penny having Ford and Chevy film their tough truck commercials making their way down Conakry side streets.

Burning tire barricade ahead means a protest is starting

In addition to just the every day fun on Conakry roads and the construction, there are also the protests that can throw a spanner in the works of a commute. On many protest day we had advance warning and telework was an option. With protests often happening in and around the Bambeto traffic circle, I had a bird’s eye view of the demonstrators and police doing their delicate dance of throwing rocks then running and the thumbs and smoke plumes of tear gas or the cracks of firearms. But sometimes protests are a bit more spontaneous. Driving home twice from my daughter’s school, myself and all my fellow drivers heading in a certain direction were confronted by the sight, smell, and burning taste of black smoke from a burning tire barricade blocking our way to Bambeto. I watched as vehicle after vehicle made u-turns (often in the middle of the street without looking, thanks guys!), but I actually needed to continue forward to get into my residential complex. The route is also the most direct to the airport and to one of Conakry’s major thoroughfares, the Rue Le Prince.

My daughter and I did make it home but many others were stranded in massive traffic jams. Three people from the Embassy were stuck in traffic for SIX hours. Two people missed their flights out of the country.

Every drive in Conakry is an adventure. Getting behind the wheel is not for the faint of heart. But you know what? I am so glad that I did it. I found there were many expats who opted not to drive at all. And I throw no shade, none, I get it. I just did not want to be at the mercy of the Embassy motorpool schedule or needing to hire some driver. I am not afraid to drive in Conakry. There were some white knuckle moments for sure. I was often annoyed. But there were also days I found a great sense of satisfaction for getting myself from Point A to Point B by driving my own car. I can say that sometimes I even enjoyed myself.

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Maf Village and Sierra Leone

Shells galore on Tokeh Beach, Sierra Leone

When I had to cancel my previously scheduled two-week Christmas-time R&R (for reasons which will be revealed in the not so distance future), I wondered if I would have any getaway at all at the end of the year. I had a bunch of use or lose leave (we can only carry over a set amount of leave in a given year to the next and any that is over that is forfeited if not used or donated by the end of the year) and a hankering to spend it somewhere other than my apartment. I played with ideas of traveling to Senegal or Cote d’Ivoire for a week but frankly I did not think I was up for that level of planning and time away. As luck would have it, friends of ours in Conakry asked if we were up to joining them for a trip to Maf Village and on to Tokeh Beach in Sierra Leone for a few days. It was just what C and I needed. Some time with friends, a chance to see a bit more of Guinea and venture into a neighboring country, but without a big investment in time. Driving across borders in West Africa. Oh boy, an adventure!

Early on December 19 we met up to begin our caravan. Maf Village is located in Maferiyah, Guinea, just over 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Conakry. As all distances in Guinea are, this too is misleading. One might think that drive would take no more than an hour given some stop and go traffic in the capital. Unfortunately, one would be quite wrong. It took about three hours to drive that distance.

Light of sunrise at Maf Village

The problem is mostly Conakry, which as far as traffic and roads go is rather a mess. And that, my friend, is a major understatement. Yet truth be told, I hardly remember the first hour getting out of Conakry, probably as I was so excited about the prospect of this getaway, and perhaps, I am getting used to the madness? We took the N1 (National Road 1) from the heart of Conakry until it met the N4 just outside of Coyah, in the Kindia Region. Here there is major construction underway that one day will likely make this drive more pleasant, but for the time being only made the road more narrow, crowded, and chaotic.

The Maf Village bar where we watched the World Cup final

I lost sight of my friend’s car and the GPS told me to make a left that I should not have, right there smack in the middle of the chaos zone where motorcycles, taxis, passenger cars, semis, construction vehicles, and pedestrians vied for right of way in an unmarked dirt zone that served as the temporary alternative roadway. Luckily my friends called me to tell me of my error right away, but it would prove difficult to turn around in that area. Except I summoned my inner Guinean Driver and turned around where I wanted and got back on track pretty quickly.

Once we turned on to the N4 it was as if we had been transported to another country. The road is paved; there are painted lanes and shoulders, and a glaring lack of potholes. What wizardry was this? The last bit of our drive to Maf Village went by quickly.

Maf Village is a lodging and activity location. This is where schools have field trips. There is the swimming pool and guided hikes but also horseback riding, a game room, an obstacle course, Guinea’s only bowling alley, exotic animals such as a monkey, ostriches, peacocks, and some baby crocodiles, and a large garden where they grow a significant amount of their own food.

In many places Maf Village might not be all that, but in Guinea it is the bee’s knees. It offers a respite from the hustle and bustle of the capital.

We only had the one night at Maf Village. We enjoyed some lunch and then the kids swam in the pool and I had a pedicure at the newly opened (and nicely air-conditioned) spa. Then we all gathered in the bar area to watch the World Cup finals. We were rooting for Argentina and it sure was an exciting match. It was really great to be with friends and a few others yelling at a tv and cheering.

Following the game we took a walking tour of the property to see where they raise animals and grow crops and for some reason have a pair of ostriches. We then had dinner and the kids played ping pong afterwards.

Approaching the Guinean-Sierra Leone border and, are you kidding me, Sierra Leone has toll plazas?

The next morning I enjoyed the sounds of song birds in the early morning light with a hint of plateau in the distance through the Harmattan haze. It had been a long time since I had heard birds like that, since perhaps my wonderful yard in Malawi. We have an amazing view from our apartment in Conakry, but we have no yard, I rarely hear birdsong. I hear the train, the call to prayer, cars and trucks honking on the road, heavy machinery from the nearby construction site, and dance parties from below, but not birds and insects. I closed my eyes and listened. I had a good ten minutes before the spluttering of a motorcycle sliced through.

We had breakfast, packed up, and started our drive to the border with Sierra Leone. I have to tell you I was pretty excited, giddy even. I tried to think the last time I had driven across an international border. Sure, I had this past summer from Belgium to Luxembourg and back, but driving across EU borders is not the same. Then there was when I served in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and crossed back and forth the border to and from the U.S. But not the same as self driving across a border in West Africa.

Tokeh Beach looking toward Freetown

The border was a little confusing. Makeshift rope barriers guarded by a single guy are all that keep one from just driving across without going through immigration (well, and the threat of being caught). Signage in the building could leave most wanting, but as there were no lines to speak of and we stood out, we were quickly met by persons wishing to help us. But we needed to ascertain if those people were official or not. A man who looked a bit dodgy, but did have a badge on around his neck that he flashed at us, led us through the door marked “Do not enter. Officials only” and into an office where we all sat down in front of a desk. There sat a man with a computer, passport scanner, and camera. Seemed official enough as he scanned our passports one by one, asked us a few questions, typed up some information, then stamped us out of Guinea. I could not recall having ever sat down at immigration before.

We went back out to our cars. The guy lowered the rope to let us drive through to the other side where we parked and did the same thing on the Sierra Leone side. Once again we were approached by a person who did not appear to be official but turned out to be. She also led us past the windows and into her office. Here though there was no computer or scanners, just two large ledger books. One was labeled in large capital letters in black permanent marker “Non-Citizens Incoming” and the other “Non-Citizens Outgoing.” I was surprised by the technology available on the Guinean side that the Sierra Leones did not have. After getting our Sierra Leone entry stamp we then had to have our “lassez passer” documentation for our vehicles checked. Then we were free and clear to continue on to Tokeh Beach.

The road from the border nearly all the way to Tokeh Beach, about an hour outside of Freetown, was amazing. Paved, lane makings, shoulders, and mostly pot-hole free. We drove through two toll plazas where we paid 4 Leones (less than a quarter) to continue.

Finding Tokeh Beach Resort took a little extra effort as we got close the map lost its accuracy. But a wrong turn and some discussion with a local had us following said person as he lead us on a motorcycle taxi. Our initial reaction to Tokeh Beach Resort was not great. After the long drive and the fancy website, we had been expecting more, but it turned out a very nice place to stay.

Sunset and sunrise at Tokeh Beach

There is another place to stay on Tokeh Beach ironically named The Place and it is are really nice looking place, but it is popular and noisy. Tokeh Beach Sands on the other hand is quite. I am a fan of quiet. We enjoyed the food, had great company, and just soaked in the sound of the waves on the powdery white sand beach. The sand is so fine that it squeaks as you walk across it. The pool turned out to be in the sister Tokeh Beach Palms about a 10 minute walk down the beach. No worries, the kids played in the surf for hours on end. I read. I wrote in my journal. I walked on the beach. I watched the kids and the waves. I thought about driving the hour to the chimpanzee sanctuary but then thought better of it. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I was already where I wanted to be.

The electricity is only on at the resort from 6:30 PM to 7:30 AM. You do not really need it otherwise. Sure, the bathroom was poorly lit/had no window so using the restroom or taking a shower during the day may involve some fumbling about in the dark or finding a large katydid on the faucet as you turn it on (as my daughter C found out. Great lungs for shrieking that one. C, not the katydid), but otherwise we were fine. The power overnight let us run the A/C so we could sleep and charge our devices.

This might not be a great commentary on the 2021 dream…or is it? A dream destroyed or a dream battered but hanging on? Hmmmmm… I just loved the composition.

After two glorious days doing nearly nothing by the water, it was time for us to pack up and make the drive back to Conakry. Though this time we would do the reverse, thus going from good roads, to great roads, and then crappy roads the closer we got to the Guinean capital, the 48 hours of white sand and ocean waves must have done the trick because despite the seven hours it took us to get home, I still felt content when we got there. Neither the long drive or the tedious border crossing or the stop and go crowded mania of the Coyah-to-Conakry interchange construction brought me down. Not even the special gift I got from Sierra Leone — a bizarre allergic reaction to a likely mosquito bite that left six inches of my left forearm swollen and super itchy — dampened my spirit. (Though once in Conakry I drove straight to the Embassy Health Unit to have that forearm thingy looked at and acquire me some topical Benadryl). The adventure was worth it.

Mini Guinea Getaways: Soumba Falls

Close up of Soumba Falls at high volume

In my efforts to finally get out and about in Guinea, I was pleased to learn that our Community Liaison Office (the “CLO” – a catch all office that provides welcome information for newcomers, puts together holiday events, and organizes tours and gatherings) was organizing an Embassy outing to Soumba Falls in November. I knew there were not a lot of tourist sites in Guinea long before arriving (and many that do exist require a lot more creativity and resourcefulness to get to), but Soumba was in all the Embassy information – Post video and welcome letter – so the CLO trip was both fortuitous and expected.

As the rainy season had just ended the falls would be flowing well. I had heard that months after the rains, the falls would be little more than a trickle. This was the time to go.

A gorgeous sunrise as we leave our residence spells a good start to the day

We were to meet at the U.S. Embassy at 7 AM to travel to board the buses that would take us to the Les Cascades de Soumba. Originally, I thought we would all drive in a caravan, and though I do generally enjoy driving, I was a little apprehensive about making this one so I was quite happy to hear about the buses.

The falls are located just under 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the U.S. Embassy in Conakry though drive times vary considerably depending on traffic. It should be an hour drive at most, but online the quotes on TripAdvisor range from an hour and 30 minutes to “less than two hours.” The CLO had estimated a two hour drive with us all arriving around 9 AM. Unfortunately, it took THREE HOURS that Saturday morning! Sigh. Oh, Guinea.

A cemetery along the way with an amusing sign. Though it turns out that most cemeteries in Guinea have this saying “Nous Etions Comme Vous, Vous Serez Comme Nous!” (“We once were like you, you will be like us!”)

At first it did not seem so long as people chatted away with one another or snoozed. And we could also look out at the sights along the road. Most of the time it was just to see the muddy roads, the crush of cars and trucks vying for dominance on the streets, and unattractive, poorly built buildings fronting the road. The cement of the structures coated in Guinean dust, and the clothing of much of the people on the street having been washed repeatedly in less than clean water, well, everything just takes on the same monochromatic reddish dirt color. Still, on occasion there are surprises such as the cemetery sign above and the Donald Trump School (Le Groupe Scolaire de Donald Trump), of which I am quite sorry I did not get a photo.

At long last the buses limped into the parking area of Soumba Falls and we all gladly stumbled out of the buses.

We had a choice of two possible hikes in the area. One, that the CLO had organized last year, was just an out and back along the same road we had driven in on, with some side excursions alongside the river. Frankly, it did not seem all that appealing to walk along the dirt track we had just journeyed along on wheels even with the promise of a view or two of flowing water, so everyone hiking opted to take the other, unknown, route.

C hiking through the tall grass at Soumba Falls

I would love to write that the hike was a-ma-zing, but it wasn’t. It was okay. The colors of the tall grass almost wheat-like against the taller green shrubs and the deep green of distant hills and a bright blue sky. Ok, so there were some highlights. But it was really warm, the grass high and scratchy, the trail almost imperceptible that it deserved to be in air quotes (“trail”), and there were several areas where plants with large thorns had to be held back for us to pass, but we still ended up with cuts on our legs and arms and small burrs on our shoes.

The “trail” did not really lead anywhere, just out to an overgrown area near a stagnant part of the upper river where crocodiles were languidly lying in wait beneath the surface. Or so we were told as barely any of us could get a good look at the water through the deep foliage. The two guides led us back the same way, which given the lack of sights the first time through did not give us all something to look forward to. Or rather the guides tried to lead us back the way we came, but they got a little lost at first, taking us first a shortcut that turned out to end in a barbed fence we could not cross so we had to backtrack. Therefore I have to air quote our “guides” and the “shortcut” as well.

The “guides” had told us the trek would take an hour. I should have air quoted the “hour” as well, though I didn’t believe them from the get go. At least ninety minutes after we set out (though I think it was longer) we arrived back at the falls sweaty and grateful for a chance to cool off in the water.

The CLO had pre-ordered everyone’s lunch from the restaurant (well, I mean “restaurant” – it was more a giant smoke grill) that overlooks the falls. Unfortunately, at noon the food (either beef, chicken, or fish – we did not get more detail than that) was nowhere close to being done. I cannot say for sure the cooks had even begun. I suspect not.

As everyone had been in Guinea for at least a month knew that it was unlikely we would be seeing our food orders in the near term, we opted to swim before lunch. Good call.

My daughter, her friends, and their mom ran to get changed into their suits and slipped into the shallow pool at the end closest the “restaurant.” Just above there was a natural water slide created by the gushing falls and some smooth rocks. We counseled our kids to swim quickly to the side after the slide as the strong current and a bit of an undertow had the potential to sweep them quickly into a roped off area. Apparently there used to be signs warning of some potential death should one pass the rope line, whether by water or crocodiles or other was not all clear. However, though I went in search of the sign for photographic purposes, it had fallen and been shoved deep into the crook of a tree from which I could not yank it out. So much for a warning. Or a fun photo.

But we knew to stay away from the rope line. We also knew there were other possible risks — our health professionals had warned us all to avoid swimming in the falls due to the possibility of contracting Bilharzia, otherwise known as Schistosomiasis, from parasitic worms that live in snails that hang out in contaminated freshwater around Africa. Generally, these beasties are found in stagnant water though our medical practitioners warned that there is potential even in fast flowing waters. We crossed our fingers and toes and put positive vibes out into the universe and then took our chances. Hopefully we were lucky.

Wide view of Soumba Falls in its gushing glory

Around two in the afternoon the “restaurant” began handing out some of the pre-ordered meals. Perhaps they had not anticipated such a large group in addition to some other visitors? How that might be the case since we had called ahead and it was a gorgeous and hot weekend at the beginning of the dry season, I fail to understand, but it was what it was and one has to learn to temper expectations in Guinea. By the time everyone had eaten we were well past our expected departure time, but what was there to be done for it? Luckily, I guess, the return drive took only two and a half hours. Ha! Still over what it should have been but it felt short given what it could have been.

All in all I am glad we went when we did. The waters were high and fast and the falls resplendent in their gushing glory. The waters were cool and refreshing. The grilled chicken and chips not bad. We were experiencing it as a group, with friends, and as much as I like to do independent travel, I did not want to be negotiating that drive or the meal on my own. I was grateful to have someone else handling those details.

Mini Guinea Getaways: Boffa

Bel Air Beach, Guinea

After spending our first four months in Guinea during the very wet rainy season, it was high time to get out of Conakry when November and the dry season rolled around.

My first opportunity to travel beyond the capital’s borders was in early November when a program officer came out from Washington to visit some sites where his bureau had funded programming. As the supervisor of his program assistant at the Embassy, I would get to visit all the sites and attend all the meetings as well.

As part of the trip, we would be visiting two national police academies. One in Dubreka, about an hour outside of Conakry (on a good traffic day, which I suspect are few and far between) and the other in Boffa, about 140 kilometers north of Conakry, which according to Google takes only three hours from Conakry except I have not found Google driving estimates here to be particularly accurate.

On the road to Boffa

Given that in reality it takes quite a bit longer to get to these locations, we would need to overnight near the academy in Boffa and stay at one of the few, if only, places in the area: the Hotel Bel Air, located another hour past Boffa, on the coast. I had read somewhere that this was a great hotel on Guinea’s best beach and had hoped to visit while in Guinea. As I was not so keen on a long drive, going there for work then would give me a chance to check it out.

After our visit to the academy in Dubreka, our driver headed to north to Boffa. Road conditions in Guinea are not great, but the further we drove from Conakry, the better the roads seemed to get. They were narrow, no shoulders, few lines, but far fewer potholes in the countryside. Similar to Malawi, the roads zipped through the middle of small villages with little to set them back from the traffic.

On a few occasions there was some dramatic and beautiful scenery, sometimes though you had to look beyond the immediate vicinity to see it. In the photo above with the craggy rock jutting out of a green hill, I was standing in a truck stop. It wasn’t much, just about a dozen long-haul semis parked in a muddy layby while their drivers took a break. My shoes were sinking in the muck and the drivers appeared amused at either my taking a photo of anything or that I was there at all. But with just the right angle and some cropping, you would not really know.

My new friend Carlsberg on Bel Air Beach

I do not remember too much of the drive to Bel Air as we had a lot of camaraderie in the car. I recall lots of green though. Sometimes the woody green of a dense trees alongside the road, sometimes the emerald green of grass and palms by a river, and sometimes the chartreuse of towering grass framing the road. And the one car bridge. I was pretty impressed with it. Malawi didn’t have any bridges that were quite so solid. After three hours or so of driving we arrived at what seemed like it might have once been the Hotel Bel Air, though now long past its glory.

We drove around a circular drive to the entrance. Not a single other vehicle was in the parking lot. The large lobby was deserted. Not a person in sight. No one came out from the reception desk even after we called “hello” multiple times. The lobby had large windows that let in the afternoon light, but it was clear the electricity was off as the corners of the high ceiling were dark. We walked down a large hallway that seemed eerily sterile and abandoned. We stepped out on to a back patio facing the Atlantic. Only stagnant water about a foot deep lay at the bottom of the pool. Behind us the building façade was stripped to the concrete, with the second floor rooms missing not only their balconies but their whole back wall. So, yeah, things were not looking too promising.

But a man, who introduced himself as the manager, appeared from the standalone bar located a short walk from the patio. The Embassy program assistant said we had a booking but expressed reservations about the hotel and our being able to procure dinner. The manager assured us it would be no problem.

Not creepy at all….

He asked us to follow him to our rooms. We ascended a staircase and walked down a darkened hallway. The ceiling was removed to expose pipes, wooden crossbeams, wires and the nests of what I later determined were swifts. The Shining anyone? The manager told us that only two of the rooms had a hot shower mechanism but that all the air conditioning units would work once the power came on in a few hours. The hotel only runs electricity from 6 PM at night to 8 AM the next morning. We were glad to hear it. Though I was once a backpacker who stayed in many a simple, unairconditioned room in steamy tropical locales and managed, I have grown very soft.

After getting ourselves settled, we meet the manager back at the patio to pre-order our dinner. We have a choice of chicken, beef, or fish. It’s like being on an airplane as there is no indication of how these options will be prepared or with what. Because I am just a tad picky with my chicken, I ask if any of the chicken available is breast meat. The manager says no, they do not have that. This is not the first time this has happened here but I wonder, as a chicken streaks across the beach in front of me, where do all the chicken breasts go if no place has them on offer? No matter, with low expectations I picked the beef.

While placing our dinner orders in the bar area, a small pack of very hopeful pups came to stand near us. I do not know what came over me — maybe just trying to find some joy in this somewhat odd place? — but I named two of them Carlsberg and Jameson. When I decided to take a walk along the beach, C and J trotted after me, tongues lolling. I just did a bit of walking and a bit of sitting and meditating as the waves rolled in. Then I returned to the room to do a bit of reading. Although my room was supposedly one of the ones with hot water I could not figure it out for the life of me, so I enjoyed the first cool water bucket shower I have had in some time. It was actually refreshing and made me think of all the times I had done that before, mostly in Southeast Asia.

Around 7 PM, I met my two companions for dinner on the patio. Though warm, there was a lovely breeze and we could hear the waves and the rustling of wind through the palms. We had views of a starry sky and the dark empty swimming pool. Carlsberg and Jameson stood vigil nearby. My beef arrived and it was remarkably good. My companions enjoyed their fish and chicken. This weird, mostly abandoned place had turned out some nice meals and service. I called my daughter, who was staying over with friends. She was none too happy with me for having left her while I went on this adventure. She told me she wished she were there and to describe the hotel. I had to tell her, laughing, that she was not missing anything. She thought Carlsberg and Jameson were cute though and that all things considered she would rather have been able to come with me.

The beach at the Hotel Bel Air in late afternoon

Retiring to my room I was happy to see the electricity was on and the air conditioning working well. The mosquito net hung limply from the ceiling with no frame, so I just wrapped it around me. Though the air conditioning unit was somewhat noisy it was more a white noise and I could still hear the waves outside. I fell asleep.

I could not believe how well I slept. I am not a great sleeper, often prone to insomnia, and the tour in Guinea had thus far been more stressful than not. Imagine my surprise when one of my best nights of slumber would be at this hollowed out hotel.

I opened the balcony doors and stepped out. The droning of the overworked air conditioner that had left a puddle over most of the balcony, could not drown out the sounds of the sea and the dozens of swifts conducting aerial tricks over the beach. I love the view from my sky-high apartment in Conakry, but I missed the sounds of birds that I could hear every morning from my screened in porch in Malawi. Bel Air was the first time I had heard this many birds in Guinea. I did not rush down to breakfast. I wanted to drink in the dulcet sounds, store them, so I could recall them and feel calm later, when back in the chaos of Conakry.

The view from my balcony – of swifts, beach, and sea

We had a full day ahead of us. A visit to the national police academy in Boffa and then the long drive back to Conakry. The visit went very well and though long the drive was doable with such great companions. We laughed how no matter what in the future we would remember this trip together, we will always have the Hotel Bel Air. As much as C had wanted to join me, I knew this was not a trip I would have liked to do with her. I am grateful though I had this opportunity to see at least a small part of Guinea outside the capital.

Roume Island Adventure

The Los Islands just off of Conakry & the pirogue that whisked us away on an adventure

For Thanksgiving, another Embassy family (the D’s) invited C and I to join them for an overnight stay on the Ile de Roume or Roume Island. As a family of two that spends a lot of time overseas, we are not particularly traditional when it comes to the holiday and we had no other plans, so we welcomed the chance to spend time with friends while getting out of the city.

Roume Island (sometimes spelled Room) is the smallest of the three main islands of the Iles de Los archipelago, located just a few kilometers from Guinea’s capital. Conakry was initially established on the island of Tombo, one of the Ile de Los that is now connected to the Kaloum peninsula by a causeway. There is some interesting history to the islands. Their names are derived from early Portuguese navigators who called them Ilhas des Idolos (Islands of the Idols). The British controlled the islands from 1818 to 1904, when they were ceded to the French.

Roume Island dead ahead

On Thursday morning, we followed the D family’s car to Le Petit Bateau marina in Kaloum. We were to take a boat to Roume at 10 AM, but we were clearly already on island time or Guinea time or perhaps Guinea Island Time, as we did not begin the 45 minute boat ride until 11:30. We landed on Roume at a quarter past noon, jumping into the calf high water to wade on to the shore and then walking five minutes across the narrowest part of the island to the Hotel Le Sogue.

Here we had basic bungalows perched on the hillside. C and I shared a room with both a single and double bed, though only the larger of the two had a mosquito net above it. We had a well-water fed shower where we could get a good trickle going, after they turned on the pump. Once the hotel managers turned on the electricity, we were able to use it for a single bulb in the bathroom, a small bedside lamp, an outlet to charge my phone, and an electric fan. The room reminded me of my backpacking days. Simple, but more than sufficient for one night at the beach.

Knowing it might take awhile to get lunch, we ordered just after our arrival. The menu, presented on a chalkboard, had 7 or 8 choices, but all but one included seafood, which C and I do not eat. No surprise of course given our location! Lucky for us they also had chicken. While waiting, the kids changed into their suits and went to play on the beach and in the surf. I went to sit on my balcony where I could read and listen to the waves. My fellow parents divided themselves between the beach and the restaurant veranda.

A view of our bungalows at the Hotel Le Sogue

I do not want to oversell the Hotel Le Sogue, its beach, or Roume Island. I have stayed at nicer places on nicer islands, including in Africa, such as the Blue Zebra or Mumbo Island in Malawi. Unfortunately, there was a fair amount of trash on the side of the island where we landed, both on the land and in the water, though the beach in front of the Hotel Le Sogue was clearly taken care of well. Yet as I sat on my porch looking out at beautiful palms and the wide expanse of sand and listened to the rhythmic rolling of the waves and the sounds of our kids laughing, I felt quite content.

We did not get lunch until 2:30 PM. No worries as by that time we were on island time too. We dined on our fish or chicken with chips and salad on tables in a sandy clearing surrounded by palms.

After lunch the kids and one parent headed back to the waves. I was pretty impressed that my very fair skinned daughter stayed out as long as she did in the water. I was even more impressed that we applied sunscreen in sufficient quantities that she did not get a sunburn.

I did not get in the water, choosing instead to spend some more time on my balcony reading or just walking along the beach. Truth be told, I am not exactly sure what kept be occupied from the time after lunch until dinner. There was no phone service or internet on the Le Sogue side of the island, so we were not connected. That though was the beauty. There is not a load of things to do in Conakry, but it is loud, crowded, chaotic. There is little to do on Ile de Roume, but it was an entirely different kind of little to do.

C jumps for joy on Ile de Roume

In the evening, after dark, we had our dinner together in the open-air restaurant. Easy conversation and laughs among friends. Unfortunately, the lights attracted insects, in particular, blister beetles. I have since read that the blister beetle is common in North America, but I had never heard of them until arriving in Guinea. Just a few weeks ago our Health Unit warned employees that the blister beetle season was upon us. Blister beetles secret a burning chemical when threatened or squeezed so we were warned to make sure not to indiscriminately slap at an insect but to brush it off, just in case it might be a blister beetle.

After a whole host of blister beetles made their appearance, we started to lose interest in remaining in the dining room. When one landed on my daughter’s hair, she screamed and cried, and that was it — time to retire to the rooms even though it was only a little after eight in the evening. I read some by the weak, flickering light in the room, then C and I went to sleep, sharing the one double bed so we could both cocoon ourselves in the mosquito net that hung limply from the ceiling (there was no mosquito net frame). However, I had trouble falling asleep as I kept imagining blister beetles crawling on me, sensing a sting. (Fun fact: I have since learned that the blisters and skin rash from a blister beetle’s secretion takes 24 to 48 hours to form. Guess what? We did get blister beetled! Ouch!)

Roume Village Life: A painter puts the finishing touches on a mural; a village boy shows off his coup leader cum president t-shirt; get your goods at the Obama Shop Room

The next day, after a lazy morning drinking in the mesmerizing rocking of the waves and chowing down on a breakfast of omelets and fresh fruit, myself, C, AD and her son AD2 opted to take a guided hike through the village and up one of the island’s hills for a view of the neighboring Tamara Island. We were well prepared for two days on a beach with our shorts and flip flops, but ill-prepared for any sort of hiking beyond a stroll. And by “we” I mean mostly me. I mean, we were all dressed more or less the same, but it was I who struggled the most.

We started with a short three minute walk to the other side of the island where the boat had landed, then we skirted past the other hotel, then along a rocky, but easy, trail to the village. For a small island a little more than 4 square miles, the village appeared remarkably well appointed with a good number of houses, shops, a school, a community center, and plenty of goats and chickens.

The view of Roume Island from the top of the hill.

Through the village we went and on the other side we tramped through a makeshift trash heap in a clearing and then began to ascend the hill. We followed a slight trail through the underbrush under palm trees. Already quite warm, the sweat began pouring down my face, trickling down my arms and legs. It did not take long for my t-shirt to become soaked through and my flip flops slick. As we passed the tree line and started up on boulders, I fell further and further behind. Although my flip flops had a good grip on the bottom, my feet were so slick with sweat that I could barely keep them on, especially when trying to climb on rocks. One of our guides, a young 20-something with a stutter, stayed with me the whole time, offering his hand to pull me up rock after rock and eventually offering me his flip flops, which were too large but less slippery.

At last we reached the top. I had honestly started to think I might not make it and it was very humbling. In all it had only taken 30 minutes, but it had felt longer. We spent some time enjoying the view and then began our climb down. I gave up on shoes entirely, having a much better purchase on the rocks in my bare feet, until we reached the grassland. We were all happy to arrive back at the Le Sogue hotel at noon, to either wash ourselves in water from a bucket filled the night before or jump into the sea.

By noon, our lunch should have been ready or nearing ready as we had ordered after breakfast because it had taken so long the day before. However, we were told around 1 PM that lunch was not being prepared as the boat bringing the supplies from the mainland had broken down. All they had were french fries, so that is what everyone had. Though originally the hotel scheduled our return boat at 4 PM, we asked to leave an hour earlier given that without lunch we would want to get back to Conakry sooner.

Though we were ready at 3 PM, the hotel staff only began to take our belongings to the boat at 3:30 and there we sat for on the small beach for an hour as first two men bailed out water from the boat and then until our last mystery guest arrived. We started our journey at 4:30 PM.

About 30 minutes into our journey, when we were halfway between Kassa Island and Conakry, the motor stopped. Initially, I thought it might be a joke, like the boat guys were having a bit of fun with us given the boat with our food from the mainland had also broken down. They were not. The motor had died. It seemed they had used the same boat and motor as the one that had stalled earlier in the day. We made the usual jokes about swimming to shore or flagging down a passing fisherman. It was very amusing at first. After 20 minutes it was a little less so as it was now after 5 PM and the sun was beginning its descent. The boat guys assured us they had called for assistance, that someone was on their way, but it was unclear when that person, if someone had even been called, would arrive.

The boat guys try to restart the motor as the sun sets.

My friend messaged the Embassy’s security officer just to let him know that we were adrift in Sangareya Bay. Not that he could do anything, but it felt good letting someone know. At least we had cell and data service so I could tell all my friends and family hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away that I was stranded on a boat in West Africa. The boat guys dropped anchor to keep us from floating further away and they kept trying to rope start the motor. It would sometimes start, almost catch, and then die away. After forty minutes (with no rescue boat in sight) the finally caught and we pulled up anchor and headed toward shore. We let the security officer we were on our way again.

We made it a few more minutes, just inside the harbor, when we broke down again. It took only 10 minutes to get it started again this time and it was at this point the rescue speed boat zipped up. As we were moving, the rescue boat just circled around us and left. Seriously, it left! If I were the driver of the rescue boat I might have hung around, followed the boat with the problematic motor until they got back to port. I guess that is not how things roll in Guinea. No surprise then when we broke down again.

Luckily our rescue boat was not too far away. We figured we would need to transfer to the smaller boat and he would zip us back, probably in two shifts. But no, instead he towed us. Somehow it worked and we made it back before sunset. We were all still in pretty good spirits, but I think that would have changed had we still been out on the water after dark. Our kids were gifted with a great story to wow their classmates with for years to come.

This should have been the end of the story. I wish it were. But we still had to drive home. I had never driven in the city after dark. Driving in Conakry is challenging even on days with little traffic and in bright daylight. Most roads have no lane markings. Most have potholes. More present conditions more like off roading, more dirt and mud than asphalt. Most motorcyclists, of which there are many, obey no laws.

Just after we got off the boat they were, improbably (at least to me), loading it with supplies and taking on more passengers.

Our planned route out from the port area was blocked. Apparently, after 6 PM the normally two way road becomes one way, and not the way we wanted to go. We were stopped for more than 10 minutes unable to move or turn around with a steady stream of semis driving towards us, inching past us. At last someone did a little traffic directing and we were able to turn around and try again as we bumped down several side streets until we reached the N1. Traffic was bumper to bumper and aggressive, as usual, and in the melee I lost track of our friends.

I though at first to follow the N1 down to the roundabout near the airport and then the T2 which would take us directly back to our apartment. Except the government is doing a massive construction project at the Bambeto traffic circle right by our apartment and I was not sure of the way anymore. I turned off the N1 and the GPS led me along dark, narrow, bumpy side streets. Had it been daylight I could have been in a Toyota RAV4 or Goodyear tire commercial demonstrating my all-terrain driving prowess. Motorcycles circled us like sharks, dodging and weaving in all directions.

At last we made it to Rue de Prince. I was not sure my next move as it also led to Bambeto Circle or what was left of it. I followed some rogue cars to the circle, an active construction site, and slowly squeezed my way down a makeshift path between the construction pit and shops while surrounded by motorcycles. It is absolutely amazing we were not hit by any of them. But to get back to my apartment I had to take a newly built detour road and as I turned to enter the one way road, a cement mixer roared out, going the wrong way, and stopped just inches from my car. Its grill was all I could see out of my windshield, it was that close. And I lost it. I leaned on my horn for what seemed like a minute yelling “Aaaaarrrrrrrreeeeeetttttt!!” Why French came to me at this moment when so often I am at a loss for French vocabulary, I do not know, but it seemed appropriate. The truck stopped. I was able to inch around it and then made the last short drive home inching along with more traffic. By this point my daughter is sobbing and I am cursing. It took us two hours to drive home a distance of 13 kilometers (8 miles).

Guinea sure knows how to deliver. I am well on my way to a gold medal in the Guinea Experiences Games. Get doused with blister beetle acid? Check. Get stranded on a boat off shore? Check. Narrowly miss getting pulverized by a truck driving the wrong way? Check. I never know what Guinea has in store for us next.

A Big Birthday in Lisbon: Part Two

At Cabo de Roca, the end of Europe

This is the second of two posts about my birthday trip from Guinea to Portugal.

Thankfully, the day after my action-packed, wee bit frustrating birthday my daughter recovered from her stomach bug. We were leaving beach town Cascais for the heart of Lisbon. Before doing so, we caught another Uber (the message here is that Uber is very, very convenient in and around Lisbon) to Cabo de Roca, the windswept rocky coast that is the westernmost point of the European continent. A few years ago, C and I had visited the southern most point-ish place in Africa (because many brochures say the Cape of Good Hope is it, when its actually Cape Agulhas; we were close), so it seemed fitting. I was not quite prepared for the height of the cliffs and the cold air sweeping off the Atlantic, but the glimpses we were afforded when the clouds shifted were breathtaking.

We headed back to our hotel then to grab our luggage and then went straight to our central Lisbon hotel. I did not have big plans as I thought we should keep things more low key after all the sights from the day before. We simply walked from our hotel near the Edward VII Park to Commerce Square, about 30 minutes direct. But we meandered and took photos, passing Restauradores Square and Rossio Square, along the pedestrian shopping street through the Augusta Street archway, crossing Commerce Square, and ending at the Cais de Colonas, the stone pillars that mark a historic pier where arrivals on the Tagus River would alight in old Lisbon (Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Lisbon this way in 1957).

Fountain and theater on Rossio Square

We headed back to our hotel then to grab our luggage and then went straight to our central Lisbon hotel. I did not have big plans as I thought we should keep things more low key after all the sights from the day before. We simply walked from our hotel near the Edward VII Park to Commerce Square, about 30 minutes direct. But we meandered and took photos, passing Restauradores Square and Rossio Square, along the pedestrian shopping street through the Augusta Street archway, crossing Commerce Square, and ending at the Cais de Colonas, the stone pillars that mark a historic pier where arrivals on the Tagus River would alight in old Lisbon (Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Lisbon this way in 1957). We purchased a 48-hour Lisbon card at the Tourist Information center on Commerce Square and then retraced our steps back to the hotel for an early evening in.

Belem Tower

The next day we were to be up bright and early so we could use our Lisbon Card for free transportation to and included entry to the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Belem. Although both sites do not open until 10 AM, as many sites in Lisbon have a later start than most Americans are used to, I still was unsuccessful in my plan. We just got started a bit late, then got on the bus going in the wrong direction, and the bus took longer to wind its way to Belem. By the time we arrived it was 10:30 AM and there was already a significant line outside the Jeronimos Monastery. The Lisbon Card advertised a “fast track” entrance to the monastery but the two guys manning the ticket purchase area had themselves a hearty laugh at my expense when I asked about it. Thinking back to that line at Pena Palace, I just could not bring myself to join the queue.

Monument to the Discoveries

I made the executive decision to skip it for the day and instead head over to Belem Tower. I figured that there might be a similar line there as well, and then I would have to do some hard thinking about what we were going to do that day. Imagine my surprise when we approached the iconic 16th century fortification, that there was no line at all. None. I began to wonder if it were closed given it was a public holiday (Republic Day). But it was open. I could not believe out luck. Unfortunately, it didn’t exactly last as the stairwell to the tower’s top terrace, hailed online as the crown of any visit, was closed for no discernible reason. I found no explanation at the site itself or online. Still, it was another beautiful day and we were visiting one of Portugal’s most recognizable historic buildings.

As it was close by, we then walked over to the Monument to the Discoveries, a massive sculpture commemorating the Portuguese Age of Discovery with figures of Henry the Navigator and Vasca de Gama and 32 other Portuguese explorers along the river where many of their vessels set out on their journeys.

The Madre de Deus Convent at the National Tile Museum

We hopped on the 15E tram to head back down to Commerce Square where we did the 20-minute Virtual Reality experience at the Lisbon Story Center. With that it feels like you are flying over the key locations of Lisbon, Sintra, and Cascais, which was pretty fun since we had just visited nearly all of those sites recently. We got lunch and then rounded out our day with a visit to the National Tile Museum. The glazed ceramic tiles, or azulejos, can be found all over Portugal, in and on public buildings and private homes. The National Tile Museum incorporates the 16th century Madre de Deus Convent. It’s church is an extravagant display of carved exotic wood, golden framed paintings, and exquisite tile work. It is overwhelming and stunning. When we lucky the chapel was open during our visit.

The following day we headed first to the monastery. This time leaving earlier, on the correct bus, and arriving thirty minutes before the 10 AM opening. It was a completely different scene — we were one of the first in line and though there were a good number of people milling around, there was not the two long lines to get into the monastery’s cloister and the adjacent Church of Santa Maria. Instead of two guys laughing at my asking about the Lisbon Card’s “fast” line, we were actually let in to the cloisters at 9:45. I do not know if this happens regularly or not, but it wonderful to be some of the first people inside for the day.

The cloisters of the Jeronimos Monastery

The cloisters are breathtaking. There is zero doubt as to why UNESCO declared the monastery and the Tower of Belem as world heritage sites. The stone craftsmanship, the attention to detail, the architecture… I have run out of superlatives for this post. We saw so many beautiful sites on our trip but the cloisters were hands down my favorite. We also visited the Church of Santa Maria, which includes the tomb of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

We once again headed back to Commerce Square, stopping briefly to check out the Pasteis de Belem, which has been making Lisbon’s famous pastel de nata, an egg custard tart, since 1837. I had planned for us to give this Portuguese dessert delicacy a try there at the shop, but the lines out the door and down the block had made me change my mind. The tart was ubiquitous in and around Lisbon. Each of our hotels had them out for breakfast. Many restaurants had them on the menu. Pastry shops around town sold them. So we did have one and it was flaky and creamy and so, so good. But it was probably not the original, and that’s okay.

Back at Commerce Square we went into the Lisbon Story Center, an interactive museum where visitors follow a set route through the museum with a headset that told the history of the city. Though some displays were a little campy, overall it was really well done.

Some views from our walks including the Santa Justa Lift (center)

Then we walked. And walked. And walked. Lisbon is a city built on hills and walking can be challenging but also rewarding with something beautiful on every block. We walked a lot during our trip in Portugal and it felt wonderful. I have always loved walking and it really hits me how much so when we are at a Post where we are unable to walk much. Conakry is one of those places. With few to no sidewalks, few shoulders and often deep ditches next to the road, and high vehicle traffic that will take as much road space as possible, we do not walk. I am grateful my 10-year old is usually up for walking during our holidays as I am.

Because of the hills, Lisbon has also built quite a few public transportation options to include the metro, trams (or trolleys), tram-like funiculars, and even one elevator – the Santa Justa Lift, inaugurated in 1901. With a strong desire to get around on our own two feet we did not use much of the transport — the bus and trolley a few times, and the lift, which is also a tourist attraction.

I had debated about taking a day trip from Lisbon to Obidos or Evora, both of which I had visited 20 years before and unlike Lisbon I actually remember some of. However, every time I looked at the train or tour options, I did not feel strongly about going. Honestly, the move and settling phase of Guinea has been challenging and tiring and I did not want my vacation to be more of the same. There was plenty to keep us happy and occupied right in Lisbon.

With that in mind I booked us a two hour tuk-tuk tour of the city’s street art. We had already seen (or planned to still see) most of the historic sights on foot or by Uber, so I wanted to do something a little different. And after we had seen the comic art murals of Brussels, I loved the idea of seeing something similar in Lisbon.

Some of my favorite Lisbon murals

It was a great tour on yet another beautiful, warm day. We saw mostly painted murals but there were also tiles, stenciled art, and stylized graffiti. The tour included getting us to some neighborhoods and viewpoints that we would not have likely gotten to on foot. I also loved that our guide was a former investment banker who after some 25 years of the grind retired and now motors tourists around in eco-friendly tuk-tuks. If it were not for Lisbon’s narrow streets and tricky parking situations, I might have put in an application.

After some lunch we then headed up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a mid-11th century Moorish fortification that overlooks Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods. In the park, that affords gorgeous views toward the sea, peacocks roam. C and I were flagging some. We were gung-ho about walking, but we had done quite a lot and we might have also been getting a wee bit tired of castles (it is possible!). But we enjoyed the visit and the ice cream that helped give us strength to walk back down the hill and back to our hotel.

Our final day in Lisbon, we visited yet one more palace, the 18th century Queluz National Palace, which took us briefly back into the Sintra district. C and I had been looking online at the top castles and palaces in the world and one listed Queluz. It did not seem wrong to miss out it when it was so close. To my untrained eye it seemed similarly decorated as the Pena Palace but with larger rooms, less furnishings, and far fewer tourists. The highlights for me were the extraordinarily tiled canal, the Don Quixote room where a former Portuguese king had both been born and died, and the fountain of Neptune.

Queluz Palace

There was no use denying though that we had exceeded our palace viewing threshold. In fact, as incredulous at it seemed, I was beginning to miss our Conakry apartment, our cats, the joy of a quiet weekend with no pressure to get out and sightsee.

We made one last stop at the 18th century Aqueducto des Aguas Livres, part of the Museum of Water that showcases the fascinating efforts to bring drinking water to the city. We walked along the top of the aqueduct about a kilometer out and back and then once again walked back to our hotel with a stop for lunch.

C enjoyed seeing another part of Europe and declared that she liked Lisbon even more than Brussels. She even said that perhaps she would like to retire there. Though at 10, it might be a wee bit premature for her to be contemplating retirement. I am so glad I chose to spend my special birthday in and around Lisbon. As a backpacker 20 years ago I had not given nearly enough time to the city, and I feel this trip rectified that mistake.

A Big Birthday in Lisbon: Part One

It isn’t every day one turns a certain venerable age. Months before arriving in Conakry, I thought I could maybe make do with a three-day weekend but I was not sure there would be a place in Guinea that could really fit the bill. When I saw my daughter’s school schedule for the year included two holidays that same week, meaning she would miss only three days of school, I knew I wanted to take a week off. I initially zeroed in on Senegal, as one of my goals was to visit a new country. But after our trip to Belgium in August I realized that travel from Guinea is tricker than from other places I have lived and I wanted a bit more of Europe to celebrate such an important milestone. Lisbon is the easiest from Conakry, a direct, four and a half hour flight. Though I had been to Portugal before, it was twenty years ago, and I hardly remember the Lisbon part at all.

It may be a short, direct flight, but the schedule, like most flights from Guinea, kind of sucks. The TAP Portugal flight takes off from Ahmed Sekou Toure International Airport at 11:45 PM and lands at Lisbon’s Herberto Delgado Airport at 5:15 AM. That does not give one a whole lot of time to sleep and be able to do much of anything the next day. With that in mind, I reserved us a hotel quite close to the airport. After we touched down on time, went through immigration, and found ourselves in arrivals, it was 7 AM. But the sun was not yet up. We grabbed some breakfast, took a little break, and then we decided to walk to the hotel. By the time we arrived it was 7:30 AM and they were nice enough to check us in. We took a long nap and by noon we could head out.

An unbelievably gorgeous day in Lisbon

My daughter and I jumped into an Uber to head down to the Parque das Nações for a quick lunch. We then visited the Oceanarium, Lisbon’s top-notch aquarium. I love aquariums; I have visited some thirty of them worldwide. We had a great visit except that one of its stars, Stella the Sunfish, had passed away just a few weeks before. And my daughter’s second favorite fish (yes, she has favorite fish) is the sunfish. (Her first is the pufferfish) Afterwards, we rode the cable car for a fantastic view. The weather was absolutely perfect. Then we had an early, low-key evening with Uber Eats back in our hotel. Delivery is few and far between in Conakry (at least to my knowledge) so something so simple can be a treat.

The following morning we took another Uber out to our hotel in Cascais, the once fishing village turned royal retreat and reportedly playground of the rich and beautiful. Someone told me that it was like the Portuguese Hamptons. I did not know this when I made the reservation. I also did not know when I booked my hotel, the Grande Real Villa Italia, that it had once been the home of Humberto II, the last king of Italy. I just wanted to be somewhere lovely by the water.

The chapel and initiation well at Quinta de Regaleira

The Grand Real Villa Italia Hotel (quite a name, don’t you think?) could not accommodate an early check-in, so we placed our luggage with the concierge and then took another Uber to the Quinta de Regaleira in Sintra. I had only just read about this destination the day before; it had, for some reason, not been on my radar. However, I am very glad we were able to visit this gorgeous estate. There is a 19th century Manueline villa (late Gothic) where guests can see some of the rooms, but the highlight of the visit are the extensive extraordinary gardens full of surprises like towers and grottoes, benches, underground passageways, and water features. The most popular is the Initiation Well, a 27-meter deep spiral passageway to subterranean tunnels that immediately reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Like many pre-teens C had zero interest in the well when I explained it to her. I thought she might find it cool that there are few, if any, other places in the world where one can descend into a well. My enthusiastic description immediately had the opposite effect on C who declared she would not go down in the well. Until we got that there, that is. Funnily enough, once she saw it she suddenly became keen to give it a try. After our visit to the Quinta, we walked down to the historic center of Sintra town for a late lunch and then an Uber back to the hotel.

That evening we had the pleasure of visiting my friend SMK, who had been a coordinator for my entry level class for the Foreign Service 11 years before. SMK is currently at the Embassy in Lisbon and invited us for a casual dinner with her family. She surprised me with a cake, ice cream, and a card. It seemed so apropos the Foreign Service to meet after 11 years, multiple countries, and several children in a coastal Portuguese town on my birthday.

C leaps for joy in front of the Sintra National Palace with the Castle of the Moors overlooking the historic town

On our second day in Cascais, my birthday, I wanted us up and out early so we could arrive at the famous Pena Palace ahead of the crowds. Though in Portugal one never needs to get up too early to visit the sites as many of them open on the later side; Pena Palace opens at 9:30 AM. We arrived at the ticket area for Pena Palace later than I would have liked, at 10 AM, but I had thought things would not be so bad on a random Monday in October. I had thought very, very wrong.

After purchasing our tickets, that included a timed entry to the palace interior at 11 AM, we walked up the steep hill. According to the information provided, it would take as much as 30 minutes to walk from the ticket area to the palace entrance, so I figured we would have a little time to walk around the park, also included in our entry. Wrong again. It actually only took us 15 minutes to get to the palace, but when we did so, we then saw a really long line outside. What could that be for given the timed entries? I found out it was the line for the 10:30 entry and up ahead some 50 people were already in line for the 11 AM entry. There was nearly 45 minutes to go, but we got in line. And we waited. And waited. The 10:30 AM entry did not begin to move until 11; we did not begin to move until 11:30. The only positive part to waiting was the woman behind us had purchased the famous travesseiros pastry from Sintra’s popular bakery Piriquita, which has been making the puff pastry dusted with powdered sugar since the 1940s.

Tourists crawling all over the stunning Pena Palace; the ruins of the Castle of the Moors (not pictured: stony faced preteen and her sweaty, exasperated mother)

Those pastries and our one bottle of water between us could only get us so far though. Even after we were finally let through the castle gates, we only ended up in yet another line to get into the palace itself. That line moved only inches per minute. It took us nearly another hour. It is hard to say because it seemed time had stood still. At least we had. Once again I made the mistake of thinking THAT would finally get us moving. But no, once inside we continued to shuffle slowly room to room. It was maddening. While online I see it is recommended to take no less than 40 minutes for the palace, we did probably take that long but not because we were admiring the rooms, reading descriptions, soaking up the atmosphere. We took longer because we could not move. I, who normally love history and palace tours (you may recall I have willingly taken tours in languages I do not speak just to get into a palace), but I grew irritated. Imagine dragging along a 10 year old? Once we finally broke out from the glacial pace of the palace on to the terrace, I very much regretted getting in that line at all and I wanted to run from person to person still waiting to tell them to save themselves and not bother, especially when I saw families with small children.

We were a bit hungry but could not stand the sight of the line at the palace restaurant. I had bought a combined ticket to see the palace and grounds, but also a ticket to the nearby Castle of the Moors. What I had thought would be maybe a two hour visit to the palace and grounds had turned into a 3 hour palace crawl (except that sounds fun, and it wasn’t fun). I was hot and thirsty and annoyed. It was my birthday. The palace is beautiful but the experience was not. I had not wanted to miss out on the surrounding park but I wanted to get away.

View of the Grande Real Villa Italia Hotel

We grabbed some water and chugged it down and then bought some more for our walk over to the ruins of the Castle of the Moors, or what C dubbed “The Great Wall of Portugal.” Though there were a good many people there it was nothing like what we had seen at Pena. It was a relief to be in the open air and be able to move, unimpeded, at our own pace. The views down to Sintra town and across the valley, all the way to the coast and also over to Pena Palace on an adjacent hilltop, were amazing.

As we had already tasted Sintra’s most famous pastry, we opted to just Uber back to Cascais, stopping in the town for some lunch and then meandering our way through the historic area, the art district around the old fortress, and then back to our hotel.

Reinvorgated by lunch we decided to enjoy some time in the hotel pool. Though it was October, the temperatures had been in the lower 80s all day. This was our only hotel with a pool on the trip and we wanted to take advantage. The sun though had not warmed the pool which felt almost as cold as an ice bath. We slowly lowered ourselves in laughing at our faces as we braved the water then swam a few laps. We cut the swim short though because we could not get used to the chill.

Perhaps Cascais’ most famous view of the Santa Maria House Museum and Lighthouse

Unfortunately, soon after the pool C got sick. I do not know what was the cause, but the long wait in hot weather and then in the warm, confined rooms of the palace, with little water, then a late lunch and a dip in an icy pool certainly did not win me any Mom of the Year points. What it did get me was a birthday evening spent taking care of my sick girl. It wasn’t great, C was miserable, but honestly, I knew she would be okay and I welcomed a quiet evening in a nice place after an action-packed day. I was still glad to be in Portugal with my daughter on my birthday.

To Belgium and Beyond: Part Three

I awoke on my last full day without my kiddo in Vianden, Luxembourg. I took one final walk along the river and one last look at the castle on the hill, before I headed back into Belgium.

The casino at Spa

With that one last solo day I figured it was best to head to where the name had become synonymous the world over with relaxation: Spa, Belgium.

Spa is an old, old town with lots of historic firsts and a UNESCO World Heritage designation to boot. Discovered by and used for mineral bathing by the Romans, Spa reportedly truly became a stopping of point for its curative waters from the 14th century. The world’s first casino opened in Spa in 1763 and the world’s first recorded beauty pageant was held there in 1888, won by an 18-year old Creole woman from Guadeloupe. In 2021, UNESCO recognized Spa and 10 other European towns for their historic value as Great Spa Towns of Europe.

Part of the designation centered on the other industries that built up around European spa towns like hotels, casinos, and beauty contests. In Spa, a postal system was set up in 1699 that allowed those lucky enough to be able to afford to travel and “take the waters” could then send letters and postcards to friends and family boasting of such.

Spa — well known for its bottled water and for the leap frogging guy on the Spa water bottles

At the Museum of the City of Waters, I learned that collectible items made in Spa became all the rage for visiting tourists. Hand hewn and painted decorative boxes or colorful delicate painted glassware sporting the name of the spa town were what 18th and 19th century tourists loved to bring home after being enticed by colorful tourist brochures.

My joint ticket also gave me entry to the Museum of Laundry. I had honestly expected little from this place but was pleasantly surprised at the amount of information and fascinating displays. An oft-ignored by-product of tourists and hotels is a proliferation in items needing laundered, from clothes to bed sheets to towels, and the people, usually women, who washed those items. The museum gives a history of laundering and the advances in technology that made washing and drying at least easier on the laundress (from washing machines and detergent to dryers and irons) if not more interesting. I ended up spending more than an hour there.

The big thing I was in town to do though was of course to soak in the waters of the Thermes de Spa, the facility for bathing in Spa’s thermal waters built in 1868 on a hill overlooking the town. My hotel helped me to make a booking to arrive at the spa at 6 PM where I would then have three hours to enjoy until closing. Unfortunately, right after I made my reservation and went to put on my suit I realized I had not packed it. Luckily though the bathing house sells inexpensive suits to silly tourists who forget theirs. Had I still been a backpacker watching my money carefully, this might have been a real dilemma, but I came to take the waters and I would do so even if it meant forking over more money.

I stayed about an hour and a half enjoying the large heated indoor pool, the heated outdoor pool, the sauna, and the Hammam. Just enough time to give those waters time to do some wonders.

The Chateau Des Comtes D’Ursel and narrow streets of the medieval town

The following morning I had one last hour-long stroll around Spa before saying goodbye. I needed to be at the Euro Space Center by 3 PM for a camper presentation, so I thought I would break up the hour and a half drive with a stop in Durbuy, Belgium’s smallest incorporated town.

Durbuy was once a thriving medieval village on the Ourthe River at the crossroads of commerce. Today it is a very small, very walkable historic town chock full of character. It is dominated by the Chateau Des Comtes D’Ursel (unfortunately closed to the public), which stands alongside the river and bridge. Though the current castle is 18th century design, records indicate a castle stood there since at least the 11th century. The little warren of cobblestone streets adjacent to the castle are full of restaurants, bars, stores, and homes of stone and timber. I was kicking myself for not having more time here. Durbuy warranted an overnight stay so I had the time to slowly explore, especially after most of the tourists departed. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the time. I had lunch and then headed to pick up C from space camp.

Fun in central Brussels

After five nights apart, I felt absolutely giddy to arrive at the Euro Space Center auditorium to see my daughter at the presentation of graduation certificates. She was sitting front row right next to the doors as I came in, huddled together with the other American girl with whom she shared a dorm. C did not want to leave. I had wondered how she might handle five nights away at an unfamiliar place; five nights is the longest we have ever been apart but previously she was at her dad’s or my sister’s. I need not have worried; she told me she could have done another week.

We drove back to Brussels, returning the car at the airport and then taking the train to our city center hotel. C did not understand why I gave up the car, but, as I tried to explain, we had no use for it in the capital. I had very much enjoyed the freedom the car had given me to drive from town to town, but there had also been challenges on narrow old town streets, with parking, and when the GPS failed as I drove from Vianden to Spa.

We had three additional days in Brussels before our return to Guinea. On our first day, we walked from our hotel near the Brussels North train station to the Royal Palace. Like the Grand Ducal Palace of Luxembourg, the Belgium Royal Palace is open to the public just once a year, six days a week for six weeks between mid July and September. Unlike the Grand Ducal Palace no guided tour is required and photographs are allowed. We did need to buy timed tickets but after arriving and going through security we were able to walk through at our own pace. That certainly worked better for C and I; I am pretty sure my daughter would not have enjoyed the German guided tour one bit.

After the palace visit we walked, meandering through Brussels Park, past the St. Michel and St. Gudula Cathedral, and back to the Great Square. We had lucked out to be in town and get tickets to see the Royal Palace but also it turned out that weekend was the festival for the Flower Carpet, held only the the three days on the weekend around Assumption Day, every other year. I do not know what the crowds are normally like, but I was surprised that as many people as there were on the Great Square, we could still easily walk get to the cordoned rope to have a view. We also easily bought tickets to the Brussels City Museum (which is very interesting in its own right!) with a balcony surcharge so that we could view the flower carpet from the third floor.

On our second to last day we visited the Magritte Museum, again putting in the steps on foot. I am a fan of surrealism and the museum was top notch. What surprised me though was how much C enjoyed it. I had paid to get audio tours and selected the one for teens for C but she wanted more information than that was giving her and she asked to take mine. I didn’t get it back. From the museum we walked a little ways to have Thai for lunch and then rode “The View” an observation wheel near the Palace of Justice. Our route back to our hotel took us past key comic murals around the center of town.

C finds a friend at the Comics Art Museum

Belgium has embraced comics as a so it was perhaps little surprise that we found more than a few stores catering to Japanese anime fans. My daughter C is one! This added to the high marks that C gave Brussels as the trifecta of waffles, fries, and anime was too much to ignore. We spent our last morning at the Comics Art Museum where we learned about the art of comics and animation. The most famous Belgian comics characters are probably the Smurfs and Tintin, that have a worldwide audience, but there is an incredibly rich culture of Belgian comics beyond these.

That afternoon we headed back to the area around the Magritte Museum and the Royal Palace to meet friends of ours from our Shanghai days. RG and BG are a Foreign Commercial Service family and their daughter OG had been in C’s preschool class in China. Though the girls only vaguely remembered each other when we first met for drinks, several hours later they were playing together as if no time had passed. It was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip — a reminder of the amazing connections we can make in this lifestyle despite our nomadic lives.

As we headed back to Guinea the following day, it was with a renewed sense of excitement for our new post. The first six weeks had been a rather challenging whirlwind and I am not going to lie that it was more than a little hard to leave behind the order and conveniences of Europe, but when our plane touched down in Conakry that evening I felt glad to be there. We were home.

To Belgium and Beyond: Part Two

I sat in the Euro Space Center parking lot for a few beats after dropping C off at space camp. It reminded me of when I took her to her first drop-off-and-depart birthday party. At first I did not know what to do with myself. This time, however, that period of confusion lasted much less time. I did know what I was doing. I set my GPS directions, pulled out of the parking lot, and headed to Luxembourg City. I was on a mission.

View of old Luxembourg from the Pont du Grund

In 1998, when I was living in the western part of Japan, I took a vacation to visit my aunt and uncle in Frankfurt, Germany. We decided to take a multi-day driving trip to Luxembourg City along the Moselle River. My uncle was behind the wheel as we meandered along with the river, through small riverside towns. We stopped frequently for castles and wineries (for my aunt and uncle, not me) and other beautiful vistas. We made a lot of private family jokes along the way that my aunt and I still rehash again and again. Like when we left the fried camembert from lunch in the car overnight outside the B&B and the car stunk to high heaven the next day. Or when we visited Trier and my uncle and I lay in wait from my aunt as she came out of McDonald’s so we could cluck our disapproval. You really had to be there. On the third day we drove into Luxembourg. I had long been awaiting this, to walk the 1000 year old streets of the old town. But what did we do? We had dinner, went to bed, and the next day we went to the Villeroy and Boch Outlet Factory to get some replacement porcelain pieces for my aunt’s dinnerware set. Then drove back to Frankfurt. That never sat well with me (though my aunt and I laugh about it), so here I was, 24 years later, to right that wrong.

Luxembourg graffiti

I was a bit nervous as I approached the capital. I had been okay driving out of the Brussels airport and on to highways and to small towns, but here I was about to enter a major European City. On Google Maps it seems simple and straightforward enough, but I could see the one way streets here and there and anticipated there could be a problem. There was. Google Maps kept directing me down a pedestrian street. I drove past it the first time, but on my second go turned in thinking, maybe it isn’t actually pedestrian only? Except it ended in a sidewalk café. My three point turn in front of diners felt more like a ten point turn in slow motion with everyone staring at me. I pulled over in front of a shop shuttered for the evening, as if I were just there to conduct some business that I had every right to be parked on a pedestrian street in Luxembourg to do, so that I could call the hotel. As I drove around, the friendly hotel receptionist Yves gave me directions. I was still required to drive up that pedestrian-only street, just from the opposite direction, and then park briefly in front of the hotel for check-in. After check-in Yves told me, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, “And now we will park, which is an adventure in and of itself.”

The lovely Hotel Beaux Parc Arts – I briefly parked right there, on the pedestrian street, in front of those chairs, so I could check-in

He was not kidding. I got back in my car and made another 3-5 point turn on the pedestrian street, trying to avoid the low pillars blocking the area in front of the adjacent museum, the couple on the park bench, and people just strolling by, and then followed Yves, who was on foot, about 50 meters away. There he put in the code on a key pad on the side of a building and he motioned me to drive into an elevator. Yes, an elevator for cars. One floor down I drove out and met Yves who directed me to park the car into a grooved walkway on a circular panel in the floor. I did so and then exited the vehicle. “You have the parking brake on, right?” Yves asked. “I think so,” I answered, “It’s a rental and rather a new model, so I think that is what this symbol means.” “Ah, yes,” Yves replied, “these new cars make the parking automatic. We need the brake on or it will be catastrophic.” And with that ominous prediction, he had me fold in the side mirrors, and leave the car. Yves then pushed some more codes into another wall panel. Glass doors sealed around the circle and then the car spun around, lifted up slowly, and then the floor dropped out and the car disappeared. Underground apparently it is sorted into small car slots by a robot. I imagine its a bit the vinyl Matchbox car container I had as a kid, just on a really grand scale. And there my rental sat for three days, nice and safe. I had dropped C off only two hours before and I had already had these adventures in driving and parking!

I stayed at the beautiful Hotel Parc Beaux Arts, located smack dab in the middle of the old city, not even 600 feet from the gates of the Grand Ducal Palace. The building dates back to the 15th century and some parts of the stone work are original. I lucked out with the only room to have a loft, with the king bed located on a partial second floor. I loved it.

In Luxembourg, even the statues are having a good time

After getting settled in, I set out to explore the city on foot. Here I was walking in the UNESCO World Heritage town, parts of which are more than 1000 years old. I meandered past the Grand Ducal Palace and over to the Place d’Armes. I decided to find a place for dinner and headed over to a Mexican place I found online. Unfortunately, it was Sunday, and already closing in on 9 PM, so the kitchen was closed. I had forgotten how late the sun goes down during a northern European summer. I Googled “best burger in Luxembourg” and found another place just about five minutes walk away. I had a nice, very late dinner, there, at a little table on the sidewalk, having the best burger in town, reveling in the fact that I was on my own in Europe for the first time in a very, very long time.

The next day, I went to the tourist information center to find out about tours of the palace and the casements. The casements, a network of subterranean tunnels built into the promontory rock of the old town, are one of the main tourist activities in the city. Unfortunately for me, the Bock Casements were closed for renovations and tours of the Petrusse casements were sold out until a week after I would depart. The Grand Ducal Palace, the official residence of the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, is only open for tours one month each year, excluding weekends. All the English tours were sold out. I thought, maybe I can muddle through with French? But no, I did not even get a chance to try as those tours too were sold out. There were only a few slots available in German. I had to take it or not get to go.

View of the Bock Casements (denied to me!) from the Alzette River in the lower town

With my tour set up, I decided to just sightsee on my own. I signed up for a little tourist train to give me an overview of the historic town. The train was a little silly, I did not get too much from the commentary, but it did take me from the upper town to the lower, across the river, up the Rham Plateau, and back. The tourist train gave me the lay of the land and as soon as I returned to the start I then began exploring on foot. I walked and walked and walked. I absolutely love to walk and I miss taking long ones. My daughter is less keen. It was easy enough when she was still in a stroller; I walked a lot in Shanghai that way. But now she is older and she complains a lot. “Where are we going?” “How much longer?” “Are we there yet?” “Why do we have to walk?” I could walk just for walking sake in Luxembourg, without a real destination in mind, not knowing when I might stop and rest or turn back. It sure felt good.

At a quarter to 10 AM on my second full day, my last in Luxembourg City, I headed to the Place Guillaume II, the central square, to meet my tour group for the Grand Ducal Palace. My German tour. I speak a total of maybe 25 words of German, a combination of very basic greetings, numbers, foods, WWII war battle vocabulary, and cursing. Yet, the only way I was going to get a tour of the palace during this trip was to sign up for the German tour. I was not the only person with this idea as there was also a group of six Brazilians who appeared as clueless as I.

Funny faces groaning at spitting out water for eternity at the fountain outside Luxembourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral

This was not the first time I had signed up for a tour in a language I did not speak in order to get in to some place. I recalled when I signed up for a tour in Polish in Malbork castle or the two day French and German tour in Tunisia or the Serbian tour of the Royal Compound in Belgrade (I have yet to put this story onto the blog). At one point I asked another tourist if they spoke English and she clucked her tongue in disappointment as she noted, “Do you really speak no German? That is a pity. This is a really good tour and she is giving lots of information.”

Perhaps it was a pity. But my choices were a tour in German, a tour in Luxembourgish, or no tour at all. I figured German was my best bet. And I still had my eyes. I could drink in the ornate furnishings and decor, gawk at the luxurious though overstuffed rooms, and wonder at the Grand Duke’s family’s passion for very large chandeliers. No photographs were allowed so I had to pay extra attention.

After my tour I opted for a Thai lunch (as I was trying to eat all the foods while I was able), and then resumed my walking until I could not walk anymore style of touring. I headed to the Pfaffenthal Panoramic Elevator that would take me, for free, from the High City to the Pfaffenthal quarter in the valley below, then walked to the 17th century Vauban Towers, up to Fort Obergrunewald (also built by Vauban), then through the gates beneath the Bock Casements, across the Alzette River, to Neumunster Abbey, then beneath La Passerelle, a 19th century vaulted aqueduct bridge, along the Petrusse River, til I climbed back up the High City at the Petrusse casements and Gelle Fra War Memorial, crossed the Adolphe Bridge and back, on to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, then back to my hotel. The weather was perfect and the walk was glorious. I finished up with a sampling of chocolates from The Chocolate House, located by the gates of the Grand Ducal Palace.

The following day I checked out of the hotel and retrieved my rental car from the depths of the mechanical parking garage and headed out of the city.

The beauty of Echternach – the Orangerie, the town square, and Abbey’s Basilica of St. Willibrord

It was only a 30 minute drive northeast from the bustling center of old Luxembourg the oldest town in the country on the border with Germany. Echternach grew up around the Benedictine abbey founded in the year 698. The current abbey has been built and rebuilt many times over the centuries, though parts of the original remain and the tomb of the abbey’s founder, Saint Willibrord, is inside. The Orangerie, part of the Abbey’s gardens, was established in 1736. It is currently used as a school and not open to the public. It turned out I was there during the monthly Wednesday market, so the town’s historic square was full of modern-day merchants. Initially, I found myself somewhat annoyed — I had wanted to really see the square and the buildings surrounding it, and instead I saw food trucks and white tents. I thought though, that there had probably been markets on that square or nearby for near on 1000 years. So, I walked around the town and had lunch, basically waited the market out, so I could catch a glimpse of it less crowded before I left.

From Echternach I drove another 30 minutes north to the town of Vianden. I had wanted to drive entirely in Luxembourg but eventually gave in to the GPS and I ended up crossing the Saeur River into Germany for at least half the trip.

I pulled into Vianden around 2 o’clock in the afternoon and after working out the parking (which just doesn’t seem straightforward in any European town) and getting into my room, I headed out soon to see Vianden Castle.

Vianden’s castle stands high on a steep hillside overlooking the Our River and the town. Once considered by UNESCO for inscription (but for some reason denied in 2013 – though the UNESCO plaque at the entrance tells nothing of its denial) it is still an outstanding fortress. The famous French writer Victor Hugo stayed four times in Vianden during his exile and reportedly found the castle “magnificent.” In 2019, CNN listed the castle as one of the 21 most beautiful castles in the world.

View of Vianden (the castle and town) from the upper chairlift station; Bust of Victor Hugo by Auguste Rodin at Vianden’s bridge

To get there, I walked. It was not far from the hotel where I stayed across the river, but to get there one has to head up a steep incline making it take longer than Google Maps would have you believe. Plus, I found lots to stop and admire along the way. I had little doubt that my daughter would not have been a fan. I am 100% sure she would have asked why we didn’t just drive up (which you can certainly do). But I was grateful for the opportunity to work my legs.

I spent probably an hour and a half in the castle. It was going on 5:15 when I looked out from the castle ramparts to see what looked like folks on an adjacent hill in the distance. I discovered there was a chairlift where I could probably have an amazing view of the castle. I checked online and found it was open until 6:30, with the last ride up at 6 PM, and if I walked quickly I could get there in about 15 minutes from the castle parking lot. I was going to go for it!

Had I been with my daughter I am not sure I would have made it. I had already been walking for hours that day — around Echternach, through Vianden, up to the castle, around the castle, and now I was going to speed walk my way to the chairlift station down the hill and across the river. I did make it though. The chairlift was a wee bit scary, but the views were worth it. I only stayed up top for the 15 minutes I had to make the last trip down. Then I could meander slowly back to my hotel where I savored a delicious meal finished off with a popular Belgian dessert — La Dame Blanche (vanilla ice cream topped off with dark chocolate syrup). A fitting reminder that the following day I would return to Belgium.

To Belgium and Beyond: Part One

First, before I get into the trip itself, I want to explain how it is I found myself on nearly two weeks of leave not yet six weeks after arriving in Conakry. It is not my usual modus operandi to arrive at a new post and then take off so soon after. Then again, this is a new year, a new arrival time, at a new point in our lives. Earlier in the year, I looked ahead at our arrival in Conakry, and thought how it would be for my daughter C. We would arrive in Conakry just two weeks after the school year ended and still have seven long weeks before the new one would begin. We would be new people in the community, one in which there were not a whole lot of kids and many would be away for the summer. I needed something for C.

Poking around online I discovered that the Euro Space Center in Belgium has an overnight summer space camp and beginning in June, Brussels Airlines would be reinstating its three times a week flights between Conakry. Given that C had been expressing interest in more science-based classes, this seemed to be a sign from above. I checked in with the space camp organizers to find out if there was space available and which weeks were in English and then with my leadership at Post, who quickly approved my time off to get C to and from the camp. We were all set to go.

Belgium is waffle paradise. These looked way too sweet, but it was a pleasure just seeing them and knowing they were there, just in case

Then a week before our departure, there were protests in Conakry. Demonstrations had been scheduled and cancelled before, or scheduled but not amounted to much. But these protests turned out to be more than expected. They lasted longer and were more violent and they spilled over into the following day. Though they did not block access to the airport, they did make the most direct route difficult, changing a 30 minute drive into a possible multi-hour journey. When protest organizers announced that there would be more scheduled the following Thursday, I asked my bosses if they would approve my leaving a day earlier; they approved wholeheartedly.

I spent several hours on the phone and online the Sunday before departure, working to change our flights. Brussels Airlines only flies Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; the Tuesday flight was full and the Saturday flight did not give me a comfortable margin to get C to space camp should it be delayed or cancelled. The agent tried to route me using miles as that was how I purchased my original flight, but the only routing was to Lisbon, through Munich with an overnight, and then on to Brussels. Unfortunately, the Munich flight on Lufthansa could not be confirmed due to a potential airline strike. We were contending with not only protests at our origin, but labor disputes in Europe that was part of the chaotic travel summer. That was not going to work. The United agent, however, could not directly book me on the Lisbon to Brussels flight, so I needed to book that one online myself, while keeping the agent on the line. I did not want to cancel my flight and return the miles until I had another flight secured. Finally, success.

If you do not want Belgium waffles, then you gotta have Belgian fries.

All of this gave me a solid glimpse into how challenging it may be to take leave away from Conakry. There are limited flights, challenging schedules, usually with late evening or early morning departures, frequent delays, and higher price tags. Toss in a demonstration day and airline snafus and it just gets more interesting.

Our trip started on Wednesday at midnight on a four-hour flight to Lisbon. The flight left late and there was not enough time to really sleep. We had two hours on the ground and then another three hours to Brussels. It turned out the extra day was very helpful as we had little energy to do much of anything. Luckily, I had booked a hotel close to the airport and they let us check in early. After napping and relaxing, our only activity was to walk in the cute little neighborhood near the airport to the grocery store and back.

On our second day in country, we took an Uber to Laeken, the northern part of Brussels, to visit mini Europe and the 1958 World’s Fair landmark, the Atomium. Though these sites are listed as two of top ones to visit in Brussels, I did not visit them during my first trip to Belgium in 1998. I have no memory of even knowing they existed. Nonetheless, C and enjoyed hours there visiting the top sites of Europe in miniature and exploring inside the giant sculpture that marries science fiction and modern art. Afterwards, we took an Uber down to the stunning Grand Place. C and I were started to tire, but I wanted to give her just a glimpse of the majesty and beauty of probably the most stunning of European central squares. At first C complained she wanted to just go back to the hotel, but for a moment or two she completely forgot about that as we stood in that square. After we turned in wonder around at the architecture and fed our sweet tooth with some decadent ice cream from the Godiva chocolate shop and took a short stroll down to the Mannekin Pis, C told me that she no longer wanted to return to Paris very soon. “Mom,” she said, “we have been to Paris twice now, but I think I like Brussels more. I want to see more of Europe.” Mission accomplished.

The following morning, Saturday, we returned to the airport to pick up a rental car. I am usually a wee bit nervous starting out driving in a new country, but after the chaos of Conakry, the roads of Belgium were welcoming. We drove just an hour south to the Wallonian town of Dinant. In planning for our trip, I looked for the best places for us to visit south of Brussels on our way to the Euro Space Center. Other than Brussels, the biggest tourist draws tend to be Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges, all to the north and northwest of the capital. The photos of Dinant kept pulling me back again and again and I knew if nowhere else, we needed to visit this town. It did not disappoint.

Dinant’s location, squeezed between a rocky promontory and the river Meuse, has guaranteed human interest for millennia. It’s 13th century Gothic cathedral is built into the rock face just below the 11th century citadel and alongside townhouses that range from 16th century to 20th. The oldest house in town is a 16th century townhome built by a Spaniard.

C and I walked up the steps to the Citadel, where we spent at least 90 minutes enjoying the historic displays and panoramas. We took the cable car down and had lunch alongside the river and later an hour long tourist boat cruise on the Meuse. This little town is also famous as the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, so we also were on the hunt to find as many of the painted saxophone sculptures around town, as well as a golden saxophone, and a saxophone shaped water clock, and the statue of Adolpe Sax sitting in front of his former home.

Sites of Dinant

In the afternoon we drove six kilometers south to the 19th century manor home turned hotel where we would spend the evening. After a long day of walking and sightseeing, C crashed immediately in the room. I took a short stroll around the grounds, drinking in the quiet, the nature surrounding the manicured lawns. We are still getting used to Conakry and I have no doubt that the vibrant, chaotic city will grow on us, but its difference from the grand historic cities and laid back countryside of Europe suddenly felt quite stark.

In the morning, before heading to our next destination, I drove a short way up the road to try to catch a glimpse of the Walzin Chateau, an imposing gothic-revival castle that stands on a cliff overlooking the Lesse River. I had quite by accident seen it on Google Maps as I was planning out our drive. Unfortunately, the best few of the castle is across the river and on some private land, which we quickly found we could not cross (the barbed wire fence and the “do not trespass” signs were pretty clear). So, we could see it only in profile before we gave up, returned to the car, and then drove on to Han-sur-Lesse.

I had had this idea. C loves animals and has a particular fondness for wolves and foxes. When working out what to do before dropping her off at space camp on Sunday evening, I found a wild animal park only 20 minutes north of the Euro Space Center. The Parc Animalier du Domaine des Grottoes de Han looked like it had some nice walking trails where we could see wolves. I planned for an hour or so walking and then lunch and perhaps time at the caves. I am afraid I did not do much more research than that.

It turns out the park is huge. Set on 620 acres of land, the park has both forested areas and wide lawns. At the ticket counter, I learned we should have a minimum of THREE hours to walk all the trails. A quick look at the map and I calculated we would likely have to cut short the expedition and return to the tourist center after the first trail.

Right away we got off on the wrong foot. We waited for the historic trolley train to take us to the first trailhead, but there seemed to be no train coming for at least 15 minutes. I insisted that we just go ahead and take the walking trail to the walking trail. This did not go over well with C who angrily stomped alongside. It went over even less after 20 minutes when we heard the trolley pass us by. We made it to the start of the trail after nearly 30 minutes and the first animals were just large highland cows and wild boars, both of which were far back in the enclosures and frankly not something we had a hankering to see. I got the full force of C’s pre-teen silent treatment (which isn’t all that silent because it involves random stomping, some small rock kicking, and the occasional heavy sigh).

This is not at all how I had hoped this would go. I told C this. I got some deep heat seeking laser eye flashes in return. I said we could turn back at the first opportunity, but C noted that in doing so we would skip the wolf and lynx enclosures. These were now her sole raison d’être. I had dragged her here and so we *would* see these animals. I agreed. And then things got better. The walking trail really is nicely maintained and includes a small sky bridge course with a view over the valley. We saw animals, including the wolves. We had some ice cream. We rode a open bus for the last section and returned to the park entrance by trolley. On the pedestrian street of Han-sur-Lesse we found one place still open for a late lunch at nearly 4 PM. The Belgian fries were restorative. Then off we were to space camp!

At the Euro Space Center solar system yard

At the Euro Space Center, C and I completed check-in procedures and then together we were shown to her dorm room where she would sleep and hang out for the next five nights. We picked out her bed, a bottom bunk, collected the bedding and got her set up. Other kids, including another American, were arriving. Then suddenly it was time for me to go; I did not quite what to do with myself. My daughter’s first overnight camp and I decide it should be in a foreign country?! Of course I did…we spend most of our lives living and traveling in foreign countries. But what did I do now? C noted that some of the other campers had their favorite stuffies with them so she asked if I would return to the car and bring her hers. I happily did so, grateful for something to do. But once I handed it over C gave me a very meaningful look, telling me it was time for me to go.

I headed to the parking lot and off on my own adventure.