Africa − Fall 2018

Africa is huge. It's 2/3 the size of Asia, and four times larger than the contiguous 48 US states. Africa is bigger than China, India, the lower 48 and most of Europe − combined!

There are 57 countries in Africa, compared with 50 countries in Europe and 48 countries in Asia. One sixth of our planet's human population lives in Africa. Of the world's 6000 languages, about half are spoken in Africa.

In my quest to visit all the countries of the world, I'm returning to Africa for my seventh visit. I've been to 38 of the countries in Africa. So, I still have 19 more African countries to try to know and understand.

Several African countries − Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, Libya, Somalia and South Sudan − are currently considered unsafe to visit due to terrorism, civil war or political instability. Also, getting visas for these countries is time-consuming and difficult. I'll visit these countries some other time.

Meanwhile, a few African countries have recently relaxed their visa requirements to encourage tourism. E-visas, which can be acquired on-line, are now available to countries that were previously inaccessible. So for now, I'll focus on places that welcome tourists and visitors.

I don't know which parts of Africa I'll see this time around. I have about seven weeks to work with and a budget of $120/day. I bought a cheap one-way ticket to Johannesburg. I'll start from there and see how things go.

Please join me on this adventure. I'll do my best to entertain you. If you have questions or comments, please email me.

Thailand − October 2018

I'm posting this blog from my village in northern Thailand. The village is called Ban Pao. It's in Chaiyaphum province, at the edge of the Phetchabun Mountains.

Ban Pao is an agricultural community surrounded by rice paddies, sugar cane fields and bamboo forests. There are about 2000 people living here. Everyone knows each other. There's so little traffic that dogs sleep in the streets. Not much English is spoken. So, I've learned some of the local dialect. I've spent a month here without seeing another westerner.

This is the fourth year in a row that I've come here. I come to Ban Pao to read, write, relax, eat ... and plan my next adventures. I have a bicycle and an air conditioned office with wifi. In the map to the right, click the + sign a dozen times to zoom in on my house and garden.

When you spend significant time in one place, you start getting involved with the people who live there. Please let me tell you about my latest project.

The standard lunch at Khook Sa-At School
There's an elementary school in a poor village near Ban Pao that receives little government funding. I visited the school. I was impressed by the energy of the students and the dedication of the teachers − and appalled by the poor facilities and the unappetizing lunches.

I talked to my bakery and asked the staff if they were interested in doing something to help to the school. They said "YES!"

(The bakery was started 3 years ago as a micro-financing project. Click here to read more about it.)

Serving hot lunches at Khook Sa-At School
The Khook Sa-At School hasn't received any significant government funding in at least 20 years. The students sit on the same wooden benches that their parents sat on when they studied here. The tin roofs leak. The playground is a dusty field with old truck tires to play with. The standard daily lunch is a cup of water and a scoop of noodles.

Last April, at the beginning of the new school year, I hired my bakery to cater lunches to this school. The program has been a huge success. The children are thrilled to get hot meals with chicken, fish or pork, rice, vegetables, fruit, and sometimes a muffin for dessert. To see lots of photos of the school and the students, click here.

There are 113 students and teachers at the Khook Sa-At Elementary School. The bakery can feed everyone for about $40, which is 35 cents per meal per person. The food is delicious, of course. It's no surprise that student attendance is now 99%.

Now, I'm trying to raise funds to keep this school lunch program going. For a donation of $40, you can feed the entire school for a day. How often can you feed 113 people for $40? To make a donation, please click on the photo or the Donate button to the left.

For your donation, the students and I thank you. If you are ever in north central Thailand, you are invited to a delicious Thai lunch at the school. You will be warmly welcomed by everyone! And by the way, my house has a guest room.


(Note: There are no administrative costs associated with your donation. Except for the 2.9% fee that your credit card company will charge, every single dollar you donate will go directly to feeding the children and the teachers.)

Flowers in my garden − same plant, different flowers?

Phra That Nong Sam Mun − a 12th century Khmer temple
Meanwhile, Ban Pao continues to be a hospitable, colorful and delicious place to spend time. I have a lush garden that I enjoy working in. Visiting the nearby Phra That Nong Sam Mun temple is like visiting Angkor Wat ... without the crowds. I've adjusted my internal clock to a farmer's schedule − going to sleep shortly after sunset and waking when the monks at the nearby temple start chanting in the morning. I've gotten to know all the best food vendors and chefs in the area, so I eat very well.

The monks chant here every morning at 4am.

Fresh-water shrimp and very hot sauce
For all its peace and tranquility, Ban Pao is just like any other town. Here is a sad story that could have happened anywhere:

Click the audio control below to hear the cremation music.

Students mourning their classmates' deaths
One of my neighbors recently turned 16. For his birthday, his parents gave him his first motorcycle. Two days later, while driving to another village with his 15-year-old girlfriend on the back, he collided with a sugar cane truck. The boy and the girl were both killed. Neither child had siblings. The community was devastated.

The subsequent funerals and cremations were a community event, attended by everyone in Ban Pao. Fireworks were ignited. The school band played. The traditional feasts were held, but people ate quietly. There wasn't the usual joyousness that's found at typical Buddhist funerals.

I was honored to be invited to contribute and participate in this event. As I said, when you spend significant time in one place, you start getting involved with the people who live there.

I'll be here for a couple more weeks before I head off for my next adventure. Stay tuned!

eSwatini − November 10, 2018

Yes, this country's name is officially written with a lower case "e" followed by an upper case "S". It looks like a very 21st century name, like iPhone or eCommerce. But eSwatini is not a 21st century country. It has dirt roads, poor internet and lots of barefoot people − which are all good reasons to come here.

Where did this name come from? Last April, King Mswati III renamed his Kingdom of Swaziland to the Kingdom of eSwatini in honor of the 50th anniversary of Swazi independence. The new name, eSwatini, means "land of the Swazis" in the Swazi language. The new name also helps avoid confusion with Switzerland − which apparently was a problem for the international postal service.

eSwatini's government is an absolute diarchy, ruled jointly by the king and his mother. King Mswati III is the son of Sobhuza II who has the distinction of having been king for 83 years, making him the longest-reigning monarch in history. King Sobhuza II married 70 wives, and had 210 children between 1920 and 1970. At his death, he had more than 1000 grandchildren which earned him the title "The Bull of Swazi." His surname, Dlamini, is the most common surname in eSwatini today.

The beautiful Ezulwini Valley with Wildebeests grazing in the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary
eSwatini is a little larger than Connecticut. The land consists of lush mountain valleys that descend from the South African plateau.

I came here for nature, wildlife and culture which can all be found in the Ezulwini Valley.

A Blesbok

Stanley Cranes, the national bird of South Africa

I've seen many game reserves and parks in Africa. In every case, I've been confined to a bouncy vehicle with a driver, a guide and a few other tourists.

The wildlife sanctuaries in Ezulwini are a refreshing change. There are no lions, leopards, rhinos or elephants in the parks. So, I was allowed to explore independently on foot. I walked at my own pace, wandering through fields and forests, sitting quietly and observing, and in some cases getting very close to the wildlife.

A Roan Antelope

A pair of zebras

These photos were taken with my iPhone. The reason that these animals are relaxed is because they have no preditors − human or otherwise.

Lower Mantenga Falls, 40 meters high
Another good day hike is to the Mantenga Reserve.

This reserve includes waterfalls, a traditional Swazi village and dance performances.

Again, I was allowed to wander on trails sans guide. Nice!

A vervet monkey peeking into a traditional beehive hut
Click this audio control to hear the drums
and music that the Swazis are dancing to:

Maybe I won't go swimming here ...

Sure enough ... there was a croc hiding in the grass nearby.
Although the Ezulwini Valley has no lions or other large land predators, there are crocodiles and hippos in the water. I didn't see any hippos, but after spotting my first crocodile, I kept my eyes out for more of them. One morning, while I was sitting by a pond watching birds, I noticed a ripple moving slowly across the water. I was curious as to what was making this small ripple. It was hardly disturbing the mirror-like surface of the pond. I've seen turtles and muskrats in Michigan make more of a wake than this critter was making.

White water rafting on the Great Usutu River
So, I waited and watched to see what sort of animal this might be. Whatever it was was clearly coming towards me, very slowly and very quietly. Because of recent rains, the water was muddy. I couldn't see down below the water's surface until the animal was about 5 meters from shore.

That's when I saw an enormous head of a crocodile just below the surface. Judging from the size of its head, this was a large beast. He (or she) coasted silently to shore. As I backed slowly up the bank away from the shore, I saw more clearly down into the water that its body was about 4 meters long. At the water's edge, it raised its eyes above the water to take a look at me ... while the hairs on the back on my neck stood on end!

Crocodiles didn't prevent me from getting in the water though. The next day, I went white water rafting with a tour group called Swazi Trails. I was assured that I'd be going too fast for the crocodiles to catch me.

eSwatini welcomes tourists. Everyone I met − in buses, shops, restaurants, resorts and tour companies − greeted me with big smiles. English is spoken everywhere. There are great places to eat. Transport is easy. There are beautiful and inexpensive places to stay. (I recommend the Mantenga Lodge in Ezulwini Valley.) However, there's another side of eSwatini that tourists don't see: Knowing this, I may think twice before I quench my thirst again with a Coke product.

From eSwatini, I'll take a bus down the hill to Mozambique.

Mozambique − November 26, 2018

From Swaziland, I went overland into Mozambique by bush taxi. Why did I ride for five hours in an 11-passenger Toyota van with broken windows and no seatbelts, crammed with 20 passengers, their luggage, children and animals? Because that's pretty much the only transport available from Swaziland to Mozambique. It was also inexpensive and fun.

There was a happy camaraderie among my fellow passengers derived perhaps from the adventure that we were sharing. I was the only westerner in the van. The gentleman with whom I shared a seat gave me good advice on how to get around in Maputo, what to see and where to eat. At the border, everyone breezed through immigration − except me. Patiently, my fellow passengers waited while the immigration chief studied my passport and e-visa for 30 minutes ... and then collected his $50!

From there, we bounced down the hill into Maputo, which won't be remembered as one of my favorite cities. Maputo is hot, crowded, noisy and dirty. The sidewalks haven't been repaired since the Portuguese departed in 1975. The beaches are covered with garbage. The ocean is brown. Parts of the city are considered unsafe even in the daytime. Still, the city is colorful and has some saving graces.

Independence Plaza on a quiet Sunday morning

Maputo Central Station
Maputo was a good place to get oriented, use the ATMs, have a few good meals, sort out transportation and brush up on my Portuguese. If you're up early on a Sunday morning, you can have the city pretty much to yourself. In downtown, I visited Maputo's railway station. Fodor's Travel voted it one of the 20 most beautiful train stations in the world. I love train travel, so I had to see this station. Sadly, the trains leaving from here don't go anywhere that I wanted to go.

From Maputo, I went north to the town of Inhambane. Vasco da Gama stopped here in 1498. Oral legend says that the natives were nice to him. They were nice to me, too. Once I left Maputo, I found that everyone is helpful, kind, friendly and full of smiles. Prices are low. No one hurries. I felt safe everywhere. "Mellow" seems like the best word to describe 99% of Mozambique.

Barbecued prawns

Vasco da Gama − looking a little lost

Girl selling peanuts
As I traveled north, I realized how much of Mozambique's coast consists of beautiful beaches. From south to north, Mozambique has as long a coastline as California, Oregon and Washington combined. That translates to about 2400 kilometers of beaches. Of course, there are differences between Mozambique's coast and America's west coast. Mozambique's beaches are tropical. They're shaded by palm trees. The water is warm. Fish-filled reefs are just off shore. Some areas have good surfing. Others are good for diving. Except for Maputo in the south, there are no major cities along the coast, so the water is clean and clear. There's nothing equivalent to Highway 1 running along the coast. So, many beaches are inaccessible and untouched.

The first beach I stopped at was near a sleepy village called Barra. The word "village" seems almost too grand a word to describe a place that's little more than a dozen shacks at the intersection of unpaved sandy tracks. 100 meters from these shacks I found the South African owned Anda Ca Lodge. I had only planned to stay here for a night or two, but ended up staying for a week. Independent travel is like that. Sometimes I stumble onto someplace that's absolutely lovely. Knowing that I may never be here again, I stay as long as I can. This is why it's nice not to hurry an adventure or to plan too far ahead.

Hidden among the palm groves in Barra are vacation homes owned by South Africans, who escape here for family holidays and/or to retire. One retired South African runs an excellent dive shop. He was happy to spend a morning with me exploring the marine life in the reefs just offshore.

Barra village: Community center, shopping mall and transportation hub

Barra Beach in front of my bungalow

Armando preparing my piña colada

Where I lived for a week − for $21 per night
10 kilometers south of Barra is Tofo. This beach caters to a younger, mostly European crowd. Packed into a 2 kilometer strip of beachfront, Tofo has dive shops, surf shops, kite-surfing schools, backpacker lodges, restaurants and bars. Tofo Beach is a party scene with surfing and diving in the daytime and drinking and dancing at night. After 10 days at Barra and Tofo, I began to think of Mozambique as "Mozam beach."

The surfing beach at Tofo

A couple of surfer dudes ... and me
Travel in Mozambique isn't easy or efficient. To travel 10 km between Barra and Tofo takes two bush taxis and 45 minutes of bouncing on rough roads. To travel the 1800 km from Tofo to my next destination (Ilha de Moçambique) required one inter-city bus, one plane, four bush taxis and two days. The good thing about traveling slowly is that you get to see a lot of the landscape and the people.

A granite inselberg in northern Mozambique

Fresh roasted cashews for sale
Ilha de Moçambique is a tiny island, just 3 km long and a few hundred meters wide. Until 1898, this island at the edge of the Indian Ocean was the wealthy capital of Portugal's East African colony. With its history and semi-preserved Stone Town, Ilha de Moçambique is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Palácio de São Paulo − the Governor's Residence

Entrance to the mariner's memorial garden

Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte (1522)

Canons defending the Fort of São Sebastião

Fishermen mending their nets at low tide − Igreja Santo Antonio in the background
Little has changed on this island since 1898. Walking the cobblestone streets, pausing under Gothic archways and watching the dhows sail quietly through the channel, I felt as though I'd gone back in time a century or two, and that time had stopped here.

The Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte is the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere. I loved the high ceilings and the creaking floorboards of the Café Central Posada where I stayed.

This little island has color, charm, history and great seafood. It was a magical place to escape from the rest of the world. This was my last stop in beautiful Mozambique.

A cozy place for drinks, dinner and conversation

Seafood salad by the beach

Angola − December 2, 2018

According to a recent cost-of-living survey, Luanda, the capital of Angola, is the world's most expensive city for expats − topping Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Singapore, Seoul, Geneva, Shanghai and New York. How could this be in a country where 70% of the people live on less than $2 a day?!

The story begins with Portugal's exodus in 1975, followed by 27 years of civil war and many years of Soviet command economy. The war killed about a million civilians, emptied the farming areas, and destroyed industry. When the war ended in 2002, Angola was left with one primary export: Crude oil. Life was good when oil was $100 per barrel. Now, it's $50.

Angola's story is more complicated than this, of course. I spent a few hours chatting and drinking with local business owners. The more I learned the more astounded I became by the breadth of greed and corruption that has taken place here.

The key figure in this story is José Eduardo dos Santos, president of Angola for 38 years, from 1979 to 2017. He was a soldier in the MPLA, the Russian-Cuban backed guerilla force that eventually won control of Angola. After the death of Angola's first president and national hero, Agostinho Neto, dos Santos was elected president of the MPLA. He soon became President of Angola, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and Director of Sonangol (Angola's state-owned oil company).

By the end of the civil war, Angola's government had become an oligarchy of dos Santos's family members and former military officers. Dos Santos's centralized government guaranteed its financial security by legislating that 51% of any oil concession would be owned by Sonangol. Sonangol did not have any offshore oil exploration or extraction capacity. The company simply collected rents by selling the rights to the oil during this time. As oil prices rose to $160 per barrel in 2008, international oil companies competed to pay Sonangol for the rights to drill in Angola. This income was paid into the National Bank of Angola, over which dos Santos had full control.

You can guess where this story is going. In 2012, the International Monetary Fund reported that $32 billion in oil revenue simply went missing from the government's ledger. My drinking companions in Luanda assure me that this missing $32 billion is probably only 10% of what dos Santos and his cronies pilfered from government coffers during the past 20 years. Most of this stolen money is now in Portugal and Dubai.

National Bank of Angola (center), Money Museum (right)

Luanda's new Marginal promenade
Across the street from the National Bank of Angola is the Museum of Money. I visited this museum and was puzzled by the extravagance of this underground museum. In two rooms, the museum displays samples of Angolan paper money and coins, as well as coins from about 50 other countries. The museum occupies a prime location along Luanda's waterfront. The entrance to this museum is shaded by gigantic chromed umbrellas. One enters via polished granite stairways. Why spend so much money on such a small museum? Why aren't there any benches in the plaza?

Later, I learned the rest of the story. This "money pit" started with a budget of $10 million. By the time it was completed, it cost $80 million. I read with envy one of the ways that this project went over budget. One of dos Santos's long-time friends was tasked with collecting the foreign coins for this museum. He was given an unlimited travel budget for flights, accommodation, meals and local transport to travel all over the world to collect these coins. I'd like a job like that!

There were several shell companies involved in this project. Experts say such transactions between shell companies are typical of large-scale embezzlement and money-laundering.

Luanda's waterfront, seen from the Fortaleza de São Miguel

Monument to the Unknown Soldier
After that, as I walked around Luanda, I began to view the impressive government-sponsored projects − which were often not far from slums and poor neighborhoods − for what these monuments really are.

More than half of Luandans live in extreme poverty.

Luanda's slums are subject to frequent flooding.
Government supported corruption has become systemic in Angola. When corruption exists at the highest level of government, it tends to set a standard, encouraging all government officials to do the same.

Police officers supplement their income through extortion and solicitation of bribes, frequently at hiway checkpoints. Licenses, permits, public utilities and tax payments often involve bribes. (Preparing, filing and paying taxes takes an executive in Angola on average 282 hours per year.) The customs administration enforces expensive and time-consuming bureaucracy, making it easy to extract payments from importers and exporters. Angolan citizens often pay bribes to access basic public services such as healthcare, education, vehicle registration, and business permits.

Angola's business environment has been described as “one of the most difficult in the world.” Paying bribes and dealing with cumbersome bureaucracy are ordinary parts of doing business in Angola. This is one of the reasons why it's expensive for an expat to live in Angola.

The other reasons why Angola is expensive are less obvious. The civil war from 1975 to 2002 was fought in the countryside. Farms were abandoned when people moved into Luanda for safety. The war destroyed what little industry Angola had. Today, with few farms or factories, Angola is forced to import most of its food and goods from South Africa ... at about three times the cost of what these products cost in South Africa.

Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index
Africa is known for its corrupt governments. Dos Santos has been accused of leading one of the most corrupt regimes in Africa. By ignoring the economic and social needs of Angola and silencing his opposition, he has made his children and leading government officials incredibly wealthy, while most Angolans live in poverty lacking access to basic services.

A new President, João Lourenço, was elected in August 2017 who pledged to improve governance and combat corruption. He has removed the dos Santos family and their core associates from their state appointed positions and cancelled some of their patronage transfers. It remains to be seen whether he intends to pursue true reform or the status quo.

Mr. Lourenço has a tough job ahead. With the decline of oil prices and the high costs of doing business in Angola, 3/4 of the international oil drilling rigs have pulled out. Only 7 rigs remain, operated by skeleton crews from Total, Chevron, Exxon and Eni.

A few lessons can be learned from Angola's unfortunate history.

Dos Santos controlled Angola's television, radio and newspapers. Before the 2017 election, state- and party-owned media outlets were used to favorably portray the MLPA and criticize dos Santos's opponents. Anyone reporting unfavorable stories about his administration was banned from the media, or jailed.

Dos Santos appointed many judges, who were members of the MLPA or the military. These judges have been known to ignore or creatively interpret laws in ways that benefit dos Santos.

As president, Dos Santos awarded over $14 billion of public contracts to his children’s companies between 2006 and 2016.

In June 2016, dos Santos faced criticism for owning controlling shares of Angola's state-owned oil company. So, to "ensure transparency and apply global corporate-governance standards," he divested himself and installed his daughter Isabel as chairwoman of the company. She is now the richest woman in Africa, although there are signs that her businesses may be in legal jeopardy.

Wealthy daughter of the president

Miradouro de Lua, 60km south of Luanda
As for me, I had no problems in Angola with corrupt government officials or police. The only payment I made to a government agent was for my visa: $120 cash.

Speaking of visas, there's an exciting new development for Angola. Until April 2018, it was impossible to get a tourist visa for Angola. I'm guessing that Angola's new president has decided to open the doors to tourism. This is a good effort to diversify Angola's economy. Angola, like Namibia and the Congo, has beautiful scenery and some exciting, unexplored wilderness areas. A few tourists will also provide income for all the hotels and beach resorts that are vacant now that most of the oil company people are gone, So, if you'd like to get an e-visa for Angola, click here.

Going south down the Atlantic coast, I paused to take a look at the badlands call Miradouro de Lua. (photo above) There's a gorgeous, untouched beach to the right of this photo. But you can't get to it because the cliffs are too steep.

At the end of this drive, I found my favorite place in Angola. The Kwanza Lodge is run by George, a retired Greek oil man, and Vega, his South African wife. This is more my kind of place.

It may take a decade for Angola to recover from the dos Santos years. It's a good place for adventurers who want to see lush jungles, animals. Prices get cheaper once you get out of Luanda.

The tranquil Kwanza Lodge, 80 km south of Luanda

In the Gulf of Guinea

There are three little countries tucked into Africa's Bight of Bonny that are friendly, safe and interesting places ... and which haven't been discovered by tourists yet.

São Tomé & Príncipe (aka STP) are two primitive, volcanic islands that look like the location for Jurassic Park. Bioko and Annobon belong to Equatorial Guinea (EG) along with a rectangle of dense jungle on Africa's mainland. Gabon is the barely explored watershed of the primeval Ogooué River, Africa's 4th largest river.

These countries are right on the equator, so they're as warm as a sauna − even in the "cool dry" season, which is November to January.

Visiting these countries will give you a chance to practice your Romance languages, speaking French in Gabon, Portuguese in STP and Spanish in EG.

Best of all, these countries are just beginning to open up to tourism. So, if you come here, you're likely to have the beaches and jungles to yourself.

Gabon − December 5, 2018

Until recently, a visa for Gabon required two visits to a Gabonese embassy, lots of documentation and several days ... and you still might be denied. Gabon now issues e-visas. I got mine on-line in 24 hours − fast and easy! − plus $100 on arrival.

So, why go to Gabon? Gabon is progressive and traveller-friendly. Libreville, Gabon's capital, has clean paved streets, smart restaurants and crowded markets along its gleaming coastline. Outside of the city, 75% of the country is covered in dense tropical rainforest. 11% of the country is national parkland with jungles, savannahs, rushing rivers, white-sand beaches and lots of animals.

Libreville, capital of Gabon, population 700,000, home to about a third of Gabon's population

Hotels, offices and a casino beside the sea

A monument and statue commemorating the end of slavery
12 km offshore from Libreville is a sandbar named Pointe Denis where turtles nest from November to January. I timed my visit to Gabon for the new moon in December. A new moon provides the highest tide and the most darkness, so this is when mother turtles come ashore.

One morning, I took the first boat to Pointe Denis, and managed to see a leatherback turtle as she dragged herself back into the sea after laying her eggs. Strolling on the beach later, I counted 18 sets of turtle tracks from other turtles that had come ashore during the night. This was my first (and only) sighting of a leatherback, and I was thrilled. The fact that sea turtles lay their eggs so close to a major city is amazing.

The beach at Pointe Denis, with Libreville's skyline visible in the distance

Turtle tracks on the beach

A Leatherback returning to the sea after laying her eggs

Pongara NP, 30 minutes from Libreville by boat
I confess that I didn't give Gabon − a country the size of Colorado − the time it deserves. With three days, all I saw was the capital city, a gorgeous beach and one really big turtle.

I did not visit Loango National Park, known as "Africa's last Eden." This ocean-side park is known for its surfing hippos that wade into the ocean and open their legs to catch the swell. Loango also has elephants wandering the beaches, whales and dolphins off shore, and western lowland gorillas in the forests. My guidebook says that Pygmy trackers are particularly adept at finding the gorillas.

I did not visit Lopé National Park with its undulating hills of savannah and rainforest where elephants, buffaloes, gorillas, chimpanzees, seven types of hornbill and the biggest mandrill troupes in the world can be found. Lopé is estimated to have three elephants per square kilometer, making it the highest concentration of elephants on the planet.

And I did not visit Mayumba National Park. Mayumba is a marine national park that extends 15km out to sea, encompassing beaches and forest around the Banio Lagoon. In Mayumba, 550 leatherback turtles − about 30% of the world's total − lay their eggs between November and April.

I've made a note to myself to come back to Gabon after I've seen the rest of our planet.

São Tomé & Príncipe − December 10, 2018

São Tomé is a little larger than Molokai. Príncipe is half the size of Nantucket. Excluding the Seychelles, which are more Eurasian than African, STP is Africa's smallest country.

Until the Portuguese sailed here in 1471, these two islands were uninhabited. With plenty of rain, warm weather and rich volcanic soil, these islands proved ideal for growing coffee and cocoa. With slave labor, the Portuguese created lucrative plantations. The Portuguese are gone now, but the excellent coffee and chocolate remain − which are two very good reasons to visit this country.

Fort São Sebastião guarding São Tomé harbor
STP is one of Africa's most stable and democratic countries − perhaps because no one here is rich. STP's economy is based on renewable resources like agriculture and fishing instead of petroleum, lumber and minerals.

It's easy to visit, too. Americans and Europeans don't need visas. Everyone else can enter with an e-visa or a visa on arrival. São Tomé has the smallest international airport I've ever seen. It's the sort of airport where you'll meet all 20 people who work there after you've passed through a couple of times. I came and went on CEIBA Intercontinental, with its fleet of 8 aircraft.

In the town of São Tomé, I stayed at the wonderful Hotel Central, which reminded me of the classic hotels of Europe in the 70s: High ceilings, real wood paneling, wide staircases and hallways, sturdy fixtures and furniture, balconies that overlook the town's main street, and a brightly lit café downstairs that's the gathering place for all the locals.

São Tomé feels like a Portuguese time warp. There are no stop signs or traffic lights. Streets are narrow. Power goes out a few times a day. The internet barely works.

On my first day, I went to an ATM to try to withdraw some dobras, the local currency. I inserted my card. Before I could input my PIN, the machine gave me 200 dobras − which was enough for a good meal. Then the machine denied my card and gave it back to me. Puzzled, I queried my friends at the Hotel Central who explained that their ATMs don't work for international VISA cards − and that sometimes the ATMs work "incorretamente."

From then on, I changed money the traditional way − with Marie José's uncle in the café.

São Tomé city market and transport center
Walking around town, I saw that there was very little traffic on the roads. What little traffic there was was mostly motorcycles. So, I decided to tour São Tomé by rented motorcycle. This turned out to be a great plan. The island doesn't have more than 150 kms of paved roads. I could go from one end of the island to the other in less than 3 hours. This was one of those times when it's great to be traveling light. I tied my bag onto the back of my motorcycle, and off I went. Being on a motorcycle made it easy to dodge the potholes in the roads.

My transport, with 370m tall Cão Grande in the background

Cascata de São Nicolau
São Tomé's scenery is spectacular: Rain forests, waterfalls, beaches and dramatic volcanic formations.

Dugout canoes at Morro Peixe village, on the north coast

Kids showing off their acrobatic skills
I passed through friendly villages where folks greeted me and asked me to eat, swim, dance or play cards with them.

Washing clothes and children in the river

Dancing in the street in Neves town
For accommodations, I found beach bungalows, plantations converted into B&Bs, and fabulous eco-lodges like the Mucumbli Ecolodge.

The old hospital at Monte Café plantation
The few tourists I met in STP were from Portugal, which makes sense since TAP flies between Lisbon and São Tomé. No one else has discovered these islands ... yet.

I didn't have time to visit Príncipe, but heard from other travelers that it's totally wild and natural. That's another place that I'll have to come back to someday.

My breakfast view from the Jalé Ecolodge

Equatorial Guinea − December 13, 2018

Equatorial Guinea (EG) is an oil-rich nation with the highest per capita income in Africa: $32,855. It's a politically stable country. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been president since 1979. He is the second longest-serving non-royal national leader in the world. His son is the vice president, and will become president when his father retires. Naturally, the story isn't all rosy ...

Oil profits do not trickle down to the citizens of EG. Mr. Obiang has sole control of his country's treasury. His government's budget is not public. The IMF estimates that 2-3% of the government budget is spent on health and education. 80% of EG's population live in poverty. Less than half of the population has access to clean drinking water. 20% of children die before reaching the age of five. Transparency International ranks EG as one of the 10 most corrupt countries in the world.

Knowing this, I decided to visit Equatorial Guinea for 3 days to see what's there. Besides, I had to go to the airport in Malabo, EG's capital, to catch a flight to my next destination.

Flying over the rain forests of Equatorial Guinea

Unfinished hotels along the beach in Bata

Liberty Tower on the promenade in Bata
Flying over mainland EG, I saw miles and miles of rain forest, and a few dirt roads. Timber is EG's second industry.

After oil prices fell in 2014, EG's construction projects have been put on hold. Bata, the largest city, has a beachfront of hotels with big cranes frozen inactive.

Both Bata and Malabo have impressive public buildings, built with oil money. There are also some expensive hotels and restaurants, which are mostly empty now.

An upscale restaurant with no customers
I had a chat with a well-informed travel agent who gave me lots of good reasons to visit EG. He lamented that EG has almost no tourism, estimating that he sees only about 500 tourists per year. One reason that EG gets so few tourists may be because of its peculiar visa policy. Only citizens of the US, China, Barbados and 5 central African countries can enter EG visa free. Everyone else has to find an EG embassy and deal with up to 3 weeks of headaches to try to come here.

Catedral de Santiago in Bata

The 50th wedding anniversary of President Obiang

EG is the only African nation where Spanish is an official language. There is very little English spoken here. The ATMs don't even "speak" English. So, with my pigeon Spanish, I got by fairly well.

EG feels Spanish. In the cities and towns, the Roman Catholic cathedrals and churches are the most handsome buildings. The Catedral de Santa Isabel was partly designed by Antoni Gaudi.

By chance, I happened to be in Malabo for the 50th wedding anniversary of President Obiang. It was an impressive social event, with big screen TVs to show all the dignitaries and VIPs arriving in shiny luxury cars accompanied by security forces. School children dressed in white were lined up for Mr. Obiang and his wife to hug when they arrived. State-owned media broadcast the 3-hr event on every television in the country. I was allowed to watch from the plaza outside the cathedral. I'm sure public money paid for this party. I snapped the photo to the left when the men in black weren't watching.

Catedral de Santa Isabel in Malabo

Student choral contest at the Community Center

I have mixed feelings about a place like EG, but there was one thing I loved about this country: The music. On each evening that I was there, I went for a walk around the town. In plazas, parks and community centers, people were singing and dancing. Sometimes these were informal groups of families doing playful call and response songs. Others were formal events with stages, microphones, keyboards, guitars, drums and always percussion instruments. All these events were free. I was welcomed in to watch and listen. I'm told that this is simply their tradition. People don't sit at home and watch TVs (maybe because they can't afford them). Instead, they gather and sing at night. Of the 44 countries I've visited in Africa so far, this is the first time that I've seen anything like this. This is what I'll remember from Equatorial Guinea.

I already know that the next place I'm going won't have much singing or dancing.

Saudi Arabia − December 21, 2018

When I began my quest to see every country in the world, I figured that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would be one of the hardest places to visit. The only way that I could legally spend time here would be if I got a job, or if I converted to Islam and did a Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Not likely!

Much to my surprise, in September 2018, Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced the Sharek International Events Visa, an on-line visa for attending a qualifying special sporting event. To get a 30-day tourist visa for Saudi Arabia, all I had to do was to visit, buy a ticket to an upcoming sporting event, and then pay $160 for the e-visa.

Modern sky scrapers throughout Riyadh
With a printed hardcopy of my e-visa, I flew from one of the world's smallest oil producers (Equatorial Guinea) to one of its largest. On arrival in Riyadh, I wasn't surprised to see an expansive airport, gleaming skyscrapers, highways full of big, shiny cars, and shopping malls selling name-brand, imported goods.

When I visit a new city, I like to explore on foot. Riyadh is not a pedestrian friendly city. Everyone gets around town by car. Sidewalks are often blocked or closed. There are few traffic lights or crosswalks. The 16-lane thoroughfare through the middle of the city (King Fahid Road) has no traffic lights and no crosswalks. Overhead pedestrian crossings are rare. So, like everyone else, I traveled by Uber taxi.

16-lane King Fahid Road, with no pedestrian crossings

Standard, everyday wear for Saudi men and women
The other thing that's immediately obvious about Saudi Arabia is the dress code, which strictly follows the Islamic principle of modesty. I have nothing against traditional costumes. There are women in northern Thailand who wear rings around their necks to make their necks longer. The men in Togo wear gaudy outfits that look like pajamas. Women in Bolivia wear Bowler hats. The men in the highlands of Papua New Guinea are naked except for their penis gourds. And then there's Saudi Arabia ...

Saudi men look comfortable wearing ankle-length thawbs. On their heads, they wear red and white gutras held in place by an agal. This seems like good, practical clothing for a hot, dry climate like that of Saudi Arabia. The women in Saudi Arabia − including non-Muslim foreign women − must wear the abaya. Saudi women are covered completely in black, often with only their eyes showing. I would sometimes see Saudi women gathered in corners talking quietly to each other. They reminded me of Harry Potter's dementors. For a complete and up-to-date article about Arab clothing, click here.

Along with the strict dress code in Saudi Arabia, I was struck by the rules regarding women. On a domestic flight within the country, I was seated in 41C, an aisle seat. At the window in seat 41A was a young woman fully covered in black except for her eyes. A gentleman came on board with a boarding pass assigning him to seat 41B. He was not allowed to take his seat because it would mean sitting next to a woman he was not related to. The flight crew seated him elsewhere. Weird.

Ironically, there are women's dress shops in Riyadh where glamorous, revealing dresses are sold. I'm told that these dresses are only worn at weddings and other special occasions, where the women and children are segregated from the men. Thus, the only people who ever see these dresses worn are women and children. How curious. How very bizarre!

Elegant party dresses, never to be seen by men
One evening at an outdoor festival, I was surprised when a young woman sat down at my table and started talking to me. She explained that she was Palestinian and that the Saudi rules don't apply equally to all women. This was a refreshing revelation.
A friendly Palestinian woman
In spite of the weird dress and social rules, I felt safe and welcomed everywhere I went in Saudi Arabia. I was always greeted warmly. People were interested to know who I was, where I was from, what I thought of Saudi Arabia and whether there was anything that they could do to help me. I was free to go anywhere I wanted to go. As for safety, there were armed security forces in most areas.

The people I liked best were the non-Saudis. The Saudis hire a lot of ex-pats to make the beds, do the laundry, drive the taxis, and cook the food. These are the men from Nepal, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. I found these guys to be particularly friendly and helpful. They all spoke English, too. Note: There are no Thais working in Saudi Arabia because of the infamous Blue Diamond Affair of 1989.

Formula-E racers on the first turn

A traditional Arab dance

As for the sporting event that was my ticket to Saudi Arabia, I came here to see Round 1 of the Formula-E Championship. It's a street race for electric-powered cars. Saudi Arabia was proud to be hosting the opening race for 2018, and for promoting cars that conserve our planet's precious fossil fuels. (At least, that's the official statement.)

What I found most interesting was that there were nine female drivers. A British woman won the PRO-AM category. After each day of racing, there were unsegregated rock concerts. These were all firsts for Saudi Arabia.

One of the great things about an electric car race is that, except for the squealing of the tires, the cars are silent. This made it possible to hear the announcements and chat with my fellow spectators. There was lots of discussion of current politics.

This Formula-E festival was a 3-day event that included handicrafts for sale, cultural displays, traditional foods, and dance performances, like the one shown to the left. Coming from West Africa, I wasn't impressed by the dancing.

Hunting hawks and a tea shop

Traditional snack of dates and masala coffee

To add to the cultural experience, the Formula-E races were sited adjacent to the ruins of the 15th century city of Diriyah on the outskirts of Riyadh. This was the original home of the Saudi royal family. Although normally open to tourists, the Diriyah historical site was off limits to me and other foreign visitors during the Formula-E races.

Historical City of Diriyah, the ancestral home of the Al Saud family

Saudi Arabia from 30,000 feet

A marina at Yanbu, lots of dive boats, no customers
After a few days in Riyadh, I flew west to the city of Yanbu on the Red Sea. This city was a supply and operational base for Arab and British forces fighting the Ottoman Empire during World War I. T.E.Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) spent time here. Today, Yanbu is a shipping port for the petrochemical industry.

Fast roads, desert landscape, no traffic, no speed limits

A train of camels

Date seller, with date palms in the background
I came to Yanbu to see what the rest of Saudi Arabia looks like. So, I rented a car and took a road trip. With wide-open desert roads and gas costing $1.30/gallon, it's easy to do a few hundred kilometers in an afternoon. This part of Saudi Arabia looks like central Nevada.

Women still aren't allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. All the drivers are men. Most of them are under 30. This makes for an exciting and competitive driving experience.

A Bedouin tent in the desert

I had hoped to do some scuba diving in Yanbu. Unfortunately, recent rains washed lots of sediment into the Red Sea. I was told that visibility wasn't good. Also, as I was the only tourist around, the dive boats weren't going out.

So, I contented myself with delicious dates and seafood. Except for the Bedouins herding camels, I didn't see many people here. Just lots of desert, semi-desert and dry scrubland. This is, after all, Saudi Arabia.

Been here, done that.

This is enough travel for now. It's time to go someplace to relax. I'll spend Christmas and New Years in my village in Thailand. I'm looking forward to returning to warm people, hot food and cold beer!

Miles and miles of sand and rocks

Having visited about 135 countries, I'm often asked which one I like the best. I can't choose just one place, so I've nominated my favorites and posted a music video on youtube. Click here to see my Top 15. Click here to return to the world map. Feel free to email comments or questions.